Bugas

Ni Rossel Audencial
Sugilanon

Ginagutom na ko. Niuli ko dayon gikan eskwelahan para makakaon, kaso pag-abot nako diri, wala man tawo ug walay pagkaon bilin.

Wala koy ikapalit og maski unsa nga pagkaon. Nahurot na akong baon nga baynte pesos para sa isa ka adlaw. Gipalit nako og saging ganihang recess ang dyes,  giamot kay teacher ang singko kay gamiton daw para sa among room, ug gipalit nako og bolpen ang nabilin nga singko.

“Ate, naay kan-on?” ingon pud ni Bert nga nagahangos pa gikan sa gawas. Iyang nawong puno og singot nga gatulo-tulo pa.

“Wala man unod ang kaldero,” tubag nako.

“Ay, abi nako naglung-ag usab si Mama. Nahurot man namo ang kan-on ganihang paniudto.” Nisulod si Bert sa kwarto. Paggawas niya usab, nakailis na siya og T-shirt.

“Asa diay niadto si Mama?” pangutana nako.

“Wala pa diay siya kauli?” tubag ni Bert. “Ingon niya ganiha, adto daw siya ila Ante Minda kadali.” Amiga ni Mama si Ante Minda, ug sa pikas purok kini gapuyo.

Niduol si Bert sa dako nga lata sa bugas ug giablihan kini. “Wala pud ta bugas nga lung-agon.”

“Wala man tawo dinhi pag-abot nako,” ingon nako. Nilingkod ko sa usa ka bangko atubang sa among lamesa. Gisundan nakog tan-aw si Bert nga nilakaw padulong sa pultahan. “Asa ka?”

“Didto lang ko sa pikas,” ingon niya bag-o nigawas.

Adto na pud siya tingali ila Ante Sally, magulang ni Papa nga pinakaduol ang balay sa amoa. Didto lang sa pikas nga kanto. Maayo didto kay naa sila tindahan. Ganahan motambay si Bert didto kay magdula sila sa among pinsan nga si Allen. Naa computer si Allen. Nagatrabaho ang bana ni Ante Sally sa canning og dako daw sweldo.

Gabii na pud guro to mahuman sila Papa. Maayo na lang nakasulod siya sa Dole nga pinyahan. Maski gamay ang sweldo, sige lang, ana siya, basta naa lang trabaho ug duol sa amoa. Wala man gud kahuman si Papa og high school maong dili daw siya makakuha og nindot nga trabaho. Ana siya nga maningkamot daw mi nga moeskwela ug makahuman para makapangita mi og trabaho nga dako ang sweldo. Sige lang, makahuman lang lagi ko. Maski layo, baktason lang nako among eskwelahan adlaw-adlaw. Mahal man gud ang pamasahe ba. Ikaon na lang nako og saging nga prito akong ipamasahe. Maayo pa ang elementary naay feeding. Kami sa high school wala kay dako na daw mi. Pero wala lang sila kabalo nga gaadto pud mi sa eskwelahan nga walay kaon. Kanindot mobalik og elementary. Pero dili, mas maayo nga makahuman na ko og junior high school. Ingon nila libre man daw ang senior high school. Asa kaya ko ani moeskwela? Gusto nako cooking para magtukod ko og karinderya diri sa amoa. Ana pud akong klasmeyt, hairdressing daw para magparlor mi.

Murag naay tawo sa gawas. Pag-abri sa pultahan, akong duha ka manghod diay. Ngitngit na sa gawas.

“Asa mo gikan?” pangutana nako kay Ella, manghod nako nga sunod kay Bert. Naa sa edad diyes si Ella. Gunit niya ang kamot ni Jun, among kinamanghuran nga lalaki nga lima ka tuig.

“Ila Lola,” tubag ni Ella. “Gidala mi niya sa ilang balay ganiha.”

“Wala lagi siya nisulod?

“Adtoan daw niya si Ante Sally. Wala pa kauli si Mama?”

“Wala pa. Unsa diay oras nilakaw si Mama?”

“Human paniudto. Lakaw daw usa siya kadali. Katong nadugay nga wala pa siya kauli, nilakaw si Kuya. Nabilin lang mi diri sulod. Taodtaod, naghilakhilak na man ni si Jun kay gusto mogawas, maong nigawas mi. Nagtambay mi didto sa may tindahan sa tumoy. Naabtan mi ni Lola didto, ug ana siya nga uban daw mi sa iya.”

“Sige, ilisi usa si Jun.” Nisulod silang duha sa kwarto.

Wala pa lagi si Mama? Ganiha pa man diay siya nilakaw. Nag-unsa kaha siya didto ila Ante Minda. Mga pila na pud ka semana nga sige siya adto didto, ug pagnagaadto siya didto, dugay jud na siya mouli. Katong niaging semana gani, suko kayo si Papa kay pag-abot niya wala pay nilung-ag nga gabii na. Pag-abot ni Mama, nag-away sila. Kusog kaayo ang tingog ni Papa. Madunggan jud sa tibuok purok. Hadlok kaayo mi kay hapit na sumbagon ni Papa si Mama. Nakit-an jud nako iyang kinumo. Nisinggit kog, “Ayaw!” Naundang si Papa ug nigawas sa balay maski gabii na. Wala siya niuli katong gabiuna.

