From Zola with Love

In which Hornee Battler first experiences his power.

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On an early Sunday morning in July 1915, the parishioners of Calawan church waited for five minutes when the town priest, Padre Zamora, froze like a stone from head to toe while in the middle of singing “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi.” This was not the first time it happened though, as a week ago, he stood stiff as a statue for four minutes while giving the communion bread to an eighty-year-old woman whose lavish white hair was as long as her body and as thick as a twisted bundle of corn silk. Some people said he was just pausing and admiring the luxurious growth on the woman's head, but, in truth, he was completely immobile like one of the saints on the altar and poised as though caught and ensnared by the sight of a fearsome gorgon. The freezing happened three more times within the same month and caused alarm to the rest of the village.

“I have seen this before,” said Hermana Penchang, “in the church of Bulusan. There is nothing to worry about.” She was referring to a priest named Padre Burgos of a nearby village, but in this case, the priest actually fell asleep for ten minutes while in the middle of delivering the sermon to the faithful of Bulusan church. This happened regularly and was always midway through the sacred homily, that the parishioners also took a break while the priest was sleeping, some brought out their local snacks and ate boiled peanuts, roasted corn, dried mango, fried cassava, and salted watermelon seeds, which the Bulusan people were very fond of, and others quietly played cards and dice, while the rest, in emulation of their spiritual leader, took a peaceful and serene nap for ten minutes. Oftentimes, the cracking sound made by the popping of the watermelon seeds brings back Padre Burgos to the realm of the awake, and then continues his sermon as usual.

“But this is different,” replied Hermana Rufa. “I would not have noticed it but yesterday Padre Zamora froze while drinking the cup of wine in the Eucharist and stayed stuck in that position for five minutes. You would think that the cup is bottomless. Can a person drink wine while sleeping at the same time? I don't think so.”

“Only a priest can do that. They can do that,” assured Hermana Sipa.

Hermana Rufa could not be subdued as she had a theory on the peculiar affliction of the priest. “Could it be witchcraft?” she said with a harrowing voice as though Padre Zamora had been confirmed struck by the worst case of an unforgivable curse. She shared how recently in other villages, people had been coughing blood, losing weight, and always feeling tired and weak, which she attested were clear signs of the most malevolent form of sorcery. And to deliver the final blow to the remaining skeptics, she said: “I know someone who died from this.”

She was referring to the story of Padre Gomez, who attended a house blessing where catered food was being served. Though his plate was already full after getting a little of Adobo, Menudo, Kaldereta, Sinigang, Relyeno, Kare-Kare, Tinola, Laing, Pinakbet, Lumpia, Pancit, and Lechon, Padre Gomez still ensured that he got a few pieces of a local delicacy called Sanzrival, which was made of margarine, eggs, and cashew nuts, and a slice of a custard dessert called Leche Flan. He commented to the cook that he had never tasted food as good as this, and so the cook offered him Spaghetti, which she considered her best dish. The priest turned down her offer, saying he was almost full and would prefer to finish what he got and not waste food. That night he had a severe case of indigestion. Padre Gomez was found coughing blood the next day and died within a month.

The sisterhood would have continued discussing this topic with morbid fascination and would have spent the whole day theorizing the nature and causes of Padre Zamora's affliction if not for the intervention of the head nun of Calawan church named Petra Manilip, who had been serving the parish for more than fifty years. She said:

“Stop this at once! Or others will hear you and believe what you say. Doctor Canlas is arriving this afternoon, and until he completes his diagnosis, let's refrain from such chatter.”

But in truth, Petra was worried. For the past fifty years, it had been her mission to watch over the people going to the church, observing what they wear, who they go in with, who they go out with, and what they say, helped by the skill she had developed on reading lips so she could find out what they actually utter even without hearing their voice. In the past days, she had been watching over the faithful, as usual, when she detected an anomaly aside from what was happening with the parish priest. There was a moment when she noticed that multiple people froze at the same time. She knew because they appeared chatting but their lips were not moving. Their lips were perfectly still, and when they finally moved, they had a smooth continuity to what they were saying before they stood still. Such details never escaped the attention of Petra Manilip. And then there was that time when several people exited the church as though they were alternating blinks of a Christmas lantern. As the head nun of Calawan, she would uncover the mystery that freezes people.

As observant and astute as she was, Petra didn't notice that the strange events all started happening when a baby was found in front of the church in the month of June. Like a mythical Moses, the baby was covered with a long strand of cloth containing the insignia of a family, which no one at that time could recognize.

One morning in June, a farmer named Jose Magdangal was delivering carabao and goat milk to the parishioners, when he noticed a basket in front of the church. Thinking it was an offering, he ignored it, but then the basket moved and a cry was heard inside, the cry of an infant. He checked the basket and saw the most handsome baby he had ever seen. He felt right then that the baby was different from others, that he was special. He knew that the baby was of mixed parentage, for he was white and had a pointed nose, with a chin that could often be seen on foreign sailors and soldiers that visited the island. And yet, Jose sensed that the child’s eyes and lips were those of a beautiful woman, a local from one of the villages, for he had the eyes of the sea and the lips of the setting sun. Hence, within a few glances, Jose deciphered the tumultuous past of the baby that had landed in front of the church that fateful June morning.

