The wind whispered and caressed the land. The night was filled with the symphony of crickets and things. It was music within the dark of the mountain, echoing, bouncing against the rice paddies that looked like the stairs of gods that made their way to the heavens.
Apo Nayon sat quietly on a log as he gazed at the stars while smoking his cigarette. The white spirit slowly swayed and disappeared, leaving behind a long trail of ash still attached to a burning tip that had reached the filter. He did not notice it. He did not feel the heat creep up the skin of his face. His eyes were fixated on the stars, deciphering their hidden meanings, trying to figure out what it all meant. Then he shrieked and uttered a curse while the cigarette butt came down like a ball of fire crashing with little fire demons that jumped and disappeared into the darkness. He licked his lip, feeling no pain, and laughed at the silliness of it all.
It had been a while since ApoNayon had heard his laughter. The recent deaths of Apo Inggon and Apo Tang-Ud, two of the most revered elders, had placed a cloud of grief over the whole tribe, if not an abundance of uncertainty. The old ones slowly faded, and the youth knew less of traditions, let alone the deeper aspects of spiritual beliefs that made them who they were as a tribe. Some of them longed for the city—wanted that rich modern life with cool gadgets and the modernity that elevated everyday living. They wanted their mobile phones, their own Playstation 5 and tablets, and to be famous on social media. But for Apo Nayon, such things were trivial, unnecessary, and above all, idiotic. The modern world was never meant for simple folks like him. The lure of the bright lights blinded the youth of his village, and he would like to think that the lowlanders, the visitors who were not from his mountain, poisoned the minds of the young ones in his village. He wondered why certain people would abandon heritage in exchange for meager luxury. He looked at the stars and sighed.
“It is what it is,” said an old man from inside the bale (Ifugao house) behind Apo Nayon. “They leave the village because life here is hard. Not all people see things the way you see them. Change is one thing that not even the power of gods could ever stop. You should know this.”
Apo Nayon snorted and said, “Yes, you are right – the old die out while the young do whatever they want.” There was sarcasm in his tone.
“It is not always that way,” said the old man in the house, “The old can teach the young.”
“But most of them don’t want to learn!”
“That is true,” said the old man. “Still, some listen, albeit a few, but nonetheless, they listen. You have too much of a conservative mind to think that way. The old can exist with the new. You have to see it that way. Unlike my forefathers, though, I believe in a compromise.”
“But these new things, this internet, and this technology that comes with it are slowly eating into our tradition,” Apo Nayon threw his hands in the air. “I fear for the future of our culture.”
“Bah, you folks are all alike. For one thing, you hang on to the old ways too much. You cling on to it for dear life! Remember, if culture does not adapt to the changing world, then culture will eat itself up and die.”
Apo Nayon shook his head and looked at his tired old hands. The light of the torch nearby cast shadows of crisscrossing lines that ran across his old skin. The burnt skin in between his lips stung (or at least he thought it stung). With a grim tone, he remarked: “If the old ways die, then I have contributed to the failure of my people.”
A silence took over both of them. The night air gave a chill, but Apo Nayon was accustomed to it. He welcomed it. He pulled out another stick of cigarette with a box of matches from his pocket and wasted several matchsticks before eventually lighting it. He took one in deep and exhaled a long puff of smoke.
“You smoke too much,” said the voice inside the house. “One of these days, you will be coughing your lungs out just like Puloy. That is if there are still lungs in there.”
Puloy. The old man recalled that name. Puloy, the young man from the lowlands of Manila who did not belong to the tribe, a tourist for that matter, yet Puloy frequented their village, and he made himself welcome nonetheless. He was a young man of twenty, stubborn, and quite arrogant. Most of the young ones of the village loved his stories of the cities, and they flocked to see the gadgets that he brought along with him. They explored many things through his internet and wasted hours playing his mobile games. It was easy enough to understand. Puloy himself was a catalyst for the concept of modern society to creep into the minds of the village youth. That young man was a pain in the ass, but he also made Apo Nayon laugh with his antics, with his absurd stories of city life and how the lowlanders are too full of themselves that they don’t even notice it.
