Thursday, November 11, 2004

chapter 3, part 1

This woman is sitting next to Miriel, and I have to confess I don’t like her very much. I do like her shoes, though, the photographs anyway that she has taken out of her handbag to proudly show her masterpieces to Miriel.

She is a very annoying woman, but those shoes are delightful. I stand behind her, looking over her shoulder, peering at the pictures. I heard her tell Miriel that she had a small shop in Marikina that manufactured these shoes. In fact, after a very perfunctory remark about the weather, this woman launched into a long monologue about how she was on the verge of transforming her small shoemaking business into a world-class exporter, and that soon her creations would be worn by ladies and gentlemen all over the world, from the United States to Canada to Mexico to Spain to Italy to France to Germany -- in fact, to all the countries she could imagine and has the patience to recite.

Some of them are truly exquisite ladies’ shoes. I sigh with longing. Of course she doesn’t hear, though once or twice over the course of this bus journey she gave a puzzled look and looked in my direction.

Miriel is bored by her, but she only smiles politely and pretends to listen attentively. She is thinking of many other things, however. I don’t blame my beloved friend. She has had to deal with so many things the past few months. The past few years, actually.

I wonder how the woman would react if Miriel told her what she had really been doing in Taal? That she was not there sightseeing in this heritage town that preserves so much of the beauty of the Spanish era, where magnificent ancestral homes still reign, defying the passage of time and the death and decay that it brings upon the world.

The first time Miriel arrived here, I marveled at the grandeur that was Taal, though so diminished from the heights that it had reached in the past, when the Spanish king’s governador-general had ruled the land and the Guardia Civil preserved the peace in this outpost of the Castilian empire. Miriel has taught me so much. She is an educated woman, blessed with the learning that was denied ladies like myself.

From Miriel I learned that this town now known as Taal once lent its name to the whole province, when it was the capital of la provincia de Taal, which people now refer to as Batangas. All I had known in my lifetime was Manila -- it was my world and I was happy in it. In my time, my father spoke of the great earthquake that finally brought Taal to its knees, in the Year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and forty-nine. It was not the end, so I learned from Miriel, but the beginning of the end.

Taal is a magical place, where the breath of miracles sustains the broken spirit of the land. I have seen the miracles given earthly form, from the shrine of Our Lady of Caysasay to the 125 steps of the San Lorenzo Ruiz arch, to the grotto and well of Santa Lucia. I have seen the image of the Virgin that the devotees found floating in the well, the well that once was the belfry of the church, before it sunk into the earth.

I wept when Miriel took me to the Basilica of San Martin de Tours. Miriel told me that this magnificent church rose from the rubble of the great tremor, and that nine years it took to build this house of God. She has told me dazzling tales of this mighty town, which ruled over this portion of the great Balangon region that stretched from the lake and volcano that bear the same name, all the way to the Bay of Balayan. In the first two centuries from the time the conquistadores of Iberia laid claim to these islands in the name of Sword and Cross, Taal flourished, until the great eruption of Taal Volcano in the Year of Our Lord, one thousand seven hundred and fifty-four. Who knows how many souls died when the lake of fire destroyed the surrounding villages, how many lives were buried in ash and flame and molten rock?

I have been a devout Catholic all my life, yet I still do not understand how God can allow such tragedies to befall his children. I am a simple soul, and if I had a heart it would break at the telling of these tales, yet like a child I ask my creator, why? Why must you allow these things? Why must you allow people to suffer? Why must you happily allow them to build and dream and hope, only to take everything cruelly away?

Miriel is still smiling politely. Part of me wishes that she would tell the woman that she cares nothing for her trivial concerns. But the truth is that my sister Miriel cares so much. She is a good woman, in spite of the cards that fate had dealt. I do not know if I would be as noble. I think I would be driven mad if I had her gift -- or curse.

Would the woman still smile if she could see me? What would she say if Miriel told her that she had gone from house to house, letting one spirit after another ride her body, allowing their families to talk to them and, in so doing, exorcising the ghosts that haunted their homes? For that was the tale of many of these spirits. Most of them lingered because they had tasks which they had been unable to consummate in life. Perhaps it was something they needed to say to their loved ones. Perhaps it was something they needed to hear.

