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Fall 2021 Prose

Dredging the Pasig

by M. B.

The homely smell of Joseph’s excrement transports Maribell back to breakfast. She swallows the milkfish in front of her. It’s all routine. 

His family’s home changes every visit. What was two mattresses are now proper beds. His breakfast much better than the plain rice she first ate. 

His mom says, “Joseph, eat as much as you want. You are like our fishermen ancestors.” She smiles, before glaring at his father. 

It’s the joy in giving them charity that makes this foul heat bearable—what is just a meal out for Maribell is worth more what Joseph’s father makes each week. She could be under her freshly laundered flannel sheets, air-con cranked up to the max, reading some refreshingly depressing fan fiction. But this feels more real— in a place that her family doesn’t know exists. 

She leads Joseph’s body to the main road. As she walks, she notices a scar on his ankle, and uses his small hands to reach at it. There’s a stain on his blue shorts. It’s funny how it’s the same shade as his skin. 

The rusty corrugated iron slums stand ready for a Caritas ad. The odor of roof rot lingers when she breathes through her mouth. A cat brushes against her. She holds back a scream. In the candlelight of the last typhoon, her mom prayed a rosary for all these squatters. 

Next to the school, the barangay police station has one of those sixties’ concrete façades—a ruin of when Manila had a future. Somebody must have pocketed its renovation budget. Maribell finds Imboy at his cubicle: his big nose asks for Maribell’s pity. 

When she calls him, he makes a sign of the cross and asks, “Maribell, what happened?”

Imboy has been summoning her back in time for three months. Tonight, in the old future, Imboy texted her the details to tell his morning self. She then called Joseph to meet off the highway. Using Joseph’s stool to repeat the day in his body, she now relays who they will stop from being assaulted, robbed, or whatever. 

In the last weeks, Maribell and Imboy stopped two women from being kidnapped, but this time, it’s the first minor. 

Maribell says, “Life is so cheap here. Isn’t the fine for hitting someone with a car only eight thousand pesos?” 

He scratches his neck, “It’s not that low.” He adds, “If a kid peddling sampaguita flowers were run over by a car, the rich would be happy. One less person to bother them. I grew up here. I care about what you see as a disgusting helpless mess.” 

About two weeks into their arrangement, Maribell and Imboy passed a police squadron commanding the masses to go home. Peeking between the crowd’s gaps, Maribell saw a pulled-up undershirt and a pool of blood. A face hidden by torn cardboard, in thick marker: “drug pusher.” She couldn’t tell if the fermenting garbage smell was from the body or the crowd. She forced back her vomit. It could have been anyone. Before she could say anything, Imboy pulled her away to attend to their business: stopping a stabbing nearby. 

Their current victim will be last seen at the wet market next to that drug pusher killing. The market grows like a parasite street by street, with only the chronically congested highway blocking its spread. Festering below electrical wires that tangle between the buildings like pancit, it feeds off the chaos of people who wear their backpacks at their front. The heat of the concrete forces the construction workers to roll up their tank tops into crop tops. The damp garbage waits for nobody to collect it. A banner welcomes you to barangay hundred-and-something, with a mustached politician posing with his son. They both smile over their domain of knick-knacks and kickbacks and the street children making money too young. The only verdant thing is the squalid shirt she wears. 

The bell of the squat Spanish church chime nearby: noon mass.

Imboy turns to her, “Let me buy you something.” 

He comes back with balut. “Have you tried this?” He asks. 

“Of course, no.” 

He pushes the somewhat-developed duck egg into her mouth, she stumbles back, falling into a mangy askal lying in the trash. He laughs and cracks the balut for himself. He gives her money to buy something else. She comes back with a banana. 

She sees the Facebook profile of the victim off his phone: seventeen, studying to be a nurse, her big eyes sweeten her plain face. If she becomes an OFW1, she’ll find a foreign husband. 

