by Franz Austin V. De Mesa
It was Saturday, 8PM. Tonight’s ulam was hotdog and egg. And in six days, I was going to become a man.
I sat across from my father who had just come home from work, and he ate like he hadn’t eaten in a month: eyes focused on his plate, specks of rice on his chin, a sweaty neck, greasy hands. Meanwhile, my cup of rice was only halfway gone, looking like a half-moon that was bitten off by the Bakunawa, only I wasn’t as hungry.
No, there were more important things running around in my head than just eating. I had been thinking about it for weeks now. In my community, there was something called the Handugan that every boy must go through in order to become a man.
Dad went through with it, and so did my grandfather, and so did his father, and his father. My friends, JJ and Adrian, were also going to go through with it sometime this month. One of my classmates, Karlos, just did his last week, and they said he spent three nights crying. “Ang sakiiiit!” he kept screaming, they said. The next-door neighbor, Kuya Ramil, did it when he was only nine years old. I had just turned twelve about two months ago—the ripest time for a boy to go through with it, Dad often told me, like I was a piece of mango for dessert.
I looked down at my phone to check my messages, but mom still hadn’t replied.
“Sam, ano sabi ko kapag kumakain tayo?” Dad said without looking up, reminding me of my table manners.
Immediately, I placed the phone back on the table.
“Ubusin mo kanin mo,” Dad commanded with the same coldness as he sliced into a piece of hotdog with his spoon and scooped it into his mouth, and I quickly took up a spoonful of rice to my mouth until there would be nothing left on my plate. “Andami pang ulam oh, kuha ka pa,” he said with his mouth full.
I looked into the frying pan. I saw that the hotdogs were starting to sweat out their red food coloring, and that they were being absorbed by the eggs. The white part, which I learned in Science class was called the albumin, was now turning pink like it was having rashes. It reminded me of myself in the mirror. It looked kind of gross.
“I’m full,” I told him.
“Samson,” he started to say as he sliced through the tip of his hotdog.
I gulped. I knew what he was going to say, No English, Sam. It reminded him too much of Mom. When she was still living here, she would only converse with me in English. From dinner conversations to trips to the city, and even when relatives came over, she never spoke a word of Tagalog. To train me for the future, she said. “Smart boys talk in English.” But I didn’t really get it. Dad didn’t seem to mind. He just smiled at us. But now he wasn’t smiling.
“Hay, bahala ka diyan,” he sighed, “Maraming hindi nakakakain na tao, alam mo. Sinasayang mo lang yung pagkain.”
All my life, I never understood that argument: how exactly does finishing my food help the poor people who can’t eat? If anything, shouldn’t leaving leftovers mean they could eat more? E di sa kanila mo na lang ibigay, I wanted to shout, but I knew better than that. I took another piece of hotdog to help finish my rice. The room became silent for a while, and I was alone with my thoughts again. In six days, I was going to become a man.
I could picture it. The Handugan, the blade, the blood. I would be strapped to a bed under a blinding light while the doctor smiles and speaks softly under his face mask, holding the big metal cleaver, like going to the dentist but ten times worse. People said it would hurt. Dad said it wouldn’t, but he often lied. He had lied about the time I got my first injection. He told me it was quick. Just one sting and done. But Doktora punctured my arm three times before she found the vein. Three times. Now my hands were shaking as they did back then.
Mom said I didn’t have to go through with the Handugan. But Mom was in the city and I didn’t know when she would be back.
“Okay ka lang, ‘nak?” Dad asked, his voice now a little softer.
“Okay naman po,” I said, even though I was still scared. I wanted to tell him that. I wanted to ask, is it okay if it was next summer? I just wasn’t ready. Maybe I was never going to be ready.
“Rinig ko sa mga kapitbahay, naglaro na naman kayo ng eksbak sa bahay ni Adrian?”
“X-box, Dad. And no, sa bahay lang ni JJ merong X-box. Nagkwentuhan lang kami kina Drei,” I replied.
“Ah, ganon ba. Pasensya na, alam mo namang hindi ko alam yung mga ‘yan.”
