Pursuit of the Litaniera
by Elyss G. Punsalan
part 1 of 2
Apo Leticia liked to say that Death calls himself Leong. That they keep each other company right before the sun sets, when her tasks as a litaniera — leading the prayers to the Highest to help the dying, the living, the sick, and the desperate — have been folded and tucked away until the next morning. That they meet at the river, and that she knows that Leong is near when the hot humid day cools to a December chill. That there is also the heady, foul scent of bangbangsit punctuating the air; its smell so putrid that a whiff invokes a deep and ghostly grave.
Apo Leticia liked to say that it was never roses, never the fragrant dama de noche or ilang-ilang. And that it was a strange choice for perfume — a bangbangsit flower looked too colorful and gay for the somber Leong.
She had met him when she was sixteen at her mother’s deathbed, and rightly so. Leong’s duty at the time was to take the diminishing Apo Belang to the valley of the dead, but he was somehow distracted, even amused, by Leticia’s staunch army of litanieras who prayed without ceasing for her mother’s salvation. Later on Leong would tell her that he had never seen an assembly that cared to pray for a woman who had lived an unremarkable life.
Apo Belang reluctantly reared a dozen children, and when she was done she spent the days smoking as many fat tobacco rolls as her toothless gums would allow. The litanieras, composed of women, children, and men, filled the small room, the elevated sala, the kitchen, the wooden ladder leading into the garden, the backyard, the silong beneath, around the outhouse and pigpens, the length of dirt road to the parish, and the pews of St. Joseph the Worker Church, with the various names of the Holy Mother and the saints in heaven.
When evening fell, they lit their candles, and chanted the Regina Coeli (for it was Easter), followed by the Most Holy Rosary, in all its joyful, sorrowful, and glorious mysteries. They had come through the urging of Leticia herself, who delicately reminded them of the times she had prayed for their loved ones in need.
Leticia by herself was a powerful litaniera — her prayers had found a secret passageway straight into God’s ears, where supplications from her lips were clearly heard and granted. She was aware of this gift and was wise to gauge a petitioner’s request, whether it was just or not, before acquiescing.
Frequently she would turn down a crooked governor’s plea for re-election victory, or the foolish request of an envious matron, but rarely would she deny the farmers who pleaded for rain or a young mother who wept for her feeble child. It would seem that by herself, she had no need of the host behind her, but as days passed, her mother’s breath became thinner, broken to pieces by thickening rasps of cough. She had sought the help of everyone she had ever prayed for, because for the first time Leticia feared that her own prayers were about to fail.
In between “Have mercy on us” and “Hail, Holy Queen,” Leong emerged unnoticed from the walls of the small room. Unnoticed, that is, to the rest of the faithful except Leticia, who momentarily raised her head to recollect the next lines of prayer, and saw instead a pale man standing at her mother’s bedside. The man had a curious expression, something so displaced from the mood and tone of the occasion that Leticia quickly shut her mouth and stopped reciting. It seemed to her that the pale man was oddly entertained by the litanieras, and that no one else was disturbed by his behavior.
Leticia looked around the room and out the window, and saw that the others were continuing where she had left off — murmuring with their eyes closed, their palms in the air as if in surrender. The words “Hail, our life, our sweetness, and our hope” floated from their mouths and hovered above them like the susurration of birds. No one else has noticed him, she thought. I must be mad.
As she alone had this vision, she regarded this man with brazen curiosity, noticing how his skin, though ashen, shone faintly in the dark and how a raised vein wrapped around the lean bulge of his arm. He wore the simplest of clothes — a white shirt, brown trousers and shoes — and looked like an overgrown student who had found his way to her home by mistake.
There were circles around his eyes, dark and deep, and a kind of formal and melancholy sheen that only someone who had lost anyone for good would ever know. But apart from that, that sadness, there was on the man’s face a bewildered look that edged closely to fascination. Leticia tilted her head.
The pale man noticed and said, “You shouldn’t be seeing me.”
Leticia froze, not knowing what to do. The pale man bent to her mother’s ear and spoke ancient words, sounding unlike anything Leticia had ever heard. Apo Belang’s head turned towards the man and asked what it was like.
A cold wave of blood surged through Leticia’s body. Realizing suddenly who the man was, she sprang up and lunged toward her mother. She yelled and shouted and kicked the man whom no one else could see. “Go away!” she said. “You have no business being here!”
* * *
The man had every business to be there — Apo Belang was over ninety years old, a miracle in itself really, because the hundreds of tobaccos that had pillaged her lungs were supposed to have killed her decades ago. But the man stepped back, away from parent and daughter.
He gazed at the ardent woman who shielded her mother from him, and sensed in her the familiar feeling of loss? Desolation? Emptiness? He could not tell which. But it was the very same air that had inhabited him since grasping his own reality. She was, clearly, not like him, not like death itself, but he felt as if he was looking at his own reflection.
* * *
Perhaps the man was unnerved by what he saw; he turned around towards the wall. Leticia held on to her mother, but at the same time her mind wrestled with the finality of that moment, having to contend with the possibility of never knowing anyone as mysterious, or as desirable. The man took a step. Leticia blurted out, “Wait.”
He glanced back at Leticia, looking as baffled as she was. They caught each other’s gaze and held it, trying not to let go, up to the time the man strode away, resignedly, into nothingness.
* * *
Many years had passed, and Apo Belang was still alive. She had long given up on tobacco since her near-death, but at age one hundred was discovering the aromatic charms of the cigarette. The town continued to talk of that day, the one they called The Great Vigil, where their fervent prayers reached the Holy Virgin, and brought back the soul of this old woman.
