In a refreshing turn of events, Kidapawan history is suddenly controversial as local attention is focused on the crucial but mysterious historical figure known in documents as Datu Siawan Ingkal.
I say ‘known in documents’ with necessity: the controversy began when the Deputy Mayor for Kidapawan’s Indigenous Peoples, Datu Camillo Icdang, went on the local radio station DXND last July 14 and said the man was named ‘Ingkal Siawan’ (first name Ingkal), and was a full blooded Obo Manobo.
Icdang was making the statement as a response to reports that the Datu was a Meranaw, flatly denying these reports. The local reporter, Malu Cadelina Manar, subsequently reported these pronouncements from Datu Icdang as fact.
This version of the Datu’s background is now being hotly disputed, and I have gathered at least four alternative explanations of the man’s name and heritage.
The only printed source so far that gives a detailed background on Siawan Ingkal is Ferdinand Bergonia’s 2004 history of Kidapawan (commissioned by the city tourism office of the Malaluan administration), which cites him as a Manobo and the first person to be Mayor of Kidapawan, albeit appointed during the Second World War. He is also cited as being instrumental in the founding of Baranggays Manongol (then called Tagbak, his father’s domain) and Lanao. Bergonia gives the name of the Datu’s father as the Manongol chieftain ‘Datu Ugos Ingkal,’ who had been appointed Cabeza de Baranggay of Kidapawan District by the American colonial government in 1901. Bergonia is inconsistent with the Datu’s name, as at some point he mentions ‘Datu Siawan Ingkal,’ but at others ‘Datu Ingkal Siawan,’ and he does not attribute his sources for the information on the Datu.
Another earlier printed source that mentions the Datu, former councilor Lino Madrid’s write up for the Cotabato province guidebook in 1952, only mentions ‘Datu Ingkal Siawan’ as the community leader of Old Kidapawan. Madrid was a contemporary of the Datu and his version of the name holds some weight. He nevertheless makes no mention of the man’s ethnicity.
A third alternative, espoused by Bai Nelly Kelly Austria (widow of the late Vicente Austria, the Sultan Omar Kiram, whose family came to Kidapawan in the 1950s) has it that Siawan Ingkal (as was his name) was a Meranaw (not specifying if part or whole) who married a Manobo and who was appointed mayor of Kidapawan by the Muslim Udtog Matalam, then governor of the Cotabato province (the official FB page of Mayor Joseph Evangelista cites this version in a press release ten days before Icdang’s public statements).
In separate accounts from a related source adding to the above version, Siawan Ingkal named the Baranggay ‘Baranggay Lanao’ after his people’s home country of Lanao.
And yet a fourth version, cited by a Manobo family whose members recall the accounts of the Manobo historian Datu Pinantao, instead says that Siawan Ingkal was half Meranaw, whose father was Meranaw stock but had settled at the foot of Mt Apo and was not a Muslim (and Siawan too consequently did not practice Islam). According to this version, Siawan’s mother was a Manobo named ‘Ingko,’ from which ‘Ingkal’ was taken (making his given name ‘Siawan’), and Siawan chose to identify as Manobo but remained fluent in the Meranaw tongue.
As I do not have permission to cite them, I am not naming my sources here for now, and save for Bergonia’s and Madrid’s, these accounts are not the full and fixed accounts of each source (they may well add to it as they recall their family histories, or even change their minds and decide they were told wrong).
I’ve reached out to one descendant of the Datu, and he acknowledges that his grandfather was a Meranaw (although he did not specify if he had any Manobo blood), and many social media users claiming to be descendants have agreed with this. And yet in an interview with DXND on July 17 Evelyn Ingkal, youngest daughter of the Datu, insists he was pureblooded Manobo, contradicting the statements of other descendants and Evangelista’s press release.
This is a post meant to be dated, and I fully intend to update it once I obtain more information.
