|His wrist was never quick enough to stun small animals, but with his bolo, he could slice and slash plants and animals alike.
The morning Titong turned seven, his papa said, "Valentino, today is your lucky day." Full of cane sugar liquor, he palmed Titong's head, his sharpened thumbnail inside his son's ear.
Titong stopped chewing; the bread and orange cheese a soggy lump in his cheek. His mama boiled coffee on the burner.
"Get those dirty knives off my table," his mama said. She spooned sugar into a bowl of coffee and Titong watched until the tiny black ants stopped swimming.
"This one is new." His papa ran his fingertip over the bolo's shiny blade.
"You shouldn't spend for the boy."
Titong realized he wasn't breathing.
"I won the pot last night. I took this from that bastard Boyet."
His papa pointed the blade at Titong and stared hard at him. Titong understood he shouldn't look away.
"The boy isn't ready for a weapon."
"How else will he become a man?"
Outside, finally alone, Titong carried the bolo like a squirming baby, his wooden yo-yo forgotten. His wrist was never quick enough to stun small animals, but with his bolo, he could slice and slash plants and animals alike.
When his papa had extended the wooden handle to Titong, he grabbed at it quickly, clumsily—before his drunk father could change his mind. His papa yelped and the three of them watched a bright line of blood cross his papa's palm.
"Stupid," his mama said to both of them. "Both of you are children."
She held her husband's hand to her face and erased the line with her tongue.
Titong's papa began to laugh. "I'm the first thing my son cuts."
His father beamed as though Titong had finally done something right.
Titong was grateful for the chickens' frenzied squawking as he threw feed on the dirt. His parents had no shame; they mated noisily even while people cooked and swept. In the village, the intimate noises of living—weeping, groaning, screaming—rose above the din of children playing and dogs barking.
It was a Sunday—lechon day. Titong's papa bought the weekly lechon from Wing-Wing even though he didn't trust the Chinese. They were only successful because they cheated the Filipinos, making deals with each other in their sing-song dialect.
|When he was small, he believed what someone told him, that the Chinese would roast their own babies if it made a profit.
When times were good, papa earned enough to buy a roast pig once a week. It was Titong's job to go with his father to Wing-Wing's Meats, but he was afraid of the bodies hanging overhead. The skin and fat became a brown shell in the fire, and Titong couldn't tell which was rabbit or chicken or duck. When he was small, he believed what someone told him, that the Chinese would roast their own babies if it made a profit.
Titong's mama knew how to feed the whole family—all ten of Titong's brothers and sisters, plus the grandparents and the spinster aunt—for a week with that one roast pig. On the first day, Sunday, they ate the juicy meat with rice and sauce, their faces and fingers oily with fat, fighting over pieces of the crunchy, bubbled skin. On the second day, Titong's mama simmered the meat with vinegar and garlic. The skin softened in the stew until it was chewy, and the fat floated in a heavy layer on top of the dish. On Tuesday, she added soy sauce and pepper, and boiled carrots and cabbage in the dish, making a stew of adobo. On Wednesday, she scooped out pieces of white lard from the top of the dish and melted it into oil. She fried pieces of the adobo meat and served it with lots of white rice. On Thursday, his mama cooked porridge of rice and water, shredding pork, just for flavor, on top of the lugaw along with fried garlic and lemon slices. On Friday, she boiled the feet and head until the meat slid off the bones and there was an oily broth to slurp with greens and turnips. On Saturday, they chewed on the bones, sucking out the marrow, and lamenting the lack of meat. And the next day, if the week had been prosperous, it started all over again.
It was the first lechon Sunday that Titong had his own bolo. The roast pig was on a wooden board between two sawhorses; legs splayed out stiffly, its mouth open, revealing an uneven row of tiny teeth. The eyes stared straight ahead, with a bored expression.
"Watch me first," his papa said. He removed his shirt and told Titong to do the same. Titong's father palmed the top of the pig's head, as if it were a ball, and chopped the neck, releasing the head from the body. He handed it to Titong and told him to wrap it in newspaper. Then, he removed the legs.
"Hold it steady." Titong's papa pointed to the pig. His papa crossed one arm behind his back and rested it on his waist, the bloody rag still tied around his hand. He raised his bolo knife, high above his shoulder, and Titong held his breath. Titong dug his fingers into the shoulder of the pig, closing his eyes when the blade hit the meat. His papa dissected the back of the pig into four big squares. He moved these pieces aside.
