Layers Upon Layers
A story set in the fictional Chris-verse. Pretty much stand-alone although some references might need knowledge of the previous story (Heart of the Matter) to fully appreciate but not that crucial anyhow. will be uploading a revised version of Heart within the week.
Layers Upon Layers
On the fourth knock, Mother Cassandra finally opened the door to her office. “Forgiveness, Revan,” she muttered to the drenched visitor. “You’re early.”
“It is of no importance, Mother.” Revan closed his umbrella and stepped in. “It is a good night albeit a rainy one.”
“Indeed, the weather seems to dampen everything these days. Hot tea?”
“No, thank you, Mother. I’d rather we get down to business.”
“As you wish.” She looked at the young nun kneeling by her table. “Novice, perhaps we could continue our war plans later. Revan and I have to talk.”
“Must I retire to the Sacred Armory, Mother?” The Novice placed her right hand on her cheek. Revan noticed it was gloved while the other was not.
“Wait outside. Revan and I won’t take long.”
The Novice bowed to them before leaving the room.
“I must apologize for interrupting your strategies.” Revan sat down on the chair in front of the table.
“There are far more pressing matters, Revan.” Mother Cassandra sat opposite him. “Frankly, all the weapons of our Congregation would be for naught if we could not neutralize their powers.”
“Your nuns haven’t made Lion talk, yet?”
“They’ve seared his body with the Holy Flame, yet all he does is roar. Such a hopeless case, that animal.”
“Then all that remains is the painter? Good. Let me have a crack at him.”
“I’ve ordered my nuns not to touch him.” The Mother Cassandra steadied herself on the chair. “I had him caught by his house after all the captive rebels spoke of their greatest power residing within an unsuspecting painter. The moment my nuns rounded him up, I understood what they’ve meant.”
She cleared her throat before proceeding. “This called for the work of a professional.”
Revan chuckled. “You flatter me too much, Mother Cassandra. Can I see him?”
“Beware his power, Revan. I need his power. It is the key to winning this war. You have my permission to use anything to get it from him.” She poured herself a glass of tea. “My Novice will bring you to him. I do not like going to the dungeons myself. It depresses me to see the levels these Freedom Fighters go to to destroy the system we’ve fought to preserve.”
Mother Cassandra rang a small bell. The Novice reentered the room. “Yes, Mother?”
“Show Revan to the painter’s cell.”
As Revan made his way out of the office, Mother Cassandra’s high-pitched voice rang out again. “Don’t forget, Revan. If you fail, all of us might be the ones locked up in the dungeons and the rebels our jailers. If we’re still alive, that is.”
The Novice led Revan outside the Mother’s office in the North Tower, down a flight of winding stairs. When they reached the hall, she grabbed a nearby torch. “The prisoners are kept in the dark,” she mumbled half-apologetically as they continued to descend down the convent.
“What is your name, Novice?”
“I do not deserve to be called by my name until I become a full sister.”
“Why do you keep your right hand gloved while the other isn’t?”
“Old injury,” the Novice replied, eyes evasive, as she led Revan to the underground chambers. Revan had enough experience to note a person lying but chose not to press the matter.
“Nice place you nuns have.”
“This is where we keep the most hardened ones, the ones unfit to be in our new society. The,” she shuddered as she said the word, “rebels.”
“Where is the painter’s cell?”
The Novice was about to reply when a loud clank was heard from a nearby cell accompanied by a booming roar.
“Lion, I presume?” Revan inserted before the Novice could speak.
“He’s been at it since he came here. The sisters did everything to him, all the tricks that made the other rebels crack – flogged him, removed his nails, burned parts of his skin. He is a fool, that one.”
“A lost cause. Pity you didn’t bring me sooner for him.”
“Yes.” The Novice trailed her hands absent-mindedly across the walls as they descended the stairs. “He refuses to cooperate like the others.”
Revan thought she sounded regretful until her tone brightened up. “Oh, how the sisters have tortured the other rebels here. All of them cracked! From them, we have figured out the plans of the rebels. That is why we will win tomorrow’s war at Recto. I think. I hope, dear god, I hope.” Her trailing fingers started scratching the wall. “My brother’s leading the charge together with the other clergymen. But, Revan, please. I do not think they stand the chance until we – or rather, you – can crack the secret of their powers.”
“Do not worry, Novice,” Revan said, in his mind promising to genuinely help the Novice, who seemed like such a nice girl out of place in the bleakness of the dungeon.
They continued down in silence at the screaming passages of the dungeon. “What happens to the prisoners who confess?” Revan asked.
“Why, they get burned, of course.” The Novice signaled a halt and pointed to a nearby cell. “His cell. Oh goodness.” She pointed to a metallic tray outside the cell. “He still hasn’t eaten.”
“Leave that to me.” Revan walked towards the cell, picking up the tray. “Eat. For god’s sake, eat!” Revan barked as he slid the metal tray through the dungeon’s bars.
“Am not hungry,” came the soft answer of the lanky figure in white, huddled against he corner of his cell.
“It’s been more than a week, Chris. Mother Cassandra is not pleased,” the Novice pleaded, also approaching him.
“Am just not hungry.”
The Novice took out an apple from under her habit and slid it towards the tray. “Just an apple, then. A bite. Go on, Chris. Be a good boy.”
Chris crawled to where the tray was, aware of the chain that bound his right foot to the wall. With his pale hand, he picked up the apple and threw it at the bars.
Revan watched Chris crawl back to his corner before turning to face the troubled Novice.
“I am sorry, Revan,” she said. “He has been acting up lately.”