What is certain about the man, however, is that he was appointed Mayor of Kidapawan’s Emergency Civil Administration in 1942 as the Second World War reached Cotabato, making him the first man to ever be Mayor of Kidapawan, and he was also the first ever Vice Mayor of Kidapawan when he was elected in 1948 after Kidapawan became an independent municipality, serving during the Mayoralty of Alfonso Angeles Sr. NCIP ethnographer Bai Era Espana confirms that he identified as Manobo, but does not categorically dismiss the possibility that he had Meranaw blood. A street in Kidapawan (created presumably by Provincial Board Resolution) is named ‘Datu Ingkal Street,’ but it is not clear if this is Siawan Ingkal.
Whatever explanation the Kidapawanon chooses for this crucial figure’s heritage, I think this is a very good opportunity for the city’s residents to start going back to their roots and ask questions. For the first time locals are talking about their own local historical figures, and this should not be the last time they do, Kidapawan is full of interesting historical characters!
I am, however, not entirely happy with the definiteness with which the local media are dealing with the matter, the dispute is not being aired and it is being broadcast almost as if the matter is already concluded (This is not the first time DXND reported on local history inaccurately: in 2009 Manar reported that mayor Joseph Evangelista’s father had also served as Mayor, an error of fact as Dr Rustico Evangelista never held any city-wide public office). Worse, they’re making the question of Siawan Ingkal’s ethnicity as a question of the Obo Manobo’s primacy in Kidapawan history, and there is a hint of anti-Meranaw sentiment. Nobody has ever doubted that the Manobo are the original residents of Kidapawan, I do not understand why the issue is going towards that direction.
But it would also only be fair to say that the Municipio office behind the Press Release is equally guilty by stating Ingkal’s being a Meranaw in a way that sounded like it was a pronouncement of fact rather than relating Bai Nelly’s opinion.
I think it would be much healthier for Kidapawan’s people to reevaluate for themselves the things being presented to them as facts, and reaffirm, amend or contradict them after cross examination.
For in the end history will only belong to the people if they themselves take an active role in problematizing and confirming it, because history must not only be taught and curated, it must be discovered and lived.
Tribal Leaders in Kidapawan have raised an uproar over the regional hymn being mandated by the Department of Education for Region 12.
The leaders contend that the lines ‘mga Muslim, mga Kristiyano, at mga iba pang tribu’ reflect an ignorance in history and serve to marginalize the Lumad.
The full lyrics of the song can be seen here.
The Lumad are justified in raising this matter. The mere dismissal of the Lumad as ‘iba pang tribu’ just shows their othering, and their position in that sequence further implies their marginal position, mentioned merely almost as an afterthought. This is a gross injustice to the Lumad, who are Mindanao’s original peoples. This is why when I write about the tri-peoples of Mindanao I always write ‘Lumad, Moro, and Settler.’
The lyrics also show an ignorance in the sociopolitical complexities of ethnic and religious identity in Mindanao. The mention of ‘Muslim’ and Kristiyano’ only adds to the erroneous conflation of ethnic identity with religious identity. The more politically correct terms for the three peoples (at least in my experience) are Lumad or Tribal Peoples, Moro, and Settler. The Moro are the Islamized tribes but they are defined as an ethno-linguistic identity (a Tagalog who has converted to Islam can’t be a Moro).
The saddest part about this whole debacle though is that this is DepEd mandating it. It is the department which manages the country’s education system – the country’s learning and thinking – and yet it does not even understand the postcolonial and regional nuances of the tri-people arrangement. And because this is government we’re talking about, the mention of Muslim and Kristiyano may be taken as institutional religious segregation, a violation of the Constitutional provision on separation of Church and State.
This is far from the first manifestation of the ignorance of Philippine educators. For generations our teachers have called the regional languages like Cebuano and Hiligaynon as ‘the vernacular dialect’ (in the dismissively homogenizing singular). And I grew up hearing my teachers calling the tribal communities ‘indigents,’ the word ‘natives’ used in pitying condescension. ‘Settler’ and ‘Christian’ have always been conflated, and nobody ever taught me the audacity with which the Islamized tribes owned the colonial label of ‘Moro’ as their own.
