Aurelio sat in a corner among the small pile of bundles that contained his family's belongings and watched Tatang speak with a man outside their hut. It was dark, and their voices were pitched too low for him to hear, but the grave expressions on their faces and the sharpness of their movements told him enough. They were to evacuate immediately, within the next two hours before dawn broke. Yamashita's Army had been sighted from the promontory near the town. Seemingly thousands of soldiers in trucks and jeeps were traveling down the main road, and although the main road led away from the town, Tatang and the others weren't taking any chances. The Japanese traveled by night to avoid being sighted by the American planes that hovered overhead now and then, but one can never be sure. In times of war, one can never be sure of anything.
He could hear Nanang's low, monotonous chanting in the dark, the soft clicking of the rosary beads, and the gentle snores of Erlinda, his little sister. He watched his father talk with the other man some more, then buried his head in his arms. He thought about Luisito and Ponciano, how they were doing in Manila. He thought about Padre Mateo alone in his house. He thought about Narcisa and her daydreams about bells and souls. He thought about everything except the fact that they were leaving. That Catalina, his hometown, could be destroyed in the next few hours. That people he loved and known all his life could get hurt or die.
Somebody shouted in the distance. He didn't think anything of it until he noticed that Tatang and the man had stopped talking and were listening intently. He raised his head, and then shouting grew louder, more frantic. The man Tatang had been speaking with broke into a run, followed by Tatang. Nanang stood up, her white face a blur in the dark, and little Erlinda woke up whimpering.
More shouting, followed by screams of pain or fear. Aurelio shot to his feet, his heart pounding in his ears, and ran to the door to take a look. He caught a glimpse of something glowing red in the distance before Nanang jerked him back inside with hands as cold as ice. "Stay down!" she hissed.
Then they heard gunfire. Nanang clutched Erlinda to her chest so tightly the little girl began to cry. Aurelio stood in the middle of the house paralyzed by fear. They were here. The Japanese soldiers were here.
Tatang appeared in the doorway, sweaty and soot-stained. "Give me the bundles. We're leaving," he ordered. Aurelio rushed to obey.
"What is it? What is happening?" Nanang asked.
"A troop of Japanese soldiers crept into the town through the cogon field in the south. Somebody told them that Catalina was harboring guerillas, and they've come here to punish us. They've burned down Tomasino's house at the edge of town and are moving toward the municipal building. Quickly, boy!"
"But the soldiers garrisoned there—"
"They've joined their comrades, of course." Tatang spat in disgust. "We're meeting the Diegos and the Lopezes near the santol tree and going to the mountain by truck. If we hurry, we can make it to the mountain in less than an hour."
Aurelio felt as if his head would explode. The Japs were heading toward the municipal building. The church was only a stone's throw away, and Padre Mateo was alone in his house. Padre Mateo would be there. He said he wouldn't leave. The Japs were coming, and Padre Mateo was all alone. They hurried down the road toward the meeting place, but Aurelio began to lag, glancing often behind him in the direction of the church. Gunfire and screams tore red gashes in the silence, and the ominous blaze in the south slowly grew larger.
"Aurelio!" Tatang barked. Aurelio snapped his head toward him, and only then realized that he had stopped running and was standing in the middle of the road, watching the fire. He began to turn his body toward his father, but his limbs suddenly felt heavy, and his stomach began to churn.
Just then, a thin woman in an ancient-looking camisa and skirt rushed down the road weeping and shouting. Her hair had come loose from her bun and was flying all around her head, and her face was contorted in fear. She was saying something, but her sobs made her incoherent. She saw him standing half turned away in the middle of the road, and her face rippled with relief as she stumbled toward him. With a start he recognized who she was. "Manang Pacing?"
"Aurelio!" the woman gasped. Her hands grasped his shoulders tightly and he tried not to flinch from the pain and from the sight of the tear-stained face. "Aurelio, have you seen Naring? Where is she? I can't find Naring…"
Narcisa? His stomach churned some more, and he swallowed against its roiling. "What happened to Narcisa?"
"She ran away," Manang Pacing managed to get out, then Tatang was there, taking hold of the distraught woman by the shoulders. "Aurelio, come along," his father said.
Aurelio couldn't move. He stared up at his father, confused and afraid, wanting nothing more than to run to the mountains, to hide with his family until the Japs were all gone. He didn't want to die. He wanted to live. "Tatang?" he said in a small, frightened voice, but still didn't move.
"Aurelio, let's go!" Nanang shouted. He glanced toward her, then looked helplessly at his father. Tatang pressed his lips together and stared back. Then, before Aurelio realized what he was doing, he had dropped the bundles he carried and was running down the street—toward the church.
People were running down the street, mouths hanging open in screams of fear and gasps of breath, eyes wild and rolling. Some clutched bundles to their chests, others clutched children. Behind them, Japanese soldiers followed in a leisurely walk, aiming rifles and bayonets at whomever they please. Men and women fell down in exhaustion and were stabbed in the chest or in the neck. Others fell as they ran, with bullets buried in their backs. The soldiers had taken the municipal building and made it their headquarters, and Aurelio, crouching behind a wall, was appalled at the number of soldiers crawling around the building, shouting gibberish and waving the Rising Sun in a victory dance. He darted toward the house on the other side of the street and began moving through the houses, crawling in and out of doors, clambering through windows, stumbling often and shrinking in a corner whenever a soldier passed by.
