Only Suman

Only Suman. Written by Rey Salita for SubSelfie.com.

It was a bad night for father as he woke in the middle of the night screaming and drenched in sweat. He kicked me off the banig (a woven sleeping mat) and only then that I shook him to wake. He is emaciated that I only noticed it for the first time. He used to be very muscular and heavy but after the war he has changed so much. It has been six months now that it seems every single day he is losing weight. I never realized it until now that it became very obvious. His sweat made his skin so slippery that I may have scratched his elbow down to his arm trying to wake him up. It took sometime after he finally did, opening his eyes empty of seeing that several minutes later, he assured me by just letting out a sort of a moan then by a faint nod. I will never forget that look of blankness in his eyes because it’s very scary. His frail muscles, too, were stiff and rigid that it felt like he is made of wood. He motioned at me to go back to sleep as he sat up the banig crouched as if all the suman (glutinous rice cooked in banana leaves wrapping) in the world was brought down on his shoulders.

It was way before dawn that I heard him coming in with a big thud followed by the creaking of the bamboo table. Soon after was the clatter of the baldosa (enameled tin kitchen utensils) mugs as the waft of boiling ginger became stronger pushing the cold morning air out through the holes of our poorly thatched hut. We ran out of molasses for nearly a week now that the taste of boiled ginger is becoming more acrid as days went on. The residual heat from the open stove was the only comfort, us, father and son have to prepare us for a day of selling suman sa ibos at the train station, with the complimentary glass of ginger brew that I took myself in charge of.

A series of deep sounding cracks recoiled outside of our hut that signaled our official start of the day. It’s long before sunrise but as soon as my father cracks fifteen, sometimes twenty coconuts, that’s my cue that it is the dawn of our working day. Thereafter, he will grate these split coconut halves on his trusted kudkuran (an iron implement used to grate coconut meat) and that will only take him less than ten minutes.

My father had no salesmanship whatsoever. He never even spoke to announce what we were selling only he plied our trade with adept efficiency and utter silence. Maybe this was what customers appreciate early in the morning as they cramp inside the dust laden rickety train cars on their way to Manila and from as far as Naga in Bicol. He also seldom smile. His face had this gentle stern that was constant as a rock under whatever situation — when his customers would ridiculously haggle for price, when they were pleasant and when they were so arrogant they berate him — my father maintained the same mundane countenance without any sign of anger, disdain or shame.

I like to think of myself as a better salesman that without my eternally 11-year old cuteness and innocuously seraph appearance at the very least I ever doubt my father can sell anything. Besides the ginger brew, I am also in charge of the sugared coconut threads sprinkled with toasted anis (seed spice) that any decent suman can’t do without. Of course, my proven smile that disarm the most rude of customers seals every suman sold.

The Sta. Rosa train station was a 2-hour trek going down a slope from our house in the eastern ridge of Tagaytay. Through forests of mabolo, santol and balimbing trees in Silang across arid sugarcane fields that was part of Biñan that followed, ushered constantly by the call of rock pigeons and wood peckers. Although far, the scent of the way was a consoling shield enough against the simmering heat of summer lingering up in the bright blue sky and the baking earth under my father’s bare feet. Perhaps these make him go on and endure the painful lashes the loss of my mother brought him every day. My mother was tortured and beaten to death by the Kempetai (Japanese Imperial Army’s secret police) two years ago. She was being forced to divulge the whereabouts of my father’s guerilla unit operating in Rizal and Laguna that wreaked havoc in the Japanese’s military operations in the Southern Tagalog region. I seldom saw my father then and he never knew my mother got arrested until months later when the news reached through an emissary my grandmother paid to tell him. I doubt he ever believed that mother was no more though but still I think my father was blaming himself for that, for fighting the Japanese for everybody else but neglecting his own family. I was taken by my grandparents and we tried surviving the war through all the hardships and terror human atrocity had written in pages of living history.

My mother was a deeply humored person that no matter how grim the situation was, she always managed to smile and often laughed at any predicament. Her humor was her strength (aided by her physique for she was unusually tall, taller than my father) and with it she was a very strong woman that was why it was very hard to accept that such a person as my mother could ever perish. I believe that probably, father was punishing himself with the humility of selling measly suman to people far less deserving the freedom he fought for… the freedom my mother died for and the freedom my family paid for so dearly.

Usually, my father would come home those days before lunch sour in sweat and soiled feet dragging his empty bayong (large woven basket) after selling all his suman. He would have some cans full of pilipit (freshwater shellfish) and susû (ibid.) he has collected from the shore of the lake that he often always cooked with malunggay (leaves of this tree) that took us through the day’s meals. That was indeed a poor man’s fair as this was duck food raised for eggs and balut along the coasts of Laguna de Bay. This was my father’s quiet reclusion after the war and this was all too strange for me.

My father was a university learned man who came from a family of coffee traders in upland Cavite. He managed the family trading business when the Japanese invasion came and ransacked everything they cannot destroy. But knowing my father, I don’t think he never needed any reason to fight the Japanese at all. The fact that armed Japanese were here in Philippine soil when they are not supposed to was reason enough for my father to go to war. My mother, too, needed not much of a reason to fight only I was too young to be left with my grandparents that she stayed with me until fate caught up with her.