It didn't take long until the basket was noticed by other people. The sisterhood was there along with their head, Petra Manilip, and the advisor of the mayor, Artemio Buendia. Hermana Penchang asked the group if anyone saw a letter, as there was always a letter attached to abandoned babies. “I have seen this before,” she said, “in the Village of San Lorenzo.” She was referring to a couple named Mr. and Mrs. Rosario who one day found a baby boy left on their doorstep. Attached within the baby’s cloth was a letter containing a message requesting the couple to adopt him. It was later found out that the baby's real father was Mr. Rosario himself and the real mother was his young mistress. The whole setup was a ploy to integrate the baby into their home without incurring the suspicions and the wrath of Mrs.  Rosario. “There is no letter,” said Hermana Sipa. After checking the basket twice herself, Hermana Penchang said, “This baby surely came from our farmers. Most of them can't read or write, and they keep on making babies though they can't support them.”

“That might not be the case,” answered Artemio Buendia. He was considered the smartest elder in Calawan and the official advisor of the municipal hall. He regularly played chess with the mayor every Friday at 2 PM and had given him counsel on various important matters regarding the village. A sample of this was the founding of the orphanage which was now headed by Petra. He could be found always carrying a black book he said he found under a Balete tree, and until his death, he was never defeated in any board game by anyone in the village. “As our village is too small,” he said, “and as everyone knows what everyone else is doing and as there are no pregnant women in our village in the past three months, ergo this baby is not from our village. If my eyes are still as good as they are, this baby is less than two months old. And as for the farmers, they might not be able to read or write, but they are the last people you would expect to abandon their children.”

Since the baby didn't come with a letter and the group didn't know his name or origin, they decided that the next best course of action was to have the baby baptized and be given an identity. This would help as well in the slight chance that the baby was a changeling or possessed by any malevolent spirit. “It's best to be safe than sorry,” said Hermana Rufa. Hermana Penchang agreed and added that they must also ensure that the baby was not a Patianac, which was a kind of vampiric creature that often took the form of an infant. “I have seen this before,” she added.

They could not agree though on the name for the baby. The sisterhood initially suggested naming him after Saint Philomena, the patron saint of infants. But since the baby was a male, it would not work. Hermana Penchang then suggested naming the baby after the mayor of Calawan, however, as it would raise doubts on the question of fatherhood and scandalize the next election, this was turned down as well. Hermana Sipa then suggested naming him after a popular singer from a neighboring village, but it was quickly shot down by the other sisters. Finally, Artemio suggested getting the last name of the baby from the village founder, Antero, and getting the first name from the farmer who found him, Jose. They all agreed to the brilliance of the suggestion and so the baby would be named Jose Antero.

Jose Magdangal was proud to have his name given to the baby, and if not for his eight children, he would have gladly adopted Jose Antero. For years, he and his wife, Maria Magdangal, had been trying for a male child, but they always got a female, until they had seven of them. Finally, they got a baby boy on the eighth try after his wife danced the fandango in front of the church of a neighboring village. His wife had just given birth last month, and that meant his recently born son, Gabriel Magdangal, was almost the same age as Jose Antero.

As for the last name of the baby, Antero Castro was the founder and hero of Calawan. Three hundred years ago, when the village was still new and made up of only a few houses, there was a giant crocodile that lived in the river and terrorized the lives of the fishermen, farmers, and their livestock. The village was still called Lawaan at that time, as it consisted mostly of bodies of water. This giant crocodile had eaten eighteen men, twelve women, sixteen kids, eleven dogs, four cows, five carabaos, and countless chickens and pigs. It was always hungry that people changed their livelihood from fishing to farming. With the leadership of Antero, they were able to subdue and kill the giant, and inside its belly were found bars of rusted metal, which after cleaning turned out to be made of pure gold. The villagers melted the gold and sold it for a big amount, which they later on used to build the houses, the church, and the municipal hall. From then on, they have changed the village name from Lawaan to Calawan, with Antero being recognized as its founding hero.

A few days after the basket was found in front of the church, the baptism finally went ahead. The sisterhood was happy that the baby was neither a changeling nor a Patianac nor infested by malevolent spirits. However, another strange event happened during the baptism ceremony. While Padre Zamora was in the middle of pouring water on the baby’s head, everyone in front of the altar froze, including the priest, the sacristan, the sisterhood, the Magdangal family, and the rest, all except for the baby. The photographer, who was standing far back, didn't get affected, and he actually took this moment as the cue for him to take the photo, and so he did get one of the best shots as everyone was as still as could be. When asked, later on, the frozen people said they could not remember any freezing at all, like time just flowed continuously for them. Only the photo taken on that day served as evidence of the strange event.

