I feel that it is fitting, even for so meager a narrative as this, that an introduction be added so that the readers of this work may come to some understanding as to the motives of this story and an appreciation of why this endeavor has transformed into a necessity, a compulsion of the heart stirred to action by a discovery that was nearly overlooked and forgotten forever.
Printed herein is not an account of any grand, provocative endeavor, but a record of a quiet moment shared by the author with another man with only few details to spare. Truth be told—and the truth must be told, if one hopes for any real substance—not a great length of time passes in the narrative of this discovery; it is a short and rather shaky piece, breaking away from the general theses of our great written histories that declares all such stories be sung of heroes and heroines, of mighty victories at equal costs, of vivid brilliance and dazzling ideas. This piece holds no credence in the presence of those great histories of man, but it is one that this rickety author believes with a passion must be written even as his own hands tremble over the keys. It must be remembered even as his own recollections of those few fleeting moments bubble in that insidious cauldron of thought, told even as his inner voice stutters as the lines form and break apart in the mad tempest that all seeds of the creative process must inevitably fall and bear fruit somehow. It is a painful and arousing experience—one may aptly call it emotional and intellectual masochism—that all artists whose souls are tuned to a higher but sorely misunderstood frequency are so painfully, joyously aware of.
But for another type of character, this dilemma was not bound to imagination’s domain alone. For the man you will read about in a moment, his pain, his joy, that strange ecstasy—it had become his only saving grace in the midst of lonesome darkness and vain light, and he rested in it with a unspoken resolve that both startled and moved me. It moved me both as a frustrated poet and as a frustrated human being in search of purpose.
The time was 2:00PM. The cold weather that saturated much of that morning had put my classmates and me into a sluggish daze during class hours, the uneventful strain of minutes passing idly by for the entire duration adding to the awful lethargy that had all but possessed many of us there. The atmosphere was not much different when our hours of unholy obligation in the university came to an end that afternoon and so I was left wondering, rather impatiently, whether my time could have been better spent elsewhere. It is not difficult to imagine then that I was not exactly predisposed towards making any soul-tingling revelation of any kind as I was walking home that day. My journey of soulful discovery had been put on hold.
That was how it seemed at least. But as experience has taught me—and these are lessons which I tend to forget often, much to my amusement—the journey of soulful discovery is made up as much of serendipitous flashes of brilliance as they are of extended occasions of contemplation. What was to happen on that walk would be a discovery of the former kind, that of sweet serendipity, but I would not recognize it until later on.
The time was 2:20PM. I heard a voice call out from the other side of the road, interrupting my train of thought. I looked around, but saw nobody else in the immediate vicinity that the person could have been calling out to. I began to feel very tense as I often did in potentially awkward social situations—or, really, any social situation for that matter. I’m a bit of a nervous wreck deep down.
“Ikaw po, anak! [You, my child!]” The voice called out again, with a dash of almost child-like amusement in his tone. I was certain then that I was the one whose attention was being asked for, so with a good deal of uneasiness I turned towards the source of the call to see whoever it was that gleefully cut my walk short. “Halika muna dito at may ipapakita ako sa iyo! [Come here for a moment; I will show something to you!]”
I reluctantly agreed, and made the journey across the road towards the call. Coming to view was an old man possibly already in his late seventies, his face lined with deep wrinkles, balding head decked with fine silver curls. He was in rags, but they were rather pretty-looking rags, the vibrant colors still distinguishable underneath all the grime and wear and tear that was no doubt the result of having lived as a beggar for an indefinite period of time. Yes, I had immediately thought him to be a beggar, an inglorious and not-at-all uncommon sight to behold in this poverty-ridden country. But there was an air of nobility about him, different from those I have become accustomed to seeing. He was of a different breed, almost regal, a humbling irony considering his visibly wretched condition. But the outward wretchedness was a clever trick of the eyes, the product of a cruel illusion that has long taken root in our society’s consciousness.
“Salamat anak na sinagot mo ang aking tawag [Thank you child for answering my call],” the old man cheered, giving me a broad grin that revealed two perfect rows of teeth save for the few gaps in-between. I smiled back in reply—how could you not smile back at such a cheeky grin?—and asked if there was something he needed from me. Once again working on my rather shameless assumptions regarding beggars, I immediately began to rummage through my shoulder bag to see if I still had any pandesal left with me that I could share with him. But just as I was about to pull one out, the man grasped my arm gently and shook his head, still smiling.
