I wondered if Pia was right, then, if I was seeking something too dangerous to be handled, a bomb that would kill me someday.
September 20, 2022
The following novel excerpt is part of the Against Forgetting notebook, with art by Neil Doloricon.
Quezon City, Then
Meetings were a bore, an endless bore, but I tried to be a good radical, to stay put, as Alex went on and on about our next action.
We were sitting in an apartment, windows heavily shrouded. It was Graciana Garcia’s father’s apartment. He was a real estate tycoon with so many buildings that he couldn’t be bothered to keep track of all of them. Good for us—not so great for his tenants. Someday, Graci planned on helping the poorer tenants, like offering free rent to the poorest and subsidized housing for artists. Graci’s typical of her class in that regard: benevolently, aimlessly liberal. Certainly not a true believer in Communism like the rest of us at least tried to achieve. She preferred to dabble in projects. I knew she joined our cell, partly out of genuine hatred for the Marcos family and partly because she wanted to stick it to Daddy. She wasn’t bad, though, and could drink most of the boys in the room under the table.
“Do we have the list of new disappearances, Cleto?” asked Alex.
The silence curdled, as we all studiously tried to look away from each other: the number one most pressing fear among us, the idea of just vanishing into the ether. Of course we wouldn’t just poof! vanish. We’d be arrested, tortured. Or not even arrested, just disappeared, our corpses rotting in a field, a river, a dump.
What happened to that Hilao girl. . .Pia’s words echoed in my head.
“Yes,” said Cleto. Alex Tarangoy and Cleto Calimlim could be a caricaturist’s study of thin and fat. Alex was thin, rangy, intense, with a beard. He resembled Che Guevara and intentionally cultivated the resemblance, trimming his beard just so, wearing a beret on occasion.
Alex actually wanted to go underground. Unlike the rest of us, who were reluctant to leave behind friends, family, school, creature comforts, he wanted to join the guerrillas in the provinces, the mountains, to be a rebel with a gun, to really take the idea of revolution into his hands, but we all convinced him he was better off staying here for now, to etch the words of truth with acid. That’s where his talents truly were.
Cleto meanwhile was fat and laconic. You could see the rolls of flesh if his shirt stretched above his waistband. He was ice to Alex’s fire and brimstone. A dash of water to our more tempestuous, ill-considered proceedings.
He had to be. Cleto’s roots went back to 1898, the Philippine-American War, the betrayal of the Americans. His grandfather died for the cause, as did many others in his family. In the blood. He learned caution with his inherited rebellion. Like how he thought we shouldn’t be holed up here all the time—we should move or have a back-up place. We occasionally laughed at him, but Alex at least considered it and said, “We will flee to the mountains.”
“And perish,” said Cleto, who hated exercise, unlike his dead ancestors who apparently used to fall upon the Spanish and Americans with their fists if no weapons were available. “Do you even know what’s in the mountains, Alex?”
Alex smiled enigmatically and turned away. I had to admit, it was sexy when he did that.
Alex, Alex, Alex—he had never asked me, not just because we followed the rules of the distant Party, we didn’t want to do anything that we would have to ask permission for, but also because he knew how I would respond. No—I could envision what loving a man like Alex could do to a woman. Annihilate her, suck her into his mystique and spit her back out until even her name vanished. I wanted my name to be there someday, to be written: P-H-I-L-O-M-E-L-A S-A-N-T-O-S. That was also wrong of me, to want to stand out in some way, but I had always been a bad comrade.
I jerked back to my present surroundings. Alex was looking expectantly at me. “Any ideas for the next pamphlet?”
I spun my pen in hand and thought. It was not as if there was a lack of material; it’s that there was a depressing amount to sift through. Atrocity upon atrocity: disappearing money, disappearing people, beaten people, dead people. Our country was cursed, I thought sometimes, if I believed in such superstitious nonsense. It wasn’t just Marcos. It was everything before, all the way back to the first Spaniard who put his boot upon our country’s white, yielding sands. I cursed the Spaniard, even though my mother’s family, at least, counted a Spaniard or two in their family tree. Their language, their religion, their food, their customs, embedded deep within Filipino culture, down to my very family name. Then, the British, the Americans, the Japanese. Five centuries of colonization. I despised that about the Philippines sometimes, Filipinos. While some of us fought, Lapu-Lapu, Andrés Bonifacio, the Luna brothers, Gabriela Silang, José Rizal, the Katipuneros, the Huks, the rest of us, too many of us, rolled over for our conquerors, smiled at them, hiding our canines beneath soft lips and gums. We even loved them. We had adopted their language, their music, their culture. It was always the Elvis of the Philippines or the Beatles of the Philippines or the Jimi Hendrix of the Philippines. Never just us, just our music, just our art, just our writing. Our women tried to look like Hollywood stars like Jennifer Jones, who, hatefully, played a Eurasian once without a drop of Asian blood in her veins. I often wondered what would have happened if we hadn’t had our lands, language, religion, and culture taken from us, distorted for us. There’d be no Philippines. I suppose we do have the Spanish to thank for that, making all these disparate tribes a united, if fractious, people. But, would we have a Marcos? This so-called Iron Butterfly weighed with shoes?
