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PANDESAL

G ela, wake up,” Emilio murmured as he reached for his sister amidst the pile of blankets,
pillows, and hair.

Gela remained still, humming softly in her sleep. The holes between the walls of woven bamboo
lashes allowed glimpses of light from the torch outside to dance on Emilio’s face.

“Ah, he is awake,” Emilio whispered.

He reached for the half-empty box of matches under his pillow and lit a small kerosene lamp by
the bedside table. A soft light filled the small hut: bamboo floors, a small kettle at the corner,
Gela on a tangle of blankets, and an empty bed with a neatly folded blanket. Gela’s cheeks
glowed, illuminated by the flickering flame, traces of dried saliva glistened at the corners of her
mouth.

Emilio smiled.

“Ka Berto is awake. Get up,” he called.

Emilio nudged Gela by the nape, allowing his hands to feel the crevices of her bony back. Her
body swelled and ebbed with steady breathing. He hated to disturb her slumber. He gently
tugged at the blanket from Gela’s grasp and leaned closer.

“I will buy you Chocosticks later if you get up now,” he whispered behind the tangles of her hair,
then blew on her left ear.

Gela budged, giggled, and then opened her eyes, the light from the kerosene lamp painted swirls
of red and orange on her hair. She smiled, showing the gaps in her front teeth.

“Promise?” Gela asked, her voice draped in cobwebs from her sleep.

He nodded.

“Come. Roll your mat. Ka Berto awaits.”

Emilio climbed down the makeshift ladder and looked for his flip-flops. He found one at the foot
of the ladder. The other one was missing. The dirt felt cool on his feet like the soft breeze that
made the leaves of the pomelo trees beside the hut rustle in a slow dance. A faint citrus smell
drifted, and a rooster crowed in the distance. Emilio looked at the horizon. Several stars still
dotted the sky. He could see a tiny fleck of light hidden beneath the purple and dark-blue clouds.
It was still too dark to see the rice fields beyond their backyard, but he can hear the soft sweeping
sound of the drooping grains swaying in the breeze. The city from a distance resembled a tiny
sea of lights.
“Just in time today,” he whispered.

“I found the other flip-flop, see?” Gela spoke, coming up behind him holding up a thin grey flip-
flop to his face.

Emilio took the flipflop and patted her on the shoulders.

“Let’s go,” he said.

++++++++++++++++

T hey found Ka Berto by his outdoor kitchen under the big narra tree, feeding his small
stone oven with pieces of charcoal, humming a song they knew so well: Green Green
Grass of Home.

“Ah, you two are finally awake. Good. Good,” Ka Berto mumbled through the half-a-cigarette in
his mouth, rubbing his darkened hands. The old man coughed up and spat at the glowing embers
in front of him.

“The pandesal should be ready to sell soon. Go wash your faces and we’ll say grace. There’s rice
porridge in the pot here.” He grabbed his cane and shuffled the embers in the oven, the smoke
from his cigarette swirled above his head.

Emilio and Gela walked towards the back of the kitchen to the water pump. Emilio carried a
small slab of soap and a towel. Gela held on to the lamp.

“You go first,” Emilio said, giving the pump a tug. It screeched in protest before water flowed
from the nozzle. Gela nodded and scooped a handful of water into her face. She let the soap
linger on her cheeks as she massaged the sides of her nose with her fingers.

“Hurry up,” Emilio mumbled in between pumps.

“The girl on TV said to let the soap stay for 2 minutes on your face,” Gela replied, her face white
from the foam. “I’m keeping count.”

Emilio pumped more water while listening to Gela count out loud.

“Thirty-five, Thirty-seven, thirty-eight . . . Emilio, what comes after thirty-eight?”

“Thirty-nine. Hurry up.”

Gela nodded and leaned down the spout to catch a stream of water.

“I miss mom,” Gela whispered.

Emilio stopped pumping. He sighed and looked away.

“You better not get your skirt wet again.” He replied and resumed pumping. Gela rinsed her face
and gave Emilio a half-smile. They headed back to the kitchen in silence.

