Stares and Silences

Nonfiction by | July 25, 2010

I used to live in Tabon-Tabon, a remote barrio in Tandag — a place where people wake up early to the crowing of roosters and the coming of dawn. People here wash clay pots at a nearby well, chop logs for fire behind their homes, and carry shovels, rusted sickles, and enough food and water to last the whole day in the farm. Early each morning, men and some women walk in a ceremonial procession — a troop of farmers in layers of thick coats, torn jeans, boots, and mud-dried palm hats. Men drill ostentatiously on the narrow paths along irrigations to separate their own portion of rice land.

Usually half-clothed and half-awake, I used to clamber out of bed to my father’s commanding voice. I knew his unassailable tone meant I dress up and splice the open half-filled sack of rice seedlings. I always tried to lift it single-handedly and though I was used to this kind of weight, my knees still wobbled each time I stepped on uneven ground going to the farm.

Away from my father’s eyes, I used to lay the sack down along the inclined logs in our backyard so I could nap and hide behind the enormous roots of a coconut tree and stay there until I hear my father’s voice again. Only then would I get up, carry the sack of rice seedlings, and continue walking over the puddles, feeling my sleepiness wane each time the water lapped on my feet and splashed on my pants. It had been a habit that whenever I reached the farm, I would squat on a boulder under the shade of a huge mango tree and ravel at the feeling of the cool south wind on my damp skin.

My father has always been good at gleaning and repairing the irrigation gutters or at removing sediments and weeds in drains or at opening those small-sized sluice gates. He used to bid me to check for holes or any collapse on the barriers where the water could gush out and rush on to the next rice paddy. I have always known there was something wrong about the barriers from the way I felt the water flow out and from the puddle on my feet but I never told my father about it nor did I do anything to fix it. I always felt nauseated by the strong odious smell of the soil. There were times when I had tried to fix what little damage I could mend, especially when my father gave me that stern look I have grown to be afraid of.

It was around this time when I began to feel dispassionate to my father’s ways. The image of myself doing what he does best added to an unspeakable disgust growing inside me. He made me watch and observe him as he plowed the field — his body sunburned and sticky under the heat of the sun. Despite my father’s kindness, his expectations of me to learn the things he does took the better of me and him. He did not have to tell me how much he wanted me to learn from him or how much he wanted me to do the things he did. It was quite clear. Each step of the work process was discussed precisely as if he was reading from a how-to-build manual.

One day I asked him, how do you break a tuft of soil? He earnestly replied that I needed to put all my weight on the handle of the plow so the pattern would be thoroughly followed. Theoretically, I tried doing just what he told me and I ended up following a pattern inside my head.

However, theory and practice are two different things. I was not doing the right thing at all. I lost my grip while maneuvering a heavy rusty plow. It leaped each time I lashed the rope against the carabao’s body and the pattern I made extended in curves, dismantling the barriers each time I missed to turn it back again. I was not surprised to hear him grunt in annoyance. I could feel the weight of his disappointment in me as heavy as the plow behind the carabao’s back and his annoyance as stinging as the leash on the carabao’s skin as he tugged the unknowing creature to the swamp where it could cool down. Just as father was about to go to a nearby house to ask for water, I jumped over the barrier and zigzagged my way out of the rice paddy with no intention of ever going back.

That incident created a huge gap between me and my father. If I did not turn away from him and his plowing lessons, we would have stayed exchanging dialogues like poor actors forced to act on a role. I did not know my kind of ignorance appalled him. His attempt to teach me the ways of farming had failed. Gradually, his enthusiasm disappeared like a frog that leapt on a muddy stream.

He never said a word for some time and my attempts to talk to him while waiting with a consoling cup of coffee every morning did not work at all. Disregarding me had become as natural as him going home every afternoon – tired and beat from working all day. I used to search his face, as I hid behind the curtains that separated the kitchen from the extended poultry house outside, for any sign of forgiveness.

There were times when I bravely demonstrated my disgust on mud and his soiled clothes. Whenever my father changed his shirt, I used to wrinkle my nose, pucker my upper lip, and exhale audibly. But he would just walk idly pass me by with his back straight as he whistled a strange tune.

For days I tried to think of ways to approach him. But I knew that even if I cried and tried to talk to him, it was not in his nature to use free time talking. Instead he would go down the cliff to get kangkong or any vegetable and hand it to me – his way of telling me to cook it for our next meal.

