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Fiction / Short Stories

How Sitio San Roque Turned into a Garden

Everything in the dilapidated houses has been sitting on the same place for many years that if one lifts an object, its shadow will refuse to leave the surface. Except that there’s no one to do that now. Everything – not only in the houses but in the whole sitio where the houses stand limply – everything there is dew, devoid of any human presence. Debris that has fallen from the ceiling is covered with dew. Vines that creep throughout the debris are covered with dew. Flowers that grow from the vines are covered with dew. Everything there is dew. Fogs that never cease to float over the land. And plants. Especially plants.

The vast expanse of flowers is unbearable to see. They crawl across the ruins, unforgiving to the slits on the floor, the amakan holes, or the cracks on the doors, replacing window frames with thick bushes, trapped underneath pieces of furniture, dominating tin roofs to cover their rusts, all of them growing without discipline. One cannot ascertain if they’re ugly or beautiful. Sprouting from faucet mouths, holes of abandoned toilet bowls, or ribcages of goat carcasses, they’re chaotic, as if every petal is in disagreement. Even the most well-versed of all mathematicians cannot make out a clear pattern that dictates their growth. 

Sitio San Roque, despite its vibrant colors, has lost contact with any living individual. It has become so desolate sunrays refuse to touch it. The nearest house one could find is rivers away from the barbed wires that fence the solitary village – fence that the local government unit needs to expand every year as vines creep outwards, reaching the most immediate civilization. Everyone knows about the deceitful flowers and why the last thing one would desire to do is touching an inch of their deceitful petals. The signage “Sitio San Roque” dangles from the entrance of the now roofless chapel like a warning sign which quite a number of curious strangers have ignored. A well-known botanist, for example, attempted to study the plants despite the refusal of the barangay captain to permit him. Few days after, the same barangay captain had to order several of his tanod to retrieve the botanist’s body hanging from a beam on a house’s ceiling. His eyes were full of despair and until now they remain open despite being buried, his body resisting to decay. Bodies do not decay when they die of sadness, this is an unfortunate lesson residents of Sitio San Roque had to learn so arduously.

At the Barangay office, the secretary keeps all of Sitio San Roque’s records, that which the sitio leader had scribbled the night before they vanished. This is one’s only access to what really happened in the village, for there was not a single resident that could give a reliable account. From the records, one will discover that it all started with a woman named Merlie, mother of Bernard and wife of Tiago who was an NPA soldier.

After learning that her husband died in an encounter, Merlie locked herself in her room for one week and three days, refusing to eat despite her son Bernard’s constant knocking. At night, Bernard would hear her muffled crying and how in between sobs, she would call her husband’s name. 

Several days after, noticing the tip of cadena de amor slithering through the slit between the door and the bamboo flooring, Bernard finally knocked the door down with his own shoulder only to discover his mother lying on a banig, wearing the house dress she had been wearing one week and three days before, already surrounded by tiny pink petals. Merlie was so distressed flowers grew on everything she touched. They sprouted so immensely, crawling throughout the floor, exiting through the gaps between the bamboo slats or climbing throughout the amakan walls to reach the roof from where they hang to fill the room, choking it without mercy. 

This was when houses in Sitio San Roque still stood with life and sunrays could still reach them. There were only around thirty houses, arranged into two parallel columns amidst the congregations of cacao trees, separated by a long stretch of road to which every house faced, sodium lampposts on both ends and in the middle. Each house was surrounded by a bamboo fence, the existence of which purely ceremonial, for there wasn’t really anything to protect, and even with the fences, a resident could freely go in whoever’s backyard without the owner being threatened by his presence. The sitio was so small everyone knew everybody, that everyone could smell what everybody was cooking, that, upon hearing Bernard’s repressed wailing that day, residents started to gather around Merlie’s house to see what was happening. Bernard was initially too preoccupied with the flowers he did not immediately notice his mother was no longer moving and, after shaking her, yanking her shoulder when her eyes remained closed, Bernard realized she was already dead, vines coiled tightly around her neck to choke her.

