The Book of Salamat: April 2009
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Twenty Pesos  

Friday, April 24, 2009

A rattling sound of a small bell welcomed their arrival to a public market. After they had stepped out of the bus, the first thing she did was scan the alley between the market and the shoulder of the highway. That high pitch bell announced of something so familiar to her, and her eyes was looking for it in which her mind already knew.

There it was, she found it, right next to the public kiosk, right before the surrounding gleeful children. She turned to check if her mother was looking at it, too, so it would be easier for her to make her buy one cone. But her mother was looking straight ahead, oblivious to the alluring chanting of the tiny bell, or at least she appeared to be. She wanted to pull her mother's hand towards the inviting ice cream cart, but her mother overwhelmed her and pulled her instead towards the unkempt, overcrowded interior of the public market.

They walked inside towards the meat section, a basket made of rattan swayed beside her as they waded through the crowd. Her mother released her other hand when they stopped near the end of a long row of tiled unbroken tables. Beef and dressed chickens scattered all over the tables, and parts of pigs hanged still from the long iron bar that ran parallel above the tables. Smell of blood and stale flesh and foul liquids hovered in the air, almost made her puke.

The fat woman with a dull blue apron wrapped around her, which she guessed was one of the vendors behind the long tables, flashed a grin when she saw them. Her mother smiled, too, and greeted each other while she just stood there observing the crowd, the place, the shouting, and the offering and bargaining that polluted the already foul air.

"Is that your youngest, Irene?" the fat woman asked her mother with a voice a little louder than the surrounding noise.

"Yes," her mother replied. "She won't stop asking until I bring her along with me."

"Look at her, she's taller than the last time I saw here. How old is she now?"

"She's eight."

The woman looked down at her and smiled exorbitantly. "Hello, sweetie. What a beautiful girl you've become, honey. You still remember me?"

She responded with a coyly smile and a shaking head. Her mother told her nothing about this woman.

The woman went back to her mother and, in the middle of buying and selling, they were both engrossed by their adult chitchat.

The fat woman handed her mother a plastic filled with chicken wings and pork meat, and followed with yet another exchange of gossip.

When she heard something she didn't understand from their conversation, she lightly pulled twice her mother's long skirt.

Her mother turned her head and looked down. "What is it?"

Casually, she asked, "What is a third party?"

Her mother glanced at the vendor, who giggled and shook her head, and then looked back at her and said, "It's nothing, honey. It's a word that only grown up people talk about."

Her mother and her friend continued talking, but this time their voices were slightly hushed. As her mother handed a hundred peso bill to the woman, she heard yet another new word from the latter. She pulled her mother's skirt again.

"What is it?"

"What's a hoar?"


"She said, 'she's a big hoar'. What does it mean?"

Her mother's friend chuckled at her innocence. And she didn't like it. She didn't like the way she laughed. She didn't like her laughing at her. She didn't like her mother's friend. Cautious yet uncertain, she tucked herself closed to her mother's right side, and instinctively gripped her mother's hand. And she stood there staring questioningly at the flabby woman.

Her mother, who grinned along, said to her, "Honey, this is a conversation between two adults, OK? And ---wait, here ---" She fished something from her skirt's left pocket.

She heard the rattling of nickels in her mother's shallow skirt pocket, and turned her head slightly toward where she heard it. The pinched fingers of her mother flew from the pocket to the smirking space before her, and then her mother freed the three 1 peso coins, which landed splendidly to her wide opened right palm.

Her excitement leapt. Her shy face revealed her smile and, in her mind, the floating image of the grainy ice cream enticed her once again. She gave to her mother the rattan basket and, with her fist shut tightly the three coins inside, she ran as fast as she could towards the portable ice cream cart outside.

She waited in line, but when it was about her turn she remembered something. As the boy before her paid his scoop of ice cream, she was just standing there fighting over a decision.

She had made a promise to herself. And she didn't want to break it. She told herself to buy something only if she asked money from her parents. But today she was not asking for it. Her mother gave it to her, just like those many times in the past. And she shouldn't spend them; she had to place them somewhere where she had put those other coins.

The face of the vendor beamed as she looked at him. She peered over the opened aluminum lid, and saw three beckoning colors of inviting ice cream that smelled of mango and chocolate and vanilla. Her eyes glowed and her mouth watered as the cold vapor met her face. And as she was about to give the man her coins, the other barefoot kids rushed toward the ice cream cart from nowhere, their arms heaved their money in the space before the man, and vied for his attention. The man instead entertained the more eager children. She freed herself from the tempting call. She stepped back, turned around, and thrust herself out the small throng of frenzied young crowd.

Along the way back to their house, her mother asked what she had done with the money. She told her she wasn't hungry, and that she was keeping them. And as soon as they arrived home, she dashed inside, up a flight of stairs, and into her room.

She was excited and happy that her savings were increasing. Last week, her mother gave her five-peso coin, and two weeks before that she had dropped two peso coins and two twenty-five cents. Last month she had saved nine pesos and fifty cents. She lied on her bed facing the ceiling above, her mind a dream of beautiful dress and pints of ice cream. But what her young mind didn't see was that her every attempt to free her mind and speak of those words she'd been keeping inside were muffled by the worldly value of her mother's coins.

After some time she stood and grabbed her peggy bank. And through the thin slit along the center top of it, she peeked to estimate her rather accumulated price.

--- END ---

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Eden of Angels (PART 1 of 3)  

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

(NOTE: The title is the name of the Shelter described in the story. The story is divided into 3 parts to avoid eye sore that would have been caused by unnecessarily long page. To understand the purpose of the insertion of different paragraphs, please read the whole 3 parts. The last part gives a clearer point for it...)

All the ten children in the isolated room called Cherubim were quiet and slack most of the time that morning, and all the three hours that afternoon. So far. Days like this were rare but relieving, and every time they came, they came falling softly like rainshower, their water poured into her such blissful, momentary ecstasy. She dreamed of days like this, but she knew they seldom fall.

