The Bleached Hills of Cotabato

By Erwin Cabucos (Fiction)

(This story first appeared, in slightly different form, in Philippines Graphic.)

“Alexander, come back, now!” Mother’s voice echoed throughout the rice field, waking up nearly every cricket and frog that morning. I didn’t care; I kept on walking along the pathway between the paddies. I didn’t want Kitty to marry that gray-haired, big-bellied Australian man in the photo. Kitty was eighteen. He’s fifty-four and retired from work. Now they’re going to meet him and he’d be welcome in our house. They’re getting ready to pick him up from the airport. I felt as though I had lost a friend. What a waste.

They could pick him up at the airport. They could have that white man, his dollars, and his suitcases and his chocolates. That meant my sister and that man would sleep together tonight doing what adults do in the bedroom that my sister and I had shared for many years since we were born. That’d be yuk. Disgusting!

Mother was still yelling at me to come back. I didn’t want to turn around. My footsteps were getting heavier, sometimes breaking the soil. Father would be angry for sure; he’d have me patch the walkway as soon as he saw the damage.

The morning sun followed me toward the thick profiles of bamboo trees on the hills. Cario, our carabao, rubbed his snout on the side of the water hole, whipped his back with his own tail, and mooed.

“Hi, Cario, good morning,” I murmured. He blew out some air through his nose, sounding like a revving jeepney in first gear. I sighed and sat on the grassy patch, holding some regrowths. Dew wet my backside.

Mother’s cousin Aunt Elisa, who now lived in Brisbane, had married an Australian she had met through Facebook. She left him after a few years because they fought a lot about her sending money to her family in the Philippines. Aunt Elisa was now working as a cleaner in food courts. She convinced mother that she had a good life in Australia and recommended that her newly retired friend Gregory Smith marry my sister.

Mother was persistent. Her voice was piercing in the ear. “Alex, don’t make me drag you back to the house. I’ll smack you. Do you want me to get your father?” The yellow-green rice was not tall enough yet to block Mother’s voice.

Would she really smack me? Would she really send my father to belt me? I was in second year high school, and I had not had a smack since I was in grade two. Father used to leave rectangle marks on my skin especially if I had not collected young leaves for Cario’s dinner.

From the distance I saw Father approaching with his leather belt. My heart beat faster. What could he really do? He wouldn’t kill me, would he? I uprooted some of the grass and whisked them in the air. I stared at the bare wiry root hairs in my hands.

“Alexander!” Father’s voice was loud. “If you don’t come here by the time I count ten, you will regret it!”

My hands shook. I stood up and ran towards him. I knew how he could tear my skin, marking me like branded cattle on a farm. “I’m coming, Pang,” I said. “I’m coming.”

“What the hell are you doing?” he said. “Everyone’s ready to go and you’re here?”

“I don’t want to go,” I said. “I want to stay here.”

“It’s a family thing. We want Gregory to feel welcome. Now quick, wash up and hop on the jeepney.”

The wind dampened my face as our family jeepney raced along Marcos National Highway at one hundred kilometers per hour. My ears felt like ice from the gusty morning air. The silver unicorns galloping through the set of springs on the bonnet of our jeepney were somehow energizing me, as if telling me: “Look at us, bro, we run and gallop when we are told and we have no problems, ha-ha-ha.”

Yeah, I wished I were a horse with wings. I wished I didn’t care about my sister.

At the front seat, Mother brushed Kitty’s hair with her fingers. Mother used lipstick to turn Kitty’s lips red, making her look like she had just sucked someone’s neck for fresh blood.

Mother’s eyes widened, staring at Kitty. “Make sure you kiss Gregory. Australians kiss when they meet.” Her right forefinger was nearly buried on Kitty’s chin. “On the lips, okay?”

“Mang, I hardly know him!” Kitty’s brows drew closer.

“What do you mean you hardly know him? You have been talking to him on the phone for nearly two years now. His bills must be as tall as Mt. Apo from calling you nearly every day, and you say you don’t know him?”

“Well, I haven’t really seen him yet. You want me to kiss him on the lips, no way!”

“Oh, Kitty, you’ll fall in love with him. He’s white, unlike us—dark. His color is pleasant. His nose is not like ours—pug. His lips are thin, oh, so kissable.” She giggled, sliding her shoulders to Kitty’s.

