Saturday, January 29, 2011
A SMALL TOWN
IT WAS SUPPOSED to be a representational image of the national hero. But it barely appeared to be. The face hardly resembled that of the depicted hero’s. Only when one got a closer look at the concrete figure could he be convinced that it was a sculpture of Jose Rizal. For one, the statue struck a pose similar to the one found in Luneta. For another, there was the man’s name engraved at the bottom of the statue. Actually, it was not a sculpture in the true sense of the word; rather, it was one created using the old fashion statue mold. Which explained its crude-looking appearance. Mounted on a concrete base that measures roughly around five feet high, the statue towered over the townsfolk.
There it stood in the middle of an octagonal-shaped concrete space in the center of the town’s main intersection. The very heart of the town—the town’s plaza.
The hardly resemblant Rizal figure was put there a decade ago upon the initiative of the town’s mayor who had grandiose dreams of beautifying the town. Back then, the statue, sporting an immaculate white hue, provided some novel view in the otherwise dreary community. Everyone passing by would marvel at the sight of the imposing structure. Being the first of its kind in the town, it was an awesome sight that inspired feelings of nationalism and patriotism to the townsfolk. For this reason, everyone regarded the statue, and the very spot where it stood, with a great amount of reverence.
In just a year’s time, however, the town’s populace began to show a gradual change in the way they held their esteem toward the hero’s statue. The image having become an everyday sight, its novelty had worn off. The townspeople would hardly bother to cast a glance whenever they passed by the statue. If ever they happened to catch a relative or a friend or an acquaintance passing by or loitering or otherwise spending some leisure moments in the plaza, they would just go about with their exchange of pleasantries or small chat or conversation or gossip-swapping with nary a thought of darting a glance at the crude concrete figure that towered above them. Then they would, as evidence of their stay, leave behind trash, like candy wrappers or cigarette butts, something which scarcely happened back then.
In just about the same time, too, the structure’s once spotlessly white color had by then become a messy sight what with the dirt and dust that had stuck to it and the peeling paint due to the ravages of heavy rains and the sun’s scorching rays. Then, also, proofs of defacement on the statue, like scrawled graffiti or letterings or small cracks or chipped edges, could be seen about the concrete base and the statue itself. No, the town’s officials showed neither attention nor interest restoring the structure back to its former condition.
Making the already bad situation even worse was the neglect in keeping the plaza clean and sanitary as only once in a week (at times, once in two weeks) would the lowly town hall cleaner bother to visit the plaza and sweep away the piled rubbish.
It was evident that maintenance of the plaza, or the statue itself, was scarcely in the minds of the town’s officials.
As if in conspiracy with the town officials, fate itself had shot a destructive arrow of misfortune at the statue. For, a month earlier, a severe typhoon struck the town. Heavy rains and strong howling winds toppled the statue to the plaza’s pavement. It broke when it hit the concrete ground, nearly causing the head to be severed from its body. Only the contoured iron support inside the statue prevented the head from totally separating from the cracked body.
A sorry fate to the national hero’s statue.
As he now looked down on the lifeless concrete figure lying on the cold ground, it occurred to Dencio that he had been waiting here in the deserted plaza for almost half an hour already.
Where are they? he wondered. It was already close to nine in the evening, yet they still hadn’t arrived. No, he wouldn’t wait for them any longer.
He was already a few meters away from the plaza on his way home when he heard Berto’s loud voice.
“Sorry, Dencio,” came the apologetic voice of Berto. “I had problems looking for our carabao in the field. Father wouldn’t let me leave without the carabao being found and securely tethered.”
“All right,” Dencio said as he noticed a crudely bound bouquet of flowers held by Berto in his hands. Behind Berto was Pendong who was carrying a guitar.
“Where’d you get them?” Dencio asked, his eyes fixed at the flowers. He was smiling at Berto. “You’re really smitten, huh?” Dencio said as he examined the flowers.
Berto flashed a shy smile. “I am, Dencio. She’s the only girl that I will love.” He held the boquet near his face. “This cost me a fortune.”
Pendong laughed. “What do you mean a fortune?” he said in a mocking voice. “We just scooped them up at Mang Tinoy’s backyard garden.” He jerked back and tried to evade a punch playfully thrown at him by Berto.
