CONJUNCTIONS:62, Exile (Spring 2014)
Song of Magsaysay
With Alipato imprisoned and the rebels defeated and the nation at peace, Jejo resigned from his post at the AFP Eighteenth and returned to Lingayen, the tolerable port town in northern Luzon where his life had begun, to raise chickens. He had his army pistol (he wasn’t giving that up) and fifty pesos in his pocket and ten years of war to account for, three against the Japanese and seven against himself. He would score his trespass, scrape together enough fowl to start a small business, and maybe find another Red, the gamecock who had kept his pockets full in ’49 and nearly gotten him killed in 1950. He’d loved that steadfast rooster almost more than his own wife for a time, loved him for the life he enabled Jejo, those wild nights of coconut wine and outrageous bets and girls on the side and bold, furtive meetings in the jungle with men reeking of boar fat and gun oil and cash counted in the head. Back then he could reckon how many pesos in a wad by glancing at the edges of the dirty bills rolled together and tied with jute. He’d take the string off the bills and stuff them in a front pocket and use the string to tie the double-edged gaffs to Red’s feet. The cock would judge Jejo with his yellow eyes, wary and fearless at once, and tense his strong wings. Beautiful, ragged, wine-black wings. Wings like those of the angels Jejo had witnessed at the Battle of Urdaneta in ’43, when the Rikugun Taisa slaughtered the sitio of Balaoen and tossed the bodies into the Agno. Blood-black wings, hardboiled in the cauldron of war, brought now to the dirt pit of a squalid village cockfight.
Red’s opponent that night was a haughty rooster by the name of Boy, a newcomer from the barrio of Bayambang, larger than Red and younger and likely quicker, with an ebony head and ocher feathers as lustrous as polished balsa and a reputation whose grass-fire spread seemed to have summoned the entire underworld of Rosales to the sabong. The arena bleachers creaked with feral anticipation as all those fools, hypnotized by Boy’s meretricious strut, placed their hard-earned centavos into the brokers’ hands. All across the islands it was a time of recklessness and seeming plenty. The new democracy had seeped like alcohol into the blood of the people, given them hopes of self-determination. As long as you weren’t a tenant farmer pathetically locked up in the feudalism of the past, you had a peso or two in your pocket to wager on the future, which hovered like the prize ring on the amusement-park carousel—and here it was, brother, in Boy’s gleaming feathers and brusque martial swagger, right in front of you.
Even Lamar, Jejo’s second, faltered there in the back room. Jejo was annoyed at Lamar’s slumped posture, at the fright in those averted eyes. It was irksome and uncalled for, and on impulse Jejo reached into his pocket and pulled out the thick roll of bills. Give this to Old Titan, he said, stretching out his arm to Lamar.
But Lamar shook his head. That one looks smart, he said. I heard he beat every cock in the Villasis sabong, to say nothing of Bayambang.
Well, we’re not in Villasis or in Bayambang, Jejo said, we’re here in Rosales. Give Titan the money before it’s too late.
Lamar put out a limp hand and let the bills be placed in it. Are you sure? he said.
Jejo turned away and crouched to tighten a knot on Red’s foot. He pressed his thumb softly against the gaff, sharper than a razor. He laid a warm hand on Red’s warm wing.
Give him the goddamn money, Lamar.
Lamar turned and left. When he was gone, Jejo took Red in both hands and held him up to study his eyes, two roving, citrine gems with their own inner light. He was sure. And a few minutes later when he stepped out into the pit he was sure. The fellow from Bayambang was already out there in the loud, smoky air. His name was Maol and he had the look of an essentially destitute man on the string of many successes. Boy was crooked in his arm like a brand-new trophy and for just a moment Jejo doubted. He thought about the astronomical sum of money he’d put on the fight—he even turned to see if Lamar had given Old Titan the money yet, all the money Jejo possessed save for the fifty pesos buried in a jar in the ground beneath the ageless tamarind, all the money he’d risked his life for messing around in the jungle in the middle of the night selling Garands or gasoline or rice or information, then turning around and selling it back to the other side, his side—though he wasn’t sure which side he was on half the time. He knew only that his veins craved what the world gave him whenever he found himself in that in-between space where people took you for what you appeared to be and what you appeared to be was what you did. And Jejo could do a lot, even more since the previous ACP1 liaison had been caught napping on duty and sacked, and he, Jejo, made regimental documenter in his place—all due to Magsaysay, a man who Jejo had by then come to recognize could do more than anybody else.
And then he wasn’t doubting anymore, he was squatting in the pit dirt with Red in his hands squaring off with the fellow from Bayambang and his beautiful cock. He couldn’t hear what with the betting’s deafening din but saw the pit master’s lips move and loosed Red into the pit with Boy, Red looking scruffy beside that golden cock and sluggish beside that cock’s evident dispatch. Boy moved his head up and forth, back and down, side to side, sizing up Red’s threats and weaknesses. The crowd’s cacophonous cries thundered throughout the arena. Men who three hours earlier had been begging twigs at the edge of fallow fields now stretched out fistfuls of money and screamed feverishly as the cocks made zigzag feints, lifting their feet delicately, darting their delirious eyes, and with their gaffs nicking small cuts into the packed dirt of the pit, little letters of an alphabet no one could understand. The gold cock raised his head high, shot out his wings, and rushed forward like an ocean wave, Red rising at the same time not quite as high and lifting both his feet and striking out as Boy came in. Shouts surged in the smoky air. Wings flurried faster than the human eye. The two cocks were a violent knot of dust and movement at the center of the fight pit then of a sudden separate again, two roosters eyeing one another warily while a few stray feathers floated down onto the dust like discarded memories. The crowd swooned and hushed and the arena floor seemed to tilt. For Jejo it felt as though the entire island, the whole beleaguered key of Luzon had been lifted on the giant swell of a tsunami, and in that surreal and quiet weightlessness he heard his wife’s voice calling to him from the kitchen, listened to her dip the bamboo spoon into the crock, hearkened to his son’s small, high pleasure at the miracle of dinner. He realized it was over. The cock from Bayambang lifted one foot and, as if not wanting to step in his own blood, couldn’t find a place to put it down again. He tumbled onto his side and stretched out one wing and retracted it and twitched his head three last times.