+++++++++++++++++++++

Ka Berto scooped two sandok-full of porridge to Emilio’s bowl. Emilio dug in.

“How come he gets two?” Gela asked, peering over Emilio’s bowl. Ka Berto chuckled, his shirt
hugging his skinny frame. He flicked the remaining cigarette into the nearby oven.

“Your brother is a growing boy, you know,” Ka Berto replied, licking his wrinkled fingers clean
of the stray porridge.

“And I pedal the bike,” Emilio added.


Gela sat back on the wooden stool and reached out for her spoon lying idly on the table. She
gave her bowl a swirl, mixing some bits of ginger with the tiny pieces of fish meat from last
night. Ka Berto scooped another ladle-full and chucked it into Gela’s bowl. Gela smiled.

“You smile just like your mother,” Ka Berto said.

Gela looked up at Ka Berto from across the table. A soft breeze tugged at the remaining tufts of
the old man’s silver hair. His eyes, heavy and glistening, fixed on her.

“Tell you what. When your mother was about five, your grandma and I used to take her to town
on Sundays for the Catholic mass. Ah, she was never still. She’d crawl around the pews and poke
other people’s legs during prayers.”

Emilio leaned in closer, listening to Ka Berto, slowly chewing the soft rice pieces, one hand
cradling his chin.

“We would drop by the market for gaas and meat on the way home," Ka Berto continued. "One
time, your grandma got into an argument with a butcher over some price. Your mother picked up
a rock and threw it at the man. She then screamed, ‘Leave my mama alone!’”

Emilio smiled. Ka Berto’s wrinkles seemed finer in the glow of the embers from the oven, his
eyes are dancing flames.

“I’m brave too.” Gela asked in between mouthfuls. “Right?”

“You are.” Ka Berto said. “Your mother was very brave. Even after all she had been through
with your father, she was. Brave.”

“I wish we would stop talking about him anymore.” Emilio mumbled. “I wish we could just
forget him.”

Ka Berto sighed. He then reached into his pocket and produced a small black comb. He handed it
to Gela.

“Go ahead, comb your hair and get ready. The sun will be up soon.” Emilio finished up and took
Gela and Ka Berto’s bowls to the sink.

“Will mom come back?” Gela asked the comb stuck midway through her shoulder-length hair.

“Sure.” Emilio spoke as he scrubbed Gela’s bowl for the hundredth time.

+++++++++++++++++++++++

K a Berto was famous for his pandesal in their small village. He had plenty of customers,
mostly factory workers waking up early for work, some students who take the buses to
town, and farmers who take their water buffalos to graze before sunrise. They said that
Ka Berto’s pandesal was the best. His pandesal is no ordinary bread. They liked it warm and soft
in the mornings for breakfast with their coffee when they don’t have time to cook a proper meal.

Ka Berto used to do the rounds when he was a bit younger. He and his wife would wake up
around four in the morning and start preparing the oven. His wife would mix the dough: flour, a
little salt, yeast, a little oil, and sugar. Then, Ka Berto would bake the dough in his stone oven.
His wife would then wrap these small buns in white cloth and put them in a bamboo basket.

Ka Berto had this small tricycle. His wife would sit on the narrow seat attached to the back,
cradling the basket full of pandesals. Ka Berto would then pedal his way into the lamp-lit streets
of their village, shouting “pandesaaaaal!”

At the sound of his voice, people would go out from their houses and call them. When his wife
died, and Ka Berto was too old to pedal that tricycle, Emilio and Gela took over.
B e careful, okay. Stay away from dogs,” Ka Berto said, placing the basket of pandesals
into Gela’s arms. “Here, I bought you new tongs. Be careful though; they’re sharp. Gela,
let Emilio handle them, okay?”

Gela nodded, hugging the warm basket. Emilio adjusted the seat of the tricycle and motioned
Gela to climb in. She sat down, her eyes droopy. She laid her head against the basket and sighed.
Emilio started pedaling.