She looked at her wristwatch. 3:06 P.M., it said. She darted her eyes from the shiny silver frame of her Timex to the other social worker at the other end of the rectangular room, sitting at the edge of Theresa's bed, the troubled, mentally and physically imperfect 17 year-old girl with extreme history of physical abuse from her biological parents. Ricarda, her only partner in the quarter, was gently brushing Theresa's hair. She was softly talking to Theresa, and the girl giggled from time to time, her voice sounded stifled but her laughter was pure and contagious.

The stream of light from the sun outside flowed through the big, grilled window into Theresa's feet, spotlighting their happy swinging in the space below her bed. When Theresa's eyes met hers, the girl gave a grin from where her delight radiated into the room, calming the curtain of dusts that streamed along the rays of the sun.

She held the girl's gaze for some time, and then looked around once more. After making sure everybody's behaving good, she spoke to Ricarda. "I'm starving. I need to go to the kitchen. Be back in ten."

Her partner nodded, not wanting to spoil the girl's frolicking in her own shangri-la. The rubber hairbrush slipped from the girl's darting hands, and she wailed. Ricarda hurriedly stooped to pick it and gave it back to her.

She stood there by the doorway, feeling the possible influx of emotional torrent. When she felt certain none would come, she turned around and headed for the kitchen.

Jemma closed her umbrella, which she used to shield herself from the scorching, inconsiderate sun. She removed her fake Gucci sunglasses and put it inside her shoulder bag, and then rapped at the door. About two meters directly above her, a huge sign painted in white hang monotonously, its bored frame hunger for attention. On it were fading letters in blue that declared boldly the name of the Shelter. With the sun glaring high above, she dared not look up to read the words painted across the tin sheet.

The house had no upper floors, but it was cascading sideways to both sides. The beige paint on the wall was peeling off, and all the windows were barred with window grills. The window panes made of flat, white shells which appeared like frozen prisoners awaiting deliverance. Weeds grew high near the perimeter fence, and dried leaves cluttered across the front lawn, some of them crushed below her weight, their light crushing sound screamed of anguish. There were no stairs that led to the main door, and she suspected there would be none in the entire building. The alley that led to the main street were badly cemented, and there were not much public transport passing by outside. She had the feeling it would be like this all the time.

The neighborhood was still. She could hear no voices from the vicinity and from the inside of the building before her. The Shelter stood amid a badly manicured vast lawn, among residences that were ignoring its presence.

The door opened. A slender, expressionless woman in her mid-thirties emerged.

She sat by the table, on a chair closest to the kitchen door. The still air in the kitchen carried nostalgic quietude, which was briefly disturbed by the faint ceramic clicking of the stainless steel spoon against the inner wall of the cup. Andrea, another social worker and one of the six women that took care of the thirty-three children in the Seraphim Room, was preparing herself a coffee.

"Looks like unusually quiet today, huh," Andrea broke the silence.

She straightened up and grabbed her cup of hot tea. "Yeah. I noticed, too," she remarked, and took a sip.

Andrea, a 38 year-old single woman from the nearby town, walked toward the table, grabbed a chair next to hers, and sat.

"But it's kinda not the type of day we need," Andrea continued as she placed the cup on the table. Without looking at her, Andrea spoke in a voice full of broken drama, "Feel your fear when calm days come, for in their quietude their eyes glare and snarl a sinister foreboding."

The quip on her forehead announced her confusion. "Meaning?"

Andrea took a bite from her sandwich, and then glanced at her with raised eyebrows.

Reading her colleague's expression, she opted herself to interject. "I'm not good at interpretations."

"You haven't heard?"

The steam rose like gods from the teacup and delivered into her nostril the aroma of relaxing jasmine. The quip in her forehead wrinkled. "Heard what?"

Andrea's eyes narrowed as she expressed knowingly, "Oh, I can see how you've become involved with these children. You've gone way far from the first day you came here. This place is already flowing in your veins, yes, that you lost contact to people around you."

Andrea was two years ahead of her in the Shelter. She could still clearly remember how Andrea would laugh at her adjustments and frown at her mistakes. But things gradually changed, or she had gradually become used to it.

"You still aren't telling me."

Andrea was ignoring her; instead, she went on, "But then again, we all are. It's just a matter of time before it slowly dry into flakes and fall off our hair."

"I'm not keeping any promises. That can happen anytime, if I want to. If I have to."

Andrea watched her eat the Skyflakes cracker. After a while, Andrea said, "Estella is resigning."

The weight of such word caused the sinking of the news overtly thudding.

She went silent, and pondered. After a while, she remarked, "She's breaking it. She can't take hold of everything anymore, but I can't blame her. The pressure is too heavy for her, you know, the lurking annulment."

"I feel sorry for her. We know how much she loves it here."

"But she choose to save her marriage, and her family. There's nothing greater than that."

"God bless her."

"Hi," she flashed a smile as she extended her right hand to the woman who opened the door. "I'm Jemma Bermoy. I'm here for the ten o'clock interview."

The woman scanned her from feet to head, and then nonchalantly introduced herself as Criselda Aratan. She gestured her to come in.

As Criselda led her to the president's office, she asked her a question she was not prepared to answer.

"You're here for the experience alone, aren't you?"

Cautious, she hesitated. "No."

She noticed that what seemed to be the lobby was enclosed in concrete walling with doors at each of the four sides. They walked passed the sofas at the center of the floor into a door a few meters ahead of them. She noticed that it was very quiet in this part of the building. She saw no other personnel, and she saw no children. She then presumed that the two doors she saw a few meters away from both her sides would either or both lead into the children's rooms. Behind her was the door leading back outside.