“Wag kang mag-alala anak. Hindi abuloy ang hinihingi ko sa iyo [Do not worry, child. I am not asking for alms],” He said to me, with his rough hand still holding on, a recognizable delicateness in his raspy voice. The old man must’ve known what I was thinking, perhaps from previous experience, but his expression remained warm and grandfatherly, his smile indicating no sign of distaste for my honest ignorance. Anyone else would have taken him to be a mad man at that point; with his odd manner of speech and cheery disposition towards a complete stranger like myself, I would have deduced that his sanity had collapsed long ago under the strain of such depraved circumstances. But his eyes were lucid and beaming with a surprising clarity, very different from the stony gaze of those who have lost themselves to lunacy’s bliss. There was no doubt that he was still very much sane.
He patted me on the shoulder before speaking again with that same toothy grin. “Gusto ko lang sana na makinig ka sa aking mga sinulat. [I just wanted to let you listen to what I wrote.]”
2:30PM. Clouds gathered overhead, blocking the sun’s rays and making the already cool air much cooler. The growing uncertainness of the weather that afternoon was a convenient reflection of my own uncertainty, as I was confused by the beggar’s request to say the least. What exactly was the beggar asking me to listen to, and to what end?
“Upo tayo dito sa may tabi, anak [Let's sit here, child],” the beggar said. Before I could even ask he motioned me over to a collection of stone slabs just past the tall grass by the pedestrian lane where we stood. We ambled over to the stones where a tree was rooted silently beside the makeshift seats, its foliage dripping over the two of us as we sat ourselves down on the flat rocks. From here, the road typically heavy with traffic felt peculiarly serene. Perhaps it was because of all the grass that surrounded us, or the whistling of the breeze as it pushed against the branches we sat under. It was a fascinating play of perspectives, how a simple shift in the angles could so alter how our senses digest the forces from outside. I am certain he understood this somehow.
2:35PM. The old man, now seated comfortably beside me, rummaged through a worn out knapsack I hadn’t noticed he was carrying and took out what looked like an old notebook. He flipped through the pages with a sort of hushed eagerness, and from the corner of my eye I could see the page he stopped to; the paper had a faded yellow hue like the rest of the worn out notebook, full of scribbles in black ink with crosses and erasures strewn about in red. Though I could not read exactly what was written, being nearsighted and whatnot, but one could sense clearly the exertion. The script was the labor of tired hands, and his thin, wrinkled palms with which he gripped the pages revealed his toil. But like the beggar’s face which glowed beneath his aged skin, so too did his hands radiate with a soft warmth—a warmth that pulsed with joy in spite of his weariness.
“Meron akong sinulat para sa aking pamilya [I wrote something for my family],” the beggar told me, clearing his throat before continuing. “Gusto ko sanang iparinig sa iba bago kong basahin sa kanila [I would like to let others hear it before I read it to them].”
What a touching story, I thought to myself, and I remember my lips involuntarily curving into a smile. I nodded enthusiastically at his request and urged him to read on, genuinely eager to hear what he prepared for his dearly beloveds. And so the beggar began his recitation.
“Aking anak, tahan na, tahan na / Kumapit ka lamang sa yakap ng ina / Wala nang panganib, narito na si ama / Kaya't huwag ka matakot, tahan na, tahan na.” He paused to breathe, and I paused as well to take it in. The old man recited the lines with such sweetness—almost with a kind of dramatic flair—that words, however simple, seemed to soar and reverberate through the shroud of green leaves over us.
The old man continued with his verses. “Pilit ipinapabatid ng buhay sa atin / Anunmang makukuha ay siyang kukunin / At tayo'y tila dahon ng palay sa bukirin / Maiiwanan at maaapakan matapos anihin.”
I noticed a tear drop trickle down his left cheek as he recited the final stanza of his poem. I could feel my heart whimper quietly with him. “Kaya't tahan na, tahan na, tapos nang pighati / Huwag mong ipagkait sa itay ang iyong ngiti / Ako nang bahalang magpatupad ng 'yong mithi / Malaya ka na sa sinumang nagmagmamayari.”
The old beggar wiped his cheeks with the sleeve of his rags before turning to me. I too wanted to cry a little with him, but I was embarrassed to show any emotion to a stranger. But here was a man who laying his whole heart bare to a person he has met only minutes ago. It was a very tender sight.
