High noon, and the little town of Catalina lay panting beneath the nearly cloudless sky. Heat surged in and out of houses despite attempts to ward it off with curtains and anahaw fans, digging trenches in the empty streets, rising above the rooftops and fields and sinking back into the earth in slow, relentless waves. Trees and grasses drooped listlessly; dogs and cats curled up in shady spots and pretended to be dead. The inhabitants of the town lay unmoving in the coolest sections of their houses and waited for evening with eyes glazed and lips moving soundlessly. Nothing stirred more than it had to. The town lay petrified in the summer heat.
Even the dust didn’t want to move. Aurelio kicked halfheartedly at the dust coating the street, and produced halfhearted puffs that settled down almost immediately. The skin on his shoulders and the back of his neck stung from the heat. Sweat trickled down his back and soaked his too-big shirt and the waistband of his too-small khaki short pants. He moved mechanically down the street, head bent and eyes glazed from the heat, his lips moving soundlessly as he counted his steps.
He was the only one walking through the streets of Catalina that day. He passed the school building and found it sitting empty and forlorn. A sign above the doorway called out its name listlessly—“Eskuwelahan Tsukishima” in halting Ilocano, beneath the high red hiragana lettering. The letters rippled and danced in the heat. A piece of paper had fallen on the path and lay on the ground as unmoving as a rock. Without its students, Tsukishima was a lifeless shell. Tsukishima, which was once St. Jerome’s Academy not so long ago.
Aurelio turned left, walked past the marketplace, where empty stalls and overturned tables lay in straggling, dispirited rows. He walked past a store that had been closed for the day, past houses with doors and windows shut against the heat, past houses already abandoned by its owners, who had thought to escape the coming destruction when the Americans attacked. The town hid itself from the lash of summer, and waited. It waited for Yamashita’s Army to arrive, for the Americans to arrive, for the heat to retreat into the night—for a chance to escape or a chance to die, the town didn’t know.
A part of him wondered what he was doing walking through the streets of a town that was practically deserted. With this kind of weather, nobody would blame him if he took a detour toward the creek and spent the day soaking in the water like a carabao. He wondered why he had argued so insistently to be allowed out of the house, and when his parents had been adamant, had resorted to buying his little sister’s complicity with a sweet and stealing out a window. Nanang and Tatang were getting ready to evacuate the family to the mountain before the morning arrived, and anxiety was stretching their nerves to breaking point. They would not be pleased when they discovered his absence. Still, Aurelio had promised old Padre Simon that he would sweep the church floors and wipe down the pews before noontime Mass began. And the bells had to be rung. No matter what happened, the church bells always rang in time for Mass. It was Aurelio’s job to ring the bells. It was his duty to ring the bells.
The memory of Tatang’s stern admonitions rose in his mind, and he quickly squelched it. He wouldn’t take long, a little over an hour at most. Besides, sweeping church floors and ringing bells were better than having to stay at home and listen to his mother’s endlessly muttered prayers, or watch his father turn into a surly, grim-faced stranger with each passing hour.
Aurelio noticed footsteps behind him. He turned and waited for the skinny girl to catch up with him, the skirts of her faded dress flying and her braid lashing behind her. She bent double to catch her breath, and he didn’t try to hide his exasperated sigh.
“Where’re you going, Eliong?” she managed between gasps.
“None of your business. What are you doing here, Narcisa?”
“I saw you sneak out of your house. I thought you might be going to the mountain to contact the guerillas again, and I wanted to see.”
Aurelio blinked, then remembered. Lately, Narcisa had developed the habit of following him around, and once in a fit of annoyance he had told her that he was going to the mountain to contact the guerillas and that it was too dangerous for her to come along. She’d stared wide-eyed at him and nodded solemnly, and he’d thought that that was that. How was he to know she’d swallow the story so easily? It certainly hadn’t stopped her from following him around.
Aurelio scowled and resumed walking. She matched his stride, even when he quickened his pace. “Go home, Narcisa. Your Nanang might be looking for you. Besides, it’s not safe out here.”
“Because the Japanese Army might come?” she said in a low voice.
Narcisa looked troubled. “I heard stories…Manang Maria said Yamashita’s Army was marching toward the north, and that they were going to pass through our town. She also said that the guerillas ambushed them in Cabagan to rescue the president, but the Army was too strong. Do you think it’s true? Is the Army really coming to Catalina?”
“I don’t know,” he replied in all honesty. “Tatang said our town was blessed because the Japs practically ignored us when they came here. We‘re too small and too out of the way, not like Manila. That’s why we had it so easy. Maybe we’ll be lucky and the Japs will go on ignoring us.”
She kicked thoughtfully at the dust. “Your brothers are in Manila, aren’t they? Have you heard from them?”
Aurelio thought of his older brothers, who had gone to Manila to study and to find work. There had been no word from Manong Luisito and Ponciano for over a year now. It was a source of anguish for the rest of them who were left at home, although Aurelio’s anguish stemmed more from having to listen to the drone of his mother’s rosaries and novenas day in and day out. Narcisa glanced up at his continued silence, and he shook his head as if to clear it. She took it as his answer and sighed. Her sympathy only added to his annoyance, and his words came out sharper than he intended. “Go away, Narcisa. Go home. It’s not safe out here. The Army could arrive any minute. You don’t want to be caught in a battle, do you?”
“It’s safe enough for you to disobey your father and go to church,” she pointed out.
To his credit, he didn’t wince. “If you knew where I was going, why’d you ask?”
