Journey to San Tercer
O, naraniag a bulan
| If only Laura were beside me, he thought, the darkness in his spirit would be dispelled, for she was Goddess
of the Northern Moon...
SLIVERS OF LIGHT glinted on the puddles that cratered the mud trail. A late monsoon had brought on rains and scuds of black clouds even on nights of a full moon. The chill winds of November blew across the plains, whipping thin rags of clothing against their occupants' bodies. They whistled through distant bamboo, canopies of trees and blades of cogon grass, pushed pots and pans clink-clinking against one another as they dangled from the sides of the carts, slapped against the overdrawn muscles of the beasts on the road for more than a week now, and hurt the eyes of Moises Luna who peered into the distance as though there were signposts to be found in the thick and cold and unknowable dark pointing the way forward and nowhere. If only Laura were beside me, he thought, the darkness in his spirit would be dispelled, for she was Goddess of the Northern Moon, the Samtoy flower who ruled his secret world, but Laura was in the oxcart bringing up the rear, presumably sound asleep as she lay huddled in her warm blanket while her husband goaded his bullock to go faster to keep pace with the rest of the group.
Moises glanced up, disturbed by how the moon looked so alien, unfamiliar, not the moon of his childhood when it shone down at midnight, turning his river into a ribbon of silver and the jumping fish a sudden star shooting up from water into the sky, and it certainly was not the kind of moon that bathed the town of Amargoso one night in December many years past, when he came into a Luna household already teeming with children, his arrival greeted with predictions about his future reign as liberator of the Lunas from poverty, and in whispers which could have been defended later when found out as no more than idle talk of the serf, about freeing the country from the foreign yoke.
'Tatang,' a raspish voice came out of the frayed blanket behind him, 'do we still have far to go?'
'Don't be impatient,' Moises said to the eldest, his lad Diego, who promptly slunk back into the shadows formed by huddled bodies and assorted belongings.
'You told the others the journey would not take a week,' his wife Salvacion spoke up after a silence of many hours. She had scarcely spoken during the whole journey that always seemed to stretch into another day more. 'We are all tired now, and some of them are getting a little worried.'
'And I suppose they would rather turn back now, just when the place looms closer than tomorrow's daybreak!'
Moises cracked the whip, jolting the beast into a sudden half-trot.
'Did you hear that? We're getting nearer!' Diego spoke again, this time to his brothers and sisters, but Moises was not sure if he was speaking out of joy or simply to lend support to the leader whose judgment has been, for many days now, the subject of murmurs of discontent among relatives and fellow villagers who had cast their lot with him, selling tiny plots of land, giving up their houses to those who had decided to stay, paying exorbitant amounts for the right to migrate to another province for reasons of livelihood. He wondered what the future held for Diego and his other children, but for Diego especially, whom he had brashly named after the Ilocano hero who led his people against the Spaniards a hundred and thirty years or so earlier, and who would now grow up knowing that his father had chosen to escape to a faraway province with his handful of villagers, where one could dream of never having to face the troops, both white and brown, of a distant King or ever having to kneel before the devils in their hoods and habits.
The Revolution had flared up the year before, spreading from Manila and setting off coordinated as well as random uprisings in places near and far, up to the northern reaches of the colony, and in those distant outposts nothing must have pleased the local authorities more than seeing people move about and to faraway places, instead of congregating in populated areas where conspiracies could be hatched, as the bitter lesson of the capital had taught them. Let those fools be wasted on the mountain trails and across the trackless plains, let the bandits disembowel and the carrion birds feast on their bodies, at least they're no longer potential insurrectos who can threaten authority here, the drunken parish priest of Amargoso had snarled. Moises had caused quite a controversy weeks earlier, with his calls for an exodus of poor people to a fertile land he had discovered in his early years of wandering. Many were eager to go, but some were plainly skeptical and thought that their assessment of him as a madman was getting to be more validated by the day. A few were bitterly disappointed that Moises could think of escaping to an unknown fate, bringing others with him, when people ought to be getting together, conspiring for armed struggle, secretly putting their peasant blades to the whetstone, sharpening bamboo spears, taking the sacred oath.
| Because life is one long process of escape,
from tyranny, from
the repression of laws and the repression
of one's loins, from unfulfilled yearnings that
the canon says
Moises wanted freedom by beginning life anew, and now he was master of a convoy, sitting on the smooth, dark-grained ancient slab of hardwood slung at the front of his cart, guiding the ox as it lumbered towards midnight.
CICADA SONG and river music, they're the only constants in life, Moises was saying to himself. The stars shift in the firmament, the moon undergoes phases, man is born and he dies, sons and daughters who make all of life worth its unremitting pain are born and sooner or later they die, revolutions come and go, lust rises and falls, love begins and ends, but cicada song and river music remain unchanged and never end, one cicada taking up where others leave off, and the sound of running water is an endless prayer, a prayer that solves nothing but salves all hurt. One could even drown in it, of course, but Moises would never be like those people who would jump headlong when forced to the edge. Because there are paths of escape. Because life is one long process of escape, from tyranny, from the repression of laws and the repression of one's loins, from unfulfilled yearnings that the canon says are sinful but which the God inside him says are more sinful if unexpressed and forever imprisoned. Like a thread of lightning the name of Laura burned across his mind again, leaving another scar.
