Fiction / July 2018 (Issue 40: Writing the Philippines)

Drinking Rio Grande de Mindanao

by Erwin E. Cabucos

When I said yes this morning to Max and Abdul's invite to a day out at the river, I didn't think Papa would be upset about it. I didn't think he would scold me anymore because I'd grown up and I'm not the little boy he used to belt. I will be in high school next term. If worse comes to worst, I thought his scolding might be subtle; a shadow of what it used to be. Even Max and Abdul believe parents normally get over hitting their children when they reach high school. But then, they use the word "normally" in a way that implies Papa may still beat me if he wants to—like he used to—leaving marks on my skin like the brands on cattle at the farm. He thinks if I hang out with Abdul I will get silly Islamic ideas from him and one day turn into a terrorist. I just can't imagine myself being one. You need to cause terror to be a terrorist. Deep down, terror is just fear. I'd be scared in my own self. How could I bring fear to others?

He doesn't like me going to the river because he believes Muslim fighters use it as a thoroughfare to town. He also says it could be contaminated from the toxic stuff that leaks from the mine up in the mountains.

Now, as I ride my bike towards the clearing near the riverbank and breathe the cool morning air, I pray he won't find out. Despite all my rationalising, I know he'll beat me if he does. I'm really excited to be with my friends, especially now that it's the beginning of the school break. The endless blocks of newly harvested rice fields transform the land into a brown carpet extending to the horizon. In some fields, mounds of rice hay billow smoke as they are burnt for quick disposal. It's as if I'm surrounded by hundreds of Taal Volcanoes. The smell of hay-smoke lingers in the air as I push my pedals onward. Summer vacation in the Philippines burns, and the ABS-CBN weatherman is not joking when he says that the rivers are drying up as El Niño sucks the water from the land,

Max, Abdul and I always hang out together at school, but I don't tell Papa. That would be suicide. I hope that we will still stay in touch, even when we go to different high schools at the end of the holiday: Max is going to Carmen National High, Abdul to Bai Plang Madrasa and I to San Pedro Calungsod Catholic High. I've only been in Carmen a few years, but we really click as friends. It all started when Papa was transferred here with his battalion to "kill all the stupid Muslims." That's what he said, but I learnt a different truth at school. There I was told that Papa's battalion was sent here to work towards peace and to put an end to the violence and rebellion of Muslim groups such as the Moro National Liberation Front, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Bangsomoro Islamic Freedom Fighters. At school, I was told that the Muslims simply want recognised territories and a decent lifestyle. So they fight for their rights, and they get into strife along the way.

I wonder how Papa and his battalion do their work for peace. I see him slinging a big rifle over his shoulder on the way to camp each day. Sometimes he goes on a tactical operation up the mountains for days, and he comes back with an overgrown moustache and beard, burnt skin and stinking body, telling me he has killed a dozen Muslims up there. This morning, he said goodbye to Mama and I, and my two little sisters. He looked like he was going on a military operation again, but I didn't hear how long he was going for this time. I wish that he stayed at home instead. I feel at peace when I know that he isn't on a killing spree in the mountains. It wouldn't surprise me if one day a lifeless body comes back with his troops. Only this time, it won't be another Muslim fighter—it will be Papa.

I wouldn't know what to do, how to feel. Would I cry? Would I run? Would I just walk away?

It makes me shudder when I hear gunshots echoing in the mountains, just as I shuddered when I imagined my father killed by Muslim fighters. From here, the gunshots sound like amplified firewood bursting from an indoor hearth. Only instead of food cooking food, these pops and crackles end in people strewn dead on the ground. When Papa and his infantry have successes with this, they send a text to a radio station and a newspaper bureau, so that the media publicises how positive their presence is. All those deaths become nothing more than numbers on a page.

The firefight in the mountains peters out as I approach the river, which serves as the boundary between Carmen and the barrio of Lumayong, where most of the action seems to occur. We sometime hear gunshots at school, too, but our teachers tell us to be calm and settled, assuring us of our safety. But how safe are we really? I worry about those outside the town. How safe are they? What if they get caught in the crossfire between my father's army colleagues and the Muslim side? Who will help them?

When I arrive at the river, Abdul lies on a heap of dried mango leaves, his legs crossed and his hands cupping the back of his head. Max sucks the bright yellow juice of a mango he is peeling with his teeth. He licks his dripping, sticky fingers.

"Can I have some?" I ask as I park my bike.