What she noticed, too, was that the walling was bare, and the entire space was lacking in upholstery and any other decorations. Ornamental plants in pots occupied each corner of the lobby.

"You wanted to work abroad but got no experience," Criselda continued as though she did not hear her.

She turned her head back to Criselda. "No, that's not true."

Criselda turned around to face her. "Then why here?"

She found it ridiculous to keep answering her. She wanted to feel irritated, but she managed not to. Instead, with a composed voice, she said, "I think I'll reserve my answer to that for the president."

Apparently insulted, Criselda turned around, knocked at the door of the president's office, and said to her, "You're gonna end up like the rest of them. That's for sure."

A woman's voice spoke from behind the door. Criselda opened it and gestured her to go in.

After they finished bathing the ten children and dressing them, she noticed that Ricarda was unusually quiet as she slumped on the chair by the empty desk near the room's only door. When she was done dressing up Trisha, the 14 year-old girl with Down Syndrome, she went to join Ricarda.

"Something bothering you?" she asked.

The dreariness that she saw in Ricarda's eyes was not the same that she had seen in the past months and years. It was something more, something deeper.

Ricarda looked at her, and her eyes were that of a cat left out in the rain and waiting for the kitchen door to open. Ricarda thought for a moment, and then weakly spoke, "My son called last night. My husband had another episode yesterday."

Concerned, she sat beside her friend to console her. They were a portrait of two wounded women at that moment, one torn apart by space and time, striving from the constant call to be with her husband and son, the other faced day after day the hurtful convictions of her children to her choosing this kind of job.

"I'm sorry," she softly uttered, her head leaning against her friend's. Their eyes closed, hers were condoling, Ricarda's were lamenting.

She learned about her colleague's sad life story. She then knew how rough life was for Ricarda, she then knew how pain had measured her bravery and determination, and she then also knew how Ricarda's ordeal tempted her to question her existence and purpose. But she was proud of her friend, for in the midst of all those storms she remained anchored.

"How is he?"

Ricarda wiped her tears with the back of her hand. "He's in total paralysis. And it's irreversible."

She gasped. Silence.

"You need to go there."

Ricarda shook her head. "You know I can't. He forbids me. He still hates me."

She cupped her friend's face and made her looked into her eyes closely. "A heart full of love is powerful than a raging fire. Don't wait for anything worse to happen. Things are already worse, Ricarda."

Ricarda went silent. Inside her, emotions were screaming and spreading outward like wildfire. She waited for them to subside, for it was only by then when she could listen to them. After a long while, she softly said, "I'll think about it."

She went to hug her colleague, her friend. And they stayed like that for a while. Her eyes were staring at the other end, on the white, lifeless wall.

Across the floor, she noticed something that warned of flawed, intense emotional eruption.

Marielle, one of the ten violent special children in the Cherubim Room, was amusingly playing with a stuffed doll when another girl, Chelsea, dashed to grab the doll from her strong hands. They were pulling and pushing each other when she came to control them, and gibberish shouting and screaming stirred the room. The other children's playing turned into ecstatic wailing and, before she could ever meddle, Chelsea knocked the other girl, Minerva, sitting on the floor nearby, whose anger soared as quickly as she was disturbed. Minerva grabbed the girl's hair and, with so much intensity, slammed the girl's head into the floor like a basketball.

She and Ricarda did not see it coming; it happened so suddenly. Their hearts pounded and sounded like a stampede of frightened horses as they dashed toward the three fighting girls. The room was now in pandemonium. The other uninvolved children found what they'd seen inviting, and many of them, too, jumped into the brawl and frolicked so madly.

She went to restrain Minerva, who was wildly kicking and scratching her fingernails in the air, like a captured tiger battling for its vague survival; her power was overwhelming and unbelievable. Ricarda went to control Marielle , who was kicking at everything on the floor; toys of all sorts, crisscrossing the tiled floor, her hands hoisting wildly in the air, trying to grab Ricarda's face and hair. Near their feet was Chelsea lying on the floor, groaning in pain.

"Jemma, call Justin in! HURRY!" Ricarda screamed at her.

She was the one closest to the door, and she screamed at the top of her voice for help.

Photograph by Ana June. Please CLICK HERE to visit the owner's Flickr page. Thanks!

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Eden of Angels (PART 2 of 3)  

A woman in her early fifties sat behind the president's table. She was wearing eyeglasses where her eyes darted out to Jemma as she walked inside. Strips of white ran along her shoulder-length curly hair, which swayed as she shifted her medium-built body. She gestured her to sit down. Jemma's brief research the other day revealed the woman's name.

"I've already made a perusal on your credentials that you've sent through mail, and I see that you are not quite qualified for the position," Mrs. Hinaloc began. "Now I need to hear from you how determined you are, and convince me that you have the dedication for this job."

This was her very first job application since she graduated college in 1998. After graduating and after she got pregnant, she got married. She failed the teacher's board exam the following year and the year after that. Frustrated and disappointed, she had decided to channel her interest into something else. And for the next eight years, she was hopping from one job to another, all without the hopes for financial stability. Her husband supported the family in majority, but with their two sons their income were not enough.

Now, facing this seemingly straightforward and stern woman, she couldn't help herself from fidgeting. She pressed both her palms against her lap.

"It makes me happy to be around with children. The kind of happiness that you cannot feel from somewhere and someone else. Children sparks my reason to live longer," she explained, abashed by her own words and by her sudden talking of things like that. Whatever doubt and self-questioning she felt, she muffled them inside.

"You mean, normal children," Mrs. Hinaloc said in a tone that was not suggesting but correcting.

"There's just a little difference between them, I guess. You just need extra time and effort to tend these kind of children," she went on, defending.

Mrs. Hinaloc glared silently at her, scrutinizing her mind through her eyes. After a while she looked down at the resume on the table. "Extra time and effort can sometimes be detrimental and deadly here, Mrs. Bermoy. Once those extra time and effort ran out, things around here get spinning out of control, overpowering you. These children here can shatter their own lives once you ran out of those, or shatter yours."

