Erin David, 17
Erin David, now 17 years old, can barely remember anything from when she was five. Except for that one last memory. Her last memory of her father. Of his own wake. He was still alive three days before that. Then, the rally happened. And now, he’s in the box. With an unknown couple gawking over him, taking photos from different angles.
She remembers the scene because it was then that she asked her grandmother why the people did not take photos from when her father wasn’t in the box. Her grandmother, after looking helplessly around at the other people, whisked her out of the room in response. Erin did not understand then why whenever they went to the public market, people talked ever so strangely. In hushed voices, as if they were afraid she would hear them. And no, she did not hear them. But she did see them. She saw their sad eyes fall on her and her mother and grandmother. Eyes that pretend to look at something else as soon as she return the gaze. She did not understand their looks. She did not understand the soft whispers.
For five more years, she knew nothing.
* * *
A little after her twelfth birthday, Erin and her grandmother transferred to another barangay in Tarlac. They had to, because Erin suddenly lost her words. She went missing one sunny day and was later found at the grave of her father, ragged, tear-stained, and adamantly silent.
She won’t tell us what happened, said a neighbor to her grandmother.
She could be experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, said the doctor.
No, listen! There’s Something in my throat, Erin tried to tell them but her voice was not heard.
If a tree falls in the forest, and there’s nobody around to hear, does it make a sound?
* * *
Erin’s mother and grandmother agreed to let her take a short vacation from school for a while because of her mutism. The “vacation” however, lasted for the next five years. And now, 17 years of age, Erin has become a full-time helper in her grandmother’s karinderya. She worked inside the kitchen, away from people, making bilao after bilao of the sought after tibok-tibok. Every day, from 6am up to 5pm, she cooks relentlessly.
“Eri, can you have 5 orders of tibok-tibok ready by noon?” Her grandmother Erlinda, a strong hardworking woman of 65, has been the only person with whom Erin still feels comfortable. Her mother has been working in Hongkong as an OFW for the past 10 years and Erinwas not really that close with her anymore. “There’s a group of Korean tourists outside, they said they were willing to wait until noon for 5 bilaos.”
Yes, mamang. Erin merely nodded modestly.
Mamang Erlinda smiled kindly at her and turned to leave, pausing at the door connecting the kitchen to the karinderya, “Eri, you haven’t forgotten today, have you?”
Erin stopped stirring the latik, slowly wiped away the bead of sweat on her forehead, smiled and shook her head. No, I have not forgotten.
As soon as her grandmother exited the kitchen, Erin’s smile vanished. Anxiety replaced her calm demeanor. Her young pale face contorted in fear, and with quickened breathing she wobbled towards the large pan containing the simmering mixture. She caught herself in time. Checking the tibok-tibok mixture, she saw the bubbles beneath the surface. Pulsating in sync with her erratic heartbeat. She watched it for a few more seconds, calmed by the familiar sight. Every day, for the past five years, the bubbling of the tibok-tibok mixture has been a companion. She can even hear the tiny popping sounds and the crackling of the fire beneath it. But every year, Erin must leave this sanctuary for a day. With one bilao of tibok-tibok, she and her Mamang Erlinda travels back to their hometown.
To the cemetery where her father is laid. To offer the favored sweet delicacy at the tomb.
* * *
Erin disdained the clicking sound of their padlocked gates. From here onwards, the Something in her throat makes itself known. Countless times, her grandmother brought her to different doctors. The pale walls and the white coats couldn’t remove the Something.Erin bet they probably did not even know about the Something. It is absurd, Erin surely thought, for them to know that which they never had.
She also does not trust hospitals and doctors.
She believed that people who stay in hospitals for the night return home in boxes. As her father had. But she did not share this sentiment to anyone. She kept it to herself ever since the day she went missing seven years ago.
But today, they have to return to the place where the Something stole Erin’s words.
Erlinda David, 65
Erlinda could not believe that the body inside the coffin was her son’s. Three days before that he left their house together with the other farmers. Her son has always been a believer of justice. He had faith and courage. She did not. She feared for her son’s life. And Erlinda was right to be afraid.
He had too much courage, she always said.
