Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Wooden Trunk

by Cles B. Rambaud

“This hard-headed woman!” Grandmother Flora intoned indignantly.

I was sure it was grandmother who was talking although I could not see her for she was inside their house made of cogon and bamboo. I also knew it was Great-grandmother Alling whom she was angry at because there was no other else whom she called “hard-headed.”

“But I have not been to Amros’ house in months, daughter,” I heard Great-Grandmother Alling’s voice, also emanating from inside the house. I was under the old carabao mango tree at the yard in front of the house helping Grandfather Ikong husk his harvest of yellow corn.

“And whom are you angry at again?” Grandfather Ikong said gravely as he looked up at grandmother’s direction. We heard them clearly because the house had only a three-tiered bamboo stair.

“That old woman wants me to accompany her again to Bakwit’s house,” grandmother said. She had already come out of the house and was sitting comfortably at the low-floored annex lighting up her hand-rolled cigar with a live ember she took from the earthen stove.

“Then accompany her… is there anything wrong with that?” grandfather retorted as he threw a corncob at their only rooster which kept coming back and forth to peck at the bunch of unhusked corn lying near the carabao yoke where grandfather sat down.

“So that when we arrive there, she will tell me that she’ll come with me again?”

“Please, daughter,” said great-grandmother. She was walking hunchbacked towards the door, groping her way with her frail hands. Then she sat at the doorway. “If I’m not blind I can go there by myself.”

On the trail north of the house, I saw my father coming towards us. He had a weedy frame and by the way he swayed while walking, I knew he was drunk again.

“Your son will soon be in high school this coming June but you have not changed a bit,” Grandfather Ikong said with displeasure as soon as father was of spitting distance from us. “May God forbid but I hope you’ll not end up like your Tata Alpri who pickled his liver with liquor.” I heard that Grandfather Alpri or Alfredo who was a cousin of Grandfather Ikong died as an alcoholic. He will be a month old dead tomorrow and a mass will be offered at their house tomorrow evening for his salvation.

Father just smiled wryly. His cheeks were hollow and ashen. His beard looked like a male goat’s, and his hair had not seen a barber for a long time now.

“And where did you take a shot again?” grandfather asked. He was a dwarf of a man with a receding forehead but with powerful muscles even for his age, and he could easily knock my father down should they wrestle with each other.

“Over there at Cousin Jamin’s,” was my father’s lazy reply. “He had already sold his wooden sugar cane crusher and he treated me with a bottle of gin.”

I was sure that Uncle Jamin sold his cane crusher to the antique buyers who came from far-away Manila. For two days now, the buyers’ big truck had been parked at Uncle Jamin’s yard. They, so I heard, bought anything of age like cart wheels or hand-carved wooden images of saints. I also heard that they would be going back to Manila the day after tomorrow.

“And how much did he get for it?” Grandmother Flora asked eagerly. Her cigar was now emitting smoke like that of a ship going on full speed.

“One thousand pesos,” was father’s reply. “He said it would have been more expensive were it not for its missing teeth.”

“Jamin and you have the brain of a catfish,” grandfather spat out. “His father nearly died just to have that crusher. Now, he sold it like a useless tree stump.”

“Why, that’s good because they now have something to buy rice,” grandmother said as she took a deep puff of her cigar.

“Another human being with a catfish brain,” grandfather said.

“Is it the sugar cane crusher of Midsor you are talking about, daughter?” great-grandmother asked. “He and my long-dead Brother Anton, your Tata Anton, God bless his soul, cut it from the forest somewhere in Banna. They hauled the log for nearly a week with their carabaos up to Paoay.”

But I was not paying attention to them. If it was true that Uncle Jamin had already sold his cane crusher then he would no longer plant sugarcanes and we would no longer have molasses to eat.

“And where do you think are you going?” grandfather asked father who was now starting to walk away from us.

“Over there,” father said without even saying anything to me, as if he did not see me.

“You have a very limited vocabulary. Don’t you have any other word than ‘over there’?” grandfather was beginning to get irked. “Hay, you, Insiong, may God forbid, but if you don’t mend your ways, your wife will surely pack up her things and leave you and your son!”

The sound of father’s urine falling on the old bamboo fence accompanied grandfather’s admonition. Having relieved himself, father walked towards our house on the low hill near grandfather’s house.

“And what about my request, daughter? Will you accompany me?” It was great-grandmother again nagging grandmother.

Grandmother, who was now savoring the intoxicating smoke of her cigar did not reply so grandfather said to me: “Have my carabao ready, Ji, and accompany you great-grandmother.” My name is Jay.

