There is something about Manila when the sun goes down. It is as if the dirt and grime of Manila, so mundane and unremarkable in the light of day, takes on a more sinister glow when the night comes. The strange marshmallow shaped lights of Manila add to that ghastly atmosphere, the glow of Manila more devilish and damned as the night darkens and deepens.
It is during this time that the other face of Manila awakens. The red light districts open up and the late night crowd begins to trickle in. The office workers are there, going to enjoy a round of drinks before tomorrow robs them of any more joy. The sex workers out and about plying their wares before today robs them of any more joy. A few expats here and there, some of them in the process of robbing another person’s joy.
Of course, the underworld awakens too. The thieves wake up, picking off hapless drunks who would not notice if someone picked their pockets. The more forceful ones do so via the edge of the knife or behind the barrel of a homemade or stolen gun. The police look away, either because they are paid to so or they simply do not care.
A curious sight breaks this scene, a flash of white in the darkness. A short girl, all of seventeen years old, wanders aimlessly. She is wearing an Assumption uniform, white button down blouse over a long dark blue skirt. Upon closer inspection, her eyes betray her Chinese roots, almond shaped and ready to dissappear at a moment’s notice. Her jet black hair is cut shoulder length, framing a face that would be considered pretty yet not spectacularly beautiful. Attached to her ears are earphones connected to her Iphone and her head is bobbing to some unknown song.
A security guard who was sitting in front of his now closed bank branch at the other side looks at this apparition, her white uniform so anathema to the dark, seedy nightlife of Manila. His mind cannot reconcile the image of this college girl, wandering the streets of Manila alone.
“Hey!” he calls out to her. She does not seem to hear, the only voices that registers in her head are the ones produced by her own mind and the ones piped into her eardrums. The security guard runs after her, but her brisk pace and the length between then meant that the guard would have to leave his post. He keeps calling out to her until the darkness steals her away. His moral compass tells him to follow, but he cannot leave the bank.
Unfortunately for the guard, his voice which goes unheard in the girl’s ears, attracts the wrong kind of attention. Inside one of the alleys, five shadows break off, unseen by anybody else including the guard.
The Mataderos gang had become infamous in these parts. They each carried meat cleavers which they used to threaten, rob and kill their victims, and from there they got their name. Poverty drives a lot of people into criminality, but the Mataderos had long evolved past the concept of need into the realm of want – they enjoyed being stone cold killers.
Their leader, Ricky, saunters ahead of his group. His non-descript clothes do not mark him in anyway, and the only thing that identifies him as a Matadero is the cleaver hidden inside his denim jacket and heart and knife tattoo in the web between his thumb and index finger on the left hand. His bleached hair makes people remark that he looks like a dirtier version of Terrence Romeo, the basketball star, a comparison which he hates as he has always been a fan of Ginebra, a rival basketball team.
Ricky and his gang quickly catch sight of the girl again, their thoughts quickly turning to how much an Assumption girl has on her and to more lurid details. The gap between the girl and the men dissappear quickly, and Ricky grabs her from her behind, clamping dirty hands over her mouth as he muscles her into an abandoned building. He keeps his hand over her mouth as he pushes her down. The other men hang back, keeping watch and thinking of taking their turn when Ricky has been done with her.
“Now miss, don’t you know it’s bad for you to be out at night?” Ricky asks in a surprisingly sweet voice. “Now don’t scream, I don’t want to have to kill you yet.”
He takes his hand off her face. She will shout of course, but there would not be anybody to hear in this part of town, either because the sounds of her voice would go unnoticed in the din of Manila, or they would refuse to hear anything.
“No, manong, please don’t…” her pleading is cut short when he slaps her with enough force to send her sprawling into the ground.
Her name is Sabine, named after some obscure book her father had read before she and her brother, Griffin, were born. She tastes the coppery flavors of blood welling inside her cheek. Then she sees Ricky draw the meat cleaver from inside his jacket, the metallic sheen reflecting in the dull lights.
She has a history with knives. She remembers back when she was five years old, how her father had scolded her when she ran around the house with a paring knife in her hand. Her father made her promise never to play with knives ever again. Back then, her five year old self did not understand why her father did not want her playing with knives. After he scolded her, she would still sneak off into the kitchens to watch her mother and Yaya Lumen cook. She could watch all day as her mom expertly dressed a chicken’s carcass or observe Yaya Lumen as she sliced and diced onions. More than anything else in the world, she wanted to be chef when she grew up.
Except when she turned twelve, masked men entered their house in Forbes Park, somehow bypassing the intense security of the subdivision. Her father had some dealings with some very bad people and some of the deals had turned sour, very sour. They gathered all of the members of the family in the dining room and began shooting them one by one. First was Yaya Lumen, who was crying when they shot her in the head. Next was Griffin, his face filled with anger and hatred as his life was snuffed out, he fell down and his lifeless eyes stared back at Sabine as he lay bleeding on the floor.
Sabine shouted wordlessly as her mother cried softly as they waited for the bullets to end their lives. It never came. Sabine’s father had hidden a pen knife underneath his shirt and had lunged at the nearest assailant. Locked in struggle in the middle of the room, he shouted at Sabine’s mother to run.
Her mother gathered Sabine up into her arms and ran as fast she could. Shots rang out behind them as they ran helter skelter into the garden and then out into the streets, screaming for help. Patrolling security guards found them, but not before discovering that Sabine’s mother had been shot multiple times and pure adrenaline had kept her running, desperate to protect her child. She bled to death before the ambulance and the police could come to help them. It only took one night for Sabine to become an orphan.
