Walking up a pedestrian overpass felt different from walking up a mountain trail.
This thought was in Nelmar’s mind every time he used the overpass. He spent close to two years in the city but there was still a degree of clumsiness in his step. Nelmar had no physical or mental deficiencies; rather, he felt no affinity with his surroundings.
Nelmar missed the mountain trails. He missed how his feet hugged the rock and dirt. He remembered how the branches of small trees along the pathway saved him from injury many times over.
The overpass gave off a humid heat on days when the sun scorched the city. The heat made Nelmar’s legs itch. When the rain fell, the overpass that stretched over the highway was slippery.
At the foot of the overpass was the entrance to his home: the La Perla Compound.
La Perla was the largest settlement of informal settlers in Gualahura. Bordered by factories on the north facing the Tyanang River, a Catholic seminary on the south, skyscrapers in the east and the country’s largest vehicular highway on the west, La Perla was home to many who came from the provinces in search of a better life.
Once or twice a month, Nelmar would see families getting off buses in front of La Perla. Many would come to La Perla with the few possessions they had from a life of farming or fishing. Many came trading their simple lives for the promise of a future filled with more money in their pockets and more food on their plate.
He saw money change hands from the new arrivals to the owners of tiny rooms made of scrap wood and salvaged metal.
Promises of steady jobs for hard working folk were thrown around like love professed by drunks to prostitutes on street corners. His Tia Marla and Tio Ramil told him what those promises were worth.
Tia Marla was Nelmar’s maternal aunt. She and Tio Ramil lived in the same mountain village as Nelmar did. A few months after they got married, they agreed that they wanted more than a kaingero’s life. After twenty hours of travel by bus, the couple found themselves on the streets of Gualahura.
Tia Marla and Tio Ramil were part of the first settlers who came to La Perla twelve years ago. They saw a big sign that said LA PERLA COMPOUND: PRIVATE PROPERTY, they took down the sign, they burned the sign and they settled on La Perla anyway.
Nelmar’s aunt and uncle had no children of their own. When Nelmar came to the city, they enrolled him in public school. His classes started a little after dawn and ended at noon. This made way for a second and third shift of classes for the city’s overburdened educational system. At the age of eighteen, Nelmar felt ancient in a class full of fifteen year old children. A childhood filled with rote miseducation did him no favors in his new school.
The early class schedule was in his favor. He found a job as a stevedore. He worked at one of the rice dealers in the public market across the highway from La Perla.
The merchant who owned the rice dealership was impressed how Nelmar lifted sack after sack of rice with great ease. Nelmar had no difficulty with the heavy lifting. He was blessed with a strong body. He owed his strength to the many hours of helping his father chop down the trees they set on fire.
At sunset, the merchant would give Nelmar his wages and half a kilo of uncooked rice. The rice went to his aunt and uncle, that way he never felt too much of a burden. Finally, the merchant never failed to give him an orange or an apple. It was a reward for his pleasant disposition at work.
Nelmar never went home alone. He would always wait for his friend, Nanding.
Nanding was a butcher who also worked at the public market. He lived in a rented shack a few steps away from where Nelmar lived. Although Nanding was ten years older than Nelmar, Nanding took it upon himself to teach his young friend how to deal with all kinds of city folk.
Nelmar enjoyed having someone walk home with him, keeping him safe from the crooked policemen and traffic enforcers that prowled the streets at night.
The stevedore told the butcher stories about life in the mountains. Nelmar noticed how his friend’s face lit up whenever tales of mountains, valleys and mists broke the silence of their walk home.
On nights when the smog was not too thick, Nelmar and Nanding would find a spot on the overpass before heading home. They would sit on the ledge and stare at the skyscrapers that glistened in the night.
“Nanding, what do you think the people in those buildings say to each other when they look at La Perla?”
“Probably the same or the opposite of what we say when we look at them.”
“That doesn’t even make sense, Nanding.”
“Nothing makes sense in this city.” Nanding said, biting into the last remaining bit of the apple Nelmar shared with him. He threw the apple core into the mass of vehicles that clogged the highway at rush hour.
There were only two ways to get in and out of La Perla; the smaller passage was an alley that led to the factory district along the Tyanang River. The more visible way was through a torn down section of a concrete wall by the highway. This was Nelmar’s regular way to get in and out of La Perla. Over the years, the city government tried to close the giant hole by the highway. Reasons such as urban beautification and public safety were thrown around to any media outlet that would listen.
