A Tragedy of Chickens


The day the small town of Dumaguet ran out of chicken, Pedro Murillo was feeling particularly cocky, like the cliché of a man walking on air. Those who saw him that morning—an old, bent woman who was almost blind from cataracts; a feline street boy smoking a thin cigarette while ogling the purse of a fat, heavily made-up woman whom he was certain to steal from; and a handsome policeman whose kittenish wife of six months had left him only the previous day for a professional sabongero—noted a lightness in the way the man strode towards the center of town.

The man, they also quickly noticed, was dressed not too immaculately in a red silken collar shirt and a black pair of pantaloons, the hems of which fluttered slightly in the soft but sudden breeze. He did not strike any of them as particularly commanding the way an army general or a film star would, and in truth they even found him a little disheveled, and scruffy-looking. But he walked with such presence, an uncomfortable gravity that pulled the nearest attention like a black collapsing star. For that, they were certainly sure he was walking on air. He seemed, in fact, to glide, but of course that was impossible, they quickly thought. For how could anyone glide through the air? They quietly admonished themselves, thinking that growing blindness, petty crime, and love lost certainly made illusions happen. The old woman, for instance, only yesterday mistook a chicken leg for her dead husband, and had refused to eat all day. And then that same night, she thought she saw the entire world with profound lightness that she could see everything. The delinquent, on the other hand, had often gone hungry that there were days he clucked like a mad man, and only the germ-laden fill of pagpag inasal could calm his aching belly—which would be perfectly all right if it were not for the taunting delusions he had of fat women suddenly feeding him, with ferocious love, a wealth of meat to his ready mouth. Lastly, the young policeman, hen-pecked to the very day his wife left him, had been daydreaming of wringing her unfaithful neck as if she were some soft spring chicken, and then making love to her in an abandon of forgiveness.

There were always visions of ghosts and murder. And now there was this specter of a gliding man in red silk shirt! The world, the three of them felt—a silent camaraderie now tying these strangers—the world was surely laughing at them.

The world crowed at their utter ridiculousness.

Yet they would also quickly forget him the moment Pedro fluttered past them. Each one, in a matter of seconds, would return to the vagaries of their own lives—there was a dimming vision to mourn for, there was a purse to steal, and there was a bleeding heart to tend—but when the same startling news came by day’s end, they would all somehow remember this man for no other reason except that he glided.

The bulletin came with the local news dressed up as a human interest story: apparently, there were no more chickens left to butcher and eat in Dumaguet town. Feathers and all, they had disappeared. Just like that. The television anchor only laughed at the bizarre story. “For how could any small town lose all its chickens at once?” he asked, and everybody who watched him laughed, too. People sometimes laugh before tragedies of chickens strike, the old woman, the street boy, and the policeman would think at roughly the same time, suddenly uncomfortable with the secret knowledge, and knowing somehow that the man in the red silk shirt had something to do with it.

In truth, the man in the red silk shirt had nothing to do with anything. His only crime, perhaps, was in falling in love so recklessly and perhaps in liking too much the taste of manok inato.

Nearing the center of town, the man who would be affected most of all by the coming turn of events continued to walk like a cock. There was good reason to the manly spring in Pedro Murillo’s steps: only a few minutes earlier, before he sauntered into the bright sunlight from an inconspicuous apartment shaded by the lone acacia tree along Avenida Sta. Catalina, he had finally—at the unforgivably virginal age of thirty-three—managed to make love to a woman.

And not just any woman. It was the beautiful girl who once waited on him in the city’s most popular chicken restaurant off Hibbard Avenue. She had waited on him for some months—six to be precise—before succumbing to the desire that burned too brightly in his eyes.

It was perhaps that startling sense of passion that made the surrender to the man perfectly understandable, for Pedro Murillo was not a handsome man. He was rather plain: an ordinary nose squatted on the center of his face, and underneath that slightly bulbous protrusion, there was a stretch of thick lips that rarely smiled. There were days when he could say in front of a mirror that he had the countenance of a blank wall, and sometimes the thought amused him. Often, it was only an irritable acknowledgment of his shortcomings, because this one rendered him strangely invisible. People sometimes could not see him. “But how could that be?” he once asked his mother, who died soon after from a freak outbreak of a deadly strain of chicken pox in Dumaguet, which disappeared as quickly as it manifested itself. (Sometimes Pedro thought it only appeared to take away his mother’s life, for which he was eternally grateful.) “How can anyone ever be invisible to the naked eye?” he asked.

