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4th Quarter 2000

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Moros: JUETENG For Deliverance?

Understanding The Mindanao Conflict
Samuel Tan

Ethnic Cleansing In Mindanao
Fred Hill

Compensatory Justice For Mindanao
Patricio Diaz

Is Federalizing The Republic The Solution To Mindanao?
Aquilino Pimentel, Jr.

Constitutional Accommodation of a Bangsamoro Islamic Region
Soliman Santos, Jr.

Mindanao Movements
Nash Maulana

Sulu Saxophone
Carolyn Arguillas

Explaining Erap's
B(ad) Movies

Said Sadain, Jr.

The Palestinian Intifada
Zafar Bangash

Creative Writing Section
What's Inside:

A Muslim's prayer for peace
by Aminah Sharief Goling

In my own Mindanao
by Geejay Arriola

Abdul on the eve of an ambush
by Said Sadain, Jr.

Then & Now
by Macario Tiu

Death On The Tarmac
by Fr. Picx Picardal
Spirits In The Box
A Short Story

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Spirits In The Box
by Said Sadain, Jr.
(first published by FOCUS Philippines, Jan. 7, 1978)

Spirits In The Box, Focus Philippines 7 Jan. 1978

GHAFUR WAS A helpless wreck when the bully Kahal was finally forced out of the Center by the older people. His eyes hurt and his raw nose could smell the rusty blood gushing out. His crumpled white shirt was a patchwork of rubber shoe sole marks, and below the edges of his short pants, his thin knees trembled as if freezing: all this made him cry in the collective gaze of sympathetic eyes.

Behind the tears, Ghafur thought he saw his friend, Layla, among the crowd, her young face distorted in disgust but warm in the reddish light of the setting sun that reached into the room. Then there were more faces.

And the blinking brightness of the sound-and-picture box at one end of the room seemed to glare menacingly.

The brawl between the two boys had been quick and sudden. When Ghafur was finally persuaded to leave the Center, the crowd settled back on the long benches and watched the TV show again. The barangay captain who took charge of the television set from the DPI office in town glanced around the room apprehensively as if making sure that nothing more would transpire to disrupt the proceedings. Then he too sat himself in a corner and, like the rest, patiently waited for the pulong-pulong show to end in anticipation of the promised war picture that would follow.

From the Center, Ghafur traced his path to the seashore. He knew that his mother would not approve of his present appearance.

For the third time now as he walked, he wished upon the stars that should his Kah Abing come down from the mountains, he would stay with him in Jolo. His Kah Abing could fire an Armalite as easily as a gardener handles a water hose. And if he does this when and if necessary, then nobody would dare quarrel with him anymore.

It had just been barely two weeks ago in their mountain hut when his mother and his Kah Abing had shouted at each other over a matter which Ghafur’s twelve-year-old sense could not understand. The argument concerned two things: one, Kah Abing’s refusal to plow the field anymore because of the dangers brought about by the war and his acquisition of a ‘double body’ from some friends, and two, of his mother wanting to evacuate him and his brother to Jolo, to one of the refugee camps there, while the war raged in the mountains....Ghafur and his mother shortly moved out to Jolo, hurrying through the mountain trails in the manner of hunted boars...

The argument was not completely settled, for Kah Abing, his solidly built body bespeaking the firmness of his heart, disappeared the next day, presumably with the memory of his slain father driving him, and Ghafur and his mother shortly moved out to Jolo, hurrying through the mountain trails in the manner of hunted boars.

Jolo herself was not spared by the war. Ghafur had seen the town in better days when it was more self-composed and livable than now. The haggard look of abandoned homes and ruble substantiated the suffering glimpsed in the faces of her residents.

Ghafur and his mother found room in a bunkhouse at an emergency housing project near the outskirts of town, close by the sea. The cramped room heated like a boiler when the sun peaked, and froze when the chill sea breezes blew in the night.

It was very much unlike the comfortable life they had in their mountain hut – with the air filled by the crying of children, the shouting of mothers, and by the smoke from the cooking pots boiling atop makeshift stoves. The older people huddled on the benches lined up under the extended nipa roofs and the coconut trees, idly talking away the hours while those who ventured into town did nothing but stand under the acacia trees. A few engaged in whatever meager business could be started at the marketplaces.

Nowhere was the tranquility of the wild forest found, except in the more isolated parts of the beach nearby. And in this part of his new surroundings, Ghafur found his retreat.

Until some few days ago, he had practically spent his waking hours walking along the white beach, or tanning his skin in the salty water under an always dazzling sun, or shooting at low-flying birds with his slingshot carved out of guava wood, or just sitting on coconut stumps and waiting for the airplanes and helicopters to fly above the sea and over the land. Towards evening, he would run to the Center and finding himself a seat, he would sit transfixed before the picture box until all the shows had ended.

