Picking dry leaves

I still can vividly recall a recurring scene at the backyard of our old house some 18, I’m not sure, maybe 19, years ago.  It’s an image of my four siblings and me (our youngest sister was born several years after) picking up dry leaves that had fallen from an old Jackfruit tree.

This was our father’s “assignment” to us which we did with dedication every five in the afternoon after coming home from our classes in a nearby public elementary school. Our eldest sister, Mae, was 10 then. I was 8. Des, my brother born after me, was 7. Sef was 5; he attended kindergarten in the morning and at five, after sleeping the whole afternoon, already ready for play or to take part in any physical activity with us. And Gemini was 3, already an able ambler.

It was a task we took seriously, too seriously in fact that it became an opportunity for the five of us to compete with each other on who could pick the most number of dry leaves.

We had a method to this madness.

Before coming home, Mae, Des, and I passed by the stand of an old woman selling barbecued plantains (which we called sinugba nga saging because my parents are both Ilonggos, but which our schoolmates called saging ginanggang because they were all Cebuanos. The five of us never bothered speaking their language. As a generic term we called this snack banana-Q, which is not accurate since deep fried plantains in brown sugar were also called with it).

These barely cooked plantains were brushed with margarine and rolled in white sugar then skewered (I doubt if this is the appropriate word for it) using bamboo sticks that were sharpened at the tip.

To this day I cannot understand why our mother did not keep us from buying that snack, as everything about it was clearly a deadly weapon.

The plantains looked dirty after having swum in the ashes of the charcoals the old woman used to barbecue them. The margarine was without a brand name, and it was conspicuously colored in striking yellow similar to those used in emergency road signs. The brush used to envelop the plantains in that margarine-from-hell was a paint brush, and a used one, as evidenced by the chipping green latex paint on the handle. The sugar that stuck onto the bananas seemed to be from the same batch of sugar used in the previous weeks because it looked more like beach sand than sugar; individual sugar crystals could not be distinguished from the ashes that got mixed with it. Our taste in food, apparently, was very sophisticated. And lethal.

Lest I forget, the bamboo stick, which I remember using as arrows to target shoot the banana trees of our neighbor that stood in a community garden beside a small Catholic chapel. Legend has it that a grade four pupil in our elementary school was killed after having stepped on a protruding barbecue stick. That pupil’s ghost remained in the school to haunt students and teachers alike, or something that went like that, depending on the temperament of the storyteller.

After having our fill of that unforgettable delicious afternoon snack, the five of us proceeded with the operation.

We used those bamboo sticks sharpened at the tip to pick those fallen Jackfruit leaves in our backyard. The idea was simple, we punctured each leaf until they accumulate into a bunch of stabbed dry leaves. Each of us had a base camp where we stockpile our Jackfruit leaves “barbecue”.

The one who picked the most leaves won.

I don’t remember what we did with the leaves after, what the winner got as prize after winning, or what happened to the Jackfruit tree when we moved to a new house years after.

What I vividly recall, though, was our old backyard that was free from those fallen dry leaves.

And our father smiling at us.

General-cleaning with Gem and Sef

After a back-breaking scrubbing, sweeping, and washing, Gem and Sef’s place in Lapaz is now squeaky clean, better smelling, and definitely more habitable than the jungle that it used to be. We threw away the decade-old linoleum floor cover, opened the perpetually closed window that gave us a view to the neighbor’s antique window grilles and rusty, obsolete, Korean-made air-conditioning unit, and dusted the ceiling that forced-evicted several colonies of tarantulas and black widow spiders. We had to cover our mouths and noses to keep us from inhaling noxious fumes and fungal spores that have accumulated in the room since the house was built in the 70s.

At first, it appeared to me that Gem and Sef did not have any intention at all to clean their room because both looked contented and happy enduring its familiar gloom and comfortable darkness. But this afternoon, the temperature and humidity soared to impossible levels. The small room, measuring 6 feet by 10 feet, was suddenly transformed into a malfunctioning, overheated sauna. It was the desire to let in more air and light by opening the window that led to this major general-cleaning project.