“All right,” Dencio said. “You ready?” he asked as he grabbed the guitar from Pendong. He started strumming the guitar strings, adjusting the tuning keys at the guitar’s head. “Sounds all right.”
Berto let out a heavy sigh. “Always ready, Dencio,” he replied. “What about you?” he asked.
“Of course, I am. I’ve been doing this a thousand times,” Dencio boasted as he winked at Pendong.
“Would you want a brief rehearsal before we go there?” Pendong asked Berto. He noticed the sudden seriousness that had seized Berto’s face. “You seemed to be jittery, Berto.” He inched closer and abruptly touched Berto’s clammy, ice cold hands.
Berto instinctively pulled back his hands. “What the…” he said in a surprised voice.
“Whoa! Just as I thought!” Pendong snapped. He laughed, saying, “Maybe we should turn back, Dencio. Look at Berto. He’s overstrung and trembling! He’s scared stiff!” He instantly drew back in an effort to avoid another fistic blow from Berto.
“Knock it off, Pendong,” Dencio said as he stepped in between Berto and Pendong. He was grinning, pushing Pendong away. “We haven’t got much time, it’s getting late,” he said to Pendong. He turned and draped an arm around Berto’s shoulders. “You can do it, buddy,” he said reassuringly. “We better go now.”
They left the plaza and strode down the road under the pale moonlight. A multitude of stars stabbed the cloudless sky. From the thick shrubbery that flanked both sides of the road, a variety of insect sounds filled the air. Once in a while, high-pitched chatterings by monkeys hidden in the trees would echo. And then the tree tops would sway in the night breeze, causing the thick leaves to brush the other leaves. After some distance, they turned and took a detour, traversing a patch of prairie. Along the way, there were bushes that grew thick, forcing them to part the undergrowth that blocked their way. When they reached a clearing, they hastened their pace, following a trail. The leaf-strewn path led them to an unlit road lined with thatched roof bamboo houses. There were some people who stood by the roadside in front of some huts and gazed at the three strangers who slowly passed by them.
“This is it?” asked Dencio, referring to the narrow street. There was a slight nod from Berto.
Pendong pointed to the far end of the dark road. “Over there,” he said.
The nipa-thatched hut stood at the street corner. It was a small bamboo-walled house erected on thick wood posts with a space underneath occupied by a flock of chickens. Beside it was a dense coppice that reached waist-high.
When they reached the front space of the hut, they positioned themselves near the closed window. Dencio held the guitar against his chest, his left hand gripping the guitar’s slender neck. Berto, clutching the bouquet in his clasped hands, stood beside him. Pendong was standing behind them. Then, suddenly, clucking sounds emerged from under the house: the fowls had been roused from their slumber. As the noise rose, a dog began to bark from somewhere in the back of the hut. Berto looked at Dencio, who gazed at him inquiringly. As Dencio nodded his head, Pendong nudged Berto.
“Common, sing,” Pendong whispered.
Gently, Dencio stroked the strings, producing a melancholy tune. He took a deep breath, glanced at Berto and began to sing:
Sa gabing malamig
[In the cold night]
Bituin sa langit…
[A star in the night…]
Pendong repeated the same word that Berto belted out, Pendong's voice creating an echoing sound that harmonized with Dencio’s singing.
The serenading men then sensed some movements inside the shuttered hut. From the small holes or slits on the bamboo wall, they made out the pale lamp light that had begun to shine inside the hut. And then the framed nipa pane that covered the window began to move: it was gently being pushed out. A figure slowly was emerging.
Pendong gave another nudge at Berto’s back. Berto abruptly shoved backward his elbow, hitting Pendong’s ribs. All this time, Dencio went unperturbed in his singing:
Sa gabing tahimik
[In the silent night]
Larawan mo, Neneng
[Your image, Neneng]
Nagbigay pasakit. Ay!
[Has caused pain. Oh!]
It was at this juncture that the figure’s image clearly stood out in the window: it was an old balding man with a frown on his face. He was clutching with his two gnarled hands what appeared to be an orinola (chamber pot) in the manner of one ready to spill out its contents outside the window, directly to the serenaders.
