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If someone were to ask me to describe a home, I would tell them this.
A home never floods during a typhoon.
A home has a kitchen with a stove for cooking rice.
A home does not have dead people inside it.
These thoughts bounced around in my head while I walked home through the North Cemetery. It was the largest one in the city of Manila, maybe in the entire archipelago of the Philippine Islands.
I’d spent the day selling garlands of dried flowers—everlasting daisies—on a street corner in front of the cemetery gates. On the way home, I’d stopped at a food stand to buy dinner: steamed rice and dried salted fish. While I was there, a pebble had lodged itself in a hole at the bottom of my rubber slippers, and it now poked my heel with every step. But I didn’t stop to take it out. I kept moving to keep myself from staring too long at the cemetery visitors and comparing my T-shirt and faded pink shorts with their nice clothes, my dirty slippers with their shiny shoes, and the darkness of my skin with their pale complexions.
Squatter. The unspoken word stabbed me as keenly as the pebble under my foot.
I walked deeper into the sementeryo. The grave houses in this part of the cemetery were smaller and shabbier. There were small children playing hide-and-seek between the tombs. Some kids were standing on top of them, tossing a ball made of old newspapers wrapped in twine. There were men and women, either sweeping out mausoleums or fetching buckets of water for drinking or washing. Others carried whatever food they could buy that day. These people weren’t visitors. They lived here.
Up ahead, I saw Efren Pena and his pushcart classroom on the corner. He waved a book in the air when he saw me. A wide smile dimpled his cheek. He called out, “Nora, join us! We’re doing math today.”
I waved back at him. A surge of excitement filled me. Last week, we’d learned about Andres Bonifacio and the Philippine Revolution of 1896. Working on math would be fun. Papa had always said I was good with numbers.
Kuya Efren had recently cut his hair. What used to be thick, black, and wavy was now so short it stuck out all over his head. The cart had a blackboard on one side with math problems written in chalk. On the other, it said Outreach Education on Wheels in bright blue letters. I called him Kuya, which means “older brother.” It was a way to show him respect.
A few boys and girls were already sitting on plastic mats Kuya had brought, studying the math problems on the blackboard. Kuya Efren beckoned me over. He came to the cemetery a few times a week to teach children whose parents couldn’t even afford to send them to public school. They were squatter kids like me who had no money for uniforms and school supplies.
Yes, it would be nice to sit a while and pretend I was back in school. And I could finally pick that small rock out from the bottom of my slipper.
A few more kids arrived. Kuya Efren handed out a workbook, each of us receiving a different color, depending on how much we already knew. I loved solving word problems because they had been my father’s favorite. I did three of them. My favorite one was:
Pedro bought 8 ball caps, one for each of his eight friends, for 8 pesos each. The cashier charged him an additional 12 pesos and 7 centavos in sales tax. He left the store with 5 pesos and 93 centavos. How much money did Pedro start with?
The answer was so easy.
Papa used to help me with my homework every night. Remembering him made me wish I hadn’t been so lazy when I used to go to a real school. Back then, I hadn’t enjoyed math. It was a class I had to get through until it was time to work in our school garden. I closed my eyes. It had been a year since I left school. More than a year since the fire.
I finished the section of math problems and handed the book to Kuya Efren to check. Sitting on the mat next to me was a little boy named Ernie, who lived in a grave house close to mine. I hadn’t noticed him at first, because he’d had his back to me. Now he turned and nudged me with his elbow; his dark eyes looked large in his thin face.
“Hey, Nora, how did you finish so fast? I’ve been sitting here for hours!” He scratched his head with his pencil, pointing to a page in his workbook. “I hate adding and subtracting.”
I peered over his shoulder. Ernie had worked through most of the addition problems. I nudged him back and said, “You’re almost done! And stop complaining. You have to learn so you can count money. Do you want people to cheat you?”
“I guess not. Real school must be terrible. I’m glad my mother doesn’t make me do this every day.” He sighed, then bent over his page.
“Real school can be fun too. At my old school, we studied math, grammar, and history, and we also learned how to plant vegetables and fruit.”
“Growing plants sounds boring.” He scowled, using his fingers to count.
“Well, we also made baskets and played games outside.” I nudged him again with my elbow.
He looked at me, his face scrunched up. “Ow! Your elbows are sharp!”