Revan nodded. “Do not worry.
“I will inform Mother Cassandra when I go up.”
“Does the Mother Superior really think this guy is the key?” Revan looked back at Chris rocking back and forth in his corner. He doubted the importance of what he thought was a mess towards the success of the war but it wasn’t in his place to question the Congregation.
“He alone holds the answer to tomorrow’s battle.” Novice started walking back. After a few steps, she turned back, as if remembering an important message. “Mother wants him to break before war council tonight.”
Revan looked at the guy rocking back-and-forth in his cell. He had met stronger-willed prisoners and they all eventually gave in. “I will break him by then, sister.”
“To each his part in this war. Good evening.” The Novice glided up the stone staircase that led to the upper convent.
Revan went closer to the cell, grasping a bar with his hand. Time to make this guy squeal, he thought. After seconds of staring at him, he started his interrogation. “You made the sister sad, Chris. Why do you still resist us?”
Chris did not answer. Revan was used to that classic defense. He chose his next words carefully. “Chris. Talk to me. Why don’t you eat? Not even a bite from that apple? Sure looks delicious from where I’m standing. Eat it, Chris.”
Chris lifted his head an inch. “I was happy. You know what happy still is? I was content by myself in my hut. I was harming no one! I knew no one. Adrift. All I did was paint. Paint the sceneries, the beaches. Until your nuns came with their guns and their tanks – a whole squadron of them – against one simple man.”
“Chris, you don’t have to be afraid of me. I’m not one of them. I’m just an ordinary guy.”
“You can call me Revan. Alright with that? That’s what everyone calls me. Let’s just talk.”
“Chris, I’m trying to help you. Tell me about the power you posses.”
Chris let his head up, letting out a raspy laugh. “Power. That’s all you lot want.”
Revan shifted. “Don’t you feel guilty, Chris?”
“People are dying on both sides. Tomorrow, more people will die if you don’t talk.”
“And you will stop the dying? Ha!”
“The nuns will put your power to good use.” Revan knew stretching the truth was part of the game he had to play.
“Don’t speak of them that way. They are good people, Chris. They want to help you.”
A loud roar was heard again.
“Indeed,” Chris smirked. “Like they helped him?”
“Do not compare yourself to Lion. He is a,” Revan’s voice went low, “rebel.”
“Against the nuns? That’s not rebellion. That’s revolution.”
“Big words for an innocent man, Chris.”
“This rotten cell corrupts.”
“You are not like Lion. He is a bad man, Chris. He kills people, innocent women and children for a stupid agenda.”
“And the nuns?”
“The nuns work for the common good.”
Chris laughed. “What is with you? Do the nuns let you eat their pussies?”
Revan got annoyed by the outright display of disrespect but decided to temper it. “You can’t talk about them that way,” he reasoned peacefully.
“What will you do? The bars protect me from you as much as it does you from me!” Chris shouted.
“Is everything alright?” a small timid voice said. Revan turned around to see the Novice standing there. “I’m sorry, I heard loud noises.”
Revan walked towards the Novice and whispered, “He has an attitude.”
“Yes, we tried to warn you.”
“Just give me a little more time.”
“I’ll check back again in a while.”
“Must you?” Revan asked, surprised about the security of the place.
An idea clicked inside Revan’s head. “He was a painter, right? What did you do with his brushes and oils?”
“All the prisoners’ stuff are upstairs, Revan.”
“Bring them down,” Revan requested.
The Novice started up the stairs as Revan turned back to Chris. He was pondering on the need to pull out the big guns so early but then decided that this current strand of conversation was leading them nowhere.
He squatted in front of the cell and, in a friendly tone, asked, “Do you miss painting, Chris?”
Chris’ right hand flicked. It was not a big movement, a very minute one but Revan was trained to note such changes. It seemed to Revan that Chris’ hand was itching to grab hold of a brush.
“Do you miss painting, Chris?” he repeated.
“Painting?” came the feeble reply.
“Yes, painting. I know you were a painter.”
“Yes, yes, I was a painter.” He smiled ruefully. “Once.”
“Do you want to hold a brush again?”
Chris sighed and clenched his right hand into a fist. “Sometimes I wonder how it felt, if painting were but a memory.”
“But you were a painter, Chris.” Revan sorted through the information he read up on the Chris. He remembered a specific news clipping dated a few months ago. “You showed at a gallery once. All the critics hated it, said you were an unmovable relic of the past.”
“They were all wrong!” Chris flared. Revan noted that this was the strongest emotion he had given so far.
“I am not a critic.”
Chris paused for a moment. For a minute, Revan thought he had lost him until Chris let out a soft laugh. “Art is easy. Art is cheap, really. When one gets thrown into a dungeon, one realizes the foolishness of youth’s art.”
Revan drew back to memory the article he read on Chris’ exhibit. He remembered the lead painting of the exhibit, a barrage of so-called post-modern lines and oils. It was unintelligible to him and, based on the reviews, everyone else. The newspapers had severely crucified it. “What was your best painting?”
“It wasn’t that long ago. It was at my house by the beach. I was sitting at the shoreline, gazing at the butandings as they jumped up and down the waves when suddenly I heard a strange sound. It was music, the kind I have never heard before. It was weird. I couldn’t place it – was it the sea singing? The sand? The sky, the birds, the air? I stood there. Suddenly, my legs moved towards my hut as if by mechanical order. My hands picked up a couple of brushes and a canvass and within the night, I just drew. Not the scenery, not the beach. I just drew. And it was beautiful.”
