Rolando Tuka awoke to the familiar morning chill. He was already awake, but he didn’t open his eyes. Lying stiff as a steel bar, he listened to his little siblings’ shuffling feet, the bubbling pot of instant noodles her mother probably stirred, the tapping of the soft rain on their thatch roof, and his favorite, his family’s laughter as they start to gather around the kitchen table which serves as their dining table as well. A typical morning, only today his siblings are singing Christmas carols.
Kasadya ning taknaa. He opened his eyes, sat on the bed, wiped the grit off of them and stared at the poster he had on his small room. Dapit sa kahimayaan. He was a very practical eighteen year-old and he knew that his small frame that spoke so little of his age can only accomplish so much. Mao’y atong makita. That’s why, unlike his other co-workers who begged for the Mitsubishi or Ford cars posters a convenience store at the next town discarded, he asked for the other poster that was ignored. Ang panagway nga masanglagon. He was grateful for the Max’s Restaurant’s Chicken-all-you-can poster that was granted to him. Bulahan ug bulahan. That was three months ago and he appreciated the reminder to work extra hard for a little luxury of impracticality on Christmas Eve.
He stood up and rubbed his cool stomach as he left his room. Ang tagbalay nga giawitan. He felt the damp ground soften with each step. In the deprived town of Diwalwal, everyone works so hard their tongues hung at the side of their mouths by the end of the day. Even after all that work, families here don’t eke out enough to build themselves stone floors. Awit nga halangdonon. But they get to buy food for their families and some clothes to put on their backs. In common days the town has grown accustomed to, that’s as good as things are going to get. Ug sa tanang Pasko, magmalipayon!
Rolando stepped into the kitchen, the smell of instant coffee greeting his nostrils. He smiled. It was a small house, with no ceiling and floors, but it was home. Its walls were made of nipa; they had no doors, but there were curtains to divide each room. When his father and his Ninong built their house, privacy was the least of their concerns. There was no living room, but there was a rattan bench. They had a dirty kitchen which his Mother tried to keep tidy every day. They had no palikuran but with a shovel, nature’s bushes and trees catered to their bowel needs. They had no water supply up in the mountains, but they had a well a few meters down. Three trips down there and back every morning were enough to last the family water for the whole day. The Tukas considered themselves lucky enough to have a home.
“Good morning!” Rolando smiled.
The hums stopped and Rolando braced himself for a tide of hugs from his three little siblings, Maria, six years old, Mika, five, and Mimi, three. The three little tanned angels bounced at his feet, clung to his legs and swung at his neck. By the time he sat himself in the dining table, Rolando was an exhausted “dinosaur” as the girls happily screamed.
“Where’d you get the idea of making me a dinosaur, huh?” he heaved at Mimi, who was now comfortably seated at his lap. The little girl giggled and held up what seemed to be a torn page from a comic book. Drawn on it was a green T-Rex with a bloody arm on its teeth and what left of an AAAAAH! exclamation balloon. “Oooh,” he feigned wonder, “Where’d you get this?”
“It came free with the Haul-Haul dried fish,” Maria replied. Then she settled two more in front of him saying, “See, Kuya? There’s more!” Mika clumsily grabbed one and said, “We’ll be busy doing something this afternoon. We’d be kept occupied by the time you come home with the Noche Buena!”
Noche Buena. Rolando cursed inwardly. In a few more hours, it’ll be Christmas Eve. A lot of Christmases had gone by, but Rolando was looking forward to this one. Ever since they’d lost their father, nobody was interested to hire a lanky boy from the mountains in the next town. Especially, one whose father got involved in an argument with someone powerful enough to take lives without a second thought. So wherever Rolando went to ask for work, the establishments would like to keep their businesses going, and the wives would prefer to keep their husbands, and the mothers would like to keep their children alive. Rolando was left bitter and jobless at the young age of fifteen.
But he persevered and found himself work in the mines. Ka Berting had the small-scale mining business going for quite some time when Rolando came to him to ask for work. He was a businessman who walked with his bulging stomach on the lead. His fairly acceptable sense of style didn’t conceal his beer belly or the fat he had on his arms, which flapped whenever he ordered his workers to move along. He can still remember what the man said when he saw him, “Oh! Now this is a body that can slip swiftly down those holes,” he grinned, showing his golden canine tooth and patting Rolando’s back quite forcefully he swayed right after, “You should be thankful, boy! Because of me you’d be able to survive in this world! Welcome to the Hellhole!”