Jemma felt embarrassed. She felt like melting, and she needed badly to melt away so fast. Mrs Hinaloc, leaned back on her cushioned swivel chair, and then continued, "These children here don't need those extra time and effort, Mrs. Bermoy. They need most of those that you'll be left with no extra time and effort for yourself and your own kids. Now, tell me, are you willing to risk it?"

"I can risk my time. I will take the risks," she said, firmly.

"I mean your family."

She went silent. "Oh, that."

"Do you think you can survive?"

She recomposed herself, and looked straight at the woman. "I know this requires a lot of physical strength, but I'm accustomed to that. That will not be a problem to me."

Mrs. Hinaloc removed her eyeglasses and rubbed her temple. With a little trace of exasperation, she looked at her and said, "I'm not talking about physical endurance. I'm talking about emotional survival. We are not dealing with children who have control over themselves and over the things around them. We are talking about children with unexpected tantrums and special attention. Children with beyond ordinary needs. Yes, you need to endure them, but it also requires your right emotions to understand them, and make them understand themselves. In that way, you can help them control themselves."

"That is a challenge I am willing to take. To help them feel they deserve to carry on their existence, to make them feel valued. I want to make them feel welcomed, that they deserve to be in this world as much as we do."

Mrs. Hinaloc looked at her and smiled. "That's a wonderful drive. But then again I need to know that you are willing to pour your life here. "

Jemma shifted her weight and replaced her palms to her knees, and this time she was pressing them harder. They rested there, tensed and stiff.

"My two sons are old enough to prepare themselves for school, and they are old enough to understand that I needed to do this for them. Having this job will in no way affect our relationship and respect to each other and everything in between."

Mrs. Hinaloc went to scan her resume again as she retorted, "Children sometimes aren't old enough to distinguish what they should and shouldn't feel envy from. At some points they will come to feel jealousy and resentments for your tending children not your own."

"I will talk to them about it. I am completely aware of that reality, and I know that it's not just a possibility. I will explain everything to them. My husband is there to look after them."

Mrs. Hinaloc sighed. Then looked at her. "How would you not confuse yourself from and not going to incorporate your own issues with that of the Shelter's? I ask you this because, although we need you to let your dedication and passion for the children here to flow into your blood, we don't expect you to integrate your personal life and struggles with the situations we always have here. It is important to see the thin line in between."

"I understand it, ma'am. And I 'll never do that. It's not going to happen."

Mrs. Hinaloc stared at her again, this time even more penetrating, as though peeling her painstakingly to reveal her flesh and bones. "Good."

But she did not feel comfortable. She felt she was not convincing enough, judging the kind of tone her interviewer had delivered. She felt the urge to keep going, to be more persuasive. "Of course I know pretty well that this is a job. And I know that work and personal life should always be separate. Mixing them is destructive either way. These mongoloid children and ---"

Mrs Hinaloc glared sharply at her. She looked agitated. She ceased from leaning on the chair and moved her body forward, closer to Jemma. With a firm, pressing voice, she interrupted, "You seem to have no idea what this is all about. You see, this is not just a job. And this is not just one of those responsibilities that you have to perform. This is about involvement with what you do, and connection to children. This is about letting them flow into your life, treating them as if you die without them. This is about understanding what these children need most, how they really feel about themselves and about the things around them. This is about loving what you do and keeping to the end the same inspiration you feel at the very start so you can keep going. Do you see it that way?"

Sheepishly, she nodded. "Yes, ma'am."

Mrs. Hinaloc, went on, "And we don't call them mongoloids or retarded children. That's too harsh and cruel. Very inhumane. They don't deserve that, just like black people don't deserve to be called 'niggers'. These children can even feel, too, how people really treat them by calling names like that. And it hurts them. We prefer to call them Special, or Challenged. But not Retards."

"I'm so sorry, Mrs. Hinaloc. I don't mean to convey such thought or to imply such horrible level of treatment. It just came out wrong."

"It's OK. Just don't say it again."

When Mrs. Hinaloc went back to reading the entries on her resume, Jemma succinctly closed her eyes and sighed, fearing the dark destination in which this interview was leading to. "It won't happen again."

"Good," Mrs. Hinaloc uttered and then paused. Her eyes were still on the papers, appeared to be reading. Jemma, disparagaed with fading hope and enthusiasm, waited.

Mrs. Hinaloc looked up at her. "Very well."

Another pause. Another waiting.

Without any other applicants for the past five weeks now and time had already ran out, Mrs. Hinaloc was left with no other option. She had to succumb her standards and surrender her techinicality if she needs to. "OK. Let's give it a try. I will give you two weeks to make me not regret doing this, Mrs. Bermoy."

Jemma, confused but nevertheless happy, smiled reluctantly. After the news had sank in, she said, "Thank you, Mrs. Hinaloc. Thank you very much."

Mrs. Hinaloc smiled for the first time. "Call me Vilma. Surname's too formal and territorial."

After another word or two, they both stood up, shook hands, and Vilma led her to the door. A few meters outside the gate, Jemma turned to look back. She didn't really mean to stay there for long. Criselda was right, she just needed the experience alone to qualify as a caregiver for special children in Canada. She already had the papers needed for the application, and she had already borrowed money to cover the estimated expenses. What she was told to acquire was a certification from a training center and a certification from an employer to fortify her application. Everything had already been set, and nothing could ever change what she had already planned. After a while she smiled, and then went to continue walking.

They brought the children to the playground one Saturday morning. With Justin and Enrico helping them looked after the kids, any outbursts would easily be controlled. There were no swing, no seesaw, no slides; they posed high risks of getting the children hurt. They placed rubber padding on the ground, and provided no plastic or metal toys. All were rubber, inflated, or made of stuffed cloth.

