Sunday, November 11, 2007

The General’s Wife (fiction)


(Second sequel to The Escrayola Sculptor’s Daughter)

Dolores dela Cruz was busy preparing the hall beside the rectory of the Immaculate Conception, the parish church of the Arranque II Subdivision. The place was to be used for a welcome lunch for the Bishop of Bacarra who was dropping by their parish church on the way to the Archbishop’s Palace. He would be visiting Cardinal Santos, a close friend and mentor during his days as the Cardinal’s assistant parish priest in Kabangkalan some years ago. Father Mercado, the parish priest of the Immaculate Conception Church was the prodigy of Bishop of Bacarra. The bishop took notice of the young postulant in San Carlos Seminary where the then Raulito Mercado excelled in his theological studies and exhibited leadership traits. The bishop was hopeful that someday these admirable qualities would propel him to more senior positions in the hierarchy of the clergy. Every time the bishop went down to Manila he would visit Father Mercado’s parish just to see how the young priest was coming along. The bishop was instrumental in having him placed in the Immaculate Conception Church. It was convenient for him that his favorite aunt lived in the nearby subdivision covered by the parish. The bishop’s visit created a stir among the CWL members. It was seldom that a high ranking church official would visit their parish and everybody was enthusiastic to meet and be blessed by the prelate.

Dolores was the head of the CWL and was excited to be assigned by Father Mercado to take care of the preparations for the bishop’s visit. The excitement that Dolores felt was more than just for the prospect of meeting an eminent church leader. She was eager to be in good graces with the bishop. Dolores knew that the bishop was very close to the cardinal and she so wanted to be in the exclusive coterie of the ladies who served at the Archbishop’s Palace. The women who served in this group were from prominent families and from the elite of the military. She would have wanted to be in the group who traveled with the Cardinal on his sojourns to the Vatican, Holy Land visits and other pilgrimages. She was preparing for the time that her husband would be promoted to a five star general and to belong to this select ladies’ corps would be an affirmation of their having come into prominence in the New Society. The bishop could be her opportunity to gain access to this privileged group.She knew that the bishop was a Marian devotee. A day before the visit she had commissioned, more or less coerced with monetary enticement and an implacable attitude, a sculptor to create a bust of the Virgin Mary to give as a gift to the visiting dignitary. She paid a substantial amount of money to Minyong Tengco for the bust and the sculptor did not fail her. The creation was truly a remarkable one, a unique original which did not resemble any of the classic poses of the Virgin Mary in traditional sculptural art. The bust which Dolores insisted on after seeing it in sculptor’s shelves was a sculpture of the artist’s daughter, Clara. It only needed touches of color to be transformed into a bust of the Virgin Mary. She was certain that by ingratiating herself with the bishop he would not refuse a little favor of endorsing her to the cardinal to join the Archbishop’s Palace ladies circle. She was that kind of a woman, she would go to lengths just so she could get what she wanted. Even as a school girl Dolores was a determined person and usually prevailed over all odds and discouragements.

At sometime in the past
***Cadet Domingo dela Cruz didn’t stand a chance. They met when Dolores was home for the summer on her fourth year as a student at the Maryknoll College pursuing a Bachelors degree in Psychology. When he was introduced to her she liked what she saw and what ensued was as inevitable and unstoppable as an avalanche from Mt. Santo Tomas. Before she married the now three star General Domingo de la Cruz, Dolores Tal-eg was the daughter of Congressman Emilio Tal-eg, a prominent Ifugao. She had good looks which she took from her mother who was a lowlander Chinese mestiza from La Union. She was a little heavy of lower extremities and had slightly thick lips as is typical of the mountain maidens. What stood out was her flawless complexion. She had fair skin which brought out her rosy cheeks to advantage and unlike most highland maidens she was of above average height, these were physical characteristics that her mother had which made up for the unflattering aspects of the Igorot physique. Her father was the son of an Igorot chieftain who was educated by the American missionaries. He went to UP Los Banos to take up a course in agriculture which he put to good use in the ancestral lands of the mountain tribes owned by her father by virtue of his being the son of the chieftain. He later turned politician at the instigation of a fraternity brother and friend from school days who rose up in power to become the President of the republic and later supreme and unopposed head of sixty million Filipinos. They were introduced by a cousin of Dolores who was at the Philippine Military Academy and a classmate of Omeng de la Cruz. After meeting Dolores, that summer Omeng decided to stay in Baguio rather than go home to Tacloban for the school break. There is something with the military boys which make them treat with urgency their matrimonial intentions. It must be an attitude that gets developed by a high risk profession or perhaps being cooped up in an all male institution for years make them overly exuberant and enthusiastic to put their manhood to practice upon entry into the less disciplined life outside the hallowed halls of the academy. In a whirlwind fashion Omeng won her heart and by the end of that summer they got married. Things happened without much effort from Omeng. Dolores had designed it in such a way that Omeng would seem to have staged it all. It is very much like the adage “ a man goes after a woman until she catches him”. Dolores went down to Manila to finish her studies which only had a semester to go and Omeng completed his engineering degree at the academy on the same year.***

“Hoy! Mrs. Cantida, can you please tell the other ladies to come to the hall. We expect the bishop anytime now.” In her growing excitement Dolores called Caring in her formal name. Caring was her “kumare” and best friend in the neighborhood whom she would always address fondly by her nickname or by some other terms of endearment. Earlier she had a pedestal from her house brought in to the rectory so that she could display the bust of the Virgin Mary prominently and from a vantage point. She planned on putting some theatrics into the unveiling of her gift to impress the bishop but thought that it might be over done. She had it wrapped in a satiny gold cloth. It had golden tassels which when pulled would drop the covering cloth to slide sinuously on to the base of the pedestal. Not quite dramatic but solemn and appropriate for the occasion.

