The Child Abandoned
by Yvette Tan
[Art by Tey Bartolome]
THEY SAY THAT A PERSON knows that she’s reached Quiapo by the way it smells. My grandmother—my Lola—described the scent as tentative, as if the air itself was constantly waiting for something to happen. You can see what she means, if you sniff hard enough. The scent of it underlies everything you smell in this city, be it the rich, barbeque odor of isaw cooking in the dingiest of areas, to the clean, sweet scent of the Pasig river—the Ilog Pasig—itself. Entering Quiapo is not a matter of crossing the Jones Bridge anymore, even though that’s what the authorities still want to believe. Not that any of them would ever set foot here, anyway. I’m actually surprised that you did, just so you could find me.
They say that Quiapo wasn’t always like this. My Lola used to tell us stories about the place we lived in before The Change began. You’ve heard of The Change, haven’t you? I’m sure that stories abound outside this city, if only for the number of people that swarm in during Sta. Teresa’s feast day. Even so, I am sure that the tale I am about to tell will sound incredible and made up to you, but it’s a story that everyone who grew up here believes.
A long, long time ago—this was how my Lola always began her stories—back when she was a child, the Ilog Pasig had been a dirty, stinking open-air sewer. There had been a time when humans had no regard for the earth they lived in, and so had polluted her with their filth. The Ilog Pasig was not spared. Numerous factories sprang up on her banks, factories that vomited their wastes into the great river until its water was contaminated with all manner of poisons, all of them so vile that the river flowed black, and nothing could live in it. You could smell the river for miles, Lola said, and that alone would make you sick to your stomach. People were not allowed to swim in it because those who did would sicken and die.
But even so, many people still lived by the great river. Its banks, part of which had been cemented long ago, were filled with shanties made of cardboard and galvanized iron, all of them leaning precariously against each other, with windows that looked out onto the Ilog Pasig. Though they did not like living beside such filth, these people had no choice. They were poor and land was scarce in the city. My Lola herself was born and raised by the Ilog Pasig. The whole of her life had been spent by the great river, so much so that she didn’t really know what the river smelled like, and only knew that it smelled bad from what other people—people who didn’t live near the river—told her.
Lola used to say that essentially, the Quiapo then was very similar to the Quiapo now. People lived in squalor, squashed door to door in little rooms because there were so many of them. Some of them would take shelter in one of the many abandoned buildings that sat in what was then still a district; ghosts of a more prosperous past that stared blindly at crooked streets and crooked lives of the decline that had followed in its wake. Everyone was human back then, something that my Lola missed sometimes. True, she had many friends who migrated from the Other Country, but she couldn’t help wanting what she grew up with, I guess.
And like today, you could find anything in Quiapo. The district was filled with little streets that wove in and out of each other, and whose sidewalks were lined with vendors that sold everything from herbal remedies to bicycle screws. Shopkeepers hawked pirated CDs, and they say that the DVDs in Quiapo were the cheapest in the market. Yes, you could find anything here back then, as you still can now. You just have to know where to look and who to look for. You also had to know how to bargain, and how to keep your wallet from being stolen. I guess some things never change.
She also said that every year, there would be a fiesta devoted to the Black Nazarene. It happened around the first month of the year, I think. Men would fill the streets in waves, with everyone hoping to be able to carry the statue of the Black Nazarene or at least touch it, with the hope of being blessed. Sometimes, people would get crushed in the mob, but it death was a small price to pay for the favors of the Savior.
This was the Quiapo that Teresa was born into. Teresa was Lola’s younger sister. Lola was sixteen when she was born and had been tasked to care for her since then. Maybe that’s why she always thought of Teresa as her child instead of her sibling.
Teresa was born in the middle of the night, during a great storm that made the Ilog Pasig’s water level rise so high everyone thought that God had broken his promise and had commanded another flood to drown the world. The river rose so high it flooded the inside of Lola’s house, reaching the foot of my great-grandmother’s bed so when little Teresa emerged from her mother’s womb, the first waters to touch her were the waters of the great river.
Everyone thought that this meant Teresa’s death, for how could a newborn babe withstand all the poison in the Ilog Pasig’s water? Lola herself watched over the newborn babe but Teresa was as healthy as a child could get. Right then and there, Lola knew that her sister was special.
It was not hard taking care of Teresa, who was a very obedient child. Lola claimed that she never cried, and when she was upset, all one had to do was let her face the river, where the slowly moving black water would sooth her, and its noxious smell would coax her to happiness.