A few weeks passed and Padre Zamora was cured of his freezing. Nobody could explain what Doctor Canlas had concocted to cure what he called “a momentary chilling of the bones” but even Petra Manilip had stopped witnessing the random freezing of the parishioners when taking the mass. The village celebrated this and they held a special parade to commemorate the healing. Interestingly, this coincided with the time when the baby, Jose Antero, moved in with the Magdangal family. As Maria was breastfeeding Gabriel, they decided to take Jose so he could be breastfed as well. Petra, who headed the orphanage of the village, agreed to let Jose stay with them for one year. The Magdangal family would have happily extended this later on if not only for the reason that their eldest daughter, Lualhati, became positive for tuberculosis.

Jose Antero lived happily with the Magdangal family during the time he stayed with them. Growing on the farm actually contributed to his good health and strong body later on, as everything was natural and fresh: fresh milk from the cows and the goats, fresh fruits, nuts, and vegetables from their backyard, fresh eggs, and meat from their poultry, a life of plenty surrounded by greenery and the gifts of the earth.

There was one remarkable event that happened on the Magdangal farm when the baby was six months old. One afternoon, Jose and Gabriel were sleeping in the room when a huge snake entered through the opened window. It was not uncommon in Calawan to find snakes visiting farmhouses, as there were chickens and ducks in their backyards that the snakes like to prey upon. But this particular snake, a huge green python, went for the babies and skipped the poultry just outside the house. When Maria entered the room, she shouted so loud that the neighbors on the whole street heard her. Jose and the other farmers quickly dropped what they were doing and ran in the direction of her scream and saw that the babies were unharmed and the python was already dead without any visible wounds or cause of death. It was poised as though frozen at the moment of striking its prey.

Several years went by and Jose grew healthily and never got sick even once. He spent his weekdays in the orphanage, but during the weekends, he stayed on the Magdangal farm, which gave him the best memories of his childhood. The family was not wealthy but they were abundant with everything one needed to live contently and happily. Their house was made of bamboo with a roof of nipa leaves, surrounded by all kinds of greeneries. Every Saturday morning, the parents, along with Jose and their children, would collect fruits and vegetables like jicama, eggplant, winged bean, peanuts, long beans, hyacinth beans, lima beans, ash gourd, sponge gourd, bottle gourd, squash, radish, mustard, onions, tomatoes, garlic, ginger, and sesame plants. Then they had to feed the chickens, ducks, doves, quails, turkeys, geese, goats, pigs, and dogs, and check on the cows and carabaos. Once these were all done, Maria would prepare lunch while the kids played with children from neighboring houses.

Just after lunch, Jose and the Magdangal children would fly kites which they made by cutting newspapers and bamboo sticks. In the absence of glue, they would use left-over rice as the adhesive to keep the kite together. These flimsy materials would sometimes make the kite break apart when it’s flying at its peak, but creating a new one was part of the fun. After flying kites, they would catch small fishes that lived in the narrow pools that surrounded the rice fields, and if they were lucky, they might find crablets, shrimps, prawns, and large crabs as well, which they would cook by boiling in salted water. Later on, they would go to the rice fields and catch frogs using a long bamboo rod with a piece of string and bait at the end. They would use fat worms which the frogs find irresistible, and when a frog had bitten the bait, they would flick the rod and let the frog drop into the net waiting below. Maria would often fry these frogs they caught, together with mudfish and catfish, for dinner. Jose loved these delicacies as he could only have them on the farm.

Late noon was what Jose and Gabriel were truly waiting for, as they would be hunting spiders, especially Jose who had to spend the weekdays away from the farm. Back in the orphanage, he developed the habit of spending most of his time catching and studying insects, such as ants, flies, butterflies, dragonflies, damselflies, crickets, mole crickets, cockroaches, grasshoppers, moths, bees, wasps, beetles, cicadas, and his second most favorite creatures next to spiders, praying mantises. He was always curious about small life forms that he could catch and observe, but nothing matched the excitement he felt for spiders. And so, he always looked forward to the weekends for hunting them.

Jose was so obsessed with spiders that he created his own system for classifying them. This was impressive, at that time, for a five-year-old child who had not even started school, could not read nor write, and had not heard of the words biology, specie, genus, family, or the names Carl Linnaeus and Charles Darwin. First, he classified the spiders into kinds: those that jump, those that run, those that wait, and those that weave, and then he categorized them further.

Early in his insect hunting days, Jose noticed that insects follow the color of their surroundings, so he would find brown grasshoppers on brown grass, and green grasshoppers on green grass. One day, he was observing a fragrant flower called Sampaguita, also known as the Arabian Jasmine. On top of the white flower was a small praying mantis. Jose knew that it was only a matter of time before a small bee would come, enter the flower, and get caught by the mantis. However, to his surprise, the flower moved and caught the mantis. It was not a flower though, but a waiting spider. So, from that day on, Jose had discovered the waiting kind of spiders, as they don't move when hunting and would just snap when their prey approached them. He collected lots of them, mostly from colorful flowers. He learned that the most beautiful waiting spiders lived in orchids, especially the white and pink ones, as they added charm to the flowers themselves.

