by Felix Fojas
Quiricada is a narrow, dusty street that slithers like a hungry snake and intersects busy Divisoria, otherwise known as the navel of Manila with its thriving market where you would brave squadrons of buzzing flies while the revolting odors of horse dung, urine and uncollected trash assault your nose just to get your heart’s desire at a bargain. Quiricada itself teems with business owing to the presence of many small and medium-size shops that sell a wide variety of goods. Enterprising vendors hawking bargain offers spill out to the sidewalks and add to the sweltering sea of humanity in the street.
There are exactly twelve beggars strategically manning their posts along Quiricada under the supervision of Doce Pares, a notorious underworld syndicate that controls the operations of beggars, muggers, pickpockets, and prostitutes in the Divisoria District. “Pabling Gitarista,” the oldest among the beggars, is a sixty-year-old blind musician who plays a one-string guitar, which has been ingeniously fashioned out of a large rectangular can of cooking oil. In stark contrast, the youngest one is “Nardang Uhog,” a five-year-old waif who never fails to arouse the compassion of passers-by with her runny nose and scabies-studded body. At ten o’clock every night, “Bertong Pingas,” a barrel-chested thug who lost his right ear in a gang war some years ago and is the official collector of Doce Pares, unfailingly gathers all the beggars of Quiricada to make an accounting of their earnings. Sixty percent of what the beggars make goes to Doce Pares in exchange for protection, whereas the beggars themselves keep thirty percent. The remaining ten percent is funneled to the fathomless pockets of corrupt policemen.
“Business this month is very bad,” Bertong Pingas tells the assembled beggars in a serious tone. “I must remind you once and again to be more dedicated to your work, lest you incur the wrath of our patrons.”
“But less and less people are giving us alms,” says one beggar. “It’s probably because of our lousy economy.”
“Not only that. The cops are always harassing us,” another beggar complains.
“Leave the to us. Don’t worry, the Big Boss has already complained to the zone commander who promised to leash his dogs so that they won’t hound you,” Bertong Pingas says with assurance.
“I hope so,” says one of the beggars in a half-mocking tone while raising his fingerless hands.
“Don’t tire my patience!” Bertong Pingas barks. “I expect all of you to double your earnings next month or else…”
The beggars lower their eyes and nod their heads in agreement.
“Are people getting bored seeing the same miserable faces? Perhaps it’s not such a bad idea to dump all of you in the estero.* Remember, this will be my last warning!”
One rainy day a lame beggar in his early thirties by the name of “Pilong Pilay” dramatically appears on Quiricada Street and begins plying his trade there regularly. As an attention-getting device, Pilo always shows up with his legs wrapped in dirty bandages spotted with what appears to be dried blood and pus as if his limbs have been run over bya bulldozer. He would station himself in the mid-part of Quiricada early in the morning and stretch his thin, pitiful-looking frame across his favorite haunt, a busy sidewalk, in such a manner that the passers-by have no choice but to hop over; but not before sparing him some loose change out of sympathy. Thanks to his shrewd business sense, Pilo earns more than the rest of the beggars prowling Quiricada. And since Pilo is not attached to any syndicate, keeps all his earnings for himself. Unfortunately, he spends most of his money on liquor since he lives alone and has no family obligations.
Late one night Pilo joins his barkada*, composed of Badong, Julio, Mario and Pepe in a drinking spree in Badong’s shack located in a depressed area several blocks away from Quiricada. The men huddle around a small oval-shaped bamboo table crowded with bottles of gin and glasses, and a plastic plate of sardines as pulutan*.
“Would you believe that I made a killing today?” Pilo says grinning, after taking a swig at a half-filled glass of marka demonyo* gin.
“How much?” Badong, a pot-bellied fellow, asks with excitement.
“Three hundred jingling pesos!”
“What!” Pepe blurts out in disbelief.
“Count it!” Pilo dares his friend and throws his moneybag on the table.
“What an easy way to earn a living,” Julio remarks. “Imagine, all you need is a bandage splattered with chicken blood and watercolor paint.”
“Not to mention my great talent as an actor,” Pilo boasts.
Pilo’s companions break into peals of laughter.
“Tos to Pilo’s health!” Mario declares.
“Tos!” the others chant in unison.
The men momentarily raise their glasses and drink bottoms up. Afterwards, they start singing an obscene drinking song at the top of their voices, disturbing the midnight air and rousing the neighborhood dogs which bark furiously. As the drunkards go about their rowdy business, a tall, thin stranger with a scar on his left cheek approaches them calmly.