Sunod adlaw ato, wala pa gihapon kauli si Papa pag-uli nako sa hapon. Nilakaw si Mama, ug pagbalik niya, uban na niya si Papa. Hilom kaayo sila pagsulod sa balay. Wala sila tingganay hangtod sa nahuman mig panihapon. Mga pila pa kaadlaw bag-o nitingog si Papa paghawa niya balay para magtrabaho. Niingon ra pud si Mama nga, “Sige.” Hinay iyang tingog. Ambot lang kung nadunggan to ni Papa.

Sukad ato, naa na si Mama pag-abot nakog balay. Ganahan kaayo ko kanang pag-uli nako naay saging nga nilaga sa kaldero. Kung wala pud, sayo galung-ag si Mama ug sayo mi mangaon. Lami gud ang sardinas nga butangan rag papaya ug malunggay. Lami among higop-higop sa sabaw. Mokaon na lang si Papa pag-uli niya.

Karon na pud nadugayan og uli si Mama. Sigurado masuko na pud to si Papa ba. Moutang na lang guro kog bugas sa tindahan sa tumoy. Murag layo na man i-adto ila Ante Sally. Ulaw na pud kaayo moadto didto. Murag gaadto lang mi didto para makikaon. Uban pa jud mi sa akong mga manghod. Buotan man si Ante. Ginapakaon mi niya pag mag-adto mi sa ilaha. Pero ana si Papa, dili daw mi sigeg adto didto kay ulaw sa iyang bana. Wala man ang bana ni Ante sa ilaha kung mag-adto mi kay panggabii daw iyang duty. Maski na, ana si Papa, ulaw daw sigeg adto ila Ante para mokaon. Mao nang talagsa na lang ko gaadto ila Ante. Kanang pag gutom na kaayo, moagi ko sa ila. Maayo na lang pakaonon pud ko niya. Ginapadal-an pa gani ko niya og sud-an pag-uli nako para daw sa akong mga manghod. Pasalamat kaayo kog dako.

Nag-ingon ko kay Ella nga mogawas ko kadali.

“Pagbalik dayon ha,” ingon niya nga nitutok sa akong mata. Pagawas na silag kwarto ni Jun nga bitbit ang coloring book nga regalo ni Ante Sally sa amoa katong niaging December.

“Dira ra ko sa tindahan sa tumoy.”

Amoa lang tarangkahan ang ngitngit paggawas nako. Naa man suga ang mga balay-balay nga akong maagian padulong sa tindahan. Wala nay tawo sa gawas nga nagalakaw kay naa tanan sa sulod nagtan-aw og TV. Kami ra jud ang walay TV sa balay. Wala pay ikapalit, ingon ni Papa. Sa sunod lang daw. Mangutang lang kog isa ka kilo nga bugas para lung-agon karong gabii ug ugma sa buntag. Bayran lang ni Mama pag-uli niya. Naa naman pud guro siya dala sud-anon. Basta makalung-ag lang ko una bag-o moabot si Papa. Mas maayo unta naa na si Mama sa tindahan pag-abot nako para dili na ko mangutang. First time nako ni. Ulaw man pero bahala na.

Mga pito ka balay akong giagian hangtod nakaabot sa tungod sa tindahan nga tumoy sa among kanto. Dinhi nagaagi sila Papa ug Mama pagpauli sa balay. Dinhi pud ko gaagi padulong sa eskwelahan. Gamay ra ang tindahan. Naa kini semento nga lingkoranan sa matag gilid. Diri halos gatambay ang mga drayber sa habal-habal kung mahapon na. Maayo na lang walay tawo karon. Niayo ko kaisa ug nitubag dayon si Ante Linda. Naa ra diay siya sa sulod. Dili nako siya makit-an dayon kay puno og biskit ug sudlanan sa kendi ang iyang tindahan. Naa pud kaha sa sigarilyo sa may wala nako.

“Maayong gabii, Ante. Mingaw lagi ron?”

“Ay, nanguli silag sayo kay naay ordinansa si Kap nga dakpon ang mga tambay lalo na ang gasugal.

“Kanus-a lang?”

“Tong niaging semana ra pud. Ganina gani naa daw gipangsikop didto sa pikas purok kay nadakpan gasugal. Naa guro nisumbong.”

“Hala, kahadlok pud.” Unsa na lang kaha kung madakpan ko sa pulis. Ikulong jud ko nila uban sa mga preso. Sa mga nakita nako nga palabas ila Ante Sally, hadlok baya mga nawong sa tawo sa sulod sa presohan.

Pagpangutana ni Ante Linda kung unsa akong paliton, ana ko nga moutang usa kog isa ka kilo nga bugas. Bayran lang ni Mama pag-uli niya. Natingala si Ante kay wala pa kauli si Mama nga gaina pa man tong tunga sa adlaw niagi sa iyang tindahan. “Gani, Te,” ana pud ko. Nisugot si Ante. Gihatagan ko niya og isa ka kilo nga bugas. Niana pa siya nga gabayad man si Papa basta gautang sa iya. Nagpasalamat ko dayon nibaktas pauli. Mingaw na jud ang dalan kay wala na galakaw-lakaw dili pareho tong mga niaging gabii. Pag kanang manugo si Mama palit og mantika, daghan pa na tawo katikaw-tikaw sa dalan. Daghan pa na bata magdagan-dagan sa gawas. Kamingaw sa dalan karon. Murag ako ra ang tawo sa kalibutan. Maski naay suga sa mga balay, ngitngit ra gihapon akong ginaagian. Nibati na ko og kalamig sa dapyo sa hangin sa kagab-ihon pati pud ang kabug-aton sa isa ka kilo nga bugas. Ako jud kini gigunitan sa duha nako ka kamot, ang isa sa taas sa silopin ug ang isa sa ilalom. Basig magisi pa lang ang silopin ug mayabo ang bugas.