"You'll have to climb to get some for yourself. We did," Max mumbles through the slurping of a mouthful of mango.

I see that yellow juice has also stained the chest of Abdul's white shirt. He has placed his haj cap in a safer place on his bicycle seat.

"I can't be bothered." I look in the grass to see if any ripe mangoes fell from the tree the night before. "I might find some lying around here."

It doesn't take long to find one. With my Swiss Army knife, I slice the skin and push my thumb under each side to reveal the delicious flesh. Abdul and Max tickle me as I gobble the fruit. I crack up laughing, glad the fruit has already gone down my throat or I might have choked.

"You're a lucky bastard," Abdul says. "We worked hard to climb the tree, and you always seem to get the sweetest ones from the ground."

"Uh huh," I nod. "Just like manna from heaven."

"Hey Eli, is that your father coming down the hill?" Abdul points behind me.

My heart races. I turn around to check. No one is there. I get up to give him a whack on the head. "You idiot, you scared the hell out of me!"

They chuckle.

Abdul borrows my knife and heads for the swamp where taro plants grow. He cuts some leaves. Max and I walk to the little creek that flows into the Mindanao River. Black clams glisten in the sun, and they shut as we approach. Abdul brings us the taro leaves.

Max plucks the clams from the creek-bed and, when he has a handful, places them on the leaf. I venture to the shallow side of the creek where I rake the sand with my fingers. Clams settle on my palm as the water and tiny pebbles filter between my fingers. As we work, clams pile higher and higher on the taro leaves.

This is fun. We try to do it every school holiday, but we haven't been able to during the last three breaks because Father was so strict on me—and also because the river was in flood.

"That's probably enough," says Abdul. "I want to get some more," says Max. I wade into the deeper part of the creek and duck beneath the rippling water. The cold makes me shiver a little. Max and Abdul follow.

"I'll start a fire," I say when we've finished swimming. I flick water off my face as I walk to where my duffle bag hangs from my bike's handlebar. I take out the things I brought: a clay pot, Rizal matches, sugar, empty coffee jars, onions, salt, ginger and stems of lemon grass. I form a circle of loose rocks and place some twigs on a heap of brown mango leaves in the centre, which I light. The fire licks up the edges of the leaves and consumes the kindling, creating a warm flame whose smoke bellows up towards the forest canopy.

The chirp of crickets carries on the soft breeze that blows across nearby ylang-ylang and bamboo groves. Abdul balances the clay pot on my fire rocks and makes sure it is level. He pours in clams and creek water while Max haphazardly throws in some slices of onion and ginger, and a knot of lemongrass. Then he adds salt and covers the pot.

"So Eli, what will happen to you if your father finds out you came here today?"

"I'll be dead, man. You might as well bury me now."

"You'll be fine," Max says. "He won't know unless you tell him. We won't. Besides, even if he finds out, I don't think he'll do grave stuff. You'll be fine."

"I hope so!" I tear some brown leaves and toss them in the air. "He's just so strict."

The fire dances around the pot.

Abdul finds a dried young coconut not far from the mango tree, and we kick it around in a game of soccer. We all cry out in anguish when a punt from Max causes the coconut to glance off our culinary set-up.

"That was close!" I say. Max and Abdul bend, laughing, holding their knees.

"Don't be clumsy," Abdul chimes in.

I fetch our plates of banana leaves and hover them above the flame to soften them and rid them of any bugs. Abdul checks the pot. The clams have opened like hands in prayer at the mosque he attends. "Alhamdulillah, praise God!" he blurts.

We squat around the fire and sip the soup from our empty coffee containers. The saliva-inducing taste lingers on our palate as we munch on clam meat that has mostly dislodged from the shells. The white, steamed rice that Abdul brought adds texture to the light soup.

In the distance, the river reflects the rays of the afternoon sun as its brown water runs quietly but decisively to the sea a few towns from here. The breeze sings along with the ripples of the nearby creek. I tend to eat more with people around me sharing food, and I laugh hard when somebody does something stupid, like Max farting as she swallows his food. Abdul and I stand and walk away, feigning disgust. But Max just laughs more and threatens to gulp down the rest of the soup.

"Don't do that!" I say. "Don't be an idiot!" says Abdul. "Better an empty house than an angry tenant." Max snickers. "How can you be empty when we have just gorged on this food?" I shake my head. We eat until all that remains is the cooked lemongrass and empty shells. I wash the pot with the clear water from the creek and fill it before boiling it once again on the fire. Abdul finds some soursop leaves nearby and adds them to the boiling water. Using the sugar I brought, we drink some soursop tea and lie under the mango tree.