The next day, her Aunt Julia, her father’s sister, arrived and took her to live with her in Cebu. Four years later, she hsd returned to Makati City to study Mass Communications at Assumption, her earlier dreams of being a chef long forgotten.
Now here she was in the dark lying on the dirt and she was going to die at hands of the Mataderos.
“Don’t move, miss beautiful,” Ricky says as he approaches her, the meat cleaver in his hand belying his cloying, teasing voice. Sabine’s eyes are now closed, as if waiting for the inevitable, “Don’t move, miss. It’ll be easier for the both of us.”
He looks at the girl and he thinks of how lucky he is tonight, fresh meat sauntering in to his territory just like that. Pretty too, he thinks. He grabs her by blouse, the flat of his cleaver caressing her cheek as he smells the apple scent her hair, his left hand already fumbling at the zipper of his pants. He never finishes his next thought as a six inch knife rams straight into his genitals. Before the pain registers, that same knife stabs him twice in the arm and finally through his right eye. Ricky shudders and before Sabine pulls away he manages to grab Sabine’s earphones, popping it loose from her Iphone. The IPhone speakers blare Zach De La Rocha‘s angry voice, as the sounds of Rage Against the Machine fill the alley.
The rest of the Mataderos turn, confused at the sudden turn of events. Sabine is now standing up, and she is holding something in her left hand – a balisong. The six inch blade, a balisong, is now tinted in blood, Sabine’s expressionless face more menacing than anything the Mataderos had ever seen.
Sabine assesses the situation and puts herself into the calm center which Master Toto, her Cebuano Eskrima teacher, had told her to find.
She takes a mental assessment of the four men in front of her. The two nearest men, were young and a little bit unsure of themselves, so similar they were obviously twins. She names them Humpty and Dumpty. The remaining two were a little older. One had a perpetual scowl on his face and the other was grossly obese, now rechristened in Sabine’s head as Grumpy and Fat Boy. All of them now have their cleavers out.
“Putang gala!” Grumpy shouts. “What do you think you’re doing?”
Sabine finishes her assessment and knows with her left hand she picks up the only other weapon at her disposal, Ricky’s meat cleaver. She launches herself at Grumpy, then right before she reaches him, Sabine ducks and slides between Grumpy’s legs and spinning, she drives the meat cleaver into the back of his right knee. Then in three fluid motions, she stabs the older man in the kidney then punctures his lung and finally severs his carotid artery, Sabine’s balisong moving in and out of Grumpy’s body with stunning efficiency and speed.
One of the first things taught in Eskrima is to emphasize that fighting with knives means a fighter only has one advantage – speed. Where most weapons could kill with one blow, a knife often needs multiple strikes to achieve the same effect. Yet in a blink of eye, a knife could wound a person in more ways than any other’s kind of weapon. However, it demands perfection. Every strike needs to have only two purposes: 1) to kill; and 2) to make the opponent easier to kill. Everything else is superfluous motion.
Sabine spins away from Grumpy as she dodges Humpty’s cleaver, her own cleaver strike finding Humpty’s right bicep. She then wraps her arms around Humpty in a manner that could be described as intimate. She remembers the words that Master Toto had used to describe knife fighting. He told that there is nothing more intimate than knife fighting. A fighter has to get close, breathe the same air as her opponent, feel his blood splatter her face and when all this over, she has taken his breathe away. In her embrace, her balisong finds Humpty’s heart.
She continues the embrace as she grunts with the effort to charge at Dumpty, using Humpty as a shield. Dumpty hacks at Humpty, not noticing the small balisong blade enter his left ear. Three men dead in a matter of seconds.
Finally, she looks up at to see Fat Boy. She had left him last because of only one reason. Fat Boy was fat. He would take more effort to kill. This is where she makes a slight miscalculation because now Fat Boy was holding a gun.
“Don’t you come near me, you bitch!” he screams in a high pitched voice.
She crosses the two knives in front of her, balisong on top of meat cleaver, leveling the crosspoint of the knives to the barrel of the gun, the balisong aligning with the sights of the gun. Fat Boy fires the gun, the shot deafening inside the confined space of the building. The bullet sails towards Sabine, who neatly catches the projectile on her balisong, Tondo iron meeting Batangas steel. Before Fat Boy can fire another shot, Sabine throws the cleaver which imbeds itself to the top of Fat Boy’s head. He screams as he tries to pry the cleaver loose, but it is cut short as Sabine’s balisong takes him in the throat.
Sabine takes a step back and the only sounds left are the sounds of Fat Boy choking on his blood, her own heavy breathing and the sounds of Tom Morello’s guitar solo coming from her Iphone.
She wipes her balisong on Fat Boy’s sleeve, and she flips the blade back into its sheathe. Master Toto had always taught her to keep her equipment clean. Then she starts to walk out, but she stops as she makes a turn. Facing her is a security guard, shotgun levelled at her face.
“W-who are you?” he asks.
She raises her balisong to her lips and smiles, then she grabs the shotgun, pointing it upward as it discharges. Then she runs into the streets, the security guard too stunned to even try to reload his single shot shotgun.
An hour later, Sabine emerges from a comfort room in another part of Manila, wearing shorts and a t-shirt, her bloodied uniform stuffed into the backpack she is wearing.
She then goes to a nearby parking lot, and she goes to a bright green Kawasaki Ninja 250r motorbike. The engine roars to life and soon she is riding fast, headed into the direction of Makati where her Forbes Park home is waiting for her, her taillights forming a red afterimage behind her.
In another section of Manila, police sirens can be heard. Suddenly, Manila does not seem as dark as it did before.
Ang Huling Hugotero