the miracle according to yano
by Jared Berberabe
He heard of the priest from the men smoking along the shore of the refuse dump that morning. The acrid, poisonous haze their cigarettes lazily drifted towards him was not unlike the other smells in the barangay, but he tried to breathe it in anyway, because smoking seemed like one of those activities only true men did. These men, heavily bearded and heavily tattooed, seemed to fit that definition of masculinity and strength, their muscles bulging in their uncovered arms, knives attached to their hips, eyes sharp and bodies erect in such as a way as to be both regal and intimidating. They smoked without needing to inform the world they were smoking, like the cigarette was as much a part of their person as their knives.
He hid behind an abandoned refrigerator unit, but was close enough to hear their voices, gruff yet mocking, in a way that fit his child definition of “cool” and yet also furthered their intimidating demeanor.
“My mom’s always going off about him,” one of them said. “Saying he ought to be canonized already for all that he’s done.”
“I thought you have to be dead already to be canonized,” said the other.
“I wouldn’t know. I haven’t attended Catholic school in years. Or church, for that matter.”
“Does she know that?”
“What are you, crazy? Of course not. It’d be cruel to tell her truth.”
“So you lie to her.”
“Hey, man, I don’t go to church. I don’t exactly have a conscience.”
There was a bark of laughter. He tried to peek from behind the fridge, but couldn’t figure out which of the men had made it.
“Anyway,” the first man continued, “this last time, she’s going on and on about this guy, his gifts, his powers. I tell her—”
“What kind of powers?”
The first man made an irritated sound. “What does that matter?”
“I’m just curious.”
“It’s the usual stuff. You know—floating, curing the sick and the blind, taking money out of the usual donations. Well, maybe not that one. Apparently this guy sold his own cross so that he could donate the money to the poor. My mom would never sell her rosary.”
“That all he does? Seems pretty plain to me.”
“There’s one more thing. He can apparently…” A pause. The smoke seemed to puff faster, the stench growing in intensity. He felt a little light-headed, but remained in hiding. “… be in two places at once.”
“Apparently there was a woman in Carcar—his hometown, actually—who said he was giving last rites to a dying man, all while he was busy attending a meeting with other members of the clergy. Some archbishop fellow confirmed both appearances.”
“An archbishop? Well, that’s about as high of a confirmation as you can get.”
“That’s what my mom thinks. So she’s telling me this, and getting all worked up, and I tell her, ‘One miracle isn’t enough for sainthood. You need at least two.’”
“Is that true?”
“Hell if I know. Might be. But she gets mad, and I’m already tired, so I tell her that if she and a bunch of her friends make a petition and send it to the Pope, that should speed the canonization process along.”
“She believed that?”
“Mando, of course she did. Practically kisses the toes of that priest—if it weren’t so obscene, she’d suck off the Pope if it meant her Teofilo Camomot gets to become the Philippines’ first living saint.”
They spoke a little more, before dropping their cigarettes and stamping them out on the junk-filled shore. He watched them leave, and only when he was sure they were gone did he turn and race back home.
“You find anything good, Yano?” asked Cristóbal, his hands sunk deep in the waters of their wash basin.
He liked it when Cristóbal called him Yano, which was a short version of his full name, Emiliano. The shortness effectuated immediacy—less syllables meant he didn’t have to wait to see if Cristóbal meant “Emilio” or “Emilia” or “Emiliano”—as well as a sense of intimacy between them. Other people in the barong-barong called him by his full name, if they called for him at all.
“Nothing today,” Yano said. He tried to imitate Cristobal’s way of speaking, the casualness of it, but found that there was never the same degree of smoothness to his voice or demeanor. Once, Cristóbal had told him he was trying too hard not to be nervous, which only made his nervousness more apparent. “You won’t impress any ladies like that,” he said. “And some guys will laugh at you, if not beat you up.” The warning and lesson received, Yano worked day and night to adopt an air of frank casualness that would let him, as it let Cristóbal, pass through Emerita unmolested and admired.
Yano took off his rubber sandals, which he had made from some spare tire treads and cardboard, and placed them by the door. “If you’re hungry,” Cristóbal said, still scrubbing away, “I managed to haggle for some mangoes. There, on the counter.”
“What did you give away?”
“Some parts from that old radio you found. It was irreparable, anyway. The mango vendor thought he might replace his watch with them. All the more to him, I guess.”