The shadows of the trees were the children's utopia; the sun cast its eastern radiance through a series of mazy holes in the foliage and landed triumphantly on the smiling imperfect faces of the running and playing children. They were oblivious to the world around them, for in their own motley world they were busy painting the colors only known to them.

But such beauty of their world was twinned with fragileness and threats. And as the four of them were mesmerized by the unexpressed Eden of the playing children, a sudden horrified shriek tore the thin sheets of lightly moving air. And it came from the inside of the Shelter.

She wanted to run into the house to know what happened, and to help if needed. But she couldn't leave her own responsibilities in the playground. And as the screaming and frightened commotion went louder from inside, Enrico dashed to help. Afraid and unsure, she and Ricarda grouped the children into one and protected them from the unseen yet eminent danger.

A few minutes later, horrified but focused Enrico dashed outside into the parked L300, in his arms the unconscious body of 13 year-old Maricar, one of the 33 children from the Seraphim Room. From her head trailed several profuse streams of blood.

The heartbreaking and shocking sight of the young woman sent uncontrollable tremors all over her body as she gasped. Ricarda covered her mouth with both her hands, fighting frantically from screaming.

"What has happened? What's going on?" her strained confused voice reverberated across the lawn.

Josephine, shaking and crying, briefly explained. With his instinct waking him, Justin ran past Criselda and Andrea, toward the vehicle and hurriedly opened it for Enrico to put Maricar inside with him. Scared but controlled, Andrea followed inside. Justin closed the door and went to driver's seat and turned on the ignition.

The first day wasn't at all that easy and welcoming. It wasn't as hard as what she had expected; it was much more harder and exhausting.

She was met in the Guest Receiving Room by one of the social workers on duty that day. Her name was Ricarda Maputol, a medium-built woman in her late forties. Married for seventeen years with one son. Annulled on the eighteenth. Roughly six years ago, Ricarda made a terrible mistake that derailed her from the promising railways of her life into perdition. She played fire with another man, and was caught by her husband. Everything was hell after that, its demon snatched away her husband and her son. The annulment was painful, and the settlement for the custody was even more disheveling. After winning the case her husband, bringing with him their son, had flown to America. She couldn't blame her husband, and she hadn't felt resentments toward somebody else but herself. And in all those crushing years, what she ever wanted was to have them back. And all she ever needed was salvation. Forgiveness. Redemption.

Sut Jemma never saw traces of those story in the woman's face. And she had yet to hear the story. Ricarda smiled genuinely when she saw her walked in. The woman extended her hands happily as she introduced herself. Jemma smiled back, shook the woman's hand, and introduced herself in return. Jemma found her friendly and unselective. She immediately felt relaxed and comfortable.

"I can see in you myself years ago when I was still new here," Ricarda began as she led her to the side door. She pushed it with force, and then gestured Jemma to go inside. "And the same passion that I have, too. I can see them in you. You'll gonna stay long here."

Unsure what to respond, Jemma just smiled.

Smiling, too, Ricarda knowingly said, "Believe me, you will. Those others before you, I didn't see it in their eyes. And I knew right away they wouldn't last. And I was right."

She didn't know what to say. She just stood there, waiting for Ricarda to lead her through. As she turned around, she saw before her the real world inside the Shelter. All of the realities came rushing all at once to her as she watched there, transfixed.

A children of around thirty litter all over the floor, each of them engulfed by and dwelling in their own world. The room was noisy and hyperactive; children were groaning and laughing and whining; most of them by themselves. Some of them were talking to one another in gibberish, some of them were actually having conversations with the attendants or with each other, but with difficulty and less or no sense at all, and with random pauses. The six social workers, all of them women mostly in their early thirties, were busy tending some of the children. Three of them were feeding those who had not yet taken their breakfast. The other two were leading the children to the kitchen for toothbrushing, and the last one was on the floor scrubbing and drying the spilled liquid that smelled of urine. The room was slightly pungent, and her mind was already spinning wildly. But she did not cover her nose. She gave a faint smile as the woman on the floor looked up to see her, but the woman went immediately back to cleaning.

"How many children are there?" she asked Ricarda, who was on her right side. They were now walking toward the three attendants who were feeding some children.

"In this quarter, we call it Seraphim Room, we have thirty three children," Ricarda replied. "And in my quarter, and your quarter, we have ten children." Then she introduced Jemma to the three workers, and to the woman who was on the floor, cleaning.

After exchanging a few words with them, she went to continue her conversation with Ricarda. "You said a while ago that there are only ten children in the other quarter. That sounds too few compared to here."

"Oh, believe me, Jemma. One day you'll gonna wish they were even fewer, if not beg to be transferred."

Her heart made a sudden leap of wonderment. Curious, she asked, "Why? How many are we there?"

"Just you and me. Every now and then Justin will come to help. He's the all-around guy. And sometimes, when we can't control it anymore, Enrico will come to our aid. He's the driver here, our only driver."

They were walking toward the kitchen, which was located behind the main building. When they were there, Ricarda told her that it was where they prepare the foods for them and for the children. The huge bathroom adjacent to the kitchen and next to a row of toilets is where they brought the children to brush their teeth and to give them a bath. The other children in the isolated room had their own bath- and restroom.

From there she was taken to the sleeping quarters, which she later found out to be more of a huge hospital ward. Two rows of eight beds each lined against the walls, just like with the other room where there were seventeen beds.

They were standing outside the social workers' quarter when Jemma asked, "The other ten children, why are they separated from the rest? Are they in grave condition?"

Ricarda turned to face her, and then looked at her in the eyes. Then she held her hand and said, "Come with me."

Photograph by Dizzee Dayzee. Please CLICK HERE to visit the owner's Flickr page. Thanks!