“I’ll call her. Tell her that a kidnapper is out for girls like her,” Imboy says. 

“But we don’t know if the guy will go after someone else. It’s been a month now of these kidnappings. When you sent me back, you had no idea who the perpetrator was—no idea if it’s one guy. It’s on a random day. No suggestion of anything sexual.” 

She continues, “We’ve stopped crimes in your barangay, but what about your neighbors? What if criminals see how peaceful it is here and decide to pull your barangay down with them? I can’t help you forever. It’s like how they say Filipinos are like crabs in a boiling pot. Instead of helping each other escape the water, Pinoys will pull each other down. So, you’ll all die together.” 

Imboy laughs, “What are you then? Not Pinoy?” 

She looks at the people flowing past, saying, “It’s about time we catch this guy. We could let her be the bait.” 

“But what if we don’t stop him?” 

“Everyone we save could be another that he goes after instead.” 

“Okay, I’m game.” 

Imboy checks in for them at the motel that faces the market. A stifling lavender spray masks the outside stench. When the clerk asks for how many hours, Imboy resists looking down at his police badge. He says that Maribell is his son and that they are staying for a full night to visit family. 

Juice boxes line the counter. Imboy asks for two. He drinks on one and passes the other to Maribell. The juice corporation is her family’s business, so she has drunk refrigerators of this stuff since she was little. She can’t wait to get out of Manila and visit one of their plantations. 

“Don’t want it?” Imboy asks. 

“I’m not thirsty.” 

Maribell said the same thing when they first met. A taxi driverhad drugged his air-con to knock her out. But the taxi’s tire hit a nail, so they ended up at a vulcanizing shop. Barely awake, she struggled out of the car, and with all her strength, screamed out at the gutter kids, “I’ll give three-hundred pesos to whoever can get me human poop first.” While all the other kids ran around, Joseph pulled down his pants. His stool was like a worm fasting for Lent. 

She knew she could use a whiff of her own excrement to go back to the meal after her last visit to the bathroom, but she had never considered trying it on another human. Opening her eyes to see Joseph’s family at breakfast, she was set on getting home. 

Doing his patrol on the main road, the morning before the kidnapping, Imboy asked her, “Child, are you thirsty? Why aren’t you at school?” 

She claimed she didn’t need anything, but Imboy insisted. After drinking a whole water bottle, she explained everything. 

Imboy offered his phone to stop her past self from taking that taxi, and when Maribell asked him if he wanted any compensation, he told her to give money to Joseph’s family. He then added that she could help him clean up the area: help the people the police could not protect. 

By ten p.m., they spot the victim at home after class. Her name is Jhemmalyn: so tacky, so Pinoy. Half-watching the half-whites on a teleseryes with Imboy, she looks outside. The wet season’s rain pulls used shampoo sachets and other plastic towards whatever’s left of Manila Bay. How much longer until she’s out of here? Somewhere like Canada or Australia, where she’ll take her master’s. 

A hooded man enters the girl’s building. She calls over Imboy. 

They head downstairs. When the guy comes back out with the victim, her hands are tied, and a cloth covers her head. 

Imboy races at the kidnapper. Maribell can’t keep up. The guy laughs and fumbles out a gun to hold to the girl’s head. Maribell makes out more of his face and shudders. It’s worn-out and almost familiar. But, it’s just the rain. Her legs are too short. She’s still far away. 

Imboy aims his gun at the two bodies. “I’m a good shot,” he bluffs. The man hesitates. Imboy shoots. The girl falls, her shoulder bloody. The kidnapper kisses a scapular around his neck and runs away. Catching up to him, Maribell shouts at Imboy to call for backup. He props the girl’s body on his lap, then removes the cloth and tape on her mouth. 

She screams. Imboy says, “It’s okay, just flesh. We’ll catch him another day.” 

Maribell says, “No, I swear I’ve seen him. Maybe, today in the market. I can try to go back twice. I need to find someone new.” 

