It was one mid-October night. Nature pervaded the senses with the pungent texture of the newly tilled soil at the foot of the mountain.
Manolo and Elena were immediately revived from slumber by successive gun fires. The horrifying sound was very near from where their nipa hut stood. Together with the deafening noise they heard outside were the flashing of lights and howling of people who cried for help. Two choppers appeared in the southeast, roaring and dropping a few flash bombs. A shower of light illuminated the whole area. Then high powered guns began raking at the place again.
Awakened, Manolo rushed through the window to determine what was happening in the vicinity. Bullets were raining and their neighbors were already soaking wet with their own blood. Some carabaos and cows were startled and vaulted over the men’s bodies.
In front of the house facing theirs, Mang Ambo, the jueteng cobrador, was shot from behind with an armalite, as he was among those who were trapped in the encounter. Scenario like this always occurred in the region, only that this was the bloodiest of them all. The bullet came out of Mang Ambo’s temple. His forehead oozed with blood. His left eyeball almost hang from its socket because of the gunshot’s impact. Manolo trembled but he tried to regain his composure. He rushed through the secret pit located under their cabinet. He secretly excavated that pit years ago. He hid something in it. A handgun.
Manolo concealed the gun under his sweatshirt. He did not want his wife to see it because the only device Elena knew he could use was a plough. Then he crawled under the bed where his wife was hiding to avoid the ricocheting cartridges ramming the place. Elena was trembling as she cried so Manolo embraced his wife to pacify her.
“We’re going to die,” Elena wept.
Manolo held his wife tighter, and then he said, “No mahal, we’re not going to die. I’m here. I won’t leave you.”
As more bullets smashed into the area, the couple’s senses started to become immune of the disturbance. The roaring of ammunitions took two more hours. Then, silence.
From the place where they hid themselves, the couple came out. Manolo walked ahead of Elena while they gripped each other’s hands. There, they saw that most of the nearby houses were burnt. Many of their neighbors bathed in their own blood.
“Oh my God,” cried Elena upon seeing carnage.
The couple was ready to run off the place for fear that the encounter would start again when Elena saw Aling Puring, a close friend of her deceased mother, lying on the ground. Impulse checked in so she tried if the old lady was still breathing.
“Aling Puring,” whispered Elena while pressing the palm of the woman as she tried to get some pulsation.
“Mahal, hurry. They might catch us here. We need to hide again,” shouted Manolo as he pulled Elena from where she knelt.
Elena was about to stand up when she felt a cock of a pistol. As if she already surrendered her life, she closed her eyes and waited for the shooter to pull the trigger. But there was no bang. Instead, she heard more footsteps coming her way.
When people rushing towards the couple’s direction finally assembled in a common ground, they were commanded by those armed with weaponry to bend their heads. Then the people in the neighborhood who managed to survive in the encounter were hand cuffed—about twelve of them. Elena thought they would be handcuffed too but they were not. Perplexed, she looked at her husband to ask what was going on but Manolo intentionally did not look back at her.
In the middle of the night, Elena together with the eleven other captives, were commanded by their captors to follow pathways that were unfamiliar to their senses. No matter how scared they felt, they obeyed what they were told. They feared that if they defy their captors, their lives would not be spared.
They already hiked for almost four hours yet huge trees and inclined terrains still surrounded them. Crickets were chirping all over the place. Mosquitoes were biting them so hard. They had also crossed plenty of streams, most of which were only knee deep. They were all catching their breath.
“My knees are already trembling,” complained Elena.
“Don’t give up just now, Mahal. We are already close,” Manolo, told her. “And Mahal, whatever it is that you will find out, always remember that I love you so much. We will go back home soon. I promise,” Manolo held Elena’s hand tightly.
Elena did not answer back. She wrinkled her brows. She was puzzled. She was even more baffled when one of the captors, who walked ahead of them, turned his head to the couple’s direction when he heard what Manolo said. A faint smile arched on his face.
In two more hours of hiking, it was almost daylight. While Manolo thought they were already near the captors’ base, a sharp bombardment coming from above shattered the stillness of the night. A chopper. The enemies had pursued them. Then somebody shouted, “Take cover!”
