Elias Kupong crossed the pedestrian lane and paced toward the gates of Mintal Elementary School. He was on his way to One Network Bank where he left his bicycle. He carried a plastic bag filled with atchara, bulad and cooked rice. The sun shone brightly and exposed his narrow forehead, lazy brown eyes, large nose and dark thin lips. He was in his usual white long-sleeve shirt, khaki shorts and rugged slippers. He stopped by the school and scanned the field. Near the cream-colored school building were two headstones and an obelisk. Two little lads played tag close to the monument. An old memory of his flashed and he saw himself running across the vast field. School was fun and interesting, Elias thought. But, his family wasn’t fortunate enough to send him to college. Remembering those things bothered him. He had promised to never linger on the past.
There were many people outside the elementary school and he wondered why. He looked around and saw a young mother with a baby in her arms. Beside the young mother, a rather fat lady in sunglasses stood, fanning herself. Her glasses flashed for a moment, unlike her diamond earrings that shimmered steadily. She furrowed her brows and rolled her eyes.
She said, “Where is the President?” She fanned herself even more and few locks of her hair flew away repeatedly.
Elias went closer to the crowd and inquired, “Unsa diay ang naa?” However, he was ignored. The fat lady stared at him from head to toe and then continued fanning herself.
“Tsk! My son’s drenched in sweat from his school band practices. Wala gihapon niabot si President,” a man said. He dressed simply but he had a chain of white-gold around his neck. People stared at them for a moment and then looked away.
Under the shade of the mango tree, a man laughed. He said, “I’m telling you, he won’t come. Pustahan!”
Elias not knowing what was the matter at hand, he neared the man. “Why are there people gathered here?”
“It’s all over the news. The President is going to visit,” an old woman butted in.
Elias nodded his head. He never thought the President would visit Mintal. His friend, Tito did say something about someone checking on the Mintal Public Cemetery. It was only that time he found out his neighbors were gossiping about the President. The people surrounding him looked excited despite the humid weather compared to his neighbors who were rather skeptic. He deemed that his neighbors were suspecting the President’s visit as an excuse to examine the graveyard for treasures. The event interested Elias, persuading him to stay for a little more while and to observe. Whether true or not, he knew the Mintal Public Cemetery had always been a hot topic between negotiators and treasure hunters.
A woman under the shade of the mango tree retorted, “No, he’s coming. Our President keeps his word.” What she said got the attention of the other people. They nodded and murmured yes.
Another fifteen minutes passed and it was already ten-thirty in the morning. The people had been waiting since seven-thirty at the Mintal Elementary School. A rhythmic roar and whirring of a helicopter’s overhead rotors was heard. Elias followed the helicopter’s track with his eyes and saw it heading toward Basak where the University of the Philippines Mindanao was. It caused a ruckus among the people. They grumbled and stared at one another, as, little by little, some people began to leave.
Elias also decided to leave and proceeded to One Network Bank. He hung the plastic of food on his bicycle’s handlebar, walked his bike on the roadside and passed by the traffic officer. Elias squinted at him. The traffic officer had a neon vest that annoyingly reflected the sunlight. He gestured vehicles not to pass through the Mintal roadway—the alley past the route to Uraya and the Mintal Public Cemetery until the intersection of Deca Homes’ Phase 8 and Phase 9. He trudged his way further down the slope past Julie’s Bakeshop. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead and on his nose. The stifling heat did not affect him. His dark skin was proof of how he’s used to the sun’s merciless rays. He turned left and came to the narrow bridge where a channel of brown water flowed calmly. The smooth waves reflected and created sparkles as if underneath the waters were a sand of gold. Along the creek lined small wooden and houses made of cement.
Along the creek, Elias caught a glimpse of a woman washing clothes and sheets. She had a malong wrapped around her body and a towelette on her head. By the bridge’s guardrails made of cement were four little lads who competed with one another. They took turns in somersaulting onto the creek. Elias came to another bridge. It was high and vast. A larger stream flowed beneath it. Several houses stood under the bridge, but they were on higher plains so as not to get caught in the waters if it rained. But, on such a humid day, the waters were usually low and exposed how rocky the stream was underneath. One big rock had a linen laid flat on its surface. Beside it was a smaller rock that had a washbasin with clothes bunched up together on top of it. There were ladies nearby who only had towels to cover their body. They scrubbed pots and pans.