Jejo was already moving forward. He swept his rope-soled shoes across the pit dirt and scooped Red up even before Boy’s eye had ceased its seeing. The bettors roared and surged, clambering from the rickety benches down onto the dirt floor of the pit and across to collect or mourn their money, the fellow from Bayambang all the while waving his arms and yelling something through his rotted teeth. Jejo shoved himself rearward through the throng of men, keeping Red tucked protectively under one arm, and went out back beneath the bleachers to the coop. Old Titan would give him the money later. He patted Red as much to calm himself as the cock and quickly untied the gaffs and put them in his pocket. He placed Red in the cage and checked the water and the feed and latched the door and then Lamar, out of breath, was at the chicken wire saying, Jejo, there’s something wrong. Jejo could hear a gang of men yelling and shoving their way underneath the bleachers to the coop. He hurried down an unlit corridor and out a back door and considered escaping across the dark, empty lot when Red’s brave orange eye blinked as if in Jejo’s own mind and stopped him. He had the money coming to him now and he could do what he wanted. He looked at the empty lot with its weeds and broken glass and at a row of battered palms in the distance and at the shards of stars overhead, and instead of fleeing he turned and walked slowly around the sagging stadium, back into the electric lights out front.
Men were streaming from the arena talking loudly and shaking their heads and grabbing each other’s shirts and buying bottles of beer from a smart peasant set up outside the stadium. Jejo went over and bought a bottle himself. The bottle was green and the beer American and nothing he’d call cold. Get yourself more ice, he said to the peasant, tossing him a few centavos. The peasant took the money and put it in his pocket. Jejo moved over to a streetlight and leaned his back against the pole. Above the halo of electric light muddy shapes swooped down from the night and snapped at the flying insects. Bats. That was when Maol emerged from the stadium with some of his friends and one of them pointed at Jejo. They strode over and stood around him, one behind him to his left and one behind him to his right and another behind Maol’s left shoulder. Maol was wearing a white T-shirt with a big hole in one armpit and his mouth hung open like an ugly black wound.
I know what you did, Maol said. Thin muscles rippled on his bare arms.
What did I do? Jejo said.
I know what you did, Maol said again.
What? Jejo said.
Motherfucker, Maol said, the gaff was long. No way Boy would lose to that hen of yours, not.
Take it up with the sentensyador, Jejo said. His name is Don Titan.
I know, Maol said. So why you rub the tracks out then? Why you run off with your hen and untie the gaffs before anyone see?
The gaffs. Jejo had them in his pocket and he reached in and grasped one delicately with the fingers of his right hand.
It was a fair fight, Jejo said, unlike this one, but which I won’t lose either. He took a draft of his beer, raised the bottle to Maol, and said, Why don’t you have one? And from his pocket he pulled the gaff out into plain sight. Have a beer, Jejo said, it was a fair fight.
The tendons in Maol’s neck flickered and the fraught constellation of men with Jejo at its center seemed to quiver. It was a country accustomed to great, unimaginable violence. Violence was a taste in the air like the too-sweet scent of jasmine, murder a hunger gnawing at the Philippine soul. The islanders had learned it in Bataan and Corregidor, at Malaga and Balangiga, at Lonoy and Tupas Cebu and on Mactan and before, in the aboriginal rites, the ghoulish ceremonies honoring the ancient poltergeists. Jejo sensed those spirits of the other world press in around him, greedy for another man. He felt his body grow tight like a bow drawn back and was ready to hurl himself at the mark.
But the world shifted and torqued. Time curved, and the spirits withdrew as an engine rumbled into earshot and a truck pulled up. Its brakes gave a short, loud squeal and several soldiers jumped down from the back of the truck and headed for the beer cart. Sergeant Castro recognized Jejo immediately. The sergeant approached in a slumped swagger, swinging his heavy rifle low, and was about to smile when he saw Jejo staring at Maol and read Maol’s sweaty glare, full of the hatred of a man who thinks he’s been wronged or was wronged, there was no difference. Maol’s men were already gone, disappeared into the dregs of the crowd, and Maol too was about to leave with a last look of bitter scorn when Castro called out to him.
Maol turned, his face dull with hostility.
Your papers, Castro said, flicking his fingers toward him and glancing at Jejo conspiratorially.
I have none, Maol said.
Money then, Castro snapped.
Maol just shrugged.
No papers, no pesos, Castro sang in an evil voice, glancing around to make sure he had the attention of his audience.
Jejo had seen this type of thing—one man waving a gun at another with vicious glee—too many times before, and somewhere in his mind one time was one too many. But a couple of the privates grinned at the little drama Sergeant Castro was putting on for them, pulling at their beers and happy that the universe had arbitrarily granted them power and seeming immortality.
Maol hung his arms down like two wasted puppets.
You’re a sympathizer! Castro said loudly.
Maol shook his head.
You like them, don’t you, Castro hissed interrogatively, prodding Maol in the ribs with the barrel of his rifle. The Communists.
No, Maol said.
Castro circled around, a hyena taking its time. Jejo could see the sweat on Maol’s forehead. Maol suddenly seemed familiar, a face in the jungle dark just beyond the firelight.
No? Castro asked. You don’t like Communists?
Maol shook his head.
Say they are scum.
They are scum, Maol said.
And you are scum, Castro said.
Maol shook his head.
They are scum, Maol said.
Castro looked over at Jejo for a cue. Jejo wanted it finished. He inclined his head slightly to one side. He would, he suddenly decided, use the money he’d won to leave this abysmal place. Get off the islands altogether. Go to America and work on the railroad.
Get the fuck out of here, Castro said to Maol, waving the rifle, and Maol was gone.
Castro poked a thumb over his own shoulder. Fucking bandito, that one, he said with a grin and a shake of his head.
But Jejo was looking at the soldiers crowding around the beer peddler’s cart. He said, Tell your men to pay for the beer, Castro.
Are you kidding? Castro said. We were on patrol over in Nogales all afternoon and barely had time to eat a rice ball before we were ordered over to Cubao just after sunset. You know what it’s like over there? We had to bulldoze and burn. The men worked hard. We’re on our way back to base.
They should pay, Jejo said.
Not on our salary, Castro said, and it was as though Magsaysay had heard him, Jejo remembered afterward, as though the secretary could eavesdrop on the multitudinous whispers coursing across the archipelago. For not two months later the law was drafted in Magsaysay’s own hand on a yellow-paged legal pad and typed up by an assistant and passed on, and on 15 September 1950, word reached the Rosales garrison that soldiers’ daily pay was to be raised from thirty centavos to one full peso, effective immediately, with the caveat that any soldier hereafter caught confiscating or demanding food from peasants without compensation would be punished to the full extent of the military code. But the soldiers merely smiled at one another and winked and shrugged, because who would tell on them? And they laughed like children and punched one another on the shoulder and grinned because they could finally afford some whores the likes of Niñita, the Chinese girl who worked at Madame Tin’s place off the plaza and had volcano-shaped breasts and was rumored to have such a sweet spot she could squeeze the juice out of your pingo without thrusting—but pay for food? Never.