“Oh, stop being a baby!” I leaned in and whispered, “Sometimes, our teacher would give us something special if we got all our spelling words correct. If you do your problems right, Kuya Efren might give you a prize.”
Ernie’s eyes widened. He mouthed, Really?
I nodded. This was only the third time he’d sat down to do schoolwork with the pushcart classroom. He used to watch from a distance, perched on top of a tomb, biting his nails. He had been sitting too far away to see Kuya hand his students a piece of candy every time they completed a math or reading exercise.
“So did you have a lot of friends at school?” Ernie asked, putting down his pencil to use all his fingers to count this time.
“Not a lot. I did have a best friend named Evelyn. We both loved fried bananas so much that we would sneak out of our school during recess so we could buy banana-que. The street vendor was an old woman with no teeth.” I still remembered her baskets of fried saba bananas crusted with melted brown sugar on barbecue sticks, and salty fried peanuts with garlic.
Ernie licked his lips as if he could taste it. “Hmm, my favorite!”
“We would buy our snack and eat it fast so we wouldn’t get caught. Sometimes, we would sneak back to school with crumbs of fried brown sugar on our uniform ties and get into trouble anyway.”
The memory always made me smile. I wondered if Evelyn would recognize me if she saw me now. My hair was longer. My skin had darkened from standing in the sun selling everlasting-daisy garlands. I didn’t think she would. And that was fine. I missed her, but I didn’t want her to see me or ask me where I lived or where I went to school.
Kuya Efren tapped me on the shoulder. “Good work, Nora. Would you like to continue with the next page?”
“Salamat, Kuya, but I should go. I have to go home and make more garlands.” I picked up the bag that held my dinner. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast and thinking about food made my mouth water. “I’ll be back next week.”
I stood to go and was about to say goodbye when Kuya handed me a battered book of Filipino folktales and a piece of candy wrapped in bright orange paper. I was tempted to eat it then and there, but I resisted. I wanted to save it for something special.
“We are going to practice reading comprehension next week. Read this so you can answer questions about the stories when you come back.” Kuya smiled and then turned to help Ernie with his math.
I clutched the book to my chest. It felt good to hold one again. I missed going to a real school. I missed the smell of chalk. Most of all, I missed my best friend. If I saved enough money I could buy a couple of secondhand uniforms, some notebooks, and pencils. I would go back to school next year. I’d have to repeat sixth grade, but that was okay.
Soon. I patted the bump in my pocket. I ran the rest of the way home, wondering if Mama was already there, if she’d brought home anything good to eat. It was a Sunday, after all, which meant it was time for our once-a-week treat of something sweet, like a nice, ripe mango or a slice of biko, a kind of sticky rice cake topped with caramelized coconut cream frosting wrapped in a banana leaf.
But she wasn’t home yet. My grave house was empty. It wasn’t a real house, of course, but a mausoleum. It had three walls and a roof made of concrete like a house. The fourth wall was made of iron bars and covered the front of the grave house where the middle opened like a gate. The roof had a square hole covered with glass to let in natural light. I sighed. Papa had loved sunny places. Golden sunlight flickered across his resting place.
Papa’s tomb was a large cement rectangle, painted white, that stood in the middle of the grave house. The grave marker had his name, the year he was born, and the year he died. He had been thirty-five years old. Carved beneath his name were my grandparents’ names. Their bones had been buried in a special compartment under Papa’s coffin. Sometimes, Mama and I had to hang our wash over the tomb to dry when it rained. It didn’t seem like a nice thing to do, so we whispered, “Sorry, Papa,” every time.
I pulled a key out of my shorts. It hung on a cord made of tightly braided cloth. The small padlock on the gate was flimsy but it kept out other squatters. Mama bought one after a neighbor “borrowed” our broom while we were out and never gave it back. After pushing the gate open, I propped my rubber slippers at the bottom of the step and went inside, closing the gate behind me. Everything was just as I’d left it this morning. Stretched across Papa’s tomb hung a string of sampaguita, a small, fragrant jasmine flower that filled the entire grave house with sweetness.
