The lights had not been turned off in this city for a while. They pulsed, swollen like overripe fruits, blinking pink and blue and yellow and green with the beat of the power lines. The shimmering orange-red of traffic flowed on and on beneath them, a river of flame underneath a neon sky.
Eventually, the lights ripened and began to fall. First in drips and drops, viscous and glowing, then in rivulets of electric colour that flowed down walls of bare concrete and pooled in gutters. They illuminated the sewers in patches wherever a pipe caught the light, sputtering a dull, filtered glow into the water below. They clung to the forest of wires and grates overhead, ran down fire escapes, stained grime-coated windows, and painted rainbows on the sidewalks.
The people did not seem to mind. This was an old city, and old cities are accustomed to change. As the lights fell, people opened umbrellas and unwrapped raincoats, and carried on with their lives. Translucent glimmers - pink and green, blue and yellow - lapped at their feet.
The children of the city streets could touch the light, and they played with it. They made shapes and animals and trees, spaceships and knights and dragons, elaborate games to amuse themselves and pass the time away. In return, the light protected them, keeping them safe in the dark alleys and abandoned lots that crisscrossed the city like shadowed ley lines. At night, the backstreets sparked with their creations.
Older children had no time for these childish games. They would grow up, and leave the streets, and never again have any need for the lights and the city's magic. But there were always other children to take their place. And so the lights stayed on.
From the rooftop of an appliance store on Scout Cua Street, I saw a girl clad in rags spread wings of blue and fly.
Blue light is sold in small glass bottles on the train station by young boys and girls. Curious travellers often buy them as rare and valuable trinkets. In fact, the shimmering drops of azure have been collected from an old electric flytrap behind the ticketing counter.
You can purchase light in a different kind of glass down at the Boogaloo Transist, a small, futuristically-lit establishment at the foot of Ascension Drive where no one is older than twenty-four and the bartender always smiles. There, the blue light is run through multiple filters and polarisers before it drips along the walls via special condensation tubes and is dispensed from a metal tap behind the counter, where one can order an electric-indigo Plasma Tube for about the same price as the exquisite tall glasses it comes served in. Unbeknownst to its patrons - but perhaps not the bartender - the Boogaloo Transist's Plasma Tube doesn't taste any different from the electric flytrap's unadulterated buzzing glow.
I'd been in the city for a while when I met Francis Magbantay. He was a pastor of a small congregation located on Mandaluyong Ave., a central vein of the city from which alleyways and crowded rookeries branched out in tributaries. I was prone against the cobblestones trying to get a better angle of a signboard when a small child began tugging at my collar.
"Come quick, mister," she pleaded. I found myself picking up the camera and following, down steps gouged out in concrete, under shadows of humming wires, to a gray run-down building with a boarded-up door. A flag flew from a ground floor window, dripping with fluorescent pink from the fairylights wrapped around it. She vaulted through effortlessly, hoisted by pink tendrils. I followed her with some difficulty as she bounded ahead up a flight of stairs, and found myself in a cramped room on the second floor looking down at a rusted metal cot.
In the cot lay a boy of no more than ten. He appeared to be asleep, and fitfully so, for he tossed and turned as though in a bad dream. Strands of neon green coiled tightly around him. They carved bloodless grooves in his bare flesh.
"He's dreaming, and won't wake up by himself."
"Why can't you wake him up, then?"
"His lights won't let me. They've never seemed to match mine."
I leaned forward and slapped him lightly on the cheek. "Hey, kid. Hey!"
He awoke with a start, clutching the edge of the cot and panting heavily. The girl squeezed her arms tightly around his chest. "Pablo! You're okay!"
Pablo coughed. "I… How bad was it?"
"Oh, it was awful. You've been asleep for twelve hours." She motioned to me. "I got him to wake you up."
Pablo squinted his brown eyes at me. "You're not Mr. Francis."
"Mr. Francis needs to rest," said the girl. "He can't go around helping all of us all of the time, you know." She sat beside Pablo and began toying with a globule of pink in her hair.
I asked who Mr. Francis was.
"He's the pastor, silly," replied Pablo with a smirk.
"You should meet him, tell him what you did! He likes strangers who help other strangers," chimed in the girl.
And that was how I ended up in a wooden shack behind a modestly whitewashed church talking to Francis, a small, old man with light blue eyes that danced like a child's behind a pair of black glasses. He was dressed simply, though not in the clothes of the clergy - a plain black T-shirt and jeans. "It doesn't stain these as easily - the lights, I mean," he explained sheepishly.