But even his own mother did not say anything. She only looked past him, like he was not there, and then barked like a dog. Or crowed like a chicken? He wasn’t exactly sure.

Pedro Murillo could only claim to be extraordinarily tall, although his shoulders were also wide and strong, enough for him to be considered overtly masculine. And yet, despite the generosity of his frame, and perhaps because he had the tendency to blend into any background like a wall flower, he became painfully shy, and grew his hair just enough to be able to hide his face from the rest of the world.

What the rest of the world did not finally see of Pedro Murillo was that he had the slightest streak of blue in his dark eyes, something that came out only when the monsoons from the South would pour down on Dumaguet, around July or August after the summer sun had danced its fierce rampage. In the sheets of rain and the clash of thunder and lightning, Pedro’s eyes would burn blue into the night, to cease only when the last drop of rain would fall from the dark clouds.

But the blue had never sparkled so sharply as it did now. Six months ago, he had gone into Jo’s Manok Inato to get his fill of Dumaguet’s famous chicken dish—a grilled concoction of choice drumstick or chicken breast marinated overnight with a strange and secret combination of milk, sugar, and aromatic spices.

From the moment the woman who waited on him asked, “Paa o pecho?” Pedro Murillo looked up, and knew—like one had knowledge of an immediate need to pee—that he was in love.

It struck him like the quietest of surprise, and almost suffocated him.

It held his breath and clumped all air around the base of his throat so that, finally, he had to force his mouth open just to let in much-needed air. Only then could he look at the woman, and in his eyes—even without a single patter of rain outside—the streak of blue started to glow. For sure, it had never glowed like this. It glowed like moon shine. It glowed like cat’s pee under dark light. It glowed like ephemeral neon, pungent with urgency.

But he could only stare at her and stammer something incoherent, which Ana (for that was the woman’s name on her nametag) took as a preference for paa—or drumstick—quickly thinking that the manager had already warned her that too many customers were preferring pecho, or chicken breast, over the paa, and there could only be too many leftovers of drumsticks by the end of the day. Which was certainly bad for business, the girl quickly agreed, because could there be more breasts than legs to any one chicken? Certainly, everyday, by the time lunch or dinner came, and along with it the hordes of the city’s voracious chicken eaters, she had gotten used to spouting this mantra to her customers: “Wala na’y pecho. Paa na lang—There are no more breasts, just legs.” And to be sure, there were no pieces of breast meat on the outdoor grill. They were all in the back of the restaurant, Ana knew, soaking inside vats of the secret milky marinade.

Pedro did not particularly like paa because he found the cartilaginous part an affront to the succulence of barbecue chicken, but that didn’t seem to matter anymore as he graciously said “Thank you” once Ana presented the barbecued chicken leg, browned by the fiery grill and the caramelized sugar brushed on the tender meat. The chicken leg was set on a round cutting of a banana leaf placed on top of a server made of stylized straw. Beside the manok inato, which was skewered through its middle by a stout bamboo stick, there was a clump of achara or pickled papaya and a lump of white rice still retaining the shape of the cup it was measured from. “Thank you,” Pedro Murillo said once again, shyly smiling this time.

Ana never knew customers to be this polite, and so she replied softly, like the kindly country girl she recently was—“Wala’y sapayan—Don’t mention it,” and went away beaming a bit. Perhaps she was even thinking that she could have been kinder and should have swiped just one pecho from the vats in the back, without the manager ever knowing, and serving it to the man on Table 3.

When she glanced back, she saw him staring at his barbecued paa, a look of confusion in his eyes. And then, almost tentatively, he bit into his chicken, and that was that. In a few minutes, all that was left of the chicken were bones. This Pedro proceeded to suck with gusto, and gnaw at the bones and what little remained of the meat. By the time he downed the last morsel with a glass of Coca-Cola, he began to sport a satisfied face. It was, Ana quickly decided, almost as if the man was in love.

