A boy ferries in sprigs of Dama de Noche and bouquets of white roses, which he places before the altar. And now that he’s headed out, Father Allego waits alone at the chancel, watching the birds, looking for some signs from the sparrows which he thinks strange because today, the birds come in earlier—darting to and fro the choir pews, the chandeliers, and the pulpit. The heft of things almost speaks to him—the sunlight, foaming like spilled water from the gaps of the stained rose windows, beams resting on the transepts, the occasional sound of the wind crackling between the gaps of the weak branches outside.
The scheduled baptism of a boy should have begun an hour ago and he starts to wonder if being late is a sin. He wonders if Jesus had ever preached about tardiness and if he didn’t, then he must have considered that time is cultural—something that warrants forgiveness. The priest finally hears a buckle of sound at the entrance and stands up, but when the door swings open, there trickle out only a few relatives of the family of the child to be baptized. They offer him curt greetings as they take a seat at the back beside the holy water stoup.
“That’s embarrassing to think that everyone in the family’s Catholic. Do you think she wants to be anything else?” A young man sitting beside a middle-aged woman suddenly speaks as she studies the arch of the ceiling. The man, he guesses, is the woman’s son as their cheekbones carve similar hollows and protrusions which make both their faces squarish and the mother’s more masculine.
“I heard she’s been submerged in water by the Tigum River,” the woman says, clutching a bag, taking out from it a fan which the priest hears being flicked about as he reaches for his seat. “It isn't just any ritual where they whisked water on a baby’s forehead,” she adds.
“I still don't think it can wash away her sins. She's been sleeping around for as long as I can remember.” The young man replies.
“For an unmarried individual to sleep around like that, there’s only one punishment—kadalumon. And I’m telling you, it isn't like the purgatory.”
“Kadalumon?” the young man asks. “I’ve never heard of that one before.”
They both stand up, reach for the stoup and swipe holy water across their foreheads and torsos before they slide back to their seats. The pews hold a couple more people who come up to the priest, telling him they will stand as godparents. Soon after, their heads begin to droop toward the screens of their phones while at the nearby seats, a few older women grasp at their rosaries and whisper some prayers. Father Allego reads from a magazine with his legs crossed as shards of sunlight cross the spot where he sits towards the sacristy. The birds dart about in the branches of kalachuchi outside.
“Your Lola Nenen explained this to me once. That’s why I remained a virgin until I married your father.” The priest pictures a squirm on the man’s face.
“Kadalumon is a dark, deep pit, like our bubon where you take out water from, only infinitely deeper and wider—and in it a strong whirlpool,” the woman continues. “Everyone just floats and swirls around and around it for eternity and experience infinite sexual pleasures except when they’re about to reach climax, all pleasures subside which means, they’ll never reach climax.”
“Ay abaw, that is such a perfect punishment.” Their voices are almost in a hush but the enclosed spaces of the church dribble sound against the walls and the rest of the goers cock their heads at the two from time to time. The woman and her son ignore them. “Is there any way to get out of it?”
“If being submerged in holy water doesn't work, there’s spiritual healing. There’s a ritual for it. Some people call it faith healing, which I can do a bit of. But I am a hilot, not a babaylan, a traditional medicine practitioner first and foremost. Nothing much is spiritual about that.”
The priest shuffles uncomfortably in his seat—discomfort that has ebbed when a few minutes later, the door opens again with a woman holding a baby in a ruffled white shirt still asleep, the father walking behind them. The family wears white, the mother looking like a schoolgirl in it with her hair in pigtails. The sky outside slants high like an upturned blue bowl of china bone. The plaza gleams like a pond with the sun stretched across it. A lone tricycle drones across asphalt.
“We should begin?”
“Sorry for being late, Father.”
“No need to apologize. It’s not a busy day. For me at least.” The priest walks towards the baptismal pod across the altar and motions everyone to come closer.
“We gather here today for the Christening of a baby boy.” He fumbles with some of the words but he trusts his god will look upon him with kindness and mercy. The baby cries after water has been poured over his forehead. The boy is named Paul Asher and after they pose for some pictures, the family asks him if he can come to a gathering at their house.
“It’s just in Ayaman, right across the river,” the mother says. “We will be honored to have you.”
“Of course, I am coming along. So much to be missed for this boy’s first day as a Christian.” He gives the boy, held to the chest by his mother, a pat on the forehead.
