Prism

Chapter One: Cracked

The recurring dream had always been the same for Nickie. She would find herself trapped in a glass cylinder. There was no light and no sound. Her arms would shoot out almost immediately, fingertips desperately grazing the glass for the gap that would grant her liberty. It was always the same. The thick glass was slowly succumbing to the immense, undersea pressure. How deep she was in this oceanic hell didn’t matter. The glass would always begin to crack after a few minutes, and she knew what would happen next. Her air pocket would diminish and eventually disappear. She would cut her arm trying to escape. The saltwater’s sting would revive her dwindling senses momentarily. Not that her sight mattered in a place of absolute darkness. Seawater and blood became one. Her fingers would slide across the smooth surface of her prison, looking for the gap that was large enough for her. She finds it, eventually. There was just enough space for her to squeeze through. She would stick her head out briefly, as if expecting a measure of relief outside the vessel. The saltwater would grip her throat first, before seizing her ample chest in a vice. Her eyes would fly open in sheer terror as she began to ascend. She felt the pressure of the ocean bearing down on her lungs. She was free, free at last of the underwater coffin. And then, there was nothing.


February 12, 1971 | University of the Philippines-Diliman

“Justice for Pastor Mesina, Jr!”

The first martyr of the Diliman Commune was gunned down by Inocentes Campos, a mathematics professor. He drove to the university armed with a shotgun. He donned a bulletproof vest before exiting his vehicle and opened fire on the students at the barricade.

“He was out for blood, Annette,” Domingo explained to his girlfriend between mouthfuls of nilaga and rice. “He really wanted to tear into the student body. The gall of that bastard. He was nothing but a spineless worm of the regime. A sniveling puppy!”

Annette Kalaw couldn’t believe her ears. Her father had prevented her from attending class exactly twelve days ago, the same day when Inocentes Campos lost his mind and fired live rounds at the students of the Diliman Commune. He stopped his car several meters away from the nexus of the intersection and began shooting. Her secret boyfriend of four months, Domingo Acosta, had been assisting his friends in lifting huge poles and thick brambles to fortify the barricade in front of Quezon Hall that day. In the distance, Domingo saw a growing file of armed police, one meter apart. Their khaki uniforms made them look like pieces of shit. And shit they were, Domingo thought, as one of his kasamas threw the police a dirty finger. “Fascists, all of them, how dare they,” he recalled his friend Antonio saying. The unimaginable things that would follow would be seared in his heart and mind. He would carry them as he continued the fight for social justice in the streets, and later on, in the mountainsides as a freedom fighter of the peasant movement.

Annette looked morosely at her plate of food. She moved around the fish and rice so it would appear that she was eating. Domingo was preoccupied, thoughts still on Sonny, his fallen comrade. Domingo had taught Annette the value of eating simpler food, and she had grown used to eating what canteens at the university offered. She was happy that she could at least eat with folks like Domingo and Antonio easily, wherever they may choose to eat their meals. She imagined how painful it must have been for Pastor (or Sonny, as they called him) to be strafed by a madman. She had never spoken to the man before, but she knew that the mild-looking chemistry major had his heart in the right place. Pastor was no different from Domingo, who hailed from Zambales, and had Agta blood surging in his veins. Domingo had a different sense of justice, and wisdom that transcended Manileño sensibilities. He knew that the cause of the student council and jeepney drivers was just, which made the barricade even more necessary. Marcos was on the move.

“And then what happened next?” Annette asked, still in shock. Earlier, she was wandering around campus aimlessly, looking at the graffiti of the activists. Nearly every building was marked by the urgent messages borne by the Marcos dictatorship. MARCOS, HITLER, DIKTADOR, TUTA was written in huge bold letters at Vinzon’s Hall. One wall at Palma Hall was emblazoned with MABUHAY ANG BARIKADA and DESTROY LIBERALISM. Everywhere she turned, she saw messages of solidarity and struggle against a society that was rotting from the inside out. She feared for people like Domingo, who put bayan first before anything—even her.

“We set his car on fire, Annette. They cuffed him and took him away. However, we are demanding that they prosecute Inocentes Campos and then dismiss him from UP.”

Domingo put down his fork and spoon, his face slightly pale. He saw a suspicious-looking guy with dark shades and a military cut enter the canteen.

Domingo put down his fork and spoon, his face slightly pale. He saw a suspicious-looking guy with dark shades and a military cut enter the canteen.

“Let’s go, Annette.”

Annette looked at Domingo and told him quietly that she didn’t want to go to class that day. Domingo’s brows did a funny dance out of confusion. Annette wasn’t the kind of student to cut class. And then it dawned him why. His eyes searched Annette for a sign that he wasn’t imagining things. Annette nodded shyly. It was all he needed to know.


Present Day

Nickie was having a bad day. The heat was making her migraine worse. Whenever she would teach at the third floor of Palma Hall, she would get buzzards in her head, and she would barely be able to stand up. Her doctor advised her to take it easy, and to postpone any more engagement for the month.

“You’re overworked, Nicole. You need a good stretch of rest.”

Nickie gave her doctor a bemused expression.

“Doc, what is rest?”

“So what’s stopping you?” Ramon replied, his eyes steady on the smoke Nickie was puffing, agitated.

Her doctor was not amused. Nickie received several prescriptions that day, for her cholesterol, blood pressure, and something to relieve the vertigo. She took her meds religiously, but the migraines kept coming. She felt anxious about getting the CT scan that her doctor wanted. Nickie didn’t want to entertain the idea that there was something wrong with her head. She laughed at the words. “Head” can be read in so many ways.

Before going to class that day, she popped two paracetamols and prayed to her gods that they would work even 50% this time. She saw Ramon, a fellow lecturer, drinking coffee from a styro cup near one of the many entrances of Palma Hall. “Hello Doc Ramon, I am exhausted.” Nickie lit a pink DJ Mix cigarette. Ramon was seated on one of the innumerable stone benches that lined many pathways in UP. The smoke had a muted strawberry scent that only distracted Nickie for a moment. She shifted from plain Winston Lights to DJ Mix and other flavored cigarettes a few years ago, and now the old cigarettes tasted like crap. Ramon smiled and patted her arm. “I heard you got into the Philippine Studies conference, congrats!” Doc Ramon was a natural nurturer and he was as sharp as you can get them. Nickie blushed and threw her hands up in mock despair. “Oh, the gods of the academe smiled upon me this time, Doc. But people are still hungry, many are still homeless. I feel so out of touch doing academic work. I feel like I should be out there more.”

“So what’s stopping you?” Ramon replied, his eyes steady on the smoke Nickie was puffing, agitated.

“I love my job, Doc. You know that. I love these kids. It’s just… My dad, he never compromised with power. He sacrificed everything and fought them hard, too. He put all his theory into practice.”

“I can’t deny that, Nickie. However, you are being too hard on yourself, I think,” Ramon intoned, taking a sip of his coffee. Ramon almost never slept properly, not with his research and teaching duties.

“Maybe I’m just tired nga, Doc.”

“That seems to be the case. Don’t overthink. You need to keep your wits about this.”


Marius Carlos, Jr. is a storyteller, essayist, and journalist. He is the current editor-in-chief of Revolt Magazine. He is also the English editor of Rebo Press Book Publishing. He is an independent researcher focused on transnational capitalism, neocolonialism, empire, and pop culture.

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