To grow up in Iponan, is to learn stubborn resistance. Remember the flood? When Iponan river overflowed and buried the barangay in muddied water? After the state of emergency, when families were permitted to leave the musty covered-courts turned evacuation centers, we saw the water lines that stained the walls of our houses. Families swept mud from their homes and onto the street. People scavenged for their belongings. A corpse was found dangling on the boughs of a tree. I found faded and torn family pictures floating on the canals in front of my house.
Yet, we rebuild. After the flood, I praised my barangay for its resilience. Their assiduous efforts for life to continue as it were. It took months, but any trace of the flood was scrubbed away. I thought it was a blessing. I was eleven years old at the time, and at sixteen, the world went back to normal. Iponan never changed.
It was during my senior year, on a Saturday afternoon, in high school when my mother called me out on my lack of ambition.
“Don’t you want to study outside CDO?” She asked. When it was the season of application and entrance tests, I only took the familiar colleges: Xavier University, Liceo de Cagayan University, Capitol University, even Mindanao University for Science and Technology. When my batchmates, especially Carmela, were dreaming of Ateneo de Manila, I planted my feet on the ground and told myself that those fantasies weren’t worth chasing. I suppose I should apologize to my mother, whose expectations for me were not as out of reach as I thought. Though there’s no use in trying to change the past. Back then, my ambition was on a totally different project.
Growing up in Iponan meant that we were far from the city center. We were on the edge of the city. There were only a handful of jeeps that would take the route, entering from the highway going deeper and deeper in the barangay, and exiting out to transport us to the city. I had to wake up at five in the morning, drag myself to the jeepney stop, and wait. When the jeep arrives, I sat on the far end, trying to get at least a few minutes of sleep while we wait for it to fill up.
I was half awake when she entered the jeep. She had two braids and smelled like Juicy cologne. She spotted the school seal on the breast pocket of my uniform and upon recognition, she sat down next to me. Her name was Carmela. Carmela from 4 – Luna, five sections away from me 4 – Del Pilar. She was beautiful. The type of beautiful that I thought could only be seen in teleseryes my Lola forced me to watch: large brown eyes, silky hair that frames her face, and pinkish lips. When she smiled at me, it was like my blood was awakened. Everyday, her smile was like a cup of coffee.
“Carmela Agoncillo,” she offered her hand. In my head, I searched for all the Agoncillos that I knew.
“Tonton,” I say. I thought to wipe my hand because of how sweaty it was. It would’ve been a disaster, but I was saved when the jeepney roared to life and sped. Carmela fell on me. Her hair got into my mouth. Her body pressed against mine and I could smell her shampoo. She smelled like candy. I sent a silent prayer to God, eyes up at the jeepney ceiling, thanking Him for inertia. She pushed herself off me. She let her hair loose from her braids, letting it curtain around her face. I think she was trying to hide her blush.
The trip continued, and she was still embarrassed. When the jeepney stopped and all of us lurched sideways, I made a show of bumping my head on the window ledge. She laughed.
“Are you okay?” she asked. Her hands when to my temple. I shivered at her touch. I was very okay.
The friendship bloomed after that. We greet each other at the makeshift jeepney stop. I saw her at her most beautiful, always. She was freshly showered, wearing the same candy perfume. There are mornings where she talks about her plans for the day. Other mornings, she would yawn, move closer, and lean her head against my shoulder.
My favorite mornings, however, are those when she rants. She’ll squirm in her seat, fingers tapping on her knees, as she whispers to me her frustrations. It’s always arguments about her family, something about her brother. She told me about him, who, after every few months, always has a new girl wrapped around his fingers. She huffed, complaining how her parents lets her brother do whatever he wanted, while she, could barely stay thirty minutes past curfew.
“They’re just looking out for you,” I tried to console her, but she’s never convinced. “Take it from me,” I tried again, “boys are very stupid.” She perked up. She turned to meet my eye, the light hit her eyes just right that it made her brown irises turn to gold.
“Yeah. You’re the only good one Tonton.” I wrapped my arm around her shoulders as she leaned against me. I tried to calm myself down, or else Carmela could feel my heart beating too fast.
I go home alone, however. When I tried to ask Carmela to commute with me, she tells me that she goes home with her brother.
“I’m meeting Kuya Eric here,” she said. “We’ll go home together.” I tried to convince her to let me wait with her, but she shakes her head.
“I don’t want you to meet him. He always assumes the worst of people,” she said. Then how could he have all these girlfriends? I thought, but I kept it to myself. It offended me, somewhat, that she was ashamed of me. I tried to push those feelings away, reasoned that she had an overprotective brother. A girl like her? She needed protecting, but not from guys like me. I was her friend. I couldn’t hurt her even if I tried.