True enough, in a hole under the earth, amongst the dung and mud he found the money to keep his family alive… barely. Money makes the world go around and his family’s world was no exception to the rule. Make every peso count. That was what he always said to himself—a thing his father had told him. Making each peso count sent his little sisters to school. Making each peso count filled the storage bins with rice. Making each peso count kept a roof over their heads. But he’s counting each peso didn’t leave anything for the book Maria had longed for when they visited town once. It also didn’t spare enough for Mika’s hair clip set or for a new rag doll for his little Mimi, or for a new Sunday Church blouse for Nanay, or a new pair of sneakers for Jun. No matter how much he worked extra hours at the miles, it was never enough to give the family a bit of luxury.
But a few months before Christmas, his little sisters actually asked for something he can buy if he pushed enough. Chicken, they said, embellished with spices, marinated with a special sauce and roasted to perfection. Christmas after Christmas he has disappointed them. This time, it seems that he’s finally going to accomplish something that’ll give them happiness.
Now, if he can just get three hundred pesos more. Three hundred. Then, Noche Buena will be secured.
“Hey,Lando?” his Nanay’s voice brought him back from his reverie.
“Do you know what your brother’s worrying about? He’s been sitting there for quite some time and I don’t know what’s gotten into him.”
Rolando looked at his brother Jun at the far end of the table, dunking the already soaked pandesal over and over again to his already cold cup of cocoa. Eyes cast outside the window, looking blankly at the mountains. Jesus, I should’ve known better than tell him about today’s plan, Rolando scolded himself.
“Would you please do something about him, ‘nak?” his Nanay asked him. Of all the things he hated, her mother worrying about anything topped the list. He hugged his mother tight and jokingly swayed her side to side. Her mother squealed half-laughing and half-scolding him to stop. Of course, the racket alerted his little sisters and within seconds they had joined in the fun. Jun heard, as well, and he turned to watch. The warm spectacle made him smile for the first time that day. But his smile quickly collapsed when his eyes caught his Kuya’s. Making sure her mother and sisters didn’t notice, Rolando shot him a sharp look saying, Pull yourself together, idiot. You’re acting like a sissy right now.
Jun had been working with his brother since last year. All day they had been together working in the mines. It was no challenge to decode the look. He gulped and nodded at his Kuya.
When Rolando saw Jun’s response, he stopped and turned the ladies’ attention to Jun. “‘Nay, nothing’s wrong with Jun,” he assured her, “Hey, Jun!” He needn’t call him. He already had the lad’s attention. “Are you okay?”
Then, the smile. Jun’s seemed to have caught his showman smile. He influenced well. “Yeah, just tired. Didn’t get enough sleep, ‘nay.”
“Why?” His mother approached Jun and felt his forehead with the back of her hand, “You don’t seem to have a fever. What are you worried about?”
Jun opened his mouth to say something, stopped for a moment. He saw Rolando behind his mother, eyes burning with something scarier than a threat. “Nothing. Trust me, ‘Nay. Nothing at all.”
“Are you sure?” His mother just can’t seem to let it go.
“Yes.” A hollow voice said with an impressive kind of false conviction.
“Okay, then,” she handed another pandesal to the now smiling Jun, “Eat more so that you’d have enough strength to last you to the next town and back.” Rolando started eating breakfast as well, making sure his little sisters had their healthy share. As he sipped his coffee, he heard his Mother ask, “You promise me you’ll take care there?”
Rolando smiled so wide, his eyes came out in slits. “Nay. Please. We’re not children anymore.”
Okay, so maybe we are, all right? We lied, thought Rolando as he and Jun made their way to the mining site. The one thing that he liked about his job was that there was no need to find the money for the fare. The site was just over the next mountain, five kilometers by foot.
It was already noon and the rain was still falling. The mud under his feet was now damper than it was when he stepped on it this morning. The wind blew harder and colder. The gradual increase in downpour didn’t escape his attention. The pellets followed no particular falling pattern, dancing in swirls and soaking him to the bone. He already gave up the idea of pulling his clothes closer to his body. He’d go home wet and cold anyway so what’s the use?
“I swear, Nanay is going to kill us if she found out,” Jun mumbled. He’d been doing that the moment they were out of the house and out of their mother’s hearing range.