Before a crowd can assemble at the noise of the gun shot, she spots a little girl behind a telephone pole. Her skin almost as dark as the corner she hides in. Imboy says he will pay her for poo. 

She whines a few times, then holds it up for Maribell to breathe in. 

Maribell nostrils flare and her face contorts. Imboy looks into the blank eyes, as tears—almost concealed by the rain— stream down. Gasping for air, the newly conscious Joseph whimpers, “Where am I?” 

*** 

Imboy still wonders who Maribell is. He only knows that she’s young and from a rich family. If he told his mother about her, she’d ask the parish priest to bless their home again or for the healing priest to see Imboy. 

Imboy digs into the balut that reminds him of his grandmother. She always bought it for his meryenda when he was a boy in the province, where the sea breeze crashed into the mountain cliffs. Most of the family moved to Manila after his grandfather commanded his kids to not die with a plow in hand. Imboy’s dad likes to mention how he honored his father when Imboy’s older siblings ask to move out before marriage. Imboy’s dad retired from the PNP2 years ago, so his kids’ salaries are his pension. 

Imboy sits at the street corner with Joseph or Maribell. He has seen this four-foot body as two people. Joseph hangs around the other bowl-cut kids that smell like the sun. But, Maribell stands alone, one hand on her hips. Her eyes dart around like an askal looking for something to eat. Imboy has to wait to hear Tagalog (Joseph) or English (Maribell) to know who it is. 

Today, it is Maribell. 

He can hear a buzzer from the basketball court, where he plays with his friends after work. And, despite it being early afternoon, there’s music from a karaoke machine. The market vendors haggle with mass-goers, who buy anting-anting to ward off evil spirits. The new mayor’s photoshopped billboard blocks the sound and fumes of the highway. Underneath is a notice for a town hall on a cannery to be built over the squatter area. The mayor says that they are so close to the seaport that they’ll lose out on their future if it’s built somewhere else. The squatters have no right to live in their homes, but the barangay is putting up a fight. 

For Imboy, it’s about keeping the peace. Maribell asks him about what he’s been up to. They talk about the new high-rises in BGC and Makati. “It’s like Manila’s Pudong,” she says. 

A little girl in an oversized pink shirt scuttles up to them. She hesitates before tugging at Imboy’s tucked in shirt. She says, “Imboy, Pudong is the business district in Shanghai.” 

She then explains that she is a future Maribell. 

“You dropped your balut,” Joseph-Maribell says to him. The Maribells whisper to each other. Joseph-Maribell asks Imboy for money and walks home. 

The girl says, “We’ve decided to have a sting with the kidnapper, right?” Imboy nods. “Basically, you shot the girl and let the guy get away. You asked me to try to go back twice.”

“Okay?” 

“Let’s check into the motel then.” 

Imboy can barely pay for the whole night, but Maribell will give him money next time. He says they are visiting family and picks up two juice boxes from that cannery plant company, a token of goodwill for the people of the area. When they get up to their room, Imboy asks Maribell for more details. She says that around ten p.m., the guy will come for Jhemmalyn Baquiran, a girl he knows from mass. Imboy can take the kidnapper once Maribell identifies him. 

She points at the alleyway where Jhemmalyn lives. It’s there where he confronted the police chief of the barangay station about that extrajudicial killing months ago. He knew that the PNP were as corrupt and bureaucratic as the government, but these were officers of his barangay. The old family friends told Imboy to buckle up because there was nothing to do about a drug pusher. When he asked if any police were involved, they said, “Leave it up to God.” 

Maribell watches TV for hours. All these mestizos in these cheesy teleseryes. He’s only seen people like this in the nice parts of Manila or the children of island souvenirs and their white husbands: Twenty years older or kilograms fatter than normal. 

Maybe one of the actresses is Maribell—with fair skin, a sharp nose, and wavy but not curly hair. And she’s from one of those gated villages. The ones with the pleasant-smelling tree-lined streets, guards, and tall fences. Where they have their Toyota HiAces and sports cars ready for all days of the week. 