Some even said that Leticia, who was seen lashing out on the devil, had been possessed by the Holy Virgin Herself. Leticia was quick to dismiss the rumor, quicker still the parish priest at St. Joseph the Worker, who later on lost a significant number of parishioners at his mass.
When pressed to tell what it was she saw, Leticia would change the subject, usually by asking about the person’s family and their well-being. She rarely spoke about the so-called Great Vigil, and kept to tending their little sari-sari store and washing other people’s laundry, ways to augment the family’s growing expenses though she had no children of her own.
To entertain herself she looked after her nieces and nephews, the children of her siblings. She immersed herself at church, organizing the retreats for the Legion of Mary, catechism classes for the youth, and the occasional fundraisers. On Wednesdays, she regularly sang the Marian hymns in the choir section, accompanied only by the vociferous playing of the pipe organist.
Leticia continued to be a litaniera, as it was what she did best — praying for newborns and newly deceased, souls in purgatory, the reconciliation of families, safety of travelers, the promise of harvest.
There were many litanieras in her town, but it was she who would still be called on by the richest and poorest of her folk, at any time of day, and usually at one’s hour of death. In return the rich would offer her some thousand pesos, and the poor their best poultry. To both she would refuse, as a matter of principle. “My wage is in heaven. This is my mission,” she would say matter-of-factly. There was no trace of hubris. No exaggeration of modesty. She said it as plainly as she would say the color of her dress.
Around this time Leticia’s youngest sister gave birth to a boy, who would later be christened Florante after the folk singer, the mother’s favorite. However, the mother would not live to see the christening, and would lie motionless at the last minutes of labour, her breath unable to escape. The charity doctor would later on explain that the patient’s heart had stopped after a rapid rise in blood pressure.
Leticia was out of town with her church mates on a field trip she had helped organize. She had returned too late, her sister already in a wooden coffin, adorned with white and purple flowers arranged in rattan baskets. The husband of the departed was nowhere to be found, although folks who lived near the Darapidap beach claimed to have seen him going further north, deranged and unkempt. Nobody has seen him since.
The next Saturday, the mourning crowd had gathered around the open tomb in a forlorn spot in Candon Cemetery, on the side of a hill. A gust of wind from the trees blew, ruffling hair, clothes, and the newborn’s sleep. The orphan began to cry in Leticia’s arms. The litaniera gazed at the child’s face as she rocked him gently. He was unevenly brown-skinned and had lustrous hair, so much like his mother. I should never have left, she said to herself. The coffin scraped against small rocks as it was pushed into a white cement box.
Apo Belang leaned against the arm of her oldest son. She had fallen unnaturally silent since her daughter died, but when the undertaker sealed the tomb, her surface ruptured open and poured out her grief — dark, menacing, angry, violent. In the flood of unabashed heartache, her children wept with the knowledge that their mother had loved only one child.
Leticia held little Florante tighter, as if to protect him from Apo Belang’s deluge of sorrow. She looked at the babe — how peaceful he’d become. He seemed to have been lulled to sleep by the old woman’s wailing, which had gradually dissolved into the thick prayers of the crowd. But something stirred in the trees, and this made the baby’s eyelids flutter.
Leticia felt the urge to slip away from the crowd and uncover the mystery in the wood, however she was halted by her eldest brother’s sudden pronouncement — Apo Belang was dead. She quickly handed over the infant to a cousin, and instead of going to her mother, ran towards the trees. She sprang past the moss-covered crosses and unhappy cement angels, past the apartment-type niches and grand mausoleums.
In her pursuit the prickly underbrush between the named plots grazed her bare legs. She wasn’t sure what she was after, but her heart paced and pushed her onward, urging her to catch someone, yes, someone, before it was too late.
The grove of trees grew denser at the edge of the cemetery. Leticia squeezed herself in between the trunks and paused to listen. A bird screeched overhead, jumping from branch to branch. Sunlight splintered into bright rods through the natural eaves, then spattered unto the leaf-covered floor.
Leticia heard her own breath flaring through her nostrils, and felt the front of her blouse, wet with sweat, clinging to her breasts. Instinctively she moved her hand towards her neck. In the cluster of trees before her, shadows clung between thick shafts and seemed to form a dark mass that stared back at her.
“Where is she?” Leticia cried out to the shadows.
The dark mass slowly crept out of the trees. As it separated itself from its hiding place, threads of black gauzy smoke stretched between itself and the branches, like spun sugar, breaking off as the mass moved toward Leticia. The shadows dropped to the ground like dispensed pieces of clothing, and revealed a man whom Leticia thought she had seen many years before.
“Your mother is where she wants to be,” the man answered. He reached out to touch Leticia’s face, the white skin of his hand shimmering in the light.
Leticia held still and looked into the man’s brooding eyes. She felt his cool fingers trace her ear and the line of her jaw, then loosen strands of her hair away from her neck. Her heart became a beating drum beneath her chest.
“Where does she want to be?” she asked. Her breath tightened.
“My dear Leti,” the man whispered, leaning closer to her, his face fading away, “she is with the one she loves.”
The air quivered with the cries of Florante, carried from some distance away. The man had vanished, leaving nothing to prove his existence, except perhaps the lingering chill. Leticia broke free from the trance and remembered her obligations. She walked back toward the mourners who were weeping for both daughter and mother. No one asked where she had gone. Leticia put her hand in her pocket and pulled out her rosary. With a steady voice, she invoked them all to prayer.
* * *
Copyright © 2010 by Elyss G. Punsalan