He certainly was. He had never met a woman as beautiful for him as Ana. It was not that she was perfection of alabaster skin and the face of a diwata. She was rather dark—her skin, although smooth, was the color of light chocolate. She was short, although she appeared tall because she took care never to stoop. She always walked with her back straight, and head held high—and for that, she was considered a pariah by most of her peers who thought she was arrogant “when she is just a common wench,” they’d say, “a waitress in a chicken restaurant!” That these words hurt did not actually matter to her because she had been through worse. She had been called various names: a gold-digger, and a “common whore,” even if she was still a virgin at 19. People also called her “manokon,” because her eyes, although perfectly almond-shaped, had one iris that slightly strayed off to the middle. It was not very obvious, and for many of her acquaintances, it took a few meetings for them to be more certain what it was about her that unsettled them. It was certainly not her soft voice, nor the way she walked around with her head held high. It was not her thin lips, nor her breasts that juggled like tiny melons. It was not that she wore no make-up on most days either, like the rest of the Jo’s Manok Inato girls. But when they would at last stare right into her eyes during rare moments when she would frankly regard them with the curiosity of a hen for a worm, there it was, all too suddenly: the left eye slightly askew, at once looking at them and not looking at them. It was always an uncomfortable discovery.

Ana would not wear make-up, like her sisters back home in Guihulngan town insisted they all should, and so her lips had none of the artificial thickness of rouge, and her cheeks none of the sheen of foundation. What made her distinctive from the rest of the brood was the long, black hair she kept untied; it fell around her shoulders like a cascade. That hair had always been the source of envy by her older sisters who also thought her catty and snobbish because Ana would not indulge in their games and gossip, nor join in their common obsession of the radio dramas that made them weep, or cry in terror. “Ang baktin nga ga-daster!—It’s the sow in a common house-dress! they’d shriek, and then laugh out loud in their company of small joys.

When she was growing up, Ana knew she had to escape their provincial smallness. Her parents were poor. Her father repaired shoes and umbrellas, and her mother had a small stall at the local tsiangge where she sold everything from cigarettes to candies to eggs to produce from her small garden: kalamunggay, kangkong, sili, and mangoes when the fruit was in season.

They lived in a small wooden house with thatched roof, which was fairly respectable for the most part—but it was poor, and the only entertainment the sisters had was the radio (which blared away from sunrise to sundown) and the flirty gossip about the town’s abundance of horny brown bucks. Gorio supposedly had the biggest dick in town, or so Criselda and Betchang claimed, giggling like blushing bitches in heat; Manuel had the smallest, and Alvin—that rogue of a charmer with the sweet, innocent smile—had deflowered most of Guihulngan’s girls behind the convento, where the old willow trees bundled together to create a hiding place of leaves, limbs, and tall grass. But Ana would have none of this type of gossip—although she knew the Alvin boy quite well, and had once felt a strange quickening in the triangle that spread from her nipples to the delta of her pubis when she had seen him smiling sweetly at her during church service one Sunday morning. It was not that she was moral and believed in the virginal tenets the nuns at school railroaded at them. She, in fact, hated the nuns and their cloistered lives. It was only that she did not want to become pregnant, like many of the girls she knew, and end up becoming bored housewives, trapped in a very small town, with only the radio to while away the rest of their days.

While she planned her escape, she took to her mother’s chickens as the best alternative to becoming bored. She had already read all the komiks in the tsiangge’s basahan, and she found herself at the edge of surrendering to the radio melodramas of her older sisters. That was when she decided she would feed the chickens one day. “I would like to take over Betchang’s chores, Ma,” she said, “I’d like to feed the chickens myself.”

“Are you sure about that? What about your sister?” her mother said.

“Oh, if she wants it, she can have it,” Betchang quickly agreed. Ana’s chores, after all, were simple: she wiped the tiny sala clean and washed the dishes after lunch and dinner. Betchang knew this was work that afforded her the best opportunity to follow her radio dramas more faithfully. Feeding chicken was “gawas” work after all, and she hated it—she’d always cursed the gods under her breath for work she deemed below menial. She hated it when all she could hear of the unfolding drama was a small echo quickly lost in the cackle of the chickens rushing about her legs. Often she had to run to the open window and ask her sisters what was happening next.

The exchange was made. Ana began feeding the chickens, and that day she welcomed the chance to be outside, where the expansive blue of the sky promised more than the sad radio dramas, bouncing off the thin walls of their tiny house ever could.

