Your silhouette was embedded in one of the islands of wax floating in the basin. Here was one where your likeness was kicking the termite mound. The kids always made fun of your name. You didn’t think it sounded like that mound—Alfonsopunso.
You had started to laugh with them about it. You knew they began accepting you from that time when Bebang pushed you and you fell over Onad. He had bent down on all fours behind you thinking it was the funniest thing. They later said you cheated at luksong baka and you totally deserved tripping over Onad. He always resented you calling him Guya, a carabao calf. You thought it was cute and endearing, like naming a spider or grasshopper that you caught one time at the watermelon farm. It sounded like what you would have called your older brother had he survived polio—Guya would get mispronounced as Kuya.
The next wax image had you pointing your extra finger to what looked like an impossibly contorted leg. Your mother gasped and crossed herself. Her hand felt icy as she rubbed your knee and gripped it tight, it hurt.
Lolo Juan, the herbolario, didn’t have to speak louder. He also didn’t have herbs like other healers from the next barrio. He did need an interpreter for his pronouncements in pig Latin. Hijo, hoc estu indictamentum mismo, he winked. A couple of times, he twitched with exaggerated histrionics before mumbling the only phrase that was familiar—tabi-tabi po, nuno sa punso.
You mumbled with him like it was the only reason your mother took you there. You stared at the wax droppings and remembered the Kodak negative films of your neighbor Aling Christy, naked as day. Last year, you tried to remember that image as you watched her play Mary again during the annual holy week passion play. But all you could recall was how you almost went blind when you raised it to the sky. It was January and cold but it almost went up in smoke against the sun. You wanted to make out the details of her hips, her thighs, and the big hairy mole that your friends talked about, next to her left nipple.
Nobody took Lolo Juan seriously anymore. Your mother didn’t care. The important thing for her was that he smuggled innumerable pieces of shrapnel inside his broken body when he came back from fighting the Japanese Imperial Army in Catbalogan. You didn’t even know what war was except for the TV shows that you only got to watch during those rare moments when there was electricity.
You squinted at the throbbing veins on his forearm. Guya had bragged about these when his mother took him here to get circumcised. He said that if you stared long enough, minute lead deposits would clog an artery and give Lolo Juan intense itchiness and unspeakable pain. Maybe the pain was his all along, but you humored him just the same.
Pain reminded you of Bebang’s face when you caught her stepfather beating her frail body with a well-worn slipper. It was not, and you successfully convinced yourself this, the feeling after falling off the boat as you escaped the rising flood. She had convinced you then that she was only pretending to get hurt. She even tried to distract you, forcing you to laugh by poking your sides. You didn’t tell her that you saw blood running down her legs. She didn’t need to know.
As Lolo Juan crushed a carefully chosen candle earlier, he asked you questions like how did the day taste like? Did they fish Teo out of the river? Did they ever find Bino’s thumb? Why are they called primary colors? The sun, has it begun shining the color of (almost ripe) caimito? You felt dizzy listening to all these questions so you just stared at the horizontal line on the wall marking the water level from the last flood. A similar line was visible outside your apartment. You watched it recede while doing your homework in the dark, anxiously waiting for news about your friends after the flood. Bebang was cremated weeks later. Onad was still missing. Lolo Juan should have asked about him, too. Maybe he knew. If you looked hard enough at the wax islands, you might find, at least, answers.
Later on, while collecting more ground wax with a USAFFE spoon, Lolo Juan continued asking questions such as, why do children play at all? Why does it take too long for us to grow up? Do we even want to grow old? Why do we measure time with space? Why do we not do anything even though we are limited by what our arms could reach?
He held the spoon above the flame of another candle. Lolo Juan crouched as low as he could to watch the flame lick the spoon’s underside. He would mumble now and then, making sure that you noticed him pretending to read convex messages in cursive. He would stop when the wax had started a steady boil before dumping the bubbling liquid into the basin.
Your mother gasped again as soon as the wax dried and had assumed some random shape. She stifled her horror at these images that seemed to have appeared all too eagerly for an exasperating session of misdiagnoses, denials, and even more accusations.