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Eden of Angels (PART 3 of 3)  

She left for work one morning with her heart choking with wounded emotions, her eyes lost their radiance, and her feet insensible to her strides. The domestic turmoil had become increasingly complex and harder. The tension had made her relationship with her sons brittle and fragile. She was losing control of her own issues.

"Are you okay?" Janice, who worked for eight months now as Ricarda's replacement, asked from behind her.

She was kneeling on the floor, scrubbing the stains and dark dirt. She didn't noticed the time, because her mind was drifting somewhere else. She was a bit startled by Ricarda's intrusion. She looked up at her and replied, "I'm OK."

"You've been scrubbing the same spot over."

She glanced at her hands and at the floor, paused, and then managed to gave her a faint smile. "I'm just stressed out, I guess. But I'll be fine."

Discontented, Janice pressed, "I'm your friend now."

She dismissed her. "Really, I'm OK."

"Very well," and Janice started to walk away. After a few steps, she turned back. "By the way, Esmeralda and Andrea wanted to know if you will go with them to the cemetery this afternoon. I've already asked Justin to help me here."

Maricar had not survived the hemorrhaging. Too much blood had been lost, and the fracture in her skull had been fatal. An accident involving another child from the Seraphim Room, Martin James, had claimed her life when they had fallen off her bed. She'd fallen headfirst. The local newspaper had questioned their capacity to take care of the children, and the legal battle had been noisy and feasted.

"OK. Thank you."

Janice smiled and walked away.

By 8:30 that same morning, she brought Minerva with her along with Rodrigo, the 19 year-old boy with a worse case of Down Syndrome and was the most restless but less violent, to the bathroom to help them brush their teeth. The two followed her with total obedience.

"No, I want other paste. Don't like that," Minerva refused to brush her teeth with a green paste over the bristles.

She checked the supply in the overhead cabinet but found none. To Minerva she said, "We will replace it tomorrow, honey. In the meantime, that's very tasty. It tastes like candy."

Minerva's unfocused eyes rolled without intentions, and the fatty cheeks of her moon-shaped face rattled as she briskly shook her head. "No."

"You liked it yesterday. You will like it today, I promise. Rodrigo likes it very much, right Rodrigo?" she was pleading silently that Rodrigo would cooperate even just for once. Rodrigo was standing beside Minerva, his twisted, spasmic arms shaking lightly on his sides, giggling. A small amount of saliva drooled from one corner of his mouth. His right hand was holding his empty toothbrush.

"See?" she said, cheering Minerva up. "He's smiling because he likes it."

Minerva shook head head briskly again, her voice now angry, her feet began to thump the concrete floor --- her indication of the oncoming explosion of her inner lava. "No!"

She took a deep breath, then sighed. "OK. We'll do the brushing this noon. Your aunt will go to the store and buy your favorite toothpaste. OK, honey? Rodrigo, come here, darling."

But Minerva erupted like a growling wolf sensing competition over its food. And before she knew it, the girl started to attack her. Minerva was screaming and shrieking with exploding madness, her arms stretching out to her, fingers bending like hungry paws.

When she took control of Minerva, her own anger suddenly was unleashed, and almost involuntarily her right hand swung swiftly from the air above her into the big frame of Minerva's face. She froze in disbelief. Minerva was standing there, perplexed and horrified, unmoving; her narrow, cloudy eyes opened wide, petrified, questioning, teary-eyed.

She just stood there transfixed, reflecting fast at what she had just done to the girl. When it finally settled in, she stepped back without excusing herself, turned around, walked hurriedly toward the backdoor, opened it drastically, and leaned on the wall outside right next to the door. She was breathing hard and rapidly as she cupped her forehead, her eyes stared blankly into the space below her. And then she wept.

Ricarda opened the door of the isolated room, located in the right wing of the building. When they entered she saw four of the children were already awake, two of them were out of their beds and on the floor, sitting. The room was quiet, with only the scraping of a spoon against a china echoed from the four, white walls. A man in her early fifties, which Ricarda introduced to her as Enrico, was feeding a teenage girl. The all-around man, Justin, who had just finished mopping a liquid under one of the beds, smiled at her as he walked toward the door with the mop and a half-full pail.

Jemma saw no one in serious health conditions among the children inside. As she scanned the room, all she saw were sleeping and awake children but seemed harmless and peaceful. She turned her head toward Ricarda and, with questioning eyes, looked at her.

Ricarda read her mind. "These children are the most violent and the most detached. Their tantrum burst unexpectedly, and when they do, they are monstrous. Literally."

Hearing this, Jemma looked at the children again, and looked them more closely. She was searching for those madness in their blank eyes. The girl on the floor, her hair badly cut short and her face a crisscross of scars and fresh wounds, stared at her. Jemma looked at the girl, whom she guessed was in her late twenties, and then smiled. The girl flashed a smile in return, exposing her missing teeth and reddish gums.

"Her name is Minerva. She's mentally unstable, aside from her Down Syndrome. She's the most violent among all the children in this shelter," Ricarda said in a hushed voice.

"But they seem peaceful. It is like this every morning, or just today?"

Instead of Ricarda, Enrico turned his head toward them, and answered, "It's like this every other day. But not all. Sometimes they wake up mad and out of control. And it's very hard to pacify them, it takes hours sometimes."

Ricarda nodded in agreement. "They will test your patience and self-control, Jemma. And they will question your own capabilities and your own purpose here. That is why I need you to be strong and brave and ready."

By ten o'clock that morning, all of the remaining six children were already awake. Ricarda asked her to help them fed the children. She found it difficult to get the attention of the teen boy she was feeding to, and she found it hard to control his unfocused attention and hyperactivity. His arms were spreading and swaying everywhere, knocking the plate Jemma was holding and hitting her on her breast. The other children, who was watching her curiously, cracked into unusual laughter. Those kind of laughter she only heard here, and the kind of laughter that she wonder if she could ever forget.