It seemed like she was only mine in the mornings. It’s a brief twenty minutes but it was enough. She bared herself to me, speaking without a filter. She whispers against my ear and I could feel her breath against my skin. With my arm wrapped around her shoulders, we looked like lovers. When the jeepney jostled or turned, she no longer blushed when her body brushed against mine. It was our own little world.
When the town started to talk about the upcoming Festival of Lights, I knew this was my chance. The festival happens on the first new moon of the summer. It was based on a legend, some say it happened, but no one is sure. I remembered Lolo telling me and all my cousins, in every reunion turned sleepover. We were cramped, lying on mattresses and blankets strewn about in the living room. All I could recall were two lovers, a datu’s son and a voyager’s daughter. The moon was involved and a dragon? Something about the gods proclaiming that their love was true. Though, in Iponan, when you ask anyone about the festival, they will always point their lips at my Lolo.
“Antonio,” Lolo Gorio said, fingers fiddling with a mahjong tile, “brought the most beautiful girl from the city.” Spit flew from his mouth as he lisped with his three remaining teeth.
“We didn’t use to have the fireman before, Tonton.” Lolo Gorio started his tale. He took his time, pausing between sentences to lick his lips. “The air was cleaner and when the lights went dark the whole plaza was filled with lights.” I tried not to wipe the spit on my face for fear of offending him. “Your Lolo brought his girl with him, a beautiful girl, a city girl. Took her here for the festival and when the lights went out, the fireflies appeared. The swarm swirled around them, surrounded them both with light, just like the old legend. The whole barangay knew they were meant to be.” Lolo stood, his knobby knees jostling their mahjong table. He said his goodbye and dragged me by the shoulders to go home.
“Stop feeding the boy stories, Gorio,” he said over his shoulder.
“Stories? It can’t be stories when it’s true. Seen it with my own damn eyes. It’s his heritage, Antonio. It’s in his blood!” Before I could ask Lolo anything about it, he took me back home where my mother was waiting. I took Lolo Gorio’s words to heart. I thought of it as a prophecy. A blessing from the powers that be, passed down to me.
The festival was my chance, my only chance.
But first, there was graduation. It was a haze to me, even until now, all I could remember was the flash of cameras and the flimsy piece of parchment that now hangs on the wall of our old house. People were vying for Carmela’s attention. They held her, cried on her shoulder, and asked for a picture. Carmela was crying as well. She was saying her goodbyes. I stood back and watched. They can have their time with her, I said to myself. She’s staying with me, here, in Cagayan de Oro, in our barangay. It was a pain to see her cry when UP, UST, and ADMU rejected her, but what use is Manila anyway? She belongs here.
In my mind I was already picturing the festival. I had my eye on a bracelet at the nearest pawnshop. I didn’t go to a computer shop for a full month to save enough money to buy it. It’s a small gold chain with a gold pendant on it. The metal is worn but it was shaped like a star. Perfect. I thought of myself as the leading man in my Lola’s teleseryes, the Ding Dong Dantes or the Piolo Pascual. I used to think love was as easy as those in teleseryes, because the guy always gets the girl. The girl always falls for the best friend.
On the day of the festival, with the bracelet in my pocket, my mother had the worst timing in the world.
“I have to leave,” she said over breakfast. “There’s an emergency meeting out of town and I can’t be home until tomorrow morning.” My heart sank to my stomach. My mother left no room for negotiation. She stood, her back straight and hair tied into a bun, and went to get her suitcase.
“Take care of your Lolo, Tonton,” she ordered. I almost choked on rice.
“But I’m going to the festival,” I said. My mother let out a huff in annoyance. She was the type to schedule everything right down to the minute. It was apparent that she had no time for my whining.
“It’s alright Estrella. I can take care of myself,” he said, trying to appease both parties.
“Tay, you almost burnt the house down when you were cooking rice.” She pinched the bridge of her nose. Lolo forced out a laugh and even I understood that he can’t be in this house alone.
“I was watering your mother’s flowers,” he sounded like a chastised child. My mother sighed and went to wrap her arms around his shoulders.
“Tay, you can’t be by yourself,” she cooed. Lolo patted her arm with his large calloused hands. “Tonton could take you with him to the festival instead.”
I didn’t want to take Lolo to the festival. He hadn’t been to the festival in years, even the mere mention of it was enough to break him down to tears. It isn’t a pretty sight, to see such a large macho man be reduced to a sobbing mess. I never knew how to deal with it, not even my mother could find a solution. No amount of formulas and strategies in her head could help her fix a broken heart.