"Hold again." Titong pinched the edges of meat. It slipped in his fingers, wet from grease and juice. "Careful, or this." His papa waved his bandaged hand between them, smiling.
Titong wondered if his papa was still drunk, or just angry. He didn't understand why his papa made him hold the meat, especially as the pieces got smaller, and the blade of the bolo closer to where his fingers were. Soon, both of them were sprinkled with bits of white fat, crispy skin, and strands of meat.
Each time the knife hit the board, Titong expected to open his eyes and see his fingers, separated from his hand, wiggling on their own.
"Always look at what you are chopping. Never take your eyes off your target." His papa scraped the dull edge of the bolo against the board and swept the cubes of pork into a bag.
|He wasn't sure if his papa was putting him in danger to get revenge, if his papa wanted him to have an accident.
Titong reached for his papa's bolo, admiring the shiny metal.
"You have your own knife now."
He slid a slab of pork in front of Titong, who placed one hand on the meat and one around his bolo, which was so heavy and cumbersome, he thought he might drop it.
"Chop," his papa commanded.
Titong hesitated, mistrusting his eyes and his arm, and he watched the blade drop. At the last moment, out of instinct, he moved his hand aside and closed his eyes. The fatty pork slid under the blade and the knife dug into the wooden board, missing the target.
His papa pinched his cheek, turning Titong's skin between long nails. "Don't be afraid to look. What you see cannot hurt you. What you don't see, will."
Titong wanted to convince his papa he wasn't ready, that it wasn't his fault that his arm wasn't strong enough to carry the bolo, that the pork was too greasy and slippery, but he knew he should keep quiet. He wasn't sure if his papa was putting him in danger to get revenge, if his papa wanted him to have an accident. Titong listened to the instructions, and this time, followed them completely. He kept his eyes open, against his fear, and watched the blade cut clean cubes of pork, just as his papa had done.
The mounds of cut pork piled up. Titong worked alongside his papa, their blades flashing in the sun. Titong's arm was tired, but he was exhilarated at this new skill. He had become a man, like his father, like his older brothers. But then he noticed his papa's hand. The rag had slipped off his hand and was curled around his wrist, stained with the grease from the pork and spotted brown with his own blood. The wound wasn't deep, Titong could see that, but the skin was pink and irritated and there were still traces of red blood where the scratch reopened when his papa flexed his hand.
Titong stopped for a moment and stared at his blade, speckled with meat and skin bits. He blinked, sweat and pork grease stinging his eyes. He was amazed at how easy it would be to hurt and to kill. He wondered if the power was in the knife itself. The knife cut, not him. In his gurgling stomach, in the electric tingling of the hairs on his arm, in a shiver at the back of his neck, he felt a prickly aliveness he had never before experienced.
After that day, Titong always had the bolo with him. At first, Titong was conscious of the weight of his knife, as his newly married brother must have felt the constriction of his wedding ring on his finger, and was constantly unsheathing it, from where it hung on his belt. His papa hammered a nail into the leather, piercing holes to fit Titong's skinny waist. That worn belt, which Titong used to fear, the instrument of many whippings, stretched its tongue between his legs.
Within a month, Titong barely noticed the bolo's weight on his leg. The muscles in his bony arm sharpened, and the bolo felt more comfortable than a pencil in his hands. In his excitement, he volunteered for any chore that required a blade. He sliced thick banana leaves from trees behind their home for his mama. She wrapped rice, egg, and meat in the green leaves and steamed the packets, or she cut them into squares for plates. He harvested tomatoes, squash, and melon from the garden with his bolo even though his mama told him he was showing off. "Just twist the vegetables," she told him.
|...during fiesta time, families pretended they were as rich as the landowners and cooked generous amounts of food fully aware that the extras would spoil in the heat.
Except during those weeks when his papa didn't earn, Titong chopped lechhon beside his father. If his father was too drunk to earn, the family ate eggs, and if they were very desperate, one of the hens that laid the eggs.
When his mama killed a chicken, she sang. She swung the hen by its neck in a circle high above her head and sang loudly; it was a tune that had no harmony or rhythm with lyrics that were nonsense. She did not want to hear the hen's screaming or the snap of its neck. But for all her singing, she still felt the click under her hand when the hen's neck broke.
On the eve of the New Year, all the families in the village prepared for the barrio fiesta. Farmers went into debt to open their homes and feed the partygoers who stopped in each hut for a hot meal or drinks or dessert. Although usually frugal and worried about how to feed their families from week to week, during fiesta time, families pretended they were as rich as the landowners and cooked generous amounts of food fully aware that the extras would spoil in the heat.
