13

On The Trail
“The guerrillas are leading northwest on into the mountains,” Pablo told everyone. With sporadic fighting up ahead, each believed they would remain alive by keeping a good distance behind the troops they followed in the area. Yet they had to do their best to stay hidden each day. That task in itself was enough to cope with, but they had the added stress of mourning other villagers who had been separated or killed. When they were not on the trail or hiding, they mostly foraged for edibles in the hours of early darkness. They discovered familiar wild mushrooms, select roots and leaves, and wild fruits. Besides the fare jungle plants provided, they appreciated an occasional rare catch of wild boar or chicken. The people once saw mountain residents trapping monkey but chose shrimp instead from the jungle’s freshwater rivers. They unselfishly pooled their finds and cooked them after dark according to previous training. They ate only small portions before wrapping the leftovers snugly in banana leaves. These they would keep to eat the following

day. Tuto and Pablo bravely volunteered to seek news each morning from Philippine soldiers. So before sunup, they ran ahead to get an estimate of the Japanese’ position. The fighters couldn’t guarantee the civilians’ safety but agreed to inform them each time they were ready to move on. Word came from time to time that it was necessary to travel after dark. But rough hiking over uneven terrain was more difficult, although safer for the elderly and children, than moving during daylight. Far behind the battle lines, their stops were temporary but provided needed rest for their cut and bruised feet. Then in the middle of one such trek, the people reached an area that appeared over strewn with felled tree trunks. As they stood in an overgrowth of grass they agreed it was a good time to feed the youngsters. Florencia and a close friend, Carmen Santos, were the first to drop to rest on one log. “Aahh....” Carmen sighed as she eased onto the heavier end. Florencia plopped down beside her in the center. Bwoosh! came a gush of escaping air. The two shrieked and leapt to their feet. Beneath them a corpse had

deflated which they had mistaken for a log. 70 “Don’t anybody move,” whispered one man. He went about the spot with wide eyes. “Let’s push further on. Obviously, some fighting took place here. I can’t tell if any of the bodies are those of the enemy, but we shouldn’t stay around to find out.” They left the battleground with Florencia disgusted. Never before had she sat on the stomach of some unknown soldier let alone a dead one. Eventually, some people became ill along the trail from the water they drank. Everyone decided it would be best to sip only enough to wet their throats since they couldn’t be sure which streams might be polluted. Others grew weak and gaunt on short rations, yet it was one soul that strengthened their tenacity. That soul was an old woman frail with disease and unable to walk on her own. Each day she pled for her son and daughter-in-law to leave her behind. “Bury me in the sand under those bushes, and I’ll be safe there to die.” Instead, love kept the couple struggling to carry her at the back of the line. The group bond became even stronger because others were willing to

bear the added weight of that family’s children and possessions. By the time the journey led further north, everyone was forced to camp three weeks in the lower elevation of the mountains. One evening, a young woman was ready to give birth to her first child. She and her husband were newcomers to the group when flight began. Since Margarite had borne five children of her own in Santa Cruz, she prompted the pregnant young woman when to push and how to breathe. The mother-to-be lay in excruciating pain for hours, so when moist crimson streaked her cotton frock, she panicked. “Something is terribly wrong,” whispered Margarite. “What do I do?!” the woman rasped, “The baby’s not coming.” She gripped Margarite’s hands tight. “I’m scared.” As the young husband returned from the forest, his wife slipped into unconsciousness. Soon after she became insensible no hope was left, and the others offered to help dig her shallow grave. “Leave me,” the man insisted. On his knees with bare hands, rice bowl, and knife as tools, he cut through the dry earth. He then completed his purpose with a kiss to his wife’s forehead and laid her to

rest forever with their unborn child. The people watched him smooth the topsoil over and head back to the woods alone. They could help now only by respecting his privacy. 71 The hour was late that same night when Tuto and Pablo came saying that the Japanese were coming up from behind. The news of the advancing enemy drove them westward over new hills. Then the group arrived safely at one river branch too deep to ford. Without words, the men began assembling a raft for all to cross to the opposite bank. From there they pushed on, and their next rest came days later. Although they heard no sound of combat, they needed no persuading to take cover in makeshift huts. They were in dense forest, which was further from the river. Therefore, they decided to split into teams to scour the nearest deserted barrios for food. Occasionally, they were lucky enough to find leftover food still warm in pots. Their stay lasted an entire month, until one evening brought cause for quiet celebration. A farmer from a distant village generously donated two head of cattle to the Philippine soldiers, so the men took what they needed and gave the remaining cuts to Lydia’s people.