“Then bring down great-grandmother’s wooden trunk here, grandfather,” I said as I left the corn I was husking. It was great-grandmother’s custom to bring with her trunk whenever she visited one of her children and planned to stay there “for along time.” Maybe this had already infuriated grandmother because she herself had to carry the trunk on her head whenever she accompanied great-grandmother. Grandmother was a stout woman but the trunk was also big and she had to hike a two-kilometer mountain trail before they could reach Grandfather Amros’ house.

The trunk was already at the yard when I arrived with grandfather’s carabao that pulled a sledge.

“Don’t tell me that you’ll prepare to come back here again as soon as you’ll reach Bakwit’s house,” grandmother said. “It’s nearly four o’clock in the afternoon. If you come back with Ji, you’ll be here at past midnight!

“Of course not, daughter,” great-grandmother’s voice was as calm as ever. Her chemise and long hand-woven skirt was newly-ironed and this seemed to have straightened her back.

“Sit down at the back of the trunk, great-grandmother,” I told great-grandmother as soon as Grandfather Ikong had tied the trunk securely to the sledge. But she told me she would rather walk to exercise her legs. She was holding a thin yard-long bamboo stick which she would continually tap at the ground or at the sledge. The stick served as her eyes.

It was still tobacco season and the path was still passable. If it would have been in the month of July, great-grandmother would have no choice but to ride on the sledge.

Grandfather Bakwit is the youngest of great-grandmother’s three living children. Whenever great-grandmother got bored at Grandmother Flora’s house, she would take refuge at Grandfather Bakwit’s house. When she was not yet blind, she usually stayed a month or two at Grandmother Carlin’s house in Paoay. And she would always bring with her wooden trunk.

Great-grandmother was already going blind when I first saw the contents of her wooden trunk. In it were her hand-woven clothes and that of my long-dead great-grandfather.

“Your great-grandfather was a diminutive man but strong and God-fearing,” she would tell me and that would be the beginning of a story that would be repeated every time she opened the trunk in my presence. “Your great-grandfather, God bless his soul, was so loving. He never laid his hand on me; never raised his voice. It was I,” she would say with a sigh and a light laugh, “who would bawl at him, especially when I was pregnant.”

The wooden trunk, she told me, was their first piece of furniture. It was decorated with white corals. The trunk was made of ebony. They bartered a young male carabao to a trunk maker in the town of San Vicente in Ilocos Sur for that piece.

But it was not the hand-woven clothes that great-grandmother wanted me to see and why she called me that particular afternoon in the sipi which was assigned as her room. Inside the trunk’s lid were carved letters and numbers. I supposed they were inscribed with a nail. And she wanted me to read to her what was written there.

I was a bright pupil in Grade Two then, as my lady teacher commented, but I had a hard time deciphering the inscription because the wood was dark.

“Eusebio Gajultos, Agosto 14, 1877… Martina Bugarin, Noviembre 3, 1881…”

“Those were the parents of your great-grandfather, my great-grandchild,” great-grandmother said and there seemed to be a slight sparkle in her dimming eyes. “Your great-great-grandfather, I learned, was one of the soldiers of Apo Aglipay who fought valiantly against the Americans.”

“Tomas Taroma, Enero 28, 1875… Julia Sadumiano, Julio 15, 1876…”

“Those were my parents. But I never saw my father. I was still a baby, I learned, when he was killed by lightning while plowing his field to be transplanted with rice seedlings. My mother, God bless her poor soul, was left as the breadwinner. She reared us, her brood, by hand-weaving clothes….”

“Gregorio Gajultos, Junio 17, 1900…”

“Why, that was your great-grandfather!” great-grandmother’s eyes sparkled. “He was born during the height of the Filipino-American war. Tata Sebio, who was to become my father-in-law, was not around when her young wife gave birth to your great-grandfather. Together with his fellow soldiers, who were called Sandatahan, or armed-ones?were encamped there at the hill where the presidensia now stands. Our place was then called Cullabeng, not Pinili, as our town is now called. And you know, your great-grandfather was named in honor of Apo Aglipay. Moreover, your Great-grandfather Gorio was born on the feast day of San Gregorio Barbarrigo. How old is your great-grandfather today if he were still alive?”

I calculated mentally: “It is 1989, great-grandmother, 1989 minus 1900 equals….”

“Your Great-grandfather Gorio was six years my senior….”

“Eighty nine, great-grandmother!” I exclaimed.

“That’s right. I’ll be eighty-three. But thank God, my only problems are my eyes and my back….”

“Catalina Taroma, September 15, 1906….”