Sa kahilom sa dalan, daghan nuon ko mahimunduman. Unsa gani tong ingon ni Lola ah, kanang—nikalit nga naay nipagaspas. Walay suga ang balay nga pawod nila Ante Neneng. Karon lang pud nako napansin. Naay usa ka dakong puno sa mangga sa kiliran niini. Nagahilay na ang uban nga dahon sa ilang atop. Sa kangingit, mura kinig dakong tawo nga gabantay sa gamay nga balay . . . nga nagatan-aw sa akoa. Nanlimbawot akong balahibo sa kalit. Nihinay-hinay kapaspas og lakaw akong mga tiil ug nidagan.

Gipaspasan nako og abri sa among tarangkahan ug nisulod. Niundang ra ko sa sulod sa pultahan nga gahangos-hangos. Nangutana si Ella kung naunsa ko. Nagapungko sila ni Jun sa lamesa. “Wala,” tubag nako. Mura kog buang nga nidagan. Nikatawa kog kusog sa akong gibuhat. Natingala akong mga manghod nga nitan-aw nako. Gibutang nako ang isa ka kilo nga bugas sa lamesa ug nideretso sa dapugan. Maayo na lang naa pa gamay uling nabilin. Makaluto pa jud ko ani og kan-on.

Asa na man to si Mama? Mag-alas otso na pagtan-aw nako sa among gamay nga relo sa bungbong. Naluto na ang kan-on ug nabahaw na gani kini. Wala pa pud si Papa. Gigutom na kog pag-ayo. Pagpangutana nako sa akong mga manghod, wala pa sila gibati og gutom kay gipakaon man sila ni Lola ganiha bag-o sila niuli.

Nitingog ang pultahan.

“Papa!” singgit ni Jun. Nitindog ko sa kalit. Nisulod si Papa ug hinay-hinay nga gipinid ang pultahan.

“Asa si Bert?” pangutana ni Papa. Gibutang niya sa lamesa iyang dala nga silopin ug gisabit niya iyang bag sa bungbong.

“Niadto ila Ante Sally,” tubag nako sa hinay nga tingog. Nihulat ko nga masuko na pud siya.

“Adtoan ko lang siya. Manghulam na lang pud ko kung naa pa sila nabilin kan-on.”

“Nakalung-ag na man ko, Pa,” ana ko. Nihulat ko nga mangutana siya kung asa ko nagkuha og bugas.

“Sige, pangaon na mo una. Naa man ko dala nga sardinas dira.” Nisulod siya sa kwarto.

Gipahipos nako ang coloring book ni Jun. Naghukad ko og kan-on. Gibuksan pud nako ang lata sa sardinas ug gibubo ang sulod niini sa yahong. Dili na jud matabang ang akong kagutom. Human pangamuyo, nisugod na mi kaon. Kalami sa kan-on ug sardinas! Lami jud mokaon nga gakinamot. Nanghugas na bitaw ko. Ana man si Titser nga manghugas daw bag-o mokaon. Human sa pipila ka hungit, nibati na ko og kabusog. Pagtan-aw nako sa akong mga manghod, hinay lang ilang kaon. Sabaw lang ang gusto ni Jun. Gamay na lang nabilin sa sardinas. Wala pa diay kakaon si Papa. Ug si Mama diay! Karon lang nako mahinumduman. Wala lagi nangita si Papa kay Mama?

“Kaon na, Pa,” ingon nako paggawas usab ni Papa sa kwarto. Nakailis na siya og T-shirt pambalay.

“Unya lang ko,” ana siya. “Sundoon pa nako imong manghod.” Hinay iyahang lakaw padulong sa pultahan. Nabati nako ang kahilom sa balay. Ang gabitay nga pangutana sa akong huna-huna: Wala pa lagi si Mama?

“Wala pa kauli si Mama.” Nigawas lamang kini sa akong baba nga wala nako gihunahuna. Wala ko kasabot kung nganong giingon nako kini.

Niatubang usab si Papa kanamo. Nitan-aw ko sa iya nga gahulat. Dugay siya nitingog.

“Dili mouli si Mama ninyo karong gabii. Naa siya sa prisohan karon. Nadakpan siya nga gasugal ila Minda gaina.” Nigawas si Papa sa pultahan.

Wala ko kasabot sa akong gibati samtang gatulo akong luha.

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The Road

By Rossel Audencial
Fiction

There is a checkpoint ahead.

“Expired akong lisensiya,” mutters the driver before he swerves the tricycle to the right, away from the waiting men in uniform along FilAm Avenue of Brgy. Fatima. The passengers are silent. It has been raining hard since that early afternoon and most of us are drenched from the trip downtown. Good thing, I brought a jacket with me.

Even before the declaration of Martial Law in Mindanao, checkpoints already scattered in relative areas along the major roads in General Santos City. Blue or Yellow Boys wave at tricycle or single motorcycle drivers to stop at the roadside and examine faces, licenses, and vehicles.

I am sitting at the two-person back seat to the right. In front of me is a woman in her late twenties who keeps on swiping and tapping her cell phone. Beside the driver are two teenagers my age, male and female, their hands intertwined.