“I wanted to know if you knew where you were going,” she said so calmly he was sure she was laughing at him. “I thought maybe you believed your own silly tale about meeting the guerillas, and I wanted to make sure you’re not in some sort of trouble. Anyway, what in the world would the guerillas want with you?”
His fingers itched to smack the smug look off her face, but the church was already in front of them and he didn’t dare risk Padre Simon’s ire by wringing his niece’s neck within sight of the house of God. He pulled the heavy wooden doors open and let himself in. The small, Spanish-style church was a cool, dark oasis after the heat outside, with the scent of candles and incense lingering in the air. Saints and angels smiled benevolently at him from their perches upon the walls. He bowed respectfully to the large gold crucifix above the altar then slipped out the small door to the left, leading to the parish priest’s house beside the church. He carefully picked his way through the exquisite garden in the front yard, not stopping to admire the beautifully tended roses growing in one corner, and trying to ignore Narcisa, who was trailing behind him in a good imitation of his own shadow.
He raised his hand to the door but before he could knock, Narcisa called out: “Padre Simon! We’re here! Hoy, Tio Simon, are you there?”
He turned on her to tell her to shut up just as the door creaked open, revealing a thin, frail old man in a priest’s white cassock. Gray hair stuck out in tufts on either side of his head, leaving the top completely bald. Veins shown blue through his papery skin, but his eyes were bright and his face was kind. Aurelio couldn’t imagine how Padre Simon could stand the heat in that long robe-like cassock, but Padre Simon seemed as indifferent to the weather as the weather was indifferent to the rest of the town. Padre Simon beamed at them, but before he could speak Narcisa bounded forward and hugged the priest so tightly Aurelio feared for his life.
“Narcisa, it’s you!” Padre Simon said unnecessarily as soon as she released him. “How is your mother, dear girl? And Aurelio. I’m glad you could come, although I didn’t really expect you.”
Aurelio sheepishly reached up to rub the back of his head. “Actually, my parents don’t know I’m here. But I did say I’d sweep the church and ring the bells for Mass, so here I am.”
“He’d rather disobey his father than disobey you, Tio Simon.” Narcisa grinned toothily at Aurelio. “Besides, he takes his responsibilities very seriously. Not even the Japanese Army can stop him from doing his duty, like a good little soldier. Right, Eliong?”
Aurelio ground his teeth. Narcisa was making him look like a pompous stick-in-the-mud in front of Padre Simon. Worse, she was doing so only by voicing out his thoughts of a few minutes ago. He didn’t understand how this scrawny, annoying baby could read him so clearly. It was the height of injustice, as far as he was concerned.
“And don’t you think he’s brave, Tio?” Narcisa went on, ignoring Aurelio’s rising temper and the slight glaze in the priest’s eyes. “Nobody else would go wandering around town while there’s a war going on. But not even war could scare Eliong away from his duty, oh no. Not even guerillas—”
“Shut up, Narcisa,” Aurelio bit out.
She looked at him challengingly. “Why? It’s the truth, isn’t it?”
“For such a skinny brat you have such a big mouth—“ he began heatedly but Padre Simon interrupted him.
“That’s enough, both of you. Naring, it’s not polite to embarrass people, even if you are extolling his virtues.” He gave her a knowing look, and she blushed and looked down at her feet. Padre Simon then glanced at Aurelio, who stiffened as if expecting ridicule. But the priest simply sighed. “You’re growing up so quickly. I’m starting to think you’ve gotten too old to be a sacristan, Eliong. You’re getting too old for even those clothes you’re wearing.”
Aurelio glanced down at the too-small short pants and the shirt that belonged to Luisito and blushed. But instead of laughing at him, Padre Simon regarded him with a mixture of sadness and something else he couldn’t identify.
“I’ll help him sweep the church, Padre,” Narcisa announced during the lull. “I’ll help him ring the bells, too. That way, he can go home sooner and won’t have to catch hell from his parents.”
“Mind your language, Naring,” the priest said mildly. He looked beyond them, and the sadness in his face became more pronounced. Aurelio followed his gaze toward the low brick building visible from where they stood. A pair of flagpoles guarded the entryway, from which the Philippine flag and the flag of the Rising Sun hung limply in the non-existent breeze. A trio of Japanese soldiers stood guard in front of the building, looking uncomfortable but resolute in their tight khaki uniforms. One of them turned to his companion and pointed at the flags. The other soldier shook his head and they both laughed. These Japs, Aurelio thought dispassionately, who knew what went on in their heads? Then he noticed that the old priest had begun to look grim. “The Americans are here,” Padre Simon muttered. “They’ve begun the retaking of Manila. The Japanese Army will be on the move soon.”
Aurelio looked at him in surprise. “How do you know, Padre? Has someone told you? You—“ his voice dropped lower, “—you don’t have a radio, do you?”
Padre Simon shook his head. “No. But I can hear it in the wind.”
“Padre, you’re leaving tonight, aren’t you?”
The priest’s eyes shone with so much sadness and love it sent a pang through his own heart. “No, Eliong. I have to stay and serve God’s children as best as I could. Like you, I take my responsibilities very seriously. But enough of this. An old man’s ramblings are not worth listening to. Now go on, you two. I will join you shortly to begin the Mass, although I doubt many will be heeding the call of the bells this time.”
Aurelio brooded as he swept the church floors. From what he had heard from rumors, Manila had suffered tremendously in the three years of the Occupation. People killed and were killed just for a handful of rice, or so they said. Now the Americans were taking Manila back. He wondered how his brothers were doing, whether they were standing in the streets watching the American and Japanese fighter planes battle it out in the sky, or whether they were crowded into a dimly lit room, hiding from the Japanese Army. The Army that would be marching northward very soon.
