By Agnes Marquez
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I was told that this was the pride of a young nation. Stretching just a few kilometers short of two hundred, the Ferrocarril de Manila, with stations from Tutuban in Manila to Dagupan in Pangasinan, was the most modern testament to the Philippines’ taking control of itself. My eyesight was drawn down to watch the grinding metal wheels roll into place. It sent an almost sinful thrill through my body, and I started to imagine what it would feel like if I fell into the tracks. Would it be as quick as knife held above the stove flame for half a minute, then used to cut through butter? Or would I feel the crushing of my bones, the tearing of flesh, and would that moment stretch through eternity? Not that I was possessed by the urge to jump in. Sometimes, well sometimes my mind just drifts to the oddest places.
My hand closed over the small hardbound book in my purse. Tentatively I took out the book. My fingers grazed over the gold letters in flowing script on the cover. The prayer book had been given to me as a farewell present by my favorite teacher upon my graduation. After spending more than half my life in Sta. Isabel, I was ready and aching to return to the world and fully live my life. I would teach the children back home, and help out in the hospitals and parochial schools. I opened the book at the halfway mark and sighed when I saw the miniature of Alberto, staid and formal as he stared at some far off point. I could not wait to see him. Father told me that Alberto was waiting for the two of us to get married. We met once, Father informed me. Long ago, when I was six and he was ten, before I left for school. And then when my parents visited on Christmas Day, those months when we would all live together in a rented house along the River, they told me that Alberto loved me, and that we were getting married when I graduated.
Manang Carmen’s hand on my arm jarred me from my trance. We climbed up the carriage and were directed to our cabin, a black-uniformed young man following closely behind with my two large suitcases. When we settled into our seats, I looked out the window. There was no one to wave me goodbye. I was the last one among my group to leave the school.
Just then, two pieces of paper flew with a gust of wind and settled on the cemented floor of the station, before it was sucked under the train as it rolled forward. My curious eyes wandered to the direction from where those tickets came from, expecting to see a frantic man running after them, or pointing to a station worker where they had fallen to. It was odd though, for all I saw, aside from the crowd happily waving farewell amidst telling tears, was a young woman who stared expressionless at the leaving train, as though not seeing. I frowned at the defeat that I glimpsed before the face blurred, and then I saw her pick up her carpetbag and turn to leave.
“I’m quite sleepy,” Manang Carmen announced. “It’ll be long before we arrive. Why don’t we doze off for a while?”
“You go ahead, tia.” I was much too excited to do anything so mundane as sleep. Within minutes Manang Carmen was so deep in her slumber that even the steady noise of the train lulled her.
My boots brushed against the metal steps, quickly moving up them as the train pulled from the station. Immediately my lungs filled with the scent that had become so familiar over the years; the musky smell of many colognes mixing, of so many people packed together, the scent of coal burning a few carriages up from my own. The rhythm was picking up slowly; wheels gradually turning faster and faster, and, for a minute, I lost myself in the fluid noise emanating from below me.
My boots brushed briefly against the grid metal steps, and my hands quickly grabbed the edge of the door, moving swiftly up the three platforms as the train pulled from the station. Immediately my lungs filled with the scents that had become so familiar over the years; the musky aroma of so many colognes mixing and diffusing into one another, of so many people packed together, of the smoke flooding each carriage as every man seating took out a pouch of tobacco and lit up, inhaling the creamy smoke.
And above all the scent of coal burning a few carriages up from my own. Hot and stagnant, the fumes pouring through the train quicker than it could move forward. I could imagine the sweat pouring down each blackened man as he shoveled more of the fuel into the fire; the heat emanating from each lick of flame, the black droplets of sweat clearing paths of dirty brown on each man's face.
The rhythm was picking up slowly; wheels gradually turning faster and faster, the raw metal pounding into the steel tracks, and, for a minute, I lost myself in the fluid noise emanating from below me. It was as rhythmic as my footsteps just minutes before; pounding along the stone streets, each step colliding with the hard ground, and I hadn't noticed as the afternoon walkers stopped their gentle strolls and stared after me.
