THE WEIGHT OF FREEDOM
At a young age, Naila (pronounced na-ee-la) had learned that milking the government for money was her best route to a better life. There are important things in the world accessible only to the privileged, so she learned to climb the floors of an invisible, commonly denied social caste. The government was her ladder.
“A bureaucratic world is only looking for two things: impeccable papers, and a convincing face to present them.” Naila’s old mentor, The Councilor, used to say. “Do this and government coffers will open up to you, like a flower.”
She took her mentor’s words to heart. A complex architecture of government bursaries, educational subsidies, and corporate grants paid for her high-profile university tuition, dormitory rent, travel excursions, and daily expenses. It wasn’t all legal. But she was so proficient at what she did that, after graduation, The Councilor hired Naila full time. Through The Councilor, Naila learned the subtle art of bending laws, building legal fronts, and skirting penalties.
The Councilor was a good mentor as well as a kind boss. When Naila made a rookie mistake—the kind that someone with twice the experience and half the temperament could’ve avoided—and Bureau officers came knocking, The Councilor quickly covered for her protégé and sent her off to a rural town for vacation.
“Let me ask a few favors, twist some arms, and we’ll be up again in three months,” The Councilor said in parting.
But the Quarantine happened, and city borders were locked. Naila became stranded as a tourist in a northern mountain town, fourteen hours’ drive away.
She met the old miner there, as a fellow quarantine violator. She wandered too far away from her village, in search of snacks, when she was caught by a group of kagawads on her way back.
Inside an open school gymnasium, the old miner and Naila exchanged words between push-up breathers and floor mopping breaks. By late afternoon, they’ve established a comfortable bond, weeding the community garden together. As night approached and their punishment neared its end, the old miner noticed that one of their captors—a loud-mouthed kagawad—was eyeing Naila’s behind a little too intensely. Like every ogled woman, Naila could feel the kagawad’s leering eyes without seeing them. She turned around and was about to say something smart, when the old miner made a racket with his work and asked Naila, his “niece,” to massage his sprained ankle. The old miner later explained that the loud-mouthed kagawad was “connected,” and had a reputation for extending the punishments of those who earned his ire. Naila pleaded humanitarian concern for her “uncle’s” sprain and the loud-mouthed kagawad finally let them go.
Outside the gym, Naila thanked the old miner’s intervention and, after a moment of hesitation, decided to come clean.
“I’m not from this Barangay,” she said. She lived in an Airbnb, two kilometers outside the village checkpoint.
“Your accent… you’re not from this region either, are you?” the old miner asked.
They were speaking in the local dialect. Up in these mountains, only tourists used the national language. Naila was born and raised in another northern town, four hours’ drive away, so she could speak the dialect. But after studying high school and college in Metro Manila, she eventually adapted to her lowland peers’ accent.
The miner said he can accompany her until the next checkpoint, although the leering kagawad’s friends may be manning it. He thought for a while, and then decided, “If you want, you can stay in my home for now.”
It was said that if visiting Manileños, incapable of speaking the local tongue, needed to ask directions from one of the old, northern folks, they’re better off asking in English than Filipino. The north was barely touched by Spaniards, who reigned in the capital and the rest of the country (except the Islamic south) for over three centuries—so northerners became infatuated with the GI’s Country music and Wild West tales.
When Naila was a little girl, her mother coaxed her to sleep with a honky-tonk lullaby. Growing up, she listened to country singers all day; from speakers underneath jeepney benches to youth bands playing late in the evening.
She would later discover that her lowland peers never heard of the songs she grew up listening to. In high school, Naila eventually grew tired of Country music. She was adjusting to her new life in the bustling, mountain-less capital, and old cowboys crooning about long winding trails, crystal clear rivers, and comforting coffees by the campfire didn’t help.
The old miner lived alone in an abode composed of three structures, standing several meters from each other and forming a proscenium with a fire pit in the middle. It was the old miner’s childhood home, back when his parents and three other siblings were still alive, and his only surviving brother has not yet moved to the far South with his own family.
In the “main house” living area, beside a boxy, 13-inch Changhong TV, a few steps from the gas stove and dining table, Naila observed a wall rack that hanged the old miner’s prized possessions. She could tell they were special to him, owing to their immaculate manner of display, shrine-like. These were all the things that Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson warned mamas about: gold and black, steel-toe pointed pair of leather boots; a high crown, wide-brimmed Stetson knock-off hat; a brown leather jacket that loosely resembled John Wayne’s western costume; two pairs of jeans that—upon closer inspection—were certifiably old-school Levi’s; and a long, black, snake-skin leather belt, attached to a custom-designed Lonestar buckle. Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys.