He looked over to where Narcisa was polishing the pews, and realized that this was the first time she had spoken since Padre Simon had admonished her about her language. Her eyes wide and dark in her thin face, and for a moment Aurelio thought he saw someone else looking at him through those eyes. “You’re leaving tomorrow, aren’t you?”
He nodded and she bit her lip, then proceeded to rub a spot on the pew until it nearly caught fire. “Eliong?” she said after a while. “Tell me the story of the bells again.”
“The story of the bells. The one Padre Simon told you. Tell me the story.”
He rolled his eyes. “You’re such a baby, Narcisa. You’ve heard the story a million times.”
She raised her head and with a look silenced any other remark he might have made. His mouth fell open. He hadn’t known she could do that. “The story, Aurelio. Please?”
He relented with a sigh. “Long ago, an old Spaniard came here searching for his long-lost daughter. His daughter had fallen in love with an indio but his wife opposed the match. So the daughter and her lover ran away, got married in secret, and disappeared. When his wife died, the Spaniard traveled throughout Luzon searching for his daughter. He found the girl here living like an indio in a bamboo hut. He wanted to take his daughter away, but she challenged him instead to live for three weeks among the villagers. If after three weeks he was happier than he had ever been, he would agree to let her stay. If not, she would go back with him to Spain. He did, she won, and she got to stay.”
Narcisa was frowning at his barren rendition of the old romantic tale. “And the bells?”
“The Spaniard lived here for a long time, until his daughter and her husband died in an epidemic. Then he went home to Spain, but he promised to give back something to the village in return for all the kindness he’d received. When he died, the village discovered that he had willed three copper church bells to them. In return, the villagers named the village after his daughter, Catalina.”
Instead of the starry eyes and heartfelt sighs that usually ended the tale, Narcisa was quiet and pensive. It was so unlike her that Aurelio had to stop and stare to better observe this rare phenomenon.
“Bells are wonderful things,” she murmured as if to herself. Then she glanced up at him and smiled. “You’re right, Eliong. You’ve always been the one telling me stories. Now let me tell you a story. Long, long ago, on an island in the south, there was a village with a church, just like ours. A church with bells, just like ours, except that theirs were made of gold. The villagers were very proud of the bells. One day, Moro pirates came and raided the village. The people escaped to the mountains but when they came back, the bells were gone. A few days later, a tree grew in the village, with fruits the shape of bells. And that’s where the macopa tree came from.”
Aurelio frowned a little. “The what?”
“The macopa tree. You know…” She trailed off, then shrugged. “I only heard the story from Nanang, who heard it from her sister in the south. She said macopa are little red fruits the shape of bells. I just thought of the story because of the bells,” she added a little defensively, but when he continued to look blankly at her, she seemed to sag. “You don’t like the story, do you? You tell better stories than I do.”
He shook his head. “I liked it. You tell a story just fine.” Her face brightened, and he added quickly, “I just don’t know what the fruit looks like. We don’t have trees like that here in Catalina.”
“I’ll show you. I’ll ask Tia to bring some, I promise. Nanang says they taste good.”
For once, instead of annoying him, her enthusiasm made him smile. She smiled back, a little shyly. “But Eliong? I liked your story better,” she said, before ducking her head.
They worked in silence, each one caught up in their thoughts. Aurelio wondered briefly if bells were Narcisa’s new fascination. It wouldn’t be unusual, although he dreaded to think what sort of trouble she’d get into over her new object of worship. He still remembered the time she stayed in the river until close to midnight to collect water in pots, believing that water touched by the reflection of the full moon had special powers. He’d had to fish her out and practically carry her home, and she’d gotten sick and had to stay indoors for the better part of a week. Enthusiastic as she was, sometimes Narcisa overdid it, but she’d have picked a fight with him first before admitting it.
He started guiltily, wondering if she’d read his thoughts. “Hmm?”
“Let’s go ring the bells.”
He blinked, then hid a smile. Unexpected, but predictable. “We still have a few minutes.”
“No, let’s ring them now.” She ran up to him and grabbed his hand to drag him to the bell tower. They clattered up the choir loft and out through the little opening in the wall that led to bell tower that stood beside the church. Aurelio shielded his eyes from the shaft of sunlight streaming through the wide windows, and noticed that Narcisa had stopped and was looking thoughtfully up at the spiral staircase that led to the bells. She hadn’t let go of his hand, and he noticed something else: Narcisa was growing taller. He looked down at where the sunlight glistened like tiny rainbows on each strand of her hair, where the bones of her shoulders poked against the thin cloth of her dress. Was it him, or was she a little less bony than before? Her hand held his in the firm, warm grip of a child, but her skin was soft and her fingers graceful and her hand was small in his—what was the matter with him? His cheeks flushed when he realized that he was thinking…strange thoughts about the girl he had known since she was still wetting her bed. He began to pull his hand from hers, but then her grip tightened and she began to pull him up the spiral staircase. “Come on! I want to see the bells.”
She let go of him and clambered up the staircase, and he was left to stare at the space in front of him that she had recently vacated, feeling foolish enough for the both of them. You’re such a baby, Narcisa, he thought, torn between annoyance and resignation.
She was touching the bells reverently by the time he got to the top. Up close the bells were massive, made of burnished copper and embellished with vines and leaves along the bead lines. To his amusement, he noted that Narcisa could easily fit inside one of the bells, although he doubted she could ever sound better than the copper clapper. He was picturing her hanging upside down inside a bell and banging at it with her head when she turned to him and declared with the solemnity of a priest celebrating Mass: “These are Catalina’s treasures.”
