Friday, September 10, 2010

BEST PHILIPPINE SHORT STORIES: UNDER THE MANGO TREE

UNDER THE MANGO TREE
by Hugh Aaron

ONE would think we were a couple of returning heroes. “Americanos, Americanos,” the naked children shouted, zigzagging like circus clowns in mad circles around us as Billiard Ball and I ambled abreast down the beaten path through the shade of the green canopy. Heavy duffel bags hanging from our shoulders were laden with gifts: bottles of beer, cartons of cigarettes, cans of fruit juice. Repeatedly sweeping past us like zephyrs, each child snatched a bar of sweet chocolate from our extended hands. We were no less boisterous than they, shouting along with them, asking their names, having a good time ourselves, caught up in the infectious joy of their freewheeling abandon. Such was the character of our entry into Lubao time after time.

As we walked down the village street, people waved from their houses repeating our names, people we didn’t recognize from our earlier visit. “Hullo Beelyard Ball,” and “Al. Hullo. Comusta.”

Anita emerged from one of the houses to greet us. “You must both stay with my family,” she said. Then Alejandro appeared and said to Billiard Ball, “I have been waiting all week. Please, if you wouldn’t mind some metaphysical discussion I would be honored to have you as my guest.”

“How can I resist metaphysical discussion?” said Billiard Ball with a smile. As the two walked off, I heard Alejandro say, “And I imagine you have read Man’s Fate in the original French? How lucky! Malraux is right. For our time the answer lies in courageous action.” Had Billiard Ball found himself a revolutionary?

I followed Anita up the ladder to her family’s one-room house, similar in its simplicity to Rosalio’s but larger. Both had the same style cooking hearth near one wall, the split bamboo floor, the same immaculateness. Squatting before the hearth, Anita’s mother, looking in her fifties (but only in her thirties, I learned later), was preparing the noon meal. She acknowledged our entrance with a nod and a warm smile. Sitting cross-legged on a floor mat in a corner, Anita’s wispy maternal grandmother, her skin wrinkled like an elephant’s, grinned, showing toothless black gums. She mumbled something incomprehensible to me in Spanish. Shortly Mr. Quiboloy, wearing a wide-brimmed hat woven of jute, came in from the hot fields. We shook hands warmly. “Thank you for having me, Mr. Quiboloy,” I said.

“You may call me Lucio, now that we are old friends,” he responded. We all sat on the floor in a circle and ate brown rice and chicken from clay bowls while Mr. Quiboloy spoke of their lot in Lubao.

“I am only a small tenant farmer,” he said—to clarify his role, not to complain. “The family in the hacienda on the Bataan highway owns the land.”

“The fancy place we passed on the way?”

“Yes, the fancy place,” he said, and everyone laughed at my odd description. “I keep fifty percent for myself and fifty percent is for the landowner. The incentive is small, but what choice do we have?”

“The Hukbalahaps think we have one, Father,” said Anita.

“How dare you speak of them in our house,” Mr. Quiboloy said in a flash of anger. Turning to me, he explained. “The Huks are radicals, communists; they know only one way: violence.” Then, addressing Anita, he said, “Where do you get such foolish thoughts? Is that what you are learning in school? Is that what Alejandro teaches?”

“Where are the Huks from?” I asked.

“From everywhere,” Lucio replied. “Some dwell within our own barrio, but since I am not a sympathizer, I cannot be sure which ones they are. You see, I believe in Philippine democracy. I believe we should be like America, where everyone has an opportunity to succeed and live well.”

“But that’s not always true. You remember our discussion last weekend?” I said.

“Oh, yes, I have not forgotten. Still, you have not had to live through our poverty and pain. You have never had that in America.”

How could I argue? I knew of no pain first-hand. I never saw anyone starving. Through the desperate thirties there was always food on our table and ample clothes to wear and a snug apartment to sleep in. Although my father had lost the wealth gained during his most vigorous years, and he had lost his daring and capacity to dream for the rest of his life, he never lost his belief in America. In its worst times the nation somehow provided opportunity for survival.