Jose discovered the next kind of spider when sugar canes were in season and flies were everywhere. One day, he created a tool for hunting flies. Using a small bamboo stick and a few rubber bands, he made a rubber-band gun that he could point and shoot at flies, without them escaping and flying away. After shooting and killing eleven flies, he was surprised when a spider showed up near a fly, sneaked behind it, and then jumped on it, catching it with its fangs. And so, from that day on, the jumping kind was discovered. Jose learned that most of these jumping spiders were small and could be found nesting on tree leaves.

Jose got his next discovery during a weekday in the orphanage. At this point, he already knew the three kinds of spiders: waiting, jumping, and weaving. One day, Jose was in the privy and since he was there, there was nothing he could really do but stare and observe the wall in front of him, until a cockroach appeared and started crawling on the wall. Jose was watching it, thinking about what he would do once he caught it. He could feed it to his large praying mantis, which he got from a Guava tree. He was in the middle of these thoughts when suddenly a hairy spider appeared, almost the same size as the cockroach. He was waiting in anticipation, “What will happen next?” To his amazement, with lightning speed, the spider sprinted towards the cockroach and bit it with its large fangs. And he did it without jumping, waiting, or weaving. So, from that day on, the running kind was discovered. Jose learned that this kind of spider was the hardest to be found or noticed by people, as they quickly scamper when they get exposed in the open, and would always hide in the nearest hole, given the chance.

The weaving spider was the kind that Jose discovered first and was his favorite and biggest obsession. It also had the largest variety in shape and size, some were as thin as a needle while others could eat a small bird. The weaving spiders that he liked the most were those that he called fighting spiders, for they were not too large nor too small, but just plain beautiful.

It was only a matter of time for Jose to make the spiders fight on a small stick, as he had already observed it in nature. He was hunting jumping spiders on a Mango tree when he witnessed two jumpers chasing each other. Then they suddenly stopped and raised their legs to grapple. Soon, they were biting and pushing each other, until one of them landed its fangs on the back of the other. Jose was amazed by the brutality and raw fierceness of it, with the winner eating the loser.

Being himself, Jose further categorized the fighting spiders into two: the weak ones and the strong ones. Though the two groups had the same shape and size, he distinguished them based on their color and habitat. The weak ones were those he would find inside or around houses and were always colored black, with no designs on their bodies. The strong ones were those he would find outside houses, most often in trees, grasses, dried leaves, and any vegetation. They were always colored based on where they were found and with beautiful markings and stripes on their back and legs.

Jose would never forget the day when he discovered the existence of the strong fighting spiders. Up to that point, he had only been collecting weaving spiders found inside houses. One day, he was observing an anthill near a Papaya tree when he noticed the largest spider web he had ever seen, right there in the Papaya tree. But there was no spider, just its home, still intact and perfectly shaped. Jose knew that the spider was still there, sleeping and hiding in its nest. He already learned that after catching lots of house spiders. So, he traced the strands of webs and checked the leaves, carefully and yet excitedly, until it showed, in one of the dried leaves of the tree, a magnificent and beautiful red spider, the first colored fighting spider he had ever seen, his first strong fighting spider.

Jose quickly and yet gently released the leaf back to the tree, for he was standing on top of an anthill, and it would be a tragedy if that spider fell on the anthill and got hurt, bitten, or eaten by the ants. With his heart beating fast, he rushed with exhilaration towards the orphanage kitchen and searched for an empty matchbox, and found two. He carefully cleaned one of them and then placed some guava leaves inside, which he knew calms spiders and preserves their strength. Then he ran back to the Papaya tree, and carefully caught the spider and placed it inside the matchbox. Every few minutes, he would open the matchbox and observe the splendid creature, he could not believe that something like it existed.

When the weekend arrived, Jose showed the spider to Gabriel, and to his surprise, he said that they were everywhere on the farm. And lots of them too. From that day onwards, they reserved the late afternoon time of the weekends for spider hunting, as that was the time when they rebuild their webs and could be caught in the open.

When Jose turned seven, he started going to the only school in Calawan, named Calawan Elementary School. At first, he didn’t like to go, as all he wanted to do was catch insects and spiders, and schooling would just detract him from that calling, but it was mandatory and other children would be going too, plus Gabriel would also be attending, so they could be together during weekdays as well. It was in Grade One when Jose learned for the first time the meaning of true terror when he met the teacher named Maestra Garcia.

Maestra Garcia was a charming old woman but whenever she frowned, students wondered what they did wrong and what bodily pain they would soon experience. Though she regularly smiled at children, she also carried a thin bamboo stick that could snappily hit when she saw something that displeased her. Other teachers carried that stick as well, but for pointing things on the blackboard and for the occasional tapping on the wall to silence the class. But Maestra Garcia never once tapped the blackboard or the wall to silence her class, she never had to. When children were in her class, they had to be alert to find out when that stick hits someone and they hear the splat as bamboo meets the flesh of a child. And when Maestra Garcia started hitting a child, the bamboo stick would not stop flying until the child cried, so it was indeed a rare day if at least five children did not wail in the room ruled by Maestra Garcia.

With order, discipline, and peace established, she would drill the class on spelling and her favorite: math tables for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. While drinking a cup of thick, noxious dark soup filled with ginger and lemongrass, she made the students fill up the math tables and would hit anyone who got anything wrong. Students were so terrified of her that on just the first day of class, four kids peed on their desks.

