I was arrested for the second time in 1988 in Tagbilaran, Bohol by intelligence operatives of the Armed Forces (my first arrest was in 1987 in Barangay Sapangdaku, Cebu City by intelligence operatives of the regional police). I was brought to Camp Lapu-Lapu in Lahug, Cebu City a few days later and there started the initially painful path back to the mainstream of society. In 1989-1990, my captors loosened their hold on me, and I was largely left alone, washing dishes in the canteen, cleaning the rooms and the yard, etc. In that setting, I turned to writing.
I submitted my short stories, essays, poems to Sun.Star Weekend, a Sunday magazine of Sun.Star Daily of Cebu, which published my works. They were admittedly raw because I haven’t attended a creative wring workshop (I was a fellow of the UP Creative Writing Workshop done in Leyte, but that was in the middle ’90s). “Noy Eloy” was first published by Sun.Star in 1990 and later by the Philippine Free Press in the late ’90s (sorry, my files got burned when a fire hit our place in Sitio Kawayan, Sambag 2, Cebu City in 2002 so I could’t be date-specific for now). There were revisions, of course, but the original plot remains. Here it is:
By Candido O. Wenceslao
“Did you see that?!” a young woman asked, holding tightly the arm of her companion while glancing furtively at the shadow perched on the right side of the wharf, fishing rod in his hand. The darkness that enveloped the solitary figure’s frame was driven in some parts by the stray rays emitted by a mercury bulb upon a lamppost nearby.
“That’s Noy Marcelo,” the companion shot back, his voice seemingly a whisper amid the noise of the waves splashing on the wood and concrete foundation of the dock. “We call him Eloy Tibihon. He lives out there, near the beach.” Then the couple moved on, prodded by the cool wind that kept touching their skin.
Above, the oval moon had started its journey up an almost overcast sky and its light, dampened by the clouds, had grudgingly given way to the kerosene lamps and electric bulbs on the ground below. Tudela, a town within the Camotes group of islands, had ended another uneventful day with a rather unpredictable night.
It was Sunday, and the only ship plying the Cebu-Camotes route was on its way to Mandaue City, leaving the wharf to the few people whiling away their time there. Some stores in the town’s marketplace were still open, and most of them had men drinking either mallorca, rhum or tuba, a locally produced wine from the coconut trees that grew literally everywhere in the island. In the poblacion proper, a mini-theater was already showing the second of the night’s featured Tagalog action fare from pirated VHS tapes.
A group of children noisily made their way towards the old man, but two bicycle-riding teenage girls overtook them. The children took interest in him and his catch placed inside a net bag. The girls, upon reaching the wooden tip of the wharf, momentarily stopped near the couple seating there and then maneuvered back to the town proper.
A boy fingered a fish and then jumped when it wiggled. Shrill laughter punctured the cool air. But the interest just as soon vanished and in a matter of minutes the children left, chasing one another back to the poblacion. The old man felt something tug at the line and pulled, then placed the catch inside the bag.
He was old indeed, with sparse white hair and a lengthening forehead. The flesh and skin below his cheekbones had caved in, making his face appear like a brown skull in the dark. His coughing was so heavy they seemed to push part of his lungs to his mouth.
He was as familiar as the lampposts on that wharf, and as inanimate. People came and went behind him. But he sat silent, his feet dangling above the sea, his emaciated body largely unmoving. Yet his senses were still functioning and he could weave in his mind a thousand tales starting and ending on the wharf that was his regular haunt.
Another tug from the line and another catch. He picked up the net bag and counted its content. Enough, he must have thought, for he stood up and gathered his things. His height was average. He walked slowly and with a slight limp, his back arched like the curve of a scythe. He wore what was expected of people like him: browned shirt and a pair of faded maong pants that was not only tattered but caked with dirt.
He did not follow the road towards the town proper but turned left, parallel to the sea. He crossed a newly built wooden bridge and went through a cluster of houses. It was dark, more so beneath the coconut trees growing near the beach, but he knew where the footpath leading to his hut was.
The bamboo door creaked when he opened it and the gloom inside was the only occupant to give him a greeting. He groped for the match in a small basket nailed to the wall and lit the kerosene lamp atop a round, rickety table. The yellow-red light frolicked once more inside his one-room abode.
