by Mia Funk
Her grandfather would never go back there. He distrusted the place. ‘The people smile all the time,’ he used to say, as though that were a bad thing. ‘How can you trust anyone who smiles constantly.’ And the girl thought at the time that he could just as easily be talking about America. ‘Yes, but here they smile all the time and they don’t really mean it. They’re smiling at you, but it’s for a reason. Like they’re insane or they’re high on Prozac or they want to cheat you out of your life savings. There’s a reason behind the American smile. Behind the Filipino smile, there’s no motive. They really mean it. I’d go crazy if I had to live in a place like. Ninety million genuinely friendly people. I’d lose my mind if I had to go back there.’
And so he hadn’t. He’d arrived in America in 1929 at the height of the Depression and had never returned. And he couldn’t have been happier because he liked hard work and studying and got a good job as a structural engineer. He loved saving money more than spending it and he wasn’t stingy, either. Whenever his family asked, he gave. A house, his sister’s education...if only to get them off his back. The exchange rate was amazing. For what he spent on gas going to work at Boeing, you could feed a family there for a month.
Five years later when she was ten, the granddaughter asked him again. Her grandmother and Uncle Baby were ‘making a trip back’ and wanted her to go with them. It was in the middle of the school year.
‘It’s not even worth the trip,’ he said. He was afraid she’d miss too much school and have to repeat a grade and this stain would be forever on her record and she’d never get into a good college. She’d go away for two months, forget how to speak English properly and come back speaking pidgin and be bumped into some remedial class for the thinking impaired. ‘You wouldn’t like it. They smile and dance all the time.’
‘Yes, they like to dance. Isn’t that terrible! Better they should spend half their life in a shed tinkering,’ her grandmother said. Dancing, or grandfather’s disinterest in it, was something of a sore point. ‘It’ll be good for her.’
‘It’s like they don’t even realise that they’re poor and should be unhappy.’ Happiness, being, in his mind, this limited commodity you had to earn the right to enjoy. ‘She won’t fit in there. That whole country lacks common sense.’
They argued for two weeks. In the end, she hadn’t gone. It wasn’t until years later that she finally made the trip.
They stopped to stay at a hotel near the sea and ate lobsters for the price of a Happy Meal back home. Their suite had a view of the sea and was otherwise clean, except the floor was crawling with cockroaches.
‘It’s the heat,’ her husband said. ‘Nothing you can do. You block up one hole and they come piling through another.’
That night it was too hot and she couldn’t sleep. She slung her camera around her neck and decided to take a walk. The main street had that weird half-emptiness of seaside towns off-season. She heard some voices and saw lights in a distant circus tent.
It was dark inside. Naked men appeared to be standing on stilts.
‘What are they doing?’ she asked a young woman named Pilar who was standing watching from the tent’s entrance.
‘Practicing...’ Pilar had a kind of radiant plainness, so that at first sight she was nothing to look at, but her beauty grew on you until it had this steady glow. The granddaughter nodded, though she could barely make out the figures moving around in the darkness. ‘...Practicing for Easter.’
‘Crucifixion reenactments? I heard about them...’
The granddaughter lifted her camera to her eye and was about to take a photograph when Pilar asked, ‘What are you doing?’
‘Taking a picture.’
‘Why?’ The straightforwardness of her question was so simple and calm that the granddaughter recalled her grandfather’s words they don’t know how to be unhappy.
‘Because I want to remember. It’s not like I see something like this every day.’
‘When I want to remember, I close my eyes. Pictures don’t help. Sometimes they make you forget what’s important.’
And the granddaughter thought of the picture of the big house that her grandfather had bought for his mother with his first five years savings working three jobs. The best house in the village before it was carried away in a typhoon...Eight months later her computer will crash, losing all these photographs of standing on the shore, the fading light and distant relatives she feels close to without knowing at all, of shopping malls and grass huts, the smack and sting of mosquitos, a language still foreign to her buzzing in her ears, riding on jeepneys between stolen wealth hoarded by expats in Makati banks guarded by machine gun...a whole other world from the one her grandfather left behind. She’ll lose them all, but doesn’t know that now, and spends half the time taking pictures thinking they’ll last forever.
Now Pilar says they should leave the men alone because they ‘are about to do something private’. But the granddaughter finds a way to sneak back in and sees that all they are doing is washing their feet. Funny how something like washing your feet when it’s done in the dark by twelve sweaty men wearing nothing but loincloths takes on a mysterious dimension. Like modern dance, ‘half of it’s just stagecraft and good lighting,’ her husband liked to say. He wasn’t a big fan of modern dance. ‘It’s $200 to watch a man moving a rock up a hill. If I wanted that I’d go to a quarry.’