In a plastic bag were four soft-orange mangoes. Yano took one out, feeling its firm weight. From his pocket he retrieved a small pocketknife that Cristóbal had given him, “In case you have to fight any dogs, or worse.” The knife sank easily into the mango’s skin, and he rotated the fruit so that the cut stretched from one end to the other. He then peeled the mango apart into three pieces: the two juicy “bowls” and the tougher pit, which he discarded.
He sat at their rickedy wooden table, which he had helped Cristóbal make out of planks of plywood they’d found stashed in a dumpster, watching Cristóbal clean and using his fingers to scoop pieces of mango into his mouth. Cristóbal was as close to a kuya he had without being a blood relative. His skin was fairer than Yano’s, a bit like someone from the Mediterranean, but Yano liked to think they resembled one another, both having thick, wavy hair and unusually graceful fingers good for picking apart mangoes, junk, and scrap electronics. And like Yano, Cristóbal was an orphan, though he did not appear ashamed of it. He’d come to live with them some four months ago, needing a household to join while he saved up money. Yano’s was the only one in the building not already at full capacity, so he’d moved in, sleeping on the couch and taking up some of the chores. During the day he worked at a repair stand next to a gray-mustached Filipino man who did not speak Visayan well, and who relied on Cristóbal to translate requests. They fixed broken receivers and clocks and sold parts and other small appliances, and Cristóbal was paid a fair rate.
So long as the pay was steady, Cristobal figured he’d be able to afford his own place in the near future. But Yano secretly wished that Cristóbal did not save as much money as he wanted, that he live with them forever, fixing the odd antique or device and haggling away spare parts for juicy mangoes.
Cristóbal finished his scrubbing, bringing up a few plates. “While I’m drying this, can you go dump the water bucket?”
Nodding, Yano finished his fruit. . He grabbed the bucket, full of soapy and food-chunk-filled water, and dragged it outside. Heaving it up onto his shoulder, he tilted forward so that the water landed on an unoccupied spot below.
From that point, he could see the rows of makeshift homes curving like a shabby, crescent moon away from the slopes leading to the shoreline. Junk and waste inevitably made their way down-river to there, and sometimes Yano could scavenge items to sell. This was how he made his income, because working in a factory or in the city proper was out of question; he couldn’t be far away from his home.
Some people were outside, but they were covered in strange smudges and had the look of laborers lost in the expenses of meager living. There was a pack of dogs over in one alley, fighting over a bone, while two boys watched in silence. The barangay was like this—a poor, wish-dead plac, not quite a brutal jungle, but rather an internalized system of survival. .
Looking at the shore, Yano remembered the men and their conversation. He came back inside, putting the bucket down. “Actually, I did find something,” he announced; and he tried to recollect how one of those man had paused for dramatic effect, but was unsure how to perform it unobtrusively; so he quickly added, “It wasn’t really a thing, but something I heard.”
Cristóbal glanced up from where he was drying the plates. “Let’s hear it, then.”
When Yano was finished, he tried to look closely at Cristóbal to figure out what he was thinking. It was an impossible task. Cristóbal had a habit of closing one eye and keeping the other half-lidded, like he was dazed, which prevented anyone from knowing his impression. It was also something Yano considered cool, but he was even shyer at imitating it—when he tried to copy the look in the mirror, he looked like he’d been punched in the face.
“That’s quite the story,” Cristóbal said.
“Do you think it’s true?”
“I’m sure some do. If he gets canonized, I guess the Pope will, too.” He smiled, but there was a tightness to it.
“I think he could help,” Yano said quietly.
Cristóbal stared at him, and Yano shifted from one side to the other. How could he command silence with such heaviness, such authority? Yano supposed it was because, living here, they both were accustomed to loudness—the neighbors who fought and fucked noisily, the screams of children running through the barangay, the constant stream of cars and trucks clogging the streets on their way through Cebu City—perhaps it was these obvious, auditory landmarks defining their existence which determined how their opposite—silence, personal and tragic—could wield a presence akin to God.
Just then, as if to drive home a point, there was a wail from above them. Cristóbal rose from his seat, then rushed up the stairs before Yano could blink. He followed after him, bare feet slapping the rough floorboards.
Cristóbal was in the tiny upstairs “loft,” a word he’d picked up from American lifestyle magazines (he could read and Yano could not). It was so small that the only furniture was a dirty mattress, on which a spasmodic, startled figure writhed and moaned. Cristóbal’s hands attempted to placate the figure. “Lola!” he grunted, while Lola continued to wail and kick. “Calm down! It’s me, it’s me!”
