WE ARE SAFE HERE
We came up the hill, sore and wheezing like old dogs, after the water had swallowed the last shelter in miles that had a power generator, and I, having lost my son and my husband, dropped my knees on the soil upon seeing the children run into a muddy, trampled field of bananas.
My sister would tell me later that when one of the elders came, I was beside myself. “We don’t want trouble! No trouble,” I was screaming with surprising force at the old man ambling toward us. The two younger men who followed him grabbed us out of the trough we’d wandered into and half-carried us to what was left of their village.
In a hut raised on hard palm trunks, Lina spoke to the village chief about the last few days when we survived on coconuts that floated by the roof of a convenience store. From the open door of the chief’s house, men and women from the village observed us, examining our shrunken bodies, perhaps wondering how we made it this far, and this high up. Two policemen who’d been paddling a canoe had rescued us from the roof. The same policemen were later killed in an encounter with men dressed as soldiers who sneaked up on us when we approached the road that supposedly led to a shelter. My sister and I managed to leap into the floodwater, which ran deeper than an Olympic diving pool, and hid under a floating rafter until the men went away.
“They have what they wanted,” said the chief. “To rule over us all.”
I was only half listening, bowing at the empty plate where two boiled bananas had been. I considered eating the peel. My stomach could probably take it since lately it had been churning nothing but air. I restrained my self. I might have been starved, bordering on hysteria, but I still hadn’t lost my good manners. The four of us, including the chief’s wife, sat with our legs crossed over slats of bamboo, as though we were in a secret arbitration.
I watched my sister, in awe of her vast reservoir of energy. From the day of the announcement, the first evening downpour, to the swift sinking of the city, Lina described our horrors to the leader of the people who found us.
“Where do you intend to go?” asked the chief, and we were both silent. We didn’t want to be anywhere else but on higher ground.
Everyone had known a storm was coming that week. The yearly cyclones had inured those who lived along the path of destruction. Nonetheless, the national government sent rescue teams a day before landfall: a collection of towns and a small city that were islands away from us.
We watched on our screens as early evacuations were carried out, coastal towns emptied of its last stubborn residents, supplies delivered by the truckload to hills where mobile shelters had been put up. In one clip, I saw people on top of dump trucks, waving at the camera. I tapped the screen of my tablet shut and turned in bed, my son in the other room loudly watching a movie on his phone, my husband doing his nightly rounds at a private hospital. Not an hour later, the President would appear on every television, computer, and phone screen to deliver a final warning. The storm that picked up its speed off the Maluku Islands and brushed the tip of Borneo had gathered force after it hit Sulu and was now dragging its eye up north.
A change in the wind’s direction had been far from our worries. We’d lived most of our lives untouched by storms. Our nearness to the country’s highest peak, the mountain ranges that absorbed the gales, and the wind’s direction had long been acknowledged. An anomaly in a typhoon-prone republic, our city was among the few that had been fortunate. Many of our children had grown up believing that storms destroyed only the lives of those who lived far from us. We are safe here, each of us must have quietly told ourselves before going to sleep.
But signs to the contrary had been closer than we’d allowed ourselves to believe. The week before Christmas, after my son had turned five, a flashflood tore apart a city northwest of the island. Around the same time the following year, we received our first Storm Signal No. 1 in a long time. The notice was so uncommon that imbeciles with Internet connection derided online what they’d found underwhelming. They expected cars carried away, I had thought, a squall uprooting huge trees, bodies on the streets. While some of us scoffed at a few telephone posts toppled along the roads, only four hours away, a mining and logging town had been covered in loose soil. Still, we never imagined it could happen to us.
The skies had not cleared. On our first night in the village, rain pelted the hut’s roof until morning. Rain occasionally poured in the middle of day and return late in the evening. The flood by then had been going on in what seemed like half a month. Power cut off, telecommunications signal dead. The government, the rest of the world, would have been terribly alarmed that a city was about to disappear from the planet. Not a single chopper had come, if only to toss a box of instant noodles or canned sardines.