When the meal was over, Anita handed me a sleeping mat, which I unrolled on the floor beside those of my hosts. It was too hot to be out in the high sun of the early afternoon. What could be more sensible than to have a cool siesta? In two hours Anita awakened me from a soft sleep. Lucio had returned to the field, her mother was elsewhere, and her grandmother squatted quietly in a corner weaving a mat. “My father has asked me to show you the mango tree,” she said. “Will you come with me, please?”

We walked down the path to the highway, at first side by side, but soon she fell behind. “Am I going too fast for you?”

“No, no,” she said, urging me to keep on ahead. She continued to linger behind.

“Are you tired?”

“No, no,” and she giggled in amusement. “It’s the custom in Lubao that I walk behind.”

Since the concrete highway was blistering, we walked along the narrow dirt shoulder, which was less hot but still burned through the soles of my GI boots. Anita, barefoot as usual, didn’t seem to mind. Nor, in her white dress and wide brimmed woven hat, did she seem bothered by the afternoon sun beating down on us, while I perspired heavily and had to stop to rest now and then under a tree. Although several passing ten-wheel army trucks offered us a lift, she refused them. Grudgingly I submitted to her wish. “We have only a few miles,” she said, a promise of small comfort. Soon we passed by the grand white stucco hacienda, a stark contrast to Anita’s house.

“So this is where the rich landowners live,” I said.

“Oh, but they are no longer rich, Hal. They have the land, but that is all. The Japanese took all the crops. The land is of little use without seed. And the Japanese removed all their possessions, leaving the house bare. They are mestizos and very proud, but the Japanese took that away too. A commander occupied the hacienda and humiliated the family, making them his servants. He hoped that by doing this, the rest of us would be pleased and that we would cooperate with him.”

“And weren’t the people happy to see the selfish landowner get what he deserved?”

“Oh, no, the Santoses are good people; they are always very kind. When we have malaria, they bring us quinine. When a typhoon ruins our crops, they give us rice to eat and new seed for the next planting. The Japanese commander had mistaken how we would feel. We knew he was cruel.”

At last we reached our destination, the small solitary thatched house on stilts beside the sluggish stream that I had observed on our first trip along the highway. We climbed the ladder to the house and entered its cool, dim interior, where I saw a mostly naked old man seated on the floor. “This is my grandfather,” said Anita as she uncovered a basket of fruit, vegetables, and rice that she had brought for him.

He reached for my outstretched right hand with his left; his other arm hung limp by his side. “Comusta ka,” he said in a clear, high voice.

“Comusta,” I said, returning the greeting. He then spoke to Anita in dialect, pointing to a small woven box beside his hearth, which she retrieved for him. From it he removed a GI dog tag, which he held suspended for me to see.

“It is an American soldier’s necklace,” said Anita.

“May I look at it closely?” I asked, astonished that he would have such a thing.

The dog tag bore the name Roger B. Anderson and his serial number and blood type. “Where did your grandfather get this, Anita?”

“From Lieutenant Anderson,” she replied plainly.

“I don’t understand. GIs don’t give away their dog tags.”

“Let us sit and I shall tell you about Lieutenant Anderson.” She peeled a banana for her grandfather, and handed me one with a dark green skin. “It is quite ripe even though it is green,” she said. It was, and tasted sweeter than any I had ever eaten. “He is there under my grandfather’s mango tree.” I followed her gaze through the doorway. Symmetrical and spreading, a low tree stood between the house and the stream, creating a cool, grassy oasis beneath its graceful branches.

Baffled by her indirection, I tried to deduce her meaning. “Buried? In a grave? Under the tree?”

