POLITICOS AND PROMISES
Who knows why people do what they do? Why do we still make promises and continue to believe in them if they’re made to be broken?
Her life was built on the foundation of promises, was ruined because she believed in those promises, and it still exists because she still had hope for the same promises. She made a lot, broke some, fulfilled several, and forgot most of them.
This kind of thought occupied her baffled mind as the driver told her to step down off the bus for the road ahead was impassable, and added in a contemptuous voice that only carabao carts could pass that hell of a road. The short, imperious bus conductor opened the baggage door and made a show of dragging out luggage to get to hers, as if she was being difficult. Finally, he slapped her two huge suitcases flat out in the dust. He barked on the driver to start the engine, causing the bus to cough like an old man battling with tuberculosis, leaving a cloud of exhaust in the air.
It was mid-afternoon and the sunlight beamed on the mahogany leaves until they shone like knife blades blinding her poor eyesight and poor judgment of the place. As she looked around, her heart made a sonorous din in between her lungs like a typhoon in the summer castigating a rustic tin rooftop. Even in eight years Maputi couldn’t have changed month, though she knew it was just her. Their barrio is made of things that erode too slowly to be noticed even by devout pastoral poets: every blade of cogon grass, every clod of earth, every dried-up carabao path, every tree past its prime, and every house in the neighborhood still stood along the craggy road – more weather-beaten, more dilapidated than when she last saw them. She wondered if the attitude of the barrio folks remained as laid-back as she remembered it.
Manang Delia, a distant cousin of her mother had offered to meet her, yet, even the shadow of the widow’s soul couldn’t be seen here. In fact, no one was around, and relief came to her because of it. Everything that surrounded her was just the same eight years ago when she turned her back on Maputi.
She dragged her suitcases to the nearest santol tree. She could still remember this tree as just one of the trees she used to climb years ago in pursuit of reaching a star. Memories flooded her mind, racking her brain. She felt emptied-out and singing with echoes, unrecognizable to herself. She missed Maputi, in spite of all the promises it had broken in front of her tear-drenched eyes. She still missed this damned place.
She lied on the bus, telling a woman sitting next to her that she was never been to this place before, that she just came here to visit, to fulfill a promise to an old friend whom she’d never seen for the past eight years. Sometimes, she used to do that, tell tales to people – on buses, on planes, at the park, at the bookstore – it passes the time and diminishes life’s ennui. And people adore you for it. They’ll believe anything if you throw in enough detail. Believable facial expressions and variation in voice tone were plus factors to make lie as convincing as truth itself. Words beautify the experience of living – superficial adjectives could cover the pain, exclamation points could exaggerate a mere smile. One could feign innocence, sincerity, and even honesty by playing with words.
Her lies made her feel like a sublime hero of her own spawned heroic tale. A hero whose nobility could just last for two heart-warming minutes until reality trespasses by the front door of truth shooing illusions away. But she never cared.
What she’d said to the woman was the truest kind of lie, she guessed containing fear at its heart. She was a stranger to the barrio. She had always been. She’d stayed away for eight years and in her gut she believed she was hoping that had taken a new curve – which it had changed. She would step off the bus and land smack in the middle of a sense of belonging. Heart-wrenching apologies, the richness of forgiveness, extended welcoming arms, home at last.
None of this happened. Maputi looked like a language she didn’t speak nor understand. It turned out to be the yardstick she’d been using to measure all other places. Until now, she could never realize that this barrio is really her home. Its familiarity was quite strange to her.
She left her suitcases under the shade of the tree and started walking on the road going to the old church. She passed through a flock of little houses, all settled like hens into their gardens. She was thinking of the would-be reactions of the barrio folks when they’d see her. She dreaded having to see all the people who are going to ask endless questions: of why is she here, of how long she’d be here for, and what took her so long to come back. She feared that their questions would catch her off-guard and lead her bruised emotion to spill all the bitter blood from the wounds of yesterday to betray her.
She was here after all, with no more mission in life than she’d been born with years ago but to mend a broken promise and try to fix it with all certainty; the only difference between then and now was the weight of failure she carried with her – the thing that walked with her for all this time. It’s getting heavier.
