Saturday, February 13, 2010

My Last First

Papa is a full blood Visayan. His parents came to Mindanao at the time when lands in Mindanao were all owned. Mama Enalay was a full blood Subana. Her parents own all the lands the eyes can see from where one stands, documented to prove ownership.

The description Subana not only is intended to carry gender but also to tinge the name of something like uneducated, uncivilized. Uneducated could be true to Mama Enalay. She quit school before she could be grade three; school was too far she had to walk four kilometers and cross one and the same river three times. Uncivilized, I don’t think she was although I never knew my Mama Enalay in person. I only knew her as Mama Enalay. That her Mama was one of the wives of a Subano datu in a harem of eight wives, that her Mama was a lesser wife, reason why the land she got from the datu is smaller and not the choicest, that her father datu, my grandfather, was once invited to Malacanang Palace by President Magsaysay and that he was wearing what legends tell the attire datus wear. Mama Enalay, Papa has always told me, that she was beautiful no matter who’s the beholder. The other thing I know about Mama Enalay is that she was the youngest among seven; (Papa, middle born, the third among five.) I never saw her but only her grave marked with her name in badly written words and dates by an inadequately educated writer which was my Papa. Enalay Dalaay Buhawan, star Jul 18, 1940, cross Sep 24, 1982. He grave is among the unarranged graves in a public cemetery. It was as long ago as my age since Mama Enalay’s death but her death didn’t lose newness to Papa. Whenever he is free he goes to her bringing her wild goat flowers of orange and crimson and elephant violets, whose secret fragrance, as the Subanos claimed, being close to nature, are known only to their dead. This is why these wildflowers freely grow in our land. Papa neither scythe nor uproot them although he never cared for them.

One morning Papa selected among the dried lomboy leaves he kept in a small basket. He chose the biggest and carefully halved it to avoid a tear where the smoke might leak. And then he pulled his work bolo from the wooden sheath he was already wearing in his waist like a belt. He rubbed the leaf against the blunt side of the bolo to de-brittle the leaf. From his pocket, he pulled out his tobacco wrapped in a banana leaf to keep the flavor from evaporating. He tore two strips of equal length estimating without measuring. Sometimes he would tamp the extra length with a stick into the rolled leaf; sometimes he would chew the extra length like betel when he trims it with his nicotined teeth; and sometimes he would just spit it out like unneeded saliva. Two things are predictable when he does this early morning ritual: either he’s going to Mama Enalay’s grave or he’ll be working the endless chores at the coconut farm. He stopped inviting or requiring me to work with him or to Mama Enalay’s grave after I delivered the memorized valedictory address when I graduated high school. I don’t know his reason but he had the two copies of my picture behind a lectern on our sawali wall. He paid twenty five pesos for the two copies. He wanted only one so he could save twelve fifty, but the photographer wouldn’t agree. Beside my picture hangs his Subano ukulele made of coconut shell and g-melina in a canvass case like it is an expensive musical instrument. As I have said Papa have stopped requiring me to work with him, perhaps to him, a high school grad could be too high an education for works like he does. Or it could be that he wants to get used working alone without me helping and keeping him company. In a matter of days, I’ll be leaving for college. But I know, had he somebody to talk to other than me or if Mama Enalay still alive, he would be talking loud to her. I know the noises he makes as he works the morning meal, were meant to waken me in case I want to go with him. I was still lying on our romblon mat, the katsa blanket of eight pieces of flour bags sewn together, still wraps me from my hips to the toes. I was already awake but still hypnagogic.

From the dying fire that boiled his coffee of the Subano variety that grows among other low growing trees, he pulled an ember and put over the strips of tobacco to keep it burning when lighted. His fingers were as careful when he put the tobacco in the lomboy leaf and rolled it into a gasper. He blew the ash to reveal the orange fire and then lighted his cigarette sniffing and puffing. The other leaf was rolled next but only to be a reserve. Lomboy trees abound in our mountain for the twin purpose of providing food to the birds and other animals diurnal and nocturnal, and Papa’s smoke. He bit his lomboy cigarette between his incisors as he clipped the other one in his right ear. The scent of the burning lomboy leaf scented what could have been the heavy smell of tobacco. Although I like the mixtures of the two smells, I never tried it, but only once. It seemed like my lungs were out of oxygen and like I was going to collapse.