Revan heard the creak of an opening door. Turning his head, he saw the Novice going down the stairs, brushes and oils in hand. He hadn’t been able to push Chris to his limit yet but time was running out. He had to break Chris before war council.
Turning back to Chris, he asked, “If I let you paint, will you talk?”
“What?” His eyes could not have bulged out more. Revan knew he was on the right track.
“If I let you hold your brush in your hand again, will you talk?”
“Maybe.” A sweat bead was forming on his forehead.
“Show of good faith, say yes.”
Revan mentally commended Chris’ self-control but still prodded on. “Chris, you’re not making this easy.”
“Nothing worthy in life is ever easy.”
Revan had to give in – the conversation was going nowhere. “Okay.” He got a brush and a bottle of oil from the Novice who had just reached him. He slid them into the cell.
“Here. Paint,” he commanded.
“Revan, is this wise?” the Novice whispered.
“I know what I’m doing, Sister,” he whispered back, a bit annoyed why she was questioning his methods.
“And I know how to cross the line, Revan. I paid a heavy price for it.” She wrung her gloved wrist. “Tread lightly. You do not know the power of an artist.” The Novice left.
Revan stared at an unmoving Chris.
“Indeed, I have forgotten.”
“Artists never forget.”
“I thought you weren’t one.”
“Just paint something. Something simple.”
“If it were simple, why should I paint it?’
“Something beautiful, then.”
“Beautiful? In this convent?”
Chris drew a straight horizontal line on the wall.
“A new masterpiece by Chris. I call it the Horizontal Line.”
Revan bit his lip. He was getting annoyed. “I give you your cherished possessions and all you can draw me is a line?”
“This isn’t my cherished possession. It’s a brush and some oil.”
“Well, what is?”
“I want the music. I want to hear the music back at my hut.”
“Tough,” Revan said roughly. For a moment, he thought that he had inadvertently destroyed his one link to break Chris. They just stood there staring at each other, the brush meters away from Chris. Revan held his breath, his future was on the line here.
Suddenly, Chris started to walk forward. He reached down and picked up the brush. Smirking, he looked back at Revan. “Could I paint you?”
“Me? What, no!” After those words escaped his lips, Revan mentally cursed such spontaneity on his part.
Chris sardonically smiled. “I’ll make it nice.”
Trying to get his composure back, Revan gave a small cough. “Why?”
“You’ll like it.”
“Paint anything you want just not me.”
“There’s really nothing of interest in this dungeon. You’re the most interesting.”
Revan’s mind darted to everything that Chris could be familiar with at the dungeon. “Paint the Novice with the gloved hand.”
“She’s nice but her brother’s a bad man.”
“She’s not her brother, paint her.”
“I could never draw gloves well.”
Chris laughed. “If I tried to draw her, all I’d draw is a cunt.”
Revan racked his brains for something to take Chris’ focus away from him, the interrogator, when suddenly a roar, louder than the previous ones, was heard again, followed by a scuffle of feet as a troop of armed nuns, the Novice among them, rushed into the dungeon. They gathered together by a cell just a flew blocks away from Chris’, their uzis facing the occupant, who was still continuously roaring. The Novice detached herself and approached Revan.
“Sorry for barging in. He has to be sedated regularly,” she said, apologetic, before running back to the rest of the Congregation with their guns ready to fire.
Revan watched the nuns slowly recite the Angelic Salutation as one of them fired what seemed to be a tranquilizer dart into the cell. Suddenly, the roaring stopped. The nuns quietly trooped back upstairs, with the Novice giving an uncertain glance back at Revan.
“That happens more regularly than you would imagine.” Chris’ matter-of-fact tone brought Revan back to reality.
“Fine. Lion, then,” he said, still shocked by what had just happened. “Paint him. Suffering is a great inspiration.”
“Lion’s story is beautiful. He and his husband were farmers by the river. Their bougainvilleas were the most beautiful I had ever seen. They worked magic, side-by-side. In harmony, their plants grew. One day, they were to go to town to enter a flower festival. But Lion’s husband was down with the flu so he couldn’t come. Lion went alone. At that time, the Clergy were uprising. In fact, one young priest out to prove himself went to their farm. He had a sniper rifle with him. From afar, he set his perch. He wanted to target both, but I guess one was enough for him. He targeted Lion’s husband who had gone out of bed to water and prune the bougainvilleas. He shot him. And again. And again. Again. Again! Blood stained the bougainvilleas and they never grew again. All that was left was the Lion’s roar as he fled his farm to join the revolution. He swore to never stop roaring until the day can come he can grow his bougainvilleas in peace. And never did he stop. With each roar, he conquered convents and parishes until the combined efforts of the Clergy and the Congregation brought him down. I cannot draw something so sad.”
Revan thought of the young farmer, the unrepentant rebel and the roaring prisoner and how one’s life could easily change in an instant.
Chris went on. “The young priest who killed Lion’s husband? He is the Novice’s brother. That is why I cannot draw her. She comes from a bad family. They are bad people! She is so innocent now, but you wait. She is being primed to succeed Mother Cassandra.”
With all the images that come into Revan’s brain, he could deduce one thing. “How could you possibly know this if you’re not part of the revolution?”
“Lion told me. In between roars, he spoke. He misses his bougainvilleas, you know. They’ll never grow again, of course, but he misses a simpler time.”
For a moment, they were both silent. Chris looked strained from his long aria while Revan kept processing the stories Chris gave. This felt more than he had bargained for. On the other hand, Lion’s story had destroyed the momentum he had created to fish out Chris. There was no other option but to involve himself personally.