Lola was inconsolable. She said something in a dialect neither of them understood. Tears, big fat ones, splashed her liver-spotted cheeks. Yano tried to restrain her, but she struck out, sending him back into the opposite wall. “No! No!” she yelled. “Duwende! Don’t touch me! —I passed, I passed—”
Suddenly Cristóbal fished a syringe from his pocket and slotted the point through Lola’s right arm. She cried out in pain; the cry petered off as he pressed the stopper and something poured into her bloodstream. She blinked dully, first at Yano, then Cristóbal. “Cristóbal?” she murmured.
“Yes, Lola, it’s just me.”
“I… There was screaming, here, I think. Did I…”
“Nothing of the sort. You were about to sleep.”
“Sleep? But it’s still light out…”
She was beginning to slur. Yano picked himself off the floor and watched.
“It’s just a trick. Go to sleep, it’s late,” Cristóbal said. He wasn’t smiling, but kept his voice measured and soft, such that she had no choice but to listen. Without bothering to dry her eyes, she smiled, then closed them—soon after, her breathing had steadied.
Cristóbal removed the syringe from her arm. “Morphine,” he said.
“Where did you get it?”
“A friend,” he said evasively. “I was hoping we wouldn’t have to use it… It could kill her, if given too much.”
“She’s getting worse,” Yano said. “She hit me. Called me a duwende. She’s never not recognized me before.”
“I’m sure it’s just a one-time thing.”
“Do you think he could heal her?”
Cristóbal looked annoyed. “I think I’d rather think about how much it’s going to cost to get more of this stuff.” He tapped the empty syringe contemptuously. “Or if it’s even worth it in the end.”
He looked back at Yano, who was watching with clear doubt in his eyes. Cristóbal smiled again. “Hey, come now. Once we’ve saved up enough, we’ll get her a real doctor—then she’ll be okay.” He stood and walked away.
Yano wanted to believe him. He’d always believed him, after every fit that Lola had. But his face stung where Lola had hit him—tears, resistant to his attempts at stoicism, threatened to fall. He rubbed the arm he’d fallen on, looking at Lola’s sleeping form.
He thought about the priest.
Yano’s parents were gone—this he knew. They were the ones who had placed him into Lola’s care some five years ago, before she’d begun to lose her mind, because she was the mother to the man who’d been Yano’s father. Lola told him that they were going into the city, to “join their fellow countrymen” in protest—whatever that meant. Afterwards, they never came back. He took it rather well, thinking that they must simply have found a means of escaping. That was the dream of all who lived in Ermita, to find a way to escape. If his parents, whose names and faces he couldn’t recall, had found that, then good—and if they ever came back for him, even better. But for now he could not be bitter to them. The Fourth Commandment, which Lola had often recited to him, was To Honor Thy Mother and Father, meaning he could not be bitter about their absence—that was to invite blasphemy.
Sometimes, he would go into the marketplace and look for his parents there, driven not by impish desire but rather passing curiosity. The market, with its hastily engineered vendor stalls, with sheepskin tarps, bamboo tent poles and rows of food, clothes, and cheap jewelry, being sold on either stands or boards on the ground, attracted great numbers of people for its proximity to the barong-barongs and the relatively cheap prices. The sheer number of people suggested that the possibility of his parents being there was never zero.
But today, he was looking for someone else: the priest, Teofilo Camomot. Though he had never heard a description of him, he figured he must look like any other priest—a black cassock and white collar shirt. More importantly, since according to the men on the shore, he’d sold his pectoral cross, Yano figured the absence of it would stand out. From this he tried to construct an image of expectation—perhaps he was fairer skinned, with thick, dark hair, bushy eyebrows, tall, an empty impression on his chest where a cross had once lay, and an aura of coolness and veneration.
He stood in an alleyway, feet surrounded by soppy scraps of newspaper. Men, women, and children walked past. The smell of fish and lechon rose and swelled with ashy cigarette smoke and acidic gasoline, reminding him that he hadn’t eaten lunch yet. He checked his pockets, finding a few coins and pesos accrued from his scavenging expeditions. Leaving his spot by the alley, he followed the smell to a few food stalls. There were stacks of bisugo and mackerel on blue mats. A whole pig sat on a rotating spit, its eyes removed and tongue rolling with the crank lever. On another table, a man had several crispy shish kebabs laid out, and was cooking some more.
