a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Manny felt a stream of warm liquid trace down through his right leg, and he was surprised at having any feeling, but he continued on. The smell of piss wafted to him for a minute, then it went away, as everything did. He focused his eyes on the whirlpool on Ramon’s scalp, his hair seemingly circling around a negative space. Puyo puyo, Manny sang in his head. Sometimes, he would forget that he was walking— that he was still walking— his legs feeling non-existent. Perhaps he was actually floating. Then, he would hear a gunshot, a bayonet sinking into flesh, a moan— make an effort not to look, and zone in on the drag of his feet along dirt, the rhythm of the march. He would be transported to his training days when a tall American officer yelling in his ear was the worst thing that could happen to him—all worth it to have three square meals as opposed to gruel in Batangas. He heard words he did not know, too crisp to be English, so he knew it was Nippongo, and he forgot he could feel dread, because anything too constant becomes numb, but he did and winced even if he should reserve any energy for living. He waited for a moan, a plop to the Earth, but there was nothing between the thump, thump, thump of the march. He thought the yell was in head, his fever heating him, but he heard a stab, and knew everything was real— the death, the march, and looked on at the imaginary whirlpool of scalp in front of him, until Ramon fell, and Manny was forced to exert effort to walk over his comrade’s dying body.
They sat waiting in the town of Orani. He stopped walking, he realized. They stopped walking sometimes. He never knew why. Someone more important was probably tired or needed to piss, not in the confines of his pants. He was now squatting beside comrades whose rancid odor he could not differentiate from his. Strangely, it took him back to his home, him heaving over a make-shift toilet after eating overripe santol. His mother pulled his hair and stuck his face so close to his own bile, you idiot, this banyo will smell rancid for days.
The air coming from Manila Bay threw him off his stupor— an almost palpable saltiness restarted his yearning for taste.
Manny’s gaze fell on a Japanese man who donned three star with yellow and red stripes on his collar. This Japanese soldier was talking to a man who, despite his obvious exhaustion, managed to stand upright, though he had three stars as well but only against a pure red backdrop. Manny could guess who the higher ranking officer was. The Americans taught them to stand still when an officer was present.
Ramon—the dying man he stepped over, whose puyo had hypnotized him so that he could keep walking—could mimic their accent really well.
Manny imagined they stopped because that Japanese man, his eyes boring into him, needed to piss, as Manny did earlier. He could feel the yellow now dry and sticky on the side of his leg.
His eyes fell to his right as a man collapsed beside him, reeking of shit. He knew the dying man to have the same last name as his: Villanueva. Manny racked his brain to think a personal fact about the man lying motionless beside him. Manny could not remember his first name. Villanueva was from Imus, Cavite, the only son of a farmer. Manny remembered the man’s hairline bothering him because of its quiet, assured receding despite Villanueva’s young age. He was staring at the hairline, then the line of Villanueva’s jaw surprising him with its sharpness, and the indent of Villanueva’s cheekbones etching in his face. The man’s eyes fluttered, and Manny’s mouth felt parched. The Villanueva on his lap was asking for something. He was asking for death. Villanueva, the one spoken to, mused at how patay rhymed with atay and nanay and tatay, so he remembered his mom and dad in Batangas, and realized, with so much surprise, that he wanted to live. He desired so badly to live.
Kura kura, he had heard. It was time to walk again. Not everyone was standing up. Staring at the dead body on his lap and the ones around him, the smell of salt urging him, he decided he would survive.
He gathered two other dying bodies—all of them had soiled themselves, moaning as he dragged them as quickly as he could. When the Filipinos, the Americans, had started to march, he laid hidden beneath the sacks of flesh, Villanueva directly on top of him. He closed his eyes, pretending to be dead. He heard footsteps come closer, and again, he surprised himself by feeling anything at all, the prevailing emotion of fear heightening his senses. He heard metal come into contact to flesh—once, twice, thrice and—
He laid still until he heard the ceasing of thumps, of Tagalog, of English, Bisaya, Illonggo, Nipponggo. He had even forgotten for a while that he was not part of the dead. When it was quiet and he could hear the wind blow, he sat up, removing death on him, and the living Villanueva looked at the bay and saw how the sky met the brackish water with the sun rising, its light landing on the other side of the bay, and realized his hope and life was waiting in Manila.
He started to walk.
If she stops walking, she will be twenty minutes late to work, so she does not. She feels the soles of her feet make blisters while her shoulder aches from her heavy tote bag. She has not sweat yet— the morning sun is good to her. However, she already feels the day failing her. Failing to wake up early with the jeepneys stalled by a virus, she will get an earful from her boss and will probably get passed over for promotion again.
She has to keep walking. She walks with the hundreds beside her—all unable to get a ride, walking on the concrete absorbing heat, giving it back to the bodies on it with a vengeance.
If she keeps walking, she will only be ten minutes late.
She is already planning her day—check her email if she should offer The Man from the State University with a 3.89 GPA the Level II Software Engineer benefits package. Multinational Company really needs ten Level II Software Engineers. Salaries she can only dream of. Salaries that are triple hers. She will apologize again to her boss who is never late because he has a family driver who drives him every day. He was able to work from home because he had internet connection at home, unlike her—she did not. When she told him that, his jaw dropped. She wonders if he has ever stepped in a jeepney. He graduated from the Very Small, Elite, Private College. On the other hand, she went to college at a Small Public University. Her child will go to a better college, she has already decided. She will not walk as much as she has. She thinks of her father’s childhood home in Batangas and dreams of the smell of her grandmother’s cooking. Dreams of sinigang. Tangy, sour, her mouth watering. Not for the memory, but for the smell of nuts on the side of the road.
