Aurelio checked his watch. Almost 3 p.m. He settled back in his seat and squinted against the wind rushing against his face, beating at his shirt collar and mussing up his already mussed-up hair. Something pressed heavily against his shoulder. The woman beside him had fallen asleep, and her head had slowly dipped lower until she was practically lying against him. She snorted, muttered something and blinked. Glaring at him, she straightened, clutching her bayong a little tighter, then drifted back to sleep.
He shrugged and went back to watching the scenery fly past the window of the bus. The last town had dwindled to less than a handful of houses flung here and there, with wide expanses of rice fields and trees in between, set against the backdrop of the shadowy mountains of the north. The roads were still bad, and every now and then the bus would lurch over a pothole or two. Thankfully there was no dust. It had rained a few hours before, and the air was cool and fragrant with the scent of damp grass and wet earth.
There were a few more houses now since he left for Manila, but other than that nothing much had changed. He could almost imagine he was ten years younger and leaving home for the first time, saying goodbye to each tree and mountain and rice field that marked the end of his childhood. Except for the fact that this time he was heading toward home instead of away from it, everything looked the way it was before.
"They've stopped time in Catalina," his brother Ponciano had said in disgust when he came back from his last trip home. After discharging his brotherly duty of reminding Aurelio to go visit their parents at least once in his miserable life, Ponciano had little else to say. Erlinda had given birth to her sixth child and showed no signs of letting up anytime soon. Manong Luisito had been promoted to assistant superintendent in the provincial capital. And Catalina was still the same sleepy town of Catalina.
Aurelio had muttered the same old excuses: he had too much to do at the government bureau where he worked, and he was still trying to pay off the debt he owed various aunts and uncles who'd helped finance his college education. Ponciano grunted his disapproval but it was his wife Marieta who said something that made him pause. "She's gone back home, you know. In case you're interested."
Aurelio looked at her. She was fussing with the food on the table, but a smile was twitching in the corners of her mouth. "Who's gone back home?" he asked evenly.
"Why, Narcisa, your childhood friend. She's come back from her aunt's family in the south. You should go see her. They say she's grown into a beauty."
Aurelio sat quite still. Narcisa was back. The last time he'd seen her, she was sticking her head out the window of a bus waving at him and wiping away tears, before her aunt tugged her back inside. He thought he waved back, but he didn't remember. He left for Manila shortly thereafter.
"I heard you two were something like heroes back in the war," Marieta went on. "Your parents told me about it. You'd gone back to rescue the old priest even though there were Japanese soldiers everywhere. That was very brave you."
Brave? Aurelio wanted to laugh. He'd been terrified, not brave, and if he had known beforehand what would happen, he wouldn't have gone rushing off into a burning church crawling with enemy soldiers. Brave was Narcisa and the way she faced down the Japs, a ragged little girl with the bearing of a queen. But not him.
"Strange though that they never found the bells," Marieta murmured. Ponciano, who had never been known for his verbosity, grunted his opinion.
They never did find the bells. Aurelio stared out the window of the bus, remembering. In the morning, the soldiers were gone, following Yamashita's Army to Cagayan and hustled along by the drone of American fighter planes overhead. Tatang and the others were frantic by the time the two of them were found, asleep in each other's arms in a burrow among the bushes beside the church. They told their story: how the Japs were looking for the bells, which had mysteriously disappeared only to ring as though they had never vanished. And how the soldiers had left town as soon as the bells stopped ringing. Aurelio didn't know how much his parents and the townsfolk believed, but this much was true: the bells were gone, and they were heard long after they had disappeared.
Nobody could explain it, least of all himself. He'd spent days searching for the bells, with Narcisa trailing unhappily after him. An examination of the tower offered no clues. There were no breaks or cracks to indicate that the bells had fallen, and even the ropes were untouched. It was as if the bells had never existed. After weeks of fruitless searching, he gave up in disgust, and glared at Narcisa when she suggested that maybe what she said was true, that the bells were buried in the ground. It was a tribute to how obsessed he was when he took to digging around the back of the church, just in case.
He never spoke about the time when she confronted the Japs. For her part, she acted as though it never happened. But sometimes when he looked at her, he thought he could see the truth staring back at him. And the truth was he was a failure. He couldn't save Padre Mateo, and he couldn't protect Narcisa. Narcisa had had to protect him. The memories of that morning and the sadness he'd sometimes see in her eyes made him crumple inside. They never spoke of it but it was there, standing between them like a glass wall, unseen but felt.