‘It’s tough to break yourself as news to a barrio that already knows you, ‘she thought. Maputi formed its opinions of her before she had permanent teeth. People here would remember her sad eyes and the stigma of her birth. Her mother actually named her Stella which means “star”, however reasonable a thing that might have to do here in the doomed barrio of Maputi. Her grandmother, Lola Maria, once told her that she’s a star, a bright shining star that gives light and direction to her family – a promise of brighter scope of horizon, a promise of salvation, just like the star that shone above the little town of Bethlehem more than 2000 years ago.
“But I’m not a Messiah,” she whispered to herself.
Maputi laughed at her as she watched her dreams of a happy-ever-after rot with the fallen leaves of the guyabano tree in their backyard. Controversies tailed her name even before she was swimming like a toothless frog inside her mother’s womb. Waggling tongues, snide remarks, and public humiliation - she had her share of those from this place. To this barrio, indeed, she was a star, a fallen star consumed up to the last dying ember.
She felt dragged down by emotions as she walked along towards the old church. For eight years, her guardian angel’s perpetual prayers for the salvation of her frozen and lost soul drifting and grappling in the dark oblivion were all in vain; she became numb.
Guilt fustigated her conscience as she caught a glimpse of the cross that stood tall on the steep roof of the church; it was like a sword ready to strike her dead.
“A real prayer is the first thing I must do,” she persuaded herself. “Come on, how somebody whose sin is as colossal as mine could kneel in the presence of a Just God in a real prayer?” shame and pride contradicted her good reasoning.”What would I pray for? Someone said, ‘When God wants to punish you, He answers all your prayers.’ Am I to be punished?”
As she entered the church premises, a wide streamer welcoming the mayor as the guest speaker for the upcoming Church foundation Day Celebration brandished in front of her tired eyes. A huge concrete landmark beside the ancient star apple tree effortlessly caught her sight. She stepped forward and read in somewhat loud voice the inscription carved on a thick glossy marble stone.
“The whole Congregation of Faith extends its warmest thanksgiving for the renovation of the House of God through the generosity and sincere efforts of the honorable Congressman…” her voice trailed off as a small decomposing wooden signboard clung for support with the help of a rustic nail hung on the tree caught her curious sight. She stepped closer to the tree. A bible verse was printed on the wooden signboard: “Luke 14:11 ‘For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’”
She felt cold and chilled to her spine, as if ice water flowed in her veins instead of blood. She never made it even to the great oak doors of the church. She stepped back and started to walk away. She threw a keen glance at the ants busily marching in a long queue, climbing on the tree and feeding upon the remnants of that decomposing wooden signboard while the historic and mute star apple tree stood there, unmoving, keeping its thoughts to itself.
“Stella? Is that really you?” A heavyset woman was carrying a torn, jute sack of something Stella didn’t have the foggiest idea what was inside it, shouting at her in an overexcited way, “Stella, will you look. If you aren’t the picture of your mother!”
Her mother left her when she was three, with no photographs to remind her of what she looked like. She felt her body grew tensed as the woman imprisoned her in a choking embrace.
“We’ve been so anxious to see you,” the woman said at a convincing decibel level, “I heard Delia at the church last Sunday that you’d be staying down with her for a vacation. You know what, news of you owning a classy dress shop and other businesses in the city spread here. Bless your heart, you’re a dear child.” She paused, finally, taking in my face.”You don’t remember me, do you?”
“No, I’m sorry, she lied, she could not forget this woman, “I don’t.”
“Mercy,” the woman cried, “Your Manang Mercy! I am your mother’s third cousin.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Stella disguised her abhorrence with a completely fake apology.
“I won’t keep you, but I want you to come for dinner as soon as you can,” she hurried her small feet up the path to the house and disappeared into the cave of bougainvillea that had swallowed her front porch. Stella wondered how many people believed she owned innumerable businesses.
People mistook her of striking good fortune in the city. They had no idea; she’d sell her soul to belong to some place.
