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"You forgot to check the traps," Father was chuckling, shaking his head as he came up to our hut from the meadow. He held between his two fingers a tiny feather-covered skeleton: a quail had been caught and gone unnoticed for days and the ants had picked it to the bone. He was not a big man but he could roam by himself through the woods for days with only a box of matches and a sharpened machete.
I was perched on a log on top of an outcrop, watching sundown. I had just cut a sackload of sakate grass for Pandora, our carabao, so named after my dog who had died that summer. I had left her half-submerged in a mudhole near the stream below, tethered to a sapling. From our little hut the aroma of rice and vegetables being cooked drifted to our nostrils. Mother had gathered eggplants and bitter gourd and green chili from the field and singkamas leaves from the bank of the stream and these she now boiled in a clay pot, seasoned with fish sauce and topped with the catfish caught in our buho trap which she had broiled over the glowing coals. We were in a mountain farm somewhere in the Sierra Madre.
"Supper's ready," Mother finally announced. She was forty and had given birth to five children. I was sixteen, the second to the eldest.
"You better bring the carabao over," Father said.
I returned to the stream in the gathering dusk, but saw no carabao. The sapling to which I had tied its leash had been uprooted. I saw hoofprints beside the creek, going downstream. I should have tied it more securely. Feeling myself guilty as Iscariot, I called Father and told him about it. He came down immediately, and we hurried along to catch the runaway.
Most carabaos - or water buffalo - are tame as dogs, never running away even if left untethered, but a few, like ours, had the nasty habit called ag-garot: left untied it would run for miles like a fugitive. Farmers hated such animals, and I too began hating it as I stumbled repeatedly in the dark, sloshing in the cold knee-deep water.
This was 1970: Father had just retired from the army. He was a master sergeant. Most retirees were content to reminisce about the war, but not my father. With his savings he had bought the rights to this homestead. Our folks thought he had been shell-shocked and wanted no part of civilization, but I knew there was something else on his mind. He grew up in a farm near a forest that teemed with deer and wild boar and python whose bodies grew thicker than coconut trunks; maybe he wanted to relive his younger days.
Mother had tried to dissuade him from retiring: a family with five children could not live decently on a soldier's pension. But he was resolved to leave the barracks for good. For years he had grown bitter serving the army, tired of being ordered around by lieutenants fresh from the military academy, those upstarts who swaggered around like heroes while he, who had seen his comrades shattered by mortar and cannon during the war, he who walked the hundred miles from Bataan to Tarlac - the Death March - that claimed almost as many lives at those that fell in the battlefield - barely survived on a peon's wages drilling recruits to the ground. Before I was born he went to Korea as part of the Philippine contingent sent there to fight the reds. In Mindanao he stood his ground against the fierce Muslim warriors who wielded the kris, the ancient fire sword that could hack cleanly through rifle and man. After a quarrel in the barracks with a drunken corporal whom he almost shot he packed his bags. His aging comrades waved him through; they never expected to see him again.
The homestead lay in a hidden valley up the mountains, so far only a few kaingineros - slash and burn farmers -lived near there, much farther than the tiny village of Mal-lungoy where I used to go on summer vacations, staying in my uncle Ulep's hut. My parents thought I was frail and that life on a farm would make me strong like my cousin Simo who was asthmatic as a child until the mountain air cured his lungs. I remembered mornings when I took the carabaos to pasture with Simo, clinging for dear life to their slippery backs. He always warned me to carry a stick and watch out for the brownish yellow kara-saeng lurking in the tall grass, venomous and deadly. He told me to watch my footing in the swamps lest I step on the dreaded gayung-gayung - quicksand - that could swallow a man and his carabao if he was not careful. On moonlit nights I played hike and seek with other children among the haystacks and the wooden carts.
When I asked my uncle Ulep where the homestead was located, he replied "Just over there" which was a way of speaking among country folks. If you asked them how far it was to the next village they'd say it was "only a little way up there" and you'd better not go unless you're prepared to go on a day-long hike. When I was a kid, my playmates in Mal-lungoy told me that an ocean (the Pacific) lay just across the mountains. Excited, I said I wanted to see it for myself, and proceeded in my little expedition. The other boys followed gamely behind. Perhaps they wanted to see the ocean too and believed I could take them there; I must have looked so determined. "Let's go home," I said after a couple of hours walking. The boys said nothing; they seemed relieved.