The first to get into the house was Sitio Leader Hilario, and the sitio’s albularyo, ‘Nong Bansoy. In incidents like this, the records say they always came together. Wherever one was, the other was also there. This was because most cases in Sitio San Roque that needed solving had more to do with infants coughing up earthworms, for mud, instead of milk, came out of their mothers’ breasts; or an old man whose armpit hair would not stop growing; or elementary kids eating chalks; than cases of theft or brawl during cockfights or husbands coveting their neighbors’ wives – these were cases Hilario, the sitio leader, could easily solve. But cadena de amor sprouting on spaces touched by a mourning woman necessitated ‘Nong Bansoy, probably the first man in Sitio San Roque, too old no one knew his age, too old he needed to look up and stretch his neck to down his food, for the muscles in his throat had failed to perform the swallowing for him.

While Hilario was consoling young, now parentless Bernard in the sala, the albularyo walked back and forth in Merlie’s room, trying not to touch an inch of the flowers. He was thinking, face furrowed, scratching a nonexistent itch on his right elbow. Several minutes after, he went out of the room to make a declaration.

“It’s contagious.”

Looking at Bernard, he asked, “‘Nard, did you touch the flowers?”

Hilario glanced at Bernard, then at ‘Nong Bansoy, then back at the now spacing out young man. No one of them dared open their mouth to talk.

“‘Nard,” he nudged Bernard, but as soon as Bernard removed his hand from the glass quarter-full of turmeric that Hilario had given to calm him down, flower vine grew from its surface, creeping to the table and toward the Sitio leader who had jolted in shock, avoiding the plant that now slithered on the floor like a snake seeking its prey.

The day after, they would find Bernard dead. In the same manner as his mother. For the first time, says the records, the Sitio would be burying two dead people in a single day.

Everyone was so troubled by the incident there was no time for mourning. Men started burning Merlie’s house in the hopes of altogether extinguishing the plants that grew throughout the structure. Where Merlie’s house once stood, there were only ashes sunrays had learned to avoid, for they expel the excesses of sadness.

“Don’t worry,” ‘Nong Bansoy consoled Hilario as they talked over tuba the night after the burial. “The past, like an ember, will extinguish itself.”

That was what he always told the sitio leader when they could not solve a problem. That was also what he told him when Hilario’s wife died a few years ago after trying to measure the sun without leaving the earth. She went blind and started breathing through her skin until she lost her heartbeat despite ‘Nong Bansoy’s efforts to resuscitate her. The albularyo honestly told him it was nature’s punishment to her for seeking truth beyond man’s comprehension. But don’t worry, the past will extinguish itself like an ember, he said to the mourning sitio leader.

After drinking his last glass of tuba, Hilario watched as Sitio San Roque put itself to sleep. The past only fades, but does not entirely extinguish itself, he wanted to tell ‘Nong Bansoy. Every time Hilario saw his daughter Rowena, he would see his wife, and he could only sigh to let out his sadness. Rowena, the most delicate, fine-looking lady in the whole sitio, the lady who could make every resident shed tears whenever she led the rosary, carried a desolate past with her.

“What are you thinking?” ‘Nong Bansoy asked as he covered the gallon of tuba. They had had enough of it to make themselves sleep.

“Those flowers,” Hilario said. “They’re beautiful, aren’t they, ‘Nong?”

‘Nong Bansoy nodded. “But they have no odor. They’re beautiful, but they have no odor.”

‘Nong Bansoy seemed to be correct about the past extinguishing itself like an ember, for two months after, on the first day of May, people seemed to have already moved on from Merlie and Bernard’s demise. Residents no longer stop to examine the ashes on the ground where Merlie’s house once stood. Family suppers were no longer littered by talks about what could have caused their unfortunate ending. Even Hilario, the sitio leader, had found new problems to deal with, although they were quite as miniscule as repairing the chapel’s roof or amicably settling a fight between two mothers who could not figure out the ownership of mango fruits borne by a tree that grew on one’s backyard but reached the other.

