The War Years
Our Buhi Language
by Benjamin A. Claveria
A short fictional story by Benjamin Claveria, submitted in 1969, to the Philippine Free Press (published in August 2, 1969 - page 26), which was accepted at once and published without any editing.

I was 21 when I became a guard in this provincial jail. It seems only yesterday, but I have been here almost 20 years. And I have seen many strange things, for here one can often catch a glimpse of life's intensest moments. But I think the strangest of them all was the case of a prisoner named Macario.

It started on an evening about five years after I came here. I was on duty at the main gate. The night was perfect - a nearly full moon and cloudless skies. I was thinking of the girl I was about to marry and whom I did marry soon afterwards - may her soul rest in peace! But suddenly a wind arose, the skies darkened, and rain began to fall in sheets. In this region, downpours are rare in April, but the suddenness of that one made it even more so. The old people in my barrio say that a sudden change in the weather like that can mean only one thing - somebody has just met a violent death. But, of course I don not believe in superstitions. As my science teacher in high school used to tell us, if one persists in believing in superstitions after studying science, he might as well not have gone to school at all.

As suddenly as the rain had begun, it stopped. The moon shone in the rain-washed skies more brightly than before. And once more I was lost in pleasant reveries about my forthcoming marriage.

I was rudely awakened from my musings by loud and persistent knocking at the gate and shouts of "Guard, guard!" I peeped through a hole in the gate and saw two policemen and two constabulary soldiers with a man in khaki pants and a white shirt. I let them in and the man was turned over to our custody.

His name was Macario ( I have forgotten his surname) and he had just killed the prettiest taxi dancer in town. One of the policeman gave me a brief account of what had happened.

We had two cabarets in this town. The Whoopee was the better of the two. At least it was bigger and had four or five musicians in the orchestra. The Seventh Heaven usually had only two musicians. One of them kicked the wall behind him as a bass drum.

The night the Whoopee had opened as usual at eight o'clock and right from the opening piece our prison guest had taken Lily, the prettiest of the dancers and never allowed her to go back to her seat. At about eleven, the orchestra was playing a waltz. The hall was quite dark since the only light during waltzes came from one weak bulb shaded so that its light would fall only on the ticket seller's booth and the chairs of the dancers. The couples on the floor had sought the darkest corners of the hall, engrossed in other things than dancing, scarcely moving, unmindful of the faltering music of the half-asleep musicians. The handful of onlookers that remained, regular denizens of the place, were dosing, too sleepy to be interested in what the dancers were doing, yet too lazy to go home and get a proper sleep.

Suddenly a scream pierced the somnolent air and the lights were hurriedly turned on. In one corner stood Macario wild-eyed, with a bloody Batangas knife in his hand. At his feet was the crumbled figure of Lily. There had been only one clean stab wound. Lily was beyond help.

Macario was taken to the police headquarters for questioning. But the police found out that he was not fit to give any statement - he was in such a state of shock that he could hardly talk. So he was brought to us, the municipal jail being under repair at that time.

After locking him in a cell, I went back to my post. As before, everything was beautiful and serene. But I was no longer aware of the beauty of the tropic moon. I was thinking of a man in faded khaki pants and a blood-splattered white shirt. What were his thoughts? What were his feelings? Was he experiencing remorse?

During all the time Macario was with us, he barely touched his food. He behaved like one in a trance. He seemed oblivious of his surroundings.

Three days later, I was on night duty again. Just after the lights were turned off to signal bedtime for the prisoners, I heard a hysterical scream coming from Macario's cell. I ran and opened the door. There was Macario shuddering so violently that I could hear his teeth chatter. In all my life, I had never seen anybody in such a state of mortal terror.

Some moments passed before he became aware of my presence. Then he flung himself at my feet, put his arms around my knees, and whimpered, "Please sir, don't leave me alone. do anything with with me, but please don't leave me alone."

I asked what it was that so drained him of his manhood.

"It is Lily." he whispered. "She beacons me to dance with her. She keeps dancing in front of me. But she has no head! Please, sir, don't leave me alone."

Curtly and - I realize now - cruelly, I told him that a man brave enough to kill a woman should be brave enoughh to face her ghost. Then I locked the door behind me and went back to my post near the gate.

About an hour later, just as the warden had come in for one of his inspections, the same horror-filled screams issued from Macario's cell. The warden and I ran to the cell and found Macario babbling incoherently. He was shuddering so much that he could hardly hold himself up. I suggested that we call a doctor, for Macario's face was deathly pale. But the warden said there was no need.

Again it took a minute or two before Macario became aware of our presence. When he saw the warden, he said, "Sir, please don't leave me alone. Lily insists that I dance with her. But she has no head. Please don't leave me alone."

We tried to calm Macario. Since he seemed relieved when allowed to talk, we let him talk on. In this way, we learned the story of his life.