They waved at Ka Berto standing by the tall narra tree, his arms steadily waving back at them,
his figure getting smaller and smaller against the horizon still purple and dark-blue now with
brush strokes of orange and yellow. Emilio greeted the breeze on his face with a grunt as he
pedaled furiously, dust puffing behind them.

The rice fields are now a dark gold, barely visible in the distance. A water buffalo bellowed a
soft call, its silhouette etched against the fields.

“Ow!” Gela cried.

“You okay?”

“The tongs.”

“Ka Berto warned you. Put them in the basket.”

“Do you really mean what you said?” Gela spoke softly, sucking on her thumb.

“What?” Emilio answered.

Gela paused. “About mom coming back.”

Emilio paused.

"I don't know."

++++++++++++++++++++++

I t had been almost a year since their mom woke them up that night. Emilio remembered her
face so well: her green blouse she kept on pulling trying to hide the purple and green on her
arms and on her left eye and cheek. Emilio had the same colors himself, trying to protect
Gela from their dad. His mom smelled of roses and vomit that night.

“We are leaving,” his mom whispered as she stroked Emilio’s colored cheeks.

Earlier that night, his dad came home singing, smelling of beer and sweat, just like any other
night. Emilio felt anger and helplessness swirling in his stomach that night, just like any other
night.

He watched his dad grip his mom’s hair and drag her from the balcony to their room. He heard
his mom scream while Gela sobbed in the background.

Just like every other night.

Emilio charged at his dad. His dad hit him square in the face. He felt the back of his head hit the
wooden floor, his dad’s fist pounding his face. He wanted to hit back. He could not.

Just like every other night.

Emilio carried Gela as they exited the back door. They ran towards the road to Ka Berto's house.
A scream followed Emilio.

That night, unlike every other night, their mom did not come to pick them up when their father
got sober. Unlike every other night, she never came.
It has been months.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++

T he tricycle reached the end of the dirt road and Emilio pedaled slowly through the speed
bumps on the nearly deserted concrete road. The streetlamps lining the road lit Gela’s
face. Her eyes were closed and her head on the basket. She was snoring softly. The blunt
tip of the tongs showed through the cloth covering the basket, glinting a faint yellow dot on
Gela’s nose. The sky was now a swirl of bright purple and orange. The sun still hid somewhere
behind the clouds. A long stretch of houses appeared on the left. Emilio saw lighted windows
and movement inside. Emilio nudged Gela on the shoulders.

“It’s time,” he whispered.

Gela nodded. She cleared her throat, filled her lungs with air, and yelled, “Pandesaaaaal!
Pandesaal!”

Her voice echoed on the walls. For a second, there was silence. Then, a voice called back.
“Pandesal!” It was automatic. Emilio pedalled to the house where the voice came from.

A lady in Spongebob pyjamas was waiting for them, checking her purple nail polish against the
lamps, her pinkie from the other hand deep inside her nose. “Twenty pieces,” she muttered. Gela
produced a plastic bag from her pocket, opened the basket, and began picking pieces of pandesal
with the tongs.

“I’ll do that,” Emilio whispered, taking the tongs away from Gela. “Hold the bag for me.”

A sweet steamy smell from the basket wafted to Emilio’s direction. He took a deep breath. Gela
handed the bag of pandesal to the lady. The lady flicked something off her thumb, reached for
her pocket, and gave Gela a twenty-peso bill.

‘Thank you,” Emilio said, pedalling away.

“Come back tomorrow, okay?” the lady yelled at them.

They sold about two hundred pieces of pandesal on that street alone. Gela yelled and Emilio
pedaled, their foreheads glistened with sweat.

“Ka Berto promised that we could go back to school on my 10th birthday, I remember that,”
Gela spoke, still hugging the basket, now lighter. “He said that I could have my own pencil case.
I want one of those strawberry smelling erasers if I get one.”

Emilio smiled.

“I bet he will. We are doing pretty well with these pandesals.”

They went through a couple of streets doing the same drill, Gela’s voice got softer and softer, her
throat itched. Emilio parked the tricycle under a streetlamp and wiped his forehead with his shirt.

“How much more do we have left?” he said.

