Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Books of Lumad, Chapter II

Below is the second chapter of the sequel to my 1997 fantasy novelette, Pedro and the Lifeforce. I'm working day and night on this thing lately (while playing Civ IV on the side) for the NaNoWriMo project. Funny thing is, I don't even know how to submit to it. Ahehe.


Chapter II

The trip took roughly seven hours, not counting the time Mr. Juliano had spent doubling back when he had followed the wrong exit at the superhighway. Or Raffy’s frequent craving for snacks and his mom’s persistence on finding the most potent mosquito repellent. Mr. Juliano seemed pleased when he found a copy of the most recent edition of The Philippine Provincial Traveler.

It had been a long and tiring journey, and Raffy was feeling really sick, having had nothing else to do but endure his parents’ unending ranting and complaining.

"What's with ethnic bands today, anyway?” huffed Mr. Juliano. “They rely too much on electronic instruments. Honey, don’t you just miss the days when ‘ethnic’ meant ‘natural-sounding’?" The radio was tuned in to a local ethnic music station. As if on cue, Mr. Juliano ceremoniously turned the volume way down.

“But Dad, maybe some people just don't like bamboo flutes as much as you do,” Raffy offered. He actually meant the statement for himself, as he was particularly fond of the native flute. His Lola Adiang had sent him a hupip a few years back. It was a small wooden flute adorned with intricate feather carvings on the sides. He had immediately liked the instrument and had learned to play it by himself, much to his surprise.

And he just loved the melody that came out of it. He knew no other instrument that he could play so well as the hupip. Whenever he put it in his mouth, the rising, lilting music seemed to just come out beautifully. Even his teachers in school would smile and nod their heads whenever he played.

The ride became rough and bumpy as they drew nearer to Santa Ines. The main provincial highway had given way to an uneven stretch of loose gravel and dirt roads. Despite Mr. Juliano's careful (and, for Raffy, achingly slow) driving, the car lurched regularly along the rutted path, spewing dust and pebbles as it went.

The shadows were already lengthening as they entered the barrio. A fantastically gnarled acacia tree welcomed the Juliano family as the car nudged itself into the barrio. Raffy noticed a fading stone marker beside the dusty road, almost overrun by wild cogon grass. Santa Ines, it read.

An assortment of trees hugged the roadside, all brimming with fruits. Ripened and rotting ones likewise littered the ground. If Raffy found this strange, Mr. Juliano didn’t seem to notice. He just swerved the car left and right, trying in vain to avoid the fallen fruits. He began rattling off the trees’ names as they passed them, pointing with a free hand: mangga, santol, bayabas, langka, macopa.

“Never you mind those rotting fruits,” Mr. Juliano said, making a wet, smacking sound with his lips. “You’ll get to eat plenty of them during the summer. Sonia, remind me to ask Inay to get us a basketful.”

“What for?” his wife said. “You plan on taking jackfruits to Australia?”

“Bah! Never mind, never mind...” Mr. Juliano replied. “Hey, we’re almost there, Raffy.”

The road narrowed further into a dirt path wide enough for only a single vehicle to pass. They had to slide to the embankment as a carabao cart passed, moving the other way. Raffy could have sworn the carabao had winked at him.
Raffy could now see a line of thatched-roofed houses, all standing next to small vegetable patches. Like the fruit-bearing trees, the patches were riddled with vegetables.

Mr. Juliano squinted at one of the houses. He stopped the car abruptly and rolled down his window. “Hoy, Mang Juling!” he hollered to an old man sitting lazily by the doorstep, busy stroking a rooster.

The chicken cackled, gave a sidelong glance at Raffy, and said: Am farm animal! Not good at sabong!

Raffy jumped in his seat, his head hitting the roof with a thud.

“Mom, mom! The rooster’s...” he started, but his mother hushed him, her eyes on the approaching old man.

Mr. Juliano poked his head out the window. “Magandang hapon po, Mang Juling. How've you been? It’s been a long time. How's the game at the cockpit?”

The man paused thoughtfully and scratched his balding head. He hesitated before pointing to a nearby acacia tree: “I think the house of the kapitana is just over there, beyond that strange tree. Yes, she's there, I know it. Which reminds me: I have to see her! I need to borrow something.”