“You know Chris.” Revan sat down facing the cell. “I would be honored if you paint me.”
Chris looked at Revan then back to the horizontal line. “I need to know more.”
“Can’t you paint what you see?”
“A painting is not a photograph. I need to know more about you.”
Revan decided to bite, at least for now. “Well, I am an interrogator,” he shared. “I get the knowledge hidden underneath blankets of sordid memories and false beliefs.”
“You think I have something underneath?”
“Everyone does, Chris. In your case, your powers.”
“I am merely a painter. What you see is what you get.” Chris splashed a couple of lines more towards the wall.
“Everyone has layers,” Revan said, partially to himself as well. “Layers upon layers upon layers. Just like your paintings, Chris. My job is to brush off all that has been added on, all unnecessary parts, everything we’ve projected and everything we’ve been forced to do. Fluff. When all is gone, what is left is what is real.”
Chris paused in the middle of drawing another line. “So if I’m painting you and I remove it all, all I would be left with is this horizontal line. You are a line. But even the line is a layer – beneath the line is a wall. A canvass.”
“We are all canvasses but in each of us is a layer that just cannot be removed, the one layer that makes us unique. That is what I’m cracking,” Revan explained, carefully selecting his words so as not to reveal too much about himself.
“And that is what I also need to find as an artist.”
Revan smiled. He was able to net him now. “Here’s a deal. As an artist, find the essence in me. As an interrogator, let me find the essence within you.”
“But what if all there is underneath my layers are just more layers and underneath those is a vast nothingness?”
“Let me be the judge of that.”
“Before you add another stroke to your drawing, you have to tell me more about yourself, about your powers.”
Chris gave a small smile as he started to paint and talk at the same time. “You know of the Babaylan?”
Revan had heard of them. “No.”
“They were the faith-healers, the rulers, the philosophers, the healers of our ancient tribes. Until the colonizers came, them with their oppressive crosses and swords. The Babaylans fought them. But they lost. In their dying days, they weaved a mythology that their descendants would never forget. The tradition that should have died when religion came lived on in secret. And their powers of art, healing, faith, knowledge, beauty, all coursing in the veins of the new Babylans. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons Lion’s plants grow so beautifully and how the revolution has successfully pushed back every attack thrown by the Clergy and the Congregation. Perhaps it is the power that inspired me to paint back at the beach. Or the one that draws me to paint you right now, in spite of where we are.” Chris added some specks of purple oil to his painting.
Revan hushed the voice inside him that was congratulating him for getting Chris to talk. He noted everything that Chris said. “The cause of this is?”
“You know more than you’re letting on.”
“Maybe I am. Maybe I’m not. Who’s to say?”
Revan scratched his head, feeling pointless yet strangely drawn to the painter. “How dangerous are your powers?”
“How dangerous are my paintings, Revan? Can they kill you?”
“I have never heard of a canvass killing a body.”
“There is more to death than suffocation.”
“These are lines on a page.”
“If you cannot see past the lines, perhaps you do not understand the human condition as well as you force me to believe.”
Revan felt that Chris was on the verge of spilling something. He just needed to prod one more button. He stood up, hiding the bottling excitement within him. “Yes, your powers make you paint pretty pictures. I’m asking if your powers could stand the might of the Holy Army.”
“That is loaded. Yes. As long as our power lives, as long as art triumphs in the souls of the countless men striving for freedom, there is hope. We will survive the war as we’ve survived countless others that wanted to destroy us. Nothing that seeks to destroy lives long.”
“You battle our guns and tanks with hope?” Revan countered.
“Take Lion, a simple man, a loving husband. Yet he endures all the pain the nuns inflict on him with the simple vision of hope.” Chris continued splashing purple oil. “Ideology.”
Revan thought of the implications of such ideological battle. He decided to shelf it. “This Babaylan power, it is only for your people?”
“It is people who choose to accept love in their lives instead of shunning it, those who seek to preserve instead of seeking to destroy. The old ones say that it is a gift that is freely given to a select few yet they may still turn their backs away from their higher destiny. More and more, people yearn to refuse the gift for fear of persecution. The Congregation and the Clergy have posited a zero-tolerance policy and the people are now shuddering in fear of it. The gift is dwindling. Perhaps one day, it will die.”
“Choosing love instead of war,” Revan mused. “Is it not too passé? You hide your lack of morals behind a facade of it.”
Chris stopped painting and turned to face Revan. “Have you loved, Revan?”
Revan felt taken aback. “Why do you ask?”
“I answered your question about my powers. Now answer mine.”
Within his head, Revan debated whether to talk or not. He decided there was no harm in coming clean to a condemned man. “I had a wife,” he ruefully said. “Once.”
“She died?” Chris splattered some pink paint.
“She left me.”
Chris splattered some magenta paint. “That is what I’ve felt. The longing within you is the initial pull I needed to paint you. You are hurt inside, a wounded beast, fighting a war you neither want nor know to no end. Like a broken petal.”
Revan felt creeped out by that description and that he was losing control over the conversation. “Enough about me.”
Chris paused, brush in mid-air. “I cannot finish my painting if you don’t tell me more.”
“Then don’t finish it.”
“I am making you my masterpiece.”
“Nothing in my life worthy of it.”
“All your life you’ve lived a pawn in their game. When will you live the life you were intended, Revan?”
Revan’s foot started fidgeting. “She was unfulfilled with me.”
“All your life you’ve studied men yet you hide yourself from your own eyes.” Chris dabbed a little fuchsia into the wall. “Layer upon layer of hiding.”
