by Jose Dalisay Jr.
The children were in the schoolhouse garden, pressing squash seeds into mounds they had shaped the day before, when the soldiers came. The tomatoes would have been ripe for picking in a few days; they had watered these, and Rosita, being big-boned and the eldest at fourteen, was drawing more water from the pump near the mango tree. The pump was old and creaky; it was as old as the schoolhouse, and older than the tree. Rosita pushed the iron lever down with all her weight, and the pump spat water out into her pail in uneven bursts. The pail was nearly full when Rosita saw the soldiers coming up the path.
Mr. Pareja was inside the one-room schoolhouse at that moment, preparing questions for a social studies quiz he planned to give the following morning. On the table, in front of him, was a tin box that had once held biscuits. The crayons he had brought back with him from his last trip to the capital now lay at the bottom of the box, most of them stripped of their paper coverings. The box sat on top of a folded map, and the map was reinforced with tape at the folds. Earlier that day Mr. Pareja had made the children copy, with their pencils and the crayons, the map of the country—all its major islands and important cities. He had watched over their shoulders as the children labored with the unfamiliar names and shapes and shaded the islands—lightly, because the crayons were few and had to be shared.
Bienvenido, the brightest boy, had asked him where Kangmating was on the big map. It was nowhere to be found, much to the children’s anxiety, so Mr. Pareja had had to mark its approximate location with his pen. In doing so his eyes had strayed upwards, across straits and seas, to another town with its name printed in the smallest and faintest type, and he felt a fleeting clutch in the chest, and saw in his mind the outlines of a church and belfry and the fall of delicate white lace. “Here,” he had said softly, “Kangmating is here. This map was made by very old people. They forgot to put us in it.” The children had laughed, and he had laughed with them. Then he had gone to the part of the wall where the children had pasted cut-out pictures of Mayon Volcano, Pagsanjan Falls and the Banaue Rice Terraces, and he had pointed out their locations on the map. Bienvenido had remarked that they all seemed to be very far away from Kangmating, and Mr. Pareja, wiping his glasses on the hem of his shirt, had tried to explain that away by saying that Kangmating was a beautiful place in its own right—there were wild orchids and blue-feathered birds to be found in the outlying forests—but no one had smiled.
Now it was past four in the afternoon and the midday heat had dissipated. Mr. Pareja had removed his shoes, as it was his habit to do, and had forgotten to put them back on. His socks were the same ones he had worn the day before, but they were soft and comfortable on his feet, which he perched on top of his shoes. The shoes themselves—brown suede with black rubber soles—had long lost their color and had taken on the dull grey of the earthen floor; one of the laces had frayed so badly that he had had to knot it whole again. Nevertheless they were the only shoes in the building, and he had resolved to wear them every school day for the past two years, failing only once when a scorpion had stung him in the ankle, causing it to swell.
Mr. Pareja looked out the window and saw two children arguing over the distance to leave between the seeds. He thought of stepping out and resolving the issue for them, but he changed his mind just as quickly; they would know, in a few weeks, who was right. It was more likely that they already knew, being farmers’ children, and that one was simply being stubborn. It did not matter; they would learn. The bushes of white rosal caught his eye, and gladdened him; he had planted these himself at the beginning of his tenure, and now the garden had yielded both vegetables for the children and himself to study and to eat, and flowers for the plaster Virgin they had set up in a corner of the schoolroom. The garden was neat and well-tended; a sea of weeds and deep-rooted shrubbery stood on the other side of the fence, and beyond were the foothills and the forests, watered on their own by rivers and cloudbursts; where the children went home among the coconut and bamboo groves, the same vegetables and flowers grew in abandon. But Mr. Pareja had insisted on the garden; the children had giggled the first time that the man had taken them out to scratch plots in the hard earth, but soon everyone went about his business severely, and their first harvest of eggplants—small and pudgy as they were—was roasted and feasted on by all.
At the instant that the soldiers came into view, Mr. Pareja was divided between forming a question about famous landmarks in the distant north and savoring the memory of how sweet and crunchy the biscuits in the box had been.
Then Rosita screamed, and Mr. Pareja ran out to the garden in his socks.
There were six of them, led by a sergeant. The sergeant was a large man in his forties, and when he moved he forced the air about him into corners; his name was Baclagon. The other men on the detail were younger and leaner of build; they wore soggy but new camouflage uniforms and held their rifles close to their bodies; they would look at Baclagon, then sweep the perimeter, then look at the sergeant again. He would tell them where to go and what to do, and they would follow. Now the soldiers were picking the garden clean of its vegetables, green tomatoes and all, as Mr. Pareja and the children watched in silence. Baclagon stood before them and spoke kindly to Rosita.
“It was nothing, it was only a tweak.”
Rosita took a step backward, murmuring something, not knowing that she had begun to hold on to Mr. Pareja’s shirt. Mr. Pareja was looking at the garden; one of the soldiers had found it easier to uproot the plants than to pick the vegetables off them one by one. Slowly he removed his glasses and stared at his feet. Baclagon stared along with him and laughed.
“Sir, did you forget your shoes at home, sir?”
Mr. Pareja shook his head. He felt a tug at his shirt and then he found his voice. “How long will you stay?”
“Tonight. Tomorrow morning, maybe. It’s a routine job, that’s all. There are rebels all around these days, terrorists. I’m sure you know.”
“We’re peaceful people here. We hide nothing.”