Anita’s grandfather, having sense my sudden comprehension, broke into excited dialect, and struggled to rise. “My grandfather says that you may keep the necklace,” said Anita. She addressed him sternly and he sat down again. “My grandfather’s bones give him much pain. They never healed correctly after the Japanese broke them. He should stay with us in the barrio, but he refuses. My grandfather is a stubborn man.”

Later I learned that Anita made the trip to her grandfather’s house several days a week to bring him food and often to stay and cook for him. I could sense an unspoken bond between them, a mutual appreciation. Anita once confessed that she felt much closer to her grandfather than to her own father. The old and young are on common ground: Both are concerned only with the fresh simplicities of life, the very business of being alive.

Anita began her story: “The Japanese marched hundreds of American prisoners through Pampanga from Bataan, giving them no food or water, and whipping them when they fell behind. They made them walk on the hot concrete so that they left bloody footprints from their scorched and wounded feet.” I winced, recalling my recent distress walking under the sun, even along the cooler shoulder of the highway. Anita spoke with a chilling earnestness, as if she were describing a scene in progress, making no comment, stating only facts. “Some were already weakened from wounds in the battle on Bataan and could not keep up. Lieutenant Anderson was one of these. When the men fell and did not rise after being kicked and beaten, they were shot, and their bodies were collected on a wagon pulled by carabao that followed the marchers. Lieutenant Anderson was shot there at the edge of the road.” She stared out at the glaring white concrete. “But my grandfather and grandmother saw him move; he was still alive. So before the wagon passed they dragged him from the road and hid him under the trees by the stream in the field behind the house. They nursed his wounds for many weeks.” She interrupted her account to consult with her grandfather in dialect. “Yes, my grandfather says it was more than a month before the American opened his eyes and spoke.”

“Did you meet him?” I asked.

“Much later in the barrio,” she said, “but I was only a child.” I had failed to realize immediately that she had become a woman in the intervening four years.

“It was very dangerous for my grandparents. The Japanese often warned us not to help the Americanos or we would be shot. When the monsoon came and the land was covered with water, Lieutenant Anderson was moved to Reverend Mr. Corum’s house in Lubao. But soon the Japanese returned to search for the Americano, saying they had heard we were hiding one of the marchers. Someone, maybe from the barrio—we shall never know—had betrayed us. They entered my grandparents’ house and asked my grandfather to give them the Americano, but he would admit nothing. They broke his limbs and he passed out from the pain.” Tears welled up in her eyes at the thought of his suffering. “Then they took him and my grandmother to the barrio where all the people were gathered and they showed what they did to my grandfather and they threatened to kill us one by one until we gave them the Americano. My father and Reverend Mr. Corum replied to the Japanese commander that killing us would be useless.” She faltered; the words came hard. “The commander ordered a soldier to stand my Nanay by the wall of the church.” With tear streaked cheeks, she went on. “And he shot her. Oh, I loved my Nanay so very much.” She had to stop, and her grandfather reached for her with his one good arm and took her into it and comforted her with the soft words of his dialect as he, too, cried.

Her story was too appalling. I was speechless. I wanted to take on her pain, to share the suffering of her memory. But regaining her composure, she resumed. “After the commander killed my Nanay, the Americano, Lieutenant Anderson, appeared from Reverend Mr. Corum’s house. He had witnessed the commander’s cruelty and understood that others would also die unless he was found. The soldiers took him and flung him to the ground and beat him with their rifles. And then the commander ordered his soldiers to stand him by the wall of the church where my Nanay had stood. Blood was pouring from his head and they shot him. Then they left us.”

“What happened to the bodies of your Nanay and Lieutenant Anderson?”

“We took them and prepared them and, after a deep mourning, buried them side by side under the mango tree, as my grandfather wished.”

The sun appeared like an enormous orange balloon balanced at the apex of a faraway mountaintop. The heat of its slanting rays was now comfortably diminished in the late afternoon. “We must return to Lubao,” said Anita. Embracing her grandfather, she bid him good-bye and I shook his hand again. “Let me show you the graves.” Together we stood beside them, each marked by a simple boulder, nothing more. “The rounder rock is my Nanay’s grave.” The next few moments we shared in silence. Soon she raised her eyes and asked, “Do you like mangoes?” Taking one from the tree, she gave it to me. It was sweet and moist.