For an instant, Pendong, seized by a sudden instinctive fear, gripped Berto’s arm. Berto tried to appear calm at what he was seeing. Dencio’s eyes widened; he then turned and shot a glance at Berto. This notwithstanding, Dencio continued with his song:
Gising at magbangon
[Awake and arise]
All of a sudden, another figure appeared in the widow: a middle age woman with tousled hair. She was pushing the bald man away.
A light smile stretched Berto’s lips when he saw the bald man totally push out of the window frame. Then, the image of a smiling young lady came to appear in the window. Beside her stood a boy, who appeared no more than ten years old; he was yawning and rubbing his eyes with both hands.
Berto’s grin then began to widen, almost touching his ears, when he finally saw the young lady start waiving her hand at them.
Dencio, who was enjoying the scene, continued uninterruptedly, the words of the song smoothly flowing out of his mouth:
Na lubhang mahimbing
[so very deep]
Buksan ang bintana
[Open the window]
At ako’y dungawin
[And look out to me]
Nang mapagtanto mo
[For you to understand]
Ang tunay kong pagdaing
[My true lament]
It was after Dencio concluded his performance with a final gentle strum on the guitar strings that the dog, which had been barking at the back of the house, suddenly came near them. As the dog neared the three men and bared its fangs, its barking became fiercer and harsher.
Taking instant fright, Pendong, after letting out an “Oh my God” scream, abruptly leaped from where he was standing and clung on Berto’s back. Pendong draped his arms around Berto’s neck with his legs coiled around Berto’s waist. Berto nearly lost his balance.
“Get down, you foolish coward!” Berto hissed as he vainly struggled to free himself from the clutches of Pendong’s shaking arms. Pendong’s tight hold caused Berto to drop the bouquet of flowers to the ground.
Though seized with fright, Dencio stood his ground and tried to brandish the guitar in an attempt to ward off the dog’s slow advance.
“Father! It’s bantay!” the young lady shrieked. “He got loose!”
Another female voice rang out: “Pedro, you get bantay!”
It took a minute to lapse before the bald Pedro came down from the wooden staircase that connected the hut’s doorway to the ground level. By the time the old bald man dragged the dog toward the backyard, Pendong’s heavy sweating had drenched Berto’s back. Pendong jumped back to the ground.
“Look what you did, you bumbling fool!” Berto murmured to Pendong, Berto’s hand pointing to the crushed flowers beside his feet. He had involuntarily stepped on the fallen bouquet in his futile effort to untangle himself from Pendong’s grip. With smouldering eyes cast at Pendong, Berto hissed, “Wait ‘til I get my hands on your scruffy neck!” Dencio watched in amusement as the Berto’s hands hardened into a clawlike appearance in the manner of one about to strangle another.
“Oh, gentlemen,” called out the sweet voice of the young lady, “would you want to come up for some hot salabat?”
Inside the hut, Berto introduced his friends to Neneng, the young lady they had serenaded. A shy, dusky village lass with flirty eyes, full seductive lips, Neneng’s rich black hair flowed down on her slender shoulder. Both Pendong and Dencio, seated across Berto and Neneng, couldn’t keep their eyes off Neneng.
“Did we disturb you?” Berto asked silently. He was taking a sip from the cup of steaming salabat. “I really hope not,” he added.
“Not really,” Neneng replied demurely, her eyes examining her fingernails. “We had just started to lie down when you came,” she said. “That was a nice song,” she said. “Did you still come from afar?” she asked, her eyes now fixed at Berto.
“Yes, we did,” Pendong intervened. He blew the steam from his cup. “In fact, I got hungry when we reached your place here,” he added, oblivious to the murderous stare thrown at him by Berto. “Were it not for your dog, which made my heart jump…” he stopped; he felt the slight blow of Dencio’s elbow at his side. Dencio continued slurping his salabat, ignoring Pendong’s inquisitive stare.
Neneng was giggling. “You really are funny,” she said, a dimple becoming visible on her cheek, making her look lovelier. “Would you want to eat, too?” she asked Pendong as she began to rise from her seat.
“No, no, no! That would be too much,” Pendong said, adding, “but if you insist, well...”
“Hey,” Berto snapped, “look at that, outside the window, a big bat!”