One thing led to another. First it was the closed windows, then the cobwebs looking too inviting to let go, then the topsy-turvy books on top of the cabinet, then the sad-looking floor, until everything was turned upside-down and it became morally scandalous to return them to where they normally were found without dusting them or washing them.

I told Gem to throw away those useless stuff we accumulated since we all started going to college. I was surprised to find our eldest sister’s photocopies, my high school identification card, the clown costume that my brother next to me used to wear in his part-time job, and other things we thought were long gone or lost.

Although I thought it was a more intelligent idea to set the room on fire and start from nothing, this proved very challenging and eventually dismissed as infeasible since my sibling are only renting the place. My sister brushed this idea off as insane. I thought it was fun and out-of-the-box. My younger brother gave me his full support.

But my sister, who is, by default, the matron of the room, prevailed.

However, because I am the most senior among the three of us, it was not difficult to boss them around and give them irrational orders such as transferring an indoor plant and placing it just outside the windows to add more vitality to our sad room. Only that the smallest indoor plant around is three feet taller than my younger brother and twice as heavy as my sister. This could not be done by them and I did not want to over-exert my muscles for something as commonplace a task as lifting an indoor plant several meter from its original point of origin. We abandoned the plan. Or waxing and scrubbing the floor until it reflects more light than the shard of the mirror I broke but which Gem found a better use of and glued it on the wall rather than wait for me to buy a replacement for the one I accidentally broke. They said this task of polishing the floor was Herculean in difficulty. I said nothing is impossible to determined spirits. Theirs, they told me, are not determined. Case closed. Further counter-argument is unwelcome.

At around 5:30 in the afternoon, the room started to look like a real room of two college students and less like a slaughterhouse. Of course, it was still hot and humid but not anymore as hot and humid as it usually was before we cleaned it.

We were greeted by a gush of fresh air from our neighbor’s air-conditioning exhaust. This was better than nothing at all, our indefatigable spirit told us.

To reward ourselves, and because I am their eldest brother, I felt compelled to go out and buy ourselves something for snack. I crossed the street facing West Visayas State University Medical Center and bought five sticks of banana-Q. We downed this with ice-cold Coke and some hearty conversation and laughter.

I felt good knowing that I’ll be leaving my two younger siblings with a clean, comfortable, and livable room at least for the next five months. This made me truly happy.

Good-byes

I’m waiting for my 5:50 flight to Iloilo this time (how boring it is to begin an essay with this insipid line). Since I already booked my return flight on Monday, despite the hesitations, I know I have to be back here in Manila on Monday and will start living the newest chapter of my life as a college instructor at Ateneo de Manila University. This trip to Iloilo is for me to say hello and good-bye at the same time.

As an older brother to my two siblings, Sef and Gemini, I’ll have to make sure that, in my absence, they’ll be comfortable and safe, not that they were when I was still with them. But this is something I promised our mother. She has a lot of apprehensions regarding this drastic decision I am taking and I completely understand her. I had to reassure her over and over again that I’ve made worse decisions before and it’s not as if I have not prepared myself to fail, and I quipped, ‘Ma, I always play to win.’ Despite my cocky statement, I am scared. Nonetheless, I’ve had numerous experience of diving head-on with my eyes close, this isn’t the first and I have no intentions of making it the last. I’m scared, but who isn’t?

As a former member of the faculty of the University of the Philippines Visayas, I have to ask forgiveness for this ‘selfish’ decision. Nevertheless, however I look at it, this decision is the most rational decision somebody of my age can take had he/she been in my position. And I hope this is something the university that has nurtured me for the past eight years will understand. Yes, I have plans to go back one day, and I’m sure I will, that is, if UP Visayas is still willing to take me back.

And as a good friend to a handful of people, I need to say my good-byes and thank yous and to tell them that distance is relative and transcend-able. I have few people I consider my friends and I am sure they’ll all remain loyal to me no matter what. I have come and gone before but nothing seemed to have changed, except for some battle scars here and there. This one will not be any different. So I know a little catching up over a cup of brewed or instant coffee will be all right.