It was at the Center that he met Layla, a hometown friend, she with the dimples in her cheeks. Together, they attended barrio school, and used to laugh at a teacher who stuttered in speaking a foreign language and never quite got the lessons across to the pupils. They used to talk about the airplanes that hovered above the barrio once in a while, about the wheels that rolled under the rattling machines, and exchanged vague ideas of the cities beyond the sea. And always, together or apart, they would understand none of these things they talked about.

Then the war came: strange happenings in a familiar place and people had to move away in search of the familiar things in strange places.

Ghafur’s bewilderment grew with the war, with his questions equaled only by his yearning to go home to his Kah Abing. The picture box, the war, the bully, the suffering – they blended into a confused lot in his mind.

After leaving the Center, Ghafur soothed his mind in the evening coolness of the sea. He washed his still painful nose with seawater and cleansed his face of the hot dust of the Center.

He resented having had to miss the TV shows tonight. And yet, there was something evil in the ti-bi, he thought, which he would be better off without. If it were not for it, however, he would not have even gone to the Center, with its stale smell coming from the sweaty crowd.

But then there was the mystery of the picture tube. He would not have minded Kahal’s blocking his view of the TV screen, would not have touched even a bead of sweat on the bare back of the big boy, if that evil something had not been in the air.

And Layla would not have seen him in such a ridiculous situation. It hurt even more because Layla had always thought of him highly.

Ghafur blushed in the moonlight. He stripped his clothes off his lanky body and met the small waves effortlessly, feeling the coldness as balm.

A moment later, he was skipping back to the bunkhouse where his mother waited, her deep eyes made deeper by the shadows wrought by the oil lamp.

Later in the night, sleep was like a wild bird for the lad, and when finally he caught it, he was immediately carried off on a cloud of dreams.

The Center is all lit up for the evening and yet strangely the light from the inside does not permeate the darkness that engulfs the outside. There is no warmth, not even in the brilliant room, except in the passion of a presence in the dark: a big man struggles toward the structure.

The man feels the slingshot in the back pocket of his pants as he stealthily crouches at the doorway. Inside, he could see the jeering face of the television propped up on a shelf above the heads of the crowd. Its electronic guttering, the workings of which the crowd never understood at all except as some sort of a magician’s trick, churned out amplified rasping and emanated a brightness shadowed by hazy figures....he fits a stone into the crude weapon and stretches the rubber...

The crowd laughs when the box laughs, and cries when it cries. Only the man is detached from the ambience in the Center as he fits a stone into the crude weapon and stretches the rubber of the slingshot, then stands poised as if about to confront his prey.

The TV screen meanwhile takes on the leering face of Kahal, then that of the barangay captain, and when the man in the shadows finally lets go the stone, the fluid box at the same instant becomes the lovely face of Layla.

Ghafur woke up protesting the man’s final act – his timing – but the brightness of dawn engulfed his protest, and the dream did not seem so painful anymore.

The bilal could be heard intoning the call to prayer from the nearby mosque – Assalaa-tu khairun minan-naum, prayer is better than sleep – as the world began to rise in piety.

Quietly, Ghafur’s hands searched for the slingshot he had slid under his pillow.

LAYLA HAD JUST finished her morning bath by the community well and her hair was fragrant with the oil from the white meat of the coconut when she saw Ghafur pass by the bunkhouse.

She called out to him warmly, and the boy, his head turning everywhere except directly towards her, could not do anything but heed the call. He went up to her, his mind frantically framing explanations and justifications for his actions the night before.

He forced a shy smile as he half-expected sharp words from her, reproaching him as she did once back in the farm when he had carelessly stumbled in the middle of the road just as a copra truck approached from up the road.

But there was a different excitement in her today, something Ghafur had never seen in her before.

"Utuh, have you ever seen Sambuangan?"

"No – "

"Well, I will be seeing it in a few days! The big city! My uncle says the city is livelier than Jolo, or the mountains. You must have seen a city on ti-bi."

"I have, but how are you going to Sambuangan?" And what about me, Ghafur thought. Aren’t you going to ask why my eyes hurt or what I think of Kahal?

"My uncle will be taking us there. He just arrived yesterday afternoon – do you know him? He’s the rich merchant I used to tell you about. He has this stall in the barter trade market in Sambuangan," and Layla gestured with her fragile arms to suggest the size of the place. "He says he needs my parents to help him with the business."

Layla continued her prattle, mentioning other things such as schooling, a big house, refreshment parlors, movie theaters and television sets. But Ghafur had already withdrawn into his inner self, already mourning something he felt he had irrevocably lost. But as he knew neither what he had lost nor what was there to be recovered, he desperately surfaced back, wondering how Layla could talk so fast.

