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THE OLD WOMAN OF THE CANDLES
by Kevin Piamonte

Santo Entierro
©2001 by Ramon Sison

 

HOLY Thursday.

The house loomed over the street. Massive. Windows gaped open like mouths. So this would be summer for me. There were other houses nearby, but not as big and old as this one. As I stood outside the rusty iron gate, Doray came running out of the heavy wooden door. It was almost sundown.

"You're finally here. I've been waiting since morning." She kissed me on the cheek.

"The bus broke down," I sighed and gave her a hug.

She brought me inside the house. The basement was dark. A familiar scent filtered through my nose. I sneezed.

"It's old wood, remember?"


SHE had brought me to Ibajay, Aklan, a year ago for her Lola Conching's 90th birthday. We stayed for a couple of days.

Doray and I usually spend summer at beaches. She suggested that we spend this particular one in her Lola Conching's house. I declined at first, but couldn't bear the thought of going to the beach without her. So we made a deal. An hour's ride from Ibajay was a white sand beach.

"I promise." She held up her hand. "We'll go to Boracay after. You just have to see how they spend Holy Week in my Lola Conching's town."

"But I'm not even a practicing Catholic," I protested.

"Don't deny it Burt Macaraig," Doray pointed her accusing finger at me." Once I saw you lighting all the candles in church so that Rona would live."

Ask and you shall be given. I thought that was the doctrine of the Church. Rona died of abuse three years. ago. She was one of those deaf children we took care of in the Center. The twelve-year old girl was suddenly missing one day. When we finally found her in a cemetery, her body had been battered. She lingered in the hospital for two days. The pain was deeply etched on her face. Even her pleas for comfort had ceased to be human.

"All right, all right." I gave up. "We'll go to your Lola Conching's house first, purify our souls during Holy Week and burn them after in Boracay."

Doray and I have been the best of friends since college. We were drinking buddies. Everybody on campus thought we were a couple. In a way we were, since we were always together. After college we went on to do volunteer work for the deaf. We thought we would be serving the best of humanity. But the truth was we were both reluctant to get an eight-to-five job. We called that a straitjacket.

For some reason I wasn't able to make it on the day Doray and I were supposed to leave for Ibajay.

"You'd better follow, mister," she warned, her hand balled to a fist.


SAN Jose Street, Ibajay. Doray told me that on Holy Week the townspeople follow a certain tradition. Her Lola Conching owned a Santo Entierro, the dead Christ. It had been with the family for years. Every year, during Holy Week, they would bring out the statue and everybody would participate in the preparation. Some people would be in charge of dressing up the statue while others would take care of decorating the carriage that would carry it through the streets.

"What's so exciting about that?"

"It's a feast, Burt, a celebration."

I thought it was ridiculous celebrating death. There was something eerie about the whole idea.

"Lola Conching, do you remember Burt?" Doray asked as we got to the landing.

The old woman sat on a chair carefully lighting candles on the altar in front of her. Her lips reverently moved in silence and her gaze was strange as if she wasn't looking at any of the images in particular. It was this same sight that greeted me a year ago.

"The old woman of the candles," I whispered to Doray on our first visit.

"He's here to help in the activities for the Holy Week."

"It's good to see you again, Lola Conching."

"Did you have a good trip? Perhaps you need to rest."

The old woman stared at me. Her face looked tired. It sagged with wrinkles. But I could see there had been beauty there ages ago. The fine line of her brow softly curved to gray almond eyes. Her nose suggested not Spanish descent. Beside her was a wooden cane bedecked with shells intricately embedded, forming a floral design.

"Come." Doray led me through the living room. Carved lattice frames on walls complemented the chandelier made of brass and cut-glass.

"Where is the rest of the family?"

"They'll be here in the morning," Doray said as she opened the door to the bedroom.

I stepped inside.

"You'll sleep here." She indicated. "That's the washroom."