His amused grin grew. “No. These are Catalina’s bells.”
She frowned at his irreverence. “Think about it, Eliong. Our town was given a name only when the bells arrived. For more than—what? Fifty? Sixty years? For more than sixty years, these bells have called our people to worship and to give thanks to Our Lord. These bells have announced every birth and wedding and death in this town. Our lives are guided by the ringing of these bells—every morning, noon and evening. Can you imagine what would happen to us if these bells were taken away? Why, these bells are blessed by God! If Catalina’s soul—the real Catalina, the girl who loved an indio—if her soul could stay forever in this village she loved, it would have stayed in these bells. Maybe that’s why they called our town Catalina.”
He watched her as she prattled on about souls and bells. Her eyes sparkled and her pale little face was flushed with emotion. Her hands fluttered at her sides, touching her heart and touching the bells with delicate motions, and he watched them and thought about how her hand felt in his. Like a baby bird. Then he realized that she had stopped talking and was looking at him expectantly.
“Do you know,” he began slowly, carefully watching her face, “Padre Simon told me that these bells are our town’s most prized possessions? He called them historic artifacts. He said they were exactly as you said: Catalina’s treasures.”
Narcisa’s smile nearly blinded him. “You see? They are treasures. And I promise that I will protect them and keep them safe for as long as I live.” The formal quality seeped back into her voice, as if she were pronouncing a sacred oath. “These bells are Catalina’s soul, and she was happy here, as I am happy here. Keeping these bells safe will be my duty, just like ringing them is yours. So now I have two promises, one to show you macopa and the other to be guardian of the bells and keep them safe.”
“What about the Japanese Army?” he asked, humoring her. “Will you keep these bells safe from them?”
She looked at him for the longest time, not saying anything. For some reason, Aurelio forgot what he was going to say next. When she whispered, “yes,” he felt again that the person speaking before him was not just the child he had known forever, but someone else entirely.
Then her grin flashed and she was running down the staircase, down to the second level of the tower, where the ropes hung. “Let’s ring the bells, Eliong!” she cried happily. “It’s time to call the people to Mass. Let’s ring the bells!”
She pulled on the ropes exactly as he had taught her before, and the grand, melodious tones of the bells vibrated through his body and echoed through the unmoving air. Aurelio stood and listened, and he saw that even the three Japanese soldiers standing in front of the municipal building looked up as the bells tolled.
Aurelio sat in a corner among the small pile of bundles that contained his family’s belongings and watched Tatang speak with a man outside their hut. It was dark, and their voices were pitched too low for him to hear, but the grave expressions on their faces and the sharpness of their movements told him enough. They were to evacuate immediately, within the next two hours before dawn broke. Yamashita’s Army had been sighted from the promontory near the town. Seemingly thousands of soldiers in trucks and jeeps were traveling down the main road, and although the main road led away from the town, Tatang and the others weren’t taking any chances. The Japanese traveled by night to avoid being sighted by the American planes that hovered overhead now and then, but one can never be sure. In times of war, one can never be sure of anything.
He could hear Nanang’s low, monotonous chanting in the dark, the soft clicking of the rosary beads, and the gentle snores of Erlinda, his little sister. He watched his father talk with the other man some more, then buried his head in his arms. He thought about Luisito and Ponciano, how they were doing in Manila. He thought about Padre Simon alone in his house. He thought about Narcisa and her daydreams about bells and souls. He thought about everything except the fact that they were leaving. That Catalina, his hometown, could be destroyed in the next few hours. That people he loved and known all his life could get hurt or die.
Somebody shouted in the distance. He didn’t think anything of it until he noticed that Tatang and the man had stopped talking and were listening intently. He raised his head, and then shouting grew louder, more frantic. The man Tatang had been speaking with broke into a run, followed by Tatang. Nanang stood up, her white face a blur in the dark, and little Erlinda woke up whimpering.
More shouting, followed by screams of pain or fear. Aurelio shot to his feet, his heart pounding in his ears, and ran to the door to take a look. He caught a glimpse of something glowing red in the distance before Nanang jerked him back inside with hands as cold as ice. “Stay down!” she hissed.
Then they heard gunfire. Nanang clutched Erlinda to her chest so tightly the little girl began to cry. Aurelio stood in the middle of the house paralyzed by fear. They were here. The Japanese soldiers were here.
Tatang appeared in the doorway, sweaty and soot-stained. “Give me the bundles. We’re leaving,” he ordered. Aurelio rushed to obey.
“What is it? What is happening?” Nanang asked.
“A troop of Japanese soldiers crept into the town through the cogon field in the south. Somebody told them that Catalina was harboring guerillas, and they’ve come here to punish us. They’ve burned down Tomasino’s house at the edge of town and are moving toward the municipal building. Quickly, boy!”
“But the soldiers garrisoned there—“
“They’ve joined their comrades, of course.” Tatang spat in disgust. “We’re meeting the Diegos and the Lopezes near the santol tree and going to the mountain by truck. If we hurry, we can make it to the mountain in less than an hour.”
Aurelio felt as if his head would explode. The Japs were heading toward the municipal building. The church was only a stone’s throw away, and Padre Simon was alone in his house. Padre Simon would be there. He said he wouldn’t leave. The Japs were coming, and Padre Simon was all alone. They hurried down the road toward the meeting place, but Aurelio began to lag, glancing often behind him in the direction of the church. Gunfire and screams tore red gashes in the silence, and the ominous blaze in the south slowly grew larger.