Not wanting to sound overly-dramatic this time, it occurred to me that this trip is also to say adieu to the most beautiful city in the world.

What am I doing eating egg sandwiches alone in my room on a Friday night (when I am supposed to be partying, seizing life by its neck)

I boiled four eggs until I was certain they were hard enough that green copper compounds started to appear on the crust of the yolk in one of the eggs that burst; then I dunked them in cold water, peeled them, crushed them one by one using a fork, added in several spoonfuls of mayonnaise, and sprinkled a pinch of rock salt. I cut and folded the ingredients until the consistency of the coarse paste approached that of shit.

These special egg sandwiches were for my younger sister. Just after I cut the last loaf bread wedge, placed a liberal amount on it the shit-like egg sandwich spread I made, she texted me that she was on her way to attend her friend’s party. I said I’d wait, wanting to share to her the sandwiches I lovingly prepared for us; I just could not bring myself to say they’re made especially for her. I waited but eventually got tired of waiting, and alone, silently ate the sandwiches I made.

That evening, it was so quiet inside our room as if all the noise created by the world outside was barred by the concrete walls from reaching me. It was almost unbearably tranquil, punctuated only by the sound of spasmodic tubercular coughing I made. I waited for an hour until I could not anymore contain my hunger and my unvented angst then I began eating the bland-tasting sandwiches one by one, drowning the aftertaste with a liter of iced tea. Out of nowhere leitmotifs of my empty life flashed before me like how those Christian manuals distributed when I was in high school described it would be when the time comes for a Christian to meet God on the final judgment.

I felt like crying, nearly, but I held it back just in time to keep the entire scene from slipping into an unforgivable melodrama. I hate scenes that consider action more salient than characterization, but I gathered I have been placing too much emphasis on the characterization of an obviously uninteresting actor. Although the scene warranted melodrama, I was conscientious enough to retain a semblance of elegance and necessary good taste.

I guess I shall never be able to completely free myself from this biting emptiness. Sadness it was not, this I am quite certain of, only a seething hollowness that pays me unannounced visits whenever I wallow in my carefully-guarded solitude.

I am not particularly religious, neither am I spiritual as those people who see themselves as byproducts of modernity are more wont to choose to describe themselves. Being ‘spiritual’ is definitely more fashionable than being ‘religious’. The subtle differences in meaning between the two words blurred by overuse and compounded by my lack of interest in their nuances led me to irresponsibly mistake one for the other. But I am certain I am neither.

I get scared sometimes that while the entire world is going on its way like a hyperactive insomniac, endlessly turning like the rusty blades of the old fan in my room, I am being left stranded in my room making beautiful egg sandwiches for my sister who’s not coming.

I’ve been asking myself whether the decision to teach at the university in a small town in the province is going to be good for my soul. Now I am less sure of my answer. At 24, when I am supposed to be exploring the limits of the world and my soul, I catch myself standing, immobile on the same road. I attempted to console myself that at least I am happy doing something I am good at, but there are times when a consolation won’t suffice.

The object of being in this precarious stage of a person’s life, his 20-something phase, is not settling for comfortable and numbing happiness. It is going through that perilous journey, that although will leave me battle scarred, will someday lend me that easy, confident smile signifying a journey well-taken and difficult roads traversed.

This time, everything seems to be on a halt. Probably this explains the gnawing feeling of void.

I’ve been meaning to write a lengthy letter addressed to myself. But I keep on finding excuses to put it off, postponing it in as many times as the thought of writing surfaces because I have nothing much of substance to tell my tired self. If I were to write it, however, it would have to be a complaint letter written with all the bitterest sarcasm I can rally to use against myself.

And so, while I was eating those tasteless sandwiches and drinking that insipid iced tea, I arrived at a decision to give myself until the end of this year to finally conclude this overdue hiatus.

