One morning, Tefu saw the woman retching. As she bent over the sink, he noticed that her belly was unusually big. “Are you pregnant?” Tefu asked her.
“Yes, I am,” the woman said.
Tefu was filled with joy. “So you have stopped taking the pill. You have learned to love me, and you now want to bear my child.”
“What are you talking about? I have not slept with you for months. You have stopped wearing that nasty necklace of yours. You’re not the father of my child.”
Tefu was filled with rage. He raised his hand to hit her. She flinched. Slowly he lowered his hand. He could not bring himself to hurt her, and, it dawned on him, it wasn’t because he loved her. It was because she had never been worthy of his love. He had made a terrible mistake. Everything he had used the talisman for was not worth it.
Tefu left his wife and went back to Upi. In just more than three years, the landscape in his town had changed so much. A good portion of the national highway had been paved, and most of the vast forest had been transformed to corn fields and coffee plantations. Only areas that were too steep to be farmed were spared and still had trees. But Tefu barely noticed his surroundings. His heart was bursting with regrets. It did not even register to him that the motorcycle driver took him straight to his family’s hamlet. He no longer needed to walk through dense vegetation. The entire trip from Cotabato City took him three hours only, instead of the six hours it used to take.
When he saw his family’s hut, the first thing he noticed were the tiny packets of food hanging around the house. His heart beat faster. The packets meant there had been a death in the family. It is a custom of the Teduray to offer food to the dead for seven days after the burial. He walked up the ladder and stepped into the hut. He found the family huddled and weeping around a dead baby. He wondered if he had the customs mixed up. The packets of food were supposed to be for a dead adult that had been buried, not for a baby that had just died.
“It’s another death!” Amung, his father’s first wife, explained with rage afterwards. She was emaciated and seemed to have aged by a decade. “We buried my eldest son, Minted, three days ago, and just today, the daughter of your younger brother died. The members of the family have been dying one after another.”
Tefu stared at the mother of the baby. She was squirting milk from her breast into a bamboo tube. Like the packets of food for Minted, the milk would be offered to the baby for seven days after the burial. The young mother was beautiful. Tefu thought that if he had stayed in the hamlet, she might have been his wife, and the baby would have been his, alive and chuckling at him.
“It’s all your fault, you prodigal son,” Amung told Tefu.
“Because you took away the ungit. After you left for the city, the game your father captured became fewer and fewer. The whole family starved. Your father never told us that he gave you the ungit. We only found out when he died and my son Mesila took what was supposed to be his inheritance.”
Tefu felt as though the biblical apocalypse had come. “Iboh is dead?”
“Oh yes, he’s dead. Your mother too. They died not long after you left. Do you want me to enumerate who else died? You heartless bastard. You brought all this suffering to us. The ungit that was left to Mesila was new and useless, and we figured out that the original ungit could only be in your possession. You must have used it to get a woman since you couldn’t hunt game in the city.”
“But Iboh had money, hadn’t he? Didn’t he learn to farm and raise livestock?”
“What money are you talking about? Your father relied solely on hunting, and when he gave away his ungit, starvation struck the family like a lightning.”
Tefu thought of the P500 bills he had offered his father. He had been hoping his father found them in the forest. That was why he didn’t come back to the hamlet to check on the family. Or he had just been too enamored with his wife in the city. He had not thought of his family at all. “I didn’t know this would happen,” Tefu told his stepmother. “It’s not my fault. The game became fewer because the forest was depleted. I have nothing to do with that. I didn’t tell the lowlanders to come here and claim for themselves our ancestral domain.”
“But if your father still had his ungit, we would survive. We could have slowly adapted to the changes.”
Tefu shook his head. “It’s not my fault. Iboh gave me the ungit at his own will.”
“Blame the dead if you want. But you can’t fool me, you selfish devil. I know your father was just forced to give away his ungit. You deceived him some way. When you came back here out of the sudden, I knew you were up to no good. I should have told your father not to trust you. Now why are you here again? What else do you need? Why can’t you just leave us alone? Go back to the evil city where you belong.”
“I don’t need anything. I just wanted to see Iboh.”
“Well, it’s too late. Go to the other life. That’s where he is now.”
Tefu stood silent for a while, and then he decided to go out of the house. Amung followed him. “Don’t come back here please,” she said. “We’ve suffered enough from what you did.”
He stopped on his track and looked at her with a renewed enthusiasm. “It’s not yet too late. There’s still something I can do. I can help you and the other surviving members of the family. I have saved some money in the city. It’s supposed to be for the baby, but my wife doesn’t want to get pregnant yet. Let me give the money to you.”
“We don’t need your money.”
“Please . . .”
“We’ve been working for some time now for a Christian businessman. We weed his farm and harvest the crop, and we are paid daily.”
“But surely, that’s not enough. Minted and the baby still died. How much—”
“Just go away now, Mateo.”
Tefu fell silent.
“We’ve forgotten you. This is no longer your home.”
Tefu stared at Amung, and when she did not seem to waver in her decision, he walked away.
It was early enough for him to find a ride to Cotabato, but he didn’t want to go back there. He didn’t belong to the city. Neither to the hamlet. So there was only one place for him to go. He walked to the heart of the forest, or where the forest had been. After an hour or so, he found the ravine where three years earlier his father had saved him from falling into. He stood at the top of the cliff, hanged his father’s ungit on his ears, and leapt into the abyss.
In the other life, Tefu found the departed members of his family. He returned the ungit to his father, and its power was restored. The men hunted game as the women gathered fruits and honey. The forest was abundant, and they had a feast all the time.