Maribell rolls over from her side of the bed to ask Imboy, “Can we go back to the station? I want to search up someone who might have been there.” 

“I can just call them.” 

Imboy gets another officer on the phone, “Can you check out the name Manuel, D as in ‘Dog,’ Javier, also goes by ‘Tato.’” 

“Yes, I have a Manuel D. Javier from this area. But I don’t know if it’s D as in ‘Dog.’” 

Imboy puts the phone on speaker, they say that he has been in jail for kidnapping a decade ago, assault two decades ago.

“What about three decades ago?” Imboy asks. 

“He was a teenager.” Imboy laughs, says thanks, and then hangs up. 

He asks Maribell, “Who’s Tato?” 

“He’s a guy who works with my family. The kidnapper looked like him. I didn’t know he has a record.” She looks away. 

“You know Imboy,” Maribell says, her voice more confident, “If I were from an area like this, I know how hard it would be to rise up, but nowadays, there are so many jobs in Manila. We have all the call centers, all those tech jobs. But, you know, it’s really like the Wild West out here, too. So many people move here from the provinces, working for a better life but get lost and can’t reach it. 

“I don’t know if I told you this—my family’s business really helps people, but it can get dangerous for us. We have a factory that was taken over by the communists near Tacloban—they killed two guards—and the government didn’t do anything. We had to pay the ransom. We’ve helped people send their kids to university—to other countries. I’m glad I was born into my family.” 

Imboy nods. It’s not worth asking how many times the company has had to pay off politicians or asked for forgiveness when smaller businesses would ask for permission. 

She looks out at the market, “Sometimes, I feel like the upper class has to assume the burden of morality for the Philippines, for the poor and the drugs. Lead the Philippines to the first world.” She pauses, “What we’d be if we were still in the US.” 

Imboy glowers at Maribell. She bites her lip. Imboy says, “It’s more like you rich decide what’s moral. You have the ear of government and the church and tell us what to do, what to think. You tell us to fry ourselves in our own fat.” 

“I don’t know. All I can do is try to get out of here and contribute my bit. Only thing I’m certain of is that it’ll rain soon because of this little girl’s shit.” 

On cue, the rain falls hard. It’s the familiar downpour of the wet season that comforts Imboy. When he was little, he hated how it forced him to return home—how his mom feared the dengue of dusk. But now he feels like the rain’s purr is only for him. Cooling the city into the night. Sure, rain could mean a typhoon, but typhoons—and earthquakes and tsunamis and volcanoes— will forever define his country. A car horn interrupts him. He rejoins Maribell in the teleseryes fest. 

One hour passes. 

Two hours. 

It’s almost ten p.m. 

“I think he comes by in twenty minutes,” Maribell says. “I’m hungry, can I go down to a convenience store?” 

“You can just go to that sari-sari store,” Imboy points with his mouth. “The owners keep it open until they sleep.” 

“My Tagalog isn’t that good. It’s easier at a convenience store, even if they shoo me out.” 

He looks at his watch and asks, “Want me to go with you? He may come earlier.” 

“He’s still in awhile. I can’t go out alone in my own body. I’ll come back if anything happens.” 

He watches Maribell walk down the street, as the white noise adds to the percussion of the rain. The lights of the countless billboards reflect onto the puddles around Maribell. They advertise diets, food, and clothes for those on the highway. He thumbs over the rosary he keeps in his pocket, when he spots a little girl coming back down the alley. It’s Maribell. 

She beckons a hooded man a few steps behind. He matches the description of Tato. 

Maribell watches at the door as the guy enters. Imboy runs down, shouting at Maribell. 

“Keep your voice down,” she pleads. “It’s not worth saving her. I’m protecting you, just go home.” 