Lina, who once worked in a wildlife sanctuary, was quicker to adapt. On our second day in the village, she washed our clothes with the women at a nearby stream. She spoke with the chief and the heads of families who were mostly men. She helped gather firewood, which were dried near a stone furnace that every day the villagers kept aflame under a zinc roof. I stayed behind in the hut an old man and his wife had allowed us to occupy. The hut used to be their unmarried son’s.
“Shot by one of the guards,” the chief told us one afternoon when he dropped by bringing a bowl of sweet potatoes.
“Which guard?” Lina asked him.
“The pastor’s men. The ones watching from behind that fence.” The chief gestured at the high perimeter wall that loomed over the village.
Everyone in the city knew of the televangelist who owned most of the property in the area. Nobody could touch him because he secured votes for the ruling clan, who even gave him a private army of his own. I might have heard of stories about stolen land. I might have vaguely turned the news over in my head and—as with similar injustices that didn’t directly affect my family—pretended that I didn’t hear anything.
“He and a few others went down the city to testify against the pastor,” said the chief. “Days after they returned, he and two of our men were dead.”
Famished and sapped when we arrived, I hadn’t noticed the wall, which had been choked with vines, only the banana trees that had gobbled up much of the land around the village.
“Do they own these bananas?” my sister said.
“These belonged to the tenants.” The chief, arms akimbo, looked out at the plantation. “They take the bananas to factories.”
“You lease your land?” I said.
“For a low price,” the chief said. “The only way we can prevent the pastor from taking what’s left of our land. These bananas have been here for twelve years.”
“The soil deteriorates when you plant only one crop,” Lina said.
“We had many kinds of plants and trees here,” said the chief. “Now, it is mostly bananas, unless you go into the forest. We earn a little from it. The tenants hire us to plant and harvest.”
I thought of other communities in the mountains, the concessions they had to make, and the harm it would cost us all.
“Do the pastor’s men still harass you,” I asked, worried that we’d have some unwelcome company soon.
“Every day that the heavens gave,” said the chief. “I don’t know if they are still around after what happened. Maybe they are still there. I hope they all drowned.”
“What’s behind the wall?” asked Lina.
“His kingdom,” the chief said.
The pastor had built a mansion, town houses, tennis courts, and another church in the compound enclosed with concrete walls, which from outside looked like a prison in the middle of a banana forest. The mansion, said the chief, had around a hundred rooms. Lina and I didn’t contest.
“You think he’s still in there?” I asked.
“He owns private jets,” my sister said, “he must have flown to Hawaii or Guam, or wherever else he’s built a church.”
“If it is true that he escaped,” the chief said, resting his arms on his hips, “I hope the plane fell into the ocean, and he drowned.”
“On our way here,” said Lina, “we saw a huge gate blocking the road. That road is for public use.”
Lina and I had meandered through another banana plantation for what seemed like hours, drinking water from a creek, and taking off our shoes when the ground rolled from loam to mulch, before we found the village.
“As you can see,” said the chief, “we are not part of the public you speak of. Your government does not care about us.”
Lina winced, as if she’d caught herself uttering a forbidden word.
“They want to drive you out of here?” I said. “He already has so much land. Why does he want more? Where are you supposed to go?”
“In heaven,” the chief said, “where we can’t plant anymore.”
He sounded like he’d been indoctrinated, the chief. Perhaps the rebels who’d been roving the mountains had radicalized him and his people, and there were guerrillas behind the trees who, at a given moment, would saunter into the village in search of food, a place to spend the night. I looked at the ground, ashamed of myself. We had done exactly that. Walk into their lives, expecting some relief.
Lina had found me on the third day of the deluge. I was coiled on a folding bed inside a gymnasium that had been converted into a shelter. We were an hour away from downtown, quickly running out of food and clean water. She talked to me about Gil.
My face lit up when I heard my son’s name.
“Has anyone seen my son?” I yelled out above the crowd. “Gil! Gil!”