“Absolutely delicious,” I said.

“It is by far my favorite fruit,” she replied. “And don’t you think it is a beautiful tree? See how it spreads its branches like the arms of dancers; see how it shades the earth and makes it green.”

It was in the flash of that instant, transcending all feelings of desire, that I understood I had fallen in love with Anita. It was then I knew I had found someone who surpassed all I could ever hope to be. “Yes, it’s a beautiful and rare tree,” I answered.

During our walk back to Lubao we hardly spoke, save for one short exchange. “I have never been alone with a man, never with an Americano,” she said. “But my father said I could be with you, for he trusts you. At first I was very frightened, but now I am happy that we have spent this time together.”

“What are you afraid of? That I would bite you?”

She laughed. “No, no, of course not that.”

“What then?”

Delaying her reply, she slipped farther behind me as she pondered how best to express her thoughts. I stopped, waiting. “That I am not worthy,” she said. “That you would be ashamed of me. That we are like monkeys.”

“Oh, my God, Anita. Don’t you realize how beautiful you are?”

“Americanos are beautiful. Mestizos are beautiful.”

“No, you are.” I gently enclosed her hand in mine. It was the first time we touched.

“I hope you will come back often,” she said, hesitatingly withdrawing her hand.

“Nothing can stop me,” I promised.

That evening Billiard Ball and I had supper at the reverend’s. Anita, like soft music, was ever-present in the background, assisting Mrs. Corum. Afterwards we retired to the cozy living room, joined by Lucio, Anita’s father, and Hando. The gathering, being more intimate, dealt with both controversial and heartfelt matters, ranging from Shakespearean drama and symphonic music (Bartok no less), extolled by the uncommonly erudite Hando, to local politics and agrarian reform. Lucio, farmer and mayor, was a graduate of an agricultural college, a respected expert. “We must not be impatient and greedy,” he said, referring to a program he was promoting among his fellow farmers. “Rather than harvest all our rice for today’s consumption, we must set aside a portion for seed even if it means we will be hungry a while longer.” But few were paying heed to his recommendation. “It is not easy to believe in the future when the present is still so hard,” he sighed.

“Yes,” Hando agreed, “we must take the necessary steps now to become masters of the future. And we must be concerned with more than rice seedlings. Reform, dividing the haciendas and distributing the land, is essential.”

“Isn’t that what the Huks are striving to do?” I asked.

“But they are trying to do it by violent means,” said Lucio. “That is wrong.”

“Our people have been exploited for more than three hundred years,” said Hando with vehemence, his smooth, feminine amber skin taut and glistening. “The hacienda system is too firmly implanted. It will never submit to being destroyed peacefully.”

“But violence never knows where to stop. The innocent end up being victims,” Lucio countered with equal insistence. “If we expect to be independent, we must also have stability.”

“Perhaps America should be our model,” said the reverend, addressing Billiard Ball. “Unlike us, you do not kill your politicians over elections. You do not have our corruption. Sadly, we have few patriots and everyone is for himself.”

“But Roxas will unite us,” said Lucio, referring to the new presidential candidate in the elections to take place less than a year hence.

“Roxas was a collaborator; he betrayed us,” Hando said dourly.

Finding their intensity contagious, I listened, unable to decide who was right. With independence near at hand, at a crossroad in their history, they were contemplating the formation of the new nation and how best to correct ancient, firmly established inequities and injustice. Would their hopes and arguments ultimately be meaningless?

Would Billiard Ball and I care to attend church in the morning, asked Reverend Mr. Corum. We politely begged off, and he took no offense. “I have never met a Jew before,” he said. “but your religion and the history of your people are a part of my education as a clergyman. Do you attend your church?”