The savor of each bite of roasted beef strips warmed their grateful hearts. During the stay, Sarah and Antonio expected the arrival of their sixth child. Lydia and the others had already scattered one night leaving Florencia with Sarah. “Would you mind helping me?” The girl had lagged by the fire and was about to be off to the river, too, when she turned back at the call for help. She spotted the woman propped against a tree. “What is it, Sarah?” Sarah winced and rubbed her swollen abdomen. “It’s time.” Florencia stiffened and looked about. No one else appeared to be left here at the base camp. “Would you stay with me?” The girl’s knees cracked when she squatted beside her. “Yes, but I don’t know how to help give birth.” “That’s fine.” Sarah’s lips quivered when she forced a smile. “If you can do what I tell you, I’ll take care of the rest.” The girl nodded and wiped the woman’s sweating brow. Sarah moaned. “Do you feel the baby?” She pressed Florencia’s hand against her belly. The girl’s eyes widened. “It kicked twice!” Although she was

thrilled, she privately wished someone would return. At that moment water seeped out from under the woman. Sarah steadied her breathing and explained what her young companion ought to do. 72 Florencia obediently slipped a clean towel beneath the woman and left to sterilize her sharp bolo over the cooking fire. No sooner had she returned when the newborn slid into their cold world. “What a relief.” Sarah heaved a great sigh. “It seems with each child I bear, their arrival comes quicker than the last.” She used the girl’s knife to cut the umbilical cord before they tied off the baby’s extension with a strip from the hem of her dress. Then she held the child upside down by both feet and lightly spanked it. Florencia sat attentively while the boy wailed its first breaths. Sarah squeezed her hand. “Thank you, `Encia.” She cocked her head. “I didn’t do much.” “You helped more than you know.” The woman wrapped the towel about her son and drew him to her chest. “I appreciate not being alone.” Florencia nodded and imagined what it might be like to bear children of her own. That’s if I survive to see the day, she thought. When it came time for the group to depart, the frail old woman that

had been carried to this point now lay dying. “Grant me my wish,” she whispered. Both her son and daughter-in-law refused. The woman insisted she’d be safe from scavengers if left here. She would also have a better chance of passing peacefully. “Let me go with dignity; I don’t want to die on the trail.” It took much persuasion, but the troubled son eventually agreed to that as all he could provide in the midst of war. Leaving only her face protruding, he tenderly placed her in the sands and prayed his mother’s days would be shortened. The people then moved north when the guerrillas’ assured them that traveling the next ten miles would be simple. Along the way, they discussed what they could trade for food if they happened upon inhabited villages. It turned out to be a hard day’s walk without much progress. Young and old alike complained while they maneuvered over and around sharp grasses and jagged rocks. The ten-mile trip they first expected now looked to be more than fifteen, so for the sake of the weary, they sat down near a stream. The following morning, the group woke to discover several children ill. The youngsters were weak with fever and unable to travel, so there

was no choice but to stay put. “I think they have what’s called typhoid,” commented Pablo, “I’ve seen this before.’’ By the third morning, a man named Miguel and his wife had to bury their two older children. Only their sick baby clung to life. 73 One other couple was forced to carry their two weak children when the people could no longer remain in that place. Everyone else helped by splitting that family’s belongings among themselves to carry as far as possible. They had just made their way down between two hills when the guerrillas sent word back. Fighting broke out in a nearby village, so the people had to sit tight in the narrow valley for the time being. They felt overexposed in the clearing and immediately took cover under the sparse trees. No one knew how long they would have to wait, so they took their rest in the open with packs still strapped to their backs. Fortunately there was a stream passing through their midst. They all were grateful for drinking water and prayed to find something to feed the children. When several boys returned a short time later from the stream, they carried a wet sack. “Can you believe it? This creek has crabs and