My sister held my face, forcing me to look at her.
“Do you remember the last time you saw Gil?” Her voice cracked. “The rescuers said you were alone when they found you on the roof.”
But Gil went up ahead of me, I thought. I’d followed him out of the house when the water rose. I’d told him to go up the ladder. And when I got to the roof, my son—he wasn’t there. Or was that only a dream I’d been having since they’d taken me to the evacuation center? The surge came upon us like rocks, the water so dark, I could hardly see, the wind whistling. When the rescuers came, three of them, I didn’t get up right away. I held on to my knees, my entire body drenched. One of the rescuers, a young woman, shouted at me to get into the boat, and so I did, believing Gil had already gone ahead. I only followed him.
“Manang.” My sister took me in her arms, her tears hot on my cheek. “He’s gone.”
The woman living in a nearby hut waved at me to come down. She was trailed by two giggly little girls who couldn’t be older than six. I ambled barefoot on the icy soil, a misty spray falling above us. We walked across a grassy mound farther from the banana plantation.
A crowd had gathered around two men who appeared to be debarking a palm tree. I didn’t find my sister among them. A few children ran around the area. The two little girls who had accompanied me had joined their playmates.
“Here, closer,” the girls’ mother said.
I gaped ahead and spotted a grove of palms from which they must have taken the tree. After the bark had been stripped away, exposing the palm’s white pith, the men proceeded to pound on the tree with hammer-like tools made from stalks of bamboo. One of the men picked up another wood instrument, which resembled a scythe but leaner, and seemed to scrape the pith into finer bits. Soon one of the women scooped the pounded scraps and plopped them into a tub of water. They kneaded and squeezed the wet scraps over a cloth sifter.
My neighbor pinched a drop of the stuff and placed it on my palm. Viscous, white, starchy.
“Natok,” the woman said. “We eat later.”
Where had I heard this word before? I closed my fingers on the gluey substance in my hand. Summers in Aklan, my grandparents’ house, the swishing of a broomstick over dry leaves, Sunday mornings after church, my grandmother buying us a treat from the marketplace, my teeth sinking on warm, glutinous cake wrapped in a soft leaf. I’d only seen this way of drawing starch from palm in that barrio in Aklan where my parents had been born, where my grandparents had been laid to rest, and the villagers here called it by the same name. I’d never known what we had in common.
The sound of metal smashing against the bleachers woke us that day at the shelter. The flood had burst into the gymnasium, people running to the exit, and when I looked around for my sister, I saw a boy tumble into the water.
Lina was on the other side of the gym. I got up and yelled at her, but my voice came out hoarse, a feeble croak. I jostled past the others, shoving and climbing over bodies, flesh torn from my elbow, my thigh bruised. At last, I got to my sister, who didn’t immediately recognize me when I tugged at her arm. “Don’t leave me,” I gasped.
Still in shock, she didn’t say anything. I pulled her up to one of the vents that thankfully had none of those grilled panels and was low enough to peer into. There were four rectangular vents on both wings of the gym. We were all fighting to get out first.
A man was shouting at us to back away, no one would be saved if we wouldn’t give up some space. He was a short, hairy man with flashing eyes. Nobody was listening. The crowd had become a mob hammering against the walls of the gym. Then we heard a gunshot.
I’ll kill you if you don’t back off, the man was yelling, his gun pointed at the ceiling—I’ll kill you all! Our group settled down. The flood had risen above the second row of the bleachers. I pushed closer to the opening and peered out. Water swelled below, dragging along furniture, logs, a chunk of someone’s house. I watched as the man with the gun clamber into the opening and fling his body into the roiling waters. Like fluff, he was swept away.
It only took a few minutes for the water to reach the last bleacher. I held my sister’s hand, a quietness settling upon me. We were about to die, I told myself, but instead of fear, relief washed over me. This soon would be over.