Titong's papa had gone to the market to buy ginger root in the morning and had not returned. Titong's mama complained, "I need your papa to help me." She stood by the chicken pen with her eyebrows almost touching in the middle. His mama had sent his older brothers out in the afternoon to locate his papa, who was an expert at disappearing when he was needed. Titong's sisters busied themselves sweeping out the hut and sewing last minute alterations to the clothes they had made for the New Year.
Titong's mama made the best arroz caldo in the barrio. He felt proud that the villagers would eat his mama's chicken and rice porridge as their first meal of the New Year. There were a dozen hens pecking at their feed peacefully in the pen.
He stroked the handle of his bolo, confident.
"There are too many chickens; there is too much to do." His mama pointed to the setting sun. She pressed her lips together with her thumb.
"I'll kill them for you, Mama."
"Anak." My child. She rubbed the top of his head, and then pressed his earlobe between her thumb and forefinger. Except for those times when she slapped him across the cheek, this was the first time he could remember his mama touching him since he was a very little boy. "Slaughter everything."
Titong slid on tiny feathers and wet droppings, chasing until he caught one. Some of the hens were pecking at the ground, still eating feed, unaware that soon they would die.
He wanted to show his mama how good he was. He wanted to hear her voice turn sweet and say anak again.
|He dug into his bowl and fished out a boiled chicken leg. As he chewed the meat, he remembered how the legs still wanted to run long after the heads were gone.
He grabbed the first hen by the neck, flattened its head to the ground, and chopped off its head. He tossed the head behind him, afraid to look at it, see its eyes, its beak still trying to peck. The blood puddled at his feet. He was a machine, chopping each head off one by one, and the noise quieted until all the chickens were silenced.
His hands were sticky with blood and mucous, gritty with dirt and feathers. He wiped his blade against his thigh.
Some hens were running, headless, and spraying blood in pulses from their necks.
He had seen nothing like it before. He could not move. The bodies were crashing into each other, like drunks trying to dance. Some had fallen over, their legs jerking. He was unable to look away until the last one fell.
Later that night, after Midnight Mass, his mama presented him with a steaming bowl of arroz caldo. He stirred the soup, lifting a spoonful to his lips, but was unable to eat. He dug into his bowl and fished out a boiled chicken leg. As he chewed the meat, he remembered how the legs still wanted to run long after the heads were gone.
Five years later, when Titong was twelve, Japanese soldiers confiscated his bolo knife, along with all the village weapons and tools, by order of the Imperial Army. The Japanese Army had arrived at the start of the Christmas season and Titong watched them with admiration. Suddenly, it was illegal to speak the dialect and everyone had to learn Japanese, but English was the only common language.
At the time, Titong didn't care that the Japanese had taken control. At first, he didn't see much difference between them and the American soldiers who stormed through the dusty streets, heading for the safety of water. He just wanted his bolo back.
He hated the Japanese officers for taking away his knife, but he hated the foot soldiers more; they kicked harder than the men who had kicked them. The Japanese officers gave them orders, and in turn, the foot soldiers ordered the Filipinos to stand or sit or hand over their tools. Men from the barrio started to disappear, but no one would say to where.
One evening, after it was discovered that another group of men had disappeared from the barrio, Titong's papa held a meeting. Dark curtains were hung over the windows and the men huddled together in a circle on the floor. Titong, unable to sleep, listened.
"The Japs think it's better for us to have them as masters rather than the Americans."
"Only better for the Japs."
"The Japs promise our country independence."
"No one asked if we wanted saving."
|He hadn't imagined the possibility of Filipinos ruling themselves. His married brothers and sisters still deferred to their parents; no one made any decisions without his parents' approval.
Titong heard his papa's voice. "What does it matter if our master is the Japs or the Church or Americans? Why bother fighting? I will not lose my life for nothing. I just want to farm my land, feed my family, and drink on Saturday nights."
The men's voices rose, but one man was loudest. "Cowards. Always talking, never doing."
Titong recognized the voice as Jesse. He was still a bachelor. He was warned to stay away from Jesse.
There was a long silence and not one man even coughed or cleared his throat.
"We must fight." Jesse continued. "Not only to be rid of Japanese control. Not so that the Americans can return to rule us. We must fight to rule ourselves."