"And the other door to the right leads to your room," I recalled.

Lola Conching was blind. She suffered greatly at the hands of the Japanese. This I came to know last year. Lola Conching was a comfort woman. She had to give in so her parents could be saved. At first she resisted. Then the Japanese hit her on the head with a plank of wood. She became blind. Then she got pregnant.

Was it her story or was it for want of a grandmother that somehow had drawn me to her?

"I think I'll rest for a while," I said quietly.

"Yes, do," she replied as she opened the door to her room. "We'll have dinner later."

The room was replete with old wooden heads of saints. Some had no eyes, but they looked real. I shivered--a familiar feeling. In front of my bed was a cabinet with glass casing. It was empty. The whiff of camphor from the wooden heads made me dizzy and I fell asleep. Soundly.


I WOKE up to the sound of voices. A soft stream of morning light seeped through the gauze of the mosquito net. I hurriedly washed and dressed. Then I opened the door and stepped out of the room. There were people moving around, talking.

"Burt Macaraig?" An elderly woman looked at me knowingly.

"Yes. Burt, you've met Tiya Basyon," Doray began. "And Tiya Patring, Tiyo Lindo, my cousins Ted, Joey, Ina, Elena, Nicky and Damian."

"Well, I'm back." I didn't know what else to say.

"Let's have breakfast." She tugged at my arm. "Everybody has eaten."

The combination of dried fish, scrambled eggs and fried rice sprinkled with chopped onion leaves made me very hungry.

"Nobody here eats meat on Good Friday," Doray explained as we sat down. "It's the belief."

I was too hungry to mind whatever Doray was trying to say.

"I didn't bother to wake you up last night," she said between bites. "You were snoring and I took care not to wake you when I put up your mosquito net."

"I fell asleep as soon as I hit the pillow."

"Did Burt have a good sleep last night, Doray?" Lola Conching asked as she walked into the dining room.

She sat on the chair at the head of the table. It was uncanny how she could move with just a cane. She seemed to know every inch of space in her house.

"Good morning," I greeted her.

"Ah, there you are." Her head followed the sound of my voice. "Did you sleep well last night?" "Yes, I did."

"You should. You will be doing many things today."

After breakfast, we went downstairs. The light from the bulb coated the basement in amber. I sneezed. In a corner was the carriage. Black. It was lined with leaves of silver. On the carriage was a casing whose sides were made of glass. Angels with dark faces adorned each of the upper four corners. The carriage looked ominous, like a hearse. Tiyo Lindo and Tiya Patring came in.

"Boys, let's do this together." Tiyo Lindo went to the carriage and started pulling it out from the corner. All of us did our share. The wheels creaked.

"It needs oiling," Tiyo Lindo said.

We positioned the carriage under the bulb.

"Why don't we just open the door?" I suggested. "Then we can have light."

"No, don't," Tiya Patring said. "It's a tradition. Nobody should see the Santo Entierro until everything is done."

I helped polish the carriage, shining the leaves of silver lining. With agility Ted climbed the carriage and dusted the wooden top of the casing. Tiyo Lindo wiped the inside of the glass. No way would I go in there, I thought. It would be like going inside a coffin.

"We're ready with the Santo Entierro," one of the girls called out. They had been cleaning the body.

The dead Christ was laid out on a mat. My stomach tumbled over. I felt like I was looking at a corpse in a morgue.

"Are you all right?" Doray approached me. She had been arranging the flowers and leaves of palm.

"Look," I said quietly. "I don't know what this is all about, but I'm not at all comfortable."

"What is it?"

"The dead Christ. I just don't like it." I sneezed. "And this scent of old wood, it's driving my nose nuts."

She laughed.

"What is so funny?" I looked at her squarely.

"That's what you get for being a heretic." She brushed my face with the bouquet she held in her hands.

"Oh, stop that." I wiped my face. "I think I'd better go upstairs for a while and rest."