I sipped the tea he had offered me. It had come in a plastic bottle. "I see you helped little Selina's rascal brother," he continued. "That was very kind of you. The travellers that pass through here are rarely so good." He had the air of a man who had very little to say, and would thus never run out of time to speak.
"I'm not a rascal, old man." Pablo grinned, squatting in a corner with his arms crossed.
"No, no. Not all the time. Only sometimes, when I'm not looking, eh, Selina?"
Pablo's face flushed red. "Oi! You promised not to tell!" He lunged for her, but she was scrambling out the door of the shack before he could catch her. "Later, Mr. Francis! Later, Mr. Cameraman!" laughed little Selina, running into the night. Her long brown hair streamed out behind her, flinging away the last of the glittering pink droplets.
In the shack, the city poured from an open window. Francis caught some in a glass and offered it to me. "It's not bad for you," he mused. "It's not good for you, either. I've bathed in the stuff ever since I came here in '52, and my joints aren't getting any better with age. Here, have a sip."
I did. It passed through my mouth and down my chin. Francis laughed. "You're older than you look! How's it feel like, to taste God's glory on your tongue?"
"Like dry cotton," I said, licking my lips.
The spilled light lay in a marbled puddle at my feet, rippling beneath my soles. I tried to pass my finger through it, and felt no resistance. Francis carried on. "These lights are a blessing to the children. But there are always problems. Like Pablo just now. The other adults, they don't like to interfere, they can't touch the light like I do. So I do what I can to help the children, and teach them to make the most of what God has given to them. It's a wonder, this city. It truly is."
I told him that strange lights were nothing new to me. After all, the will-o-wisp illuminated the swamps of old and guided children to safety. Biblical angels appeared to us as beings of light. And, of course, God Himself came to Moses as a burning bush.
"You're quite right," said Francis, nodding sagely. "Quite, quite right. Humanity has always had its miraculous lights. Perhaps this city is just another one of them."
Before I left, I offered to take a portrait of him. He kindly obliged. "Next time we meet, I'll give you a print," I said. Francis smiled in thanks, and waved me on my way.
I returned to my hotel shortly afterwards. It was located in a more presentable part of town, where the roads run straight and the lights are fitted with little rails that wick the dripping fluids away, down unseen grates and pipes into places unknown. I wondered, as I drifted off to sleep, if somewhere below the hotel and the buildings and the street there was a massive sump pit for all the collected lights, mixing and fading and blending them into one another until there was nothing left but a pale gray shade faintly pulsing in the darkness.
I slept very soundly that night.
At three in the morning on an unnamed small lane, a young boy palmed a fistful of yellow light from a streetlamp. A pack of dogs continued to advance on him, seemingly unaware of the especially potent shade he had chosen to hold in his tiny hand. Dogs can only see in black and white, after all.
The child thought, and the yellow reacted. In an instant, it was a wall around him, then a sword, then a sunbeam. It made no sound as it lanced into the leader of the pack, a large, black mongrel with teeth too big for its jaw. No trace was left in its wake. The rest of the dogs fled, chased by strands of light that lashed like lightning on their heels.
The streetlight returned to the boy, who gently placed the luminous orb back into the puddle where he found it. As he continued on his way, his shadow danced between wire fences and walls, outlined by shining shades of sodium that splashed beneath his feet.
I ended up at the pastor's church a few days later, surrounded by a dizzying crowd that thronged and pushed past me as they flowed into the narrow little door at the front of the building. With much difficulty, I wormed through the ragtag parade, past sweaty collared shirts in gaudy floral prints, past stained white dresses, and over little ribboned shoes that pattered about between and around my own. I nearly stepped on one of them, and its wearer bumped into me with a confused look. In her eyes I recognised a spark of familiarity, the kind that all small children seem to bear towards people they have only just met. Before I could respond, she ran off, disappearing into the crowd.
I stumbled forward through the church doors into the musty interior. People continued to stream around me. Murmurs burbled as they settled in their seats. As if following a cue, fingers tapped a microphone and a familiar throat cleared over the speakers. The room fell silent, and I quickly sat down at the end of a pew.
A spectrum of colours flooded from a single large window. It appeared to be a patchwork of slowly undulating stained glass. Francis the pastor, still clad in black, ambled up to the rostrum and addressed his flock.
I didn't understand most of what he said. He would speak at length in some local dialect - or peculiar inflection, I wasn't quite sure - and the crowd would murmur in agreement, soft Amens echoing in the dusty hall. At times he would gesture to a member in the crowd, and someone would reply, and everyone would laugh. And in those moments, I realised that I, too, was laughing along with them. He concluded his speech briefly, made a sort of half-bow, and alighted from the rostrum. People crowded around him, mothers, childrens, men; old and young, each no doubt with their own stories, humble requests, or friendly words to say to the small old pastor. But eventually, the stories were told, the blessings were given, the problems acknowledged, and the crowd thinned and left.