Teaching my younger sister how to write

Before I did my laundry last night, I instructed my younger sister, with all the seriousness and a little cockiness of an older brother, and with a slightly modulated voice as if she is one of my students enrolled in the writing classes I teach at the university, to watch the film Il Postino on my computer and to write her thoughts about the film afterward. I even went on giving her some advice on tracing the plot, taking note of the characterization, the theme, and the striking dialogue lines said by the main actors that would help her make her work worth her readers’ time.

In this case, my time.

I checked her every once in a while whether she’s doing the things I instructed her or whether she started to look bored and tired watching that Italian film. I did this in between washing my two basketfuls of dirty tees and pants, while soaking them in the detergent solution or waiting for several minutes as stated in the direction on the back of the sachet of the fabric conditioner I am wont to use before wringing my clothes one by one to remove excess water until finally hanging them to dry. At times, when she caught me doing this, she would give a spontaneous comment on the lines uttered by Mario (Massimo Troisi) or Neruda (Philippe Noiret) or ask me random questions as to why Neruda’s poems are great and enduring.

I saw her enjoying the film. I wondered how she managed to make do with my poor copy of that 1994 classic by Michael Radford.

That afternoon after I arrived from Miagao, before I could even drink water to keep me from dying of heatstroke, I didn’t know where it was coming, but she just blurted “Yan, tudlui ko magsulat be,” asking me to teach her how to write.

I always spend my weekend in the city, away from the ghost town that is Miagao, distancing myself from its deathly quiet streets that give me nothing but melancholic mirages. During these weekends I spend in the city, I do my stuff and my sister does hers. We try not to get in the way of each other’s paths. Her request, and of all, teaching her how to write, was something I least expected.

I know she reads my blog as some sort of a side trip whenever she does research for her requirements in school or when she’s facebook-ing to pass time. However, I did not expect that the things I wrote on my site will motivate her to try writing, that’s my assumption, at least.

When she said, “Yan, tudlui ko magsulat be,” I seriously tried to keep my composure intact and my voice unaffected although deep inside I was already unable to contain that feeling of unusual upwelling I only have if something life-changing is occurring before my eyes. I almost hugged her.

A writer is an ordinary person, perhaps he is more sensitive. People who are highly sensitive are often more frail. I am frail, this must have been my main reason why I write. As for my sister, much as I would like to keep her from suffering this frailty brought by hypersensitivity that writing will eventually bestow on her; I cannot bring myself to deny her that voice, that affirmation of her own self validated during the act of writing.

Looking back, I have unconsciously created a thirst for writing in her.

I know one can only write literature, or even to simply begin writing, if he or she is exposed to great writings. I realized all these time I have unwittingly left my books in her humble place in the city for this expressed purpose.

Whenever I finish reading my books, serious ones on particularly technical topics or works of fiction, I would bring them to her place in the city and leave them there hoping that she would find interest in reading all of them as much as I did. Although I never attempted to impose on her the books I read, or reading in general, I consciously, but more often unconsciously, made her know that I am happy whenever I see her reading or that she enjoys the books I leave at her place.

Sometimes, when I am gripped with what I’m reading, I would shamelessly tell her how enmeshed I am in the plot of the story, how involved I am in the lives of the character, or how passionately I feel about the arguments of the author, even discussing with her the main points of the book unmindful that I have not given her the shallowest of context.

I am of the opinion that good writing cannot be taught, it can only be nurtured. Based on her papers she submitted for her course, which I secretly read because she wouldn’t let me read them for fear of my harsh criticism, I suppose, my sister has all the promise of a good writer only that she needs a little bit prodding and confidence to share her honest attempts to express her thoughts in writing.

Il Postino has all the simplicity and lyricism to inspire anyone, even those who find writing mundane, to try experimenting with words, metaphors, and images.

“How would you describe a net?” Pablo Neruda asks the postman, Mario Ruoppolo.

“My father’s net?”

“Yes.”

His response, the simplest yet the most powerful:

“Sad.”

The first lesson I gave before she started writing: Write in the simplest of terms.

My sister, Gemini, is an AB English sophomore at West Visayas State University in La Paz, Iloilo City.