There was a glazed look in the old man's eyes. He was puffing generously on his glowing pipe. His gaze wandered off to the side of his house. Quite a few deep yellow and bulging pumpkins were sitting on his vegetable patch.

"Well, yes. Those would make for quite a pinakbet, Mang Juling," Mrs. Juliano said. The old man paid no mind and proceeded to ruffle his rooster's feathers. Then he turned away, the rooster locked in his arms still cackling. Am farm animal! Am farm animal!

"That's funny,” Mr. Juliano said, “Mang Juling didn't recognize me at all. How can that be? He used to take me to cockfights when I was growing up here!”

“Well, his eyes must be getting poorer," offered Mrs. Juliano.

They rode around the large acacia and came to a large two-storey house surrounded by a yard full of vegetable patches. It was already the tallest structure in the area, and certainly looked like it was one of the oldest. The walls of the first floor were made of concrete, and painted clumsily in green, contrasting with the wooden second floor. Raffy thought the house looked like an upside down tree.

They parked the car beside the fence of clustered santan plants.

“Now dear, no need to feel nervous,” said Mr. Juliano as he turned off the engine. “The past is the past. Just smile and try to be courteous.”

“Don’t mind me, Ramon,” Mrs. Juliano said, stepping out of the car. Raffy followed. They began walking toward the house, following a dirt path in the front yard.

“Ramon! Let’s go!” hissed Mrs. Juliano.

“Uh, okay dear, coming.” said Mr. Juliano, though his hands were still glued on the steering wheel.

A woman’s head appeared from one of the open Capiz-shell windows on the second floor. “Oh! There you are!” she shouted.

The next moment, the woman was rushing along the path to meet them, her hands lifting the hem of her long batik skirt like one would the reins of a horse. A trail of dust followed her. She seemed very athletic; the next moment she was there, hugging Raffy and peppering his chubby face with a series of wet kisses. She then began pinching and pinching the boy’s cheeks, all the while sporting a broad grin on her face. Raffy hugged back, knowing at once that this was Lola Adiang.

Finally, just when Raffy thought his cheeks would explode, his lola let go. She held Raffy’s shoulders with both hands and examined his face, all the while chuckling. She looked spiffy for her age. The only things that betrayed her age were the pair of lightweight glasses she was wearing and the trace of crow’s feet extending to her temples as she smiled. “How are you, my dear Rafael! How you’ve grown!”

“It’s Raffy, Lola,” he started.

“Bah! Rafael sounds more manly!” his grandmother replied with a chuckle. “Hey, did you get the hupip I sent you? You know, I had to walk to the highway and stop the bus just so I can send that to you! Well, the driver was not so agreeable at first, but...”

“I have it with me, Lola,” Raffy beamed, pulling out the hupip from one pocket.

“And he can really play, Inay,” added Mrs. Juliano.

Aling Adiang seemed to just notice Mrs. Juliano was there. She laughed aloud, hugging her daughter-in-law. “Sonia, it’s so good to see you.”

“It’s nice to see you too, mother. Where’s Itay?”

The bangles on Aling Adiang’s wrist clinked as she brought an unlit cigar to her mouth. “He’s inside. That old man’s not feeling so well these days. Will tell you all about it later. Now, where’s my darn son?”

Mr. Juliano had just stepped out of the car and was now tentatively inching his way down the path.

“Ramon!” hollered Lola Adiang. “Come here, you little rascal! What, afraid I might hit you?”

She smiled anew, crow’s feet showing as she hugged her son. Mr. Juliano was on the verge of tears. He held the back of his mother’s hand presently, bringing it to his forehead. He then poked Raffy’s shoulders and nudged him to do the same. "Er, mano po, Lola."

“Well. It’s hardly time for all this,” said Aling Adiang, wiping her face. “The sun’s almost gone and I’m sure you are all starving.”

Raffy nodded vigorously in spite of himself.

“Very good, Rafael. Come on, let's go inside. Your Lolo Enteng’s waiting. I've got something prepared for you after you've freshened up.”

“Is Itay still angry at me? Is that why he didn’t come down to meet us?” asked Mr. Juliano weakly.