Elias cycled faster up the steep of Mintal Roadway. The surroundings remained grey and gloomy despite the daylight. The street was half-empty. Big rocks blocked the other half which was still under repair. Timber piled on top of each other along the sides of the street. The green fields beside the pathway, once filled with mango, coconut and durian trees, were now brown and flattened by bulldozers—the only ones left standing in the area. The trees that lined both sides of the pathway and whose branches draped over—were replaced by steel hoarding panels. Further away from the path already had concrete walls that stretched few meters away from the Mintal Public Cemetery. The graveyard was the only thing left unchanged—grey with rusted metal barriers and gates, and chipped-off white paints on its walls and tombstones. Several small, wooden houses and stalls were also removed from the street corners, but not beyond the cemetery.
He stopped by the curve of the road opposite Romer Fuel Station. It was where his house stood. It had a rusted roof—dirty and old compared to the steel hoarding panels that fenced the areas where a Merville Subdivision was going to be built. The house was small and made of bamboo and plywood. He leaned his bike on the wall and took the plastic from the handlebar. From a distance, he saw Tito striding toward him. He was a mess Elias thought. He had paints all over his body.
“Bai, where have you been? The Barangay Captain was here a while ago checking on us,” Tito said, his left arm twitching.
Elias scrunched his nose and forced air out of his nostrils. He disliked the toxic scent of paint coming from Tito. He raised the plastic he held in his hand and said, “I bought food.”
“Save that for your dinner. The Barangay Captain gave some bread and coke,” Tito insisted.
“Okay, I’ll just put these inside.”
Elias rushed in and put the food altogether into a large bowl without removing them from their plastic. He put a tray cover over them. He looked back through the open door. Tito appeared to be lost in thought, his eyes fixed on the ground. Elias then headed outside and locked the door to his house. Who else was he deceiving but himself? Nobody would plan on robbing his house. There was nothing of value inside his home. He heard a meow. To the left was a ginger cat licking her paws. Ah, yes, he thought. Stray cats and dogs were the ones mostly barging in homes. They strived to survive in a place where food was scarce. If they try to barge into beautiful homes, they would be beaten by a broomstick or slipper. Yet, Elias wondered why do such homeless animals continue to steal food from different houses. He had seen some cats and dogs limped on the streets. There was even a time when a ginger cat had her upper head cracked open. She walked her way through, following her nose, following maybe a faint scent trail of food. Or, maybe following a scent trail to her deathbed. But, the cat survived. There were many times when she passed by in front of his house after two months or so, her head already healed.
On the other side, Elias saw several tow trucks on the vast empty field. The ready-made walls of houses were being positioned on the ground until every corner was assembled to form the four corners of a home. Security guards shooed away dogs on the field. Elias mused that the animals had it worse than him for he still had shelter. That won’t be for long though, he thought. He could see the day when he and the other settlers near the cemetery would be driven away like the homeless cats and dogs just to make space for the Merville Subdivision. If not to give more space, maybe just for cleanliness’ sake. Elias had thought about it. He was nothing more than a stray animal.
But, he’ll live anyway and accept whatever happens. Nothing will change. He would still be the same person who wished for nothing, desired nothing, but to have meals each day.
Tito saw Elias and said, “Pre, I was wondering. Why won’t you apply for a job that pays well? You were able to finish the high school level.”
Elias answered, “That was long ago. Tara?”
“I wish I had attended school too, y’know.”
The two men walked slowly on their way to the cemetery. Tito still looked bothered by something, Elias observed. He assumed that it must be his wife, Dolores again. She must be demanding more money for herself, for her one-year-old baby, for their three children. Elias couldn’t think ill of her and blame her demanding attitude toward Tito. He presumed that it must be hard to provide for a family of four, while he even found it difficult to feed only himself.
Elias said, “Pre, you seem down.”
Tito stared at Elias in surprise as if he’d seen all that Elias had thought about him and his family. Tito forced a laugh and said, “Wala uy. That’s just your imagination.”
