My Beloved Selya,
Do you remember the last time we played takipsilim under the ancient acacia tree? I hated playing hide and seek. Takipsilim. The concept horrified me. I knew it should be played at dusk – that was the name of the game – but you said it was your favorite game so I tagged along. It didn’t matter that it was always you and Pilo who always won.
Before I had time to bury my head in the crumbly tree bark to start counting to beinte, you were gone. I know it was lame but counting made me hate this game more than the darkness. I still didn’t know the then numbers that came after onse so I had to make up names for them. I would half-whisper every single number so no one would hear — betsa, ulipa, darase, opolpo, etc.
Soon as the crescendo of chirping crickets became unbearable, I opened my eyes and panicked, thinking I had gone blind. It was so dark I thought maybe I couldn’t open my eyes anymore. But, it wasn’t totally dark. Yet.
I had to move slowly. After each light step, I would stop and listen. I focused on every sound beyond the crackling of dead leaves under my bare feet. I listened closely and heard things. A little girl’s asthmatic murmur. The faint clanging of the Angelus bell from the Poblacion bamboo chapel. The fraught pumping of blood from my temples. Roosters were crowing musically in the distance. There were goats bleating and monitor lizards being slaughtered. I thought I heard a deer narrowly escape a hunter’s spear. I also heard the sound of the forest transforming from dusk to absolute darkness. It harmonized with the constant chirping—this drone that sounded like a deep, barely audible groan of a tree that had just been felled and now falling very, very slowly. Instead of a boom toward the end, it turned into a high-pitch tone. A scream. A wail interrupted by a silence so heavy I thought I had stopped breathing.
I still wasn’t aware that you had already gone home by then. I never imagined you would you leave me just like that. But you were gone and that was that.
So I played on and continued my search despite the elders’ stories about the kapre who lived in the tree. They had many names for him – Dabid, Pagano, Santonegro, De Lim, Uliseo, Ulikba, Itaas, Itlubay, Arnibal, Alkitran, Maraya, Calabuena, Tisoy, Pipay, Halaya, Hasiksikan – but we all purposefully, dutifully forgot every single iteration.
In between bites of unripe guava he plucked from a neighbor’s tree, Tata Ope would tell us, “Never utter his name aloud. Don’t even think about it unless you want to summon him.”
As soon as it got dark, as these stories went, the hairy black giant would smoke his fat tabako and the smell of smoke would mix with his own distinct scent that was a combination of raw onions and caramelized sampaloc and burnt water chestnuts. In one version of the story, if one looked hard enough, his shadow would merge with his enormous ebony figure, doubling his size.
I was not scared of the kapre. All stories we were told about him didn’t include harming children. Counting truly scared me more. The stories would change slightly but the narrative was the same. He would trick kids and scare them and throw twigs and branches and rotten acacia pods at them but nothing really malevolent. It was all about being naughty, very much like us kids. Still, I was careful not to look up. It didn’t matter that for every tree I marked so I could trace my way back, there would be this hulking specter moving out of the corner of my eye. I just told myself, I was just imagining things. Again, I was not scared. I was mad. I felt betrayed.
Only when I got lost deeper and deeper into the forest that my anger turned to fear. I felt helpless and I lost hope. That was when Tiyo Andres found me bawling. He would later tell me that I was inconsolable. The only thing I remembered was him hugging me and whispering pig Latin into my ear. They sounded more like made-up half-words and forgotten susurrations. An incantation of random syllables and curt notes that tickled my ear which actually didn’t help. I just lost it as I listened to this strange language.
Finally, he told me to start counting. He pointed at the fireflies that were sparkling all around us and counted aloud with me. That night, I learned that dose came after onse. I would never forget those numbers. Your age and mine.
The next day, I finally mustered enough courage to tell you about my secret when I saw you gathering mangoes that had fallen off your backyard. You just laughed at me. I knew you meant it more to make light of my embarrassment than to mock me. However, Trining and Ibyang, who were fumbling with their skirts to hold several bruised fruits, didn’t understand and joined in the laughter. Then Pilo arrived and you all started calling me names. Snot-face. Chicken. Bakla.
“You’ll never get to fight alongside your father. The Katipunan doesn’t take in cowards. The Guardia Civil can smell your fear from the next town,” Ibyang said.
My Beloved Sely,
We just came back from a battle that lasted several days. I guess, I could say, we showed those smelly Guardia Civil. In the end, when our scarce ammunitions and strength had run out, after our bolos and bamboo spears had all been broken, we continued fighting by staring at each other. The first soldier that blinked died because there was nothing else to do.
The Spaniards had wiped out half of our platoon before we killed every single one of them. After a week, we made sure everyone was dead. We rested one full day and greeted the new day by torching the corpses. I fought myself really, really hard but I did salivate. The smell of burning corpses was just too much. We had to leave quickly. We feared our hunger would make us do something we would later regret.
