Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto, Baguio, Phillipines

Jhermayne Ubalde

© Copyright 2020 by Jhermayne Ubalde

Statue of Our Lady of Lourdes.

Hail Mary
Full of grace
The Lord is with thee
Blessed art thou amongst women
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb,

The words glowed in the night air, tiny sparks dancing behind my three year-old eyelids. It was light and dark all at once. It was shivering and it was heat. The scent of burning wax; my mother’s worry lines joining hands; a small wooden cross and a small wooden man with arms spread out in welcome.

The seeds flew — fell — and took root in the rich soil of my messy hair.

The sower, worry lines relaxing in the candlelight, opened her eyes and smiled.

Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto

The sign stands tall and proud at the foot of the staircase. Clutched in one hand is a tourist map. In the other: a candle, bought from one of the children who fill the streets with shrieks of laughter.

The Filipino sunlight is honey pouring into the cracks. Sweet suffocation; humidity presses in on all sides, a mask of cotton wool.

One hundred steps lay ahead of me. I begin to climb.

Hail Mary
Full of grace
The Lord is with thee...

Prayer hands, prayer hands, everyone!” cried my teacher. “In a straight line!”

Thirty little steeples bobbed up and down on the way to the school liturgy. Thirty little steeples filed through the double doors and broke momentarily to settle into the back row.

Twenty-nine little steeples turned towards the altar; the clumsy rubble of my own bouncing across the floor as I twisted and turned, peering through a sea of shoulders, catching only glimpses.

The rubble echoed. Instantly, a sharp “sit still!” rapped across my knuckles. It yanked me by the collar back into my seat. Face burning, I sat still and watched the corner of the lectern for the designated sixty minutes.

The hiss reaches my ears before I see it, unfurling against the stone steps and tugging at my shoes.

I greet him with my camera lens — one, two, three! His back forms a perfect V, fur bristling —

I leap back just in time, and continue to climb.

Hail Mary,
Full of grace
The Lord is with thee...

Yeah, Father, I guess I’m mean to my friends sometimes,”: halting, red-faced syllables. I met his eyes, and instead of hatred, I saw kindness. Instead of disgust, I saw forgiveness.

This, for a girl whose galloping tongue had brought poor “brace-faced” Angelina to tears? This, for a girl whose cold shoulder had frozen the buck-toothed Barry “Beaver” Johnson to the locker room floor for thirteen consecutive lunchtimes?
His kindness was disconcerting. I grasped the forgiveness in clammy palms and let it slide onto the carpet. I trembled under his gaze. I looked away.

Now go back to class and say the Hail Mary ten times, hm?”

The honey is crystallising. It falls in shards between the trees, piercing the view of the city; now obscured by a sweaty blanket of leaves.

It’s pretty high up. I raise my camera, realise I will capture only foliage.

It is light and dark at the same time. It is shivering heat. The shards worm their way into my skull, and for a moment, I wonder why I’m here.

Hail Mary,
Full of grace
The Lord is with thee...

The words were sand in my mouth.

They tasted like ash, coated my throat, coughing, spluttering. The remnants of my faith dissipated in my old T-shirt encrusted, abandoned schoolwork-lined garden of Gethsemane.

The doctors called it depression. My parents called it a phase. I called it being really tired of how bad our society is, I’m stressed, the ice caps are melting, I’m a horrible person, I hate that I don’t look like all the other girls and I don’t get it — didn’t I do everything right?

I scrunched them into a little ball. I wielded thorns and brambles and watched the sower’s work be strangled with righteous fury.

My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?

Fifteen steps more.

Fourteen steps more.

Thirteen steps more...

A drop of sweat trickles down my nose — dissolving into the air along with the honking ebb and flow, the chittering streets, the sticky, smoky breath of the city below.

I can’t go on! I can’t. My mind wanders to the ice-cold comfort of my hotel room — with a horrified jolt, I realise I’m too far up to quit now. Behind me lies an exhausting trek down the side of the mountain. Before me lies an equally exhausting (steeper, but shorter) trek up the side of the mountain.

Twelve steps more...

Hail Mary
Full of grace
The Lord is with thee...

The words were murmured by the women around me, floating softly down and settling into the pews. It was day seven of Novena. Gone were the rusty Easter/Christmas-goers glancing nervously around, knees flapping as they wondered when to stand, kneel, sit, kneel. Gone were the nose-upturned couples sliding empty envelopes into the collection trays. The devout survivors (and, in my case, the yawning children of those survivors) now populated the church, prayers clutched to their chests like strange, glowing hearts.

Mass complete, the food was laid out, wrapped in napkins, shared.

A lady handed me a slice of apple pie. As she moved away to the next yawning child, a strange, glowing heart peeked out from underneath the crust. I teased it out with my fork. It tasted like cinnamon and butter and brown sugar. It tasted like love. I clutched it to my chest. In its light, I saw was an open paddock gate; a small wooden man with arms stretched out in welcome; a promise.

Traces, traces.

Jesus’ hand was outstretched by my classmate, helping me up after spilling my textbooks at the classroom door.

Jesus’ voice shouted words of encouragement as my best friends cheered me on at the school sports carnival.

Jesus stood tall and proud at the foot of a stone staircase and sold me a candle, now clutched in one hand — a tourist map in the other.

Three steps more.

Two steps more.

One step more —

Baguio city comes alive far below.



I let my candle kiss the flame of another, watch it drip slowly and form another mountain in the candle-tray’s waxy geography. I raise my head and meet her eyes.



The words emblazoned at her crown read Tota Pulchra Es Maria

Mary is all beautiful

I kneel.

Hail Mary
Full of grace
The Lord is with thee
Blessed art thou amongst women
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb,

Holy Mary
Mother of God
Pray for us sinners now
And at the hour of our death

Somewhere far away, there is music.


In a humble chapel buried in the crook of south-east Asia, I find God.

I am a high-school student living in Australia. I enjoy writing as a hobby and am especially interested in poetry. In the future, I hope to continue my education in university studying for a career in medicine.

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