Years later, Lola met and married Lolo, and moved out to live with him. She took Teresa with her because her mother, who had eight other children, couldn’t take care of her anymore. At first, Teresa, who was about six then, was upset. But when she learned that Lolo’s shack also stood by the river, she did not protest any more.
Lola got pregnant and gave birth to Tiya Lydia. Tiyo Teban came next and after him came Nanay. Tiya Lydia has vague memories of Teresa. She says that Teresa was silent figure who tried as much as possible not to be seen. The only time Teresa ever truly smiled was when she played with Tito Teban, her favorite nephew. Even when she faced the river, Teresa’s face always looked sad and her movements were always slow and resigned, as if she knew even then the fate that awaited her.
I asked Tiyo Teban about her once, but he has forgotten her entirely, even though Lola says that he always enjoyed playing with his Tita Tere. Nanay never got to see her at all, because Teresa had died before she was born, and The Change had already begun.
Teresa was a strange child. She was small for her age, with long black hair that ran down her head like the tangled weeds that used to float down the river. Her eyes were big and round, her pupils as dark as the river during the blackest of nights. She had a peculiar way of holding her small button nose high in the air, like she was constantly smelling for something.
Teresa did not like spending time with the other children who lived beside them, even when they tried to make friends with her. Lolo and Lola sent her to school but she would often cut classes so that she could spend the day sitting on the cement wall that enclosed the Ilog Pasig and watch the water flow beneath her. She rarely spoke, though her actions made it clear that she loved Lola and her family. She would help with the household chores and mind the children. Sometimes, she would go to the docks to bring Lolo some lunch that Lola had made. I should take you to the docks sometime. We’d have to commute there, and the gods know how Teresa managed to get there on foot. There are rumors that she didn’t use her feet at all, but was carried by a great wave through the Ilog Pasig. Still, for all the strangeness that surrounded her, it seemed that Teresa was happy.
If Lola were telling the story instead of me, this is where her voice would falter and slow to a whisper. Her lips would curl up in a sad smile and her eyes would look as though they were looking out an invisible window. For a moment, she would forget that she was telling a story and that there were other people in the room. And just when people would start to wonder if she was all right, her gaze would shift back to her audience and she would continue as if nothing had happened, though if you listened carefully, you’d notice that a bit of longing had crept into her voice, and it was harder for her to tell people about how what happened to Teresa made her happy.
A few days after Teresa’s tenth birthday, she surprised Lola by running into the house in the middle of the day.
“You should be in school!” Lola scolded, but her sister did not seem to hear her. Teresa’s face was glowing with excitement.
“It spoke to me, ate!” she said.
“What did?” Lola asked.
“The river, Ate. It told me that it was sad because it was so dirty and that nothing could live in it. Did you know that it was once the greatest river in the island? That a person could dip her hand in at any part of it and come up with a fish? Did you know that its water used to be so clear and blue that you could see up to the bottom?”
This was the most that Teresa had ever spoken at one time. Lola was fascinated. She was happy that her sister was talking like a normal person at last. But – and she couldn’t bring herself to admit this then – she was scared, too. She didn’t know why but a feeling of dread had welled up inside her, one that was coupled with a strange sort of elation that things in general were going to get better. Right then and there, she understood – though she couldn’t explain why – why Teresa almost never smiled, and why she moved the way she did. She wanted to hold her sister, to keep her in her arms and to protect her – but from what, she didn’t know.
“You should go back to school,” she said instead, even though what she really wanted to do was to keep Teresa home, where she would be safe and where Lola would be able to watch her all the time.
But Teresa never went back to school. Every morning, she would hurry though her chores so that she could run out to spend the day by the water. Whenever Lola, who by then had given up trying to make Teresa go to school, would look outside her window, she would see her sister leaning as far as she could into the river, as if listening for its secrets.
“What does the river tell you?” Lola asked in jest one day.
“I can’t tell you,” Teresa replied seriously. “I promised that I wouldn’t tell anyone.”
If Lola thought anything of the reply, she never said. All Lola knew was that Teresa did all her chores and never seemed to get into trouble, that the children loved her, and that Lolo treated her like she was his daughter and not his sister-in-law. And if staying by the river all day made Teresa happy, then Lola saw no harm in it. Until the day she saw Teresa dip her hand into the Ilog and lift the black, contaminated water to her lips.
“Teresa!” she screamed, running to her sister and dragging her away from the river’s high tide. But it was too late. When she reached her sister, Teresa had already drunk from the river’s waters.