Father at the driver’s seat didn’t say anything, which might mean that he didn’t completely disagree with what Mother had said. This was odd.

Goosebumps ran along my spine in disgust after hearing mother. “Mang, he is as old as General Emilio Aguinaldo! And his tummy, a perfect cone like Mount Mayon.”

“Ah, shut up, Alex. I was only trying to welcome your sister’s future husband.” She straightened her cardigan. She looked at her face in the mirror, rubbing her lips together and making sure no lipstick stained her teeth. She clasped her small maroon bag as she wriggled her backside to sit firmly next to Kitty.

My sister’s lips protruded. Her nose was buried in her beautiful face as she pouted. It was the same look that she would have when we were young whenever her kite strings broke. The makeup and lipstick were too strong for her light features. She looked like she was going to participate in a streetdancing competition.

“God, help my sister,” I whispered. I felt like puking, but my stomach had nothing to throw up. I sighed.

It would still be a couple of hours before we got to Awang Airport in Cotabato City. The rusty ceiling of our jeepney did not hide the recent soldering of its patchy roof. We used it to transport tomatoes, bitter melon, live native chickens, eggs, firewood, and other farm products into town. It crossed creeks, got over bogs, and survived a recent terrorist bombing near Pikit Bus Terminal. Kitty argued that it was a lot safer for us to have our own transport than be at risk on public buses.

Behind the mounds of rice hay on the side of the road were fields reaching out to the horizon. The smoky air from the burning mounds filled my lungs. In the middle of the mounds was the pinkish ash we used to dig and sell at the market. People bought them for cleaning pots and pans.

On the other side of the road stood a cream-colored Iglesia ni Kristo church with its towering spires. Outside its fence, a man was grounding, his harrows pulled by a carabao. Then I was deafened by a loud cry over a speaker sitting on a mosque’s roof: Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar.” God is the greatest, God is the greatest. Father’s speed reduced the voice into nearly a whisper: “Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim.” In the name of God, most gracious, most compassionate.

Houses and people became frequent.

“Midsayap town!” Father announced.

Mother looked at her wristwatch, scanned the view, and said, “Perhaps we should stop for coffee, some ibos, and mangoes.” Ibos was a kind of sweet rice cake in rolled banana leaves.

Good, I was starving.

Mother’s heels burrowed into the muddy ground as she got out of the jeepney. Her slacks clung on her skin. She tugged at her pants that got caught between her buttocks. Kitty, in her short skirt, looked as if she was going to a nightclub.

I quickly ate my ibos and my mangoes and drank my coffee. Father and mother were leisurely peeling their ibos and sipping their coffee when I suggested to Kitty that we go for a walk to a shady Talisay tree.

“Ate, shouldn’t you be standing near red lights?” I blurted.

“Huh.” She tried to pull down her skirt. “And Mamang put some makeup on me. It feels weird.”

“She thought your face was a canvas.”

She laughed.

“Birds-of-paradise, chrysanthemum, and vanda abound in that painting.”

She laughed louder. “Don’t be silly. It’s not that bad, is it?”

“Well, the colors are strong.”

She took out a round maroon compact, opened it, and powdered her cheeks in a circular motion. “How do I look now?”

“You don’t look pretty with makeup on.”

“Shut up, Alex. Is it better or not?”

“Better.” I sighed. “Ate, I’d still look at you even if you had no makeup.”

“Well, I’m meeting my boyfriend.”

“Ugh.” I acted as if I’m puking. “That’s so disgusting. An old man, three times your age, big-bellied. He can’t even speak our language!”

“Alex, he’s a nice man. Don’t say things like that.”

I don’t know how to convince my sister not to meet this man. I shook my head. “Ate, you shouldn’t meet him.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say. I felt like banging her head on the wall so she would wake up to the reality that in a few years’ time, she could be widowed. Either that or she would have to live with a man who could be impotent, incompetent, or worse, incontinent.

“Alex . . .” She sighed, her eyes narrowed. “You’re getting boringly repetitive. It’ll be okay. He’s not the ideal, but he will do.”

“It sounds like you’re only going to use him. Besides, how do you know he’ll just ‘do’? You don’t know him that well.”

“Well, we’ve been talking almost every day on the phone for two years now. So I kind of know him.”

“Does he really know you? Have you told him everything about our family and our culture, that you eat and suck fish eyes, that you go to church on Sundays, that you give money to our parents, that you can be bossy in the house? Have you told him those?”

