"If a lion could speak, we would not understand him." – Wittgenstein
By Angelo R. Lacuesta
Mustachioed and perennially youthful, Ben-Hur Tamales announced the event when he guested on Take It Away With JQ, a midnight talk show hosted by newspaperman Joe Quirino. Jorge watched it every week. The opening credits showed him punching keys on a typewriter with one hand and nursing a lit cigarette in the other.
Aside from celebrities and visiting entertainers, Take It Away occasionally featured curious personalities. Jorge recalled clairvoyants, psychics and mystics. Ben-Hur was a character actor who always played the rapist or the jail guard. In real life he was a real estate broker who also owned a chain of fried chicken stalls. That night on Take It Away he was neither the broker nor the chicken czar. He was there to talk about the mounting presence of UFOs in the Philippines. JQ introduced him to his live studio audience as an alien expert and spiritualist. His walk-on music was a melody played on a theremin.
Jorge was sure it was stolen from a 1950s movie. But he didn't change the channel, not even when they played the shampoo commercials he hated so much because he didn't know anyone who had hair like those girls did.
According to Ben-Hur, there had been many sightings all over the country over the past years. They put together amateur footage and played it on the big TV on the studio set. There were dots that looked just like stars but suddenly zigzagged across the sky. There were saucers, spheres, cigar-shaped ships that moved without sound. The cameras shook and Jorge heard the wind hitting the microphone and the distant shouts of spectators. A woman from Cebu had been waiting on the phone line since before the show started. She was certain she had been abducted. She had disjointed memories of tall white men and animal noises. There was lost time. She'd been living with these memories for more than twenty years and was scared to tell people. Only her late husband had known. JQ asked her how she was sure she'd been abducted, if she'd been on anaesthesia or hallucinogens. She told him she was totally straight. She said she had read Ben-Hur's latest book.
Ben-Hur was launching another one in the next month. It was going to be called The Ben-Hur Report. It would reveal more answers behind the mysteries and calamities of the current times. It would tell the secrets behind why the Philippines was so prone to floods and earthquakes, even crime, poverty and the energy crisis. JQ asked him if he could reveal just one secret. In due time, Ben-Hur said. He announced an event that was going to be held at a place overlooking Mt. Makiling. They would pay a visit to the mountain and deliver a message for the Philippines.
Jorge decided to drive to Makiling only on the night itself, after Take it Away played on TV. They featured a guest called the Bionic Boy. He could guess playing cards from a great distance, even over the telephone. He could write a message on a sheet that was in the middle of an entire sheaf of paper. JQ held a microphone near his head and it picked up a lot of feedback.
Bionic Boy also warned businessmen and other celebrities about impending accidents and other misfortunes. These were demonstrated on the show. What was not demonstrated was his rumored ability to make objects appear at will. When he felt hungry, it was said, he could make an entire roast chicken materialise inside an empty paper bag.
Jorge found the location only after making many wrong turns, resorting several times to the dubious measure of asking people for directions. It was almost two in the morning when he made that last stop. He had been on a dark stretch for a long time and he had grown suspicious of the highway that had stretched straight out over the last hour. He had also grown very drowsy from the sound of his wheels on the asphalt.
He released a breath of relief when his headlights hit the dark shapes by the side of the road far ahead. Three men who were sitting on the curb stood up shakily and dusted off their clothes. Two of them pushed the youngest-looking one forward. Jorge reached over to the passenger window and cranked it down. The teenager had the clean smell of liquor on his breath. For a 20-peso contribution they directed him back where he came from and told him where he should have turned. As he made the U-turn he saw them in the rearview mirror taking their places on the curb again.
When Jorge finally got to the camp, there was a scattered crowd on a small grassy clearing that had a rare clear view of the mountain, by that hour still a black shape against a dark blue field of dim stars.
The observers had parked their cars a distance away from the camp. It was part of a small family-owned resort, but the guestrooms in the rowhouses looked uninhabited and the small swimming pool was empty. There was no staff except the guard at the gate and a couple of enterprising caretakers who sold juice and sandwiches. Jorge had no idea why anyone would build a resort here.
It was still too dark to see much. Some people had brought fluorescent lanterns that created not much more than a huddled glow. He heard a sharp laugh and he saw a girl in a cocktail dress holding a glass of wine, talking to her friends. They all looked like they'd been out on the town. It was a good excuse as any to carry on the party.
Jorge looked at the mountain and tried to imagine what kind of happening would take place. He had never been interested in extraterrestrials, or UFOs, or strange craft sightings.
"What do you think they will say?" a man behind him asked. Jorge listened for an answer before he realised the question was directed at him, by a man who introduced himself as Alan Santos. He had come with his son, a thin-looking boy of ten or twelve who look liked he'd just been woken up from his sleep. They both wore white flop hats that looked like they glowed in the dark.
Jorge confessed to Alan Santos that this was his first time to be doing this, and that before seeing Ben-Hur on Take it Away he had never concerned himself with such things. Not that he was concerned now, he confessed again, silently this time.
Boy was one of those people who had experienced what he called "a personal encounter." It happened just several months back, while he and his family were vacationing in Baguio City, on a night very much like this. He happened to look up and he saw a trio of lights that were conspicuously brighter than the surrounding stars. His family were all asleep and he had been sitting alone on the small balcony of their rented cottage. The lights began to move irregularly across the sky, before they grew brighter and moved in his direction.
