Fiction / July 2018 (Issue 40: Writing the Philippines)

At the River

by John Bengan

She had spotted another boat moving toward their side of the river when one of the boys swimming below the shed called out her name. "Your father," said the boy. "They say he's coming back."

Raquel had seen him before, the son of that woman who sold lotto tickets in the neighbourhood. He and his friends usually picked a spot by the bridge and would stay there until the afternoon. When it got cooler, they would head down the river.

"Tomorrow." She had come to the shed to watch the boats arrive, a habit she looked forward to lately after school. "Your parents and my father are friends?"

"No," the boy said. "You crazy? He might shoot them."

Laughter scattered across the water. She pulled a piece of wood sticking out from the post she'd been leaning on. She aimed for the boy's head.

But they were already swimming back to the bank, squealing as they beat their arms in the weak light. Not far from them, the boat cruised, taking passengers to their homes in New Matina, the patchwork of houses around Bankerohan. The river twisted up to the highlands, away from the bay that seemed to touch the sky. Once the boys had climbed over the embankment, their leader looked up to the shed. Not done with her yet.

"Your father is a killer," said the boy. "He should not come back."

She flung the piece of wood, the weapon, looping away from the boys like a boomerang she'd once seen on a neighbour's TV, the sound of the motorboat drowning their laughter.


Her mother was out of sorts the day her father was arriving. She had cut her finger while preparing the dip of sliced tomato and soy sauce. Twice she had bumped her knee against the table while setting plates of rice and grilled tilapia. Raquel winced when she saw the red spot on her mother's finger.

"What time is he coming, Ma?" Raquel asked.

"Eight-thirty. Can't you wait?" Her mother placed forks beside each plate. They usually only had spoons.

Raquel could hear the breeze picking up from the river. She was biting her lips, and now and then, the back of her neck tingled. Her mother had told her how he once balanced her on his palm when she was little and had just learnt how to stand. He used to make her sit on his shoulders and take her by the river to watch the boats. The last time they saw each other, she was only six, and those days often came to her in dreams. By the bamboo staircase, Raquel waited for him to come home.

At first, she heard metal squeaking. A rickshaw appeared on the stretch of road visible from their doorway. The passenger, a man with a duffle bag on his lap, was gesturing to the young driver. Raquel didn't notice her mother running toward the man who had stepped out of the trisikad.

The man took her mother in his arms and kissed her on the forehead, then on the lips. Raquel had imagined him taller. She couldn't decide whether she should follow her mother or stay, but before long, the man stood long-armed and tall before her.

She gazed up into her father's eyes. They were large, set slightly farther apart, a dark speck on the white of his left eye. Her own eyes were narrow slits her mother passed on.

He scooped her up from the bamboo steps, almost crushing her in an abrupt embrace. "You're so big now!" He smelt of heat and mud.

At breakfast, her parents talked about the people who had convinced her father to come home. Although she didn't quite understand, she listened to everything they talked about, taking to heart the names of men and women she didn't know like they were instructions on how to make her father stay. Later her mother left to do laundry for houses in a gated village not far from the neighbourhood. Raquel promised her mother she would be good. Before going out, she peeked from behind the door and saw her father snoring on the mat, his arm folded over his face. She wanted to close the windows, but she was afraid that he might wake up.


She'd always known that her father was someone who didn't belong only to them. When she was younger, she used to think that it was his job to watch over the forest; he had to live in the mountains to protect animals and trees. Her mother had assured her that he would come back soon, if not later. When some of the children at school called her a rebel's daughter, Raquel would look the other away. One time, she didn't hold back after a boy announced to the whole class that the army had killed her father in an encounter in the jungle. She sprang at the boy and stabbed the side of his left eye with a newly sharpened Mongol pencil, splitting skin over the eye socket. The doctor had him wear a patch for a few weeks. 