She glared at me before I could say anything, and I knew that any kind of argument was futile.
For a man that worked in the fields for most of his life, his body has betrayed him. My mother blamed the smoking. She’s been telling him to quit ever since I was a child. His joints have given up, making him walk half the distance with twice the effort. I was ready to go. All appliances were unplugged. The gas was off. All the windows and doors were locked. When Lolo went past the gate, I already knew he was out of breath. I know it was cruel of me, to be so impatient with a man twenty times my age. I couldn’t help it. I felt like I was at a cusp of something different. A world, which only lived in my imagination was one step into becoming a reality. I had to reach Carmela in time. I imagined her face, her smile. I could see her soft fingers taking the bracelet, wrapping it on her dainty little wrist. The fireflies will glow around us and the old legend will be reborn again. I knew my world will change that night.
Our house wasn’t as far from the barangay plaza, which was an advantage. People were already passing by with their families in tow. Earlier, I stood vigilant behind our window, watching if Carmela would walk by but I didn’t see her. I saw the vans pass by, however, carrying the decorations, and the speakers, for the live band later.
Throughout the walk, I thought of leaving my Lolo behind. He knows these streets by heart. He could never get lost in this barangay. After a few contemplations, scanning the crowd for any familiar face that I could pass him onto, I decided to drop the idea. He’s already chosen me as his human walking cane by placing his heavy hand on my shoulder. The last thing I wanted was for him to trip under my watch.
We reached the plaza. The set up already started at noon and the program began at five p. m. Lolo and I decided to have dinner by that time. We knew the programs were nothing more than politicians trying to promote themselves. They would give out fans and shirts, to everyone. Lolo hated it, said it was the bastardization of a tradition. He grumbled while leaning against the tree, watching a city councilor announce on stage that he was to donate to the parish church. Everyone clapped and after the photos were taken, the politicians leave the stage. I scanned the crowd for Carmela’s face. It wasn’t easy when the darkness has settled, and the lights were too far apart. I only see the peoples’ silhouette morphing into one as they moved.
A man with a black cape and a wooden mask went on stage. He carried a large dark crate and placed it on stage. It’s the fireman. He’s a new addition to the tradition. I remember the festival that took place right after the flood. There were no fireflies. The electricity was cut, and we waited in the dark, but the fireflies never came. People started to cry in agony, but a man started to chant, his voice deep, as if it came from the depths of the earth itself. The people gathered around him. Some started to flash their flashlights at him, but they quickly turned it off when the man bent over, cupping his hands. When his chanting was over, and he opened his palms and there was a lone firefly. It flew up in the cold air. It droned in the air in lazy circles. He was the fireman and every year he brings the fireflies every year.
He opens his crate and the fireflies fly out onto the sky. I knew my clock was ticking.
“Go,” Lolo said, leaning against the trunk of a narra tree.
“Are you sure?” I asked, seeing that he has already sweat through his polo.
“You like Agoncillo’s girl?” He asked, and I swallowed the lump in my throat. Lolo barks out a laugh. “I saw you looking at her during your graduation.” My face heated up with embarrassment, but Lolo waved his hand.
“Go, I’ll be fine. Gorio is probably here, somewhere,” He muttered. I ran to him and embraced him.
“Thank you,” I said. Lolo pat my back and I tried not to wince at the pain. I left him behind, scanning the crowd for Carmela. The lights have already been out, and the fireflies were my only guide. I was about to call out her name when I see her brother’s pinched face, a full foot taller than the crowd. I knew that, where Eric was, Carmela can’t be far away. I made my way through the crowds. Children stared up at the sky in awe, jumping in the air. Parents looked at each other, whispering vows to each other. I pushed my way through the current of people until I ended up in a small clearing. Eric was talking to his girl, but Carmela was standing dutifully by his side. She’s staring at the fireflies with tears in her eyes. She lowered her eyes and she saw me.
“Tonton!” She shouted and started to run towards me. She pulled me into a tight hug. Behind her I saw her brother glaring at me. He was about to walk towards us, breaking us up but his girlfriend grabbed him by the arm and whisked him away.
“Is he gone?” Carmela whispered in my ear.
“Yeah.” She went slack with relief. I held her close for a few moments, watching the fireflies dance above us. She pulled away. Her hands were on my shoulders.
“I need to thank Ate Ara later. I can’t believe I can’t have one night to myself.” She drops her hands. She’s dressed simply, a yellow cotton dress that brushes against her knees. Before my mind could wander at the sight of her bare calves, I fished out the bracelet from my pocket.