This was the teacher that was waiting for Jose and Gabriel. As the students were arranged in the classroom alphabetically, Jose was positioned at the front of the class and had witnessed the nature of Maestra Garcia and how her mind worked. He promised himself that he would not give that grizzly old woman a chance to hit him with that stick, not to say to make him cry in front of the whole class. Until the day he found the vacant lot next to the Grade One classroom.

Though Jose already started school, his mind was still filled with thoughts of hunting insects and spiders. While going to his classroom, he discovered that there was a vacant lot next to their building. It was huge and full of fruit trees like Guava, Mango, Custard Apple, Soursop, Java Plum, Tamarind, Sapodilla, Star Apple, Santol, Aratiles, Kamatsile, Jackfruit, Avocado, Papaya, Longan, Coconut, Banana, and Durian. Though it was private, the only thing separating it from the school grounds was a low wall that a child could easily climb. Jose knew right away that this lot was full of strong fighting spiders and he could not wait to catch them all.

So, one day, he brought his spiders to the school as well as five more empty matchboxes. He waited for the closing bell and went alone to the vacant lot, as Gabriel could not join him that day. It was late noon and it was the time when spiders started building their webs. It was a bonanza and Jose had a great time climbing trees and hunting for his collection.  He caught a lot of new colored fighting spiders: an orange one from a Banana, a brown one from a Santol, a gray one from a Tamarind, and more. Once he was done, he saw his classmates playing tag and they asked him to join. Jose agreed but he wanted to secure his spiders as they might get accidentally stepped upon or get hurt while inside his bag. So, he went back to the classroom and placed the matchboxes on top of his desk. He planned to return later before going home.

But he did not. Jose forgot to go back to his spiders, and the next morning, his desk was clean and there were no matchboxes. Jose felt panic for all of those spiders he had collected since the day he caught the first one in the Papaya tree. And to his shock, Maestra Garcia was at her desk smirking at some curious matchboxes in front of her.

“The cleaner came to me today and gave me these boxes full of spiders. Now, who is playing with spiders while in school?”

Nobody replied, for only Gabriel knew that those belonged to Jose. Since nobody was answering, Maestra Garcia started opening the boxes, and for every spider that came out, she placed her shoe on top of it and mashed it until the spider stopped moving and got torn into pieces. Jose could not help it and raised his hands.

“Come here,” said Maestra Garcia.

Jose knew what was coming. Maestra Garcia made him go in front of the class. She asked him to raise his arms horizontally with his hands laid flat in front of him, and then Maestra Garcia whipped his fingers with the thin bamboo stick. “Will you still play with spiders?” Jose didn't answer, and the stick flew again against his fingers. Jose knew that the correct answer was “No, Maestra” but his naive inner voice told him that he had no plan of stopping playing with spiders, so he replied with silence still and let the bamboo stick flay his skin. He was on the verge of crying yet he held back his tears, but his lips trembled and his eyes welled with unshed tears. The bamboo stick flew once more and after the fourth question, Jose finally replied “No, Maestra”. Maestra Garcia then opened the remaining boxes and killed all the spiders with her shoes. That was when Jose finally cried, not because his fingers had been red with lacerations nor because he got punished in front of the whole class, but because the spiders he had cherished and taken care of were killed by someone who knew nothing of them or could not appreciate their existence.

From that day onwards, Jose never brought spiders again to their school and never got hit again by Maestra Garcia.

Grade Two was a very different experience for him and his classmates. The previous instructor retired after he broke his leg due to old age and got replaced by the youngest and most beautiful teacher in the whole school. Her name was Erinna Madrigal. When Jose met her on the first day of class, he thought he saw an angel, for he had never known someone so gentle, kind, and nice. Gabriel, with the rest of the students, thought she was the reincarnation of the Virgin Mary. Jose didn’t understand yet what he was feeling back then, but he knew that he really liked the teacher, he could listen attentively to her the whole day and would do anything she said.

Erinna Madrigal did not only stop the practice of beating children with a bamboo stick, but she was genuinely kind and caring to the students. She didn’t treat them like imbeciles but, with her soothing voice, talked to them like fully-developed humans. Her presence was so mesmerizing that even after the closing bell had rung, nobody still wanted to go until she asked them to enjoy the rest of the day. For the first time, the Grade Two students were actually excited to attend their classes.

Jose was thankful that she was his teacher, so he could stare at her the whole day. Because he was still a child, he was very transparent and had not learned yet to mask his feelings. Not only he, but the whole class liked Maestra Erinna, so all of them cried when they learned that she was going to leave the school after the end of the year. She was going to get married and would move to another island where her future husband lived. Jose asked his classmates for more details but nobody knew much, until one of the older students said, “She's going to marry Ernesto Divina Gracia, from the Island of Zola.” Jose quietly noted the info and even wrote it in his notebook. Then he said to Gabriel, “Someday, I will look for her.” Gabriel replied, “She will be Erinna Divina Gracia then.”