Raquel had cried when that boy's mother, who also happened to be vice president of the PTA, yelled at them in the principal's office. "You should be thankful that my husband is not pressing charges," Mrs. Romulo had told her mother. "If it were up to me, your daughter would never set foot in another school again." After the incident, Raquel hardly spoke to anyone at school. She avoided the boy she had stabbed in the eye. Now in sixth grade, Raquel and the boy attended the same section. 

On her father's first evening home, he asked her how old she was.


"What grade are you now?"

Nervously, she looked at her father's cheeks.

"Your mother raised you well," he said.

On the ride to school the next morning, she realised she'd forgotten to ask her mother for jeepney fare. Good thing she hadn't forgotten lunch: rice, fried fish, two boiled bananas. It only took a few minutes to get to school from their house under Bolton Bridge. The ride only cost four pesos. She didn't bother asking her father—he might not have the money. When the jeepney slowed by the school gate, Raquel hopped out.

The school grounds had never looked so alive. Students ran around huge acacia trees, some of them munching on their packed snacks, others watering the durantas along the porches of school buildings. She breathed in the smell of cut grass. Acacia leaves rained on the school grounds. She stood second in her section's row during flag ceremony. She sang the national anthem louder and more spirited than she ever had. She didn't miss a word of the national pledge. Never mind that the chubby boy who recited the pledge on the podium had a stutter. Never mind that her grouchy science teacher, Ms. Descalzo, led the singing and stabbed the air with her wrinkled hands while a scratchy, recorded symphony rattled from the speakers.

Raquel searched the crowd for Ms. Kiram, her adviser. How nice it would be if her diligence were recognised. Ms. Kiram could single her out later in her GMRC lecture. She saw Ms. Kiram behind a line of third graders, talking with other teachers. She hoped to catch her attention before the principal could end her speech.

In the classroom, she asked her friend Lorraine if Ms. Kiram was upset. 

"You haven't heard?" Loraine pointed at a vacant seat. It was Christopher Romulo's chair, the boy Raquel had stabbed in the eye.

The students took their seats when they saw Ms. Kiram walking over to the blackboard.

"Christopher couldn't be with us today," said Ms. Kiram, hiding her hands behind her back. She told them that Mr. Romulo, Christopher's father, was killed that Sunday. The Romulos were coming out of church when it happened. It was a difficult time in their classmate's life, Ms. Kiram told the students. They were not obliged to contribute, but even just a peso would help. The class treasurer would accept donations from those who had spare change.

"The funeral is on Sunday," Ms. Kiram said, "and we are all attending."

The shooting was not the first of its kind. Some of her classmates, Christopher's close friends mostly, argued over whether or not the so-called Death Squad had killed Mr. Romulo. But so far, they'd only taken down criminals. Killers for hire, Loraine called them. Raquel still couldn't believe it happened to someone she knew, least of all, a parent at her school.


Her father came home in a dark mood. Raquel was upstairs, doing verb tense exercises in her English textbook, when she heard him come in. She almost fell off the low stairs, throwing her arms around her father's waist. He welcomed her embrace, but quickly let go. "Next time, don't run down the stairs," he scolded. Raquel retreated to the table where her mother was chopping string beans. Her father went to the sink and washed his face with water from a basin her mother had prepared.

"Any news?" her mother asked.

He tossed his white hand towel on the table. "Nothing," he said. "I knew it. They're giving us nothing."

Her mother put the knife down and wiped her forehead. "Jobs are hard to come by anywhere," she said. "We have to be patient."

Her father pulled a stool from under the table and sat down. "They told me to wait. They told me that there's nothing much I can do. I should be lucky."

"What can we do?" said her mother, driving the knife back over the string beans. She was cutting them into little strips swiftly and with ease. "We have to wait, if that's what they tell you."

"I don't have time for this!" he screamed.

Raquel almost jumped. Her mother stopped chopping.

"I can't go back." Her father buried his face in his hands, then got up and walked over to the open door. He looked out into the other houses.