Mama and I slept on one side of the mausoleum. Propped against the wall were sheets of cardboard to cushion our backs from the concrete floor. There was also a basket that held a kulambo, or mosquito net, as well as a pair of thin blankets and pillows. Hidden inside the blanket was our only luxury, a flashlight. Mama always made sure the batteries were fresh. She said it was important to have, in case someone tried to come into our grave house at night. Other baskets held some clothes, mostly hand-me-downs, a small cracked mirror, a comb, and toothbrushes.
The other side of the tomb had a small plastic table we’d found at a trash heap and a woven mat where Mama and I sat to eat. Above the table hung a small wind chime made with three strands of capiz shells. They tinkled softly in the afternoon breeze. In the corner stood an altar made out of a small plastic crate I’d found behind a bakery, turned on its side. Mama had draped an old slip edged with lace over it. On top of the satiny cloth sat our Santo Niño, a statue of baby Jesus dressed in gold-and-red felt. It had a gold plastic crown on its head. It had been a gift from Papa’s aunt, back when she was kind to us. At its feet lay a pile of small white sampaguita flowers I’d picked from a bush near the cemetery gates.
I pulled out the piece of candy Kuya Efren had given me and placed it in front of our Santo Niño. Papa used to come home from work with candy in his pocket for me. He’d let me eat only one and save the rest to make daily offerings to the statue. I’d asked him if baby Jesus took the sweets, because they disappeared every day. Now I knew better. Papa had eaten the candy when I wasn’t looking. These days, Mama and I made offerings to our Santo Niño every time she went out to play mahjong, for blessings of both safety and luck. Then after a couple of days I would eat the candy, hoping for a never-be-hungry-again blessing.
Next to the gate stood a bucket I had found in a trash heap. Inside was a small sweet potato plant. At first, Mama wouldn’t let me keep it inside the grave house. She had insisted that I keep it in the back, where we fetched water and did our washing. Then someone had stolen the sweet potatoes, and the leaves, which are also edible, before I had a chance to harvest them. After that, Mama let me keep it inside.
I pulled a sheet hanging from a stretch of wire across the bars. It was what we used when the season was dry. When it rained, we covered the bars with tarps that carpenters sometimes discarded after a construction job. I set my small bag of rice and fish on the table.
In the back of the grave house, behind the tomb, I pried open a loose tile that shielded my secret hiding place. Inside, covered with dust and spider webs, was an old shoebox. I emptied my pocket of coins and bills into it, my eyes straying to my father’s watch and the picture inside the box. It was of me, Mama, and Papa, taken in front of our apartment several years before the fire destroyed our lives. Mama’s cheeks were still round; her eyes looked bright and happy. She had long hair then and it draped thick over one shoulder. Papa was smiling big, his eyes disappearing into crinkles of skin. I was standing between them in my new school uniform, my hair in pigtails, ready for kindergarten. Papa had been so proud that day because I would be going to his old school, Joseph Luna Elementary School in Sampaloc, Manila.
I held the watch against my ear, listening to it count the seconds. It was almost like being a little girl again, when I used to press my ear to Papa’s chest and listen to his heart. I kissed the watch face and turned the winding button three times.
* * *
The first time I held Papa’s watch was during a surprise trip to Luneta Park. I had been a talkative kid and got in trouble a lot. When I saw Papa instead of Mama waiting for me after school, I wondered if he was there to talk to my teacher. But he smiled and took my hand.
“Why did you pick me up, Papa? Where’s Mama?”
He kissed my forehead and said, “Remember Aling Lily from next door? Mama had to take her to the doctor, so she called me and asked if I could pick you up. So I thought, since I’m here, I can take you to Luneta Park like I promised.”
“Really? Thank you, thank you, Papa!”
We rode a jeepney, a kind of jeep that’s extra long in the back and works like a shared taxi. It can fit at least sixteen people, eight on each side. It took a long time to get to the park because of traffic. I fell asleep on Papa’s shoulder for what seemed like seconds, and then Papa patted my cheek to wake me. We had arrived.
Papa explained that Luneta Park was also called Rizal Park. After we climbed out of the jeepney, I could see why. A monument to Philippine’s national hero, Jose Rizal, stood at its entrance. Visitors and street vendors crowded the sidewalk; young people posed for pictures, while the old ones talked about Rizal’s revolutionary novels to anyone who would listen.