After two years of living at La Perla, Nelmar knew every sewage- strewn path and every garbage-laden corner. He knew the fastest way to get to that open space that did double duty as the basketball court and town meeting area. He knew not to linger in front of the shanties where shirtless men with bloodshot eyes stood guard with guns and knives. He walked past these places as fast as he could.
La Perla was called a compound, but to call it that belittled the size of the place. In the Philippines, the word ‘compound’ evokes mental images of a few families living on a plot of land no more than a few hundred square meters large. La Perla had an area of two thousand square meters.
It was not surprising that the legitimate owners of the La Perla Compound had tried every legal and extra-legal means to clear their land of squatters for years.
Tia Marla just got home when Nelmar arrived. She worked as a janitress in a nearby private hospital for the past ten years. Nelmar’s maternal aunt was good-natured as she was plump. It could be argued that Nelmar’s pleasant disposition was from his mother’s side of the family.
“I brought home some sayote for dinner.” Tia Marla said, ripping open the tiny plastic food bags and transferring the contents into a plastic plate.
“Tia, should I cook the rice that I brought home?”
“Yes, cook it. That would be such a treat for your Tio when he gets home from meeting with the community council.”
While waiting for the rice to boil, Nelmar stood by the door and watched some children play hide and seek outside. Nelmar watched them run as they bumped into a tall, barrel chested figure wearing a faded blue boilersuit.
“Good evening, Tio Ramil. The rice will be cooked in a few minutes. Tia Marla brought home sayote.”
“That’s good. Kindly set the table while I change into something more comfortable. Where is your Tia Marla?”
“She’s upstairs. She got home around thirty minutes ago.”
“I see. Call us when the rice is cooked and the table is set.”
“Yes, Tio Ramil.” Nelmar answered.
After dinner, Nelmar’s aunt and uncle watched television and went to bed.
Nelmar did the dishes and crept up the rooftop with a blanket and a pillow. Nelmar liked staying on rooftop to relax.
Only a few houses in La Perla were made of materials better than scrap wood and scavenged metal. Over the years, Tia Marla and Tio Ramil used their savings to buy hollow blocks, steel rod, lumber and sheet metal to make their house bigger and better. When their house was strong enough to support a second floor and a rooftop, they did not hesitate to expand upwards.
The moon hid behind the grey haze of the starless night sky. Nelmar sat on the bare cement and stared into space. The wind lullabied the empty clothesline on the rooftop.
The evening’s conversation over dinner weighed heavily on Nelmar’s mind. Even Tia Marla was distressed by the news Tio Ramil brought home.
The Community Council officers went to city hall to meet with city officials, policemen and the lawyers who represented the legal owners of La Perla. The government wanted to relocate the residents of La Perla to a place far away from Gualahura. The lawyers offered the Community Council officers a huge sum of money to convince the rest of the squatters to move.
The Community Council officers refused. The head lawyer reminded them of the fire that burned most of La Perla to the ground three years ago. He told them that people who lived in such a fire-prone area should leave for their own safety.
Harsh words were exchanged, furniture was thrown around and the police had to move the city officials and lawyers to another room.
Nelmar was stunned by his uncle’s revelation: La Perla had burned down four times in the last twelve years. La Perla residents accused the land owners of hiring hoodlums to burn down their homes. Tia Marla told stories how some residents saw bottles filled with gasoline strapped to cats. She said the cats were covered in gasoline and set on fire. The shrieking cats tried to extinguish the flames by running, but only succeeded in spreading the flames.
Nelmar shivered in disgust, thinking how anyone could do such things.
The clear sky convinced Nelmar to sleep on the rooftop. He stretched himself out on his blanket and yawned. His head hurt from all the thinking. He grew sleepier with every breath and blink, but his long suppressed fear of fire troubled him.
It was a fire that scorched half a mountainside that forced his father to send him to La Perla in the first place. Now, the threat of another fire might force him to leave La Perla forever.
One of Nelmar’s teachers brought her laptop to class. She showed the class video clips of the very first Earth landing on Mars. The teacher explained how the Luna Colonies on the Moon were furious because the Unified Earth Mission got to Mars first. The Manned Mars Mission from the moon arrived one week later. The teacher said that accusations of sabotage were the main issue.
