It was a hot and cloudless noonday, one that you usually hate going out on the streets because the sun seemed to burn right through your skin. It was the kind of weather that makes your eyes crinkle because the offending glare reflected on the street forces you to peek thru slits of your eyes, but she had no choice. School was off at twelve and she needed to fetch her 10 year old brother from the one he was attending. It was a good 4 km walk more or less from their own house and from the looks of her progression, marked by the familiar faces of the usual people and landmarks, she was already nearing the school.
Streets in Manila are usually crowded specially the main ones. It was rife with sidewalk vendors and other folks coming and going each to their own destinations, and just like her, on a hot sunny afternoon like this, they were all armed with open umbrellas trying to create a shade for the sake of relief from the pestering heat of the sun. It was difficult walking by the sidewalks. You need to contend with the hawker’s wares of paraphernalia, a cornucopia of clothes, street food, wires, light bulbs, medicinal herbs, of anything that can be sold and bargained, plied out in front of you, like a tongue lolling out of a mouth, a dog panting, waiting for his master’s notice.
Since it was in the middle of the afternoon, everything seems to be slowing down for lunch. Most of the vendors had fans in hand; waving for cool breeze, some who already have made a portion of the sidewalk their property was also trying to fold their form together with their wares inside the shade of their umbrellas. They were unfolding their lunches from plastic bags eating directly from within, forking it with their own their own fingers. They seem to be unmindful of their own soiled appendages or the smoke and other particle ridden dust falling in their food. A man in front of her seems to have been reminded of a thing that he needed to buy, slowed down and stopped. He engaged a heavy set hawker in the middle of her lunch inspecting an item from among her display of wares. An exchange of money was set. She gave her change to the larger bill, counting smaller ones from a thick brown zippered cloth cum wallet. After the transaction, she wiped her hands across her soil stained skirt bottom then sat down and proceeded with her lunch again. I suppose that would be the taste of money, Isabel thought to herself.
The regular pedestrian traffic was already thinning out, most have already been sitting down for the midday break. So, as Isabel forges on to her destination, she now contends with fewer umbrellas, either she was raising her own, fold it for a while and take advantage of the vendors’ bigger shade or open up hers and just let over or under lap other shades that never seem to end.
She now crossed the wider road of Quezon Blvd. There was a gas station at her right and although there was an overpass bridge which crosses the entire four lane boulevard specially built for the pedestrians, she did not take it. She risked crossing the street traipsing directly below taking advantage of the shadow that was thrown over road by the structure. Young and nubile at fifteen, she calculated the speed of the oncoming traffic, which also appears to be light. Even the cars and jeepneys have felt the heat and opted to rest for a while. She half ran, feeling like a gymnast, placed a right arm on the railings located in the middle of the road, balanced her weight then jumped and flung herself over then ran the rest of the way.
The school perimeter wall boundaries the main boulevard and a side street was located on the left. The sidewalk, although big enough had none of the vendors structure, probably because the school had maintained it that way. The walk was wide and refreshingly open, with top branches of mango, duhat and star apple trees growing from inside the school property bowing over the ten foot fence seeming to wave at the tired pedestrian. A cool welcome sight after all that building, street and people she has to go through. Although this was a refreshing walk, still she did not choose it, she stayed on the length of the gasoline station, across the fence, protecting herself from the heat by her trusted umbrella.
There was a group of mendicants huddled together, dotting the otherwise empty sidewalk. It was no wonder why pedestrians choose not to take the comfort of the walk; they would eventually come across these street beggars. It would be an episode of either practicing a well learned apathy, part with your spare coin and be done with it. Leave them be, so they would stop dodging your steps to the point of irritation, or, a tug on social conscience to prick your sensitivities. You may suddenly be attacked by a bug, an irritating nip from the messenger that came from bowels of destiny and other life forces that you makes you think a single act would change the lives of men forever, when all that you really can do at the moment was still offer a spare coin. Whatever choices fate may decide, Isabel thought, this is just an afternoon to pick up her brother and go home. She neither had the extra change or the call of conscience to ease anyone’s pain; she was already hot and nearing frustration.
