But I don’t misread you. I’m seldom mistaken in a man. I think you mean to make your mark in this world. Am I wrong?
—Blood Meridian, or, the Evening Redness of the West
The soldier slithered down the hole. It took him quickly to dig one, enough to stretch his legs and light a cigarette where he could be hidden. At night lighting a cigarette in the open was a fatal thing to do. You would not want to attract snipers zeroing in on your burning cancer stick. It’s not that it happened to his unit or someone he knew. He’s just damn sure that these things occurred in life, and death is inevitable if to think otherwise. It was a matter of common sense. But these things were far from his thoughts. After years of patrolling these jungles, exchanging gun fire with the enemies, everything was automatic. Common sense was the only thing that stayed. Truth, happiness, even survival was but an illusion. In the hole the soldier heard the burning tobacco. He felt the smoke in his face and the loose soil as he kicked his feet forward.
It’s your birthday tomorrow, kid.
The kid was reminded by their reconnaissance specialist. The man was in his late forties. He was short, stocky, and unusually quick on his feet. He was the type to remember dates, the sharp bend of a river, the number of bullets left in your magazine.
The kid jolted from resting his back and legs and squatted like a baboon who had just been alarmed by an apex predator. The kid’s head emerged from his hole; his eyes squinted and adjusted to the dark that was pushing the moon’s soft glow which was filtered through the leaves onto the realm of the shadows. The kid looked at the cigarette; it lingered enough between his fingers. He took a final puff, inhaled the smoke too deep in his lungs, his head turned light. He flicked the butt to the ground and covered it with dirt.
The kid called the old man, Paps, for obvious reasons. The recon master was the father figure the kid would invent on his many tours in Basilan. Paps taught the kid many things but there is one advice from the old man that stuck with the kid since: always look ahead and keep your attention to where the sound of the firing came from. The old man did not fail to remind the kid that when the time comes there is nothing one can do, but make sure you bring as many sons of bitches with you in kingdom come.
Tomorrow, you will break your vows. Said Paps.
It is scary we are turning this into a ritual. Kid said.
It is not though. You break it so you can make anew.
The old soldier slipped in the many gaps of the very dark jungle. Every step he would take was measured, deliberate, leaving almost no trace of his passage. His senses were attuned to the sound of nature – the swishing of leaves, the distant call of birds, the faint rustling of animals in the underbrush. He would be making a circle, a wide one, to make sure they would pass the night without having to shoot somebody.
The night was still young, and the kid felt restless. Kid was tall and lean, and his rolled-up sleeves choked his toned biceps like a sphygmomanometer torturing a vein to betray its secrets. He moved lightly along the secured perimeter, wading at times over the lush thicket of bushes, a well-choreographed dance between the explorer and the untamed undergrowth. The atmosphere seemed denser as the kid halted before gigantic trees that stood with indifference. He reached for the nearest tree and leaned on it and put all his weight on his back, feeling its rough and sturdy trunk. Kid smiled and relished the cool that was transferred from the tree’s body to his. He looked up at the erratic patterns of the branches, like an outstretched, twisted arms of belabored men. Kid dared not imagine the time passed between these trees and the night.
The kid realized he was not alone. Several paces at his 3 o’clock a short balete tree gave off a faint frisson of excitement. The stories of old, the ones told in his childhood in moments when darkness usurped supremacy from light, had places eerily populated by these exact trees. The thick leaves were barely penetrable, yet his eyes could time the familiar pattern of a smoker’s rhythm, two quick intake and a long-drawn release of smoke. The ember’s glow intensified briefly as if marking a start of a supernatural devise, one that requires enchantment, the collective ignorance of the tribe, and most commonly a daydreamer who is easily wafted from her realities to a realm of fantasy and magic. Axel was perched like a bird on top of the tree, smoking a cigarette and relaxing.
The M240B machine gun was sandwiched between the kid’s legs, its buttstock fixed on the ground. He looked up at Axel one more time. Axel nonchalantly tossed the finished cigarette into the leaves, the last of the embers causing sparks to shoot all over the place. He then climbed down from his nest, agile and powerful and exquisite. The kid caressed the barrel of his M240B. Kid placed the weapon leaning against the tree, its buttstock now snugged among its roots.
Axel swung from one branch to the next, his descent marked by wild ducks passing by. He gracefully clipped his strong hands on the gaps on the strangler fig, his sockless feet wedged firmly along the intricate pattern of the strangler. The soldier’s primary weapon, the 5th generation of Marine Scout Sniper Rifle, faintly swayed as he scaled down the tree, taking time with the rhythm of Axel’s muscles as his back contorted in the struggle. The rifle felt like a natural extension of Axel’s limbs, as if his body was made to hold a five-kilo gun in its scabbard.
Axel sat on a large root, with one combat shoe on and a bright flame that advertised his head for anyone who was steady and decent enough of a shot. The kid approached Axel through a fallen branch that looked like a hedgerow at first glance. The branch was a little elevated so there was enough space under it for wild boars to trot. Kid easily managed through the hurdle and kept a considerable distance from Axel. Kid regarded Axel as the deadliest shot he ever met yet there was an air of carelessness and abandon in him.