"You made up your mind," her mother said. "It wasn't going to be smooth, we both knew that."

"Wake me up early. I'm taking the other offer."

Her mother didn't say anything. Done with the string beans, she poured them all into a bowl. Outside, it was dim and smoky. Someone was strumming a guitar to neighbors singing a Tagalog pop song. At the river, motorised boats were passing. Raquel wanted to leave but didn't know where to go.


A loud horn woke her up at dawn. The garbage truck had come early to fetch her father. She pushed a window open and saw her mother running after him, holding out his packed lunch. He took it and said something. Under the branches of a guava tree, her mother watched her father leave.

Later that same morning, they heard screams. Raquel searched for her rubber flip-flops in the clutter of their house. At the embankment, her mother scolded her for going out with only one sandal on.

Many of their neighbours had gathered around a woman holding a brown sack covered almost entirely in mud. The children were asked to stay back or return to their homes right away. Raquel didn't want to leave her mother's side.

She recognised the woman. It was Nang Seling, the lotto ticket vendor. Raquel pressed closer to her mother when she saw that Nang Seling wasn't holding a sack but a body. She grabbed her mother's arm when she saw that Nang Seling was holding her son—that boy, the one who'd teased her at the river.

"So young," said a round middle-aged man who wasn't wearing a shirt.

"That's what they get," said the white-haired man next to him.

A group of neighbourhood watchers who wore matching red vests approached Nang Seling and tried to take her away, but she wouldn't let go of the body. She screamed with so much force that her voice wouldn't come out of her anymore. She clawed for her son's T-shirt.

A short woman with plastic curlers in her hair was standing close to Raquel and her mother. "They're getting busy." She spat onto the sand. "Third young one this month."

Four of the watchers were now dragging Nang Seling away from the body. She tried to fight them off, flinging her arms, until she passed out.


At the chapel, students were made to sit in the back rows, while teachers and the principal sat behind Christopher's relatives. They were asked to behave, stay quiet, but a few of them talked while the priest said mass. Earlier, Raquel had spotted Christopher. He was sitting outside a mausoleum with his friends, talking the way they do at school, as if they hadn't come to bury Christopher's father. From where she and Loraine sat, she could see Christopher's mother, dressed in black in the front row, dabbing her face with a white handkerchief. When the priest approached Mr. Romulo's coffin to sprinkle it with holy water, Raquel saw Christopher walk down to the altar. She could make out his hair neatly brushed up on that small head. She thought he looked good, looked like he smelled nice, too, wearing what must be new clothes.

Afterward, they went to Mr. Romulo's lot. Thick shadows lengthened on the ground, the wind cool, a lone caretaker held a noisy grass cutter over the lawn. Soon they were taking turns to toss flowers and dirt into the grave. Mrs. Romulo, wearing large sunglasses, remained seated. Christopher joined the others and threw fistfuls of dirt into his father's grave.

Those who attended the funeral left in cars and vans, others in rented jeepneys. Raquel's class had to wait for Ms. Kiram who was still talking with Mrs. Romulo. She and Loraine sat on the curb and ate the cheese pimiento sandwiches that had been handed to them earlier.

"Look!" Loraine pulled at the sides of her shirt, letting her small breasts stick out. "Don't they look bigger?"

Raquel got up, brushing dirt from her skirt.

"Wait, don't leave me."

"I forgot my bag," said Raquel.

Walking back to the chapel, she heard her friend say, "Don't worry. Yours will grow bigger, too."

Inside the chapel, an old man mopping the floor briefly glanced at her. She found her backpack on one of the pews closer to the doorway.

As she stepped out of the chapel, she saw Christopher sitting on a stone bench under a mango tree. He wasn't wearing his glasses. The eye she had stabbed two years before was slightly red, or so it seemed to her every time she would glance at him. His hair was so neatly combed she wanted to tousle it. He looked sleepy and pale. She wanted to say something, most of all she wanted to touch his hair, his crisp white shirt. She wanted to hold him.

