Bathing in the light of magnesium, the shrine resembled a giant lamp drawing moths from the darkness, glowing brighter for the poorest of moths like Daniel standing by the gate. He looked at the buildings behind him as if he could see his father in their hovel, sleeping away his latest binge drinking. Then he remembered that he was in a city away from his father and his belt and broom. He looked behind him one last time before walking inside on his good leg.
Dan, get dressed. His mother used to whisper to him. We’re going to Baclaran. Daniel would immediately abandon his toys and playmates for the shrine that her mother and other people called Baclaran. He had asked his mother if it was Sunday because all that he could see from the shrine’s gate were people. Wednesday was her reply.
After cutting through the thicket of worshippers that stood between the gate and the church, she would unravel her chaplet at the narthex and kneel, approaching the altar on her knees. He would walk behind her, sometimes cheering her when she was faltering, oftentimes hopping on the aisle’s beige and green tiles.
Sometimes they would reach Baclaran close to suppertime and she would finish her weekly devotion late at night. Those were the nights when he would see the ragamuffins and homeless elderly retaking the shrine like natives reoccupying their land after the invaders’ departure. He heard the children laugh more than talk, and their laughter could jolt the bereaved back to living. They called playfully to him more than once. His mother’s chastising look burned each invitation.
Daniel and his mother had witnessed the shrine’s Liguorian Congregation rolling out casseroles of soup and watched the elderly queuing serenely while the snickering children would push one another off the line.
Just one bowl, mama. The aroma of the soup was so thick and inviting. They’re so excited to eat it.
I’ll tell your papa.
After Daniel’s mother had left her mortal shell, many Wednesdays passed without him straying to within sight of Baclaran.
It was not a Wednesday, so Daniel could see the church from the gate. Baclaran was wearing the same beige paint and none of the outlying buildings looked new. Children were frolicking in the courtyard but they had adults hovering nearby. He looked deeper, sighing from not finding a ragamuffin. He strode inside on his good leg, the left leg unmolested by his father’s belt. His right limb was leathery from the welts that ranged from his knee to his ankle, with some old and fresh welts forming hazy boundaries. Ridges of skin thickened by the belt also crisscrossed his upper limbs and torso.
Daniel limped around the church, checking every pew where soiled blankets covered snoring bodies. He looked closer and saw that they were the homeless elderly. He saw children in the church, but they were clean and escorted by an adult. Where are you? He sat on a pew and scratched a fresh welt on his right knee, his father’s reward to him for leaving their supper’s dishes on the sink. Beside it was skin broken by his belt when Daniel did not wash the laundry. His calf was tender where his father had pummeled him with a broom for feeling dust biting at his bare soles after ordering Daniel to sweep the floor. Yet he was not a total beast to Daniel.
A boy and girl were playing on the chancel, waving at the altar and the portrait of a woman above the tabernacle his mother called Mama Mary. Daniel thought of joining the children, but a man called them. The boy genuflected while the girl blew a kiss to the altar before jumping off the chancel. One by one, the washed children were heading to their clean homes and beds.
Daniel circled the courtyard. It was free of the playing children and the spot where the Liguorians served soup was clean. Where are you? He whimpered. He thought of screaming to attract them but his mother’s screams in her battles with his father had brought half of their shantytown to their doorstep.
With his eyelids coming together more frequently and sticking together longer, he returned to the pew and stretched on the varnished plank. Baclaran never closes its doors. His mother had said when he asked her where the homeless go at midnight.
The wild children could frolic around him, but he would not run and play with them tonight. He would seek them in the morning. Perhaps they would remember him as the boy with the woman in the sweater. Many devotees had sinned from taking humorously at his mother’s wearing a sweatshirt in summer. If only they knew of the bruises and welts beneath the warm fabric. If only.
BIONOTE: Prospero is from the Philippines where he works at home and tries to write fiction when he can. His prose and poetry have appeared in print and online local and foreign publications.
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