“Ay, that’s me great-grandchild!” said great-grandmother with a smile. “Ay, your great-grandfather loved to write on anything. He was one of the few who learned to read and write in our time. He copied our birth certificates in the presidensia in Paoay. It was a good decision because all the documents in the presidensia were burned during the Second World War. And what else did he write, my great-grandchild?”

“Mayo 28, 1925….”

“Ah, yes, great-grandchild. Our wedding day. But do you know the story behind that date? Here it is: Before that, we went to Piddig with our friends. We rode in three bull carts. We went there to see the zarzuela written by Pascual Agcaoili Guerrero. It was all about a woman peddling basi. It was past midnight when we got back. Those were peaceful times, but you know, my great-grandchild, when we arrived home in Paoay, my Uncle Iniong, who was like a father to me, cornered your great-grandfather and ordered him to marry me or else blood will be shed. But I knew my uncle was just overacting. He did want your great-grandfather to become one of us, for your great-grandfather was the best dumadallot, the King of Dallot in Paoay during those times. Some said he even outshone Agustin Valdez, now long dead like your great-grandfather, so I heard, who was also the best dumadallot in the nearby town of San Nicolas during that time. Do you know what a dallot is, my great-grandchild?”

I told her I already heard of the word dallot but I never heard it delivered. During a singing contest in our last barrio fiesta, I heard someone from the audience shouting at Manong Rudy, Tata Jamin’s eldest, when he went out of tune: “Why don’t you just deliver a dallot, Bagis?”

And great-grandmother delivered her dallot which seemed to me then as a part of a long poem told in a singsong tone:

Dumidinallot, dumidinallang
Love of my life, my helping hand
You went away leaving me in tears
Dumidinallot, dumidinallang….

I thought the dallot was funny and I laughed heartily. This made great-grandmother pout. “Hay, you don’t know what is best,” she sighed as if in resignation.

But she seemed to forget all about it at once for she then prodded me to continue reading what was written on the inside of the trunk’s lid.

”Carlina Gajultos, Abril 18, 1928….”

“That’s your Grandmother Carlin in Paoay, born less than three years after I married your great-grandfather. We thought at first that I was not going to have a baby… But God is merciful….”

“Flora Gajultos, Marzo 1, 1932…”

“That’s your Grandmother Flora, the mother of your father Florencio. She was born about four years after your Grandmother Carlin. I had a premature birth before your Grandmother Flora. Our town now, or a part of it, was just a barrio of Paoay. We would come here in a bull cart to visit our rice and corn crops. The road was bad then; in fact, I would now call it a trail. I thought the travel was too much for the child inside me. The three-month old fetus was aborted here after we arrived. Your Great-grandfather Gorio placed it in an earthen jar and hung it at the bangar tree there at the hill….”

The bangar tree was no longer at the hill. It was felled by Grandfather Ikong a year ago and had it chopped to cure his Virginia tobacco leaves in the barn. Only the low-branched aludig trees stood there serving as fodder to emaciated goats.

“Ambrocio Gajultos, Diciembre 7, 1936. Marzo 15, 1940.” I told great-grandmother that there was also a letter “X” after it.

“Your Grandfather Ambros was only three years old when he died. An erbolario told us that your Great-grandfather Gorio had harmed a di-katatawan and it harmed his son Ambros in retaliation. We made offerings. But the spirit was apparently not appeased. Your Grandfather Ambros died….” There was pain in her voice and her dimming eyes strayed far out of the window.

“Saturnino Gajultos, Marzo 11, 1942…”

“That’s your Grandfather Bakwit. The Japanese soldiers were at their frenzied atrocity. I gave birth to him at the evacuation site. There, he was nicknamed Bakwit.”

It was only then that I learned the full Christian name of Grandfather Bakwit!

“But your Grandfather Bakwit was unfortunate, so I say. He was only more than a year old when his father ? your Great-grandfather Gorio?died.”

“Was he killed by the Japanese, great-grandmother?” I remembered Grandfather Ikong’s stories about the Japanese soldiers’ atrocities during the war. The Japs, he told me, killed the brother of Baket Mayyang who now owns a herd of goats at the foothills of our barrio.

“No, my great-grandchild. It was before the liberation…” I noticed that she was again staring far out of the open window. “Your Grandfather Bakwit was sickly like your Grandfather Ambros. One day, he was sick again. He got well, just like in the past, and he cried for food. Your Great-grandfather Gorio, wanting to give him more nourishing food, went fishing with some of our barrio folk in Currimao one night. But he never came back. His companions, which included my older brother Anton, your great-grandfather’s brother-in-law, told me he just disappeared that night. They were certain he was bewitched by a will-o’-the-wisp which at that time, they said, was frequenting the place. That afternoon, they found his bloated body washed by the waves at the seashore in Gabut, five kilometers away from where they fished. In his alat were three fish he caught….”