“Your father’s not himself these days, Ramon.” replied Aling Adiang, her voice betraying a genuine concern.

“He’s not sick, mind you,” when she noticed Mr. Juliano’s look of worry. “Just getting forgetful. I’m sure he’d be happy to see you. Like I often say, the past is the past.”

When they entered the house, the stink of animal dung assaulted Raffy’s senses. He almost gagged. The first floor served as a bodega, filled with stacks of hay and piled sacks of fertilizer and boxes. In the middle were a few old wooden chairs and a table. Raffy surmised this was where his kapitana lola held her meetings. Through the open door at the back, Raffy coud see a large enclosed area for animals in the backyard.

“Pay no mind to the smell,” offered Aling Adiang, running across the floor to close the back door. “In any case, the goats have disappeared to God knows where. One moment they were there, the next they’ve all gone!”

Her voiced trailed into gibberish. She sighed presently. “Well. Let’s all head on upstairs,” she said leading them to a worn-out staircase behind one of huge pile of boxes.

The food on the table was good enough for a small feast. Lola Adiang had prepared a variety of delicacies: sinigang, menudo, adobo, and some other viands Raffy didn’t know.

"No fish, of course,” said Aling Adiang. “The darn river’s polluted now. There should be kalderetang kambing, but, like I’ve said, our goats have disappeared. It’s been two weeks now. Even the neighbors' goats are missing, too. When I get my hands on those animal rustlers..."

“No need to worry, Inay,” said Mrs. Juliano. "This food’s too much,” said Mrs. Juliano.

“Nonsense! My kaldereta’s the finest, most sumptuous in Santa Ines!” said Aling Adiang.

"I'm sure we can take home the leftovers,” offered Mr. Juliano with a sheepish grin. “And Raffy, I’m sure your vacation wouldn’t be complete until you’ve tasted Inay’s famous kaldereta, but she’s not the best cook in the province for nothing! Let’s all eat!"

Mr. Juliano was right. The meal his lola had prepared was the best meal he had had in a long time. He thought if there was anything to keep him really happy throughout this vacation, it was the thought of his lola's cooking.

A wheezing sound came from one end of the table. "What's wrong, Itay?" asked Mr. Juliano. He was instantly on his feet, proceeding to rub his father’s back. Mang Enteng was coughing, bits of food sticking around his mouth.

Mrs. Juliano handed a glass of water to Lolo Enteng who pushed it away. "Itay, drink some water. You might choke."

"Whaaat? Who are you?" said the old man.

"Itay, It’s Sonia, remember? I'm your daughter-in-law. I already told you earlier," Mrs. Juliano replied, sounding hurt.

Lolo Enteng only gave her a bewildered look and wiped his mouth carelessly. Nobody spoke afterwards. When Mang Enteng finished his meal, he left the table without a word. Raffy wondered what had happened. His lolo had not recognized any of them, including his father.

Lola Adiang called the family aside after dinner. "Please understand that he’s not angry at any of you. He just doesn’t recognize anybody; even me, in fact. Well, maybe his cockpit friends...”

“He’s been like this for quite some time now. He's having trouble remembering things. I've had the doctor from the distant town examine him, but he had found nothing wrong with him. The doctor says he's quite healthy for a sixty year-old."

"But it's too early for Itay to be ulyanin," said a worried Mr. Juliano.

The family had retired to the available rooms. There was no electricity in Sta. Ines, and this bothered Raffy a lot. Already, he had already missed an episode of his favorite cartoon series. He would have to think up of other things to do, especially at night.

Right now, Raffy was getting really bored. He opened his window to let the air in. With a sigh, he unpacked his hupip and started playing a tune. Playing the flute helped him relax.

Raffy looked out into the moonlit yard, toward the silhouettes of the huge acacia tree outside. The notes from his hupip rose up sharp and clear in the surrounding silence. Quite suddenly, he saw a pair of piercing light sparkling from the thick branches.

He stared intently, puzzled, until his eyes got accustomed to the darkness. From the pale moonlight, he could swear that the light came from the eyes of a large black hawk with a stray tuft of white feather on its head. Its penetrating eyes were on him, unblinking. The hawk tilted its head presently and opened its beak.