The first two stalls were too busy, so Yano went to the third. The man was dark like an Igorot, with silver hair and thin, somewhat milky eyes. He stared at Yano, who looked over the skewers, trying to calculate with his limited understanding how much one would cost. He thought about seeing if he could get more than one—for himself and Cristóbal and Lola, though she did not like to eat much more than rice these days.
He picked three, then looked at the man. His eyes told him they were a good selection; then he told Yano the price. It seemed fair, and Yano began to reach into his pocket to pull out what he had.
On the other side of the marketplace there was a flash of black. Yano barely caught it, but when he did, he instantly thought it was the priest. He didn’t think. He darted after the figure, heedless to the vendor shouting, “Stop! Thief!” and to the three skewers clutched in his hand.
Yano twisted through the alleys polluted with smoke, fog, and garbage, ducking past rusted broken pipes and fire escapes. People were chasing and shouting after him, but he paid them no mind. He could not gain any distance closer to the figure, yet Yano couldn’t tell if it was even running in the first place. It seemed, rather, to float with impossible dexterity over every obstacle, and always out of his reach.
The alleyway ended and met the main road. Here, oncoming cars and trucks barreled past, honking and screeching, yet the figure somehow avoided all of them. Now on the other side, it swerved like a wayward cloak caught in a burst of wind around a fountain and vanished from view. For a moment, Yano was amazed. Stupefied, he stepped out of the alleyway onto the sidewalk, prepared to step into the road and follow the figure into the heart of the city if he must.
Someone tackled him to the sidewalk. Yano landed, and the pain shocked him into letting go of the shish kebabs. They flew onto the street, bounced and rolled—in an instant, a fruit delivery truck raced past and crushed them to pieces.
Yano’s eyes flew up, trying to see across the road. He squirmed under whoever had tackled him. “Let me go! The priest, he’s—”
“What priest?” He recognized Cristóbal, who pulled him off the ground and held him by the shoulders. “Yano, there’s no one—”
“I saw him!” He was breathless, frustrated, and tried to to shake Cristóbal loose. “He was running, and I called out to him, but he wouldn’t stop and—”
“You were running into the street! You could have been hit!”
“Maybe you should have let him,” said someone else. Yano realized another person was with Cristóbal, a short-haired, round-faced Chinese girl who looked both disturbed and annoyed.
Cristóbal looked at her, glaring. “Christ’s sake, Sabrina, don’t say that! You’ll scare him!”
She shrugged. “If he’s scared, maybe he wouldn’t run out like that.”
Before Cristóbal could retort, the incensed group of vendors stepped out of the alley, the kebab seller leading them. Catching sight of Yano, they began to march towards him.
Sabrina muttered, “Oh shit.”
“This your boy?” the kebab seller said, pointing a butcher’s knife at Yano.
“He’s a friend,” Cristóbal said. “Why? What happened?”
“He stole from me! Three of my skewers! Where are they boy, boy?” The man made to grab him, but Cristóbal put a hand out, stopping him from getting closer. Looking wildly around, the man saw the crushed pieces in the road, then let loose a string of curses.
“I didn’t mean to steal them.” Yano heard himself babble. “I was going to pay, really! But then I saw the priest—”
“Yano, be quiet,” Cristóbal said through gritted teeth. The harshness in his voice caused Yano to clam up, his throat tightening, and he felt himself about to cry.
“I ought to go to the police!” the man raved. “I ought to go to them and have this thief arrested and beaten! Where are your parents? They should teach you a lesson! If you were my kid—”
“Don’t go to the police,” Cristóbal said. There was a hint of desperation in his voice.
“Why shouldn’t I? This boy stole from me! I have every right to—”
“That’ll just stir up trouble,” Sabrina said. Everyone looked at her, shocked she had spoken. “You don’t want that, not from cops.” She tabbed a finger on her chin. “What’ll it take for you and everyone not to say anything?”
After a moment, the man gruffly said, “Compensation. For the three he stole.”
Sabrina looked at Yano. “Give him what’s in your pockets. Both of them.”
Yano tried to squirm out of Cristobal’s grip, but his hands tightened around his shoulders. “Do it,” he said, so fiercely it was like being slapped.
Yano’s shoulders slumped. Sniffling, he took out his money and the knife that Cristóbal had gifted him. The man seized both, counting the bills. Then he shook them in Yano’s face, sneering. “Don’t come back for a while, you hear me? Or I’ll suddenly remembered what happened today.” Then he signaled for the group to depart.
When they were gone, Cristóbal turned to Sabrina. “Thank you.”