“Aurelio!” Tatang barked. Aurelio snapped his head toward him, and only then realized that he had stopped running and was standing in the middle of the road, watching the fire. He began to turn his body toward his father, but his limbs suddenly felt heavy, and his stomach began to churn.
Just then, a thin woman in an ancient-looking camisa and skirt rushed down the road weeping and shouting. Her hair had come loose from her bun and was flying all around her head, and her face was contorted in fear. She was saying something, but her sobs made her incoherent. She saw him standing half turned away in the middle of the road, and her face rippled with relief as she stumbled toward him. With a start he recognized who she was. “Manang Pacing?”
“Aurelio!” the woman gasped. Her hands grasped his shoulders tightly and he tried not to flinch from the pain and from the sight of the tear-stained face. “Aurelio, have you seen Naring? Where is she? I can’t find Naring…”
Narcisa? His stomach churned some more, and he swallowed against its roiling. “What happened to Narcisa?”
“She ran away,” Manang Pacing managed to get out, then Tatang was there, taking hold of the distraught woman by the shoulders. “Aurelio, come along,” his father said.
Aurelio couldn’t move. He stared up at his father, confused and afraid, wanting nothing more than to run to the mountains, to hide with his family until the Japs were all gone. He didn’t want to die. He wanted to live. “Tatang?” he said in a small, frightened voice, but still didn’t move.
“Aurelio, let’s go!” Nanang shouted. He glanced toward her, then looked helplessly at his father. Tatang pressed his lips together and stared back. Then, before Aurelio realized what he was doing, he had dropped the bundles he carried and was running down the street—toward the church.
People were running down the street, mouths hanging open in screams of fear and gasps of breath, eyes wild and rolling. Some clutched bundles to their chests, others clutched children. Behind them, Japanese soldiers followed in a leisurely walk, aiming rifles and bayonets at whomever they please. Men and women fell down in exhaustion and were stabbed in the chest or in the neck. Others fell as they ran, with bullets buried in their backs. The soldiers had taken the municipal building and made it their headquarters, and Aurelio, crouching behind a wall, was appalled at the number of soldiers crawling around the building, shouting gibberish and waving the Rising Sun in a victory dance. He darted toward the house on the other side of the street and began moving through the houses, crawling in and out of doors, clambering through windows, stumbling often and shrinking in a corner whenever a soldier passed by.
In the last house on the street, he looked out the window and saw the entire church courtyard illuminated by a magnificent blaze that was once Padre Simon’s house. Taking a chance, he climbed out the window and dashed toward the burning house, all the while expecting to feel the impact of a bullet or the slash of a knife at his back. He reached the Padre’s gate and fumbled with the latch, unaware that he was crying and panting and muttering curses he never even thought he knew. The catch released and he ran down the once beautiful garden, pausing momentarily at the sight of the rose bushes slashed and trampled upon. He couldn’t get any closer to the house, however. The fire had eaten everything in sight. He sobbed, cursed some more, then made his way toward the side door, screaming Narcisa’s name.
He froze as soon as he entered the church. The altar had been overturned, and candlesticks and vases shattered on the floor. The saints and angels smiled brokenly from where they lay in pieces on the floor. The pews were splintered and used to fuel a bonfire in the middle of the church. Five Japanese soldiers surrounded the bonfire, cheerfully tearing up the Bible that Padre Simon had brought with him from Europe, and five sets of almond eyes turned toward him.
The soldiers looked surprised to see him. They stared at him for a long time, the torn Bible forgotten in their hands. Aurelio took a step back, glancing around wildly, but saw no sign of Narcisa. “Ano gakki o mite,” one of the soldiers said, pointing at him. He said something more, and the others nodded and looked at him speculatively. He recognized the speaker instantly: it was one of the guards posted in front of the municipal building. The soldiers conferred some more, every now and then gesturing toward the direction of the bell tower, then came to an agreement. They dropped the remains of the Bible and marched toward him. He took another step back, then his limbs turned to ice and refused to move any further. His breath came in quick, terrified gasps, and the sight of his fear seemed to amuse the soldiers. They laughed at him, exchanging a stream of nonsense among themselves. Then the municipal guard grabbed him by the shoulders and put his face close to his. “The bells, where are?”
Aurelio gave him a blank look. Berus? The guard gave him a bone-rattling shake. “The bells? Where are the bells?”
Berus? Bells? “What?” he said in English.
“Baka,” one of the soldiers muttered, then the soldier who had been speaking to him slapped him and shook him again. “The bells!” he shouted. “Where are the bells?” He followed it up with a stream of abuse in Japanese.
His cheek stung and his head was spinning, but Aurelio was still no closer to understanding what these stupid singkits wanted. The bells? They wanted the Catalina bells? “I don’t understand,” he said in English. “The bells are in the bell tower. Get them yourselves.”
The soldier slapped him again. “The bells not there! Where are the bells? We want the bells.”
“I don’t know where they are,” he shouted.
The soldier slapped him again.
“I don’t know where they are!”
“I don’t—“ Tears leaked from the corners of his eyes and blood leaked from his cut lips. He didn’t know where the bells were. He didn’t understand what was happening. “I—“ he began, then sucked in his breath and screamed: “I DON’T KNOW WHERE THEY ARE!” He shut his eyes and waited for the slap.
None was forthcoming. He opened his eyes and found the soldiers regarding him coldly. They exchanged short, terse words, then one of them raised his rifle and pointed it at Aurelio’s head.