"Don't be so lazy. Lola Conching won't like that kind of attitude."

"Well, she's not my grandmother in the first place." I made my way up.

Lola Conching was sitting by the altar when I got to the top of the stairs. The subtlety of light coming from the candles caressed the features of her tired face.

"Are you done?"

I was startled.

"No, Lola Conching."

"Who are you?" Her voice was stern. "Ah, you're Burt."

"Yes, Lola Conching." I was relieved that she recognized me.

"What are you doing up here?" she curtly asked.

My throat went dry.

"I want to rest for a while. I'm feeling quite sick because of the smell of old wood."

"I light candles for the Santo Entierro because it is most precious to us. It is our indu1gencia," declared Lola Conching. "It protected us during the war. Doray's father was a baby then."

I sat down in front of the old woman.

"You mean the Santo Entierro has some kind of power?" My curiosity started to grow.

"Yes, it does." Lola Conching confirmed. "It protects us from the evil of Good Fridays. Aswang."

I almost snickered. But in her voice was the weight of her belief. Aswangs, witches were myths to my knowledge. They would fly at night using their huge bat-like wings. Their hands had claws for fingers, and their teeth were razor sharp. They would look ghoulish, eyes gleaming bright red. But at daytime they were beautiful.

My gaze was transfixed on the old woman's face. I searched for the delicate features that used to be there.

"They come out on the eve of the death of Christ." Her voice slightly quivered. Was it fright I heard? Or a threat?

I was getting edgy on my seat. Faith, belief, knowledge boiled up, blurring my mind.

"You'll see on Good Friday. When the moon rises, all windows are shut in houses except ours," she proudly declared. "Windows in this house are left wide open."

It dawned on me. The Santo Entierro was not the family's iindulgencia. It was hers--for all the fears she kept inside.

"I thought you went to sleep." Doray had come upstairs.

"No, I was talking to your Lola Conching," I stammered. Cold sweat dripped down my forehead.

"I told him stories about the Santo Entierro," the old woman said with an air of accomplishment.

"Let's go." I grabbed Doray's arm.

For the first time I felt afraid. Yet I could not understand why. I raced downstairs. Doray came after me.

"Wait," she called.

Everybody stared at me blankly when I got to the basement. I turned around and faced Doray. We almost bumped into each other.

"Can we go for a walk?" I panted.

We went to the plaza in front of the church. We were both quiet. I pondered why she brought me to this strange place. I felt she had done it on purpose. I never questioned events, phenomena. I always took them as though they were a natural order of the cosmos, like birth and death. True, I did light candles for Rona, but the girl died nonetheless. I felt humiliated. That menial task was my turning point. Never again did candles burn.

"This is where the procession ends," she said as we sat on a concrete bench. We were facing the church. "The procession goes around, through several streets and it ends here at about seven in the evening."

"Do you believe in your Lola Conching's stories about the Santo Entierro?"

Doray looked lost in thought. She groped for words.

"I don't have any answers, Burt. But this is what I can tell you." Her eyes brightened up. "What I saw was the crowd surging toward the Santo Entierro as it got to the door of the church. It was a mad scramble. Everybody wanted a piece of the Santo. They say its hair or any part of its clothing can be used as an amulet, a protection against evil spirits."

Another mythical explanation.

"I'm hungry." I stood up and we went back to the house.

Lunch was quick. Everybody was rushing to finish the morning's activity for the procession in the afternoon.

I went to sleep. In the first place, vacations were meant for naps. Besides I felt I had done my share already with the carriage.

"Burt." I heard Doray's voice through my slumber. "It's time to get ready."

"Hmmm," I protested. I was too tired to do anything.

"Wake up, sleepyhead." She sat on the bed. "You've been sleeping for hours. Come on." She gave me a gentle slap on my face.

"All right." I rubbed my eyes and got out of bed.

"Call me when you're ready." She stood up and went inside her room.

