IT was beginning to get light when I awoke. Feeling the bamboo slats of the floor hard against my back through the mat, I looked up to where the bamboo rafters made light lines against the darker shade of the nipa roofing. Outside, a square of brightening sky was framed by the open window. Afraid Clay would be waiting, I got up, rolled the mat and walked to the kitchen to wash my face. Coming out into the open kitchen, I felt the wind: cold, sharp when I breathed too deeply. A light mist made the other houses gray and indistinct. The split bamboos that made up the kitchen floor were moist and the water in the earthen jar that stood near the stairs was like ice. The water was numbing to the hands and made the skin of my face tighten. I brushed my arms across my face and walked to the stove. The pot held rice left over from supper; although the barracks were only a few minutes’ run, I did not stop to eat. I went down the steps, the rungs wet and cold under my bare feet, and ran out through the still-dark street towards the barracks. The army camp was on the east side of the main street, a few houses away from the river. Clay would probably be sitting on the rail bamboo rungs nailed parallel on upright wooden posts that fenced the camp, his long legs swinging, the tips of his boots almost touching the ground, one big hand holding on to the rail and the other waving, his voice ringing: “Hey Kid!” as I came near.
As I ran on past the dark houses of the town, past veiled women going to early mass, I hoped that he would not be too impatient from waiting.
Clay was not at the fence. The big acacia tree near the road, a few steps away from the fence, threw a shadow across the gate to the camp. The gate was of steel matting; a big chain held it fastened to a log post. The yard was littered with colored paper, wine bottles, and cigarette butts from last night’s dance. The gray, two-story building of concrete and galvanized iron that was the army barracks was silent. The window near where Clay’s cot stood was closed. I walked to the foot of the acacia tree and sat down to wait. Leaning my head on the cool, rough trunk, I could see the light in the tower of the church near the western end of the town sparkle in the dark. Then, the bells tolled for mass. In the distance, shadowy figures were walking towards the church door from which light now streamed into the darkness. The rest of the town had not awakened.
Sitting under the tree, I looked at the road that was Candaba’s main street. It was short and even, barely a kilometer long from where it started at the river bank to where it faded into the clump of trees that hid the cemetery. The Americans had built a bridge and gouged out a new road on the left bank of the river. This hard asphalt road ran up to the far-off Arayat mountain where the fighting was. Now in the early morning, with the mist slowly lifting as the sun rose, the blue head of the mountain lay buried in the clouds. The new road was empty. The steel bridge, silent after the movements of’ the night, was dull brown in the early daylight.
Still Clay had not opened his window to laugh and shout: Hey Kid! I moved from the tree and sat on the fence near the gate. The bamboo rails, wet with the mist, were rapidly drying in the rising sun. The grass growing thick along the fence smelled fresh and clean. In the forest, the trees would be green; the flowers of the bankal trees would fill the air with their fragrance and the water would be very cool. We would have good swimming today, I thought. The pool would be very clear. I wished Clay would come.
CLAY was one of the army mechanics. He was my best friend. Sometimes I could not understand him: he talked too fast that I could not always get what he meant. Then I would say: I beg your. pardon? the way Miss Rosete said one should. Clay would laugh and shout: For gosh sakes! You people are sure polite! And he would laugh and laugh. He would curse too, but with Miss Rosete the day I introduced him, his language was all right.
