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Pandesal

Gela, wake up, Emilio murmured as he reached for his sister amidst the pile of blankets,
pillows, and hair.
Gela remained still, humming softly in her sleep. The holes between the walls of woven
bamboo lashes allowed glimpses of the light from the torch outside to dance on Emilios
face.
Ah, he is awake.
Emilio reached for the half-empty box of matches under his pillow and lit a small kerosene
lamp by the bedside table. A soft light filled their small hut: bamboo floors, a small kettle
at the corner, Gela on a tangle of blankets, and an empty bed with a neatly folded blanket.
Gelas cheeks glowed, illuminated by the flickering flame, traces of dried saliva glistened
at the corners of her mouth. Emilio smiled.
Ka Berto is awake. Get up.
He nudged her by the nape, allowing his hands to feel the crevices of her bony back. Her
body swelled and ebbed with steady breathing. So peaceful. So calm. He hated to disturb
her slumber but she needed to wake up. He gently tugged at the blanket from Gelas
grasp and leaned closer.
I will buy you Chocosticks later if you get up now, he whispered behind the tangles of
her hair, then blew gently on her left ear.

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Gela budged, giggled, and then opened her eyes, the light from the kerosene lamp painted
swirls of red and orange on her hair. She smiled, showing the gaps of her front teeth.
Promise? Gela asked, her voice draped with cobwebs from her sleep.
He nodded. Come. Roll your mat. Ka Berto awaits.
Emilio climbed down the makeshift ladder and looked for his flip-flops. He found one at the
foot of the ladder. The other one was missing. The dirt felt cool on his feet; as cool as the
soft breeze that made the leaves of the pomelo trees beside the hut rustle in its dance. A
faint citrus smell drifted and a rooster crowed in the distance. Emilio looked at the horizon.
Several stars still dotted the sky. He could see a tiny fleck of light hidden beneath the
purple and dark-blue clouds. It was still too dark to see the rice fields beyond their
backyard but he can hear the soft sweeping sound of the drooping grains swaying in the
breeze. The city from a distance resembled a tiny sea of dotted lights.
Just in time today, he whispered.
I found the other flip-flop, see. Gela spoke, coming up behind him and holding up a thin
gray flip-flop to his face.
Emilio smiled and patted her on the shoulders. Lets go, he said.
++++++++++++++++
They found Ka Berto in his outdoor kitchen by the big narra tree, feeding his small stone
oven with charcoal, humming a song they knew so well: Green Green Grass of Home.
Ah, you two are finally awake. Good, good, Ka Berto mumbled through the half a
cigarette in his mouth, rubbing his darkened hands. The old man coughed up and spat at
the glowing embers in front of him.
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The pandesal should be ready to sell soon. Go wash your faces and well say grace.
Theres rice porridge in the pot here. He grabbed his cane and shuffled the embers in the
oven, the smoke from his cigarette swirled above his head.
Emilio and Gela walked towards the back of the kitchen to the water pump. Emilio carried
a small slab of soap and a towel, and Gela held on to the lamp.
You go first, Emilio said, giving the pump a tug. Water flowed from the nozzle. Gela
nodded, and scooped a handful of water into her face. She let the soap linger on her
cheeks as she massaged the sides of her nose with her index fingers.
Hurry up, Emilio mumbled in between pumps.
The girl in the TV said to let the soap stay for 2 minutes on your face. Im keeping count,
Gela replied, her face white from the foam.
Emilio pumped some more water, listening to Gela count out loud.
Thirty-seven, thirty-five, thirty-eight . . . Emilio, what comes after thirty-eight?
Thirty-nine. Hurry up.
Gela nodded and leaned down the spout to catch a stream of water.
I miss mom. Gela whispered, her face ghostly.
Emilio stopped pumping. He sighed and looked away.
You better not get your skirt wet again. He replied and resumed pumping. Gela rinsed
her face and gave Emilio a half-smile. They headed back to the kitchen in silence.
+++++++++++++++++++++
Ka Berto scooped two ladles of porridge to Emilios bowl and Emilio dug in.
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How come he gets two? Gela asked, peering over Emilios bowl. Ka Berto chuckled, his
Rice Booster shirt hugging his skinny frame. He flicked the remaining cigarette into the
nearby oven.
Your brother is a growing boy, you know, Ka Berto replied, licking his wrinkled fingers
clean of the stray porridge.
And I pedal the bike, Emilio added.
Gela sat back at the wooden stool and reached out for her spoon lying idly on the table.
She gave her bowl a swirl, mixing some bits of ginger with the tiny pieces of fish meat
from last night. Ka Berto scooped another ladle-full and chucked it into Gelas bowl. Gela
smiled.
You smile just like your mother, Ka Berto whispered.
Gela looked up at Ka Berto from across the table. A soft breeze tugged at the remaining
tufts of the old mans silver hair. His eyes, heavy and glistening, fixed on her.
Tell you what. When your mother was about five, your grandma and I used to take her to
town on Sundays for the Catholic mass. Ah, she was never still. Shed crawl around the
pews and poke other peoples legs during novena, Emilio leaned in closer, listening to Ka
Berto, slowly chewing the soft rice pieces, one hand cradling his chin.
We would drop by the market for supplies and meat on the way home. One time, your
grandma got in an argument with a butcher over some price haggling. Your mother picked
up a rock and threw it at the man. She then screamed, Leave my mama alone! Ka Berto
laughed.
Emilio laughed along. Ka Bertos wrinkles seemed finer at the moment in the glow of the
embers from the oven, his eyes are dancing flames.
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Im not like that, am I? Gela asked in between mouthfuls.