The soldiers chuckled for a few weeks, until the next order was passed, an unthinkable one declaring that from this day forth until further notice all citizens of the islands, from Luzon to Mindanao and from Palawan to Samar, including especially the destitute and the illiterate and specifically all landless peasants, migrant agricultural workers, indentured servants, and small-time merchants, were hereby empowered to send telegrams of complaint free of charge from any postal office directly to the Department of National Defense. And by November it was already clear that the telegrams didn’t go straight to scissors, nor were they piled in a bin and left to fade and rot. There was an entire room in Malacañang Palace with a full-time staff scrutinizing the messages and filing each telegram and cataloging each offense, with the worst abuses passed on to the inestimable Magsaysay himself and read by him and acted on, with well-tuned army jeeps pulling up at dawn in even the remotest backwaters of the islands unloading Magsaysay’s devout minions, smart young officers with ironed uniforms and heavy metal clipboards who poked around asking questions and took the peasants for their very word, swear to God Almighty.
Jejo had heard, for instance, of a farmer in Conception, half a day’s walk from Rosales, who was given a hog after his own had been confiscated by a squad from the Fiftieth Regiment and slow-roasted in a shallow pit. And now that squad had been removed to Davao and was said to be clearing trees and filling swamps from sunup till midnight for forty days straight, forty days of penance for a pig. But the pig—even that paled if you believed the rumors about Davao, for whispers had been circulating among the palm fronds and rice fields of the provinces, whispers of promise and generosity, whispers that the government was giving away land on the island of Mindanao. Of course, it couldn’t be true. Could anyone, could even Magsaysay care enough about the peasants to give them land? When Jejo considered the idea and found himself half believing, he scoffed for being such a gullible fool. He prided himself on being a man not easily taken in, something his father had taught him one long-gone afternoon with a stick and a coin and a bucket of water, his father who’d swept the schoolhouse every morning and gleaned the pastor’s field and weeded the cemetery every Sunday for twenty years and refused to sign papers he couldn’t read and so signed nothing and lost nothing, unlike the peasants who marked the church papers with a charcoal X legal as taxes and saw their little huts and their pitiful fields of grain and even their skinny livestock sequestered until they had nothing but rags on their backs and ten years of work to pay for what they didn’t own anymore. Jejo, though he’d escaped such fate thanks to his father’s strong head, didn’t see that the world had changed much since then.
Still, now there were Magsaysay’s free telegrams and impromptu inspections, and the peasant reimbursed a hog in Conception. Those things had happened. So, Jejo thought, why not land? Rising up inside him and gaining clarity, the idea broomed the future clean, opening up possibilities neither Jejo nor the country had ever before considered. Land for Arms—the slogan was so simple, so beautiful and elegant, and it’d been Magsaysay’s idea, it was Magsaysay who’d heard the grumbling of the destitute, Magsaysay who was sending the army to the south to clear land for the peasants—or so the winds were whispering.
There were many whispers by then and, like Magsaysay, Jejo had his ear keenly trained to them. There were whispers about loads of American money trucked into the PDD2 by night, legal tender as green as fig leaves. And it was said that in the presidential palace there existed a red Bakelite phone wired directly to Washington, DC, and that every evening at 8:00 p.m. sharp the phone rang and Elpidio Quirino picked it up and was forced to listen to President Truman’s folksy but stern convictions on the politics of Pakistan and China, and now Korea, until his ear hurt. More menacingly, Truman spoke the word “atomic” often, and sometimes the adjective “hydrogen.” Elpidio was chilled by how casually the American president uttered such words, for Truman spoke them as if he were conversing over coffee and biscuits, and Elpidio, feeling as though the moisture of the evening jungle were seeping into his bones, would motion to his aides to shut the grand palace windows.
In coming days it was noted that an unannounced military advisor, pale as a ghost but cougar strong and wily, had begun haunting the hallways of Malacañang Palace. Magsaysay’s white shadow, the people called him. So pale, like a vampire. And like a vampire, capable of unspeakable acts. In the same breath came talk of something called joosmog3 being crated off the destroyers in Subic Bay, though what it was was anyone’s guess. Unmarked crates unloaded by gargantuan cranes in the early gray mornings, innumerable wooden crates the size of coffins, still reeking of pine and sticky with resin. Juice magg, someone murmured. Special feed for the horses, because a cavalry was being prepared for an assault up the plains and into the Baguio pass. Jusmag incendiary to defoliate the heavy palms and creeper vines enshrouding Mount Arayat, and they would dry up the Candaba Swamp with the sponge of the dead foliage. Jussmug: propaganda designed by Madison Avenue admen to brainwash the enemy, bulletproof armor, undepletable energy, the ability to see at night. The seagulls careening above Subic Bay decried and laughed above the ships, the monkeys on Corregidor bayed sorrowfully from their trees, the Pasig floated rumors upstream into the artichoke heart of Luzon where the Huks around their campfires, looking up at the coconut moon, hearkened carefully, full of skepticism and cunning; hungry, idealistic men fortified and made realistic by their convictions.
Those Huks, they looked up at the same seashell moon Jejo admired walking home after Red’s sabong and the aborted fistfight with Maol, but the rebels were in the jungle, sprawled beneath banana leaves amid swarms of mosquitoes, while Jejo retired to his grassroofed Bontoc hut beside the river on the edge of town and drank whiskey from a bottle, just enough to give him a little push into the night, Josephine Baker at low volume on the radio. With his winnings he would leave for America, soon. He ate bread dipped in leftover adobo sauce and flipped through an old issue of Time, now and then lifting his eyes to gaze at the glamour shot of Lee Miller he’d clipped from a newspaper and slipped into an edge of the mirror frame, the beautiful Lee Miller sitting in her daddy’s lap, her face sculpture perfect, her prim black dress boding ferocious sensuality. Right now she was in a New York skyscraper, just roused from peaceful sleep by sunlight reflecting off the East River, a long way away, Jejo mused, more than a world away from Rosales and its ignorant wooden shacks, its dark peoples, its common violences. He thought of Red crouching in his cage in the darkness behind the arena and of Maol driving back to Bayambang with Boy dead on the floorboard, how the headlights would be cutting through the darkness and edging along the blackness of the trees on either side of the road, the pine trees at the edge of the forest where the Hukbo Magpalaya ng Bayan were gathered in small bands, tending their fires and cleaning their weapons, then lying down on the ground to listen to the wind in the brush and to the spirits as ancient as darkness slipping through the trees and sleep.