But it wasn’t. A rescue team that apparently the shelter had radioed earlier finally came, shouting from below the vents. Five inflatable rafts and a motorboat had arrived to save the less than fifty survivors trapped inside the gymnasium. Since we were among the few remaining women, my sister and I got on a raft, more than half of the evacuees still left in the gym.
There were six of us in our boat, including two male rescuers. We were supposed to be taken to a bigger shelter situated on higher ground. But not twenty minutes on our way, the rescuers steered the boat to a strip of buildings that to my horror, I recognized. This was where Gil went when he bought spare parts for his bike.
The rescuers parked the raft at the back of one of the buildings, trying it to a telephone post. The water was about seven feet deep.
“Why did we stop?” I asked the rescuers. One of them was speaking on a handheld radio.
“Not enough boats, Ma’am,” the other rescuers said. “We need to go back and get the others.”
“You’re leaving us?” said an older woman behind me. She was clutching her shoulders, her discolored hair hanging in wet clumps over her head.
“Take us to the shelter now!” another woman said. She was sitting beside the other rescuer.
“I’m sorry, Ma’am,” said the rescuer with the radio. “Those we left behind don’t have much time. We’ll come back and bring the others here.”
But none of us moved. The rescuers repeated their story of being called back to the gym because the flood was rising to the ceiling. If we had gone our way, said the older woman, perhaps there would still be time to return for the others. And how were we supposed to get to the roof? I thought that was that and rescuers had conceded, but Lina spoke up.
“I’m staying here,” she told the men. “You can take three more on this boat.”
“No, Lina!” I protested. “Stay here!”
One of the rescuers had grabbed a life vest and handed it to my sister. “The next building has a stepladder,” he told Lina. “I’ll take you there.”
The two other women sat mutely beside us. Lina put the life vest on.
“We’re not the only ones who need saving,” she said.
Anger welled up in my throat, hot, noxious. She and the man were about to jump into the water.
“Wait,” I hissed. “Just wait.”
On the concrete roof of what turned out to be a 7 Eleven, Lina and I waited. Soon it started to pour, a thunderous, vision-obscuring shower. It took us about three hours to admit to ourselves, sitting out in the cold, that the boat was no longer coming back.
A boy was shouting at us to go see something. I’d been helping a group of women grind the flakes of a palm’s pith inside a shack on the edge of the village. We stopped when we saw the chief himself walking with children and some men. I cleaned my hands in a washbowl placed by the door and stepped out of the shack. Even though it was almost noon, fog had thickened over the field that day and, with light rain, made seeing very difficult. I held a sheet of canvas over my head and followed the voices coming from the cliffs. Among tall wild grass, men and women stood on a small hill, murmuring among themselves.
“The town is gone,” the chief said when he saw me approach. I stood by him and the others, watching what the children had seen.
I looked behind and saw Lina emerging from the fog. She was wearing a straw hat and a cotton shirt whose long sleeves she’d rolled to her elbows.
“We tell stories about this all the time,” said the chief. “The difference is that you thought something like this was never going to happen. People down there always believed they were in control of things.”
Lina said, “A cyclone after a cyclone, after another cyclone. If this rain doesn’t stop—”
“There is still no sign it will,” the chief said.
“We’d have to leave,” said Lina.
“We are prepared,” said the chief. “Even before you arrived, we knew we would have to leave our homes.”
“Why isn’t anyone coming?” I said to my sister.
“The flood must have held them back,” Lina said.
“They can land planes here,” I said. “The Red Cross? The goddamn Air Force!”
The chief was watching me searchingly, his broad face suddenly alert. I didn’t know what had slighted him, my cursing or my stubborn belief in salvation.
A draft blew rainwater in our direction. The chief and the villagers walked back to their homes.
“Connie, let’s go,” Lina called out.
But I stayed awhile. Beyond the cliffs, fog was thinning out, revealing patches of cleared land rising toward the hills, the shiny tips of homes and buildings partially submerged in floodwater that had wiped out the coast and spilled into the sea. Water had nearly engulfed the whole city. Somewhere in that sinking corner of the island were my husband, my son, a life I had known.
