Arriving at the creek, Dina stopped to rest her aching feet from an hour of walk. She was dejected after an unsuccessful attempt to find work in a farm near the highway. For months now, she was unable to get any work so that she and her two children can have money to return to her parent’s place in Zamboanga.
It was already mid-morning and she hadn’t had her breakfast yet. She put on the ground the cloth bag she was carrying. It was a bit heavy with the five leches of rice that Nang Lorna, the bisayan who lived near the health center in the highway gave her upon knowing that she hadn’t had rice for some time now. She thought about her two children she left in the house with only roasted eggplant for breakfast.
She bent down to pick up her slippers, raised her skirt and steps into the cool murky creek. She quivered as the cold water rose to her naked thighs. Looking around and seeing no one, she raised her skirt more.
She looked toward the big river to her right where the creek empties its cold water and saw a log, surely washed out from the heavy rain the previous night, slowly floating downstream. She turned her head back. The image of her husband on that same river came back every time she saw big objects floating. It also rained hard that same night. It was more than a year ago. They found his body floating on the river bend where the water almost stood still. There was one gunshot wound on his chest. She heard people talking behind her about what really happened that rainy night, but she believes her husband was only setting traps for wild chicken across the river.
She was only twenty-nine years old. Her long black and shiny hair made her look a little shorter and smaller than she really was. Her face still carried that youthful look since she came to Ado’s place from Zamboanga ten years ago.
Life was supposed to be better here than in the congested streets of Zamboanga or the shorelines of her father’s place in Bolong where the smell of dried fish permanently infused in the air. Here, her hair always smelled of fresh coconut milk every time she returned from the spring to wash clothes and to take a bath.
“Andun koliwag ug nyugan nyu?” Ado would always tease her in his native Subanon dialect as the sweet smell of fresh coconut milk filled the air. He was asking how big her coconut plantation was.
“Hasta onde ta alkansa tu vista, amo se,” she would readily answer back in her sexy chavacano accent, pretending that she owned an area as big as he can see. They would then burst into laughter.
She met Ado when he worked as a security guard at a shopping center in Zamboanga. That time, she used to pass by his post as she peddled banana and other fruits bought from the fruit landing in Sta. Cruz. He was medium-built with deep-brown skin. His muscular cheeks always beamed a smile as she walked past every morning. Then, in one of his day-offs, he went with her to buy fruits in Sta. Cruz. There were not many romantic moments between them. It was just that he seemed to be a very good person, and her family approved of him. It was a bit of a heartbreak when she got pregnant and Ado lost his job at the same time. They decided to return to Ado’s place in Domondan in Ipil and thought it would be good for the coming baby.
Ado got a regular work as a rubber tapper. He would wake up before the rooster crows. She also had to wake up to make coffee for him. After drinking coffee, he would set out to the rubber farm and would come back by around eight o’clock for breakfast. Then he would go back to the rubber farm to collect the sap. By noon time, his work was done.
For her, work is not so hard here in the mountains. In the middle of the planting season she went with the women to do some weeding in someone else’s farms or help in the harvest of corn or palay. In going home, she would walk up the river banks to gather pako. She loves those fresh edible ferns with coconut milk.
Lately, work had become harder for Ado. He would say that there were now too many rubber tappers around and work had to be rationed and scheduled. At times when it was not his schedule, Ado’s and his cousins would come early in the morning and they would go to trap wild chickens. They would usually return late the next day. She noticed it gave better income, though not enough for them to save. But he always came home with fresh fish, rice, and some biscuits for Balong. It was during this time that Ado would say about going back to Zamboanga. Though she is not sure about what would happen to them there, she gets excited thinking she will see her family again. They have not returned for a visit since they came to Ipil.
The day before he was found in the river, she asked Ado about his work.
“Is Bamba Omi not hiring you anymore? Why do you always go out to trap wild chickens?”
“He taps his trees himself,” he answered coldly. “His eldest son is now old enough to help him.”
That was his last words. He picked up his sanggot, the rubber tapping knife that was inserted on a slit on the bamboo wall near the door, tucked it inside his jeans by his waist and went down the wooden ladder stairs. He docked his head under the low floor of the house and reached for the chicken traps.
Giving a quick glance back at her by the door, he disappeared down the trail toward a waiting relative. It was around mid-afternoon and he won’t be back again until the next day.
The news came very early that following morning. They found his body floating by the river bend down across the big rubber plantation. They said the company guards shot him. Ado’s cousins also disappeared. She just lately learned that they are somewhere in Pagadian working in some fishing boats that go out to the Illana Bay. She often heard that the plantation securities were pissed off with thieves stealing rubber blocks or tapping the rubber trees at night. This sneaky and hurried tapping at night destroyed the trees as the tappers cannot clearly see what they were doing and would often wound the main tree instead of only grating around the bark. This would develop into a kind of bulging wounds that would take months to heal. Besides, the trees are supposed to rest for a day before being tapped again. So, to prevent from being charged with the stolen rubber, the guards shot everybody that they saw trespassing the rubber farm.
But she always insisted that Ado was just trapping wild chickens and asks why they had to shoot him. But nobody believed that there were still wild chickens to trap in the surrounding area. But she remembered that one time she asked Ado why he smelled of rubber when he didn’t work as a tapper anymore.