They also seemed to be preparing for lunch. The noon day sun had cast a long shadow over the perimeter wall of the school’s compound and from what she can see, there was a family of five, three smaller children, probably ages two to seven and two adults. They had a wooden cart built from different patches of wood and cardboard, parked just on the street in front of the group. The way the family appeared to be consciously attached to it almost makes an invisible but tangible force tying the pushcart to the family’s ownership. There were also card boards and newspapers spread on the sidewalk where the children was sitting. The youngest was playing with a cat caressing its fur; the other two was romping around also with a litter of kittens. The mom was standing a little way off from the children appearing to prepare necessities for supper, vacillating from the pushcart, where obviously all of the family’s belongings were stored, to the wall where she had built a makeshift pantry of sorts. Isabel almost felt a smile as she surreptitiously observed the group from across the road, slowing down her walk. Here was an obviously poor family with next to nothing, deficit in food, clothing and shelter but still would share whatever they have with a litter of stray cats. Sometimes it was sad how these poor people can be kinder to animals, but the humans who can afford to treat their pets like their own children could not extend the same kindness to a deprived humanity. Somehow, even if the folks looked like they were already part of the street with all the dirt and soil that seemed to have marked them physically, the scene became touching.
Isabel walked a little further, she needed to cross the street once more, this time towards
the school gate, although still part of the fence where the cat family was grouped, she would now be a way off and would not be crossing paths with them, the route would give her the undistracted trip she longed and them their undisturbed supper. But as she now turned the corner, she noticed that the family was not only taking care of a litter of kittens but actually, a number of full grown cats also. There were others near the pushcart, fat, plump and resting and as she came nearer, the grown cats seemed to have been tied to the cart. A little way off, a man was squatting over a fire, cooking a skewered meat turning it over. This must be the family lunch, she thought as well, as the walk shortened the distance between Isabel and the group.
Isabel had the funny feeling that the round skewered barbeque resembled something appallingly familiar. Curiosity got the better of her, instead of crossing the road only at the front of the school gate, she crossed near the family’s boundary. At a strategic viewpoint on the same sidewalk now with the cat family, she stopped, dropped a knee and pretended she was tying her shoe laces. She glanced sideways to take in full view of the group. The father, the role that seems to fit him, was indeed doing the barbeque and that close inspection only confirmed her doubts. It was indeed a cat carcass, the mom who was going back and forth from the pushcart was skinning an already dead cat by the wall fence, and this one was probably next, already skin less, white and prepared. What body parts and other entrails that must have been cut out of the cat was carefully stacked inside plastic bags that were also hanging on nails temporarily embed thru the wall. Flies were everywhere and the stink of blood was offending. From the looks of the place, the mom or the dad might have been a butcher from previous profession either that or they were so used to eating cat carcass that they already know how to do it. It looked like a neat kill. There was little blood on the sidewalk but plenty on the gutter, and no one could have known any better unless you did came up close and observe. No wonder the grown up cats were tied, they would have run for life. No wonder they were affectionate with the litter, the kittens had a future necessity.
“Hoy problema mo?!” (What’s your problem?) The man shouted at Isabel when she seemed to have been gawking at the family affair. That shook her to reality. She immediately stood up and almost run to the school gate, leaving the scene behind, expunging herself from distinct abhorrence she might have felt. Most of the grown-ups, yaya’s, mothers and elders who had a child to pick up from school were already gone. The familiar crowd of noisy, squawking, waiting elders has petered out and what remains were a handful of children waiting for their parents to bring them home. Her brother was on the bench, smiled when she approached. She messed up his hair, pick up his backpack and took his hand. She decided she was taking the jeepney ride on the way back home. That would make her more preoccupied with the other passengers and be more concerned with her brother’s safety. The probability of seeing stray cats along busy intersections was far too few. She has had enough of weighing miseries between cats and humans. She did not want to look inside of her, afraid of what she might find.
At least they get to eat three times a day, Isabel thought, trying to justify a sense of unfairness she felt so deep. She consciously shook herself up again, something inside of her was scraping like a raw nerve, a pain of an injustice felt. She did not know and cannot understand which was tugging more at her inner core, was she for the murdered cats, the hungry mendicants who found ways to feed themselves, or for her, who at the blink of an eye, found a harshness in life more stark than the midday sun. Was that how it felt like when you lost an innocence? She looked far, peering at a distance but could not see what she wanted to find. This time the slits in eyes was not because of the glare of the afternoon sun.
She sighed… deeply, took her brother’s hand, opened her umbrella for shade and led the way home.