So here you are, finally--little man!

Then next instant, Raffy thought he heard the sound of mild laughter and wild whistling of wings. Then the bird had gone.

Raffy hurriedly closed the window and hid his face under the sheets. For a long time he lay in bed shaking and frightened, wondering what the bird meant. He lay there for a long time before drifting into a troubled sleep.

* * *

Raffy woke to the harsh sound of metal on wood. He slid his window open to see a frail-looking boy chopping wood with a huge, rusty axe. Raffy thought the axe should be too heavy to wield, but the boy didn’t seem to mind. While the boy didn’t look like he’s enjoying the work, he didn’t seem to look tired.

At last, someone to play with, Raffy thought. He hastily fixed the bed and was about to go downstairs to take a closer look when he heard his lola hollering for breakfast.

"Good morning, Raffy. You’ve overslept a little, huh? Come, come--we have salted eggs, fried rice, fresh fruits, and suman. There's also some carabao milk from Mang Pulding.” Lola Adiang was turning over the plates and pouring milk in the glasses. "It's going to be a busy day today. There will be a town meeting here at ten-thirty."

Raffy sat down and rubbed his eyes. He looked out the window and noticed that their car was gone. “What time did mom and dad leave, Lola?”

“Very early, dear—around four o'clock. They didn't wake you up anymore because they thought you were exhausted from the journey and needed rest,” Lola Adiang said, fanning some flies away from the food.

"They should've let me say goodbye,” Raffy said, frowning.

"They seemed to be in a big hurry, especially your dad," his lola offered. Raffy sat down to eat, saying nothing.

Just then the boy Raffy had seen outside came in and sat on the chair beside him. He looked more fragile and sickly up close and was quite small compared to Raffy’s heft. His skin was almost as pale as carabao’s milk. He smiled weakly at Raffy before reaching for a suman.

The boy unwrapped and dipped the roll of sticky rice in a bowl of sugar with thin, pale hands. Raffy wondered if the boy could eat as much as he does.

"He's your cousin Agoy," Lola Adiang said before Raffy could ask. “As you might
have noticed, he's rather shy, but really does much of the chores around the house.”

“Hi, Agoy. What a weird name,” Raffy said, extending his hand. He casually withdrew it when Agoy didn't seem to know what to do with it.

"Like I’ve said, he's the shy type," whispered Lola Adiang. "But I think you two will get along fine.”

Soon after they finished their breakfast, a handful of people began coming in. Lola Adiang waited for a few more minutes for the others to arrive, but very few showed up. She looked at the few people who were attending the town meeting before stomping her feet in disgust.

"Where is Juling and the rest? They know quite well how important these meetings are! A kapitana can only do so much for the affairs of Santa Ines. I need all the help I can get!”

Nobody seemed to have anything to say. Lola Adiang scanned the blank faces of the people and swore beneath her teeth. She sighed and looked at her notes. “Well, never mind, never mind. To start things off, let’s talk about the lost goats..."

Those who came to the meeting seemed more lost than Raffy initially imagined. Whenever Lola Adiang would ask them for their opinions, they would just shrug and say something incoherent. It was as if their minds had wandered off someplace else. Lola Adiang was turning red with anger when a few suddenly spoke up.

"Kapitana, Can you lend me a few cavans of rice? I can see you've had a good harvest this season," said one woman.

"Can I have a sack of potatoes, please?" said another.

"Please loan me a basket of mangoes please," said another man.

"I've lost my carabao, kapitana!" cried Mang Pulding.

"What the--what are you all talking about?” Lola Adiang managed to spit out her tobacco in disbelief. “Have you really lost your minds? Check your crops! The trees are teeming with fruits and your vegetables rotting in your yards! What's wrong all of you?"

“Kapitana, please help us,” cried everybody in unison, as if they did not hear what Lola Adiang was saying. The kapitana eventually lost her temper, spewing forth curses.

She threw them out her house.

“What happened to them, Lola? They were acting really strange,” Raffy offered, as her lola bolted the door shut.