Titong could feel the uneasiness, the suffocating paralysis of the men. He felt the shame in their silence. But Titong wasn't like them; he was brave and strong. He felt a small space in his lungs widen. He hadn't imagined the possibility of Filipinos ruling themselves. His married brothers and sisters still deferred to their parents; no one made any decisions without his parents' approval.
"I will resist," Jesse said. "You've heard about their cruelties. Join me if you've had enough."
Villagers would whisper and gossip in excitement, trying to best each other in a contest of 'Name the worst criminal act that the Japanese soldiers have committed." Titong had played this game himself, "Did your hear about the church that the Japanese burned down? They held the doors shut while the people trapped inside screamed and melted," or "Do you ever wonder where the disappeared have gone? Someone told me about the girls forced to lie underneath one soldier after another during their coffee break." There was the initial excitement of revealing information, but this faded soon to despair and passivity, the resigned response of "What can we do? That's the way it is in Japanese times."
Titong heard Jesse's leave-alone-no one followed him. Titong wished he had the kind of father who was brave enough to join the guerillas. If his papa would allow it, Titong would resist. He wasn't big and strong, but he could chop through the scalp and skull of jackfruit in one swing. He had heard stories about them—whispers among the villagers—and he envied the guerillas' lives in the jungles—camping under the stars, moving from barrio to barrio, eating meals that grateful villagers left out for them, and stalking the enemy. Playing war and adventure all the time. Now that his bolo was in the hands of the Japanese, maybe the guerillas would supply him with a gun—a real one. Not the block of wood carved in the shape of a gun that he had seen some of the poorer guerillas carry under their arms. He wondered what would happen when a man tried to shoot a wooden gun. If a man believed and had faith in his wooden gun, perhaps that was enough to make it real.
Titong's papa spoke first. "It's easy for Jesse to be brave. What does he have to lose? He has no family; no one depending on him to live."
|When the Japanese torched the schoolhouse, the children didn't trample each other or push against the chained door. They found them still at their desks. And those who could hear over the mothers' wailings claimed the children were singing.
The other men laughed and Titong's papa told them to keep the noise down. Titong's papa shared a bottle of sugar cane rum. No one complained that the liquor tasted mostly of water.
Titong was awake long after the men had left, their heads hanging down. He wished a Japanese soldier were in front of him right now, so he could spit at him. He wanted to find his bolo, and then the lost men. He wanted to be a hero; he wanted to be loved.
The road in front of Titong's house led to the barrio's burial grounds, and it wouldn't be long before Titong found out where the vanished men had gone.
Titong watched from a crack in the window as a group of men from the barrio, surrounded on all sides by soldiers, shuffled past. Their faces were miserable and dragging. They licked their lips as if that would satisfy their thirst. Titong was going to find them and be the one who quenched their thirst.
Titong heard a string of popping noises, but lately, gunshots were as common as cricket music. Titong would find the village men and save them. Then, the guerillas would ask him to be a leader.
When the night was still and the sounds of the soldiers long quieted, Titong walked the road barefoot, biting his lower lip when a stone or splinter dug into his soles. Titong passed the cemetery where his grandmother was buried the year before. The moon was full, highlighting the whitewashed tombs as if they were rows of shiny teeth.
When his lola was on her deathbed, she wasn't herself anymore. Her eyes were crusted shut and her skin hung loosely on her skeleton. She opened and closed her empty fists in the air, trying to grab hold of anything, as her body lifted from the cot, coughing. She seemed more animal than person, her odor and movements embarrassed him. Somehow his grandmother found his hand and grabbed it, squeezing so hard his knuckles cracked. He peeled away her curled fist, one finger at a time. "I can't help you," Titong said.
When she finally died and the women came to prepare her body, Titong had prayed a litany of apologies to his lola's ghost so that she wouldn't haunt him.
At that time, he didn't have the courage to witness his grandmother's death. But he would redeem himself. During these these times, there were daily opportunities to resist. And even more opportunities to die.
Titong couldn't meet the eyes of village men who wore evidence of torture. He didn't want to imagine how they lost their eye or finger or were burned during their torture; he didn't want to admit to himself how terrified he was to be one of them. Even children and the elderly were braver than him. When the Japanese torched the schoolhouse, the children didn't trample each other or push against the chained door. They found them still at their desks. And those who could hear over the mothers' wailings claimed the children were singing.
|...How the headless bodies shivered, or straightened up before falling to the ground. Another lurched forward, as if he could get away. One sat down to rest.