Manang Mercy was the well-known barrio gossip when Stella had last known her. She remembered everyday of her childhood, no lapses there. Once, she’d overheard Manang Mercy talking to the other gossipmongers in the barrio, saying that Stella’s mother was the lowest and filthiest whore in the barrio, and speculated that her father was just around hiding somewhere for the fear of mixing with her family’s dirty blood. Stella wondered how the rules had changed.
Had she come up in the world or Manang Mercy down? Or perhaps, eight years of not seeing each other meant Manang Mercy put her scalpel for a tongue away and feigned ignorance of the damage.
She felt a tap on her shoulder and turned to see Manang Delia, smiling, “Oh, Stella, I’m sorry I’d kept you waiting. I’m sorry for that hell of the bus which dropped you so far from our house. That damned road going there is not a road for motor vehicles but for beasts. We’ve been complaining to kapitan Mario about the problem and all we got were series of promises that they’d check on it. They’ve been promising to fix that road since Christ was a boy, but no one from the herd of those politicos comes unless for a campaign when election approaches.”
Stella was unmoved by this off-color narrative. She was used to the thrill of Manang Delia’s swear words. Manang Delia was one of the few people who showed concern and care for her. In spite of her loquacity, Manang Delia had been so kind to her especially after Lola Maria died when Stella was 15.
Manang Delia offered to carry one of her suitcases. They continued to walk on the rough road where several stones pointed obscenely at heaven. She stopped to massage her back. In front of the newly- painted day-care center parked a huge bulldozer covered with colorful stickers that displayed the name of the congressman as if they were tags for a bargain-priced piece of junked scrap metal.
A humungous poster of the smiling mayor waving his right hand, obviously for photography’s sake occupied a large space in the building; an empty welcome, a lifeless portrait of a politician’s pretentious amiability. A spacious streamer complimenting a senator, the congressman, and the municipal officials for the construction of the road, ironically, hung just a few inches above three cakes of carabao dung. Beside the streamer, ten bags of cement seemed to be hugging each other, hardened by time. Stella shook her head in disbelief, wondering if it was the same streamer that had been here eight years ago.
After several minutes of walking on every slope and bump on the road under the scorching heat of the afternoon sun, they stopped in front of a bamboo and nipa hut with an unkempt yard. The house was leaning impartially to one side. A frail thin woman sitting on the lowest step of the stairs, was nursing her child on one of her breasts sagging like weathered papaya fruits. Stella could just guess how many hungry toothless mouths had feasted upon those breasts. The mother was preoccupied of her maternal obligation that she was oblivious to their presence.
“Martha!” Manang Delia called her daughter’s attention as they entered the broken bamboo fence.
Stella could not believe her eyes! The sight of Martha in such a condition was unbelievable. She was her closest friend, actually, the only one that she had. Martha got married on the same March they graduated from high school. Stella could still remember, Martha was one of the pretty girls in high school, and she used to admire her pretty face on the mirror in quite a number of times in a day, yet, judging from her appearance today, Stella thought, that maybe, there were times in Martha’s life now that looking herself in the mirror is a masochistic torture. Youth and love seemed to have broken their promises to Martha.
Martha was one of the young women in the barrio who were naïve enough to accept any proposal, real or imaginary, provided it offered a faint chance of escape. These young women married as early as reaching puberty, if not for love, most likely for a promise of a better life.Stella managed to smile at her. A soft, shy smile beamed on Martha’s face displaying a mouth lacking two front teeth due to malnutrition, Stella could guess.
“Stella, you look so beautiful!” Martha gasped, her sad eyes twinkled as if witnessing an apparition of something so wonderful, “We’re so glad to have you here!”
“I am, too,” words failed Stella to elaborate of how glad she was to be in Maputi. They chatted while Manang Delia carried Stella’s suitcases inside the house. She closed her eyes as she heard the creaking of the bamboo floor, in fear for the hut to collapse at the every step of Manang Delia’s calloused feet.
Martha was able to rear six children in eight years and a new baby’s on the way. “Three more grueling months of waiting inside my dim womb only to be born in a much dimmer world of poverty,” Martha said in an expressionless voice.