The tricycle continues to a two-lane cemented street with residential houses along the way. This street leads to the former public cemetery which has been privatized. Light posts stand in a distance from each other. The lights only cover a little area around their posts. The houses are cast into shadows.

After continuing on a straight road for a while, the driver takes a turn to the left. A woman stands alone beside a light post, its light only a faint glow above us. The driver stops for her. She whispers something before embarking at the back and sitting opposite me. We leave the cemented street and move on to a narrow dirt road. At first, the way is illuminated by the bulbs of the houses we pass by; fences enclose us on both sides. I feel the tricycle strain as the driver navigates it through mud holes, moving to the left or to the right as the road allows, the tires squirting mud. Single motorcycles overtake us and speed away. Another tricycle tails us for a while but it turns to a lone street. Gradually, the houses thin as we go on until we arrive at a crossroad. All we can see are tall grasses on both sides of the two roads. The driver takes the one on the right, and if it wasn’t for the headlight of the tricycle, we would have been plunged into complete darkness. I also notice that we are going uphill as the engine seems to roar louder.

And we turn to the left. We reach level ground and we are now travelling on sand. The tricycle seems heavier. There are no more houses in this part of the road, just more grasses and darkness. I have never been in this area before. I never knew that there are still unoccupied lands within the barangay where I live. The drone of the tricycle echoes through the night, blending with the constant chattering of the crickets.

Another turn to the right. The beam of the tricycle’s headlight only reaches to a few meters of the way. No other vehicle is following us at the back. It’s like we are alone in the vast darkness. We follow the curve of the road as it comes to us through the light, not really knowing where it leads.

We turn to the right again. I feel like an hour has already passed without sign of a house or the highway. I’m starting to feel uneasy. I should have not listened to my friends. They said we won’t stay long when they invited me to have dinner with them after we roamed around the malls the whole afternoon to try dresses for our upcoming Junior’s Prom. Mom will surely get angry at me again. For a week now, I have been going home at almost midnight.

“Katuod ka asa na ni, Kuy? Mura’g kaganiha pa man ta galibot-libot.” utters the woman who is directly behind the driver, her cell phone in her hand.

“Gasunod ra pod ko sa dalan, ‘day,” the driver answers with his eyes locked on the road. We hit another curve. Only tall grasses are visible.

To the right again. The road continues on straight then curves to another crossroad. It is pitch black all around us except the front. The woman behind the driver has her head turned towards the front, too. The woman beside her has her head bowed, perhaps sleeping.

The driver turns to the right. Again. I do not know where the crisscrossing roads lead to. And it hit me, the idea that we are lost. Lost inside a dark maze with no way out. But mazes have traps. What if?

“Balik na lang ta?” the same woman asks, her voice on edge. We all look at the driver.

“Dili na makaya sa akong gasolina. Duol naman ‘guro ta sa highway.” he mumbles in a low voice. The rest of us remain silent, but a palpable tension is starting to build inside the tricycle. The lovers in the front seat huddle closer to each other.

The tricycle follows another curve and – a loud bump. The engine sputters and stops. The front light snuffs out. A surge of blackness envelops us all of a sudden that no one reacts except the driver who pushes the starter as swiftly as he can. One. Two. The engine comes to life again together with the front light. We catch our breath in unison. And we move on through the night.

The driver takes on a narrow pathway and is too late to realize that the puddle ahead is deep. We are stuck. The tricycle can’t move forward, its wheels grinding and splashing mud all over. The driver tells us all to step out. He and the male teenager shove the vehicle away from the watery mush.

“Gabii na gyod,” says the woman who was the last one to ride with us. She is standing a little farther from me. Her voice is clear enough for me to hear despite the loud whine of the tricycle. Her face is turned towards the darkness behind us.

“Lagi, kasab-an na gyod ko ni Mama ani,” I say, looking at her. Whoosh. A chilly wind sweeps through us. I feel it creep through my bones although I’m wearing my jacket. She seems not to notice the cold and continues peering at the dark void.

“Sayo na lang unta ko niuli, magkauban pa unta mi ni Mama. Kamingaw diri,” she says.

Her words arrest my attention. I’m about to ask her but the driver calls us at the other side of the wide puddle. We tiptoe at the grassy side of the path to avoid the mud and jump across to dry ground. One by one, we return inside the tricycle.

When we are all settled back to our seats, the tricycle begins to move again. I look at the woman but her head is bowed again. I wonder what she means.

The road goes straight this time until we pass along small huts amidst the grasses here and there. Then come walls of concrete at both sides of the way, and out into the familiar highway. A few vehicles parade before us in quick succession before we touch the cemented ground. For the first time, I’m glad to see the four-lane concrete Fil-Am road again. I feel relieved to know that its sure point of destination is the General Santos City International Airport. But Mom will surely castigate me; it’s already 11 pm. I’ll just face her wrath when I arrive home.

The lovers are the first ones to leave. I transfer to the front seat. Next is the woman with her cell phone.

“Pag-renew na sa imong lisensiya, Kuy, ha,” she says as she hands in her fare before stepping out. She stands at my side of the vehicle.

“Oo, ‘day,” he replies as he gives her change in front of me.

We continue through the highway. The whole span of it is bright because of the tall light posts at each side street. The establishments at both roadsides are closed, but their incandescent lights are on. But now I know that the darkness is out there, far beyond the artificial brightness. Always there with the grasses and the crossroads. I shiver at the thought of being there earlier.