Papa poured coffee into his tin cup and immediately the aroma added to what was already a pleasant smell. He ladled three chunks of last night’s pone and dipped it into the steaming coffee and then put it into his mouth looking up like a fledgling regurgitated of food. But it was really to avoid one drop of the coffee or grit of the corm from escaping. He consumed the coffee to the dregs hooking his finger to carry the bits of pounded coffee and stone-ground corn to his mouth. That was all his breakfast but enough to last him until the noontime meal. Without saying a word to me or looking at me on the mat, he left, a hammer and a saw were in his hand and I knew where he was going.

I waited until I could no longer hear the sound of his bolo sheath clashing against his thigh. I stood up leaving the blankets and mat and pillows like a lazy man. I had to get to Papa fast. He may have done plenty of things before I get to him and so lessen the importance of my presence. Nobody comes to our house anyway. I scooped corn with my fingers holding the food in my hand without putting it in a plate. Being young, my taste is different. I pinched my other hand twice on the salt stored in an antique china bowl, which is the only thing of value Papa have, and sprinkled it on my pone. I ate as I hurriedly walked to where Papa could be working. With the tools he had in his hand when he left, I know he will be repairing his kangga. He will probably be delivering to stores in town his charcoal and firewood any day. A few minute walk and I could hear a tap-tapping but with a rhythm different from that of a woodpecker. I walked to the direction of the sound, and there I saw him knocking a nail on a wood with his hammer. He was singing the endless Subano love song he said he leaned Mama Enalay.

maralak n’g bton

maralak n’g bulan

ya’a pat’l nga

inig gestigos

Nga gad dabu

Sensing my presence, his singing turned into soft hum and then probably to conceal the feeling of embarrassment at my interruption, he began again, but this time now softer and then back to humming again. I slowly edged to him not wanting him to stop humming. I love to find indications that he is happy. And then his humming went to a total stop as his aloneness ended.

“Sumino-nora ma lagi?” he said.

I dropped to my knees beside him to join him trying to find a way to help. The grass tickled my skin but cushioned my knees

“Salaura d’g balay,” I answered. I never learned to speak Mama Enalay’s language. If only Mama Enalay is still alive, Papa would have somebody to talk to in Subano and I would have learned the language listening to them.

“Gabas mo wi ni.” He pushed to me a newly cut round wood and passed to me the saw.

Papa doesn’t need to do this work. And we could have better food than the breakfast we’ve just had. I never complained. I’m used to it even though food I ate while attending school was far different. The money from the coconut land Mama Enalay inherited from her parents is sufficient enough for whatever food I liked. Sixteen hectares of coconuts, intercropped with ipil-ipil my papa planted which he harvested every month to sell as firewood. Papa planted the ipil-ipil without fully understanding, as he once told me, at the time when Imelda Marcos wanted to introduce the “gassifier” on jeepneys. And the charcoal from the coconuts was an additional load to Papa’s work. Too little money comes from it but he works on it nevertheless not wanting it to go to waste. A week ago when the rain stopped he worked on the nuts extracted of kernel separating the coir from the shell. It took him several days of slow work to finish it.

The land could have been taken by Mama Enalay’s three brothers and four sisters had I died with Mamay Enalay when she gave birth to me. I knew how difficult it could have been for Papa assimilating with my aunts and uncles without me. We even rarely went to them. Although he didn’t forbid me from going to them, I know he doesn’t like the idea of going to them. He was the one different from them, not them different from him.

Reason why Mama Enalay had difficulty giving birth to me was because it took them nearly twenty years before she got pregnant of me. She was already past forty then, that’s why. Papa never remarried for if he had, Subano tradition dictates that he would have to leave me to Mama Enalay’s brother or sister and leave the land. There is no such thing as step children or step parent as far as Mama Enalay’s family is concerned. I know it would be difficult for him had he left the land and I knew difficulty is not the thing he feared. He is used to it. I knew he wants to care the land and the money from it for me.

The money from copra and from charcoal and firewood is in a rural bank and in a Manila-based bank in the other town twice bigger than ours. The last time he showed me the bankbooks there was more than seven hundred thousand pesos, accumulated since I was born as indicated in the first deposit. Hardly were there withdrawals but two times which he told me was to test if he really has the money available anytime. His only expenditures were the basic ones and one luxury: his tobacco. He was determined not to feel the pain of hunger anymore. But he did not unreasonably and excessively scrimp. Each time he delivers his firewood he goes to the fish or meat section of the public market He spends only very little amount of the copra money buying the workers that intoxicating drinks and be customers of a billionaire fellow that owes the government billions in unpaid taxes. But the government, as my high school teachers say, cannot wring his arm to pay as he might declare bankruptcy and close his businesses and his workers will have no more works. This is only time Papa’s copra workers vacation their tongues from the tuba they drink daily in mountain stores. And then Papa goes straight to the bank to deposit the money. Before Mama Enalay’s parents died and before the land was divided among them, there was almost no money, sometimes no food on the table. The rustic table, on which they ate, was eaten by termites as Papa told me. Termites had the table as food while they had no food on the table. And he was determined not to feel hunger anymore which to him is a kind of pain.