He blinked when he realized that the bus had stopped. Muttering "pardon me", he stumbled out of his seat and grabbed his bags, earning another glare from the woman beside him. The bus drove away as soon as he stepped out, leaving him standing alone on the wide, dusty road that led toward Catalina.
He hefted his bags and began to walk. Almost immediately, he could see that his brother was right. Some of the houses that had been burned were rebuilt, and the old school building was patched up here and there, but it was still the same old Catalina. The years fell away, and once again he was wearing a too-big shirt and too-small short pants, on his way to the store or to school. He himself must have changed a lot, because the townsfolk merely greeted him as they would a stranger, with no trace of recognition. Halfway toward his house, a little boy spotted him and shouted, "Tio Aurelio!"
He grinned, and the townsfolk, realizing who he was, craned their necks to get second look. The boy was joined by four other children, and soon he was surrounded by his nieces and nephews, followed by his sister Erlinda and her husband, then Tatang and Nanang. They greeted him with smiles and tears, dragging him into the house to swamp him with demands to tell them all about his life in Manila. By the time evening fell, the house was full of people who knew him when he was a child and who had heard of his "heroic" deed. To his disappointment, he didn't see her among the guests.
It was still dark when he woke up the next morning. He lay on the banig and stared up at the ceiling, wondering what woke him up. All around him, children lay side by side snoring quietly. Unable to fall asleep again, he got up, splashed water on his face, and on a whim decided to take a stroll through the town.
It was the deepest part of night, just before dawn. The houses lay like shapeless shadows in the chilly air, and part of him wondered what on earth he could see of the town at this ungodly hour. He stopped when he came to the low brick building with the twin flagpoles standing as sentinels. This time, there was only one flag hoisted on the flagpole, but for a moment he saw it again as it was ten years ago. He realized that he had retraced the path he took when he came searching for Narcisa, and it was around the same time in the morning, too. He shrugged and headed toward the old church, amused at his sentimental foolishness.
Padre Mateo's house had never been rebuilt. Plants and vines grew all over the place, but he could still see the charred walls and the broken doorway. The rose garden was gone, choked off by weeds. Aurelio stared at the remains of the old priest's house and welcomed the old sorrow like a long-lost friend. Then he wandered toward the front of the church, with the half-formed idea of checking the bell tower. Just in case.
Then he noticed something new. A tree grew where there used to be none, young and spindly but tall. It stood beside the tower with an air of welcome, stretching out its branches as far as it could go like arms open in invitation. The leaves were broad and smooth, touching the wall of the tower delicately. Flower buds gleamed like pale dots across branches. Then something moved underneath the tree, and he realized that he wasn't alone.
"It's a Malay rose apple tree," said a woman's voice. "There was one near my aunt's house, too."
He stopped when she stepped away from the shadows and smiled at him. Her hair fell past her shoulders, like black ink spilled across her shawl. Her hands were clasped demurely in front of her skirt, white and graceful. Her teeth flashed when her smile widened, and her eyes twinkled with humor in her elfin face. "What's the matter, Eliong? You've never seen a macopa before?"
"I, uh—" he stammered, then gathered his scattered wits. "Of course I have. We have trees like this in Manila. It's just that I don't remember seeing one here at the church."
Narcisa glanced up at the tree. "There wasn't one before you left. I brought one from the south with me, to plant here at the very same spot where this tree is growing. Are you still searching for the bells, Eliong? Is that why you're here?"
She laughed a little when he continued to stare at her. "It's been years since you came home. People have been wondering about you. Don't forget, you're a hero around these parts."
He narrowed his eyes, thinking that she was making fun of him. "Don't give me that. It was you who rescued me from the Japs while I stood there and let them slap me around. I was too much of a coward to protect you or Padre Mateo. You're the heroic one, not me, and you know it," he said angrily.
"Is that why you never came back to Catalina? Because you think you're a coward?" she asked softly.
He looked away, regretting his outburst. "I don't know. Maybe I just wanted to get away. Nothing ever happens here, and Manila seemed the best place to go."
They stood together in silence, and he berated himself for saying too much. He hadn't seen her in ten years, and then he just went and tossed that childish garbage in her face. Now she was going to think he hadn't grown up one bit. He glanced at her from the corner of his eye, but she wasn't looking at him. She was gazing up at the tree with an odd expression, and he was struck anew at how beautiful she was. He opened his mouth to tell her, then closed it again, blushing.
She bent down and picked something up from the ground. She held out her hand to show him. A tiny white flower from the tree lay in her palm. "You know something? I don't know where this tree came from. When I came to plant my tree, I found this growing right here. Nobody could tell me anything about it, only that it started to grow the year after you left. I had to plant my tree beside our old house instead. Isn't that strange?"