They sat beside the bunkhouse, throwing pebbles away from them while the girl counted the days to the time she would board a motor launch for the city. And when finally Ghafur reminded her of the incident at the Center with a casual "Have you seen Kahal, by the way?", it was as casually dismissed with a curt rebuke, "Kahal? O, he is too big for you." And the matter was not mentioned again.

A wind was brewing a giant wave in the heart of the boy as he left the girl. His feet felt heavy. In the light of Kahal’s inauspiciousness and Layla’s merriment, Ghafur saw himself sorely beset, and he attributed all his miseries to the spirits in the picture box.

Towards evening, Ghafur was called by his mother, who then restricted the boy from going to or even near the Center. In the waning light of late afternoon, she was still winnowing the new ration of NGA rice as a chunk of mangkuh flesh sizzled on the embers of a fire built on the ground some distance away from the long hut.

Ghafur emerged from the bunkhouse and asked leave to go to the beach for a swim.

"The heat is itching," he said.

"You are not going to watch the ti-bi again, are you?" his mother asked.

"No."

"Do not even go near it. It is evil. It is not one with the soul of the mountains."

"Yes."

"It makes people forget their evening prayers. It poisons."

"Yes."

"And do not cross Kahal’s path. We are just new in this place."

"Yes."

The mother eyed her son as if looking for something reassuring in him. What she saw was a young face full of unasked questions.

Soon, she thought, he would have a mind of his own just like the older one, then he too would find the answers himself, and the face would be different.

Ghafur did not proceed to the beach though. He turned a corner and under the growing light of the moon, he headed for the Center instead.

The cube-like structure, a hastily erected nipa-and-bamboo building, spacious inside, loomed in dark silhouette against the ashen sky. The building had served as a health clinic, supply center, seminar room and schoolroom at other times. The only structure serviced with electricity in the relocation center, it was dead dark that night.

The barangay captain obviously had not yet arrived with his kit of electronics.

Ghafur seated himself on the sand off the road pass in front of the Center. He sat quietly, cradling the slingshot in his palm. Inside his pockets, he carried the smoothest stones he could find that would fit the small leather strap of the slingshot.

Several other people were now hovering around the Center: the older ones in small huddles humming with lively conversation, the younger ones noisy with their children games. The event of the night before seemed to have been totally forgotten by all except by Ghafur. And the idea burnt like flame in his mind as he waited.

When the moon had risen high enough to light up the town, and it was not certain that the barangay captain was not coming, Ghafur got up and headed for the beach to bathe.

On the afternoon of the next day, the picture box was not turned on either. It was explained that something was wrong with it and that the technician from the DPI office was still fixing it.

The moon meanwhile grew thinner every night. The Center continued to discharge its other functions aside from that of being a TV room.

LAYLA HAD ALREADY left the refugee camp and Ghafur’s eyes had ceased to hurt anymore. He befriended several other kids in the locality and even Kahal was already on speaking terms with him.

One afternoon, while the local kids played their usual rough games on the playground beside the Center, the familiar van drove up to the front of the Center and the barangay captain and his aide were seen trudging into the building with the picture box in their arms. They were handling it like a newly born baby.

The children’s games abruptly stopped and several half-naked kids raced to the Center in glee. Ghafur hesitated – he did not have his slingshot with him – but at the urging of his friends, he too ran up to the Center.

The seats were all taken in a short while and the restless expectations of the crowd tapped off to a hush as the knob was turned to the only TV channel received in the town.

The shelf, raised majestically five feet above the floor, with the hunk of electronic contrivance perched upon it, appeared as a sort of altar graced by a god. The 17-inch table standard, a solid mass in its black coat, was an alien thing that awkwardly blended with the rawness of the place.

At first, the screen was a dark blur of horizontal waves, with the funny language belching out of the box. The barangay captain continued to fiddle with the knobs some more. Then the brightness was diffused by the heat of unseen forces, and Ghafur’s questions were drowned by a flood of pictures of a strange city. ###

 

Other Poems In This Issue

Waiting For Deliverance?

A Muslim's prayer for peace
by Aminah Sharief Goling
In my own Mindanao
by Geejay Arriola
Abdul, on the eve of an ambush
by Said Sadain, Jr.
Then & Now
by Macario Tiu
Death On The Tarmac
by Fr. Picx Picardal

 

Explore the other sections: creative writing, archives and featured links to get better acquainted with the world of BUGS & BYTES.

To wrap it up, read the online book BUGS & BYTES, Adventure Into Personal Publishing.

 

 

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