Salvacion was hesitant about leaving Amargoso, and her reason was the most logical in the world: it was the only place she had ever known, and she had gotten used to her personal and the community's fealty to the local priest, to the rituals of obeisance, to local authority, to the cycle of daily life from break of day to dusk, and she could not imagine cutting herself loose from the certainty of things, the familiar creatures around the house, the ancient bamboo and wood of which their house was built and which seemed destined to last a hundred years or more. That house, more than anything else, was what could keep her moored to that one place, that village where she was born, as were her parents and their parents before them.
'But I'd much prefer staying here, things cannot always be this bad,' she had remonstrated, which then brought on a sermon to rival the parish priest's.
'I have lost track of my first ancestor who first worked this piece of land for a pittance,' Moises had begun, 'and I am looking into a bottomless future where my great grandchildren will also be working the same piece of land for the same slave's share that the landlord's descendants will be throwing at them, and I cannot understand why you who have suffered as much as I have and whose relatives and ancestors have suffered as much as mine have, can have enough strength of spirit to want to stay on and on and on! This, this is beyond a simple man's capacity to understand, Salvacion, and I am thinking that we ought to be discussing now if the children should come with me or stay behind with you, because my body and soul cry out against this injustice! And how many times have I tried to convince you that I actually saw a land that is rich and wild, rich and wild beyond what you can imagine, which nobody owns, as far as I know, and where you and I and our children, and our relatives and their children, can start a life so different you would cry out why our ancestors never thought of moving out of this accursed town the day the foreigners set foot on it! This is my decision, woman, and you are likewise free to decide! You will choose between breaking your back in servitude of the masters of the church and the fields, and living out your last years like an old useless beast grown comfortable in its slow decay, or breaking your back so that you can stand up to a new life, to a new future, in a land no different from what the ancient god of the Christians promised His Chosen People, except that, Salvacion, this is no myth, this is no miracle, this is no divine promise, for I saw the land with my own eyes, and you have no reason to doubt me, no reason at all! Oh, even in my sleep my feet have taken me time and again to that Canaan of red earth and fruit-laden trees
Salvacion had fallen silent then for a minute, for longer than a minute. There had been many wordless intervals between them in their years of togetherness, but it was the natural silence brought about by the absence of anything new or exciting or romantic to talk about, to explore with thoughts and deeds, to be renewed by, to restore the tremor in their bodies and souls, or to replenish whatever springs of passion had made their union possible in the first place.
Shaken and battered by the heaving and tossing oxcart whose wheels alternately, over a period of days, dipped into water-filled ruts and rolled over pebbles, rocks and mounds of hardened earth and then rain-softened trails again, Moises shivered as a sudden gust of wind lashed at him from the west, from the direction of the open fields. A slight chill ran down his spine. He remembered the conviction with which he had decried Salvacion's skepticism over what she used to refer to as his promised land, uttered with a mixture of pity and derision.
THE CLOUDS that had the moon in their grip retracted, alerting Moises to the sudden brightness all about him. From the third cart behind them, Old Lucas came alive and in his rich throaty baritone sang the first lines of the Samtoy moon song. It was rare for Old Lucas to be breaking out in song ever since they left Amargoso, and this time he did, because it was one way of fighting off the fatigue that was setting in on everyone, because most everyone was asleep or seemed to be, wrapped in frayed blankets with faded checks or cuddled in the arms of mothers or fathers or siblings or partners, and perhaps needed some rousing if they were to prepare for alighting on the new world, because the singer had to fight off sleep so that his ox could get to have the regular prodding it needed to keep on pulling its burden, but most of all because the moon was truly resplendent, not merely round but full, like a ball, like a magnetic ball, such a moon being known to have strange but delightful effects on poets and bards like Old Lucas.
| In the world of the poor where they came from, it was nearly impossible to play decent music
on their old and battered instruments, but in the world of the rich...pianos and harps ...produced music composed for
His voice was carried by the wind across the plains, and disappeared among the trees, subsided into the wild grass, to be lost forever unless those who heard him, his own people as well as strangers, would take to heart the bard's and storyteller's words, to be passed on to progeny as a natural element of all that they inherit, memory and misery or happier remembrances, in the same way that one would plant a tree or crop whose seeds reproduce life down the generations.
Cicada song, river music and the old bard's singing swirled on in Moises' mind, and he found himself humming along even if only briefly. He glanced up again up at the moon which appeared to an earthman to have completely outpaced the lugubrious dark clouds, and which tonight shone only for them, a procession of some twenty oxcarts and half a dozen sleds, with their complement of old men and old women, mothers and fathers, a newly married coupleyou shall be Adam and Eve, and you will need to procreate in a hurry, Moises had told them during their mad, festive departure from Amargosomore than two dozen children, blankets and kapok pillows, woven mats, dried meat and smoked fish, demijohns of sugarcane wine, jars of salt and blocks of brown caramel, baskets bursting with grains and seeds, containers of tobacco and bocayo, earthenware and iron utensils, bolos, knives, spears, wooden plows, gleaming ploughshares, and a couple of guitars which would have been heirloom pieces had they not been missing strings and their cracks papered and rice-pasted over. In the world of the poor where they came from, it was nearly impossible to play decent music on their old and battered instruments, but in the world of the rich which adjoined theirs, pianos and harps brought in from Europe by a few blest colonials and courtiers produced music composed for the angels.