This is Macario's story:

I NEVER knew my father. As far back as I can remember, it had always been my mother and me. She supported herself and me by doing odd jobs for our neighbors. Sometimes she would be away all day sewing or laundering for one family. Another time she would take care of the household chores of a neighbor who had just delivered a child. Or she would be asked to help at a party and stay until the party was over. Then she would wake me up no matter how late the hour and make me eat some of the left-over party food that had been given to her.

When I was fifteen, she got sick with pneumonia. In a week, she was dead and I was alone in the world.

The little house where we had always lived was sold to the owner of the lot on which it stood to help pay for her funeral. After she was buried, a widow named Valentina, whom I called Na Tina, although she was not really my aunt and in fact was no relation at all, invited me to live with her. She was poor but she told me, "If we eat, you will also eat."

I went to live with her family. But from the beginning, I tried never to be an added burden, for the poor have their pride too. Sometimes they have even more pride than the rich.

The day after the funeral, I went out to earn a living. Like my mother, I grabbed at any odd job that came my way. I sold bread and got ten per cent of the sales plus a cup of coffee and two loaves of pan de sal for breakfast. But I had to wake up at three o'clock in the morning or else all the other boys would be ahead of me and I would have no bread to sell. I shined shoes. I sold newspapers and sweepstakes tickets. I would go to the bus terminal and earn a few centavos helping the passengers with their baggage. Life was hard. Many times I was tempted to steal as some of my companions did. But my poor mother had taught me honesty too well. I would turn over to Na Tina my pitifully meager earnings, keeping only enough for snacks, haircuts, some badly needed clothes, and an occasional movie at one of our bedbug-infested movie theaters.

When I was sixteen, I became a conductor for an old Ford car that was all the time breaking down. Perhaps this was due to the fact that it was long overdue at the junk pile. Furthermore, in spite of the notice on the windshield that read "6-1/2 Pass, inc. Driver," it often carried as many as sixteen passengers excluding the driver and me. I became an expert at squeezing the biggest number of people into the small interior of the car. I did not earn much as a conductor, but I learned to drive.

As soon as I knew how to drive, I obtained a driver's license by lying about my age. Then a kindly Chinese trader named Ko Nga hired me to drive his truck for thirty pesos a month with meals and the use of a dark cubicle over his garage as my sleeping quarters. For the first time in my life I had a steady income.

Not long after I became a driver, I met Lily. When I started to have my clothes laundered by her mother, Tiang Sepa. Lily ws just a tall, angular kid of fourteen. Because of poverty, she had stopped going to school.

I hardly noticed her at first. But, all at once, she seemed to have grown into a woman. When she brought my clean clothes to my room over the garage, she no longer looked at me with the direct gaze of child but with the shy glances of a girl aware of her charms. She was big for her age. She still wore children's clothes sometimes, but her blouses were tight over her breasts. Her legs were long and shapely. And she had a knack of fixing her hair that made her look like a princess to me. She was beautiful.

I fell in love with her. And I convinced myself that she loved me in return. This must have been what was wrong with us from the start - I must have loved her too much, or she must have loved me too little, or both.

Her widowed mother seemed to think it the most logical thing in the world for us to get married. In fact it was she who interrupted us while we were engrossed in lovers' talk one evening to remark. "If you love each other, why don't you get married?"

We saw no reason to disregard her suggestion. But a church wedding was not of the question. So, late one afternoon, we went to the office of the justice of the peace and became man and wife. Ko Nga and his Filipino wife acted as witnesses. As wedding gifts, they gave us a supper at a Chinese restaurant, handed Lily a crisp tense bill as a nest-egg, and gave me a three-day vacation.

From the restaurant, Lily, Tiang Sepa, whom I began to call Inay, and I dropped in at my room over the garage and carried my few possessions to their one room house. I gave Inay my mat and she spread it as far away as possible from the corner of the room where she and Lily used to sleep together, while I took her place beside Lily.

Inay pretended to be asleep as soon as she lay down less than two meters away from us on the frail, split-bamboo floor. That night I learned why couples who can afford to do so spend their honeymoon in some hotel away from home.

For a short time, I was deliriously happy. Lily was like a delicate wild flower. I thought I was the luckiest fellow in the world.

But, after a few weeks, lily began to change. She developed a taste for expensive clothes and jewelry. She would not eat if we had only rice and vegetables or dried fish. Inay and I thought that she was in the early stages of pregnancy, so we humored her. When she would not eat with us after repeated urgings, we would sit down and eat our poor man's meal. Then Inay would go to the restaurant and buy some bijon or pancit for Lily and she would eat alone.

Lily cajoled me into buying her a watch. She was eternally complaining that she did not have any '"decent" clothes. She became an avid reader of romantic stories in the vernacular and would spend our last centavo on a new issue of her favorite magazine. She insisted on seeing all the native films shown in our town. At first I used to accompany her. I enjoyed the envious glances of the loiterers at the street corners when we passed by. But I soon realized that we could not afford the luxury of going to the movies together. So I let her go alone. She would go out after lunch and come home after Inay and I had eaten supper. Usually, she had already supped at a panciteria. But no matter how hard I tried to please her, she was never satisfied.

