HE SLIPPED in past midnight, a dark, hunched shape under a nylon parka.
Perhaps it was his stillness. It took almost an hour before the night watchers at the wake noticed him, though the women of the family were suckers for eyes and his were dark and piercing, alternately flashing light or sucking in the room’s glare.
Someone approached with drinks, smiled, and inquired for the stranger’s name.
He gave none. His answer was a shrug.
The teenager smiled politely; and where was he from.
“Bukid,” he said.
The young host puzzled. That could mean farm — or the mountains.
The mountains, the visitor said. “Kaupod.”
The young man knew that word. It was what they called the men and women who stopped briefly every few months, dropping off letters, or receiving the same, or just talking and sharing a meal before moving on. Some of the family were also called that, though most had moved on, too, for less perilous occupations.
The young man caught the eye of an older one.
Silent signals shot through the women of the clan and they converged on the visitor.
They flashed smiles. Their hands fluttered and tugged at hair strands, and their heads swiveled and their eyes searched the hall and the corridors and the outdoor courtyard as they chirped about this or that friend to mask the low tones and more serious conversation between two siblings and this stranger.
The visitor got it. In the same dialect but with a hard accent, he whispered assurances. He would not bother anyone. He just wanted to keep vigil this night, just a few hours; by the morrow he would be out of their lives.
He was welcome to stay the entire wake, someone replied. But a recent rebel ambush had sent white heat across the land and the monsoon heightened tempers. The family did not want another death.
There was also the fact that the night watchers did not know him, though someone would later vouch for him.
The woman who sat beside the visitor searched his eyes but did not voice the question. What if this man was just an impostor, sent to keep an eye out for another one, the way other ex-friends also kept watch for him?
They did not want to offend him with their doubts and so they danced around the topic until the visitor offered a simple tale.
A decade back, he said, there was a father who rushed his young son to the state hospital, only to be rebuffed and ignored by staff that were overworked or just beyond caring.
He was then a masa, a sympathizer of the struggle that gripped the island, with no knowledge of the doktora’s kinship with some of the kaupod. He did not even know her name but he was desperate and found her checking up on some child patients.
He could not remember what he said, only that she took one look at his face, at his child, and rushed them to a corner table, asking a nurse why they had not received care.
Too busy, said the ever-forgiving peasant, with a casual wave to encompass the whole staff and the hall bursting with crying children. He was not about to pick a fight; he was happy just to finally have someone’s attention.
He could not forget, he told the wake watchers, how the doktora’s eyes glinted in quiet anger as she ministered to his son. He could not forget, he added, how she called over another doctor and delivered a rant.
A soft rant, he hastened to add. About how you would feel if your child was convulsing in your arms. How doctors and nurses insisted on lucid answers and poise from terrified parents who had probably walked miles from hacienda hovels to the nearest ride. How she didn’t mind if they fought on every policy, so long as they treated patients with respect and compassion.
The son lived, was now in high school.
His father hadn’t seen him for months.
The visitor said he heard the news early morning, the day after doktora died. He had asked time for some errand, had not told them of his real reason.
He smiled. “You are right, it is dangerous.”
A child piped up. Where are your comrades?
In the dialect, the word also meant companion but the child knew that difference and tried to peer out into the streets.
Around, the man replied.
The child pressed on. In the mountains?
On the plains, he answered.
With a smile, he opened the tattered jacket to respond the craning of the child’s neck. He passed hands over a flat belly, gave a slight shake of his head.
The child’s interest disappeared. But another boy, more daring, sidled up and in a stage whisper, asked: “Do you know _____________?”
They had loved him, the small, gentle man who could not live outside of war, and they continued saying prayers for his safety. Never mind that they weren’t exactly sure what the fighting was all about now; never mind that his stilted slogans, pitched slightly higher than his normal voice, roused polite smiles more than meditations on the various isms.
The man nodded but would not answer other questions, and finally drove away the curious by assuming a prayerful pose.
By 5 a.m., he was gone, without saying goodbye. People weren’t even sure he was real, except that too many saw him, and someone later verified his presence in the city.
The following day, typed messages came with the wreaths.
Visitors were oohing at the flowers from the vice president. The doktora’s children pointed to a space beside it. The florist smiled as he positioned blooms draped with a ribbon that read, “National Democratic Front.”
The messages spoke of a fascist dictatorship, of the doktora’s commitment to fight policies that violated medical ethics or humanitarian concerns, of her local fame as a friend of the poor. Not that the pious Catholic doctor had ever approved of armed struggle. It just didn’t matter to her where one came from.
Young boys exclaimed, as they read messages from the communist underground and whistled as they checked out other, more famous names they often saw on newspapers and newscasts.
But hours after a cement slab clanged over the little space that held the doktora’s coffin, the children had forgotten the big words, the big names, even the startling crowd of several hundreds that had flocked to the funeral, and were still talking of the night visitor, role-playing his vignettes of intersecting lives.