'The moon is good to us tonight, finally,' Moises was speaking to Salvacion and to anyone within earshot, 'but I wish it could give us as much warmth as light
His heart lifted. Hours having passed, a strip of violet appeared on the horizon where the dark clouds had collected since the night before. Dawn over the mountains was a newborn straining to be pulled out of the darkness, making slow progress, and suddenly Moises was not feeling very cold now. The familiar foothills loomed right beneath where the glimmer of light was starting to show.
'Soon, very soon!' he said in a rising voice, barely suppressing a whoop of elation. The children stirred from under the blankets. Salvacion who had had only a few hours of troubled sleep groggily sat up from her cramped position along the low wall of the cart, wondering what it was that could change the mood of her mad and sullen husband. All the cart drivers perked up, sensing something was afoot.
'What is it, Moises?' she asked.
'Look, it's nearly morning,' cried Diego, suddenly springing to life, as though the whole week long he had not felt disheartened by the fact he had not had the chance of bounding down their rickety house at daybreak to wash his face at the stone well, feed the chickens, then set off for the woods and fields to lay traps for the quails.
'Are we close?' shouted Old Lucas from the third cart. Moises stood up from his seat, looked back and spoke with a voice that tried to sound subdued yet encouraging.
'Now you can sing yourself to exhaustion, Lakay Lucas, but in celebration, not in despair!' Moises replied.
As the convoy rumbled into a widened swath of dust road that snaked up a ridge running parallel to the river, the path revealed more ruts that bespoke its recent use by other travelers. Moises' heart was pounding, and for the first time, he felt something strange, a foreboding that lasted but a split-second. This was his first time in almost fifteen years to pass this way again. He had imagined he would be leading his troupe of willing pioneers into an almost wholly uncharted, unoccupied territory. Would the place they were heading for have been settled by other northern folk, he asked himself, his apprehension growing. The handful of isolated hut-dwellers whom they passed on the heavily wooded ridge, all swidden farmers, looked on passively at the procession of heavily laden creaking carts.
'Is this the place?' Salvacion did not sound confident. ' I thought you said this was completely deserted, nobody's land.'
'It's much further ahead. But that was fifteen years ago, Salvacion, many things could have happened. And besides, every landless peasant in this God-forsaken country deserves a tiny piece of land from nature, or from anybody who owns too much land.'
'I just want to know if this place in your mind would be completely empty after all this time
Moises fell silent again. The carts trundled on for a few more kilometers, until the dust trail ended, and went on for another hour or so on land that was again trackless.
'Is this the place?' the question was repeatedly asked, by his children, by the other folk and their children. As the crimson on the distant range took up a wider band of sky, the lead cart entered open space, a small valley blanketed with field grass amidst which stood scattered trees, and on both sides a few hectares apart, it was rimmed with thick forests of arching bamboo fronting a darker forest of trees spread out in all directions, the fringes of the valley rising to a higher ground of low-crested hills. They made for the edge of the valley nearest to them where they could gather the carts and sleds. Moises eased himself down his cart, wordlessly helped his wife and children down, and motioned to everyone else to follow him to the edge of the field.
| The mother and her three children, now dispossessed
of everything, were taken by the priest under his care, which was just the beginning
of another hell for them.
The pioneers from Amargoso broke ranks and spilled out to where the cogon grass began, from where it stretched for almost a kilometer until it ended where foliage and forest resumed. The men started to gather around Moises, who had scooped up soil with his cupped hands.
'Look at this earth!' Moises cried out, moving among the men who showed relief upon their faces. 'Just look at this red earth, this red brown earth. This shall be ours, until the last days of our lives, and of those who shall come after us until the end of time
DAY BROKE, the somber land lightening up with the romp of small feet and hum of excited voices.
'We have more sky here than one ever saw in Amargoso,' exclaimed one of the new arrivals. The nearest mountains, of deepest purple, were kilometers away, dividing earth and heaven with huge banks of clouds towering above them.
'It looks like we can count on the rains to come anytime now,' Old Lucas spoke, his forehead creased more than usual, as he ambled towards Moises.
'Are you certain nobody owns this land? There is more arable land here than I thought it possible to exist.'
'I am certain, Lakay Lucas. When I first came across this land many years ago, I saw the same handful of swidden tribesmen, the same number of huts we passed along the way last night. No one else after me seems to have chanced upon this place. We are far away from the big haciendas, I believe. My friend Julian, the Cavite dockyard worker who told me about this place, mentioned a Spaniard, his name was Gossens or something, who claimed ownership over this land, including the thinly populated area, but people never saw him, and those people whom we passed, I don't think they have ever been tenants or sharecroppers. But look, Lakay Lucas, scan the horizon as far as your good eyes can reach. Does that land seem as if somebody has put a claim on it? It is the wildest stretch of land in the whole archipelago, according to Julian, who spent his childhood hunting and living alone in this wilderness, a Dumagat who cast himself off from his tribe, and not once did he hear of any one individual claiming this land as his birthright, or his discovery.'
Old Lucas sighed.
'I would like to believe that, Moises. I remember a story back home. I was still a young child then. There was this family who lived on a piece of land at the foothills of the Amargoso range, and they were fortunate in the sense that that piece of land must have been the most fertile spot in the whole of the Ilocos. It was as if rice, beans, fruits were sprouting like magic, despite the absence of rains and the lack of irrigation. Someone said it was possible that underground springs coming from the mountains of the Igorots kept the lower layers of the earth permanently moist, feeding and nurturing the roots of the food crops. One day, the fame of that fertile land reached the ears of a wealthy family who had connections with both the ecclesiastical authorities and the military commander of the province. They coveted the land. When the father resisted, he was taken away and never seen again. The mother and her three children, now dispossessed of everything, were taken by the priest under his care, which was just the beginning of another hell for them. If you have not heard this story yet, it is why we once had this pitiful madwoman living in our village, until by an act of God's mercy, at least according to the friar's version, she drowned in the river.'