He laughed, but I didn’t. It was frustrating, having to explain over and over who my friends were, what an X-box was, or anything, really, that was a part of my life that didn’t involve him. I looked down at my plate but I could sense that he was getting uncomfortable, feeling as though he was slipping up from being able to know what I was thinking. Maybe he was.
Dad came from a simpler time and didn’t really understand what we were into these days. It took me forever to explain what an email was. Instead of sports, I was into video games. Instead of chasing girls, I liked drawing. And instead of going to mass on Sunday, I’d rather just spend time with my friends. But still, he went on convincing me to become an engineer like him and to do the things that he liked doing. It’s like everything I said would just pass through his ear.
I was arranging my rice towards the left side of the plate, thinking of a way to bring it up. When I got the courage, I softly whispered, “Dad, ok lang b—”
“Isa pa pala,” he suddenly said, deafening my thoughts, “Tinawagan ako ng doktor kanina. Di raw siya pwede sa Thursday, so nagtanong siya if pwedeng mas maaga. Sabi ko sige lang, bakasyon mo naman at wala kang ginagawa. Sa Monday na yung Handugan mo, ha. Mag-ready ka na.”
I dropped the spoon on the plate with a loud clank. Silence followed. I couldn’t quite believe what I had just heard—one for how fast he said it, two for how unreal it seemed—but I soon realized that what he said was real, and he had moved my scheduled Handugan earlier so that now it would happen in less than two days. Two days. My face became stiff and I started to sweat. I couldn’t bear to look him in the eye.
“Sam, narinig mo ba’ko?”
I gulped down the spit in my throat as he asked, almost like a threat, if I understood what he had just said. I could only glance at his eyes in reaction. They were like the eyes of Sir Franky eyeballing Adrian after the Math quiz and asking him “Anong ginawa mo?”, expecting an answer and only that answer. It’s not like Adrian was bad at Math; it’s just that he didn’t have the time to study the day before because he had a fever. There wasn’t a choice sometimes. I could feel my heartbeat slowly rising like I was running, running away from monsters in my dreams. I had to say something. It had to be now:
[Click on the link below that you think the story follows.]
“Opo, Dad. Sige po.”
I finally managed a fake smile. It took all my courage to pretend that I wasn’t panicking. That I wasn’t afraid. But I could feel my heart thumping like a machine gun. I could feel my hairs stand up with hands quivering like a vibrating Xbox controller. I wanted to scream.
“Good,” he said, like he was pretending not to see that I was trembling. “Okay lang ‘yan, Sam. Wag kang kabahan. Hindi na nga masakit ngayon yung proseso eh. Noong panahon ko, wala pang anesthesia. Pinainom lang ako ng alak at pinakagat sa kahoy. May malaking kutsilyo tsaka pamukpok. Pero hindi ako umiyak. Kasi malakas yung pamilya natin. Mas lalo na ngayon, maliit na bagay na lang siya. Si Kuya Ramil mo nga, ‘di umiyak. Ikaw pa kaya? Anak ko pa kaya?”
“Opo, Dad.” I replied, slightly comforted by his promise that the Handugan would be painless. Yet still there was that feeling eating up inside of me: the fear that I wasn’t anything like my Dad, that I wasn’t as strong as him who had gone through worse during his time.
“Sige. Ayos ‘yan,” he said, punching me lightly on the shoulder with his left hand. His left hand was missing the middle finger.
In school we were taught about how each finger had its special function. In Tagalog, they even had funny little names like “Hintuturo” or “Hinlalaki” to describe them. The index was for pointing, the middle was for balance, the ring finger was for when you wear rings, and the pinky was for picking your nose. My Dad had a different version though. He told me that the middle finger was the worst finger because it was only good for two things, and one of them was spreading hate. When I asked him what the other thing was, he just said that he’d tell me when I get older.
“Pagdating natin doon,” he said, “papapiliin ka ng doktor kung anong daliri yung ihahandog mo. Kung gusto mong sundan yung tradisyon sa pamilya natin, ibigay mo yung gitna sa kaliwa. Ayun kasi yung pinaka-nagkakasalang daliri. Okay?”