“Come and join us, friend,” Badong says, offering the newcomer a glass of gin. “The drink is on us.”
“Thank you,” the stranger smiles. Still standing, he takes a sip from the glass.
Lowering his glass, the man asks: “Who among you is Pilo?”
“I’m Pilo,” the beggar admits, pointing his right thumb at his chest.
“I have a message for you,” the stranger answers in a low, hoarse voice.
“From whom?” Pilo asks, knitting his brow in surprise.
“Must be from one of your rich benefactors,” Mario says jokingly.
“No, my friend,” the stranger says in a grave tone. “From Doce Pares.”
“Have a seat,” Pilo says nervously.
The stranger sits down on an empty stool beside Pilo and looks at him sternly.
“My message is quite short. Doce Pares is inviting you to work for the society,” the stranger says, scratching his chin with his right hand tattooed with the number twelve. “Just say yes and I’ll tell the boss.”
“But I—I’m doing fine on my own,” Pilo stammers. “It’s your own lookout. Remember Quiricada is part of our territory and you’re an intruder. Your presence there does not sit well with us. Take my advice, friend, and everything will be settled,” the toughie says in the same hoarse, monotonous voice.
“I admire your guts, Pilo,” the hoodlum says, patting the beggar on the back. “I thought all the while that you were really lame. Imagine fooling all those people…”
“I’m just trying to make an honest living,” Pilo says defensively. “At least I don’t go around stealing other people’s money. I am just a humble beggar that survives on the crumbs of compassion.”
“Please don’t get me wrong, friend. I’m not questioning your sense of morality. I’m just a messenger. Tell me now, is it a yes or a no?”
“Give me more time to think it over,” Pilo remonstrates.
“Okay, but time is running out. See me at Café Alfaro on the corner of Martires and Santa Fe this coming Friday night. Be there at eleven sharp. If you don’t show up, I’ll tell the boss that your answer is no. Fair enough?”
Pilo nods nervously. The emissary smiles, stands up, and excuses himself politely from the group. Then he slowly walks away with a swagger without even glancing back.
“What are you going to do now, Pilo?” Badong whispers in a worried tone.
“Nothing. Business as usual. I’ll just go on begging on my own,” Pilo says stoically.
“Are you crazy?” Julio butts in. “Do you know who the stranger is? He’s known as Kardong Balisong*! His a twenty-nine inch balisong has eleven notches on its handle.”
“Who cares?” Pilo growls. “Quiricada is my turf and I’m not going to let anybody muscle in on me.”
“In that case you better order a coffin in advance,” Badong says with resignation.
“Don’t worry, guys, I know how to take care of my own skin,” Pilo replies nonchalantly. Tos!*
Two weeks later, as Pilo is passing through a dimly lit alley on his way home, three shadowy figures suddenly appear out of nowhere. The beggar instinctively clutches his money bag, which is bulging with bills, and coins he has earned for the day.
“Have pity on me,” Pilo pleads. “I’m just a beggar.”
Instead of answering, one of the shadows lights a cigarette, momentarily revealing the scar that slithers across his left cheek like a deadly snake. Pilo’s jaws drop in terror. Flicking his cigarette in the dark, the shadow gives an ominous signal to two other shadows behind him that immediately brandish some iron pipes and pounce on their prey.The sound of crunching bones is punctuated by agonizing screams. Pilo drops to the wet pavement, his kneecaps bleeding profusely. And just before he loses consciousness, a hoarse, mocking voice reverberates in Pilo’s ears:
“Now that you are truly lame, welcome to the Kingdom of Beggars.”
*Balisong – Tagalog word (major Philippine dialect) for a deadly fan knife whose tempered blade ranges from six to twenty- nine inches.
*Barkada – Tagalog slang for the word “gang”.
*Estero – Tagalog word for a polluted canal.
*Marka Demonyo – Literally means “the devil’s brand.” A Tagalog slang for Ginebra San Miguel, a famous brand of local gin.
*Pulutan – Tagalog word for a snack or finger food taken with liquor.
*Tos – Tagalog slang for “Toast”
Editor’s Note on The Kingdom of Beggars
The Kingdom of Beggars is not Felix Fojas’ first piece in Eastlit. The following pieces of work have appeared in earlier Eastlit issues:
- Poems as Relief Goods appeared in Eastlit May 2014.