Home on the Sierra Madre

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Home on the Sierra Madre
by Sigfredo R. Iñigo

"You forgot to check the traps," Father was chuckling, shaking his head as he came up to our hut from the meadow. He held between his two fingers a tiny feather-covered skeleton: a quail had been caught and gone unnoticed for days and the ants had picked it to the bone. He was not a big man but he could roam by himself through the woods for days with only a box of matches and a sharpened machete. I was perched on a log on top of an outcrop, watching sundown. I had just cut a sackload of sakate grass for Pandora, our carabao, so named after my dog who had died that summer. I had left her half-submerged in a mudhole near the stream below, tethered to a sapling. From our little hut the aroma of rice and vegetables being cooked drifted to our nostrils. Mother had gathered eggplants and bitter gourd and green chili from the field and singkamas leaves from the bank of the stream and these she now boiled in a clay pot, seasoned with fish sauce and topped with the catfish caught in our buho trap which she had broiled over the glowing coals. We were in a mountain farm somewhere in the Sierra Madre. "Supper's ready," Mother finally announced. She was forty and had given birth to five children. I was sixteen, the second to the eldest. "You better bring the carabao over," Father said.

I returned to the stream in the gathering dusk, but saw no carabao. The sapling to which I had tied its leash had been uprooted. I saw hoofprints beside the creek, going downstream. I should have tied it more securely. Feeling myself guilty as Iscariot, I called Father and told him about it. He came down immediately, and we hurried along to catch the runaway. Most carabaos - or water buffalo - are tame as dogs, never running away even if left untethered, but a few, like ours, had the nasty habit called ag-garot: left untied it would run for miles like a fugitive. Farmers hated such animals, and I too began hating it as I stumbled repeatedly in the dark, sloshing in the cold knee-deep water. II

This was 1970: Father had just retired from the army. He was a master sergeant. Most retirees were content to reminisce about the war, but not my father. With his savings he had bought the rights to this homestead. Our folks thought he had been shell-shocked and wanted no part of civilization, but I knew there was something else on his mind. He grew up in a farm near a forest that teemed with deer and wild boar and python whose bodies grew thicker than coconut trunks; maybe he wanted to relive his younger days. Mother had tried to dissuade him from retiring: a family with five children could not live decently on a soldier's pension. But he was resolved to leave the barracks for good. For years he had grown bitter serving the army, tired of being ordered around by lieutenants fresh from the military academy, those upstarts who swaggered around like heroes while he, who had seen his comrades shattered by mortar and cannon during the war, he who walked the hundred miles from Bataan to Tarlac - the Death March - that claimed almost as many lives at those that fell in the battlefield - barely survived on a peon's wages drilling recruits to the ground. Before I was born he went to Korea as part of the Philippine contingent sent there to fight the reds. In Mindanao he stood his ground against the fierce Muslim warriors who wielded the kris, the ancient fire sword that could hack cleanly through rifle and man. After a quarrel in the barracks with a drunken corporal whom he almost shot he packed his bags. His aging comrades waved him through; they never expected to see him again. III

The homestead lay in a hidden valley up the mountains, so far only a few kaingineros - slash and burn farmers -lived near there, much farther than the tiny village of Mal-lungoy where I used to go on summer vacations, staying in my uncle Ulep's hut. My parents thought I was frail and that life on a farm would make me strong like my...
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