Papa is almost illiterate, writes words or numbers with great effort. Numbers were only for money and recognition of it is aided by the colors of each bill or size of each coin. Having that amount of money, clerks at the banks knew him by face and would know him by name the moment he presents his bankbook. By the amount of money in his passbook, he’s an important client and their assistance available almost exclusively for well dressed lowland folks was accorded to him.

And then his kangga was restored ready for use again. Our land is bared completely to the sun now. We went to Aguspar, his female kalabaw to send her to the wallows. As soon as she felt from her rope that she was freed, she pranced the way she did when she was a calf before she broke into a playful run to where she understands where we want her to go. Papa has three other kalabaws naming each of them for nomenclature. We recognize each of them by their horns but their names were still necessary to know where each of them is teetered. I went to Saling the other female but oldest kalabaw; Papa to Mars and Sabar. Mars and Sabar were ahead in the wallow, as soon as Saling get to the wallow, she slipped her front feet between Sabar and Aguspar like the space had been bookmarked for her. The mud was topped with shallow dirty water and water walkers. She tried to drink but she was reprimanded by Papa pulling her rope tight and beating it on the water. Papa never used his kalabaws for plowing although they were trained to. Neither Papa plows anymore although he used to in his younger years. Not only that he’s now old to plow, “agricultural technicians” are teaching farming techniques that benefit fertilizer and pesticide manufacturers more than the farmers – which Papa doesn’t agree.

His kalabaws’ only jobs were to pull the one and the same kangga we repaired with loads of fire wood, charcoal or copra to town. Papa let them do the job alternately; Saling being the oldest did the least work; Aguspar being young did the lightest work. As soon as they were settled and as the gnats land on the mud instead of their faces, we left.

There was still time to gather in one place near the kangga the firewood before we go home for the noontime meal. Three hundred bundles of six pieces of wood per bundle almost a yard long, Papa told me it will take the whole day to gather them all near where the kangga is parked. Papa will be selling it five pesos per bundle and all in all he’ll get P1500.00 from it.

It took us the whole afternoon to ready all the firewood for delivery. It took us the whole day the next day to deliver them to five stores in town. We placed stanchions of bamboo slats by the side of the kangga so we can load more than the kangga is capable of carrying. It was Mars and Sabar’s turn to dray. And then it was the charcoal that we worked on. We filled six giant rattan baskets heaped high above the brims we got from one, big, deep coaling pit Papa had been using time and again. The charcoal took us only three trips of Papa’s kangga to the same stores we delivered the firewood.

After we’ve transacted our wares and got all the money, we walked to a house at the outskirt of the town where the paved street changed into a graveled barangay road where grasses were in the middle not growing tall. We stopped at a house at the edge of a mango plantation fenced with cyclone wires. Pigeons were feeding in his front yard and the nest is up on a santol tree by the side of the house. Goats in herds of almost fifteen and a fewer one, were grazing on the grasses that were not shadowed by the mango trees. The owner knew Papa by name and already knew what Papa wants. Maybe they’ve talked about it before we came. He told Papa to come back in the evening or next morning. I did not ask what‘s going to be the transaction but Papa reached to him a fifty peso bill from the charcoal money.

We walked back to the market place. We proceeded to the fish section. He chose the best fish – yellow fin tuna. He bought two kilos at one hundred and twenty per kilo. Because I was with him, I know he could have chosen the less expensive fishes probably the caballas or the tamarong. Papa went to another stall for his only luxury in life; and me to the vegetable section where he instructed me to buy ten pesos worth of sibuyas dahonan, luya, green tomato, and one big biyasong. I knew by then what we are going to do with fish: Papa’s favorite kinilaw.

“Magalat to deg tabako-an,” he said in Subano. The more we are among Visayans like him, the more he speaks Mama Enalay’s language.

“Tinuod” I softly answered with a nod.

We walked to where we left Sabar and the kangga. It was late in the afternoon now and the sun has begun to lose its heat. Papa rode Sabar; I climbed the kangga and we were immediately what city folks usually see in the rural areas. Sabar did all the walking for us all the way back to our home. He‘s strong as a bull as he is indeed a bull anyway.

