Certain photographs touch something deep within my soul, inspiring the creative writing juices . This is where photography and creative writing find a common platform. Each month, a guest photographer is featured and short fictional pieces woven around the photographs presented.
Veteran photojournalist and retired Photo Editor of the Manila Bulletin, Manny Goloyugo is a photographer and artist who seeks colours, depth, and stories in the scenes he immortalises. Waiting for the right moment and light in a landscape requires patience and dedication, but for street photography and current events as they unfold, composition has to be fast or the moment is lost, and by fast he means five seconds!
mourn the morrow
Elsa leaned back on the bench on the boat and stared out onto the water, mentally casting her exhaustion into the calm waters. The rain clouds were forming in the skies above and she couldn’t help but feel the same heaviness in her eyes, tears ready to burst out like the rain. The desolation and anguish in her heart was beyond anything she had imagined, and nothing close to what people had told her it would feel like. Death was something she dealt with almost on a daily basis working at funeral parlor as an embalmer, but those were all anonymous cadavers to her. This time the loss was personal; and painful. It had barely been a week since she buried her husband of 40 years. They had always known that his chosen profession as a policeman would cost him his life one day, but she took the risk anyway and married him. Before God and all the witnesses present they swore to live each day to the fullest, knowing to expect the unexpected each time he walked out the door to serve the people. He had been a dutiful and loving husband who never failed to kiss her good morning and hold her tight when they fell asleep at night, no matter how late it was. When his squad showed up at her doorstep one month ago, she knew what had happened before they even told her, feeling the earth open up beneath her as they spoke. It hadn’t even been 40 since his passing when the prison warden himself knocked on her window in the middle of the night.
People considered Elsa a strong woman, a community leader with a vision who knew exactly how she wanted things run. They looked up to her, learning early on never to underestimate her small stature and misleading demureness. She was everyone’s aunt, adoptive mother, elder sister, and best friend. Yet, as fate would have it, in spite of her impeccable reputation and model behavior, her six children turned out to be one heartbreak after another. The eldest son and youngest daughter were working in Bangkok as prostitutes, earning good money they claimed, but had sold their souls to the highest bidders. Two other sons were in jail on opposite sides of the country, one in for murder and the other for drug trafficking. Elsa had pinned her hopes on her two daughters who married soldiers, expecting them to make up for their other siblings and care for her in her old age. Alcohol and drugs beat her to it and robbed Elsa of her daughters and grandchildren, leaving her with disgruntled sons-in-law and endless debts.
As she stepped off the boat, Elsa joined the others in prayers as the procession of nuns from the nearby convent carried a crown of thorns on a velvet cushion. It was only then that she realized it was Friday and she was late for her weekly prayer meeting. She was exhausted and in no mood to put on a cheerful face for the young and eager minds of the bible study group, but she was committed to them with the same fervor that they were devoted to her. Visiting her son in prison was never easy and she wasn’t sure how long she would be able to keep it up. At 70, she was beginning to feel the exhaustion of life in her bones, and felt as though there was really nothing left to live for. The inspiration and love of her life had left her, and there was nobody left to lean on and share the burdens with.
After the procession passed her spot, Elsa turned towards the cemetery, deciding that now was a good a time as any to visit her parents’ graves. The cemetery was full, families scrubbing the tombs of the dearly departed in preparation for All Souls Day. Many had brought their candle offerings as well and were faithfully praying the rosary. Elsa found her parents, placed a hand on the headstone and closed her eyes. She was deep in prayer when she felt a coldness surround her, the daylight suddenly vanishing and all the voices faded into hollow echoes with unintelligible words. Elsa felt two large hands on her shoulders, heavy and firm as they gripped her bones. Movement was impossible and so was screaming, as though her entire being had been paralyzed in a bizarre state of suspended animation. A cold wind blew into her ear and whispered “I have come to take you”. She opened her eyes with great effort and stared at the face she thought she never see again.
guest of honour
Amidst the firecrackers and the unabashed revelry of the crowd ushering in the new year, a small boy huddled between the doors of the shops, distancing himself from the madness, and truly petrified of the noise. This was the first time he had been allowed to leave the house to join the festivities on the streets, and his grandmother had cautioned him to stay close to the shops in case things got too wild once the fortune dragons came dancing by. His older brothers and cousins were all part of the parade, either as acrobats or dragon legs weaving through the streets and dancing the night away. Little Chen felt lost and instantly regretted tagging along. He was a quiet introverted boy who preferred to read a book or painstakingly put together model planes and ships rather than go out and play with the neighborhood boys. He listened to the stories of the others with great interest but made no move to ask if he could join in until family pressure got the better of him this year. Following incessant cajoling from the uncles and cousins, Chen convinced himself that it was worth a try. After all, how bad could it be? He found out soon enough, and wished he had not tagged along with his father who had to cover the event for the evening news.
A week later, Chen found himself being sandwiched by a different multitude watching yet another parade. This one had no fireworks and was loaded with marching bands playing catchy tunes that he actually recognized. Dad had promised him a walk around the market later to buy some sweets and clothes, and if there was time, a large plate of steaming hot noodles with extra shrimp. With so many older siblings at home, Chen rarely stood a chance to get a single shrimp with his noodles. Being the youngest, and sometimes the slowest eater at the table because his mind tended to drift away, he ended up eating whatever was still left on the platter after his brothers had demolished the prior contents. This meant a lot vegetables and if chicken was on offer, the parts that only his 92-year-old grandmother would fight for. At least with fish everyone was assigned individual pieces and he didn’t have to rush.