The policemen had come hours after the winds slowed down. For three nights, Lina and I had been staying behind a fire exit door on the rooftop of a convenience store building. Water had nearly gone up the roof. We had grabbed a bunch of coconuts that drifted along the building, tore the husk away with a car key and our bare hands, and ate the meat as frugally as we possibly could. The policemen came at night, shouting for survivors. I rushed to the side of the roof and yelled out. Here, we’re right here!
On the boat, Lina and I listened to the policemen’s account of the last few days. They had come from the capital as volunteers since many of the local rescue units had been badly hit. Several shelters had been washed away, the government stultified. Not even our meteorologists could explain this endless rain. More help was coming, promised the policemen, but there were also flooding up north and storm surges on the islands scattered above us. Our city and six other towns along the gulf had been struck the worst. Foreign commentators had begun using the words “catastrophe,” “biblical,” and “apocalyptic.”
The policemen were taking us to an evacuation center up the hills when a petrol-powered boat halted us. On board were four men in military uniforms. They asked the policemen who we were and where we were going. One of our rescuers got up and talked to them. I noticed for the first time that the policemen were only wearing black T-shirts over their cargo pants. After they handed their IDs, the soldiers demanded they turn over their weapons, a rifle and two handguns strapped to each of the policemen. One of them asked why they had to surrender their weapons and a soldier shot him in the head. The other policeman quickly drew his gun but the soldiers on the boat shot at him several times. By then Lina had grabbed me and pulled us into the water.
We swam desperately, for as long and deep as we could below the surface, but they didn’t pursue us. At a distance, we watched them take the weapons and leave.
We were running out of bananas to boil. The cassavas were too young to uproot. I spotted a household with one chicken and a goat. They were being saved for when the water finally receded, I thought, or when there was nothing else to eat. I didn’t dare ask anyone, let alone the chief, who had remained calm even though for about a month now none of us had seen the clouds part. The grove of palms behind the village had been our source of sustenance. We wrapped starch with banana leaves and roasted it over a low fire. Steamed, sweetened, and sometimes, we ate the palm starch raw. Lina and I kept a small sack inside our hut and soon enough, I began to count anxiously the remaining palms in the grove.
In brief moments when rain subsided, we scattered starch on woven trays to dry. At some point I grew sick of eating nothing but the stuff and drank only a broth of ginger and kamote leaves—until I craved again for starch.
“Maybe we could look for coconuts,” I told Lina one night after dinner in the hut.
“I don’t miss it,” she said, remembering perhaps our time on the roof.
“I mean to mix with the starch.” I reminded her of the ambolong cake we used to have at our grandparents’ house. “It’d be tastier, at least.”
“Remember they had plenty of those at Lola’s place after a typhoon?” she said.
“Really?” I said, a little put out that of all things she could mention, it had to be the very thing that sucked us back to our predicament.
In our grandparents’ village in Aklan, Lina told me, typhoons usually felled a lot of the trees along the fields, including the palm from which natok was extracted. Because the rice paddies had been ruined, families turned to starch from palm trees, food they could store for a long time without spoiling.
“I wouldn’t have believed it if you’d told me the villagers here knew about natok.” I might have tripped over a delicate matter because my sister’s expression changed, her sharp-boned frame twisted toward me.
“Many people know,” Lina said, “not just in Aklan. In the Agusan Marsh, whole families survive on harvesting starch.”
“I don’t travel as often as you do.”
“Goodness, Connie,” my sister said, “Agusan is a bus ride away.”
“Let’s go now if it’s so easy,” I said.
She took the rolled up mat leaning on the wall and unfolded it.
“I know you’re sick of this place.” She pulled the blanket made from patches of flour bags. “I know you’re fed up living with these people. Look around. You don’t have a choice.”
“I wasn’t saying anything.”
“You stay here in the hut the whole day,” Lina said. “You don’t even talk to them. Do you even know anybody’s name? When did you ever care about the people in the mountains? You only think about your expensive house, if it’s even still standing. When you can do yoga again with your snooty friends.”