After Ado was gone, life became hard. Work was difficult to come by. Balong, who had stopped school after his father died, was always trying to find work as a rubber tapper but can’t get himself hired because he was too young to carry rubber blocks around. They said his hands were not yet steady and had destroyed many rubber trunks with his tapping knife.
She avoided asking help from Ado’s relatives to keep distance from them because she did not want Balong to be much acquainted with them. These relatives were not interested in school and that she felt that Balong would get the same attitude if he hangs out with them. She also felt that being related to Ado’s clan brought a stigma that she did not understand. She felt that was the reason why she or Balong could not get work. Going back to Zamboanga seemed to be the only quick solution to her misery. They could start a new life there and Balong could continue his education there. But money for fare was elusive for many months now and that, she though, was the only thing they wanted to be able to start a new life.
Their hut sat atop a grassy hill overlooking the Bacalan River. As with the other houses on the next hills, they overlooked the winding path toward the river. Some stunted trees dotted the landscape. She walked past some eggplant with fruit good enough for picking. She was thinking of roasting them and dipping them in vinegar to go with the rice. On the right side is a big lemongrass plant with thick bowing leaves that was a favorite shelter for chickens. Often, one of their native hens would claim its underbrush as a nesting site, giving Balong easy access to fresh eggs when he wanted to have one broken over hot steaming rice.
She hangs the small towel that she used as a head covering on the clothesline to the right of the house then proceeded towards the ladder stairs.
Balong was sitting on the steps of the small bamboo ladder of their hut. He looked small in his father’s old shirt.
“How is Isa?” she asked Balong.
“She is sleeping and her fever is gone.”
“You make a fire. We will cook rice,” she told Balong.
“We have rice?” Balong eyes brightened.
She nodded and climbed upstairs.
The house was a small sawali hut, about three meters across and four meters in length with no partition. The door was on the right side. Directly on the bamboo floor in front of the door was the fireplace. It was a wooden box about one meter wide filled with soil. It was empty except for a frying pan and a small iron pot that sat on a makeshift stove of big stones arranged in a triangle. On the wall hang clothes, bags, baskets, and everything they own.
To the far side of the floor was a buri mat where her two-year old daughter slept. She slowly sat beside her and brought her palm up to the child’s forehead. The fever will surely return again tonight.
Balong entered the hut with some firewood in his hands. He squatted on the floor in front of the fireplace and arranged the wood inside the rock stove. He picked up some rubber noodles from the edge of the fireplace. These were dried-up rubber sap that run along the tapped bark towards the suspended half of a coconut shell that collected the dripping milky rubber sap. As one made a new tap on the bark, this strip was removed to make way for the new grove. They called these strips pancit and were excellent fire starters. He stroked a matchstick, lighted the pancit, and placed it carefully under the firewood.
“Ina, Pedi was here this morning. He wants me to go with him trapping chickens,” Balong said as he lowered his head to blow air to the starting embers.
“If I can save money out of it, can we finally transfer to Samboangan?” he added without waiting for his mother to answer. “Pedi got two-hundred the other week. I should have the same if I went with him.” He continued.
She opened her mouth to say no but the baby started to wake up. She hushed her back to sleep. As Balong heeded down the hut, she stood, got the rice from her bag and tiptoed towards the fireplace. She emptied a portion of the rice into the iron pot, rinsed it with water from a plastic gallon and poured out the washing through the bamboo floor down to the ground where some chickens scampered toward it hoping that some rice grain went with it. The burning firewood crackled as she placed the pot over it.
She returned to her child and stretched herself on the edge of the buri mat. She heard some noise outside. She lifted her head to peep through the wide gaps on the bamboo floor and saw Balong below holding the chicken traps. There were about five traps made of nylon string about three meters long with a piece of small twig, about an inch long secured about two feet from one end. On the longer end, the string was tied into a small noose. These strings were neatly rolled for easy use. As far as she can remember, her husband made these chicken traps a few months before he was killed.
The image of him walking away from the house with the chicken traps flashes in her mind. What if Balong would unknowingly set his traps on the other side of the river and ends with the same fate as his father? But she believed Balong could not do as what the people accuse Ado and his cousins did—sneaking in the rubber plantation at night and tapping the trees in the cover of darkness. No. Balong could not do that nor can his fifteen-year-old cousin Pedi. She believed there were still wild chickens around to trap—though she had never seen one, or her little boy could do some labor work so they could save.
She again peeped down through the bamboo floor. Balong was sitting on the ground, sharpening a sanggot. The chicken traps were on the ground beside his feet.
This place is an empty trap. One has to claw his way out, she mused.
The sound of the grinding knife against the sharpening stone drowned the noise of squawking chickens and crackling fire. Dina looked at her sleeping child, took a deep breath, and lay back down.
It was almost midday. A rooster crowed in the distance.
Ray Codas grew up among his own Subanon people in the Zamboanga peninsula. His involvement in non-profit work and documentary filmmaking brings him closer to the stories of his own people and of those of other indigenous communities around Mindanao. He graduated from Mindanao State University in Marawi City and currently and lives and works in Iligan City.