It was six months already before my father learned that mother got detained at a Japanese garrison in Silang and only then he had stationed his guerrilla outfit in surveillance of its perimeter. He never believed that my mother was executed weeks before and his churning blood was killing him waiting for the opportune moment for a macabre slaughter of the enemy. Guerilla groups all over the country have received new weapons and war logistics as McArthur had landed in Leyte with orders to inflict as much damage to the Japanese Army to soften the USAFFE’s advance to liberate Manila.

Tagaytay Ridge was a strategic location for communication and radar facilities. The United States Armed Forces in the Pacific had stationed their equipment on the ridge top before the war that the Japanese invading forces greedily took over them when they invaded the country in 1941. Now came the time for retribution: for the plunders, killings, rapes and murders the Japanese had been committing since the last four years that Filipino fighters find it extremely difficult to restrain themselves to achieve tactical efficiency. And the Japanese, too, all the more knew of the price they will have to pay for the years of hell they dished out to the brown natives of the islands. They know very well that the situation had become beyond military warfare but a war of final reckoning.

Silang was eight kilometers far from Tagaytay that if I walk to there, in the place where the Japanese garrison was, will take more than a brisk 2 hour or so. But since Tagaytay town was high up on the ridge, the garrison can be seen from our house on a clear day. They said there was a lot of explosions and shooting in the night but I was asleep that my grandmother only woke me up when the sun had already painted the skies with streaks of blood. When I looked to the direction of Silang, it was burning, not only the garrison but the entire town. My grandmother hurried me into a run, my grandfather and aunts, all of us in hysteric stupor cutting the morning cold down to the sugar fields of Biñan. We never stopped running even as we watched the dark swarm up in the sky, buzzing but unmindful of the clap to anti-aircraft fire being shot by the desperate Japanese cannoneers manning the communication stations high up on the ridge. Afterwards, thousands of miniscule white buttons started to mushroom out in the sky, trailing away from the B-25s flying fortresses. The swarms of B-25s were also flashing machine gun fire down the Japanese defenders and bombs were pinned dotting the Japanese artillery bunkers. All these were happening all at once but it seemed in absolute silence because of the distance from where I was.

When the white button mushrooms that fell from the bombers hit the ground, they collapsed and paratroopers from the 101st Airborne emerged firing their M2 carbines at the camouflaged Japanese pill boxes. The fighting was quick and severe. By nightfall, it was all over and the paratroopers have established control of the area. Filipino fighters who flanked the Japanese defenses to protect the US air drop operations took no prisoners. Every Japanese soldier was killed as their riddled bodies mangled by repeated rifle shots were paraded by the Filipino guerrilla units. My father was at the head of these jubilant victors who finally ended the dark years of Japanese occupation.

After the fighting and the slow restitution that followed, the train stations, not only in Sta. Rosa but in the whole country, became the media hub right after the war. Since there were neither newspapers nor commercial radio broadcasts to catch the news from, train stations were the most efficient way to pick up the goings on. Every news and mostly rumors travel by train: whether about families getting reunited, war-torn buildings getting reconstructed, official government directives get delivered through the train stations. But the most awaited news were about the Makapili who get brought to popular justice — the traitors who collaborated with the Japanese were getting summarily executed by hanging, firing squad or just plainly getting beaten to death by the mob. Information travelled as fast as the trains can deliver them and that what made the train stations busier that they were supposed to be.

All was well, things considering, in the train station as if every aspect of its life was purpose driven and each purpose was governed by its scheduled arrival and departure. Life in the train station was never boring and that every passing train brought newer and newer expectation. The news became the newest entertainment to most. Only when I see my father getting scolded by a dissatisfied suman buyer that it drove me virulently bitter inside. I wanted to yell at these people to say you don’t know who you’re messing with. Only I couldn’t; I’m certain that my father won’t let me. This was the only time that I hate my father. I hate him as much to ask why we were selling stupid suman here at this ridiculously callused human infested train station, people who wouldn’t care for the world and for the price some people had to pay just for the lot of them to ride noisy and smelly trains. This was when I hate this train terminal: the crossroad of human traffic attending to their individual business, a place where people regularly meet but wouldn’t care for one another, masses of thousands of different people from far away places converging for no reason except to leave again to another place.

That particular morning, I was feeling so lazy to go with my father to sell suman at the train station. I was starting to tire of the train terminal as I find no reason why we had to ply suman, of all things; there, of all places. My father felt this, I knew. But he only smiled at me saying: “Alika na anak, magbaka-sakali tayo, baka may maghatid ng balita tungkol sa nanay mo.” (Come on son; let’s hope for the best, perhaps we will hear news about your mother)

[Entry 194, The SubSelfie Blog]

About the Author:

Rey Salita is a desk editor for GMA News. He has also worked for the broadsheet Manila Standard Today. He was one of the first guest contributors of SubSelfie.com with his memorable creative non-fiction narratives entitled Ugly Tree and How Ugly the Jennies May Well Be.

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