One day, Puloy never returned. The tribe received word that tuberculosis got the better of the young man and that he died alone in the hospital. His parents were separated, and they arrived from abroad one day too late. Such was the tragedy of Puloy that the tribe erected a memorial beneath the mango tree where the youth often sat when he visited. A circular stone sat beside a dead mobile phone, the one thing that he left before he got sick with a promise to return the next summer and retrieve it. He planned on staying for good. That plan was never fulfilled.
Apo Nayon wiped the tear on his cheek and sniffed before he continued smoking. “If you think that this thing will be the death of me, then you are surely mistaken,” the old man said, quite convinced of his words.
“Whatever suits you. Still, it is a bad habit.”
“We have been smoking since the breaking of the world! Bah!” Apo Nayon threw the half-spent cigarette into the darkness, and the darkness gladly ate it up. “That is contemporary thinking! Everything about this modern world stinks. I would gladly feed these lowlanders to the Inlablabbuut. That monster devours anything.”
“Surely, you would not do that?” gasped the old man in the house.
Apo Nayon laughed and looked at the stars again. He frowned and pointed his finger at them. “You don’t have a say in this!” He snorted yet again and walked into the darkness where silhouettes of trees waited for him.
The dawn of the day was greeted with much enthusiasm as the village elders emerged from their houses with cups of hot mountain coffee in hand. They greeted each other with bows and nods. They all congregated under Apo Inek’s house, the daulon where the village folks meet and banter. Much talk later turned into laughter and then into silence. The old men looked at a young man who fidgeted in a corner while he wiped his sweaty hands on the side of his wanes (loincloth).
Apo Inek frowned and asked, “Is there something troubling you, Numun?”
Numun, a youth of eighteen, jerked from where he sat, and with eyes wide, he looked at his elder shamefully.
“No… nothing is wrong, apo,” stammered Numun as he tried to find his wits again.
“I have chosen a Narra tree, Numun. It is a fine tree near the stream. I placed a marker. You cannot miss it. Make good of your skills and carve us a good one. You can do this, young one. I believe in you.”
Numun steadied himself. His expression changed. He was not nervous anymore, and though his hands somewhat trembled, his heart calmed. A great task has been placed upon him, and his hands were needed. Everyone in the village knew he was the better craftsman amongst them, a better carver who knew his tools well, and, unlike his peers who wanted to know more about the world and the luxuries that it presented, Numun preferred the village life and hoped that one day he would eventually become a mumbaki.
“I can do this, apo. I know I can.”
Apo Inek smiled and finished his now cold coffee. The elders returned to their talk, about the upcoming planting season, the news that goes in and about their village, and more matters regarding their village.
Numun’s time with the elders had ended. He had a task to do and he knew he had to do it well. Silently he lifted himself from the wooden stool and made his way out. He casually walked to his house, which was somewhere in the lower part of the village, and it stood beside a mango tree. Life had changed for Numun since the recent death of his father. Apo Inggon was a man that everyone looked up to when it came to woodcraft, and Numun took well after his father, even surpassed the old man in woodwork as some of the villagers would say. Apo Inggon did not mind this. He loved his son so much that he wanted the young man to surpass him in his craft— become renowned one day—that would make the old man proud. But life had a wicked sense of humor and took Apo Inggon just when he was needed. Numun’s world came crashing down on him for the death of his father meant that he had to become the new woodworker. Planting season was nearing, and a new bulul statue had to be made to guard the fields for a good harvest.
Numun came across a small balete tree and stopped. It was here, where he and several other youths of the village, would congregate and watch many things on Puloy’s smartphone. Puloy had a YouTube channel where many of the landscapes and sceneries around the village were featured. He remembers laughing at the Puloy’s squeezed and nasal voice-over that he remembered was outrageous. Everyone’s laughter echoed throughout the mountains. He even remembers Apo Inek call out, to stop their incessant chortling lest they wake the mountain gods who would strike them down with bolts of lightning. The memory drew a smile on his face.
“Puloy,” he whispered under his breath. Numun sometimes wanted some of the things that Puloy had. The smartphone was a fantastic device that he could never afford, yet, he dreamed and marveled at the sight of it. Oh, what a joy to watch the shows that he could watch, the movies and the amazing programs where he could learn so much. And indeed, there was much to learn of the world outside their village—the sciences and the arts, the music and the lore of other lands—it must be a joy to live in a modern world! But that meant he had to leave the village, and the mountain, and the traditions. The thought of that made him shiver.