“Okay, ‘tay,” I said, still unable to wrap my head around offering my middle finger like my Dad did, like our family has done for generations.
“Sige, basahin mo muna yung berso ngayon bago matulog, ha?”
I nodded. It was routine for us to read the day’s gospel every night before bed: keeps our spirits nourished while we waited for Sunday, Dad often explained.
He walked to his bedroom. On the table, there was his empty plate, with spoon and fork tucked parallel to each other—the signal that I was to clean up and wash the dishes. But as I rinsed the plates in the sink, and felt the freezing water rush against my skin, I trembled. The truth was I still didn’t understand why the Handugan had to be done, or how taking something away from my body would make me a man. What would being a man mean anyway? Was I going to change? I didn’t want to change. I was fine being Sam.
My Dad claims that it’s a gift to God, a small sacrifice to offer to Jesus who died on the cross. But if He loves us, why would God want to see us ache in pain? Why didn’t God just take away my finger before I was born? I didn’t understand it. But He works in mysterious ways, the priest always told us. I just needed to have faith.
My Dad was a good man. He’s kind and hardworking. He didn’t smoke cigarettes or drink beer. He prayed before each meal, never skipped mass, and always gave a hundred pesos in the collection every Sunday. He woke up an hour earlier than my alarm to cook me breakfast and make sure I go to school. He worked hard to earn money. Even though he’s gone for most of the day, he told me that it’s for my own good and that I needed to be strong. It’s for my future, he says. But what is my future? It’s kind of scary to think about.
But I just needed to trust God and his mysterious plans for me. Seeing the man that Dad was, and the missing finger on his left hand, and his father before him, and his father, and his father—I guess I couldn’t just run away from tradition. I mean, even if I wanted to, where would I go? The ceremony was in two days. I just had to get through this.
After I finished washing, I grabbed my phone from the table and went to my room. There was a new message from Mom. She told me she was coming to visit in three days. I told her that I was looking forward to it, but didn’t mention anything about the Handugan. No more running away, I told myself.
The verse for today was Matthew 5:30: “If your right hand causes you to sin, chop it off and throw it away! It is better to lose one part of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”
I’m strong, I reminded myself. I can get through it. I can get through it all.
I knelt by my bed, spoke a silent prayer to God, and then sat on the covers.
I looked down at my two hands, and thought hard about which finger to offer.
|I need it to pick stuff up.
|Hinlalaki, my best thumb-wrestler
|For smudging oil pastel
|My favorite finger, for pointing
|Bad finger, do not use alone
|Even if it’s bad, I need it to make the peace sign
|Where the ring goes for once I get married
|Sometimes I raise this one to make the bad sign
|For sauce tasting
It was Saturday, 8PM. Tonight’s ulam was sinigang na tilapia. It had been six days since the Handugan.
I sat across my father who had just come home from work, eating like he usually does. On my end, I struggled to separate the bones from my fish with just using the spoon. I couldn’t even scoop up rice properly.
“Gusto mo ba ng tulong?” Dad asked, but I just said I was fine without his help.
The memory of that day was still as fresh as the wound I had, a bandaged stump of where my finger once was, where a part of me had once resided, but has now been chopped away. I could still feel the bed being cold. I had a blanket but it didn’t help. The aircon nearly blew snow into the room as we waited for what seemed like an hour before the butcher man in the white coat came with the injection. He was wearing a face mask, and spoke with a soft voice like I pictured him, but how could I trust someone who was hiding half of his face? The needle piercing through skin felt like I was touching a boiling pot for too long, except it was directed on one little point of my hand. No more than five millimeters of pain. But it was over in a second, so it wasn’t that bad.
Then I saw the knife they had ready, bigger than any kitchen knife we owned in the house, like it could cut clean through pork belly and bone. We waited for another few minutes or so, then the butcher man asked me if I wanted to wear a blindfold.
I promised him that I wouldn’t flinch or make a sound. That I could take it. Just don’t put me in the dark. Everyone knew a rollercoaster was scarier when you closed your eyes.
Dad held my hand and nodded to the butcher.