After experiencing Grade Two with Maestra Erinna, Jose and his classmates were excited to enter the next grade. To their shock, they found out that their Grade Three teacher would be the older sister of Maestra Garcia.

Her name was Maestra Jacinto and she was the oldest teacher in the school. Her younger sister, Maestra Garcia, learned from her the art of breaking students, especially young children. Maestra Jacinto never needed to carry a stick, for she had her fingers. She knew where to put those fingers and what to do with them to produce the best impact on students. Early in her teaching career, she learned that when a bamboo stick hits the skin of a child, the pain stops there gradually and she had to strike again to make it come back. But when she pinches a student on the ears, under the armpit, or in the groin, she could make a child squirm for minutes and then even amplify the effect by suddenly yanking the child forward, and jerking it until the skin almost falls off. That will leave a red mark and will be sore for many days. And Maestra Jacinto learned that when she pinches that area again in the future, the sharp, searing sensation on the child will be more immediate and more intense. A few students could not walk properly after she was done with them.

Maestra Jacinto never had her own child, so her methods were purely theoretical. However, they have been highly tested and verified after more than fifty years of practice with the children of Calawan. Even the parents of her students cowered before her, for they attended the same school and went through the methods of Maestra Jacinto themselves. And unlike Maestra Garcia, who stopped beating a child when she started to cry, Maestra Jacinto stopped only when a child started to have uncontrollable sobbing spams and began to have prolonged, gasping hiccups. A few years ago, she pinched a small girl for too long that the searing sensation caused the frail child to momentarily forget her name.

By the middle of the school year, every Grade Three student under Maestra Jacinto had experienced these sobbing spasms and gasping hiccups, except for one child, Jose Antero. Even Gabriel Magdangal got the treatment by Maestra Jacinto when he missed staying for the Friday cleaners. Every day in Calawan Elementary School, several assigned students stay back to clean the room, polish the floor, water the plants, collect the trash, and throw it in the bin. This set of cleaners changed every day, and if anyone assigned as a cleaner skipped it, that student would be reported to the teacher the next day. Maestra Jacinto was aware that Jose had not yet undergone the treatment, and she was itching to get him.

One day, Maestra Jacinto looked at Jose and said: “The trashcan smells bad, throw the content in the pit.” The students found this strange as it was usually emptied once a day, after class by the cleaners. Nevertheless, Jose stood up, walked towards the door, and picked up the trashcan. It only contained four banana peels, two mango pits, and three crumpled papers. This would have been not an issue if done after class, but the pit was located 900 meters to the back of the school, to the little forest where the school grounds meet the river. Jose had never really spent much time visiting this area of the school, as he heard that nature spirits were living there. Still, Jose trekked the long path, reached the river, and threw the contents of the trashcan in the pit. When he was about to return, he noticed a huge anthill on top of perfectly refined sand. Being himself, he watched and observed the anthill, and rested for five minutes. And that was the moment he saw for the first time the only insect he had not yet known up to that point, the antlion.

Thanks to Maestra Jacinto, Jose discovered the antlion, on his own, at the age of nine.

Jose was watching the ants as they carried pieces of food back to their nest when he saw one that fell into a small pit. He noticed that the anthill was surrounded by a large number of such holes. He initially assumed that those were entrances to the colony, but then he saw the struggling ant trying to get out of the pit. Something at the bottom of the hole started throwing pebbles and bits of sand to derail the escaping ant. Finally, the ant slid to the bottom of the pit, and then suddenly a large pincer appeared, bit the ant, and dragged it inwards until they both disappeared. The ant had vanished and the pit was peaceful again.

Jose could not believe what he had just seen. Something ate the ant and he must catch it. He quickly approached the pit and scooped the sand to see what attacked the ant. At this point, he didn't know yet what the insect looked like or how large it was. “It is not here,” he thought. Though the insect was actually there, he could not see it because he was expecting something else. In his imagination, he saw a majestic insect similar to the red fighting spider he caught in the Papaya tree. Then he remembered that he must return to the class.

On his way back to the building, Jose was thinking of ways to catch the mystery insect he just discovered in the sand. And he got an idea before reaching the class. He was going to ask one of his classmates for a strand of long hair, then he would tie an ant with it, and fish out the mystery insect. Once he reached the room and returned to his desk, Maestra Jacinto started asking questions about a topic she discussed while Jose was outside. She didn't ask Jose immediately, as her true intent would become too obvious, she waited until the third question to ask him. Unknown to Maestra Jacinto, he already read the textbook fully, and so, was able to answer her questions. When the closing bell rang, Jose knew where he would go.

Carrying with him several strands of long hair he requested from two classmates, Jose walked back to the pit next to the river. Then he started his plan. He picked one ant, tied it with a hair, and then slowly dropped it in the sand pit. The mystery insect detected the walking ant and started throwing pebbles at it so it would fall to the bottom. The ant struggled but finally slid to the center, and then the same pincer as earlier showed up and snapped the ant’s body. Before it could fully drag its victim down, Jose pulled the hair and finally saw the mystery insect for the first time, still biting firmly at the ant.