The van, which the priest is wedged—between the aunt of the boy who has just been baptized and her boyfriend reeking of alcohol, traipses through the public market which blurs with bright colors of ukay-ukay and the fruits from the stands as well as dried fish on tables under some makeshift tents. Now hungry, he scans for a figure of a woman he usually buys chicken from—Nang Pacing whose tinuom stall stands near the used clothes shop but the van moves fast as they traverse the road parallel the airport. A plane has just taken off. He can still see the smoke slit through the skies where a flock of egrets now slant towards. They pass some old houses with sculpted front lawns after that the field of sugarcane hisses past, standing green with its fat stalks. They take the dirt road toward the river.
When the van begins to move along the dirt road by the banks, rife with sandstones, shrubs and reed heavy with white flowers across which hermit crabs saunter, the aunt starts talking about Eden. The sun has turned globular. The metallic light of near-noon shatters the skin of the water and the river current explodes into glassy shrapnel. The priest squints. He hasn’t heard of that name being uttered in a long time, and it feels like someone has lodged a pebble between the cracks of his ribs, dull pain tugging at his chest.
“Is she attending the gathering?” a woman from the back asks the aunt.
“She’s busy with her new husband, I think.”
“Was that the pastor from the church she got baptized in?” someone inside the van asks.
“She always had a thing for religious men.”
They reach a wooden house with a wide open porch in the middle of the cornfields. Outside, white cloths mantle the tables, odd and conspicuous amid the green and the burst of colors from the grass and wildflowers. The smell of stewed pork, the estewetes from the chicken inasal and tomato sauce wafts from the dishes in pots and casseroles on top of the table. Tubular clouds drift across the sky and when they begin to snap like some kind of arms reaching for each other, then unlocking, the couple with Paul Asher still in his mother’s chest take the chairs in the center and motioned for the priest to sit beside them.
“Now I realized it’s not very good idea to have outside this party,” Paul Asher’s father tells him as soon as he’s seated. “But our house is small only and can’t hold this big of a crowd.”
“It’s always nice to dine al fresco,” he says. He looks at the man whose face now pleats with half-frown. “I mean, it’s always nice to eat outside where there’s fresh air.”
“Like they do in Italy.
“Yes, like they do in Italy.”
The chairs that surround the lawn fill quickly with the family and friends of the couple as the heat of the crowd looms like the heat in the kitchen when one begins to cook and he feels grateful that his seat is shadowed by the camachile tree where there’s a good billow of wind. Around him, a huddle of guests at one corner murmurs, laughter, the sound of mobile phones snapping for selfies and photographs. The mother and her son with the square faces sit at his periphery but he still feels their eyes on him. The priest looks around. He thinks everyone resembles her and now he wonders whether Eden belongs to this family or he merely imagines her face in this multitude. There was a time when all the faces in the crowd looked like hers.
The priest stands and begins to say grace as soon as everyone is seated. “Our Father,” he prays. “Thank you for the food in a world where many confront only hunger; For our faith in a world though many of us succumb to fear; For love and kindness where we know only loneliness. Bless this food we are about to share and for all of this, we are grateful.” He feels numbed by his words. These days, his prayers hold no weight, do not come easy, do not hold meaning. He wonders if they travel high enough and tear through heaven’s exigencies.
After the cake has been cut and the plates foam with the leftover sauces and grease, simmering from the heat of the sun, some guests have dispersed and gathered around a fenced garden, curious of the wild orchids that grow on coconut husks. The children run around the garden, dislodging piles and circles of white stones that shield the flowers. Paul Asher’s aunt’s boyfriend approaches him and takes the seat of the father who ferries the boy inside after he and his wife fail to stop him from crying.
“The kadalumon, Father, please tell me about the kadalumon.” The boy pops open another bottle of Red Horse, his third if the priest isn't mistaken. His face roseates and his eyes droop slightly not just from the drink but from the sweat that constellates his forehead, glinting under the sun.
“Dante describes almost the same in his book Inferno but to me that sounds like a combination of the Nine Circles of Hell, since it isn’t just the limbo or the purgatory but there are other ideas in it that were borrowed from other circles.”
“But do you believe in it, Father?”
“No, the Kadalumon.”
“Anything can be possible. Punishments can be relative, you know. How much of the mind of God can we really fathom?
“Leave the priest alone, Bisnoy.” His girlfriend pops behind the drunk boy.
“God, you startled me.”
“Did I?” She laughs. “Good. I’m sorry, Father. I hope he wasn't giving you any trouble.” She helps him stand up.