There were nine hens in all and three roosters who cackled at the slightest provocation, always managing to rupture the dead quiet of most afternoons with their piercing crows. Among the twelve chickens, there was also the fluttering of yellow and brown chicks, newly hatched and twittering about in their mad dash for Ana’s kernels of grain, which she spread about with precision and a touch of generosity. She loved the chickens and wanted to see them well-fed.

But there was one hen she was most interested in, perhaps because it was the proudest of the lot and always looked straight at her as if Ana were her equal. She called this white leghorn Burgita, because she was also fat and produced the most number of eggs. She would talk to Burgita as she never did to her older sisters.

“I want to get out of Guihulngan soon, you know,” she told the hen, who regarded Ana with some interest. Ana offered it grain in her cupped hands, and Burgita slowly pecked at the kernels with its tiny, pointed beak, and then studied her some more.

“Guihulngan is too small, don’t you think, Burgita?”

The hen clucked and stared at her. Ana squatted down and played with the dirt with her fingers. She made wriggles on the ground while the chickens dashed about her.

“I want something more, you know?” she said. “I want to feel what it’s like to be in a bigger place, bigger than Guihulngan—perhaps Dumaguet, perhaps Manila. But maybe not Manila. It’s much too big probably for a small town girl like me. And then, when I’m in Dumaguet, I’d find a man—a strong man—who’ll love me and marry me. And then we will have many children, the way you have your many chicks. What do you think, Burgita?”

But Burgita only stared back.

All of a sudden, without even a squawk of a warning, the hen dashed at her and started pecking at her face. Burgita aimed at Ana’s askew left eye. Only with quick thinking and reflexes did she manage to shield herself with her arms.

Burgita began to cackle as if she was in the clutch of sudden madness, and continued to peck violently at Ana. She pecked at Ana’s arms. She pecked at her legs. She pecked at her long hair.

Ana gave a brief, startled shout, and then kicked at the chicken, which went hurdling against a small kalamunggay tree. Burgita  recovered and started attacking her once more.

This time, Ana was ready.

When Burgita flapped her white wings and flew at her face, Ana grabbed the chicken from the air. With practiced flourish, she quickly twisted the chicken’s neck, and then let it drop.

Like all dead chickens, Burgita ran around the small garden in wild circles, dragging its head—lying limp on its side—on the dirt ground.

That night, the family had fried chicken for supper.

The next morning, Ana left town for Dumaguet, and quickly found work at Jo’s Manok Inato. She watched the roasting chicken browning in the light, and she thought, Perfect.

By late afternoon of the same day six months ago, when people in the small town were busy navigating the sudden Dumaguet traffic to get home to their early evening soap operas, or to go shopping before the shops closed for the night, Pedro Murillo was back in Jo’s Manok Inato in time for supper.

He sat in the same table, and breathlessly waited for Ana to come to him, with pad and pen in hand, ready to take his order. And still it was the same exchange: man and woman and the arbitrary need for chicken. “Paa or pecho?” Ana asked, smiling. And without fail, Pedro said, with a slight quiver in his voice, “Paa.” And she smiled even more brightly and went away to prepare his order.

The next day, for lunch and dinner, he came, ordering paa still, and Ana would nod, smile a bit, and prepare Pedro’s meal.

The day after that, Pedro came. Lunch and dinner. And also the day after that, and the day after that, and the day after that. “We may run out of paa soon if you make this a habit, manong,” Ana said one day. “Not that I am complaining. You’re very good for business, I must say.”

“You can call me Pedro, and what do you know … I just happen to love paa, that’s all,” he said, smiling broadly at first but ending with a gentle chuckle, a mirthful sound that usually comes only with the greatest of comfort—like a lazy day at the beach, like lying down on the grass to gaze at the stars, like reading a funny passage from a good book.

Day after day, Pedro Murillo showed up at the restaurant, and each time he seemed to grow bolder, more masculine, and people finally began to notice him. He seemed to grow even taller like a hulking angel, and his plain face seemed to crunch more energy and character. Some even grew afraid of him, as if this giant of a man with the strange dark blue eyes, would take them like frail barbecued pecho and eat them. Lunch and dinner, Pedro came. And also the day after that, and the day after that, and the day after that, and the day after that, and the day after that.

“You seem to like chicken a lot, Pedro,” Ana said.

“But of course,” he said with a slight majesty to his tone, something which surprised even him. “I am, after all, a Dumagueteño. Born and bred.”