Nelmar was amazed by the news, but only for a few moments. After all, it had no impact on his reality. Just like the scantily clad women on television. Just like the funny looking men who gave away money to people with sad stories. Just like the politicians who bickered among themselves on the news.
His reality was La Perla, school and work.
Nelmar allowed his mind to wander while he worked. His daydreaming never detracted from his productivity. Physical labor was all muscle memory to him. Imagine Nelmar’s surprise when Nanding snapped him out of his daydream by showing up at the Grains Section unannounced.
“Nelmar, promise me you’ll wait for me after work!”
“I always wait for you after work.” Nelmar answered, preoccupied with the sack of rice he was carrying.
Nanding gave Nelmar the thumbs up sign as he rushed back to the meat section before anyone could notice he was gone.
Nelmar waited for his friend after work. Nanding arrived with a smile on his face.
“So what’s this all about?” Nelmar asked.
“Come with me to the Gumamela Garden. I have to talk to someone. I’ll treat you to dinner after. We’ll get whatever you want!”
“No thanks, Nanding. Tia Marla is going to give me the scolding of my life if I go to the Gumamela Garden.”
“You don’t need to go inside,” Nanding pleaded, “Just wait for me by the door. I need someone I can trust close by. You got my back, right?”
The Gumamela Garden was only a few meters away from the Public Market. Jeepney drivers and factory workers chose this place to drown their sorrows in alcohol. The Gumamela Garden was an eyesore. It was cobbled together from old steel shipping containers.
Nelmar peeped through the tinted glass windows to see what his friend was up to. The harsh lighting against the sheen of the plastic table coverings illuminated the patrons of the Gumamela Garden in putrid yellow. The green monoblock tables and mismatched wooden chairs made the place even more unappealing.
Nelmar saw Nanding talking to four other men. Three of them he knew by face. He knew that they lived in La Perla. Nelmar did not recognize the fourth man who seemed to do most of the talking. The man who kept talking was a well dressed man, like those people who worked in offices. He knew how those office people looked like because he saw so many of them on the highway every morning.
Nanding’s meeting did not last long. After ten minutes, the well dressed man handed each of the La Perla men a small bundle of paper the size of a pack of cigarettes. The Well dressed Man then went into the kitchen of the Gumamela Garden. The other La Perla Men stayed and beer was brought to their table. Nanding stood up and left.
“That went well,” Nanding said with a smile, “You feel like eating donuts?”
Nelmar never said no to donuts, especially jelly filled donuts. Both of them stood by the Donut stall on the sidewalk, relishing their jelly donuts and cold gulaman.
“Listen, I’ve got another favor to ask for tomorrow.” Nanding said as Nelmar bit into his third jelly donut.
“Sure, as long as you buy donuts.” Nelmar grinned.
“After work, don’t wait for me at our usual meeting place. Wait for me in front of the Gumamela Garden. If I’m late thirty minutes, or an hour, or two hours, promise me you’ll wait for me.”
“Two hours?” Nelmar exclaimed.
“You’re my best friend, right? Promise me you’ll wait. This is really important.”
Nelmar hesitated at the unusual request. He was sure Nanding wouldn’t ask him unless it was important. Nanding wasn’t the type to ask for trivial favors.
“Okay Nanding. I’ll wait. Just make sure we don’t get into trouble, okay?”
Nanding smiled. He took out a thousand peso bill from the small bundle of paper to pay for the donuts. He also bought a dozen donuts that Nelmar could bring home.
That evening, Nelmar went to bed a bit happier than usual. He was filled with the kind of happiness brought by a cool night breeze, a full stomach and a tomorrow filled with the promise of more jelly donuts after a hard day’s work.
The morning announced itself with the sound of buses speeding on the highway. It was still dark but the sun was already peeking through the horizon.
Nelmar was half asleep but he still could taste the white sugar from the donuts on his lips. Tio Ramil was up early even if it was his day off. He would later meet up with the other officers of the Community council for a chat. Tia Marla was getting ready for work as she hollered for Nelmar to come have breakfast with them.
They all had donuts and coffee for breakfast.
Nelmar had told his Tia Marla and Tio Ramil his employer gave him the donuts.