On the count of five, he said.
The knife came down.
And it was over before I even knew it.
It hurt for precisely one second, but the anesthesia must have numbed it. I looked down to the table and saw my hand shaking like crazy, but it was still whole. Only my chosen finger had a gap, a gap of red pouring and spurting all over.
It was only when the butcher in the white coat picked up the finger that I truly realized it was separated. He placed it in a jar, then with a piece of cloth, started to wipe the red swimming pool that had accumulated on the table where my hand was drowning. After that, he started sewing the wound.
With each pass of the needle, I shuddered and tensed up as a spool of black thread followed its path. It felt like a guitar string was burrowing its way into my skin, pulling the flaps near my knuckle into itself, folding it onto itself, and each tug felt like I was being ripped apart, even though the butcher said he was healing me and stitching the wound back together. He said it so innocently as if he hadn’t been the one to chop it off.
And just like that, in the span of thirty minutes, the Handugan was over.
I was now a man.
It was afterwards when the pain started to kick in. It was a constant burning of the wrapped-up stump, and it often itched too, but scratching it would hurt even worse. The first day was bad enough, but the second day was even more so. I woke up to the sound of my own groaning, my head wrapped in sweat, and my hand in a near seizure from the constant stinging since by then the anesthesia had completely worn off. Even now I could still experience some degree of discomfort, but I’d gotten used to it already. At least little by little.
Sometimes I would feel like it’s still there. Like if I just concentrated hard enough, I could flex the joints of my missing finger, like how I slowly curled my toes after I’ve sat on my foot for too long and lost all feeling from it. But no matter how hard I put my mind’s energy into it, I couldn’t satisfy the feeling. The doctor said that it’s normal to experience this. “Phantom limb pain” he called it, which was something amputees from the war dealt with. I guess I also went through some sort of war.
On Wednesday my friends visited me and told me some of the progress they’ve made in the game we were playing. I kind of got mad that they continued without me, but it couldn’t be helped, I guess. My cut was still fresh so Dad didn’t let me go outside yet, not for another two months or so. And even if he did, I couldn’t hold a controller anyway, nor could I use a mouse and keyboard, or hold a basketball properly, or pick up playing cards. I couldn’t even use a spoon and fork to eat my food.
Most days I just lay in bed, surfing the internet on my phone, or sleeping, or watching TV, or thinking about what everyone else was doing outside. I prayed with my father each morning and evening before we went to bed, pleading to God to let me recover soon, at least just in time for high school. After all, I’ve been an obedient son. I’ve done everything he’s asked, everything he’s demanded of me. Wasn’t this enough? Wasn’t taking away my finger and summer enough?
The only thing that has kept me going was the thought that at least some time along this month, JJ and Adrian would also go through their own Handugan. Better that we all go through it together this summer, so I guess it wasn’t all that bad. Still, it sucked being the first one.
I tried to scoop up the soupy rice from my plate along with a little piece of tilapia and some kangkong, but no matter how far or how fast I dragged the metal spoon across the plastic plate, the rice only seemed to escape its concave depression by a millimeter. Stubbornly I took it too far and spilled the sour goop out onto the edge of the table and onto the floor.
“Sam,” Dad started saying as he got up from his chair, “Tulungan na kita.”
I dropped my spoon and let it ring against the ceramic as a sign of defeat. He was my father after all, and I still loved him, even if I hated him a little for doing this to me. Or maybe I hated myself for going through with it, for not saying anything. Maybe I hated God that such a stupid tradition exists. It doesn’t really matter anyway. What’s done was done. In a few months, I won’t even remember the pain. It would be like most of the injuries I get, gone and away.
He sat beside me, and carefully decorated each piece of the perfect bite onto the spoon: a tad of the tilapia, a small leaf of kangkong, a slice of tomato, and a bed of souped-up rice.
“Aaah,” he said.
I opened my mouth and ate.
I felt like I was three again: warm, happy, cared for, and couldn’t use a spoon.
I didn’t feel like a man at all.
“Dad, why did you just say yes?”