You dont have to be like her, you know, Ka Berto smiled. Your mother was very brave.
Even after all she had been through with your father, she still was . . . brave, Ka Berto
explained.
I wish we could never talk about him anymore, Emilio mumbled. I wish we could just
forget about him.
Ka Berto sighed. He then reached into his pocket and produced a small black comb. He
handed it to Gela.
Go ahead, comb your hair and get ready. The sun will be up soon. Emilio finished up and
took Gela and Ka Bertos bowls to the sink.
Will mom come back? Gela asked, the comb stuck midway through her shoulder-length
hair.
She will, Emilio spoke as he scrubbed Gelas bowl for the hundredth time.
+++++++++++++++++++++++
Ka Berto was famous for his pandesal in their small village. He had plenty of
customers, mostly factory workers waking up early for work, some students who take the
buses to town, and farmers who take their water buffalos to graze before sunrise. They all
said that Ka Bertos pandesal was the best they ever tasted, and that his pandesal was no
ordinary bread. They liked it warm and soft in the mornings for breakfast with their coffee
when they dont have time to cook a proper meal. Ka Berto used to do the rounds when he
was a bit younger. Him and his wife would wake up around four in the morning and start
preparing the oven. His wife would mix the dough: flour, a little salt, yeast, a little oil, and
sugar. Then, Ka Berto would bake it in his stone oven for over an hour. His wife would then
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wrap these small buns in white cloth and put them in a bamboo basket. Ka Berto had this
small tricycle. His wife would sit on the narrow seat attached to the back, cradling the
basket full of pandesals. Ka Berto would then pedal his way into the lamp lit streets of
their village, shouting pandesaaaaal! At the sound of his voice, people would go out
from their houses and shout back, pandesaaal! meaning, they wanted some. When his
wife died and Ka Berto was too old to pedal that tricycle, Emilio and Gela took over.
++++++++++++++++++
You guys be careful, okay. Stay away from dogs, Ka Berto told them, placing the
basket of pandesals into Gelas arms. Here, I bought you new tongs. Be careful though;
theyre sharp. Gela, let Emilio handle the tongs, okay?
Gela nodded, hugging the warm basket. Emilio adjusted the seat of the tricycle and
motioned Gela to climb in. She sat down, her eyes droopy. She laid her head against the
basket and sighed. . Emilo started pedaling. They waved at Ka Berto standing by that tall
narra tree, his arms steadily waving back at them, his figure getting smaller and smaller
against the horizon still purple and dark-blue now with brush strokes of orange and yellow.
Emilio greeted the breeze on his face with a grunt as he pedaled furiously, dust puffing
behind them. The rice fields are now a dark gold, barely visible in the distance. A water
buffalo bellowed a soft call, its silhouette etched against the fields.
Ow! Gela cried.
You okay? Ka Berto warned you about those tongs. Put them inside the basket.
Do you really mean what you said? Gela spoke softly, sucking on her thumb.
What? Emilio answered.
Gela paused. About mom coming back.
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Emilio nodded. "Of course, she will. She should, right? He choked on that last part.
++++++++++++++++++++++
It had been almost a year since their mom woke them up that night. Emilio
remembered her face so well: her green blouse she kept on pulling trying to hide the
purple and green on her arms, as purple and green as the ones on her left eye and cheek.
Emilio had the same colors himself, trying to protect Gela from their dad. His mom smelled
of roses and vomit that night.
We are leaving, his mom whispered as she stroked Emilios colored cheeks.
Earlier that night, his dad came home singing, smelling of beer and sweat, just like
any other night. Emilio felt anger and helplessness swirling in his stomach that night, just
like any other night. He watched his dad grip his moms hair and drag her from the
balcony to their room. He heard his mom scream while Gela sobbed in the background.
Just like every other night. Just like every other night. Emilio charged at his dad. His dad hit
him square on the face. He felt the back of his head hit the wooden floor, his dads fist
pounding his face. He wanted to hit back. He wanted to hurt him in any way he could. Just
like every other night.
Emilio carried Gela as they followed their mom through the backdoor from their
fathers house. Gela slept throughout the ordeal. His mom took them to Ka Berto.
I will come back for you two, okay? I just need to grab something in the house.
Wont be long. His mother said through her tears as she bade them goodbye under Ka
Bertos narra tree. Ka Berto wouldnt let go of his mother that night but she insisted.
He will kill you, Ka Berto pleaded, Your savings is not worth it.
Hell still be asleep. Please, its for them. Ill be back.
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She never came back.


