Flies. Thousands of them. The flies swarm around, forming billowing clouds that heave to and fro, seemingly following the hand of some unseen conductor. The mountains of trash, refuse from the cities and towns of Metro Manila, dominate the landscape, forming a skyline made exclusively of garbage. Here and there, small fires bloom, sometimes punctuated by small explosions, as the rotting garbage forms methane and other flammable gases, then ignited by whatever causes these things to burst into flame.
This is Payatas, where all the unwanted of Manila gathers. The trash is merely the most obvious example. Amidst the giant mounds of trash, picking their way through garbage, are the unwanted humans of the cities, the refuse of a society that either does not see or refuses to see. Here at Payatas, they make a living, rooting through the garbage to find things that they could sell: bottles, plastic containers, metal, food.
On top of one of the mounds, a figure is working, nearly camouflaged against the multicolored trash that he is walking on. Tonton has always been a scavenger. He was born here and this is all he ever knew. He climbs with a hemp sack on his back, looking for things of value. His face is covered with an old shirt, twisted around his head to form a mask that would protect his lungs from the noxious fumes that rise from the trasheap. He is nine years old, but life has made him old beyond his years.
In his bag are various treasures. Things that can be sold. He has various bottles which he could sell to the recycling factories later. More important, he had found a can of sardines which were thrown out by some household when the expiry date reached its due. To Tonton and the residents of Payatas who eat thrown out food, reheating and cooking leftovers just to find something to eat, an unopened tin of anything is something to be treasured and cherished.
Then as he walked down the mountain of trash, he sees something shiny buried below the trash. He digs through the garbage, throwing out bits and pieces of refuse. There it was, a shiny metal plaque with words engraved on the front. The plaque has no real value but to Tonton, this was a treasure worth finding. A trophy factory had closed shop a month ago and since their inventory cannot be sold, the factory’s contents somehow ended up in the dumpsite and was scattered by the constant process of upheaval of the trash mounds. The children of Payatas then discovered these trophies and soon, a competition had sprung up among them and they started hunting for the trophies hidden below the trash. The plaques were part of that inventory, each inscribed with a different qoute from somewhere else. They were always in English, and most of the Payatas children barely understood what was written.
Tonton gets down on his knees and starts digging, carefully exposing the plaque. Bit by bit, the plaque is revealed, the words obscured by the strange oily film that seems to accumulate on everything in the dumpsite whenever it rained. He finally frees the plaque from its filthy prison and he wipes away the gunk on top of the plaque.
He does not understand what it says, but he knows that the words written in gold lettering was a quote from some unheard of author or notable. He does not know who Franklin D. Roosevelt or William Shakespeare is and he probably never will but he likes the idea of holding on to words immortalized by great names all over the world.
He wraps the plaque in one of the rags he has in his sack and he makes his descent down from the mountain of trash. He nods greetings to the other scavengers he meets on the long way down, his feet expertly moving down the many sharp objects that jut from the mound.
Then suddenly, a peal of thunder erupts just inside his range of hearing. Tonton looks to the sound and sees a gout of fire bloom from underneath the trash mound. The trash heap starts to tip over and at first slowly, and then with frightening speed, the mound starts crashing down. The scavengers scurry away, afraid to be trapped under the onrushing landslide of trash and debris.
Tonton runs as far his feet would carry him, the other scavengers running for their lives. When the wave of trash hits him, he is bowled over and he is swallowed by the sea of garbage.
Tonton awakens hours later beneath a mound of trash.
Huh, he thinks. Where am I?
Then he remembers the mountain of trash that had fallen on him. He had curled into a ball at the last moment and used the sack to protect his exposed back. Somehow by some miracle, he had been sandwiched between two discarded mattresses. He looks up and he could see the sunlight trickle in, time shafts of light in the darkness. He was not too deep underground.
“Help!” he cries in Tagalog. “I am here!”
He shouts for a few minutes until his view is obscured by a face, which he immediately recognizes as one of the scavengers with him, an old woman whose name escapes him. The old woman sees Tonton and shouts for help.
Various hands join in and after what seemed like an eternity, Tonton is lifted up from the garbage heap, still clutching his sack. The other scavengers had started to walk away and the old woman starts telling him to run. Before Tonton could protest, he turns around and sees why they had to run. Half of Payatas had become an inferno, the initial explosion triggering the other pockets of flammable gas hidden beneath. The flames were getting closer, like some hungry animal on the prowl.
Tonton begins to run away, but he notices that the old woman, the one who helped him, was walking too slowly. He grabs her hand and he half drags her towards safety, away from the fire and smoke that was eating the landfill.
Soon however, he feels the angry heat of the fire, and as Tonton looks back, he sees that the flames were getting too close, the flames devouring everything behind him. He looks at the old woman.
“Nanay, I think you should hop on to my back,” he says.
The old woman does not speak but she nods her head, the fear in her eyes belying her calm manner. Tonton throws away the sack, takes only two things – the plaque and the can of sardines, and he shoves both inside his shirt, tying it off to prevent the two objects from falling. Then he presents his back to the old woman, who obliges by riding on Tonton piggy back style. With a strength gained from hauling garbage over the years, Tonton grabs the old woman’s legs and he starts running. The flames were getting so near that he was already feeling the flames licking at his heels.
Tonton runs. He runs like he has never run before, running helter-skelter away from the devouring flames. The old woman was light and he had lungs of steel. He ran and he ran, until they were clear of the landfill. The old woman alights, and she smiles revealing a toothless mouth.
“Thank you, anak,” she says.
Tonton hugs the old woman and falls down to the ground, exhaustion finally taking him. He rests for a moment and then he stands up and he removes both items from his shirt and he starts walking. His path leads him to the sprawling colony where he lives. He weaves through the many alleyways, carefully dodging other people and the wayward dogs that make this place their home. Finally, he stops in front of a small hovel and ducks inside through the makeshift door made of tarpaulin canvas.
“Ma, I’m home,” he announces as he removes the shirt covering his face. He sees his mother already some of the food they will eat. Here it is called pagpag, food collected from trash bins, collected and cleaned and cooked again. Edible garbage. He approaches his mother, takes her hand and puts in on his forehead, a sign of deference. Then Tonton gives the canned sardines to his mother, and for a moment, her tired old eyes registering a brief moment of happiness. Then he shows her the plaque.
“What does it say, Ma?” he asks.
His mother had finished elementary and could understand English. She takes the plaque and traces the letters on the plaque. She speaks the words aloud.
“There are all kinds of love in this world but never the same love twice.”
Tonton does not understand. He knew it was about love, but he never quite got what it means. He did however like the fact that it was about love. He gingerly takes the plaque back.
He sweeps back the blanket that serves as the only divider for their home. His younger sister Anna is there, bedridden because of the tuberculosis that is eating away at her lungs. Tonton shows her the plaque. She looks up and smiles weakly, the bloody rags around her a testament to her disease.
In front of her is their collection, seventeen in total, all collected by Tonton. Anna loves them, because they tell her of place that puts your words in gold if they are good enough. Tonton puts the plaque between two others, the one that says Ticks and tocks of essential time, sink the spirits lower than wine and the one that says Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.
Then he lies down beside his sister, wraps his arms around his sister’s shivering body, and he closes his eyes until his mother wakes them to eat.
This is my contribution to Ronovan’s Friday Fiction Prompt. We had to use the words Ticks and tocks of essential time, sink the spirits lower than wine.
I wish my story didn’t have a ring of truth to it. The characters and the story is fictional, but Payatas is a very real place and pagpag is a very real concept. Poverty is a disease that we should eradicate. It is our duty as citizens of this world.