After breakfast and a quick goodbye to Tio Ramil, Nelmar and Tia Marla both left. Tia Marla exited through the highway side of La Perla. She rode one of the crowded buses to work. Energized by the Donuts and Coffee, Nelmar decided to change things up a bit. He passed through the alley that led to the factory district along the Tyanang River.
Depending on the time of day, there would be a different set of old men with their fishing poles on the banks of the Tyanang River. They never looked to be in any hurry. They just stood there waiting for the fish to bite. Two years in the city and Nelmar never saw anyone catch anything alive from the Tyanang River.
At school, Nelmar nodded with wide eyes every time the teacher’s gaze fell upon him. His mind wandered when the teacher focused her attention somewhere else. His teacher’s voice turned into white noise with each passing moment.
Memories forcibly forgotten fought their way to the forefront of his mind’s eye. Nelmar remembered his father trying to put out the blaze. Everything was covered in fire. Nelmar was frozen with guilt and fear. He was on his knees, sobbing. His father and the rest of the kaingeros found a way to put out the huge fire but when they were done, their soot covered faces failed to hide the contempt they had for Nelmar’s carelessness. Nelmar felt ashamed for being so stupid. He felt ashamed for making his father lose face in front of the others.
A basketball rattled Nelmar’s desk. His heart jumped and his fists clenched before he realized what was going on.
“You want to play basketball with us?” A lanky boy asked Nelmar.
“No thanks, I have work after class.”
“Oh okay,” The lanky boy said, “Next time then.”
Nelmar nodded as the lanky boy left.
Work came as a welcome relief to Nelmar. The weight of the sacks of rice kept him from getting lost in his memories. He concentrated on the shifting grains of rice as he lifted the sacks on his shoulder. The sacks were cool to the touch. The more expensive varieties of rice smelled mountain fresh and made his stomach growl. He could imagine how delicious the rice would taste if it was cooked in bamboo and served on banana leaves. The thought of pairing the hot rice with steamed vegetables made his mouth water.
In between his pleasant daydreams of delicious food, Nelmar wondered what Nanding was up to. He hurried to the Gumamela Garden after work but Nanding was nowhere to be found. He did not find the other La Perla men either. Nelmar sat on the curb and waited.
Nelmar observed the chaos surrounding the Gumamela Garden. Jeepneys were driven by almost clairvoyant drivers, their vehicles only missing each other by a few centimeters. Pedestrians moved in currents. Some were headed towards the highway and some were headed away from the highway. Vendors shouted catchy phrases urging everyone to come buy their wares.
The minutes crawled by. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes. Thirty minutes. The wall clock hanging over the jukebox inside the Gumamela Garden kept Nelmar company.
Where was Nanding?
Nelmar could hear sirens in the distance. A few minutes later, Nelmar noticed something about the pedestrians that he could not ignore. Pedestrians coming from the highway kept on looking back from the direction they came from. Human traffic got slower. Nelmar could now see columns of gray smoke fill up the dark sky. He made a mad dash to the
La Perla was burning.
A fire truck was at the scene but they did nothing to put out the blaze. An old woman begged the firemen to do something. The firemen smirked at the old woman and laughed. The old woman sobbed in despair as her frail shadow stretched and shrunk under the glow of the fire truck’s emergency lights. A couple of young men covered in tattoos started throwing rocks and empty bottles at the firetrucks. The firemen started cursing the La Perla residents through their megaphones.
Around twenty men clambered on the firetrucks and beat up the firemen with wooden sticks. The other La Perla residents tried to figure out how to operate the fire truck’s pumping system and attached the hoses to the fire hydrants. They worked the hoses and did their best to put the fire out but much of the blaze was out of the water’s range. The smell of damp charcoal clung to everyone’s skin.
The police soon came in their riot gear. They were armed with shields and truncheons. Shirtless young men greeted them with metal pipes and Molotov cocktails.
Up until this point, Nelmar was just a bystander looking for a way to sneak past the commotion. When the opportunity presented itself, Nelmar took advantage of the darkness and ran as fast as he could though the giant hole in the wall and into La Perla.
He had to find his Tio Ramil. Maybe his uncle tried to save their belongings and hurt himself. Maybe Tio Ramil was unconscious and in danger of suffocating. So many maybes. He had to see for himself. He did not want his Tia Marla to lose her husband.
