Short story by Percival Campoamor Cruz
Early riser old man Tandang Berong limped toward the vegetable and fruit patch at the back of his humble house. It was before dawn and soon her daughter would be back. It was a daily early morning ritual. He would wake up early, the daughter would come home from work, and they would have breakfast together.
He sat in a reclining chair made out of balete wood and savored the fragrance of the dama de noche which sweet fragrance wafted in the air only at night. He could hear from afar the soft crackle of dried leaves being stepped on and thought it was already her daughter coming. She would bring food for him.
Yesterday, he ate some bananas from the backyard tree and picked out some tomatoes and a few pieces of kalamansi from the vegetable patch and made a concoction of a juice for himself. He had to be on his own for the most part, although he knew his daughter could be depended on for help, when the chore became more difficult.
Tandang Berong used to be the master of his own jungle kingdom in the mountain. Now he was old and blind. His survival depended on his only companion in life, daughter Marya.
He fought the Japanese as a guerrilla in the very mountain where he presently lived. Japan had dreamt of extending the Empire of the Rising Sun all over Asia. Kamikazes attacked Pearl Harbor by surprise and provoked the Americans into an expansive war that saw Asia burning and devastated, including the Philippines. Tandang Berong and his group of one-thousand men were farmers turned soldiers in defense of the Philippines’ freedom. They were called Berong's Guerrillas.
Mount Makiling, the Philippines’ Mount Parnassus, was never dishonored by the Japanese, thanks to the fierce defense set up by Tandang Berong and his men. Makiling was a majestic mountain-volcano visible to the naked eye from the vantage point of the big city of Manila. From afar it looked like a sleeping maiden whose long hair flowed on verdant fields across the plain. It was a sleeping giant, indeed, an inactive volcano that was quiet in its outward appearance but whose interiors were cauldrons of super hot lava and steam. It spewed hot spring water into the outlying towns whose inhabitants thought it wise to build pools and spas and make the hot mineral water a treat and a business for visitors to enjoy; thus, one of the towns at the foot of Mount Makiling was called, Los Banos, The Baths.
Philippine national hero Jose Rizal edified Mount Makiling, like Parnassus in Greece, as the home of the goddesses who gave poets and artists the inspiration to be creative. Rizal lived not too far away from Los Banos, in a town called Calamba. It was probably upon the invocation of the Makiling goddess that Rizal was able to write his poems and monumental novel, “Noli Me Tangere”.
Rizal and the people who lived around the base of Mount Makiling knew the legend very well – that there was a beautiful maiden who lived in the revered mountain and her name was Maria. Hunters who tried to explore the mountain and kill animals became lost and they were led back on the right track by a beautiful young woman. It was believed Maria protected the mountain and the animals that roamed around its fields and ravines. She made sure the forest and the waters were immaculate and sweet. Long, long time ago before protection of the environment became a worldwide aspiration, Maria Makiling, as she was fondly called by Filipinos, was already living as nature’s best friend.
General McArthur and the American forces came to the Philippines and threw out the Japanese. The liberated Philippines began rebuilding and the government compensated the guerrillas. It was not an equitable compensation though; for instance, many of the farmers were not given back their lands. Tandang Berong and his men decided to keep their arms and continue fighting for justice, this time against the very government that they had defended.
They were soon branded as communists and Mount Makiling became a bloody war zone between the government soldiers and Tandang Berong’s hold-outs. Tandang Berong’s men were either killed, one by one, or lured to the big city by the prospect of a better life. In the end, there were only Tandang Berong and his daughter.
The government knew what had happened to Tandang Berong. He became a defeated man, a broken man, destitute and blind. Out of compassion the government just left him alone.
Marya, Tandang Berong’s daughter, worked as an entertainer in one of the cocktail lounges at the foot of the mountain. She told her father she was working as a cashier in a resort hotel, but she lied; she took on the demeaning job of a hostess; that was why she was out to work at night. But she had a purpose for taking on the job.
When she found the opportunity, Marya took long walks around the mountain, which she knew so well. The deer and the birds and other animals followed her or gathered around her to listen to her stories. She cuddled them and gave them water. Was she the reincarnation of the goddess spoken of by Rizal or was she the same person, ageless and destined to live forever?
She gathered food and cooked for her old father. She washed his clothes in the spring running by their house. She held his hand and guided him around the mountain whenever he wanted to take long walks. Sometimes, she sat down beside him to read the latest news.
Marya was a beautiful young woman who gave up the prospect of a good life in order to take care of her father and the mountain. She had met men of high education and good means who had offered her marriage but she turned them all down. Tandang Berong lost his wife, Marya’s mother, during the height of the armed resistance against the government. She got shot and died in an encounter with the government soldiers. Marya had vowed never to leave her father alone.