“Sa tingin mo, anak? Maganda ba? [What do you think, child? Is it nice?]” The old man asked me, again with that youthful, childlike smile of his that shined in contrast to his age. But then again, everything about the old man seemed to stand in contrast to his age. “Maganda” ["Beautiful"] was really all I could say in reply, and I tied my best to emphasize it, but the word maganda [beautiful] simply did not do justice to his work nor to my emotional response to it. Had I been better versed in the Filipino language, I may have been able to come up with a more fitting term. I was filled with regret, if only for this singular moment in time when expression has become so hindered by my own inability to speak in the beggar’s native tongue, but it did not seem to trouble him. In fact, he seemed overjoyed by my answer.
“Ah, mabuti naman! Handa na rin ako [Ah, that's good! I am now ready],” he said with obvious delight, resting the notebook on his lap and raising his eyes to the sky. Still set skyward, he let out a deep sigh and the clouds seemed to roll away slightly in response, allowing a bit of the sun’s rays to pierce through and light up his features. He appeared so much younger, but I suppose bright souls like his own do appear to burn brighter when drenched in sunlight.
The beggar kept his gaze up for a long while, and I took the opportunity to ask him where he and his family lived.
“Hindi na kami nagkikita ng pamilya [We the family no longer see each-other],” he answered. Curious, I asked him why. He turned back to me and answered coolly, still smiling: “Matagal na silang kinuha ng Diyos, anak. Ako na lang ang natitira dito. [They were taken by God long ago, child. I am the only one left here.]”
2:45PM. My heart sunk. I sat there stunned, unsure what to ask next or whether to even ask at all, but the old man continued to tell his story. He and his family, like most other squatters who have ended up in the nearby cities, had come from the provinces in the hopes of finding a better life in the urban streets. But unfortunately this was not to be, and they ended up settling in one of the squatter areas along Alabang-Zapote Road where they stayed for a number of years holding on to that same vain hope. “Akala namin nung araw ay baka mas sumigla ang buhay namin dito [Back in the day, we thought that maybe our lives here would be happier],” the beggar recounted, shaking his head in what was the very first time he ever expressed sadness in the minutes we spent together. “Pero pagdating namin dito, hindi pala. Mas mabuti pa sanang ‘dun na lang kami sa probinsiya nanatili. [But when we came here, it wasn't. It would have been better if we had just stayed in the province.]”
But they soon learned to adapt to their sub-human lifestyle, the beggar recounted, and one of the things that had truly held their spirits together was poetry. It was one of the practices which they had brought along from their old home in the province, and it became a staple for him and his wife to read poetry to their children before letting them fall asleep on their makeshift beds. Having wanted to be a writer himself in his youth, he wished to instill the same into his daughters by reading to them as often as he could.
He rummaged through his bag and showed me one of the few remaining books he had taken with him, a tattered copy of “Sitsit sa Kulilig” by Rolando Tinio, which he had managed to purchase a very long time ago in a small book stand in the province.
“Paborito ito ng asawa ko [This was my wife's favorite],” the old man recalled, his voice ringing with both joy and sadness. Sadly, fate had crueler tricks to play, as he recounted the troubling history. Soon he began to lose his entire family to the cold hands of death, his wife and three children succumbing one after the other to a disease whose name he did not even know. He had never encountered such heinous circumstances in the poetry he read, and was left woefully vulnerable to the festering wounds that tore open in his heart. He had nearly lost his own life in the process as well, but had managed to recover somehow; though in the few months following the tragedies, he wished that he never recovered and had joined his family to the grave.
“Sana namatay na rin ako para nasamahan ko ang aking asawa at anak [If only I had died so I could have joined my wife and children],” he said, and at this point the beggar began to choke on his words as he wept. Unknowingly, I began to weep alongside him, the sharp change from his hearty enthusiasm to sorrow striking at my very core.
“Pasensya na anak [I'm sorry, child],” he interjected with a chuckle that sounded almost forced, wiping his face again with the dirty sleeve of his rags. “Wala kasing sumasagot kapag tumatawag ako. Ikaw lang ang lumapit sa akin para makinig. [It's because nobody answers when I call. You are the only one who approached me to listen.]”
It was alright, I replied, wiping off my own tears with a handkerchief.