It was the first day of May, alright, and children were busy going out of their houses every morning to pick up flowers for the Flores de Mayo. Hilario’s daughter, Rowena, who was most affected by the recent deaths of Merlie and Bernard, led the vigils, so she, too, had a lot on her plate she no longer mourned at night.

No one – not even ‘Nong Bansoy the albularyo – no one but a boy named Jerome knew, rather accidentally, that the remnants of the past could be found at the cemetery, in the exact space where Merlie and Bernard were buried. Unlike other children, this boy Jerome had no mother to make a garden for him, so he usually strolled around stealing from other house’s gardens or picking one from the chapel. That first day of May, he reached the cemetery by chance and immediately discovered a bush of gumamela growing in one spot. Surrounded by amor seco grasses, the bush looked like it was not in its appointed place, like a misplaced treasure. Underneath, unbeknownst to the curious kid, lied Merlie and Bernard side by side, refusing to decay.  

Jerome, the motherless child, approached the bush with awe, then started picking all the flowers he could until they filled his basket. He had never brought flowers in the Flores de Mayo as plenty as he had that day.  Sooner at the chapel during the vigil, Jerome knelt among the children to pray the rosary and shower the statue of Mama Mary with petals as they sang Ave Maria. He went home, smile flashed across his face, but later that day, he was to remember his dead mother. He would remember her face and wish that he, too, had just died with her.

Hilario was rubbing his daughter’s back as she sobbed and sobbed, blaming herself for the incident. Seventeen children joined the vigil, and she asked all of them to clean the petals that they showered around Mama Mary’s statue. All seventeen of them, their parents reported, had a hard time sleeping. If not sobbing, they instead stared into space as if expecting some distant visitor. 

Luckily, no mother touched the flowers, knowing precisely what happened to Merlie and her son Bernard. But the records say Hilario had to order the isolation of all seventeen children in the unfinished kindergarten classroom just behind the chapel. Mothers were by the window watching their kids, but they could not get close to them. They could only stand there like spectators to a gypsy show, seeing them sit on old, empty paint buckets as they stared at the ceiling, washing their faces with tears, remembering a dead mom, remembering a dead dog, remembering a lost toy, remembering an old wound – the remembrance of all things so infinitesimally significant causing an abundant amount of sorrow. The growing blue ternate plants became their blankets, their tears became the blue ternate plants’ nutrition, and their sobbing became the sitio’s lullaby that put no mother to sleep. 

Looking at the children, Rowena the sitio leader’s daughter arrived at a realization that everyone was born sad the same way everyone was born with the original sin, that even kids the age of Jerome hid inside them a lump of sadness that could grow into an all-consuming beast when some unknown lever was pulled. She looked at them from the screened window and wanted to apologize to each of them despite her father’s constant reassurance that she was not at fault. The children were growing thin, appearing small amid the abundance of leaves and stems and petals.

By the time the children were quarantined, ‘Nong Bansoy the albularyo had decided to leave Sitio San Roque in search for a cure. No one, including him, really knew where he was going, but everyone was sure the wind would take him to wherever the answer was. ‘Nong Bansoy never came back to the sitio without a solution. But as he went away that day, he waved Hilario goodbye with the tone of uncertainty. 

“This may take a while,” said the albularyo. “I hope you can manage.”

Hilario, devoid of words, could only nod. He looked at the albularyo limping away, bringing only a container of tuba for sustenance, whistling a song unheard before. Hilario looked away only when ‘Nong Bansoy faded into a dot from afar. 

Night after night, Hilario awoke in the hopes of hearing ‘Nong Bansoy’s knocking. But good news never arrived. One night, what awoke him was a wailing. A mother was shouting her child’s name. Hilario scampered to the door and went out of the house to examine what was happening, already constructing inside his head the most appropriate response to a grieving mother.