“Carmela,” I started. My palms started to sweat again, and I thought the chain would slip from my fingers. “I saw this bracelet the other day and I want you to have it.” I took her hand in mind and placed the bracelet on her wrist. I caught her gasp and I thought I must be doing something right. I looked up to her and she was already crying. She held her hand close to her chest.
“Thank you!” She started to sob. “Thank you Tonton!” She pulled me in her embrace again. I felt my heart soar. She took a step back, examining the bracelet under the light of the fireflies. I looked at the bugs in the air and they are still flying in the air. I couldn’t tell by the size of it, but I was waiting for them to do it, to give me a sign.
“This is beautiful, Tonton. I’ll cherish this forever,” she said. Even though the swarm of fireflies haven’t moved into a magical spiral enveloping us, Carmela’s beaming smile was enough to propel me to my confession.
“Carmela,” I said, trying to refocus her attention on me.
“Oh Tonton. I’ll wear this every day to remember you by,” she said. It took me a full minute to understand what she said.
“What?” I asked.
“I got accepted to San Carlos. I wanted to tell you during graduation, but you weren’t there.”
“You were busy with your friends,” I reasoned. I felt like the floor turned to mud, threatening to make me slip.
“It’s graduation,” she reasoned. “I was looking for you.”
“I thought you were accepted to Xavier. Remember? You told me, during the jeep to school.”
“I am but I chose San Carlos instead.” I tried to wrap my head around it. She looked at me with concern. “Tonton,” she sounded disbelieving, “I’ve been complaining to you for four straight years. If I had the chance to leave this place, I’ll take it.” I nodded my head since I had nothing left to say. She shook her wrist and watched the pendant gleam under the light. She wrapped her arm around mine. She talked about her plans. She talked of scholarship applications, dormitories, and her tentative schedule. I nodded at the appropriate times. I was still trying to accept it. All I knew was that the world I’ve built, the future I planned for, was swept under the current.
“Come on. Let’s not waste time.”
Later, the fireflies were still flying but the children are being carried by their mothers back, I try to find my Lolo. I found Lolo Gorio first, out sharing a liter of Red Horse with his children. He pointed his lips towards the old church, its light going back on. I nodded at him in thanks. I didn’t trust myself to speak if I do, my voice would crack, just like it was when I was in grade school. I made my way through the revelry and the candy wrappers littered around the floor. I walked up the steps leading to the old church. I had an inkling that he would be there to smoke. Smoking was prohibited during the festival, because it killed the fireflies.
I found him sitting on a stone bench, smoking under a dying mango sapling. I made his way toward him. I sat behind him, feeling the rise and fall of his chest.
“Carmela is leaving to study for Cebu,” I said. Instead of any consolation, Lolo said,
“Good for her.” I thought of asking for a cigarette, but I chased the thought away. Instead, I sat with him in silence, stewing in my own disappointment.
“You believed in those stories, didn’t you? About me and your grandmother?” Lolo broke the silence. I didn’t want to admit to him that I was clinging onto a childish dream, so I stayed silent.
“You know that wasn’t true,” he continued. “Well, not all of it.” Lolo sighed, tossing his spent cigarette on the ground. He took out a pack and lit another one.
“We were about to break up, your Lola and me. We were in a bad place. What we were fighting about, I can’t remember anymore. All I knew was that it was the end. So, I took her to the festival, give her one last happy memory.”
“But the fireflies.”
“Your Lola never knew about the legend. It was only after that she knew. Never really believed in that stuff, Jesuit school girls, you know?
I asked her, after how many years, why she decided to stay with me that night.”
“What did she say?”
“She said that when she saw the fireflies, she saw hope.”
Lolo lit his cigarette with shaking fingers. I looked out onto the plaza, still teeming with life and light.
“I miss Lola,” I said, the words cut through the air.
“Me too, Tonton. Me too.” Lolo’s voice was hoarse, and I felt his whole-body tense beside me.
“Don’t worry though.” He muttered to himself, as though I couldn’t hear. “I’ll be with her soon.”
Then suddenly, my heart tightened as if it was wrung and pried out of my chest. Tears stung in the back of my eyes. Then out of nowhere, the sobs wracked my body. It scared me, how I cried. I remember asking myself, is this it? Is this what heartbreak felt like? Then I felt Lolo’s arms, scooping me from my seat and onto his lap. I felt like a child, clinging to him while he rocked. He patted my back with a surprising gentleness.
When the sobs ebbed, I pried my eyes open. Then I saw it, a single dot of yellow, making its way in the darkness, and then another, and another, and another, and another and another.