Revan tried to stop his foot from fidgeting. He suddenly realized how cold it was in the dungeons and how these people could live in such environment.
“We are both artists of our kind, Revan,” Chris continued. “It’s just that I’m better at stealing the soul.”
“You hide the truth beneath coats of paint. I flesh them out. You hide, I find.”
“What is the truth of your wife leaving you?” Chris prodded.
“Nothing.” Revan finally exploded. The mixture of the cold and the pressures of the war suddenly let something lose within him. “Nothing. I dug down deep and felt nothing. From the first time I saw her at our wedding, escorted down the aisle by two nuns, I felt nothing. It was nothing like how the books tell the story of love at first sight, nothing like the sermons the priest preached that day of eternal, undying love. From our first kiss, our first night together, nothing. I sleep with her, lying beside her and what came out of me? Nothing. Days after, I see her smiling at another guy and, still, nothing. The day she left, I sat down and I thought I’d cry as I expected any man in my position would. But what came out of my eyes? Nothing.”
“That is not possible.” Chris added some carnation to the painting. “I’ve always loved this color family. Reminds me of you. There is no nothing, Revan. What happened to one unremovable layer that makes us unique?”
Revan tried to gain his composure back. “She was forced unto me. I had nothing to say about it. Not like you. Everything you do, the immoralities you hide under, all your choosing. Do not compare me to you, Chris.”
“Revan,” Chris whispered, crawling to the bars. “Give me your hand.”
It was the first time something like this has happened to Revan. He never had any contact with any other prisoner. He glared at Chris, not knowing where this was headed.
“You want to know me? Touch me.” Chris reached his hand through the bars.
Revan looked at the pale hand protruding through the bars. He weighed the necessity of doing so. However, he decided that a show of good faith on his part could only help the situation. Hesitantly, he put his hand above Chris’. “Now?”
Chris tightened his grip on Revan’s hand and forcefully pulled it inside his cell, leading to Revan banging his body upon the bars.
“Bastard!” A searing pain entered his skull as it made contact with the metallic bars.
“I’m sorry, Revan.” Chris released Revan’s hand.
“Sorry does not make up for banging me against the bars!”
“Art is violence.” Chris threw a big splat of lavender unto the wall. “Beautiful.”
“You’re throwing paint on the wall. That is not art.” Revan could no longer think logically about the questions he should ask.
“I do what I do. Let the critics decide what it is.”
“This thing, this is your hidden power?”
“I thought it was just paint on the wall.”
“This is what the nuns are afraid of?”
“It isn’t complete yet.”
“This ridiculous invention of yours.” He was still rubbing his head from the injury. “Novice!” he shouted to the door.
The Novice opened the door, peeked her head in and tiptoed in.
Taking a deep breath to alleviate the pain, he advanced on the novice. “Tell me, Novice. Did Mother send me down here to get the powers of a painting?”
“Mother said – ”
“Did she?” Revan cut.
The Novice closed her eyes in panic. “We did not know what to do with the painter.”
“You could have gotten an art critic!” Revan gnashed.
The Novice stood there trembling, uncertain what to do.
“You may leave,” Revan commanded, cursing himself for letting his emotions carry him away again. The Novice silently trotted away.
“Man, she’s a basketcase,” Revan murmured to himself.
“Told you,” Chris interjected. “All the nuns here are.”
Revan tried to get any sense of composure he may have left within him and tried to restart at a level tone. “Chris, level with me, please. Enough games.”
“What games?” Chris added some touches of lilac to the painting.
“We both yearn for a better future. Tell me more of your powers.”
“Nothing within. Nothing without.”
Starting to get irritated by the riddles, Revan calmed himself and sat down, back against the bars. He realized that the reasons his emotions have been so moved were the personal questions thrown against him and he decided to use the same tactic against Chris.
“Did you ever love, Chris?”
“Hmmm…love?” Chris absent-mindedly answered, absorbed in his work.
“Were you married?” Revan continued.
“I married my art.”
Biting down a sarcastic remark, Revan continued. “And to a person?”
Chris let down his brush and sat on the opposite end of the cell, his back against Revan’s, the only thing between them was the bars of the cell.
“No. Not yet,” he said after a while. “No woman or man has moved me as much as my works have. Perhaps that silent music at the beach. No one has been dangerous enough to pull me. None of yet.”
Revan felt Chris’ heartbeat rising yet ironically slowing at the same time.
“Until perhaps,” Chris mused, “now.”
Revan’s mind raced. “What are you talking about?” he quickly asked afraid of what the answer might be.
Revan felt a hearty chuckle vibrate through Chris’ body. “I find you dangerous enough for me.”
“Me?” He asked rhetorically. He felt a lump in his throat. “But I’m part of the force trying to kill you.”
“Perhaps you are, perhaps you’re not.” Chris stood up and splattered some crimson on the wall. “Fact is, you’re interesting. I like that.”
“You’re attracted to me.” Revan stood up and faced Chris. He wasn’t sure how to react. This had never happened before. “But I’m straight.”
“That’s what they all said,” Chris chuckled.
A smile grew on Revan’s face. “You don’t believe me.”
Chris continued painting. “You asked of my Babaylan powers, Revan. Part of that is feeling the inner soul of another human. Desires and others.”
Revan pondered the implications.“A wish machine?”
“Do not simplify it,” Chris scoffed. “I do not necessarily know everything, but I feel another man’s soul. I feel yours yearning.”
Chris stopped painting and looked at Revan directly in the eye. For a second, Revan felt as if Chris was literally looking him in the soul. “For me.”
Revan laughed. “You are crazy, painter.”