“What?! Where?” came the voice of Neneng as she immediately stood up, wanting to look in the direction where Berto had pointed.
It was swift and surreptitious. When Neneng stood, her body made a sudden pivot; she was now peering outside the window. With her back thus facing Pendong and Dencio, Neneng did not see the quick slap of Berto’s hand that landed on Pendong’s forehead.
“I don’t see anything,” Neneng remarked.
“Maybe it had flown fast,” offered Dencio. “Big bats have big wings.” He was grinning at Pendong.
“Something’s wrong, Pendong?” Neneng asked; she had noticed Pendong’s reddened forehead when she sat back again.
“Ah, nothing,” Pendong replied nonchalantly, “I bumped into something when we got here,” he added, feigning a smile. He was rubbing his hand on his forehead.
“Ah, this is a different matter, Neneng,” Berto butted in. “Would you be attending the procession on Sunday?”
“Oh,” Neneng began, her face suddenly confused. “I’m not really sure because we’ll be coming from Manila.” She straigthened her body, brushing away the strands of hair that had gently swung on her face. “Why do you ask?”
“Oh, nothing really,” Berto said. “I just thought you might need some flowers for the procession. I could bring you some,” he added.
“Yes, Neneng,” Pendong snapped. “Like the beautiful flowers we brought earlier.”
A look of surprise stole on Neneng’s face. “Flowers? You brought flowers? Where are they?” She was now looking at Berto.
Pendong grinned. “Berto dropped them, then accidentally stepped on them when your dog came near us and…” he stopped; he suddenly felt another shaft of pain at his side. He had caught another blow from Dencio’s elbow. This time harder, making Pendong cringed.
“Ouch! Uh, ah,” Pendong blurted out, his face grimacing. “I, ah, actually, was,” he stopped, catching his breath. “I was the one who actually stepped on them.” He was now massaging the side of his body.
Neneng again was giggling. “You really make me laugh, all three of you.”
Berto was about to say something, but he stopped when he heard something.
“Filomena, what time is?” The voice of Pedro. He was in the kitchen.
The three men froze; they looked at each other. Then they looked at Neneng who flashed an embarrassed smile.
“I’m sorry, my father had a hard tiring day today,” she said.
Berto set the cup back to the small bamboo center table. “No, don’t be apologetic. It’s us who should be expressing apology to you. For the disturbance we caused to you.”
As they stood up, Neneng’s mother suddenly burst through the doorway that led to the kitchen. “Oh, young men, you’re leaving?” she said pretentiously.
Pendong grinned. “It’s getting quite late, ma’am,” he looked at Neneng. “But if you insist we could stay a little…”
This time, the pain stabbed Pendong at his back. It was a stinging blow from the clenched fist of Berto who was standing behind Pendong.
Dencio made a quick remark, grabbing the attention of Neneng’s mother, who was oblivious to Pendong’s flinching reaction. “No, ma’am, we really should be going.” He extended a hand to Neneng’s mother. “Thank you very much, ma’am, for you kindness.”
“Yes, ma’am, our gratitude to you and to your husband. And of course,” Berto said as he looked at Neneng, “thank you, too, to your lovely daughter.”
Her face flushing, Neneng lowered her gaze.
“All right, gentlemen,” Neneng’s mother began, “we really appreciate your visit.” She stepped near the three men. “You take care in going home,” she said as she led them to the door.
Barely had they stepped on the street that fronted Neneng’s house than Berto’s hand suddenly grabbed Pendong’s collar.
“What were you doing there? You acted like a jerk, didn’t you know that?” Berto growled.
Pendong swatted away Berto’s hand. He started to run, then when he was a distance away, he burst out laughing.
“Nah, Berto,” Dencio said, “I think Neneng enjoyed Pendong’s antics. Didn’t you hear what she’d said?” He was laughing.