But she needs to keep on walking.
The Kuya calls to her, calls her beautiful, buy my nuts. Manong, I am late, mamaya na. She says back. In front of her, walking endlessly, like a march, is a man with an ugly brown shirt. She sees a small hole by the seams of his right armpit, in front of her, staring at her. He is holding hands with his daughter, she presumes. They are late too. Everyone is walking, moving, her sweat starting to itch as it forms beads on her forehead, the morning sun forsaking her. She remembers her father long ago when he told her of people walking to Manila after the war. Where the jobs are. And here she is. Where the jobs are, offering jobs, on the brink of losing her job, the only one with a job in her family after retail shops closed. She realizes that the man and daughter in front of her is not that, but in fact, a man and his son. She wonders why she thought the child was a girl. The child has a Spiderman backpack. Staring at the man’s back with its hole, she remembers her father, then her grandfather, and feels sad—only for a moment, because she is walking, and she will only be—she checks her phone—fifteen minutes late. Maybe even if she stops, she will still be walking, carried by the momentum of the people who will keep walking on Taft road, even as she drops dead in the middle of them all. They tell us to keep away, to not touch, but they don’t know our very survival depends on being carried by the people who walk alongside us. She has walked like this so many times before she supposes. When the transport strike happened. When the rain flooded the streets all the way to her hips. Walking is not new to her. She feels she has done this many times before, beyond her life. The smell of the mani is still wafting, walking with her. She will be too tired coming home— from the walking. With no time to eat or to stop, she will dream of the salty, nutty aroma. It haunts her in her sleep, wanting to stop walking for any form of respite, even though she is resting, perfectly still, almost dead in her bed.
He was writhing in his bed, dying. But before, he was a healthy man.
Look at his life backwards and see, he was a man working hard, toiling in the heat, building hospitals that would never take him, missing the breeze of the ocean, now replaced with smog. The city he’s given his life to is being torn apart, skyscrapers collapsing neatly, raw materials stacking, reverting to green, to farm, to life. When he needed it most, the city stayed static, did not recognize him—there were so many like him—citizens dying of illnesses who could be saved if they had the money, but unless they had that, they were unimportant, a sacrifice to the cause of progress.
He would work too much and never see his wife and his sons. His sons would have daughters, and they would see him bedridden and good as dead. They would only hear stories about his walking before they would walk themselves, but their walking was to stay in place, not to a place of hope. They would talk about his strength at work, how they could not imagine having a construction job like his. How it drove him to an early death. How secretly, they were glad they were not like him. They vowed to have it better than him.
Everything was backwards. His hair is growing shorter, from white to black, the hardness of his face softening.
He is watching his brother die from malaria soon after arriving in Manila. The man is crying—his brother had lived through so much, his life full of living through, not enough of living in, on, of. His brother was going to stop dreaming of bombs in his sleep, stop fearing the sound of metal clanging against each other. He was going to meet someone at a family party where the karaoke is too loud and the food laid out is in danger of spoiling in the sun. Someone who found his suffering charming, almost alluring. He was going to stop fearing life and discover it in Manila, where set against the bay—water sparkling, smog still absent, inspired him to live. The man is strangely jealous of his dying brother. The brother is so lucky, not to be worked to the bone anymore, to have time to finally rest, a permanent reprieve from nightmares.
Before the hardship, the man was walking too. His feet are dancing back, making way for another. With his wife in hand, his face, from tired and weary, changes to excited and hopeful. Facing in front, to Manila, they are moving back, the front of his soles leaving the earth first, the dust clouds zipping back on to the ground. It surprises him, how many people had the same idea to walk to Manila after the war—where the jobs will be, where hope is, where freedom first reigned. They are all like him, eager for the end of misery and the beginning of prosperity. Everyone hoping for a better Philippines in the hands of Americans. No one gives them a hand to reach the capital. There are no cars, jeepneys or trucks for them, but at least they have their legs—do not underestimate the power of their own two feet marching towards progress. The thousand-kilometer walk is made easy by people offering sustenance, sharing with each other. A girl whose feet hurt, blisters yet to form into calluses, was carried by the man, even though he himself was depleted, but there is so much waiting for them—if they just keep walking.
Their backs face the province, where they are from—where they heard the Liberation of Manila made possible by the thousands of bombs from America. They will rejoice that the bombs ceased more bombs—and the hunger and the hiding.
They will celebrate at the news of his brother’s survival from the war and the walking. They are thinking of the long and beautiful life ahead of them though his brother is sick and gaunt, but he is alive, as long as he is alive. What more do you want than being alive?
The man and his wife are overjoyed, and they make love, and decide that a future is where the bombs have laid, where they will help build a new country that is theirs—a country that will be for people like him, who have nothing but hope that finally independence means Filipinos are put first.
See him sit back on his bed made of rattan, listening to the sound of the waves, in a ratty brown shirt full of holes, before he walks for a week dreaming of a bright future, devoid of lifelessness, in the wonderful city of Manila.
Larisse Mondok has an MFA in Creative Writing from Cleveland State University and is a VONA Voices alumna. She moved to Cleveland in 2014, and people ask her, “Why Ohio?” all the time. Her short stories are published and forthcoming in Marias at Sampaguitas, Jenny and in the anthology, There’s an Aswang on the Roof, There’s an Aswang in the Basement (May Tiktik sa Bubong, May Sagbin sa Silong) from Ateneo de Manila University Press, winner of the Philippines’ 2018 Best Anthology.