This entry is part 11 of 19 in the series Morning Porch Poems: Summer 2015


(Magellan’s Cross and Basilica del Santo Niño, Cebu)

A part for the whole, the whole for the part:
one reason we collect souvenirs, make gifts,
bring proof of states we’ve passed through

and survived. The reason we wrap and tuck
in tissue, fold away in plastic or in chests
with cedar chips before it’s even clear

why, or what it is we’re saving— That day,
for instance, lining up with other pilgrims
at the shrine, a hot wind blowing through

the cupola from the sea; and the native women
clad in broadcloth skirts of brown and yellow
swayed their hips in the sinulog, and chanted

prayers into which they’d braided our names—
safe travels, good health, love, luck, wealth—
the usual pleas the faithful might bring

before any deity. A couple of fifty
peso bills, and they pressed into our hands
a clutch of candles: blue, green, yellow,

some of which we could light and fix
atop the marble base beneath Magellan’s Cross,
the rest to take with us on our return. A plaque

affixed there told me this tindalo wood
that people stroked with reverent fingers
was not the cross itself the explorer planted

on the beach in 1521, perhaps more grateful
for the end of that wretched sea-voyage
than for the complex details of conquest

to follow— but that he did not actually
live to see unfold. The artifact itself lay
inside the wood, as a violin might nestle

darkly in its case, preventing the overzealous
from chipping off pieces, splintery tickets
to the miraculous. A courtyard away,

inside the Basilica, longer lines snaked through
stone-paved hallways for the chance to look
into the glass case holding the image

of the child Jesus: robed in blood-red velvet
and embellished with gold, Magellan’s gift
to Rajah Humabon’s wife after the pair

were baptized and made to pledge allegiance
to the Spanish crown. Four decades and another
expedition later, Miguel López de Legazpi torched

the villages where he claimed the natives
had grown hostile; a soldier supposedly found
the image intact in a charred wooden box,

though fisherfolk were in the habit
of telling other stories— the kinds in which
holy statues abandoned their altars at night

and traveled through the countryside,
dipping bare feet and hems of garments
in the mud to come to the aid of the poor

and ailing. How could transcendence
newly spring in a stricken world where
mystery has been traded for chance,

politicians’ promises, cheap knockoffs?
Awaiting our turn, it was unnerving
to observe so many devotees

rap almost violently with their hands,
with their knuckles, on the glass
that kept the idol in its separate,

airless space— Some sobbed, some wept quietly;
all of them cried Pit Senyor! Pit Senyor!
before dropping a coin into the box.


In response to an entry from the Morning Porch.

Series Navigation← Whatever it isUncle Frank warned my father →

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