Milagroso

Marty always believed the lab-grown foods he helped produce were miraculous. But in his childhood home of Lucban, real miracles are occurring: artificial food is being transformed into delicious, sustaining produce. As he visits the home he left behind, the vibrant and colorful festival jerks him into a past he both hungers for and wants to forget.

It’s late afternoon on the eve of the Pahiyas Festival when Marty finally drives into Lucban. The streets are filled with people congregating outside their houses, stringing up fruits and vegetables shaped into chandeliers. Entire roofs are covered in kiping, leaf-shaped rice wafers, their colors flared to dazzling by the slowly setting sun. Someone has tacked poster paper all over the preschool wall, and children with paint smeared on their cheeks are making trees full of hand-shaped leaves. Vendors have already set up shop, prepping for the onslaught of tourists.

Most side streets are blocked, so Marty has to drive through the town center, which is the usual explosion of propaganda—posters of the mayor and councilors alternate with banners for washing detergents, Coca-Cola, Granny Goose Chips, and the latest summer-special, MangoMazings—exactly like the real thing! Marty ignores these as he navigates the still-familiar streets. They didn’t leave Manila for this.

They left Manila to see a miracle.

Inez is stirring awake, though she keeps her eyes shut. She groans, shifts, and slaps her thigh, impatiently. In the rearview mirror, Marty can see Mariah’s head snapping back and forth to match the car’s rhythm, her mouth hanging open. JR is also asleep; the seat belt is tight across his hunched chest, making him look smaller than he is. Sunlight beams through the car, shading half his face yellow.

“Is this Lucban, hon?” Inez has finally stopped forcing sleep. She yawns and stretches her arms.

“Yep.” Marty tries to sound more awake and cheerful than he feels.

Inez looks out the window. “How colorful,” she says, as they drive past a house with a giant Ronald McDonald stationed by the doorway, waving his hands. Her tone makes everything seem gray.

 

Marty stands by the door, wiping his palms on his shorts. Looking up, he sees five strings of kiping dangling from the second floor balcony. Even their ratty papier-mâché carabao is out, gazing forlornly at the street with its one remaining eye.

Inez is looking for a spot with better reception; he can hear her muttering in the distance. The kids are unloading their luggage.

“Tao po,” Marty calls. When no one replies, he enters, heading for the living room. “Manong? Mang Kikoy? You there?”

He hears a door creak open, then the slap of slippers as Mang Kikoy shuffles into view. His skin is wrinkled and brown as tree bark. The mole on his cheek has grown even more colossal, but otherwise he is the same old Mang Kikoy who has maintained this house, Marty’s ancestral home, since forever.

“Boy? Is that you?”

“Yes, manong.”

“Just in time, just in time. Where is your family?”

“Outside,” Marty says, feeling a twinge of guilt. It’s been a little too long, perhaps, a little too late—but once he married Inez, and they had Mariah, he’d felt compelled to remain in Manila. He liked his job at San Miguel Corp., and he always believed that Lucban was near enough that they could visit anytime. As a result, they never did. To ignore these thoughts, he asks, “I noticed the décor. Are we part of the procession this year?”

“No, but I thought it might be good to decorate the house anyway. You never know.”

Mariah materializes at Marty’s elbow, dragging her duffel bag. “Dad, it’s so hot,” she says, fanning herself.

Mang Kikoy beams at her and moves forward to take her bag.

“Please don’t—it’s heavy.” Marty turns to his daughter. “Mariah, this is your Manong Kikoy. Show him you can carry your own bag, please.”

“Hello po,” she says, straining for politeness as she lugs her bag towards the stairs.

“Hello, hija.” Mang Kikoy grins wider as she slouches past. His teeth are a gray, sickly color. “Well, Boy, I must go back outside; the kiping is cooking. Let’s talk again later.”

“Sure,” he says. Mang Kikoy has already turned to go when JR rushes past, arms held stiffly away from his body, making fighter-jet noises.

Wee-oop! Wee-oop!” He yells. “I’m attacking you! Propeller BLAST!”

He makes swiping motions at Mang Kikoy, who laughs. “So this is your little kulilit. Has he ever tasted a miracle before?”

Marty’s throat dries. He swallows. He doesn’t ask, Is it true, manong? Is it real? He doesn’t say, It’s not right, who knows what eating those things can do. Instead he puts a hand on JR’s head, to stop him from airplane-ing, and says, “No, never.”

 

Dinner is at Aling Merrigold’s. Inez fusses over their clothes and hair, and asks Marty twice whether they shouldn’t have brought some pasalubong from Manila. The children are sleepy, already bored. Marty promises that tomorrow will be more fun.