Miss Rosete was my teacher at the high school. She was from the city and she stayed in a boarding house near the school building. She and I had found the pool in the forest together. That was the day our class was going to hold a program, and she and I went into the woods to gather flowers for the stage. She was singing and smiling all the way and she looked very beautiful. There was a light wind that morning and it blew her curls and carried the smell of her perfume to me as I walked before her to clear the path of thorns and creepers. After we had gathered flowers, she sat down under a tree to wipe away the fine beads of sweat that crowned her brow. I stood looking at her while she passed her white handkerchief across her face. Then she stood up and we walked through thick bushes deeper into the forest. Carrying the flowers cradled in her arm, she followed me up a winding path scarcely visible among the thick leaves of the bushes. She stopped and said: Look! My eyes followed where her hand pointed, through a column of trees on the right side of the path. There was the pool: jewelling the forest with its whiteness. We left the path and walked slowly towards it. She sat down on a rock at the water’s edge and made me sit near her. She said: It’s beautiful; very softly. We looked into the pool. You could see the bottom, it was so clear: with white pebbles on its bed. She took off her shoes and dipped her feet in the water. She said: I wish we could go swimming, the water looks so beautiful! She was gently swinging her feet, her legs running like silver in the water. Then she dipped the flowers we had gathered in the pool and gave them to me to carry back to town.
After that, I went to the pool in the forest often. I would sit at the foot of the rock where she had sat and listen to the little forest noises: the water trickling among the stones where the pool was shallow, and above, the trees with their crickets and birds singing. No other noises. The quiet would make me feel I was in church, all the people gone away and I alone, praying: not really praying, but just listening for the sounds of God—not minding the ache of the knees from the kneeling—listening to the birds in the eaves and the children playing in the convent-yard. I would take off my clothes, enter the water and swim quietly, sometimes diving deep, deep into the pool’s heart. I would pretend that she was there, sitting on the rock, smiling at me, her feet silver in the water.
There at the pool I met Clay. I was diving for the white stones at the bottom of the pool and did not see him until he came through the last line of flowering bushes that hid the pool. I looked up as he came near. The early sun struck his face and made his blonde hair glisten. He stood there and smiled at me. Then he laughed. Hey Kid! he said. Nice place you got here. He walked nearer, sat down at the foot of the rock where Miss Rosete had sat, and leaned his head on the stone. He. said: Good swimming huh? I was embarrassed and remembered her teaching. I smiled: Won’t you join me, sir? He laughed and said: Well, what d’ya know? He’s educated! I felt proud. He took off his clothes, put them near the rock and dived in. He said his name was Clayton but everybody called him Clay. He offered to shake hands but I was so shy I merely smiled and told him my name. Let’s come back here again, Clay said.
We went to the pool almost everyday after that. One morning I went to the motor pool to fetch him. He was working on a truck and he asked me to wait. I sat on the fender of the car and watched him work. His face was greasy and flecked with dust; sweat dripped from his face and fell on his arms as he strained, tightening the bolts, running his dirty hands over the engine.
He washed up and changed his clothes. I’m too tired to go to the pool, Clay said. There must be some nice girls in this town; let’s go meet them. He said, teasing me, I ought to let him meet my girl and did I think old Clay was going to take her away from me? I said I had no girl but I took him to see Miss Rosete at the high school. Classes had not begun and she was in the room preparing the next day’s lesson. The door was open and we stood there for a moment, watching her. She saw us and she smiled at me, then, not smiling, turned to look at Clay. I walked in and stood in front of her desk. Clay came into the room, his heavy boots loud against the cement floor. I said: Miss Rosete, this is Clay; and Clay put out his hand, smiled and said: How are you? Now she smiled. She extended her hand. Her hand looked small in his big hairy hand. She quickly drew her hand away and she said she was sorry, she had lots of things to do, but she smiled at me and then smiled at Clay and said she was glad to have met him. We tiptoed out of the room and all the way to the street, Clay was striking his fist against my shoulder and saying: Jesuschrist!! Jesuschrist!
THE sun was growing hotter. Somebody struggled with the nearest window and then it was open and Clay was there, blinking as the light struck his face. Hey Kid! He waved his hand. He was trying to put on his shirt. You are damned early, he said and disappeared into the darkness of the building. After a few minutes, the gray door of the barracks opened and Clay walked to where I sat, waiting.