She was flitting from dining table to the pedestal then to the entrance to peek at the reception area. She moved in this triangular blocking scheme for almost thirty minutes. The dining table was covered in white table cloth and she checked if the nameplates were in their right places, seeing to it that her place beside the bishop has been reserved for her, at the same time she would lean over where the cook was chopping the lechon to make sure that the lechon pieces were uniformedly cut into small bite size squares and shooing away a lone fly that was teasingly alighting from the lengua to the karekare to the bagoong over and over. She would then go to the head table and check again the line of sight from the bishop’s seat to the pedestal to ensure that nothing blocked the view. As if satisfied with her inspections she would hurriedly go the door to see what was happening at the entrance were most of the CWL ladies were jostling each other for better positions. As if in a rut, she must have done this sequence of movements for about five times before she plopped carelessly into one of the chairs causing the white cover to slip revealing the dirty and cracked plastic chair underneath. She was visibly peeved by the way the other ladies were behaving. They were all clustered at the entrance speculating where the bishop would pass so that they will be in the frontline to greet him upon arrival. The day before they went into a mini rehearsal and agreed on were each one’s position should be in the reception line.“My goodness, how easily they slide back to their crude rural ways. This is shameful” she muttered in exasperation. By herself, it would be impossible to pull all these ladies to the agreed reception line.

“Caring! Caring! Mrs. Cantida! Where is Father Mercado? We need him to restore order to that mob at the entrance.” She just sat there despairing. It was useless for her to go to the ladies’ throng and herd them by the hall to make the greetings and the introductions in a civilized fashion.“He is here! He’s here!, He has arrived!” Dolores could hear the voices coming from the entrance and the sounds were pushing out of a droning noise growing to a resonant crescendo.Auring Rosales, who was the aunt of Father Mercado had the bishop by the arm as she guided him through the jostling rows of overly dressed and overly perfumed females who were pressing forward to get a chance to kiss the bishop’s ring. Adroitly, Auring Rosales steered the bishop to the first door leading to the hall. This was to the consternation of the ladies who were waiting for the bishop to pass in front of them by the second and third doors to the hall. As this happened the ladies started moving in to the hall and were in a rush to get to the choice seats in the dining table set up. Auring Rosales who held the bishop captive arm in arm led him to the main table and sat down beside him disregarding the nameplates. The other seats in proximity to the bishop’s were hastily filled up.Dolores muttered a harsh sounding phrase which fortunately was in Ifugao. It could very well have been a not so nice invective addressed to the CWL ladies who turned into an unruly gaggle of fishwives. She was too infuriated and too tired to do any further protests. She did not move from where she sat and just watched the bedlam settle down. Father Mercado soon followed and the lady seated beside the bishop, not Auring, gave up her seat for the parish priest.

Lunch was served immediately. Father Mercado said that the bishop cannot stay very long because of an appointment in the Archbishop’s Palace to see Cardinal Santos. Almost at the end of the lunch Father Mercado stood up and went to where Dolores was seated and invited her to crossover to where the bishop was seated. She was forlorn and dejected from what has earlier transpired and the good priest must have read it in her eyes. Dolores perked up with the suggestion to go over to the bishop and with renewed spirit stood up, smoothened the front of her dress and primped up her forelocks. “Bishop, this is Mrs. Dolores dela Cruz, the head of our local CWL chapter.”“Oh yes, Mrs. Dela Cruz, Mrs. Rosales here was telling me how very helpful you were in assisting her do all the preparations for this lunch” said the bishop. “What a thick faced bitch!” she thought and then cast a sidelong sharp glance towards Auring Rosales who, sensing a wrathful welling up, quickly excused herself and moved out of the table. Dolores was careful not to reveal her displeasure to what the bishop just said and to maintain her poise she reached out for the bishop’s ringed hand in the expected gesture of kissing the ring. “We have been preparing for this occasion for a week now. I hope his holiness was pleased with our little get together here.” The bishop was being distracted by the ladies who were still inching in towards him and could not respond to what Dolores said. Sensing that she may lose the attention of the bishop she quickly muttered. “I have brought you a gift father. I know that you are a Marian devotee so I commissioned this very good sculptor in our area to do an original sculpture of the Virgin Mary.” The bishop didn’t seem to understand what she said with the crowding and chatter of the ladies who have now encircled the bishop and herself. Almost frantic now, she was vigorously signaling her friend Caring Cantida to unveil the bust which was at the corner of the hall. Caring was quick to respond and pulled the tassel to reveal the bust. The expected drama of the revelation was lost in the frenzy and the bust of the Virgin Mary was now bared but with no one taking notice.She again said almost half shouting, “Father, that bust of the Virgin Mary, atop the pedestal in the corner is my gift to you. You can take it with you father.”“Thank you, thank you,” he said. Dolores wasn’t sure the thanks were addressed to her or to the milling ladies around them. “I really have to rush. I am running late for my appointment with the cardinal. I will try to catch up with all of you some other time. You are all very kind, Salamat, maraming salamat.” As he said this he was quickly whisked away from the crowd by Father Mercado and a burly man who presumably was the bishop’s driver and bodyguard. Soon after the bishop’s departure the ladies started to leave and in less than ten minutes Dolores found herself alone in the dining hall except for the waiters of the catering service who were beginning clean up the tables. Two rectory staffers went in and supervised the putting together of the leftovers into small plastic bags. She looked at the bust of the Virgin Mary and wondered why the bishop did not even bother taking a second look. Maybe the bishop was in a real hurry and would come back for the bust later, maybe from the Archbishop’s Palace he would pass for it before going back to Bacarra.