Francis found me inspecting the curious coloured window at the back of the hall. "It's all just jars filled with liquid light," laughed Francis. "What else would we have used?" He motioned me towards a curtain at the back, where we retreated through a small portal from the evening sunlit church into the dim shack behind.
We sat down. I passed him the photograph that I had taken of him a few days earlier. "It's good, it's good," he said, peering at it from under his spectacles.
"I see that look in your eyes. You think I don't actually believe all of that, eh?" I nodded sheepishly. "Well, it is quite the cliché, yes. Sometimes you have to play it up for the people, give them something to feel hopeful on, you know? What am I saying, you're a photographer, of course you do."
"But yes, I don't think it's all bunk. What this city has is children, and what children have is love. That is what I have always preached to my people, and I like to think that that is what we follow - we watch out for each other, we look out for our own, and when it comes down to it, each of us has a role to play in this community and we try to do what we need to, the best we can."
I nodded in affirmation and told him that it was indeed a good way to live.
"Maybe you'd rather see for yourself. I'm heading out for one of my rounds soon enough. Care to join me? Perhaps I can show more of the city to that little camera of yours that you keep carrying around."
And so, a short detour later, Francis and I ended up traipsing down the little alley behind the church in the dimming sunlight, each bearing a rather large plastic basket stocked with leftover bread from a nearby bakery. I followed him as he deftly maneuvered his load through narrow gaps between buildings, until the omnipresent ramshackle mass of scaffolding, awnings and hanging laundry became so dense as to block out the remainder of the sunlight. Around us, bright white bulbs poured their light like milk, seeping into the dirt and suffusing it with a dim glow. Francis seemed to be counting the bulbs as he went, and presently stopped before a doorway and rapped on the door four times, tap-taptaptap. A small brown hand opened it just a crack, before graciously pulling it wide to admit the two of us in. Its owner, a young boy who could have been no more than five or six, spoke quick, lilting words to Francis in a vaguely conspiratorial tone. His eyes regarded me with only the kind of contempt and suspicion that a small child's could muster. I smiled back, and he looked away sheepishly.
"Here, bring the basket to the back," Francis called to me, as he set his load down and headed further deeper into the building. I wrestled the basket through a series of musty wooden doors, eventually finding him in what must have been a common room of sorts with a small group of youngsters. I could not see how many there were, on account of the poor lighting; a single yellow bulb cast pale ripples from the center of the room. A number of heads turned towards me as I brought in the bread. "Hand it out to them," whispered Francis, "Don't let anyone take more than two, especially the older ones. And if they forget their manners, kindly remind them, would you?"
I nodded, and began doling out the loaves, which were not yet stale and smelled faintly of raisins. The children were orderly, passing the bread around equally and muttering shy words of thanks. Francis regarded the scene with what appeared to be a minor touch of impatience, checking his watch from time to time; but this countenance dissolved when a girl approached him and whispered something in his ear. He smiled, said something back that I couldn't quite catch, and patted the girl on the shoulder, sending her back to her friends. After everyone had had their share, he briskly stood up and said to the young crowd, "Now, be good, you hear? But if it happens the next time, let them know in no uncertain terms that you have the whole city on your side." We left the room to a small flurry of "Goodbye Mr. Francis!" and "See you tomorrow, Mr. Francis!", and - after we'd loaded the remainder of the loaves into our baskets - headed on our way. As night fell, it seemed that the backstreets had become brighter, with hidden strings of bulbs and tubes lighting up the paths ahead of us in an orange-white river. It felt calming to the eye, and almost welcoming. Beckoning, even. Francis and I went on, and the light lapped at our boots, and as we visited more houses our baskets grew ever lighter until there was enough bread to fill just one. I offered to carry it for him, and he obliged gratefully. "Thank you, thank you kindly. My back isn't what it used to be anymore."
There is a standing wave in Martin de los Santos Lane, down by the boulevard where clocks and books and all manner of knickknacks are sold by old men, as they are wont to be sold by. It is there because the light, on hot days and dry days, evaporates and emanates between the city walls, bouncing off the bricks like rubber bands. The academics say light is both a particle and a wave. So it resonates, diffracts, reflects and refracts, all very dilutely of course, but when the trashcans are angled just right and it is a good time of day, the children play jumprope in Martin de los Santos Lane.