If our own government and its teacher-bureaucrats aren’t even sensitive to Mindanao’s issues, how on earth do we expect our kids to?
Recently in Mindanao, local writers have been surprised to receive emails and private messages on social media from senior high school students about their life and work. These questions and requests for interview seem to be from requirements being asked in school, an innovative class activity, I suspect, by idealistic young teachers who want our young people to get in touch with our local literary scene.
This is of course unprecedented, specially among local writers, as Filipino literature in general is largely underrated, unread by the Filipino readership. This is particularly the case with the youth, which largely consumes foreign literature, and if there is ever local consumption it is limited to works of popular fiction, very far from the literary crop. Our writers rarely get so much attention.
How, you ask, did the writers react to this sudden surge of attention? Scorn.
Many writers decried the intrusive nature of the interviews. Others deplored how the students did not even bother researching basic information about them before asking. Still there are those who called on the teachers to teach their students to be formal enough and write a request letter. And others simply complained that with the barrage of interview requests, they don’t have time to write.
There is, first and foremost, nothing mature or professional about bashing senior high students on social media. If there are rude requests from them (and admittedly there have been), simply tell them off or ignore them without making it public that you have done so.
Then there is a certain arrogance to demand that any interview be conducted in formal terms.
This, I think, reveals the underlying elitism that so defines our literary – and our artistic – community.
The pervasive attitude among artists, specially writers, is that their art – and their dedication to the field of art – makes them important, somehow worthy of utmost respect and veneration. The artist is a sacred person according to the Filipino writer (many will always think of the celebrity of Neruda or the venerability of Hugo), and one ought not to treat them the way one would treat other, more ordinary people.
Filipino writers dismiss the dearth of readership they should be getting as the result of the unwashed masses’ lack of education and breeding. They scorn teenage Filipinos for reading Wattpad novels and Kilig Romances. Ironically they do so while espousing generally Gramscian ideologies.
The Filipino writer has long decried the lack of attention, and when she finally gets it, she complains it is not in the necessary note of reverence she thinks she deserves.
The truth of the matter is (and it is a painful reality I am saying as a writer myself), a writer who is not read is an irrelevant writer, and the vast majority of our so-called ‘literary writers’ are irrelevant writers who are not even read by one another. We are no important Hugos and Nerudas to whom formal letters of request have to be given so interviews can be asked, it is just downright arrogance to demand something like that when a polite, even if informal private message on Facebook, would have done.
There is even more arrogance in those saying students ought to research about the writers first. It assumes, first of all, that the writers in question are important enough to be on the books (trust me, even National Artists sometimes have very little information out there). They also forget the fact that in the Philippines, Filipino books and other material that deal with Filipino writers (academic journals, literary magazines, etc.) are both often prohibitively expensive (a 350 peso novel is average), and excessively difficult to find. I cannot even find anywhere the birth places of so many Filipino writers that I have to ask from common friends. This all just goes to show how out of touch our writers are to their own realities.
But I think the biggest manifestation of delusions of grandeur are in those saying they don’t have time to answer questions because they have to write. How utterly snobbish can you get. You refuse to entertain what can be your potential readers because you have to write stories and poems nobody will read.
It is very counterproductive. One of the frequent reasons cited by less egotistic writers as a reason why Filipino literature remains so inaccessible is because our writers are not introduced to our children. That is now being remedied, and even if the efforts are facing challenges, the sheer snobbery with which writers respond to them are far more damaging to the efforts than whatever glitches these first efforts may have.
We need our kids to start appreciating our very good body of local literature, but how do we expect them to like our work when their first experience of it is a writer publicly humiliating them on social media?
I just finished reading Leoncio Deriada’s latest novel, People on Claveria Street.’
A prequel to his last novel ‘People on Guerrero Street,’ it’s about the author’s first year in Davao in the late 1940s, when he was still an elementary student. It is to date only the third novel written about Davao.