When Doray and I went downstairs, I gasped at the sight that greeted me. There was the Santo Entierro inside the glass casing of the carriage. Asleep. Its long golden brown hair was spread out like a fan. Its body covered with the richness of white and red velvet was adorned with beads of gold. The carriage was bedecked with sprays of palms and flowers, the ones used for funerals. Trinkets of lights illuminated the whole presentation. Death never had this brilliance.

"Well, we're ready," Tiya Patring said.

The boys--Ted, Joey, Nicky and Damian--opened the door and pulled the carriage out. A small crowd stood outside. They applauded as we made our way into the street behind the image. They made the sign of the cross and followed us. As we neared the church, I could see other carriages lined up, each one carrying a different image representing Lent. We were made to position somewhere at the end of the line. And the procession began. The band with scant composition of trumpets and drums lazily accompanied our strides. I snickered.

"Shhh," Doray warned.

When the sun came down, some people started handing out candles.

"Want to light one?" Doray slyly offered.

The procession went on for about two hours. People lined the streets. There were old people sitting on wheelchairs. Soon they would drown in the shadow of the evening. I thought of Lola Conching left alone in the house seeing the whole procession in her mind as she prayed for her soul. In her house candles burned like tired spirits.

When we neared the end of the procession, the carriages were brought inside the church.

"Let's go." Doray pulled me.

"Where?" I thought this would be the most awaited event of the day.

But her clutch slipped off my arm.

Then I saw a throng of people rushing towards us. Joey, Nicky and Damian struggled to pull the carriage to the entrance of the church. On top of the carriage were Tiyo Lindo and Ted brandishing wooden canes like warriors. Everyone was trying to get near the Santo Entierro. I was trapped. I couldn't get out from the sea of bodies. The wave threatened to crush me. I couldn't breathe. I was drowning. Some people had tears streaming down their faces, sobbing. Others screamed as Tiyo Lindo and Ted hit their hands with their wooden canes.

"The hair," someone shouted. "A strand of hair."

"No, don't!" I could no longer hear myself as I went down, pressed by the rush of wave.

Suddenly Tiyo Lindo and Ted were pulling me up. I slumped on the wooden top of the carriage, catching my breath. Below, the maddened faces of people receded as we entered the portals of the church.

We jumped off the carriage. Sweat pasted my shirt on to my skin. I felt we had gone through a siege. But the carriage was intact. The glass remained unbroken. The leaves of silver lining still glistened. Everything was in place. The rest of the boys, Joey, Nicky and Damian, volunteered to stay behind while we went home for dinner.

"You were lucky you didn't get crushed," said Ted.

I did not bother to say anything. I had not seen raw madness before.

"Is he all right?" Lola Conching asked me as we got to the top of the stairs.

"Burt," Doray came towards me. We need not say anything to each other. Tears were about to fall from my eyes.

"It's all right," I held her hands tight. "I'll be fine."

Later that evening we stayed in my room and drank whiskey.

"I'm sorry, Burt, I tried to get through." She recalled what happened earlier that evening.

We were silent for a while.

"It was so weird. They were scrambling. Those people were fanatics."

"The first time I saw it I thought I would go down on my knees." She smiled in disbelief.

Doray left at midnight to sleep in her room. I tossed in bed. I kept thinking about the mad rush of the crowd towards the Santo Entierro. What awesome power for one made of wood to draw the tide toward himself. My mind reeled. It was Black Saturday. The day of the dead Christ.