“Oh, he’s just being curious. He’s causing no trouble at all.”
Even with much begging from the couple that a van can take him back to his residence, the priest insists that he walk home, taking the path towards the wall of reed that circle a pool of water past the thicket of orchards and the valley of canopied trees. Above him the cloud shatters like an oily rag. The birds that flit by, land and find food on the fronds of the coconut trees. The wind blusters through the heft of undergrowth and he wonders whether this is a kind of language that speaks to him. There’s so much life that crowds this land—even the dead ones such as the stumps of coconut trees have been taken over by toads and centipedes. He didn’t notice the burst of this life before when he was with her, walking along the same dirt road that led to the river.
He remembers she used to beg him to come with her when the sun had set and the work at the church had been done. They would sit on the grass to watch the current ripple, pick up some twigs from a pile of driftwood and stir the ponds with sticks. One of those nights, she brought with her sheets of newspaper on which they lay supine and gazed at the stars.
“I don’t understand how most of us are scared of the darkness,” she said. They were admiring the constellations and a string of fireflies that drifted off the rest of the coppice of cork trees.
She sat up and opened a can of coke she fished out of the plastic bag she brought along.
“Do you want one?” She asked.
“No, thanks. I think because we equate darkness with evil.”
“Yes that too and because we equate it with danger as well. Predators lurk at night, but not being aware of darkness and what’s in it means not being aware of beauty.”
“I don’t fear darkness at all.”
“You shouldn’t. God created both darkness and light equally and without bias.”
“Where’d you get these things from?”
“Some books I read somewhere. Some from your room in the rectory.”
He smiled and admired the arch of her neck and the shape of her torso underneath her clothes. She had washboard-firm back like that of an athlete, her supple skin showing just above her jeans. He lay so close to her and could smell berries on her hair. She was wearing the yellow blouse and blue jeans she wore when, fresh out of college, she walked into his office looking for a job. He could almost see the upturn of her upper lip under the skies but the moon was just a slit in all this blackness that veiled the valley. From where they lay, the trees’ foliage had blocked the spill off of lights from the rims of town.
“You’re not cold?” she asked. “Here’s some Off Lotion. The insects might cause you trouble.”
He shook his head but took the bottle anyway and rubbed a dollop across his arms and the exposed skin of his neck. He could make out the bobcat hair that cupped her small face, her hair blown across it by the wind and when she sprawled beside him, their eyes locking, he saw some wanting in the pursing of her lips. He searched for her fingers but she placed her arms around him instead. He can no longer remember how long they held each other in the darkness.
He reaches the part of the valley from which he can see the steps toward the town market. It is built on a hill and at times he imagines it like a city in Tibet, with all the ascending steps and ledges that look like stairways to the clouds. Like coiled ropes, smoke billows out of the stalls, shops and carinderias. The wind quiets down, and nearby, the river meanders in a soft murmur. Goats have emerged and started to graze the fields.
He feels an urgent need to come close to the deepest part of the river. When he reaches the banks, he gapes at the pool’s clarity, tempted to get a glimpse of his face’s reflection, but fears he will only see an ashen, unshaved visage where minute folds have gathered around the eyes, the furrowed skin on his forehead.
From this same spot, more than a decade ago, they emerged from the water after swimming that began in the late afternoon until it turned dark. The February wind turned colder and they were completely drenched. They had forgotten to bring extra clothes and were gasping and shivering when they reached the rectory.
“You must take a warm shower. You might get sick,” he told her. Light dimmed on top of his bedside table, a drizzle outside, specks of rain collecting on the window pane.
“This isn’t the arctic. It isn’t that cold.” He watched her lips quiver.
She stood at the foot of his bed, arms crossed and hair dripping while he rummaged in his cabinet for some clothes that might fit her.
“You must stay for the night until your clothes dry.”
He handed her a t-shirt and jogging pants.
“Can I sleep in your bed?”
“If that would make you comfortable.”
When he came out of the bathroom, she was already dry, lying in bed with just a shirt on. He crawled on top of her. Her hands, hungry, unhinged the towel that looped around his waist. He felt her fingers slide between his thighs, his knuckles tracing the back of her spine. He pulled her towards him, planting his lips below her ears.
“I’ll miss you when you leave,” he whispered to her.
“I’ll always come back. I’ll always come for you.” She touched his cheekbones and kissed the protuberance of his chin, the arch of his neck.
