By Erwin Cabucos
Stephen wakes up suddenly. He hears hurrying footsteps in the kitchen and in the lounge room. Spoons and pots clatter. He looks around his bedroom; his clock says 2am.
"There's someone downstairs!" he whispers. "Is it Frank making coffee at this ridiculous time of the morning?" He frowns. It sounds like there is more than one person. He holds his breath, hearing his heart pound. "I don't think it's Frank. And if it's not Frank, who is it?"
The full moon creates dancing shadows of tamarind tree leaves on his wall. He looks at the crucifix in the corner. "My God," he says, placing his finger on his lip, "they're probably taking our appliances away." He remembers leaving his laptop switched on next to his organiser and mobile phone downstairs before he went to bed.
He thinks about the last two years he and his fellow missionary priest, Frank, have spent in this Southern Philippine city. It's a long way from New Zealand for both of them. Stephen cares for Muslim and Christian street children that flock to his shelter night after night. Frank teaches ethics and morality at a nearby university. They say mass at the Cathedral on weekdays and Sundays. It has been a full on mission for them. Lately, news of break-ins and stabbing has been reported in the area. Last week, the American sisters' convent was broken into and the Mother Superior was stabbed in the chest and sexually assaulted. Caucasian foreigners are particularly targeted. He remembers the baby in the box that turned up at their gate one morning. Its lips were purple and it was swarming with ants. He wishes he had heard it cry.
He bites his lip. "Whoever they are," Stephen murmurs, "I hope they won't come up and hurt us." He wonders if Frank is awake and hears the same thing. He tiptoes to Frank's room.
"Are you awake?" Stephen hisses. "There are people downstairs. I think we're being robbed."
The door creaks. Frank drags Stephen in and shuts the door. "Shhh." Frank whispers. "Just let them do what they want to do, and be quiet."
"Are you nuts? We won't have anything to our name tomorrow!"
"What if they're armed?"
"Yeah, but we have to get rid of them. We just can't stay here."
Frank shakes his head. "It's not worth it."
"They may even be scared if we shout or rattle a few things."
"Still, I wouldn't do it." Frank paces back and forth.
"But how the hell can we stop them?" Stephen sits on the side of the bed. He sees Frank's buttocks. "For Christ's sake, Frankie, put some pants on."
"Sorry," says Frank. He stands up and rummages for some shorts in the cupboard. "And you with nothing on might actually scare the shits out of them!"
"You know how humid it is here." Frank flaps his briefs' elastic.
Stephen puts his ear to the door and listens intently. "Do you have a stick or pole here?"
"We have the coconut broom with a long bamboo handle in the pantry. The handle is light but it's thick. It could kill someone if you hit hard."
"I'll get it." Stephen opens the door and pokes his head out. He crawls to the pantry, biting his lip. The pantry door creaks and bangs.
Frank hears the noise. "Stephen you clumsy creature!" he murmurs, shaking his head. "Now we're dead." His heart pounds.
Stephen tiptoes back to the room, broom in his hand and silver chalices tucked into his shorts.
"What have you got?" Frank says.
Stephen lifts his shirt up. They both laugh.
"We can't use holy Eucharistic objects to smash people," says Frank.
"It's self-defence, Frankie."
"We better wait for a while," Frank sighs. "The noise might have scared them off. It sounds like they've gone. Just another interesting night in this presbytery. They're probably poor and hungry. If our things helped them, God bless them."
"Frankie, this is not a charity. We need things."
They sigh. Someone knocks on the door.
"Father." It's a male voice, strong and deep. "Father, you're there?"
Frank nudges Stephen: "Answer it."
Stephen shakes his head. "You answer it. He's calling you."
Frank bites his lip.
"I'm right here behind you."
Stephen opens the door. "Yes."
"I need him to bless this." The man with a sparsely growing moustache and in khaki uniform smiles. His M16 rifle dangles from his chest. He is carrying a maroon string bag. Another man stands behind.
Frank comes out and he can't believe his eyes. "Kazan Abdullah!" Frank's eyes widen. "How are you? It's been a while since I saw you last — in our Morality 401 class at Notre Dame University."
"I'm fine, Father. Just involved with a group for a good cause now."
'Ahuh.' Frank leans his head, waiting for more details.
"MILF. Moro Islamic Liberation Front."
Frank nods without saying a word.
"I know, Father, you're probably sad one of your students turned out to be an enemy of the government."
"So, you're happy?"
He nods. "It's better to be doing something for my people, than nothing. Filipino Muslims are really marginalised in this country."
"It's just something that we have to do. It's like a calling, you know."
"I'm just appalled by the sporadic killing from your lot and the government parties. This has got to stop, Kazan. Families and children are affected. Many of them became fatherless."
He shrugs. He opens the bag and shuffles pieces of cloth embroidered with names. Frank turns the lights on. He sees Sgt. De La Cruz, C., Sgt. Sarmiento, L., Cpl. Tatad, B.
"Can you bless them, Father?" The man sifts his fingers through the cotton tags like a rice vendor handling rice grains.
"What do you mean?"
"Bless them as if they are to be buried."
"Huh?" Frank's brows draw closer.
"Well, Rasid and I," he says, tapping the shoulder of his companion, "were burying the soldiers we ambushed yesterday at Maganoy when we saw rosary beads and Perpetual Help necklaces on their necks. I thought they must be devout Catholics. Remember in our class we talked about Muslim and Christian's common belief in the after life? If these soldiers deserve to go to heaven, I should help them go to heaven. If blessing their badges and name tags would help, then I'd do it."
Frank sighs. How unusual, nevertheless, grand, he thinks.
"We killed them; they were only doing their job," the man continues. "They might as well go to heaven." He chuckles.