The days went so slowly in Mal-lungoy. When my cousin Anton celebrated his birthday, there was much excitement over a dance party in his honour. The yard was swept of debris and splashed with water to keep down the dust. That evening, a single kerosene lamp hung on a bamboo post illuminated the dance floor. My aunt Binang and my cousin Luzviminda who was fourteen prepared rice cakes and boiled banaba leaves flavoured with molasses to make tea. The girls of the village sat on benches and inverted mortars, barefoot and sunburnt like the men, their long hair glistening with fragrant coconut oil. I watched them dance with the men to the dull rhythm of a guitar that went dyal-dyal teng, dyal-dyal teng, dyal-dyal teng until I fell asleep; the dancing went on till dawn.
I was aghast when my father told me I would have to help him work on the homestead. I was newly graduated from high school. I was itching to join my eldest brother in college and find my destiny. But we were poor, and my parents assured me I would go college like the eldest who was taking up Liberal Arts at Wesleyan. She made it sound like a long vacation.
Everyone in the family had been to the mountain as if on a picnic, except myself. Resigned to my fate, that summer while Father was away on some business I went up the mountain with my younger brother Thelmo to help clear the land. We carried scythes with long handles and our food on a rattan basket strapped to our backs. We hiked the first ten miles over trails, skirting the village of Mal-lungoy, and the next ten miles to our homestead. We had to cross a river, which was dangerous during monsoon rains, and trudged over trails and rice paddies. To take a short cut we had to climb over a mountain ridge: we were breathless when we reached the summit. We were trudging over a trail of sun-baked earth when Thelmo called out "Kara-saeng!" and took to his heels; I followed, laughing at him for his cowardice, not believing a snake could ever outrun us. Later in the mountains I would see how the kara-saeng could move like a blur through the grass, and I knew then why some people dreaded it so much.
We were drenched with sweat when we reached the homestead. I saw rolling ground covered with lush cogon. Only six acres and a half, this homestead was, consisting of rolling terrain. Heavy rains have created dry gulches, but the soil, though soft and rich was sticky as clay, and the thick mat of cogon roots kept it from being washed away. Where a mound of soil had been deposited by rain from the overhanging bank, one could stick a piece of stem cutting from a cassava plant; in a few months, it would grow tubers as thick as a man's thighs. Here the sabawil, a wild vine that bore bean-like fruits, grew in profusion. Its fruits could be cooked with vegetables when fresh; the dried seeds could be ground and brewed like coffee.
My brother and I mowed the cogon all day and went home to Rizal, our town, by sundown. We did not want to spend the night at Mal-lungoy, not wanting to be a burden to anybody. We were more tired from the walking than the mowing. I knew then why the feet of farmers were cracked at the heels. This continued for several days until vacation was over and Thelmo had to stay in town to attend school. All through the remainder of that summer I trekked to the mountain alone, going there at dawn and returning at nightfall, not wishing to be seen by my former classmates who might be returning home for vacation, having enrolled in colleges and universities, pursuing their dreams while I languished in the wild.
When my father returned with the carabao - he had bought it for three hundred pesos - he decided it was time to build a hut so we would not have to hike everyday, and Mother could come to help in the cooking and house chores more often. There was plenty of cogon for the roof, and the nearby woods abound with diverse species of bamboo. For posts Father scoured the forest for the molave, a tree so dense water would not penetrate it even when soaked. My father once hauled a molave trunk that had drifted downstream and fed it straight to the fire; it burned steadily for hours. We gathered rattan vines and cut them into long strips; with these he lashed the beams and rafters to the posts. He spread the cogon evenly over strips of thin bamboo, their roots still intact, until sufficient mats were made for the roofing. With a pole I slung the mats to my father, and he lashed the thick mats of cogon to the rafters, layer upon layer. The sides of the hut were covered with sawali - strips of beaten bamboo woven together, still green; in time they would turn to dull yellow. There was no flooring but the compacted earth. We made a bed and a table out of bamboo which also served as my bed at night. Our utensils consisted of tin plates and spoons, coconut shells for drinking cups, wooden ladles, and fresh banana leaves to cover the table. We sat on a makeshift bench made of small log whose feet were driven to the earthen floor.
Piled high next to our hut was an enormous stack of firewood taken from long dead trees. Everything that we used came from the farm: we drank from coconut shells and ate rice from banana leaves. Our clay pots and the stove itself were made from the strong red clay of the jungle. When going to town or to the woods, Father carried a backpack made of woven rattan. Among his treasured possessions were a stainless steel coffee mug and canteen marked U.S. army. He also kept hidden a .45 pistol and a bayonet, relics of the last war. At times when I strayed far from the farm, he warned me not to shout or I might attract the tulisanes - armed outlaws.
