Morning in Nagrebcan

Morning in Nagrebcan
by Manuel E. Arguilla


It was sunrise at Nagrebcan. The fine, bluish mist, low over the tobacco fields, was lifting and thinning moment by moment. A ragged strip of mist, pulled away by the morning breeze, had caught on the c umps of bamboo along the banks of the stream that flowed to one side of the barrio. Before long the sun would top the Katayaghan hills, but as yet no people were around. In the grey shadow of the hills, the barrio was gradually awaking. Roosters crowed and strutted on the ground while hens hesitated on their perches among the branches of the camanchile trees. Stray goats nibbled· the weeds on the sides of the road, and the bull carabaos tugged restively against their stakes. In the early morning the puppies lay curled up together between their mother’s paws under the ladder of the house. Four puppies were all white like the mother. They had pink noses and pink eyelids and pink mouths. The skin between their toes and on the inside of their large, limp ears was pink.

They had short sleek hair, for the mother licked them often. The fifth puppy lay across the mother's neck. On the puppy's back was a big black spot like a saddle. The tips of its ears were black and so was a patch of hair on its chest. The opening of the sawali door, its uneven bottom dragging noisily against the bamboo flooring, aroused the mother dog and she got up and stretched and shook herself, scattering dust and loose white hair. A rank doggy smell rose 1 the cool morning air. She took a quick leap forward, clearing the puppies which had begun to whine about her, wanting to suckle. She trotted a y and disappeared beyond the house of a neighbor. The puppies sat ck on their rumps, whining. After a little while they lay down and went ~k to sleep, the black-spotted puppy on top. Baldo stood at the threshold and rubbed his sleep-heavy eyes with his fists. He must have been about ten years old, small for his age, but compactly built, and he stood straight on his bony legs. He wore one of his father's discarded cotton undershirts. ·The boy descended the ladder, leaning heavily on the single bamboo railing that served as a banister.

He sat on the lowest step of the ladder, yawning and rubbing his eyes one after the other. Bending down, he reached between his legs for the black-spotted puppy. He held it to him, stroking its soft, warm body. He blew on its nose. The puppy stuck out a small red tongue, lapping the air. It whined eagerly. Baldo laughed a low gurgle. He rubbed his face against that of the dog. He said softly, "My puppy. My puppy." He said it many times. The puppy licked his ears, his cheeks. When it licked his mouth, Baldo straightened up, raised the puppy on a level with his eyes. "You are a foolish puppy," he said, laughing. "Foolish, foolish, foolish," he said, rolling the puppy on his lap so that it howled. The four other puppies awoke and came scrambling about Baldo's legs. He put down the black-spotted puppy and ran to the narrow foot bridge of woven split-bamboo spanning the roadside ditch. When it rained, water from the roadway flowed under the makeshift bridge, but it had not rained for a long time and the ground was dry and sandy. Baldo sat on the bridge, digging his bare feet into the sand, feeling the cool particles escaping between his toes. He whistled a toneless whistle with a curious trilling to it produced by placing the tongue against the lower teeth and then curving it up and down.

The whistle excited the puppies; they ran to the boy as fast as their unsteady legs could carry them, barking choppy little barks. Nana Elang, the mother of Baldo, now appeared in the doorway with handful of rice straw. She called Baldo and told him to get some live c Is from their neighbor. "Get two or three burning coals and bring them home on the rice straw," she said. "Do not wave the straw in the wind. If you do, it will catch fire b ore you get home." She watched him run toward Ka Ikao's house where already smoke was rising through the nipa roofing into the misty air. One 0 two empty carromatas drawn by sleepy little ponies rattled along the pebbly street, bound for the railroad station. Nana Elang must have been thirty, but she looked at least fifty. She was a thin, wispy woman, with bony hands and arms. She had scanty, w straight, graying hair which she gathered behind her head in a small, tight knot. It made her look thinner than ever. Her cheekbones seemed on the point of bursting through the dry, yellowish-brown skin. Above a gray-checkered skirt, she wore a single wide-sleeved cotton blouse that ended below her flat breasts. Sometimes when she stooped or reached up for anything, a glimpse of the flesh at her waist showed in a dark, purplish band where the skirt had been tied so often. She turned from the doorway into the small, untidy kitchen. She washed the rice and put it in a pot which she placed on the cold stove. She made ready the other pot for the mess of vegetables and dried fish. When Baldo came back with the rice straw and burning coals, she told him to start a fire in the stove, while she cut the ampalaya tendrils and sliced the eggplants. When the fire finally flamed inside the clay stove, Baldo's eyes were smarting from the smoke of the rice straw. "There is the fire, mother," he said. "Is father awake already?"

