Erwin Cabucos, 26, is a graduate of Communication Studies from the University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia. He is originally from Cotabato, where he obtained his degree in Psychology from the Notre Dame University . He now works as an accounts specialist in Sydney.
Many of his short stories have appeared in Ambitious Friends (an Ausrtalian Multicultural Magazine), Sydney's monthly Bayanihan News, Caroling, and Palmy Palm Sunday.
Father, he says "sprung out of his nostalgia
for his departed country - the Philippines", which he often writes about
to "heal the wounds he suffered from leaving friends and family in Cotabato".
Erwin Cabucos <E-mail the Author>
I was wailing. I was gasping for air. I was nearly deafened by my screams, but the more I cried the more he hit me with his thick army belt. Each hit marked my skin like hot metals naming and numbering each cow in the cattle farm. I could taste my salty tears running past my lips. I was kneeling on a heap of mung beans in a bilao, a rice container placed in front of the mirror. Each grain felt like a sharp pin pricking me. The pain from the slashing of the belt and the piercing of the beans onto my knees exacerbated the bizarre emotions I felt, switching from seeing my face in agony to laughing at it.
“Say sorry to your mother!” thundered my father clutching the big belt he wore with his army uniform. “How could you be so ungrateful to your parents? We work hard to raise you kids, wake up in the middle of the morning, prepare your food, carry heavy basketful of foods to sell to earn money. Your mom does that for you each day. And what did you just say to her?”
I simply sobbed.
“What did you say to her?” he roared. “I want you to repeat what you told her so you will be aware of your mistake.” His face was red. He looked like that cobra which confronted me in the rice field the other day. I was afraid of him. “Say it! Now!” he added.
I bawled until I gagged. He was the judge and the law-enforcer of the house, and you would be sentenced without delay if you disheartened mom. “I said why did you make us in the first place,” my voice was breaking, “when you could not nourish us anyway?”
“See,” his eyes widened, “did you hear yourself? Do you think it was proper for a child to say this to his parents?”
“She told me I was ungrateful and demonic in front of all the visitors.”
“Because you never listened to her when she told you to wait until we have enough money to buy your pants.”
“Well she could have just told me without demeaning me with such derogatory comments.”
“Balong,” he lowered his face at me, “the best thing to do as a child is simply to listen to your parents. They know more than you do.”
“Well, she should not say I was a demonic child,” I cried loudly.
“You should not have told her that we should not have made you because we could not afford to raise you. We are not rich as you know but we are trying our best to give you all the best in this world.. You, your two brothers and two sisters are very precious to us, more precious than money. So even if we don’t have enough money, we keep you. Do you understand that?”
I nodded and now I felt guilty. Now I wished I just had not said anything when she criticized me. I knew that they loved me and they wanted to give me my wants and needs. She should not just demean me like that, though. I cried incessantly.
I went to bed with bruises on my legs and lower back. The edge of the belt scraped the outer layer of the skin of my thigh. I also felt sore just above my bottom where whipped my lower back while I bowed down; the tip of the belt also reached my right wrist. I wished I had a different father. I wished I were born to different parents. I sometimes thought of running away and standing at other peoples’ gates. Then I wondered if they would let me in. One time I scared my mom by telling her that I would run away and live with other people. She said that she would even pack my clothes for me because I was useless in the house anyway. She said that I was treating her like a maid. Who was I to simply sit at the table and wait for someone to bring me food, she would say.
The hole in the left corner of my mosquito net had ripped again, and I thought I had already mended it the other night. I turned to my left side where I could not feel my bruises. The tightness in my chest started to wear off. It would be okay tomorrow although it would be quite embarrassing especially with the noise I was making tonight. Suddenly I saw my father’s shadow coming near me. He came closer to me, and went inside my mosquito net. As usual, I pretended I was asleep He touched my lower back and I groaned a little from the pain. He rubbed my sore skin with drops of betadine. He said: “I just wished you wouldn’t make your mother angry like that. He turned me to my right and looked for more bruises. He rubbed the one on my thigh. “Does it hurt?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Stop crying now. Just don’t do it again.”
The next morning my younger sister commented that discipline probably suited me because it made me sleep well. “You were snoring loudly,” she said when we were having breakfast.
“I don’t think so.” I replied.
“Anyway, you won’t be getting smacks like that for a while since dad will be away for at least three weeks,” she said.
Everyone was sad because my father would be going away to a military operation for a few weeks in the boundary of Cotabato and Bukidnon. The tension between Muslim rebels and the government soldiers had worsened, government road projects were hampered and elementary schools were closed. Even after the plebiscite, many fundamentalist Muslims still believed that the Islamic rule in the region should be pursued as promised by the Marcos government many years ago.
Dad was all packed and ready: his canteen dangled from his hips, his backpack was bloated with bullets, a mosquito net, a tube of insect repellant, a blanket, a towel, and lots of canned sardines. His radio handset was prominently tucked into his chest. Mom was teary-eyed when she kissed him goodbye. “Don’t forget to radio us here,” she nearly broke down in tears.
