The priest stood ramrod-straight, the stiff length of his greca giving him the appearance of a black monolith pasted onto a canvas of mixed blue. Between balding top and bulbous nose, the waning sunlight filled two glass discs on wire frames with images of spirited waves, wispy clouds, and nature’s ever-dwindling store of life.
The fuzzy way memory works once man reaches a certain age prevented Father Thomas from remembering with reliable accuracy the last time he had donned formal outerwear. The weather in the San Miguel bay could be described as uniformly hot and humid, and the short-sleeved linen shirt with black cotton slacks he favored during Sunday services had been cloying enough. When the days called for more arduous work, as it often happened with one so committed to the flock, losing the shirt altogether was the only sane course of action. But today the sun had decided to tone it down and yield to a crisp February wind that made wearing the outfit more bearable, and so he had plucked the moldy-smelling but still serviceable cassock and overcoat out from storage obscurity.
Weather aside, the choice felt more than appropriate.
As he watched the gap separating the horizon and the glowing orb diminish with each passing minute, he heard the murmur of tiny footsteps on sand behind him. Thinking instinctively of wild boars and blood-stained tusks, he turned briskly on his heels. What he met instead was the equally dumpy but way less threatening meatball kid, as he had taken to calling him. Not far behind was none other than Sonia, emerging from the village proper with a kitchen towel raised and waving high in the air.
“Ma-ja dig-di, Isidro!” she shouted in Bikol as she chased the giggling toddler. “Come here, you stealing demon!”
If given a choice between facing an infuriated sow and duking it out with Sonia’s explosive wrath, even the most seasoned hunter or fisherman in the village would pick the porcine alternative. But Isidro was unfazed, clearly enjoying the mischief he had caused. Between bites of grilled fish, he kept turning around to leer and stick his tongue out to his pursuing mother until a piece of driftwood helped his tubby legs into a knot. For the fish that meant lift-off; for the child a meal of dry sand.
Father Thomas ran towards a wailing Isidro, reaching the boy at the same time a steaming Sonia did. She had murder on her eyes, so he had to act quickly.
“Mar-hay na ha-pon, Sonia,” he said, lifting the kid in his arms and unnecessarily straining his ageing back. Not unnecessarily, not ever, he thought. Nothing superfluous in doing God’s work. He cleared the boy’s head of sand and tried to stopper the flow of tears with a cotton sleeve.
“Good afternoon? What’s good about it, ama?” Sonia challenged, tucking the towel inside her skirt. “Creature comes out nowhere, sneak up on me like duwende, steal my fish.”
Isidro’s cries had abated somewhat since being cradled by the old but stringy arms of the priest and now he looked at his enraged mother with a pitiful look that Father Thomas knew hid a hint of waggery.
“Weren’t you going to feed this very same child of yours with said fish?” he asked.
“If you had let him eat it in tranquility, he’d been full by now,” which was a lie; Isidro was never full and that’s why he looked like a miniature whale. But he continued with the mollification. “Now all you’ve done is waste good food on the strays.”
True enough, three emaciated and bristly cats were already stalking the half-eaten morsel lying on the sandy floor, ready to pounce and beat the others to the prize. Sonia shooed them away with a snarl that was the stuff of nightmares.
“I’m sorry, father,” she said apologetically, taking the heavy load from him with only one strong arm that never failed to impress. “Fishing not good lately. Not thinking well.” She glared at the roly-poly kid like saying ‘you’ll pay for this later’, but Father Thomas felt certain the worst was over. Crisis averted.
Isidro hugged his mother fiercely. “Patawarun mo ako, ina,” I’m sorry.
Sonia slapped the boy lightly over a onsie that read ‘Pirate’s Booty’ on the gluteal area. Father Thomas smiled, patting the tot’s head, and the woman shook her head before finally turning to the priest and noticing his unusual ensemble.