Here in the mountain, native rice is usually sown in mountain slopes, and now Father began tilling the soil in earnest, using an ancient plow to break the soil. He was clumsy at first, not having touched a plow in years, and as the plow went this way and that he cursed the animal, and the fresh mountain air reverberated with his curses.
Mountain soil is rich with centuries of accumulated loam but sticky as gum; chunks of it clung to the passing plow. Underneath the soil were thick mats of cogon roots and hidden boulders that sometimes snapped the plowblade.
The sticky ground finally yielded to the plow and harrow, ready for sowing. Father had obtained a sack of rice seed, the aromatic balatinao, rich and glutinous when cooked, and he soaked it in the stream. A day or two later Mother placed the seeds in baskets and cast them into the broken earth; Father passed the harrow over the soil, covering them.
That night, a soft rain began to fall, lulling us to sleep as we kept thinking of those seeds buried in the sodden earth.
We obtained our drinking water from the stream: with our hands we dug at the sandy bank and waited for the water to gush from the hidden spring. The water that flowed was cold and fresh and clean and tasted of wild roots. I spent my days fishing in the stream, which wound its way up the surrounding hills, ending up in a twenty-foot waterfall. I learned to make fish traps out of bamboo which I placed on flooded rice paddies. To catch quails, I was taught to make tiny fences of twigs in places where the tiny birds pecked for food so they would try to look for a way out. I left a small opening where I put in place a tiny noose. I improvised further, sprinkling a bit of rice on the ground leading to the trap. But you had to be alert for flapping noises or the bird would be strangled to death and rot.
The balatinao appeared - tiny pale green shoots peeking from the moist earth -a few days after sowing, bright and gay, as if calling on us: "Here we are, look at us, we're coming!" We kept staring at them that morning like kids who have just planted their first garden crop. My parents had new spring in their steps, clearing more land and planting them to fruit trees and vegetables. Father tried his hand at carving terraces out of a hillside, although he could not make them perfectly level so that water gathered at their lowest parts; he even dug tiny canals so the rainwater from the top would flow to the new paddies. Mother planted rice seedlings on the soft muddy ground and stocked the flooded portions with edible snails.
I never felt the need for company: I had always been a loner. I had fun building a small dam to make a pond for fish and shrimp. I found I enjoyed taking Pandora to pasture and gathering sakate for her evening meal. I enjoyed building my quail traps, finding more ingenious ways to lure the birds. I was always thrilled to see labuyo nesting in a thicket, or a jungle hornbill perched on a tree limb, or a thin red snake slithering along the bank of a creek. At nightfall when I went to the stream to fetch water, I listened to the chorus of insects from the nearby woods, sonorous and endless, and I imagined the time when no man had ever yet set foot in this place and defiled it.
In the mountains the sounds are so muted, the silence so oppressive at times your ears seem to rebel at the absence of sound. There was a languid stillness at noon on a cloudless day during summer, punctuated by the occasional cawing of a crow, or the vigorous whir of a quail's wings startled into sudden flight.
In the farms the poor never starved: it was considered the worst sin for a farmer to allow his family to skip meals, for food is all around him to gather, from the ubiquitous malunggay to the lowly saluyot which grew in abundance in the meadows. Along with other greens and sour fruits these are boiled with fish sauce; with a plate of rice these were enough to silence a rumbling stomach and enable a peon to keep on working. Here, nobody who is willing to work dies of hunger. Even the old women, stooped and barely able to see, spin cotton thread into cloth and repair mats woven from palm leaves.
In the cities, people might go hungry, but in the country almost everything could be brought to the dining table - snails, crabs, fish, and shrimp from the stream, edible beetles, called abal-abal, which swarmed during the month of May as they emerged from the sandy soil along river banks; cooked with salt and tomatoes it is eaten by squeezing its fat belly into one's mouth. Once a week Father went to the forest to snare labuyo - wild chicken - and I caught fish from the stream and quail from the meadow. But without rice, the native variety, which is white and fluffy and aromatic when cooked, a man would not be able to work. A man's social status was determined by the size of his granary. Thus, a town's tradition and culture revolved around rice, which we called in reverence "Apo Innapoy." Rice was the staff of life, the thing for which we have come to work with our hands in this forgotten wilderness.