Moises kept his eyes downcast as he listened to the old man's account. He had heard the story before, when he was old enough to discern the terror in softly spoken exchanges among the adults of his village at the time of the madwoman's death.
'Should that happen here, Lakay Lucas, we can do nothing but move, move again, this land is so vast they cannot possibly kick us from place to place without giving us a respite of a few years each time, until we find our own kingdom. We are a God-forsaken people, and it is up to us to create our own destiny. Yes, Lakay Lucas, God not the true Christian God but that of the friarshas always been on the side of the rich, the powerful, the alien, the ungodly.
Perhaps someday all this will change, with or without the revolution, but for now, Lakay Lucas, let us all break up this warm and fertile and waiting soil, and let us start putting up our love nests!'
His last words were spoken loud enough to be heard by the menfolk nearby, and all were jolted out of their private musings to run back to the oxcarts, pull down awnings, unfasten knots, take down tools, and usher their families to shady places provided by the lush canopy of trees and looming bamboo. They placed their oxcarts within an area the size of a hectare, marking out the place where they intended to put their dwellings up. All through the first day, with the sun beating down on their heads and on their backs, men, women and older children swept through the tall cogon at the fringe of the brooding bamboo thickets, their bolos and scythes swishing in large arcs, giving off thwacking sounds when they hit hidden stumps and the wood of undergrowth, and many hours later they were slicing through the ramparts of bamboo and the boles of the nearest trees the size of thighs, for today they needed thatch, poles and trunks with which to erect rudimentary shelters in a series of clearings they were hewing out of the tangled foliage of trees, wild plants and liana vines, before another cold night could catch up with them. Smoke from several fires heating up several earthen pots of steamed rice and vegetables boiled with dried fish curled up in gray plumes into the midday sky, and after a hurried lunch and an hour's quarter spent resting in the shadows for their sweat to be blown dry by the plains winds, they resumed their labors on their first day on the land.
Sometimes Moises would pause from his work and gaze across the field to look for his children, and then he would see Salvacion with the other women busy at something or other, among them her sister Laura who scarcely took a glance at him, or perhaps she did, he hoped she did, more times than what would be deemed normal except that she did not want him to notice, and he would find himself transfixed in a distant universe again, where Laura toiled by his side, fed his dreams, opened up to him at all times and in all places, sang to him softly as he lay spent, and bore him many children.
| We do not have
the power or
the privilege to ride
a horse from sunrise
to sundown and claim the land traveled as some royal bequeath, for we are not conquering thieves...
BY MOONRISE, no livable hut had been put up, but most of the posts were in place, with transverse bamboo poles ready for the sidings and the thatch roofs to be attached to them. All the families had gathered around a campfire to stave off the cold breathing down from the distant highlands. A young man cradled one of the two guitars, and he began to sing, others joining in after the first bars. A darkly gleaming jar of basi materialized, its protective cover of banana leaves held in place by a taut vine removed with a reverence reserved for the blessing of altar wine. The bamboo mug burnished by years of communal use was filled and refilled and passed around more times than one cared to count.
'How ever did you find this place, Moises?' asked Turo, a contemporary, pausing from his innumerable turns at the cup. 'The loam looks fertile. I saw some wild yams by the creek, and they have the biggest leaves I've ever seen. Nothing like that grows back home. Imagine what crops we can grow here once we get really started. Pagay, maize, coffee, tobacco, fruit trees, vegetables, why, there's enough land here to have our own canefields, and we can live like native hacenderos with an endless supply of basi for the rest of our days!'
'Give Turo an extra turn at the cup, he's warming up,' a man shouted his approval. 'We need a lot of good cheer now, considering what we're up against.'
'But he's right, is he not?' said another. ' All our lives we have slaved on tiny plots which yielded so little, or on the landlord's fields, where we got even less. God willing, we shall not only have enough for ourselves, our children and grandchildren the whole year round, but even a surplus for whatever market we'll find nearby. As far as I'm concerned, Turo can have the next three turns at the cup!'
Indeed he got himself drunk that night, Turo the widower who had brought with him four children with skinny limbs burned almost chocolate brown by years of premature toil under the broiling Iloko sun since the time they were old enough to raise a hoe to work the crumbly soil of Amargoso, a lonely man who has spent the last ten years reliving each day the memories of ten years of living with that plumpish, hardworking, sagacious, earthy woman Dominga who could turn the furrows as well as any man in the old barrio, who loved to tell picaresque stories and jokes about intercourse with as endless an enthusiasm as when she engaged in it with him, gifted him with four children, and died of cholera at the age of twenty-five. Turo was so drunk he slid down the rotting log which had been converted into a bench and he was snoring in no time at all, his face snuggled into the frayed Bangar blanket draped around his body. He was the only one not captive to Moises' tale.