A photo of the six of us

Our eldest sister made this collage of pictures she took from each of our web accounts. I thought it was so sweet of her. The last time we were complete as a family was almost two years ago celebrating Christmas. We’ve all gone to different places now: two are already working, I am still finding for a job, two are in college, and our youngest who is still in elementary. Our house started to feel like an empty nest for our parents several years ago. Except for our youngest sister, 10, and some of our cousins who occasionally visit or stay for the night, our parents are left alone.

High school friends often ask me when I’ll be home. I cannot give a definite answer. Home is too far away for me and for my other siblings. But I know we’ll all find time to visit our hometown and be with each other and our parents.

I am missing everyone.

sib

When we’ve grown too old to play ‘Snakes and Ladders’

This is a very simple board game that is dependent on nothing but sheer luck. Our mother introduced this to us when we were still very young. I was eight years old then. Playing snakes and ladders involves throwing of a die that will determine how many moves a player will take, and depending on his fortune, he may go to a safe tile, climb the ladder and go up several notches, or be eaten by a snake and go back a lower level. The player who reaches the 100th tile first wins the game.

I have three sisters and two brothers. The six of us grew up in a rather protected household. My childhood memory is replete of any friends from the outside. Although my parents did not prevent us from mingling with the neighbors’ children but still we did not go out of the house to play with any of the children our age. It was either we hated rough games or we thought that we did not need anyone because the six of us were more than enough to play hide-and-seek or tug-of-war or whatever game we could think of, and besides we used to think that our neighbors’ children despised us and thought of as us too snobbish.

And so snakes and ladders was one of our past times in the early nineties when Playstation and some other modern games were non-existent or, if they were already in the market, too expensive for our parents, who are both public school teachers, to afford. Oh I remember we had a Nintendo family computer where we had to insert a very big “bala” or cards to play Super Mario or a very rudimentary Motorbike race using our black and white television set as monitor. But it was only the six of us then – my eldest sister, myself, my two younger brothers and two younger sisters.

A decade after, we are already too old to play snakes and ladders or any children’s game.

I had a chat with my eldest sister two days ago. I reassured her that after I finished my scholarship I shall keep my promise to help support the schooling of my two younger brother and sister who are both in college now. I know it was difficult for my sister for she had been sacrificing for the past four years, setting aside all the plans for her self just to help my parents with the education of my younger siblings. I just thought that next year it’ll be a time for her to seek for whatever is in store for her. I told her that I am willing to postpone my master’s degree in Journalism at a university in the US because it is more important for me that she can also do something she really loves to do and not just because she feels obligated to do it.

I also feel the same for my brother who is next to me. He graduated from college a year ago and is now contemplating to go to Romania to be a hotel staff or do a job similar to that. I asked him if he has already made up his mind, he told me he has no choice, “It’s for the family, Yan,” he told me.

The Author, Mae Byrd (24), Sef Daye (19), Ojualyn (10), Gemini (17), Des Neil (20)
The Author, Mae Byrd (24), Sef Daye (19), Ojualyn (10), Gemini (17), Des Neil (20)

We’ve already grown up. Our concerns are not anymore about how to win a game of snakes and ladders but how to make our family whole. I used to think of my eldest sister as selfish and immature and my brother next to me as someone beyond my understanding. They are my siblings but I’ve never really known them, but through the years, I’m starting to see other sides of them that have remained hidden to me despite the number of years we spent together in South Cotabato and even while we were still in college.

It occurred to me that it was I who is selfish and who thought of nothing but the advancement of my career. Although my sister will never have the guts to tell to my face, but I knew she also wants me to do my share of the sacrifices. And I promised her I will. I will be turning 23 next year, in a time most crucial to my growth as a member of the academe, but I know it’ll never hurt me if I give up just two years of my life for my younger siblings and for my sister who also has to find her place under the sun.

I just want to share the ladders I’ve accumulated through the years and kill as many snakes as I can to help my other siblings, the children I used to play snakes and ladders with during our past times in the early 90s, reach the 100th tile together with me.