Jejo too. He turned off the radio and snuffed the lamp and lay down on the mattress with his arms behind his head. July mosquitoes buzzed at the sleeping net and Jejo covered his feet tightly with the sheet to keep the asuangs from the scent. Those supernatural creatures were the ghosts of men and women and children murdered by the Japanese Army at Balaoen and thrown from the Santa Maria Bridge into the Agno River. After midnight on moonlit nights their busted skeletons, the bones blackened with mud and hardened by the cruelty they’d suffered, would clamber from the river seeking reprieve from their watery purgatory. Drawn to the sour redolence of human sweat, they would steal into your bedroom and grasp your ankle with a bony hand, and if you reached for a lamp there’d already be another skeletal hand on it so you were forced until morning to bear their hissed whispers telling you of gold they had buried and would you dig up the gold for them in the dead of night to pay for their passage out of purgatory? Because the afterlife was just as greedy and unfair as the Manila slums, and the murdered, though they had the sympathy of the living, were scorned by the dead and spat on and their sufferings scoffed at, for the spirits held the souls of victims and oppressors both vile. The Catholic Church was wrong and those who believed the scriptures would be miserable in the afterlife, where the spirits were more ancient than the Bible and darker and deeper than the blackest depths of the Philippine Trench.
Nearby a woman let out an eerie shriek and Jejo flinched—but it was just his neighbors bickering. He laughed at himself, and someone next door slammed down a pan and the night was quiet again. Wind whispered in the tamarind outside, a truck sighed by on the road and was gone, a night bird clucking in the brush nearby seemed to say, “Magsaysay, Magsaysay” softly. Outside the province of Zambales the name was then but a murmur, the vague promise of a future that would probably never be, like a lover’s vow sworn in the innocence of youth. Jejo himself had made such vows and made them in perfect sincerity. But Magsaysay. Wasn’t there song in the name? It wouldn’t be until later, after he’d witnessed the village of Camposan razed to the ground and had himself been carried along on a river-swift current of military might, that Jejo would understand the name was no soft melody but more like the undertow in Lingayen Bay, vicious and unrelenting and vain to resist.
In the morning he arose late. He considered heading over to collect his winnings from Don Titan, but thought he should check in at the military base first. Army Civilian Personnel had some degree of autonomy, but there were limits. He’d been made regimental documenter after all. He had black coffee and cassava and walked to the center of town, making his way along the shade of the stone buildings in the old quarter to the wide, flat, sunny steps of the Spanish church. Horse traps vied with Fords and vendor carts at the circular fountain in the crowded square, and on the main pedestrian thoroughfare, flagged with tan lava cobblestones, mestizos in dark suits had their shoes shined at the newspaper stands and ladies dressed in Spanish dresses shopped for hats. A single trolley line ran from the church along the avenue to the other side of town, then more freely out past the seamstress factories and tobacco plantations toward the garrison. Jejo stood on an outer platform and hung with an arm swung round one of the poles, taking in the scenes as they passed, the urbane Castilian quarter, the shabbier shops surrounding the central marketplace, the shameful poverty of the shanties at the edge of town, then the green fields and palm trees along the farmland and haciendas just before the garrison, where the trolley looped back to town in a teardrop turnaround. At the garrison gate a food vendor had set up his empanada cart and, a bit to one side, in the shadow of a tree, a clump of beggars held out their hands and implored Jejo for a few centavos. Jejo thought again of the winnings he’d collect from Don Titan and realized he was due a pile of cash bigger than he’d ever amassed in his lifetime. He patted his pockets for spare change and handed a beggar a few coins, then showed his ID to the guard and went in through the garrison gates.
The Eighteenth Battalion grounds were jeep-busy, the soldiers marching at quick clips, the telegraphs at the comm stations clicking like castanets. Over at the arms depot, Sergeant Castro was supervising the unloading of a shipment of wooden crates.
What’s going on?
Something big, my friend. Castro nodded at the crates being carried off the transport vehicles. Enormous shipment from Manila. And the coms are powwowing in the main office, blinds drawn. There’s brass in there, and two Americans.
White as ghosts.
Are they officers?
Uniformed but unranked, the sergeant answered.
They both knew what it meant that the Americans had shown up. The AFP was preparing a major assault into rebel territory.
That Bondoc, Castro said, did it. That mayor.
Who killed the girl? Jejo said.
I mean their stringing him up by the heels in San Luis. That can’t go unpunished.
But, Jejo said, the little girl. Wasn’t she American?
I don’t know about that, Sergeant Castro said.
If she was American, well …
Don’t you see, Castro said, the Communists killed Bondoc because he was sloppy, because they needed the jeeps themselves, not for murdering the girl. But it’s the girl who’s got the Americans all riled up. Her death.
Revenge for her death, Jejo said.
Because the Communists forced his hand, forced him to kill her. Only he got caught.
So they killed him.
Castro sighed. Something’s got to be done anyway.
Yes, Jejo agreed. Luzon was fraying at the seams. In the past five days the rebels had robbed two banks near Rosales, plundered a battalion supply depot outside Asingan, and skirmished with a reconnaissance unit in the San Roque forest—and this only in the province. The Huks also moved freely throughout Tarlac, Pampanga, and Bulacan, and Jejo had overheard the term Huklandia murmured more than once in the bars and cafés of his stomping grounds. It was an open secret that the rebels now ruled Nueva Ecija. The mayor of San Luis, Atilio Bondoc, had been killed and strung up by his ankles in the square with his mistress, Bondoc for being a pig of a mayor and his mistress for being the whore of a pig mayor who’d ordered his Civil Guardia to kidnap the wife of the American investigator. Only they’d taken his daughter too and now the girl was dead. So the army would strike back—but for what exactly? The army itself—the Philippine Army at the insistence of the American Army—had begun the investigation into Bondoc’s reselling of surplus jeeps, and when Bondoc had tried to bind the army’s hands with blackmail, the Hukbalahaps, to whom he was selling the jeeps, had stopped him. But why? The Communists were the enemies of the army and of America, and they’d been profiting from the jeeps, so the politics didn’t make sense. It all spun around in Jejo’s head like pebbles at the bottom of an ocean wave. Jejo remembered his former teacher, Señor Roderigo Perez, the old taskmaster at Andrés Bonifacio High School who’d taught history as a tidy storeroom of battles and treaties you could map and sequence, but now Jejo found he could hardly put things in the order in which they occurred, for who knew for sure the order in which things occurred or what caused what?
But Sergeant Castro was talking.
What was that? Jejo asked.
I said you’ve got a package. The sergeant unbuttoned his shirt pocket and pulled out a requisition slip.
What is it?
Something from Manila, Castro replied. Likely a carton of blank forms. More paperwork. He handed the slip to Jejo. If this army makes me fill out one more goddamn form I’ll carve out my own kneecaps with a bowie knife.
But you’ll have to fill out a form first, Jejo said.
Soon we’ll have to fill out a form just to take a shit.
We’ll have to fill out a form to fill out a form.
Sometimes I miss the good ol’ constabulary, Castro said.
Don’t say that too loud, Jejo said.
Another truck rumbled up to the depot. Castro turned his head, hawked, and spit. Well, the sergeant said, straightening his cap.
They shook hands and parted. Jejo walked across the dusty compound to the commissary to retrieve the package. Standing at the entrance bearing a polished rifle was a marine guard Jejo had never seen before. He showed the guard the requisition slip and was waved by. The commissary, made of corrugated tin, was sweltering inside. Two slow fans did nothing but push the heat around.