Tears were now streaming on great-grandmother’s pale cheeks as she slowly replaced the lid of the trunk. She locked the chest as if to contain that painful memory with a key she detached from a safety pin which was attached to the waistline of her hand-woven skirt.

It was getting dark outside.

Every time I visited great-grandmother when she was at Grandmother Flora’s house?she was already blind?she was always sitting beside her wooden trunk, her wrinkled hands on top of the chest, her dimmed eyes staring out of the window as if reminiscing.

Sensing that I was near her, she would call me, open her wooden trunk and again ask me to read to her what was written by my long-dead Great-grandfather Gorio inside the chest’s lid. Again, she would repeat with relish the events behind those names and dates.

“Why, don’t you get tired repeating those things?” Grandmother Flora once admonished great-grandmother. “You have those read by Jiling over and over when she was still here. Now you are doing this again with Ji. Ji may think you are already out of your mind!”

“How I can help when I can no longer see it, daughter,” great-grandmother countered. But Grandmother Flora had told me before that great-grandmother did not know how to read and write.

“Why don’t you just leave them? They are not bothering you, are they?” Grandfather Ikong said. Grandfather’s heart was all for great-grandmother.

But not my father. Once, while we were having our late supper, he asked: “So, you have not seen if your great-grandmother has old coins in her trunk, Jay? If ever you see one, take it! The antique buyers treasure those things!”

“You, damned fool!” Mother was furious. “You should be teaching your son to be morally upright but you are teaching him to be like yourself!”

“You talk as if I am senseless!” Father’s tone was visibly annoyed.

“Isn’t it true?” Mother was already fuming mad. She quickly gulped the food in her mouth and a marunggay leaf stuck on one of her front teeth. We had boiled marunggay leaves for supper. You cannot even bring home marunggay leaves, you fool!”

“Stop it!” Father was beginning to get irked. Even our cat sensed the brewing war so it quickly jumped out of the bamboo stairs. “I only opened my mouth once and you flood me with homilies!”

Anybody who would hear how my parents argue would wonder how they became husband and wife. But my great-grandmother already told me once that it was no longer a secret, especially to the older folks in our barrio, how father married mother. He took him by force. Just to save face, mother agreed to become his wife. Grandfather Usting, mother’s father, was not altogether angry at what happened because he was Grandfather Ikong’s kompadre. They had, I heard, become godfathers to a child of one of Grandfather Usting’s relatives.

It was of course clear, as great-grandmother told me, why mother did not like father as her husband. Father was a drunkard and a gambler and would not think twice to steal just to back up his vices. Maybe this was true because he and Uncle Jamin were rumored to have stolen one of Baket Mayyang’s goats last year.

“Come here and I’ll cane you to death! You are always putting me to shame!” Grandfather Ikong fumed like a mad dog then.

But father adamantly denied the accusation. “We have nothing to do with it! May the lightning strike me where I am standing now if I’m lying!” he even shouted at Old Ciano, the village chief, when he was summoned to clear his name. It was at the height of summer then, just like now.

I resemble my father because I, too, have a weedy frame. Fortunately, as great-grandmother once said, I inherited only his physical looks. I would be twelve years old but great-grandmother told me that I was going to be like my Great-grandfather Gorio who was loved and respected by his peers.

IT was already late afternoon the next day when I arrived home from the fields where I freed our carabao to graze. I was still far from grandfather’s house when I heard Grandmother Flora’s loud voice. It was clear that she was angry again.

“Just like what I said…” she was saying. “You are here again! You should be ashamed of what you are doing? wasting everybody’s time!”

So Great-grandmother Alling had already come back. I saw Uncle Danny’s sledge and carabao at Grandfather Ikong’s yard. Uncle Danny, whom we usually call Assit or “Little” because he was Grandfather Bakwit’s youngest son? a darundon since he was born ten years after the birth of Auntie Jiling, her sister? was eating guavas. He was three years my senior but we were of the same height. Great-grandmother Alling’s trunk was still on the sledge.

“Why, Damiana seems not to like me to stay there, daughter,” was great-grandmother’s late reply. She was being led to the house by Grandfather Ikong. Grandmother Damiana was Grandfather Bakwit’s wife.

“She seems not to…!” Grandmother Flora echoed with scorn as she went at the back of the house.

“So, Grandmother Alling is already here?”

It was father, coming toward us from my back. He looked leaner but for the first time, he didn’t smell of liquor. “She only left for Tata Bakwit’s yesterday afternoon, didn’t she?”