In the afternoon of the day that followed yesterday when our shadows were long beside us when we walked, we were again back to the town. We went back to the house by the mango farm. Only then did I realize that the fifty pesos Papa paid to the man was for a pigeon. The bird was in a cage when we arrived. The man handed Papa a strip of cloth to tie the red legs of the bird; but Papa just accepted the bird in his hand. That was all we went to the town for. We went straight home from there.

Dusk had turned into early evening when we reached the top of a hill that looks over the sea that separates Mindanao from the other islands. No clouds were up in the sky that impedes our vision of stars. It was like inside a giant planetarium muted of narrator. We stopped to look at the glow of the provincial capital a little northeast in the evening horizon. All over were fishermen’s lights strewn like heavenly bodies at sea just a few millions of perlicues away. Beyond the faintest light, Papa’s hand that holds the pigeon pointed a distant and unseen city where a university he wanted me to attend is. I knew the city and the university he was thinking. His inadequate education could be the thing that prevented him from keeping in his mind the name of the school. Without his knowledge, without asking first his permission, I took the university’s entrance examination given in a public high school in the provincial capital. I passed the exam.

“Gusto wa ngo digto ka magosaila,” he said still looking at the distant lights.

“Mahal a’g biyaran dig gusailan,” I pretended hesitation to provoke his insistence.

“Ta’ana ,” he calmly answered.

“Sige, ya’a.” I said, satisfied with his assurance.

Papa made a little cage of all-bamboo materials for the pigeon. I haven’t stopped wondering what he was going to do with the pigeon until the morning that I had to leave home for the city and the university. He dug with his bolo a little hole where rainwater from the thatch drops. He cut a slit in the pigeon’s skin near ear. Blood came out and he drained it into the hole he dug. And then he dressed the pigeon without scalding and he butchered the bird and then he stewed it including the head without adding anything to the water that will be the soup to improve the taste. After feeding woods three times to the fire, cooking was done. He fished the head from the boiling soup and carefully broke it on a chopping stump not hitting the brain. He shook the brain off the pigeon’s cranium into a spoon.

“Arol mo,” he said.

Para prita’an me’n,” I pretended hesitation and to provoke his insistence as I always did.

“Arol mo ra gud, patu’d m’u,” he answered with the insistence that I wanted.

Para prita’an mo lagi, tulo-an mo ra gud,” I took my turn to be insistent.

“din na pia tuntol di ni ah. Nandaw wo ra tinuntol di ni ah. Now, I’m not supposed to tell you this. I did not tell you this the first time I did this to you in your first day in school. But this is your last first I hope I’m not wrong in telling you the reason. You saw where I drained the blood? Next to that little pit that I dug were the blood and the wing feathers and the entrails and the red legs of the pigeon when I first did this to you. Mini ta na a’g pigbalmo.”

“Andun mi’g minita?” I pretended not to know.

“Rol mo langi, palangasay mo.” His insistence turned to begging.

I obeyed. I swallowed the pigeon brain perhaps the way I did the first time Papa did this to me I couldn’t remember exactly now. It’s tasteless. My tongue hurried to carry the brain to my throat followed with all the saliva I had in my mouth for I might vomit it out. Papa handed me a glass of water to sink it further down to my stomach. And then I swung my back bag bursting with clothes to my back. It was heavy but the excitement of going to a city I’ve never been before were all the things I had in my mind in those moments. And I would even want to live in those moments forever.

“Pagindog mo puso dig lupa, di a maglingay. Mbusa na paglingay bo di mo na mita mag wara-wara bingkon.”

I obeyed, but I wasn’t able to resist the temptation of looking back. He was sitting on the top rung of the step as he watched me go. I could see the faint smoke of his lomboy cigarette. He shooed me with his right hand to keep going.

After I turned a curve in the path and descended the first hill, we were out of sight of each other. I was far now. The only marker to locate home now was the two buli palms growing as tall as five story building. They were always of the same silhouette shape.

I was two hours early; the slow, diesel-smelling, old boat was more than an hour delayed in its departure, caused by undisciplined domestic shipping procedure. No closing time is imposed. Cargoes mostly farm products were still coming at the time the vessel is scheduled to depart.

Nearly half an hour after the ship sailed, I was watching a phenomenon that takes place everyday: sunset, the sun slipping out of sight in the horizon. I looked back at the Mindanao that I was leaving behind. As the ship eaten up distance, only the lights of homes getting obscure can be seen. And with the fishermen’s lights between us beginning to brighten as the night deepens, most likely, Papa is watching from the top of the hill the two of us used to stop.

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