THE SINKING CHURCH OF STO. BASILIO
As Sr. Josephine Wallang mopped the floors of Sto. Basilio in preparation for the day’s math lessons, she slapped a fly which had perched itself on her forearm, and noticed a ripple jump from puddle to puddle, before the earth fell from under her.
Thelma Arsenal, one of Adiway’s five best bakers, would later tell to the provincial government, officials from the Department of National Resources, and various fact-finding groups that she witnessed the ground beneath Sto. Basilio crumble like a badly-baked cake. Chunks of earth slid down the mountain’s edge to the remains of the Bagat River below. The river, which served as a primary water-source for Adiway and several communities in the Cordilleras, crept where it once rushed. Over the years, its waters had receded, inch by slow inch, until two barren gorges surfaced alongside it, and the townspeople had to turn to other bodies of water. The river had also developed a rotten-egg smell, and those who had last swam in it—in the clean parts, at least, before they knew better – reported itchiness, rashes, and tiny red marks. A teenager even reported a strange sac on his ankle. The Starway Mining Corporation attributed the river’s evolution to natural climate change.
Arsenio Arsenal, barangay councilor and Thelma’s husband, participated in the relief operations following the landslide. On its way to the river, Sto. Basilio had passed through several acres of rice-paddies, whose farmers were now being housed in the town hall on the other end of Adiway. They found the church completely dismembered—its wet, wooden body scattered along the upturned earth on the dry riverbank and floating with the oatmeal-like sledge from Starway’s nearby tailings dam. Arsenio clasped a hand more tightly over his face-mask. The stench seeped in everywhere. He spotted Sr. Wallang’s old, mud-colored Nissan upturned, its wheels floating on the watery surface.
The digging took the better part of the week. As the clean-up crew surveyed the landslide’s damage, the rest of the townspeople—once the day’s work was finished—would visit the site to see if they had finally found the body. When Arsenio saw the white edge of fabric peeking out of the muck, he prepared himself for the broken body, the decaying flesh and ruins of the good nun’s face. But all they unearthed was the tablecloth for the altar, washed by night-soil and mineral waste. Sr. Wallang was nowhere to be found.
When she had first arrived in Adiway, the community could not give her a school. Her abbess had already informed her that the town did not have much in terms of modernities or comforts, other than the chilly mountain air, which the abbess stated might help her cool down. Sr. Wallang brushed the comment aside, and was glad she could stay in the Cordilleras after a long, hot lifetime in Metro Manila.
On her initial visit to her supposed flock, she found the sun was fiercer than she had anticipated. There was a sign greeting, “Welcome to the Gold-Town of Adiway,” with Starway Mining Corporation’s trio of golden stars underneath, as well as a cartoon of a happy miner in a hard hat, with his blonde-haired family. Much of the land had already been stripped of topsoil, and even more had been allocated for the company’s various structures: tailings dams to hold the wastes of the mines, underground tunnels to divert water for the processing site, barracks for the workers, cordoned-off lots for the promised school and community center. But since the school was still a promise, the town had no budget of its own to rebuild the old elementary school, which had been swept away by last year’s flash floods and storm. So, they gave her dominion over the haunted church of Sto. Basilio.
The church was empty. Fr. Acero, the previous priest had relocated to Baguio City when he claimed his first year in Adiway had been disturbed by a spirit of death, which had manifested in an army of black worms, robbing him of sleep. Such superstitious behavior seemed unbecoming of a priest, so the townspeople allowed him to leave. Some of the more pious residents trekked four miles into the next town to hear mass, but most had been content to know the Almighty knew they did good works, loved most of their neighbors, and kept their promises. Upon hearing this, Sr. Josephine assured them that God understood their predicament; she was a nun, and was not authorized to officiate mass, but she said weekly catechism, for the meanwhile, should be enough to satisfy their spiritual hunger.
Their physical and mental hungers were different matters altogether. The elders informed her that the seasons had grown stranger and stranger in the recent decades. Rain fell in the months it was not supposed to, while the crackling dryness reached even the cool peaks of the hills. Life cycles had to be revised. More and more of the men-folk traveled to the lowlands to eke out a living or took up employment with Starway, which quickly set them to work harvesting the buried hoards of gold and copper. They coughed more frequently.
