Nonfiction by | August 6, 2017

Photo of Sitio Inanuran by Jade Monteverde Baylon

She knew her husband was close to death as the man sat back in his rusty-framed hospital bed. His skin—darkened from decades of working in the fields—was pale, almost lifeless. The calloused hands were limp. An IV tube remained taped to one of them—a last lifeline. His eyes remained closed. Whenever he opened them by sheer force of will, it was to catch a glimpse of his wife, the pastor, sitting beside him with her hands together and her eyes closed. She had been praying for days for her husband’s healing. As she did so, the sun sank to the West as the jagged teeth of black mountains pierced the fabric of the sky. The clouds opened up and an orange veil fell upon the world. It was as if the day itself refused to die. But nothing can hold back its end, and with it, all hopes for a miracle for him faded. The light that crept out slowly through the screened windows took with it the life of the day. The air in the public hospital was stale. The smell of ammonia spread from one ward to the next like a warning to visitors. She prayed again. She had been trying to talk to God for days. Amy, the once lively woman had fallen silent, tearfully looking at her husband Bartolome suffering.

She had hoped for a miracle. There was nothing she could do but cling to it. It was too late to pump it out of his stomach. A poison often used to kill field rats had already reached Bartolome’s liver. It had come from a bellyful of rice, becoming a fire that spread from one vein to the next. It had killed every cell it could find. He was motionless. Pain filled each impulse; his brain was dying too. They had but a few hours to say goodbye. Amy, who held on to his hand, prayed she could help him stay alive. But as she watched him writhe in seizures of pain, she knew she could do nothing. Who would have thought death was as painful as this?

When Amy spoke to me about their story, her face showed a melancholy that was not usually there. The day began warming up the sleeping Sitio of Inanuran. The sound of children rushing off to the nearby school mixed in with the sound of stick brooms against the hardened dirt. We were on the porch of the house we had rented for my three-day stay in San Pedro. This small barangay was where their story began. The stout woman sat on the bench. Her dark skin wrinkled by age. Her eyes looked tired from the years past. If there were a number for the times she had asked for the miracle, it had long since evaded her when she spoke to me about it in September 2016.

As she tended to the cooking fire in the kitchen, I got my notebook from my bag and began asking her for translations of certain phrases and words. It was for another essay, I told her. One that focused on language. The sad look in her eyes disappeared for a brief moment. I began saying Binisaya phrases and she replied with their Tagakaolo counterparts. This was my way of breaking her away from her silences. I never thought about asking her how her husband died. It seemed too painful a subject to even consider bringing up.

I continued by asking her about her home and where it was. She stretched her hand and pointed down the road that we had passed to get to Sitio Inanuran. The Barangay site we stayed in was a collection of houses huddled against a wall of dirt. The place was once a slope. Years before, the government had sent bulldozers to clear the area in order to build the barangay center of San Pedro. The site stretched toward the nearby hill. Houses, both made of wood, sinasa, and concrete hollow blocks can be seen rising up and down with the slopes. Their galvanized iron roofs were mosaics of rust and mirror-like metal when viewed from above. But Amy did not live in this lively village. Somewhere in the hills, behind the thick brush and the remaining trees was her home in Sitio Kituroc. Curious as to what home was in the Tagakaolo language, I asked her as she was placing the blackened pot of uncooked rice over the orange flame. She looked up and turned to me. “Puy-anan.”

Puy-anan [Tagakaolo] (noun); [Cebuano] panimalay; [Tagalog] tahanan; [English] home

When I met her, Amelita Maligon was a 46-year-old mother of two from San Pedro— a distant barangay located deep in the mountain ranges of Santa Maria. Her sons James and Jaeiger lived with her in their small house in Kituroc, a sitio hidden under the shadow of what Amy said were the last lawaan trees in the area.

After I found out she was from San Pedro, I told my father to ask her if she could be my guide when I did my fieldwork. She agreed. We were together for three days in a place that was undoubtedly far from my home. Before that, she had stayed an entire month with us, working as our helper.

One of eight siblings, Amelita Maligon was the last one to get married in 2008. She and her husband Bartolome had been engaged for more than a decade by then, and already had two children living with them in their house. When they first decided to have a family, they knew nothing about the decade they would spend living together as an unmarried couple. In spite of their Christian friends’ advice, they chose to have children before they were united by the church. Love, it seemed, transcended the power of the institution Amy had so passionately served. The church could not prevent them from having a family of their own. Their home would not be complete without their two children James and Jaeger.