Gingerly, I held my fingers to my injured eye as I picked my way through the carriage leading to my own, stepping nimbly over the hardened leather bags and satchels, and the heavy suitcases that blocked the pathway through the crowds of people, but weren't going to be moved even if I had asked.
The thick cloud of smoke cleared briefly as I reached one of the benches, to a few seats which faced each other, and cost a few pesos more. A small boy played innocently with a band of toy metal soldiers, marching them along the thin edge of worn wood that edged the musty windows. His eyes were bright and wide, a scruff of his hair slipping over his forehead as he darted from one soldier to the next and moved his mouth in whispered orders that I couldn't hear.
On the empty seat beside his squirming form, a small box sat, the blank faces of several more figures staring out at me. I forced my eyes from the boy, and he went back to his game of battles or war, small explosions leaving his lips as his mother watched proudly. Forced my eyes from the life I could never claim back, from the boy who was not my son. I could feel the blood on my lip crusting over, forming a scab which I didn't want to appear, and drips of warm blood leaked between my lips to stain red over my teeth, the metallic tang making me gag as I pushed open the hinged wooden door to my own carriage. Though newly christened, it was obvious from inside the train that it had been in use for a long time. In there, the paint was peeling and worn, sandy yellow splintered and scars of terracotta crimson blistered into it, as cat scratches on a fragile arm, red blood leaking over and smearing into skin.
My own carriage was less smoky, filled with a somber, mundane atmosphere as the train chugged noisily through the dull surroundings. An elderly couple leaned comfortably against each other, squashed into space fit for one person, on the crowded benches of the main part of the compartment. Their eyes were closed, but breathing betrayed their supposed sleeping, as each inhaled and exhaled with little fluency or rhythm. Her curly, graying locks brushed the top of her husband's bare head, and their hands met lightly between their bodies. The two merged so much that it was difficult to distinguish where one person ended, and the other begun. Once, I had imagined a life like that; filled with a continuous, never ending love that seeped so much into everyday life that each glance was like a declaration of adoration. But no longer.
I spied my seat; the first of the more expensive, facing chairs nearing the end of the carriage, and facing away from the couple who had now nestled closer together, if such a movement was possible. I pushed my worn bag under the seat, climbed firmly between the luggage and chair, and sat down heavily, leaning my head back and letting a deep breath of relief escape my lips.
A man in a dark suit slipped into the seat in front of ours. I smiled at him and greeted, “Good afternoon. “I was wondering what happened to the occupants of that seat.”
“I was lost,” he gruffly answered to my unspoken question. The man took a harsh breath and leaned his head back. My gaze was drawn to the cut lip and menacing bruise on his eye.
“My name’s Laura.”
“Miguel.” He was silent again, lost in a world all his own. My interest peaked when the man, who had been staring at the scuffed toe of his shoe, clenched his fists at the distinct rumble of the train picking up speed. When with a muttered epithet his head turned, and he craned his neck to gaze back at the Manila station.
"You didn't forget something, did you? Because if it's an emergency, the porter said we can pull that rope, and the train would stop. Do you want me to do it for you? I'm not sure if I can though. It won't be too heavy I hope. Do you want me to?" I repeated.
He looked back at me with such question in his eyes that he appeared rather ridiculous, so I sought to reassure him. "It will not be any bother."
Then reluctantly, his own mouth curled in amusement. "Pulling that cord will be a bother, Laura. I can tell you that right now."
And then I realized what he was trying to tell me. "Yes, yes. I suppose stopping the train might waylay some of those rushing home." He was silent again, and I decided that he was one of those people that Sister Corazon told me about. When the good sister and I spoke, we thought of ways to connect to others, to get them to be open so they would receive grace more easily. "Where are you heading, Miguel?"
"You must be going somewhere. You are here, are you not? I'm going home to be married," I told him, hoping that my effort would not fall into deaf ears. The flicker of his eyes convinced me that he was hearing what I was saying, and that he was listening. "That is what I am looking forward to. I will also be seeing my family soon. How about you, Miguel? What are you looking forward to?"
I nodded. "I learned one must see love in their future to face each tomorrow with a light and hopeful heart," I told him.
"Where did you come from?"
"I've lived in Intramuros since I was six years old."