As her car rumbled through the landscape to settle into Adiway permanently, she witnessed huge machines, sitting idly in the distance, next to mountainous piles of dirt and rock. Imposing concrete buildings were protected by barbed-wire fences, manned by armed men in uniform. Cars filled their parking lots. She drove even further, her car rumbling for mercy, until she reached the ramshackle barangay hall, where to her and her car’s further dismay, they directed her upland. When she reached the church, she surveyed the grounds, found cracks multiplying wherever she looked, and climbed up the small bell-tower to get a better view of the flock. Clumps of green and earth had been pulled out from the fields and mountain ranges. The wound-purple sky seeped through the cracked windows. In the shadow of the altar and cross, Sr. Wallang better understood Fr. Acero’s superstitions. The church seemed a home to night creatures. The rotting pews rattled, coal-eyed insects darted at the sides of her vision, and she heard herself utter a black murmur to God, startling her heart into silence, before she rushed to the back of the church to prepare her room.
Sr. Josephine met the golden woman during the dialogue between the government, the townspeople, and the mining company. She was a manager at Starway’s human resources division, and wore more jewels than the Nuestra Senora del Santisimo Rosario at the height of the feast of La Naval de Manila. The metal hung from her ears, encircled her fingers and wrists. She wore a gilded cross around her neck, to add some piety to her opulence. Even the frames of her eye-glasses appeared golden. Unlike Nuestra Senora, no one flocked to her, even the ones who weren’t poring over documents and reports and figures or the ones who had only been called to the barangay hall to give their testimonies, no one wanted to talk to her. Her bodyguard and driver stood behind her.
“Just a simple garment, something for galunggong shopping,” Hannah de Ramos whispered into Josephine’s ear. Hannah was one of her oldest friends. They had gone to the same high school in Manila, and were planning on entering the convent together when she suffered a crisis of faith and left Josephine alone at the doors of St. Benedict. She found she could not cultivate any anger in her heart towards Hannah, especially when their lives intertwined again, year later, when Josephine moved up north for her mission and Hannah began working with an environmental group as their legal counsel.
The town mayor officiated the meeting. The golden woman spoke first. She talked of the Philippines becoming flooded with hot money, profit from foreign investors who bought metal ore stocks because of their potential for mountainous profit. The world market glittered, and Adiway had an opportunity to share the wealth, through jobs and a school for the town.
“Ms. Evangelista, whatever benefits you promise, you started your operations without getting either the environmental compliance certificate or consent from the community, which means that you’re operating here illegally.”
The golden woman presented a document from her sleek, brown-leather bag. It was a document, granting Starway access to major portions of the town, signed by Fr. Acero. Sr. Josephine gripped the edges of the table to suppress the urge to flip it over, and she could feel the red building up in her face.
“That’s not valid,” Hannah replied. “He’s not a member of the community. You can’t rely on his consent to lend legitimacy to your rampant plunder.”
“Legally, he is. I can show you his cedula, and the land title of the church of Sto. Basilio, under his name. He owns property in Adiway, so he’s a member of the community.”
The next hour involved even more alienating conversation between Hannah and Ms. Evangelista, where they fought on derivative trading, financial bonds, speculative bonds, covalent and metallic bonds, and the golden woman evinced such a thorough knowledge for all these kinds of bonds that Sr. Josephine surmised she had no space left for human bonds. The meeting ended when Ms. Evangelista proclaimed that no one understood her. In the middle of her tirade, Sr. Josephine’s vision suddenly abandoned her, mosquitoes stung her ear and spiders crawled on her palms. A thousands buzzards flooded the room. Night creatures threatened to overwhelm her. She felt Hannah’s hand on her cold nape, and she stirred into consciousness, to the golden woman announcing the operations would continue as they planned, otherwise hot money would flee from the country. Hannah asked if she were okay, and Sr. Josephine asked for a cup of water.
Hannah left the following morning, to follow up a case in the neighboring town of Bukod. There, she inspected bodies of water rendered acidic by waste from one of Starway’s copper mines. They were supposed to introduce lime to bring the acidity back to normal levels, but Hannah told Sr. Josephine they appeared to be cutting costs.