Stella’s mind was wandering somewhere else. She looked at Martha’s barefooted, butt naked, and snooty children scampering around the yard with their shrill innocent voices filled the air with a laughter that she’d wished could reach heaven. Stella felt disoriented and disgraced. She wondered in what dim part of Maputi she’d left her childhood.
Manang Delia appeared on the doorway, now changed to her floral housedress. With a sharp knife in her hand, she told Nonoy, Martha’s eldest child to hold the rooster that she’d kill and cook for dinner. At the mention of chicken for dinner, the excitement in every child’s eyes evidently did not escape Stella’s attention.
Lingling, Martha’s fourth child, asked her grandmother with a worried look reflected on her face, “Lola, who’s sick?”
Martha looked at Stella and explained, “If someone gets sick, that’s the only time we could taste chicken broth.”
Stella felt a strange tinge of pity in her heart for the children. She changed the topic by telling the two women that she’d already met Manang Mercy, and told them that she was embarrassed for not recognizing her mother’s cousin.
“Stella, beware,” Manang Delia said, plucking feathers off the neck of the hypnotized chicken, “You are in Maputi. There is only one of you for all these people to be watching for and so many of them for you.”
After a hearty dinner of binakol, the three women sat by the window and talked. There was not such big problems Stella might imagine telling them of what had become of her life in eight years of self-exile. They never asked her questions, instead Manang Delia ranted about her meeting with the barangay captain.
“Listen, I went to the barangay hall to ask for clearance and certification from kapitan Mario.” She looked at Stella to explain. Jojo is Manang Delia’s fifth of nine children. He’s studying in the nearby town, and a recipient of a Congressional Students’ Financial Assistance Program.
“Ask me what that son of a devil of a barangay captain said to me,” Anger flashed in her eyes like untouchable lightning. “That animal was drunk and his saliva amalgamated with his insults. He scolded me in five different dialects, blaming me for having many children. He told me that it was a shame on my part for I already knew that I am financially incapacitated, yet, I still bear a mat full of children, thinking only of my appetite and neglecting virtue. Hah! Look who’s preaching regarding virtue! He asked me if I’m not ashamed to rely on the good congressman’s help for Jojo’s tuition fee. Little did he know I’m aware of their tricks, that we’re being cheated every time the congressman gives us that blank document to sign with our name.”
“Did you fight back, Nay?” Martha asked Manang Delia in a soft voice like a lullaby wafted on a moonlit breeze.
“Why, Martha? Did you fight back when that devil husband of yours hit you?” came a question which struck a hundredfold of invisible needles on Martha’s pale face. Stella saw Martha lowered her head while wiping her eyes.Stella forwarded her gaze to Martha who's now sniffing, "Did Glen hit you? Where is he?"
"Ow! He already left her,” Manang Delia’s bitterness intensified.” He left her with that brood of skin and bones euphemized as my grandchildren, and some bruises.”
“Nanay, he promised to come back,” Martha whispered in a voice barely loud enough to be heard.
“And you believe him? Oh, child, how long are you to remain blind? Open your damn eyes! The beast promised to come back and then what, kill you? If not by his fists, perhaps by his drinking and gambling vices,” Manang Delia fumed.
“We have children – “Martha mumbled nut was cut in midsentence by her mother’s loud and blatantly annoyed voice.
“As if that pig cared!” Manang Delia shot her daughter a reproachful look. Martha chose to be silent. She knew her reasons in defending her estranged husband won’t win in this word war against her mother. “Back to that kapitan,” Manang Delia continued after a few seconds, “Indeed, I didn’t answer back. Most of us here in Maputi won’t. Fighting back is like throwing yourself in a bottomless ocean, lest you’d drown. Let me tell you this, Stella, most people here act so ignorant, so naïve, so resigned to their lot, why? Of course, we have a choice of fighting back and standing up for our rights, but, to whom we’d pass our complaints to? In my case, who would listen to a small, weak voice of an unknown woman from the remotest barrio in the planet? We’ve been crying for so long now. Our cry is as disturbing as thunder, yet, imprisoned within the thick walls of fear. We plead for everything: for the road, for the water, for fertilizer, for our children’s education. Yes, they heard us. Those politicos, those so-called public servants heard us and pretended to listen to our cries when they trod the mountainous paths to reach our votes. They only come here during campaign periods and give countless promises of a dream, which you would think that if they’d win, everyone would live like a king.