"Hoy, Jay,” Uncle Danny said instead, “tie your carabao and come with me to our house. I want you to see my new robot!”

Auntie Jiling, his older sister who was working as a domestic helper in Hong Kong, I was sure, sent it to him.

“Are you there now, Insiong?” Grandfather Ikong, who was now going downstairs, asked. “Better carry your grandmother’s trunk upstairs.”

I thought father would ignore grandfather but he readily went near the trunk as if he was seized by sudden inspiration. He tested the weight of the chest and realizing that he could carry it easily like a newly-killed goat, he carried the chest upstairs.

“Move fast, you, turtle!” Uncle Danny said to me again. “You can ride on my sledge and then sleep in our house.”

“But have you not heard that Grandmother Masang will hold a prayer offering for Grandfather Alpri tonight?” I countered, my mind filled with the aroma of newly-cooked rice cakes. Grandmother Masang was the wife of Grandfather Alpri.

“Huh! They will only give you coffee from burnt rice and cakes, cooked by old women who don’t wash their hands,” Uncle Danny said. “Better come with me. We’ll have our fill with imported chocolates and big and shiny red apples!”

That changed my mind.

But Mother was hesitant to let me go when I asked her permission. “Who will look after your Great-grandmother Alling tonight?” she asked. “You Grandmother Flora, your Grandfather Ikong and I will be at Nana Masang’s tonight. Didn’t your father tell you about this?”

I told her that I saw father at grandfather’s house just a while ago and that he told me nothing. Besides, I reasoned out, thinking again of chocolates and red shiny apples, Great-grandmother Alling was more than old enough to take care of herself.

“Then go!” mother shouted at me. “You are beginning to be like you father who makes other’s houses his home!”

GRANDFATHER Ikong was at their front yard, fuming like a mad dog again when I arrived home the next day. “That dirty mongrel!” He was shouting. I thought he was mad at me because I did not sleep in their house last night. But I heard later that it was father whom he was cursing.

Mother was also there, sitting on the bamboo steps of grandfather’s house, her shoulders stooped and her long hair uncombed.

Grandmother Flora was there, too, looking busy by picking up the dried mango leaves strewn on the yard. She did not even seem to notice Grandfather Ikong’s banterings.

But what I learned afterwards, I thought, would really make my Grandfather Ikong mad. Father stole great-grandmother’s wooden trunk!

I heard later that father visited great-grandmother that night.

They talked of trivial things, of the prayer offering for Grandfather Alpri’s salvation, until father asked great-grandmother how Great-grandfather Gorio courted her. This had touched great-grandmother’s heart and prompted her to open her trunk again. She dug into the past, retelling it to father as if it happened only a few days ago.

Father then urged great-grandmother to sleep and he would look after her. He also assured her that he would only go home when Grandfather Ikong, Grandmother Flora and my mother arrived.

“How good of you, grandchild,” great-grandmother said with price. She lay down on the mat beside her trunk forgetting to take her key out from the keyhole.

Only when Grandfather Ikong arrived home from the fields where he visited his tobacco plants did great-grandmother found out that her trunk was gone. Grandmother Flora, who was preparing their late breakfast, told her that she was just imagining things. She prodded her to look for the trunk again. But the trunk was really gone?its contents piled hurriedly at the corner of the sipi where great-grandmother slept.

“So Insiong did not sleep in your house last night?” grandfather asked mother.

“No, tata. But he came home very early this morning. He said he will hitchhike with the antique buyers’ and will alight in Vigan where he will buy new ropes for his carabao.”

“Ropes for me to hang him, that bastard!”

“It’s also Jay’s fault,” mother’s angry eyes were riveted on me. “I told him to look after her great-grandmother….”

I cowered behind the mango tree. That’s when heard great-grandmother’s muffled sobs. “Merciful Mother of God,” she said between her sobs, “my Grandchild Insiong knew not what he had done…”

Moments later, I saw her, groping her way out the door. She seemed to have aged. She looked frail and sickly and her hunchback was more pronounced.

“My Grandchild Insiong, my poor Grandchild Insiong, may God forgive him,” she again intoned as she sat by the doorway, her blank eyes staring at nowhere, her tears wetting her pale and hollow cheeks.

“Stop acting like a broken record,” grandmother said with disgust. She had already stopped picking the dried mango leaves strewn on the yard and had looked up at great-grandmother with her hands akimbo. “It’s just a piece of old junk anyway. And it’s so heavy. Why don’t you ask Ji to write your Grandchild Jiling in Hong Kong to buy you a suitcase instead? And a special suitcase, too. That one with rollers!”

But far from being appeased great-grandmother’s muffled sobs became a wail instead. It was the first time I heard her wail.#