Two days later, schools of dead fish surfaced in Bagat River, and it developed the smell of bitter almonds. Sr. Josephine contacted an environmental group from the capital, and they arrived a week later, to study the river’s chemical composition. With their test strips, they found concentrations of cyanide in the water. The group told her that cyanide leaching was one method of extracting gold from the ore.
Sr. Wallang and Thelma, flanked by a crowd of townspeople, marched into Starway’s local administrative building to present the findings. Ms. Evangelista greeted them, and claimed that the results were part of the river’s natural processes. Cyanide was a naturally-occurring substance. She gestured to the armed guards, who validated her claims.
“It’s getting worse,” Thelma told the nun, as she closed shop. Sr. Josephine walked in just before closing time, and the baker welcomed her presence, since they were both searching for human conversation.
“When I was a child, it never flooded,” she said. “Sometimes the crops would go bad, and we would go hungry, but there was always deer in the forest, or other villages to trade with. Now, I don’t know. At least I still have some bread.”
Sr. Josephine felt her own inadequacy gnaw at her soul. Everything in her head sounded too pithy, if she had said it out loud.
“There is no theft if the refusal of goods is contrary to reason or the welfare of the community. There is no theft if using the property of others is the only way to provide for someone’s basic needs’” Sr. Wallang said. “That’s what the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us.”
“Careful, sister,” Thelma replied. “If the wrong people hear you, they might think you’re one of the people from the mountains.”
“Aren’t we all from the mountains?”
“You know what I mean.”
“What did you think of Ms. Evangelista?”
“I didn’t understand her,” Thelma said. “All her talk, she made it like the entire problem was that we didn’t understand her.”
“Do you think that’s the entire problem?”
Thelma stared at her quizzically. Sr. Josephine told her she could take her time. After a few minutes, she responded.
“With all her education, she should know how to explain what she’s doing, and how it’s going to benefit us. And if we still can’t understand it, how we benefit, maybe we actually don’t, and there’s something wrong with her and her people,” she said.
“I think she’s arrogant,” she added. “I think she and all her bosses should live here forever, so that they know the actual price of what they’re doing. They should swim in the river, and drink the water, and work the land for their breakfast.”
Thelma offered Sr. Josephine the last of the day’s goods, which the nun accepted with much thanks for her generosity. The baker told her it wasn’t generosity, but the fact they would expire if left uneaten for the night.
Stuffed with bread, Sr. Josephine found her night prayers full of computations and figures. To produce a gold ring, you’ll need to sift through and throw away two tons of waste. Ms. Evangelista had at four gold rings on her fingers, or eight tons of waste on her hands. The country produces forty-eight tons of gold per year. How many tons of waste is that? And where does all that waste go? Rain started falling through the gaps and cracks on the church roof. Sr. Josephine worried she spent too much time on such earthly matters, but asked herself what else she was meant to do on earth. On earth that was being hollowed and hollowed. She floated in the dark, alone, the god of death and his animals having retreated into the empty pits of the world.
When storm season came, Adiway and the rest of the region were destabilized. Underground tunnels collapsed, landfills overflowed, vats of water were overturned, and the wind blew doors off houses. In the gloom of the church of Sto. Basilio, the families of Adiway ate their relief goods by candle-light. Sr. Josephine tried singing church hymns to break the wet madness of the storm, but realized that it didn’t contribute any peace.
With her radio, they listened to what was occurring in the other regions of the country. The roads around Adiway were impassable, and chunks of lands had caved-in under the pressure of the typhoon. Farther away, in the cities helicopters were rescuing people stranded on rooftops. The water fell on concrete streets and alleyways, found nowhere else to go, and gathered in pools until it threatened to overwhelm the cities’ inhabitants. Thankfully, there was still some soil and forest to absorb the worst of the flooding in Adiway, but the majority of the town were either trapped in their homes, in the town hall, or in the church, if their homes had been swept away. Sr. Josephine muttered a heretical prayer, for Starway to be flooded into oblivion.
The typhoon continued for several days. During lulls in the storm, Sr. Josephine would venture outside and shine a flashlight in the sky, to signal any rescue teams that they needed more supplies. She gathered edible wet bark from trees and roots, and boiled them for food when the packed noodles and sardines ran out. They even ate the bags of communion wafers, and ancient boxes of wine Thelma had found in the storage closet, underneath a pile of moth-eaten cassocks.
