THERE WAS A TIME, when Lito was a child, that his mother danced for rain. Now, she trembles when the skies darken. Lito watches his mother’s lips move in silent prayer as she stares at the bare headstone. He squats to put flowers in an old mayonnaise jar half filled with water and notices from the corner of his eye others doing the same thing. He is not alone in his grief. Merly will always be his kapatid, which means more than just sibling – more like someone joined by the same umbilical cord. It is not an easy word to translate.
His grandmother used to sit by the wooden steps and teach them things, like how the movements of pattong were a matter of improvisation, no two dances ever being the same. Her dark and wrinkled hands would flit about, like her stories, as she told of headhunting and rain-calling ceremonies during February, March and April. The dance by the descendants of the Cordilleras was performed by women, “like your mother”, she’d say to him, who would, in prayer, gyrate with the beat of the gangsa and implore the god Lumawig to send rain. In his grandmother’s stories, warriors would push against each other, harder and harder, culminating in a mêlée. His mother’s rain dances filled his youthful dreams; now Lito wonders whether she will ever dance again.
* * *
Newspapers report that relief efforts are in full swing. Congressmen are being urged to donate one million pesos each for the rehabilitation of Manila and 25 other towns devastated by Typhoon Ondoy, the worst storm in 40 years. According to the latest statistics, 370,000 people are homeless and the number of dead runs into the hundreds, with authorities warning that the death toll can only rise. Total damage is estimated at 4.6 billion pesos, about a hundred million dollars. Politicians and celebrities compete to be seen to be giving more and amounts are flashed across the bottom of television screens. The two rival national networks compete in hosting telecasts to attract pledges.
Lito wonders where all the money is coming from, given how poor and indebted the country is supposed to be. He wonders too where all the money is going. No one he knows has any money and those still with jobs are finding it hard to cope with the sharp rise in food prices.
The president, who was uncharacteristically silent for days after the floods, is now declaring that her government is responding quickly to the calamity and, glittering with trinkets, nasally and nonchalantly announces the creation of a commission to seek grant aid, not loans, to pay for the reconstruction of roads, bridges and expressways.
Lito has heard, and has no problem believing, that the reason the government was so slow to respond is that the disaster fund has been spent on politicians’ travel expenses.
* * *
Shivering in a cold sweat, Lito felt the chill wind that rattled the thin slats covering the windows. It was still dark, but his plastic watch said it was seven o’clock. It was still raining – how many days now? He missed waking to the warm rays of sunlight. The darkness, the dampness, depressed him. Next door’s kitchen radio carried news of the tropical storm edging towards Northern Luzon, but the typhoon warning for Metro Manila was still at level one and Lito would not be spared school. He felt the clothes draped on the length of plastic twine sagging over his bed and took down the least damp shirt and a pair of jeans so battered and worn the Makati kids would have paid a week’s allowance for them in one of their boutiques. He had only two pairs of jeans and a few loose-fitting shirts, and the others in his class never tired of commenting on his wardrobe – “peasant chic” they called it, laughing – though they were scarcely better off than him. All the same he would flush with embarrassment, and he could feel the pockmarks on his face left behind by his recent bout of chicken pox darken from their scorn.
He was 17, strong and lean from fetching and carrying gallons of water for his neighbours at five pesos a trip. He drew water for them from the standpipe two streets away, though he was fairly sure the standpipe tapped into someone else’s water supply. He also worked part-time as a “tarpaulin boy”, climbing the scaffolding of skyscraper construction sites to hang huge advertising banners and to take them down again when the lease expired or a storm threatened to tear them away.
He had been aloft most of last evening and looked forward to the little bonus that would come after the storm warning passed. He kept some of the money for himself and gave most of it to his mother, who always said thank you and who always let out a deep sigh when she put the grimy banknotes in her tin under the sink. It hurt Lito that he could not do more for her; when there was no work he would receive a 1,000 pesos for 500 millilitres of blood, but that always left him tired and in trouble for falling asleep in class.
It was almost eight when he left home. The dark clouds and their steady, heavy rain portended a day to be endured in the discomfort of damp denim and wet feet and the shivering chill of sitting in the classroom. He tried his best to concentrate in class as the howling wind outside hurled sheets of rain against the leaky windows. The weather had gone from bad to worse: why was there no talk of sending them home?
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