Days, weeks, months passed and the bust of the Virgin Mary was still there. Every time she was in the church she would take a peek at the rectory hoping to find the pedestal empty. It would always be there as if mocking her and the feeling of frustration and disappointment would get etched deeper each time she saw the bust. It singed away at her faith like etching acid on copper sheets until it turned brittle and broke. Finally she decided to take it out of the rectory and bring the bust of the Virgin Mary home. She did not even bother to tell Father Mercado about it. The priest was surprised at the absence of the bust at the hall. It also signaled the infrequency of Dolores’ presence in church and at the CWL meetings. Because of her continued absence in CWL meetings she was replaced by Auring Rosales who was designated as officer in charge until such time Dolores could come back from her hiatus.

She was not to come back.

Her new found preoccupation was joining Imelda’s Blue Ladies. The Blue Ladies were engaged in numerous projects all of which were transformed into media events by the obsequious press and the many photo ops socials that the Imelda the Ineffable organized. Her new found milieu was over flowing with raucous fun and heady excitement. Majority of the members of this exclusive group was from the wives of the generals and the wives of crony businessmen of Marcos. The wives of the generals during the Marcos regime enjoyed power and privilege that other ladies’ circles in past administrations never experienced. There were so many civic events started by the Fabulous Imelda and the generals’ wives were always tapped to help her in these activities. In addition to the socials there were the various artistic to-dos. Inauguration of art exhibits, Bolshoi Ballet at the CCP, and of course the mahjong sessions where they gambled away hundreds of thousands of pesos and the occasional parties with macho dancers that some of the naughty wives organized. Such was the routine that the wives of the powerful were living. It somehow compensated for the seeming abandonment of the familial abode that their husbands have committed in the service of the regime. The womanizing of the generals were de rigueur and nonchalantly talked about among the wives and it seemed that all the luxuries, the opulence, the decadent lifestyles were welcomed anesthetics to numb the hurt that they felt for all the inconstancies and the infidelities of their callous husbands. The supreme leader himself had a penchant for pretty ladies and he sort of encouraged this among his generals as some macho badge of belongingness in to their exclusive fraternal gang. Because of the absolute power that the military had over the citizenry quite a few of the generals had turned into ruthless ogres and abused their powers with the same rapacity that they abused women and girls of all ages that caught their fancy. Who was to complain? These people were enemies of the state. These were rebels waiting for the opportunity to wreak havoc on the establishment. The regime was just protecting its existence.

It was not what one would expect of Omeng dela Cruz. As a cadet he was truly a soldier’s soldier. All through his schooling he took to heart the noble obligations inculcated by the academy on all their soldier aspirants. Honor and service to country...words to live by and die for. No sooner than he experienced his first major promotion, the idealism that he brought with him into the service was cast aside. It was an undeserved promotion brought about by his being a province mate of the First Lady. He allowed himself to benefit from this dishonorable act, a first among many to follow which he did not have the moral fortitude to refuse.

At sometime in the past…
***General Domingo de la Cruz was from Tacloban, Leyte. He enjoyed the patronage of her prominent province mate, Imelda the Magnificent, who handpicked him from the Presidential Security Guards to be her personal bodyguard at the start of the Marcos regime. He was not quite the baron of his graduating batch in the PMA of class ’60. He was at the bottom ten but not the “goat” of the class. His loyalty to the Beautiful One was rewarded by a promotion to a three star general position and as commander of the 4th army division stationed in Sta. Rosa, Laguna. Omeng is the military stereotype. He was of average height, broad shouldered, dark skinned and with eyes that lacked focus and gave the impression of shifting from one scene to another, as if holding everything in sight suspect. You could not call him handsome but he definitely had an animal allure, an over brimming macho eminence. The de la Cruz couple was twice blessed by the dual connections with the conjugal dictatorship as the Ferdie-Imelda tandem was called. Dolores’ father was a loyalist and a close Marcos ally, while Omeng enjoyed the trust of the First Lady, her province mate.***

About two years had passed since the fateful event of the bishop’s lunch. More than a year ago she had taken home the bust of the Virgin Mary. She had placed it in the altar area of the house together with the crucifixes, the Santo Ninos, the holy water bottles from Lourdes and the vial containing the rose petals form the miraculous Lady of Lipa. What used to be the most cared for place in the house has now gone into neglect. The icons were in need of dusting, the gold leaf on the image bases were beginning to crack into flaky pieces and the gossamer webs of the tiny house mites were laying claim to the hallowed space.The image of the Virgin Mary still bothered her. Though the snub she received from the visiting prelate was more than two years ago the hurt seemed to be as fresh as ever. All the disappointments and the disenchantment were renewed each time she sees the bust. It was unthinkable for anyone, even she, whose faith had already half gone could bear to throw away unceremoniously a sacred icon without the dread of divine retribution. Dolores was now used to being alone. Omeng was always in his post in Sta. Rosa Laguna. Despite nearness of his base camp Omeng preferred to stay there than be home. She went to parties alone, went to do civic work alone and went to the usual mahjong sessions alone with just the driver to take her around. They have been married for more than fifteen years. And in most of these years they had a blissful relationship despite their being childless. All these changed with the sudden upturn of Omeng’s career. He had a taste of power and he easily succumbed to the temptations that all of a sudden became accessible to him…all these without any accountability. She knew that sometime between her dalliance with the irresponsible lifestyle of the gay band of ladies and Omeng’s frequent no show at home, love, affection, respect and all that romantic rot got lost in the shuffle. Sure, she was bitter, but she was not blameless, too…and so she suffered it all with a stiff upper lip.