“Time goes fast, you’ll see,” he consoled mom. He looked at us, his children. He touched my head and my sister’s shoulder, lifted my youngest brother up in his arms. “We’ll see each other soon.” He hopped into the jeep and it slowly moved away. Mom wiped her tears away with her fingers.
We never heard from dad for many weeks. The school ended and in that term, I received an award for academic excellence. Only mom put my medal on me; she was usually with dad. Flores de Mayo came and the rains of June poured so heavily that they made us melancholic. Two more months had gone by and dad had still not arrived.
Mom received a note of apology from the commander that my father’s deployment was unexpectedly extended and their assignment might continue indefinitely. Mom enrolled me for grade 5. One morning while she was rinsing the clothes, a military officer came to our house and had a chat with her for a while. She was drying her hands with her skirt while she was talking. He handed her the Philippine flag and she burst into tears. She covered her bawling mouth and sat on the ground like she had just lost her last penny. She shook her head and cried out loud, “why?”.
“I’m sorry, Rosalie, their camp was raided unguarded that night. The investigation said that it happened when one of the officers on patrol went to the comfort room and the others were not vigilant enough at that moment. The rebels were so quick in invading their camp, cutting their throats, stealing their rifles and then running away.” The officer brought out his hand held two-way radio and said to the person on the other line that it was now okay to bring the body in. A six by six truck pulled into our front yard. Four military men in uniform helped carry my father’s coffin down and towards our living room. I trembled. I just tucked my spider into its matchbox quickly, unnoticed. I did not know what to do. Should I help the men carry the coffin? They looked all right without my help; I would just probably be in the way.
My mother, clutching the hand of my 3-year old brother, was sobbing as she followed the coffin inside our lounge-room where we would hold the wake for two weeks. A couple of weeks would be enough to allow my aunts and uncles from Ilocos Norte to travel down to Mindanao.
The big wall in our living room was covered with white cloth pinned with purple letters saying: ‘In loving Memory of Mamang, Balong, Rico, Joel, Balen and Neneng’. The stand of bright light bulbs at my father’s head beamed down on the condolence and donation book while the one at his feet added to the brightness of the room. Suddenly, flowers and more flower arrangements flooded the whole room enshrining my father’s coffin. Someone from behind me pushed me towards my family who were crying next to the coffin. I was the oldest son and I guess I also had to cry with them there. But I was not sure whether I would cry when I got nearer to them. What if I could not cry, would it be embarrassing? I guessed I could only look extremely sad, like I’d lost my most precious spider. I looked back to check who pushed me.
“Go and join your family,” Manang Saling, our neighbour whispered.
“In a minute,” I said. I suppose I had to join them right away.
Did God punish him because he was too hard on me? I should not be thinking that way; he was my father. He made me. God wanted me to love him. But how? I did not know if I would feel all right standing there next to him, gazing at his dead body with our family. Would I forgive him for hurting me? Stop it. He did not hurt me, did he? He was only trying to make me an obedient child, and that was his way of doing it. Oh, I did not know what to think. And I really did not know what to do. I suppose I should go next to his coffin and stand there with my family. But wait a minute, the limbs of my spider were sticking out of my matchbox. Oh no, poor thing, it must be dead by now. I’ll have nothing to show off to my friends any more. I was so proud of having the most aggressive spider in our street. It was nice when during the game friends appreciated and applauded me each time my spider attacked and wrapped the opponent – the only time I felt good about myself. I slid off the cover of the box, and I saw it turn slowly. I scrunched some horseradish leaves until they juiced and squizzed it onto its body. I rubbed the fluid evenly on its limbs, like how my father rubbed some betadine drops onto my wounds. I let it out of its box so it could get fresh air and so its wounds would quickly heal. Limping, it slowly crawled up my arms and onto my shoulder. It froze there for a while. I suppose I really had to walk in now. I glanced at them. This time, they opened the coffin. They could only do that because the body was still quite fresh. I walked in and stood with my mother, brothers, and sisters beside my father’s coffin. I tried to be as sad as I could but I never shed any tears. My father’s face was covered with thick make-up. After a few prayers, some of our neighbours and relatives had a quick look. They closed the lid leaving his face and his chest visible. I went outside. I noticed my spider was no longer on my shoulder. I traced my paces back to the base of the coffin but I could not find it. I barged through the people kneeling to have a good look at the floor underneath. But still it was not there. I gave up and decided to just forget about it.
We buried my father on a sunny Saturday morning with a lot of people
attending the procession to the cemetery. A military officer delivered
a eulogy for him on behalf of the state. “He was a hero.” He spoke loudly.
“He fought for the peace and order of our land.” I looked at my father
inside the coffin. I saw my spider crawling on his ears, up his cheeks,
down his nose, up his forehead and in his hair. I was stunned. Some
people advised that we remove it but my mother said it should be
left there since we were burying him anyway. I walked away and sat underneath
a robust mango tree. The wind swayed the leaves, dropping some brown ones
off. As far as I could remember I had never held my father or patted his
shoulder or something like that. Perhaps when I was really young, he used
to hold my hand when we walked together. He must have held me; he brought
me up for goodness sake! But I wished I had said goodbye to him and told
him I loved him. I wished I had become closer to him. My spider had.