Nana Elang shook her head. Baldo went out slowly on tiptoe. There were already many people going out. Several fishermen wearing coffee-colored shirts and trousers and hats made from the shell of white pumpkins passed by. The smoke of their home-made cigars floated behind them like shreds of the morning mist. Women carrying big empty baskets were going to the tobacco fields. They walked fast, talking among themselves. Each woman had gathered the loose folds of her skirt in front and, twisting the end two or three times, passed it between her legs, pulling it up at the back, and slipping it inside her waist. The women seemed to be wearing trousers that reached only to their knees and flared at the thighs. Day was quickly growing older. The east flamed redly and Baldo called to his mother, "Look, mother, God also cooks his breakfast." He went to play with the puppies. He sat on the bridge and took them on his lap one by one. He searched for fleas which he crushed between his thumbnails. "You, puppy. You, puppy," he murmured softly. When he held the black-spotted puppy, he said, "My puppy. My puppy." "Ambo, his seven-year old brother, awoke crying. Nana Elang could be heard patiently calling him to the kitchen. Later he came down with a ripe banana in his hand. Ambo was almost as tall as his older brother and he had stout husky legs. Baldo often called him the son of an Igorot. The home-made cotton shirt he wore was variously stained.

The pocket was torn, and it flipped down. He ate the banana without peeling it. "You foolish boy, remove the skin," Baldo said. "I will not," Ambo said. "It is not your banana." He took a big bite and swallowed it with exaggerated relish. "But the skin is tart. It tastes bad." "You are not eating it," Ambo said. The rest of the banana vanished in his mouth. He sat beside Baldo and both played with the puppies. The mother dog had not yet returned and the puppies were becoming hungry and restless. They sniffed the hands of Ambo, licked his fingers. They tried to scramble up his breast to lick his mouth, but he brushed them down. Baldo laughed. He held the black-spotted puppy closely, fondled it lovingly. "My puppy," he said. "My puppy." Ambo played with the other puppies, but he soon grew tired of them. He wanted the black-spotted one. He sidled close to Baldo and put out a hand to caress the puppy nestling contentedly in the crook of his brother's arm. But Baldo struck the hand away. "Don't touch my puppy," he said. "My puppy." Ambo begged to be allowed to hold the black-spotted puppy. But Baldo said he would not let him hold the black-spotted puppy because he would not peel the banana. Ambo then said that he would obey his older brother next time, for all time. Baldo would not believe him; he refused to let him touch the puppy. Ambo rose to his feet. He looked longingly at the black-spotted puppy in Baldo's arms. Suddenly he bent down and tried to snatch the puppy away. But Baldo sent him sprawling in the dust with a deft push. Ambo did not cry. He came up with a fistful of sand which he flung in his brother's face. But as he started to run away, Baldo thrust out his leg and tripped him. In complete silence, Ambo slowly got up from the dust, getting to his feet with both hands full of sand which again he cast at his older brother.

Baldo put down the puppy and leaped upon Ambo. Seeing the black-spotted puppy waddling away, Ambo turned around and made a dive for it. Baldo saw his intention in time and both fell on the puppy which began to howl loudly, struggling to get away. Baldo cursed Ambo and screamed at him as they grappled and rolled in the sand. Ambo kicked and bit and scratched without a sound. He got hold of Baldo’s hair and tugged with all his might. They rolled over and over and then Baldo was sitting on Ambo's back, pummeling him with his fists. He accompanied every blow with a curse. "I hope you die, you little demon," he said between sobs, for he was crying and he could hardly see. Ambo wriggled and struggled and tried to bite Baldo's legs. Failing, he buried his face in the sand and howled lustily. Baldo now left him and ran to the black-spotted puppy which he caught up in his arms, holding it against his throat. Ambo followed, crying out threats and curses. He grabbed the tail of the puppy and jerked hard. The puppy howled shrilly and Baldo let it go, but Ambo kept hold of the tail as the dog fell to the ground. It turned around and snapped at the hand holding its tail. Its sharp little teeth sank into the fleshy edge of Ambo's palm. With a cry, Ambo snatched away his hand from the mouth of the enraged puppy. At that moment the window of the house facing the street was pushed violently open and the boys' father, Tang Ciaco, looked out. He saw the blood from the tooth marks on Ambo's hand. He called out inarticulately and the two brothers looked up in surprise and fear. Ambo hid his bitten hand behind him. Baldo stopped to pick up the black-spotted puppy, but Tang Ciaco shouted hoarsely to him not to touch the dog. At Tang Ciaco's angry voice, the puppy had crouched back snarling, its pink lips drawn back, the hair on its back rising. "The dog has gone mad," the man cried, coming down hurriedly. By the stove in the kitchen, he stopped to get a sizeable piece of firewood, throwing an angry look and a curse at Nana Elang for letting her sons play with the dogs. He removed a splinter or two, then hurried down the ladder, cursing in a loud angry voice.