She reached home after a birthday bash which the wife of the Chief of Staff celebrated at the Coconut Palace. On the way up to the bedroom she passed through the altar area. Feeling a little woozy from the glass of champagne that she drank from the toast that was offered by one of the guests towards the end of the party she was groping for the banisters at the half light that was cast from the corner lamp. In an instant the bust of the Virgin Mary came into view and again all the negative feelings which accompanied this awareness surfaced as unwanted dregs from the past. It must have been the alcohol which heightened her feelings of anger and disgust. This time she thought that bust must go and she searched her mind for ways of disposing the icon in a manner that was not distasteful to her and to the now shadowy God who despite her lessened belief may still exact a fearsome vengeance.

Then an idea struck her. She will return the bust to Minyong Tengco. He was the escrayola sculptor whose livelihood was the making of escrayola pieces of bunny rabbits, piggy banks used as prizes at Ferias and religious icons. She remembered how reluctant Minyong was to part with the bust at the time she bought it from him. She was sure that the bust of the Virgin Mary would find a friendly home in Minyong’s house. Minyong and Clara, his retarded daughter will welcome the return of the bust into their care.

Dolores dela Cruz rattled the bolt of a rusty gate. She wasn’t sure if Minyong Tengco still lived in the same house that she last went to when she commissioned him to do the bust of the Virgin Mary. It took a while before somebody peered from the upper floor window.

A fat fiftyish woman who seemed gasping for breath and looking surly blurted “Who are you looking for? What do you want?”

Dolores recognized the familiar face of Minyong’s landlady. She attended mass in the parish church on Sundays.“Aling Epang, I’m Mrs. Dela Cruz from the church.”

She remembered her well as one who would go to the rectory to enlist for thanksgiving mentions, birthday greetings and prayers for the dead and seeking intercessions for her wishes.

“Does Minyong still stay here?”

“Still here, although he is out for days, sometimes … weeks, chasing Ferias for his bunnies and piggy banks I guess.”

“Do you expect him any time today or maybe within the week?”

“He might come today…it’s rent day you know. He has never been late with the rent. Wait awhile, he usually comes at this time of day”

“How is he…and Clara?”

“He seems fine now. He might have gotten over the tragedy that came to them about a year ago. Ayee! I shudder each time I think about what befell that girl”

“What happened? A sense of dark foreboding gripped her.

“Ayee…ayee! They found her body in a gorge somewhere in Santa Rosa near the rolling hills of the Eastgrove residential area. Raped and dumped like so many others, that was what they said. The body was half eaten by wild animals, presumably stray dogs…rotted and beyond recognition.”

“Have they caught the people behind this monstrous crime?” It flashed in her mind that Omeng can help since this is in his area of command.

“It’s useless…they said that it was the military who did this…you know, they round up suspected underground groups…just anybody…young boys and girls, women…innocent farm folks and most of the time those taken are never heard of again.”

She stood there, thoughtless for a while. Even if she hardly knew Clara she somehow had a tinge of caring and her instinct to help which was earlier stirred was now lost in the flurry of sordid images and speculations. She has heard of the military abuses before but they seemed to be in faraway places, in Mindanao…in Nueva Viscaya…but Santa Rosa? There were talks about Omeng that circulated among the military wives relayed in whispers. She made nothing out of this before as intrigues were prevalent within their circle. Then she thought, no, it couldn’t be. He is not that way. God forbid. Her face reddened as she felt a bloodrush on her cheeks and temple. She was unnerved by this revelation but quickly gathered her composure although she felt that Aling Epang might have noticed her abrupt silence.

“So, what now? What did Minyong do afterwards?”

“I don’t know, but here he comes now. Let him tell you the lurid details. I can’t talk about it anymore” she quickly went upstairs after having said this. Dolores was startled to see Minyong all of a sudden as he was coming from behind.

“Mrs. dela Cruz what brings you here?”

“It’s about the bust of the Virgin Mary that you made for me about two years ago.”

“So, what about it?”

“Ah…no, but first let me express my regrets to what happened to Clara” Dolores said as if in apology for a dread and a guilt that was needless as yet..

“Well that’s past. Nothing more I can do about it.”

“Have the authorities gone after the perpetrators of this ghastly deed? Have they caught up with them?” she was speaking in a guttural fashion and with a tremulous voice.

“No…nothing.”

“What have you done about it?” again with the same nervous tone she asked.

“What can I do? Would you know what to do?”

She sensed that Minyong’s terse replies were telling her to lay off the subject. Being sensitive to such social impasses Dolores quickly shifted to the topic of the statue of the Virgin Mary.

“I brought with me the bust that you did for me two years ago, the one that I was going to gift a visiting bishop with.”

“It’s still with you up to this time?”

“Well, he didn’t want it. I know that it was rather rude of him to have rejected the gift but that is how it was.”

“Is there anything wrong with it?”

“No…no…I don’t think so…I don’t know. I thought it was perfect but I suppose the bishop didn’t think so.”

“Well then, why bring it here?”“I wanted you and Clara to have it…seems too late for her though, but you might want it, more so now. It did look a lot like her and you know…” she was muttering seemingly mindful that she did not even have the right to suggest such things.