“Sam, no English,” he said, pointing at me. Then he sighed before continuing, “Sorry if hindi kita sinabihan kaagad. Pero ready ka naman na eh. Mas okay nang mas maaga kaysa patagalin pa natin.”
I didn’t want to hide it anymore. I didn’t want to pretend to be strong anymore.
“Ayoko pong mag-Handugan. Dad, Natatakot ako!” I cried out.
“Eto ka na naman eh. ‘Di ba pinag-usapan na natin ‘to?”
“Please, Dad, ‘wag po.”
He sighed, “Samson, hindi pwedeng basta-bastang ‘wag na. Kailangan mo ‘to eh. Tradisyon natin ‘to. Hindi ka na bulilit. Magiging binata ka na.”
“Ayoko po, natatakot po ako,” I kept repeating, wishing that it would get through to him how I felt. I knew it was our tradition, I knew that this was what every boy went through to prove their courage, but the truth was I was terrified. My heart was beating like a construction jackhammer and my eyes were starting to water.
Don’t blink, I told myself. They’ll fall if you blink. Don’t show him you’re weak. But my father saw my eyes and leaned closer to me.
“Samson,” his voice went soft again, like Mom’s , “ano nangyari, bakit ka nagkaganito?”
I blinked, and felt the warm tears slide down my cheeks. “Natatakot ako. Sabi raw ni Kuya Ramil, sobrang dami raw yung dugo, nawalan siya ng malay. Sobrang sakit daw tapos ilang buwan siyang hindi makagalaw. Sabi niya rin hindi na raw ako makakapag-drawing o makakalaro! Please, ‘Tay, ayoko po!”
The thoughts were all pouring out now, all my fears of the Handugan—the pain, the blood, all the things I could do with my hands right now to just suddenly be taken away from me.
“Ano ka ba, hindi ‘yan totoo,” Dad snapped, “Tinatakot ka lang ng Ramil na ‘yan. Hindi na siya masakit ngayon kasi may anesthesia na.”
I tried to keep myself together, but I could feel my chest tightening up. I didn’t understand why Dad would think Kuya Ramil was just teasing us. I couldn’t understand why he kept insisting that it would all be fine as if what I was feeling wasn’t real, that it wasn’t tearing me up inside. My ribs were getting squeezed like a juice box. I couldn’t control my breathing. Dad stood beside me and started rubbing my back.
“Naiintindihan kita, anak. Nag ganyan rin ako noong edad mo. Nagmakaawa rin ako sa tatay ko. Lumuhod pa ako sa harap niya. Tinanong ko rin kung bakit kailangan nating gawin ito.”
I looked Dad in the eye, and I could sense the fear he felt as he remembered his own Handugan. I had never seen his eyes glow like that before.
“Nagduda rin ako, anak. Tungkol sa Handugan, tungkol sa gusto ng Panginoon. Tinawag pa nga akong demonyo ng tatay ko dahil ipinagdadamot ko raw yung katawan ko. Pero ito kasi ang hiling Niya sa atin, anak. Namatay si Hesus para sa mga sala natin. Binigay niya ‘yon nang walang kapalit. Inihandog Niya sarili Niya para sa mga pagkakamali natin. Maliit lang ito na sakripisyo bilang pagsasalamat sa kanya. Sana naiintindihan mo.”
I was silent. So even Dad had doubts, even Dad tried to run away from it, but he eventually understood that it was God’s will. It needed to be done. But I…I still didn’t understand. I wanted to see Mom. I knew she wouldn’t let me go through with it. “H-hindi naman ak-ko pinipilit ni Ma-Mommy dati,” I managed to let out even with all the snot coming out of my nose and my heart pounding like a drum.
Just from the lines on his forehead, I could tell that he was mad. I knew mentioning her would hurt him.
“Walang alam ‘yang Mommy mo sa pagiging isang lalaki, Samson,” he said sharply. “Hindi niya naiintindihan yung halaga ng Handugan sa pamumuhay natin. Sa bayan natin. Sa syudad kasi siya lumaki. Hindi niya alam kung paano tayo rito.”
“Please ‘Tay, maawa po kayo. Ayoko po.”
