Creative non-fiction / September 2015 (Issue 29)


Psalms

by Alana Leilani T. Cabrera-Narciso

I never understood what happened to my father that night. Nor did my brothers and I talk about it. We remembered how our aunts, a few months later, would go ballistic whenever we went near the clothesline or that abandoned house where electrical wires played possum. Susmaryosep! You kids get away from there! Then, we'd be reminded of how our Father looked that terrible night.

My father was not really superstitious, but he had a reverence for his faith, a reverence so profound one might even call it superstition. He found it blasphemous to use God's name when one cursed or to make Bible jokes. At best, we'd get a severe reprimand from him; at worst, he'd give us a whip of his belt. My older brother got the latter when he proudly asked us why Jesus, on the cross, asked God the Father to forgive them for they know not what they do. Why? we asked. When he revealed the answer, father overhearing us, went livid. Blasphemous child! Busongon gyud ka! He was outraged at the punchline that it was Joseph of Arimathea who, having offered to carry the cross for awhile, ended up getting crucified instead of Christ. My brother suffered ten blows from Father's belt. After that, when we exchanged Bible jokes, it was in secret and filled with fear.

We understood that if we did something sacrilegious, something bad would happen to us. So we took care not to blaspheme (if we could help it) and to revere our faith and everything it stood for as something essentially connected to our lives.

When his kids were not yet in college and life was easier, Father indulged in the luxury of a post graduate course, enrolling at a university in the city. On Saturdays before going to his class, Father would wake us up at five thirty, always frighteningly on the dot, for morning devotion. He would never force us to get up though; he had less conspicuous ways of making us join family devotions. He and Mother would sing church hymns for a full thirty minutes. By then, we would have been woken by their throaty rendition of Morning Has Broken.

On some days, I would pretend to sleep, waiting until there was only a few minutes left for the clock to strike six before getting up. "Turn to Jesus, turn to Jesus. He waits …" Most days, however, I would get up as soon as I heard my father's voice, low and guttural, prodded by my guilt and my childhood fear of being stricken because of my irreverent pretense and for making God wait.

After breakfast, Father would be gone for the entire day, and we would be left to our own devices. TV wasn't attractive; our own TV, a fourteen-inch Panasonic squat box with two antenna rods, offered only two channels. When the soap opera about a miserable young girl facing frightening adult tribulations got too depressing and the other channel showed only cockfights, we turned to the fields.

We were fascinated with catching dragonflies. My brothers said they looked like helicopters. I disagreed, but my eldest brother said that an eight-year-olds' knowledge of dragonflies was limited. I was willing to accept this as a fact, especially since when dragonflies were rare, I knew we would play with something more fascinating. We fashioned guns from small bamboo stalks, about one foot in length. The trigger was a small bamboo stick attached to a handle, thin enough to slide through the hole in the stalk. Those days, we'd keep our test papers, so we could wet them, squeeze out the water and pinch a small piece to fit into the bamboo gun. Soon enough, we'd be shooting each other with moist paper bullets.

Sometimes these games threatened our childhood happiness. One Saturday afternoon when Father came home, Mother felt playful. She grabbed one of our bamboo guns and shot at him. I don't think she had intended to shoot him right in the face, but the paper bullet landed on father's wide forehead, dirty water trickling down his nose. We saw how his eyes turned a darker shade. Without saying a word, he went to our rooms and snatched all our bamboo guns and headed to the kitchen. On his way, he stopped mid-track and, with sacerdotal sternness, extended his hand to Mother. Meekly, she placed the offending gun in his hand. The following day, we saw it with the others, in pieces, in the garbage.

At night, Father would make us read Psalm 23. Then he would find out who among us had read the fastest. I always won.

"Read."

"I am reading."

"No, you're eating the words. That is good, but you have to chew them before you swallow." Like others, Father believed that men did not live by bread alone. When we read the Bible or recited verses, the premise was that we were consuming the word of God. But we also had to fully understand it—chew, then swallow.

Later, he would find out who had memorised the most Bible verses. When the prize was enticing—like a promised ten-peso addition to my allowance every day for five days—I'd make sure to memorise two verses every night, albeit very short ones. And at times, when read in isolation, they turned out to be very cryptic, like John 11:35—Jesus wept. Was it John or Matthew? I wouldn't find out why Jesus wept until I was in college.

Father never explained the verses that we recited in front of him and Mother. He just presumed that we'd find the meaning in our hearts. Nobody had the audacity to confront him about such a presumption, and we never asked for an explanation; we just wanted to go back to watching Ninja Turtles.

