Eating Fire and Drinking Water
I only have to close my eyes and I am in that blackened street once more, amidst the smoky ruins of what had once been the homes of people who now walk about with unseeing eyes, citizens of a world suddenly grown unfamiliar.
I only have to close my eyes to smell the heavy tainted air and to feel the onslaught of heat on my face and to see the charred remains of the fire’s only victim being lifted from the pyre that had been his store.
How was I to know that this dead stranger would appear in my life again? That he had been there right from the beginning, holding the secret to who I was so that the very mysteries of my own life would find their answers at last. How was I to know that this fire in a street I had never been to would somehow eat away at my life’s invisible boundaries so that into it would come rushing names and faces which until then were unknown to me?
I only have to close my eyes to return to the beginning of it all, to the precise moment when I ceased to be just a reporter of events, becoming instead a part of them.
To say that I am someone who went looking for a story only to find herself caught in one would not be too far from the truth.
On the Monday morning that Calle de Leon went up in flames, I was sent by my paper to gather facts, which I did without wasting time. I found what I needed then left to file my report.
Had this been just another day, I would have forgotten the fire and its victim as quickly as the compositors set my story back at the Chronicle. But there was to be no walking away, no forgetting that day.
Much has happened since. Twists and turns that no one could have foreseen. And many people, too, have come and gone from my life. Like Luis Bayani, whose last words to me before he disappeared never to be seen again were: “Who knows, Clara, you may write about this one day.”
But Luis is not here to read this, and this will always be the deepest regret of my life.
Enough hours and days have passed to allow for some understanding of all that has happened, and for me to join together the separate moments that make up this tale—those moments I lived through and those recounted to me by others. Where there were gaps I have filled them with my imagined truth. This is a writer’s privilege.
I sought to find a pattern, a deeper purpose, for, at the time, the events I am about to recount seemed random and arbitrary. The reporter in me, you see, insisted there is order in the universe. And my own life attests to this. Besides, to deny the existence of order means to believe in a world of permanent chaos. And I find such a concept unacceptable.
So if there is a message to be found in this tale, it is this: there is sense … a plan behind everything that happens.
There Is No Such Thing As a Small Story
On the morning it all began, I was in the middle of Lacson Bridge, in a crowded jeepney with ten other passengers, caught in the peak-hour traffic jam that seemed to occur at this very spot every morning.
I was a twenty-three-year-old reporter. My name—Clara Perez. And I worked for a small metropolitan daily called the Chronicle.
I was someone hungry for stories; more specifically, I was someone who craved after facts. It is easy now to see where this hunger came from and how it determined my choice of profession. I was, you see, at the start of this tale, a person with no history. I had no story of my own. Lacking this, I developed a curiosity about other people’s lives. I filled my life with the facts that framed the human dramas which unfolded in my city, and which I reported faithfully.
On that particular morning, on the way to work, as I sat in the jeepney breathing in the oppressive smell that rose from the river, I heard the unmistakable wail of fire engines. I scanned the skies for the telltale pillar of smoke. It was rising in the distance to the west and I tried to guess which suburb lay in that direction.
But my thoughts were soon interrupted as the old wooden bridge shook under the weight of the fire engines thundering past in the opposite lane. The deafening pitch of their sirens and the sweep of air on my back marked their urgent passing. I became thankful then that I was stuck where I was and not at the Chronicle.
I knew Torres, the news editor, too well. This fire was just the sort of thing he would assign to me.
Eighteen months at the paper had not elevated me in any way in the news editor’s eyes. I was still the reporter who copped the fires and floods and all other forms of natural disasters, as well as incidents of domestic violence, road accidents, and epidemics; not to mention every boring social event in town, such as the fashion show at the Hilton I was scheduled to cover at noon that day.
Once, unable to contain my frustration at yet another of these assignments, I said to him, “Not another robbery!”
As soon as I spoke I regretted it, for I saw how much my words irked him. “No, Clara,” he said, “it is not just another robbery.”