Jejo handed the attending clerk the slip of paper. The clerk went to one of the shelves, selected a box, and gave it to Jejo.
Sign, the clerk said, shoving a clipboard forward.
What is it? Jejo asked.
How should I know? the clerk answered. He pointed a finger: Sign on that line.
Jejo signed his full legal name, “Herbert Juan Dumlao,” using the elegant script Señor Perez had drilled into every Bonifacio Public School cohort for the past quarter century, and the clerk handed Jejo a square box just big enough to lug under one arm.
He went out onto the veranda and opened the package. Inside, carefully pillowed in Styrofoam and corrugated cardboard, was a camera. Jejo was reading the accompanying memo when the commissary clerk stepped out onto the veranda and stood beside him.
Do I have to sign something else? Jejo asked.
No, the clerk said, I’m on my break. He glanced at the camera. What’s that for?
I’ll have to read the memo, Jejo said.
The clerk shrugged. His name was Eduardo and it was his lunchtime. He walked off, over to the vendor who sold empanadas from a handcart parked just outside the garrison gates. The vendor looked Mactan, with a square face and strong nose; long, straight hair black as jet and thick as fishing line; and colored loop earrings. As soon as Eduardo stepped up to the cart, the vendor handed him an empanada. It smelled delicious. Eduardo often wondered where the vendor had learned to cook such excellent Mexican food. Then again, the country was full of hybrid bastards and Eduardo didn’t really care. He bit into the empanada and chewed, then spoke to the vendor.
There’s a big celebration planned, Eduardo said, his mouth half full. The empanada was delicious and he took another bite. He swallowed. In Camposan and environs, Eduardo added.
The vendor looked at Eduardo with coal-black irises. When?
Maybe ten days.
How many musicians in the band? the vendor inquired.
We’re looking at twenty.
The vendor’s dark eyes flashed, calculating. That’s four hundred pastries, he observed.
Yes, the clerk confirmed. But at least three bands will play. Probably from Calasiao, Mapandan, and Angeles, at least. In total, I’d estimate at least twelve hundred pastries.
The food vendor nodded, flipped a tortilla on the grill.
There’s something else, Eduardo said. He gestured for another empanada and the vendor deftly prepared one with a few quick movements and handed it forward.
Gracias, Eduardo said, then continued. Extraordinary amounts of liquor are expected—American beer and whiskey, all kinds of fancy cocktails.
The vendor nodded again, his eyes moving to something behind his customer. Eduardo glanced over his shoulder and saw a soldier approaching the food cart.
One more thing, Eduardo said quickly.
Cameras? What for?
Eduardo shrugged. Just mention it, it may be important.
The soldier arrived and ordered two tamales.
Eduardo wiped his mouth with a napkin and handed some coins to the vendor. Adiós, he said in parting.
A mañana, the vendor responded, his head down, hands preparing the food. He was indeed renowned among local workers for his Mactan-Mexican fare, and later that evening a bus driver on his way south stopped at the cart for tacos. The driver was a talkative fellow who chatted with the food vendor until the passengers grumbled, then as he drove down to Moncada seemed to be talking to himself, repeating something over and over. Early the next morning, before he forgot, the driver had some words with a man who peddled wooden kitchen implements at the market, and the day after that the peddler’s brother, who was a barber, trimmed the hair of Jaime Santiago, a law student organizing peasants in Cuyapo. In a few days’ time Jaime’s girlfriend, an itinerant nurse, made a visit to a tenant laborer on a hacienda outside Guimba. The laborer had cut his ankle on a scythe blade and the nurse sewed the skin closed and doused the wound with disinfectant. That same afternoon the laborer’s wife tied a yellow scarf on a certain fence post, and a few nights later under cover of darkness a man slipped out of the forest and onto the plantation. He whisked through the sugarcane fields, then the rows of tobacco plants, stooping low but moving swiftly toward the peasants’ huts. He glanced at the scarf and for long minutes crouched motionless in the shadows of the huts. There was no danger. He stood straight and walked slowly into plain view, like a man who’d gone out to take a piss, over to the third hut on the left from the granary, where he knocked thrice. A thin woman opened the door and stepped aside with a polite bow to let him pass. Her husband was sitting crosslegged on the ground before an overturned crate with a single candle and he motioned for the visitor to sit and offered him water from a coconut-shell cup. The visitor drank and the peasant spoke. They will come in ten days, maybe sooner. Camposan, La Paz, Talavera. Big sweep. He had a bandage on one ankle that he touched lightly with the tips of his fingers as he spoke, careful to include all the details passed on by the messengers. When the peasant had finished, the visitor stood and pulled a bundle from under his shirt, a boar thigh wrapped in cloth, which he placed on the rickety table. For you and yours, he said. Then he turned and went back out into the clear night.
At the far end of the sugarcane field he cooed the night-frog call softly and upon hearing the squad’s reply reentered the jungle, his brow furrowed. Alipato had never been adept at hiding his feelings, one reason he’d had to leave the senate and his Manila residence in the first place to take refuge among the trees and streams. He’d gone to the mountains to fight the Imperial Japanese Army and emerged victorious, and he’d also succeed against the traitorous AFP. Despite the long haul—he’d plucked three gray hairs from his scalp the last time he’d looked at himself in a mirror—his own People’s Liberation Army was finally advancing! José Lava was already vociferating for a full-scale effort to emerge from the sitios, overwhelm the downtown streets, and attack every constabulary post from Baguio to the Visayas until they busted down the doors of Malacañang Palace, and Alipato was almost there himself, for the skirmishes were going their way again and again, in Burgos and Mayantoc, in Guagua and Malolos and Caloocan. Not three months ago Viernes Stalin and his men had overrun Palayan City, the provincial capital! They’d decimated the Guardia Civil, burned the constabulary, sacked the warehouses, and dragged the mayor from his home, stringing him up by his heels in the main square for the crows to peck at.
Still, despite the victories, the government pushed back each time, with newer weapons, smarter tactics, more soldiers. The revolution was not quite at hand, and Alipato frowned as he rejoined his men in the jungle. Though he loved the hills and mountains, though he loved hiking at night under a pearl moon with a group of determined men, his feet sure on the steep tracks and his ideas right and good and his followers dedicated to the teeth, the path of revolution was long and hard and the decisions harrowing. Against twelve hundred government troops with new Garands—fast on the reload and accurate at a quarter mile—his band of fighters with their outdated carbines had little chance. They had but a half dozen tommies, and the ammo for the .60-caliber mortars was running low. Alipato would have to choose the lesser evil. He’d have to break camp and shift the rebel base south to the strongholds around Mount Arayat. But it hurt him, marred him indelibly. To pull back was strategically correct, but to leave the villages unprotected wasn’t right, for the AFP was indiscriminate and vile, it would torch the huts and crops, break the legs of livestock, shoot suspected collaborators—men, women, and children alike—in the basal ganglia at close range and dump the bodies in the burned fields because the besieged Huks, his very own freedom fighters, had to pull back from the overwhelming firepower and sheer numbers of the government army. He’d have to raise this crucial point yet again with Lava and Viernes and the Politburo, and he determined to go to Manila immediately, not for the revolution but because he was suddenly electrified, there on the narrow, root-strewn path twisting through the night-black forest, by a longing to be near Remedios.