The kid knew something was off in his head; he just could not quietly find the right word for it. It was a compulsion, to dig a hole and let the earth partially swallow you, the kid would be pointing out to himself from time to time. The kid thought about these things for a long time. Every time he was confronted by the night, in rain or in the humid atmosphere of the jungle, whether the sounds of frogs or crickets change the quality of air, the darkness of the night, the cursory production of his thoughts, he came to realize that the moment and space which he occurred and all that was present within his immediate experience was but a compulsion by something unimaginable and terrifying.
How old will you be tomorrow? He asked the kid.
They talked a little. They were sparse with words. The long succession of thoughts was but a slave to the jungle, its impenetrable darkness. Perhaps out of boredom the kid told Axel how he almost died when he was seventeen. He was bitten by a snake because he tried to play with it, too stupid not to respect its power.
I was becoming a snake. My eyes were droopy, and I felt coiling over.
Like getting bitten by a rabid dog.
Was it the exact moment you realized that you are not afraid of death?
No, not that time. It was long after that. My first tour of duty. My buddy was struck in the chest. It was a routine encounter gone bad. Of course, I peed on my fatigue trousers.
He rubbed his eyes and gently massaged them. He heard a growl from a distance. The sound was from a wild boar in a hole. He was fully awake now, his senses acute. The kid jumped off from his hole. The kid stretched his legs from side to side, kicking the air at times. He stretched his arms as if grabbing something from the air. He threw some punches, straights, and then short jabs. He then squatted for several minutes. Kid checked his watch again. He should do it quickly before the sun was up.
From his service backpack the kid pulled out a sword. The scabbard was made of mahogany wood, selected for its durability and appealing grain patterns. It was carefully polished which made its surface smooth, a testament to the expert craftmanship only a master swordsmith from the town of Tugaya was capable of. The brass decorative elements meticulously embedded into the wood accentuated its elegance. The brass accents featured intricate filigree patterns and delicate swirls that caught the light and casted enchanting shadows as they wrapped around the scabbard.
Many years ago, he travelled to Lanao del Sur, to a village in Tugaya to seek a master swordsmith. The Meranaos were known for their quality craftmanship. Kid learned about the Rentaka, or the swivel cannon made of bronze from the book Kuta Bato. Tucked in the southwest side of Lake Lanao, Tugaya was home to the highly skilled artisans who crafted his kris. Kid squeezed its hilt and unsheathed the sword. He swung the sword several times, mastering its balance. The kris was swift in the air; it swished as it cut through the cool breeze at dawn. He was careful not to cut the overgrown bushes or shrubs. He started off as he opened his eyes wide, his feet were quick against the treacherous grounds. Kid’s brows narrowed, his countenance, in the greying light, filled with intent.
He made it no time where a goat was tied to a bush. The mujahid, motionless, remained tied to a tree. His hands and feet were bound, and he was pressed against the tree with a rope. His mouth was tightly bound with cloth and a duct tape made sure it was secured. Kid looked at the goat as it started feeding off the grass. On his waist was his kris hanging and he touched it and felt the wooden scabbard was cold. The man was already awake, and his eyes were blood shot. The man was short and lean who looked like he never had eaten in weeks. He shivered in the cold and hunger.
Kid took out a knife and cut the rope which bound the man from the tree. He then proceeded to cut the duct tape that held the cloth to muffle his mouth. His eyes were without emotions, as if signalling to do the thing what the kid came for. His hair was greasy and covered his forehead. The man had a small nose and his dry mouth crooked, almost drooping on one side.
Have you talked to God?
The man’s lips undulated, his mouth constant of its reach for the mysterious. Then it stopped. His face tightened; his teeth pressed hard against each other. The man’s eyes were wide as ever, tired, and indifferent.
In the delirium of the prayer the kid had already in his hand the kris. He had some memories that returned to him before he was to do the act. They were all pictures now with blurry edges. What was about to happen was as insignificant as those that he thought at first worthy of introspection. Kid’s mind did not evoke fear nor pain nor ill-will nor shame. He had no desire to struggle and triumph against everybody, to master life and at times to bring an end to it.
With one swift motion the kris slashed through the throat of the prisoner. The kid realized that what he was doing begun for him before the first time he entered the jungle, before he trained and hardened his body and learned how to shoot. It was important that the kid acknowledge that.
He hacked the side of the head and blood squirted from the crack. He hacked the shoulders and limbs. Kid stabbed at the heart and the stomach; the bowel exposed in the cold air. The body leaned on the tree now. It shook as it received blows, the metal crashing against the bones and flesh. The connection of their consciousness was severed now. The prisoner was no longer a man now; the body was more like branch in the jungle that fell and made a thud against the ground. The kid was exhausted, and he stopped.
Alter is 42 years old and lives with his mother. He teaches English and literature at La Salle University in Ozamis City. He is trying to finish his MA in Creative Writing at Silliman University. He plays tennis and ponders on writing a book of poetry about the game and the people who play it. He was a fellow for poetry in the 28th Iligan National Writers Workshop.