by Apol Lejano-Massebieau
PEDRO DIYEGO WAS BORN with wings on his feet. They grew from the bones in his ankles and spread out in a fan past his heel, plumes of brown flecked with white that made it impossible for him to don footwear.
His mother Mereditha tried to remove the feathers when Pedro was still a child. They were a family of some means, owning a decent-sized tract of land and their own rice mill, so that she didn’t think it was proper to have her only son going around barefoot like the farmers’ children. But how little Pedro shrieked and cried as with eyebrow tweezers his mother yanked! And he did it for so long and so loudly that the chickens in their wooden coop in the backyard stopped laying eggs for at least a week.
Now perhaps in keeping with popular ideas of fairies and angels, you would expect that a child born with wings be delicate. Then you would be disappointed looking at Pedro. He was what was euphemistically called a big-boned child.
Part of it had to do with genes, as Pedro did have a fair amount of resemblance to his father, a beefy Batangueno, but it has to be admitted that much of the fat that rolled around his belly got there by way of his mouth.
You see, delicate also did not apply to Pedro’s nature. He wasn’t a quiet, introspective kind of child. On the contrary, he had such zest for life! He played rough and tumble. He sang with gusto even if he rarely knew the lyrics and was often out of tune. He laughed in that head-thrown-back, openmouthed manner you only ever see in the very confident.
As with most people of this temperament, Pedro displayed his enthusiasm for life’s pleasures by way of food. He always finished his plate clean at mealtimes and often asked for seconds, but Pedro looked forward most to his merienda. He’d never let pass the little snack at ten a.m., and in the afternoons, he’d take it twice.
He was addicted to the brown meringues to be bought twelve to a plastic bag at the Lian public market. Popping an entire cone, he would let it melt in his mouth. After he had sucked the confection down to just a few granules of sugar on his tongue, he would chase the sweet delight with another. A second favorite were those peanuts embedded in flat rounds of brown sugar and called panucha. When he was feeling hungrier than usual, he would make a thick milk sandwich from their province’s famous bread. If you’ve ever been in the area, you would have seen it for sale in the neighborhood bakeries. Round, brown, and with a line splitting it down the middle, the thing has been likened on more than a few occasions to a fat baby’s ass.
Despite that the pediatrician had gravely pointed out that her son was on his way to being diagnosed with childhood obesity, Mereditha encouraged the healthy eating. She would feel a needle of fear prick through her heart every time she imagined that Pedro was losing weight. Unbeknowst to her family, frail, pale Mereditha would often wake up in the middle of the night sweaty from nightmares involving wind, feathers, and her son being carried off, away from her and into some strange, foreign land. She did her best to fatten up Pedro, hoping that the weight would keep him on the ground and close to home.
Nocturnal fears notwithstanding, as with many women who are blessed with a child late in life and only after many years of trying, Mereditha was totally enamored with her little boy. She had even gotten used to the idea that he would always go around bare of feet. Anyway he seemed happy and secure, and was popular with the other children. In the afternoons when school let out, playmates would fight to get him on their team for rounds of agawang baseand tayaan, because even when forbidden flapping, Pedro was on his feet quick and light.
On the weekends the children would troop to the beach to construct intricate sandcastles complete with attacking dragons and damsels in distress, and with towers that because of Pedro’s special ability they managed to build up to six feet high. Once the tropical sun got too hot, they would swim in the sea, running in to slam their bodies against the rushing waves. They would emerge from under the water with salt in their mouths and laughter bursting from their throats.
Having thus built up their appetites, they would dig into pockets for what their mothers had slipped in. There would be an assortment of simple, homemade cakes, bibingka, pitsi-pitsi, kutsinta, biko and puto. Always, there would be suman swaddled in its strip of banana leaf.
The children would come home before sunset riding on the backs of the sugarmill’s giant trucks. Mereditha would feel her heart jump to her throat every time she saw her boy jump off a still moving vehicle, but calm would return as she watched him make his way from the main road to their house. Pedro would be buoyed by his happiness at least a couple of feet off the ground, and often he would be munching on a hacked off piece of sugar cane.
LIKE MOST OF THE VILLAGE CHILDREN who could afford it, on his sixteenth year, and with Mereditha biting her lips to keep from telling him to not do it, Pedro moved to the capital to pursue his studies.
He was bright enough to get into the state university, although to his father’s consternation instead of taking up business management Pedro enrolled in the college of fine arts, where he spent much of his time sketching the dogs and horses of the veterinary medicine students in the neighboring complex.
It must be said here that Pedro planned it so that he would end up in this particular place north of the city. He had taken a tour with his parents of the other learning institutions, and it appalled him that where the Thomasites taught, the students were required to wear leather on their feet. In the academy of the Jesuits, it wasn’t quite as strict, but for Pedro it was love at first sight when he rode a jeepney through the sectarian university and saw that except for a rare, constipated-looking few, the students were comfortably shod in rubber slippers.
What of his physical condition, you might ask. Surely a boy with wings would have been at least gawked at, if not ridiculed and teased. Maybe elsewhere this would have been true, but one thing about this particular campus was that it was constructed right on top of a fault line. Seismologists considered this a bad thing, but a famous feng shui expert was of the opinion that it made for excellent energy vibrations, was in fact the reason the university was one of those exciting centers of thought where new ideas, no matter how far out, were embraced. At one point during the university’s history, the student body had even actually believed that it could build a utopian society free from the rules of the state.
At the time Pedro studied there, the young men and women enrolled were much more realistic about these things and largely pooh-poohed the idea of revolution, but they did still hold on to the laissez-faire attitude of their predecessors, so that the university was where a lot of the strange children born in the islands after the war went to study. Most famous of them was the golden-eyed shopping mall heiress who was taking up statistics and who did her homework at night helped by a twin brother who lived in a large glass aquarium in the well-guarded apartment they shared off campus.
Pedro felt right at home. He became best friends with Nando, a bespectacled boy with a lisp who stocked Pedro’s bookcases with bottles of the nata de coco his parents made a living out of exporting to Japan. And because Mereditha worried, each weekend before he left again for university, she gave her son a generous food allowance.
Studying made Pedro very hungry. On hot afternoons, he would be digging into a halo-halotopped with jackfruit and ube ice cream. To calm pre-exam nerves, nothing worked better than a half-log of brazo de Mercedez. When he wanted a treat, he would order an entire bilaoof Malabon-made sapin-sapin. Pausing a moment to enjoy the myriad of colors–violet, yellow, cream, red, and brown–he would count his blessings before eating.
Pedro enjoyed most of all going to Mang Roger’s cafeteria in a nearby village inhabited mostly by professors. He was allowed into the kitchen where he liked watching the cooking of palitaw. Mang Roger, a rolly-polly man from Cabanatuan, would knead the flour and roll them into flat ovals the size of a girl’s open palm. One by one, these would be plunged into the pot of boiling water waiting on the fire. What followed always seemed to Pedro like magic. The patties would pop to the surface to announce that they were ready for eating. Mang Roger would oblige. He would fish them out with a long-handled ladle and serve them with a thick dusting of grated coconut, sugar, and sesame seeds.
Such was his contentment that in all his four years at the university, Pedro never once had to replace the black Spartan flipflops he was wearing when he first arrived. Borne by good spirits always a few inches off the pavement, he barely scratched their rubber soles.