By Kaelin David
11th grade, Walnut High School, CA

With lines from “Teen Widows: The Growing Legacy of Duterte’s Drug War” by Ana P. Santos, a Pulitzer Center reporting project

Content warning: This poem contains violence and drug use drawn from the news story to which it responds.

i. for jazmine and toto.
the morning sky is still inky with the streaks of yesterday night.
here, the flimsy door of their patchwork home.
toto nudged it ajar a few hours ago, the smell of fishport bangos
wafting off his second-hand jersey.
outside, the air reeks of the pasig,
sewage lacing water into murky fluid.
frolicking children leaping into the river,
wading with carcasses of dead fish.
jeepneys rushing along streets,
puffing gasoline with men in soiled shirts at the helm.
toto tells jazmine that the mangos at the market are not very sweet,
that flies buzz around the meat like dynamos,
that the sky is leaden, the river more somber than it was yesterday.
two men grip tufts of toto’s hair.
his eyes are gleaming with tears, his frame trembling.
he waves farewell.
these are the things that happened the day toto left.
one-month hazel clinging onto her father’s jersey.
the metallic miasma of blood tinges the air, seeps into the fabric.
jazmine is 16.
each gleaming flame on her birthday cake dissipates
into a vein of smoke,
smothered by the roar of gunshots.
the last thing jazmine heard
was toto scream.

ii. for jocelyn and alan.
how you creep furtively into the unforgiving night.
jocelyn’s mother tells her that a man can become desperado in times like these.
jocelyn knew alan was peddling drugs.
the neighborhood knew, too.
it breathes, like a beast in slumber before it strikes.
raindrops hit the corrugated metal roof of their home
where alan took her in when she was pregnant with another man’s child,
where he promised to love them both.
everyone now knows that was a promise of yesterday,
some semblance of the gossamers of hope and naivete.
earlier, alan dozed off in rice paddy fields, his feet sinking into the damp earth,
salakot hemming in his face from the sun rays.
he trudged into their one-bedroom, murmuring about going out for a beer.
jocelyn croons of a life in metro manila, away from this room bathed in melancholy,
where clothes are piled like hills on their bed.
outside, the air is choked with the neighbor’s cigarette smoke,
clouds eddying overhead like smog.
stray dogs whimper and howl
with the guttural spits of exhaust.
later, the neighbors told her alan had been shot.
jocelyn was 14.
still a child, who had reveries of her eighteenth birthday in a gauzy gold dress,
perhaps with glossy slabs of lechon meat resting on billowing heaps of rice.
these are mere illusions and you know that
a new relationship is the only way to survive.
drape yourself in sheer clothing,
lipstick smudged around your mouth like the hollywood stars in the states.
clutch the leaves of pesos in your hand.
another stretch of pallid concrete, another night roaming alone
with men in sandos smudged with grime and soured with old frying oil.
they shuffle out of your room in the morning without a farewell.

iii. for michel and hide.
tiny shanty to get a quick high,
rush surging, the summer carnage of the drug war.
the P10 was still worth something.
wail, “wag po yan, asawa ko yan. buntis sya!,”
let it ring out in the night, let it be the last plea.
at the men whose eyes glint, pooling villainy,
predator and prey.
dry cleaned uniform, pearly white,
stippled with blood.
the plastic sheath of his student ID peeling,
peeled, then swept away by the draft drifting through the shanty.
someone had to die that night.

iv. the final plea
the gates croak in frailty, stray dogs roam along edsa, their tongues lolling, the men on the streets sitting, etherized.

a deceased husband labeled as someone who deserved to die. widows, let your tears and hurt harden into scales, an ocean of tears– somber, waiting, hands outstretched in surrender, receding slowly

Kaelin David is a student at Walnut High School. She loves all mediums of creative writing, especially poetic prose. She serves as the Co-Editor-in-Chief of The Trailblazer Review, an international youth-led literary magazine dedicated to preserving native culture and language. She is currently attending the Iowa Young Writers' Studio. Outside of her literary pursuits, she is the editorial team lead at Our National Conversation, Editor-in-Chief of The Delphinus Science Journal, and the Newsletter Editor-in-Chief for the Institute for Youth in Policy. In the future, she hopes to leverage her passion for writing and publication to shed light on unheard stories around the world.

Read more winning entries from the 2023 Fighting Words Poetry Contest.