"And was Eden there and I was not aware of it?"
"I have been lodged in the beaterio." I took a deep breath. "Finally I will be able to go and see my sisters. Father and Mother will meet me at the station in Dagupan. And we will ride home together. I will see my fiancÚ and we can be wed within a month."
"Is that he?" He pointed to the miniature lying on the open prayer book. "He looks like a fine young man."
"Yes, this is Alberto." I picked up the miniature and proudly presented it to him.
"What does he do for a living? He seems too young to be marrying anyone."
"My family's rice lands join theirs."
"Is he responsible? You can never have a man too responsible if he will be a father."
"I suppose he is. My parents would not have agreed with the engagement had he been a wastrel."
His brows furrowed in question. "What do you mean you suppose? You are not sure?"
"Of course I am. Father made sure I know it."
"And you, Laura, are depending on your father to determine that for you," he said slowly. "You have not met him."
"I have. Before I came to Sta. Isabel." I could see his disbelief in his face. I felt the hot blood rush to my cheeks in my indignation. "Alberto loves me. Father told me so," I insisted in a hushed voice, mindful not to wake my tia.
"And that is enough for you."
"I would do everything for a chance at love."
"Why?" he asked me softly.
I could think of no answer to him. "Why not?" I demanded.
An hour after he told me exactly why, I desperately wished she could take back the question and erase his answer from her mind. My insides tightened when he closed his eyes and breathed deeply. When they opened to look back at me, I doubted if he saw me sitting in front of him, or that he was talking to me at all anymore. The haunted shadow before his eyes veiled the man inside.
I shucked my leather boot and spat on the toe, wiping it with a crisp handkerchief. The sweltering heat of the carriage stifled me. Beside me my companion asked, “Are you sure you won’t come along with me? This will be a profitable job.”
“It’s time I paid my debts,” I replied.
“Will it be safe for you? Sta. Maria could still be out hunting you.”
“He doesn’t know I would come here today. It’s likely that he thinks I’m hiding in the provinces, if not abroad.” I alighted at the street corner and waved him on. I passed by the river on the way to the tavern, and the stench of the bulungan market carried in the breeze. Although it was late, the odor was still strong. I resumed my walk down the noisy street.
On one side, a man pissing on a wall waved a half-filled mug in greeting. When he spilled some of the contents on his shirt, he laughed and yelled at me incoherent yet friendly-sounding sentences. It was apparent that he was inebriated. I would have been more surprised had the man been sober at this time of night in the area.
I approached the bar where I had, as a twenty year old ship hand, took my first salary, drowned myself in liquor, and fell in love with the young woman who refilled my mug with beer. The bursts of laughter and relaxed chatter of the occupants reached my ears though I was still several yards away. I sauntered into the room, my eyes at once scanning the place for the familiar figure of Christine.
And there she was, filling glasses with what I suspected was the same chipped pitcher she had always carried with her. As I neared I noticed how she had grown thinner, paler. I made my way towards her, paying no attention to the patrons’ loud conversations. I came for Christine, and I would not pause in my progress towards her.
When she saw me from the end of the room, the pitcher in her hand dropped.. Dimly I thought of how I would hardly recognize the chipped part out of all those pieces on the floor then. I strode towards her and grabbed her trembling hand. Quickly, she regained her wits, pulling me to a corner and her voice whispered to me, harsh and pained. "Two years. Two long years and you come to me now? What else do you want from me?"
My hands reached to cup her face, needing to taste her lips and see if they would compare to the dreams I had created and been haunted by for the past months. Her lips were slack, and for a moment I was surprised as my lips brushed against hrs and felt no surge go through her or passion in her touch. Never one to balk from a challenge, I firmed my hold on her and pressed my lips to hers again. My persistence paid off as her stiff lips softened under mine, and I was living the dreams that had plagued me for months.
“Why did you come back?" She wet her lips, her watchful eyes never leaving mine. She stood their ground and held my gaze.
“For you simply,” I answered. “To give you what I couldn’t the last time. Marry me.”