“Well, the truth is I don’t practice a religion,” I said sheepishly. “But I was born a Jew and I insist on belonging. The Jews have been a scapegoat ever since their exile from Babylonia over two thousand years ago. I can’t escape the past and I feel a duty to accept its consequences.”

“That’s very noble of you.”

“I don’t see it as noble. It is necessary for my self-respect.”

“But as a Jew you have nothing to fear in America,” said Hando, who was listening intently.

“Probably not. Tolerance is part of the American tradition,” I replied, “but I sometimes worry when I’m singled out and despised by prejudiced Gentiles. When I was a child I was often victimized by my schoolmates.”

“I see,” said Hando, “then you are a Jew first?”

“Hando, you are being discourteous to our guest,” said Reverend Mr. Corum.

“Please forgive him,” said Lucio. “He often oversteps decent bounds.”

“Really, I’d like to answer the question,” I said. Having ignored the reverend’s rebuke and Lucio’s apology, Hando kept his clear, penetrating, catlike eyes fastened on mine. “No, Hando, I am first an American.”

“Ah, what a lucky many you are. If only I could first be a Filipino.”

“And you, Billiard Ball, do you have a faith?” asked the reverend.

“I suppose I’m an atheist,” he replied, “but I don’t disapprove of religion, although it’s the major cause of war and misery throughout the history of civilized man.”

“Not religion itself, if you will forgive me for contradicting you,” said the reverend, holding up his finger pedantically, “but man, in the name of religion.”

“Yes, Reverend,” said Billiard Ball, nodding vigorously. “I stand corrected.”

Such were our conversations. They were of a depth and seriousness and range I had never experienced before. We discussed political systems, communism versus democracy, psychology, man’s startling discoveries of his hidden self, his search for meaning in life (There is none according to Billiard Ball), the crisis in physics, the pessimism of contemporary philosophers, the shocking renunciation of tradition in modern art and music, the truth of literature, and on and on. Billiard Ball and I found, in this comparatively primitive village, a gold mine of astounding sophistication. And who was the principal force behind all this magnificent cerebration? Reverend Mr. Corum, of course, supported by two lesser and opposing forces: Lucio and Hando.

The reverend was on an endless voyage in search of life’s truth. In an unobtrusive, self-effacing manner, he subtly enticed us to follow him, to think aloud without fear of criticism or reproof. But attacks on those personalities present or close to us were forbidden. Despite his extraordinary sophistication, there was a deceptive simplicity, a childlike quality, an innocence about him. His gentleness was saintly. I was always eager to be in his presence, to hear his views on any subject, to hear his questions. His quiet power was the source of the barrio’s pride in itself. It was he who made the barrio an enclave against alien influences. Admiring America, he distrusted Americans and their careless style. Loving God, he rarely invoked his name. And not once in conversation during the time I knew him, an all too brief five months, did he mention Lieutenant Anderson’s name, or speak of the cruel Japanese commander or refer to Nanay’s untimely death.

On a subsequent visit I vividly recall a discussion on the nobility of sacrificing oneself for another. “It is natural to the human spirit,” the reverend stated. “Don’t we place our children and all those we deeply love before ourselves? Hadn’t we practiced this spirit toward the prisoners of the Death March? And didn’t we bear witness to the highest form of sacrifice by the Americano? Yes, I believe that in the end our goodness will prevail, for it is the most universal human trait.”

“All of history disputes your thesis,” Billiard Ball retorted.

“May I say, if you wish to call up history, then we shall find support for any view of man’s nature,” replied the reverend.

“Checkmate,” I whispered to Billiard Ball.

That night Billiard Ball slept at Hando’s house, and I at Anita’s with three generations in a single room. Being a product of a comfortable urban middle class environment, certain practical questions came to mind. How did one have sex, unless perhaps very quietly; where did one find privacy, and where was the bathroom? I never found the answer to the first; wherever one could, and rarely, was the answer to the second, and to the third the answer was a question: What is a bathroom? One bathed in the local stream and went out in the field to defecate. I found this hard to cope with, but in the nick of time I learned that there was an outhouse behind Reverend Mr. Corum’s.