“You’re not scared of Ka Berting?” he asked, amused. If their boss found out they’d been sneaking around after working hours to scrape themselves some gold, he’d be furious. He’d asked the senior workers to beat them up and leave them at the foot of the mountain half-dead. That was what they did to his unfortunate co-worker who wasn’t careful enough.
“Nanay is scarier,” his little brother declared.
He chuckled at that. “Damn right.” A mother’s wrath was definitely frightening. He couldn’t imagine what her Mother would say or do when she finds out they didn’t go to town but back here at the mines to sneak around to work.
But just one more afternoon, just a chunk of gold. With the money he’d earn, who knows? Maybe he’d be able to throw some Christmas presents with the food. Your money is only as plenty as the things you’re going to get. So if you want to buy something and your money isn’t enough, then you have to find some more to get what you want. How do you find money? Work! If the working hours isn’t enough? Then, work after hours! This is practicality at work here, Rolando assured himself.
“Kuya, are we really going to go through with this?” Jun voice cracked, showing his nervousness.
Rolando rolled his eyes. Not this again. “We’re not going to get caught. Okay? I’ll take care of us. Besides, don’t you want some sneakers? It’s going to be Christmas soon and we’ll be able to buy those you want. If I hear you ask me one more time, I’ll make you go home that instant. Understand, sissy?”
He didn’t need to notice the broken voice. The one struggle at home was enough to inform him of his younger brother’s uneasiness. Now he was asking himself why he even told Jun his plan.
“We have enough to buy us Noche Buena.” Jun’s voice trailed off.
Exactly. Just enough.
The roof of the worker’s quarters signaled that they arrived at the back area of the site. With squeaking, muddy steps they slowly made their way to small hut and squeezed themselves in the small area beside it. There was a corner where the barbed wire that surrounded the site was loose. All the boys had to do was prop it open with some branch to create enough space for them to go through. With a grunt and a push, Rolando did it and the boys slowly made their way inside.
Jun pulled his Kuya to the tunnel farthest from the guardhouse. He had already prepared the compressor that made the least noise there the night before. All they had to do was switch it on and try not to create splashes when they work. They need to move quickly. The faster they find gold, the sooner they can go to town and be back at home carrying bundles by Christmas Eve.
When the equipment was checked and left running properly, Rolando took off his shirt and gestured for the yellow tube which would give him air while he’s down there in the murky waters of the tunnel. Jun handed it to him. He was about to put on his goggles when he felt a tap on his shoulder.
He turned to find Jun again. This time, the seriousness he had on while tinkering with the air compressor was gone and was replaced with a grin. Not the showman smile he taught him, but a real smile brightening him up and bringing the youthfulness back to his face. It made him think. Just how much years had he taken off of his younger brother with the heavy responsibilities he forced him to bear? He thought of the times when he asked Jun what he wanted to do. It struck him hard when he couldn’t recall anything. When he said he wanted to help him at the mines, had he really meant it? When he said that he didn’t have anything planned to do with his life but support the family, was he really telling the truth? He was convinced that he’d been the perfect older brother. Was he just deceiving himself?
“Merry Christmas, Kuya!” Jun whispered, “Let’s get this done quick so we can grab some proben in town.”
He ruffled his younger brother’s hair and smiled at him. “Christmas will be merry soon. Make sure to keep an eye on everything up here for me, ‘kay?” He descended in the dark tunnel, bracing himself on the damp wooden scaffolds for support. He put on his goggles and took one last look at Jun’s smiling face at the tunnel’s entrance. Inhaling a big gulp of air, he popped the air tube in his mouth. With the image of his smiling brother in mind, he promised himself to have a man-to-man talk with him during Noche Buena. He deserved the question and it was a duty to listen to his answers. He leaped into the water, staining his world in a rusty yellow.
After five dips, the boys had lifted, washed, and weighed enough grams of nickel and chromite for two hundred and twenty pesos. Rolando knew that he should’ve stopped at the third dip. There was a lot the both of them weren’t sure of. How much of the air compressor was maintained, or the regular rotation of blackouts in the mountains, for examples. The only thing they knew was the schedule of rounds by the guard. The guard was going to make his move in thirty minutes.
“Kuya, this is enough. Let’s go,” Jun whispered, beginning to panic and gathering up the minerals they’ve acquired. “Ku— Kuya!”