“I know where the bells are!” a high-pitched voice shouted, and as one, Aurelio and the soldiers turned toward the speaker.
Narcisa stood on top of a broken pew, holding a stick in one hand. Her hair hung loose around her shoulders, the sleeve of her dress was torn, and her cheek sported a bruise that promised to turn colorful, but she was still very much alive. Aurelio wanted to sink to the ground with relief, but he didn’t dare. The business end of the rifle was still pointed at his head.
Gracefully and with great dignity, she stepped off the pew, walked toward the group and stood before the soldiers, between the rifle and Aurelio, with her head held high. The soldiers watched her warily. Aurelio gaped at her in disbelief.
“I know where the bells are,” she said again, calmly this time.
She stared at them for a long time, not speaking, but the soldiers did not raise a hand to her. Then she said, very carefully, “The bells are behind the church. I buried them underneath the ground. You must go and fetch them.” She pointed with her stick in the direction she indicated.
The soldiers stood still, uncertain for the first time. Then one by one, muttering among themselves, they turned and headed toward the back of the church. They occasionally glanced back, but Narcisa didn’t move. She stood straight, with her head held high, until the soldiers disappeared.
Then she turned, pressed herself against Aurelio, and burst into tears. His arms came around her, but his face was still slack with shock at what had just transpired. He looked down at her sobbing form. She looked like Narcisa. She moved like Narcisa. She even cried like Narcisa. Who are you? he thought dazedly. Who are you that you can order enemy soldiers around and they obey you?
“Narcisa,” he said instead, “where are the bells?”
She mumbled something into his chest and cried some more. “Naring, where are they?” he tried again.
She lifted her tearstained face to his. “I don’t know, Eliong! They weren’t in the tower when I got here. What I said to the Japanese, I just made that up!”
Something cold skittered down his spine, making the hairs at the back of his neck stand on end. He pressed her head against his chest so she wouldn’t see the fear on his face. Slowly, they made their way out the church through the little door, and stood together in the little garden, watching Padre Simon’s house illuminate the sky.
Then the bells began to ring. Slowly, grandly, the deep melodious tones rang from the bell tower. The church and the rest of the town seemed to tremble with the sound. The bells rang forever. They rang for a birth, a wedding, and a funeral. They rang for the morning, noon, and evening. They rang, and the people of the town of Catalina turned toward them and prayed to Our Lord. Even the Japanese soldiers, loitering in front of the municipal building in the flush of victory, looked up and wondered.
Aurelio and Narcisa stood in Padre Simon’s garden with their arms around each other, and listened to the bells as though they had never heard it before. By the time the ringing ended, dawn had broken.
Aurelio checked his watch. Almost 3 p.m. He settled back in his seat and squinted against the wind rushing against his face, beating at his shirt collar and mussing up his already mussed-up hair. Something pressed heavily against his shoulder. The woman beside him had fallen asleep, and her head had slowly dipped lower until she was practically lying against him. She snorted, muttered something and blinked. Glaring at him, she straightened, clutching her bayong a little tighter, then drifted back to sleep.
He shrugged and went back to watching the scenery fly past the window of the bus. The last town had dwindled to less than a handful of houses flung here and there, with wide expanses of rice fields and trees in between, set against the backdrop of the shadowy mountains of the north. The roads were still bad, and every now and then the bus would lurch over a pothole or two. Thankfully there was no dust. It had rained a few hours before, and the air was cool and fragrant with the scent of damp grass and wet earth.
There were a few more houses now since he left for Manila, but other than that nothing much had changed. He could almost imagine he was ten years younger and leaving home for the first time, saying goodbye to each tree and mountain and rice field that marked the end of his childhood. Except for the fact that this time he was heading toward home instead of away from it, everything looked the way it was before.
“They’ve stopped time in Catalina,” his brother Ponciano had said in disgust when he came back from his last trip home. After discharging his brotherly duty of reminding Aurelio to go visit their parents at least once in his miserable life, Ponciano had little else to say. Erlinda had given birth to her sixth child and showed no signs of letting up anytime soon. Manong Luisito had been promoted to assistant superintendent in the provincial capital. And Catalina was still the same sleepy town of Catalina.
Aurelio had muttered the same old excuses: he had too much to do at the government bureau where he worked, and he was still trying to pay off the debt he owed various aunts and uncles who’d helped finance his college education. Ponciano grunted his disapproval but it was his wife Marieta who said something that made him pause. “She’s gone back home, you know. In case you’re interested.”
Aurelio looked at her. She was fussing with the food on the table, but a smile was twitching in the corners of her mouth. “Who’s gone back home?” he asked evenly.
“Why, Narcisa, your childhood friend. She’s come back from her aunt’s family in the south. You should go see her. They say she’s grown into a beauty.”
Aurelio sat quite still. Narcisa was back. The last time he’d seen her, she was sticking her head out the window of a bus waving at him and wiping away tears, before her aunt tugged her back inside. He thought he waved back, but he didn’t remember. He left for Manila shortly thereafter.
“I heard you two were something like heroes back in the war,” Marieta went on. “Your parents told me about it. You’d gone back to rescue the old priest even though there were Japanese soldiers everywhere. That was very brave you.”
Brave? Aurelio wanted to laugh. He’d been terrified, not brave, and if he had known beforehand what would happen, he wouldn’t have gone rushing off into a burning church crawling with enemy soldiers. Brave was Narcisa and the way she faced down the Japs, a ragged little girl with the bearing of a queen. But not him.