“Just leave it there by the door. Does guilt wash off easily?”, and as he said this he went up the stairs leading to the landing of the second floor.

“Aling Epang, the rent money is here”. The door quickly opened and he went inside leaving Dolores all alone by the rusty gate. Dolores was not given the chance to reply to what seemed to her was an accusatory question.

In a few seconds she called to her driver, James, to bring the statue and told him leave it by the door on the ground floor. Pfc. James Dag-ang was her father’s personal bodyguard who was on loan to her when threats to dela Cruz’s became more frequent. Congressman Tal-eg had entrusted James with the security of her daughter. She got into the car and with a strong tap on James’ shoulders told him to get her home as fast as possible.

Her mind was racing now. Could it be true? How dare he? When did he turn into such an unfeeling moster? Poor Clara, poor Minyong. How many times…when…? I do not know that side of him…no…no, God forbid. The questions and the sordid images kept on circling in her mind like a looped video tape recording. Her head was in a spin, near bursting and she rifled her handbag to get to her high blood pressure pills and her big bottle of valium and popped some to head off an imminent nervous breakdown. She got home in an almost catatonic state. She took more than her usual dose and was now negotiating giddily the flag stones on the walk going toward her door on pure reflex and instinct.

Back at the apartment Minyong peered down to the ground floor to see if Mrs.dela Cruz was still there while Epang was counting her money.

“All here”, she said. “Not that I wish to meddle in your affairs but why should Mrs. Dela Cruz be interested and even care about you and Clara? She is so uppity you know. What is she to you anyway?”

He looked at Aling Epang with disbelief and then into subtle disgust. With a slight shake of his head he turned his back and with a cursory bid of leave taking went downstairs leaving Aling Epang nonplussed in her chair.

The bust of the Virgin Mary was left leaning on the door to his place. With customary respect he picked up the icon and cradled it in his left arm and turned the doorknob. His eyeglasses misted from the steam of a suffused tear. Aware now of the privacy of his room he allowed the tear to drop. He closed the door noiselessly, mindful of not showing any emotive reaction to what just transpired. He was always careful about giving hints of his feelings or any telltale sign that would easily reveal his opinions and attitudes towards anything in general. This was a studied stance which he acquired and developed ever since he enlisted in the revolutionary forces of the underground. The traits of being innocuous and seemingly invisible were necessary in the clandestine trade he was now engaged in.

After several months of searching for her daughter all he accomplished was the accumulation of unverifiable facts linking the military to her disappearance. He thought that even if he was to get undeniable proof of the military’s involvement in this heinous crime there was nothing he could do to bring these people to justice. In his usual self Minyong is a peaceful man and was not capable of instant reactions to the vagaries of life whether willfully caused or just plain tough luck.

But he would not be passive.

Several years ago when his wife Maia left him for another man he was disconsolate for many weeks. While there were no open confrontations and scandalous recriminations he had the satisfaction of having the side show barker paramour of his wife fired from his job. The owner of the “carrera ng daga” stall where this guy worked was a long time buyer of his bunny rabbits and piggy banks. He commiserated with Minyong’s bad fortune and did what he had to do to help assuage the hurt of his friend and long time supplier. The last time he heard something about Maia she was a side show attraction in a Feria caravan after being abandoned by her jobless lover. That was an acceptable closure for Minyong.

In the case of Clara’s abuse and slaying he found a way of venting his anger and frustration against the military by joining the underground movement which at that time was gaining adherents as the abuses of the regime mounted. The underground found in him a useful field operative. To the military, he had a justifiable mobility not only in the urban areas but also in the provinces as he followed his clientele setting up Ferias in small cities and towns. His cute bunny rabbits and piggy banks abetted his crimes against the government by acting as couriers of messages and other materials that could be lodged in the hollow of his cheerful escrayola figurines. These were relayed to other operatives who would feign receiving them as prizes in the Feria game booths sympathetic to the underground cause.

The nerve of that woman to come here, he thought. Doesn’t she know that the lecherous monster of Santa Rosa is no other than her husband? The bust of the Virgin Mary was on his table. He contemplated the icon and what emerged and imposed itself in his consciousness was the innocent face of Clara pleading for a more definitive retribution than what he has already started. The rough wooden table with caked dirt and splotches of old paint on the surface seemed a heretical altar for someone so dearly beloved. In his mind he promised Clara a more virulent act of vengeance.

Then an idea struck him. It was so simple and so apparent that he was surprised at himself for not thinking of it sooner. Dolores dela Cruz coming to his house was heaven sent. He thought of her as someone she could manipulate to help him get Clara’s revenge. That night he could not get to sleep. Only the barking of Aling Epangs’s guard dog and the distant crowing of a rooster made him realize that he hadn’t slept a wink. His mind was working frenetically. There were so many ways he could take advantage of Dolores.

Dolores hobbled laboriously to stay on her feet while negotiating the flag stone lined path. She had a momentary clarity of mind when she espied the shiny red MG roadster of Omeng parked outside their garage. The last time he was home was more than a week ago he stayed for two days then went back to his camp. She didn’t even see him leave. Though heavily sedated she was startled to see the parked two-seater sports-car gleaming in the blinding sunlight and it caused her to miss a flagstone. Her semi high heeled shoes stepped on the edge of the granite twisting her left ankle and throwing her to the ground. Omeng was watching her from the second floor window and when he saw her fell he slowly went down to the front door and out to the porch. She had passed out and sprawled spread eagle on the grassy shoulder of the flagstone path. Omeng carried her to the living room sofa and tried to revive her by firm slaps on her cheeks and splashing cold water on her face. It was only when he saw her opened tote bag with the pills spilled out at the bottom that he suspected that she might have taken an overdose.