We started down the road towards the river. The clay path was hot under my feet and the grass, now that the sun had dried the dew, was turning brown with dust. Clay said: Damn hot, ain’t it? He took off his khaki shirt. We walked on, he in his gray undershirt, his shirt dangling from his right hand. Where the undershirt left off, his skin was red and blotched with freckles. Already, drops of sweat were beginning to form on his forehead from the walking.
Just before the bridge, we turned left and climbed up the mound behind which lay the woods. The path winding up to the top of the hillock rose steeply; we clutched at the bushes along it for support. At the top of the mound, we stopped to rest. Below, we could see the road and the ugly bridge, now alive with trucks and people crossing. The noise of their passing came to us low and indistinct. The river flowed brown, foaming along some logs that were tied near the bridge. Looking away from the road to the woods, we could see knee-high cogon growing where the hillock sloped and the first low trees began. Clay and I ran down the slope and into the forest. Clay’s heavy boots crushed fallen leaves and rustled against dead branches from the trees above. The sun came through the leafy sky in bright patches that flashed as the trees stirred in the wind.
Clay said: Let’s sit down a while. He pulled a handkerchief from his hip pocket. His face was pale red. There were little dark lines under his eyes. He wiped away the drops of sweat that glistened on his nose and gathered in furrows on his forehead. He put his handkerchief back in his pocket and sat down heavily on the ground. Sit down, he said. He rubbed his eyes. Boy, but am I tired! Raking leaves together, he bundled his shirt over the pile they made and there pillowed his head. He closed his eyes. Nice dance last night, Clay said. He grinned. He sat up suddenly, put out a big hand and rumpled my hair. Say, did I ever thank you for introducin’ me to that dame who teaches you or something? His hand balled into a fist and softly struck my shoulder. Clay chuckled and rolled his eyes, making strange noises with his tongue. Boy, he laughed. But is she good! Boy, did old Clay have a good time! His hand, rough and moist. rubbed on the back of my neck. Seeing the look on my face, he laughed. Say, how old are you anyway? he asked. I said nearly sixteen. Aw, you are too young, junior! Clay said. You wouldn’t get what I mean! His harsh laughter tore the silence of the forest.
Still laughing, he got up and we walked on towards the pool. The wind had risen a bit. and under the tree where the sun could not get through, it was chilly. Clay put his arm around my shoulders. His arm was big and hairy, little drops of sweat clinging to it. Boy oh boy, Clay said. But did I have a helluva time last night! He laughed, showing his teeth, his face close to mine smelling of pomade and perspiration. Jesuschrist, Clay said. Jesuschrist!
Clay suddenly let go of my shoulder and leaped up to grab at the branch of a guava tree that grew along the path. He clung to the branch. swaying his body, sending flowers from the tree falling to the ground in flurries of whiteness. Yippeeee! Clay shouted. Yippeeee! Birds flew up and, chirping, fluttered above the trees. Clay dropped to the ground beside me. He was breathing heavily.
Here Kid, he said. Have a guava. You look hungry. He laughed, bowed elaborately and opened his palm where a guava lay small arid white, its flesh exposed where bats had dug at its core, the marks of their teeth leaving red gashes on its skin. I broke the guava open. It smelled sweet and over-ripe. Little worms stirred in its core. I threw the guava away. Clay laughed. Get ya ’nother one. I said never mind, I was not hungry. Well, come on then, he said. Let’s not keep the old pool waiting. He ran ahead of me, his big body swaying from side to side, his boots tramping the bushes along the path.
Now the path narrowed and was lost among the thick undergrowth. The bushes that hid it were here and there stained with mud stray carabaos had left behind them. Brown grass grew in tangles, their blades sharp, drawing white scratches on the skin. The ground, where the sun never shone, was muddy. But where the pool began, the grass thinned, the trees were taller than in any other part of the forest: straight, white-limbed columns with singing life in their branches, below them the water breaking into a million separate diamonds.