Our first harvest came in the month of November as the nights became longer and the cold easterly wind began to blow. The morning sun revealed the balatinao in all its glory, wearing its precious crown, the clusters of seeds dangling heavily from each stalk, shimmering in undulating waves, cascades upon cascades of golden grain, ready for the reaping. With scythes we began amputating the stalks, leaving the sheaves exposed to the sun. We reaped till dusk while the earth and the sundered stalks smelled sweetly, and the chilly breeze refreshed us. The next morning we allowed the sheaves to dry some more, then gathered them in the afternoon. By nightfall we had a mandala - a pile of sheaves seven-feet high, our trophy after six months of toil.
We did the threshing by moonlight, pounding the sheaves against a wooden frame over a mat spread on the ground to catch the falling grain. Father had planted a small portion of the farm to glutinous rice, the variety used to make rice cakes and pinipig: fragrant and sweetish rice treat made by roasting fresh unhusked grain and pounding them over mortar and pestle. Mother picked a handful of the grain and made pinipig for us. We ate the rice and drank coffee brewed with ground roasted peanuts and newly harvested sugar cane molasses. Father loaded our harvest on a borrowed cart the following day, making two trips to town.
That summer following our first harvest I stayed in our farm most of the time, seldom visiting town. I spent most days hunting for quail in the meadows and fishing at the waterfall. This land had become my Shangri-La. Here I could sit for hours and not feel bored, gazing at the green stillness, inhaling the earth's breath, drinking in the sunshine.
On afternoons I would sit over an outcrop contemplating the land, and I began thinking how, if I were Father, it could be improved. First, I would have to build better rice terraces so that rains would not erode the land. I could bring down water from the waterfall using bamboo pipes to irrigate my paddies. I could catch rainwater by damming the gulches, and raise fish in the ponds formed by the rains. I could plant a grove of coconuts and mangoes and coffee where it was not possible to build rice paddies. I could bring some animals over here, like pigs and poultry. I could build a herd of cows as the grass here was plentiful. The only question was the absence of roads to take our produce to town, but I was sure there had to be a solution.
In time I realized I could stay here all my life like the few people I had seen who dwelt in far-away huts. To wake up each day to the call of birds, to watch the daybreak over the Sierra Madre, to admire the work of your own hands - won't those be enough for a person to be happy all his life?
We had been running for sometime when Father stopped and hurried back to our hut to get a flashlight. The hoofprints we were following had vanished. I was left alone sobbing in exhaustion, hating the runaway that had ruined our evening. During the next two hours upon his return we went around the distant farms, wary of the fierce dogs that rushed upon us. The folks were courteous; they saw no animal. They probably did not tell us they were worried the runaway would go over their farms and trample the sprouting grain. We returned to our hut in silence. Mother had been worried so much, knowing I was hungry and probably had been scolded repeatedly. That night I dreamed of myself pursuing the beast until I overtook it, and I was so happy to take it back I promised not to beat it anymore for running away. Dawn came and again Father and I visited farmers around, inquiring, but none had seen our buffalo. Worse, rain had fallen the previous night, erasing most tracks. We hunted in all directions until nightfall. Father was worried the animal's leash, which was tied to a rope to allow it to graze, might get snagged in some rock; left under the sun, the animal would die of thirst.
To cover more ground (although in reality I wanted to avoid Father) I volunteered to go on a separate hunt. Until that time I had been afraid to walk through the dense cogon, dreading the kara-saeng, or slosh through the muddy ground, wary of quicksand, but now I flung myself into the search as if our life depended on it, feeling envious at the farmers I passed by who seemed leisurely plowing their bit of land while ours lay unattended. I recalled how my cousin Ofreng came to our house in town one night when I was ten, looking for a lost carabao. I did not give it much thought at that time, but now I suddenly recall he had come all the way from his hometown in the province of Pangasinan, a hundred miles away.
Cautiously I entered the jungle, faintly hoping to find the animal in its gloomy depths. I followed a mountain stream where silvery fish with long bristles frolicked on the surface. In the forest depths you could sense an unheard bidding to be silent, as when you enter a cavernous cathedral. I looked up furtively at the overhanging branches for pythons that might be lying in wait. I followed the stream, but when it forked and branched I turned back at once, afraid I would get lost. I began to dread this wilderness which had suddenly became hostile, strange, watching, deadly.
That night, Mother and Father spoke softly so I would not hear, but in the mountain the tiniest whispers had a way of being heard. Father suspected somebody had stolen the carabao, which seemed unlikely, but perhaps he only wanted to lay the blame on somebody else. He cleaned the .45 that evening and loaded it, hiding it under the canvas bag that was their pillow. Perhaps he was tired of blaming me for my carelessness. What would you expect of a boy unused to the harsh life of the mountain farm? As I drifted off to sleep, I heard Father saying he was through: he wanted to return to town. "Just like that?" Mother was saying, with sarcasm. She had been silent since the animal ran away, but now all the bitterness came out.
