They

Indigent Life by Bong Perez

Like all late afternoons in the past he’d walked home after school hand in hand with his two younger sisters. Yet as they approached their house — that barely standing shanty of cheap cement and secondhand plywood and thin metal sheets clamped down by rubber tires, crammed among many within that dingy ghetto nook inserted right inside the richest neighborhood in the country, in one of those humorous if not pitiable ironies of real life made manifest in this geographic and demographic yingyang — it was as though he’d already sensed there was something wrong. It could have just been the silence. They could just be sleeping he thought over the slowly increasing pulse of his heart. Gone to take a nap. Or maybe went out. Yes. That could be it. But an instinct inherent to the total sensation told him it was not this, his scalp tingling and neckhairs on end despite attempts at rationalization.

At the few remaining meters away from his house in his barely contained agitation he let go of his sisters’ hands and walked briskly to the door and knocked and waited. Silence. Their parents weren’t there to greet them. His sisters caught up and stood behind looking up at him. He put his hand on the doorknob and twisted. It was unlocked.

The house was unlit. In the fading pencil of light cast by the open door from the remains of that day’s sun he could make out on the floor thick dark blotches strewn without apparent form nor meaning like spills of black paint cast at the frenzied whim of some abstract painter. He felt for the lightswitch on the wall with his hand and when he’d found it and turned it on he looked back at the floor. Blood caked and dried. To the left of the entrance the only sofa they owned lay misaligned and tipped over on its back like some dead animal and it too was covered with the same dark mudlike stains. Across the sofa the small outdated television set had been left on and muted, the news announcer standing rigid and voiceless as though witness dumbfounded by what had just befallen.

He entered. He stepped over the blood stains, he forcing the thought into his head like some mental litany: It couldn’t be theirs. It could be anyone’s. Probably an accident. His two sisters followed him silent and hesitant like a pair of timid visitors who felt themselves unwelcome. “Where’s mama and papa?” the younger of his two sisters asked. He didn’t answer. She didn’t seem to expect an answer. As though the question were but a means to break that silence by now grown tense and painful.

He asked his sisters to prepare the rice for supper. He put the sofa back up and took a rag and a bucket of water and wiped the blotches from the floor. He tried to clean the sofa as well but with a halfhearted effort. He gave up and left the brown spots there, as though to appease and thereby eradicate that violent thought taking form in his consciousness now: The last physical remembrance of them perhaps.

He went out of the house and walked to the old woman’s shanty jammed adjacent to theirs. The old woman sat on the cement stairs leading up to the front door, her eyes half-closed by her wrinkled eyelids and her resulting countenance languid and weary, as though etherized. A look as though she’d now lived too long for her liking. A distaste for what remained of her existence.

When she saw him approaching she had tried to turn her head the other way but realized it was too late. “Excuse me ma’am,” he said. She wouldn’t look at him. “Excuse me ma’am,” he said again. She sighed and turned her weak, dull eyes at him.

“I just wanted to ask,” he said. “Would you happen to know what happened to my parents?”

She turned her gaze past him, her wrinkled face wrinkled yet more in a sort of ponderous anguish as though contemplating some painful apparition or ghost seen only to her. After a moment she looked back at him and said, “They”.

“They?” he said.

“It was they. They came in and got him. Your papa. And your mama tried to fight back so they got her too.”

“But. They can’t. They couldn’t have. They didn’t have a reason to.”

“I’m sorry.”

“My papa doesn’t take drugs. I know it. I swear I know it.”

“It doesn’t matter what you know. It matters what they think. What they want. That’s the way it works with them. I’m sorry.”

He leaned his hand on the wall. His shoulders and chest expanded and collapsed in rapid successions as though by that voracious pulsating inhalation he could somehow flood his mind with an airy nothingness, a neutral state of mental vacuity, and thereby block out and stifle whatever flitting image or thought he knew would do violence to his sanity. The old woman looked away. “Are you sure?” he said at last.

She swallowed. “Yes,” she said. She did not look at him. “I saw the bodies.”

“God. Oh God.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. She stood up and shook off the dust from her dress. “It is getting dark. I have to go and prepare supper. They are in a better place now. Surely.” She turned and made to enter back into her house.

“Wait,” he said. She stopped. “What are we to do,” he said. “I’m not old enough to work. My eldest sister can barely read yet. How will we get by?”

She looked down at the ground and shrugged her shoulders. “Son,” she said. “I’d help you if I can. And gladly. God knows it I’d help you. But you know how it is in these slums we live in. A woman can hardly scrape up enough to feed herself. Let alone her family. I’m sorry, son.”

When he got back to his own house his sisters had set the table for five. He made no mention of this and they left vacant the two seats where the father and mother had always occupied. Along with the rice his sisters had heated a can of sardines in tomato sauce poured into a bowl. The younger made a move to pour the rice but the older stopped her and gestured at her that they must first bless. He peeped at them through falsely closed eyes as they recited the blessing with hands pressed together and their heads bowed down like something out of the pious images in handbooks of prayer. He thought if only they’d known perhaps they’d not be asking nor giving thanks for any blessing or gift, the gifts they were about to receive not gifts but a curse.

“Kuya,” the older said. “You’re not going to eat?”

“What was that?” he said.

“You haven’t put anything on your plate.”

He feigned a smile. “Go ahead and take my share,” he said. “I’m not hungry. And go and take ma and pa’s share as well. I don’t think they’re thinking of coming home tonight.”

“They’re alright aren’t they?” the younger sister said.

