Nita had seen cockfights back home. Both animals were fitted out with steel spurs which cut like razors through the feathers into the flesh. Before the fight, the odds-makers would weave their way through the sea of cigarette smoking men and collect wagers. The bird masters would prepare their cocks with what Nita thought was very elaborate and unnecessary ceremony, and then release them into the pit to attack each other with their man-made weapons until one or both of them were dead. At home, it was a small, localised event. Families shared the birds for dinner. In Manila, it was a professional sport, laced with alcohol and bravado and big-time gambling. Enrique rationalised losing his few pesos because the really important gamblers lost tens of thousands.
Well, Nita had pesos of her own. Usually from the sale of items she'd found picking through the garbage each morning. Today she was going to spend the money from the sweaters she sold this week to take the children back to Roxas Boulevard. They were going to look for Martin.
The streets in the tourist belt were crowded with weekend visitors and foreign travellers. Nita felt the same uneasy feeling as before. She didn't belong here. These people were strangers, with lives so unlike her own that she shouldn't be here. Surely, they knew it when they saw her, just as she knew it when she saw them. Her children were dressed in the best clothes she could find. She herself had borrowed a dress from a woman who lived in a cardboard house near hers. But it wasn't a matter of clothes; it was deeper. It was herself. These people all knew where they were going. The wind did not blow them from place to place. They could stand on the sands of this island and see their futures coming. She no longer cared to look.
"Martin Valera," she repeated for the woman standing outside a grocery. The woman shook her head.
"Thank you," Nita said. Her English had improved since coming to Manila, but she was still uncomfortable with it. She wondered if people weren't really listening to her. She'd asked forty times now, inside shops and out, but no one recognised his name. There was always the possibility that Martin had moved on, gone to another area. There was also the possibility that the city was just too big to find him.
Eventually, they reached the shopping district near Baclaran Church. The streets were cramped with stalls selling everything from clothes and dishes to leather goods and fruit. Maybe Martin worked here. She wanted at least to walk by each vendor and look, but the children were growing tired and hungry. Instead, she bought something for all of them to eat and asked about the next Mass.
Few people attended this late in the afternoon, so Nita found a pew where Letty and Carlos could lie down with their heads in her lap. Nita could not let go of the possibility that some day the Lord might relent and answer her prayers. But in truth, she felt very little attachment to a merciful God, and even less to a caring Holy Mother. Today, as the priest droned on in English about the need for sacrifice, she closed her eyes and slept along with her children.
After Mass, Nita stood on the church steps and looked out over the enormity of the crowd on the streets and the vastness of the city. The hunt for Martin in such a place, she concluded, was hopeless. So she transformed their search into a game, making Martin's whereabouts an excuse to stop at an interesting stall or to step into a tantalising shop, just to ask. Carlos became a master of the question.
"Excuse me, sir," he would enunciate in perfect English, "we are looking for Martin Valera. Do you know him, please?" He was completely serious. He was also clearly delighted by his own performance, as was the audience. Many of the shopkeepers who couldn't give him an answer, gave him a piece of candy, which only led to more dramatic performances. Even Letty laughed.
Copyright Nancy Hersage 2000. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher or author.
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