She dropped her compact on her lap and gave me a weird look. “Alex!”

“Ate, you’re only eighteen, and he’s fifty-four!”

“I know, and that’s enough, okay?” She was almost yelling. “Gee, Alex.” She shook her head and gasped. She then looked at herself in the mirror, lifting her chin, looking sideways and up. “Now, is my face better?”

“Yeah, Julie Anne San Jose.”

“Please, not a Filipino.”

“What’s wrong with Filipinos? We are Filipinos.”

“Just a preference, thanks.”

“Why?” I said, frowning, shaking my head.

Mother was waving her hand at us. Father was revving the jeepney on the side of the road.

The sign welcome to cotabato city nearly hit the front of our vehicle when we passed it in the curb.

The ground was patched with white rocks and pebbles, like we were driving on land dried up from an ancient seabed. As we went through the bridge into the city, my eyes rested on the floating water lilies on the surface of Rio Grande de Mindanao. Houses on stilts ridged the side of the river. In a house, a lady in malong was tipping a pail onto the bamboo floor, and the water in it flowed straight into the brown river. At a distance were boats, anchoring. Some of them were disgorging iron container vans, getting picked up by a giant forklift from the air.

A rhythm of gong and a high-pitched female singing voice dominated the surroundings. Father pressed the radio dial to DXOL-FM, and a popular song competed with the traditional Maguindanawon sound I would have preferred. I poked my head out, trying to hear some more of the gong and the lady’s voice, but Mother told me to duck my head back in if I didn’t want to come home headless. Men with Islamic turbans and amamahs walked about in the sun. Women with hijabs and malongs sat near pails of boiled corn on cobs and peanuts they were selling on the side of the road. A young guy in jeans and tight white shirt came out of the Mercury Drug Store, fixing his sunglasses and his amamah.

“He’s good-looking,” I commented. “Ate, why don’t you go for Filipino guys? Aren’t they good enough for you?”

“Alex,” Mother said, “if you want your sister to live in dire poverty, then yeah, find her one.”

“So, Mang, is it all about money?” I retorted.

“What else is it about then?” Mother said. “Gregory is Australian. He must have money.”

“He told Ate Kitty one day that he is retired. That means he’s not working anymore.”

“That means he has money accumulated in his bank account.” Mamang shifted her look to the vendors on the side of the road, pretending that she was not interested in my arguments.

“But, Mang, that’s his money. As if he’d give it all to Ate when they get married. He’s not stupid. He’ll just use her.”

“Shush, Alex. Shut up!” Mother looked at me again with wide eyes.

I felt so disappointed. I sighed again for the powerlessness that trapped me. I wanted to do something but the force was way too hard to dispel, let alone to get into. “What is this, Pride and Prejudice? Incidentally, Ate Kitty, your name is in the novel. I now have something to talk about in our English class on Monday. And what about our practice of sending money home? As if Gregory would allow that!”

“You never know, Alex,” Mother said. “I will explain that to him when he gets to our house.”

Everyone seemed to be quiet for a while. Jeepneys never stopped honking. Wavy flags of yellow, purple, red, and green lined the streets, simulating the colors of the malongs women were wearing. Tricycles and bicycles crowded the road with jeepneys. The tropical sun burnt my skin.

Mother spoke: “He’s white, so their children should have long noses, thin lips, and fair skin. They will be beautiful.”

Heat ran through my spine at the repulsiveness of what Mother had just said. “So, children with pug nose, thick lips and brown skin are ugly?” I yell.

“Well, white kids are more pleasant to look at. They look clean.”

“Mang, are we ugly and dirty, then, because we have pug noses, thick lips, and brown skin?”

“No, Alex. I didn’t say that. I was only saying that if you look at children of people with fair skin, thin lips, and long noses, they look nicer. Nothing was wrong with what I said, was there?”

“Yes, there was, Mang. That was vile. You made me feel ashamed!” I shook my head. “You made me feel so small.”

“Calm down, Alex. You just misunderstood me. You’re making me sound like I’m evil.”

I looked the other way. The view of the towering sea rocks on the side of the road surprised me but not as much as what my mother had just said. It really bothered me. I wanted to say more. “That’s bullshit, Mang! What you said is completely unacceptable. You said we are ugly and dirty compared to the whites! And because I won’t marry a white person, I’ll have unpleasant-to-look-at kids! This jeepney might as well be blown away by a bomb. You guys don’t think!” I threw a punch in the air. “You are all a bunch of stupid idiots!”

