By Estrella Taño Golingay
The neighborhood would usually start to stir up to the insistent crowing of the roosters. As clumps of leaves gradually appeared against the sky, household sounds would signal the daily routine of chores. Then the lowing of herds would enliven the farm road, creating an urgency for those who had different deadlines to meet.
“Get up, Budz!” Nanay called from the kitchen where she was preparing breakfast. “Gather taro or Tope would get them first!” I could almost see her puttering around, her voice rising above the early morning din as she requested Tatay to fetch some water. “After that, dry again the rice you just harvested, so you can have it milled after.” Tatay was feeding the fowls outside, and maybe he could hear my mother, but I didn’t hear him reply.
The noise in the kitchen and the fowls dominated the early morning scene. Those sounds had filled my mornings since I was a little boy, and I had grown accustomed to that kind of music. Outside the half-opened window, I could still make out the silhouettes of the durian and mango trees as the sun was about to come out of Roxas Mountains. Still I sat there on the mat, my back against the hardness of the kalakat wall, trying to ward off sleep. I stretched out and shifted my legs to stand up reluctantly, and the bamboo floor creaked as I wobbled on my feet. I headed slowly to the kitchen, fearing the chronic morning speeches.
Then I thought of Heneral and remembered clearly how he got that name. It had been four months since we had him, and being the only male and the eldest in a brood of three, I felt I was the instant owner. It was the same feeling when we got Pia as a birthday gift from a cousin last year.
“He’s mine, and I’ll call him Heneral!” I had proudly declared, to which no one had objected.
“We can’t afford hog feeds,” Nanay reminded me. “You know that. So as usual, we have to make do with wild veggies, kitchen leftovers, and refined chaff from the nearby rice mill.” That meant I’d look for taro leaves along the irrigation canals and swampy nooks, and then cook the leaves in a large vat so that the hog could be fed in the mornings and in the afternoons when I arrived home from school.
“Been doing that, Nay,” I jestingly added.
“Abaw! hambog ba,” she jokingly said. “In exchange for what, may I know?”
“He-he-he, you know what I mean, Nay!” Then I remembered that for a month or two more, Heneral would have to go.
That morning was unusually arid, and the fields were dry and cracked like old skin with open sores. The feeder canal, too, had been almost empty for a month now. There were still clumps around, but the leaves had shrunk because of lack of rain. However, there was a large variety of taro grown domestically in backyards with large leaves and edible roots they called palawan, but those, too, had been reduced to stumps. Fortunately, with Pia to accompany me, I was able to gather some for Heneral’s fodder by taking the extra kilometer walk towards Kusan, sauntering along the irrigation canal with the hope of finding some of those much-coveted leaves.
But the best part of the hunt was to stand with my cousin on the highest hump by the canal. We’d squawk our hearts out at the feeding egrets, and they would scamper away to the sky and back while the sun slowly claimed the landscape. I had always loved the sight of those great white birds with their wide wings spread over the fields. That early morning ritual would usually end with a waft of breeze carrying the scents of young rice plants and loamy mud ready for planting. I recalled having done this with my cousins since I was little, as I used to accompany Nanay when she joined rice planters at the onset of rainy season. Just standing there, I felt the sky wasn’t so far then.
I found the chopping board hewn from an old kamatsili tree and started to cut the taro stems into two-inch or three-inch pieces and the leaves into shreds. The pieces fell unto an old sack that I had put under the chopping board. I was able to finish a sackful, which already filled the old lead vat my mother had received from my lola as an heirloom. That vat had been a constant fixture in the backyard as Mother never ran out of hogs to feed to make ends meet. Seeing it meant there was something to expect. In my mind, taking care of Heneral might give me what I’d been asking for: a new basketball to replace the lost one and a used cell phone maybe, which she had promised lately if I got better grades. But as usual Tatay wouldn’t budge.
He said, “We need a new scythe this weekend and a new bicycle tire to replace the broken one.” His words sounded final and curt, so I just sat there not saying anything, feeling the hardness of the bamboo bench secured under a guava tree. I always took Father’s words like they’re spoken by a chief, but in the end, he gave in a little as he quipped, “Join me in harvesting rice at your Uncle Umeng’s, and you’ll get what you’re asking for.”
His pacifying tone somehow made me relax.
“We have to join more harvests as those maybe our last.” Tatay’s voice quivered a little, and I saw him looking sad when I turned to look at him.
“Besides, there’s no more ulon-ulon to gather,” Nanay suddenly butted in as she folded our newly laundered clothing. “The huge harvesters have taken over the rice farms and everything goes in.”
Then I remembered the rice field my father had maintained in Dajay. He’d usually get several sacks from there, and that had been a great help for our consumption. But the previous July, it was infested by black bugs and rats, and there was the perennial maya bungol, always ready to swoop down on the yellowing fields and beat the farmers to the grains. I still laughed at why they were called such. Father had said that no matter how hard they were driven away, they would always come back.