They called us Nanay, Tatay, and other terms of respect on a voice so kind. Others would invent different people’s names just to connect our last names to theirs like we’re distant relatives. Oh, those darned politicos, they were spitefully funny. They heard our cries, no doubt. But after they’d won, not even a shadow of their mustaches was seen here and not even a single promise they’d lovingly uttered as they kissed our muddied hands they’d fulfilled,” Manang Delia spoke these words dreamily while exhaling the smoke of her tobacco from her parched lips, “When you go to the municipal hall, these politicos look at you in disdain, they grimaced to see a beggar from the mountain asking for alms from their golden palms. Gone were the days of you and them being distant cousins.”
“But, Nanay, during the campaign they gave us money and food,” Martha reasoned, strengthening her guts.
“Phew! Are you referring to that P500 and two kilos of rice, two cans of sardines, and five packets of instant noodles? Oh, Martha! Are you really that feeble-minded?” her voice was full of contempt, “You think just like those politicos. Do you think we’re bought? The money and goods they’d given us were ours, do you understand? These politicos were conniving thieves; they blinded us with empty and insubstantial promises, and rob every one of us of our own freedom, of our integrity, and of our identity. That P500 bill cannot buy your children’s future,” she said, giving Stella a keen look, as if they’d never met before. “Did you see those streamers and posters at the sentro this afternoon?”
Stella nodded the image of the smiling mayor played on her mind, “They were hard to miss,” she added with a mirthless laugh.
“Those were genesis of another series of promises. The election won’t happen until next year but they’re already starting to kindle the fire to their promises of serving the masses, hah! The road construction even the church renovation- see how crafty those politicos are! I bet my false tooth on this one: Nong Carding’s daughter’s wedding is on Saturday, I am very sure that a large number of the whole municipal council and other aspiring politicos would be here to grace the occasion. They’d swarm our poor barrio and scatter their glittering promises. But, I tell you this, not a soul in Maputi believes them anymore. Not even one…” Her voice faded like a moon waxing on a starlit sky.
“Why?” Stella pressed the topic, suddenly becoming curious.
“Because,” Manang Delia sighed, “everyone will be obliged to believe every word they’d say.”
Confused, Stella examined the older woman’s somber face. She could see the lines of age, difficulties, and all other indecipherable expressions carved like hieroglyphs.
“All the barrio folks are not ignorant to the politico’s trickery. We are all aware of their abuse of power and exploitation of authority. We’re not blind, but as what I’ve said, we choose not to fight back and keep our gritted teeth to ourselves. We continue to believe their promises which were all lies, were all illusions to trap the common people in a web of dreams. They use their intelligence for words to allure the poor people to believe in them. And we like to live with that illusion because it made us feel safe. We’ve been obliged to believe these lies because they give us a sense of security regardless.
I accepted every vile word from kapitan Mario, swallowed all his insults because I think of a brighter future for Jojo, for all of my children. His words can bruise my ego, but it can’t extinguish my desire to provide a better life for my children. I’m willing to accept every blow, for I have a dream: that is a poverty-free life for my children. I cling to the promises of politicos, still hoping that someday they’d be fulfilled.
You won’t see any young people here on Maputi. They’re out in the world, studying and working somewhere; sent by their parents’ dreams and prayers, away from this place, away from the oppressive throngs of mediocrity. Someday, no one would be left here. Everyone is a grabbing every faint chance of escape.”
It was past midnight but a cold moon blazed in the window and Stella could not sleep. She lies on her back in the straw mat beside the snoring Manang Delia. The older woman’s words haunted her. She had to get up. She had something to do.
She tucked her shirt into her pajamas and found her slippers out in the kitchen. She closed the door quietly and took a path that led away from the hut, not down past other houses but straight out to the North.