The smoke hung low like early morning smog. Nelmar almost missed their house by a few meters. He retraced his steps and saw the door of their house flung wide open. Ash and ember floated in the air. The ceiling had already burned down. Everything of value that could be carried out was gone. Tio Ramil was nowhere in sight.
Nelmar had no reason to stay any longer.
Nelmar jumped over twisted metal and charred wood towards the alley that led to the factory district. To exit through the highway would only expose him to police brutality. He tried to take the quickest route out of the burning inferno but some pathways led to dead ends blocked by debris.
As Nelmar ran with great haste, he started to fear the worst. How would he tell Tia Marla that Tio Ramil could not be found?
He had reached a portion of La Perla where the residents were busy scrambling to safety. They had abandoned the hope of saving their houses and were busy carrying their belongings wrapped in blankets. They were clogging the pathway and were moving too slow for Nelmar’s liking. A house with a door that swung back and forth caught his attention. He entered the house and planned to go up the roof, scale the walls and find a way to get out of La Perla.
Imagine Nelmar’s surprise when he saw Nanding dousing the inside of that random house with gasoline.
Nelmar snatched the fuel canister as Nanding backed away from Nelmar.
“You weren’t supposed to be here!” Nanding shouted.
“If anything happens to my Tio Ramil, I’ll kill you!”
Nelmar threw the fuel canister at Nanding. Nanding dodged it with ease.
The fuel canister caught fire and ignited everything that was covered in gasoline. Nelmar tackled Nanding and the arsonist fell flat on his back. Blinded by anger, Nelmar started raining down punches on Nanding’s face. Nelmar’s lungs told him to get out of the burning house but his rage fed his punches with adrenalin.
Nanding squirmed under the weight of the Nelmar’s punches. In between the darkness of fists hemorrhaging his eyelids, Nanding could see the burning ceiling collapse on both of them.
Nelmar was oblivious to all of this. Nanding saw the ceiling fall as if it was in slow motion. Flat on his back, Nanding curled both his fists and hammered Nelmar on the chest. Nelmar gasped for air but inhaled nothing but smoke. Nanding summoned every ounce of strength in his body. He pushed Nelmar off him and out of the path of the falling ceiling.
Nelmar stood up as the dust began to settle. He could see the arsonist under the burning rubble of the collapsed ceiling. Nanding was pinned down but he was alive.
“Nelmar…” Nanding’s weak voice pleaded for mercy.
Nelmar stared at the rubble. The burning wood could be flung aside with ease using a little improvisation. The bits and pieces of the ceiling looked like they weighed nothing compared to the sacks of rice he carried every day.
He could have pulled Nanding to safety without any difficulty.
He could have.
Nelmar turned around and closed the door behind him. He ran away from the house as fast as he could. He could hear houses around him collapse as the fire consumed everything. For a few moments, Nelmar began to doubt if he would survive.
That moment of doubt disappeared as Nelmar stumbled out of La Perla and into the factory district. Sweet air filled his lungs as the stabbing pain in his lungs subsided. He coughed as hard as he could to purge his lungs of all the smoke he had inhaled. He lay down on the sidewalk and closed his eyes.
“Nelmar! You’re Alive!”
Tio Ramil cupped Nelmar’s face in his hands. He sat up and hugged his Tio Ramil.
“I went back for you Tio Ramil.”
“I tried to go back into La Perla to search for you,” Tio Ramil said, tears rolling down his cheeks, “but the other council members pinned me down to the ground to stop me from going.”
“It’s okay, Tio Ramil,” Nelmar answered, “but when I got to the house nothing was there. Looters got everything.”
“It would seem that way,” Tio Ramil said, pointing to a pile of things under a shapeless blanket, “but I was able to take most of our valuables before the fire reached our house.”
“How will Tia Marla know where we are?” Nanding asked.
“Don’t worry, Nelmar. She will find us.”
A few hours later, Tia Marla did find them. They all hugged each other as tight as they could. Nelmar was relieved his aunt and uncle were unharmed. They sat on the cold concrete by the banks of the Tyanang River, watching the flames dance in the night. La Perla continued to burn and the inferno lit up the darkness.
Nelmar tried to wipe the soot from his face in vain. He wanted everything to be the way it was before the fire. Deep in his heart, Nelmar knew he would never be the same again. Nelmar would never forget how part of him died in La Perla that night.