Tito Genova Valiente
BARLIN was a quiet area in the mid-60s, with houses looking almost as old the church that ended it on one side and a street, on one side, that opened like a funnel finally to the Centro. In September, sometime as early as August, a part of this street would shine like an overdressed, sentimental dancer with a surplus of rhythms in her body and lots of griefs and imagined glamour on her face. There was a reason for all this: The circus had arrived. It was not the circus of clowns but of magicians and Ferris wheels and rides that, to our young eyes, looked as real and fancy as those we read in books and magazines, and saw on the movie screen.
Childhood or terrible youth is capable of sweet imaginings. This perhaps made any street in Naga during those times a place of splendor and splendid experience. Barlin was a carnival in my mind.
My elder brother, Manong Pempe, and I would rush to any place where a tent had been pitched to house a show of magic or of wild men. As I recall now, it was not in a tent where we first saw our first magician’s show; it was a small area covered by pre-fabricated walls and a canvas to serve as roof. Whether the August or September of those years were dry or we were unmindful of the weather, i.e., rain and storm, I do not remember our sessions with magic ever interrupted by rains.
Her name was Madame Lord. She was dressed in a man’s clothes – a sorry excuse of a tuxedo. I do not remember what she did but, just like any magician or showmen of carnivals, Madame Lord was suave and quick with words. It was as if magic was really not a trick but the skill of the magician to weave words to entice the viewers. As we gaped and stood there in awe as handkerchiefs disappeared and as doves vanished from cages and materialized behind us, Madame Lord never lost her composure and a loveliness that had violence etched all over it. She scared us a bit. She was the “Lord.” For every great trick, which was never, strangely, applauded, she would say almost in admonition: “Walang demonyo na pinapakita ang milagro.” (No devil would ever reveal his miracle or trick). There was no logic in that disclaimer, no sense. There was, however, bravado and shameless strength in those words, and we were hostage to this Black Magic Woman.
The show of Madame Lord stayed on for a long time in the city. The place was packing long after the Virgin had returned to Her home by the river. One day, I was in the public market when I thought the face of this woman haggling for the price of tomato looked familiar. She looked like Madame Lord. But – I told myself – why would a magician haggle for vegetables. Couldn’t she just produce them from the air?
Memory plays tricks. I do not remember now who was first in the city, Gamuga, the strong man from the jungle, or Madame Lord, the sophisticated magician with the fashion sense of a minstrel? What remains clear up to now is how I shook in my boots (yes, I was wearing “Spanish” boots), when the entire cage covered then by thick canvas rumbled and trembled as “Gamuga,” the wild man who ate live chicken showed his displeasure at our curiosity. We were hooked. We paid and grimaced and almost threw up when this man, with wild, sad eyes plucked clean the poor chicken with his bare hands and teeth.
The next day, as my brother and I were walking to Centro (people walked then), we passed by the tent of Gamuga, quite early in the morning. Was that Gamuga himself washing his teeth? Manong Pempe, older and already gifted with cynicism, assured me that was Gamuga, wild man, indeed.
When the magicians and wild men left, Barlin did not remain quiet. The Evangelists would take over. These were American preachers who spoke English so rapidly, you could barely understand them. But since it was religion they were selling and to sell means the consumer should be able to understand the advertising, these Evangelists made sure there was a translation. Oh, how we love these translators. For every short sentence of phrase or clause, the Bikol translation would enter – a ray of bright light to shine upon the dark path the incomprehensible words were treading. That style was fantastic. If ever conversion did take place inside those tents, I do not think the Holy Spirit had something to do with it. It was the translators/interpreters so quick with their tongues you could almost sense there was fire in their mouths. Come to think of it, maybe the Holy Spirit was working quietly inside those tents that were almost like the tents of the wild man, Gamuga, and the sweet trickster, Madame Lord.
I do not remember when they stopped coming. Old houses along Barlin crumbled. In many places, ancient structures gave way to garish, ugly buildings. Vacant lots disappeared. Magic was happening elsewhere – in politicians with their lies and a government slowly building its own myths. The wild man was gone and, in his place, a Strongman, rose. He could eat the country raw. He had wife who was a magician in her own right – with a beauty that masqueraded mayhem, evil design, and violence.
As for me and my brother, well, we just, slowly and without our knowing it, grew up.