'The Tagalogs of the province call this part of the land, if memory serves, Pulanglupa, which is self-evident. You will not find earth much redder than this. As far as I know, no one can question our occupation of it. It is so distant from the nearest poblacion! In the first place, I cannot believe it possible for a government of a few men, foreigners at that, to claim ownership of this land, this country, which can take the fastest horse many months, even years, to travel end to end! But there you are, they have not occupied it fully, they have merely laid a claim to it by some divine right of their king, with the blessings of a God they have forced us to call our own. But even the Gospel says that the earth shall belong to the poor, its fruits must be shared by all, and we just want a tiny part of it. We shall occupy only that which we are able to till with our hands. We do not have the power or the privilege to ride a horse from sunrise to sundown and claim the land traveled as some royal bequeath, for we are not conquering thieves, we do not take the land from anybody. We are fulfilling the will of a kinder God, our true Apo Diós Namarsua who created earth for us who obey the simple duties of human life, live to work, work to live, beget other lives, live off the earth and return to it in peace, in gratitude, when each of us reaches the appointed time.'
A younger man, flushed with the basi which made his eyes bloodshot and watery, was not impressed.
'I mean no disrespect, Manong Moises, but I hope to God you are right, because I did not come here all the way from the north, bringing everything except my small plot and the shit I've deposited in it over the years just to be driven out later at the point of the guardia civil's bayonet and to realize that there is finally no place in this world where I can live and shit in peace!'
The man's betel-reddened spittle found its mark on the ground.
'We're all tired now,' an elderly man interjected before the drunken speaker could resume. 'What my son-in-law simply wants is to be reassured that no one has a prior claim to this land, whether foreigner or native, and that what we plant here will not be uprooted or confiscated, or the huts we build torn down or torched.'
'We joined up with Moises for two reasons,' continued the younger man. 'Our life back in Amargoso was hard, even the field rats seemed to have more to eat that we did, and we did not want to be caught up in the war that must now be raging in many parts of the country, and for that I am not sure if I did the right thing joining this flight! So I ask, what happens if the friars and the soldiers and the hacenderos of this province suddenly turn up, claiming this, this Pulanglupa, this land which we shall be working ourselves to the bone, do we then run away? And where to? Or do we protest less feebly this time?'
Moises tried to shake off the dull drumming pain in his temples. His eyes had grown heavy, and the heat from the kindling fire was just warm enough to make him want to close his eyes and sleep. It was the pain in his chest that kept him awake. He exhaled, long and hard.
'It is really not for me to say what each one must do, my friend. Each one yields to his heart's dictate. I only know that even the most patient man has his limits. But these fears, they remind me of giant shadows in a nipa hut lit by a tiny gas lamp or candle on the floor, frightening children. We are human beings who can endure any hardship, and even fight if need be. What you're afraid of are for the moment fearsome shadows distorted by the merest flicker of light. When the time comes, we shall know how to act. If the enemy possesses superior force, we yield to prudence. You still disbelieve me when I say, and I've said this to you more times than I care to remember, that Pulanglupa, this province, this island, this country, has enough land for all of us. They do not, they cannot control every vara of earth in this archipelago! That is unthinkable. I have been up mountains, I have traveled across plains, I have seen so many valleys. If they come to us, we shall always find a new and better place each time
| It was also the pain
of having to lead a band of people who surely harbored doubts, no less the pain
of remembering the past whose agonies should have been sufficient
to extinguish such doubts in men.
The man, spitting more violently this time, interrupted Moises.
'I am right, then, Moises. We run again, we stop, we run again, do we not, Moises? I was not born into this world to simply die from exhaustion!'
'Enough,' said the elderly man, keeping a tight grip on the drunken man's arm to keep him from keeling over as he ranted. 'Enough! Only the first day, and we have a rebellion in our midst!'
Moises stared at the dying fire while the menfolk resumed their vigorous round of drinking. Everyone seemed anxious to finish the night's ritual as quickly as possible. Moises took several more turns at the mug. Finally it was he, Old Lucas, and the elderly man who were left still awake in front of the embers. In the makeshift platforms and lean-tos, or inside their oxcarts and sleds, families lay huddled among themselves, drawing in their faded blankets as closely as possible to their shivering bodies. The wind swept over them, and they were no longer aware of the swarms of fireflies that appeared with the dying of the kindling fire. Moises realized after some time that he had been talking to two snoring basi-soaked men. He rose from where he had propped himself up during the whole evening, shaking off the numbness in his legs. With a slight hobble he went around the nondescript arrangement of carts and sleds and makeshift structures, his head throbbing with unbelievable pain from the wine of which he must have downed a full gallon, more than his share from the burnay, and reeling from the unexpected mordant turn the conversation had taken earlier. It was also the pain of having to lead a band of people who surely harbored doubts, no less the pain of remembering the past whose agonies should have been sufficient to extinguish such doubts in men.
He dragged himself towards the grass field where they had slashed out a huge clearing hours earlier. The moon was at its highest point now, and he found himself standing on a sea of silver light, followed by fireflies and the faintest scent of burnt kindling. Cicada and river music kept humming in his mind's ear, but he, of course, was deceiving himself, because it was actually the remembrance of interminable murmurs, the prayers for the living and the dead, which ushered people into this world and then into the afterlife. The night he was born, candles were being lit in Amargoso, in fact in every corner of the conquered islands where there was a Christian cemetery, for it was the Feast of All Saints, which was a celebration in memory of all human dead, and how unfortunate it was, he always thought, despite his family's hopes that he would become the bearer of luck and a new life for all, to have been born on such a night, instead of at dawn on Easter Sunday.