Gela removed the cloth from the basket and peered inside. She took out the tongs and started
counting.

”What is the number after twenty-nine?” she asked.

“Thirty.”

“Yeah, thirty.”

“Alright, one more street then. You ready?”


Gela nodded. Emilio readjusted the seat and climbed back. A few blackbirds chirped up the lines
that connect the street lamps. A few men in factory uniforms chattered as they walked at the far
end of the street. Emilio pedaled slowly, past them and turned left to the last street.

“Pandesaaaal!”

Gela yelled a bit of strain in her voice is apparent now. The street was empty, except for a stray
dog scratching its ear.

“Pandesaal!” Gela hollered again.

A voice from one of the houses echoed back. Emilio pedalled to that direction. A short man in
boxer shorts came out. He was basically naked from the waist up. The man gave them a sleepy
grin.

“How many you got?” the man asked, scratching his bloated belly, his voice wispy like smoke.

“Thirty,” Gela answered, her eyes glued to the man.

“I’ll buy them all.” Gela took the tongs out and laid it on her lap, she took another piece of
plastic bag and poured the contents of the basket. The man grabbed the plastic bag, reached for a
bun, and started munching on it, his grin still plastered on his face.

“That would be thirty pesos,” Gela muttered softly, clearly intimidated.

The man’s grin disappeared.

“Get lost!” the man yelled, waving the bag at them, his yellow teeth visible against the street
light.

Gela cowered at her seat. Emilio jumped from the bike seat and walked towards the man. He
stood close to him. They were nearly the same height, Emilio a little bit shorter. Emilio’s
knuckles were clenched.

“She said, that would be thirty pesos,” he spoke softly, eyes fixed on the man’s beady eyes.

The man grinned at him. Emilio could smell the beer from where he was standing. The smell was
so familiar. So infuriating. The man chuckled and reached into his pocket. Emilio relaxed. He
glanced over to Gela. She had her face buried in the basket, upset.

Then, Emilio felt a blow to his head. Hard. He felt himself stumble into the cold concrete, his
palms scratching the rough surface. Gela screamed. Pieces of pandesal flew to the sky then
bounced on the ground. A few birds flew down from the electrical wires and pecked at the buns.
The dog whimpered away and disappeared into the bushes.

Gela screamed again. Emilio felt the man’s knuckles pounding his face. He cried. So familiar.
The man smelled of vomit. Beer and vomit. The pain was numbing. So familiar. So familiar.

Gela’s screams for help echoed in the background, the handle of the basket almost breaking in
her hands, tears pooling at the concrete. No one came. No one.

“I told you to get lost,” the man whispered to Emilio, grinning, his eyes half-shut and hazy.

Emilio could feel the warm fluid from his nose reaching his ears. All he could see was the man’s
balding head, his beady eyes, the smell of vomit, and fists pounding on his face. He closed his
eyes. So familiar. He could feel his head pounding against the concrete. He wanted to hit back.
He wanted to hurt him. He wanted to tear that grin off his face. Instead, he let go. He laid there
and waited.

Then, it was over.

The man stumbled back, clutched his side, and seemed to reach for something. His face
crumpled into a tight grimace. Emilio felt someone tugging at his shirt, calling his name.
“Let’s go, Emilio. Let’s go.” Gela’s broken voice reached his ears. “Please, let’s go!”

The man’s boxer was soaked red with blood. In his hips, was a protruding metal, coated with fine
breadcrumbs, blemished with blood, glinting a yellow dot on his nose. The tongs. A few
pandesals caught some dark red drops on the concrete. Emilio mustered his strength and ran to
the bike. Gela followed.

“I killed him, didn’t I?” Gela asked.

Through the blood and the half-shut eyes, Emilio shook his head. “No.”

The sun rose on the horizon, sending a soft orange blast to Gela’s face. Emilio pedaled home in
silence. As they passed by the golden rice fields and reached the dirt road that led to Ka Berto’s
home, Emilio laughed.

“Emilio?” Gela looked at him, her face pinched.

“Mother would be proud,” Emilio whispered. “You’re just like her.”