Some of them even walk a long time without knowing that their bodies had already died, that the people and the world around them had already changed, that their homes no longer belonged to them. The first time I saw Miriel, I thought she was a ghost. She frightened me, and I know you will laugh at how cowardly I am because she was then only a little girl.

"Why are you crying?" she said.

I said I was crying because I had been looking for my lover for a long, long time, but I could not find him anywhere around the house. I told her, this little girl, that I was afraid he had left me behind and was no longer coming back, and that I would never see him again.

"I am Miriel. What is your name?"

Esperanza, I whispered.


Miriel chuckled to herself when she saw Esperanza making faces at the woman who sat beside her on this long bus journey. She marveled at how people could fail to see, could fail to feel or hear or smell or sense, the spirits that were all around us, who inhabited this world that we presumed to call our own.

She was overjoyed when Esperanza, after disappearing for months, had appeared before her in Taal. She loved the beautiful ghost-woman as though she were her own flesh and blood, having known her almost all her life. Esperanza could not tell her what had happened, why she suddenly disappeared and where she had gone to, yet the spirit had given her something better: a new purpose.

Esperanza wanted the two of them to look for her beloved Julian, believing that when they were reunited, she would finally accomplish the task that bound her to this world. This world that had changed so much over the decades, that sometimes frightened Esperanza with the roar of its machines, and the acrid smell of its air, and the ebb and flow of the digital stream.

And, though part of her could not believe the ghost-woman, would not dare hope that somehow, the scales would be balanced and the gift revoked, Esperanza had told her what she claimed to have discovered during the time she was away, that after Miriel has helped reunite the two lovers, she would be as blind to the spirit world as all the rest.

To know peace. To no longer see. To no longer be crushed by the burden of responsibility, the need to use this gift to allow the dead to communicate with the living.

"I was the first stranger you met, my sister," Esperanza, looking more beautiful than Miriel had ever seen her before, told her while they sat inside San Martin de Tours Basilica. "I think we were fated to meet that day, but now I know that if you had never seen me, you would have lived a different life. You saved me, you who are dearer to me than my own sister in life, for without you I would not have even known… that I had died. But I may have doomed you to this kind of life. Forgive me, Miriel, and now I want to set things right. I don’t want to lose you, but my ghost should not be a burden you must carry all your life."

Could it be true, Miriel wondered to herself. Yet she would have known if Esperanza was lying. At the very least, the ghost-woman truly believed what she was saying, though she did not know how the idea had been put into her head. Or how a spirit could have disappeared without knowing where she went… Wasn’t that what happened to Julian? Could the Spanish boxer have also disappeared, somehow because Miriel was fated to meet his beloved Esperanza?

God, I am so tired of questioning. I have tried all these years to somehow be your instrument, though your priests revile me when they discover what I do. Though the echoes of all the spirits that have inhabited my flesh all this time, resonate each day in my mind.

It would be so wonderful to give all this up, Miriel thought. But the thought of losing Esperanza also frightened her. When the ghost disappeared a few months ago, she had kept from falling into despair by hoping that Esperanza would return. But now…


The woman screamed when she felt a cold hand touch her back. She turned around wildly to look behind her, only to see that both seats were empty. She looked at Miriel, but Miriel looked just as surprised as her.

Shivering, the woman got up from her seat, clutched the handbag against her chest and told the conductor that she wanted to go down.

"Pero, ma’am, malayo pa po ang stop ninyo…"

"Basta! Ibaba mo ako!"

Shaking his head, the conductor told the driver to stop, calling out as the woman got down the bus, "Ma’am, kung dyi-dyinggel lang kayo or may ibang call of nature, puwede naman ho namin kayong hintayin."

Some of the passengers were grinning, while a few could not help but chuckle and chime in with their own comments.

"Oo nga ho, Nanang, OK lang ‘yan."

"Mabilis lang naman po ‘yan, di ba?"

"Mahirap po talaga magpigil…"

"Mga letse kayo! Hindi ako naiihi!" the woman screamed as she kicked the tire of the bus, almost stumbling on the side of the road.

Miriel shook her head but couldn’t help smiling as the ghost-woman, who had taken the seat the woman had hastily vacated, laughed and waved an invisible hand at the queen of shoes.

"That was very immature of you," she whispered to Esperanza in her mind.

"I told you, I didn’t like her. But I would have loved to wear those shoes. And admit it: You thought it was funny too."

The two women silently laughed as the bus resumed its long journey.



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