Amy and Bartolome first spoke to each other in the summer of 1990. It was a time when there was an abundance of trees and fireflies in the hills. This distant, mountainous Sitio of San Pedro in Santa Maria was hidden by the thick foliage of the lawaan forests—a jungle that stretched for miles on end and hid the most diverse wildlife imaginable. The nights there were lit up only by a few things: stars, moon, fireflies, and kerosene flame, the last a lot harder to come by then.

In this serene land, Amy had become accustomed to her father’s overprotective nature. By the age nine, the young Amelita Maligon was told to stop going to school after firefights had broken out between the military and the rebels. Her father tried to keep her and her siblings away from the dangers of the world’s wars.

One night in 1990, a young Bartolome Daligasao came to the Maligon house. Amy’s father, the Elder Maligon had rules regarding her interaction with men.

“Grabe gyud ka strikto ni Papa uy!” she laughed as she recounted her father’s strict nature when it came to men and his young Amelita. The landed father was careful to not let his daughter go with complete strangers, worried that they might take with them the daughter’s inheritance, too. He was prepared to give her a share of the family land for her future family.

When Bartolome came that night of the Flores de Mayo, the Elder Maligon must have greeted him with a grunt and several hundred questions. After the young Bartolome told the Elder of his intentions—which was to escort the daughter through the lawaan forest to the event, the father could do nothing but nod. He knew the boy’s family, and trusted him to protect his beloved child on the journey. The Elder gave in to the young man’s determination. It was a good sign, Bartolome must have thought as he carried the kerosene lamp through the wilderness. The woman whom he had fallen for in church was with him at last.

Years later, when I met her, Amelita Maligon was no longer the daughter of a landed man. The Elder Maligon had passed away long before our encounter, and with his death came the trials that would define Amy, her family, and her faith. The years that followed the loss of the Elder had been rough on them. The lands of her father became untilled. All the animals had been sold off. The horse paid for her hospital bills. The pigs, for her medication. The goats, for her children’s tuition in their new school in the Poblacion.

I told Amy that I wanted to go to her house. I imagined it to be lonely, surrounded by a bamboo fence, flowers, and a patch of earth with all sorts of vegetables—a common setting for a family home.

“It’s a long walk,” she said. Though she remarked later that the distance was bearable. “An hour’s walk.”

In 1990, the couple moved into the house that Bartolome had built. The house with walls made of sinasa bamboo planks stood under the shade of the large mango tree beside it. Amy told me that James, one of her sons, had once scared away an aswang hiding up in the mango tree’s branches. This house was her reminder of the better days they had shared. She would have to leave it when the time came. Amy, the landed man’s daughter, came to live with the poor man’s son—a cliché that was beautiful in its simple truth.

Because they weren’t married and were considered “live-in partners,” Amy felt the pressure to stop preaching in their church. To live with a person who was not her husband was a sin. She knew that and believed it. But she never stopped going to church. Her faith, her resolve, and her will were strong.

Bartolome worked the fields that Amy had inherited from her father. By this time, the forest had started to retreat into the deep valleys and the high slopes. The loggers had found Sta. Maria’s lawaan to be strong and profitable. As the walls of trees fell, the people turned to cultivating corn—a crop that was easy to grow and seemed to be more profitable because the trees that were also used to create charcoal disappeared.

The husband would leave his wife when the sun hung low in the Eastern sky, casting a corn-colored glow on the balding mountainsides. It is better to leave early, Amy said, the sun isn’t as hot and the soil, still cool. Bartolome would head out for their uma, their patch of farmland where he would plant corn and other crops like squash. By the time the sun had risen to its highest point, Bartolome would be sitting by the door, listening to the wild monkeys that still inhabited the trees that remained standing near their home.

While Bartolome was out on the uma or farming grounds, Amy worked on keeping their animals fed. The pigs in their pens would take their share of slop, the chickens would rejoice as corn rained from Amy’s godly hands, and the horse—one that Bartolome managed to buy over the years—would whinny contentedly in the shade of the mango tree. When she saw her husband’s silhouette in the distance, Amy would always greet Bartolome by preparing a hot cup of corn coffee, some boiled cassava root, and warmth that rivaled the sun’s. The simple life of a native, she would later tell me. They lived in the joy brought about by family, and not the things the lowland folk obsessed over. They were in their own version of paradise.

