The unpaved, dusty dirt road seemed to stretch on forever. We were on our way to Pangutusan to visit the farm because Uncle Jeffrey was eager enough to test his brand-new CRV on rough terrain. So there we were, on a farm road bordered by jungles of trees and corn stalks, heading to nowhere. I listened while Lola, Aunt Len, and Uncle Jeffrey chatted the ride away.
Even back in the poblacion, I was already reluctant to go but Uncle Jeffrey persuaded me to. He told me that I should visit Lola’s farm more often because we, her grandchildren, would be inheriting it later on. Inheriting the farm interested me so I went along.
“It has been such a long time,” grinned Lola, gazing out the window. She had not visited the farm for about a year.
“Have you heard anything about Nong Felipe, Ma? The harvest season was supposed to be last month,” asked Uncle Jeffrey.
“Hay, naku. Nong Felipe stole our share again. I bet he already sold all the durian by now. And the bananas too!” my Aunt Len replied.
“It is my fault, actually. I should have visited more often just to let them know I am still the owner, that they cannot get away with anything just yet. But I do not have any means of transport. Your brother’s tricycle is still broken,” Lola responded resentfully.
“Don’t be hard on yourself, Ma,” said Aunt Len, “Even if you had been visiting regularly, Nong Felipe would just say it was a bad harvest and he still won’t be giving you anything.”
After what seemed like a very long time, we finally stopped at a shabby, nipa house alongside the road. Its windows were tattered and its walls had holes. It seemed abandoned and forlorn, save for a dog in the yard who kept barking at us.
Uncle Jeffrey sounded the horn several times before all of us disembarked. And when we did, a short, thin man emerged from the house’s front door. When he stepped out into the light, I could see he had a very aged face, replete with wrinkles, eye bags, creases and a head of white hair. He was a haggard, worn man and it showed.
So, this must be the famous Nong Felipe.
“Good morning, Felipe. We just came to get our share,” greeted Lola. “Perhaps, you still have something to give us?”
Nong Felipe, who was apparently feeling discomfort, blindly scratched his neck. “Ay, manang. I am really sorry. The weather had been bad recently. A lot of the fruits were ruined.”
Uncle and Aunt looked at each other with smirks across their faces.
“But perhaps I could interest you with coconuts. There are a number of trees at the backyard. Maybe, I can climb them up for you,” offered Nong Felipe with a pathetic smile. He tried to be cheerful but appeared miserable instead.
“Well, I think that would be great,” Lola said and all of us proceeded to the back of the house to watch Nong Felipe climb the trees.
It turned out we had to walk a considerable distance to the “backyard”. I had to assist Lola because her arthritic knees started hurting again. In no time, both of us were way behind.
“So, what do you think of the farm, hijo? Beautiful, isn’t it?” Lola was looking around, admiring the wild beauty of her farm. “You know, my father, your great-grandfather I mean, and Felipe’s father were friends since way back then. I still remember when I used to believe that Felipe was one of my brothers. He was my baby brother for quite some time. He and his father used to visit us so often; I started believing they were part of our extended family.
Lola giggled at the memories and like many old people, she did not hesitate in sharing some more. The farm was a wilderness then but my great-lolo, Mang Gardo, and Felipe’s father, Don Berni, both fresh immigrants from Samar, managed to take hold of it by asking the local tribesmen for some land. The tribe gave them this area. In no time, they cleared the land for planting and went on to buy new seeds.
Over time, they managed to acquire more land and slowly, they expanded their estate. The farm was as it was then, a haphazard collection of fruit trees, vegetable patches, and crop fields. But both Mang Gardo and Don Berni did not mind. What mattered was that it was theirs.
Lola and I managed to catch up just in time to see Nong Felipe climb the first coconut tree. Uncle Jeffrey and Aunt Len were sitting on some grass some distance away.
“Manang, maybe both of you should not come too close,” warned Nong Felipe, pointing to where Uncle and Aunt were clustered. “Why don’t you sit there beneath the shade?“
I sat near Aunt Len and she whispered, rather loudly, to me, “Mar, you know what? You should learn how to climb coconut trees and other farming skills. Look at your uncle. Your Lola sent him to the city at a very young age and he does not know anything about farming, let alone run a farm.”
“Of course, I do. All you need is land and some tenants to work the farm and that’s it”, intruded Uncle Jeffrey. “The trick there is to find someone trustworthy to manage the farm, someone unlike Felipe. After that, you visit your farm once in a while and collect the profits.”
I glanced at Nong Felipe, hanging precariously on a tree. I guessed he could not possibly eavesdrop on our conversation. I had to ask: “La, how did Nong Felipe become a tenant?”
Lola paused for awhile and started. “It was a long time ago, hijo. As I remember, Nong Berni had a very sickly wife. Then one time, his wife got sick and he had to send her to the regional hospital. It turned out the wife’s sickness needed a lot of money and so Don Berni asked your great-lolo for a loan.”