Numun sighed. He knew that he could never afford such things. He was poor. He could always find work in the lowlands, but to get a higher wage, he had to be at least in college, and there were not that many jobs that he could do. He also knew that while one part of him envied the modernity of the world, the other part wanted to be grounded, to do what his father wanted him to be. And being a Mumbaki one day was his priority. He looked at his hands and talked to them privately, telling them that they were the best hands in the village that could create the most intricate of bulul statues. He could hear his father talk to him, at least in his mind, and his old man would have been proud that he took to the mallet and chisel instead of walking away from tradition. Maybe he could make different statues of different things later on, not just bulul, and maybe he could sell them in the lowlands? Maybe he could profit from such an endeavor? Maybe soon?
He placed his musings aside and looked back at the balete. He left the memories of Puloy, at least for the moment, and smiled as he whispered “I will be back”. Up to another path, Numun went, up to his house where his tools waited.
Numun looked up at the Narra tree and smiled. He remembered when he was small. The trees looked higher back then, like giant gods that loomed and stretched to the skies. Apo Inggon would oftentimes remind him that the trees were gifts by Kabunian, and that like all living things, they should be respected. And so this became a pact between him and his father, that in everything that they do with regards to their craft, the trees should be given respect. He knelt and prayed, to the gods and his ancestors, with a hand on the Narra and the other on his axe, and once he was done, he called to the spirit of his father to guide his hand and the tool that he held.
“Thank you for your help,” Numun whispered to the tree as he struck the first blow.
Tok! Tok! Tok! The first blows came that echoed throughout the mountainside. Tok! Tok! Tok! Down came Numun’s axe as it struck with a profound confidence. Numun’s sweat trickled at every swing, his muscles stiffened with every blow. The tree was mighty indeed, as it seemed indestructible, yet the young man with the axe proved to be persistent. Tok! Tok! Tok! Came the last blow, and after hours of chopping, the Narra came down. It was almost twilight. Numun had worked the whole afternoon.
The Narra tree moaned as it bent and fell into the thicket. As the tree crashed, a loud scream was heard that came from a small old man who exploded from the thicket.
“Idiot!” exclaimed the old man who inspected his body parts soon after. “Are you trying to kill me?”
Numun stood for a moment, shocked at what he saw, and somewhat confused on how to react. He soon found his voice and apologized to the old man who wore just his wanes and a lit cigarette in hand.
“What are you doing here anyway?” asked the old man who stood with a slight hump.
“My apologies, apo,” Numun started with remorse. “I am cutting this tree for a new Bulul.”
“A new Bulul?” spat back the old man who laughed after. “You look too young to be a woodworker.”
“I am Numun, son of Apo Inggon.
My father is gone and I am to continue his legacy.”
The old man looked to the ground and nodded. “My sympathies for the loss of your father. He will be missed. I am Apo Nayon.”
The old man positioned himself on the fallen Narra tree and patted it.
“What were you doing there, apo, if I may ask?”
“That, young man, is none of your business,” spat an irritated old man while scratching his butt. Numun could not help but manage a smile. “Well, what are you waiting for? Get on with it.”
“But it is almost night,” protested Numun. “I don’t want to work the whole night. I might meet something I don’t want to see, a gatui or umangob! Mentioning such beasts already gives me the chills.”
“I will give you the chills if you don’t start with that!” said Apo Nayon before taking in a deep puff from his cigarette.
“Are you my mother who is here to tell me what to do?” retorted the young man who was quite enraged.
“No! But I am an elder who is telling you what you should be doing.”
“Doing?” questioned Numun as he scratched his head. “I don’t even recognize you. I have not seen you in the village before. Not to mention, your name is not familiar to me. So tell me then, why?”
“Because the gods of the harvest are impatient and they cannot wait for their effigies to be completed. More importantly, the harvest cannot wait. Bah! What do you young folks know?”
“Maybe not much, apo, but we are eager to learn from our elders—or at least I am.”
Numun smiled. His sweat ran profusely down his tired body. Apo Nayon looked at the young man with newfound admiration though he did not show it.