“I don’t know Raffy. It seems like they’ve really lost their minds. I have to find out the meaning of all this. Something’s very wrong here.” From the upstairs window, they watched the people walk out of the yard, wandering aimlessly in all sorts of directions, like they’ve forgotten even where they live.

“They are acting like zombies, lola,” Raffy said.

“Hmmm...They are acting like your lolo,” said Lola Adiang, scratching her chin. “I tell you, dear, something’s gotten into them. The whole townsfolk seem to have lost their common senses. Well, at least, they’re not causing any trouble. But I’ll find out what’s causing this soon enough.”

“Now,” Lola Adiang said, her face finally breaking into a smile, revealing tobacco-stained teeth. “How about I prepare merienda for you and Agoy”

* * *

For the next few days of his stay in Sta. Ines, Raffy didn't venture outside much, but with Agoy patiently instructing him, he discovered fun outdoor activities like catching spiders and frogs and scooping fireflies at dusk.

Agoy was hesitant at first to talk and play with Raffy, but Lola Adiang had insisted that he watch over Raffy at all times. Raffy found this funny, since he felt he was the one taking care of his meek cousin most of the time. But for all his shyness, Agoy seemed to know his way around the barrio very well, never complaining aloud and always willing to wander into the farms.

By the end of the week, they seemed to have become the best of friends. They would go climbing trees and raiding the neighborhood vegetable farms. At first Raffy did not like the idea of stealing, but when they managed to snatch the biggest cabbage right under Mang Ruben’s nose, they slowly made a habit of bringing all sorts of
crops in the house. They were able to convince their lola, who would stay up late scanning her notes, that they were presents from the townsfolk. In any case, Lola Adiang seemed to be very busy taking care of Lolo Enteng and visiting the neighbors to care.

Agoy generously gave in to Raffy’s every whim, so there wasn’t much to complain about. While Raffy just didn't like his cousin's perennial silence much, he perceived this to be typical dullness on the provincial boy's part. After all, he told himself, I’m the one who grew up in the city.

When the day of the next town meeting arrived, it was very much like the previous meeting, only with even less people. Again, the townsfolk had nothing much to say except that they needed something from Lola Adiang, who was by then chain-smoking her tobacco, all red in the face.

"You know what I think, dear?” she said during lunchtime, after not-so-politely shooing away the visitors, “I’m thinking it’s that blasted smog building up just beyond the river. Have you seen it? Look there.”

Raffy watched the looming dark cloud hovering in the horizon, past the thick line of trees that their lola forbade him to venture into. It looked like rain clouds, but it did not appear to moving at all. Beside him, Agoy cringed and looked away.

“It’s contaminating the soil and polluting the water. It’s most likely the reason why fruits and vegetables are all growing at an unnatural rate!” declared Lola Adiang, as if she had already found this to be true.

To add to Lola Adiang's endless worries, Lolo Enteng woke up one morning crying like a baby, complaining about a terrible aching in his joints. Lolo Adiang tried applying root herbs and coconut oil, but Lolo Enteng just howled in pain and shoved her away. Even with Raffy and Agoy helping, their lolo would just kick and flail his arms.

They managed to apply the oil when Lolo Enteng finally fell asleep, but only to be rudely awakened in the middle of night with the same howling and crying.

"Now, that’s a really bad case of rheumatism,” Lola Adiang said grumpily early the next day, wearing her boots and readying a pack of tobaccos. “What your lolo needs is a drink of the boiled juice of the pansit-pansitan plant. Sure way to cure this. But it only grows near the banks of the river. And I’ve to go get it. I’ll be back before nightfall.”

"Can we go with you, Lola?" asked Raffy.

"No, you boys just stay here and look after your lolo. Besides, like I’ve said, the forest between the river and Santa Ines is a dangerous place. I know the way, but I don’t want to be taking care of two people on my way there. The sooner I get the plant, the better."

"But Lola..."

"No buts, Rafael. Just stay put and look after your lolo."

* * *

It turned out to be a really long day. By lunchtime, the two boys found out that their lolo was missing. They scoured the entire barrio but couldn’t find him. They were about to give up when they heard raucous sound of laughter coming from Mang Juling’s house. They were only too surprised to find his lolo and several townsfolk having a small sabong in Mang Juling’s sala.