Like a flashbulb in the darkness, the hot-white light of desire flashed in his groin. He became aware of a bubbling in his chest, blood lava stirring in the crater of his heart. Remedios. He’d betray his own father or fuck a torpedo before he’d let another night go by without seeing her. Of all the depravities of living in the jungle, its swamp filths and soft-fruit miseries, those rank odors of unwashed men, the endless belabored treks, the savage humidity, the mosquito furies, the utter fierce chairlessness of the wilds—of all the jungle’s grueling deprivations, being apart from that woman was the most insufferable. He longed to lose himself in her gaze and hear her call his name, ached to enfold her in his arms. He would linger on her mouth, suckle her toes, lick her vulva like a buck preparing his doe and was already making the preparations, giving orders for his men to march south through the Candaba swamps and arranging for his own travel, alone, to the capital, though his lieutenants all advised strongly against such a move. There were checkpoints, they reminded him, roadblocks, search parties, spies. And besides, the lieutenants wanted his advice on the most minute tactical logistics of the withdrawal. What time would they set out? Where should they set camp? How would they feed the horses? But Alipato grew dark and stern and asserted his leadership. Did they want him to carry their equipment and take shits for them too? A retreat’s a retreat, that’s what it is, you pick up your things and head south, goddamn it. You evade the enemy, you cover your tracks, you draw straws for a rear guard. Alipato rebuked his men, then walked apart, shaking his head solemnly, his heart tinged with guilt. What did they know of love, these ragged peasants and hardened fighters? Stepping along the dark path with his squad in the midst of civil war, a thousand armed men at his command and ten times as many backing up his forces, all else paled before the image of Remedios de la Playa, her slender body and seawater eyes, her limbs tugging at him as he lay atop her on the big bed in the whitewashed Ermita boudoir dazzled with afternoon light.
For the next several days, Alipato’s spirit was a stone skimmed away on water, away, away from the war. He washed and cut his hair and donned the beige shirt and black worsted trousers, slightly shiny and faded, of a pharmacist. Having insisted on traveling alone, he walked down the mountain and along the mud banks of a vast expanse of rice fields until he came to a road, where the first car he flagged down gave him a ride to Camiling. His lieutenants, of course, had him shadowed by two bodyguards—two youths with long locks and dirty fingernails whom Alipato easily spotted in the next town. But forty minutes later, in downtown Bayambang, he suddenly switched jeepneys at a busy traffic circle and left the guards behind. He needed to be alone to savor his journey. He was a nondescript man with a few pesos in his pocket traveling to Manila to visit his aunt. He loved the jeepneys, adorned with religious paraphernalia or velveted with fish imagery or luridly tricked up like whores at a discotheque.
In Malasiqui he decided to have some fun with life and boarded a Try-Tran Bus Company vehicle for the trip to Manila—the company was owned by the Magsaysay family and provided the fount of its wealth, although Alipato wasn’t impressed: The seats were uncomfortable, the ride was bouncy, and the cabin reeked of diesel exhaust fumes. Still, he had a laugh with himself (Most Wanted Communist Leader Eludes Magsaysay on Try-Tran Bus Line) and hunkered down in the seat as best he could. With one half of his brain he planned what he would say to the Politburo about the revolution while the other half of him, the more encompassing part, lingered on Remedios. All his experience, the entire adventure of life, was being filtered through their mutual love. He was careful to remember every detail of his sensations in order to relate them to Remedios later on in word or simply by being near her, because time would soak into him, become part of him, and when he was with Remedios he shared every fiber and atom of his being with her, words or no words, better no words, or few. He looked about him at the other passengers on the bus, their tawny arms hanging over the armrests, the straw bags in their laps, their dull or longing countenances. He stared out the window at the expanse of Luzon plain with its tall grasses and rice fields punctuated by palms and at the brown, calm mountains in the distance. While the bus was passing through Rosales, Alipato noticed a man standing in a field with a camera pointed at the sky, and for no reason Alipato could discern the idea popped into his head that there was a difference between a shaky or out-of-focus photograph and a snapshot of clouds and fog banks. God, he must really be on a kind of vacation—Alipato smiled at himself for having such a silly, shallow thought and was pleased as the bus careened on, leaving the photographer staring up at the clouds.
Jejo had spent the better part of the week taking pictures, familiarizing himself with the specifications and quirks of the 35 mm Contax issued on Magsaysay’s authorization to all regimental documenters working with the Armed Forces of the Philippines. There would be no more mutilation of corpses, the accompanying memo had stated. Dismemberment of any kind, including decapitation, was strictly forbidden. All rebel deaths were from now on to be recorded by photographs, and users were encouraged to read the camera’s instruction manual carefully and train themselves to become expert with the new equipment.
Jejo began by taking photos of the boy-faced soldiers of the garrison, using the rough-box texture of a pumice wall to frame their smooth, sweaty visages. He took a snapshot of Sergeant Castro with a cigar in his mouth. He carried the camera off base and took photos of the tramline and of downtown Rosales, of his house’s sagging Bontoc roof cone, of his bureau top crowded with small bottles, of the white chickens pecking the ground beneath the tamarind in the yard, their heads blurred by a slow shutter speed. He took photos of the fishermen in narrow skiffs trolling their long sticks in the muddy river. And near dusk, standing in a field beside the traffic-heavy road to Manila, he trained the lens upward at great clouds silhouetted by the last oblique rays of sunlight.
Without realizing it, Jejo was succumbing to the bewitchment of the camera, to the intimacy and seduction of its lenses, with a burgeoning wonder that resembled love. The fineness of the production of the thing—made in Germany by the same kind of men who’d set Panzer turrets 66.5 millimeters off the chassis line and lodged gyroscopic accelerometers into the throats of V-2s—the fineness and perfection of the camera’s production was awesome and beautiful, stunning to conceive, as if human beings, though fraught with defects, had somehow manufactured an artificial bird wing to rival the Troides rhadamantus. Jejo lost himself in a concentrated reverie of the world. Viewed through a carefully crafted optic that focused and framed, the ugly town of Rosales, where Jejo had wasted the last four years of his life, became engrossing down to its last detail—the decorative crenellation along the rooftop of the Castilian statehouse, the chaotic shacks in the burgeoning shantytown, tangles of electric wires, weird reflections in greasy puddles, the livid fingernails of the beggar woman at the central marketplace. Jejo wandered about town like a man who finds what he wants everywhere he turns. Without his quite realizing it, the camera’s viewfinder neutralized all that was superfluous in the enormous universe and pointed him to an examination of abstract forms, the composed or random placement of objects in dimensional space, a textured physical space that seemed to hint at the larger orders of the cosmos—the Relative Importance, the Moral Vestige, the Ultimate Indifference.