In the morning Anita served me the traditional rice, from America, she said, and eggs and some goat’s milk, a menu similar to that at Rosalio’s. On a like occasion during a later visit, to my awkward chagrin, she served me a bottle of Budweiser. Since beer was available only on the black market, it must have cost Lucio a large sum. Thinking back to our prior group discussion comparing the Filipino and American diets, I recalled mentioning that America’s favorite drinks were Coke and beer. But I did not explain that I cared for neither, particularly beer. The magnanimity of these people was unbounded. I could not fail to come to love them.

After church, which Billiard Ball and I did not attend, a volleyball net was set up across the width of the dirt street. One side of the street was bordered by banana trees and the other by the white stucco wall of the church, which still bore the chips and holes of spent bullets when Nanay and Lieutenant Anderson were murdered. The volleyball game, in which Hando, Billiard Ball, and I and other new friends participated, was an exciting, happy event, full of joking and laughter, and watched by everyone in the barrio. The prize for the winning team was a carton of Camels, donated by Billiard Ball. At one crucial stage I accidentally hit the net, costing our side the loss of the ball and, quickly, the game. My mortification at being responsible for the loss was so evident that the winners insisted upon splitting the carton of cigarettes equally with the opposing team. Their sensitivity to the feelings of others was beyond me.

Again, as on the previous weekend but more so, we departed that Sunday afternoon with unbearable sadness. But our hearts were also full of fresh pleasurable memories, and the prospect of more such visits. Tears filled Anita’s eyes as we said good-bye, and Hando embraced Billiard Ball. Reverend Mr. Corum held my hand in both of his, reluctant to let it go.

On the ride to Olongapo in back of an army truck, I told Billiard Ball Anita’s story of Lieutenant Anderson. “Poor devil, Anderson,” said Billiard Ball. “It was a heroic act, and it shouldn’t go unacknowledged. As soon as we get back to the base, I’ll report our discovery.”

“No, don’t,” I said belligerently. “Don’t you see he’s a symbol to the barrio people? They took an enormous risk in saving his life and keeping him. Christ, it cost them Anita’s grandmother’s life, and they were ready for anything rather than give him up. I’d hate to think what could have happened if Anderson hadn’t surrendered himself. He represents a victory to them. He gave them cause for self-respect while being humiliated by a cruel enemy. Look how Anita’s grandfather watches over and cares for the grave.”

Billiard Ball weighed my argument for several minutes. “I understand what you’re saying, Hal. You look upon these people as being like your own, don’t you?”

“It’s true, I’ve never felt so at home, so much a part of them, as if I belonged.”

“I can see that, but that isn’t what I mean.” Puzzled, I waited for him to continue. “They are like the Jews against the world. You, your people, and they have suffered and still suffer and refuse to submit. It is, I think, what attracts you to each other; it’s what you have in common.”

Confused, surprised, I stammered, “Maybe you’re right. I’m not sure. I have to think.”

“Getting back to Anderson, consider this, Hal,” said Billiard Ball. “Don’t you think Anderson’s family would like to have his remains? Shouldn’t they also know about his meritorious act of heroism, what a special individual he was? Maybe he left a wife or son behind to feel proud of him for the rest of their lives were they to know. And wouldn’t we also deprive our country of a chance to honor its best?” I stared at Billiard Ball in silence. By the time we reached the dock at Olongapo, we were no nearer to a resolution. “Okay, Hal,” he said, “I’m going to follow my own conscience. Like you, I think Anderson was first an American, and should go home. I’m going to report Anita’s story.”

He did, and I didn’t hold it against him.

5 comments:

J. Albeos said...

It's not from my own. It's quoted. I saw it on the internet and posted it here.

The source of the story was written there.

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