The heights of Mount Makiling was a place of honor, a place for everything that was endearing - peace, beauty, honesty and nobility. It was a sanctuary that survived the onslaught of progress and all the evils that came with it.
Life at the foothills was competitive. People had to struggle daily and fight for jobs, food, space, and survival itself. Money was available to the fit and the strong; the clever and the hardened; those who had values to offer; in the case of Marya, the values were her youth, beauty and idealism.
She was so pure and beautiful and yet she needed to comingle with people of questionable character. The manager at the cocktail lounge where she worked had asked her not to discriminate. Every character who passed through the cocktail lounge’s doorway was a valuable customer who needed to be cajoled and given good service.
One of the workers at the cocktail lounge was Dante. He was a bouncer, a bodyguard. He took care of calming down or throwing out rowdy customers. He led a double life: That of a bouncer and that of a spy for the communist rebels. In fact he was No. 5 on the most-wanted list of the military.
He passed on information to his comrades that enabled them to know the leadership and the movements of government troops. Just recently he fed information that led to the ambush and killing of a top general. Two comrades riding on motorcycles shot the general while he was driving in his car. The general, some kind of an intelligence officer, was known for torturing jailed suspected communists.
Unknown to their co-workers, Marya and Dante were sweethearts. They watched out for each other. At the end of work, at the break of dawn, Dante always trailed Marya on her way home making sure she made it safely to her father’s abode at the mountain.
In a rich country made poor by corruption in the government, idealists took up the cudgel for the poor and powerless people. The ideological divide was frequently discussed in the media. Politicians and their families waged lives and fortune to be elected into office. Once entrenched in office they had to pay themselves back. They became political dynasties that sucked up the nation’s wealth, managed public funds in self-serving ways; and they hanged on to power for decades by way of maintaining dishonest elections and private armies and helping themselves to the nation’s coffers. It took radical measures on the part of the idealists to effect change, because elections and media exposes were not effective enough, like going underground, engaging the police and soldiers in battles, and plotting and executing assassinations.
The generals, corrupt themselves, took pleasure in having enemies, particularly, dissidents who rebelled against the government. The more battles there were to fight, the more funds there were for the generals to manipulate.
Dante’s brother was a student in the university who the military arrested, tortured and killed. He was a student leader who participated in many of the uneven battles on the streets between unarmed students and armed police and soldiers. Dante joined the underground people’s army in order to avenge the death of his brother.
Marya was the daughter of militant parents. Outwardly she was the picture of calm and beauty. Inside her being, Marya was a hardened warrior-princess who wanted revenge for the death of her mother and the countless soldiers of his father who had been killed by the government military.
It did not take long for the military to cast suspicion on the characters of Marya and Dante. They became the objects of surveillance. One particular early morning when the couple was heading for Marya’s home, Dante sensed that they were being followed.
Marya knew the forest very well. She led Dante to a safe cluster of bushes and waited for their pursuers there. When the shadows of a band of seven soldiers became visible, Dante aimed his AK47 at the shadows and started shooting. Then the couple ran up to the mountain house where Marya lived. Now they needed to leave immediately and take Tandang Berong along with them.
Tandang Berong had expected that Marya would be home, like in the past, worry-free and bringing goods for him. It was a different circumstance this time.
“Mang Berong, we have to go,” Dante hurriedly broke out the news. “The soldiers will be here soo to kill all of us.”
Marya in the meantime picked up a few things in the house and got his father ready for the flight.
“Go, my dear son. Go Marya. I will stay.” The old man spoke.
“My days will soon be over. I choose to die in this mountain. You’re both young and just starting out, you both deserve a future. You have places to see, things to do. Go, now and worry not for me. You don’t need an old man to slow you down. I won’t make it, anyway. I’m better off here.” The old man continued.
Daughter and father, committed to each other forever, were seeing the end of a noble bond. A tragic life made beautiful by the majesty of the mountain was coming to a denouement; or, was it a mountain of tragedy made beautiful by the majesty of the daughter-father’s noble life? As the impasse was going on between the daughter who needed to live on for reasons embedded in her heart and the father who knew he had reached the climax of a valiant existence, a quick rumbling sound was heard and the surrounding was suddenly enveloped by a thick cover of dust or smoke. Marya, Tandang Berong and Dante vanished when the cover settled down.
Did the soldiers roll by in tanks and snatch the three uncertain individuals?
Did an earthquake or avalanche just occur?
Did a horde of animals materialize at the scene and spirit away the important personages? Did the animals want to rescue their caregivers and take them to a sanctuary deep in the heart of the forest where the beloved characters could have a safe and well-provided existence. The startling event occurred so lightning fast that in a few moments the solitary house in the mountain stood quiet and eerie in the dark.
Maria, the priestess of the forest, the nymph of Mount Makiling in the person of Marya, vanished. . . to appear, perhaps, in another generation. The legend of Maria Makiling lived on.