We had just sold the harvested mangoes from the small orchard we owned at the nearby lot and the ones that could be salvaged we placed in baskets and stacked on the floor of the kitchen under the cupboards that my father had just built. My mother said we had a good harvest this year and there were extra-ripe fruits we could make into jam and the green ones we could pickle. The kitchen started to smell of garlic and of ferment—sour fruits intermingling with the honeyed tangy scent of ripe mangoes. My mother was sitting at the table which she lined with small glass jars, emptied and cleaned of the instant coffee that used to be in them. She continued talking about the tragedy that struck the Zariga’s many years ago. This was the conversation she started earlier on our way home and I, standing by the sink, rubbing with my fingers the drying sticky sap off the fruits, listening to her, tried to recall if I ever came across them.
I thought about the vegetables and fruits we gathered today from the nearby small farms and wondered if they were from the Zariga’s. I knew the kadyos, which my mother began to crack open—black rosary-bead sized beans now rolling in her palms—and the alugbati, their purple leaves moist, came from Iyay Maring’s produce by the hillside across the main road of Bantayan where the waiting shed was. It probably wouldn’t prove too hard to think about who the Zariga’s were since there existed only three possibilities: they lived in the valley, the top of the hill or the hillside. We lived in the valley surrounded by mango trees and the nearby rice fields owned by the Clarita’s and Nang Pacing whose married daughters built two more houses in the middle of the fields and on a lot that now looked like an island flanked by trees and coconuts. I knew them because they’d always hand me some atis, or star apples, and tambis from the fruit trees on their lot. I assumed the Zariga’s didn’t live in the valley.
“If you remember Cora, you’ll remember all of them. Cora used to pass by here, pick the largest mangoes to bring home.”
“I couldn’t recall any Cora,” I said. “But, there was a woman who everyone said put too much face powder. Was that her?”
“Ay Hesusa, this boy. You remember only the silliest things, and except for the face powder, what happened to them, I couldn’t even begin to imagine.”
I couldn’t imagine either or recall much of whatever tragedy my mother spoke of, even though her voice ruffled with sadness. Ours was a small sitio and tragedy came rarely.
“You mean her whole family? Did they live by the hills across the river?”
I began to feel quite sure of this because five hills circled us and the nearest was one whose slope had been covered by sugar cane, where a path, if viewed from a distance, cut through the greens like the color of skin. This path wound towards Bantayan and its dirt roads, a good ten-minute walk unless it rained and the mud dragged you slow and gathered around the soles of your feet. There was another hill past Bantayan when you head west towards town but that one stood forested, thick with shrubs and sturdy mahogany and acacia trees. As far as I know, no one built houses there, not even a payag. And there rose another across from where I stood by the kitchen sink. I could see it from the window. On this hill, tigbaw would grow white cottonlike flowers in the summer and they’d feel so soft and light that if you held a few strands between your fingers, placed them near your lips and blew air they’d get suspended in space for a minute. I could count the santol and ipilipil trees that grew on this hill’s peak because I used to venture into its woods when I was little. But there were no other houses there except Tay Nito’s nipa hut on the hillside now used as a shed for paray during harvest because he owned the endless tract of rice fields beyond the hills of tigbaw.
So I guessed the Zariga’s lived somewhere on top of the second of the twin hills which could be reached by crossing the rice fields owned by the Clarita’s and Nang Pacing, past the coconut plantation, in the middle of which stood the Ermita, a chapel made of coconut and bamboo. There’s a plot of land behind the church that reminded me of the cemetery because of the small white concrete crosses that stood side by side. At times when I walk past it with my mother, her brows would furrow or crease, and she’d heave with pursed lips. One should go, after that, past the field where there were only grass and makahiya, past the ponds of toads and frogs from which came the loudest croaks when the rain poured, until one could get to the first hill. But this was a treacherous hill. Its incline was steep, and the trees’ foliage was so thick, like those of the tamarind; their branches stick out in different directions, and their twigs sort of webbed around everywhere that if one didn’t tread carefully, he could get his eyes poked or skin lacerated. I knew this because it happened to me more than once. But the branches, you could hold on to them as you climbed so you wouldn’t slip and fall and roll downwards when the manmade path—which wasn’t really manmade because no one constructed it, carved only by too many feet that ventured in it—turned waterlogged and muddy by the rain, and the rocks if covered by moss proved impossible for your sandals or shoes or bare feet to latch onto. So one should hold onto a well rooted plant or a tree such as the coffee tree or the madre de cacao which were sturdy but whose branches could hurt your palms if you held onto them too tightly. And then there was a big waterfall on top of this hill called Busay Tindog whose huge pond was circled by dark green rocks and where a lot of colorful birds would glide by. This was a beautiful hill and so jungle-lush and so full of life.
Beyond these forests pierced the Lamunan River, rocky and wild, roaring between the hills; this time I knew for sure that the Zariga’s lived across it because when I was young I would call it the pineapple hill. Not so much of a steep incline, but one that rose gently far and wide towards the horizon. There were a few times I’d stand on the cliff of Busay Tindog and view the endless pineapples that swathed the hills in late afternoons until they turned gold and shimmered under the setting sun as if endless golden beehives crowned with sharp serrated leaves. A sturdy house with spacious balcony on top of the hill made of prized polished bamboo would then glisten. The potted orchids, portulaca, and red and yellow moss roses strung onto the overhang of their roof trusses oscillated occasionally from the breeze.