She wanted to find the road that led up to their old house. She wasn’t ready to go there yet, but she had to. She couldn’t ask Manang Delia for directions to her own childhood home, she didn’t want her to know how badly dislocated she was. She hoped that if she struck out now in faith she would feel her way to their house. But she didn’t know. She was on the road that looked so promising. She stopped suddenly at the center of the road, feeling the familiar, blunt pressure of old grief. Even the people knew her well didn’t know her years in Maputi were peculiarly bracketed by death: She’d lost her grandparents and she’d lost a child.
Her mother left her when she was three in search for the man, who according to Lola Maria was her father. She left her with a letter promising that she’d come back for her, telling her how much it pained her to leave her daughter. But, she had left anyway and never returned.
Stella grew up under her grandparents’ love and protection. They promised to stay with her, but Lolo Miguel betrayed her; his tuberculosis betrayed them all. He died. She was left with Lola Maria until she was fifteen.
Even before, she was an outsider to Maputi, until Paulo noticed her. He was as handsome as sin himself. He studied in the city and was only home on weekends. When he first asked her, she thought he’d made a mistake; she was nobody and he was someone whom all the girls in the barrio craved for. Four Saturdays in a row, for exactly one lunar month: the odds of getting pregnant out of that were predictable, but she was unfathomably naïve. Every touch of his hand on her breasts, every feel of his lips, every whispered promise – they all felt good and she believed in him. She felt like she was the most beautiful girl in Maputi.
At first it was nothing like a baby Stella held inside her, only a small impossible secret. Slowly, it dawned on her that she was two; a life was growing inside her. She promised to love her unborn child and not to leave her or him. She was sworn to that promise.
She clung to Paulo’s promises, in total surrender and reckless abandon. Yet, promises were made to be broken, as they say. Two months before graduation, Paulo married Cecile, a daughter of the rich landowner in Maputi. Stella’s world came crashing down along with Paulo’s promises.
Paulo never knew what he’d spawned much less when it died.
One night as she felt her stomach, she was lured and terrified. She had no one to tell her secret with, she longed for escape. Fear overshadowed her will not to break her promise. And then, her savage wish was granted.
She never did tell Lola Maria. She kept quiet first to protect her grandmother from the knowledge of terrible things and to protect herself, definitely.
She sat beneath the avocado tree. Right here on this spot lays her child; the reason why Stella returned. She made a promise to her child.
For eight years, Stella lived with a recurring nightmare, of a baby whose arms embraced her neck and its heart beat against her shoulder, clinging for life. After Lola Maria died, Stella left their barrio on a quest of finding her mother. She promised herself to find her, but she failed; and she even lost herself. She wandered with no point of direction, like pollen transferred from one butterfly to another – butterflies who offered degrees of temporary insanity and short-term salvation. She was out in the world, yet fettered by the promises of yesterday.
She decided to come back to Maputi, to seek and find home, to gather all the pieces of the broken promises she continued to believe in. In every promise, there’s an underlying flicker of hope that it’d be fulfilled.
She must go and tell Manang Delia not to be contemptuous with politicos, for we are all politicos; we make promises because we have the desire and the ambition of fulfilling them. Yet, due to life’s inevitable turn of events and mind-boggling course of human nature, we end up breaking theses promises whether intentionally or otherwise. We just need to be true to our words and live to the every promise we’ve made.
“My child, it’s never too late to mend those broken promises,” Stella whispered in the air, “It’s never too late to remember those forgotten promises. I am here now, with another promise to make: to act upon self-control and choice. I can make a promise by self-control and choose to fulfill it in spite of my imperfect nature, knowing that others put their trust in me.”
She quietly entered Manang Delia’s hut. She looked at the innocent faces of Martha’s children. They slept peacefully while the crickets were serenading the shy stars outside. These little children do not worry for tomorrow. For now, they’re enjoying their extravagant dreams, mayhap, holding on to the promise of a better life if not here in Maputi, perhaps, somewhere else into the unknown future; a future which doesn’t only depend on any politician’s promise but in their own self-control and choice.
Stella lied down next to Manang Delia with another promise burning in her mind.