The Marcoses were not the problem but just one of many symptoms.
I shook my head slowly. “I have too many,” I said simply, and the room of people lowered their eyes, because they knew what I meant.
“We’ll leave it to you then,” said Alex, which was what usually happened, in the end. The idea came to me and I wrote it, and so far, every time, people clapped me on the back, cheering a job well-done.
Often, I felt more like a conduit, a curiously empty vessel that allowed herself to be filled with what was necessary, the only time I was truly a good comrade, a self-effacing one. All that was left were my words, unsigned. The words rising, while I melted back into the dark.
I wondered if Pia was right, then, if I was seeking something too dangerous to be handled, a bomb that would kill me someday. I wonder if that was what I sought, to die, to etch my name that way, in a way I never could writing our pamphlets and newsletters for our cause. Good comrades remain anonymous, one of many. Martyrs, that relic of the Catholicism I so derided, were remembered, singular, venerated.
Like the way the Hilao girl can’t be forgotten—officially, no one saw or heard anything. Unofficially, everyone knew what happened, who she was. Maybe I yearned more for sainthood, to be the Philomena whom I was almost named for, than I could have imagined. Could have admitted to myself.
I nodded, and nothing more was said.
From Chapter Forty
Quezon City, Then
Pia only once before helped her sister with her activist work. One night, their first year at UP, she heard Philo’s telltale scritch-scratch at her door. “Come in,” she called, continuing to skim her biology notes from class that day.
Her sister entered, with black gauze spilling out her arms. It was a disturbing sight, all that black against Philo’s usual spotless white. “Can you help?” she asked.
Philo, in response, pushed her bundle forward. The black gauze tumbled in folds to the ground, a dark waterfall. “You know I’m hopeless with sewing.”
Pia closed her notebook and stared at her sister, who was chewing her lip, even though Pia could see that a scab had already formed at the corner of Philo’s mouth. “Why are you even sewing?
Philo let the cloth drop lower. “It’s for a protest drama,” she mumbled.
“A protest drama,” said Philo. In the light of Pia’s lamp, Philo’s long red-beaded earrings glittered. They looked like blood droplets dripping from her earlobes. “We stage the oppression of the regime for the masses,” she added, though it didn’t answer all of Pia’s nascent questions.
“You’re. . . doing what?”
“I’m playing a bereaved mother who discovers her salvaged son,” said Philo. “I need to be in mourning. The action will be this Saturday.”
Pia laughed before she could stop herself. Because Philo, a mother? Even the suggestion of it was ridiculous.
Her sister’s nostrils flared. “I’m acting.”
At that moment, Pia thought that Philo had never looked so much like she had when they were children. Before Philo lopped off her braids and made the two of them different, no longer complete images of each other. Philo always stomping her foot until she got her way. Before Philo became an activist, the unspoken truth known to all their family. Before Philo’s arguments with Papa developed a dangerous intensity. Before worry about Philo drove Mama to frenzied prayer. Before Pia was burdened with all these secrets she had never wanted to keep.
But Philo had never once asked anyone in the family for help with this work before. Pia liked to believe it was because Philo, in her own rough way, was protecting them from whatever peril her actions might provoke.
“All right,” Pia murmured. “Where’s your needle and thread?”
Philo’s lip curved slyly, familiarly. “There’s at least a couple stuck between the floorboards. I know you have your own sewing kit.”
That evening, Pia and Philo sewed, or rather, Pia sewed in response to Philo’s rambling directions. She was able to fashion a rough veil and robe from the fabric, which Philo took, thanking her, ready to slip out quietly through the door when Pia asked, suddenly, “Where’s the action going to be?”
“Quezon Memorial Circle,” she said carelessly. “You’re not going to go?”
Pia flushed. “Just in case. So I know where you are. I’m studying with some batchmates.”
Philo shrugged. “All right. See you tomorrow at breakfast.”
But Pia had gone, and Philo had never known. She hadn’t planned on going, but the batchmates she was going to study with canceled last minute, and well, she hadn’t had anything else to do that day.