+++++++++++++++++++++++++++
The tricycle reached the end of the dirt road and Emilio pedaled slowly through the
speed bumps on the nearly deserted concrete road. The streetlamps lining the road lit
Gelas face. Her eyes were closed and her head on the basket. She was snoring softly. The
blunt tip of the tongs showed through the cloth covering the basket, glinting a faint yellow
dot on Gelas nose. The sky was now a swirl of bright purple and orange. The sun still hid
somewhere beneath the clouds. A long stretch of houses appeared on the left. Emilio saw
lighted windows and movement inside. Emilio nudged Gela on the shoulders.
Its time, he whispered.
Gela nodded. She cleared her throat, filled her lungs with air, and yelled, Pandesaaaaal!
Pandesaal!
Her voice echoed on the walls. For a second, there was silence. Then, a voice called back.
Pandesal! It was automatic. Emilio pedaled to the house where the voice came from.
A lady in Spongebob pajamas was waiting for them, checking her purple nail polish against
the lamps, her pinkie from the other hand deep inside her nose. Twenty pieces, she
muttered. Gela produced a plastic bag from her pocket, opened the basket, and began
picking pieces of pandesal with the tongs.
Ill do that, Emilio whispered, taking the tongs away from Gela. Hold the bag for me.
A sweet steamy smell from the basket wafted to Emilios direction. He took a deep breath.
Gela handed the bag of pandesal to the lady. The lady flicked something off her thumb,
reached for her pocket, and gave Gela a twenty peso bill.
Thank you, Emilio said, pedaling away.
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Come back tomorrow, okay? the lady yelled at them.