On the way to dinner they walk past increasingly extravagant houses. One has a robo-rooster attached to its roof, where it cacaws ear-splittingly every five minutes. Another has The Last Supper rendered on its walls, made with colored straw and palm leaves. Still another bears the mayor’s face, fashioned out of kiping, all across the roof. Two giant animatronic carabaos are lowing by the main door, while a life-sized San Isidro stands on a rotating platform. He holds a spade in one hand and a sheaf of corn in the other.

“Farmer Jesus!” JR exclaims.

“That’s not Jesus, you idiot.” Mariah snaps a picture with her phone. “Who’s this, Dad? I want to tag it properly.”

“San Isidro Labrador. Patron saint of farmers and peasants.”

“That’s Mang Delfin’s house,” Mang Kikoy adds. “This year, the procession goes through this road, and he’s determined to win. He’s got a pretty good chance, don’t you think?”

Marty nods, although the house speaks for itself. The Pahiyas Festival has always been a chance to show off one’s home, but now the stakes are even higher. These homeowners want to be chosen for the miracle. They want to boast of a natural harvest, and have jealous neighbors beg them for a taste.

Aling Merrigold’s house at the far end of the main street is simpler, though she has deployed her trademark rose pattern that no one has been able to copy. Vivid fuchsias and yellows adorn the typically drab white walls. She welcomes each of them in by smelling their cheeks.

“Martino!” She coos. “I haven’t seen you since you were a young man! But how old you look now!” In a softer tone that everyone still hears, she adds, “You’ve grown quite the belly!”

“Thank you for having us,” Marty says. “You look healthy as always.”

She laughs with delight then swats him on the shoulder, the flab of her arms jiggling.

“This is Inez, my wife,” Marty says.

“Well, but you look so very young for Martino!”

“Oh, not at all,” Inez demurs.

“And what do you do, Inez?”

“I’m a merchandiser for Rustan’s.” She tips her chin up, just a fraction.

Wonderful,” Aling Merrigold says.

“And these are my children.” Mariah and JR give her halfhearted hellos, and she smacks her lips at them.

“And Mang Kikoy, of course, how good to see you,” Aling Merrigold says. Mang Kikoy smiles, then shuffles off to eat with the rest of her household staff. She leads Marty and his family to the dining room, babbling the whole time: “I can’t believe it’s been four years since your father died. I spent lots of time with him after your mama died, you know. And he did talk about you such a lot—how he was so proud of you, and how he missed you so much! But then I can’t blame you, my dear; it’s so hard to get time off with the economy like this, no? And then you have these two children. So healthy!” She beams at the kids. “So healthy! You feed them well! Do you get plenty of free food from San Miguel? You still work there, di’ba?”

“Yes. He was recently promoted to Procurement Manager,” Inez says. “Extra vacation time is one of the perks, so we were finally able to take this trip.”

“Is that so?” Aling Merrigold draws a dramatic breath. “Well, I’m not really surprised. When San Miguel created that breakthrough formula for the Perfect Pork—wow. I said to myself, This is it, this is the future! And you know, I was right. I mean, the lechon we’re having tomorrow . . . and you will eat here tomorrow. I insist. After all the events, of course. My balcony has a great view of the fireworks! . . . What was I saying? Oh yes, tomorrow’s lechon is Perfect Pork, which truly is perfect.”

“I’m very glad to hear that,” Marty says.

They walk past a sliding door into the air-conditioned dining room. Aling Merrigold gestures for them to sit. “This dinner is mostly from San Miguel, as well—the roasted chicken is, for sure. This is your Spam, and I think the bangus relleno is yours, too. Pero the cake is from Gardenia. And the chicken cordon bleu is by Universal Robina, because I’m sorry, their cheese is better than yours, you know? Anyway, let’s eat.”

She says grace, and they dig in.

Marty takes a bite of the roasted chicken. It’s delicious. He feels a swell of pride. He helped make these things. Not directly—that was the research team’s job – but he handled most of the exports and imports that provided the raw materials for their meats. After the lockout with China he had shifted grudgingly to more expensive vendors in Vietnam, only to realize that their bio-plasticine millet (BPM) adhered to flavorants more easily, and could be molded into more convincing shapes. Chicken and tuna, in particular, could be replicated using Vietnamese BPM for a cheaper unit cost, and San Miguel was quickly able to launch a new line of canned goods, labeled: More nutritious. Extra-delicious!