Those mornings and weekends last July were the most memorable ones as we shooed the birds away with used cassette tapes tied at different directions of the field. The lines emitted blinding light when the sun rays struck the strips, and scared birds off. Sometimes, we would string empty tin cans across the field and shake the strings to create a resounding noise as I booed the loudest, driving them away. After that, I would let out a hearty laugh, but then, they’d come back, and I’d get tired doing that again and again, and it wasn’t fun anymore.
“I don’t think there’s much to expect from the coming harvest in Dajay, either,” Tatay said. “You saw what happened there.” He had a faraway look.
“Yes, Tatay,” I said softly, trying hard not to appear sad knowing it was something that happened to all rice planters as my mother said.
“Hay, the Lord knows what we need,” Nanay said, sighing. “Let’s just be thankful for what we are given.” She would usually seal our fate with that mantra every time the harvest season failed.
But I got my red basketball nevertheless, after a day and a half of absence from school. The cell phone had to wait until next harvest time or when the hog was traded. So that day, I saw to it that fire was enough for the forage before I left, and with one last glimpse, I was off to school at the poblacion, almost four kilometers away from our village. But before I could even get out of the door, Father called my attention again and warned me earnestly. “Salvador, remember what we talked about.” Father’s index finger was pointing at me. “No late-night basketball games, especially with that cousin of yours!”
I could only nod in solemn reply while recalling the incident over a year ago. For two days, I was grounded for failing to be home after a basketball tournament at the poblacion. I never saw my father that angry before, and for the first time, I recoiled with fear at the fierceness of his eyes. I almost got a punch on my stomach had it not been for my mother coming between me and that fist of fury.
“That good-for-nothing son of yours,” Tatay said. “Look who was with him! You don’t even care whom he goes out with!”
Instantly, I felt brave for my mother, afraid he would hit her, and he wasn’t even tipsy, so I shielded her with my frail body, but he shoved me to the wall, so hard that I suffered some bruises. I didn’t see what happened next, but I heard her shouting, “Tama na!” which brought my two siblings to the scene, their cries adding to the commotion.
I learned my lesson the hard way. Looking back, I felt there was more shame than fear. But then eventually, Nanay knew about the online games and how I actually lost my money on betting. For that, I had to pay the price. But she didn’t know about the girl with curly hair and dimpled smile in the section next to ours and how I bought her stuffed toy at the ukay-ukay last fiesta.
That afternoon, after our dismissal at Libertad National High School, Tope came running to where I stood waiting for my siblings and whispered, “Come, it won’t take us long, just a game or two.”
“Computer shops are full by now,” I replied. “Besides, got no money.”
“It won’t take long, Budz,” Tope insisted. “I’ll pay for you. Just pay me back later.”
“How about Mira and Bebing?”
“You can just tell them you need a little time for your homework. And do you know that Odet now stays with her aunt?” Tope whispered something close to my ear and winked at me teasingly with a grin.
“Oh no, Topz. Not again. You’re always putting me in trouble.” I faked anger, shoving him off. I wasn’t sure, but I felt my whole body smiling on hearing that name.
“Hoy, Tope! Aren’t you coming home with us?” Mira shouted at Tope as she arrived with Bebing almost stooping with her backpack on. “Let’s go home, kuya. Stay away from that bum!”
“I’m hungry, kuya!” whined the little one as she darted to the nearest stall of native delicacies.
“Some other time maybe, Topz,” I finally decided. “Here comes the tricycle,” I said more to myself than to Tope as I assisted my siblings inside while I took the back ride.
“Talawit!” Tope taunted me. “I’ll tell it all! Talawit! Talawit!” Tope sneered at me repeatedly at the top of his voice as we drove away. “Bring it on, Topz!” I laughingly shouted back, feeling braver this time to face any form of bullying. Soon the tricycle was struggling on the potholes towards home with twelve young passengers, four of which were enthroned on the rooftop.
Heneral stayed with us for two months more, and that meant same routine of gathering and preparing taro fodder. His squeaking may be earsplitting, but in time I had become accustomed to it and learned to like it being part of the usual sounds of home. Then I had that feeling my father liked me taking care of Heneral because I had something to do for the family.
My sisters and I enjoyed bathing Heneral when Nanay was too busy to do it. He liked being stroked at his underbelly and the gush of water on his back. Mira enjoyed the splash of water all over the pen, but one time, she tossed water nonchalantly upwards, and we got the share of the bath, so I complained loudly amidst her giggles and the snorting of the hog. “Mira, stop wasting water and help me clean the pen instead!” We had kept clean the hog’s pen, which was an open four-square-meter structure with four-foot buffer of split bamboo wall around. Any foul smell emanating from it would invite trouble from the neighboring households and a report to the barangay officials meant a warning. Keeping hogs for market somehow made us feel secure with the source of income just on hand.