The antlion was just tiny and not entirely terrifying as Jose had imagined. But he was impressed at the novelty of the way it hunted its prey. He just wished that it was larger and a little menacing. He spent a long time playing with the antlions, he would fish them out but return them to the sand again. Then he started dropping various kinds of “victims” in the pits, like a small butterfly, a small spider, and a huge ant that didn't belong to the earlier anthill he found. So far, the antlion was able to drag everything he fed it. He thought of bringing it home but then he realized that there was no point in taking it back as it’s obviously helpless outside of its pit. There was no way it could fight his spiders or mantises.

While totally absorbed with his antlion research, Jose didn’t notice when two older students entered the little forest and approached the tool shed in front of him. The couple went inside the shed, still oblivious of the boy near them. After a few minutes, and not knowing that Jose was nearby, the couple started to make out. The girl began to undress and took off her school uniform. That was when Jose saw them. He was shocked and he knew right away that this was not something he should be seeing and that he should get away soon and leave them alone. However, he saw the girl's exposed breasts and felt something for the first time. The effect was fast and immediate, the couple was frozen the moment Jose blinked after having the first glance. He was transfixed by the sight. He recognized the girl as he had seen her perform with the trapeze before in the village circus. The couple had been frozen for a few minutes when Jose realized they were not moving. He ran back towards his classroom, as fast as he could, without looking again at them. When he had reached their building, the couple unfroze and just continued what they were doing, unaware of what just occurred.

That night, Jose could not sleep. He could not stop thinking about what he saw. Then he dreamt that he was back in the shed with the couple, but instead of the male student, he was the one there, but much older, and the girl's face was not that of the circus girl, but that of his previous teacher, Erinna. When he woke up, he had forgotten the dream.

The next day, though Jose could not remember the dream, the memory of the couple from the shed had been imprinted on his mind and kept returning to him. It was his first thought upon waking up, while eating breakfast, and when walking to the school. Still, it was nowhere as strong as how he felt about fighting spiders, and it would have been easier to take it out of his mind if only the girl didn’t appear again in their class that day.

Jose was busy taking notes of Maestra Jacinto’s writings on the blackboard when someone knocked on the classroom door. They were introducing the new teacher that replaced Erinna Madrigal. She was an old woman named Maestra Fuentes and a good friend of both Maestra Garcia and Maestra Jacinto. She was going from room to room, with the help of a senior female student. It was her, the girl from the shed.

The girl looked at the students and saw Jose, and their eyes met. At that exact moment, the strange feelings Jose felt yesterday returned, and in the next blink of his eyes, Maestra Fuentes, Maestra Jacinto, and the girl were all frozen. The rest of the students noticed too and they were surprised. One of the female students in front got worried and approached the teachers and then she froze too. It had been seven minutes since they were frozen and the students began to panic. In the confusion, Jose got pushed by a classmate and the teachers and students unfroze. They just continued what they were doing, but the rest of the class felt weirded out.

After the closing bell rang, Jose asked his classmates who the girl was and learned that her name was Isabel Flores. Her father was Aureliano Flores, head of the Circus Flores, which performed three times a week in the town plaza, from Friday to Sunday. For the next two days, Jose became curious about Isabel, as he passed through her classroom several times, hoping he could have a glimpse of her. On the third day, he dreamt again of the same dream as before: he was much older, but now, the face of the girl didn't change into that of Erinna, the girl remained to have the face of Isabel. Then they started to kiss, but they stopped because Maestra Jacinto showed up, which startled him and woke him up from his dream. This time he remembered it fully, he replayed it in his mind and asked himself, “Will she like me if I'm older?”

The next week, Jose and Gabriel were busy with class activities, as the school was preparing for the upcoming school foundation day. Still, Jose found the chance to visit Isabel’s classroom twice a day, but he was not able to see her for four days straight. So, he was utterly surprised when he met her in front of their classroom when Friday arrived. “Your teacher is in?” asked Isabel. Jose froze and could not say a thing in front of her, though he had been looking for her for four days. Maestra Jacinto appeared in Jose’s peripheral vision and this quickly unfroze him. “Come in,” said Maestra Jacinto. She took an envelope from Isabel and then she left.

 Maestra Jacinto returned to her desk and took out a bunch of paper from the envelope. She explained that as part of the foundation day celebrations, all students of Calawan Elementary School would get free tickets to the Calawan Circus. While doing her daily roll call, she started giving the tickets as well. When she reached the name of Jose, she said, “I will give it to you later. After class.” This made him worried as Maestra Jacinto might do something so he could not join the class to attend the circus. After the closing bell rang, Jose approached Maestra Jacinto.

“You are from the orphanage?”

“Yes, Maestra.”

“I will give you an extra ticket, but I need you to do something for me this weekend.”

“Yes, Maestra.”

Maestra Jacinto took out a small container and gave it to him. Jose found out that the dreaded teacher only wanted him to fill it up with Oregano leaves.

“Give it to me on Monday.” 

“Yes, Maestra.”

That Saturday morning, Jose was back on the Magdangal farm and collected as many Oregano leaves that he could put in the container of Maestra Jacinto. When lunchtime came, he gave the extra ticket to Gabriel, so he could share it with his older sisters. In return, Gabriel had to help him.