Baclagon rubbed his chest and squinted at Bienvenido. “The other day, a soldier was killed, here in Kangmating. Do you have a cigarette?”
“No. I don’t smoke.”
“You want to live longer, sir?” The sergeant chuckled. “Did you hear about our soldier?”
“Yes.” The children had told him about it. The man had been drinking a gallon of tuba, and had started firing his rifle into trees and houses. That evening he had been found along the road, his guts bubbling out of a huge gash in his belly. It had shocked Mr. Pareja—the soldier’s actions and his fate—but there was nothing, he thought, to be done about it, and he made a point later in the day to make no further mention of the incident.
“There is food in the mountains,” Mr. Pareja said. “You cannot possibly uproot everything.”
“It was very unfortunate,” Baclagon said. “His killers have not been caught. Now, we have to do this.” The vegetable patch was a shambles. Bienvenido, who had planted most of the okra, was staring at the soldier whose task it was to destroy those plants. His fingers curled around the ball of mud he had been holding when the soldiers came, and soon Bienvenido, now eleven but fatherless at eight, was crying. The soldier looked back at him, and then away; he could not have been older than seventeen himself; he, too, looked like a farmer’s son, a boy from the north as soldiers usually were. The soldier put his rifle down on the ground to free both hands for his work, but the sergeant quickly strode over to him and struck him hard on the shoulder. “Never drop your weapon unless I say so, estupido! Very soon you’ll have a rebel on your back, with a grin on his face and a knife in your neck!” The soldier scrambled for his rifle, scattering okra. His companions snickered; Baclagon glared at them as well, and they fell quiet. The sergeant returned to Mr. Pareja. “We have to take everything. We have orders, you understand? These rebels, they come and go. But they need food, too, like you have here. But surely this is nothing to you, no? It’s just a—what—a decoration. But to some people, it is everything. So we take everything—with your permission, sir. Ah, everything but the flowers. We are not sissies, you see.” That drew a laugh from the men.
“There is food in the mountains,” Mr. Pareja said. “You cannot possibly uproot everything.”
“Good, then let them stay and feast there, in the mountains. Here, unless fools support them, they starve.” He stepped closer and softened his voice. “You, sir, you seem to be a wise and honest man. Surely you were not born here?”
“No,” Mr. Pareja said. “I come from the north.”
“That’s what I thought!” Baclagon said, slapping his thigh. “What do you know, I’m a northerner myself! Boys, the maestro is one of us!” The sergeant roared with laughter and shook Mr. Pareja roughly. Rosita staggered backward. “Now,” Baclagon said grandly, “we feel less shy to avail ourselves of your hospitality, shouldn’t we, manong, if I may call you that? And we, needless to say, are at your service.”
Mr. Pareja cleared his throat and put his glasses back on. “I’d like to send the children home now. It’s past the hour.”
“Yes, of course!”
Mr. Pareja looked at the children and said “Go.” Uro, a boy of ten, came up to ask if a quiz was going to be given the next day, but Bienvenido tugged him away before Mr. Pareja could answer. “Go,” the teacher said again, and the children turned to go.
“The girl stays,” Baclagon said, “the big one.”
Rosita froze in her step and stared in terror at the sergeant, then at Mr. Pareja. The sergeant’s face was stern and impassive; the teacher’s reflected his pupil’s astonishment.
“She’s just a child,” Mr. Pareja said, “she can do nothing.”
“Our things need washing. If she can draw water she can wash for us. It’s the least she can do to help her people.” The sergeant sniffed his armpit and snorted.
Mr. Pareja’s throat felt scorched as he heard himself saying, “Let me do it. I can do your washing. Please.”
“You’ll do no such thing. What an insult! Did you hear that, boys? A man of learning and position, begging to do our laundry. It’s unthinkable. We refuse your offer, for the sake of your pride!” The laughter again. “Go!” Baclagon growled at the other children, who promptly scurried off into the woods. Bienvenido’s ball fell and crumbled by the wayside.
“It’s all right, sir,” Rosita said. “I know how to wash clothes, I’ve done it before.”
“Bienvenido will tell them.”
The sergeant clapped his hands together. “Good. You, manong, you can go. We will sleep in your schoolhouse, but I assure you, we will leave your precious things alone.”
“No, I am sorry, but I must stay. It is my responsibility.” His socks again. “You will have to drag me out of here.”
Baclagon considered a sharp retort to that, but he looked at Rosita and said, smiling, “Oh, all right, if you must. You can watch us sleep. Perhaps you can even tell me in the morning if I fart in my sleep, as the rumors say. You’ll stay awake, won’t you?” The teacher did not answer. “Girl, clean some of those eggplants and broil us a supper. You can do the washing afterwards. Tumaneng, go with her to the pump, and light her a fire. Don’t forget, always keep your weapon at the ready!” The soldiers hooted at the innuendoes. “Tumaneng, I’ll shoot you if anything happens to my eggplants!”
A cool wind blew across the clearing and brought the fragrance of rosal to Mr. Pareja’s nose. The petals seemed tinted by the afternoon sun; their delicateness made him ache. He watched Rosita walk to the iron pump, followed by the soldier. The other conscripts had paused in their work and were looking at the pair, their brows sweaty and their hands caked with earth. Baclagon gazed at the rapidly setting sun. Mr. Pareja turned, dragged his socks across the garden, sat at his desk, and prayed desperately to the plaster Virgin for the gift of wakefulness.
© Jose Dalisay Jr.