Chris continued staring directly at Revan. “Just want you to know it’s not one-sided.”
“Keep amusing me.” Revan tried keeping on a brave non-committal face but deep inside he was cursing the direction the conversation had gone.
“That’s all there really is to it.” Chris went back to the painting and trickled some silver into the corners of his work.
As Chris turned, Revan felt a pang of loss. “Because I feel nothing for my ex-wife, I must like guys. And not just guys – you,” he said sarcastically.
“You must think me myopic.”
“No. Crazy!” Revan shouted, trying to convince both of them.
“What can I expect from a mere lapdog of the holy nuns?”
“Much more than a raving painter who calls his crap art!”
The door opened and the Novice stepped in.
“Mother Cassandra wants a progress report,” she said.
“I’m getting there,” Revan growled at her, barely looking at her small figure.
“Remember the stakes, Revan,” the Novice said before she left.
A morbid thought occurred to Revan as the Novice left. “Just between you and me,” Revan whispered to Chris. “Mother Cassandra freaks the hell out of me. I can’t imagine the Novice becoming her.”
“We can never imagine the person we are destined to be until we become it.”
“That poor innocent girl – ”
“She’s not innocent. Oh sure, they say she used to swing that way once.” Chris tossed his head around to emphasize the swinging. “But she’s converted. She’s now part of the oh-so-holy Congregation.”
Revan stifled a laugh before becoming serious again. “What about us?”
“For me, I can see myself painting. Imagine it, my hut in Bicol. It’s beautiful there. Peaceful. There is no war there, no Clergy, no Congregation allowed. No violence, only sand and water and music. That is where I am and where I ought to be.” Chris added a stronger stroke to his painting. “But here I am now.”
“Sounds dreadfully boring.”
“You should see it. You’ll love it there. You could walk down the sandy shore and I’ll paint you and you’ll be laughing because you’ve forgotten the past. Even the now.” Chris laughed as he was talking.
“From what I can see of your art, you’ll never do me justice.”
“You’ll never be happy with my paintings.” Chris stopped and stared at his work. “You won’t understand. I thought you could.”
Revan squinted his eyes while staring at the painting. “I’m trying, Chris. But all I see are paint blots.”
Chris stopped painting and rushed to the bars. “Reach deep inside, Revan. Go way down deep until you feel something renting, rending inside you. Find something where nothing is. Find something! You’ll see. You’ll see yourself here. No. Rather, don’t see. Feel it. Feel yourself, the painting. Past the strokes, past the oils is yourself.”
“Past all that is a wall,” Revan replied blankly.
“Give me your hand.” Chris extended his hand again past the bars.
“I’m not falling for that again.”
“No funny business. Promise.”
With hesitation, Revan took Chris’ hand.
“Ready?” Chris smiled. “You wanted my power? Feel.”
Warm glow emanated from Chris’ hand. Slowly, the warmth transferred from his closed fist towards the fingers interlacing it. Revan’s hand shuddered at first by the newfound warmth traveling through his fingers, through the veins of his hand down through his arm before circulating itself all over Revan’s body before dissipating.
“Feel, Revan. Feel.”
Revan closed his eyes. At first, there was still nothing, only the cold air trapped inside the dungeon and musky scents of the prisoners there. Then, there was something. It started as a spark from his belly that started moving all around his body. He tried to pinpoint where it was but the moment a cohesive thought formed, the spark had transferred somewhere else. He tried to remember where it was, tried to predict where it would go but his mind suddenly felt the entire glow of the spark as it danced inside it. Suddenly, the spark became violent as if a thousand pins were pricking his head.
“I feel pain, Revan,” Chris said, while Revan was in his trance. “I feel sorrow and regret. I see the remnants of a shattered tank as maggots crawl all over it. The war. The endless night of gunpowder and smoking steel. I see rows upon rows of unmarked crosses unblessed by the Clergy and the Congregation they swore to fight for. Despair, endless moons, waxing, waning, turning over its head, pushing itself all over the sky, the stars a mirror of the crimson death sowed on the land.”
Revan was still transfixed by the pain of spark as he said the first words that came to him. “The war? Chris, the war. No one wants the war. No one!”
No sooner had he said those words, when the pain subsided, replaced by a warm glow. It spread throughout his head. It was as if his mind were frozen solid and a new sunny day has thawed it out and made it see once again.
“Serenity,” Chris continued, still reading him. “An end to it all. Gushing through your hair. A sunny day once more. Peaceful beaches, stooping down to pick up a shell and listen to the music of the oceans. Jumping up and down the waves, riding balyenas, soaking in sweat and salt and not caring about the malignant figures bearing crosses!”
“Yes.” Revan smiled, the images flowing through him. “That is, indeed, what I want.”
“It is not too late, Revan. When I touched your hand, I felt something inside of you. Power. The same power that surges through me, boiling my blood into ecstatic bags of endearment. You have it, Revan. It’s within you. The power of the Babaylans.”
Revan withdrew his hand. Immediately, the spark inside him fizzled out. He still felt a little jittery. “That cannot be. I am not one of you.”
“Perhaps that’s why you could never get something with your wife. Deep inside, your soul rejects what is imposed.”
“Do not be silly, Chris.” Revan tried brushing off the idea of the spark.
“You think it not possible?”
“Impossible. I’ve never felt that kind of power within me before.”
“You chose to deflect it, hiding it under mountains of unaware sufferings. You cause death upon death, destructions a millionfold worse. Layer upon layer of stinking desolation, yet when all layers are taken out of, it is within you. The power!” Chris’ voice has reached a crescendo in its passion.