Isig Tagakaolo; [Cebuano] anak nga lalake; [Tagalog] anak na lalake; [English] son

Amelita Maligon came to our home in Digos on the back of an overheating motorcycle, the smoke from which was hardly visible in the noonday sun. The El Niño of 2016 still clung to the July heat. She rode the aging Kawasaki motorcycle for more than an hour, and when I saw her standing outside the house, her backside was either sore or numb from the rough road.

From our gate, she waved her hands to get attention. The sun made her seem like a mirage with her brightly colored clothes. Her hair and face were partially covered by the pink cloth she wore as a shield against the dust of the road. There was a heat wave that had killed most of the grass and shrubbery, their golden husks rustled loudly whenever the dry wind blew.

The loud noise from the television made our dogs’ barks almost inaudible inside the house. When we finally saw her, she had been standing there with the motorcycle driver for more than five minutes. Stocky and sunburnt, she had an energy that seemed to defy her age. Her laugh was loud, her hands small and rough, just like her feet. Worried that her hair’s length—falling down to the base of her spine—would be considered unfit for work in the kitchen, she wore her salt and pepper hair in a bun. Her eyes were small and brown and her smile was the biggest one I’ve ever seen; we knew her joy was real.

She wore, almost as a uniform, a skirt that ran down to her calves. The denim one she wore when she arrived would be worn three times within the week. She brought around only four skirts since she did not wear shorts or pants. She came all the way to Digos from her home in Kituroc, leaving her sons in Santa Maria to work for us. Her father would not have wanted this life for her, but here she was. The Elder Maligon’s daughter had come to work as a helper in the patag, the plains.

When Amy climbed up the steps to the front door of our house in Digos, she carried two bags of clothes and an uneasiness that materialized as lines on her forehead. She sat quietly with her hands on her lap as my mother and father talked to her. They would ask questions and she would answer. When she was asked why she wanted to work for us, she told them she had two sons who were studying in Santa Maria. She had abandoned farming to find a new source of income in the plains. She had left her home to help in ours.

Amy started working almost immediately. She would stay to work for us until my grandparents left for the U.S. After that, she was to go home to San Pedro until my father would contact her again to accompany me on my trip. I was even happier then to have her accompany me to her home.

When we were in San Pedro, she would introduce me to the people she knew. People were curious. They would talk to her in Tagakaolo, and I would attempt to recognize the phrases. The recurring word was the word isig.

“Isig ni Sir Baylon,” she would say to those who asked.

When we were in the kitchen, I asked her what it meant, and she told me that it stood for “son,” the counterpart of which was “bobay” or daughter.

Amy and her husband had James, their first son, twelve years after they had built their house. When they were asked why they took so much time before having a kid, she would simply answer with a smile. They wanted time for themselves, to enjoy each other’s company until they were ready for one more person in the family. Maybe religion had affected that decision. Christian religions forbid bearing children outside marriage.

Her sons were the reason Amy came to work for us. Amy needed to provide for their tuition and allowance, so she left her home in Kituroc to find jobs in the patag.

We were still in the kitchen when she told me this. I asked her how they say “I love you,” in Tagakaolo. Her response was something I did not expect and I was surprised to hear it. The words and their meaning were far from the abstract word “love.” It was pure definition.

“Pi ginawan ta kaw,”
she said.

Pi ginawan ta kaw [Tagakaolo] (phrase): [Cebuano] literally: “Ikaw akong ginhawa” Gihigugma nako ka; [Tagalog] literally: Ikaw ang hininga ko, Mahal kita [English] literally: You are the air I breathe, I love you

They met in 1982, a time when the quiet of the forest nights was dispelled by the sound of crackling gunfire in the distance. This was at the height of the conflict between the government and its enemies in the area. The uneasy feeling that kept Amelita from school only a few months earlier had come back. Her father steered them away from conflict whenever he could, and that was the reason she never got to be a fifth grader. At thirteen, she was a teacher in her local church. A young leader, some would prefer to call her.

If one were asked why the stars were so much brighter out in the forest, a possible answer would be because of the bullets that eventually tore through the very fabric of night whenever the rebels met the government under the shadow of the towering lawaan, a hardwood that reached a height of fifty meters red-tinged bark.

She was thirteen when she first met him in church. It was not love at first sight, she said. Time, in a way, helped Bartolome fall for her. So much so that he would eventually marry her. In the years that followed their first meeting, Amelita became Pastor Amy to both teenagers and children. Bartolome remained a quiet spectator and admirer. She saw him, he saw her, but not much happened between the two of them. She had a habit of crying inside the church as her hand reached out to God—who she says was invisible and all-powerful. Her great faith didn’t seem to estrange Bartolome from her. Love or the thought of it had planted a seed in Bartolome, and it grew every day. The only men Amy loved were her father and her God, and this man was determined to change that.