“I didn’t do it for you. I don’t want cops sniffing around. How else was I supposed to keep things flowing here?”
“Still, thank you. I owe you one.”
“I know.” Suddenly she grinned at him, coquettish and sly. “Find me later,” she said, leaning into his ear. “We’ll do our business then.” Then she also left.
Yano and Cristóbal stood alone on the sidewalk. Yano wanted to ask him about Sabrina, but a stormy look had passed over his face, and he became frightened of him.
Cristobal’s grip finally loosened, allowing Yano to slip free. “That was stupid, Yano,” Cristóbal murmured.
Yano cringed; nothing was worse than Cristobal’s disapproval. “I had to! I thought that the priest—”
“You don’t even know if that was him.” Cristóbal held him fast with hard, stern eyes. “You could have been chasing some random guy, for all you know. What if that was the case?”
“But Lola—she needs help! I need help!”
“Do you really think a priest would help a thief?”
Yano cried—a short sob that he tried to pull back into himself, resulting in a choking cough. He felt sick and nauseous. Cristóbal stared at him for a moment, then sighed. “Sorry. That was harsh. But really, Yano, come on. What made you think you’d find him here, of all places?”
“I know she needs help. But this isn’t the way to get it. She needs a doctor. Not some magic-man in a cloak.”
Yano stared at him. He’d never heard Cristóbal speak so pejoratively of the clergy before. It stunned him into an angry, ashamed silence, which Cristóbal took as the end of their conversation. He turned. “Come on. Let’s go home. We’ll grab something to eat on the way there.”
Lola worsened. The restless and bone-chilling fits grew more frequent, she became more incoherent, and she recognized Cristóbal only through the murky haze granted by the morphine. Without it, she would awaken at odd hours, screaming about an old manananggal that had stolen her child from her, how that same monster turned it into a tiyanak, which accused Yano of being. She experienced auditory and visual hallucinations that led her to believe the room around her was melting, and her throat became so raw from screaming she lost her voice, much to Cristobal’s grim relief. Before that, though, she’d once claimed “Fire!” with so much apparent lucidity that several of the barong-barong’s residents ran out before Yano could inform them.
“Where are you getting this from?” Yano asked after another morphine injection.
“I told you. From a friend.”
“But where are they getting it from? And how much is it costing you?”
“Probably more than this is worth.”. Yano took this as reference to the drug, but had an inkling that Cristóbal meant differently.
When Cristóbal was working during the week, Yano stayed him to watch over Lola. He fed and washed her, helped her move around when she was lucid enough. But he was afraid of her. He was afraid of what Cristóbal injected her with, because it seemed impossible that something as thin as a syringe could temporarily cure her insanity. He was afraid of using it on her himself, and subsequently, if a fit broke out, he couldn’t bring himself to use the morphine on her. The easiest thing to do was to lock her upstairs and let her tire herself out; then lie to Cristóbal and say she hadn’t acted up today.
Cristóbal never pressed on the matter, which was both a relief and a worry. His mind seemed distant from the matter more and more. But Yano attributed this to his penchant for detached coolness and nothing more. After all, how else could he explain the way Cristóbal looked at him, how resigned he was to some unknown thought?
One day, a rare day when Lola was calm without external doing, Yano tried to find the men from whom he heard about Teofilo Camomot. They were not on the shore smoking. He circled back to the building to ask if anyone by their description lived there, but no one offered a match. Sometimes he’d see dark snatches of cloth, either coming in or out of the homes or billowing into a narrow space between the buildings, but these were only ever distant strangers or discarded coverings to tables—never the priest.
In desperation, he sought out the marketplace, but stopped short of fully entering it. The vendor’s warning flashed in his head, but what really kept him away was the memory of Cristobal’s disappointed expression. He stuck to the corners and nearby empty alleys, trying in this limited capacity to look for any pair of men—because surely they had to be a pair—who were heavily bearded and heavily tattooed.
While he stood in one of those corners, he heard footsteps approaching. Thinking it was the kebab vendor, he hid behind one of the dumpsters. Voices rose up, hushed and secretive, and his own caught in his throat: they belonged to Sabrina and Cristóbal.
“You have enough, though?” Sabrina was saying. “For both of us?”
“Yes. Finally. It took a bit to wrangle it all. If Mr. Mando figures out his numbers have been manipulated—”
“He won’t. Not for a while, at least. Remember, I’m good, very good, at that.”
“But if you have enough, why don’t you hurry up with it?”