One afternoon Jejo hiked the countryside around Balungao to take photos of the brooks and knobs, of the delicate longan evergreens with their dragon’s-eye pendulums, of deadwood and screes, for he’d stumbled across a trove of inspiring magazines at the garrison, the personal effects of one Stewart Travis Golding, a corporal in the US Army Press Corps who’d witnessed the liberations at Antwerp and Auschwitz before volunteering for the Pacific campaign and surviving the battle of Saipan, only to be killed by a random mortar blast out of nowhere in a Manila sitio. One of Golding’s magazines had run a profile on an American named Ansel Adams, a photographer who refused to take snapshots of people, training his twin-lens Rollei Reflex only on the natural world, on great rocks and conifer stands, on the moon rising above Yellowstone. (In comparison, Jejo found the Philippine countryside less expansive, poorer, somehow messier.) Golding’s magazines—established publications such as Life and Vanity Fair, as well as a stack of artsy affairs with names like Little Blast and Dadageist—contained reproductions of artwork Jejo could have imagined not even under the vilest torture—sailors whose eyes were portholes, portraits of society men that seemed to have been painted on shattered glass, fantastic horses with rooted saplings for legs, wondrous islands that floated not in the ocean but in a sky sea dripping with delicate green tendrils. There were photos too, of course—of perfume bottles and furnaces, of crab crockery and comfortable couches and freeway cloverleafs, of the narrow-eyed wives of Dust Bowl farmers squinting into ravaged Midwestern plains. There was a street shot of a French philosopher, his eyes dream-distorted by thick spectacles, marching at the head of a Communist parade. There was a trick exposure of an Iberian painter drawing a bull in the air with light. There were pictures of cities you couldn’t see across, cars with fancy superfluous fins, buildings as complicated as chess games, and women, plenty of fair women, glamorous and slim, women in dresses more beautiful than orchid flowers. A nude with the shadow of a cello on her back. A naked girl with an artichoke placed just above her navel, the well-formed leaves with their dangerous pointed tips framed by the curve of her small breasts. Women in scarves sewed of water and light—photos of women that hypnotized Jejo, that made him hopeful and wistful and gloomy, for he knew he himself would never take such pictures.
Even so, now that he had a fine camera, Jejo often daydreamed of working with the beautiful Lee Miller on a photo assignment. He did so again days later, cradling the Contax in his lap as he rode in the front seat of a transport truck with the Eighteenth Battalion Combat Team, which was lurching down the Ecija plains and entering Gatara to hunt the Huks. From Gatara, supported by a mobile heavyweapons unit and a battery of 105-millimeter howitzers, three rifle companies marched east across the Munoz River and turned south into Camposan. As regimental documenter, Jejo stayed in the rear with a reserve company constituted mostly of inexperienced enlisted men sweating with dread and adrenaline. The reserves would be needed only in a pinch, while Jejo would be needed only afterward, to tally death.
Two miles outside Camposan, on a wide, flat, uncultivated plain, the reserve column halted. The trucks idled for twenty minutes, the engines rumbling hotly beneath the hoods as the sun rose higher into the sky. Glaring with sunlight, the door on Jejo’s side grew hot, and the truck hood shook and shimmered. Lee Miller, the Vogue model-photojournalist who had accompanied the US Army into Germany, would have ridden in a transport much like the one Jejo found himself in now. She might even have sat beside him had she traveled to the Philippines, perhaps to document the government’s fight against the insurgents and to interview Magsaysay, and Jejo had been assigned to keep an eye on her. She was charmed by his Filipino hospitality and impressed with his dexterity with the Contax as they sat side by side in the transport awaiting word of the offensive. She was wearing short fatigues (like everything she wore, made fashionable on her slim body) and her knee was sometimes pressed against his and he smiled. It was quite tropical, very hot, was it not, Lee? Jejo turned his head as if to address Ms. Miller and suddenly became aware of a bad smell, a stench that grew awful and intense and unavoidable. He was about to complain, had already opened his mouth to speak, when he realized what smelled was the young rumpled corporal sitting next to him. Jejo swallowed, and the corporal turned to him and bared his badly stained teeth in a friendly smile reeking of putrefaction.
The heat grew baking, airless, and the soldiers unbuttoned their sweaty fatigues. After another half hour a radio squawked and the engines were cut and the men began climbing down from the transports. Jejo sought shelter in the shade of one of the trucks, but the sun climbed higher and higher until there was nothing but a thin slice of shadow barely big enough for a lizard. Some of the soldiers crawled beneath the greasy chassis. Jejo instead wandered out into one of the fields, grasshoppers and crickets popping up out of the grass away from him as he stepped. The crickets had small wings and beneath the wings blue abdomens that as the insects rose and flurried airborne seemed the winking eyes of cosmeticized girls, the eyes of Lee Miller, who had come to the Far East to document the Philippine government’s battle against the Communist insurgency. Naturally, she had been intrigued by the sample photographs Jejo had shown her. … No, it was too hot even for daydreaming. The sun was relentless as noon approached and passed. A host of crickets buzzed evilly. The heat was savage. Jejo observed as the youthful soldiers, so excited that morning by the prospect of battle, now grew static and impotent. He walked among them, pretending to fiddle with the camera dials, and snapped a few furtive shots of the soldiers’ slack, disappointed postures.
There had been no word from the advance columns for three endless hours when a roar screamed over the jungle and a mushroom-brown PAF Mustang shot across the sky at striking altitude. The soldiers jumped to their feet and whooped. Moments later the explosions came, two heavy, faraway discharges, and before long a thick stroke of blackish smoke was climbing above Camposan. The soldiers gripped their weapons tightly. A few minutes later rifle fire and howitzer blasts were heard to the south-southeast, and a great host of bats was scared from its dwelling and took to the air. Soon the sky above the village was an enormous coal smear of smoke crisscrossed by the disoriented flight of the nocturnal beasts, an awesome sight that the soldiers regarded as though reading prophecies of their own births. The spell was broken by a loud, sharp shout. An engine started and another and another and the soldiers hoisted themselves back into the transports while Jejo took a last look at the crazy sky and at the nondescript field where he’d wasted almost an entire day and which, years later, when the war was over and the united nation steamed on into the second half of the century and Jejo was walking back to his hometown to raise chickens, he would remember as the last patch of earth he’d seen before his world had tilted irreconcilably, before the truck lurched forward along the pockmarked road that led to the rest of his life.