When the typhoon finally passed, Sr. Josephine accompanied the people into the town proper to take account of what had been damaged. They found nearly everything splintered and rain-lashed. They also found that Starway’s administrative building was not spared the damage, but that there were already men repairing its windows, mending its doors, ensuring operations returned to normal, as quickly as possible.
Sr. Josephine sat in the lobby of the hotel in Bukod, listening to a harmless, instrumental song. She focused on the song to prevent the red from coming back up to her face. She told the receptionist that she was waiting for a friend, and he believed her, because she was evidently a woman of God and grace. The receptionist was now at his post, sleeping. No one else entered or left the hotel. In fact, almost no one walked the streets of Bukod, Sr. Josephine figured they were probably still reeling and recovering from the effects of the storm.
A few days prior, as Sr. Josephine Wallang mopped the floors of Sto. Basilio in preparation for the day’s math lessons, Hannah arrived with news, and she felt the earth fall from under her.
“I tried to reach you earlier, but the roads were terrible,” Hannah told her. “Hurry, come with me to Bukod. The petition against Starway is going to court today. We’ll know, based on the judge’s decision, how good our legal chances are.”
In the hotel lobby, Sr. Josephine reflected that she shouldn’t have expected anything more. Of course, the judge would rule in favor of Starway. He ruled that there was no negligence, that the evidence presented by the people of Bukod was lacking, because they had not reached the same level of education as Starway’s legal technicians, and so their arguments did not hold water. Ms. Evangelista was there, because she had to be there. She shot the nun a poisonous smile as the judge read his decision.
Then, she received the panicked text from Thelma, telling her about the landslide that had engulfed Sto. Basilio, asking her where on God’s earth she was. She managed to text a brief “I’m okay,” before a long dark night of the soul fell on her. She spent a day and night lying on the bed of Hannah’s boarding house, refusing food or drink.
She figured there was nowhere else the golden woman would stay. There was only one hotel in Bukod with electricity and running water, and she had nothing else to do in this foreign town. The hours ticked slowly. She fingered the heavy metal cross around her neck, and wondered about the feasibility of her endeavor, the entire purpose of it. Supposing she even saw the golden woman, what would she do? Would shaming her publicly have any effect on the shares of Starway? Would a curse return the stolen wealth beneath the ground? She felt herself lifted up, and possessed by a foreign power when she spotted Ms. Evangelista come out from an elevator and enter the ladies’ bathroom. Sr. Josephine followed her inside. She locked the door behind her.
The bathroom was surprisingly spacious, tiled in pink and smelling of pleasantly-tangy citrus. Ms. Evangelista was completely oblivious to the nun’s presence, fixing her hair in the mirror, before she entered a cubicle. There weren’t any cameras inside, of course, since it was the ladies’ bathroom. And Sr. Josephine couldn’t recall seeing any cameras in the lobby and in the corridor leading to the CR. Even if it had air-conditioning, it was still a small hotel in the mountains, the owners had better things to spend their money on than cameras, and the rooms probably didn’t have anything worthwhile to steal. The metal around her neck grew colder. Ms. Evangelista emerged from the cubicle, and Josephine uttered a dark cry to God.
When her self returned to her, she found the golden women stripped of all her gold. Her jewelry was in the nun’s hands now, while the woman was asleep, her hands tied around the cubicle’s legs with the sister’s metal cross. The mirror was broken. A metal trashcan was lying on its side, streaked with something red. Her heart nearly leapt out of her chest. She grabbed the woman’s wrist and felt for a pulse, which was faint, but still there, and her heart gained some semblance of peace. She got up to wash the red from her knuckles. When she left the bathroom, she made sure the door was still locked, and that she smiled at the receptionist on her way out, though she found him still asleep. She rushed as quickly as she could back to Hannah’s boarding house. In her head, Josephine planned what she would tell her friend, how she would insist they leave Bukod and return to Adiway as soon as possible. Crying would be necessary, to ensure that Hannah understood the gravity of the situation. Josephine wouldn’t tell her what had happened, to ensure her friend didn’t suffer any culpability. The future, sin, they would be matters to sort out as soon as she returned to her ruined church. The gold weighed heavy in her pockets.
Lakan Daza Umali is a graduate student at the University of the Philippines Diliman. He lives in Metro Manila.