(This short story appeared in The Paulinian Magazine, official publication of St. Paul University-Iloilo)
Lito climbed on the bus at 8:30pm just as he had every night for the past year. He squirmed his way in the crowd for a spot, careful not to drop his plastic bag, and leaned on the steel bar. His last meal was eight hours ago and he felt a twinge of hunger as the freshly cooked Pancit he bought from a nearby eatery emitted a palatable smell. Depleted with energy, his body ached from a long day of classes and running errands for a law office. And as he settled in quite nicely, the bus roared noisily amidst the road, flanked by a stretch of sugarcane plantation, now brown and bare from harvest, in time for the milling season.
The next municipality where he resides is again another stretch of sugarcane plantation, where his family has served as sakadas for three generations. Three generations, he thought; a century and a score of tilling and harvesting the land that they do not own. Looking around the huddled masses that gently collide at each start, turn and stop of the bus he thought of the other families as well, just like his own, laboring on the land they don’t posses. His thoughts brought him as far as twenty years before, when sakadas young as him fought for a piece of that land. Sure, they have served their landed masters for over a hundred years but their families have been living on that domain long before the hacienderos arrived, the rebels reasoned. He remembered their shrill battle cry at night, when they met in an obscure section of the plantation carefully planning their actions; he recalled the protests as they picketed outside the olden country mansion, only to be driven away violently by hired goons; he thought of how the families mourned and grieved when one of these rebels disappeared, some turned up dead in an irrigation nearby, some never found.
Stepping out of the bus, he felt the stony earth beneath his dusty shoes. The wind chilled the sweat on his skin, and its howls seemed like distant cries of a ground that demanded tears and blood. The twigs of the trees dancing in the eerie song of the air jutted forward like fingers of the lost souls, imploring for salvation.
He quickened his pace, and soon he reached the yard of a dimly lighted shanty, awashed with many voices from inside.
“Mano po, Nay.”
“Kaawaan ka ng Diyos, anak.”
“I bought Pancit for everyone, here, help yourselves” He motioned for guests to partake of the food, as he poured the contents of the plastic into a clean tupperware.
“It’s your father’s second pa-siyam, yet it feels like he’s just out there with his drinking buddies,” his mother began.
Lito looked at her. Asyang’s eyes were sad with wanting. She had been beautiful in her youth, petite and kayumanggi. Lito remembered how her eyes lightened when she laughed, but now grief had sunk her eyes, and the lines on her face seemed more prominent. The rattan chair creaked lightly with every utterance.
“He died waiting for your brother.”
The sala fell quiet. His mother stared blankly across the wall, eyes watering from the memory.
“Your manong fought for what originally belonged to us, and he never came back!” Asyang wailed loudly, overcame by emotions and knowledge of what may have befell on her eldest son.
A desaperacido, Lito thought. He remembered it clearly. He was five then, his manong was among the young men who picketed and protested against the landowners. One night, he left to meet up with his comrades, carrying his bolo and a revolver bulged in his wrinkled polo. Asyang tried to dissuade him, saying that he should think about his family who constantly worries over him. Her words fell on deaf ears, and the newfound principles proved more powerful than a mother’s love. This is for our family, he curtly explained. Then he ran off into the night without looking back… and hasn’t returned since.
Some of the guests tried to calm Asyang; one embraced her, another fanned an abaniko.
“This is the government’s fault!” Old Tasyo exclaimed. Tasyo was unschooled but is an avid listener of radio commentary programs, thus considered knowledgeable by his neighbors.
“How so, ‘lo Tasyo?”
“The president back then promised a land reform. Her husband gave up acres of his land for distribution, but she refused to give up her own family’s estate!” Old Tasyo shook his head in disgust. “Scholars said the reform was vital for the country’s progress. It was supposed to make all of us, hacienderos and sakadas, socially equal, among the other benefits.”
“How about the landowners in our region, ‘lo Tasyo?”
“They are also the very people who were elected as law-makers, unfortunately. One particular politician from three municipalities away, likened the distribution of her land to having her clothes mercilessly torn from her body.”
“She feels robbed when we have nothing but the very clothes on our back!” retorted another elderly lady.
“This failure on land distribution pushed many of our young men to join the ranks of the rebels. That included your manong.”
Lito looked at Old Tasyo. “You remember him ‘lo?”
“Of course, I do. He studied in a university in the city. Very intelligent indeed, although he had to stop schooling because of poverty. He constantly spoke of tilling his own land, so that your tatay and nanay may enjoy their old age. A very passionate young man. But it’s the same youthful passion that led him to an accursed fate!” The howls now seemed louder and the trees outside swayed violently. A branch abruptly hit the pitched bamboo and shut the window close, causing the guests to squeal with fright.
“Sounds like a heavy rain is about to fall.”
“We have to get going.”
“Asyang, Lito, thank you for the supper.”
“Will you be fine, Asyang?”
“Yes, thank you Nita.”
“We shall be back on the last pa-siyam.”
“Yes, please do, I shall prepare Valenciana next time, and of course, Lito will bring Pancit.”
Little by little the hut emptied of welcomed guests, their voices slowly disappearing in the length of the path.
“You’re still young. Learn from your manong, Lito. Remember, passion without wisdom is poison-“ Lito nods in agreement with old Tasyo.
“But wisdom without passion to act- just like all the educated and those in power who do nothing to change this nation’s ill- is worthless.”
Lito took Old Tasyo’s words to heart. He went on to clean the mess, and got ready for the night’s slumber.
As he lay awoke on his bed, he thought of his beloved manong, his kind old father, and the grieving mother he has to take care of. The night passed unruffled, its serenity masking the quiet desperation within. But winds howled like cries of unforgotten errant warriors whose blood tainted the placid grounds of the sugarcane plantation. He stared at the ceiling and in the most unholy hours, his mind wandered and wondered whether all these would change- the government, their poverty- just as he, his brother, his father, and his forefathers before him did in the years past.
I became more desperate as Micah’s condition worsened. She mustn’t die, that’s the mantra I repeated in my mind.
I paced the floor half-mad, unwilling to entertain the possibility that my wonderful friend, an almost seven-year-old mixed breed, can expire any minute. But each passing day that she refuses to eat, hope slips through my fingers like a fine sand.
The problem is you can’t let go. She’s not even yours.
Damn if she’s not! I protested. I love her and I’m not letting her go!
Then a vista came to me. I was sitting in a hut, students passing by, sun outpouring his blinding rays over the clear blue sky. What’s in your world that you can’t let anyone in? My teacher asks.
What’s in my world? I echoed. The question rang in my head.
Dead People. Dead Animals. Dead Aspirations. Things that I refuse to let go.
Like my dead father. He died waiting for me, but I never came around. Like this godfather who took care of me and my mother when family life becomes too complex. Like this man who cared for me during my childhood, I still regret walking away the last time I saw him alive.
We have unfinished businesses, they can’t leave yet.
It’s a fucking catacomb, reeking of fetid rotting flesh. I can continue the tour, if you like, Welcome to my World.
I can’t let anyone in because it’s dark in there, and smells worse than bog. It has been filled with dead things that there’s no space left for the living.