Pink light is especially fun, for it is not found as a single frequency on the visual spectrum, and is instead composed of a mixture of multiple shades of light. The children then play double dutch with the multiple strands, and perhaps try other patterns too if they are feeling particularly adventurous that day.
"Isn't it a bit dangerous? Having all these lights on all the time?" I asked him somewhere between the third and fourth houses. There must have been something in what I said, for Francis cleared his throat with a grin. There was a gleam of a story in his eyes. "It's not like that," he began. "When they set up the first lights here, more than forty years ago, they soon found that they couldn't turn them off. They cut the power and disconnected the wires, and the lights kept staying on. So they tried removing them, but it was too late. People added signboards, strung up coloured bulbs, left their decorations dangling - there were simply too many for them to take down. The wires soon followed, growing almost overnight like a jungle, feeding the lights with their electric blood."
"Then what happened next?"
"The lights started to flow, of course," said Francis. "And now here we are."
It seemed to me that we had arrived at a dead end. The ever-present overhangs of wire, formerly ripe with the flotsam and jetsam of life, were startlingly barren in this part of the slum. What little light that was present here seemed to leak in from another place, another alley. Then as my eyes adjusted, I could see that it wasn't a dead end at all - down the path was a stone archway with concrete steps that led down into some damp underground place. A cellar, perhaps, or a passageway to a disused sewer. I couldn't see more than ten steps down, though the faint wind passing through the threshold suggested to me that it went down for quite a distance.
The pastor was unfazed. He produced a small powerful torchlight from his pocket and splashed its light into his hand, sprinkling it evenly along the steps in a comfortable glow. "It's just one more stop," he explained apologetically, motioning for me to follow him.
"Do we have any more bread?" he asked. I shook my head. "Ah. A pity. I always forget to bring more."
Two flights down and we found ourselves in a brick-walled tunnel. Dusty electrical cables ran along its sides, though no lights were present save Francis'. He walked upright; I had to stoop. Our footsteps echoed into the void.
He ran a hand along the cables. "Some children say," he began, "that between the numerous twists and coils of wire that cradle the city, there lives a large snake. It feeds on stray sparks and the occasional mouse, eating and slithering and growing long and fat and bumpy, just like the pockmarked streets below it. They say that it has eyes like amber, and a hiss like TV static, and that it nurses the city's lights like eggs of its own, winding tight knots around each and every one of them to keep them warm and viscous until they are ready to hatch."
By now, it seemed to me that the passage appeared to once have been a sort of storm drain, long since abandoned by the city as its concrete underbelly sprawled and shifted and buried and changed, as large, old cities' often do. It had begun to slope slightly deeper now, and occasionally I stumbled over some unseen discontinuity beneath my feet that jutted out as if entire sections of the tunnel had been jolted and moved by seismic disturbances long past. No doubt it had been the reason for its eventual demise; while the floor was damp, I had the feeling that no water had flowed between these walls for a very long time.
Francis continued his musings. "The other children disagree. They think that while it is not wrong to claim that a snakelike being of sorts resides in the city's canopy, the lights, as they might seem to an imaginative eye, are not in the process of hatching. In fact, according to them, they have long since hatched."
I asked him if he believed in the stories he'd heard.
"Me? No, no," he replied. "I do not believe in talk of serpents I cannot see. I am a man of God, after all."
Beyond the scattered pools of white light, I thought I could see the tunnel widen ahead.
Then the torch dimmed, and I was aware of a strange, fantastic glow that emanated softly from a room up ahead. It quivered like a drugged kaleidoscope - I saw blues and yellows, pinks and greens, mixed in a strange, oscillating waltz, drumming against the edges of the walls. My heart racing, I followed Francis as he descended precariously down a set of rocky steps towards the glow. A few moments later, we descended entirely and the space opened up before us. It seemed like the passage had collapsed with several others long ago, creating the large cavernous chamber ahead of us through which we were now entering.
And inside the chamber was light.
Every sort of it, pulsing and fusing and shimmering, blending, mixing, a madly spinning chariot of eyes of shining neon, curiously electric and indubitably alive. It was raw. It danced against the walls like the shadows it cast, and bent its rays in twists and turns and gaps and counterturns, dripping as it went. It hurt to look at. It could not help but be looked at. And above all, it was terrific. It was, without doubt or hyperbole, the most beautiful thing I had ever saw in my life. My vision blurred, and as I put a hand to my eyes I realised I was crying.
Gradually, as my eyes adjusted, I became aware of a multitude of pale figures, almost shades, silhouetted by the dancing light, shrouded by the main body of the glow such that it was impossible to see them distinctly. As they moved against the shimmering backdrop of colour I perceived that they were no taller than my shoulders, and their movements were organic, jolting, almost playful. Then they turned and regarded us, tilting their heads in what appeared to me as a quizzical manner. I thought then that we must have been a strange sight to them indeed, beings of flesh and blood in a chamber of light and darkness.