“Strange though that they never found the bells,” Marieta murmured. Ponciano, who had never been known for his verbosity, grunted his opinion.
They never did find the bells. Aurelio stared out the window of the bus, remembering. In the morning, the soldiers were gone, following Yamashita’s Army to Cagayan and hustled along by the drone of American fighter planes overhead. Tatang and the others were frantic by the time the two of them were found, asleep in each other’s arms in a burrow among the bushes beside the church. They told their story: how the Japs were looking for the bells, which had mysteriously disappeared only to ring as though they had never vanished. And how the soldiers had left town as soon as the bells stopped ringing. Aurelio didn’t know how much his parents and the townsfolk believed, but this much was true: the bells were gone, and they were heard long after they had disappeared.
Nobody could explain it, least of all himself. He’d spent days searching for the bells, with Narcisa trailing unhappily after him. An examination of the tower offered no clues. There were no breaks or cracks to indicate that the bells had fallen, and even the ropes were untouched. It was as if the bells had never existed. After weeks of fruitless searching, he gave up in disgust, and glared at Narcisa when she suggested that maybe what she said was true, that the bells were buried in the ground. It was a tribute to how obsessed he was when he took to digging around the back of the church, just in case.
He never spoke about the time when she confronted the Japs. For her part, she acted as though it never happened. But sometimes when he looked at her, he thought he could see the truth staring back at him. And the truth was he was a failure. He couldn’t save Padre Simon, and he couldn’t protect Narcisa. Narcisa had had to protect him. The memories of that morning and the sadness he’d sometimes see in her eyes made him crumple inside. They never spoke of it but it was there, standing between them like a glass wall, unseen but felt.
He blinked when he realized that the bus had stopped. Muttering “pardon me”, he stumbled out of his seat and grabbed his bags, earning another glare from the woman beside him. The bus drove away as soon as he stepped out, leaving him standing alone on the wide, dusty road that led toward Catalina.
He hefted his bags and began to walk. Almost immediately, he could see that his brother was right. Some of the houses that had been burned were rebuilt, and the old school building was patched up here and there, but it was still the same old Catalina. The years fell away, and once again he was wearing a too-big shirt and too-small short pants, on his way to the store or to school. He himself must have changed a lot, because the townsfolk merely greeted him as they would a stranger, with no trace of recognition. Halfway toward his house, a little boy spotted him and shouted, “Tio Aurelio!”
He grinned, and the townsfolk, realizing who he was, craned their necks to get second look. The boy was joined by four other children, and soon he was surrounded by his nieces and nephews, followed by his sister Erlinda and her husband, then Tatang and Nanang. They greeted him with smiles and tears, dragging him into the house to swamp him with demands to tell them all about his life in Manila. By the time evening fell, the house was full of people who knew him when he was a child and who had heard of his “heroic” deed. To his disappointment, he didn’t see her among the guests.
It was still dark when he woke up the next morning. He lay on the banig and stared up at the ceiling, wondering what woke him up. All around him, children lay side by side snoring quietly. Unable to fall asleep again, he got up, splashed water on his face, and on a whim decided to take a stroll through the town.
It was the deepest part of night, just before dawn. The houses lay like shapeless shadows in the chilly air, and part of him wondered what on earth he could see of the town at this ungodly hour. He stopped when he came to the low brick building with the twin flagpoles standing as sentinels. This time, there was only one flag hoisted on the flagpole, but for a moment he saw it again as it was ten years ago. He realized that he had retraced the path he took when he came searching for Narcisa, and it was around the same time in the morning, too. He shrugged and headed toward the old church, amused at his sentimental foolishness.
Padre Simon’s house had never been rebuilt. Plants and vines grew all over the place, but he could still see the charred walls and the broken doorway. The rose garden was gone, choked off by weeds. Aurelio stared at the remains of the old priest’s house and welcomed the old sorrow like a long-lost friend. Then he wandered toward the front of the church, with the half-formed idea of checking the bell tower. Just in case.
Then he noticed something new. A tree grew where there used to be none, young and spindly but tall. It stood beside the tower with an air of welcome, stretching out its branches as far as it could go like arms open in invitation. The leaves were broad and smooth, touching the wall of the tower delicately. Flower buds gleamed like pale dots across branches. Then something moved underneath the tree, and he realized that he wasn’t alone.
“It’s a Malay rose apple tree,” said a woman’s voice. “There was one near my aunt’s house, too.”
He stopped when she stepped away from the shadows and smiled at him. Her hair fell past her shoulders, like black ink spilled across her shawl. Her hands were clasped demurely in front of her skirt, white and graceful. Her teeth flashed when her smile widened, and her eyes twinkled with humor in her elfin face. “What’s the matter, Eliong? You’ve never seen a macopa before?”
“I, uh—“ he stammered, then gathered his scattered wits. “Of course I have. We have trees like this in Manila, too. It’s just that I don’t remember seeing one here at the church.”
Narcisa glanced up at the tree. “There wasn’t one before you left. I brought one from the south with me, to plant here at the very same spot where this tree is growing. Are you still searching for the bells, Eliong? Is that why you’re here?”
She laughed a little when he continued to stare at her. “It’s been years since you came home. People have been wondering about you. Don’t forget, you’re a hero around these parts.”
He narrowed his eyes, thinking that she was making fun of him. “Don’t give me that. It was you who rescued me from the Japs while I stood there and let them slap me around. I was too much of a coward to protect you or Padre Simon. You’re the heroic one, not me, and you know it,” he said angrily.
“Is that why you never came back to Catalina? Because you think you’re a coward?” she asked softly.