The main house was flanked by the bathroom on one side, and the “dirty kitchen” (a seven-by-six feet ash-covered structure, fully equipped to portion, and braise animals of all sizes) on the other. The old miner opened his music player, and a band called Alabama hee-hawed about having a fiddle player in a band if you wanted to play in Texas.
That night, Naila woke up from a dream. Her phone displayed three minutes past two. From a small crack in her window, she could hear the endless murmur of crickets and the cool, whistling breath of the mountains. Unable to get back to sleep, she slunk outside and found the old miner sitting in front of the bonfire, beside his dirty kitchen, drinking what smelled like freshly brewed, northern-grown, dark-roast Arabica. The old miner went back to the kitchen, prepared something on a small iron pot, and heated it by the fire. Naila could smell the thick aroma of cocoa. The old miner said it came from his younger brother, in the far South.
“You’re still going back to sleep. And the coffee here is too strong for tourists,” the old miner quietly teased, handing her a cup.
“I’m no tourist,” she beamed back. “How about you?”
The old miner pointed to the trail that led from his home to a deeper part of the mountain. “I work the mines at three, every morning. So that it’s not too hot outside,” he said. Too much heat could trigger his high blood, he explained, so he usually headed home when the sun was high.
Naila sipped from her cup and felt the heat course smoothly throughout her body, warming her soul, thawing the stiffness in her heart.
There’s something about these wee hours that felt contemplative and honest. That particular time of the day when night had passed and dawn was yet to arrive. Surrounded by stars, enveloped in a cool night’s embrace, warmed by the hearth of a fire and the pleasant company of another, Naila felt capable of sharing things that she was not entirely proud of.
“Mr. Miner, do you ever dream of your first love?” she asked.
Against the bonfire’s shadow, the old miner’s upper lip jerked into what might have passed for a smile. “I’m too old to be dreaming of first loves.”
“But do you?”
He was silent for a while. Then he quietly admitted, “Sometimes.”
She beamed. “Me, too. I dreamt of him. Just a while ago.”
In Naila’s dream, she was back in sixth grade, covertly sharing a stick of Marlboro red with her friends at a mall terrace, on a dare. It was her first time smoking, and she was terrified of getting caught. Leaning on the terrace railings, she was just about to take another furtive puff when she saw him, the boy she’d been crushing on since fifth grade. He was a year ahead of her, leaving for high school when Naila reached the last grade, so she hadn’t seen him for months.
“The following day, after I saw him, I got sick,” Naila said, shaking her head at the memory. “It was my first time getting sick in two years, after the pox. I didn’t go to school for a week.”
“He’s your bad luck charm?”
She sighed, “He was my wake-up call.”
Naila said she had never experienced an immense feeling of happiness until that day. “Thirteen years old and feverish in bed, I realized that happiness was like an alien disease to me,” she explained. “I was so used to hardship that my body simply didn’t know how to handle anything else.”
Naila also said she had lied to her mother so she could go out that day. She was supposed to help at the market, selling meat as usual, when she was half-heartedly invited by her friends to the mall after class. The invitation was quick and passing, not expecting her to say yes because she never did. Every day, she went home and helped her mother out. During weekends, while her peers were going to trips, picnics, or family restaurants, Naila would be doing chores at home. Then she would assist her mother, who did other people’s chores in other people’s homes. Every night, after all the chores have been finished and all the meat has been sold (if they’re lucky), she would study. She needed to maintain her high grades to stay tuition-free in an exclusive private school that she could never afford. One of her mother’s affluent customers, an alumnus of the school and now a retired judge, agreed to pay for Naila’s tuition and school expenses as long as Naila ranked among the top ten in her class.
Naila said her mother did her best. But they just had too many problems: the gambling debts that her father left behind, before running out on them; her mother’s fragile health and the expensive medication that came along with it; the monthly rent, the bills.
At least once a week, Naila’s mother would be sick in bed. Then Naila would have to man their market stall alone, wishing that none of her classmates would happen by. But she soon learned that they never visited the crowded, chaotic, and malodorous public market. They only went to malls or brand-name grocers, and most of them had a helper to do the actual shopping.
Naila’s narrative was just one of the many variations of “inspiring stories” by people of her kind: parents toil hard until they’re bent and broken; children graduate, fight tooth and nail to get a job, then spend their adult lives paying for their parents’ bills, medication, and interest-laden debts—all incurred to push them through a mid-range university.