Susan, the records say, was the most envious among all of the sitio’s residents. When she discovered her neighbor had bought new curtains, she sewed her own curtains, too. She put up her own sari-sari store and made sure it was larger than anyone else’s in the sitio. Hilario remembered settling a fight between her and another woman over whose breasts were bigger. So after the sitio buried her son – her son who she protected so much not even a mosquito had ever landed on his face – Susan did what she thought every mother would do.

She went one night at the kindergarten classroom bringing the bamboo pole her husband used to roast pig. She let it lean on the classroom’s jalousie windows, just enough for one of its ends to touch the tendrils of yellow bell flowers. She watched over the sleeping children, their chests heaving in time with the music of the cicadas, their hands resting on the ocean of leaves and petals. Between two of the children, there was a gap where Susan’s son used to sleep. No longer there but the kids were still making room for him. She turned her back, crying, knowing that the morning after, the vines shall have coiled around the bamboo pole, reaching the ground, crawling across the unfinished playground. Susan knew, by the time she awoke, the flowers shall have had a much larger room for their sprouting. By then, her sadness shall not only be hers alone. That night, however, as she walked away from the classroom, everyone in the sitio, the children included, was still sleeping soundly. That night, the stretch of road that parted the houses of Sitio San Roque was free from the pang of the blooms. The last night it could enjoy its stillness.

First, there was the sun’s avoidance. During sunrise, sunbeams would spread across the land only to end as soon as it barely touched a tendril. Sitio San Roque had since then turned into a shadow. Then, every affected resident displayed extreme paleness as though all colors were sucked by the flowers that never stopped sprouting despite the lack of nutrition. Even bees were unwilling to land on their chilling petals. Finally, there was the unbearable wailing. A chorus of sobbing. A litany of cries. A mourning even without a funeral.

The growth of the plants that started in the kindergarten classroom ended lingering in each house’s fence so that the morning after Susan’s revenge – which she later on regretted after seeing the severity of her action – residents found a mesh of hydrangeas, santan, bougainvillea, and peach orchids rising up from the road, tangling around the bamboo slats, and making their way into their backyards. They were beyond repair. Beyond destruction. And mothers became so worried about their children they went out running to the kindergarten classroom without caring so much about the leaves brushing against their elbows. And husbands became so worried about their wives they, too, went out chasing after them without anything to protect their skin. A tragedy preceded by panic. 

Only the hearts of the most careful were left unaltered after a series of contagion, among them were Sitio Leader Hilario and his daughter Rowena, for they neither have children nor spouse to chase after. But both of them felt equally desolate as if they, too, had faced the consequences of the virulent curse. 

Hilario now deemed the children’s isolation useless, so they were freed from the classroom and were made to share the same roofs as their families who were now growing vineyards inside of their homes. Residents were too sad to go to work, too sad to eat, too sad to go to the chapel on Sundays. The chapel, too, had turned into a garden. Blooms had pulled themselves to its entrance, exploring the altar, wreathing about the statue of San Roque, of Mama Mary, of Jesus – the holiest of holies smothered by the greenery. Still, Susan would carefully bang the chapel’s bell in the hopes of calling the residents for the Celebration of the Word, but sadness defeats prayers, as Hilario scribbled in the records.

“Papa, are we being punished?” Rowena asked Hilario one night during supper. “‘Nong Bansoy said Mama was punished for chasing knowledge humans do not deserve, what have we done to deserve this punishment?”

Hilario stopped chewing and turned to look at his daughter. Consumed by confusion, she had not touched her food. Hilario cleared his throat to answer.

“Maybe we’re not being punished,” he said. “Maybe we’re being tried.”

“Tried for what?” his daughter asked instantly. “What is it that we need to learn and why do we need to learn it so laboriously?”

“We don’t understand the workings of God, Rowena.”