Which was true. In Dumaguet, people had a peculiar relationship with their manok inato. Or with any chicken dish for that matter—be it inasal, or tuyok manok, or chicken fried in butter, or chicken grilled with a variety of exotic herbs and spices, or just roasted to gravy perfection plain and simple. Off the small town’s main highway and into the various webs that made up its narrow streets, the place was dotted with restaurants and carinderias and eateries and cafés and makeshift small stands that sell chickens of varied cooking style and fancy seasoning. Dumagueteño were obsessed with chicken.

An estimated 3,800 chickens—perhaps even more than that—got the axe every single day in restaurants and carinderias all over poultry-hungry Dumaguet. And this figure did not include the chickens sold at the public market stalls or supermarkets. Three thousand eight hundred chickens and counting… pre-packaged, or straight from someone’s local backyard.

If one really thought about it, that was an awful lot of chicken.

And this man, Ana thought, the quivering in her delta suddenly growing in intensity as the months flew by like mad chickens, this man can gorge on them all.

When anyone ever came up with the idea of the essential Dumagueteño, chicken meat should be way up there—together with the observation of the local habit of people walking too slow, like leisurely turtles, as if promenading under an eternal full moon—in defining who Dumagueteños were.

Once, a few moons ago, Pedro Murillo met up with a friend from Manila who was in Dumaguet for a brief visit “to get away from the exasperating hustle and bustle of big city life,” or so the friend said. (In truth, the friend—a professional sabongero—was in town for a tryst with a policeman’s wife.) The friend perfunctorily asked him: “Now, where can we have a good lunch for today?” and then added, with a certain emphasis bordering on thoughts of over-saturation: “And I don’t mean another dish of chicken.”

Pedro pretended not to know what his sabongero friend was implying, but he knew what he was talking about. They went to Lab-as instead, to sample the seaside restaurant’s fare of bangus dishesbe it relleno, lumpia, kinilaw, or sugba. And yet, like a rebuke in their upsetting the grand scheme of things, they felt surrounded: in every corner of Dumaguet, there was some small shrine disguised as eating places dedicated to the art of chicken-meat mastication—and Jo’s Manok Inato was the biggest temple of them all. Its grilled chicken has become very much a part of Dumaguet tradition. The delectable white meat, sweetish to the taste, and smelling always of some grilled milky heaven, was part of the Dumaguet blood. It was, Pedro told the sabongero friend, the first thing most Dumagueteños missed of home, together with the cheeseburger from a small deli called Taster’s Delight. No one could sufficiently explain why this was always so. Pork or beef or fish were fine culinary considerations, of course—but chicken? Chicken defined the Dumagueteños very taste buds, so much so that by the end of this one day when Pedro Murillo began walking on air, the impossible happened, and the panic began.

It began with a fat heavily made-up woman walking into another restaurant—a placed called Chin Loong, because it fancied itself a Chinese restaurant—and was told by an apologizing waiter, with a flustered, unbelieving look on his face, that there were no chicken dishes available in the restaurant, and it seemed everywhere else as well.

“Not even fried chicken?” the woman asked.

“No ma’am,” the waiter said. He was a patient man who was already tired to the bones since he had to do all the available shifts for extra pay, to raise the money to finance his mother’s cataract operation.

The fat woman looked at him, quite contemptuously, as if he was lying.

“Even sweet and sour chicken?”

“No ma’am.”

“Is this a joke?” she shrieked, waving her huge purse at the poor waiter.

“No ma’am,” he said, sounding even more tired.

“Chicken with herbs? Hot and spicy chicken in Caribbean style? Enchilada?”

“No ma’am.”

“Moroccan chicken stew? Malaysian chicken? Chicken curry with potatoes?”

“No ma’am.”

“Not even something simple, like salted chicken deep-fried in butter?”

“The town has run out of chicken, ma’am,” he said.

“How can any place run out of chicken?” the woman asked, exasperated, because she was already dreaming of chicken dripping with the sweet and sour combination only Chin Loong could make. The waiter mumbled some more apologies, and recommended the sweet and sour squid instead.

The fat woman grumbled, and then stampeded out. In her hurry, she did not see the approaching scruffy boy who, like the swiftest cockroach, managed to snatch her purse and run fast from her fat threats and her screaming. Some distance off, the boy came to a dry ditch where, in the anticipation that followed, he began counting what money bills there were—Enough, the boy thought, tears streaming down his thin face, to last me more than a month of eating chicken.