When Erlinda heard her 5 year old granddaughter ask why the unknown couple did not take photos from when her son was still alive, that was the moment that reality hit her. Her son is dead.
They could have left it at that.
But when the news came the following days, her son was not just murdered. He was also accused. Of course, some of the neighbors defended her against the doubters. But their words could only stay in Tarlac, it cannot possibly reach the whole country. So Erlinda kept quiet because she knew she had more important responsibilities.
“Malou,” she gently chided her son’s wife, “Erin needs you. You have to pull yourself together. I will help, don’t worry. But you have to be strong for your daughter.”
Erlinda sometimes wondered why Malou kept crying every night for five years after the incident. Sure, she understood the sorrow and anguish over the lost one. He was her child, for God’s sake. But Erlinda knew that she should be strong, and Malou did not. Or even if she did, she could not.
Malou only realized her role when Erin entered the first grade. In the mornings she looked for jobs, but at night she still cried. But no longer as intense as the first few years. It was a kind-hearted neighbor who told Erlinda about the overseas work, and she in turn, told Malou.
After 8 months, Malou left for Hongkong. Erin was left to Erlinda.
It was her who taught Erin to “stir the latik slowly but continuously. It makes for a rich texture”. For the next few years, she allowed Erin to help her in the karinderya. Loath to admit that in truth, she would also rather keep her granddaughter close to her than allow the kid to go to the school and get lost again. The yearly pilgrimage to her son’s grave was enough for her.
This year, as they walked towards the cemetery, Erlinda could not help but feel the pain again, so she tightly held Erin’s arms.
Malou David, 43
Malou allowed the unknown couple to take photos because they swore to tell the world the truth behind her husband’s death. And she believed them. The pain blinded her too much because everything lied about the incident.
Her husband was already shot down when the soldiers dragged him inside the hospital, said the other wounded farmers.
But when the next day came, he was dead.
They said, he was dead even before he was taken.
But he’s got bruise marks all over his body, Malou noticed when they showed her his body moments before it went inside the coffin. He did not have those before.
The bruise marks were inflicted after he was shot and dragged, said the coroner.
Malou’s realization was an agonized wail.
As she sat in a stool in front of her husband’s coffin, a couple approached her and asked if they could take photos of the deceased.
We’re here to make sure the truth gets known, they assured her.
She thought they were good people. But as the news came the following days, something went wrong and everything got worse. She mourned for her husband every night. She wept for her daughter’s future. And she raged. Against those who took everything away from her.
This was why she left the country. She could not face her daughter without breaking down. It was too much and she believed it was her fault that her daughter’s voice was lost.
Today they commemorate the death of her husband. Today she is reminded of her mistake and the faithlessness of the country she lived in.
* * *
When Erin turned ten, during a fifth-grade class, she found out why. She saw the photos of the rally and read the stories during the class. Their teacher asked her to stand up and encouraged her to tell her father’s story.
But she did not know anything about it. Her mother and grandmother never told her. What was she supposed to say?
Erin opened her mouth as if to speak. Then closed it again. Several times she did this, like a fish drawn out of its home, gasping for breath. Her large black eyes darting back and forth from her teacher to the faces of her classmates. Like the red bulging eyes of a fish sensing a dark ending. Erin’s sweaty hands were fidgeting, like the moist flapping of fins.
That day, Something got stuck in her throat. She wanted to speak. Wanted to tell them she did not know, wanted to ask her teacher if she perhaps really knew the answer and was just politely asking her since it was her father in the first place. But she couldn’t speak because of the Something stuck in her throat. And for seven more years after that, she did not speak again in school. The Something never went away whenever she goes to places with lots of other people.
Erin David, 17
People thought she did not want to speak. But she does. Only she cannot. So instead, she laid down the bilao of tibok-tibok at her father’s grave. One small silent act.
She offered it to all the things that was left unsaid. To all the things she wanted to say, yet cannot.
She offered it to all the meanings slowly slipping out of her mind.
She offered it to the words abruptly stolen from her. Words she knew would never suffice. It was better this way. She will keep on offering small silent acts.
DYNA MARIEL BERNARDO BADE