Once upon a time
It is a difficult day for writing. I suspect it is a difficult day to do many things, but I am a writer with a deadline and very little to say, so I’ll start with that. It’s a difficult day for writing.
Some days it all comes clear: a thesis, a structure, a narrative arc, a second sentence that flows from the first. Today I will ask for indulgence, because there are too many voices in my head and none of them is willing to let me speak first. This column is going to be a story about stories, and I will lend this space to them, if only to quiet some of the voices.
I’ll tell you about a woman named Cora, who lives in a house with 26 dogs. The neighbors point to her when she walks at night, surrounded by 26 lolling tongues and 104 pattering feet. She feeds them in the morning and again in the afternoon, pouring food from a pot she stirs in the morning and again in the afternoon. She picks them up from the street, some broken, some hungry. She gives them a home and a name, and they become hers, and are hers even if she manages to find families for a few of the little ones.
Writers like myself cannot live on columns and occasional articles, and by that I mean writers with a rent bill due and an office to run. I write for television, and because I do, I live at the center of a changing crosshatch of stories, some sad, some strange, some demanding more than even the natural Filipino suspension of disbelief. It teaches you that impossible is an impossible word. I have a director who strips at every shoot and empties his wallet for every father who says he cannot send his child to school. Every day I am surrounded by young people, fresh out of college, some of whom close my office door moaning about class at 3 p.m. They are storytellers, all of them, and most of them still believe that a story can change the world. I don’t, but I believe maybe, if we’re lucky, we can change a life. There may be people who rescue orphans and wandering old men, and there may be charity for the victims of killers and storms, but in Novaliches there is a woman who lives in a house with 26 dogs and she is the savior of canine souls.
I tell you her story because I saw her tell it, and the image stays clear, a house, a woman, a pack of yapping dogs. Some stories are like hers, about people driven by compulsion and heart. There is another man we found, a scavenger lying inside his wooden cart at a Cubao street corner, turning the pages of an old National Geographic issue. His name was Jojo Viray, fiftysomething, who quit his job as a village security guard to live under the open sky. In the morning he buys a P5-bundle of secondhand books with the money he earns from scavenging. He reads them in the afternoon, along with whatever newspaper he culls from the trash bins. He likes Tom Clancy and says there is no book better than “The Bourne Identity,” unless you happen to have an old comic book of Dick Tracy. He sells them again the next day, because there is no room in his cart. He knows what happened to Egypt and to Gilbert Teodoro, he has never seen the White House but can describe it to you from a 1976 Time Magazine feature, and when you ask him why he does it, he says knowledge is power. For Jojo Viray, power is the ability to be barefoot and not mind, because the world is a big place and there are worse things to be than Jojo Viray.
Jojo is gone now, died a month ago under the sky he loved, and I suspect he is up there somewhere, lying on a cloud with his legs propped on a harp, demanding that Ian Fleming explain what “M” stands for in “Casino Royale.”
There are other stories. The armless beggar whose sons graduated this year. The five old retirees who call themselves the Young Once, who sat in the Senate gallery every single day of the Corona impeachment trial, because they believed their presence would guard the integrity of the senator-judges. There is the girl who joined eight beauty pageants and finally won Ms Congeniality, and the aging opera singer who is losing her voice but continues to sing even through tears. There is the man who sells roses and saves the prettiest for his wife, the pair of lesbians whose son grinned through their wedding, and the woman who gave up a performing career for her children only to win queen of a Makati senior citizen beauty pageant at the age of 64.
People say that on a certain day every year, Clara, patron saint of Ubando, will gift the childless with children for as long as they danced to her in prayer. And so one day a man and a woman went to her feast, a childless couple whose small blue babies never lived to say Mama. So they danced, Ellen and her husband, praying with hips and feet and clapping hands on the feast of St. Claire with many other waiting mothers. Their child is now 27. Ellen is sick. Papa dances again, this time praying that the daughter who was once a gift would find joy with a child of her very own.
They are not happy stories, they are hopeful, and truer because they are. If hope lives in the heart of darkness, then there is no woman more hopeful than the young mother who saw her missing husband being tortured on a YouTube video. She saw him naked, chained like a dog, being beaten in a police station by men who giggled while slamming lengths of wood against his penis. She searched and searched, found his body in the morgue and his head in a garbage dump. She waits for justice, the same as Edith Burgos and Linda Cadapan and Connie Empeño.
It is a difficult day for writing, only because there is no first sentence or second. The stories begin and keep beginning and the happy endings turn sad and happy then maybe sad again. This is a column about stories, and the reason we tell them. In Novaliches there is a woman with 26 dogs, and she keeps them because she feels she must. I tell stories the same reason we all do: because the universe is a terrible place, and we tell stories in the pursuit of a different ending.
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The writer, with director Paolo Villaluna, is the co-creator of the New York Festivals Best Documentary Series “Storyline.” The show celebrates its fourth year today. E-mail at [email protected]
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