“Why do you want to go to Isabel's house?” asked Gabriel.

“No, we're not going inside their house. I just want to see where she lives,” replied Jose.

“Why do you want to see where she lives?”

“I just want to see her.”

“Why do you want to see her?”

“Will you help me or not?”

The sisters of Gabriel were laughing as they knew what Jose was going through. Gloria, the elder sister of Gabriel by two years, said, “I will take you to their house. I am going to see Mayumi, anyway.” Mayumi Flores was the only sibling and younger sister of Isabel. She was a classmate of Gloria, and both were in Grade Five. Jose and Gabriel both brought a squash as a gift for Mayumi's mother while Gloria wrapped a piece of rice cake for Mayumi.

“What will you tell Isabel when you see her?” asked Gloria.

“I'm not going to talk. I just want to see her,” replied Jose.

When they reached the home of the Flores family, it was Mayumi who opened the door. Jose and Gabriel gave their squashes to Eugenia Flores, Isabel and Mayumi's mother, who in turn gave each boy a piece of cassava cake. Gloria introduced her brother and Jose to Mayumi and her mother, and then she said:

“This boy has a crush on your sister. Is she around?”

It was their plan all along. Gabriel and his sisters pretended that they didn’t have a clue about what was going on with Jose and they planned to reveal it in front of Isabel. Fortunately, Isabel was not in the living room, or she would have seen Jose turn red with embarrassment. They were laughing so hard that he didn't have a choice but to laugh as well. “Isabel is taking a bath. I think she's about to get finished.” Mayumi had just said this when Isabel appeared, fresh from the bathroom. She hurriedly ran towards her room as she was only wearing a towel wrapped around her body. And then it happened fast, the moment Isabel passed Jose, he saw her, and with the next blink of his eye, everyone in the room got frozen. Isabel was just a few feet away from Jose and he could smell her body. It felt like forever and Jose was transfixed with Isabel’s beauty. Ten minutes had passed and everyone was still frozen. It was then that Jose became aware of his ability. He could freeze people.

On the school's foundation day, Padre Zamora held a mass in the school at 1 PM, and by 2:30 PM, the students and their teachers were all on their way to the circus. It was hot and humid, and everyone was sweating, fortunately, Coconut, Melon, and Strawberry juice were being sold along the path to the plaza. Students were also allowed by some teachers to buy sliced mango, fried banana, boiled corn, and sesame balls with red bean filling, except for those under the trio of Maestra Garcia, Maestra Jacinto, and Maestra Fuentes.

When the students reached the plaza where the circus tents were located, they saw more food being sold, like roasted dried squid, fried fish balls, Kikiam, Lumpia, Okoy, Turon, Balut, Taho, Puto, Suman, and Champurrado. It took a while for the teachers to bring all the students inside the main circus tent, but finally, at around 4 PM, everyone was ready to watch the show prepared by the Flores Circus.

They started with the monkey that could stack 20 pieces of chairs on top of each other, which it would then disassemble again, without ever touching the ground. Then they had the goat that could ride a unicycle while balancing 5 plates with each hand. It would then jump through burning hoops while blindfolded. Next, they showed a dog that could walk on a rope while carrying 3 cats on its back. Later, it would stand on its hind legs and carry the cats on its shoulders.

But the act everyone was waiting for was the Flying Trapeze. They were scheduled to perform after the acrobat that could eat razors, bayonets, and swords. At around 5 PM, they finally showed up. Isabel was with the group, waving to the students, especially to her classmates. Unknown to the audience, as the trapeze artists were highly elevated and near the top of the tent, Isabel had already frozen at least three times, lasting only for a few seconds. The other performers noticed it too, but thought nothing of it, deciding that she was probably nervous tonight because there were more people in the audience and the whole school was watching. Her younger sister, Mayumi, thought it could be because Isabel’s boyfriend was there with his parents, that she seemed a little off. But Mayumi knew Isabel, she loved the trapeze and was the best artist among them. She would never let anything distract her performance tonight, just when she planned to introduce her boyfriend to their father after the show.

When they were about to begin their act, a young boy rose from his seat and started to walk towards the exit of the tent. Several minutes later, just when the Flying Trapeze was nearing its climax and the crowd was gripped with tension and excitement, the boy returned and looked at the performers. That was when Isabel started to fall.

Aureliano Flores could not be comforted. It had been more than three hours since the accident happened. The mayor had closed the circus after the reported death of a trapeze artist. At 9 PM, Eugenia and Mayumi were still in the morgue, waiting for Isabel's body to be placed in the casket.

Aureliano, with the help of his brother Felipe, prepared the house for the wake of his daughter Isabel. While arranging the tables and chairs for the visitors, Aureliano noticed a boy sitting under the tree next to his house. He had been there since they returned Isabel’s body to her home before she was brought to the morgue.

“What is he doing there?” asked Aureliano.

“Just sitting,” replied Felipe.

After an hour, just before 10 PM, they heard a knock on the door, and the boy entered the house.