And so there was silence between us save for times when he had urgent requests for me to cook rice, or prepare his lunchbox, or take his garments from the pegs that were nailed on the wall. During nighttime, as he slept first, I would drape down the window curtains and lock the doors almost tiptoeing in the darkness so I do not wake him.

There was this one morning when, as he was putting his gloves on, he saw me carrying a mat from the bedroom. I lost my balance in the heavy weight of the roll so he lifted it for me and asked where I was going to bring it. “I’ll take it to the next room. I can’t sleep with you snoring too much,” I answered as I looked down to the floor trying to avoid looking at his face. Strangely, he just nodded.

For years, my relationship with my father remained the same. I sometimes glanced at him for a moment and he would nod. Somehow things were no longer that uncomfortable. While we ate, I no longer had to lower my head to avoid his eyes. He could have perceived an improper act in the way I spooned the rice on my plate or in how I fingered the noodles to my mouth. I became honest with my disposition. I supposed it would be more convenient for both of us.

At this time, trying to make amends to my father verbally was a long shot. I had no illusions of going back to the farm. I had grown distant from the backbreaking labor, the dikes, and the carabao. I was happy doing my chores at home. I did more of the domestic chores in the kitchen such as cooking rice, washing cups and dishes, or preparing meals. Each day after my father left to go the farm, I cleaned the backyard.

The only time I would see my father was when I wipe the dusts off the wooden window from where I could see him work in the farm. I usually stopped and looked at him in the field feeling comfortable with the distance. From where I stood, with a piece of cloth to wipe the dust off in my hand, I recognized my father’s efforts to develop the land.

The window framed a picturesque view of the massive plains. All things appeared so tiny – the mountains and the thin clouds hovering above it, my father walking slowly on the wet earth like an ant caked with mud. He never knew I spent part of my days watching him. Somehow, I saw and learned how he labored to improve the land –breaking up the soil clumps, plotting the soil for the unsown seedling, sowing, fencing the dikes with old fishnets, and hollowing out the soil so that the water could constantly flow through and nourish the growing seedlings.

Every other day as I stood by the window, I grew impatient for the harvest time. The months seemed to crawl at an incredibly slow pace. I noticed how father was getting more exhausted as days and weeks pass by. The hems of his jeans have been torn and he stepped on them each time he forgot to fold them up to his knees. The ingrown on his toenail had gone yellowish brown, calluses on his ankles and soles were filled with soil. One time, I boiled water and placed it on a basin. He soaked his feet into it and pain flushed into his face but no sore words came out of his mouth. Minutes later, puss surfaced on the water. By the time I took the basin away, the water was cool and murky from the dirt of his feet. Following his instructions, I rubbed pieces of ground chili against his skin to prevent infection. Then I wrapped a long thin cloth around his toes. This was the last time I had intimate connection with my father. It was also the first and the last time I followed instructions from my father since I ran away from his plowing lessons. When the wound healed, he went back to work on the farm again.

When harvest time came one summer, he went to the city to sell out a couple of bundled rice. He bought drawing materials and other sets of school supplies for me. It was almost June and classes were about to start. One day, he passed by the dining table where I was busily drawing things on the back pages of my new notebook. Carrying an empty sack, a shovel, and a spear in its sheath, he stood by where I was sitting. Remembering I was supposed to clean the heap of unwashed dishes, I stopped what I was doing and went to the sink. I saw him lift the notebook and look at the page. He was standing tall and his face, as he looked at my drawing, showed no sign of emotion. He went near me and asked about what I did.

I explained everything in my drawing. There was a nipa hut on a hill with a coconut tree beside it. The little house was overlooking a freshly plowed field. There were big brown mountains and flying black birds above it. There was a sun basking hugely at the top of the page and the sky was a different blue.

“And there you are,” I said, “riding the carabao down the hillside.”

As if searching for something in the drawing, he asked, “Where are you?”

“At the field, waiting.” I said as I was rinsing the final plate. I had to stand atop a tall bench to reach the sink. This way, I was almost as tall as my father. “But I haven’t crayoned myself in yet,” I added.

And he just stood there, looking at me the way he always did with his mouth firmly shut.

Arian has been writing poems for a couple of years and eventually realized not most sentiments can be fully fleshed out with poetry’s economy of words. This essay is his first attempt in taking a new turn.

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