Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Legend Of the La Trinidad Strawberry

Before the armor-plated, cross-bearing, hirsute giants and their “shamans” reached these mountains, only bare-footed men, women and children, and a few stray dogs, chickens and boars ambled around the village. No one here would have left that heavy an imprint on what was Kabunyan’s. For only His hands could have carved such pristine clearing deep in the heart of rugged territory. Plush with wild roses, pine, sunflowers, alnus and wild guava trees, the village held sixteen cottages neatly lined-up along the river side.

During one heavy downpour, it was this same river that taught them what nature’s wrath meant. And so during times when the rains lasted more than they should, the whole commune reminded the aging village Shaman to quit playing the role of rainman and catch some eels instead. But during summer, the collective din, if we could call it that, alternated between rustling leaves, frantic birds and bawling babies. At nightfall, save for the sporadic squawking of an annoyed hen, or a grunting pig, the crisp echoes of crackling embers and firewood being chipped mostly occupied the darkness, which, soon enough, faded too. 

The villagers lived the very definition of peacefulness; and their Chief, although bereft of a vast army of warriors, commanded the deepest respect from among the five major tribal leaders. Any lost soul or hunting party who happened to pass by was always assured of a safe passage and a warm meal. And if Chief Aku was in good humor, he would even spoil the traveler with jars of tapey from a secret place and grant him an audience with the village elders. 

Well, the day the interlopers came was the day it was all upturned. It presaged the slow and steady end of their way of life. Upon seeing the parade of pomp and spectacle, even the elders were stumped with what to do with the strange men who carried a half-naked crucified man. Were they even men? Some of them thought. In return, staring at the natives’ apparent barbarism and nakedness, the interlopers were mystified themselves, albeit, in a way that failed to hide their arrogance and condescension. Some openly glared at the natives, remarking how “ridiculously unnecessary” it was to have carried their arms through the dense jungle. 

Looking above the natives’ heads and pointing at the largest of their lot: “Why, I could even strangle this huge over-sized monkey with one hand. Mayhaps, even with my broken left hand…” he continued, to the stifled sneers of the crew and other soldiers. Chief Aku pacified the fuming hunter with a glance. A man of smaller height and built in a thick brown cassock, who seemed quite unabashed with his self-importance, magically appeared to intercede, but only after leaving a hasty rebuke to the gathering crowd. “If we are to teach them manners, don’t you feel obligated, at least, to actually show them courtesy first? He glared at each of the men present and, finding no dissent, further advised them to exercise decorum and restraint, at all times. “Where ever you go, you represent King and country,” he cautioned, in a tone that left the soldiers unlatching their helmets. “If that means nothing to you, your brute being here.” “Three Hail Mary’s …all of you. Now please go, before I bid the demons collect your poor miserable souls…That includes you, Mr. Porter. Even more so, I believe. And oh, that would be ten Hail Mary’s for you…one more stunt like that, and I won’t be that merciful.” Nodding vigorously, Mr. Porter excused himself, fleeing like a boy caught with his pants down. 

The natives maintained a respectful distance watching the strange spectacle. Although astounded by what they have just witnessed --- an average-built man barking orders to a seasoned soldier thrice larger, all of them felt that the incident was just a portent of stranger things to come. 

The little important man now stood before Chief Aku. “My apologies…, of course,” he said with a curtsy. “Please tell your people that it won’t happen again, ever…My deepest apologies, really.” Turning back,” Now where, in God’s mighty name, is our interpreter?” he barked. “Seasick or dying, I want him here, right now.” “Are you, by chance, the leader?…the lord?…er, the master…of this..this manor?” he continued. “My name is Father Grizaldo de Matriatti, a priest from the holy order of the Jesuits. I was sent here to baptize all heathens,” he said. “So all may find salvation and be one with the community of Christians.” Chief Aku assessed the man before him; and quickly read that the man was of some importance indeed. 

The little man wasted no time or gesture. His impatience revealed how he was used to being obeyed without question, and was rather fanatic in the rightness of his actions. These are often the dangerous ones, Chief Aku mused…those who possessed a ruthless doggedness beneath a calm exterior. This one could even manage a wide smile. And his teeth are so white… Without question, this man was dead serious with his mission, whatever that was. “Seeing as you are deeply engaged in your daily chores, I will not waste time on needless pleasantries and go right ahead with my mission,”Father de Matriatti said later, a greenish blue-faced interpreter bobbing at his side. . . “I have come to deliver the Message of the Holy Cross….” 