“And you’re the selfless one,” I said, “the activist hopping from one cause to another. How many NGOs have you been in? Always ready to help strangers, but when it comes to your family, where were you?”
Her face shifted, like she’d been shot.
“You won’t see them again, Connie,” she said. “None of us will see our families again.”
She lay on the mat and turned toward the wall. Her shoulders were trembling.
I’d not seen my sister, my shrewd, headstrong sister, crack like this. I moved closer to her. We were quiet for a while, hearing only the downpour outside. Then Lina said, “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
“We’re safe,” I whispered. “We’re safe here.”
The night the storm changed its course I had woken up thinking my husband had come home. I stepped out of our room and dipped my feet in water. My eighteen-year old son Gil was standing on his toes above the coffee table in front of the TV set. The sight of water rushing into our living room immobilized us. There was hardly any time to think, no time to grab official documents, anything of value.
We raced up to the balcony on the second floor where a folding stepladder came down from the roof. I told Gil to climb first. The wind knocking against us, he barely took two steps when he slipped and snapped his neck on the firewall.
There were gaps between Gil’s fall and my rescue. On the roof, I imagined the water receding, my husband returning home with our son, both of them radiant as the grass at noon. Then, water lapping at the rooftop, the arrival of a boat, the long walk to the gymnasium, stale air flowing inside a building full of strangers, a child’s cry erupting in the night. I retreated within myself. I searched for a place to curl up. But in the crowd soon appeared a face I recognized.
Lina couldn’t believe what she’d found: a woman whose skin hung loosely on her narrow bones. I had been refusing food because wasting away felt like an option at the time. When Lina held me, I sobbed, not because I had been found, but because I had to go on living.
I saw them tramping over bananas stalks. Hairless faces, freshly laundered clothes, one of them carrying a long blade on his waist. I shouted at a group of children bathing in the rain to go back to their homes.
In their transparent raincoats and rubber boots, the men climbed over the ditch between the village and the plantation with an ease that suggested they had been here before. There were seven of them, similar physique and height, and they stopped outside our hut.
“We have a visitor,” one of them said. He had a prominent forehead, big moist eyes, a mouth slightly curved. He was the only one who’d tucked his shirt into his pants. I asked them who they were.
“We’re not the ones who need to answer questions here,” he said. “And don’t try to run. There’s nowhere to go anyway. My companions here will take us to the chief because we have a matter to discuss. Go ahead. Follow them. I know my way around.”
The villagers had gathered outside the chief’s hut, all ten households, including the chief’s daughter and two sons who also had children of their own. They stood still as we approached, Lina stepping forward when she saw me flanked by the men in raincoats.
“Stay where you are,” the leader of the group said. “We don’t want to make a mess, not now. The matter we’re here to discuss can be easily resolved. No need for hysterics.”
“Let my sister go,” Lina said.
“Who says we’re doing anything to her?” the man said. “I don’t know who you are and what your business here is, but you’re way ahead of us. Way ahead. She’s free to go.”
The men laughed.
“Your sister wants you to join them,” the leader said to me.
I didn’t run. I imagined one of them shooting me before I could reach the other side, but I made it. Lina pulled me closer to her.
“What do you want now,” the chief said.
My eyes flitted across the villagers. The men and many of the women carried axes, bolos, and pieces of wood. One woman held an empty pot.
“Don’t you think that’s a little hostile?” the leader said, smirking. “After all, we’re neighbors.”
“This land is not yours,” said the chief. “It is ours but you have taken most of it away. This belongs to our families and those who had passed on. This land is ours.”
“I’m sorry but I don’t have the papers with me,” said the man. “They’re too important to carry around. Not in this weather. You see—titles are precious things. You don’t want them to get wet during a typhoon.”
“What kind of people are you,” the wife of the chief said, “bothering us at a time like this?”