In one corner was a small wooden table and near it an improvised kitchen with a clay stove. On top of it was a pot containing leftover rice. On the other side was a bed covered with a disfigured buri mat and on it a pillow with portions of the foam sticking out. A torn copra sack covered a small window opposite the door. Above it hung an enlarged photograph preserved in a cloudy frame with the glass cracked near the middle.
The old man scooped the rice and placed it on a plate. His slightly trembling hand cleaned the fish, the entrails thrown carelessly through the half-open door. Then he prepared the fire, blowing the embers with all the breath he could muster from his badly damaged lungs until the firewood burst into flames. He placed the fish in the pot, added water and placed the pot on the stove.
Outside, the sound of the waves slapping the beach in a never-ending rhythm mingled with the singing of the night insects. Some of his neighbors were still awake and their occasional laughter would stray into the old man’s ears. A couple of years ago, these would have pricked a heart pained by the death of a wife. But wounds and memories are blurred by the passage of time.
An unkempt white cat forced its way through the window just when the old man started to eat. He later fed it with half-eaten fish and leftover rice. Then he washed the plate and wiped the table. The cat left him, as usual, alone.
He sat leisurely for a while, his back pressed against the bamboo wall and his feet stretched flat on the mat. As he often does, he imagined himself resting in a foamed chair listening to stereo music or watching video shows. There were nights when he dreamed about sitting in front of his grandchildren, telling them tales about agtas and engkantos.
That was all in the mind, he knew that, but he enjoyed it. He had not forgotten that his wife Dresa had succumbed to a strange sickness two years before. His only child, Gorio, was mistaken for a deep penetration agent and was killed by rebels in Bukidnon in the middle ’80s. Prior to that, Aurora, their youngest, died when a vigilante group called Tadtad strafed their house. Disillusioned, the couple left Mindanao and transferred to Cebu, only to be prodded by difficulties to seek out old acquaintances in Camotes. What they found instead were but remnants of youthful frolic. It was said that only children and old people live in Camotes, the rest seek the good life either in Cebu or Manila.
But in the countryside, there were always things to be had, no matter how meager. In Camotes, there was the sea and, though less productive than in Mindanao, the soil. Noy Eloy, a farmer, merely added a few skills, like fishing. In the end, they were able to plod onwards.
Until illness came knocking. Day Dresa, like many others in the country’s rural villages, initially took things for granted. Then when her fever worsened, she went to the tambalan, the herbalists. In Camotes there was only one doctor and he lived in the town of San Francisco, some 12 kilometers from Tudela. By the time Noy Eloy brought Day Dresa to the doctor, her case was already hopeless.
Well into midnight, Noy Eloy decided to sleep. He closed the door then wrapped himself in the straw blanket. Outside, the moon, still shrouded by the clouds, was on a downward arc. Night had turned gloomy, more so in the town proper where the service of the town’s electric cooperative was already cut off.
One by one, the kerosene lamps in the houses of the old man’s neighbors were put off. Husbands with their wives and children slept close to each other, the warmth of their bodies driving away the cold sea breeze. The wharf was deserted and the waves slapped with increasing fervor upon the sea wall.
Inside his hut, Noy Eloy tried to sleep but the bamboo and nipa materials of the structure provided a fragile defense against the wind that was steadily building up. He was shivering but his instinct told him to continue waging his lonely struggle to survive.
Then it happened. The coughing spell seized him again, this time with more intensity and inside him with more violence. He spat on the floor, the yellowish rays of the lamp changing the color of what came out of his lungs to black. Then he coughed again and again, with more intensity and with more violence as he gasped for the breath that was increasingly eluding him. Then darkness enveloped his tired eyes.
By dawn, the wind had gathered strength. A particularly strong one penetrated the hut, shaking it and putting out the flickering flame of the lamp. Droplets fell outside. Streaks of light appeared in the sky, followed by familiar bursts of thunder. It was a signal of sorts as rain fell in torrents and the winds lashed unmercifully.
Hours passed. The rain stopped just as the rays of the sun drove away the darkness that enveloped the town. The sea turned peaceful, the winds became a gentle caress. The poblacion sprang back to life. It was a cold morning, but the sun heralded the promise of a beautiful day by claiming its rightful dominion over a cloudless sky.
Noy Eloy’s hut was silent. The white cat forced its way through the door whipped slightly ajar by the tempest of hours past. She surveyed the half-blanketed form illumined by shafts of light that penetrated the walls and roof of the structure. Then she went to a corner and watched while the told man rested.
By Candido O. Wenceslao
Cebu City, Philippines
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