“How much?” Someone asked for the Puto Bungbong.
“Twenty.” The lady vendor said while she took one steaming bamboo cylinder about the size of her two fingers joined together. She was cautious touching only the part where there’s a piece of cloth wrapped like bandage around it…and in two or three swift shaking thrust against her other hand underneath to support the hand with the tube, instantly there from the inside of the tube came out purple roll made with rice, galapong, and ube. She place four pieces of these hot sticky rolls on a banana leaf that she folded as wrapper after adding a rich spread of margarine and sugar. The smell of which mingled the chilled air.
Jose was intently watching this activity. He overheard the cost for the nth times and counted his money again, one…two…three... He could already feel his stomach rumbling made more intense by the sweet aroma mingling in the air. There’s the strong smell of ginger tea (salabat); a little dash of chestnut roasting, and the enticing charcoal burn aroma of bibingka and variety of sweets and goodies that in Jose’s eyes where tempting. He could almost taste them from his saliva…intentionally making sound as he sniff in air.
Christmas season had started many days ago and for Jose this is a special season too; base from his previous experiences asking alms where he usually would received bigger money. But this year seems to be different; that made him wonder why people are so tight in holding to their coins. The other boys and girls like him who roam the streets were talking about financial crisis that they’ve heard people are gossiping lately. They have no idea why gasoline hike would affect them.
“Old people say money is hard these times.” Bal would said. He’s the bully among street children being the eldest at 14 and eternally holding a small bottle of solvent, which he inhales underneath his shirt. He is usually with his gang.
Earlier this afternoon Bal approached Jose asking for 5 pesos from him. He was cursing when the latter would not give. “Ah so you think you’re already tough boy.” He holds Jose by the arm gripping and twisting them.
“No please Bal just for tonight,” Jose pleads from the pain “I just want to buy puto-bungbong.”
Bal laughs scornfully “Okay Jose since it’s Noche Buena tonight I will let you pass this time.”
Jose was relieved when Bal let go of the hold. He was angered inside but he was too small to wrestle him.
“But you can’t go near the church, it’s my territory.” Bal said and thud the bottle of solvent on Jose’s head. “Go now stupid.”
Jose running away to the other side of the street across the church where stalls selling different kinds of Christmas goodies. He didn’t mind a screeching vehicle that made a full stop when the driver saw him rushing. He heard him cursing.
Jose shook his head. Smiling to himself he said “I was almost hit there.” Then he rubs his head when finally he felt the pain of Bal’s pounding. Jose was mumbling a curse for Bal. He was thinking how he would be able to get bigger alms tonight if he was not allowed near the church.
The night grew dimmer and colder. Jose is feeling an unusual coldness from the breeze. He was coughing and mucus is already coming out of his nose. The chill was pinching on both of his bare arms running to his body and he is a bit quivering and a strange hot air clouding his eyes.
But Jose is persistent that he will be able to buy his favorite treat. He stretches his tiny arms with an open hand for passerby. Most seems to pretend they didn’t see him at all. Others shook their heads without looking. Almost midnight he heard the chatting of people as they rush to the church. Excited voices mostly greeting happy holidays…there’s also the sound of chimes, carols from the choirs, flashing multi-colored lanterns, pulsating decorated trees, teen-agers are in their best clothes, most children’s are happily boasting their gifts…
Noche Buena in a few hours or so…
On his pocket Jose fishes some coins he had collected so far from asking alms, counting them but he was not sure, being only 9 years old and had never experience school. I think this is enough. He whispered to himself.
He went to the stall where various delicacies are serving. He stood their for a while waiting for other costumer…watching busy bodies sell and cook.
“You! What do you want?” Finally the store keeper notices him.
Jose timidly point to the steaming puto-bungbong.
“That’s 20 pesos.” Her voice was raised as if doubting he was able to pay.
Jose took all the coins from his pocket, not sure how many was twenty. The storekeeper mumbling and count the loose coins. “This is only 18.” She gave it back. “Two pesos more.”
Jose took the coins and when he was about to leave he heard a man said “Ah miss, I’ll pay for the two pesos.” He was about 30 years old, chubby and talking while his mouth full. “Give back your money.” He said to Jose making motion using his lips “It’s my gift to you.”
With this Jose smiled “Thank you.”
Happily he received the food and could feel its warmth that temporarily reduce the coldness of the breeze…smile to the man and rush to a secluded corner of the street where some cardboards were laid. It was an old abandon construction site where most of the kids avoid because of rumored ghost in the place. So Jose chose this place to hide and enjoy his food alone.
Suddenly he panics when the arid smell of solvent rises in the midst. In spite of the foul odor of the dilapidated place with smell of wet soil and urine, Jose knew at that instant he must move fast.
“Ooooops.” The familiar voice came from the dark. “Wow so you really have puto-bungbong huh?!” It’s Bal and before he could run he was already holding his shoulder. “Can I taste it?” Even in the dim lit room he can still make out a flashing silhouette of Bal’s sneering face. The blinking of Christmas lights made an eerie cast on him.
“No!” Jose was surprise on the loudness of his own voice.
“Give it to me.” Bal snatch what is in his hands.
Jose try to grab it back but his body was met by a strong elbow.
He groans in pain as he fell…immediately tears rolled to his cheeks. “Bal give…” whimpering while he hold his left ribs.
Bal is already tearing the leaf packaging and fingering the puto to his mouth licking and mechanically munching …”Uhmmm! Delicious.”
His eyes flames in heat and watery substances both streams from his eyes and nostrils. Gathering his strength Jose saw a piece of wood and in one swift motion hurl it forward while cursing “You son of a whore!”
Bal was quick to dock but Jose still manage another blow that hit him on his arms. “You stupid son of…” Bal make side step and look for an opening when Jose hesitate after another miss, he immediately grab the piece of wood away from Jose and make a strong push that makes Jose bang against the concrete wall. Bal got hold of the little boy fast to the chin then encircle his hands to his neck but change mind and grab his hair instead; and bang Jose’s head to the wall.
Bal stop when he notice dark blood sprang to Jose’s head. “Stupid!” He said. Then slowly walk away mocking. Leaving the loud crying of Jose behind as it makes some reverberating sound in the hollowed place.
Jose knelt to the dampen floor blood oozing from his head. He wipe his tears using his sleeves…and the quivering became more intense as he can already feel his fever rising. He can no longer control the shaking…involuntarily his knees shiver.
His swollen eyes saw something in the dark. Against the distant twinkling of neon colored stars…there on the floor…his puto-bungbong.