“Drink, and your eyes will be opened,” Teresa said. Lola thought that Teresa would surely die then, but when her sister remained healthy, the fear in her began to grow.
She forbade Teresa to go near the river after that, but her sister never listened. Neighbors would tell Lola how they had seen her little sister go up to the river and watch it intently, seeing and talking to things no one else could see or hear. Sometimes, she would talk to the river, her words low and soothing. And when the tide was high enough, she would drink from it.
“She’s mad!” the neighbors would exclaim with pity. Yet they did nothing to help poor Lola. Some even made fun of Teresa, even if she had always been kind and helpful to them, though quiet and a bit strange.
Their pity soon turned to fear, for they noticed that the river rose higher and higher, the more attention Teresa paid it. The black water, which threatened to overflow only during storms and high tides, seemed more filled with water, until it looked like it would one day spill into the district.
“She’s going to bring the river on us!” they said. “She’s going to drown us all!”
And even though only humans walked the earth then, there were a lot of people who remembered stories about the Other Country, that place where diwatas and other spirits of old lived.
“The river has claimed her as its bride!” some said. “She should be dead by now but the river is keeping her alive!”
Lola didn’t know what to do. She kept Teresa in by force, ignoring her sister’s cries and pleas to go out and play. She did this because she – and Lolo, too – was scared. Teresa was becoming less and less like a human being. She walked around in a daze, as if she was looking for something she had lost. She would never look straight at anyone, or anything. Instead, her eyes would train a bit to the right of the object or person she was focusing on. Tiya Lydia and Tiyo Teban would not go near her. She smelled funny, Tiya Lydia had said, while Tiyo Teban told his mother that he did not want Teresa to take him with her to the river.
Still, Lolo and Lola kept her inside. But they should have known that she wasn’t herself anymore, and that nothing could keep her from the great river. It happened during the night before the Feast of the Black Nazarene. Even though the rainy season had long passed, a storm came, one bigger, blacker, and wilder than anyone had ever seen before. PAGASA said that it was the worst storm to hit the country, ever. It raged all through the night. Lolo held Lola and their two children close to him as the wind howled and the rain beat down on their little shack, threatening to blow it into the river. Lola had tried to keep Teresa close to her, but the girl had broken free from her grasp, running to the side of the house that faced the river. This is the one thing that Tiya Lydia remembers well. She said that the family could hear the river lapping against the side of the wall that held it, calling for Teresa. And they could hear Teresa answering the great river, her voice rising above the storm, speaking in a language they did not understand.
The rain slowed to a drizzle at daybreak, and by the time Lola had mustered enough nerve to release her hold on her family and search the shack for her sister, Teresa was long gone, having climbed out a window during the worst of the storm.
Lola wanted to look for her but Lolo said that it was impossible, not on the Feast of the Black Nazarene. The drizzle didn’t let up as people filled the streets and the Black Nazarene was brought out of the Quiapo Church. It grew stronger as the statue was carried though the streets, the men moving like waves beneath its bulk
The rain grew harder and harder, and the river’s water level rose more and more, until it flowed past the banks and onto the streets, until the floor of the Jones bridge was covered in water and you couldn’t tell where the edge of the district ended and the river began anymore. And suddenly, at the point when the statue was nearest the river, a great wave rose up and splashed into the middle of the feast goers, taking the Black Nazarene from their surprised hands, breaking it into pieces so small that some of the men carrying it were left with nothing but fine powder. Many people were hurt, but surprisingly, only one person was killed, but they would not know this until days later.
There was a great uproar over the loss of the statue, for it was something of great religious significance. Some people even wanted to piece it back together, even though in their heart of hearts, everyone knew that this could not be done. They were so preoccupied with the loss of their statue that they almost didn’t notice the miracle that was taking place in front of them. The river was coming back to life. The Change had begun.
First the water got lighter and lighter, all the poison leached away until the river flowed a clear bright blue. Then plants started to grow under water, their green leaves shooting out of the river soil, providing food and shelter for the creatures that eventually came to live in it. The river no longer smelled rank, but now had a sweet scent that brought a smile and peace of mind to all that caught its scent. All this took little more than a week.