But the grumbling in the small town grew darker and added an element of surprise to the wild speculations when, one by one, Dumaguet’s eating places—every last one of them—discovered there were no more chicken meat in their freezers. When they called their suppliers, there was even grimmer news: there were no cackling livestock on hold either, much to the surprise of everyone, and all the eggs had disappeared, too. There were just no chickens left in Dumaguet, nor in the neighboring towns of Sugbulan and Valenciahermoso and Bakikong.

But it seemed only natural for things to disappear in Dumaguet: it was a place of many disappearances, some mythological, some historical. The name of the place itself came from “daguit,” which meant “to kidnap away,” a mark of a time long gone when this tip of Negros Island was once the favorite spot for Moro marauders to attack and whisk away men, women, and children from small settlements around the Banica River, all herded off to the slave trade in Malacca in the South.

Dumaguet was a place of eternal capture, and of late something else had defined the way the small town “stole away” its visitors—there were hundreds of people from as far away as Palawan or Samar or Leyte or Luzon or Mindanao who’d come for a spell, and then refuse to leave. Or perhaps leave with such heartbreak, as if they knew the small place to be bred in their bones and blood.

Ultimately, all Dumagueteños, native or transplanted, came to love chicken meat like it was manna from heaven. Its disappearance, of course, would be met with such terror, and some of the religious ones—the hypocrites of Calvary Church or Living Bread Chapel, for instance—all talked of impending Dooms Day.

In Panda Haus, an ice cream shop over at Harold’s Mansion in the dry, dirty borough of Tubod, the announcement of its own shortage of chicken proved a panicky development to Pedro Murillo himself. For it was the place he was headed to, in his cocky approach, in the very center of town: it was his own private chicken paradise since he knew not too many people in Dumaguet realized that Panda Haus served more than just locally-made ice cream. One of Pedro Murillo’s favorites from the Panda Haus menu was its generous serving of Steamed Rice Chicken, which was not exactly the regular dimsum variety people knew. For Pedro, the plus side of this dish—aside from the fact that it was extremely addicting—was the fact that all of Panda Haus’s chickens were of the organic variety, which, he was told, made the whole lot quite healthy to eat. And most days, living the bachelor’s life always on the go, Pedro Murillo subsisted on the dish when he was not out consuming manok inato.

That fateful day, when the Panda Haus attendants told him they had run out of organic chicken, Pedro Murillo panicked.

“You must have some chicken hidden somewhere!”

The attendant only stared at him, and said, “But sir! We don’t grow organic chicken from trees and pluck them just like that!”

“Well, then,” Pedro Murillo said in a huff, “better hatch them fast.”

He knew then what he thought he must have always known. One could deprive a Dumagueteño of chocolate and cake and lechon and all other delicacies in the world. But just give him his damned chicken meat. For all that it was, chicken was the most definitive of meats. Wasn’t it any wonder that when people must describe some exotic meat dish—say snake, or kangaroo—they would always say, “Tastes just like chicken”?

Chicken was, Pedro Murillo knew, the universal paragon of the tastefully divine.

Thus, every Sunday after church, Pedro Murillo would go to City Burger instead of Jo’s Manok Inato, to pay devotion. City Burger was a strange misnomer of a place because, although it did offer burgers, it was more well-known for its peculiar blend of chicken barbecue, which was the complete opposite of Jo’s milky concoction. Pedro Murillo did not mind the strange angles of this restaurant along Real Street, an open-air space that resembled the ruins of a gutted house (it was, in fact, the ruins of a gutted building). He did not even mind the apparent misnaming of the place. He, like the hordes, all came to City Burger for one thing: its grilled chicken quite unlike its delicious cousin over at Jo’s with its extra-sweetish taste of the sauce the barbecue dripped with.

Pedro always felt guilty after eating in City Burger, but it was a guilt he could live with. It was the same guilt that possessed him whenever he crossed the street from his office to the stone’s throw distance of Nena’s Kamalig. Only in Dumaguet could there be distinctions about the grilling styles of chicken. There was supposed to be the Dumaguet-style, as in Jo’s and City Burger’s, and there was the Bacolod-style. It was called inasal, and although Nena’s Kamalig also served liempo and a host of other grilled meat with the distinctive taste that was a combination of burnt liver and catsup, it was the chicken—not surprisingly—that people took to liking more. The dish was delicious in itself but never complete without the final touch: that sauce on the table that looked like reddish moonshine. Chicken oil drippings. “That’s a heart attack waiting to happen,” Pedro’s sabongero friend once commented, before he dashed off to meet his kittenish paramour.