“Asa man ka, ‘day?” the driver asks me.

“Didto lang sa may Julie’s bakery.”

“Hay salamat, makauli na gyod ko.” The driver smiles.

“Naa pa man ka pasahero.” I stare at him. He must be joking.

“Ha? Ikaw na lang man nabilin.” He looks at me, questioning.

What about the woman? I turn my head around to look at the back seat.

It’s empty.

Editors and Contributors

GUEST EDITOR

Andrea D. Lim is from General Santos City, and she is currently working as an editor for a publishing company in Cebu City while taking her master’s degree in literature at the University of San Carlos, Cebu City. She was a fellow for poetry in the 24th Iligan National Writers Workshop (2017). She is also the former editor-in-chief of the Weekly Sillimanian, the official student publication of Silliman University, Dumaguete City.

REGULAR EDITOR

Jude Ortega is a fictionist from Senator Ninoy Aquino, Sultan Kudarat Province. He has been a fellow in four national writers workshop, and his stories have received honorable mention in the F. Sionil José Young Writers Awards and the Nick Joaquin Literary Awards.

CONTRIBUTORS

Rossel M. Audencial is an AB English graduate of Mindanao State University in General Santos City. She now teaches in the university and serves as the adviser of Bagwis, the student publication. She finished a master’s degree from Notre Dame of Marbel University in Koronadal City, South Cotabato.

Hope Daryl Talib is a fourth year BSED English student at Mindanao State University. She loves to write poetry and fiction in the languages she knows, and her dream is to inspire her future students to write. She is from Tacurong City, Sultan Kudarat.

Jerome Cenina was born in Brgy. Spring, Alabel, Sarangani Province. He is currently studying at Notre Dame of Dadiangas University as a Humanities and Social Sciences Grade 12 student. He has always dreamed of becoming a lawyer and writer.

Marie-Luise Coroza Calvero is a composer from General Santos. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Film Music at the Institut für Neue Musik (Institute of New Music) of the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik (State Conservatory of Music) in Freiburg, Germany under composer and film music expert Cornelius Schwehr. In her spare time, she reads books, writes poetry and short stories, does freelance work as a music arranger, and teaches piano and music theory to children.

Joana Galila is a student of Bachelor of Secondary Education at Mindanao State University-General Santos. She lives in the municipality of Tampakan in South Cotabato.

Merhana Macabangin is a writer, illustrator, and Education student from Polomolok, South Cotabato. Her works are usually about Muslims and the Maguindanaon.

Mariz Leona is an AB English student at Mindanao State University in General Santos City. She is from Lambayong, Sultan Kudarat. “First Aid,” her essay in this issue, is the winner of the 2017 Sultan Kudarat Essay Contest, organized by local writers.

Ira Shayne Salvaleon is a senior high school student (Accountancy, Business, and Management track) at University of Southern Mindanao, Kabacan, Cotabato Province. “Twenty-Two-Hectare Treasure,” her essay in this issue, is a finalist in the 1st Cotabato Province Essay Contest (2017), organized by local writers.

Jhessa F. Gales is a fourth year BSED English student at Mindanao State University-General Santos City. She is from Polomolok, South Cotabato.

Quantum Leap

by Rossel M. Audencial (Essay)

People go far in life because someone believed that they can. I say, I go far in life because someone took a quantum leap. My Mother did.

My Mother belongs to a family of twelve, the second eldest child of ten siblings. She grew up in the barrio amidst corn and rice fields her family did not own. Her parents both depended on the yield of these fields for them to have something to eat. They had eloped from Iloilo and never finished high school. They found refuge in South Cotabato and built a family of their own.

She finished her elementary years by walking everyday, back and forth, at dawn and dusk, to and from the nearest school, three kilometers away. She had no money for baon. To buy her needed pencils and notebooks, she would sell guavas or pick kangkong or takway along the road to sell to her classmates or teachers while her mother sold suman.

She can well relate to news features of children who carry their school things in cellophanes or net bags. She did the same just to go to school. There were no roads yet at that time. She had to traverse through the muddy embankments of rice fields, wet and slippery when it rained. Her cellophane bag, conveniently tied to her shoulders, kept her school things dry. She cannot forget that she wore slippers a lot bigger than her feet. She would pick them up, sling them in her arms, and walk barefoot instead, crisscrossing narrow paths just to reach school. She would wash her feet in a nearby stream when she was near the school building and put on her slippers again.

When she was in high school, her father contracted an illness that made him unable to work for a year. In order to survive, my Mother and her siblings had to find work to feed the family and to support their schooling at the same time. During planting season, she would join the group of planters who were commissioned by the owner of a rice paddy to plant seedlings of palay by hand in a hectare-wide field. She experienced bending her back all afternoon under the raging heat of the sun with only a salakot covering her head and wading into mud to finish a row of the planting box. The faster you planted, the more rows you finished, and the faster your group covered the whole plant area, the faster you moved on to the next.

She also tried plowing a field single-handedly. Despite her small and thin stature, she had to lead a carabao across a dry rice field. She grasped the reins of the animal with one hand and followed with the heavy plow with the other, digging into compact soil and leaving furrows behind. It was hard physical labor. All you needed was a body that could stay up long and the energy to move your hands and back all throughout the day and even weeks. As a teenager, her body had to learn to adjust to farming work.