“Samson, ‘wag ka nang makulit. Pagdating ng Handugan mo, hindi ka na kakabahan. Maganda ‘to para sa’yo, anak. Pramis. Maniwala ka sa’kin. Okay? Dali, tahan ka na. Tahan na.”
His words circled around in my head. I could tell that he was desperate, almost begging me to go through with the Handugan. I wanted to hit him for thinking Mom could never understand us, just because she came from the city, when she was the one who understood me the most. Yet there was a part of me that believed him. She left, after all. She left.
I tried pleading with him for the final time. I sprawled to my knees on the floor and clawed onto his pants begging him not to let me go through with it, wiping my snot all over his shoes.
“‘Wag ka nang mag-inarte pa please, anak. Sumosobra ka na. Pagod na ako,” he said. But I didn’t stop.
No words came from his mouth this time, just a grunt. I felt his strong hands grab my arms to lock them away from moving. He picked me up from the floor. I tried to fight against him, squirming out like a fish but it was useless. He carried me to my bedroom.
“Tama na, Samson,” he said with finality, putting me on the bed.“Pag-usapan na lang natin ‘to bukas, okay? Pagod lang talaga ako.”
I was tired, too. I wanted to scream at him, but I knew that just one more false step, he would strike me.
“Bukas na lang, ha? Pramis.”
Another lie. My eyes were cast down, but I could feel him staring at me thinking of what else to say. Then I heard a sigh and the sound of the door closing behind him. I moved forward and leaned against the wooden frame, with my hand on the knob, about to persuade him again until I heard the sound of soft crying on the other side.
Bakit ikaw pa yung umiiyak? I couldn’t understand why he was crying. He’s the one who couldn’t even listen to me. Why did I need to do this? Why did God want to impose this on me? I wanted to see my Mom. I wanted to run to her. Maybe she would understand me.
But Mom was somewhere else. She left us to live her life in the city, and she never looked back. But if there was anyone who could ever convince Dad, it was her.
I went back to the kitchen, quickly grabbed my phone, and went back into my room again. There was a new message from Mom. She was online. I called her. It was ringing. And ringing. It rang seven times then dial tone.
No, no, no! I was whispering under my breath. I called her again. This time she picked up.
“Whoa, calm down, Sammie, what’s wrong?” she said over the phone.
I told her everything. Even with all of my stutters and jumbled-up words, she could somehow still understand me.
“Please Mom, come here. Convince him. Please,” I begged.
“Tomorrow? I’m not sure, Sammie. I can’t move this one. It’s an important meeting.”
“No, Mom, please. You have to convince him!”
“I’ll call him in the morning and we’ll sort this matter, okay?”
“Can’t you visit us?”
She paused, or was it a lag?
“I’ll try, Sammie. I’ll try.”
“Yeah, look, Sam, I have to go now. I still have to finish work, I’m way behind schedule. We’ll talk in the morning, yeah?”
“Okay, Mom. I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
Call ended. I sat there in the silence for a while, with only the light of the moon for company. I placed my phone beside my pillow and laid in bed. I was still shaking, but now I could sense my heart calming down again. Tomorrow, Mom would come and she’d use her magic powers to convince Dad, like she had always done before.
Or at least, I’d like to hope. I wanted to believe. But some part of me was thinking, if she could, why did she leave? Why did she go away? Why didn’t she try to fix things? Or maybe she did, and it failed. Maybe she just thought I wasn’t worth it.
But if she couldn’t get back to me, maybe I could get to her. Maybe that’s it, I’d just go to the city! All I needed were some clothes, food, water, some money for the bus, but where would I go though? Maybe I could ask her directions. But then again, she’d just tell me to go back. Didn’t she send her address in the family group chat? Maybe she’d already moved houses. Oh, it’s a stupid plan anyway! I could always figure it out tomorrow. Yeah, I could always try for another day can’t think properly when you’re tired.
I wiped away my tears, closed my eyes, and prayed to God. I hid behind the covers and tried to sleep. And yet I also wished that tomorrow would never come.