 “It’s a risk anyone’s willing to take,” Pedro said, believing in the romance of the risk, and readily ladling in a generous amount of chicken oil droppings for his sabongero friend to partake.

There were also the various lechon manok stalls all over the place, especially Manok ni San Pedro and Golden Roy’s—Dumaguet’s original lechon manok place, its generous chicken still amazingly spicy to the smell and to the taste. Eventually though, all Dumagueteños still flocked to Jo’s for its succulent chicken barbecue, rivaled by many but still retaining its distinction as the keeper of a place’s memory.

The restaurant was a swanky place now, an improvement from the old Jo’s of the previous decade, which was a crowded affair of amakan darkened with soot and the grime of years.

The night Pedro Murillo succeeded in wooing Ana into bed with him, she had taken his orders silently, and then finally told him that the only way to go about eating his manok inato was with bare hands, straight from dish to mouth.

“No spoons and forks,” Ana said, a catch in her throat as she felt Pedro Murillo’s blue stare taking hold of her. “Kinamot is the way to go about it.”

In the middle of the room with people eating with bare hands, how best to eat his barbecued paa didn’t really matter any more to Pedro Murillo. But his eyes said, Of course.

This was the only way to go about it, he thought, looking at Ana with his darkening blue eyes: chicken touching skin, going straight to mouth, tender meat grinding against the touch of tongue and teeth. The ritual became the mark of their—Pedro’s and Ana’s—familiar shared secret. This was, they knew, their bare, intimate homage to the growing passion—and the food—that defined them.

When, at last, Pedro Murillo finished with his last bite, wiping his mouth with the brusque flourish of hand by a man in heated want, Ana almost fell into a faint, and that night, Pedro Murillo took her to her home along Avenida Sta. Catalina. Under the blanket of darkness, she turned to him naked, and he entered her.

When they came, Ana could swear she heard the world explode in the bright cackles and crows of chickens far away, so loud the sound seemed to invade her soul.

For a brief moment, in the span of minutes it took Pedro Murillo to hurtle to the heavens with his conquest and subsequent surrender, an old woman blind with cataracts was able to see with a clarity that shone so brightly, she would remember seeing the world with so much preciseness she saw happiness and sadness dressed as angels. She was staring out her window gazing at her memory of the stars, when suddenly the stars focused themselves beyond her haze, and she could see clearly the outline of a rooster in a bright new constellation. How she crowed at the sight.

In another corner of Dumaguet, a young boy, brown with the dirt of the streets and tottering with the hunger pangs that ate at him, fell into a ditch, and in a burst of light fell into the generous bosoms of fat women, with their purses filled with all the riches of the world, and filling his craving with the sweetest of chicken meat.

And still in another corner of the small town, a handsome policeman reached out to his anguished, heartbroken dreams—and behold, when he leaned wearily out from the dreamstate, he held once again his beautiful kittenish wife in his arms, all of her flesh still pure and innocent for him, and then they made love under the rooster stars, as she breathed, with unforsaken truth, that she loved him, that she would never leave him, and that all sabongeros would soon die anyway from too much cholesterol in chicken oil drippings.

All around them, Dumaguet crowed with the sounds of a thousand chickens. And when Pedro Murillo finally lay down breathlessly at the side of his Ana, who was also out of breath, they could sense the growing calm. The sounds of crowing soon dissipated into a dreadful, beautiful quiet.

The very next day, there were no more chickens.

But we must end happily this tale: nine months later, an egg—which always comes before the chicken—fell from the sky.

Ian Rosales Casocot taught literature, creative writing, and film at Silliman University in Dumaguete City, where he was Founding Coordinator of the Edilberto and Edith Tiempo Creative Writing Center. He is the author of several books, including the fiction collections Don’t Tell Anyone, Bamboo Girls, Heartbreak & Magic, and Beautiful Accidents. In 2008, his novel Sugar Land was longlisted in the Man Asian Literary Prize. He was Writer-in-Residence for the International Writers Program of the University of Iowa in 2010.


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