Revan glanced nervously at the door. “Do not be so noisy. They might hear.”
“You hide again. You think it important if they knew of your power? Revan, if you didn’t have the power, I could never have made empathic contact with you. I cannot communicate with a soulless husk.”
“I have a soul.”
“So do I. And they just made contact.”
Revan thought of the concept of soul contact. “Was my soul happy?”
“It was happy to see me. Happy for the first time.”
“That is bullshit.”
The door creaked open and the Novice stepped in.
“Revan, Mother needs to see you.”
“In a minute.”
“She wasn’t asking.”
“I’m on the verge of something.”
The Novice marched towards Revan and, with her ungloved hand, tugged one of Revan’s hands, intending to pull him up the stairs. On the instance of contact, she fainted.
“What happened?” Chris curiously peaked out.
“She suddenly – Aw! What is – ” Revan clutched his head, experiencing shocking waves and unknown memories swirling inside it.
“You made contact with the nun!” Chris excitedly said.
Revan felt the spark he had felt before but this time not within his body but in the body of the Novice. He could feel it coursing within her and transmitting its energies to him. He tried to take his hand off but the connection was too strong that his hand felt glued to hers.
In the middle of his attempts to break free, the memories of the Novice surged inside him. It was a memory he was remembering as if his own. He was in a bedroom with a woman. They were slowly kissing. His hand was draped across her shoulder, her hair flowing around his face. The woman stopped kissing him and unbuttoned her top, one button at a time, revealing a purple bra above a rosy stomach. He slowly lowered his lips to tenderly kiss her navel until the bra was unhooked from the back and he started making love to her nipples. Her skirt got lowered, inch by inch revealing beautiful crimson thighs flanking a white thong. His kisses lowered and he took off her panty kissing every bit of flesh that it uncovered. He stood up and looked her in the eye and kissed her straight on the lips. As he was doing so, his right hand went to the woman’s vagina and started caressing it. It became wet under his hand. He inserted his pointing finger inside her.
“Vaginas,” he whispered softly. “Beautiful vaginas.”
“That’s what you got from the nun?” Chris eagerly asked.
Revan was enjoying the sensation of a woman until suddenly pain seared throughout his right arm. He tried fending it off, fending an invisible attacker but he couldn’t. He was restrained. The searing pain in his arm flowed towards the vagina and suddenly all he could see was blood – a vast pool of black blood.
“My arm! No, no! My arm! It wasn’t me! It wasn’t like that!” Revan kept clutching his right arm as he felt searing heat striking it, as if his arm were amputated. The severity of the vision led to the severance of their connection as Revan was able to withdraw his arm although the pain was still tingling.
“You okay?” Chris asked, concern in his voice.
“That hurt.” Revan stumbled up to his feet.
“It always does the first time. You just saw her memories, her dreams and hopes.”
“I never want to see a vagina again.” Revan wiped the sweat off his face. He noted that he was dripping with sweat in a cold dungeon.
“Well, I guess our nun friend does.”
“But that pain – was that why she fainted?”
“She fainted because the Babaylan power residing inside her is dead. When she touched you, the newly-awakened powers within you tried to jolt hers to life. But she refuses it and that’s why her body could not take the pressure.”
“All that pain in her mind – ”
“That’s Babaylan powers for you.”
Revan panted. “When did I become one of you?” he asked staggeringly.
“Revan. You never weren’t. I just had to make you realize that beneath all your layers, lies the heart of a Babaylan.”
“Perhaps, Chris. Question is what to do now with this.”
“They will kill you if they find out. You cannot hide it.”
“All that I’ve worked for – ”
“Work for a newer future, Revan.”
“And the war, Chris?”
“Fight for the better team.”
Revan felt the pain in his arm leaving him. He clutched his side as he steadied himself up. “I can’t.”
“Either that or experience the other side of this cell. You know what Mother Cassandra would do. You cannot escape her.”
“But where shall I go?” Revan felt an emotion he never thought he would – panic. “No, there is no escape. This is futile!”
Revan tried to control his nervousness. He considered everything that had happened, how every layer of his being would be replaced by a different knowledge of what lay beneath him. With some hesitation, he made his way towards the body of the Novice.
“Revan, please do not revive her,” Chris pleaded.
“Quiet, you,” Revan ordered. He started frisking the fainted nun’s habit until he found her pocket. He inserted his hand there and drew out the dungeon keys.
“Revan, I – ”
“Quiet before I change my mind.” Revan started to open the lock.
Revan opened the door. Chris stepped out. A smile started to grow on Revan’s face.
A wave bounced off the shores of Bicol. With only a towel wrapped around his waist, Revan was sitting by the waters, observing the sunset. He never thought Bicol could be so beautiful.
“Want to do something fun?” Chris called out behind him.
Revan turned around to see Chris holding a music box.
“What you got there?” Revan asked.
“I’m trying to recreate my music.” Chris put the box on the sand and let the music play. “Come, dance with me.”
“What? I don’t dance.” Revan blushed.
“You’re a Babylan now,” Chris replied. “You have to dance.”
Chris started swaying to the beat. Revan watched in amusement as Chris jumped up and down without rhythm to the beat.
“You always dance this badly?” Revan called out, watching Chris sway to the waves.
“Sorry. Part of the Babaylan powers is to make one better and more inclined to dancing.” Chris peeled off his T-shirt and threw it to the ground.
“Hope I don’t do a pirouette out of nowhere.” Revan laughed.
“I never got the chance to thank you properly.”