They sold about two hundred pieces of pandesal on that street alone. Gela yelled and
Emilio pedaled, their foreheads glistened with sweat.
Ka Berto promised that we could go back to school on my 10 th birthday, I remember that,
Gela spoke, still hugging the basket, now lighter. He said that I could have my own pencil
case. I want one of those strawberry smelling erasers if I get one.
Emilio smiled. I bet he will. We are doing pretty well with these pandesals.
They went through a couple of streets doing the same drill, Gelas voice got softer and
softer, her throat itched. Emilio parked the tricycle under a streetlamp and wiped his
forehead with his shirt.
How many more do we have left? he said. Gela removed the cloth from the basket and
peered inside. She took out the tongs and started counting.
What is the number after twenty-nine?, she asked.
Thirty.
Yeah, thirty.
Alright, one more street then. You ready?
Gela nodded. Emilio readjusted the seat and climbed back. A few black birds chirped up
the lines that connect the street lamps. A few men in factory uniforms chattered as they
walked at the far end of the street. Emilio pedaled slowly, past them and turned left to the
last street. Pandesaaaal! Gela yelled, a bit of strain on her voice is apparent now. The
street was empty, except for a stray dog scratching its ear. Pandesaal! Gela hollered
again. A voice from one of the houses echoed back. Emilio pedaled to that direction. A
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short man in boxer shorts, came out. He was basically naked from the waist up. The man
gave them a sleepy grin.
How many you got? the man asked, scratching his bloated belly, his voice wispy like
smoke.
Thirty, Gela answered, her eyes glued to the man.
Ill buy them all. Gela took the tongs out and laid it on her lap, she took another piece of
plastic bag and poured the contents of the basket. The man grabbed the plastic bag,
reached for a bun, and started munching on it, his grin still plastered on his face.
That would be thirty pesos, Gela muttered softly, clearly intimidated. The mans grin
disappeared.
Get lost! the man yelled, waving the bag at them, his yellow teeth visible against the
street light.
Gela cowered at her seat. Emilio jumped from the bike seat and walked towards the man.
He stood close to him. They were nearly the same height, Emilio a little bit shorter.
Emilios knuckles were clenched.
She said, that would be thirty pesos, he spoke softly, eyes fixed on the mans beady
eyes.
The man grinned at him. Emilio could smell beer from where he was standing. The smell
was so familiar. So infuriating. The man chuckled and reached for his pocket. Emilio
relaxed. He glanced over to Gela. She had her face buried in the basket, upset.
Then, Emilio felt a blow to his head. Hard. He felt himself stumble into the cold concrete,
his palms scratching the rough surface. Gela screamed. Pieces of pandesal flew to the sky
then bounced on the ground. A few birds flew down from the electrical wires and pecked at
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the buns. The dog whimpered away and disappeared in the bushes. Gela screamed again.
Emilio felt the mans knuckles pounding his face. He cried. So familiar. The man smelled of
vomit. Beer and vomit. The pain was numbing. So familiar. So familiar. Gelas screams for
help echoed at the background, the handle of the basket almost breaking in her hands,
tears pooling at the concrete. No one came. No one.
I told you to get lost, the man whispered to Emilio, grinning, his eyes half-shut and hazy.
Emilio could feel the warm fluid from his nose reaching his ears. All he could see was the
mans balding head, his beady eyes, the smell of vomit, and fists pounding down his face.
He closed his eyes. So familiar. So familiar. He could feel his head pounding against the
concrete. He wanted to hit back. He wanted to hurt him. He wanted to tear that grin off
his face. Instead, he let go. He laid there and waited.
Then, it was over.
The man stumbled back, clutched his side, and seemed to reach for something
unreachable. His face crumpled into tight pain. Emilio felt someone tugging at his shirt,
calling his name.
Lets go, Emilio. Lets go. Gelas broken voice reached his ears. Please, lets go!
The mans boxer was soaked red with blood. In his hips, was a protruding metal, coated
with fine bread crumbs, blemished with blood, glinting a yellow dot on his nose. The tongs.
A few pandesal caught some dark red drops on the concrete. Emilio mustered his strength
and ran to the bike. Gela followed.
I killed him, didnt I? Gela asked.
Through the blood and the half-shut eyes, Emilio shook his head. No.

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The sun rose on the horizon, sending a soft orange blast to Gelas face. Emilio pedaled
home in silence. As they passed by the golden rice fields and reached the dirt road that
led to Ka Bertos home, Emilio laughed.
Emilio? Gela looked at him, her voice trembling.
You are just like mother, Emilio whispered, Brave. Just like her.

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