People still say it doesn’t beat the real thing, but Marty thinks it comes pretty damn close. They’ve finally reached an era when neither Mariah nor JR will incur a health risk from their diet; when people don’t need to fret about foodborne illnesses; when it’s conceivable, if the government gets its shit together, for people below the poverty line to have three meals a day.

“Has the Department of Health decided on a budget for its feeding program yet?” Aling Merrigold asks.

“No,” Marty says. “I hear they’re working on it.”

Aling Merrigold rolls her eyes. “They’re always working on it.” She takes a sip of Coke. “Still, I can’t pretend I’m thinking about anything except tomorrow. You haven’t seen it live, but the moment when San Isidro makes his choice and the produce becomes—you know, natural—it’s wow. Talagang wow.”

The news reporters said the same thing, when the first miracle happened during Pahiyas three years ago. No one believed the sensational coverage on TV Patrol at first, but then the owners of the winning house started selling chunks of food as proof: a bite of real corn, a handful of real green beans, a cluster of real juicy grapes. The reporters showed the old church’s statue of San Isidro in the town square, surrounded by people bursting into tears as they bit into their first unsafe food in years. It was ridiculous. Marty remembers thinking, Why is everyone so hung up on this? Why is everyone freaking out?

He remembers thinking, It can’t be a miracle, because we’ve already INVENTED the miracle.

What are you doing here, then? Something inside him asks. He recalls the twist in his gut, the saliva filling his mouth, as he watched an old woman nibble on a real banana, weeping wretchedly.

This is home, another voice that sounds more like him insists. I just wanted to see the fiesta. I wanted the kids to see.

He pauses over his next forkful. “You don’t think it’s—you know, a hoax, or something?”

“Ay naku, no, never! You’ll understand when you see it,” Aling Merrigold says. “You don’t even need to taste it. It’s the smell, the color, the everything. I mean, the mayor tried to keep it from spreading, played it up as airbrush and fake imports, but there’s no denying it. Really, how long naman can you lie without shame? Last year, I shelled out for a few pieces of camote—that’s my favorite, you know?—and when I ate it, Diyos ko, it was so good.”

“I see.” Marty licks his lips. “Well, it’ll be fun to watch.”

Aling Merrigold nods and swallows a spoonful of milkfish relleno. Marty watches her, satisfied. It doesn’t matter that the milkfish is made of the same thing as the chicken, the rice, the vegetables. They look different, taste different, and have the same high nutritional content. They’re better for everyone.

 

Mass the following morning is at 6:00 a.m., which causes much groaning. They manage to make it through the church doors in time for the second reading. The priest is particularly zealous, exhorting everyone to give thanks for their gathering together as one community, and for the bountiful harvest that San Isidro—“and our sponsors San Miguel Corp., Universal Robina, Golden Arches, and Monde Nissin”—have provided. The people of Lucban are restless, beaming at each other as they exchange signs of peace. Only the image of San Isidro remains calm, already primed in a float for the beauty pageant winner to carry him in later.

After mass there are a few hours left before the procession, so they decide to explore the town. Stalls selling woven buri hats, fans, handbags, and little straw birds are interspersed with old ladies on fold-out stools, hawking rice cakes and empanadas. Inez haggles over a bundle of hats. Mariah picks out keychains for her friends. JR drops the buko juice he’s slurping and it bursts on the concrete, leaving a slushy puddle that nobody minds. Inez tsks, and Mariah wonders loudly when the procession will start. They each have a serving of pancit habhab on banana leaves.

Marty remembers not caring much about the actual Pahiyas Festival as a child. He was more interested in the preparations leading up to it. He would squat next to Mang Kikoy as the old man ground soaked rice, until it was pale and liquid as milk. Mang Kikoy would stir the wet rice, divide it into shallow buckets, then mix in the coloring: blue and yellow to make apple green, red and blue to make dark pink. Then he would dip a large kabal leaf in the mixture, as a mold for the kiping, and hang it so that the excess coloring dripped. To finish he would cook them over a charcoal grill, while Marty ate the rejected attempts and recited random facts he had learned at school.

Marty didn’t watch the kiping preparation yesterday. Something about the BPM Mang Kikoy was using instead of rice made Marty feel weird. It might have been misplaced nostalgia, and he knew that was a useless feeling.

JR, however, had watched and reported to Marty after: about how he had eaten some of the leftovers and they tasted kind of funny, kind of like nothing, but Mang Kikoy said it was made of rice so that was probably normal, right, Dad?

“Kiping has no taste,” Marty said, laughing. “I mean, rice itself has barely any flavor.”

