Thursday, December 23, 2004

From an old Christmas story

``Are you ready?’’ asked his wife who was standing by the door. Concha handed the general a plastic bag. ``Use my car, okay? I insist. It’s safer.’’ She was almost whispering.

``Of course,’’ he assured his wife. ``Just tell the guests I was suddenly summoned to headquarters and will be back before sundown. Tell my sisters… They’ll understand. I’m sure many of them will still be around for supper.’’ He looked around for his daughter but Amelia had gone back to the living room to mingle with the guests. It was as if she did not want to see her father slip away. Such moments she usually left to her mother to handle.

The general bussed his wife on the cheek then boarded the car. Two men were with him.

The one-and-a-half ride to Bulacan was smooth. The general was alone in the backseat. He stretched his neck, pulled back his head and put on his dark glasses. He told the driver to turn off the air conditioner and open the windows. He liked the wind on his face. The men with him stopped their conversation thinking the general wanted to doze off. But the general was wide awake, his eyes were wide open.

The expressway was practically empty and the car was running at very high speed. Through the open windows the general could see the fields, the lamp posts, the houses, the trees streaming past him and he felt like the car was slicing through it all. The highway was like the Red Sea parting, he thought. He felt small and a little overwhelmed.

The general had not seen Augusto for more than four years. The last time he saw him was a few months before the dictator—the old dog, he called him—was toppled. That was during the preparations for the 1986 snap elections that brought the new government to power.

That time Augusto and the general met secretly in a posh apartment in Manila. He was a colonel then, and Augusto, said to be a high-ranking official of the underground communist movement, was rumored to have been killed in an encounter with government troops in the Caraballo mountains in Bulacan. It was quite a reunion for the brothers, with Augusto having a good laugh and quoting the ailing dictator himself: ``Rumors about my death are extremely exaggerated.’’

Everyone knew the general had this brother. This never jeopardized his promotion. In fact this thing had been used time and again—by both the old regime and the new one—to plead for what the general called ``so-called unity.’’ Worse, sometimes one side or the other in the armed conflict would hint at having on their side, ``the better brother.’’ This pained him so…

The general preferred to recall the little things. He remembered exactly what day it was when Augusto almost drowned in the Tabucan river in Iloilo where they grew up. That was on a Palm Sunday. He was 15 and Augusto was 10. The big boys were having fun in the river. The small boys were shooed away. But Augusto decided to show off and tried swimming across the river by himself. He never made it to the other side. Somewhere in the middle of river he started to bob up and down, he was drowning and gasping for breath. The big boys fished him out and pumped water out of him. What an embarrassment he was to his big brother.

The last time the brothers visited that river together was more than 25 years ago in the afternoon of Christmas Day. Emmanuel Santos was a fresh graduate of the military academy then and Augusto was still in college doing anthropology.

``We’re almost there, sir,’’ the driver said. ``But you have to tell me where to turn, sir.’’ The general took out a piece of paper on which he had written the instructions given him. In about 10 minutes they were in the place. ``Stay in the car,’’ he ordered his two men, ``but be alert.

The general picked up the plastic bag and went out of the car. He walked a few steps then took out a white handkerchief and held it with his left hand. He pretended to wipe his forehead with the handkerchief. A man wearing a baseball cap emerged from somewhere and asked, ``Are you from Managua?’’ It was a code. ``Yes, I am from Managua,’’ the general answered.

The man wearing a baseball cap led him to a hut by the river. Augusto was there alone, waiting for him. ``Manong Em,’’ Augusto exclaimed as he embraced the general who was very tall. The general did not say a word. He buried his face in his brother’s thick black hair, he held him tightly for many seconds and rocked him from side to side. He inhaled him. Augusto smelled of the river, the brown fields and laundry soap.

``Let’s sit down,’’ Augusto said, pulling two bamboo benches. The general’s eyes were following Augusto’s hands.

``I brought you this,’’ the general said. ``Ham. I sliced them myself last night. Concha and Amelia send their love.’’

``How are they, Manong?’’ Augusto asked.

``Oh, still the career women…but we’ve grown closer over the years. And your…?’’

``Roja is fine, after that bout with malaria.’’

They were by themselves in the hut by the river for about 30 minutes. Except for the gust of December wind, there was not a stir on the outside. The brothers were seated by the window that looked out to the flowing water and the wide expanse of craggy fields. They spoke in a low voice but twice or thrice they broke into peals of laughter which the wind caught and carried to the open sky and far away to the Caraballo mountains.


Makabuluhang Pasko! Given the series of disasters several weeks ago, this Christmas season should be a liberating one for most of us, for we need not prepare for the usual gift-giving and merry-making for ourselves and those dear to us. It’s clear, so very clear, where our Christmas energies should go.