“Lolo! Aren’t you sick? Lola had to find pansit-pansitan for your rheumatism. She won’t like it when she finds you here,” Raffy said.

“Whaaat? Who’s sick? Who are you?” Lolo Enteng replied, genuinely surprised at Raffy and Agoy’s presence.

“It’s Raffy and Agoy, lolo, remember?” Raffy said, not at all surprised.

“Er, are you sure you’re my grandson? Who are you?”

“Uh, who are you?” echoed one of the men in the room, not looking at anyone in particular. Then someone else repeated the question, until all the men in the room were chanting the same lines, pointing their fingers on everybody else, all in all making a mild commotion. One was pointing at himself as he asked; Mang Juling was addressing the question to his rooster.

The rooster now stared sideways at Raffy with what he could swear was one reprimanding eye.

Who are you? Who are you? Am farm animal!

Raffy jumped in fright and pushed Agoy forward. To his surprise, Agoy seemed to have momentarily lost his shyness. He stepped up boldly and composed himself.

“Lolo Enteng!” Agoy shouted, his keening voice rising above the din of chants.

Everybody suddenly fell silent. “Lolo,” Agoy continued, his voice coming back to its usual soft tone. “Let’s go home or Lola Adiang will surely get mad at you.”

When Lolo Enteng heard his wife’s name, a glint of recognition seemed to pass over him. His face winced and he began crying. Everybody else in the room seemed to have either recognized their kapitana’s name or just taken the cue from Lolo Enteng. Soon everyone was sobbing wildly.

The boys had to half-drag, half-carry their lolo back to the house. But while Lolo Enteng bawled like a baby, he did not resist. When they finally got him to bed, Lolo Enteng quickly fell asleep, a trace of a smile on his face. Raffy and Agoy stayed with him, both of them exhausted and full of questions.

Afternoon moved into early evening, but Lola Adiang didn't come back. The boys nervously watched the silhouette of the distant forest disappear into blackness, but their lola still didn’t return. They ate dinner silently and fed their lolo, who seemed to be in a peculiarly jovial mood. They stayed up late into the night, their heads poking out the window, looking for any sign that their lola had arrived.

“I’m scared, Raffy,” said Agoy.

“Don’t worry. Lola will be back soon. Maybe she just had a hard time looking for the plant. I’m sure she’s on her way back. She knows the woods; she won’t get lost.” Raffy wasn’t convinced by his own words.

“But what if—“

“I said she’ll be back!” Raffy said harshly. And nothing more was said.

Raffy was determined to keep awake until his lola arrived but his eyes began to feel droopy and he eventually fell into a fitful sleep beside the window.

* * *

He was rudely awakened by Agoy; his ears were at once assaulted by the wailing noise of Lolo Enteng, who was once again complaining about his bones. “Raffy, wake up. Lola still hasn’t returned.”

“What?” Raffy said, jumping from his bed. “She said she’ll be back by nightfall. Something must really have gone wrong.”

“What do we do now?” said Agoy.

“We need to look for her,” replied Raffy.

“Let’s ask the neighbors for help,” offered Agoy.

“Are you kidding? They don’t even know who they are! We have to do this on our own.”

“But who’ll take care of lolo? Lola said we shouldn’t leave him. And he seems to be in great pain,” said Agoy.

“I have an idea which just might work,” said Raffy. “Go get dressed.”

The boys hurriedly brought their lolo to Mang Juling’s house. When they got there, they found most of the men again attempting to play sabong. And, as Raffy had expected, Lolo Enteng’s rheumatism seemed to have vanished the moment he got inside the house.

The sight of the men laughing, clapping their hands, and prodding their roosters to fight each other looked really strange to Raffy, especially because the animals didn’t seem to be interested at all in fighting. The men all squatted in the small sala and watched the chickens scratching the floor and flapping their wings.

“They should keep lolo preoccupied for a while,” Raffy whispered as he stepped
outside, dragging Agoy with him. He didn’t want to stay too long with the animals; he felt they would start talking to him again the next moment.

“Where do we start?” Agoy asked presently.

“Where else?” Raffy retorted. “We have to follow the path to the forest.”