He grimaces and pushes her into a puddle. He checks his pistol and sneaks up the stairs to Jhemmalyn’s apartment. Through the open door, Tato ties up Jhemmalyn. Imboy tackles Tato from behind—Tato’s head slams onto cold cement floor. 

Jhemmalyn tries to gasp for air. Imboy rips off the hood and tape covering her mouth. She asks, “Kuya,3 did they come after my parents too?” 

“Your parents?” 

“They are organizing protests against the cannery.” 

“Your kidnapping must be to scare them off.” He unties her arms, “But you’re all good now.” 

Imboy pushes Tato down. Jhemmalyn speaks to someone behind Imboy, “Hey, go home, child. This isn’t safe.” 

Imboy turns around a second after Maribell snatches his gun from its holster. She backs away, aiming at him. In the confusion, Tato pulls out his gun, and aims it at Imboy. Surly yet composed, he commands Imboy to sit next to Jhemmalyn, both with hands in the air. 

Maribell says, “It was going to happen either way.” She walks to the window. “God, I hate the rain.” 

She asks Tato, “Can you take this for me?” 

He reaches for the gun Maribell holds with disgust. 

At that moment, Jhemmalyn charges at Maribell. Imboy follows and rushes Tato from the side. Tato fires. Imboy feels no pain and grabs at Tato’s gun. 

Clutching her side, Jhemmalyn lies on top of Maribell. Her blood drips onto Maribell’s hand. Jhemmalyn uses all her strength to throw the gun to the end of the room. Maribell wriggles her way out, but Imboy has already handcuffed Tato. 

“I know it’s not pretty, but we are making your lives worth something.” Maribell points at herself, “So she won’t have to live like this —rummaging through the tr…” Before thinking, he pulls the trigger of the gun. 

“You demon!” He screams, but Maribell has gone back to the new future she created. The body collapses. The leg streams with blood. The little girl wails. Like ants, people appear out of nowhere and crowd outside the door. Imboy cradles the girl, calling for backup with his radio. Her cries soften. 

“Child, what’s your name?” Imboy asks. 

“Gabriella, po4,” she says.

“You’re so brave, you’ve stopped crying already.” 

“It doesn’t help, po,” The girl replies mildly. 

He can’t help his tears for this girl. Taking off his shirt to apply pressure to the wound, he feels her arms gently hugging him. Back and forth, he rocks her. Jhemmalyn groans behind him. She reaches for the cloth that she wore minutes before and ties it around her torso. She glances at the girl, saying to Imboy, “She’ll live. I don’t know about the leg.” 

A cop carries the girl away. More arrive with a stretcher for Jhemmalyn. They joke that she could remove the bullet out of her own body. 

One officer pats Imboy’s back saying, “Imboy, we’ll figure this out for you. Go home, your parents are worried.” Imboy gets up, and the officer adds, “I think you’ll be happy to receive a bonus from the mayor—for your troubles. I bet your dad needs surgery—how old is he now?” 

One after another, old women under umbrellas whisper, “Susmariajoseph.” Imboy makes his way home. From one shack, he can hear a family praying. From another, he can smell garlic and hear a high-pitched man yelling. A bullfrog ribbits from the creek nearby. He can see the tree that marks its end. Plastic bags hang like parols, choking the branches. 

A boy shouts behind him, “Kuya!” 

“What’s wrong?” Imboy asks. 

“I know you’re upset that the girl lost her leg. But you need to understand that my and so many people’s future requires my family. And your future—your family’s—relies on what you do next. Does that mean anything to you?” He grabs at her, but her eyes close, and the body falls towards him. 

Imboy grunts and changes course towards the police station. He shortcuts through the piss-smelling alleyways lined with floodlights, erected last year to deter crime. The old shadows have darkened. He looks up to the night sky as the rain clears. The lights of the megalopolis add haziness to the smog. He sees no stars.

1 Overseas Filipino Worker
2 Philippine National Police
3 Older brother
4 A sign of respect, like “sir” or “madam”

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