The books offers a fascinating glimpse at Davao in the past, back when the now highly urbanized metropolis of Mindanao was still a semi-rural frontier town recovering from the War. This has always been one of the charms of Deriada’s work, specially as Davao and much of Mindanao is terribly apathetic to its own history.
I will be writing a review of the book soon!
My hometown of Kidapawan’s Local government is finally paying attention to the town’s history and heritage! Mayor Joseph Evangelista recently set up a Culture and Arts Council, and while still nebulous, one of their first projects is to revisit the historiography of the city.
I had been working on my own for the past two years on rewriting Kidapawan history, slowly building up information to make five books. Kidapawan’s only history book, the 2004 book by Ferdinand Bergonia, is very informative but has severe deficiencies, both in actual information and in source citation (see my review of it in Ateneo de Davao’s Tambara). There was a serious need to build up on what Bergonia had started.
All the while I shared some of the information on the Kidapawan of the Past Facebook Page, hoping to slowly build up interest in the city’s history.
I and Vince Cuzon managed the FB page, and the both of us really started stimulating local interest in Kidapawan heritage with my 2010 write-up in the Davao Writers Guild’s Dagmay (coauthored with Christian Cabagnot) about the Kiram Mansion, which had been demolished that year. Vince, who has a far wider local readership than I do, helped spread word about the building.
By accident I found out about the Culture and Arts Council and the efforts being done by the City Tourism Office (whose head, Mr Joey Recimilla, is a member of the Council). If I am to work with them my progress will be fast-tracked, perhaps by decades, with the help of the city government’s machinery!
The city tourism office has been so serious about getting things started that they actually went on exploratory visits to see where the Council can begin its work.
In one exploratory visit to the National Library, Ms Gillan Lonzaga of the Tourism Office found a 1952 book about Cotabato Province, which contained a write-up about Kidapawan (then only four years old) by the then-municipal councilor Lino Madrid.
Bergonia cited this document, but did not do justice to the information in it. The piece provided fascinating insight into Kidapawan at its early days of independence, and it answered a lot of crucial questions left unanswered by Bergonia. Most crucially it complicates the ‘highland spring’ etymology of the city’s name, as it makes no mention of the ‘tida’ from whence ‘kida’ is supposed to have come from. Madrid also resolved the name of the third Mayor of Kidapawan, Filomeno Blanco, whom Bergonia named ‘Filemon’ and ‘Filomeno’ at various points in his book. It also provides my only clue so far about his identity, as he is cited as owning a rice and corn mill in Baranggay Saguing, now Makilala.
Among the possible directions the City Tourism Office found for the Culture and Arts Council – and one which thrilled me when I learned of it – is to come up with an inventory of cultural properties. One of the five books I was planning to write has actually been a coffee table book of Kidapawan’s heritage structures, including old houses and culturally significant structures and natural landmarks. Although far from complete, this inventory saves me so much time.
On a worrying note, there are rumours that the old house beside the Saint Mary’s Academy – my mother says it belonged to the Rellen family – will be demolished now that the owner of Gaisano Kidapawan has purchased the property. The house is listed in the inventory as belonging to the Mojana family, and at over 50 years old actually qualifies as an Important Cultural Property under R.A. 1066. I’ll be looking into the matter more and will be doing all I can to make sure this does not become another Kiram Mansion tragedy.
But perhaps the biggest plan their eyeing is to set up a museum! Commissioning anthropologists from the University of Southeastern Mindanao in Kabacan, they intended to begin this by initiating a study on the city’s culture and history. It’s a huge undertaking, and if I’ll be working with the ongoing efforts I will probably help here. I will definitely be doing all I can to help make sure this is a success!
Along the way I also finally got a list of the awardees of the Kidapawan Heroes, which the city grants annually during the Cityhood anniversary. I’ll be writing a separate post about it here at a later date!
All these efforts to finally pay attention to Kidapawan’s heritage means the LGU will be dealing with existing National laws. These laws nevertheless have shortcomings, and I strongly think the city needs to make local legislation to complement them.