A quiet, strong woman, she served as nurse to sick and wounded guerrillas who fought the Japanese during the war, applying ground sulfathiazole tablets on wounds to fight infection and bandages made from clean strips of cotton shirts. Looking back now, I can understand why Mother wanted so much to succeed in our little farm. In town we had no house of our own, our family staying with my grandfather in his old house, and she wanted to do something for a change, not to be dependent on his measly pension. When times were hard, she was not ashamed to go planting rice with the peasants, her legs buried in mud to the knees all day, stooped and bent, just to earn a few pesos to buy us rice.
When I arrived at the hut that evening empty-handed, Mother had gone to consult some seer in town. Father spoke very little, which made me nervous. I woke up very early in the morning, drank a little coffee and went off in search of Pandora.
As I hiked through the outlying farms, seeing the abandoned huts, the barren fields, the monotonous vista of rolling cogon-covered land, I saw my plans to develop my Shangri-La fade away. In my mind I saw the people of Mal-lungoy, unlettered peasants who had migrated from the scorched plains of the North, frugal and industrious, scrupulously picking up every grain of rice spilled on the ground, every bit falling from their plate as they sat hunched on their squat tables. I saw them clearing the land of trees, carving terraces out of the mountainsides. But rice plants needed a lot of water, and without rains the paddies dried up, the crops often withered and died. The people hoped for rain, prayed for rain. The land was a god that demanded constant servitude, and a young man in the peak of health, able to carry three sackloads of rice on his shoulders for a mile could be a mere bag of bones by the time he was fifty. My cousin Pidot died when he was seven, bitten by a kara-saeng as he took a carabao to pasture. In the years to come, his brothers Anton and Simo would join the army in search of a new life, to run away from the harsh god that was Mal-lungoy.
But for the old-timers who had forsaken the lowlands, Mal-lungoy was a sanctuary from the landowners who in the lowlands always demanded the greater share of harvest - the rich and pampered fools who never even pulled a weed out of the rice fields, who did nothing but strut around town in their embroidered ternos, covering their noses at the smell of the labourers returning from the fields - the wretched of the earth who plowed and harrowed the fields from dawn till dusk - turned grey over the years as did their forefathers before them. Here in the mountains no landlord could grab the land they had hewed painstakingly from the virgin forest, and if anyone would be foolhardy to dare try, every farm hand always carried a bolo, and the mountains could be a stronghold to the oppressed.
I wanted no more to be part of this forgotten land. I resolved to tell Father about my plan to enrol the next summer, to work for my tuition if necessary.
I searched through the afternoon till dusk. Spent and hungry, I arrived at the hut where Father was cooking supper. He had a most pleasant look on his face. Then I saw Pandora tied to a tree, munching sakate grass.
The buffalo had been caught in a village some ten kilometres from our hut, and Father had to pay for the damage it caused to some farms. I went to town early the following morning to tell Mother the good news. She had just attended mass, and I kissed her hand in respect. The seer had told her the carabao had gone west, taken by cattle rustlers most probably, and west pointed to the town of San Jose; thither she was about to go that day to plead with the mayor for his intercession with the bandits. As I told her about Pandora's return, she just sat there, a thin veil on her shoulders, saying nothing, but her eyes were misty. She patted my head, smiling.
I went to college that December after our crop was harvested. Father almost got killed when a band of tulisanes barged into our hut one night while I was away, but he managed to escape, firing at them with his .45 as he ran. Armed with old rifles, the bandits did not pursue but Father knew they would be back and he returned with Pandora to town the following day.
Two years later, Marcos declared martial law, and the mountains around Mal-lungoy as in many other parts of the country became the refuge of youthful rebels who believed in the worthiness of their cause. Here they roamed at will visiting huts and befriending the farmers. They enforced vigilante justice in villages, meting death to even petty criminals until nobody would dare touch even a sheaf of rice or a hoe left lying in the field. In time government troops went after them, and the terrified homesteaders left their farms for Mal-lungoy where a detachment of soldiers was permanently assigned.
My Shangri-La had become no man's land.
Not long ago I found the courage to go there. I found our hut still intact, though the roof was in tatters, but an angry gecko was now its tenant. The cogon had grown tall and lush. The stream was dry. It was noon on a summer day when I arrived: there was a languid stillness punctuated by the occasional cawing of a crow, the vigorous whir of a quail's wings startled into sudden flight.
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