I was in grade one when I first understood the concept of God as a shepherd. I hadn't known what a shepherd was until our Sunday school teacher showed us a picture of David tending sheep and lambs. "David was a shepherd boy who fought the giant Goliath," said middle-aged, bespectacled Miss Luz who had the sweetest voice and who turned the violent story into something heroically romantic. (I often wondered why she never got married; she could have easily crooned her husband into submitting to everything she wanted.) Shepherd, Miss Luz would point at the picture with a polished fingernail. The closest association I had with a shepherd was a goatherd on a field my brothers and I often frequented in our games. But the goatherds I saw were so unlike the shepherds pictured in our Biblical storybooks. Storybook shepherds looked young yet strangely wise, with their turbans, long white robes and shawl-like coats.

Nonetheless, I knew that a shepherd, like a goatherd, was someone who looked after sheep. By deduction, I likened myself and my family to lambs, knowing that God looked after his lambs, or even goats for that matter. It was in this syntax that I sublimated God and the Bible into my little world. It worked quite well, and like the child that I was, I was content with the knowledge that I'd harnessed. The Lord is my shepherd started to make sense.

Around the time his course was about to end, Father came home one Saturday and told Mother about a joke his professor had told them. It punned on a very familiar phrase in the Bible, "only begotten son," by syllabicating the second word into two syllables, the first of which was to be pronounced as "big." Of course, the remaining syllable, "otten," pronounced with characteristically Cebuano vowel enunciation, punned with the native word for the male organ. My father was smiling, but his eyes weren't.

"Goodness! Irreverent brute!" Mother looked amused. Then she added, "What did you do?"

"What do you mean? What did you expect me to do?" Father asked, his voice getting louder. I did not understand the rest of what he said, but by the time he was finished, he was furious.

"I mean, how did the class react?" Mother asked calmly.

For a moment, Father was speechless. He looked embarrassed by his outburst and my mother's placidity.

"They laughed." Then he added, almost in a whisper, "I laughed with them."

His face went white when he saw me. For a moment, he looked like he was going to get sick. "Tita wants to trim my hair. Scissors, I'm looking for them."

"But you just had a trim last week, Lana." Mother knowingly gave my pixie cut a cursory glance.

"I want another one," I said, hurriedly thinking of an explanation for my presence and unintended eavesdropping. "Now."

When I left, I thought of the word Father had said. It was an ugly word, one of those that was forbidden in the house. Grown-ups said it was vulgar and lewd. To use it on God was unimaginably offensive! And Father hadn't done anything. Instead he'd laughed with the offender thus he'd offended too, making the devil happy. Divine justice was swift and exacting; this I'd gathered from Sunday school. I was scared for my father.

That afternoon, while we were forced to take a nap, Father got electrocuted on a "dead wire" my aunts used as a clothesline for the laundry. Nobody had minded where the wire came from; nobody had bothered to ask if it was live. It had been there when we arrived, and we had just presumed it was "dead" because it came from the abandoned house adjacent our own. But that afternoon, we found out we were wrong. He was adjusting the clothesline, cutting and knotting it, when all of a sudden, we heard his bellow, like cow in a field.

From my window upstairs, I saw how Father shook with intensity. His bare chest and shoulders heaved furiously, as he struggled to free himself. In my eyes, he was no longer formidable; he was as helpless as a child. Mother rushed downstairs calling for him repeatedly, my brothers tagging behind. I wanted to follow, but I couldn't peel my eyes away from the scene. Father's eyes dilated and went almost entirely white. His head limped to the side. I tried to call to him, but my lips seemed to be sealed.

Later, I was told that it was my aunt who, pulling my father's hair at the crown, saved him. The doctor, who happened to be my grandfather's close friend, said in between sighs that "it's a good thing you're robust or else …" He left the rest of the thought unspoken. "It's a good thing as well that Lanie and the kids were not at the deep well," Father added weakly. On Saturday mornings, Mother would help my aunts do the laundry at the deep well a few metres from our house, while we joined in, playing with the suds or simply getting everyone else wet. The clothesline hung only a few feet from where we did the laundry.

We did not have Bible readings and recitations after the accident, at least for quite a while. Psalm 23 was dormant, and I had forgotten some lines from the verses I'd memorised. Out of habit, at night, I would say Psalm 23 while lying in bed looking at the sky. From the bamboo slatted window, the sky looked like a field of little diamonds, sometimes glittering here and there. Often, the sky was dark, and I would forget which came first: leads me beside the still waters or makes me lie down in green pastures. Somehow, I'd always manage to say the first few verses, even if not in sequence, but I'd stop when I got to the fourth. I would feel the hair on my arms standing on end—Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. I always felt an awful gloom and anticipation in that line; its cadence strangely hypnotic. Then I would sleep, disturbed. The following day, I'd wake up regretful for not having said the next line: I will fear no evil for thou art with me.

It had been almost a month since the accident, and Father was remained unwell. He was unable to spend time with us in the evening, and Mother had to teach during the day and take care of all us, Father included. Our aunts cooked, did the laundry and kept house. They'd prepare us food before we ran off to school, and Father would be left at home. Our neighbours often wondered if he would ever go back to work. But I knew Father was still sick. I would hear him at night groaning and shaking, delirious but never uttering a word.