After hearing his story, I could not help but wonder: why then was he writing poems? I asked him that and the beggar spent a moment contemplating on the question, his eyebrows furrowed slightly in thought. Then he looked at me again, eyes beaming as they had before, and with a smile answered simply:
“Dahil kahit nasa langit na sila, gusto kong siguraduhin na alam nila na mahal ko pa rin sila at hindi ko pa sila nakakalimutan. [Because even if they are in heaven, I want to make sure that they know that I still love them and that I haven't forgotten them.]”
3:00PM. I was rendered speechless, literally unable to so much as whisper by the purity of his words. Sensing my hesitation—or more accurately, my incapacity—to respond, the beggar explained further, though in my mind nothing more was necessary to add to the quality of his drive. He said that every Sunday, “kung buhay pa man ako pagkalipas ng isang buong linggo sa awa ng Diyos [If I am still even alive after a week has passed by the grace of God]” he added jokingly, he would enter the nearest church of whatever place he managed to wander into and begin praying. There, after preparing himself, he would take out his notebook and recite the poem he had written for his family.
“Tatawagin ko yung mga anghel at papakiusapan ko sila [I would call the angels and plead with them],” he said, stroking the notebook on his lap with his fingers. “Hihilingin ko sa kanila na sana ipadala nila ang akig isinulat sa mga anak at asawa ko. [I will request that they bring my writing to my wife and children.]”
I asked him how long he had been doing this. The beggar said that he has been doing it for over thirty years.
Thirty years. I was amazed at this enormous number, and even more amazed by the amount of poetry he could have possibly written within that span of time. In my surprise I hurriedly asked a follow-up question: where did he keep all of the things he wrote?
“Hindi ko inaangkin ang mga gawa ko,” the beggar replied, his smile all the brighter. “Pagkatapos kong basahin para sa kanila, iniiwan ko sa mga tao sa simbahang pinuntahan ko o sa may altar lang. Binabalik ko na lang sa Diyos ang biyaya niya. [After I read it for them, I would leave to the people in the church I visited, or just by the altar. I am only giving back God's graces.]”
Through the gorges of death, this poor old man had found purpose. In tragedy he had discovered beauty; in darkness, the light of art and an understanding of love so pure I could only sit in reverent envy. His rags betrayed the princely dignity of the life he fostered within.
It was now 3:15PM, and the clouds rolled in overhead to cloak the sky once more. A cool breeze whistles in the tall grass around us, the only sound to break the stillness of the hour. The old man, sighing deeply, flipped back to the page on which the poem was written and tore it from the notebook. He folded the paper neatly and handed it over to me, motioning for me to take it from him. “Anak, sa ‘yo na lang ito, [You can have this, child]” he whispered, hand still outstretched and waiting. “Pampasalamat na rin sa pagkinig ko mo sa akin. [This is thanks for listening to me.]”
But I couldn’t possibly take it in good conscience. How would he read it to his family this Sunday? I raised this very same concern, and he replied quickly: “Naisaulo ko na ang sinulat ko, kaya okey lang. Para na rin, pag dating ng araw, mabigkas mo sa sarili mong pamilya. [I already memorized what I wrote, so it's okay. Also, when the day comes, you'll be able to recite it to your own family.]”
I could not help but smile at the genuineness of his offer. As I took the piece of paper from his hand, I thought I felt a warm tingle rush from the tips of my fingers up the whole length of my arm. Did the angels the beggar was referring to hold my hand at the moment I received the poem? Were they afraid of letting it go, or that I would let it go? But the angels needn’t worry, I thought to myself. I would not dare to let go of as precious a gift as this.
3:20PM. I quickly slipped the piece of paper in my own bag, sliding it neatly between the pages of one of my books. I realized that it was getting late and that I had to go, remembering that I was in a hurry to finish something at home. With a great deal of disappointment I excused myself and bid the beggar goodbye, but before taking my leave I asked for his name. “Pwede mo akong tawagin Lazaro [You can call me Lazaro],” he said, smiling. “Baka magkita tayo ulit, anak. [We may see each-other again, child.]”
Lazaro. The name rung loudly in my mind as I continued my walk home. It was just as in the gospel of Luke; certainly he too, at the hour of his final breath, will be taken carried away by the angels to Abraham's bosom—just as it was the beggar’s hope that his poetry would be carried by the angels to his family. It has been over a year since our half-hour long encounter, and I can only wonder whether I would meet Lazaro again, in glorious rags, eyes glistening with bliss.
© Copyright 2016 Jan Gabriel. All rights reserved.