“Looking guapo, father. Going somewhere?” she asked, cocking her head. Isidro imitated her. “Somwhe?”
“This? No,” and he beamed a less-than-honest smile. “It’s just unusually chilly today, don’t you think?”
“Won’t be chilly soon, when you help with seeding,” she replied and followed with a half-hearted laugh. “But serious, hope you no going anywhere in that,” she said, pointing to the cassock and coat with her free hand, and the priest could see real concern in her face. He knew where it came from, too.
Father Thomas looked at the village, at a collection of thatched roofs and adobe walls, at the handful of souls he had been able to improve through hard work and incomparable camaraderie. He thought of the ten acres of reclaimed land he had helped Sonia’s people secure after a long and heated battle with the Camarines Sur governor; acres that would be home to hundreds of coconut-bearing palm trees and would guarantee a livelihood for Pequena Alameda’s embattled but honest and joyful inhabitants. He thought of the dozen expensive fishing drones he had been able to snag from the APC through perilous back channels. He thought of meatball kid and all others like him: innocent, unassuming, free of sin. Spaghetti. Hazelnut. Caterpillar. They all deserved a chance. Thomas R. Kincaid himself deserved a chance, if God would forgive his pride.
“Sonia,” he said, and a more stern face could not have been found on the globe at that exact moment. “They’re coming to get me. Tonight.”
Sonia raised one brow as if knowing that was not going to be the last words coming out of the priest’s mouth. “Is it time for the stuff, then?”
In his eyes, the smirk the woman showed shone like a thousand pacific suns.
“Oh, yes,” Father Thomas said. “Let’s get the stuff out.”
Miguel Acevedo stood at the front of the Bikol regiment of the Worldwide Religious Liberation Army, arms crossed over his chest and a worrisome demeanor that was not erased (nor masked) by the apparent monumentality of the occasion at hand. The cadre behind him was a mix of Filipino, British and German youngsters, all eager for a fight they barely understood, much less agreed with. The other half of ‘Worldwide’, Americans and Canadians, was spread over Peru and Ecuador, where the remaining bastions of Catholicism held the fight, tooth and South American nail.
“Governor,” Father Kincaid said. “Nice seeing you again.”
Acevedo cracked a rueful smile. “Had to happen this way, Padre. Sooner or later.”
Father Thomas chanced a look back at the ocean. At this distance, and silhouetted against the young moon, a couple of pelican fishing drones were indistinguishable from the real, flesh-and-blood seagulls diving into the emerald ocean for sustenance.
“Let me ask you a question, Miguel. Who’s making the waves churn? Who is responsible for those birds I see plunging into the deep? Who made their wings able to spread and tuck?”
Acevedo knew that was a trick question, for half the winged apparitions were the work of man.
“We’re just trying to weed the world from harmful influences, Tom,” the governor said. “What was, was. What is, is.”
Even though that was exactly the priest’s point, he knew arguing was moot. The army longed for criminals to punish; for those who broke some artificial laws to be erased from popular consciousness. A danger to progress. A macula to be cleansed. Whatever good his presence—and that of God—did on those he aided would be lost on the eyes of these battle-hungry pawns.
“Would you kill for purpose, then, Miguel?
Acevedo bit his lower lip and looked away.
“Then so shall we, as it has always been,” Kincaid said. He then turned his back to the encroaching army and faced the unseen forms of his loyal supporters.
“But I say to you,” he yelled. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Pray, but ready thy sword.”
A vigorous clamor was heard through every corner of Pequena Alameda. No villager, young or old, scrawny or brawny, was exempt from the allure of the righteous battle horn call.
“This way, ama,” said Sonia, suddenly at his side and clad in nanofoam armor. “Cannons are ready.”
“In the name of the father, the son, and the holy spirit,” muttered the priest as he strapped on two sets of fusion revolvers to his sides.
“Let’s burn these fuckers down.”
Photo: ” Erica Marshall of muddyboots.org “