One night, I heard Father speak. I don't know. Maybe. I knew it wasn't Mom he was talking to for I did not hear her answer. Then I heard him say Papang, the same term he'd used to address my grandfather who had passed away several years earlier. When one is young, it is difficult to make sense of things, because of ignorance or sheer innocence or mere forgetting.

The excitement of summer vacation soon made me forget what I'd heard. My brothers and I laid out our itinerary for the long break. First, we would hunt for good spiders, and then we'd build rooms in matchboxes for their houses. My brothers suggested we look for spiders at night in the fields where the weeds grew tallest. We'd bring flashlights or little torches, knowing spiders from the tall weeds were usually the bravest of the lot.

Then we'd make big colourful kites like the ones we'd seen two summers ago on the school grounds during the competition organised by that milk company with a smiling bear logo. At night, our eldest brother would draw his envisioned kite on a piece of paper, and my younger brother and I would study it in fascination. Then we'd throw in a few ideas about how big it would be or what colours would go well together—both to conceal our excitement and to mark the kite as our own.

It was during one of these nights, when Mother was out, that Father came running to us from the kitchen. He was in a frenzy, talking in a voice higher than the one he used when cross with us. At first, we thought he was angry at one of our aunts. But the terror in his eyes belied what was really happening. I looked in the direction he was looking. Nobody was there. Then he ran back to the kitchen as if to stop somebody from getting to us. His arms were spread wide, then entangled, as if wrestling with an invisible being. He was shouting the whole time. "Panulay! You demon! Be gone!" His face contorted hideously. We could see how saliva swished from his mouth as he bared his teeth. His eyes looked different, like the eyes of a beast we had imagined claiming us when we'd done something evil.

Then he was down on one knee, struggling to get up. It seemed that there was a force bearing down on him, and for a moment, it looked as if he was about to face defeat. My brothers and I squeezed next to each other, terrorised by what we were witnessing. We were scared even to breathe. Father growled, and with all his might, pushed the invisible enemy away until he regained his footing. I remember seeing his lower lip trembling uncontrollably. But I also remember seeing him press his lips together and curl his fists.

"Get away from my children," Father said quietly but with a firmness that surprised me. He gathered us slowly and hugged all three of us. I felt tremors running through his body and then course through our own. Then he started humming one of the songs he used to sing early in the morning. Sometimes his voice faltered; other times, nothing came out but air. Gently, he swayed with the tune—forwards and backwards—and we swayed, too. When I looked at my father, there was a quietness in his eyes, the same look he had when highlighting Bible passages with our used crayons. He looked peaceful all of a sudden. We stayed like that for awhile—father hugging us afraid to let go; my brothers growing squeamish but still dazed by what had just happened; me finding myself wanting to cry but unable to.

Later that night, when Mother came home, we did not talk about what had happened. We were afraid to say anything, and even if we had mustered the courage to say something, we could not have explained what had occurred. We just wanted to forget.

Mother read us to sleep that night. The last time I remembered being read to sleep was when I was in kindergarten. Stories of a little orphan girl becoming a queen or of a feast created from five loaves of bread and two fishes had made me imagine I was an orphan myself and would become powerful and special. Or I would imagine that if I prayed enough, big fried chicken slices and sundaes would suddenly appear. Perhaps we were now a little old for such stories because mother read us Psalm 23 instead. Years of reading to seven-year-old pupils had made her a good storyteller. I liked the way she let the soft round vowels flow. He restores my soul. The rhythm evoked ease, the peace of green fields, and suddenly I felt sleepy though I had pretended to fall asleep much earlier. Mother kissed my forehead.

That night in bed, I cried so hard. I thought of what I had seen and tried to understand what it was. I got nothing but a sense of foreboding and the hairs on my arms standing on end. Then I became angry—that evil clothesline and that ugly word Father had learnt from his teacher! I was angry at the teacher and how he had made Father laugh at his joke and made God angry. I thought of how the electrocution had changed him and how he now looked. He was no longer my father. What if God would summon him to heaven to explain, and he would never return to us? What if it was God's angel that Father had wrestled but he hadn't recognised it because he had laughed at that joke!? What if God would find him guilty and give him to the devil?! I started to panic and a felt a terrible despair come over me. I thought that no matter how many Bible verses I recited, Father would never be the same again. But I was also so tired that my mind simply obeyed my body and made me sleep soundly and dream of shepherds looking after their sheep on green fields.

Early the next morning, I heard my father singing for the first time since the accident. It was a peaceful song. I did not open my eyes; I simply floated with the melody. I listened for a little while, then I drifted back to sleep loving the sound of the song on my father's quivering voice. The clothesline was forgotten, the ugly word buried. I knew then that my father had come back to us. God had forgiven him.

 
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