Under the thatched roof of Chief Aku, together with the village elders, the natives were introduced to the extraordinary man-god named Jesus and the Holy Mary. The story was novel enough. But the scent of roast pig wafting in the open air throughout the meeting made concentration a bit trying. And although the interloper’s “Shaman” made special pains to simplify it, the story was too complex to even make sense. Stoic throughout the orientation, Chief Aku and the elders listened in courteous silence, once in a while, trying to catch the others’ eye. True. Their own stories swirled around a million myths and mystical stories, their culture steeped in superstition, but the Doctrine of Divinity was too supernatural than they can take. “I would gladly clarify some concerns should you ever have one,” Father De Matriatti said, finally. The interpreter need not have plead to the crowd. After a minute of staring at the sky, ground or elsewhere, they went straight to a long pinewood table where their ancestors first dined a century earlier.

As the food was being served, the guests quickly arose upon the arrival of well-dressed guests. A tall patrician man accompanied by a petite girl with curly blond hair led the entourage. Father Di Matriatti stood up last. “Chief Aku, may I present to you – Don Frederico De La Vega, heir to the throne of our beloved Espanya and his pretty daughter, Princess Lilia.” 

As the two leaders shook hands, Chief Aku gestured toward a woman who stood by one of the guests. Later on, a jet black-haired girl and Lilia were sitting by a pond, rapt in conversation. “It is a great marvel how kids easily understand each other despite the language barrier, don’t you agree?” Don De De La Vega observed, smiling. The two girls were giggling heartily, like two old friends rekindling a private comical story. Chief Aku nodded, thinking he would have liked the man under different circumstances. But this time, curiosity of what the man had to say got the better of him. 

“But, of course, we are men. We insist on speaking differently, although we share the same concerns.” 

"That may be true for you", Chief Aku thought to himself, instantly fearful for the future of his daughter. 

“Our country, Espanya, is at war, this very moment. And war requires a lot of resources, Chief Aku. Not the least of which is gold. You have it. We need it.” 

“Ah, but you heard it wrong, Don De La Vega,” the native replied. 

“With all due respect, whatever gold we have are just enough for our women’s trinkets.” 

“That is not what I heard, Chief. I have it on good word that you walk on land filled with gold. You only have to scratch the surface.” 

“You must have realized by now what a simple and passive people we are. We know nothing of your quarrels, my friend. And we harbor no intentions of getting involved. You and your men are welcome to stay as guests. And then, I ask that you leave us in peace. Our humble piece of land is all that we have. We want it untouched.”

 “Ah, but you already are involved, Chief. You just don’t know it yet. Either you take a side, or your people and your precious land will be crushed anyway – by us or by our enemy, if it doesn’t go our way, “he explained, lighting a cigar. 

“I therefore suggest that you choose wisely.” 

“I choose peace.” 

“You choose wrongly.” 

“It may be so, but thinking of our children when making decisions as crucial such as this, has worked well so far.” 

Silence passed between them. 

“Chief, there is one thing more. You must have seen by now how intent Father Giamattri is in fulfilling his mission. We are sworn to attain that objective at all costs. That is why the swords are there.” 

Blood and Fire.

The natives were forced to take the warpath; and war was to be waged three days from that momentous banter. On a dark windy morning, when intermittent rains began ushering the rainy season, all five tribes converged on a hill famous for its mushrooms and braced to meet the enemy who called for a quick upward attack. As the adversaries rushed towards each other to fight head-on, two little girls – one, with jetblack hair and the other, blond and curly – stood pat in the middle of the war zone, locked in embrace. Even half a hill away, the spread of crimson stain on the girl’s white satin dress foretold a fatal wound. It bore the clear outline of death. Death was already certain. What consumed them all now was whose was it? 

After three days vigil, Chief Aku’s daughter was buried by the pond where the two girls first played. The well of tears has all been dried up, save for the princess Lilia who lay immobile, weeping, on the mound where her friend, Duting, was buried. After two months, Chief Aku visited the grave of her daughter. As he wrapped a wreath of white roses over the cross at her tomb, he saw a vine spreading across the earth where Duting lay. 

In the middle of it grew a deep-red fruit in the shape of a heart as robust and sweet as the life Duting has led.

Story by George T. Babsa-ay Jr. (Information Officer LTB-LGU), Photo by Ms. Gemar Pawid

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