He plunged deep into her and when the first tide of pleasure frothed within him, he felt he lost something at the same time, that a part of him had been taken away. He began to understand that happiness, when it became immeasurable, required some surrendering and he didn't understand why this moved him close to weeping. Outside, rain pattered on the glass window, muffled by a sibilance of thunder in the distance.
He takes off every flake of his clothing—his white chasuble, jeans and underwear, leaves them crumpled and mud stained on the rocks and now that he’s completely naked, he stares at the water. The late afternoon skies have darkened, the clouds about to wring out some rain. He dips his foot in the pool that slightly heaves. He can make out its infinite depth. He slides into it, legs first, after which his whole body is submerged. He struggles to drift afloat but hopes for a rebirth, hopes for the washing away of his sins. He floats on his back, bobs his face upwards and gasps for air. The clouds turn into a black whirlpool. His head is still heavy and his body sore.
Their last night together when he was inside her, he wrestled against the interminable pleasure that swelled and carried him away. He was ravenous and urgent on top of her at first and her legs coiled around his, but before this tide of euphoria crescendoed, he pulled out of her.
“Sorry, I can’t do this.”
“It’s alright. It’s not your fault.” She stood up and faced the window, sewed the buttons up her blouse and drew open the curtains. The town was peacefully tucked in the cavity of darkness.
“I thought about it for a long time. I don't think I can leave my vocation.”
“I know and I understand. But quitting, that’s not something I’ll ask you to do.”
Tonight, a blood moon rises behind the tenebrosity of night. He lies on this plank of deep waters and around this foam of darkness, he thinks about her. He often thinks of being inside her. The river hisses. He can feel a cascade of pleasure seething inside him, yet there’s no peak, no forgetting. He thinks he is stuck in this whirlpool, stuck in kadalumon. He rises out of the water, puts his clothes back on and heads out to the market. The wind turns sharp and cold.
He has forgotten how he reaches the door to a shop with a sign that says, ‘hilot.' Around him, the voices of vendors and customers swell with the odor of produce—fish, meat, and vegetables that have lost freshness from the heat.
The woman with the square face sits in a lone bed across the office table and chairs. Behind her stand a few shelves with bottled herbs and roots. The room is small and cold and it smelled of vinegar and some kind of minty herbs.
“You need a hilot? She asks. She stands up and walks towards him. She looks as if she has been anticipating his arrival.
“I think so, yes.”
“Anything in particular that bothers you?
“Oh, the headaches. I get constant migraines. And every time I go to sleep, I dream of getting sucked in a whirlpool and I lay there in the darkness with eyes open and I can’t get up or move.” He waits for the woman to say she recognizes him but she doesn’t say a word.
“Lie down here,” she says, picking up the pillow, taps it and places it on the edge of the bed. “I’ll give you a hilot first; I learned traditional massage from my great grandfather who was a babaylan. He taught me some rituals too. I’ll try one for you. It might not work but if it does, that could help you with your sleep.”
He sprawls face down in bed and as soon as the woman’s hands press his temple, he falls asleep. It is a dreamless sleep this time.
He wakes up to the smell of smoke and the vinegar on his skin. At the table, the woman places chicken feathers on top of lighted charcoal in a coconut shell cut in half. She utters some prayers. He can smell the feathers burning. She mixes coconut oil, oregano leaves, and other herbs in a pestle from which wafts a piney, gassy scent. She walks to the bed once more and spreads the lumpy mixture on his skin.
“Stay still. It may sting for a bit.”
There’s warmth on every inch of his skin. He feels lighter once he gets up. He imagines being renewed, his body no longer engulfed in pain. Tonight, when he returns to his room in the rectory, he will write a sermon for Sunday. Tomorrow, there will be a wedding to officiate. After that, another baptism, a requiem. He feels a strange contentment from this structured life brimming with tasks and yet, there also rises a certain aberration in being alive.
“I won’t dwell in the past if I were you.” The woman with the square face tells him. Or he may have imagined her telling him this before he walks out of the door.
He nods in agreement and for the first time feels no shame, his smile a bit odd. Outside, in the darkness, there’s rain and it’s starting to tear through the trees.
Scott P. Salcedo has been awarded three writing fellowships in his country, the Philippines. His works have appeared or are forthcoming in The Chaffin Journal, SAND, Philippine Graphics, GNU Journal, Kitaab and elsewhere. He is working on his first novel and a collection of short stories.