“And when Nong Berni could not pay it, he opted to become a tenant.”
“Of course not, silly. Your great-lolo did not agree to the loan. Instead, my father told Don Berni to give to him his share of their land in exchange for the treatment of the wife. Don Berni presumably did not know of anyone other than my father who could help. He accepted the offer, my father paid all expenses and the wife recovered shortly. After that, Mang Gardo invited Don Berni to be the chief caretaker of our family’s estate. This was the arrangement ever since I could remember.”
I prodded. “Why did Mang Gardo not agree to a loan? Why did he demand Don Berni’s land?”
Aunt Len answered, “You see, it was difficult back then. You cannot simply agree to a loan and not have collateral.”
I asked further, “What I mean is they were friends. Why couldn’t Mang Gardo just trust Don Berni with a loan and hope that Don Berni will repay the debt? Why did he have to take Don Berni’s land?”
This time, it was Uncle Jeffrey who replied. “That was exactly why Lolo gave Don Berni that offer, Mar. Because they were friends. In fact, Lolo risked the future of his family with that deal. He agreed to pay for the wife’s expenses at whatever cost. The deal nearly ruined your great-grandfather because the hospital bills were so high. But thankfully, Don Berni’s land was very fertile and had good harvests for the next four years.”
“But poor, old Don Berni”, Lola said. “He could not accept that he was landless. When he became a tenant, he worried about what would become of his children. As far as I knew, Don Berni was a very proud man. He could not imagine his children as tenants working all their lives for his friend. He tried to buy his land back but he could not. Of course, how could he? His only source of income, after he gave his land, was the pay he received from my father. So, come harvest time, it was rumored that he would climb all the fruit trees and get his share of the bounty.”
“That was how Don Berni cheated my lolo and that was also his undoing. He died under a coconut tree. Some of the other tenants said Don Berni climbed it for his usual mischief but ended losing his footing and falling instead. The fall broke his crown. After that, his children took over as chief caretakers. Unfortunately, his children learned all too well from their father”, said Aunt Len, whom I could tell, from her raised voice, that she was fuming with anger. “They steal the harvest as if they still own the land.”
Our talk abruptly ended because of a loud thud. A coconut just fell to the ground.
I was amazed. Not because we filled almost three sacks with coconuts, but because Nong Felipe managed to climb a dozen trees. What a sight: a very old man with scrawny legs and arms, climbing a tree. I could see even Uncle Jeffrey was surprised.
Finally, Nong Felipe, panting, sheathed his bolo and stood in front of lola. “Would that be enough, manang?”
Aunt Len replied, “Oh yes. This would be enough. But could you get that last piece of coconut on that tree over there? ” She pointed to a tree. “I still see a coconut or two.”
Nong Felipe hesitated for a moment, looked at Aunt Len squarely in the eye, but proceeded to climb the tree. With extreme difficulty, he hauled himself upward. His arms and legs, tense and wiry, were testament to his effort. When he had reached the top, he unsheathed his bolo and swung it.
It missed the coconut. The coconut Aunt Len pointed to was perched too high above, too high for a man like Nong Felipe. He swung his bolo again and again but he could not reach it. Finally, with sweat all over his body and his limbs shaking uncontrollably, a defeated Nong Felipe climbed down from the tree, frustration etched over his face.
The walk back to the road was more difficult. The noon sun was high above us and the air was getting hot. All three of us men were each carrying a sack of coconuts. Once again, I found myself trailing behind with Uncle Jeffrey and Nong Felipe.
“You new here, boy?” Nong Felipe grunted. Beneath the weight I carried, I could only muster a nod.
“That figures. You’re a new face here. Must be one of your Lola’s grandsons, right?”
I did not answer and Nong Felipe interpreted my silence as a yes.
He went on. “What is good about living in the farm is that you get accustomed to the silence. Even the smallest whisper can be heard from afar.”
So, he heard our conversation. I lowered my head in embarrassment.
“You believe what you want to believe, boy. It doesn’t matter anymore.” With that, Nong Felipe walked faster, leaving me behind.
When we went back to the car, Nong Felipe thanked us for coming to visit and we thanked him for the coconuts. Lola chided him about that last climb and Nong Felipe told her he was simply too old. Then we were on our way. Nong Felipe stood in the middle of the road to wave us goodbye as we sped and left him there.
Back in the car, Aunt Len triumphantly exclaimed, “Well, I told you he would be saying those things again. Bad harvest. Bad weather. The man never runs out of excuses.”
“At least, we have a sack of coconuts. I wonder how much this would sell. You should know these things, Mar. You will be running the farm soon,” said Uncle Jeffrey.
But I did not answer him because I was looking back. Staring back at Nong Felipe still in the middle of the road, dust all over him. Staring back at a man who seemed to have lost something.
Inheriting the farm did not interest me anymore.