And if Kidapawan manages to craft local law for its history and heritage, it will be exemplary among the country’s local governments, even bettering nearby Davao (which continues to have poor maintenance of its heritage properties and promotion of local historical appreciation).
I have to say, the present LGU is objectively impressive.
(Published in Banaag Diwa 2017, Literary Folio of the Ateneo de Davao University.)
Benjamin Quitubod dried his tears as he emerged from the school clinic and took a deep breath, so deep it was as if he were trying to breathe in all the courage he could fill his lungs with from the early evening air. Courage – he needed every bit of it he could inhale.
The nauseating vapour of teenage sweat still lingered over the all-boys school’s campus. He strained to get even if just a whiff of hope against it all.
Nurse Soly had confirmed with much scandal that he had it – he was even able to find out that the antibiotic was out of stock in Davao. But he thought he needed to cry to convince her he didn’t mean to get it. Thankfully she bought the story, and she acted all sympathetic and motherly in spite of her undeniable indignation.
His parents would be coming over by six to meet with Brother Romley about his grades, he told her, and he would be telling them today during that meeting.
He had little doubt, though, that thanks to the nurse by tomorrow all of Kidapawan would know. Oh, what a problem child he was now.
The Notre Dame Boys campus was empty. It was beautiful when it was empty like this, when he had it all to himself. Just a year ago he’d have abhorred this solitude, but since the abuse began, he felt like he couldn’t get enough of it.
As he sat on a stone bench near the high school library, he thought how easily he cried in front of nurse Soly. When you gave yourself the chance to let it out you can’t fully do it somehow, but when the situation unexpectedly allowed it, all the stifled horror would just burst out. Grief has a tendency to be indecent like that. Hopefully, later it would happen, too.
Through the cyclone fence that surrounded Boys he could see his parents alighting from the tricycle that had just come up from Datu Ingkal street. He stood up as they entered the main gate. They must have taken their time chatting with the people in the Municipio, they should have arrived half an hour ago.
It was probably a good thing they were making friends, he thought. They had moved here to Kidapawan from faraway Libungan just a year ago, when his father landed a place in the accounting office in Kidapawan’s Municipio. They were really still adjusting.
After only being able to send their two children to public school in Libungan, they were finally able to save enough to send both to Kidapawan’s private high schools.
The daughter was performing well in Girls, but here was the son, failing three subjects on the first grading period of his second year.
When he met them at the edge of the flag ceremony area, they curtly gave their hands for the mano.
No, he could never tell them about the abuse. It would be far too much a bother for them.
‘Is the principal waiting?’ his mother asked tersely.
‘Not yet, the registrar said the Brothers are still having a meeting in the Champagnat house.’
They walked towards the High School Administrative Building at a pace at once leisurely and funeral. His parents looked around the campus: they were only ever here for enrolment.
The wooden Administrative Building, where all the High School offices were, loomed over the campus, old as Kidapawan, the aging wood reminiscent of decaying coffins. It was fronted by a daised flag pole that, flanked on both sides by two lush cypress trees, looked like a crudely cemented tomb.
When he first came to this school it was an exciting new world full of things for him to discover, with bits of life pressed between the pages of every old book or tucked in every nara-floored corner.
Since the abuse began it started feeling like a place where he was sent to die a slow and miserable death.
They entered the building, passing by the large wooden doors and the list of honour students just outside the assistant principal’s office. He could not help but flinch.
The registrar, ma’am Cora, met them as they entered, and she gave him a smile. Sympathy, of course she knew he was failing.
He wanted to punch that kind condescending ignorant smile off her face, the same way he wanted to twist Nurse Soly’s head off with a slap as she shook it in motherly tut-tut superiority.
After some empty pleasantries, ma’am Cora directed them into the principal’s office, and he felt a rush of nausea and dread. He struggled to compose himself while they sat down inside the office, as Brother Romley’s sickening cologne choked him.
