Timuk wipes the tears off Wadina’s cheek. “I will come back,” he tells his wife, his hands cupping her chin.
“I know,” Wadina says. “I’m sorry, I can’t help but cry. I know you can do it. You can capture the akaw. It’s just that . . . Oh, Timuk, it’s too dangerous. For nine days, you have to stay in the lakeg tree without food, and then you will fight the spirit-guardian when it appears. Do you really have to do this?”
“I have to, Wadina. The five chieftains have chosen me. This quest is for all the Manobo people. We cannot fight the intruders on our own. They have guns. We need the akaw to protect us.”
Wadina takes a deep breath. “I will offer my prized hen to Nemula,” she says. “I know the almighty will help you. You have a good heart, Timuk, and you are brave and intelligent.”
Timuk smiles. He kisses the infant in Wadina’s arms and whispers, “Sleep tight, child. I am taking this fagamal for you. I want you and your brother to grow up without fear, safe in the land Nemula gave us.”
The older child, five summers old, stands silently beside Wadina. Timuk kneels down and tells him, “While Father’s gone, you take care of Mother, all right?”
“Yes, Father.” The boy speaks with the fluency of a grownup. “I’m the man of the house now.”
Timuk chuckles. “Good,” he says, tousling his son’s hair. “You remember everything I tell you.” He stands up and tells his wife, “Do not worry, Wadina. I am not alone in this quest. I will be bringing with me the counsel of the five chieftains. I have spoken to two of them, and I will drop by the remaining three on my way to the lakeg.”
“I trust you, Timuk,” Wadina says. “Your children and I will be waiting for you.”
“I will come back,” he says. He unties his horse from the tree and mounts it.
The other people from the village, huddled several feet behind Wadina, yell the guardian seeker goodbye. Timuk waves at them as the horse runs, disappearing into the other side of the hill.
Timuk feels cold, and he knows it’s not because of the wind sweeping past him. It’s because of fear. Despite the confidence he has shown his family and tribesmen, he’s not sure if he can capture the akaw, if he can grab its scrotum first. The chieftains have told him that if the akaw grabbed the seeker’s scrotum first, the man would lose his mind. For Timuk, it would be worse than death. It pains him to imagine himself going home talking to invisible people and laughing at inanimate objects. Wadina and the children will be hiding in shame all day. The kids in the neighborhood will tease him and make him dance. The elders will be shaking their head in disappointment.
Timuk reminds himself that he has to see three more chieftains. Perhaps after talking to them, he will finally be sure of himself. He lightly kicks the horse, and it speeds up, galloping on the footpath that leads to the village of Chieftain Wot. The pounding of the hooves is loud, but to Timuk’s ears, the beating of his heart sounds louder.
Timuk stares at the devastation around him. The bamboo huts that once stood proud have been reduced to burnt stubs and ashes.
“That’s what the people from the plains did,” Chieftain Wot says, his voice shaking in grief. “That’s why I decided to call the other chieftains. My village cannot fight the intruders alone. All the Manobo people should unite against them. I’m thankful that you accepted the challenge, Timuk.”
“I will do everything I can, Chieftain,” Timuk says. “But first let me understand. Why did it all come to this? Since time out of memory, our ancestors have been living in this plateau. This is our land, our home. Why is it that now we are driven away by these newcomers?”
“It all happened, Timuk, because we have a good heart. When the people from the plains came, we welcomed them as brothers. They said they had nowhere else to go. They said the land where they came from no longer provided them food, no longer took care of them. They asked if they could live with us, if they could share in the kindness of Nemula. So we let them, and before we knew it, they were coming in hordes, bringing with them the wanton ways they had acquired in the lowlands.
“They introduced money to us. We people of the plateau found out that with money, we no longer needed to gather fruits and hunt game in the forest; everything came wrapped and ready for consumption. In exchange for money, we gave some land to the new settlers. When the money ran out, we gave them some more land. We kept on giving them land until so little was left to us. If we don’t do something about the situation now, soon we will have neither land nor money.”