Frank smirks and shakes his head, his eyes are fixed to the man. "Why kill them then when you actually care about them? Christians or Muslims deserve to go to heaven. We don't need to kill each other."
He shrugs. 'Well, can you bless them, anyway?'
"We were going to the city to buy some supplies: salt, antiseptics and all that. We thought we'd stop by and have this done. We haven't got a lot of time."
"Okay." Frank kneels and lays the bag in front of them. Stephen follows. The other two remain standing.
Franks starts: "Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let your perpetual light shine…"
Stephen sighs as he listens to the rest of the prayer.
The phone rings. Frank finishes his prayer hurriedly and the priests stare at each other.
The men become fidgety, looking around the house. They point at the priests, their thumbs move the rifles' levers to automatic. Stephen and Frank clasp their hands behind their heads.
"Don't answer it!" says the first man. "Could be the police. No one should know we're here."
"It could be an emergency from the children's shelter," Stephen says. "It could be from the hospital, someone needs anointing."
The man pouts. "They could be military, tracking us."
"I doubt it," says Frank. "Unless someone saw you coming in."
"Okay then, answer it." The first man nods.
Stephen stands up and grabs the handset. The other man follows, his rifle still points to Stephen's head.
"Hello, Father Stephen here."
There is silence. The four turn into statues.
Stephen heaves for air.
"Who is it?" says the second man.
Stephen puts the handset back, his eyes are wide and his jaw drops.
"Who was it?" The second man jabs Stephen's head with the tip of the rifle. Stephen hits the wall.
"Please don't hurt us. We haven't done anything wrong." Stephen's jaw quivers. The two men look at each other.
The second man growls: "Fuck, it's the military! You didn't even try to hide us!"
Stephen kicks the second man.
The second man gets up and pulls the trigger.
Frank closes his eyes as his body jars from the thundering blows. A burning smell fills his lungs. He pants and he looks around.
Stephen twists on the ground, screaming in pain. "Ahhh!" he cries, holding his thigh which is torn apart. Blood pools under him.
"Jesus, Mary and Joseph!" Frank says.
The men are gone.
Footsteps thud on the stairs. The door swings open.
"Where are they?" A policeman asks. Two other officers behind him, holding pistols, their eyes panning across the room. They lift the bed, open the cupboard and check the ceiling.
More footsteps roar in the hallway. The tin roof clunks.
"Don't worry, Father. An ambulance is on the way, just bear with us," an officer says. "We have surrounded the whole presbytery. The city night squad and a few men from the regional infantry are here."
Frank closes his eyes and hopes that everything is just a nightmare. He hears Stephen gasping for air so he crawls to Stephen and cradles Stephen's head. Frank puts his hand over Stephen's mouth, saying, "Shush, you're okay, Stephen. You'll be fine. I'm here."
"Fire!" someone yells outside.
Frank shudders as gunfire blasts around the house. He ducks, worrying that if he gets hit, will he feel the pain straightaway? Have any of the others been shot? Have Kazan and his friend been caught yet? Frank prays: "God if this is the end of me and Stephen, bless all the people in this place. Into your hands, God, I commend our spirits." He makes the sign of the cross.
The firing stops.
"Into the back street!" Someone yells.
"Where's the other one?"
"We lost him."
Ta ta ta ta ta ta ta. Gunfire erupts on the street again.
"At the corner!" Someone yells.
Frank hears his heavy breathing in contrast to Stephen's silence. Frank shakes Stephen: "Hold on, Stephen. Medical help is on the way."
There is silence.
Footsteps race upstairs. "We got him. He's dead, Father. But the other one got away."
Frank doesn't know what to say. Should he congratulate the police? Should he show remorse for the death of his former student or the companion, or should he just say nothing and pretend he is dumbfounded? He shakes his head. Killing is killing. It's destructive. Now that one of the men is gone, have we really solved the problem.
Frank feels exhausted. He asks the officer: "Why's the ambulance taking so long?"
"Soon, Father, soon."
"They'd better be quick."
"Gee, Father, we need to stop the blood loss now. Do you have a sheet?"
Frank snatches the white cotton sheet. The police tears the sheet with his knife and bandages Stephen's leg, trying to hold it together.
As the officer winds the sheet around Stephen's leg, Frank cries and, feeling faint, slides down onto the floor. Blood and flesh smear the wall. He howls and looks at the ceiling. "Oh, God!" he says.
The ambulance siren wails on the street. In no time, two medic officers appear. Frank breaths heavily as the medic officers examine Stephen. "There's a pulse. Quick, let's go!"
He sees Stephen being carried down the stairs, on a thick white sheet with poles. Stephen looks pale. Frank follows them to the ambulance.
Outside, moonlight seeps through the coconut fronds. Clouds move. Neighbours wearing pyjamas and malong – the Muslim sarong, murmur with each other. Stephen is pushed in the back of the car. The ambulance siren takes off, reverberating in the neighbourhood.
Frank walks back into the presbytery; he wonders who the military killed.
"Would you like the see the person, Father?"
"Where is he?" He is disinterested but feels obliged.
The body is covered with a white sheet under the coconut tree, next to the sign beware of falling coconuts. Frank feels uncomfortable that the body is there and could be hit by falling coconuts. He kneels on one knee and moves the sheet to uncover the face. Right now, he'd rather be hit by a falling coconut than be trapped by gunfire.
Frank lays his hand over the man and says: "Lord, grant Kazan eternal rest and let your perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in peace. Amen." Frank makes the sign of the cross. He sighs and presses the man's eyelids until they're closed.
"Goodbye, Kazan," he murmurs, putting the cover back.QLRS Vol. 15 No. 4 Oct 2016