We tried to reason with her. She would listen neither to Inay nor me. When I got angry with her, she would simply stop talking to me. For a day or two I would give her the same silent treatment. Then my need for her would make me a beggar, and I would apologize to her even if I knew she was entirely at fault. We often quarreled - it was always I who asked for forgiveness.

We had a violent quarrel a few days before her fifteenth birthday. The silent, cold war between us had lasted longer than usual, for I had resolved not to give in to her this once. But when her birthday came, I gave her the pair of earrings she had long admired at the lone jewelry store in our town. I had agreed to pay the store almost one-fourth of my monthly income for the next twelve months in order to get them for her. She put on my peace offering and was loving to me.

I began to hope that she had changed at last. Perhaps, as Inay sometimes said, everything had been caused by her immaturity. Then a few weeks later, when I returned home late one evening after a long, hot and dusty trip over ill-kept roads, Inay met me at the door with the news that Lily had gone away taking all her belongings with her.

I was stunned. I thought of a hundred different things to do but ended with doing nothing at all. I consoled myself with the thought that she would soon realize how foolishly she had acted and come home back to me.

For several weeks I tried to forget her. I continued to live with Inay. We seldom mentioned Lily to each other. I tried to bury myself in work, but I lived the life of the damned. I was continually reminded of her by a thousand different things - a dress that looked like one of hers, a smile, a manner of slowly closing and opening the eyes, the slight swaying of the hips of a girl. Every time I came home from work, there was a sudden emptiness in my heart. In fact I dreaded coming home; but I pitied Inay, my poor, long-suffering mother-in-law, who seemed to feel embarrassed for Lily's faults.

I took to drinking. I gambled. I found other women. But I could not forget Lily. All the while, even when I was with another woman, my heart ached for her.

Lily had got into my blood. I would stretch an arm for her in the middle of the night and then would remember that she was not with me, that I did not even know with whom she was sleeping at the moment. Devilish thought! My blood would boil and I would toss on my mat the rest of the evening.

After one such sleepless night, I told Inay that I had decided to look for Lily. She seemed pleased at my decision. She helped me pack a few clothes then told me to take good care of myself and return at once as soon as I had found Lily. I gave her one-half of the small amount of money I had and said goodby.

In the port city near our town, I learned that Lily had sailed for Manila. So I followed her there. I traced her in a little restaurant where she had worked as a waitress, but she had not stayed long. I learned that she later became a salesgirl, a beauty parlor assistant then a taxi dancer. I received numerous tips about her and I tried to follow up every one. When I could not find her in Manila, I started going from town to town, from province to province. Whenever my money gave out, I would settle down and get a job until I had saved a little. Then I would tell my surprised employer that I was quitting and go on my long search again.

For many months my search was fruitless. Then I came to this capital town and learned that Lily was a dancer at the Whoopee Cabaret. I went there as soon as the doors were opened. My heart was pounding wildly. When the dancers came out, I saw that she was wearing the earrings I had given her on her birthday. She was more beautiful than ever.

As soon as the orchestra started playing, I led her to the farthest corner of the hall. I had planned a thousand times what to do when we met. I knew by heart what to say to her to make her see her ungratefulness, to make her realize how cruel she had been to me. But when I held her in my arms, felt her soft bosom, and breathed the heady scent she was wearing, I became a slobbering fool. I could not even speak at first. I could not even hide my tears of joy. I could merely press her close to me and kiss her hungrily.

I told her that I forgave her for everything she had made me suffer. I reminded her of Inay back in our town, all alone waiting for us. The only answer I could get from her was a non-committal smile.

As the night wore on, I became frantic. I related to her how much I had sacrificed looking for her. I told her that I would do anything she wanted if she would only go back with me. Upon my insistence, she finally gave me an answer. She said that she could not go with me without even telling me why.

As soon as she said that, the whole world seemed to reel and turn black. All I remember now is Lily kneeling at my feet and the pool of blood widening on the floor.

And now she wants me to dance with her - and she has no head! Please do not leave me alone!

THE WARDEN ordered another detention prisoner to stay with Macario. We thought this would stop his fears. We were mistaken. Macario's cell-mate complained that Macario never slept long without beginning to talk. If not awakened at once he would start screaming. The warden gave Macario a new cell-mate every night.

The night before he was to be arraigned, Macario appeared more troubled than usual. Many of the prisoners said that they could not sleep because of Macario's screams. But, towards morning, he became calmer. He was heard talking as if in pleasant conversation with someone. Then all was quiet and everybody was thankful that at last Macario was sound asleep.

Next morning, just before roll call, Macario's latest cell-mate gave an excited shout. When the corporal of the guards and I ran to their cell, we saw that Macario was dead. For a moment we thought that it was somebody else, for Macario looked so different in death. His face was a picture of peace; on his lips was the beginning of a smile.



The Claverias 1998-2002. All rights reserved.