The office was full of trophies, proof of student victories in different events for the past few years. At the center was a solid wooden table, with a cushioned chair just behind. The gallery of trophies ended just below the back of the table, where there was a bookshelf full of clear books and ring bound documents.
He knew this office well.
Brother Romley had summoned him into this office for the first time when Benjamin was a first year. His curiosity had been overwhelmed by dread at the prospect of punishment: that afternoon the Brother-principal had suddenly asked him to come to his office after classes, and judging by the reaction of the other boys, he thought he was in trouble. Oh how young he had been just a year ago.
It turned out the brother had just noticed that he still had not been making friends two months into his first year (Boys was a small, intimate community).
He admitted to the sympathetic principal that he was too shy, most of the boys had known each other since elementary, and it did not help that he preferred books over basketball.
Brother Romley looked as if this fascinated him. He asked Benjamin what books he read, and that was the first of their long afternoon chats about books.
The principal was his first friend in high school.
‘What is this Brother Romley like?’ whispered his father to his mother.
‘Our neighbour auntie Fely – she has a son here – thinks he’s gay.’
Months ago he’d have been infuriated by this. It did not take him long to get wind of what they say many of the Marist Brothers in Kidapawan have been engaging in since the time of the Americans: giving undue grade incentives or exceptions from disciplinary action to boys they fancied, treating them out to meals, scandalously even going out to drink with these minors. Nothing more was usually speculated, though if the gossiper was feeling vindictive or nasty, so much more would be implied.
And some boys were rumoured to be among ‘Sister Romley’s boys,’ including some Arnold or some Doydoy in the higher years. Of course Benjamin could not believe this. It became even more absurd when he overheard some of them gossiping in the bathroom that he, Benjamin, was another Romley’s boy. As far as he was concerned, the reticent young principal’s bookishness was just misunderstood for effeminacy.
Oh, how young he had been just a year ago.
‘Go on ahead, Cora,’ said the familiar silky voice from outside the office, ‘I’ll lock the doors after our meeting.’ And he could hear the registrar excuse herself before heading home.
Brother Romley glided into the room with the stealth of despair. With the air of importance only an academic administrator or a religious man could wear, he did not even throw Benjamin or his parents a glance, just a casual apology for making them wait.
At the mere sight of him, Benjamin began doubting if he could do this. He trembled, as fear makes all victims tremble and doubt the culpability of their molesters.
But he clenched his wrist where the syringe went, and he reminded himself that there was no turning back. He had it already, and there was no turning back.
To calm himself he scrutinized Brother Romley, who was reading what looked like Benjamin’s records. The young, bespectacled Marist brother, perpetually stooped with focus on what he was reading, often intimidated people with his clause-perfect English and his cold, often snobbish demeanour. But Benjamin had known him up close – far too up close.
He could only wonder how, in spite of all the terrible things this man had done to him, he could still see the witty, intellectual, good humoured man with whom he had spent almost all the afternoons of his first year in high school. In spite of the sickening things he was forced to do in this office, he could still remember the warmth of conversations as they’d chat about books Brother would recommended and which Benjamin would read in the spare time he had between classes.
While his peers played basketball and football, he talked to Brother well until past six in the evening – when they were alone in campus together – about European history, botany, and literature.
‘Araling Panlipunan, Biology, English…’ Brother Romley muttered, and he fell silent again.
As he continued to go over the papers, he sat down, and began absentmindedly stroking the table with his hand, leaving the room in silence. Benjamin’s parents were tense but couldn’t dare call the principal’s attention from the importance of his paperwork. How comfortable the man was with silence, Benjamin thought. Like some spider easily caressing the web that gagged and choke some unwitting soul that caught themselves in it.
‘I really cannot understand why Ben is doing badly,’ the principal said (he knew the perfect timing to put the Quitobod couple at ease).
‘We’re really quite sorry, brother…’ his mother answered differentially. This of course was what was at stake: the Quitobods were newcomers to Kidapawan, Boys had been an institution in the town for almost thirty years.