He looked away, regretting his outburst. “I don’t know. Maybe I just wanted to get away. Nothing ever happens here, and Manila seemed the best place to go.”
They stood together in silence, and he berated himself for saying too much. He hadn’t seen her in ten years, and then he just went and tossed that childish garbage in her face. Now she was going to think he hadn’t grown up one bit. He glanced at her from the corner of his eye, but she wasn’t looking at him. She was gazing up at the tree with an odd expression, and he was struck anew at how beautiful she was. He opened his mouth to tell her, then closed it again, blushing.
She bent down and picked something up from the ground. She held out her hand to show him. A tiny white flower from the tree lay in her palm. “You know something? I don’t know where this tree came from. When I came to plant my tree, I found this growing right here. Nobody could tell me anything about it, only that it started to grow the year after you left. I had to plant my tree beside our old house instead. Isn’t that strange?”
“Maybe somebody else planted it. Or a seed had fallen here by accident,” he offered, not really caring about the tree.
She gave him a knowing look. “Probably. Still, it seems familiar to me, somehow. Do you remember the story I told you about the village that was raided by pirates?”
He remembered. “The bells disappeared, and they became trees.”
“Rose apple trees. Like this one.” She smiled at him, then looked up at the tree again. “You did save me, you know,” she said quietly. “I was so terrified, and so very foolish. I ran to the church to save the bells. I wanted so much to be just like you, faithful and responsible and able to keep a promise no matter what. But the bells were gone. Then the soldiers came and began to destroy the church. I hid in the choir loft, too scared to move even when they burned Tio Simon’s house down. They came looking for the bells. They wanted to ring them just for fun, I think, but maybe all they wanted were trophies of war. But the bells were gone. I ran down while they were in the tower and hid behind one of the plaster saints. Then you came.” She glanced at him from the corner of her eye. “You burst in looking like hell, all dirty and sweaty and tearstained. You were shouting my name. It was the most unforgettable sight I’d ever seen.”
He snorted at that, but ended up smiling with her anyway. “I remembered the soldiers, but it was too late to warn you,” she went on. “Then they began to hit you, and every time they slapped you, it felt as if they’d slapped me as well. I was too afraid to do anything. Then suddenly, I felt as if somebody was standing beside me, somebody who would protect us. I stopped being scared, at least for a moment. And I knew what I had to do.”
She stopped, because he knew the rest of the story. He stared at her, not knowing whether to thank her or walk away or pull her into his arms and never let her go. She must have read his confusion, because she looked away again. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it if you weren’t there. I’d have been killed, I guess. But you came. You tried to save Padre Simon, and you tried to save me. Nanang told me the story. You came for me. You were supposed to be safe with your family, but you came for me anyway. You were as scared as I was, but still you came. If that wasn’t heroic, then I don’t know what is.
“You looked so hard for the missing bells, and I think I know why. You didn’t believe that you did anything heroic, so you wanted another chance to prove yourself by finding the bells. It hurt that you thought so little of the fact that you saved my life, but I understand why you needed to find the bells.” She turned to face him fully, and took his hand in hers. “I’ve always believed in you, Eliong. Even when you’d stopped believing in yourself and wanted only to escape, I believed in you. If I could give you something in return for saving my life, I’d give you the chance to believe in yourself again.”
She reached into her pocket, pulled something out, and pressed the object into his palm, closing his fingers around it. He looked at the object in his hand. It was a small, bell-shaped fruit, gleaming deep pinkish-red even in the grayish light of dawn. He held the fruit aloft between his thumb and his finger, and eyed it doubtfully. “What’s this?”
She laughed at his expression. “It’s a macopa fruit. I’ve finally fulfilled the second promise I made to you. Remember? I promised to show you what a macopa is. It’s only right that the guardian of bells should give you your first rose apple in Catalina. And that’s my third promise fulfilled,” she added playfully.
Aurelio gave her a puzzled look. “I know about the second and third promise. What’s the first?”
She merely smiled. When he realized that he would get no answer from her, he eyed the fruit some more, then slowly bit into it. It was sweet and juicy, and he soon polished it off, to Narcisa’s delight. She plucked more of the red fruits, now visible in the morning light, and proceeded to fill his arms with them with the same enthusiasm she’d had as a child. When the fruits tumbled out of his arms, she pulled off her shawl and wrapped them in it, tying it into a bundle. He picked fruits off the ground and laughed with her, feeling lightheaded and happy in a way he hadn’t felt in years. Ten years, to be exact.
“It’s morning, Eliong,” she cried, swinging the bundle on one arm and grabbing his hand to pull him into the church. “Let’s ring the bells and wake up the town!”
“They have new church bells now?” he asked, trying to keep up with her and grinning at the sacristan who gaped at them in surprise as they barreled past him into the bell tower.
Narcisa handed him one of the ropes and twined her arms around the other ropes, just as he’d taught her long ago. “Yes,” she said, giving him a conspiratorial grin, “but these don’t sound as good as Catalina’s bells.”
They tugged on the ropes and the bells rang, deep, majestic music that reverberated from the tower and flowed like the waves of the ocean over the town. Narcisa laughed joyfully as she rang the bells, and Aurelio found himself agreeing with her that the sound of the new bells weren’t as lovely as Catalina’s bells. The sound wasn’t half as lovely as the sound of Narcisa’s laughter, either.
The bells rang forever, echoing faintly in the wind, ringing long after they stopped pulling at the ropes, long after the bells stopped moving. And Aurelio found that he believed in that, too.