“Bah! If you are certain that you can complete this bulul in time…”
“I will do it at the first crack of light, apo,” said Numun as he bent to get his things. When he turned around, Apo Nayon was gone. He hardly ever heard a footstep. Feeling a slight chill, Numun called out to the old man like a lost child in the forest.
“Don’t be late,” replied Apo Nayon somewhere in the forest.
Numun gave a sigh of relief. The old man was just quiet in his movements, quick to walk, and was not a maligno that he did not want to deal with—at least, that was what he thought. He looked at the fallen tree one last time that day, as the sky reddened and the dark ate the shadows away, and he trekked back to his house carrying with him a determination to prove his worth to his tribe.
In the early dawn of a misty morning, Numun came out of his house wearing only his wanes. It was not as cold as yesterday, but still, the chill bit hard, and yet the young man shrugged off the cold. The working of the wood was all in his mind that day. Nothing could distract him.
“You are late,” said Apo Nayon as he came from behind startling Nubin.
The young man shrieked. It was high in pitch, something like it would come from a girl. The old man gave a sharp cough as he exhaled smoke, as he laughed after, and then coughed again.
“Don’t you have anything else to do, apo?” asked an irritated Numun.
“No,” firmly replied the old man. “I have to see you finish that bulul.”
“Because! Now shut up and start walking. You have a lot of work ahead of you.”
Numun gave up with the old man. Apo Nayon looked like a respected elder who was wise enough despite his appearance. The young man simply shrugged and went on his way.
After a short distance, they reached the tree. Numun started to chop a smaller that he would use to carve the bulul. Apo Nayon sat on a corner, beneath another tree, and lit a cigarette.
“Those things will kill you,” said Numun while he worked the tree.
“I don’t have lungs,” the old man spat and took another puff.
“That’s a laugh,” said Numun, not amused.
Apo Nayon laughed, and it seemed to Numun, who paused to look around the forest in awe, that the forest laughed too.
“Numun, now that name is a laugh.”
“So is Nayon,” replied an irritated Numun, looking around, waiting for the forest to laugh again. It did not. “My real name is Jose. My father was the first one to call me Numun because I survived pneumonia when I was young. It was some sort of a joke between my parents. He thought he could call me that whenever we were alone, but the whole village discovered it and caught on. I don’t mind. Apo Inek explained that it is something like a catchphrase of something that something as dire as pneumonia could not kill me. It makes me stronger, he says.”
“Inek, eh…” said Apo Nayon with his thoughts trailing off.
Numun returned to his work, finishing just before lunch.
Apo Nayon remained quiet while the young man work.
Numun carried the slab of wood to his father’s workshop beside his house. The old man followed with another cigarette in hand.
“Will you not stop that,” asked Numun. “My friend, Puloy, died because of that, you know. It was tuberculosis.”
Apo Nayon drew a deep breath and sighed. Numun felt the old man hurt, stung by his words, as he slowed to transfer the log to his other shoulder. He asked if Apo Nayon knew Puloy.
“Barely,” answered Apo Nayon with a somber tone. “He was funny.”
That was all that was said about Puloy. Apo Nayon remained quiet while Numun worked on his bulul. The young man worked tirelessly, day and night, sleeping only a few hours, pausing only to eat or to drink or do about his toilet business, the old man would inspect the bulul thoroughly. He would nod his head in satisfaction.
On the third night, the bulul was done. Apo Nayon sat on a dimly lit corner of the room and marveled at the young man’s work. He almost shed a tear but was holding it when Numun entered the room with an old film camera. He took several shots of the bulul before taking a step back and admiring his handiwork.
“Why do you need that?” asked Apo Nayon with displeasure.
“This camera? To take a photograph of my work. Why?”
“I don’t believe in modernity. I think we can live without it.”
“I disagree, apo. We must sail with the changing tides. I think, as human beings, we should live with modernity and should not dissuade the changes that are happening to the world. Heh, this thing here is old, an artifact if I may call it, but I am a poor man and this is the only thing I have that I can use. I can’t afford a smartphone to take pictures of my work that I can upload on those websites. I know some people in the lowlands who have their gadgets and they offered to help me. I was thinking to develop these pictures in town and ask them to help me upload the photographs on their internet. Maybe I can get customers to buy some of the carvings that I have done.”