She told herself that she was just going to keep an eye on Philo. Make sure she was safe, even as she has never before nor after tried to go to any of Philo’s actions.
Pia took a jeep to QMC from UP, and there was already a crush of people, enough to clog the road. She felt her throat catch when she disembarked as close as she dared. Mostly students, as she expected, but she was surprised to see older people as well. She couldn’t initially see over the crowd, but she could hear the voice of Philo’s friend, Alex? Alex, over the crowd, leading the crowd in a chant.
“Marcos, Hitler, Diktador, Tuta!” The words rumbled around her. “Down with the American lapdog! Down with the imperialist pigs!”
Her face was already dripping sweat. Her shirt was damp at the underarms and down her chest. She thought about turning back, but she didn’t, couldn’t. Not yet. People’s fists were pumping in the air. Signs were thrust up again and again. She hadn’t realized that she had gotten so close, that she was so close to the heart of everything. Is this what Philo felt every time she hit the streets? This odd thrum of energy that felt so dangerous, so. . . alive?
Pia summoned up more aggression than she had ever felt and pushed her way closer until she could see the epicenter where her sister, enshrouded in black, was already wailing and hurtling around the clearing.
“Anak ko, anak ko,” she moaned. “Anak ko, anak ko.” Her face was in her hands, and when her hands came away, there was moisture glistening on it.
Pia realized at this moment that Philo was not a good actress in the sense that she blended into her roles. Pia knew she was not a mother, that Philo had not a maternal bone in her body, and for all of Philo’s histrionics, she could not believe in her grief. There was something too mannered about her tears, her screams. Like Philo was somehow outside of it all, watching herself. Now, rip at the veil. Now, look pointedly at the man over there, who looked skeptical at best. And here, quickly, subtly, check with the police with their shields and helmets, who were inching ever closer, to see what they might do.
But at the same time, Philo’s presence was so outsized, so palpable, that Pia and the crowd could not take their eyes off her. She gesticulated at the audience, at the other actors, at the sky in a way that edged on blasphemous. Her words came through in spurts. “Anak ko, anak ko. What have they done with you? My son, my son.”
Then something exploded near the shields of the policemen.
Philo’s tear-besmirched reverie snapped. “Fuck, who threw that?” she snarled, but no one paid mind as the police raised their batons.
The crowd’s murmurs began to coalesce into one low note of panic. Fear. Around her, Pia sensed how, like the tide, people were pulling all their energy away. That they would run.
The police officers in question did not seem hurt at all, to Pia’s eyes. There were just small debris scattered around their feet. But they were shouting incoherently, and even their shields seemed no longer defensive, but like weapons. Quickly, almost beautifully, a baton caught the shoulder of a university student, it just glanced but it was enough.
The murmuring of the crowd crescendoed into a roar. The tide around Pia was rising, and if there was anything Pia was unnaturally good at, it was moving with the tide. She slipped through those fleeing people, dodging flailing hands and stomping feet. Someone’s nails caught against her cheek, drew the lightest line of blood, but Pia kept going. Dirt kicked up all around her, in shimmering clouds under the hot light of the sun.
Around her were the thuds of the batons, hitting and hitting and hitting. Blood spotted on people’s shirts around her, and the pre-med student in Pia quailed, but she kept running.
When she reached the outside of the hands and the batons and the dust and the blood, she realized she had not even checked to see what had become of her sister. That spooked her, as she mechanically listened to someone’s cries for help, two men, boys really, huddled together, hidden behind some trash cans.
“Help, miss,” said a boy. He was not much older than Pia, she saw. His friend was sprawled next to him, breathing hard, his shoulder crooked.
“It’s dislocated,” she said automatically. She knelt and instructed the boy to hold his friend—or brother, perhaps it was his brother—as she stuffed the handkerchief she always carried into the other boy’s mouth. “Bite,” she said, before pulling the arm back into place with an audible pop.
The boy screamed through the makeshift gag, but the shoulder didn’t look crooked anymore. She ignored the slobbering thanks from the boy and the other boy and shook her head when they offered the homely, sodden handkerchief back to her. As she melted back into the retreating streams of people, she saw Philo in the distance. She was with all the other actors, still in costume, fleeing. They were boisterous, shouting at the police as they fled. Philo was still in black, and all the gauze flew behind her, like storm clouds or smoke or a flag.
Excerpted from Anna Cabe’s novel-in-progress, about a second-generation Filipino American who goes to the Philippines in search of her mother’s twin sister, who disappeared during martial law.