When Bartolome finally realized that he liked Amy, he became religious. Once a “backslider,” he turned his life around and followed what the pastor always reminded them of—never miss the service. Whenever he went to the church, it was to see the woman whom he had found crying in the tiny crowd inside the church. Amelita saw him as a face in the crowd whose smile had made her feel lighter inside. A good man, she admitted.

They became acquaintances, but not close friends. Members of the opposite sexes didn’t really interact that much— except when they were married or were mad at each other. A quiet boy who was two years older than her, Bartolome often stayed at the back of the church, coming to the front only to put his tithe in the basket she held out. Her sweet smile would meet his, and the blessings he had asked for in exchange for the spare change clinking in the rattan basket were met.

He got sick a lot, Amy said, probably so she would be asked to pray over him —laying her hands on his forehead and his chest while she closed her eyes to pray for him to get better. And he did feel better. Warmth returned to his hands and color to his cheeks. She performed the grandest miracles for him.

On the night of the procession, Amy, along with her closest friends left Kituroc for San Antonio—one of the more populated communities that was far from the Poblacion of Santa Maria, an hour’s ride away by skylab (a modified motorcycle that had metal extensions like wings on both sides to carry passengers and all sorts of things). Her father was overprotective of his daughter. He did not want to leave so he asked for the help of the younger men he knew. They were to accompany the girls and be their official chaperones. The smile on Bartolome’s face must have been priceless. Amy, who by that time had grown to love the quiet boy, felt nervous at the thought of his arm locked around hers.

When the night of the Flores de Mayo was over, Bartolome confessed his feelings for Amy. She loved him back, but she was cautious. She asked if his love was for her, or for the things she would inherit from her father, and in some way, he convinced her that it was not. He loved her; that was enough.

Their dates were long walks to Amy’s house from the church. A thirty-minute hike through the woods didn’t feel like thirty minutes, she said, smiling at the memory. She continued to talk about the times when he would bring her fruits during his visits.

When talk of their relationship reached the Elder Maligon, Amy’s father, he sent for Bartolome and his family. Tradition meant that a marriage was to be made before anything else happened. The Maligon and Daligasao families met and made the arrangements. In Filipino communities, the union of two meant the union of their blood. Amy knew nothing of the meeting between the Maligon and the Daligasao— Bartolome’s family. She later found out that they had already arranged the bugay that Bartolome ought to give to Amy’s family—fifteen thousand pesos, a carabao, and a horse that was strong enough for the occasional horse-fight.

If the gifts were not satisfactory, the wedding was delayed. Bartolome’s family, just like most families in the community, lived off the earth. The little money they got from selling charcoal and their produce was not enough to meet the Elder Maligon’s demands. Those days, farmers had money, but not much. They found everything they needed under the shade of the great trees, and maybe only lowlander greed would find its bounty meager.

They couldn’t afford the horse that Amy’s father wanted so they asked if the carabao and the money were enough. And to their surprise, they were.

Marriage has always been an expensive pursuit, especially in the mountains. Supplies had to be brought up by horseback or motorcycle, and that meant slow and costly deliveries. The fog used to hide the roads behind a curtain of moist cloud, which made travel treacherous. The cliffs that one had to walk beside were deep and the canopy of trees that covered the land below hid every evidence of an accident. These, and all sorts of other problems, including the death of the Elder Maligon had kept Amy and Bartolome’s wedding from taking place.

It would take nearly fourteen years for them to finally say their wedding vows in front of their family and friends. When they had their second son Jaeiger in 2004, the couple decided that they had to get married. They were now a family, and Amy thought God needed to bless it. By then, the roads were more passable, but trips were still dangerous, and often fatal. Bartolome kept working in the fields, from seeding to harvest, year after year, keeping a little bit of the money for the wedding. Amy had managed to sell enough of her farm animals to make the necessary preparations while she made sure she had enough left to rear the next generation and feed the guests. In 2008, with the six-year-old James holding on to his father’s hand, and four-year-old Jaeiger holding on to his mother’s, Amy and Bartolome got married in the church where they first met.