As soon as he was born into the darkness that was Amargoso's eve of the dead souls, the midwife had cut his afterbirth and put it inside a brand-new earthen pot, fired the day before to ensure its freshness, and the pot was hung by a vine around the topmost branch of a centuries-old acacia tree, this being a practice among the Ilocanos who believed, since the days of their forebears who had known no other worship but the reverence for the spirits of rivers and forests and for the great deeds of those who had gone before them since the beginning of the race and who had transformed the two worlds of sky and earth, that hanging a baby's placenta in a high place bestowed courage, fortitude and stoicism upon a child who would be expected to perform wonders for his people. Ever the sardonic one, Moises as a young man, as a sharecropper who received token recompense from endless hours of work much like an Ilocano adipen would have slaved before his time, used to say that he was indeed lucky to have had his afterbirth hung from that spirit tree, because he needed all the courage he could muster to perform the heroic act of simply surviving in the friars' world, let alone transforming it.
But the feel of Pulanglupa's earth upon his soles, the smoldering warmth that the basi had suffused him with, and the hypnotic brilliance of the full November moon, had completely disembodied him. He felt himself like one of the ancient spirits of the primal land, all-knowing and all-powerful. Todayhe imagined himself in the morrow proclaiming as he stands upon his cart while his people raise their eyes to himwe build new life upon this red earth where we shall stay and not be moved by anyone, by any power royal or divine, begetting stock, and sowing seeds that if need be shall grow more plump and plentiful with our blood! but as he tried to shake off the lightness in his head, his mind was suddenly seared by pain and sadness, and all that it contained now was a vision of Laura, resplendent in her flowing robe as Goddess of the Northern Moon, alone in a hut that perched like a castle upon a tropic hill in Amargoso, besieged by an army of men brandishing torches and Spanish guitars, but that vanished, and now it was of Laura upon the mat on the bamboo floor, moaning as her lucky bastard of a husband thrust repeatedly into her, not only shedding off the tiredness in his travel-broken body but also releasing the passion of a permanently smitten man who, of the hundreds who desired her and still do, was chosen by the woman to partner and pleasure her for life.
WHEN MOISES opened his eyes again, the silver sea had vanished. The wind had risen more sharply, with a rustle that was building up into an agitated whoosh. The bank of clouds they saw the previous day filling up the sky over the range had moved towards the valley, a mass now black and billowing, a giant mat of darkness rolling across heaven that blotted out the stars and the moon. Moises had not known such cold before, nor such absence of light. As the white hiss of a lightning bolt flashed down from the night sky, the first peals of thunder rending the air moments afterwards, he felt as though all the world's muskets and cannons had opened fire, and a million feet were marching upon the bones of all the dead.
The apparition stood at the edge of the clearing, and was approaching him like a veil blown hither and yon by a gust of wind.
,' he whispered, instinctively half-raising his arm. He hobbled forward, but only to embrace the cold wind slamming into his soul.
The rain came down, melting him into the earth. When it was all over, the moon reappeared and descended upon the saddest creature in the world.
3. San Tercer
| The rider laughed
and turned to his band of men, who had been eyeing the peasants intently, whispering
to one another as they gestured towards
the women, most especially Laura...
IT WAS APRIL the following year when the men on horseback appeared in the clearing.
For most of the year, the small community of a score of families had felled medium-sized trees for posts and beams, stood up houses of bamboo and cogon grass, cleared at least two hectares for each family, burned the wild field grass, tree stumps and stubbles, turned up the crust with harrows made with the spike-pointed thorns of a bamboo variety the size of men's thighs, and soon put their plows to work, creating furrows where there was once grassland, which became russet brown and damp underneath with constant turning and with the help of intermittent rains, until the land was ready for the pagay seeds, and it was with much excitement that they, as one, sowed these into the furrows and expectantly waited for the first rice plants to shoot up from the ground.
With each day that passed, the seedlings turned into stout green plants, almost palpably sprouting shafts that yielded golden seeds, until they became stalks dripping with ripened grain so thick the plants drooped towards the ground, like a multitude bowed in prayer, when not dancing in wind-blown celebration. On that fine morning, with the sun barely up over the ridge of the mountains, an exultant line of sun-beaten, dark-skinned peasants moved towards the edge of the ricefield, tiny scythes in hand and baskets dangling from their waists. As Moises scampered to lead them in their descent to the paddies, the peasants saw the cloud of dust a kilometer away before they heard the thunder of horses' hooves. The line huddled into a nervous cluster, except for Moises who took a few steps forward to be first to meet the vanguard of the riders who were now galloping closer to the edge of the clearing. Most of them wore wide-brimmed hats and nondescript clothes, led by a man whose headgear and attire reminded the peasants of a junior officer of Amargoso's guardia civil. His white horse sped away from the group and reared as he reined it in to stop almost at the spot where Moises stood.
The man had a look of sneering incredulity on his dusky face as he glared at Moises. He could have been any of the peasants in Moises group, but for his uniform and the weapons, pistol and saber, attached to his body.
'What do you think you're doing?' he shouted the question at Moises.
The horse reared again and the man circled before bringing it to a halt. Moises was choosing the words that would form his answer, and he was about to speak when the man roared anew, each word spat out with equal vehemence.
'Don Juan Gossens demands to know what you are doing on his land!'
'We are poor Ilocano peasants from Amargoso, and we have come a long way
,' Moises started.
'You have no right to be here and occupy another man's land, or have you and your people never been taught good manners?'