‘Oh but he’s usually very good in these topics, right Ben?’
Benjamin knew that tone. It was the tone that delicately balanced care and threat.
He knew that tone all too well. One afternoon near the end of Benjamin’s first year, he first heard that tone in all its horror.
That afternoon the conversation strayed from the symbolism of trees to a rather different topic. About a week earlier Brother had lent him a copy of some novel by Oscar Wilde. After some incoherent discussions of its fascinations and possibilities, he gingerly looked out to see from his window that the six o clock campus was empty, and he locked the office door.
With an almost hushed but feverish urgency he urged Benjamin to sit on the hard wood table. To the boy’s paralyzing surprise, the Brother began touching him, whispering ‘there you go, very good…’ repeatedly into his ear with that menacingly caressing purr. He held on to the hard wood as it transpired, the Brother whispering ‘very good’ into his ear, a hand inside his pants in agitated delirium, until he climaxed.
‘We really don’t know where we went wrong with this boy…’ muttered the father almost apologetically. ‘Must have fallen into some bad crowd…. His sister in Girls is running for honours, and here he is…’
‘But we should try to understand your son, Mr Quitobod.’ Oh how very progressive the principal sounded. ‘Young people usually go through so much at this age.
‘Will you tell us what’s wrong, Ben?’
A threat. At the sound of that sentence he felt he couldn’t bear it. He was clenching his wrist so tightly now his hand was starting to grow numb.
Shame and expulsion in a sentence: it was that sentence which the Brother would use to choke him in silence. With psychopathic dexterity, he would alternate between caressing whispers of ‘very good’ as he stroked or sucked or penetrated the boy or force himself in the boy’s mouth, and this sentence, puffed out between gritted teeth as he pulled the boy’s hair or choked him against the door after every instance. ‘Will you be telling, Ben? Will you?’ and too horrified to even sob Benjamin could only nod. Then he’d tell the boy to return the next afternoon, and it would happen all over again. This went on for months.
‘Ben, will you tell us what’s wrong?’ the Brother repeated.
You know fucking well what’s wrong you monster you stuffed your shit down my throat and I am too goddamn weak and paralyzed to tell anyone about it to even tell anyone about anything for fuck’s sake and I can’t breathe choking in silence and I can’t fucking trust the world and even my goddamn self because you made part of me think I was actually enjoying the sickening shit you did to me –
Stop it. Benjamin composed himself by looking down the floor. No, he reminded himself. You did not come here because he defeated you. No. You failed those subjects on purpose. And he lost weeks ago…
‘He doesn’t even look us in the eye, Brother…’ his mother screeched, and his father concurred with a resigned nod. Oh, how terribly disappointed and ashamed his parents were of him now.
Just as he had planned it.
He looked up to look at Brother Romley in the face. The man had the same seductive condescension in his eyes, that look that so chimerically merged the loving older-brother figure, the trustworthy but authoritative man of faith, and the psychopath using God and academic freedom to choke resistance with silence.
But no, he will not back down. He had the upper hand.
He recalled the first time he tried to kill himself. He had stopped counting on the fifth time how many times he tried to kill himself, but he cannot forget the first time. In desperation he drank fabric bleach while his parents were away on a Municipio outing mayor Gana was sponsoring. He just ended up vomiting it out. When they came back all his mother did was complain that the bleach had run out too fast.
The thought of the sheer indifference of his family choked him, and it was enough to achieve the desired effect. He began sobbing.
He sobbed and he sobbed and he sobbed. This disquieted his parents, and when he noticed this, he rushed to his mother’s arms. She accepted him with surprising tenderness.
‘Ma, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.’ He could see this was having an effect on her.
‘You were right, Pa,’ he wailed. ‘I fell into a bad crowd,’ he threw Brother Romley a look – and for the first time the man looked unsettled. But he quickly gathered his composure, and threw back a bored look.
‘There, there…’ his father tried to console him.