In the haze of alcohol, I got out of the room and cautiously made my way down the stairs and out of the house. I went out into the street and walked to the church. The moon had risen, big and bright. Its color oozed beyond its shape and bled the sky. The street was silent. As I neared the church, I heard its door open. It moaned. In the dimness of the surroundings I saw four men coming out of the church. They were carrying something wrapped in white sheets, like a dead man. It was the Santo Entierro! Oblivious of my presence, they struggled with its weight. Slowly I took several steps back. I turned around and cautiously walked back to the house. Then I saw that the windows of the other houses were shut. Tight. I remembered what Lola Conching said about the witches. I ran towards the house, racing against the pounding in my chest. Then I swiftly ascended the stairs. When I got to my room, I threw myself on the bed. At a surprising rate, I tucked the mosquito net in and closed my eyes. The Santo Entierro was stolen, the Santo Entierro was stolen! This I kept repeating to myself. I wanted to get up and tell Doray. But I was feeling too heady. I felt I was going to throw up. I closed my eyes and cascaded down into a labyrinth of darkness. Then I heard a flapping on wings. Wak, wak, wak. It flapped in the breeze blowing through my window. Wak, wak, wak. There it was again. I bolted up, charged with a current of electricity running through my veins. The mosquito net plunged down. I struggled against the mesh of its gauze. Then I saw the Santo Entierro! It stood inside the glass cabinet in front of my bed. I screamed. The shrillness shot through the stillness of San Jose Street.

"Burt," Doray rushed in. I screamed again. She peeled the mosquito net away. Then I felt her hands, her arms holding me close. I was drenched with sweat.

Someone knocked on the door.

I looked at the glass cabinet in front of my bed. It was empty.

"The Santo Entierro was stolen." I breathlessly whispered to Doray.

"The what?" She barely heard me.

"The Santo Entierro." I punctuated each word.

Doray stood up and opened the door. Lola Conching entered the room.

The Santo Entierro was stolen!" I cried. "It was stolen."

Lola Conching covered her face, fingers digging into her skin. Her breathing came in spasms. The rest of her kin stood behind her. I got out of bed.

"Where are you going?" Doray asked.

"To the church."

I grabbed Lola Conching and carried her in my arms as if she were a child. She weakly struggled against my strength.

"Leave her alone!" Doray cried. The rest of the family encircled us like the crowd that earlier surged towards the Santo Entierro.

"No!" I stared at them.

And we all marched down into the darkness of the street, all the way to the church. Lola Conching buried her face my chest. Her resistance was drowned in her sobbing.

The door of the church was open when we got there. Some people had left it open. We made our way through the carriages inside the shadow of the church's belly. Images loomed. Near the altar stood the black carriage with leaves of silver lining. I Set Lola Conching down on the floor She grappled with my feet, whimpering.

"Here." Tiya Patring offered me a candle. I took it.

"Light all the candles, Burt," Doray's voice quivered.

I numbly walked around the church and lit all the candles I could find. My hands shook. Lola Conching wailed Then I saw it. It was there. The Santo Entierro glistened inside the glass casing of its carriage.

"It's here, Lola Conching." My lips trembled. "The Santo Entierro is back!"

We all looked at Lola Conching, still slumped on the floor. She had stopped crying.

"Put out the candles," Lola Conching commanded.

Nobody moved. For a while everybody had stoned expressions on their faces.

"Put out the candles." This time her voice came undaunted.

One at a time her kin blew out the flames. Their somber faces were ghosts extinguished with the past. The Santo Entierro faded into darkness.

I sank to my knees with the last candle in my hands. Lola Conching rose. Layers of tormented skin peeled off her face that came to the light. I saw her real beauty. Immaculate, a flower whose petals would wither with a careless brush of fingers. I saw a girl of eighteen whose face was as fine and gentle as the hair of the wind. Then the features slowly changed with the diminishing flame. And between light and darkness was Rona's face completely devoid of pain.

The light of the candle in my hands flickered and died as Lola Conching's blind eyes gave way to tears that had welled through the years. In the darkness of the church I bowed my head as I convulsed with my own truths. Lola Conching held on to my arms as I held on to the candle. I could smell the pregnant whips of smoke rising from the faint orange glow of its wick.

Black Saturday. And now, Easter Sunday.

1999 by Kevin Piamonte

This story has previously appeared in print.

 

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