After feeding two more children, she tried to take a short break. She was exhausted with only one task she had done, and her energy was drained like it had never before. But, after a few minutes only, Ricarda announced that it was time to help the children brush their teeth.

It was supposed to be temporary. She was supposed to quit her job after six months. She was supposed to be in Canada now, working as a caregiver. That was the plan. But she'd been working in the Shelter for already four years now, and the idea of quitting was tucked below her horizon. Her mere interest had turned into a passion, and she realized that too late. But what didn't know was that such passion had already become an obsession.

In her four years of working she had brought many changes to the Shelter. With her spearheading, they had managed to raise more funds for the children, and had changed certain policies that she had deemed inappropriate. She had gravely opposed the way the social workers mixed the toothbrushes of the children in one place, and without proper assignments as to which toothbrush belonged to whom. And she had also encouraged the idea of exposing the children to the outside world, developing the undiscovered talents in them, and giving them the perception that they had the freedom to move in the outside world.

But her obsession threatened the foundation of her family, a price she had never expected to pay. And now, she was torn between the two most important things in her life.

Lying in their bedroom at home, exhausted and drained, she immediately fell asleep. She woke up with a headache a minute past seven in the evening, to the bickering voices of her two sons. She didn't hear her husband's, and she presumed he had not yet arrived. She stood up and went downstairs to them.

"Enough," she told them, her voice a warning, her eyes half-asleep.

Her ten year-old youngest was weeping. When he spoke he was desperately seeking compassion. "He won't give it back to me my sling. I found it!"

"I told you I will, tomorrow," Homer, the eldest, said.

"You're lying!"

"I'm not!"

"You, too!"

Listening to her two sons raising their voices, her head throbbed achingly, sending sparks of impatience and exasperation all over her. She exploded. "JUST GIVE THE DAMN SLING TO ZANDER!"

The two boys suddenly fell quiet. Zander muffled his sobbing, while Homer glared at her with burning eyes. He threw the sling to his brother, who did not pick it up. Silence wrapped them with fiery blanket.

"Do you do that to them, too?" breaking the silence, Homer asked, his breathing hard and hurting.

She did not get what he meant. She snapped, "What?"

"Do you shout to those mongoloids, too, or just to us?"

"Don't you ever call them that! You have no right to call them names like that!"

Raising his voice to overwhelm her mother's, he asked again, "Do you shout at us because we are your son, and you have the right to do whatever you want to do to us?" His voice showed his pain and resentments as he stood there fighting back his tears.

"Shut up!" She couldn't take it; his words were a knife, cutting her heart and making her bled. And she was drowning, such overwhelming truth and such hurting of his son were pulling downward into the dark, cold, sad abyss. She turned around and burst into crying.

Realizing what he had done, Homer slowly walked toward her and hugged her tightly as he wept.

Later that night, she couldn't sleep. Her mind was wide awake, spinning with thoughts and reminiscing. Her wristwatch ticked another minute. As she lied in their bed without the lights, her mind was sailing in a penumbra of her plethoric memories. And in her deep reverie, she recounted those happy days, and the day that she never knew would change her life...

When she woke up the next morning, she already knew what needed to be done to redeem her life back.

Photography from Please CLICK HERE To visit the source. Thanks!

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A House at the End of the Road

Sunday, April 5, 2009

She was standing at the end of the dirt road leading to the old wooden house twenty meters or so ahead. From where she was she could see the vines creeping up the facade and the side walls.

The french windows were badly weathered, some of the glass were broken if not smeared with dried dust and dark-green stains. Some of the wooden planks had been detached from the walls, eaten to rot by termites. Weeds and wildflowers fought each other on the lawn and around the house, occupying the once manicured gardens and invading the cobblestone driveway. And under the sweeping of the wind, they were swaying like waves of gold and brown and green and yellow.

The mango tree beside the house was still there, gloriously spreading its branches and swaying its foliage against the wind, as though welcoming her back. Dried leaves were scattered everywhere by wind and time; the bark of the trunk showed that it was aging fast. The hammock under it had long been gone, and the metal swing by the mini-playground on the other side of the house had succumbed to the wrath of corrosion.

From where she was standing, she could hear the house squeaked against the blow of the wind. And the roof was now dark red, its fragmenting edge curled up as the wind swept against it and smashed lightly back against the wooden truss. The house, from her vintage point, looked perfect for a serene and dramatic photograph or a masterpiece painting, one which would send a message that would reach out into the inner hearts of men.

But it was not just a painting. It was her childhood. A proud and standing memoir of her life as a child. It was just she who neglected it, it was just she who ignored the very witness of the life she had here. It was the very house whom she had shared many countless and immeasurable moments, moments that would never happen again in her lifetime, or in the afterlife.

She started to walk slowly toward the two-storey house, wading across the wildflowers and cogon grass. When she reached the door she unlocked and unchained it, slowly turned the rusty doorknob, carefully opened the door, and stepped inside.

It had been a very long time since the time she was leaving the house with her parents. It was thirty already years ago, but she could still clearly remember how she was flatly and nonchalantly accepting the reality that they would be abandoning it. She could still vividly remember how she was casually walking away without turning back, as if she had known for so long that it was written in her fate and should unfold. And she could still remember how it was so unimportant for her to cry for leaving the place behind. She did not understand why, then; she couldn't understand why, now. Perhaps, she suspected, she was still too young to understand everything, to feel what she should feel.

She felt sorry now that she did not think of it herself to go back here, that she'd had to wait for something to happen before finding within herself the longing to go back here. She didn't want to consume all the time she had now thinking about it, blaming herself and regretting things, and so she just shrugged it off for now.

After adjusting her eyes to the dimness inside, she looked around, darting her eyes from the living room to the hallway and back. Dust settled on the rotten upholstery, eating them slowly to rot. Cobwebs warned of the years she's gone, and reminded her of the past she'd let time buried it here. Fragments of glass littered on the floor with dust and debris and dead leaves.