Rowena sighed. She managed to feed herself with a slice of fish before speaking again.

“Sometimes, ‘Pa, I think God himself does not understand His own workings, too.”

“Don’t say that.”

“For why do things happen so randomly, ‘Pa? As if for no reason?”

“There is always, Rowena.”

“He could at least help us understand.”

“You’re tired.”

“Have you and ‘Nong Bansoy not worked hard enough to keep this Sitio intact to deserve this difficult trial? What’s happened to my praying the rosary every day?”

“Susan, finish your food.”

“Papa, maybe we’re paying for other people’s sins because God could not make other people pay for them.”

At that point, Hilario put down his spoon against the tin plate to create a sharp clank that ended their conversation and made Susan bow her head down, realizing only at that time how disrespectful she might have been. Nothing was said afterward. Rowena washed their plates and Hilario remained at the table to smoke tobacco. Everything was so quiet they could hear each other’s exhausted breathing, that the scrunching of the lush vines outside was suddenly audible.

Rowena uttered good night before finally going to her room. Had Hilario known that was their last conversation, he would have responded, but he was lost in the abyss of his thoughts.

Rowena’s did not come from an external source. It was not something she acquired from distributing glasses of turmeric tea to affected residents in the hopes of calming all of them down or from reading stories to children in the hopes of cheering them up. It stemmed from within her. She did not turn sad because others were but because she was. It was something sitting inside of her for a long time, way before her argument with Hilario, way before the kids acquired the curse, way before the demise of Merlie and her son, planted the day they buried her mother, its growth repressed by her rosaries. But sadness defeated prayers. Hilario one morning just found his daughter stroking the blanket draped over her abdomen. He watched the begonia flowers blossoming from the spaces she had touched, and opening their petals to the ceiling like a sign of surrender.

Overtaken by anger, Hilario grabbed the bolo that had long been unused and hidden in the cupboard, stormed out of his house waving the rusty object – cutting all the stems that came along his way – and arrived panting in the chapel that was now an unmaintained greenhouse more than a place for worship. He looked at the lifeless statues with their still eyes that seemed to follow his trail as he walked over the inching plants. He cursed San Roque, their patron saint, and the dog that sat beside him to lick his wounds. He cursed Mama Mary without which there would not have been a flores de mayo. He cursed Jesus for punishing them for a sin he was not sure they really committed because all their lives they had been praying the rosary and abandoning all their works each Sunday to come praise His greatness. One by one, with his bolo, Hilario shattered the statues to dusts, taking pleasure at the sound of the porcelain smashing against the floor, for it is only through the blasphemy of men that we make gods our equal, as he wrote in the records that night before their exile from the sitio. When all the statues had crumbled to pieces, he heard a coughing fit from behind him. 

Seeing the almost unrecognizable figure in the doorframe, Hilario wondered if he would laugh at the thought of God answering his plea only right after profanities had been uttered inside His temple or detest Him vehemently for spending too long a time to give a solution. 

It was ‘Nong Bansoy. He arrived with a stench one could smell only from the whitewash of an old tomb. His breath was so bad when he coughed Hilario could get a whiff of it from several feet away. It was only when he walked closer that the Sitio Leader noticed how the old man, who had aged so much his collar bones could tear his skin apart, seemed to have shifted his head upside-down, for the white hair that his scalp lacked grew in abundance around his chin. And when ‘Nong Bansoy was finally only a few inches away, Hilario could only feel sorry for the wrinkles that hugged his skull. His face did not look like skin but a thin coating to the bone’s surface. ‘Nong Bansoy, with much effort, rested his palm on the Sitio Leader’s shoulder, opening his mouth and was seemingly surprised by the words that came out of his own thin lips, for this was the first time he spoke since that distant morning he abandoned the Sitio.

“As long as there is nothing to remember, there is nothing to lament,” he said without further explanation, and Hilario nodded without question, for he had understood what the old albularyo meant. “Tomorrow, before the sun reveals itself, we leave.”