One last time, Rolando thought, skillfully grabbing the right scaffolds and swinging his way down the tunnel. Again, he popped the yellow tube in his mouth, grabbed a bucket on his way before descended into the murky waters. Everything was rusty yellow in a splash. Deeper and deeper he swam. The deeper he goes and digs, the more minerals to gather. With his hand he began scraping the softened soil walls of the tunnel for something worth a handful of money. He felt something hard and cold where his hand touched. He smiled and began to scrape.
Scrape. I have to make sure Nanay gets a blue blouse. She likes blue. Scrape. What was the title of the book Maria wanted again? Scrape. Which ragdoll did Mika cry for that time? I hope they still have it for sale. Scrape. This is a problem. Last time I checked, there were a lot of hairclip sets on that shop. Scrape. Ah, right. I’m sure Jun remembers which one Mimi wanted. Scrape. I have to remember to stop by the shoe store and buy the champ a pair of sneakers as well. Scrape, then finally a shine. He deserves it.
Holding the yellow chunk in his hand, he felt a sense of accomplishment and hope rush through him. His treasure’s faces flashed in a whir in his mind. They deserve it.
Is it even possible to hear somebody’s voice this deep below the earth you can submerge yourself in water? Apparently, yes. Rolando was pretty sure he heard Jun’s voice. His brother’s terrified voice.
This is bad. He kicked and flailed as hard as he can to get out of the waters quick. Just as soon as he hit the surface, the first thing he sees is Jun’s sobbing face of fear. “Kuya!” he cried, “Get out of the water quick!” Like a maniac, Jun pointed at the direction of the mountain’s peak. He has never seen his brother look that small.
His ears finally registered the deafening rumbling sound. He finally noticed the shaking earth, the dirt that was gradually covering the murky water’s surface. The sound of something big and deadly rushing towards them. Landslide. His body responded as quickly as it could, grabbing hold of the scaffolds. But the earth’s spasms and his brother’s cries affected his stunt. With each scaffold he grabbed, the only thing running through his mind: No, not my brother. Not now!
Ten rungs more. “JUN, RUN!” he screamed at him, feeling the fear punching him at the stomach. Six rungs. “Kuya, hurry!” Jun screamed back. He cursed his brother right then and there for being such a deaf idiot. Four rungs. He looked up. “Ju–”
He saw. He saw how his brother, crouched down the opening to help him up the moment he got to the last rung, got swept away by an avalanche of soil, dung, branches and roots; then, swallowed by brown oblivion. It swallowed him, too. Pushing him back, down the rungs he just climbed, and back into the murky waters he wanted to get out of. The furious, heavy soil pushed him deeper into the waters. After all, isn’t that where he wanted to be? Deeper down where nobody can touch the minerals he wanted.
He tried to push back, but the waters and soil defeated him, pushing him back harder until it couldn’t anymore. After the soil had had enough of pushing and dragging him in all directions, everything was silent. He couldn’t move his legs, his arms. Something heavy was crushing his head. His lungs screamed for air. He tried to scream for help. But there was nothing. Even his family’s faces were starting to disappear. No… Then, darkness consumed him.
Maria, Mika and Mimi sat in a circle that night in their front yard. They’d already exhausted every game they had and are now trying hard to stay awake to greet their Kuya Rolando and Kuya Jun when they come home.
“You think Kuya Rolando and Jun are coming anytime soon?” Mimi asked toying with a pebble. She yawned and rubbed her sleepy eyes. Maria offered her lap and Mimi lay her head down on it comfortably.
“Yeah,” Mika replied, her eyes full of hope and excitement. “I can’t wait to get a taste of the Noche Buena! Yummy!”
“You think Kuya Rolando would like the gloves we bought for him?” Mimi asked before finally dozing off to sleep.
“Well, we’ll just have to wait and find out, right?” Maria replied, clutching the wrapped present tightly. “But, you know, what? I’m sure Kuya would like it. Everybody helped pick it out after all.”
“I hope Nanay comes home with the both of them soon,” Mika wished, resting her head on Maria’ shoulder.
In that position, the children dozed off to sleep, listening to Christmas carols that hung in the air. Kasadya ning taknaa… Dapit sa kahimayaan…
Madel Catre is a BS Education student of Ateneo de Davao University.