The tires screeched. Father had pressed the brakes. “Get out!” he roared at me. “Get out!”.His lips pursed, he got out of the vehicle and walked toward me. “You insolent little prick, wishing death for us! Come here now!”

I slowly stepped out of the jeepney.

Mother looked worried. She got out quickly and held Father’s arm. “Rolando, calm down. It’s all right.” Mother cried. She knew how angry Father could get. He would not budge on anything.

“Pang, we’re running late. Leave it, Pang.” Kitty was nearly crying. She had clenched her fist.

Father did not heed Mother and Kitty. He undid his leather belt and lashed me, leaving a burning sensation on my arm and back. My body skewed away from the direction of the belt as he kept on whipping me. I bawled, and my hands went berserk in the air in my efforts to block belt.

Father stopped and breathed rapidly while looking the other way.

The pain pierced through my flesh, gritting, like a raw knife cutting me. My eyes narrowed as I breathed in. I was broken, knowing that my opinion didn’t count in this family, my own family.

“Don’t answer back,” Father said. “Don’t curse your parents no matter what. Don’t disrespect them. Do you understand?”

“Y-y-yes,” I managed to utter.

My tears blurred my vision of the Notre Dame of Cotabato for Boys school across the road. Luckily it was the weekend and classes weren’t on. I wondered what they’d think of me, a boy, crying, if they’d seen me. I also wondered what they’d make out of us, Father beating his howling son.

Father went back to the driver’s seat.

What the heck. I bolted across the road, careening in the middle of the traffic, zigzagging in between houses. My cheeks were shaking from the thudding of my feet on the rocky grounds of Cotabato City. Wind fanned me, cooling my skin. I didn’t know where I was going, but I somehow felt good running. I felt sick but quite energized by the escape from my violent father, racist mother, and dumb sister.

I saw a shadow in front of me—the bell tower of the Mary Immaculate Cathedral. I jumped over the fence and sat next to the candle stand; the heat of the candles exacerbated the pain of my lacerated skin. I entered the church, dipped my forefinger into the bowl of holy water, and made the sign of the cross.

I flicked my eyes to get a clearer view of the altar. The crucified Jesus was white, looking down at me with his long nose and thin lips. On the other side of the sacristy was the image of Mary Immaculate with white, tall nose, blue eyes, and blond hair.

“Are you okay?” A man in the white robe appeared at my side, a Filipino priest.

“Yes, I’m okay, Father.”

“Are you sure? You look distraught.”

“I’m fine.” I tried to hide my welts. I wiped my face with my shirt and cleared my nose. “Those statues . . .”

“What about them?”

“They don’t look Filipino.”

“Your point is?”

“They look so foreign, so unlike us.”

He nodded, slipped his hands into his pocket, and stood languidly next to me. “They are white. You’re right.”

“Why, Father? Did you want God to look more beautiful?”

“Why did you think so?”

I shrugged my shoulder. “Don’t know. It seems that people like white statues as they look more appealing than the brown ones.” I cleared my nose once more. “Is God really white? Have you tried putting Filipino-looking Jesus and Mary?”

“Do you think people would like that?”

“I think so.” I nodded. “I, for one, would love it.”

“By the way, why were you crying?”

I sighed. “Nothing.”

“Are you sure?”

I lifted my shirt. I showed him my back and arms.

“Jesus!” He looked shocked. “Let’s go to the parish office and treat those. Who did that to you?”

I walked with him, hearing the hem of his robe rubbing his ankles. His leather sandals brushed the concrete. My stomach grumbled. I looked around. Would my family ever find me?

He waved at the two male teenagers carrying a miniature Philippine nipa palm thatched hut. “I’m actually changing the tabernacle of this cathedral into a traditional Philippine house design, and I hope people will appreciate it.”

“I think they will,” I said.

As he dabbed some cotton with Betadine solution on my wound, I told him what happened in my family. He listened intently. I felt a little bit better that someone cared, that someone was thinking my opinion had sense.

“Thanks for treating my wound, Father.”

“That’s okay, son. They should heal soon. Forgive your father, that’ll help.” He smiled.

“I’ll try, Father,” I said.

I decided to go back to the highway to find my family.