"School holidays are great," says Max. "Definitely!" I agree. We sit quietly for a while, and I can hear the cicadas chanting.

Suddenly Abdul breaks into a rattle of laughter. "Why are you laughing?" Abdul asks. "Remember our music teacher in grade five—Ms. Napolitano, the one who had a boob job?"

"Oh, yeah, she went to Manila to have breast enlargement." Max sits up and talks loudly. "After a week, the stupid breast moved to her shoulder."

Abdul cackles, tapping the dried leaves beside him and the leaves bounce. "That was bizarre, a boob had completely lost its track!"

I laugh. "Imagine looking for a bra to accommodate her can't-stay-still mammary gland. 'Ah, excuse me, do you sell L-shaped bras?'"

Max giggles.

I snort. "Oh, what about that time when we used to get wheat flour donations from UNICEF.

"That was in grade five," Abdul says.

"Stupid white people probably thought we had no food." Max throws his palms in the air. "Hello, we have rice and fish and vegetables here. We just didn't have the sort of food you have in America or Australia. We probably don't need your wheat flour at the moment."

"But we hate to throw things away, so we ate the UN wheat flour donations." I say. "Remember Mr. San Juan, our sports teacher, who used to roast the wheat flour with coconut sugar in a cauldron in the middle of the peace garden. We called it 'polvoron.'"

"Yeah!" says Max. "And before we could eat the silly mixture, Mr. San Juan meticulously checked to see if the flour was fully cooked as our stomachs would be sensitive to food we don't normally eat."

"Yeah, I remember that," says Abdul.

"And one time," I say, "he told us to line up and to wait while he tasted the mixture. The stuff must have gone down the wrong hole and Mr. San Juan went on a coughing fit. The mixture shot out of his mouth like a bazooka. He went berserk, tears flowing from his eyes, while the flying roasted stupid wheat landed back in the kawa."

Abdul quacks when he laughs while Max goes into a muted convulsed mode. His face contorts and tears burst from his eyes as he lets out a guffaw.

"We all ran away, feeling disgusted," I say. I can hardly finish my sentence; I am laughing so hard. "The principal didn't want to throw it away either, so he suggested it be used as mulch in the sweet potato garden the following day. And the fire ants swarmed in for the flour. Anyone who sat on the grass had their bottoms blow up and their testicles swell like balloons."

"Man, that is definitely an LOL moment!" Abdul says.

"No doubt," Max agrees.

The sun's brightness has slowly faded until half the light has receded from clearing. Evening coolness slips in. We decide to stay a little longer to do another of our favourite things: spider fighting. Abdul spills a few empty matchboxes in our midst, and we each take a couple. We make little compartments inside them using coconut leaves which we curl into just enough space for a tucked-up spider. Each matchbox has about six compartments.

Sunset proves to be the perfect time to look for arachnids. In no time at all, we find some spiders dangling and swinging between branches as they made their webs. I climb up to the branches where spider silks are illuminated by the remaining streaks of a weakening sun. One by one, I grip their silk and lower the dangling spiders into the matchbox. I push them in slightly until each leafy compartment is snugly filled before I slide the matchbox closed.

We walk back at the bank and squat, showing off our catch. I choose a dark orange one with black feet to spar against Max's black one. We place them on a stick, and my spider waddles towards the middle while Max's trots forward like an athlete stretching excitedly at the start of a race. My spider stealthily moves sideways, trying to come closer to Max's, which now swings on the stick by its thread. My spider jumps down, hunching on Max's and the two rounded creatures flick and flap each other, twirling and spinning together until Max's freezes. In a blink of an eye, my orange spider begins to go around Max's, shrouding it in white threads until it looks like a small cotton ball. I giggle. Max shakes his head, and Abdul taps me on the shoulder. I slip my spider back into the matchbox, undoing a couple of curled leaves to make more room for my champion. Max throws his silk-encrusted spider corpse in the water, where it creates a minuscule plop amongst the ripples.

"What the hell is that?" Abdul's eyes go wide. He looks like he has seen a ghost. He points to what appears to be clamped banana trunks bobbing up and down in the water. But as they come nearer I see that they are dead people, tied together. Three men with no clothes on.