My Beloved Sel,
We stopped by Tata Miong’s kubo on our way to Indang. He was very happy to see us and immediately told Ibyang to slaughter his last goat. I wanted to ask Ibyang about you but she seemed to have no idea who I was. I didn’t want to distract her. She was breastfeeding a child as she cut up the goat into tiny unrecognizable chunks. We ate every part of it except the head, of course. It was where the horns were attached.
While waiting for the goat to be cooked, the lieutenant ordered Pilo and I to escort two wounded prisoners from the Auditor de Guerra of the next town. I bound the prisoners, traitors I was told, and I let them walk ahead of me. Because of his injuries, Pilo trailed behind. I told him to just hold the letter that, we were ordered to open only when we reached the mountain outpost.
I offered the prisoners a few pieces of torched goatskin soaked in vinegar but they just stared at me. They didn’t want to eat. They were so out of it that it seemed like eating might do them more harm than good. I didn’t care much for traitors, anyway, so I savored every leathery bite of goat meat. I just had to look away as I chewed for it was so bloody like the enemy we slaughtered.
My Beloved Se,
Pilo succumbed to his injuries before the night was over. We didn’t know he had been bleeding inside his stomach. We didn’t have time to say goodbye to Tata Miong who was preparing Pilo’s remains, wiping them down with coconut oil before rolling him inside a tattered banig. Tata Miong had to wipe down the straw weaving to keep it from unraveling.
How we all secretly wished to be Pilo but we had to keep going. We wanted to run away. The war was still raging. We left in such a hurry that we didn’t even thank Ibyang for the food. She probably wouldn’t hear us. She was already up to her neck digging Pilo’s grave.
When will this war be over. I wanted it so bad to end but I dreaded going back to Taguig. I wouldn’t know what I would do if I found out you weren’t there yet. Did you even think of coming back at all?
My Beloved S,
Remind me again what happened on that muggy evening in August. Please, where did you go? I spoke with your father before he left for Mindoro to escape the fighting. He told me, most probably just to shut me up, that you had eloped. That you ran off with some Dominican fraile to Camarines Province. Or was it a Guardia Civil lieutenant? I didn’t believe him. I barely understood his words. He sounded like a bird cawing uncontrollably. Maybe I didn’t want to hear what he was saying.
Before you disappeared, right after you went washing clothes in the river with Trining, I secretly followed you. You were dancing on your way home, flailing your arms feebly. No, it was more like stroking the air. It was a performance that looked painful but your gestures told everything. You would kneel down and look up to the sky like a supplicant asking for a meaning or for something to end. Yes, it was a dance or it seemed like it and throughout the routine, you held the ripped part of your blouse from coming loose off your shoulder.
I wanted to spring forward right there and then. I wanted to know how your laundry beater broke. Why your clothes were tattered. I wanted to ask you about the raw bruises on your ears and neck. I wanted to ask you about the glowing liquid dripping down your legs. I didn’t. I couldn’t. There was no way I could ask without crying. I wouldn’t have been able to speak at all. After the last takipsilim game, I never wanted you to see me cry again. I knew you didn’t want to speak then. You wouldn’t be able to speak. Not even to me.
I finally called you when you were about to enter the gate to your house. You seemed not to hear me. Or see me. But you did look at me eventually. I knew you saw me because you froze. We stared at each other and didn’t speak.
I just kept silent. There was no use for words anymore. We already knew everything just by looking, by keeping our breaths and breathing in an assured pace, hoping it would fix whatever needed fixing.
A feast for mosquitos. That’s what we are these days. They grow as big as butterflies here in Mt. Buntis. When we see each other again, please remind me to ask you why they call this mountain pregnant. You used to tell me that story, right? You would make up hundreds of stories so we wouldn’t get bored while riding our carabao, Islaw, to graze.
To help me sleep, I try counting every mosquito in the swarm but all I see is the blue of the sky bleeding into dusk. I keep wondering why sleep nests so easily in this place. I try looking up but it has become clear that my head is anything but bearable.
I’m sorry for ranting again. Please bear with me. It’s so hard to concentrate. Though we have rested for a long time, I know rest is not what our bodies need.
I still hope you are just in Camarines. Don’t wait for me. Just please be there when I get there. They say the war will be over soon. The frailes have all left the parishes. We have special regiments hunting them down.
I just can’t wait for all of this to be over so I can finally start doing what I was born to do. But where shall I begin looking? I’m afraid that I’m doing this just to finish what I started, if I could only remember what it was or to give it a name.
This morning, I opened the letter concerning the prisoners. I found out that they were brothers. It was their death sentence and my orders were to execute them. I had to do it fast so I could join my company who had left earlier to raid a Spanish garrison in the next town.
We decided to hack the first prisoner to death, to save on bullets. When he heard us talking, he ran downhill but he stumbled and rolled down with the rest of our platoon. I tried to close his eyes before we buried him but they just stayed open.
Before shooting the other prisoner, he took a long stare at me. I understood that he was not begging for his life. His eyes were bereft of contempt and resentment. Then it came flooding, this unsullied sadness. Not his but mine. All mine. That was when I realized that I was actually looking at my own eyes, finally appreciating, accepting how this search would end.