“There’s a lot more to it. Really, there is.” He sighed. “I wish it were simpler, but… things are happening so quickly. It wouldn’t feel right to just leave, all of a sudden.”
“It’s also not right for you to waste away here. For you and us.”
“I know that. But still—”
They were quiet all of a sudden, like something had stolen both their breaths away. Yano was filled with the desire to take a peek, but had the vague premonition that doing so would prove some deeply personal violation.
The thieving moment passed, and Sabrina, low and out of breath, said, “Promise me you’ll have a decision soon. I can’t wait much longer. The landlord—”
“I will, don’t worry. You know I’d never miss out on having an actual loft.” Cristóbal chuckled. “Times like these make me wish I could be in two places at once. It’d make it easier for everyone.”
“Maybe if you pray, someone will hear you.”
They shuffled away, and Yano listened until he was sure they were gone. He came out from behind the dumpster and stared at the spot where they’d stood, playing their words over and over. There was some haunting aspect to them—and the finality with which they’d spoken… But what Sabrina said, about praying…
He went home. Lola was upstairs, asleep, a partially eaten bowl of rice next to her bed. He knelt at her side and noticed, in her limp hands, a wooden rosary. He touched it, feeling the wooden beads, the metal cross, all of them cool and smooth, and tried to conjure up a feeling of holiness about it. Lola had once taught him how to pray the rosary, but he had forgotten it long ago.
The rosary slipped from her hand and into his. Still kneeling, he thought about the priest, tried to recollect any description of him, even the fragmentary ones he himself had created. Then, he prayed, as a child does, not quite knowing the right words or cadence or sequence—with an innocence that bordered on ignorance—but pouring what he thought was his belief into those beads, imagining the belief becoming real, the real becoming fulfilled, his prayer slipping from his lips to wherever prayers went—the air, the sky, the shore, wherever, as long as it was out of him, out of their barong-barong, out of Ermita, like a dream. He prayed for the priest to come to him.
He finished. Then, for some reason, he brought the cross to his lips and kissed it. He placed the rosary back between Lola’s fingers and wondered if anything had heard him.
Two nights later, he heard a noise, which pulled him from dreamless sleep and brought him into the kitchen. There was a hooded figure standing there, and it looked like they were shoveling various items into a large duffel bag. At first, Yano froze, because the dark vestments made him think it was the priest—then the figure turned, and he saw a familiar fair-skinned cheek strobe in the gentle moonlight.
“Cristóbal?” he asked in a hoarse voice.
Cristóbal started, nearly dropping the bag. He whirled around. “Yano? What are you doing up? You should be asleep!”
“I heard a noise.” Yano rubbed the sleepiness from his eyes, yawning. “What are you doing?” He looked over Cristobal’s body and saw that, from one pocket, protruded a crumpled stash of pesos. He blinked dumbly. “Is that your money?”
“Yes, it is,” Cristóbal answered tersely. “Go back to bed, Yano. You need to sleep.” He shoved a hand into his pocket, pushing the money out of view.
“But what are you doing?”
“None of your—” He cut himself off with a sigh. “I told Sabrina this wasn’t going to work.”
“What?” Yano crept a little closer, but Cristóbal stepped back. He was clutching the duffel bag so tightly that his light hands paled around the knuckles. “I don’t understand what you’re doing.”
Cristóbal gazed sadly at him, with one eye closed and the other half-lidded. All of a sudden, Yano thought he could read his mind. An image of him and Sabrina talking flourished between them.
“You’re leaving us?” he whispered.
Cristóbal sighed. “Yeah… yeah, I’m leaving.” Yano gazed at him, stupefied, and Cristóbal smiled like there was a joke only he understood. “You didn’t think I wasn’t going to leave, did you? I mean, I wasn’t going to stay here forever. I told you: once I had enough…”
“But why now?” Yano pressed him. “Why didn’t you tell me?” Not us, he realized of himself; Why didn’t you tell me?
“It wouldn’t have made a difference,” Cristóbal said, shrugging. “I was going to go, one way or another, and sooner rather than later.”
“But what you’re taking…”
“It’s only what is mine, really. You know, a couple of old appliances, stuff I brought back. I’m taking any of the food or dinnerware. That’s for you.”
“Then,” Yano said, realizing, “what you said, to Sabrina…”
“What?” Cristóbal frowned. “What I said—Yano, were you eavesdropping on us?”