We walked on the grassy lawn, weaving between families sitting on blankets. We stopped for ice cream and headed to a place called the “flower clock.” It was a huge flower bed. The clock face was made of yellow and red flowers, with an actual hour hand and minute hand mounted in the center. I stood on a bench to get a better look. It really looked like a clock!
“Does it work?” I asked.
Papa shook his head. “I’m afraid not. Have you learned to tell time?”
I jumped off the bench and sat next to him. “Yes. Miss Lim gave us worksheets with clocks all over it so we can practice telling the time.”
“Why don’t we practice while we finish our ice cream. We can use my watch.” He shook his wrist so that his watch faced me and pointed to it with his pinky. “Tell me, what time is it?”
I stared at it for a long time, not because I was trying to figure out what time it was, but because it was so pretty. It was silver all over, even the bracelet, but its face was blue. The hands ticking rhythmically were silver. “Can you tell me the story of your watch, Papa?”
“Again?” He laughed.
“Please?” I begged, swinging my legs as they dangled over the bench seat.
“Oh, all right.” He smiled, squinting into the distance as if he could read the story from the sky. “This watch once belonged to your grandfather. When he was in college, he worked as a waiter for a popular restaurant in Manila called the Aristocrat. One day he was taking a break behind the building smoking a cigarette, when he heard someone shouting and witnessed a robbery. A thief had grabbed an old man’s briefcase. The old guy wouldn’t let go, so the thief kicked him. Your grandfather shouted for him to stop, just as the old guy fell to the ground. He chased the thief and wrestled the briefcase away from him. The thief ran away before your grandfather could call the police.”
“And then what happened, Papa?” I had asked, licking the melted ice cream off my fingers.
Papa chuckled and continued, “He helped the old man up and returned his briefcase. The old man trembled and cried. Your grandfather could see that the old man needed to sit and rest to calm himself, so he invited him into the restaurant. The old man said he couldn’t, he didn’t have enough money, but your grandfather insisted. He brought the man inside and sat him at a corner table. The restaurant manager was a kind man and allowed your grandfather to bring the old man a cup of coffee, a small bowl of the restaurant’s famous stew, dinuguan, and some fluffy steamed rice cakes. The old man told your grandfather he had been on his way to visit his wife, who lay dying in a nearby hospital. The briefcase contained love letters they had shared as young lovers and he’d brought them so he could read them to her. He finished his food, thanked your grandfather, and asked him for a glass of water. He went to fetch him the drink, but when he returned, the old man was gone. But on the table was a wristwatch sitting on top of a note written on a paper napkin.”
Papa paused to eat his melted ice cream. “This is good!”
“Papa,” I whined. “What did the note say?”
“Oh, yes,” he continued. “The note said, ‘Thank you for saving my memories. Please accept this small gift.’ Your grandfather ran out of the restaurant to give the watch back to the old man. He looked up and down the street and could not find him. He even ran to the hospital where the old man said his wife lay dying, but the receptionist told him she hadn’t seen an old man with a briefcase come in. While he was telling her the story, he noticed how lovely her eyes were, and how sweetly she smiled at him. That’s how your grandfather met your grandmother. He wore the watch every day from then on to remind him of that special day. If it weren’t for the old man and his watch, he wouldn’t have met the love of his life.”
I had always wondered what happened to the old man, and if his wife had noticed the tan line where his watch used to be. My grandfather had given the watch to Papa when he began going to college. One of his friends told him it was a vintage Seiko 5 Chronograph circa 1975. He’d loved his watch.
I loved it too. It was all Mama and I had left of Papa.
I placed the watch back inside the box and closed it. With the tile back in place, I picked up my basket and sat on my mat. My banig was bright pink with stripes of zigzag yellow and blue. When we moved to the cemetery, Mama had decided we should have a colorful mat to sit on when we ate meals. She told me that we needed some brightness in our lives. I ran my fingers over the design, thinking about that, and realized she was right. It made me a little happy to look at it. I sighed, my thoughts straying to food. I wondered if Mama would bring home a steamed pork bun to share, or some fresh-baked pandesal with pats of butter wrapped in wax paper. Those would taste so much better than plain steamed rice and fried fish.
Ignoring my grumbling stomach, I shook out a bagful of dried gold and pink everlasting daisies. I began to work.
Copyright © 2018 by Marie Miranda Cruz
Reader’s guide copyright © 2018 by Tor Books