Chieftain Logaton lays a chunk of ground areca nut on the betel leaf, adds a dash of lime, and rolls the leaf. He hands the whole quid to Timuk.
Timuk bites off and chews. In a moment, the menthol taste of the quid cools his mouth.
Chieftain Logaton smiles at Timuk. “You don’t have to tell it to me, young man, but I know that’s the best quid you’ve ever had.”
Timuk spits the residue on the dirt floor. He says, “I won’t be stingy with my praise, Chieftain. You deserve the reputation for having a way with plants. You use the same ingredients as others do, but your hand adds magic to the quid.”
Logaton’s smile widens, exposing his red, areca-stained teeth. “Ah, but you have yet to taste my latest concoction. I found out betel quid tastes so much better when sprinkled with tobacco. I’ll make one for you. You should take it to your fagamal.”
“Tobacco? Isn’t that from the lowlands?”
Logaton stares at Timuk, his smile wiped away. “Yes,” the chieftain says. “Is there a problem with that?”
“Chieftain, I must come to the lakeg tree as pure as possible. My betel quid must not contain anything that is not from here, especially something that is brought by our enemies.”
“Oh, that Wot!” Logaton says. “He has poisoned your mind against the people from the plains. He is not content with sending you off with just betel quid. He also wants you to not enjoy the quid. A quid is just a quid, it’s not food. Only food is prohibited. You won’t violate any rule whether your quid has areca or tobacco or weed.”
“It wasn’t Chieftain Wot who told me about staying pure. It was Chieftain Bendung.”
“That Bendung, too. I’m sure he made you a beliyan like him. How does he expect chants to help you stay alive for nine days? To tell you what I truly feel, young man, this guardian seeking is madness. Nobody knows if akaws still exist.”
“Chieftain Sik, the next and last chieftain I’ll visit, had a spirit-guardian not a long time ago.”
“But not anymore. The spirits have left us, young man. What the other chieftains don’t see is that for the people of the plateau to survive, we must adapt to the times. We must learn the ways of the people from the plains. We need not fight Gantuangco. Do you know what I’ve done? I let the company use my territory without any objection. I struck a deal with Mr. Gantuangco himself. I told him I would not oppose the operation but the company must hire the people of my village as workers.”
Timuk’s mouth falls open.
Chieftain Logaton continues, “Now my people don’t have to worry much where to get money. I tried talking to Wot to do the same, but he wouldn’t listen. Look what happened to his village.”
Timuk does not want to hear a word more from Chieftain Logaton. The old man is a traitor. He’d rather be a servant of the enemy and enjoy temporary benefits than stand up with his tribe. Timuk wants to leave, but he remembers the counsel of Puli, the chieftain from his own village. Chieftain Puli said Timuk must seek the blessing and guidance of all the five leaders. For the fagamal to have a greater chance of success, no one, especially a high-ranking person, should wish it to fail.
Timuk calms himself. “Chieftain Logaton,” he says, “forgive me if I’d been too critical of your friendship with the people from the plains. I don’t wish our tribe to be divided.”
“Neither do I,” Logaton says. “I don’t oppose Gantuangco and his guards, but it doesn’t mean that I will connive with those strangers against my fellow Manobo. That’s why I agreed to your fagamal. Though I have no faith in the old ways of our tribe, I will not thwart the plans of the other chieftains and I will share to you my knowledge about plants.”
Logaton proceeds to tell Timuk what the young man can do to survive for nine days. The old man says the betel quid will not suffice. It can only suppress Timuk’s appetite and give him a false sense of fullness. His stomach will remain empty. So he can try eating the leaves of plants that grow on the lakeg tree. The chieftain teaches Timuk the step-by-step process of testing whether a plant is edible or not. He tells the guardian seeker to rub the leaf first on his wrist and wait for some time. If no redness or itchy welts occur, Timuk can then put the leaf between his lips. It’s nothing more than the process of eating divided into several steps with long waiting and careful observation between steps. Logaton also tells Timuk to look for birds’ nests and eat the eggs and to catch and eat insects.
Timuk thinks that if he follows the advice of Logaton, the fagamal will fail. He does not voice his mind, however. What matters is that the chieftain has given him his blessing.
Logaton fills a tiny pouch with betel quid—no tobacco included, Timuk observes—and gives the packet to the young man. Timuk thanks the chieftain and leaves the village with his horse.
With the knowledge from the four chieftains, Timuk still doubts if he can survive the nine-day guardian seeking. But he tells himself not to worry much. He has yet to receive the most important piece of advice. Chieftain Sik, with whom he will speak before heading to the lakeg tree, has captured an akaw before. The old man knows it can be done and how it can be done.
Chieftain Sik is known to be a binusaya in his youth. He is said to have killed on whim at least two dozen men. The chieftain tells Timuk, “Many of our young men today look up to me because of my reputation, but I rue my past.”
Timuk stares at the old man in confusion.
“Whenever I thought of those lives I took with my hands,” Sik continues, “I don’t feel pride. I feel shame. I feel remorse.”
“But, Chieftain,” Timuk says, “I thought it was your fierceness that enabled you to capture your akaw.”