“But Mang Kikoy said the real foods in the fiesta taste awesome, and if I can eat a fruit or veggie from the winning house tomorrow, I’ll understand what he means!”

“Oh, did he say that? Those things are really expensive. And they’ll probably make your tummy ache. Or make your teeth gray, like Mang Kikoy’s!” Marty rumpled JR’s hair, so that JR squirmed. “Don’t know if you’ll get to taste any of that, anak.”

“I will,” JR said. “I’m gonna grab some with my stretchy arms—SHEEE-OW!” He whipped his arm wildly. “And then I can tell all the kids in my class, and they’ll be jealous, because they’ve never eaten yummy real food and they never will!” He chuckled, evil and gleeful, and robotically walked away to heckle his sister.

Marty remembers the great glass houses they passed on their way to Lucban, lining the fields stretched beneath Mt. Banahaw. Piles of corn and rice, endless rows of pineapple and root crop, stewing in their meticulously engineered domes, more delicious than nature could ever make them. Simply more than God could ever make them.

 

The procession begins at 1:00 p.m. with the local policemen leading the marching band through the streets. The crowd surges from the town center. Those who live along the procession route peer out from windows and balconies, waving at onlookers. An ABS-CBN TV crew starts their segment. People in bright red shirts bearing the Universal Robina logo hover near the cameras, holding up signs that say Don’t Eat the Miracle Food—It’s Poison! You Could Die!

Marty frowns at their lack of respect for the festivities, even as he recalls his last meeting, where the Procurement Division Head had raised her eyebrows at his vacation request. (“For Lucban?”—and when Marty nodded, how she cleared her throat and averted her eyes.) Ignoring this, he gestures for his family to follow, and heads for the middle of the parade. JR complains that he can’t see, so Marty hoists him onto his shoulders. They walk on, keeping to the edges of the crowd. The higantes come after the band: giant, cartoony replicas of the president, the kagawad, a schoolgirl, a farmer. A carabao—live this time—follows it, pulling a cart full of waving children. Unlike the animatronic version, this carabao plods silently on, martyr-like. It is trailed by girls with feathered headpieces and dresses in garish colors, shimmying to a syncopated drumbeat.

The priest from morning mass scoops water out of a bucket and sprinkles everyone with it. Behind him walk the beauty pageant entrants, led by the newly-crowned Miss Lucban and her escort, standing on a float, carrying San Isidro between them. Marty is transfixed by the face of the saint—how it looks tired and drawn in the middle of the crowd, rocked to and fro by the music. The parade is pushing, pulsing from all sides; Marty presses onward, checking that Inez and Mariah are still following. The band has gone through its traditional repertoire and is now playing the Top 40. Everyone sings along—some droning, some with effort. Marty moves faster so that he can keep pace with San Isidro, but it’s difficult. He feels crazed, dehydrated, but he’s determined to witness the so-called miracle, determined not to care.

“Dad,” JR says, “Dad, hurry up, we’re going to miss the selection!”

Marty tries to walk more quickly, but the crowd keeps him at bay, measuring his pace. The people proceed down the street in a blare of noise and sound and color, getting more raucous as they approach the fancier homes. At some point the fiesta-goers begin to stop in front of each house, and lift San Isidro above the crowd, holding him there for a few moments. Each time this happens the procession holds its breath, then bursts into cheering when nothing changes. Marty is starting to get exhausted. He brings JR down and clutches his hand. JR beams up at him, infected by the delight of the crowd. Marty smiles back, as best as he can through the heat and confusion and the sudden shower of confetti and kiping raining from the house they are passing.

They’re drawing closer to Mang Delfin’s house, with the animatronic carabaos and giant replica of the mayor’s face. The frenzy and expectation heightens each time San Isidro is raised, but there is also a sense of inevitability, because only one house can win, and everyone seems to know which house it is. Someone starts chanting: “Mang Delfin! Mang Delfin!” The marching band launches into the current chart-topper. People are headbanging and wiggling and not-quite-accidentally grinding each other.

Marty realizes they’re not going to see anything if they stay where they are. Ducking into a side street, he skirts past former neighbors’ houses. He counts the walls before turning back onto the main road, right at the cross street between Mang Delfin and Aling Sheila’s house. They have a perfect view of the proceedings: the crowd is amassing in the home right before this one, breathing a collective “Ooooh!” as San Isidro is raised, then bursting into laughter when nothing happens, and he is lowered once more.

JR jumps up and down. “It’s going to be this one! It’s going to be this one!”