Nana Elang ran to the doorway and stood there silently fingering her skirt. Baldo and Ambo awaited the coming of their father with fear written on their faces. Baldo hated his father as much as he feared him. He watched him now with half a mind to flee as Tang Ciaco approached with the piece of firewood held firmly in one hand. He a big, gaunt man with thick bony wrists and stoop shoulders. A short-sleeved cotton shirt revealed his sinewy arms on which the blood-vessels stood out like roots. His short pants showed his bony-kneed, hard-muscled legs covered with black hair. He was a carpenter. He had come home drunk the night before. He was not an habitual drunkard, but now and then he drank great quantities of basi and came home and beat his wife and children. He would blame them for their hard life and poverty. "You are a prostitute," he would roar at his wife, and as he beat his children, he would shout, "I will kill you both, you bastards." If Nana Elang ventured to remonstrate, he would beat them harder and curse her for being an interfering whore. "I am king in my house," he would say. Now as he approached the two, Ambo cowered behind his elder brother. He held onto Baldo's undershirt, keeping his wounded hand at his back, unable to remove his gaze from his father's close-set, red-specked eyes. The puppy with a yelp slunk between Baldo's legs. Baldo looked at the dog, avoiding his father's eyes. Tang Ciaco roared at them to get away from the dog: "Fools! Don't you see it is mad?" Baldo laid a hand on Ambo as they moved back hastily. He wanted to tell his father it was not true, the dog was not mad, it was all Ambo's fault, but his tongue refused to move. The puppy attempted to follow them, but Tang Ciaco caught it with a sweeping blow of the piece of firewood. The puppy was flung into the air. It rolled over once before it fell, howling weakly. Again the chunk of firewood descended, Tang Ciaco grunting with the effort he put into the blow, and the puppy ceased to howl. It lay on its side, feebly moving its jaws from which dark blood oozed. Once more Tang Ciaco raised his arm, but Baldo suddenly clung to it with both hands and begged him to stop. "Enough, father, enough. Don't beat it anymore," he entreated. Tears flowed down his upraised face. Tang Ciaco shook him off with an oath. Baldo fell on his face in the dust. He did not rise, but cried and sobbed and tore his hair. The rays of the rising sun fell brightly upon him, turned to gold the dust that he raised with his kicking feet. Tang Ciaco dealt the battered puppy another blow and at last it lay limpy still. He kicked it over and watched for a sign of life.

The puppy did not move where it lay twisted on its side. He turned his attention to Baldo. "Get up," he said, hoarsely, pushing the boy with his foot. Baldo was deaf. He went on crying and kicking in the dust. Tang Ciaco struck him with the piece of wood in his hand and again told him to get up. Baldo writhed and cried harder, clasping his hands over the back of his head. Tang Ciaco took hold of one of the boy's arms and jerked him to his feet. Then he began to beat him, regardless of where the blows fell. Baldo encircled his head with his loose arm and strove to free himself, running around his father, plunging backward, ducking and twisting. "Shameless son of a whore," Tang Ciaco roared. "Stand still, I'll teach you to obey me." He shortened his grip on the arm of Baldo and laid on his blows. Baldo fell to his knees, screaming for mercy. He called on his mother to help him. Nana Elang came down, but she hesitated at the foot of the ladder. Ambo ran to her. "You too," Tang Ciaco cried, and struck at the fleeing Ambo. The piece of firewood caught him behind the knees and he fell on his face. Nana Elang ran to the fallen boy and picked him up, brushing his clothes with her hands to shake off the dust. Tang Ciaco pushed Baldo toward her. The boy tottered forward weakly, dazed and trembling. He had ceased to cry aloud, but he shook with hard, spasmodic sobs which he tried vainly to stop. "Here take your child," Tang Ciaco said, thickly. He faced the curious students and neighbors who had gathered by the side of the road. He yelled at them to go away. He said it was none of their business if he killed his children. "They are mine," he shouted. "I feed them and I can do anything I like with them." The students ran hastily to school.

The neighbors returned to their work. Tang Ciaco went to the house, cursing in a loud voice. Passing the dead puppy, he picked it up by its hind legs and flung it away. The black and white body soared through the sunlit air; fell among the tall corn behind the house. Tang Ciaco, still cursing and grumbling, strode upstairs. He threw the chunk of firewood beside the stove. He squatted by the low table and began eating the breakfast his wife had prepared for him. Nana Elang knelt by her children and dusted their clothes. She passed her hand over the red welts on Baldo, but Baldo shook himself away. He was still trying to stop sobbing, wiping his tears away with his forearm. Nana Elang put one arm around Ambo. She sucked the wound in his hand. She was crying silently. When the mother of the puppies returned, she licked the remaining four by the small bridge of woven split bamboo. She lay down in the dust and suckled her young. She did not seem to miss the black-spotted puppy. Afterward Baldo and Ambo searched among the tall corn for the body the dead puppy. Tang Ciaco had gone to work and would not be back till nightfall. In the house, Nana Elang was busy washing the breakfast dishes. Later she came down and fed the mother dog. The two brothers were entirely hidden by the tall corn plants. As they moved about among the slender stalks, the corn-flowers shook agitatedly. Pollen scattered like gold dust in the sun, falling on the fuzzy· green leaves. When they found the dead dog, they buried it in one corner of the field. Baldo dug the grove with a sharp-pointed stake. Ambo stood silently by, holding the dead puppy. When Baldo finished his work, he and his brother gently placed the puppy in the hole. Then they covered the dog with soft earth and stamped on the grave until the disturbed ground was flat and hard again. With difficulty they rolled a big stone on top of the grave. Then Baldo wound an arm around the shoulders of Ambo and without a word they hurried up to the house. The sun had risen high above the Katayaghan hills, and warm, golden sunlight filled Nagrebcan. The mist on the tobacco fields had completely dissolved.

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