“Magpautang ko nimo. But, of course, I can’t give much. Maybe two hundred? Two-hundred and fifty?”
Tito replied, “No need, Pre.”
Elias and Tito stood for a moment under the cemetery’s arch sign: Mintal Public Cemetery. Elias scrutinized the cemetery, and it appeared like a city packed with infrastructures. The view of high and low gravestones in a uniform color of white reminded him of the popular toy for children. Each block of gravestones was equal to one lego brick. Altogether, they formed the cemetery with different sizes and height.
Sudden pain and heaviness came upon him. On his back muscle, he felt a burning sensation he occasionally experienced. However, that time the weight on his shoulders was heavier. The burning sensation pulsated in a recurring prick. His feet throbbed and were heavy too. He pressed his fingers against his back and moved them in a circular motion. It soothed the pain, but he began to have a headache. He thought it must be the toxic scent in the air from the newly painted graves. Besides, it was his first time to take-up on such a task. He usually remained at his small home and waited for customers to buy coconut, husks, tuba and bottled gasoline. For a moment, he wondered why he applied for such job when he already had ways of getting ginansiya. It was out of whim he convinced himself. Besides, he wouldn’t lose a thing if he wanted more just as how his friend, Tito desired wealth. Elias knew how Tito had always been a hard-working dreamer. He wished to have a mansion more extravagant than the high-end homes of corrupt politicians. But, Elias said to himself he wasn’t as greedy as Tito. He told himself that his want for more as of the moment was out of him. He was sure that he was content with what he had.
Elias gazed at Tito, blinking repeatedly. Further down the rough asphalt which divided the graves, he had a blurred view of an obelisk that stood under the shade of large trees. Where the cemetery obelisk stood was the area where many tombs had not been painted yet. For a moment, Elias thought he saw something different around the obelisk. There seemed to be a trail of smoke-like shadow rising from the ground. He rubbed his eyes with his knuckles and fluttered his eyes open. There was nothing. Elias shifted his gaze and stared at the other three workers tasked to clean the graves gathered at one corner. They seemed just fine and were acting normal. It must be his worsening vision. His stomach grumbled. It felt like it was being twisted. No wonder he’d seen those things, he thought to himself. He was hungry. He realized it when he saw the three workers on break, chowing down on bread.
There were three of them, two of which were older men. One had large arms exposed by the sleeveless shirt he wore. The other was gaunt. The third one was still a teenager. He had a long hair tied above his head. They had eaten most of the snacks. Three plastics of chocolanay and balolong were placed on the tiled surface of the tombstone. However, all were already empty except for one. There were also two bottles of Coca-cola, but there was only half a liter left. None of them talked; they were strangers to one another. The only ones acquainted with each other were Tito and Elias. After a while, they all continued their work.
Tito walked toward the tomb where the leftover snacks were. He beckoned Elias and said, “Ali diri, let’s eat. The Barangay Captain gave them.”
Elias followed after Tito who eagerly ate two pieces of balolong in one bite. Elias pulled the plastic of bread and took two chocolanay. He chewed them slowly and savored its slightly burnt crust, soft texture, and its sweet melted chocolate filling.
“Bai, do you know why they’re blocking the way here for a week?” Tito questioned.
Because of Tito’s question, Elias recalled the traffic officer in a neon vest who kept vehicles from taking the route to Deca Homes. He was not aware though that the roads were officially blocked for a week. But, Elias chose to remain silent, waiting for Tito to spill more information.
“Everyone’s been saying that the President has a plan to move the cemetery,” Tito continued.
Elias said, “That’s just a rumor.”
“Well, I know one thing for sure. They’re after the treasures again. They’ve done it on the wakeboard area in Deca Homes Phase 8.”
“You really believe those tales? Those treasures?”
“I heard it from the Barangay Captain himself,” Tito informed and paused, swallowing the piece of bread he ate. “There’s this Japanese Doctor who had gold buried in his tomb.”
Part 2 of this story appears here.
Andrey Caridad recently graduated cum laude from the University of the Philippines Mindanao with a degree of Bachelor of Arts in English major in Creative Writing. She lives in Mintal, Davao City.