Amidst the spill there was an open plastic vial of Valium and ripped blister bags of Norvas. The spilt valium pills, tubes of cosmetics…rouges, lipsticks, and credit cards half covered the 9 millimeter Beretta that she asked from Omeng after a bomb blast at their gate about two years ago. Seeing this he was more annoyed and disgusted at the situation than being sorry for Dolores’ condition. Summoning his aide and the soldiers who were seated in an escort personnel carrier he ordered them to load the limp body to their vehicle. He instructed them to follow him as he drove towards the San Juan de Dios Hospital.They had to pump her stomach to wash out the offending chemicals from her system. She recovered consciousness towards early evening.

In the hospital room Omeng was seated on a chair beside the bed reading a newspaper. He was not aware that Dolores was already conscious. Dolores did not have any idea of what she would say to this man by her bedside. She feigned unconsciousness to spare her from having to say any thing to him and also to shake off the cobwebs in her head. She knew that some explanation have to be made for her having attempted something like this. Her mind did a double take…do I have to explain? She now had a different regard of the person by her side and for the first time she was wary of him.

It was nearly seven in the evening when two of her lady friends, the wives of General Palaban and General Dilig entered the room. Omeng stood up and greeted them and offered refreshments. They were not aware that Dolores was already awake.

“Dolores hasn’t regained consciousness since this morning. She fell and must have hit her head on the granite flagstone. The doctors said that she will be alright and is expected to wake by this evening.” Omeng was trying to cover all grounds of possible questions from the two ladies.

Luming Dilig said, “Ah, really? According to my driver who talked to Dolores’ driver this afternoon, she was taking medication in her car before…”

“True, true. Dolores as you know has this chronic hypertensive problem but she was not too religious in following the time and dosages of the prescriptions. There were even days she forgets to take it at all,” Omeng was quick to interject. “In the car she felt a splitting headache and her first impulse was to gulp down the necessary medicines. When she got out of the car she slipped on the flagstone walk and hit her head on the ground.”

“But…but…there seems to be no facial nor head scratches… contusions and…” Mrs. Palaban said as he found an opportunity to get into the exchanges edgewise.

“She fell on soft ground,” Omeng curtly cut her. “Maybe you ought to know better than to believe everything your driver picks up…that’s “chismis, you know…not nice.”

Mrs. Dilig felt stung by the straightforwardness and abruptness of Omeng’s words.“Really now, but what about the reports on the abuses that went on in Sta. Rosa, do you think I am not aware of that? I suppose they were chismis, too”, she was sorry for indiscreetness of the outburst. Realizing that reports like these were for the military officers’ eyes only she had to stop immediately.

Omeng could only grit his teeth. Nothing could be gained by a hysterical exchange of words with these bitchy women besides it was true that some sort of an inquiry was going on in Sta. Rosa. He checked himself. Both Mrs. Dilig and Omeng had reasons to end the conversation and what ensued was a long period of embarrassing silence but with a variety of nonverbal statements. Omeng paced the floor looking for the slightest excuse to move from the ante room to the toilet then back again by the bedside of Dolores while the ladies fidgeted, topped up their make-ups, looked at their watches…After sometime the repeated awkward movements became patently ridiculous.

“I think I better be going. My daughter is waiting for me at Divisoria…not safe to leave young girls in places like that nowadays…too many perverts running loose, you know. Anyway Dolores is still asleep…might come back later when she has regained consciousness. Liling, I will go ahead of you…Omeng don’t bother to see me to the door…” hastily beating a retreat towards the door as she said this.

“Wait…wait…I have to be going too. I remember that my appointment with Jun Encarnacion is at eight o’clock. Let’s come down together…o, Omeng, please tell Dolores that we came by,”

Omeng just stood there without saying the usual pleasantries. They were already at the door even before Mrs. Palaban could finish what she was saying. He was tempted to slam the door after them but thought otherwise because with nerves already frayed breaking the silence in the hospital would jar him.

When Dolores decided to end her pretended sleep Omeng was still visibly upset by the visit of the Mrs. Dilag and Mrs. Palaban. Dolores squinted to shake off her vision which was beclouded by having forcedly closed her eyes for hours. She was aware of the abbreviated visit of her friends and heard every incriminating word that transpired in the conversation.

She could live with the philandering of Omeng but this is unconscionable. That Omeng is the ogre of Santa Rosa has been confirmed by the conversation she heard in her feigned sleep. She would have wanted to be angry but instead she became scared. Omeng was the devil incarnate.

Omeng left for the Sta. Rosa camp the following day. He had arranged for two special nurses to be by her for twenty four hours and had deposited enough money with the hospital to take care of the bills upon Dolores’ release. During her convalescence she had time to think. The peace and calm that she felt when the overdose started to take effect beckoned alluringly. Doing the suicide again seemed easy. It was as if one had reached a threshold of the once tabooed act and had now become unflustered by it. But why punish myself, she thought. I am the aggrieved one. The image of her husband gloating at her funeral appalled her. She has to have the last laugh, she has to fight back and win decisively. I am a Tal-eg. Omeng, you cannot do this to me. In her mind she swore to her noble tribal ancestors and the family anitos that no one can trample on a Tal-eg.

Revenge and disenchantment are strong motives. Between Minyong’s intention of using Dolores to get back at the monster who wasted his daughter’s innocent life and Dolores’ desire to redress the many betrayals that Omeng had inflicted on her and his having metamorphosed into a despicable abomination easily converged to become a malevolent and hardened cabal…ah unholy pact.