"Oh my God!" I cup my mouth. My heart races. "I feel sick. We have to leave!" Max's voice trembles. "This is scary. Bloody scary." Abdul folds his hands and looks agape as the bodies spin slowly past in the current.

The rope that clamps them tightly has seemingly burrowed into their skin. The one facing up has bruised cheeks and broken lips. On his chest is a haphazard tattoo of the Philippine eagle, spreading wings to his upper arms. The other two, facing down, have pale and purplish backs that blend with the brown water. The bodies get snagged to balete branches half-submerged in the water. One of the face-down corpses has a build similar to Papa. I feel weak. What if it's Papang?

"I want to go and check," I walk towards the balete tree. I feel I'm being dragged to the body. If it is him, how do we bury him? Will I cry at his coffin?

"Check for what?" Abdul says. "I want to come, too." Max follows me. I pick up a long branch, and use it as a walking stick as I wade towards the body. The water current brushes the corpses' hair as it passes. I prod the corpse that looks like Papang with my stick and roll it towards me to have a good look at its face. It has thick lips and a pug nose that only slightly resemble those of my father. As I pull my stick away, it rolls over slowly to look down into the water once more.

"Leave it, Eli. Let's go." Abdul says from a distance.

"Do you know him?" Max says.

"I was checking. I don't know him," I sigh.

"Push them away," Abdul says. "May they have peace."

"Yes, I hope God will take their souls to heaven," I say, pushing the side of the corpses to release them from the tree and allow them to float away like clamped logs on the river. I feel relieved that it is not Papa. Thank God. He must be safe.

"Let's go," Max says. We walk back under the mango tree and hightail onto our bikes.

The orange glow of the sunset is eerily matched by the glowing embers from the mounds of rice hay, adding to our fear as the dark creeps in. I'm late. Papa will be home by now, and he'll want to know where I've been. I'm so scared and pedalling so hard I can't catch my breath.

The smoke here no longer smells of rice hay, but of people cooking dinner in their nipa huts. The temperature drops, and my father's frown is equally cold when I park my bike near the bougainvillea.

"Where did you go?" he thunders. I can't meet his eyes and look down. His shoes are a muddy brown.

"I went to the river with Abdul and Max." The way he looks at me makes me scared to say more, let alone lie.

"What have I told you?" He grimaces, undoes his belt and whips it in the air.

"N-never go near the river and don't hang out with Abdul." My hands tense; I can still feel the lashes of his belt from the last time he hit me. He calls it disciplining me for disobeying him.

"Why?" he roars.

"B-because, the river is dangerous and Abdul is a Muslim." I tremble.

"We had an encounter with the Muslims near the Mindanao river crossing today. Can't you understand that the river is not just toxic, it is roamed by Muslim separatists?" He grabs my chin and looks at me with piercing black eyes. "They use the river to transport their dead captives!"

"I'm sorry." I tear up. "How many lashes should you get?"

"None, hopefully." I say in a soft voice.

"Two," he says, "for not heeding two of my instructions."

The lashes seem to come quickly, one on top of the other, and I bite my lips from the burning pain. Later I sob in the corner of our balcony, asking God why he gave me a violent father from the army. I see my younger sisters climbing the Panama Cherry tree in our front yard and feel very alone. I pick up my phone to text Max and Abdul. "I got into trouble."

"Did you? I'm sorry mate. Your father is a bit of a Nazi, isn't he?" replies Abdul.

"Sorry about that, Eli. Geez, you father is so hard to predict," says Max.

I sigh and put the phone down. I pace back and forth, and lie to my side on our bamboo bench. The summer breeze touches me like balm, and whispers to my ears like words that enliven my pride. I curl my feet, careful not to touch the bruises on my skin. Although I'm in pain, I feel at peace inside. For the moment.

The Magrib Prayer from the Mosque reverberates across the winding town.

Papa brings some cotton buds with Betadine solution and rubs it on my calves and shin where the belt has marked me.

"Next time you listen, OK?"

I nod. I don't agree with his ideas about not hanging out with Abdul, and one day, I will show my own children that there are better ways to discipline young people. But for now, I keep my mouth shut. Hopefully, one day, I'll be able to tell Papa that Abdul is a good friend. Although in saying that, I also hope that Abdul won't change. I will also find time to ask Papa if he can remain a soldier without having to kill someone.

Identical text messages come through from Abdul and Max, almost at the same time: "What are we doing tomorrow?"


Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2018
ISSN 1999-5032
All poems, stories and other contributions copyright to their respective authors unless otherwise noted.