When harvest season came, she, together with her older sister and younger siblings, would go to different places to find rice crops ready for reaping. Sickle in hand, they joined groups of reapers in cutting rice stalks heavy with grain and stacking them into bundles for the hand-fed threshing machine. She had been wounded by a sickle many times, my mother would tell me, showing thin straight scars in her hand and arm. Even though her hand was bleeding, she would just wrap it with a cloth and continue cutting.

This work of clearing a hectare of rice field could take a whole day. After all the bundles of rice stalks were threshed by the machine, leaving only the grains ready for winnowing, my mother would take their part of the harvest. The usual agreement during her time was through counting tin cans; those big cans of cooking oil served as their measuring tool. She explained that her part would be the sixth can, the one after every five cans of threshed rice grains as yield from the bundles she had been able to stack. This means two things. One, she had to cut more and stack large and heavy bundles of rice stalks in order to yield more than the five cans of grains. Second, she might not have anything to bring home if her harvest had not reached more than the five cans. Aside from this, her younger siblings could collect more rice grains from the heaps of straws left in the field or thrown out by the machine. They would bring the fruit of their labor home, tired but satisfied that at least they had something to eat and to sell in order to buy other necessary commodities like sugar and salt to last until the next work opportunity.

Among these experiences, she cannot also forget how it was to eat with one roasted catfish and a kilo of rice for dinner. Her father would hang the skewered fish in their thatched ceiling, out of anyone’s reach. When supper came, he would get it for all of the ten siblings to see. And what happened next? He would pass the fish to everyone around the table for them to smell it. Just to sniff at it, until everyone finished his or her cup of rice. And nothing more. No additional rice even if they wanted more. If they were still hungry, they would go out and climb fruit trees in the neighbourhood or find bananas to eat. She cannot imagine now how her family lived through the worst times of their lives—but she is thankful that they did.

My mother finished high school. Fortunately, she said. College was a far-fetched thing. Her next option was to stop schooling. Thinking of quitting school, however, made her see in her mind’s eye the hardships and hunger around her. She came to that point in her life when she had to decide how her life would become. Her parents could never send her to college, but her life would remain as it was if she stopped schooling. By then, she promised to herself that she would not work in the fields again. The only way out of it was finishing a college degree to get a job other than wallowing in mud or in the heat of the sun or breaking her back in hard labor. She had nothing against life in the farm, but she also wanted a comfortable life.

Thus, one day, a month after high school graduation, she declared to herself that she would go to college. Without bringing extra clothes and money but herself, she went to the nearest college institution in Marbel (now Koronadal City) and talked to a woman in the canteen there. She expressed her intention to be a working student. She was fortunate enough that day. One of the teachers hired her as a house help. She would do household chores in exchange for tuition.

For four years, she washed the clothes of others, bigger than what her hands could carry, and ironed them before she could sleep at almost midnight. For four years, she tended to babies and kids unrelated to her by blood, that they grew up with her by their side more than the time she spent with her own siblings. For four years, she had to work hard in the house where she stayed and worked hard to finish her studies. All the while, she performed a balancing act of working and studying at the same time. What sustained her was her goal to graduate and those endless, silent prayers she muttered to herself every day. If there was one thing poverty had taught her, it was to cling to God. Her faith had walked her through the hardest path of her life that, after four years, she graduated in her education course. She is the only one who did among her ten siblings.

She is now a teacher in a public high school in General Santos City. She says that it is not at all easy to teach. Being a teacher requires another level of hard work and patience, especially in dealing with teenagers, but she has attained a sort of progress compared to her previous experiences. We did not have much but had enough to eat three times a day, to dress in uniforms and wear shoes, and to have baon in our pockets. She was able to send us to schools near our house that we did not have to walk far. We haven’t tried planting or harvesting palay, not even touching a plow. And when we finished high school, college was the next option. She had reached her goal in life and she wanted us to reach our own with her support. She paid our tuition fees and gave us allowance for school requirements. We did not have to be a working student like her.

She has been through hardships—physical labor, not to mention mental and emotional struggles. These hardships has made her not just a strong woman, but more aptly, a woman of strength. Her quantum leap has brought me to where I am now. It is a leap that opened a wide array of opportunities for me to soar higher than what she has reached. I thank her for walking away that day, away from that endless toil and cruel poverty. She knew that she could make her life better and that all she had was that courage sustained by her faith in God. She has taught me that life is a choice. And that choice depends on me, solely.

Death Mask

by Rossel Audencial (Fiction)

The dig site was near the bank of the river this time. It was three o’clock in the afternoon of a Saturday. The sun was bright and scalding. Ben, however, did not care about this as he skipped his way through the line of tall grass to go to where his uncle and his group were busily digging.

His uncle’s group of three men were shovelling soil from a little ditch when he arrived. He grasped one of the remaining shovels and started digging according to his uncle’s instructions. The ground was hard and compact, with stones and rocks under it. They methodically worked until the sun set and uncovered a wooden enclosure, painted black, with two planks fitted tightly on top. It was a coffin, his uncle declared.

They dug and cleared the soil at the sides and hauled it up to level ground. It was as heavy as a sack of rice. To prove if he’s right, Ben’s uncle used a sharp and thin knife to cut the vine-looking ropes that keep the planks shut. He then pried one of the planks open and it creaked as it loosened. He did the same with the plank beside it. He called on to one of his companions and they lifted one of the planks. A musky smell wafted out. They covered their noses with their hands. Another plank was removed and revealed something that made them look closer inside.