Weddings were expensive. Preparing a festivity that would be joined by hundreds was no mere task. Food—usually goats, pigs, and cows—had to be delivered from faraway sitios. Soft drinks and rice came from places as far as the Poblacion itself. “Kuman kaw,” phrases rang out more often, and louder from that banquet, and people would come and have a great time. But that feast, no matter how big it was, would not be the most defining meal in Amy and Bartolome’s lives.

Kuman kaw Tagakaolo: [Cebuano] Mangaon ta; [Tagalog] kumain tayo; [English] Come eat with us.

In 2013, while Amy and her children were in the Poblacion, her husband got invited to a gathering for a celebration of sorts. It was also a meeting of different farmers. The uplands were where the government’s enemies hid, and they would do anything to keep the rebels from getting the upper hand.

At the gathering, Bartolome and his companions were given rice rations. Perhaps the harvest was bad because of the previous year’s drought. They needed all the rice they could get. The farmers talked about a lot of things. From politics to religion, the group of men, who were mostly farmers, and leaders of the communities debated and laughed together. And where there was a lively crowd, there was sure to be an abundance of food.

When Bartolome arrived at his house in Kituroc, he brought the ration with him. In the day that followed, while he was alone in their home, he cooked the rice and ate it. After finishing a plateful, he began to feel a piercing pain inside him. He felt a fire burning in his stomach, causing him to vomit. Muscle spasms followed and further pain. Amy returned home as soon as she got the news, leaving her boys in the Poblacion. When she got there, her husband’s face was pale, his eyes nearly lifeless, and his voice weak. He needed one of her miracles again. Amy prayed, and she did so until tears ran down her cheeks. Their friends gathered outside their house, preparing the motorcycle that was going to take Bartolome to the hospital.

The rice he had eaten was laced with a potent rat poison. The military had intended for the rice to be given out to enemies of the state—insurgents who often organized the gatherings in the mountains. By the time they saw the toxicology report, it was too late. The poison ransacked Bartolome’s system and destroyed his liver and kidneys. His brain drowned in an agony he was never supposed to experience. A day in the hospital was all Amy and her boys had with Bartolome. They prayed. Amelita Maligon cried the way she always did in church. As Bartolome lay silently moaning for the pain to stop, she begged for God to spare the love of her life.

Maligon Tagakaolo [Cebuano] kusgan, lig-on; [Tagalog] matatag; [English] strong, sturdy.
After several months of farming, she had grown tired and pawned off her lands. The hard earth had calloused her hands and feet to the point of cracking. This job was now her only source of income apart from the two thousand pesos she got from the government’s 4Ps program.

In their home in Kituroc, Amy’s animals were sold off. Her horse paid for her hospital bills, the pigs, for her medication, and the goats for her children’s tuition in their new school in the Poblacion. When I went to her place for the second time, I finally asked her about why she was where she was, and she told me her story.

We often talked about the people, the stories behind each individual, and even the stories of the land itself. The once vibrant forests are gone. Fields of corn covered the mountains like a carpet wrought of golden string. Corn was easy to plant, she said, giving me a lecture on the four-month process that was corn farming: You plant, you wait, you harvest, you wait, you burn, you plant.

She took me around the barangay. Going from one house gto the next, we spent the hours visiting her relatives. She introduced me to her friends and the barangay officials; some people even thought I was her new husband.

“Isig ni Sir Baylon,” she would explain to the puzzled people, and they would smile.

Amy was a mother to me in the few days I stayed there. Whenever she saw me moping, she would try to distract me with a conversation. One time, she even told me to go and swim in the river with her, and I did. She liked to talk about her kids. Whenever I asked her about her children, her replies would always come with a hint of pride for what they have been able to accomplish in school. She said that her children would come home during weekends to help her with the chores, farm work, and they would even play around the mango tree that stood beside their Kituroc home.

Her eyes were squinted over the fields of corn turning gold under the sun. Her feet, planted on the same soil. Her roots delved deep into the earth the way the old lawaan trees did. She looked at me and smiled at the way I gasped for air only moments after we began climbing the slope of a hill. She was forty-six and not an ounce of exhaustion showed on her face. The lines on her face probably stood for the years she had lived through, all the pain she had experienced.

I asked myself what it was that made her so happy in spite of all the problems she has experienced. With her stocky stance, she is a rock. Her calloused hands were caring and strong, and her tired smile expressed the realest joy. She has truly lived up to her name.

Jade Monteverde Baylon hails from Digos City. He graduated from the UP Mindanao Creative Writing Program this year and is an alumnus of the Davao Writers Workshop.

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