“Next year, you’ll be in grade seven, and there’ll be more expenses to meet,” Nanay said seriously. I couldn’t bear the thought of missing school again, so I’d been trying to be good with my grades. I would also help my father as I promised especially during off-harvest season, which had usually been a lean season. Like these months, she had already spent the 4Ps allotment on food and other immediate needs. But one time, after claiming her share from Landbank, she surprised us with a fried chicken, and how we cheered her for that.
The impending sale of Heneral made us kids sad. My aunt was suddenly brought to the hospital the night before, and Nanay had to borrow money again for her. That meant she had another debt to pay, so she promised the hog as payment. But I thought that was better than betting the money again on number 88 that she had been maintaining. She said the number was given to her by a Chinese merchant, and it had always been a lucky number. But the last time she placed a bet and lost, my father was so mad, their argument ended with a broken window.
“We’ll get another one to replace him when he goes, don’t you worry,” she assured me, sensing my unusual silence. I remembered that it had happened before, so I just had to let go and wait.
“But how about the cell phone you promised, Nanay?” I asked softly. “Maybe we can get one from the store, just like Jopet’s.”
She didn’t answer.
“Go ask your auntie Rosie if she’s still selling her old one,” she said suddenly, surprising me a bit.
On second thought she quipped, “Oh, let me do that. It’s Sunday tomorrow, right? Rose usually reads at the Bible service.”
So one Saturday morning, the buyer arrived, riding an open motorbike-driven cart. In it were two helpers and an old weighing scale used for hogs. Nong Domi, as they called him, had dark shades on, so I couldn’t make out what he really looked like. He entered the house premises towards the pig pen without the usual amenities. That surprised me because Nanay always told us never to enter people’s yards without greeting the owners first. The elders said that it’s like theft.
From the side window, I watched the old man instruct his helpers to tie the hog and snag it on the weighing scale, squinting as he arranged the lead weight. Soon after, he counted some money before giving it to my mother, who was quick to note the weight of her hog beforehand. Then quickly, he directed his helpers to load the shrieking animal on the cart. Seeing the squealing Heneral hogtied, I felt anger or sadness maybe, and I thought he must be asking for help. To my surprise, Nanay didn’t accept the money.
“Will you please count it on the table first before I take it?” she demanded, and this made the old man uncomfortable.
“What’s the point?” he asked. “Here’s the money in full. Don’t you want it?” He was resentful. Nevertheless, he counted the money again while my mother watched contemptuously.
“We agreed on ninety pesos per kilo before you came, and my hog weighs eighty-six!” she explained. “How come you counted five thousand less? Is there a mistake somewhere?” I almost forgot that my mother finished second year high school and was best in Mathematics in her class.
“But it’s already loaded!” Nong Domi defiantly declared as he tapped hard on the table in front of him, causing Pia to start barking. Soon, our street was a long blast of canine protest.
“Then put my hog back down!” Nanay suddenly raised her voice, stunning us all.
“I’m not selling it anymore, and there’s your money!” she added in a loud voice almost equal to his booming one. “I haven’t touched it!” she continued, her voice surprisingly clear and strong.
“It’s not good for business to take back a merchandise already loaded!” he yelled back, and the old man’s impatience started to attract attention from the neighbors. Anxiously then, I went out hurriedly on my mother’s side with my siblings tugging at my T-shirt.
“Kuya, kuya, wait!” Bebing fearfully pleaded as she and Mira held on to me.
“Stay away from him,” she murmured nervously while shaking my arm. But I just walked on, emboldened by a newly acquired courage thrust on eldest sons when placed on the spot, but stopped when I noticed something unusual. Nanay just stood there confidently commanding everyone’s attention. She looked calm but surprisingly fierce. That was a difficult spot for all of us, for I’d known my mother when she was sure and angry.
Suddenly, more people popped out of their doors, spilling into the street, and for the first time, I was extremely glad to have them as my neighbors. Then some male harvesters belonging to Father’s harvest group had come hoping for a glass of tuba. Times like those, they would usually talk about pressing matters while waiting for their share, but at that time, Tatay hadn’t returned yet from Uncle Umeng’s store where he sold their harvested palay. Unexpectedly then, they became an audience to the farce thrust into them.
“I’m glad he isn’t here,” I whispered to myself, feeling relieved he wasn’t around to witness all those. Knowing Father, I was sure he wouldn’t take such an affront lightly. In that uneasy silence, everybody just gazed at the scene and waited for the next move of the old man as he fumbled for words to say. Finding none, he grudgingly completed the amount and threw the additional money on the table, cursing under his breath.
“There, you can have all of that and you can be rich!” He stomped out of the yard while my mother kept her composure with a glare she couldn’t hide. He then hurriedly mounted his motorbike, and off they went with a kick, a dark swirl of dust trailing behind as he dodged the street mongrels barking fiercely after them. Instinctively, everyone on the street just stood and insolently eyed the speeding vehicle. Then, as we were about to go back to the house, there was a heavy thud and the dust cleared.