Darkness falls in the afternoon. It’s going to rain again. The carabao and the goats have been herded off to shelter. The newly harvested corn has been covered. The house smells of fuel because our tiny lamp has been lit. Smoke rises from the hearth, a signal that Mama is cooking something. The five of us can’t go out. I want to go out so I can wait for Papa. I want to look out for what he brings, but I can’t go out.
The other week, Papa brought meat from hunting. Mama prepared it in a delicious broth. Rod and I fought over a large piece of wild boar meat. Mama got upset because we shouldn’t fight at the table.
But last night, she and Papa were arguing. The five of us slept on empty stomachs. I couldn’t find my malong cloth. I fell asleep in our cold corner of the forest in Datal Fitak, a mountain in Matanao.
My teacher asks if we have ever seen a TV. I’ve seen one in a picture but I don’t know what it’s for. I haven’t been to Digos or to Davao, but I’ve heard about those places. So many people, they say, so many vehicles. Sometimes I don’t feel so bad because so many people and so many vehicles might run me over.
Ma’am Edna, my grade three teacher, says that others wish on a foling estar. I’ll also wish on a star that I might visit Digos even just for once. But the stars only come out at night, and I can’t go out.
I’ve only ever ridden Uncle Basud’s motorcycle, the time we delivered our harvested corn. I haven’t been in a jeep, or what Ma’am calls bus and van, airplane, ship. Sometimes my mind reaches the heavens. Are there also cars in heaven? Is there electricity, lights in the night that don’t need fuel?
I’ve only seen and listened to a radio but our radio ran out of batteries, and our house is now more quiet. When the wind blows, our cogon roof dances and our bamboo walls snap.
Mama didn’t go to Bangkal to buy batteries for the radio because there are soldiers. Anyway, I’ve seen a selfon. Because Ma’am Edna has a selfon. You can take a picture, listen to a song, you can read. I asked Mama if she knew how to use a selfon. She said to me, she doesn’t even know how to write her name. She only reached grade one, and then she was married off to Papa when she was only twelve. How could she have gone to school if she couldn’t go out.
Mama didn’t agree to me being married off to our neighbor Randy. Mama wants me to finish at least high school. Will I finish? I’ve repeated grade three twice. In a week, I’ll skip classes to help at the cornfield. My playmates are better off, they get to go with their mamas when the 4Ps are released. We didn’t join the 4Ps because Papa wouldn’t let us. We don’t know our birthdays and Ma’am Edna kept asking for my birthday. Mama said to me, you don’t have that because you can’t go out!
Papa didn’t come home. And I can’t find my malong. The wind outside seems to whisper something. The trees outside seem to speak and the footsteps of light feet lull me to sleep. When it’s dark, even when you want to take a piss, you can’t go out because there are raiders doing pangayaw. Wild creatures lurk outside. Rod’s malong smells like piss after he wet himself on our bed because we can’t go out.
I stir to the rustling of birds. Perok-perok, maya, agila, and banog, the loud ones early in the morning. I’m wide-awake hearing Mama’s scream. I rush downstairs and see two men.
“Your Papa’s gone,” says Mama, holding my malong soaked in blood. The men leave. I understand that my Papa is dead. I want to cry and look for Papa, but I can’t go out.
I told Ma’am Edna when she asked me what Papa’s work was, I told her Papa was a soldier. He had a yuniform and a gun. There was a red crest on the side of his yuniform. I bragged to my klasmit that Papa was a soldier. That was why he hunted deer and wild boar, because he was always in the forest. Every Friday I would wait for Papa because I knew he would bring something for me. Sometimes flowers from the jungle, and honey.
Rayzan said to me that Papa wasn’t a soldier. That was why we had a fight and I didn’t want us to be friends. Sometimes there were people who came to the house with Papa. They called papa Ka Oding. I saw that they had papers, and letters, money, guns, and they were also with women who were pretty and had light skin. I didn’t know where they were from. But Papa told us to play behind our cogon hut. Whenever his companions were around, Mama would go to the cornfield.
I told Papa, “Women can be soldiers too? I want to be like you, Pa. I want to be a soldier!”
Papa stood up, went outside, and struck our dog. Papa said I shouldn’t become a soldier, because soldiers have no mercy, they are abusive and they kill.
“Aren’t you a soldier, Pa? Why can’t I be a soldier too? You even have a companion who’s a girl soldier.”
Mama interrupted, “Greshel, your food, finish up, you’ll be leyt for the bayang flag ceremony.”
I didn’t know it would be our last breakfast with Papa. Only my bloody malong is what I have left. Papa brought my malong that day he left after he and Mama and had a fight.
“Rebelde, rebelde, but your children will die of hunger?!” Mama’s voice was loud.
“This is for them, this is for you!” Papa left with his bag.
I lay back down and thought of the heaven that Ma’am Edna told us about. In heaven there is plenty of food, in heaven there is God. Papa said God is not real. Mama said there is a God. I want to believe there’s a God so I could pray to Him about what I want. I want to go to Digos, eat hatdog, ays krim, and pitsa. Ma’am Edna told us these taste good and she showed us pictures. Ma’am even wanted to bring us to Matanao but Papa wouldn’t let us, because we can’t go out.
Gunshots! Gunshots! Gunshots! At first I could count the gunfire. But there are too many gunshots and I can’t anymore count because I can only count up to twenty. People are running, others yelling, “The soldiers are here!”
Soldiers?! Maybe Papa’s with them! I’ll go out! I see at the door Mama and my siblings covered in blood. Our walls and roof riddled with bullets.
“Mama! Mama! Mama!”
Mama stirs. And she says, “Don’t go out, you can’t go out!”
© Elizabeth Joy Serrano-Quijano. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by John Bengan. All rights reserved.