At first, people thought that the Black Nazarene had performed the miracle. But later, Teresa’s body was found tangled among some river reeds, her small form bloated to more than twice its size. Her skin was so black and when they opened her up, her insides were so foul smelling that everyone knew without a doubt that the little girl had taken all the river’s sickness into herself and had died from it. For this miracle, she was canonized Sta. Teresa the Child Abandoned, for even though she took care of her very well physically, Lola often berated herself for not giving more thought to her younger sister’s mental health. Teresa was cremated, her ashes mixed into the current of the great river. But before she was given over to the fire, Lola cut off a lock of her sister’s seaweed-like hair, the only part of her that did not seem to be contaminated. I can show it to you if you like.
Shortly after Teresa was made a saint, the first diwata appeared. Teresa’s resurrection of the Ilog Pasig had once again opened the door between their worlds, she said, her green hair glistening in the sun. Lola’s sister, she said, had traveled to the Other County, where she had told everyone about the wonders that now lay in the world the diwatas had left so long ago. Somehow, she convinced them that should they decide to reenter it now, they would not be harmed and that they could live side by side with the humans they so feared before. The diwata who told this story was called Marikit. After her, other creatures followed, fragile diwatas and green-haired enkantada, the capres with their ever-burning cigars, tikbalangs, with their horses’ heads and human bodies, and many more, making up the Quiapo that we know today.
Why are they all here? Why don’t they cross the bridge and seek their fortunes in say, Makati or Ortigas, or get on a plane and fly to the States like a lot of humans do? I don’t really know, although Lola has other ideas.
Once, she said, she asked Marikit that same question. The diwata’s answer is why Lola, until the day she died, refused to leave her shack by the river, even though devout believers had offered her houses in exclusive subdivisions like Forbes Park and Corinthian Gardens. Marikit said that before she migrated to Quiapo, Teresa had told her that she planned to come back after she had finished her business in the Other Country. That was why no one has left. They were all waiting for her. As all the believers do when they take to the streets on the anniversary of the night she joined the river.
That’s how Lola said The Change started. And though it’s only been a few generations, people outside Quiapo have either forgotten about it or just brush it off as a religious folk tale, like the ones about wooden statues that cry blood tears. I can tell that you certainly think that way. But then, you weren’t born here.
Do I believe it? It’s hard to imagine that the river was ever a dirty, stinking sewer, or that Quiapo was ever populated only by humans. But then I remember everything that my Lola has told me and how Teresa’s miracle is acknowledged and documented all over the world. And if sometimes, that still fails to convince me, I take out the box that I use to hold the lock of hair that my Lola had taken from her sister’s dead body and measure how much it has grown since I last laid eyes on it. That never fails to make me believe in Lola’s stories, and to never doubt that soon, very soon, Sta. Teresa will come back to us again.
“The Child Abandoned” was previously published in “Philippine Speculative Fiction 2“, then re-published in Yvette’s short story collection from Anvil entitled “Waking the Dead“. (I’ve seen a few copies of PSF2 at Fully Booked, while Waking the Dead–which was just released August 2009–can be found at National Book Store [regular and Bestsellers] and Powerbooks branches in the Philippines.)
Interestingly enough, “The Child Abandoned” is the opening story in both books, and I thought I’d be contrary and end with it instead.
Quiapo: a district of Manila, Philippines, also referred to as the “old downtown.” It is known for its cheap prices on items ranging from electronics, bicycles to native handicrafts. Quiapo is also famous for the Black Nazarene. Thousands of people parade through the streets to touch the statue, which act is supposed to produce miraculous effects. The Feast Day of the Black Nazarene (also known as Quiapo Day) is celebrated every January 9.
The Pasig River (Ilog Pasig): is a river in the Philippines and connects Laguna de Bay to Manila Bay. It stretches for 25 kilometres (15.5 mi) and divides Metro Manila into two. Its major tributaries are the Marikina River and San Juan River. The Pasig River used to be an important transport route when Manila was still ruled by Spain. However, due to negligence and industrial development, the river has become very polluted and is now considered dead (unable to sustain life) by ecologists.
The Black Nazarene: is a life-sized, dark-colored , wooden sculpture of Jesus Christ held to be miraculous by its devotees. Carved by an Aztec carpenter, the image was transported by galleon from Mexico. The image is currently enshrined in the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene in Quiapo, Manila, where novena celebrations are held every Friday throughout the whole year. Roman Catholic tradition holds that the boat carrying the Black Nazarene caught fire, turning it from its original white complexion black and charred.
The Black Nazarene is carried into the streets for procession in a “Caroza” or carriage, and this can be witnessed during the feast of the Most Holy Black Nazarene, celebrated on January 9th of every year, an event famous for the dense and ardent crowds that descend upon Quiapo.