But Yano ignored his disapproval. He shook his head, saying, “You can’t just leave, Cristóbal! You just can’t! I—we need you, still. Lola need you—”
“Lola needs help,” Cristóbal said heatedly. “And I can’t give her that. Neither can you, or anyone.”
“But you said a doctor could—”
“And a doctor could, yes, but no doctor’s coming out here for dirt-poor pay from a bunch of—” He stopped short of an insult; Yano nonetheless felt insulted. Changing tactics, Cristóbal said, “There’s no future for any of us here, Yano. The only way to survive is to get out while you can.”
“Even if it means leaving us behind?” he spat.
Cristóbal didn’t answer him. White-hot anger poured into Yano’s being. “No!”
He jumped forward, sending Cristóbal back into the counter. The cabinets shook at the blow. No thought was given as to whether Lola would hear them. “You can’t leave us! You can’t, you can’t—”
“Let go of me, Yano—”
They wrestled over the duffel bag, Yano trying to rip it open, Cristóbal trying to peel him off. Yano became aware he was also punching the older man, as if he hoped he could physically subdue him into staying. He wished he had his knife still—a knife would do more than his fists—but Cristóbal had taken that away from him.
Under those blows, Cristóbal grunted painfully, and his grip on the bag began to slacken. Close to victory, Yano reached for the clip connecting the straps together—
He felt something stab his arm. The shock overrode any pain, and he fell backwards off of Cristóbal. A syringe stuck out of the area just above the elbow.
Cristóbal was on him before he could cry out. He pressed the stopper. Something came out of it and entered Yano’s body and he was aware of a dull sting followed by some chilling emptiness. A hand covered his mouth, muffling his cry of pain. He was aware of Cristóbal muttering, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I had to do this, you left me no choice…”
Then, like a nurse, Cristóbal placed him onto the floor. Yano could feel the boards, but sensation seemed fleeting. A drowsiness took hold just as Cristóbal stepped away from him. His face was inscrutable—if there was anger or regret there, it was masked by this new fog. Yano tried to call for him, but could only watch as he pulled the syringe out of his arm, fixed the duffel bag, and swept out of sight. Blackness followed in his wake, then nothing at all.
Before he, too, went, Yano thought he heard himself make another prayer.
Someone was carrying him. Someone was carrying him and there was shouting. His eyelids felt weighed down by lead and his hearing seemed to come from far off, like he was underwater.
“… how many buildings?”
“At least three…”
The voices swam past. Yano struggled to get his eyes to open, and when they did, the first thing he saw was an impossibly blue sky, free of clouds. Then smoke writhed its way across like a wraith, and with some effort, he craned his neck, following it.
The barong-barong was on fire. Men stood to the side, some armed with buckets or dirty water. Half-naked children huddled behind their mothers who shushed their fearful wails. Sirens faintly screeched in the distance.
A man was carrying him, but the morphine made movement difficult, so Yano could not turn his head to look at him. His gaze was fixated on the fire. A distant part of him marveled at its raw intensity, how quickly and effortlessly it had spread—
But Yano’s voice seemed shut by the drug. Only a strange mumble escaped his chapped lips. “It’s all right,” the man said. Yano saw he wore all black, which was odd considering that summer heat weighed everything down. “It’s all right, you’re safe now…”
The man brought him to a group of people who had set up a makeshift treatment bay. Yano saw familiar faces darkened by smoke, hacking and coughing themselves into fatigue. Sensation began to return. The air was dry, like stale turon, but smelled sickeningly like that kebab vendor’s stall.
The man set him down, and several of the people who were unaffected by the smoke began to treat him. But Yano, at least returning to himself, struggled against them. “Calm down, son,” someone said—an old man was offering him a bottle of clean water. “You’re safe now.”
“No,” Yano croaked. He scrambled to his knees and fell forward, falling into the man who’d carried him. The man’s legs were also covered in black, wrapped under a soft, one-piece cloak. “Wait!” The man turned. Yano squinted up at him, but couldn’t make out his face. The sun was simply too bright behind his head. “My Lola,” Yano managed to say. “She’s still in there.”
The man, unflinchingly, said, “Where?”
Yano told him. The man nodded, or seemed to nod, and took off. Watching him, Yano felt his head buzz, like he couldn’t make sense of how he was moving. He was running, but there was an impossible gracefulness to it, like he was flying or hovering—but that must have been the result of the smoke affecting his perception, and the fire making everything seemingly vibrate in and out of existence
The other men sat him up and gave him water. They placed a damp cloth on his forehead and asked if he was hurt. Yano shook his head and drank greedily. They asked if there was anyone else in the building with him. He remembered Cristóbal, his stomach twisting up with bitterness. “Not anymore,” he said.