Not far ahead, lodged in a ditch beside the lane, sat a destroyed car with two charred corpses; a picnic basket, unaccountably intact, was lashed to a rack on the trunk. Further on, the column passed several villas nicked by machine-gun fire and one house, adjacent to the bridge over the Munoz River, pounded to rubble by the howitzers. Most of Camposan’s small downtown had suffered only minor damage, but the outlying barrios south of town had been ravaged. The soldiers passed stables and granaries set afire, they passed destroyed tractors and wagons, they passed felled trees with monkeys dead in the fallen branches. Wretched strings of tenant laborers stood along the roadside, the thin old men raising their hands unfathomably, the women clutching their shawls, the children wailing, the grandmothers aiming stern, hopeless stares at the passing column.
South of the village Jejo was met by a lieutenant who would take him to the bodies. The lieutenant commandeered a jeep with a shortwave radio and a driver. The lieutenant sat in the front passenger seat and went on about the engine—it was always flooding, he said, and the shocks were bad and this and that—and Jejo sat on the rear bench seat with the camera around his neck and the camera bag on the floor at his feet as they wove their way through the scarred landscape.
The first four corpses to be documented were dragged from the rubble of a granary and laid out at the side of the dirt entry road like gruesome sentries. One body was clothed in a ripped barong tagalog and nothing besides. Another was shirtless but wore pants and boots. The third and fourth were wrapped in dirty linen saris. Jejo stood at the splayed feet of the bodies and awkwardly tried to frame one of the faces in the camera’s viewfinder, but with the foreshortening the effect was one of looking the wrong way through a telescope. He then placed himself at the heads of the corpses and bent over them from the top, but the upside-down sight of those ruined visages, bruised and frowning and pained with disfigurement, dizzied him with sickness and he had to step away and drain canteen water over the back of his neck. The lieutenant observed him, making a comment neither of dispute nor sympathy. Finally Jejo took to straddling each body, one foot planted on each side of the chest, his groin positioned vulnerably over each unbeating heart, and in this way he was able to frame the faces as in passport photos or ID cards so that they could be processed into the archives of the state, correctly dead. Throughout the next hour the lieutenant led Jejo to the other bodies: a barrelchested gunner with a tommy strapped to his torso; a man with gray hair on his chin and a machete clutched in one hand; a boy with long hair on whose face lice crawled as Jejo framed the smooth, slack features. One fighter, a woman in a torn maroon muumuu with silver-tasseled fringe, was entangled in the branches of an acacia tree. Her neck was broken and her head hung straight down with her jaw swung open as if she wanted to say something, and when two soldiers climbed up to dislodge her she let out a terrible moan of trapped gas from her anus like a final long fuck you.
The last body lay at the edge of a field where in later decades a baseball diamond would be constructed and the children of Camposan would play Little League games. The body was lying stomach down, and when the lieutenant kicked it over, Jejo immediately recognized the face, though it was unaccountably changed since he’d last encountered it—it was slack now yet frozen in its slack. The brow seemingly thoughtful but made bovine in death. The mouth was ruined as a rotted fish. Jejo’s heart stuttered but his features were stone. He raised the Contax, framed the face in the viewfinder, pressed the shutter button without checking the aperture or speed, took the picture. It was Maol, his face stupid and unbelieving, finally triumphant. The image of the dead man haunted Jejo all afternoon and into dusk, all the way back to base. It was as though the bereaved Contax had burned the image of Maol’s ugly face onto a film not in the camera but inside Jejo’s own head, where it loomed sullenly, menaced, cussed, and grew into an obsession that obliterated art, for there would be no more Lee Miller, there would be no more enchanting landscapes, no objects made curious by composition or shade, no more interesting portraits. There was only the image of Maol leering at him with yellow eyes, a cock on the floorboards, an open mouth rank with rot yelling in a crowded stadium.
The battalion returned to the garrison after dark. Sore and tired, Jejo had climbed from the transport, shrugged the camera bag onto his shoulder, and was heading for the exit gate when someone called out to him. It was Sergeant Castro.
Jejo, he said, did you get any good pictures?
Jejo processed the sentence, understood the sentence, but couldn’t believe the sentence. He didn’t answer. He shook his head and walked away. Castro called after him, Where are you going, man, where are you going? Away, Jejo said to himself, and walked out the gate, passing dazedly under the palm trees planted along the road and heading toward the factory zone where stray dogs and prostitutes stalked in the shadows. He walked a long time without direction, zigzagging his way through a barrio of dilapidated shacks where abject children eyed him blankly, women stood in half-open kitchens washing pots, and shirtless old men picked their teeth with fish bones while in the back rooms their eldest sons made love, sprawling afterward exhausted on the mattresses like Alipato now in Manila, supine in postcoital bliss beside the sleeping Remedios. But Alipato suddenly sat up in anxious presentiment.
Cameras! he muttered.
Remedios stirred. What did you say?
The room was palely illumed by the glow of a street lamp outside the window. Remedios tried to remember what was happening. Her lover was beside her, sitting up in the bed. Something was wrong.
Alipato put a hand to his forehead and grabbed his own hair in a tight fist. I mean, he’s thought of everything, every last detail!
He threw off the sheet and hurled himself to his feet. The cameras were Magsaysay’s brainchild, he recognized that immediately. He paced heavily back and forth on the planks at the foot of the big bed. The darkened corners of the room were rebuses of shadow.
Luis? Remedios said. She sat up. The cotton sheet was wet beneath her.
But Alipato said, How can we triumph over that? What are we going to do?
Darling, Remedios began, but when she saw the lamentingly distrait look on her lover’s face she crumbled.
Luis Alipato Taruc, the spark that set the Communist fire, was agape at the wall as though witnessing a crucifixion. With devastating clarity he looked into the future and saw the lost skirmishes and flagging rations, he saw prisoners wasted by water cure, widows, thin orphans, he saw the eyeglasses of the man who would betray him, he saw the rickety bus, he saw the grenade in the bag of oranges, he saw the crushing of the revolution.
He raised his elbows and yanked his hair hard with both hands.
What will I do? Magsaysay’s thought of everything! How are we supposed to win a war against cameras?
Alipato was sobbing now, and Remedios pulled herself close and wrapped him in her arms.
1. Army Civilian Personnel
2. Philippine Department of Defense
3. JUSMAG: Joint US Military Advisory Group
John Parras is the author of Fire on Mount Maggiore (University of Tennessee Press), which won the Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel, and the chapbook Dangerous Limbs: Prose Poems and Flash Fictions (Kattywompus Press). He teaches at William Paterson University and edits Map Literary: A Journal of Contemporary Writing and Art.