Clay was taking off his undershirt as he ran. Reaching the water’s edge, he flung his clothes on a bush and, stamping his muddy boots on the rock, fumbled with their laces. After he had pulled the shoes off, he scraped them against the side of the rock to clean them of the mud they had gathered from the walking. Hurry up, Kid, he shouted. The water looks good! He sat down at the edge of the stone and dangled his legs in the water. The water swirled darkly where his feet touched bottom. Clay lit a cigarette and started to chant softly something about a blonde who couldn’t say no. His voice rose and fell in a grating monotone.
The sun lay hidden behind the trees and I was a long time taking off my clothes. The water’s going to be cold, I thought. What the heck’s taking you such a long time? Clay shouted. He flipped his cigarette butt into the middle of the pool and dived noisily after it. Then he was splashing water, making a lot of noise, shouting: Yippeeee! Yippeeee! Hey come on! Hey come on! I went into the water slowly, first wetting my feet and chest. The water was cold. Come where it is deeper, Clay said. He arched and dived into the pool’s writhing heart. His feet thrashed the water wildly. Then his body broke the water. Look, he said. Black sand filled his open hand. Water dripped from his face. A thin trickle of mucus ran down the corner of his nose. Clay laughed; I touched bottom! He spat and laughed. Let’s see you do it, Kid. Let’s see you do it. I said I couldn’t. Clay threw the sand at me. You gotta learn, he laughed. You gotta learn. He laughed again and began swimming towards me, his arms and feet flailing the water.
Birds in the trees flew away as something heavy came stumbling up the path. Then a young bull carabao lumbered past the bushes and walked towards us, its feet leaving muddy tracks on the grass. Standing at the edge of the water, the carabao gazed at us with red, heavy-lidded eyes. Flies hovered over its head and settled on the black mud that encrusted its back. The carabao looked mean. I climbed up the bank, picked up one of the stones gleaming there and threw it at the beast. The stone hit the carabao between the horns, bounced, and fell back at my feet. Flecks of foam and saliva dripped down the carabao’s mouth as it snorted at me and bellowed angrily. I dipped my hands in the pool and threw water at it. Still bellowing, the carabao turned and silently went away, crashing down the undergrowth.
It would have made the water dirty, I told Clay. Probably strayed from its herd down the hill.
Come on Kid, Clay said. He splashed water at me and ran into the pond, his feet sending clouds of mud swirling up the water’s surface. A dull-brown circle rose and spread from around his body.
When we had dressed and gone back down the path, carefully avoiding the mud flecks the carabao had left on the bushes, Clay said: We are gonna have ’nother party tonight. He grinned, showing his white teeth. I’m bringing Imacool-ada again. He had trouble pronouncing Miss Rosete’s first name. Come to the barracks, Kid, Clay said. We are gonna have real ice-cream. He put his hand around my shoulder. I’ll get ya some. Clay smiled at me and winked his eyes. I’ll get you some cake too.
After lunch, I dressed for school. The sun was hot and the street was empty. I kept to the side of the road where the fences of the houses offered shade against the sun. Near the school building, a squat one-story building near the town square, there were a few figures walking. Students, boys and girls, were gathered on the stairway, talking and laughing. They turned to look at me as I brushed past them and walked up the low concrete stairs. The sudden darkness of the corridor, after the brilliance of noon, brought flashes of light to my eyes as I walked toward the classroom in the western end of the building. The stone slabs of the floor echoed my footsteps. The door creaked as I pushed it open. The room was dark and empty. Big chalk markings on the blackboard spelled: No Classes.
I went in and sat down in the front row near the table. Sitting in the half-dark, I could smell the odor of old dust heavy in the air.
I got up and pushed the dusty window open. Even with the sunlight coming in, the room was still empty. A shaft of light struck the empty chair where Miss Rosete should be, smiling and talking to me. The flowers in the vase at her table had not been replaced with fresh ones. I wished I had remembered to pick flowers at the pool. As I sat silently in the empty room, the patch of light rose higher and was caught among the dusty cobwebs that laced the eastern corner.