Marty’s heart races. He squeezes JR’s hand, and gazes at the façade of Mang Delfin’s house: up close, he can see potato-faced people pieced from squash and taro, with string-bean-and-okra hair; intricate butterflies made of rambutan and longgan; long, sweeping bunches of banana mingled with kiping. The mooing of the fake carabaos is incredibly loud. If there’s any house that can feed the whole town, it’s this one.

But what’s wrong with this food? He thinks. Isn’t this worth giving thanks for? What more do people want?

“Mang Delfin! Mang Delfin! Yaaaay!” The crowd whoops as it reaches its destination. Everyone quiets down enough so that the band can start a drumroll. Miss Lucban and her escort slowly, tenderly lift San Isidro up to face the house. Marty is magnetized, again, by the saint’s face: its severely rosy cheeks and sleepy eyebrows, the stiff golden halo behind his head. He can’t tell if San Isidro wears a look of benevolence, or of agony.

“Real food! Real food! Real veggies, real fruit!” JR hasn’t stopped jumping or chanting. Marty fights the urge to tell him to shut up.

“Oh my god,” Inez says. “This is actually so exciting!”

Mariah, who has whipped out her phone to record everything, says, “The signal here sucks!”

The hush continues. As the crowd watches, the statue of San Isidro—now facing its life-sized twin, in front of Mang Delfin’s house—lifts its wooden arm, the one holding the sheaf of corn, in a rigid salute. His face remains frozen, but for one instant, his eyes seem alive—and even though they aren’t directed at Marty, his belly churns and his eyes water. A child in the crowd bursts into tears.

Then: an explosion of smell and color. The house is suddenly unable to bear its own weight, and several ornaments come loose from the ceiling and balcony, falling on the crowd below. Potatoes and bananas roll off the shingles, detach from the windows; tufts of kiping billow out and descend on everyone’s heads. Marty sees this in slow-motion. Each fruit and vegetable is more alive, the smell so intoxicating Marty nearly vomits. He lets go of JR’s hand to cover his mouth, and JR immediately lunges for the food. Inez shrieks and darts forward as a squash-face starts to come loose from the wall. She tries to catch it in one of her new hats, shouting, “What are you doing, Marts? Grab some! Hurry!”

Everyone is frantically scooping. Mariah has her mouth full of something. “Oh my god,” she says. “Oh my god, it tastes totally different!”

Marty looks back at where the procession had been neatly standing, and it’s all gone—San Isidro has disappeared, swallowed by a swarm of flailing limbs. Someone—Mang Delfin?—roars over the noise, “This is my house! Those are mine! Stop! Stop!”

“There’s enough for everyone, you greedy ass!” someone shouts back. The cheer that follows quickly dissolves into grunting as people climb over each other.

Marty comes into focus. “JR!” He calls frantically. “JR? JR!”

His little boy could be trampled. His little boy could get LBM, salmonella, stomach cancer. That food should never touch his lips.

Inez is still filling her hats; Mariah is helping her. Marty tries to enter the writhing mass of fiesta-goers. An elbow bashes him on the cheek, a knee catches his ribs. Someone to his left retches. The stench of body odor and puke overpowers the sweet fragrance of the fruits.

“JR!” He keeps shouting.

“Dad!”

JR squeezes his way towards him, reaching over two women grappling with a knot of bitter gourd. Marty manages to grab JR under the armpits, lifting then hauling him toward a side street. He takes deep breaths, trying to clear his head, and through a haze of nausea he sees JR’s giant grin. JR is clutching a swollen banana in his fist: a banana full of bruises, green at the base, just like the ones Marty used to eat as a child, nothing like the ones they now grow. “Dad! I got one! Can I eat it?”

Marty feels sick, overwhelmed, like too many eyes are on him. He reaches out, grabs the banana, and peels it without thinking. JR watches him, wide-eyed. Marty has no idea what he’s going to do—hold it out to his child and let him eat it? Eat it himself, because it looks so goddamn delicious? Thank God, San Isidro, for a miracle? Cry for his manmade miracles, so much nothing when held to the light of day, to a pair of tired eyes in a wooden face?

“Yes,” he says. “Go ahead,” he says, his mouth already tasting the sweetness, craving it—the truth of a miracle, too bitter to swallow—“But don’t, no, you shouldn’t, it isn’t safe, it isn’t right,” he says, and he is suddenly crying, and JR looks at him with an expression that edges bewilderment and terror. In his closed fist the banana has been mashed to a pulp.

 

“Milagroso” copyright © 2015 by Isabel Yap

Art copyright © 2015 by Keith Negley

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