It did not take long before Dolores and Omeng became intimate. This easily materialized as Dolores skillfully maneuvered it and because Omeng had meant for this to happen from the start. There was comfort in their finding solace and consolation from one another as wretched partners sharing life’s vagaries. Their emotional and physical needs neatly dovetailed and they rushed headlong into this illicit communion without hesitation. The consummation of their love act was satisfying perhaps not so much sensually but because of the perverted pleasure of triumph and fulfillment of getting back at a common deeply hated enemy. Each time she surrendered herself to Minyong she would picture Omeng as a pathetic spectator by the bedside while she put on a show of exaggerated pleasure while mockingly leering at him. For Minyong, his manliness seemed to be restored and reinforced with each forceful thrust during the forbidden act as if each one was a blow struck in anger and in sweet revenge. It must have felt strange for anyone to put ignoble motives to such a basic human want. It was a defilement of a beautiful expression of an honest and natural emotion, but both did not have qualms for the transgressions they have committed.

In time he divulged to Dolores his affiliation to the underground and easily recruited her into the group. With her as an ally Minyong felt that he could be much more effective in pursuing the underground’s cause and more importantly, he can now penetrate the security cordon that protected Omeng dela Cruz. Omeng’s assassination was the ultimate revenge. In Dolores he found an access point, a facility that would help in completing his mission.

Dolores was an asset to the underground effort. She was able to fish for information from the wives of the other generals knowing that they have more than cursory information. Wives of the military, out of jealousy and other rationalized justifications peek into the portfolios of their husbands to find classified and privilege information feeling that knowing these gave them an edge, a semblance of control over their husbands. These could also be used as leverage against them if ever necessary in the future. Dolores, on the few occasions that Omeng was home would ferret out information from casual conversations with him and like the other wives would surreptitiously go over mission orders, order of battle lists, schedule of forays, shipments of armaments and sometimes direct orders from the commander in chief himself. He would never have suspected that Dolores would be interested in such things.

Messages and documents would be smuggled to receiving stations in the towns in the rural areas then relayed on to rebel bases in the mountain fastnesses. The escrayola bunnies and piggy banks were used to hold the clandestine items in their hollows. They were relayed to couriers of the underground as prizes in the game booths in the Ferias. It was difficult for the military to trace the security leakages. The information being fed to the underground was coming from various sources. They could not establish a pattern as to the sourcing, the category of the information and the geographical area of command since the information were picked up from the wives of generals in different branches of the armed forces.

It was the feast of San Juan de Bautista in Batangas. In a Feria set up for the fiesta. Sgt. Pedro Dipasupil was on his first day of furlough and was wandering around the fairgrounds that evening. He was to leave for Manila in the morning for a week’s vacation. It was the eve of the fiesta and the fairgrounds was teeming with boisterous children and revelers who were enjoying the festive ambience created by the spinning lights of the ferris wheel, the caterpillar ride’s serpentine glow and the occasional illumination of fireworks in skybursts. Passing through the game galleries he was naturally attracted to the shooting gallery being a bemedalled marksman in the second infantry division of the Philippine Army.

The gallery was no match against his skills. Lead pigeon after lead pigeon fell. After winning two games he chose a bunny rabbit bank and a piggy bank figurines as prizes. They were good “pasalubongs” for his two young daughters when he gets home in the morrow. As fate would have it, the piggy bank broke spilling the clandestine documents that were to be relayed to the underground. It was a fight between his two daughters that led to the discovery of the cartoon conduit. Both daughters wanted the piggy bank more than the bunny one and in the tussle that ensued piggy ended up as hundreds of escrayola shards on the cement floor. Sgt. Pedro Dipasupil, like the loyal soldier of the regime that he was broke his furlough and took the earliest bus to Batangas to report the incident to his superiors.

In time the escrayola pieces was traced to Minyong but not before the maiming of about half a dozen men who were ruthlessly tortured to extract the information. Minyong was grilled and tortured then grilled, tortured all over again until he finally broke and confessed to his involvement in the underground movement. It must have been an agonizing ordeal that he had undergone to have him reveal his indiscretion with Dolores dela Cruz and the role that Dolores played in the espionage network. The officer who grilled Minyong left him looking like a crumpled foil and hardly breathing. He did not order him executed thinking that his commander might have further use for the almost lifeless carcass of Minyong not so much for extracting more information, for he has done an efficient job of that, but more for macho settling of scores from his superior whose manhood had been mocked.Minyong was sent to the camp clinic where he was to be resuscitated.

When Dolores came home that evening she saw the bright red MG roadster parked outside the house. Usually Omeng would park inside the yard just in front of the garage but it seemed that he was not going to stay long and was in a hurry to go somewhere else. Dolores felt something was afoot. She told James not to go home yet since she might need him later. Her experience in the underground developed her awareness of irregularities and odd situations, quick to read meanings to them and be suspicions almost to the point of paranoia. Instinctively she slid her hand on the side of her tote bag feeling out the bulge of her trusty Beretta.

“Omeng. I didn’t expect you to be home today.”
“Where you expecting somebody else?” and with that he let loose a strong box on her ears which sent her reeling on the floor. She could hardly hear what Omeng was ranting about as the pain in her inner ear was a stabbing one.

“Son of a….! How dare you humiliate me…you a rebel and a whore to that pathetic sculptor?...okay so you want to be with that miserable beggar. When I’m finished with you I will send your body to the camp so that you can have a final tryst with whatever is left of him.”