“What do you call what we did last night?” Revan teased, referencing how frisky their hands were the previous night.
With one hook of his hand, Chris stepped out of his pants and underwear. “I do hope Lion and the others do fine in the battle.”
“They’re up against insurmountable odds. They do have the Babaylan power.”
“They have you to thank for rescuing them as well.”
“The nuns won’t be happy. Hope the Novice has recovered. I did think she was nice.”
“You just wait. Years from now, she’ll be no different than Mother Cassandra. Oh boy, the looks on their faces as we blasted through their supposedly impenetrable fortress.” Chris sighed. “Congregation, Clergy, they’re all the same. That escape was crazy.”
“No, you’re crazy.” Revan picked up a stone and threw it to the ocean. “Are you sure you want to stay here? What about the battle?”
“We’ll join when we’re ready. Not now. Not yet. Let’s enjoy us. It’s just me and you, Revan and the whole wide ocean!”
“Speaking of that, I should probably change my name now that I’m legally dead.”
“Nice ruse, faking your death before we escaped.” Chris attempted to do a headstand but fell down on his first try.
“I’ve always liked Phil. That was the name of my great-grandfather who was a prominent figure at the Malate district. Back then when it wasn’t a prison. Phil. What do you think?”
“I could get used to that.”
Phil smiled, loving how positive Chris was when in his own environment. “It’s been a week now, you promised to show me your masterpiece of a painting.”
“A deal’s a deal. Stay here.” Chris stopped dancing and walked towards the hut, his back bouncing off the rays of the sun. Phil sat there, twiddling the grass with his fingers.
“Here it is!” Chris sang out behind him.
Phil turned to look at what Chris was holding – a barrage of seemingly unknowable lines and colors on a sheet of hard paper.
“I already have Babaylan powers but I still think your paintings are silly.”
“You could never get me!” Chris pouted, throwing the painting down and sitting down on one of the protruding rocks, his back against Phil.
Standing up, Phil’s face broke to a sly smile.
“Chris. Chris. Hey, Chris. Chris? Chris!”
“What?” Chris asked, not looking.
Phil tugged the towel around his waist off, the only layer of clothing he had on, as he went closer to Chris, his arm outstretching against Chris’ back.
On the fourth knock, Mother Cassandra finally opened the door to her office. “Forgiveness, Father,” she muttered to the drenched visitor. “You’re early.”
Father Harold swept past her inside her office. “I heard about the escape. I must say you’re slipping, Mother Cassandra.”
“It was not in vain. We were able to purge all other rebel scums of their secrets.”
“Losing a good interrogator in the process. Did the painter crack?”
“Not that we know of. Tea?” Mother Cassandra poured two cups of tea.
“I’m not British, Mother.”
“I’ve heard that you’ve been granted a diocese of your own, Father. Congratulations on your promotion to Reverend.”
“Nothing’s final. It all rests on tomorrow’s war.”
“We will win this, Father Harold.”
“How can you be so confident, Mother Cassandra?” Father Harold said, advancing on Mother Cassandra, right finger outstretched. “You cannot even protect your own convent!”
“Do not think yourself so cocky, Father.” Mother Cassandra slapped Father Harold’s hand. “I may have lost prisoners but I gained a valuable asset.”
“Your own sister, Father Harold. She has Babaylan powers within her. I found her lying unconscious on the dungeon floor. She has been drained but I can see the works of hidden Babaylan powers.”
“She does? I didn’t know.” Father Harold glanced around furtively.
“Oh, did you now, Father.” Mother Cassandra smiled sweetly.
“What will happen to Helena now, Mother? She probably wouldn’t know much about those powers if they’re buried.”
“While she did choose to relinquish her powers, it cannot be denied that a speck of it lies within her. We have to operate on her body to study it. Thankfully, her right arm has already been cut off and replaced with a computerized synthetic one. Very realistic, Harold.” Mother Cassandra sardonically stared at the Father. “Where did you buy it?”
“Cut the crap, Cassandra.”
“The arm is connected to all parts of her body. Inside the Sacred Feast laboratory, our scientist is studying her and we can finally use the knowledge to empower us. We will win tomorrow! We will use Babaylan powers against them. Think of it, Harold. They have this ability to synchronize what other people desire. We could use this, tap it into some sort of hope machine. Think of all the possibilities, Harold.”
“Good. Your nuns will be ready tomorrow then?”
“Armed and good to go.”
Father Harold made a motion to leave. “I will track down the painter and drag him back here.” He paused for a moment by the door.
“And what happens to Helena?” he asked uncertainly.
“I’m not kicking her out of the Congregation. That girl’s got spunk. After this ordeal, she will be a stronger woman.”
“Good. Perhaps we can make it seem that she lost her arm in tomorrow’s battle. I may have given you leave to study her today but no one else is allowed to touch her.”
“Do not tell me what I can or cannot do to the nuns of my Congregation. You can show yourself out, Harold.”
Father Harold glared at Mother Cassandra. “Do not forget who I am, Cassandra. Remember, Clergy outranks Congregation. We are no longer the novice and acolyte sharing food under a mango tree. I will soon be Reverend then Bishop then Archbishop then who knows what? And, you, Cassandra, while at the top of your Congregation, you are nothing but a glorified jailer who cannot even keep her captives in place. Never forget, your convent is under my diocese.”
Mother Cassandra never blinked. “Understood. By the way, Harold, due to time constraints, the studying done to your sister is without anesthetic. She will be in a lot of pain. Would that be alright?”
Father Harold smiled as he left the office. “She’s used to pain.”
© Riley Palanca 2011