Then, the old man went out, and when he arrived home, he lied down to stir up the specks of dust on his bed and slept soundly as though he had only returned from buying vinegar at the nearest store. Outside the stillness of his home, a small piece of paper was being passed from one household to another to announce their supposed departure and tell everyone to pack everything they could for they would be going to a place that would promise healing. And while Susan was stirring the coffee that had turned cold, while Jerome was picking up zinnia petals only to grow them again, while Rowena was drowned in tears remembering the long-ago death of her mother, Hilario was in his room rummaging for files that he had been keeping since his first term as sitio leader. He placed folders after folders of amicable settlement records, memorandums, resolutions, solicitation forms, and notices one on top of another and started writing without pause.

Hilario did not know if he – if they – could bear the consequence of forgetting, if he could take the company of a daughter who could not recognize him. With the same persistence with which he settled fights and solved budgetary problems, he recounted in detail everything that had led them to such misfortune, and, hoping to immortalize the connections residents once shared, scribbled in margins the tangling webs of familial and social relations. In footnotes, Hilario noted what each family owned, from livestock to farming equipment, and patiently wrote all occurrences mundane and bizarre that Sitio San Roque had surpassed: marriages, festivals, fist fights, cockfights, Kapre sightings, sigbin appearances. Hilario wrote so restlessly his fingers turned numbed, and the side of his palm left a dent one could still make out several years after on the stack of the now tawny paper. So engrossed was Hilario to his work all night that he had not glimpsed even one second at his grieving daughter who was reaching her parched tonsils with her two fingers and with the same finality as the periods with which her father ended his sentences. Hilario was still writing when Rowena’s throat was paralyzed by the roots that dug deep into the flesh. He was still writing when the first sprouts dragged themselves along the linings of her respiratory organs. When hydrangeas began to fill Rowena’s trachea, Hilario did not hear her final coughing, for he was still writing in the hopes of immortalizing a memory that would benefit everyone but his now deceased daughter.

That morning, just before sunrise, Hilario and the rest of the sitio left the place that cradled them for years. They walked in one line like pilgrims, their heads bowed and their arms shivering in an attempt to conceal their loneliness. Each of them carried things and properties that were of importance. Susan brought her son’s blanket, Jerome had his mother’s necklace, ‘Nong Bansoy carried his gallon of tuba, and a number brought their domesticated cocks and hogs, their Sunday’s bests, and their altar displays. Hilario brought nothing – neither his daughter’s body nor the stack of paper he filled with words in one night. There was not even enough time to bury Rowena, and not enough time to change his mind about the unimportance of remembering. Hilario, at the last minute, thought it was better to forget, to extinguish the past altogether and abandon the thought of a dead wife or a dead daughter. 

It was not until several months after that authorities found the records that are now kept hidden in the secretary’s cabinet, opened very rarely just so termites could not feed on the pages. Aside from what were scribbled on the records, little was known about Sitio San Roque. Some information were obtained by piecing together artifacts found in the ruined sitio, but no one could ascertain where the residents are now. Some said they had started a new civilization near a river that had no name, some guessed they had died after forgetting to carry out the most fundamental parts of life like eating and communicating, and others predicted they had dispersed on different parts of the earth, and that some of them – and the generations that came after them – might have run into one another by chance without knowing that in a distant past, they lived in the same village. They could be anywhere, and from time to time, for reasons unknown, they could still feel an outpour of sadness over things that are way beyond their own understanding. 


This literary piece is part of Katitikan Issue 3: (Re) Imaginations.

By Reil Benedict Obinque

Reil Benedict Obinque was a writing fellow at the 2014 Davao Writers Workshop, the 57th Silliman University National Writers Workshop, and the 25th Iligan National Writers Workshop. His works appeared in Dagmay Literary Journal, Philippines Graphic, and The Manila Times. He currently teaches Calculus at the Ateneo de Davao University Senior High School.

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