It was a beautfiul December evening with the silvery moon casting down its nocturnal shine. As they walked home, the night breeze blew above, refreshening Berto. He was now in high spirits. He had feared visiting Neneng alone; he never had the courage to do so. It took some prodding from Pendong, his wild and wacky childhood friend, before he finally decided to visit Neneng at her house. It was Pendong who sought out another chum, Dencio, convincing the latter to go with them. Dencio immediately agreed, and since he knew how to sing and play the guitar, he offered to serenade Neneng on Berto’s behalf. Finally, Berto was making headway. He was now, in fact, making plans to marry Neneng once they became steady. Of course, if Neneng agreed. But he sure would try with all his might, he vowed to himself. At twenty, he felt he was already old. His two brothers, who were still in their teens, were already settled, having gotten married at the age of seventeen. Berto felt he was being left behind.
They were now traversing the same route they had taken earlier. It was in the middle of the thick bushes when they heard footsteps marching toward them. They stopped in their tracks, looking at each other. Then they were gripped by fear.
No, it can’t be, Berto suddenly told himself.
It was at this instance when Berto remembered what his father had told him days ago. About the news of the impending Japanese invasion of their town. But then, Berto had dismissed his father’s warning. He had never believed the invasion would reach their small town, their small insignificant town. Not at this time anyway. It was too early. Not after Manila had been invaded. Sure, they had heard days before of the shocking news about the bombing by the Japanese planes of Pearl Harbor, the American naval base in Hawaii. But to Berto’s mind, it could never happen to the Philippines. Not now! No! It can’t be possible! Berto had firmly said to himself. Suddenly, he wished he had listened to the old man.
Dencio lifted a hand, with one extended finger pressed on his lips. “My God! They have now come!” he whispered. “Ducked!”
They abruptly fell to the ground, lying flat on their stomach. But then, it was too late! The marching footsteps grew louder and louder until the sound stopped. When the prostrated men lifted their heads, what they saw were dozens of rifle guns with bayonets pointed at their faces.
Are we in a bad dream? Berto was telling himself. Looking at the Japanese soldiers, at their guns leveled at them---it was incredible, mind-numbing. For the first time, Berto was looking at how the Japanese soldiers looked like. With their mean, belligerent mien, their precise movements, their sophisticated-looking weaponry---their presence was out of this world. What are they doing here? Where did they come from? How did they get here? What is happening now? Has war really come to their small town? What will now happen to them? To him? To Dencio and Pendong? To his family? To Neneng? To the lowly people of his town? My God, this could not be happening!
The realization was slow to come to Berto. He abruptly felt like being transported into a weird, surreal world where he was seeing strange men from some bizarre world.
“Tachiagaru!” (“Stand up!”)
Strange voice, strange words.
They remained frozen to the ground, their eyes fixed at the strange man with eyes teeming with rage, who spoke out the harsh, unintelligible words.
For some reason, Dencio’s hand moved near the guitar beside him. Then, swift as lightning, a violent kick abruptly struck Dencio at his side, making him shrink into an embryo posture, a pained cry slipping out of his mouth.
“Tachiagaru!” (“Stand up!”) A repeat of the harsh, odd-sounding words.
Still they did not move.
Pendong’s face was full of sweat; he was shaking furiously. He looked at Berto, wanting to know what had just been said to them. But Berto himself was confused, not knowing what to do. A bayonet suddenly jabbed lightly at Berto’s back. This made him recoil in pain. Then he saw Dencio slowly stand up. Pendong, who was now crying, was hauled up by one of the Japanese soldiers, who slammed a balled fist at Pendong’s jowls.
Berto felt being grabbed by the collar. The next thing he knew, he was being lifted powerfully on his feet. A heavy slap suddenly stung his face.
“Anata no atama no ue nit te!” (“Hands on your head!”) came another stern order.
Dencio was able to get the message when he saw the soldiers’ bayonets point to their heads. Both Pendong and Berto put their hands on their heads upon seeing Dencio lift his arms.
“Ima aruite!” (“Now walk!”) the voice roared.
The bayonets’ pointed tips poked the three men’s backs, prompting them walk and follow the Japanese soldiers marching in the direction of the town plaza.
[Read the entire story in the forthcoming book TREE AND OTHER STORIES by AMADOR F. BRIOSO, JR., to be available in June, 2011, in selected bookstores in Manila. Another book, LOVE AND DESTINY, a novella written by the same author, will also be available in June, 2011. The author's previous book, "YOU FILIBINI?" Stories And Other Writings, is currently available at all Powerbooks bookstore outlets in Metro Manila.]