March 24, 2008
How Good That Friday Was
(An excerpt from Iceberg, a novel
When the temperature began to rise it threatened to make the barometer explode, trust that Holy Week was here.
That morning, my mother gave me a palaspas, the young leaves of coconut folded and woven to form small globes and arcs, even fingers tapering to the sky. The palaspas would always be yellow green, the color of lemon.
We all went to Mass. The churchgoers were more hushed then usual, striking dutiful poses of piety. A woman was worrying her rosary beads behind me, her eyes tightly closed. Her eyelashes seemed to flutter, like the wings of a butterfly coming out of the cocoon, and I stopped the impulse to touch her trembling eyelashes. My sexy classmate Mariani was standing on the next pew, her fingers forming a steeple. Any moment now, I thought Mariani would raise her hands, spread them apart, and shout “DARNA!,” turning her lacy white dress into Darna’s red silk bikini.
The long sermon of the now white-haired and semi-senile Padre Pelagio made the men look at their watches, to check if their timepieces were dead again. One or two even took off their watches, put them to their ears, and then shook them vigorously. The other men slowly walked out of the chapel, out onto the garden, to smoke. When the Mass was finally over, Padre Pelagio descended from his pulpit, holding a bowl full of holy water. He dipped the censer of the bowl, then sprinkled the water all over the palaspas we had raised for him.
Suddenly the color of the air turned lemony green, humming.
Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. . . The countdown would begin. My grandmother would forbid me from taking a bath until Hesukristo had come back to life. In the comatose heat of summer-sometimes the temperature blasted past 100 degrees – and not taking a bath would be an act enough to expiate for all your sins mortal, venial, and in-between; done in the past, present, and future; whether committed in your waking life or on the slippery landscapes of your dream.
We usually stayed home on Good Friday, listening to the Seven Last Words on the radio with circuitous and flowery explanations from the politicians, their voices grainy with sorrow. Or we would go to church. While there, I would pretend I was listening to the seven generals of the air base explain for us Jesus Christ’s seven last words before He was hung on the cross.
They would all be there:
1. The General who had a mistress in every town within a radius of 50 kilometers.
2. The General who headed Finance and Logistics and, of course, would line his pockets first than requisition new combat boots for the men murdering the Muslims in Mindanao.
3. The General who wore all the medals (spurious or not) he had won, gleaming like bottle caps on his chest.
4. The General who had cornered the forest concession for the still-virginal forest on the edge of town, on the slopes of the Zambales Mountain ranges. He headed the Environmental program of the base.
5. The General who was the “think-tank” behind the Cultural Minorities Integration Program of the base, but who had all the virgins from the cultural minorities brought to his house. Then he would rape them and sell them to Madame Uring, Ermita’s reigning pimp.
6. The General who was turned on by the smell of gunpowder and blood. He led the expedition that torched the southern town of Jolo, burning everything-men, women, children; bud, flower and fruit-to banish the brave, freedom-loving Muslims, on whose sharp, fatal kris--double-edged swords that can decapitate cleanly and swiftly--the sun glinted.
7. The General who said he did not intend to die. Thus, the main road was named after him, the park after his wife, and the three commissary buildings after each of his sons.
But enough of this game of the generals!
And so we spent one Good Friday in San Fernando. My father was driving; my mother sat beside him, determined to be poised even if the strong wind blasting from the window was strong enough to crumple her red bandanna. I sat at the back.
I looked outside-sugar-cane fields stretching into infinity, nipa huts and wooden houses roasting in the sun, a warm hush over everything. I went with them because there was nothing else to do. Incorrigible kibitzer that I was, I also wanted to see Daniel Rexroth Jr. have himself nailed on the cross.
As my father put it, Daniel had a panata, a yearly vow, to have himself hanged until his American G.I. father, who returned to the United States just before Daniel was born, would return to the P.I., the Philippine Islands of old. And like the great General Douglas MacArthur, the father would return and spring Daniel from the nails of poverty with an American visa, preferably immigrant, and then on to the Kingdom of Citizenhood.
The nailing on the cross was held in the middle of the barren rice fields in Barangay Pedro Cutud, San Fernando, in the insane heat of summer. Gathered around Daniel were shirtless men with their faces covered with cloth. Earlier, they had used broken glass to slit their backs. Afterward, they deepened the wounds by flagellating their backs with whiplashes made of rope tipped with split bamboo. Shards of glass were also glued to the ropes. The whoosh! of the whiplashes biting against skin, their backs a merthiolate color, the blood even splattering on the passersby.
And then there was Daniel. It was a good show, all right, with Daniel wincing and his hands dripping blood and the Americans recording everything with their video cameras. But I walked away from the rice field toward our jeep, telling myself that when I grow older, I would spend my Holy Week in Sagada and watch the fog erase everything, hut, hill, and mountain; or walk on the calm beaches of Palawan, as the sun drowned.