‘I’ve done terrible things, Ma.’ Benjamin continued sobbing. At the corner of his tear-filled eye he saw that Brother Romley wasn’t even paying attention anymore, taking long glances at some papers on his table.
‘Drink, smoke, I’ve been doing so many terrible things…’ perfect lies, of course. His mother gave a nurse Soly-like shake of the head.
‘Pa, I’m sorry. Even women..!’
‘What do you mean!’ his father sounded indignant, but he could swear he could sense a hint of awe behind that.
And he noticed that Brother Romley was once again paying nervous attention.
‘I’ve been using prostitutes, Pa.’ he sobbed. ‘I’ve been stealing from your wallet to have enough to pay for it.’
‘Santisima!’ his mother exclaimed. Brother Romley was ghostly pale.
‘And Ma, I’m so sorry. I’m really so so sorry…’
And as he said it, fully confident that his parents we’re too troubled to notice where his eyes were directed, he stared at the troubled principal.
‘I just had Nurse Soly check me earlier. I had some pustules in my private parts for over a week now.
‘She says it’s syphilis.’
Brother Romley’s jaw was agape in horror. Of course he had touched the pustules, he had put them in his mouth, mocking Benjamin for actually secretly wanting these afternoon horrors. Maybe, the principal taunted, the boy liked it so much he was playing with himself too excessively as to cause blisters. Then he licked them to make them sting.
‘I’m so sorry Pa!’
‘From a prostitute!?’
‘Yes Ma, I’m so sorry!’
It was true. When he gathered enough strength to decide he’d keep the silence and ram it back down Brother Romley’s throat, the first thing he did was ask around – tricycle drivers, security guards, construction workers – where to find prostitutes in Kidapawan. And when he found them he asked who among them had syphilis. The street women mockingly pointed to a poor middle aged woman who lived under the Nuangan bridge alone, nearly insane from her shame.
He then bought a disposable syringe, paid the poor woman fifty pesos for some of her blood, and injected it into himself.
‘Can’t syphilis drive you insane, or blind!’
‘My goodness, my son!’ screeched his mother.
‘But it can be cured, ma,’ he looked at Brother Romley again. ‘Isn’t that right, brother?’
The horrified principal scrambled to compose himself. ‘Yes, yes… I think some antibiotic…’
‘Is it true brother!’ said his mother gratefully. ‘Oh thank goodness. But can we find that here in Kidapawan?’
‘Nurse Soly says it’s lucky Doctor Evangelista has it, Ma.’ said Benjamin. ‘She said she heard there’s been a shortage in Mindanao: the hospitals in Davao have been out of stock for months now, and the supply in GenSan is too low to share.’
‘Thank goodness!’ and his mother seemed far too relieved at her son’s safety to think about the scandal for now. Besides, he thought, that fell into plan too: being promiscuous was respectable for a young man, even in Catholic Kidapawan. His father will at least have something to joke about when drinking with friends.
‘I’m so sorry ma! I’ve been a bad son!’ he sobbed again, embracing his mother, who just patted his head with resigned affection as he dried his tears.
And as he did so, he looked at Brother Romley. If he ever went to any hospital or clinic, he was far too well known in the Cotabato area for word of it not to spread, and all the Marist Brothers in GenSan would know if he went there. His only hope of a discreet treatment was Davao, but that had but cut off from him (what a blessing that was). He can wait, but a principal has to follow a busy academic calendar, a sudden out of town trip would be just as damaging as walking into Doctor Evangelista’s clinic with a syphilitic genital under his cassock (with Nurse Soly making the topic hot in Kidapawan because of Bejamin, accurate speculations will be all too easy!). But if he waited too long the virus would slowly rot him away.
Benjamin, with eyes glistening in assumed tears, looked as Brother Romley agonized in choking silence between irredeemable shame for himself and the school or crippling invalidity, even death.
The brother saw him looking, and Benjamin smiled.
And that was all he needed to do to tell this defeated monster that this was what it was like, this was what it meant to choke in silence.