The church bells tolled three o’clock. The last silver sound of their ringing was still in the air when the old janitor came in. He walked so silently I did not see him until he was at the door. Peering into the room where I sat, he said: Miss Rosete is not coming.
I rose and walked out of the room. The old man closed the window and the door behind him and melted into the shadows of the corridor. In the light of the afternoon sun, my shadow crept along the stone floor ahead or me as I went out into the street. In the classroom nearest the stairway, they were having a program and somebody was singing.
I walked to the town square and sat down on a bench. I wanted to go to the pool but I was afraid it might rain.
Later, going homeward, I passed the house where Miss Rosete stayed. The iron gate at the head of the walk gaped open. The door of the house was closed. The windows of her room returned my look with a stolid, unseeing stare.
I lay in bed until it was dark. Then I dressed and walked to the army barracks.
The camp was ablaze with lights. The acacia tree, slumped in the darkness facing the road end, seemed to shrink from the sound of the soldiers’ merry-making. Through the dark barracks door, music blared out into the night. I crept through the open gate into the yard and peered through one of the windows on the ground floor. The glass on the window was dusty and I could not see into the room clearly. A thick haze of smoke whirled and made weird patterns over the heads of the soldiers and the women gathered there. The girls of most of the soldiers were there but I could not see Miss Rosete in the room. In a corner, a woman was sitting on a soldier’s lap. The soldier was nuzzling her nape with his mouth. She was giggling shrilly.
In the yard near the door, several men were sitting in the dark, talking and smoking. As I neared them. they laughed loudly. Somebody slapped his thigh and shouted: Looks like old Clay’s been stood up. Our pretty boy’s been stood up! Everybody guffawed. Then I heard Clay’s voice. It sounded hoarse and thick. He laughed. Aw, he said. She don’t worry me none. But I sure convinced her last night, he said. I sure convinced her. Once ya get one of those babes convinced, they’re just like the girls here.
His cigarette glowed in a red arc as he waved a hand in derision. The little babe’s just playin’ hard to get, that’s all. She can’t stay away from me. After I get through with them, they can’t stay away. Everybody laughed.
Clay, somebody said through gusts of laughter. Clay, you sure are a fast one. Clay threw his cigarette butt through the fence to where the moonlight made the road a pale ribbon against the dark. You guys known old Clay, he said. Old Clay always convinces them. She didn’t even know how to kiss. Boy, I sure learned her!
I turned back toward the gate. Clay rose and walked towards me. Hey Kid, he shouted. I didn’t see ya. Com’ here. I got somethin’ for ya. I ran to the road. Hey Kid. Com’ here. What’s the matter wi’ ya. His big body lurched against the gate as he clung to it for support. The soldiers laughed. Clay was clinging to the gate, the chain rattling as he swayed. Hey Kid! Here’s your ice-cream!
I ran and ran. The voices and the drunken laughter grew faint in my ears. I ran swaying from side to side, not knowing where I was going. Then I was stumbling up to the hillock. The mist had settled and the bushes were cold and rough against my hands clutching for support. Below me, the lights on the bridge made reddish circles against the mist rising thick from the river. Music from the camp came faint and strange to my ears. I ran down the slope, the cogon grass lashing at my legs. Brambles along the trail clutched at my body and an owl hooted in a tree as I ran past its lair. The darkness of the forest swallowed me.
When I stopped, there was the pool, white in the moonlight. Breathing heavily, smelling the sickly sweetness of the flowering bankal trees, I stood at the water’s edge. Something dark stirred and rose out of the water. It was the carabao. Raising its dark head, it snorted at me. Its eyes glowed fiery red in the darkness. Dark water trickled down its nostrils and mingled with the slaver from its mouth as it glared at me. I threw stones at the carabao again and again, but it only moaned and refused to go away. Ω
This is the first short story to win the Palanca Contest.