She would have pushed away from me had I not been able to hold her fast. “You came too late,” she told me. And then she pulled away from me and left me standing there, at a loss. I followed her up the stairs from a backdoor. Outside the bedroom she rented from the owner of the bar I listened to the sound of her sobbing, and decided to leave her her privacy for the moment.
“What was wrong?” I tentatively asked him when he became silent. The sun was starting to set outside, and thankfully soon it would cool. “You came back for her. There was no reason for her to be hostile towards you.”
“There was,” he said. Finally, he handed me back my miniature of Alberto, and I tucked it back inside my prayer book and returned it to my purse. “You see, Christine married someone else while I was gone.”
“Then she betrayed you!”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I sank onto a wooden stool in the empty bar the next morning as Christine picked up discarded mugs and wiped tables dry of spilled beer. “Last night I had to be told by one of the girls that I left you pregnant. And then I was introduced to your husband.”
“Were you here to be told?” she asked in response, slapping my face with that one question. “I married him out of necessity. If it had been--”
“Come away with me,” he interrupted.
“We’ll go some place where no one knows us. Come with me, Christine. It will be as though nothing happened. Will you? Will you show me how much you loved me?”
“It was the passion in my eyes she told me. The fervor in them convinced her to take the leap of faith. We agreed to meet at the train station and together we would search for a place of our own, and we could start over again.”
“But you’re here alone,” Laura said softly.
She was waiting for me at the station. That was all I could think of as I walked down the cobblestone street. My pace picked up as I drew closer one intersecting street to another. I was nearing the jeweler’s, and I tamped down the urge to break into a run towards where I knew she would be.
Someone grabbed me from the alley and threw me against the wall of the store. Light exploded beneath my eyelids and I flexed to fight back, but the cold barrel of the gun on my throat kept me from bounding to my feet. A calm voice in my head told me not to make any quick movements, because Christine was waiting for me, and I could not get killed just when my life was finally settling into place. When my vision cleared I muttered a curse at the sight of Sta. Maria’s face breathing down on me.
“Let me go,” I told him calmly. I ha always learned that you are never supposed to show Sta. Maria any sign of fear, for he would eat you alive. “I have a train to catch.”
“Of course you do. You’re running away, scurrying to some dark place where you can crawl under the way cockroaches do.” His warm spit on my face stung like acid. “I want my money.”
“I don’t have it.”
“Where is it?” he demanded.
“Lino took it to Hong Kong. What do you want with it anyway? We won it from you fair and square.”
The backhanded slamming of his fist into his jaw burst my lip. “The ace slipped out of your sleeve, you piece of shit.”
Rage had always been Sta. Maria’s weakness. When his hold on the pistol eased, I kicked it out of his hand and rolled onto my feet. I ran desperately for the station. Behind me, Sta. Maria yelled threats but did not pursue me because of the many people about. I slowed into a brisk walk, and my mind, though unwilling to accept that I would forever be hounded by this one man, recognized the strength of his threats. I was not going to expose her to this, because this evil was my life, not hers.
He rose to his feet after that. I had been so absorbed by his narration that I did not feel the train slow and stop. When I looked around, night had completely fallen, and he told me that this was his stop. I called out my farewells, and he grabbed the railing and climbed down the metal steps. As the train drew farther and farther away, I craned my neck to watch him get smaller and small, until his figure disappeared completely into the darkness of the night.
I took my prayer book out of my purse and opened it to peer again at the face of Alberto. Someone was staring at me. I could feel the eyes boring into my skin. And then I saw him—a young child peering at me from the other carriage with a figuring clasped in his hand. I had passed his carriage earlier. He was sharing the ride with his parents and another older couple. I supposed that perhaps his parents had fallen asleep. That must be the reason why he was there and not tucked in between them. I smiled at the child, and received a toothless grin in return.
My eyes fell again to Alberto’s unsmiling miniature. I could hardly see it in the dim lighting. Since the moon was full, I held it out the window for light, but the speed of the train produced rough wind in the opposite direction. The miniature slipped out of her fingers and vanished into the night. Beside me, Manang Carmen blinked her eyes and rubbed them clear. She smiled at me and asked what stop was last. When I told her, she nodded, satisfied. “We have almost arrived. Are you quite ready, Laura?”
“Yes, tia. I am.”