“They lived across Lamunan, yes, but you were probably too young to remember her sons.” My mother stood by the stove, feeding dried wood to the fire that heated the pot of water mixed with brown sugar. It was a humid morning. Outside the mango trees stood stiff and my mother’s hair damp from the misty heat. And so, she took from the side pocket of her duster dress a rubber band and tied her hair with it. My mother’s veins on the back of her hands fanned out like blue twigs, her brown skin moistened with sweat. I told her I couldn’t recall any of Cora’s sons.
“She had two, Edwin and Lando, well-mannered boys.
“Their parents adored them. Cora and Magdo’s lives revolved around their boys. The boys didn’t have to lift a single pineapple. Cora did everything and she knew how to grow her crop, better than anyone else. They worked hard but they saw to it that the boys were comfortable.
“They hired hands instead. Sent the boys to the city, to a Catholic school if I’m not mistaken.”
I was sitting on the table now cutting the green mangoes into finger sized wedges. My mother was stirring the muscovado sugar in boiling water. I could hear the wooden ladle hit the rims of the metal pot, sounds occasionally drowned out by her voice. My mother said that during harvest season, about fifty men and women would pick the pineapples and would usually need several trips of ten karosas pulled by carabaos to transport the fruits to Bantayan where a couple of trucks would wait to take the produce to the town market. But my mother said that was many years ago before the accident. Their fields were empty now, lying gray and overtaken by weed. I kept thinking what sort of accident could force a family to give up a productive farm and abandon their fields unless all of them died? My mother said not all of them.
“It was a weekend in September,” she said. “The boys would come home on weekends and swim in Lamunan River. At that time they were probably your age, fifteen, seventeen maybe older. Lando was the older one.”
Edwin took the first dip, my mother recounted, followed by his brother who came downhill to join him. It was a humid afternoon on a Saturday and the sky was clear. The boys swam in the deeper part of the water but it was a depth they could handle as they grew up by that river. His brother Lando emerged from the water and was about to sit by the bank to rest. Then, in an instant they both heard a surge of rapids coming from upstream. It all happened suddenly. Lando saw the flashes of white, roaring flaps of waves, coming towards them, his brother suspended in the width of the river, flanked by massive saw-toothed rocks. Lando held on to the shrubs and the branches of the small trees near the banks as he flung himself forward, away from the surge towards the stronger, deeply rooted trees and bushes. He yelled at his brother to hold on to the rocks and get out of the rising water, swift and roaring now, filling the banks from end to end, the sandbars flooding within seconds. Edwin struggled to cling to the rocks, but was suddenly swept away downstream as his older brother watched in horror, watched him disappear with the torrent. Cora heard the voices of her sons who screamed for her, Edwin calling out for his mother. She rushed downhill as fast as she could, falling, rolling over spikes of the pineapple leaves, towards the slope, her skin in every part of her body grazed by their sharp spines. But it was all too late. Edwin’s body was found the next day, floating downstream in a far-off barrio.
I didn’t notice my mother taking a seat across me. In front of us were empty jars that I started to fill with the green mango wedges, the kadyos now in a bowl, unshelled, their green pods carefully piled to one side. She had finished cutting in half the ripe mangoes, like open palms before us, and their yellow flesh she would later scrape and mix in the pot that boiled with sugar. The purple leaves of the alugbati were placed on a plate and their purple stalks were no longer there.
She said the Zariga’s were consumed by grief and couldn’t move on, wouldn’t pick up the pieces. Couldn’t let go. Her husband still worked in the farm but nothing like when Cora managed things. Lando moved to Manila and had not returned home ever since.
“It’s as if they’ve been paralyzed, that poor, poor family,” my mother said, wiping her eyes with the sleeves of her dress and at times, the back of her hands, now wet, glazed, glistening from the ray of sun angled at her space at the table. But how could I even begin to understand? I sat there across her and no matter what I did, I couldn’t see it, the accident. I couldn’t see the figure of a boy washed away by the river current or the image of his brother who tried to save him but couldn’t. I could see only the blotch of gray amid everything else that was green and full of life. I could see the abandoned farm, the decrepit house on a hill, the river that bloated up when rain poured at the distant mountains.
I looked at my mother across me. I could hear her sniffle, her gentle gasps for air. Her face was reminiscent of the same sadness every time we passed by the Ermita with the small white crosses. This was the point at which I felt the first touch of sadness because I knew this was a kind of grief I’d never understand. Maybe because I’d never buried anyone. And looking at my mother’s grief, I began to feel sure that they could have buried someone behind the chapel. Or maybe, for my mother, every death deserved some grieving.
Theo has worked as a literary editor for The Humanist Magazine-Asia and served as a consultant for a foreign intelligence service after a brief stint as a communications staff for a UN aid agency. Currently consulting for a think-tank, he is finishing his first novel. He lives in the Philippines.