"Maybe somebody else planted it. Or a seed had fallen here by accident," he offered, not really caring about the tree.
She gave him a knowing look. "Probably. Still, it seems familiar to me, somehow. Do you remember the story I told you about the village that was raided by pirates?"
He remembered. "The bells disappeared, and they became trees."
"Rose apple trees. Like this one." She smiled at him, then looked up at the tree again. "You did save me, you know," she said quietly. "I was so terrified, and so very foolish. I ran to the church to save the bells. I wanted so much to be just like you, faithful and responsible and able to keep a promise no matter what. But the bells were gone. Then the soldiers came and began to destroy the church. I hid in the choir loft, too scared to move even when they burned Tio Mateo's house down. They came looking for the bells. They wanted to ring them just for fun, I think, but maybe all they wanted were trophies of war. But the bells were gone. I ran down while they were in the tower and hid behind one of the plaster saints. Then you came." She glanced at him from the corner of her eye. "You burst in looking like hell, all dirty and sweaty and tearstained. You were shouting my name. It was the most unforgettable sight I'd ever seen."
He snorted at that, but ended up smiling with her anyway. "I remembered the soldiers, but it was too late to warn you," she went on. "Then they began to hit you, and every time they slapped you, it felt as if they'd slapped me as well. I was too afraid to do anything. Then suddenly, I felt as if somebody was standing beside me, somebody who would protect us. I stopped being scared, at least for a moment. And I knew what I had to do."
She stopped, because he knew the rest of the story. He stared at her, not knowing whether to thank her or walk away or pull her into his arms and never let her go. She must have read his confusion, because she looked away again. "I wouldn't have been able to do it if you weren't there. I'd have been killed, I guess. But you came. You tried to save Padre Mateo, and you tried to save me. Nanang told me the story. You came for me. You were supposed to be safe with your family, but you came for me anyway. You were as scared as I was, but still you came. If that wasn't heroic, then I don't know what is.
"You looked so hard for the missing bells, and I think I know why. You didn't believe that you did anything heroic, so you wanted another chance to prove yourself by finding the bells. It hurt that you thought so little of the fact that you saved my life, but I understand why you needed to find the bells." She turned to face him fully, and took his hand in hers. "I've always believed in you, Eliong. Even when you'd stopped believing in yourself and wanted only to escape, I believed in you. If I could give you something in return for saving my life, I'd give you the chance to believe in yourself again."
She reached into her pocket, pulled something out, and pressed the object into his palm, closing his fingers around it. He looked at the object in his hand. It was a small, bell-shaped fruit, gleaming deep pinkish-red even in the grayish light of dawn. He held the fruit aloft between his thumb and his finger, and eyed it doubtfully. "What's this?"
She laughed at his expression. "It's a macopa. I've finally fulfilled the second promise I made to you. Remember? I promised to show you what a macopa is. It's only right that the guardian of bells should give you your first rose apple in Catalina. And that's my third promise fulfilled," she added playfully.
Aurelio gave her a puzzled look. "I know about the second and third promise. What's the first?"
She merely smiled. When he realized that he would get no answer from her, he eyed the fruit some more, then slowly bit into it. It was sweet and juicy, and he soon polished it off, to Narcisa's delight. She plucked more of the red fruits, now visible in the morning light, and proceeded to fill his arms with them with the same enthusiasm she'd had as a child. When the fruits tumbled out of his arms, she pulled off her shawl and wrapped them in it, tying it into a bundle. He picked fruits off the ground and laughed with her, feeling lightheaded and happy in a way he hadn't felt in years. Ten years, to be exact.
"It's morning, Eliong," she cried, swinging the bundle on one arm and grabbing his hand to pull him into the church. "Let's ring the bells and wake up the town!"
"They have new church bells now?" he asked, trying to keep up with her and grinning at the sacristan who gaped at them in surprise as they barreled past him into the bell tower.
Narcisa handed him one of the ropes and twined her arms around the other ropes, just as he'd taught her long ago. "Yes," she said, giving him a conspiratorial grin, "but these don't sound as good as Catalina's bells."
They tugged on the ropes and the bells rang, deep, majestic music that reverberated from the tower and flowed like the waves of the ocean over the town. Narcisa laughed joyfully as she rang the bells, and Aurelio found himself agreeing with her that the sound of the new bells weren't as lovely as Catalina's bells. The sound wasn't half as lovely as the sound of Narcisa's laughter, either.
The bells rang forever, echoing faintly in the wind, ringing long after they stopped pulling at the ropes, long after the bells stopped moving. And Aurelio found that he believed in that, too.