Minutes or more passed—Yano couldn’t tell. The sirens grew louder, but no firetrucks appeared. People were coming out of the building’s lower decks, since the fire had started higher up. Yano realized he’d missed the man entering the building, and sought him out in vain.
One of the homes—not his—collapsed. On the ground, a family cried out in horror. The fire spread over the ruins and engulfed it, raising a wall of fire that no bucket of water could contain.
Then a shadow—the man came out of the lower deck, carrying Lola, who looked like a frail child in his arms. Yano tried to stand, nearly fell again, and had to be steadied by the others. The man slowed his pace. The others grabbed towels and laid them out flat on the ground. Lola was lowered onto them. She appeared asleep, and for a moment, not to breathe.
The man put two fingers on her forehead, and to Yano’s eyes, seemed to murmur something. Then Lola’s chest gently rose and fell, and Yano sank to the ground, weeping.
“Thank you,” Yano said to the man, whose face was still obscured by the sun. “But how did—” He coughed, looked away, looked back at the man, and was surprised to see he had circle-shaped lenses over his eyes. They made him seem older than he’d expect. “How did you find me?”
“I heard you,” the man said.
He left to check on the other families. Yano looked at the people around him, asking if they knew who he was. But they did not. One said he hadn’t seem him initially enter the rescue Yano—he was only seen carrying him out.
Red streaks announced the arrival of the firetrucks. Hoses snaked down the sides and water gushed out, fanning and beating the inferno back into nothing until the scorched building had been extinguished. Yano watched, dimly aware he had just barely escaped death, yet, remembering Cristóbal, he still felt a chilling absence in himself.
Then Lola stirred. She looked none the worse for wear. She opened her eyes, blinked, rolled onto her side, and saw him. She raised a hand weakly, and he took it.
When she spoke, it was without the ferocious confusion and delirium: “Emiliano?”
He’d never been so happy to hear his full name again.
A few days later, he saw the men on the shore again. This time he was not afraid, but still hid, out of a sense of courtesy. They were smoking.
“Did you hear about the fire?” one man, whom Yano remembered as being called Mando, said.
“Yeah. Bad one. Good thing the trucks came in time.”
The cigarette drifted over to him behind the refrigerator, and he scrunched his nose up in disgust.
“It’s a miracle it didn’t burn up the whole neighborhood,” Mando said. He placed emphasis on “miracle,” like he was trying to illustrate a point about it. The other man simply grunted, disinterested.
Yano was about to scurry off when Mando asked, “By the way, what happened to that priest fellow your mom adores?”
“Camomot? Oh, he’s dead.”
“What? You’re joking.”
“Nope. Died in San Fernando, in a motor vehicle accident—a day before the fire, actually, now that I think about it.”
“Damn. What a way to go. Your mom must be all choked up.”
“Oh, yeah. But at least this way, he’s guaranteed a shot at canonization.”
When they had gone, their cigarettes stamped into the dirt, Yano stood for a time, thinking. He hadn’t figured out who had rescued him, and the man hadn’t stuck around after the fire was put out, so he couldn’t have asked him. He’d tried to ask the other survivors, but aside from the group who’d treated him, no one had seen a man, dressed in a black frock, with a pair of round-rimmed glasses, and the sun always shining too brightly behind his head.
They’d asked where Cristóbal had gone, and all he could tell them was that he wasn’t with them anymore. They took this rather easily, knowingly, which made his absence hurt almost a little less.
Yano shrugged, adopting finally that detached casualness he had tried so long to imitate. Then he walked home, where Lola was waiting—maybe she had a plastic bag of mangoes, too.
Jared Berberabe is an Assistant Editor at LabPulse, a Science and Medicine Group brand. He attended Ramapo College of New Jersey and graduated with a Major in English and Literary Studies, a Minor in Spanish Language Studies, and a Concentration in Creative Writing. He has previously been published in 38thParallel Magazine, as well as in Ramapo College’s Trillium Literary Magazine, for several short stories and poems.
— Caitlyn Kinsella
"your isolation ends, reality tries to pick up again, and you do not have the energy to emerge from bed, but you must. you do. because you don’t really hurt, because if you get dressed, teach math, and cook heartache into eggplant, maybe grief will lift and you will stop wanting to curl into a ball, stop swallowing unrest rising in your throat."