“Actually, my friends,” the man said, “that’s why I’m here. I bring you a message from the Pastor.”
“We don’t want anything,” the chief said. “Leave.”
“The Pastor only wants to welcome you into his home. We’ve known for a while now that you’re running out of food. He sent me to bring you over the other side of the wall. We have plenty of food to share. Warm beds. The Pastor even bought you new clothes. He would love to see the children so happy. Come now. You can only eat so many palm trees.”
“Go back to where you came from,” the chief’s wife said.
“Why does it have to be this way?” said the leader. “The instruction is so simple. Come with us to the Pastor’s house. If you may be so kind to form a line on the way, that would be lovely.”
“You’re disgusting,” said Lina. “You have made these people suffer enough as it is.”
The leader gestured to his men, and they marched toward us. I gripped Lina’s hand. When the men in village made a move, the outsiders took out their guns.
“Hold it,” their leader said. “We wanted to take the children and the women first so they could end their suffering sooner, as one of the trespassers so wisely put it. But since the men volunteered, that is also fine with me.”
The children wailed when the leader ordered the men to separate from their families. I was shouting at the outsiders to stop, but the leader wasn’t hearing us, the women shrieking, others hurling rocks and slabs of wood, and when the men had been pushed back to an area closer to the forest, the chief drew his blade and charged at the outsiders, hacking one of them in the chest before he got shot. The old man fell on his back as if he’d only slipped on the grass. A volley of gunfire shook the ground.
Lying on our bellies, I held my sister and told her to close her eyes, close them now, as we both waited to die. Then we heard the sounds coming from the forest. There were shapes moving behind the trees.
A group of young men and women we had not seen before were advancing across the field. They had downed several of the outsiders, two of them fleeing into the plantation but were shot, their bodies doubling over the rotting banana trees, and when the group reached the villagers, the pastor’s last man, whose hip had shattered, had already stooped to the ground, defiantly calm.
“Parasites,” he said to them. He pressed his hand on the ground, the tip of his head grazing the soil.
A woman wearing a cap approached him. The man’s body rattled. He spat. She didn’t wait for him to look up.
Three of our men and one woman had been killed. We buried them near the palm grove behind the village. The group’s medic removed the bullet lodged in the chief’s shoulder. Lina and some of the women appeased the children. The others gathered what they could bring. The dozen or so guerrillas scattered around the village, trying to get things done quickly.
One of them, a young man who managed a smile after everything, helped me collect the sacks of starch we had extracted in the last few days. “This is delicious with coconut,” he said. He must not have been a couple of years older than Gil, I thought, if not the same age.
Lina asked me how I was doing when we were about to leave. The chief had been put on a stretcher that his sons and two other men would carry.
“Don’t be afraid,” Lina said. “I don’t believe they will harm us. The villagers trust them. We got nobody else.”
“I know,” I said.
The wind was blustering over the field when we departed. We had quite a distance to cross before we could get to a camp in the mountains. Three days of walking through the jungle, two if we’re quick, said one of them. I carried the clothes that had been given to us during our stay and a sack of starch. Before we went up the hills, I turned back to the remains of the village, rain lashing over the meadow, devouring the wall the pastor had built. Not long in our journey we found ourselves on a steep rise, and the young rebel came to me again, his rifle slung on his back. I gazed at him, his bright, youthful face deep in concentration, anticipating the weight I carried. “Here,” he said, reaching down. I took his hand, making myself as light as possible, and when I reached the top I thanked him like he was my own.
John Bengan teaches writing and literature at the University of the Philippines in Mindanao. His stories have appeared in Likhaan, Kritika Kultura, Asian Cha, and BooksActually’s Gold Standard, an anthology of Asian fiction from Math Paper Press. His translations of Elizabeth Joy Serrano-Quijano’s fiction have appeared in Words Without Borders, LIT, Anomaly, World Literature Today, and Shenandoah. He co-edited the anthology Ulirát: Best Contemporary Stories in Translation from the Philippines (Gaudy Boy, 2021).