But Sunday morning came, and I woke up but didn’t get out of bed. Even though I could already smell the whiff of malunggay pandesal and Nescafe 3-in-1, I was determined to not come out of my room. I had to devise a plan in case Mom didn’t show up, or Dad still couldn’t be convinced.
I took my school backpack and emptied all the notebooks and textbooks. I got folded pambahay clothes from my drawer, picked out a blue polo shirt and some pants from the hanger rack, took the essentials: pen, pad paper, charger, flashlight, water jug, coin purse. When everything was prepared, I hid the bag under my bed then I took my phone and searched through our conversations in Messenger for mom’s address in the city. I scrolled again and again but couldn’t find it.
I heard the doorknob twist.
“Sam, gising ka na?”
“May almusal na. Tara kain tayo.”
“Di pa po ako gutom.”
“Ah ganoon ba,” he said softly, paused. “Pwede ba tayo mag-usap?”
I sat across from my father who had just finished having his breakfast. His voice was a little kinder now, his face flushed with more color after a night’s rest, but that didn’t really stop my chest from beating so fast and my hands from shaking. He took a sip of his coffee and looked down at his empty plate.
“Pasensya na kagabi,” he said, “Di ko sinasadya na lakasan boses ko.”
I looked at him intently, the furrow of his brow and his cast-down eyes indicated that he really was sorry for his behavior last night.
There it was. The words I wanted to hear. It felt like a splinter lodged deep in my heart had finally been plucked away. “Okay lang, Dad.”
He paused, “Tinawagan ako ng nanay mo kanina. Iyak ka raw nang iyak kagabi noong kinakausap mo siya. Takot na takot. Hindi siya mapakali. Hinalungkot niya pa raw number ko mula sa dati niyang phone.”
Somehow I could imagine Mom over there in the city, all her things cluttered around as she looked for her old phone, her frantic face as she spoke with Dad.
He was looking at the stump on his left hand when suddenly he spoke again. “Alam mo, Sam,” he said, “sa totoo lang, parang kinumbinsi ko lang din ang sarili ko noon na kailangan kong gawin yung Handugan.”
I could hear the pain in his voice as he told me about his own experience with the Handugan, how he convinced himself that Lolo was right and that he had to go through with it, that it was God’s will for us to offer a part of ourselves. It was a test, Lolo told him once, like how Abraham was tested by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac. No matter how painful or absurd, we had to follow His will. But God didn’t let Isaac go through with it, Dad realized now. He was never meant to be sacrificed.
“Hindi ko sana makikita ‘yon kung hindi mo ako nilabanan kagabi, Sam. Pinaglaban mo ang sarili mo, isang bagay na hindi ko nagawa dati.”
I got up from my chair and hugged Dad, who looked straight down to the floor, trying his best to hold back from crying. “‘Di mo kailangang mag-Handugan kung ayaw mo, Sam,” he said.
I could finally breathe easy again now that I didn’t have to go through with it. I could only hold Dad tighter and release the tears that had been building up in me since last night. He held my palm with his left hand, its missing middle finger only made our grip tighter.
That afternoon, I emptied the contents of my backpack and returned them. It seemed that running away could wait for a while. I still couldn’t believe it though. It felt like a giant monster that was crushing my back for a long, long time had just gone up and walked away. I wasn’t afraid anymore. I felt free to do and say anything, even if it was just temporary.
I sort of knew that at some point, people would start talking about me. I knew that when the time came that I would go to high school, boys would make fun of me. And maybe my friends might start to distance themselves from me because I got to avoid something they all had to experience. I knew that the fathers and elders of the community would start asking Dad questions.
At some point, maybe I would really have to go through the Handugan.
But I was thankful for this day at least. Even if just for a day, Dad and I understood each other, how we felt, man to man.
About the Author: Franz Austin V. De Mesa is a fiction writer with an unnatural appetite for horror, fantasy, and dystopian sci-fi stories. A certified anime and gaming enthusiast, he writes to explore the dark parts of humanity and indulge in his fascinations with the macabre, alternate timelines, and other what-if scenarios lurking in our world. He is currently a Fourth-Year student of BA Creative Writing at the University of Santo Tomas.