“Leave it to the authorities,” says a lady, stepping out of a jeepney. “It’s too much for a high school kid.”
REY SQUINTS AS he looks at the long stretch of Marcos Highway, glinting in the midsummer sun. He pulls a handkerchief from his jeans pocket and sweeps the sweat off his forehead, face and neck. He twists the lid of his water bottle before gulping the last of the liquid. He looks around, seeing pilgrims hiking like ants up the hill, drawn to the sweetness of the mountain’s prize—the blessed shrine of Our Lady of Antipolo, where miracles are said to happen. Rey hears the clacking and brushing sound of shoes on stone, the rubbing of legs on jeans, and the panting and quiet prayers of people as they labor alongside him. Jeepneys and cars tend to hibernate on Good Friday. Rey smiles at the difference it makes, the peace it brings to people when God is dead.
He swivels his straw hat and bites his lower lip. “Lola,” he whispers, remembering his grandmother with every step of his climb. He smiles at the thought that if his Lola Reyna were still alive today, the old lady’s walking stick would be thudding on the concrete with each step as she made her uncomplaining way to the shrine. Rey recalls the first time he went on the pilgrimage with his Lola Reyna, not long after his parents passed away. He was in grade six and as they trudged the sweltering road, he collapsed. When he opened his eyes Lola Reyna was opening a bottle, offering him cool water. He still remembered the way the sun’s piercing rays had permeated through the Ipil-Ipil tree leaves above him. For the next six years, right up to her death a year ago, Lola Reyna’s strength had never abated. Now, as he huffs with the crowd, Rey knows he has nothing to complain about. The exhaustion and discomfort he feels are nothing compared to the sacrifice and devotion his grandmother showed.
Lola Reyna was nicknamed The Queen of Tondo, not only because she had queen for a name, but also because she had the stamina and dedication to engage in physically draining activities such as the twenty-kilometre hike to the mountain during Holy Week. For many years she had served as the ferry lady who moved the people of Tondo across the Pasig River to the heart of Manila. As the boat’s captain, she spun the control wheel and used her commanding voice to scare those who tried to evade the fare. The locals respected her, especially her softer side: the people of Tondo knew well her dedication to the then beauty of the Pasig River and her regret as she watched its slow demise.
Rey recalls the time he and his Lola printed the sign Ilog ko, ilog mo. Mahalin natin ito, which translates to ‘My river, your river. Let’s love it’, on a big tarpaulin. They picked rubbish from the water, standing at either end of the ferry using long sticks with hooks on the end. They dumped it on the bank for the rubbish collector to take. His Lola would do this with a serious but relieved face, shaking her head, muttering: ‘People who kill this river should be tried and given the death penalty. Nakakabagbag-damdamin, it’s heart-wrenching.’ He’d seen her lips tighten and her eyes water. “I used to swim and fish here,” she’d said. There was no answer he could give. He’d simply nod his head and continue to find ways to enjoy his summer vacation while spending time with her. He remembers arguing with his parents over the principles his grandmother stood for. One afternoon, when they were walking along Pateros Bridge, his parents flicked some peanut shells and ice candy wrappers into the river. Rey told them to stop and his father got upset about it. He misses his parents now but not in the same way he misses his grandmother.
Richard Clayderman’s instrumental music reverberates from the houses he passes; FM stations have been playing his works since the start of the day. Rey’s phone says half past one and his aim is to be at the site before three, the exact time the Lord breathed his last. People then pray the rosary while kneeling on the sloping ground. Others sit or lie quietly on their mats, reading books about the life of saints or painting and writing anything related to faith. The most awaited activity is the dramatisation of the Crucifixion of Christ, where one may volunteer to be actually crucified—with a team of nurses on standby in a nearby tent. Rey taps the breaking news app on his smart phone. Live crucifixion pictures of people in Pampanga fill the screen, with plenty of shots focused on the grimacing face of the person, juxtaposed with the tearing of flesh as nails pierce palms. In nearby towns young men walk the streets, whipping their own backs previously slit with a razor blade. Their blood splatters on the road as they parade like flagellation of the Middle Ages. A Time Magazine reporter asks the crucified man. He answers, “I’m sharing with the sacrifice of Christ and praying for the healing of my daughter who has leukemia.”
Rey breathes the little feeling of achievement as he reaches the half-way mark. He turns around again and fans himself with his hat. He sighs at the vast view of Metro Manila. Tall buildings tower in some areas while in others houses of different sizes and construction show the contrast between the lucky and not-so-lucky in life. Through it all the Pasig River snakes between the dwellings and structures, skirting the base of the mountain. He remembers as a young child flicking through the pages of his Lola Reyna’s photo album, where in black and white happy-faced people swam in the river, somersaulting and doings laps across shallow reaches. Others were fishing on its banks and little banca, the Philippine boats with bamboo pole extensions on either side for balance, crisscrossed from one side to the other. Rey also remembers the last big photo his mother developed for his Lola’s funeral: the one of her with a happy face while throwing an anchor in the water.
Suddenly Rey’s petty milestone, the half-way mark, is forgotten. His eyes widen as he thinks of something that will make his grandmother far more proud than his completion of the annual pilgrimage. It is something different, memorable. Abandoning his slog up the mountain he stands straight, takes a giant breath and begins to run back to the city. ‘It should be done before dusk. This will be good,’ he cries to nobody in particular. His cheeks bounce as he flies like an eagle towards Manila.