To Naila’s people, a successful career prospect would often mean one of three possibilities: employment in foreign companies, with above-minimum rates for outsourced grunt jobs that first-world citizens refuse to do; a government position, through a reliable “backer” or; the best-case scenario, an approved working visa for overseas factories, hospitals, elderly care centers, or the back office of major conglomerates, earning the holy grails of labor: dollar, dirham, pound, approved citizenship application.
In a strange moment of fever-induced clarity, thirteen-year-old Naila saw herself dutifully preparing for the harsh cycle of destitution that commanded her mother, her relatives, her neighbors, and now, her life.
And she didn’t want it. She wanted so much to be like her exclusive private-school friends who can afford to be superficial, immature, and uncaring about the weight of the world. She wanted to talk about boys, gossip on who is dating who, hang out at cafes and malls, and smoke and drink like a rebel. She wanted to forget the meat market and her mother, who cried silently every night, lamenting the husband who abandoned her. She wanted to stop being such a goddamned responsible, understanding, patient daughter.
“My mom died from a heart attack that year, and I was sent off to live with my aunt in Sampaloc, Manila, where I studied high school, and eventually moved to Quezon City for college,” Naila said quietly.
“I was really sad when my mother passed away so suddenly…” she trailed off and looked at her companion.
Her companion was staring at the mountainous horizon, where the sun would rise, drinking his coffee. He turned to her. In the dark, she could just barely make out the bonfire reflected in his eyes. Naila felt that he would understand. That it would be okay to say it. She just knew.
“But honestly, I felt more relieved than sad. Deep inside, I’m glad I escaped.” She said, realizing this was the first time she articulated her true feelings about her mother’s death.
She looked at the old miner and smiled. “It has subsided over the years, but I still feel guilty. I still have these moments, every day at random, where I’m doing something or I wake up from a deep sleep, and then remember that I felt glad my mother—who loved me and did her best to raise me—died early, so I wouldn’t have to take care of her debt and her bills.”
They stared at the sky in silence. The old miner slowly refilled her cup and, holding her gently, placed her closer to the fire. She only realized she’s been shivering when she felt the fire’s heat. Naila sipped her drink, sniffed, and gave a small chuckle, wiping her eyes. She was silent for a while.
Then she said, “So how about you? Tell me about your first love.”
The old miner laughed, for the first time since they met. It sounded like a gentle draft, blowing from a long winding cave.
“You don’t forget your topics, do you?” he said.
She smiled back. “I have a good memory. I’m a top student, remember?”
The old miner shook his head. “I’m bad at telling stories. And it’s not a very exciting one. Just some boring story about a first love I didn’t get.”
“Please?” The “e” on her “please” was stretched long and thin, like a displaced worker’s budget. She was starting to sound more like her age.
“Maybe later,” the miner smiled.
Naila relented and asked if she could sleep outside next to the fire and under the stars. The old miner took out a large blanket and tied each end to a sturdy post. It was now a hammock, just over a meter from the bonfire, overlooking the mountains, facing the horizon where the sun will rise. Naila wrapped herself in another blanket and settled comfortably. The easterly Amihan whistled by, swaying the hammock gently like a crib.
“Do you also like singing, Mr. Miner?” she asked.
The old miner laughed again. “It sure is nice to be so young and full of demands, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is. Can you sing for me?” she grinned.
“I’m no good at singing.”
He turned to the fire and thought for a while. “But I do read, now and then,” he said.
Naila’s eyes lit up. The old miner said he was fond of an old book of poems. Its lines were simple and didn’t rhyme. A traveling Belgian missionary gave it to his mother, a long time ago.
It was a tattered old book missing its cover. The spine was taped and almost falling apart. The pages were ragged with stains, cracks, and burns—marks that came with their own stories. He opened it slowly and tenderly. He stopped at a particular poem.
He looked at her expectant eyes, reflecting the fire and the stars. He took a deep breath. How long has it been, since he read this poem to someone? It felt like ages ago, and it was, indeed, ages ago. Four decades, twice the age of the girl in the hammock, since he had sat by the shore, feet among the waves, reading the poem he loved to someone he loved even more.
He started reading slowly. His voice was deepened by old age, buoyed by a youthful lilt. The words floated steadily, like boats on placid waters, fading into the night. Naila dreamed of endless fields and wispy stalks, swaying with the wind, golden under the light. The sun tapped gently at her cheeks. She was warm. Free.
John Pucay is a Kankanaey-Ibaloi writer from Baguio City. His essays have appeared in The Philippine Daily Inquirer (Young Blood) and the Baguio Midland Courier (Speaking Out). His first published short story appeared in Brittle Star Literary Magazine (June 2020). He holds a degree in Communication from Saint Louis University-Baguio.