Torres was of the opinion that there was no such thing as a small story. I didn’t agree and argued that some stories were simply fodder.
He countered by saying that the problem with me was that I viewed things with too much objectivity. Although he never said so, I think Torres sent me out on these assignments to shake me up, to see if I would shed some of my so-called detachment.
He kept the stories I wanted from me. Every day it was to some other reporter that he gave the palace stories, the stories of military exploits, the stories involving the powerful names that determined the fate of this city and the nation.
And that Monday was no different.
“There’s been another riot,” Torres announced as he charged out of his cubicle.
I caught his words just as I set foot in the newsroom, late and looking somewhat frazzled from dashing to the building from the jeepney stop across the road.
Like everyone else, I took out my pad and pen, ready to jot down the details of my assignment.
Torres filled us in on what he knew, delivering his words with barely concealed excitement. Like the true newshound he was, Torres spoke in headlines. The students of the Loyola University, led by the charismatic student leader Luis Bayani, had been fired at by the military. The peaceful sit-in organized to protest the tragic June 6 incident, which saw eight students brutally clubbed and gunned down, had deteriorated into another violent confrontation. Now a student and a soldier fought for their lives at Santo Cristo Hospital, with many others badly injured; and at the camp, some forty students were being detained for questioning. The palace was due to make an announcement.
Hearing this, Joey, the staff photographer, let out a long soft whistle, then said, “I’d like to see him get out of this one.” By him, Joey meant El Presidente, whose sixteen-year regime was being challenged at last by a growing radical student movement.
For the next three minutes, Torres broke the story down into sub-stories. “Danny, write about the riot and get an interview with Bayani and the military commander—Reyes, I think, yes that’s right, Commander Reyes—see if you can get some witness accounts from the residents in the university area. I want every angle covered. Max, take the palace conference at eleven. Joey, go with Max and get a photo of El Presidente. Then I want you to head for the hospital, see if you can take some shots of the soldier and the student. Mel, a quick call to the hospital should do, you don’t have to go, just talk to the doctor in charge. This way you can interview that pest from the SSC.”
Then turning toward me and holding my gaze, Torres said, “Perez, I want you at Calle de Leon.”
I had never heard of this street before, didn’t know where it was or what was there.
“It’s near the Loyola. There’s been a fire.” Still holding my gaze, Torres handed me a sheet of paper with directions on it.
I fought to keep my expression neutral as I turned and walked out of the room. But once out of Torres’s sight, I felt, to my horror, tears of frustration forming in my eyes.
The others were waiting by the lift when I got to the foyer. As I made to join them, Joey, sharp-eyed as usual, noticed my overbright eyes and tried to lighten the moment.
“Now, Clara,” he said, “get that frown off your face before you grow more white hairs.”
With his photographer’s eye for detail, Joey had been the first to notice the narrow streak of white that had started growing near my right temple some six months ago.
He asked me back then, “Does it run in your family?” I could only shrug in reply. Personal questions always embarrassed me. How was I to know where that white streak came from when there was no one to tell me?
To divert Joey then, I had said, “It’s Torres’s fault. He’s causing me to age prematurely.” Since then Joey always referred to that streak in relation to my work at the Chronicle. He knew I hated the stories Torres assigned to me.
Now, standing by the lift, I felt Max, the senior reporter, nudge me with his elbow. He grinned his boyish grin. “C’mon, Clara, the fire’s not as bad as Mel’s assignment. Why, she’s got to talk to some crazy guy from the Seismological Study Center who insists we’re about to get badly shaken up!”
That made me smile but it wasn’t enough to rid me of the depression that was beginning to take hold of me. My life was growing as predictable as the stories Torres assigned me. But I could not have been more wrong.
Torres, you see, had unknowingly handed me the biggest story of my life. Of all the stories out there, this was the one I was destined to write.
In sending me to cover that same fire I had watched earlier from the bridge, I was to learn the truth in the news editor’s words at last: there is no such thing as a small story.