“Yes,” he said. “Yes. They’re alright. They’re in a good place.”

“Will they be back soon?”

“They didn’t say exactly.”

“Why’d they leave us alone?”

His two sisters watched him as he grasped for an answer. “I don’t know,” he said. “I’m sorry but I don’t know.” They continued eating in silence.

“Look,” he said. He smoothed with his hand his youngest sister’s hair. “Don’t worry about it too much, alright? I’ll be the one to take care of you while they’re gone.”

That night he put them to bed on that single threadbare mattress they all shared, propped up on worn plywood columns to keep away the rats that scurried along the floor at night. After he’d kissed each of them on the forehead and bid them goodnight and turned off the lights he went to their small pantry and opened it to see what was left. A can of tuna. Remains of a small sack of uncooked rice. Some biscuits. At the outskirts, a buildup of some encrusted dust, testament to years of want and austerity.

Outside on the front steps he sat now by himself with his fists clenched on his head and he wept. Contemplating the hooded moon that looked back at him like some hollow omniscient eye, he addressed in tearchoked gibbering that vast starless nothingness with what was neither prayer nor malediction, a desperate and inconclusive inquiry of how much of this was appointed and accounted for long ago perhaps even before the creation of the cosmos.

When he got back into the house he took a small lamp and tiptoed to the corner of their room where stood the small cabinet where they kept all their clothes. He rummaged through his father’s clothes and brought out the a black sock, the largest he could find. He measured it stretched out on his face and found a pair of scissors and on the sock cut out holes that corresponded to his eyes and nose. He took his school rucksack and emptied it of his notebooks and put it on his back. With the lamp he stood by his sleeping sisters for a few minutes and contemplated them. Motionless save for the peaceful breathing. So frail and thin. He put the cut-up sock into his pocket and went out.

A warm tropical night. Darkness and silence, as though a foretaste of eternal rest. The streets on the outer purlieus lit dimly by interspersed streetlights, like floating white islands in a sphere of blackness. As he walked the streets briskly the fleeting facades of the houses seemed to morph from shanties to bungalows to pretty large houses as those seen on the covers of magazines, as though he were coursing through some interactive timeline of comparative architecture. When he reached the guardhouse in the most prosperous part of that community he saw that the guard on duty was asleep. He crouched down and crept quickly through.

He’d walked about a kilometer and stopped at a house that was the least lit within its vicinity. Six cars parked in the garage, the moon gleaming off their waxy metallic sheens, refracted a dozen times over. The lights in all the rooms turned off. He reckoned if there were any people inside they’d be asleep. The darkness coated the various flowers and leaves on the porch with the monotone of a pale dark blue. The ornate metal gate with sharp pointed tops loomed over him grim and imposing. Like a portal to some domain hellish and impenetrable. Abandon all hope ye who enter here.

He looked around him and seeing no one he bent down to pick a stone and tossed it through the gate and waited. No sound. No watchdogs here. He pulled off his shirt and threw it at the top of the gate so that it’d keep him from getting caught on the spikes. He hoisted himself up and climbed. Near the top he could not move further, as though something pulled him at the foot. He looked down and saw that his shoe had jammed into one of the crannies of the gate. He pulled his leg out, and pulled harder. At the loosening of his foot the gate produced that loud hollow sound characteristic of agitated metal. He jerked his head toward the house windows and froze in a moment of panic. He stayed like this for a good minute, breathing shallow and rapid, clung onto the gate like some spider exposed to a threat.

No sound nor movement. He continued to climb, more careful now. When he reached the top he swung his legs over and when he was little more than two meters from the ground he dropped bending his knees to soften the sound of impact. He approached the door of the house.

Not a meter away from the porch his peripheral view caught a flash. He stopped and turned toward it. The light at a window was open. Instinct preceded intellect. He turned around and sprinted back to the gate and jumped and started to climb, his fast pounding heart translating to a frantic flurry of limbs.

A loud bang. He cried out as he felt a sharp burning pain on his naked shoulder. He held onto the gate, hanging by his good arm. He tried to heave his way up, his legs thrashing frantically on the metal workings as though he were some hysteric survivor at sea swimming against a tide toward a slowly diminishing land.

He heard another bang. He dropped dead to the ground.

The man of the house came out to the body carrying the rifle. “Sonabitch,” he said. “How’d he get past security?” There was a commotion in his house now. His wife and children had heard the shots and gotten up but he told them to stay inside. His maids had followed him out. They stood looking down at that thin shirtless body. Eyes still open, gaze dull and empty piercing through those cut holes on the black sock worn over his head. Blood pooling on the grass. The man toed the body a few times as though it were some small animal playing dead. He spat on it.

He turned to the maids. “Call the security,” he said. “Tell them there’s been an attempted robbery in my house tonight. Tell them they can’t always be expecting me to do their job for them.” The maids scurried back into the house like a brood of headless chickens.

The man stood there lingering a little longer. “Damn squatters,” he said, thinking At least I’ve taken care of one part of the problem tonight. He shook his head and rested his rifle on his shoulder and returned to his house and told the wife and kids that everything was fine, get back to sleep. And everyone went back to their respective beds and places, the silence of that night like the implicit affirmation that all was to continue as before.

As of 2018, almost three years after President Rodrigo Duterte assumed office in the Philippines, a reported total of 12,000 people, including children, have been slain through extrajudicial killings (EJK’s) in the government’s war on drugs. The majority of these killings have remained unaccounted for and forgotten, their stories left untold.

Aspiring novelist. Frustrated theologian.