I was about eight years old then and living in the Philippines where black-outs, or as we called them – “brown outs” – because they were supposedly rotated throughout the city districts. I sat in front of the dresser looking at my reflection in the mirror while downstairs, the rest of the family and relatives were getting ready for dinner. In front of me was my school homework, due the next day.
I was supposed to be doing my homework by candlelight. I brought the candle holder by me, watching my face illuminated by the candle light. The white lacquer of the dresser gave my face that shadowless look, a built in reflector back in the days when as a child, I didn’t even have an idea what that meant.
Then I heard the calls for my name. “Come down for dinner!”
And I did, coming down the stairs as fast as I could.
Sitting down for dinner is a strange affair. Mom just got divorced in a country where divorce was not the norm, especially when husbands had mistresses and never divorced their wives and risk earning the ire of society and the church. This my father managed to do all in one go, but he had moved on and mom had returned back home to live next door to her parents, two out of three kids in tow.
We all ate at grandmother’s house – mom, myself and my brother and the rest of my mother’s sisters and brothers and their families.
Then we smelled it. The smell of fire, and we heard the shouts of the servants as they ran up the stairs and put out the fire.
“Who left the candle on the dresser?” Someone asked but I didn’t have to say anything.
I still remember the two things that crossed my mind at that moment. One, that white lacquer dresser was probably gone, and two, my homework was toast.
FAST FORWARD ALMOST EIGHT YEARS LATER:
There’s a fire about a mile or two away, where the squatters have settled themselves. The roads are too narrow for the fire trucks to drive through and already, I could see the embers floating in the air above me, the gray smoke billowing in the distance. I could smell the smoke.
Atop our houses – my grandparents’, my aunts and our house – servants were soaking the rooftops with water. Lola, my grandmother, is holding onto a chest filled with her jewelry but her eyes are riveted towards the sound that is coming from the gate to the compound where we live.
Outside the gate are men and women we do not recognize, shouting to us that they are there to help us. Inside the gate, the servants and my uncles are holding onto the gate as it surges forward. Already, some of the strangers are grabbing things from our servants’ hands and stealing them outright, things disappearing in the throng.
My uncle runs out with a gun and threatens the crowd from breaking through the gate.
It is mayhem. There is no help coming. They are only thieves outside that gate and as the fire makes its way towards us, they continue shouting at us, “We’re here to help you.”
And my grandmother continues holding onto her chest of jewels, never letting go.
Your home is on fire. Grab five items (assume all people and animals are safe). What did you grab?
Son’s Medical Information Binder
Wallet with my ID and stuff
– I have to admit, this list is quite sad, except for Number 1.