“They are saying the tracks of land we lent them are now theirs. They have what they call a title, a piece of paper, from what they call the government. They are saying that this government has power over everyone, including us. We’ve been living well on our own, without any help from outsiders, and suddenly these strangers come and tell us we owe allegiance to the government. It’s like growing up an orphan and learning to fend for yourself and then one day a man walks in and tells you he’s your father and the master of the house. The gall of these intruders.”
Timuk says, “They will take everything we have if we don’t fight them.”
“If I could help it,” the chieftain says, “I don’t want to fight them. They have guns, and all we have are bolos and arrows. But they leave us with no choice. Gantuangco claims he owns half of the plateau. He says the government has given his company an exclusive permit to log and plant coffee even in the area that my village had tilled for generations. When we resisted and continued planting our crops, the guards of the company attacked the village. We thought Gantuango respected our stand when the guards did not show up in the clearing, so imagine our shock when we went back here and found our homes reduced to ashes. If it was any consolation, they did not hurt the women with very young children who were left here.”
“Do not worry, Chieftain. I will do everything that I can to capture the spirit-guardian.”
“I know your chieftain is right in choosing you, Timuk. The men in your village are known for your hunting skills, and your chieftain says you are the best.”
“But hunting skills are not enough, Chieftain. That’s why I came here for your counsel and all other kinds of help you can give me.”
“Ah yes,” the chieftain says. “I will share everything I can to you. I’m afraid, however, that I have nothing much compared to what the other chieftains could give you or have given you. Now tell me, what have you received so far?”
“The first I went to was Chieftain Bendung, since his village is the farthest from the lakeg tree. He is a beliyanas well as a chieftain, and he taught me the rituals he performs and the chants he utters for Nemula. Now I’m a beliyan, too. I no longer need a shaman to ask for help from the almighty. The second chieftain was Old Man Puli, from my own village. There was nothing new he could tell me because he had taught me almost everything I need to know since I was a kid. He just refreshed me of the fighting techniques I could use against the akaw. We practiced hand-to-hand combat for days. The third one is you, Chieftain Wot.”
Wot says, “I think I’ve made you understand a little better the relationship of our people and the intruders. I hope knowing how vicious our enemies are made you become more determined to succeed in your fagamal. But aside from knowledge, here’s what I want you to have.” The old man takes off the necklace he’s wearing and offers it to Timuk. It’s a simple rattan string adorned with a white limestone the size of a bird’s egg.
“But that’s your dukah, Chieftain,” Timuk says. “You need that amulet in your own journeys, especially when you’re hunting. I’m afraid I cannot accept it. It’s too precious. Besides, I have my own dukah.”
“You need this, Timuk,” Wot says, his thumb caressing the pendant. The limestone is so polished, it shines. “This dukah is much more powerful than yours. The original owner of this was my great-grandfather.”
“The one with an akaw?”
“Yes. He wore this necklace in his fagamal, and in the ninth day, he saw the reflection of the spirit-guardian on the stone. They say an akaw appears in a different manner for each seeker, but it might be the same for you and my great-grandfather. If not, I’m sure this amulet will still keep you safe in your quest, better than your own dukah can. Take this. Don’t worry, you have to return this to me when you come back.”
Timuk smiles. “All right.” He takes off his own necklace and wore Chieftain Wot’s. “It is an honor to wear your dukah, Chieftain, even just for nine days. I humbly offer you mine. I can’t leave you without any protection.”
Wot accepts Timuk’s necklace. “This isn’t as lowly as you say,” Wot says. “It’s owned by the best Manobo hunter there is. I’ll go to the forest tomorrow, and I’m sure I’ll be able to capture several deer.”
“Thank you for your trust, Chieftain.”
Jude Ortega hails from Sultan Kudarat Province. He was a fellow for fiction at the 2012 Davao Writers Workshop.