But the granddaughter was a photographer and forever curious. She’d been asked not to, but was taking photographs of everyone on the sly, getting right up close, under the wooden crucifixes, thinking that it was kind of a waste. People so poor shouldn’t be so good looking. One in particular was stunning––lean and perfect, but stuck out there in the middle of nowhere, miles away from Hollywood or anywhere he could capitalise on it.
What had her grandfather looked like as a young man? She had no idea. No photographs survived, so to her he always seemed old. Forever practical.
A boy of about ten brought her a bowl to wash herself.
They said if she was interested, that she could try it. It didn’t really hurt. And she thought of her husband, who was worried about hygiene, and of the pain of sticking the giant nail through the skin of her hand. She liked her hands, she needed her hands.
‘Maybe I’ll just watch.’
It’s almost impossible to visit a Filipino house without the hosts stuffing you with food. Even in poor homes, they bring out one plate after another until finally the guest gives in. Apparently, the incessant hospitality applies to mock-crucifixions, too. The accidental visitor politely declines, but they smile and start pushing you onto a crucifix. And out comes the bowls of nails and bandages.
‘See, safe,’ someone behind her said. ‘Pilar, she’s a certified nurse.’
‘No, really,’ the granddaughter said, really not sold on the whole happy crucifixion thing.
‘You’ll like it, yes. Hardly no pain.’
‘I mean it. I’m really not into this.’
‘We don’t understand. Why you come here?’
And she stops because she’s not sure either. Why did she come? ‘I was just...curious,’ she finally answered.
‘You’ll like it. It’s just like your first time eating balut. You think, disgusting, I’m not going to eat that, but after a while you stop noticing the tiny feathers and cute little half-developed claws and it grows on you.’
‘Secret is, don’t think about it,’ the Handsome One had come down off his cross and was wrapping some rope around her wrist as the granddaughter looked from face to face, starting to sweat.
‘It’s very good,’ Pilar the Nurse assured her, ‘for the blood.’
‘Full of protein. It’s all I eat, balut is!’ They were still talking eggs as they hoisted her up, snaking a rope around her ankles.
‘But I’m not even Catholic, I’m Buddhist,’ the granddaughter said.
‘Oh...’ They looked at her as if she just said I eat babies. ‘She doesn’t belong here.’
Truth was, she didn’t know what she believed in. She believed in something, but it changed from day to day. The idea of some big smiling face in the sky, floating on a cloud, staring down at her was a little scary. The idea of a man in an orange robe sitting under a tree, less so. There were computer creeps who could send you an email embedded with a program which could take over your computer, enabling your webcam to watch everything you do. She didn’t know what they did with the tapes and didn’t want to know. That’s how she felt about a god who could hear all her thoughts. Just a little too invasive. She’d never liked the sight of blood. If they wanted to nail a man to a cross, that was their business. She wasn’t judging. Just saying she didn’t want to take part.
On the walk back to their hotel room, for some reason she found herself remembering being in New York and wandering into a tiny closet of a Psychic shop off Bleecker and being told that she would ‘never find happiness’ even if she went to the mountains. It was completely arbitrary and mysterious––the psychic probably said it to every person who walked through the door. She also said the granddaughter would be married three times and get rich writing a bestselling cookbook. None of which had yet transpired.
When she climbed back into bed the sky had lost its darkness and it was approaching day. She had over a hundred photos on her camera and full use of her limbs.
She shared the photos with her husband over breakfast. ‘You’re really quite insane, you know that.’
‘Yes,’ she admitted, ‘but in a good way.’ She assured him there’d been no risk, that it had all been a big misunderstanding. Still, he said he wasn’t going to let her out of his sight for the rest of the trip. She was too trusting and one day it would land her in trouble. ‘I have to protect you,’ he’d told her this dozens of times, it was their running schtick, ‘from yourself.’
After breakfast, they spent the day taking a boat around the Thousand Islands. Some were so close together you could walk between them like a god. The water so clear you could see the bottom. Crossing over Lingayan Gulf, they passed a fishing boat carrying five Jesuses and Pilar.
‘That’s them!’ she told her husband. They waved at her with bandaged hands and called out something, but she was too far away to hear.
And she thought that here at the edge of the sea, facing out, might be good. So much beauty...so much poverty. She thought of her grandfather’s expressed wish never to return, but where else was she going to scatter them? For three years she’d kept him on her mantlepiece with it’s view of nothing but a stuffed couch. He said he never wanted to come back. ‘But,’ her grandmother said, ‘the dead are like the living. They never know what’s best for them.’ The news that morning said that there was a storm coming, it would push up north and then out to the Pacific. He’d like that journey. Up and away. She’d scatter his ashes here or at the next island. She wondered if he’d be angry with her, but if he still felt that strongly about it, she was sure he’d find a way of swimming home.