Francis approached them, and shielded his eyes, and in an instant he was enveloped in the light as the figures. They crowded around him as he bent low and stroked one of them on the head. "It's okay," said he to them. "The other one is a friend."
One broke away from its companions and ran up to me. Its form flickered uncertainly, as if unsure of how to approach. I smiled at it and waved. It shrunk back and made something akin to a coy grin. The gesture, though I could not describe it, struck me as something familiar.
Francis seemed to read my mind. "They remind you of the children, do they not?"
I told him that they did. "Is that what they are? Lost children, trapped inside the light?" I asked.
He seemed not to hear me, turning his face towards the glowing rays and continuing in a soft voice as if raptured:
"As you might already have guessed - this is where it all comes from. All of it, every square inch and foot and mile of this golden city. Just as every plain has its watershed - this is the true heart of the city where all things spread from, and all things flow towards. The water used to flow here, along with the waste, and the flotsam, and jetsam. But the pipes shifted and bent with the years, and the waste is now carried away in green metal trucks and borne away five miles south to the junkyards. Still, it has a certain magnetism, some confluence of geography perhaps, and the light gathers here with the city's lone and the lost." Several more forms had gathered around Francis, emanating soft waves of pink and blue. He whispered something in their ears, sending the small group into fits of yellow laughter.
I asked Francis why he had brought me here. "To learn," he said. "The world we live in is a troublesome place. I have spent the better part of my life in this city, and I have seen many bad things. You have not yet, I presume, been acquainted with the cartels, or the crooks, or the merchants of vice. They live in the other parts of the city, the ones not protected by the light - and they stay there, because even the basest of street rats will know what's good for them. At any rate, it is a cruel world outside the borders of the light. And so inside those borders is where the street children stay."
"They learn a lot from the light. It teaches them how to play. It teaches them how to dream. It is everything the streets of this city are not. And I hope that you, by virtue of being here, can learn something from the light too."
"As for your previous question - are they children? Are they the souls of the lost and the found? I have never known, nor have I bothered to know. Who am I to question the miracles of God? Maybe they used to be human. Maybe they didn't. Maybe they are just a trick of the light. Maybe, as the light does its teaching to its children, it is learning from them, too."
Around us, the luminous fractal form that Francis called God bloomed and bloomed. Its apparitions flickered, and joined hands, and danced circles in its wake. I watched Francis, now a mere silhouette of a man, his head tilted back, drunk in the glory of the glow.
The light shone. The figures danced. His shadow gaped.
I don't know when we left the chamber, but eventually, we did. Outside, daylight was beginning its slow ascent. We said nary a word to each other - there was no need for them, after all - as we made our way out of the backalleys, onto the streets and into the rest of the city. And all around us, even as the sun drowned out the last of the night, the lit streetlamps and shopfronts and signboards flowed on and on and on, dripping liquid lucidity into the fresh world of the day.
The station is lit in dirty yellow. The lights buzz and flicker, dripping thick sickly light that reminds one of half-melted wax. The remaining people on the platform stand few and far apart, vainly trying to catch the breeze amidst the humid night air.
There is a commotion on the opposite platform. A dog barks, followed by the patter of two children's feet and a familiar laugh. It is Pablo and little Selina, still dressed in their Sunday best, running across the almost-empty platform after a terrified-looking stray. Pablo has a collar of neon green wrapped around its neck. It digs into its fur like fine fishing wire, causing it to yelp in pain as the boy skillfully tugs at the threads of light in his hand. His sister is near, cheering him on with glee as they drive the dog before them. Their bare feet leave muddy prints on the red brick tiles. They look in the direction of the travelers for a moment, both their heads swiveling in unison as only close siblings' do, and for a second they seem to recognise someone. Then they are off again, as quickly as they came.
Eventually, the train rolls in, hissing on the warm rails in the early morning air. The travelers board, the doors slam shut, and the lights drag on like a single ribbon that bears the station - and the city, and its neon skies - away into the distance.
I would later find a photograph on my person that I did not remember taking - nothing grand, nothing award-winning, and by all standards, a blurry mess. But the flashing bands of neon colour - the tilt of his head - the half-lit darkness around him that seemed, even in the still photograph, to pulsate with light - it struck me, as it would have struck you if you had been there too, with me and him and the shadows in the bright cave in the heart of the city - with a certain beauty, perhaps, or maybe sublimity - though there is also certainly a little taste of fear.