In the last house on the street, he looked out the window and saw the entire church courtyard illuminated by a magnificent blaze that was once Padre Mateo's house. Taking a chance, he climbed out the window and dashed toward the burning house, all the while expecting to feel the impact of a bullet or the slash of a knife at his back. He reached the Padre's gate and fumbled with the latch, unaware that he was crying and panting and muttering curses he never even thought he knew. The catch released and he ran down the once beautiful garden, pausing momentarily at the sight of the rose bushes slashed and trampled upon. He couldn't get any closer to the house, however. The fire had eaten everything in sight. He sobbed, cursed some more, then made his way toward the side door, screaming Narcisa's name.
He froze as soon as he entered the church. The altar had been overturned, and candlesticks and vases shattered on the floor. The saints and angels smiled brokenly from where they lay in pieces on the floor. The pews were splintered and used to fuel a bonfire in the middle of the church. Five Japanese soldiers surrounded the bonfire, tearing up the Bible that Padre Mateo had brought with him from Europe, and five sets of almond eyes turned toward him.
The soldiers looked surprised to see him. They stared at him for a long time, the torn Bible forgotten in their hands. Aurelio took a step back, glancing around wildly, but saw no sign of Narcisa. "Ano gakki o mite," one of the soldiers said, pointing at him. He said something more, and the others nodded and looked at him speculatively. He recognized the speaker instantly: it was one of the guards posted in front of the municipal building. The soldiers conferred some more, every now and then gesturing toward the direction of the bell tower, then came to an agreement. They dropped the remains of the Bible and marched toward him. He took another step back, then his limbs turned to ice and refused to move any further. His breath came in quick, terrified gasps, and the sight of his fear seemed to amuse the soldiers. They laughed at him, exchanging a stream of nonsense among themselves. Then the municipal guard grabbed him by the shoulders and put his face close to his. "The bells, where are?"
Aurelio gave him a blank look. The guard gave him a bone-rattling shake. "The bells? Where are the bells?"
Bells? "What?" he said.
"Aho," one of the soldiers muttered, then the soldier who had been speaking to him slapped him and shook him again. "The bells!" he shouted. "Where are the bells?" He followed it up with a stream of abuse in Japanese.
His cheek stung and his head was spinning, but Aurelio was still no closer to understanding what these stupid singkits wanted. The bells? They wanted the church bells? "I don't understand," he said. "The bells are in the bell tower. Get them yourselves."
The soldier slapped him again. "The bells not there! Where are the bells? We want the bells."
"I don't know where they are," he shouted.
The soldier slapped him again.
"I don't know where they are!"
"I don't—" Tears leaked from the corners of his eyes and blood leaked from his cut lips. He didn't know where the bells were. He didn't understand what was happening. "I—" he began, then sucked in his breath and screamed: "I DON'T KNOW WHERE THEY ARE!" He shut his eyes and waited for the slap.
None was forthcoming. He opened his eyes and found the soldiers regarding him coldly. They exchanged short, terse words, then one of them raised his rifle and pointed it at Aurelio's head.
"I know where the bells are!" a high-pitched voice shouted, and as one, Aurelio and the soldiers turned toward the speaker.
Narcisa stood on top of a broken pew, holding a stick in one hand. Her hair hung loose around her shoulders, the sleeve of her dress was torn, and her cheek sported a bruise that promised to turn colorful, but she was still very much alive. Aurelio wanted to sink to the ground with relief, but he didn't dare. The business end of the rifle was still pointed at his head.
Gracefully and with great dignity, she stepped off the pew, walked toward the group and stood before the soldiers, between the rifle and Aurelio, with her head held high. The soldiers watched her warily. Aurelio gaped at her in disbelief.
"I know where the bells are," she said again, calmly this time.
She stared at them for a long time, not speaking, but the soldiers did not raise a hand to her. Then she said, very carefully, "The bells are behind the church. I buried them underneath the ground. You must go and fetch them." She pointed with her stick in the direction she indicated.
The soldiers stood still, uncertain for the first time. Then one by one, muttering among themselves, they turned and headed toward the back of the church. They occasionally glanced back, but Narcisa didn't move. She stood straight, with her head held high, until the soldiers disappeared.
Then she turned, pressed herself against Aurelio, and burst into tears. His arms came around her, but his face was still slack with shock at what had just transpired. He looked down at her sobbing form. She looked like Narcisa. She moved like Narcisa. She even cried like Narcisa. Who are you? he thought dazedly. Who are you that you can order enemy soldiers around and they obey you?
"Narcisa," he said instead, "where are the bells?"
She mumbled something into his chest and cried some more. "Naring, where are they?" he tried again.
She lifted her tearstained face to his. "I don't know, Eliong! They weren't in the tower when I got here. What I said to the Japanese, I just made that up!"
Something cold skittered down his spine, making the hairs at the back of his neck stand on end. He pressed her head against his chest so she wouldn't see the fear on his face. Slowly, they made their way out the church through the little door, and stood together in the little garden, watching Padre Mateo's house illuminate the sky.
Then the bells began to ring. Slowly, grandly, the deep melodious tones rang from the bell tower. The church and the rest of the town seemed to tremble with the sound. The bells rang forever. They rang for a birth, a wedding, and a funeral. They rang for the morning, noon, and evening. They rang, and the people of the town of Catalina turned toward them and prayed to Our Lord. Even the Japanese soldiers, loitering in front of the municipal building in the flush of victory, looked up and wondered.
Aurelio and Narcisa stood in Padre Mateo's garden with their arms around each other, and listened to the bells as though they had never heard it before. By the time the ringing ended, dawn had broken.