“I thought the same way before I went on a fagamal. I was a skilled huntsman and fighter, so I was confident that I could take down an akaw in a hand-to-hand combat. However, when the spirit-guardian appeared before me, the fight was something entirely different from what I had expected. I’ll tell you what happened, Timuk, and I hope the knowledge will help you capture your own akaw.”
“I can’t tell you how honored I am, Chieftain. The encounter with an akaw is something that every successful seeker holds dear in his heart. He shares it to one person only, usually his firstborn son.”
“You are my son, Timuk. You are the son of all the five chieftains. You deserve to know my most precious secret.”
“Thank you, Chieftain. Old Man Puli has taught me how to defeat any man, but only you can teach me how to defeat a spirit.”
“As I’ve said, Timuk, it wasn’t muscular strength that enabled me to capture my akaw. I won’t teach you any fighting techniques. In fact, I won’t teach you anything. Advices from other people won’t be much of a help. Everything you need to know is already in you.”
Timuk can’t understand what the old man means, so he remains quiet.
The chieftain continues: “Most stories say the akaw will appear in the ninth day, when you are in your weakest. In my case, it appeared on the third night, when I was still strong enough to kill a man with one blow. It was dark—the clouds were hiding the moon—so I could not see the face of the spirit-guardian, but like what old people believed, it had the body of a human being and a crown on the head that was similar to that of a rooster. It was perched on a branch like a bird.
“Right away I jumped at the akaw. We wrestled. It seemed to know what I would do, so it was able to avoid my blows. But it was no more skilled or cunning than me, so it did not subdue me either. We fell off the branch. I was lucky to grip a vine. If I fell on the ground, that would be the end of my quest. You understand a seeker must not leave the tree or fall off it for the entire duration of the fagamal. The spirit-guardian, meanwhile, disappeared.
“It appeared again in the fourth and fifth nights, and we fought in much the same way as our first encounter. I was getting weak, and to my surprise, my opponent seemed to be getting weaker too.
“I learned why in the sixth night. It was a clear night. The moon was full and stars filled the sky. When the akaw appeared, I was surprised to see that it looked exactly like me.”
“The only difference between us,” Chieftain Sik adds, “was that he had a rooster’s crown. Other than that, we were so much alike. He had my face, my body, and even my mind. Now how can you fight an exact copy of yourself, Timuk?”
“You can’t,” Timuk answers at once. “You can neither win nor lose.”
“Your wisdom surprises me. I no longer wonder now why my friend Puli is so confident with you. You’re right. If you use your strength alone, you cannot win over someone who resembles you in every way. Unlike you, Timuk, I didn’t realize that right away. I continued trying to defeat the akaw in the sixth, seventh, and eighth nights. As you know, I was a binusaya then. I followed my heart without thinking. I killed people at the slightest provocation. But during my fagamal, I had plenty of time to think, to look at myself deeper. There wasn’t much to do atop a tree, you know. Though I continued fighting the spirit-guardian, I was beginning to feel that I was taking on the challenge the wrong way.
“On the ninth and last night, the solution came to me: If the akaw was mimicking me, or if it was me, there was only one way I could capture it. It must come to me of its own accord. I should not try to overpower it since it would do the same thing to me. I should accept it. I should serve it. It was the most difficult thing I had to. Humility and kindness had never been my virtues, and the change in me should be genuine because the spirit-guardian could see through me. I never thought I would be able to do it, but I did.”
“And you were able to grab the akaw’s scrotum.”
“No. The grappling is symbolic. I think people believe that an akaw will grasp your scrotum because it is probably the most humiliating thing that can happen to a man. I believe what it means is that the spirit-guardian will attack where you are most vulnerable. It won’t test your strength. It will use your weakness against you.”
“So a fagamal is much more difficult than anyone thinks.”
“I believe you will succeed, Timuk. And when you capture your akaw, promise me one thing.”
“What is it, Chieftain?”
“Never let it go.”
The two men become silent for a long moment.
“When the people from the plains came,” Sik explains, “their priests told me spirits were evil, our old ways were not pleasing to the man who died on the cross. So I drove my akaw away. Now I want to capture it back, but I’m too old to go on a fagamal again.”
“I’ll never let my akaw go,” Timuk says. “I’ll never let anyone take away who we are.”
Timuk looks up, and the sight fills him with awe. The lakeg tree is so huge and alive, he feels it can swallow him. The dense foliage and gnarled branches sway with the wind, rustling, creaking.
It will take at least a dozen persons, hands outstretched, to encircle the trunk, which is not one enormous pole but a whorl of pythonlike veins. A lakeg has this unusual shape because it starts out as a small plant attached to another tree. As it grows, it forms veins that suck the life out of the host, until the veins reach the soil and fan out as normal roots. The ability of the lakeg to kill another life-form attracts spirits to dwell in it.
Timuk checks himself. He has nothing on but a g-string; the pouch of betel quid from Chieftain Logaton, tied on his waist; and the dukah from Chieftain Wot, slung around his neck. He is not carrying any item that is not from the plateau.
He utters a brief chant for Nemula and starts climbing, tugging at the veins of the lakeg tree.
Jude Ortega hails from Sultan Kudarat Province. He was a fellow for fiction at the 2012 Davao Writers Workshop.