Years passed and Chen found himself travelling from one remote village to another as a public health doctor attending to families who couldn’t be bothered to travel several kilometres down the mountains on foot to the nearest health center. If the families would not seek medical services, the hospital sent out teams to check up on the villagers. Everywhere Chen went, however, he carried his camera. His father’s spirit lived on through that camera decades after he had been shot dead while covering a protest march. His mother had been devastated by the loss and never recovered from the nervous breakdown that followed. Witnessing the physical and mental deterioration of his mother, Chen decided to take up medicine and help families one way or another. The stories and adventures that he had grown up with made him want to travel and meet the very people whom nobody knew anything about. Journalism would have been the obvious choice but Chen was not a risk taker and preferred to work quietly in the background, extracting the stories from those whom he attended to with first aid or had to drag out of the line of fire.
As Chen slowly opened his eyes and explored his surroundings, immediately realising that he was paralysed from the neck down. The village he had been assigned to inoculate was celebrating the harvest and these celebrations included several rounds of the local brew and passing the village cigar. He had his suspicions about the cigar from the very beginning, knowing there was more than just tobacco rolled into it, but the Chief had declared him the guest of honour and there was no way out. Chen’s downfall, however, turned out to be the tea that had “a bit of a kick” as the elderly village women had told him. That “kick” turned out to be a powerful concoction of herbs and hallucinogen mushrooms that rendered the person useless. It took him a while to focus and clear his mind, training his ears on the surrounding noises. He didn’t understand the local dialect of this particular village, but managed to piece together a few odds and ends. Much to his horror, Chen realised he had misunderstood or rather, mistranslated, the concept of him being the “guest of honour” when it should have been “main meal”.
fisher of dreams
Crispin leaned back on one of the wobbly posts that held his hut up. The rough texture of the wood against his back was anything but comfortable, and he would have given an arm and a leg to own a bed that moment, but he only had a few minutes to rest and eat before going back to work on his fishing net. It looked like rain again and that meant sleeping on wet floors, since the hut was open on two sides and the hammock was assigned to the children. The fishermen’s community he lived in consisted of assorted makeshift huts by the sea, all built out of coconut lumber and palm leaves. There was no such thing as permanence in that area given the temperamental weather conditions and volatile seas that determined who was going to survive that day or not. He had witnessed far too many friends capsize and never return home, ignoring their better judgment just for the sake of a few extra fish. The market prices were at an all-time low anyway, so it made no difference whether they brought in 50 or 70 fish, they would still be poor and deep in debt. At least he still managed to provide rice for his family, and either way, the sea always provided for them.
It was the end of a long day and the catch had been miserable, as it always was during Full Moon. Crispin was worried. This was the fourth day in a row that the contents of the net had been practically non-existent, which meant that his wife would not have much to put on the little stall along the road for sale. She normally set aside two or three pieces for the family and sold the rest, but on lean days she sold everything and they ate plain rice with salt. Sometimes the neighbor’s wife who worked in the local produce market would bring home some unsold vegetables and share them. Those were good days. Today, however, was not one of them and the only consolation he had to offer was the beauty and solace of the setting sun. This was something his father had taught him to appreciate and hoped to do the same with his own children. If he could not nourish the bodies, then at least the spirits would smile with the colours of the sky.
The next morning was a cloudless one, and the sun was full of promises. Crispin looked out to the water and said a thanksgiving prayer and pleaded for a good catch. It was time to turn things around. The boat needed fixing, the girls had outgrown all their clothes already, and the rice supply was almost depleted. His wife had briefly contemplated getting a job in the market as a fruit vendor, but the hours were long and there would be nobody left to take care of the two younger children. All the neighbours were busy with their own lives and it was too much of an imposition to ask any of them to take the children in on a daily basis, especially since it meant additional mouths to feed. At this point, all of them were barely scraping by.
Crispin smiled and said to his wife “We may be going through hard times but at least we still manage to eat two meals a day, unlike Manong Jose who has eight children and they all need to take turns with the meals.”
She turned to face him “Yes, one of them told me how it works. Whoever eats dinner has to skip breakfast the next day. We still manage, and I can start planting okra in plastic buckets again, so that even if we move we can take them along.”
Sailing back to port, Crispin looked towards the beach and paused to admire the new resort that was being built, knowing that he wasn’t supposed to linger there. The construction had provided a lot of jobs for the local people and many of the fishermen opted to set the boats aside for the meantime. The foreign owners were apparently of the generous sort, guaranteeing a daily wage, one warm meal a day, and monthly food rations per employee. It did not take long before several family members joined the bandwagon in order to multiply the food rations. It was too good to be true and yet Crispin held back. His superstitious nature firmly believed that turning his back on the sea would spell disaster one way or another. The sea had always been good to him and he felt compelled to remain loyal by tradition and a promise to his grandfather. Besides, less fishermen meant less competition and more fish for the remaining brave souls. The floating huts that were a great hit with the tourists bobbed up and down in the gentle evening breeze. How nice it would be to have one of those one day he thought to himself. Little did Crispin know that it would be the last thought he would have before the speedboat crashed into him.