"What are you looking at?" Christopher scowled.

She ran as fast as she could into the trimmed cemetery lawn.


Back home, her mother was ironing other people's clothes. "After this, you'll help me cook. Ha, Raquel?" Later her father arrived and immediately took a wash. Her mother told Raquel that he didn't want to smell like the city's garbage when having supper.

"We're starting without you!" her mother called out. "Raquel's starving."

She didn't like it that her mother used her as an excuse. From their makeshift bathroom, her father said yes.


One afternoon, two men Raquel didn't know came to their house. "Is your father home?" asked the younger of the two. The older man behind him waited for her answer. It had been a week since her father began working as a garbage collector.

Her mother, who had just come home from doing laundry, turned pale when she saw the guests and told Raquel to go upstairs.

Raquel took a nap, only to be woken by her mother's loud call, asking her to buy soy sauce and vinegar. The guests were still around, now having beer with her father.

"You can get your family out of here," Raquel heard the younger man say. "It won't be long before you'll have more than enough."

Her mother handed her a twenty-peso bill and told her to hurry. When she got back, the guests had left. 

Later, her parents' voices humming from downstairs, Raquel couldn't sleep. Lately, she'd felt uneasy hearing her father breathe. The room seemed strange to her now that a man was there with them.

She heard a crash. Something broke in the kitchen, and her father was yelling for all the neighbours to hear. She pulled the sheets over her head. Until then she had never heard her mother cry.


By the time she got home from school, her shoulders were sore from the weight of her backpack. Christopher still hadn't come to class. When she turned the corner where the paved road ended, Raquel saw a white Honda, looking out of place in a neighbourhood of stilt houses. One of its doors at the front was open, and a man with thick disheveled hair sat in the driver's seat. He flashed his teeth when he saw Raquel and was about to say something when a voice she knew made her look back.

"You're home early," her father said, walking toward her. Behind him, Raquel saw the young man who had come to their house the other day.

"Let's move," shouted the man in the car, tossing his cigarette into a patch of wild grass.

Her father seemed like he was glad to see her, but she could sense his unease, something odd in his voice, like he was sorry. The young man approached the car, waving at her father to get in. Her father placed his hand on her shoulder.

"Go home." He kissed the top of her head, just like when they first met. "Your mother is alone."

Raquel ran past a group of little children playing war games. At the house, her mother was picking out specks of dirt from a tray of rice pellets.

"Did you see your father?"

"He left with them."

"Could you get us some charcoal at the store?"

When their eyes met, her mother's face showed alarm, a glimmer of fear, but she withdrew quickly and pulled her attention back to the rice pellets. "There's twenty pesos on the altar upstairs."

The children stopped their game when they saw Raquel leaving the house. A little girl, wearing only a frayed green shirt, gaped at her. The girl opened her mouth and revealed her pale gums. Most of her front teeth were missing.

"La-kel," the girl said and tugged at the hem of her shirt, too large for her size, to wipe her nose. 

"Her father is a killer!" a fat, squinting boy wearing a dirty baseball cap shouted at her, and then he chanted, "Killer! Killer!" The other children joined him.

"Go away!" Raquel screamed. "Go away!"

"Killer! Killer! Killer!"

The bloated boy held a weapon, a piece of wood honed into a sword. He angled the wooden sword evenly at Raquel, and before she could move, he sprang at her, the tip of the sword piercing her left knee. She screamed so loud that the children ran away. Above her, the sky tilted.

She limped back to the house, moving past her mother who had jumped up at the sight of her leg. She ignored her mother's questions and pushed open the door to their bathroom.

She rested her foot on the lid of a basin filled with water and started to wash the wound, steam rising from her skin. The heat stung her eyes. All she had hoped for, what she'd yearned for those slow years waiting for him to come back, all of that now seemed out of reach. Outside, the neighbourhood had gone quiet. Beyond the embankment, she could only hear a single boat pulling away.


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