Rey’s eyes glow with the realization that distance disappears like a breeze when one is totally focused. He begs the tricycle driver to hurry and pays him extra in order to get to his Lola’s place in Tondo in time. He arrives at last and closes his eyes briefly to settle himself from the exhaustion and heat. He takes the life vest from his grandmother’s wooden chest and asks the neighbors if he can use the driftwood raft that is moored to the river bank. He asks the neighbors if they can do him a big favor; he is going to do something special in memory of his grandmother. They demand two hundred pesos for the use of the raft. Rey says it won’t be a problem, thinking that he’ll use the money he would have used for offering at the pilgrimage. He grabs some sacks from the back of the general store next door before dashing to the river bank.
Water laps over his feet as he tries to stand firmly on the uneven wooden shapes tied together with nylon string. He nearly tips off balance when his toes get caught between two planks. The big rope that connects the raft to both banks of the river gives him some stability. It holds the flimsy raft against the tide and he pulls it in close to the bank where most of the rubbish is gathering. He lifts the pick-up stick and begins hooking food wrappers, plastic containers, pieces of Styrofoam, children’s toys, aluminum cans and empty shampoo bottles. Rubbish drips as he places it in a sack. He pinches his nose closed as he tries to block the stench of the river; he feels like vomiting. He shakes his head, realizing this murky water can no longer sustain life. He remembers the perfect ecosystem for fish and crustaceans displayed in his science class. This water is nothing like it. As he fills sack after sack with rubbish Rey feels a warmth inside him, as if his Lola Reyna is giving him a pat on the back. “Lola,” he mutters.
Rey has not noticed the bystanders, street vendors and even police officers standing along the bank shaking their heads.
“What are you doing that for?” yells one.
“Have you lost your mind?” asks another.
“Drop it, you’re only wasting your time. You can’t make Pasig River clean again. You’re stupid,” says a third man.
“Leave it to the authorities,” says a lady, stepping out of a jeepney. “It’s too much for a high school kid.”
Rey shouts his need for more sacks as somebody takes a photo of him and posts it on Facebook. In ten minutes it garners a thousand likes. After an hour, the banks are crowded with onlookers, taking more photos of him, throwing him sacks. He hears them clapping and cheering. He does not notice the number of bundles he has made. A TV reporter in a little boat comes near him, asking why he’s collecting the garbage, why he’s doing it. He mumbles things about his grandma and about the plight of the River amidst the struggle of the people to live and survive, purging out his litany of thought fragments about the causes and the consequences of the death of Pasig River. He places a sack of rubbish on his head and begins walking barefoot towards the church of San Lorenzo Ruiz de Manila. The scorching concrete burns his soles and the pebbles on the road bruise him but he whispers his Lola Reyna’s name and it seems to soothe his pain. Dirty water drips on his head. He closes his eyes and promises himself a long shower after this. He pictures his Lola Reyna smiling and approving of his actions from the distance.
Rey unloads the sacks and lines them up like rosary beads in the courtyard of the church. Gradually, as he goes back and forth along the three-hundred-meter journey between the river and the church, the road becomes lined with onlookers. One man helps him hook rubbish out of the river. A couple of younger students carry bundles on their heads. Rey comes and goes, and his helpers show the same seriousness and reverence.
His rosary display slowly takes shape. The sacks of rubbish become beads. Some ladies help tie plastic bags to represent the string that connects the beads. Others pick up the fallen Talisay leaves that destroy the look of the display.
The priest comes out with his white alb and black collar. “What are you doing?”
“Hi, Father.” Rey smiles. “I hope you don’t mind.”
“Are you putting rubbish in our front yard? You’ve got the wrong place, son. This is not a rubbish tip. This is the church and our church should be free of rubbish.” The priest clasps his hands as he bends towards Rey.
Rey continues to arrange the giant rosary, now looking like a big heart. “Sorry, Father.”
“What do you mean, sorry? Have you lost your mind? Go on, take this rubbish away and put it elsewhere! None of this trash belongs in our church!”
A middle-aged man blurts: “The church is dirty inside anyway, Father. It needs cleaning, real cleaning.” He keeps his hands in his pockets while he speaks.
Gradually the crowd steps closer, holding hands, forming a barricade between Rey and the priest. Rey feels a leap of joy in his heart.
The priest’s eyes widen. “I’ll call the police.” He dashes off. His sandals brush along the ground, flicking dust onto the hem of his alb.
Rey’s once-white shirt glints in the afternoon sun as he lays his tired body at the center of his design. He spreads his arms so that he forms a crucifix at the start of the Rosary. He tries to ignore the chattering crowd as he feels pebbles prick his scalp and his back. “Lola,” he whispers. He ignores the sweat and tears that meet and roll together down to the back of his neck. He cannot wipe them now, while his hands complete the display to which people pay reverence. The TV reporter stands near him, peering through the lens of his camera as he twists the focus.
A young man comes to him and wipes his head, face and neck, with a red cloth. He leaves the cloth on Rey’s chest.
In unison, the crowd begins: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth…” People come out of the church. Rey breathes deeply as the red cloth is moved from sack to sack as the Hail Marys are said. Rey closes his eyes and listens to the repeated prayers, thinking of their buzzing as people’s yearning for the living God. As he dozes, the prayers become music to him, making sense of the prayers he wishes to share with his grandmother and for the thoughts he wishes to impart to everyone on the day when God dies.
“What do you feel now?” asks the CNN Philippines reporter.
“Peace and Justice,” Rey mutters. A sigh of relief has engulfed his tired heart. “A-a-and respect for our River.”
About the author:
Erwin Cabucos is the author of ‘Does It Matter What the Dead Think’. His short stories appear in Verandah, FourW, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore and the Philippines Graphic Magazine. ‘Requiem for Pasig River’ received High Commendation Award from Queensland Independent Education Union Short Story Award and Roly Sussex Literary Prize in 2016.