'Senyor, many years ago, I came here in search of land, and there was no one living in this place, which people told me was open to anyone who could work it, and they even called this place Pulanglupa
The man in uniform looked him in the eye incredulously, then looked around at his companions.
'Did you hear that? Pulanglupa!' He fixed Moises with a cold stare, and leered exaggeratedly his darkened gums showed and his betel-stained teeth looked bigger. 'Yes, that was the old name of the place, a pagan name. Pulanglupa exists no more. It is now part of the territory of Don Juan Gossens everyone knows to be San Tercer. And from the looks of it, you have trespassed here too long to be allowed another day!'
'Senyor, we have been here a full year now, I admit, but no one ever reprimanded us, until you came. How we were to know we were trespassing on another man's land? And besides
'Well now you know, and you are being given notice that you cannot stay here a day more
or suffer the consequences! There are laws in this country, if you must know, old man. And I, Tinyente Amuyung Garpalan of the guardia civil of this province, and you must knock this into your head, am duty-bound to enforce the law against anyone, most of all trespassers.'
and besides, Senyor, as you can very well see,' Moises voice was about to break, and beginning to lose its soft tone, as he felt his neck muscles tauten and his ears heat up, 'we are about to harvest the rice, for which we have labored body and soul! And yet we do not claim it all, we offer to share these fruits with the owner, whoever he is
'You want to share with the owner what is rightfully his? You have a strange sense of humor, stranger!'
The rider laughed and turned to his band of men, who had been eyeing the peasants intently, whispering to one another as they gestured towards the women, most especially Laura whose work clothes hid every part of her body except her ankles and her face.
'We wish to meet the owner of this land, then, if that is at all possible, for I am sure he will listen to us,' Moises said, his voice falling down again. 'Is that too much to ask of you, senyor?'
'Yes, because I have my orders!' The man paused. 'But then, we are not unreasonable men here, old man. I will tell Don Juan Gossens what you have done to his land, that you have offered to share the harvest of the earth which is not yours in the first place, and let us see what he will want to do with you!'
'We beg you to let him know we mean well, that if need be we will continue to work this land for him, and all we ask is that we are allowed to live in peace, that our houses stay, and that our children will be safe, and I know that in your heart, because you are our countryman, you will not wish us ill, for you also have parents, perhaps siblings and children as well, to whom you would not want any harm to come
'The harm will certainly not come from you, old man,' the soldier sneered. 'You are all merely interlopers, and consider yourselves lucky if Don Juan Gossens gives you an extra day to pack up your things and tear down your houses, and as for your harvest...what a waste of effort! Adios, old man!'
| They could almost believe it had all been
a bad dream, since the riders had not returned after a week, until they suffered their first two deaths at the hands
of unknown assailants.
The riders did not come back the following day, or the next, and a full week passed without any sign of them. In the meantime, the peasants from Amargoso had put themselves to harvesting the ricestalks at a backbreaking pace, and glean as much as they could from what fell to the ground, before the riders could come back with what they feared would be more than harsh words. Moises and the elders, when resting from their toil, spoke to one another and gave counsel, with a few of the younger men renewing old recriminations about going so far afield, in a strange land, without the certainty of avoiding yet another bondage, and one of the more brash complaints aired one evening, as they all partook of a communal dinner, was that at least in Amargoso, there was never any immediate danger to their lives and liberty, for as long as they obeyed the law, nor to their women and children, as there apparently was in this land they had occupied, for all them including the menfolkwithout admitting so much to one another, had never been as terrified in their lives as when the riders stared them down, mounted like conquering soldiers on their steeds, their rifles slung around their shoulders and their bolos swinging at their sides, their gaze focused mainly on the young women from Amargoso, a gaze so fierce and hot that it seemed to penetrate through the faded and tattered work clothes that covered their ruddy, well-toned, Ilocano female bodies.
They could almost believe it had all been a bad dream, since the riders had not returned after a week, until they suffered their first two deaths at the hands of unknown assailants.
Three young men had earlier set out on a hunt for quail and other game, setting off gleefully as most of the other young men had done all these months, for the fields and forests were teeming with creatures that added meat to their larder, complementing the bountiful fish catch in the river. They should have come back before sunset, having set out at daybreak after a quick breakfast of steaming rice and boiled banana. Night came and the party had not returned. Another day passed, and on the third day after they had left with their long-poled nets and their provisions, a bloodied young man came running into view, stumbling as he ran and dropping to a dead faint as arms stretched out to catch him, his mother and wife keening as they wiped away the blood and dirt that had caked all over his body, and were most hideously dark over his wounds and gashes.
When he came to, he tried to talk, the words coming out of his cracked and swollen lips with difficulty.
they will come back for her
THE THREE HUNTERS crept among the tall grass, their nets at the ready, their ears straining to catch the tiniest chirping of the birds that skittered across the ground, whose wings were too feeble to lift them up even with the strongest air current. Quail roasted on the pit, two or three of them on a bamboo stick, was the best way to eat the bird, and the peasants of Amargoso had many a time staved off hunger with a diet of tuber crops and fish and the quail, but they found out that the birds were getting harder to catch as they moved on beyond the fields of Pulanglupa, until the hunting parties were now forced to march almost half a day to where they seemed to be flocking and breeding.