There lay in the coffin a skeleton all intact, from the long bones of its leg up to its skull. And instead of flesh, ornaments form the eyes, eyebrows, nose, and lips of the face.

“Gold!” exclaimed Ben’s uncle. “It’s a golden death mask!”

It was said that the ancient people placed a death mask made of gold to ward off evil spirits that may steal the dead body of their loved ones. It was made of pure gold which was abundant in the past.

The four of them agreed not to tell anyone about their discovery. The death mask will surely get the attention of rich individuals who would pay a fortune just to have it.

Ben stayed for supper outside his uncle’s tent who decided to watch over the coffin until it is brought to the museum. A bonfire of dried grasses and twigs lit their faces as they ate. As the twilight deepened, he listened to the stories of the diggings that took place in the city some years ago. His uncle was mostly sad about the artifacts that were sold to affluent personages who would buy them for a huge amount.

“What will they do with those artifacts, Uncle?” Ben asked.

“They’ll put them in their private museum,” his uncle replied.

“What’s wrong with that?” Ben said. “They would still preserve those artifacts.”

“Yes, but they would bring them to a bigger city,” his uncle explained, looking at the direction of the coffin covered with a tarpaulin. “These artifacts reveal how our ancestors lived before us, and that they lived and died on this same ground. They should stay here with us where they belong.”

“But, Uncle, there was no museum yet in the past. When artifacts were sold to those rich people, we are assured that they’re preserved.”

“Even when the museum was already built, selling of artifacts was still rampant. I just can’t understand those diggers who sell their finds for money. Don’t they realize that when they sell those artifacts, it’s as if they’re selling themselves, too? They forget that these artifacts link them to their past and that past tells them who they are at the present. The past holds our identity as a people. The artifacts show us our distinct history and culture. When we sell them, we forget our past. We forget who we are.”

Ben agreed with his uncle. He would love to see the death mask in the museum.

The next day, Ben went to the mall. His eyes scanned the stalls as he walked. He stopped and leaned on the glass of a stall selling jewellery. He smiled at the sales lady who greeted him.

He directed his eyes to the rows of paired rings and spotted one pair, placed upon a red velvet case. Those shiny and round silver metals beckoned to him to touch them. Their glittering finesse opened in his heart a pining so powerful to see one of them in Helen’s finger.

Helen is his first love.  That day he first laid his eyes on her, he knew that she is special. She smiled at him back then. His heart leapt and fluttered. They were inside the city’s museum. His class and her class had the same schedule for the required tour around it. As the curator explained the history of each of the artifacts, he was watching her from behind. From then on, he became her secret admirer from a distance. He learned that she’s taking up BS Nursing while he is on his second year in BA Liberal Arts. They became friends when she came to him one day and asked help for an assignment. She would like to interview his uncle about his digging experience and finds. He introduced her to him and she was able to accomplish what she needed to do. From then on, they would meet, talk, or go out together sometimes.

 

Today was the day that he will confess his feelings. He will then ask her to be his officially. He’s nervous. How will she react? Will she accept him? All these are whirling in his mind as he waits for her in the bench where they agreed to meet.

“Ben!” He whipped his head to the direction of the voice—Helen, wearing a pink dress. For him, the world stood still—only she and he were alone in that moment. She walked towards him slowly. He stood to meet her, but saw someone at her back.

“Sorry, I’m late. My Dad here insisted that he would like to meet you,” she said.

“Hello Ben, I just can’t wait to meet the person my daughter is so enthusiastic about,” Mr. Alonzo said, smiling as he stretched his hand for a handshake.

“I-It’s nice to meet you, sir,” he stammered as he shook hands with Helen’s father.

Mr. Alonzo suggested that they find a place where they could chat. They chose a nearby restaurant. Deep inside, he began to be worried. He couldn’t afford to pay for their food, but he felt relieved when Mr. Alonzo said it’s his treat. While waiting for their order, Mr. Alonzo mentioned about him having an uncle who’s a digger to which he said yes. They ended up reviewing Helen’s interview with his uncle in a past assignment.

Mr. Alonzo spoke of the various artifacts he had seen in his travels around the Philippines. Most of those he mentioned were not even familiar with Ben, but the nineteen-year-old boy listened with rapt attention and kept on nodding his head. Helen would sometimes correct her father for some of the details about his own travels and of the artifacts he collected so far. The father joked that his daughter is like a curator. They all laughed.

“I wonder if you’re uncle has uncovered something new these days.” Mr. Alonzo looked at him straight in the eye. Those piercing eyes examined him.

Helen turned to him, too, waiting for his reply. He looked back at each of them, the father, then the daughter–his love—who smiled at him. Warmth surged in his heart.

“A-actually, yes,” he stammered to answer, addressing Mr. Alonzo.

“Really?” Mr. Alonzo looked at him with more interest. Helen’s eyes gleamed.

“Yesterday, we had uncovered a coffin,” he said. He could feel a tightening of his gut which gradually dissipated the warmth he felt a moment ago. He ignored it.

“You’re there?” Helen asked, excited.

“Yes, I helped my uncle in digging it out.” Helen uttered ‘wow’ which made his heart swell with pride. “We also found a death mask made of gold.”

Helen’s eyes grew wide upon hearing it and urged him to describe it. Mr. Alonzo was silent until he finished.

“Where did you find it?”