As Jorge listened to the details, it struck him that an ordinary-looking man, with no special history or circumstances, would ever have experienced anything like that. Boy wore what looked like an office shirt tucked into jeans. He wore a belt bag around his waist. He seemed to be a likeable man. Jorge's eyes groped in the dark for his facial features, and from what he could make out, he did look like the sort who could be easily swayed by other opinions or the power of suggestion.
Many of the details in the story of his encounter were similar to what Ben-Hur had mentioned on Take It Away: the colour of the lights, the tall, pale beings, the visitation happening in the dead of night, the sudden appearance of symbols on his forearms several days after the incident and their equally sudden disappearance. Jorge doubted Alan had enough imagination to make all of that up out of thin air, or, if it were made up, enough intellect to commit an elaborate hoax to memory. The boy looked intently at his father as he spoke, as though he never tired of hearing the story that he had probably told many times since it happened a few months before. Jorge wished he did not harbour as much doubt as he did.
When his story ended, with what Jorge felt like an anticlimax, the cluster of people who had gathered around them dissolved into the dark. Someone else had picked up the momentum with a story of their own. To Alan's credit, it didn't seem to matter to him if anyone believed his account. Jorge was drawn to him and his demeanour.
When the conversation thinned out into the smaller details of professional and home life, he learned that Alan had given up a successful marketing career and drifted for a while after the experience. He further confessed that he had simply lost interest in the pursuit of something as temporary or petty as money, or personal upkeep. Besides, Alan's wife just wanted to carry on with their lives and forget the whole thing.
Talk turned to the New People's Army and the Philippine Constabulary fighting in the countryside, and the energy crisis and the long lines at the gasoline station. Jorge owned an American car that never failed to prompt people to call it a "gas guzzler." Jorge had become used to that term, and he had also grown tired of defending himself by saying it was his company that paid for his gas and that he never really drove far anyway.
A buzz drew itself through the crowd. Alan grasped at his son's shoulder and pulled himself up. It was still too dark to see much.
"Ben-Hur's here," someone said. The crowd moved toward a vague direction. Alan and his son followed. Despite himself, Jorge was curious about what Ben-Hur looked like in the flesh.
A circle of lanterns gave the celebrity a makeshift stage. Ben-Hur Tamales looked pale and sweaty in the fluorescent light. Jorge heard someone murmur that he'd come straight from a film set and pointed out the makeup caked around his eyes.
Ben-Hur was entertaining questions from some journalists who had decided to follow the story. "We don't really know how they will show up or if they will show up. But yes, they did speak to me."
They asked him how they spoke to him.
"They are highly evolved beings. They speak to me telepathically, through our brain cells. It's not in any human language, but I completely understand what they are saying."
"Thank you all for coming tonight," he added. "All they are asking for is patience."
Ben-Hur turned and walked out of the circle of lanterns toward the edge of the clearing. The crowd followed him and looked out at Mt. Makiling with him, trying to see what he was seeing.
After several minutes of silence, someone pointed at the mountain and shouted "NPA!" Someone hissed angrily. A handful of people shuddered with laughter. The crowd became restless again.
Jorge looked at his watch. It was past four in the morning. He had been there more than an hour. Alan and his son had arrived way before midnight. They had taken the Pantranco bus from Manila.
Jorge offered Alan and his son a ride back to Manila. He would have wanted to drive alone but it was still dark and he felt he could use the company. Alan gripped the handle by the window. They talked for a while, about the American president and all the roads Marcos was building in the North. First-class roads, he said. He was proud of so much progress.
Alan complimented Jorge on his car. His concession to the energy crisis was that he had given up his car outright, even after his company offered to sell it to him for a token fee. That had been the last straw for his wife. She refused to talk about his encounter. The boy had become his father's default companion. He had been dragged along to UFO Society meetings, to conferences on spirituality, to seminars on auto-hypnosis and awakening lost memories, and to many uneventful overnight vigils such as this.
Their talk petered out. Jorge opened his window and smoked until he felt his lungs ache and his skin smart from the wind. He closed the window and saw that Alan had nodded off into the crook of his arm. He looked behind him and the boy had also fallen asleep. He turned on the radio. He soon grew tired of it and switched it off.
The last time he had been out of town was on a corporate outing two Novembers ago, to a beach resort a couple of hours out of Manila. It was off-season and the owners of the place had put up temporary fences of plastic sheeting against a southwest monsoon that blew a continuous wet wind against the shore.
Jorge thought he still had his eyes open even when they had closed. The image of the road had burned itself through his eyelids. The car swerved. Jorge jerked his head back and squeezed his eyes together to keep awake. He heard a sound coming from the back seat. He looked at the rear view mirror and saw the boy looking at his sleeping father, and then turning his attention to him.
"Let's stop, sir," the boy said.
"Okay," Jorge said. "We're almost at the turn."
He let a few more moments pass. The car swerved left over the line and he felt the tires go over the studs. He swung the wheel hard and the car tipped to the right. The boy stamped his foot behind him.
"Stop here!" the boy said loudly.
Jorge lifted his foot from the accelerator and let the car drift off the road onto the shoulder.
He opened the door and stepped out of the car. He regretted not stopping at that sari-sari store just before they had come out into the main road. He patted his breast pocket and took out a flattened pack of cigarettes. He drew out the last stick and lit it. He sat on the wide hood of his car and looked through the windshield. Alan was still sleeping in the crook of his arm, his fingers keeping their grip around the handle. The boy had his head back on the headrest and had closed his eyes again.
The sun was rising. It was getting brighter. Jorge looked at the mountain in the distance and saw that it wore a bright orange glow.QLRS Vol. 13 No. 2 Apr 2014