He kicked her in the mouth and got down to grab her by the collar of her dress and in a paroxysm of rage slapped her with closed fist repeatedly. The big beastly hands of Omeng struck in senseless abandon and each clobber made her head swing to one side then to the other. Blood was oozing out of her cracked lips and she felt that her consciousness will soon abandon her with the incessant buffeting of those powerful fists on her face. She reached for her gun inside her tote bag and fired at the dark frantic blur on top of her. It was a palpable hit. She couldn’t miss at such a close range. The huge mass of flesh straightened up as if to deliver another blow when she fired two successive shots one hitting the neck and the other the right eye and he was once again on top of her but now almost inert except for the quivering arms and legs in a death spasm. She pushed the heavy bulk that pinned her on the floor and rushed out to the door then ran to her car.

“What happened ma’am? You are bloodied all over…what happened?”

“We were ambushed inside the house by assassins. General dela Cruz has been shot. Drive…drive quickly!”

“Where to, ma’am?”

“To the camp…quickly!”

Inside the hurtling car her mind was galloping and flitting from one scenario to another about the possible situations Minyong would be in. All she knows is that that both she and Minyong have been found out and from what Omeng said Minyong must have been tortured to extract a confession but still alive. Where would they keep him? Would the officers in the camp be already on the alert? She had a hunch that Omeng would have kept this a secret as yet. She knew that he would be hesitant to readily reveal to others the fact that it was his wife who was the security leak and even more shameful was the emasculating fact that he was his being cuckolded.

She tried to clean up her bloodied dress with “wipes” wet towels that she always had in her car. The car floor was strewn with crimson streaks. The discarded “wipes” were all over the floor. Flashes of Omeng’s face with a deathly expression intruded her mind. She couldn’t believe the bizarre and surrealistic situation she was in. She shrugged off the thought and went back to thinking of what she would do once they hit camp. She eased into a jacket which was part of her survival reserves inside her car.She was relieved when they passed thru the main gate. The guard on duty even greeted her a good evening and with the obligatory hand salute. Whew! she thought…okay so far. She was correct in thinking that Minyong would have been brought to the camp clinic. The soldier who brought Minyong to the clinic was not aware of Dolores involvement.

Torture victims being brought to the clinic was a frequent occurrence and Minyong was no different from the others. Because of their conditions after the intense grilling they were considered low security risk prisoners who were not capable of escaping from their sick beds for invariably the prisoners were too battered that even crawling was something they could not manage.

Inside the clinic Dolores asked for the nurse on duty and inquired if there was an Herminio Tengco being treated in the clinic.

“I’m sorry Mrs. Dela Cruz but most of those brought in are not registered and they would only have numbers…no names.” The nurse on duty recognized that this was the camp boss’ wife and began to be solicitous. “If only you could recognize the person you are looking for I can accompany you inside. Why you look like you need treatment yourself.”

Ignoring the last remark Dolores said without hesitation “Let’s go.”

Inside a dimly lit ward a row of cots were arranged as in herring bone pattern row on row. The smell of fresh blood and antiseptic reeked in the air. Most of the men on the cots were immobile and with faces partly hidden by bandages and some under bed sheets. Minyong was in the last row, presumably the latest interned patient as he was at the top row, at the head of the stacked patients as it were.Dolores told the nurse that she was bringing the patient with her and asked her to get some orderlies to help in carrying him out of the clinic.

“But ma’am, we couldn’t release anybody without the approval of the Officer In Charge. Can you just wait a few minutes. He just went to the canteen for dinner.”

“No, girl. Do it now! Not you nor your OIC not even I can keep the general waiting. That is precisely the reason why he wanted me to personally get Mr. Tengco so that there will be no delay. Now get those orderlies here on the double!”

The brilliant highland midday sun stretched its kind arms on the vast carpet of green strawberry shrubs in a secluded plateau nestled somewhere in between the high walls of the mountain ranges in Kalinga Apayao. Dolores dela Cruz felt warm in a knitted vest as she scanned the green strawberry fields accented by the sun brightened redness of the ripened berries.She was standing by the porch of a small store which also served as a trading station for the farm produce of vegetables, strawberries and native Ifugao handicrafts. It had been almost four years since they settled in this isolated barrio. They have been fugitives from the regime and with the protection from her father and the kindness of her kinfolks were able to live without fear from the authorities in all those years.

In the distance she could see a stooped man balancing a couple of water buckets at the ends of a bamboo shaft on his shoulder. With a dipper in hand he was spraying water on the rows of strawberry shrubs.

“Minyong! Minyong!, stop that now and come up for lunch".

Minyong Tengco survived the torture and the brutal beating that the military had wrought. But what was left of him was a ghastly looking old man who walked with a limp and had a pronounced stoop, a badly scarred face but alive, nonetheless.He came up the stone steps of the porch of the trading station. Dolores helped him unload the water buckets. The buckets were communal property and so she placed them by a nearby wall.

As they walked homeward they talked about what they heard from the underground’s grapevine. The regime was near collapse as there were talks about internal strife within the ranks of the military, the civilian officials of the dictatorship were defecting to the opposition and the church hierarchy was becoming more militant in their protests. Dolores was visibly excited with all these developments.

“Oh Minyong, wouldn’t it be nice to be back in Manila and relive life that we once knew? Oh to be able to dance again, make chika with my amigas, watch television or see a movie, to go to all those restaurants again and…oh to play mahjong again”, she spouted the words longingly. Minyong didn’t seem to hear Dolores’s prattle and ignored her unabashed show of eagerness.

“I don’t recall having done all that, all I want to know is what’s for lunch”.