Malate Church stood guard over the square, a mother coldly surveying her frolicking children. We were full from the surprisingly not inexpensive dinner at a dodgy-looking Chinese place nearby and N, playing balikbayan tourist to his patrie, decided to stop at the fountain to take in the scenery. I had not been in Manila at night for a while, and I was seeing everything with newish eyes.
The music blaring from the speakers, the glowing toys displayed by ambulant vendors and finally the water spewing from the neon-lit fountain, all combined to make a heady mix of the surreal. There were adults and little children sleeping on cardboards on the sidewalk. They looked emaciated and greasy, but content to be in the embrace of merciful Mother Church and within begging distance of her more fortunate devotees. Earlier I had bought cherry-flavored candy from a youngish looking woman and her brood of five or six, there were so many. The kids, still hyped on childhood, reeked enthusiasm. The youngish woman’s eyes though looked beaten, glazed perhaps from hunger and humidity. I wondered how long it took to have the shine in her children’s eyes dull to such a state as hers.
N and K sat on the lips of the fountain, their frames haloed in shimmering reds and oranges. I had my back turned when I heard the peals of laughter. A little boy was splayed on the ground, while three others squealed in delight at the misfortune of their fallen comrade. They couldn’t have been older than eight or ten. All clutched at roses. Roses for sale! Roses for sale! The little boy got up and the young ones playfully shoved and teased each other. Soon they were cajoling N to buy blooms for K.
The kids’ artless laughter was catching. Before it would turn to something akin to horror, for a few precious seconds I marveled at their uninhibited shrieks of delight. Isn’t it often our conceit to imagine only joylessness in such a setting? Then the only girl of the group grabbed the smallest’s head and playfully shoved it in N’s crotch. My dream-like sheen broke and reality came rushing. The tallest screamed accusingly ‘Wheh, malibog, wheh malibog, wheh malibog.’
How a little girl could have known to do such a thing and for the tallest to know that it was cause for derision, are things I will probably not see with my own eyes. Child prostitution, so cold a term, doesn’t quite translate the loss of innocence. For a moment I thanked my lucky stars I could afford to keep mine even as these little children could not keep theirs. I looked across the square at the sleeping hulk of Malate Church, her shadows sheltering the most unfortunate of her brood. What unspeakable horrors has she witnessed even as she stands there, mute?