Some of them immediately rushed into the nearby scrubs and some lay on the ditches of the uneven ground. An explosion flashed in front of the men hiding behind the bushes and their bodies were tossed just like the tree sapling into the sky. Manolo instructed Elena to lie prostrate on the slope of a gully, not daring to lift their heads to the blazing air. They kept their mouths open so that the blasts wouldn’t crack their eardrums. Around them, men shrieked and moaned. Some were twisting on the ground, crying for help. Some of the rebels, dead or unconscious, were still clasping their guns.
The attack lasted only five minutes but it slain almost two-thirds of the total number of the men who hiked. Along the timbered place, flames and smoke were rising from crushed carts and disabled mountain guns. Only two carts of the captors’ food supplies and two baggages of armaments were salvaged.
Two of the rebels helped somebody to his feet and walked him toward a group of hammock bearers who were bringing the wounded back to their camp. Right in front of Elena and Manolo, a skinny boy, about fifteen years old, walked while carrying one end of the hammock, on which a man lie with his face bandaged.
After a few more hours, when the group was assured that nobody was pursuing them anymore, they continued to trek until the captors, together with their captives, finally reached their destination. They arrived at the base when the sun was already rising. They might have survived but one third of the captors’ team was lost during the encounter. All of them could no longer stand on their feet. Elena’s legs were swollen and one of her slippers had a broken sole so Manolo had to accompany her.
Elena noticed as they entered the camp that there were so many troops moving back and forth the front of the base. She thought that as soon as it was nighttime, the passageways would turn hectic, raucous and jammed with artillery pieces, carts drawn by animals, rebel porters carrying supplies of food and ammunition, and lines of stretchers with the wounded. Elena had these speculations drifting in her mind when the captors brought their hostages inside a wooden hut, which was surrounded by guards.
Having walked all night, Manolo helped Elena slouched on the bamboo floor to rest her feet. He sat beside her. She closed her eyes temporarily as she felt nauseated. While taking a rest, she heard some voices speaking from a distance. She slowly opened her eyes. She tried looking beyond the window to see who were talking, but the view was blurred by leaves hanging by the pane. All she can see was a shade of green concealing what was outside.
Frustrated with what she saw, Elena looked around the house instead. Then she remembered Manolo. He was no longer by her side. Heart hastening, she tried to figure out where he was. She looked all over the place. Beside her were their women neighbors. Across the unlocked door at the reverse side of the house were the male hostages. Manolo was nowhere in sight.
At about seven o’clock in the morning, their captors brought them a hearty meal—rice, stewed fish and some fried camote. Elena could barely eat. She was worried about Manolo but she could not do anything.
Right after their meal, the detainees were asked to listen to a meeting called upon by the leader of the organization that captured them. As they waited for the speaker, Aling Simang, who was seated right beside Elena, saw Manolo approaching their way. He was accompanied by two guards. Elena did not notice her husband coming because she was preoccupied in speculating who the rebels’ head was, so Aling Simang tapped Elena on her lap and told her, “Elena, there’s Manolo.”
The wife hoped that Manolo would be sitting next to her but she was wrong. Manolo was carried by his lookouts on the opposite side of the group where the male captives were assembled. Elena was about to rush where Manolo was, when a loud, coarse voice reverberated.
“I’m sorry you were caught in the middle of a fight you should have not gotten into. They were pursuing us so we had no choice but to hostage you.” Ka Nilo said.
Ka Nilo had something else to say when somebody disrupted his litany. “As soon as ceasefire will be communicated, you will be brought home.”
Elena was stunned upon witnessing who talked. Although still baffled, she caught Manolo taking a glance at her. She looked back and stared at him. He smiled. Then, she realized that they would no longer return to their barrio and that this was the home he pertained.
Photo Credits to Bulatlat.com
ATTENTION: THIS LITERARY PIECE IS COVERED BY INT’L INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY LAWS.
This short story is an excerpt in the thesis presented to the College of Arts and Sciences, University of the Philippines in Los Baños, April 2008.