Titong had not yet solved the mystery of the missing men when one night the soldiers ordered everyone to gather in the plaza. Soldiers held lists taken from the village council of all the families living in the vicinity and counted heads, pulling the men over the age of sixteen from the families. Titong lined up with his mother and sisters at the perimeter of the plaza the way the soldiers demanded, shoulder to shoulder from oldest to youngest, their mama standing behind them. Titong's papa and Titong's older brothers were lined up with the other men of the barrio, in front of the fountain in the center of the plaza.
As the villagers waited to be checked off from the list, they whispered, speculating. Some women were saying that perhaps the soldiers, who were not Christian, in Christmas goodwill, were making a special effort to recognize the holiday all Filipinos looked forward to throughout the year.
"Maybe Santa Claus will appear in an American tank and bomb the soldiers," Titong's younger sister whispered.
"Or maybe they will give us more rations for our fiesta," his older sister said.
"Maybe the men will get liquor for New Year's," another sister said.
Although Titong thought the women were overly optimistic, perhaps even stupid, to think that the soldiers were going to be kind and generous, there was a part of him that hoped his bolo would be returned. Anything can happen at Christmas. All kinds of miracles. Titong had seen even the most serious, stern men smile on Christmas day and the desperately poor hand out coins to beggars.
Titong's mama hissed through her front teeth and the children were quiet.
A gun shot loudly in the air and everyone stood at attention, the way they were taught. Even the babies were quiet. A man was led out, his wrists bound together in front of his chest as if he were praying. He wore a straw bag over his face—a bayong woven from palm leaves, his eyes blinking behind the roughly cut holes. The stiff edge of the bayong rested on the man's shoulder. A soldier walked behind him and pressed a gun between his shoulders. The hooded man was paraded past each of the village men, his shoulders slumped and his chin down, pausing every few steps. When he reached the end of the line, the soldier became angry and cracked his gun across the hooded man's head. The soldier spoke to an officer in a language Titong could only understand as angry.
The officer, the man the villagers had all bought roasted meat from, said, "Give us the guerillas. You must choose."
The hooded man shook.
At the same moment, as if in a folk dance, the barrio men took a step back, away from the hooded man. Wives reached out their arms towards their husbands, their children blocking their path. Titong watched his papa. He had not joined the guerillas, but perhaps the secret drinking parties he had after curfew would be misconstrued. Perhaps the man in the hood was someone who resented his papa and had some reason to want him dead. His papa stared straight ahead, his nostrils flaring, chest heaving. Titong wanted his bolo then, to cut that hood off the coward, and fight the soldiers. If the Filipino men had their bolos they could join together and do something, but all they had were their hands. All the farm tools had been taken away, the rakes, shovels, and even the stakes for holding up squash and tomato vines.
The hooded man limped past the line of men again. He shook his folded hands at three of them: Ricco, Jose, and Bong-Bong.
He heard his mama behind him. "Jesus, Mary, Joseph."
"Continue," the officer called. "I know there are more."
The hooded man was breathing hard. He paused in front of Titong's papa, who did shake. Titong held onto his papa with his eyes, memorizing him as he slouched among the other men.
The hooded man pointed to the man next to Titong's papa.
"Don't trick me," the officer said. "Show me the rest." In total, the hooded man picked seven men from the line and Titong was thankful that his papa and his older brothers were not among them.
The soldiers tied back the arms of the chosen men so tightly that their shoulder blades were almost touching. One soldier punched each of the men in the stomach with the butt of his shotgun and they coughed and choked, trying to catch their breath, bent at the waist, stooped with heads lowered to the ground as hens pecking for feed.
One of the soldiers drew a gleaming sword. Only the chosen men were tied; everyone else, the women and children on the perimeter and the men in the plaza center, just stared at the blade. The chosen men did not even see the executioner standing over them, both hands ready to swing the sword, because they were bent over—although Titong imagined that the last man to have his head cut had seen the heads rolling on the ground in front of him.
What Titong wasn't prepared for was this: How the headless bodies shivered, or straightened up before falling to the ground. Another lurched forward, as if he could get away. One sat down to rest.
When the soldier was done, he stood next to the hooded man, who had covered his eyes with his fists. The soldier removed the covering from the man's head, whose face was red, hot with blood, and wet with tears. It was Jesse, the rice farmer, the man who called Titong's papa a coward for not joining the resistance.
The Japanese held a small gun to Jesse's ear and squeezed.
© Grace Talusan
| Commentary: Execution by Nadine Sarreal |