She walked toward the hallway that led to the staircase. When she came near she noticed the faded Pentel Marker drawings and scribblings across one side of the hallway: her childhood art and the evidence of her passage to literacy. They were very faint now, but were still visible enough to know and read what they were, for they still stood out from being devoured by the rotting of the plywood.

My name is Pearl Anne Ramos. I am 8 years old. I have one brother and one sister.

Then, there was another one written below it. It was obviously written on a different date the than first. She knew because she could still remember herself writing it, and she could also remember how she had really felt. Although she couldn't remember how dense the anger and hate that had hung over her family, and how deep the loss and anguish her parents had felt, she could tell it was something that time had no power to subdue and erase because until just last week the broken and wounded relationship between her parents and her grandfather had not healed. And though she'd never looked inside to find it, it was something that had also lived in her for so long.

Silently with her eyes staring at the wall, she read:

My brother Jason died yesterday and my parents cry all night. I am very sad.

After a while, as she was standing there, her body began to soften as she remembered how she would hurriedly ran home from school to be with his brother and take care of him and play with him. It was so long ago, but she still missed her younger brother so badly.

She climbed up the stairs into the bedrooms. And as she walked toward her brother's bedroom, the memories of the sad past had slowly awaken in her mind, flowing in like water through a funnel, waking up emotions that had long been asleep. In her mind, the fateful, tragic day began to flicker and play...

It was a Summer. That Saturday morning her parents were preparing for the planned picnic on a beach resort, fifteen kilometers away from their house to the next town. Her mama and papa were very busy packing up things and putting them to the baggage trunk of their car, and were crisscrossing between the kitchen and the garage. She was also dressing up herself for the trip, and at the same time sneaking time to play with his younger brother. Her elder sister was upstairs busy doing something, too. She didn't knew where his grandfather was, and she didn't think of looking for him. When she went to call her mama and asked her to help her zip her dress, nobody was attending her brother Jason. And nobody noticed him walked out the front door and into the lawn.

She heard, and she swore her mama and papa heard, too, their car's engine came to life. She was excited to climb into the car, and so she ran hurriedly toward the living room from the kitchen, and past the open front door.

Her grandfather was on the wheel, maneuvering the car backward from the garage into the driveway when he heard a loud thud from behind, like a large piece of wood hitting the rear bumper or a metal striking the rubber of the wheel. He thought it was the latter, as he felt the car rolled over it after he checked the back with the side mirrors but saw nothing. When he come to a stop and checked the side mirrors again, he saw her standing a few steps from behind the car, screaming and shouting at him. Her grandfather felt a sudden rush of fear crawled up his spine, and when he stepped outside he saw a pair of shoes under the car. Wearing them was his grandson, Jason.

Her mama was on the living room, calling at her elder sister Maggie and telling her to come down for they were now about to leave. Her mother looked around but couldn't find her and Jason. When she called their names, her mother heard the shrieking of her horrified voice and her grandfather's heart-pounding, mournful cry.

Alert, her father dashed past her mother toward the front door. With fear and horror shot at her mother like a thousand volts of electricity, she ran hurriedly after him, the Tupperwares filled with food smashed to the tiled floor as she lost hold of them.

It was the most horrifying day of their lives, to see Jason lying on her grandfather's arms soaked in blood, lifeless. The ambulance came too late to save him, and the news of his death from the medics caused so much confusion, disbelief, anger, anguish and loss all at once.

Her brother's bed squeaked as she stood up. She walked toward the window that faced the asphalt road that ran parallel to the house. From there the dirt road snaked for several meters toward the house. Directly under the bedroom was the garage, its driveway met the dirt road near the front door. The wind that swept inside the room smelt of wildflowers and dust and rotten wood. After closing the windows, she went out of the room, down the stairs, into the living room, and out of the house.

She was standing under the mango tree when she heard a car rolled to a stop next to hers. She turned her head to see who it was. A woman in her late thirties stepped out of the car, looked around and saw her. At first she couldn't recognize the woman, she couldn't tell who she was who's now smiling and waving at her. When they were both halfway to meet each other, she realized it was her childhood friend, Carmen. It was her best friend thirty years ago. And she was Carmen's long lost friend. She ran toward her to hug her and tell her how happy she was to see her for the first time in years.

When excitement and joy sank in, they sat on the mango tree's protruding roots and talked about so many things in between the last time they had seen each other and now. They exchanged life stories, and talked of the changes and the new things that had come to their lives. They talked about their past, their present, and their own families.

When silence wrapped around them, her friend turned her head toward the low, bare mountains that rose breathtakingly four kilometers away from behind the house. The mountains were light green not because of trees but because of weeds and cogon grass. No single tree dotted any of the mountains, and under the mid-afternoon sun they stood elegantly and beautifully against the bushy landscape.

"I still remember how you'd always wanted to go there," Carmen said, her eyes staring at the scenic view.

She smiled. She felt very happy to know how much Carmen had remembered about her and their childhood. After a while, she asked, "You've already been there?"

"Many times."

"I still want to go there."

"Let's go there now."

"Really? You don't mind?"

"No. Not at all."

"This is exhilarating," she beamed.

Carmen smiled.

"But I have one favor to ask you."

"What is it?"

"Let's drop by at my grandfather's grave."


They walked to their cars and drove off toward the cemetery. Along the way, the mountains came clearer and bigger, and so was the amount of peace she'd never felt before in her life. She might never knew it, but she was already on the road to reconciliation with her past and redemption of herself from hating her grandfather. He died a week ago right before her eyes, just an hour after they'd talk inside the Silver Halo Shelter. But she knew he died a happy man, for they had already forgiven each other before it was all too late.

Photograph by Jacob Krejci. Please CLICK HERE to visit the owner's Flickr site. Thanks!

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