“Near the river.”

“Very interesting.”

Ben was not able to confess his feelings to Helen that day, but he felt so happy that her father seemed to approve of him. Mr. Alonzo even invited Ben to visit at their house. All that time, Helen was smiling at him. However, he could not understand why he felt sad and uneasy after their meeting.

On Monday morning, Ben received a text message from Helen. Mr. Alonzo invited him to come to their house tonight. Because of this, his classmates couldn’t help but notice a wide smile plastered in his face and his energy was higher than usual the whole day. That afternoon at ten minutes before five, he ran out of their classroom the moment the bell rang even though his teacher was still giving an assignment. His feet seemed to fly through the stairs from the third up to the first floor, bounding lightly in the concreted hallways. He didn’t hear the calls from some friends in the corridors as he sprinted away, maneuvering his way through the crowd of students who were coming out from their classrooms.

He stopped outside Helen’s classroom to catch his breath. There were girls chatting inside; he heard Helen’s voice.

“…transfer back to Manila for the rest of the year,” Helen said.

“What do you mean? How about Ben?” said another girl.

“What about him? I just befriended him because Dad wants to be updated with the diggings here in the city. And he’s planning to buy that death mask Ben’s uncle uncovered last week…”

Ben stood frozen outside the door. His tiredness was all gone in an instant. He couldn’t believe what he heard. Is it really Helen talking? Maybe, it’s another girl talking about another Ben. The girls inside chuckled, teasing Helen about something. She shouted “Hey, stop that!” which made the girls tease her more loudly. But no! He knew Helen’s voice very well. Helen? He thought…

And it slowly dawned on him, the realization that he had revealed what was supposed to be a secret between him and his uncle. Guilt washed over him multiplying the aching of his heart. His feet started running again in their own accord, away from Helen’s classroom…

He had to tell his uncle. He had to say to him he’s sorry. The death mask was supposed to be a secret. He ran through the tall grasses to come to his uncle’s tent. The ground crunched as he stepped on twigs and dried grass. The rays of the sun were waning in the east. He could hear the drumming of his chest. He could feel his breath draining, but he didn’t stop running. He had to see his uncle.

When he was near enough, however, he could hear voices coming from the dig site. He slowed down and turned to walking until he saw a throng of people gathered around the ditch where they uncovered the coffin, barricaded by a yellow tape. Ben also saw another group of people gathered around the coffin beside his uncle’s tent already spread on the ground. A man was laying a measuring tool at its wall plank from one edge to the other edge and scribbling something at a notebook. A woman was clicking her camera at the coffin and the people around it. Two more men were squatting down and examining the skeleton closely; they were carrying clip boards in their hands.

He looked around, but he could not find his uncle.

“Ben?” someone tapped him at his shoulder.

He turned around and recognized one of the diggers who were with them that day they uncovered the coffin. “Where’s Uncle, Manong?”

“He was brought to the nearest hospital. Just this afternoon, three men came here and forced him to sell the death mask we found. When your uncle wouldn’t give in, they started beating him. Fortunately, we arrived in time with the museum’s men and stopped them from almost killing your uncle and stealing the death mask.”

Ben could not move for a long time even after the digger left him. He stood rooted on the spot in the middle of the people coming to and going away from the dig site. Their voices became babbles in his ears. He saw the coffin nearby but not the people around it. He saw the golden death mask glinting in the setting sun. Indeed, it warded off evil spirits. He thought it smiled at him, a sad one.

 

Ben couldn’t help but be nervous. He had memorized every detail of the artifacts displayed in the glass panels. He rehearsed his lines and traced his steps around back and forth a hundred times, simulating his rounds with the visitors who are mostly students. He had dreamed and waited for this day to come and had done all the necessary preparations, but still he could feel his hands trembling and his chest pounding hard. Ten minutes before opening time, he stood at the side of the glass doors which open in the middle, flexing his fingers to calm his nerves.

At exactly nine o’clock, the glass doors were flung open and a group of students in uniforms, ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’ as their eyes roamed around the hall. With a loud voice, Ben greeted them and introduced himself as the new curator of the city’s museum. The students, turning attentive, gathered in front of him and listened as he started his account of the museum’s background. He then called them to follow him as he led the way to the different glass panels, pointing and explaining the historical dates and significance of the artifacts within. Some students remained silent as they followed him into the inner hall, hanging on to his every word; his voice booming and reverberating around the walls. Only a few asked curious questions to which he answered enthusiastically.

As a highlight of their tour, he brought them to a glass panel at the centremost part of the inner hall. There the students saw a painted black coffin made of wooden planks and lying inside was a skeleton still intact from its skull to its legs. He didn’t miss to say that he was among the diggers who uncovered it five years ago. This made some students exclaim ‘really!’ and they eagerly listened to him as he narrated his digging experience. But he didn’t tell them that he also lost his first love five years ago, that he didn’t see her again after that Monday evening, and that his uncle lost one of his legs.

Ben then told them to move to the other side of the glass panel. As the students leaned around the glass, looking closely at the ornaments there, he spoke:

“That is a golden death mask. It was said that our ancestors put it on the face of the dead body of their loved ones to ward off evil spirits. It was made of gold because our land was rich in gold in the past.”

Some students uttered ‘wow’ as their eyes turned to him and back at the artifact. Ben also looked through the back of the students to the death mask inside the glass panel. He saw it smiling at him like the smile of his uncle, proud and happy.