Numun pointed to a corner where a few woodworks lay on a table that was mostly small animal carvings. Apo Nayon looked at the woodwork and smiled.
“Maybe you are right. But I can’t put aside what modernity could do to our people. The young ones are gripped by the things that they see. They rush out the door, heeding the call of the cities and the images of fine living that they see. They leave the life of the people of the mountain. They leave their traditions – their culture – and they become someone else.”
“Apo, I beg of you to look at the advantages of what modernity could do to our people. Not all who leave our village and live in the city forget who they are. Not all who embrace technology are fools. Puloy had his Youtube channel that focused on his life in this village. You could see he promoted our culture even though he was not one of us. I would like to be mumbaki one day and have a Youtube channel that would promote my work as a woodworker in our village. I know only finished high school and can’t afford college, but maybe if I work hard enough, I can achieve all of that.”
“What makes you sure of that?” Apo Nayon asked hiding his certainty of the matter.
“Because I have faith, apo. I believe that I can include culture in my endeavors, become a learned craftsman and a mumbaki at the same time, and a Youtuber too!” Numun joked. “I also believe that culture must embrace the changes in our world, otherwise, our identity as a people will be forgotten. This modern world can record and recognize our way of life. There are many institutions already doing that. So, please apo, try to see the goodness in this changing world, in this modern society that we live in. It is not all that bad.”
The old man remained quiet as Numun continued to take more pictures of the newly crafted bulul. And then, without any word, he walked out of Numun’s workshop without a sound. The young man, after finishing taking pictures, realized that he was all alone in the room. He called to the old man several times but found him gone. He went back to the bulul, marveled at his handiwork, before closing shop and going to bed. He had good dreams that night.
Mumbaki Inek chanted the origins of the first bulul deity, the story of Namtogan, the paraplegic god of the old world. A line of men made their way to Apo Inek’s daulon, swaying to the beat of the gangsa. Numun held the large bulul that he carved over his shoulder. The ritual lasted throughout the day. Three chickens were sacrificed with their bile sacks read. Apo Inek made the reading and the signs were good. Later on, a fat pig was skinned and sacrificed. Its blood collected and again the bile sack read. Another good omen. Finally, the bulul was consecrated with blood and the elders drank rice wine. Apo Inek’s family danced to the beat of the gangsa while the whole village celebrated. And all was well until the end of the day.
Have you changed your mind then?” Apo Inek asked from inside his bale. “The ritual is finished. All you need to do is enter.”
“That young man had me thinking,” said Apo Nayon as he sat by the door. “Maybe I was wrong to think that this modern world has no place for folks like me.”
“Maybe you were, but it seems that Numun has shown you a side of this world that is not always bad.”
“You should not call him that,” said Apo Nayon, as he reached for a pack of cigarettes in his pocket and threw it away. “His name is Jose.”
“Yes, that is his name,” repeated Apo Inek, “But Numun is a name that reminds us all that he survived a deadly disease, that the name should not be laughed at, and instead admired. It is a unique name – one that belongs here in our village.”
“Call him that, but from now on, I will call him by his real name.”
Apo Nayon smiled and said, “As you wish. The boy made an impression over you, and though he embraces the modernity that this world has to offer, he is still grounded to tradition, as he has exemplified in his work.”
“Yes, yes indeed!” Apo Nayon looked at Numun’s bulul and a wide smile escaped his usually stern face. “Gods still exist. Maybe there is hope for this world after all.”
“Yes, I would like to think that,” replied Apo Inek with optimism.
Apo Nayon stood and entered Apo Inek’s bale. The house smelled of smoke and rice wine. The old man savored the aroma. It reminded him of a long-forgotten past that was filled with mirth and youthful vigor. He stopped beside Apo Inek and bowed. The other man returned the compliment. He then proceeded to where the bulul waited, on a corner where a jug of rice wine and a plate of roasted chicken waited. He smiled and disappeared.
Apo Inek breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, the ritual was over. Soon the harvest will come, and the days will go on, bountiful, under the watchful eyes of Apo Nayon, a hesitant god forever changed by Numun’s hopeful conviction.