They had barely completed their first catch when a group of horsemen surrounded them as they crouched on the ground. They put up their hands when the armed men leveled rifles at them, but it was also a defensive posture against the hooves of the rearing horses that were in a state of agitation. With their arms lashed to wooden bars thrust between the crook of their elbows and wedged against their backs, they were marched for hours to a place where a garrison stood, which was no more than one big open tent with a table and chair in the middle and men at arms loitering around. Among them was the peasant soldier who had identified himself to the settlers as Tinyente Amuyung Garpalan, and behind the table, eyeing them coldly as he stood without ever speaking a word to them, was a tall Spaniard, whom they assumed to be such for he was fair-skinned and elegantly dressed just like the Spanish officials who came to Amargoso during big festivals, and the underling appeared to be so deferential to the white man he might as well have been an indentured slave.
Still trussed up, the three young men from Amargoso were brought by the horsemen, now joined by their commander, to a smaller clearing in the middle of which was a roasting spit and a smoldering heap of burnt firewood which meant that something large, possibly a pig, had been turned over the fire earlier.
For the rest of the day, the men of Garpalan took turns, at first interrogating, and then whipping, bludgeoning, and slashing the prisoners who screamed and begged for mercy with each strike of the tormentors' fists, feet, rifle butts and daggers. They demanded to know if the peasants led by the man whom the hunters identified as Moises Luna were in fact not simple agrarian settlers from the north but a band of fleeing insurrectos establishing their outpost in San Tercer, from where they could agitate the other peasant communities in the sprawling encomienda of Don Juan Gossens to rise up against their Patron, against Spain, against the Holy Mother Church, and they demanded to know why they had not made their presence known to the owner of the land when they had been occupying their village for over a year now, and it was explained to them that such was the patience and benevolence of Don Juan Gossens that he had waited until it was time for him to send his emissaries and demand an explanation and an apology, and finally they demanded to know who was that woman they saw among their group of peasants during that harvest day, who did not cast down her eyes when they stared at her but instead stared back at them insolently, and having answered all the questions thrown at them, the three hunters were subjected again to a beating by the armed men who were by this time incoherent and abusive in their language as liquor turned them into raving beasts, and the youngest of the three prisoners saw how his companion had his head bashed with a huge riverstone which needed two men to raise up, and his other companion carved up so badly his innards spilled out as he was dragged to the spit to which another drunken man had brought a long bamboo pole sharpened to a point at one end.
Ruding, the young man, was sobbing as he ended his narration.
'I could not watch the rest of it. Then they dragged me away, and the tinyente said to me, we will set you free and you tell your leader we will come back in a few days, that Don Juan Gossens has been so kind as to agree to come to your settlement and speak to you, and he expects that you will all prepare for his arrival, and the tinyente said also that we must prepare Laura to meet the Patron when he comes
| ...no one was taking up the cry of Laura's husband, until Moises hushed the crowd, and everyone began looking towards where Laura stood, a distance from all of them, and they were too afraid and too ashamed to say anything to her.
A full-throated roar came from someone in the crowd who had gathered around the grievously wounded survivor, and the man appeared to have lost all composure as he confronted Moises, cursing him and heaven for having allowed this to come to pass, and while he was being restrained, Moises calmly reminded them about his pledge.
'Cailian, and brethren, the day we arrived here, we were almost bitterly divided because of the uncertainty of our situation, and I said then that if ever some hostile people came to us, to drive us away, for the sake of peace and of our children we shall always find a new and better place, and one of you interrupted to ask if that should be the case each time
do we run again, do we stop, and run again until our numbers diminish, until we all die? I, as the one who led you out of Amargoso and brought you here, am for moving out. We have lost two good men in the most despicable manner possible, but we are defenseless, we have no means for retribution, and now another one of us is threatened. I say we leave
But the people bestirred themselves, violently shaking their heads, throwing up their hands and uttering curses, while Laura's husband was still quaking where he stood, shouting all kinds of imprecations, and urging Moises to make a firm decision to leave, but Moises looked around for the approval of more people than just the husband, and everywhere he looked, he could not see approbation but a seething mass of despair and helplessness, and no one was taking up the cry of Laura's husband, until Moises hushed the crowd, and everyone began looking towards where Laura stood, a distance from all of them, and they were too afraid and too ashamed to say anything to her. Without glancing at her husband, Laura strode towards Moises, coming up so close he could smell her breath when she spoke.
'Manong Moises, you stay, I will go
LAURA MOURNED for her husband. They had to restrain him again when he tried to lunge at Moises and Laura, and they would never know who of the two the man wanted to assault, but having lost all hope, his sanity followed suit, and that night he had hanged himself from the molave beam of the house he had proudly built for the most desired woman in the world, rather than live to witness the obscene offering to the scum of the earth, and in her old age, when she had been forgotten by all her people except by her Manong Moises whose deep voice seemed to flow over her and whose body she imagined to be heaving with hers during those innumerable times her husband was eagerly inside her, she would always remember that when she looked up at the man, his eyes had started to turn red, his lips had quivered, but he had held back his tears.
Moises stood at the edge of the field, now lying fallow for the next cycle of planting. He had not heard cicada song and river music for some time now, and the song to the moon was no longer heard from the terminally ill Lakay Lucas. It was the last day of the full moon in April. For a long time, he looked at the hills whose ridges were made indistinct by the distant darkness. He knew that a great surge of fury was happening out there, and he wondered how much time there was before it reached them, taking them along with it, or brushing them aside as it swept towards the plains and the towns. The moon blazed all night, and as Moises stared at it, the music and the song came back, playing on the one word without end.
© Edgar B. Maranan
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