shrimp!” The area was far from rivers, which ordinarily supplied this type of food, so the people firmly believed it was God’s blessed provision. They quickly went to fish the stream as well, and some in their eagerness ate their catch raw. Florencia and Lydia snickered at the others. They, too, were famished but chose to eat a cooked meal instead. Burning dry grasses and twigs to cook their catch, they patiently waited to savor a poached supper. That first night everyone slept out upon the open ground. Many voiced their amazement at the absence of hungry mosquitoes. “Do you see that?” Florencia broke in. The night-light was brighter than usual, and she lay in awe of the sky. “The moon has a face.” Lydia rolled over with eyes closed. She patted her daughter as though urging her to sleep. Those stars look like the shape of a spoon, too, the girl thought to herself. Even that over there is like a big cooking pot. She suddenly wondered if she were the only one who could discern all this greatness. I don’t know what they’re about, but they’re beautiful, she decided. She lifted her head to see the others now dozing and shook her head. These people don’t know what they’re missing.

Fluttering in the trees caught her attention, and she cowered. “What’s that?” “Bats,” whispered Lydia. “Go to sleep now. They won’t bother us if we don’t bother them.” Florencia woke the next morning to see the women creating domed shelters in the tall grass by the stream. 74 They bent the tips of clumps of tall grass and tied them together for each family to rest under throughout the day. No one would have believed it when they heard that a man drew clams from the stream had they not gone over to catch some themselves. Florencia had never eaten a clam but didn’t mind much after seeing one. When word to move still did not come, the people settled for their evening supper. They had barely taken a bite when a doe appeared with her delicate fawn at the water’s edge. The deer drank and eyed the humans who watched them, too. The animals were an odd portrayal of serenity in this violent, dismal land. The next morning, the rattle of gunfire was distant but startling enough to wake almost everyone. They chose to dismiss it and instead filled their time with fishing and washing their laundry.

The group was mind-boggled when Florencia pounced to seize a catfish from the water with her bare hands. “Look! Mamma.” Lydia was pleased and prepared the catfish to dry while she roasted over a fire the shellfish they had collected. Florencia felt favored for her unusual catch would provide her and Lydia two days worth of good eating. The third morning brought news that the group would still have to remain in place. They did not know which direction their next journey would take them, so they kept everything packed and ready for flight. In the meantime, Miguel and his friend decided to backtrack several miles to scour a village for supplies. Everyone stayed there resting but Miguel’s companion startled them when he returned breathless and alone after dark. The man had daringly lugged back nearly fifty pounds of rice he discovered. “I managed to hide,” he informed them, “but there were a couple of Japanese there looking for food, too.” Miguel’s wife caught her breath. “And, my husband?” “They caught him and took him away.” She lowered her head. All knew that The Japanese now put most captured runners to death. Everyone tried to comfort her and to display their gratitude for the

supply of rice. Lydia stepped forward. “It looks like the grain needs to be hulled, so we must lay out our coconut leaf mats to work on. I’ll start searching for rocks, too.” Before long, the women blistered their hands pounding the grain with small rocks on a flat, stone surface. 75 “Can you imagine our ancestors?” voiced Lydia. She improvised by using her tin plates to fan away as much hay as possible. The week finally drew to an end in the valley. Still Miguel did not return. His wife knew better than to wait alone in the area when word came to move. “It’s unanimous,” stated another woman. “We all want you and the baby to stay with us. If Miguel survives, he might find his way to catch up.” She agreed, and the guerrillas led the people northeast out of the mountains. Without the trees for protection, they could not safely cover much ground by day, so they pushed on at night. The fighting guerrillas mapped a route for them including a path for possible retreat. They, then, went on to drive the enemy in other directions.

Even so, the people had to rely on their own judgment as they traveled through most regions. They lived on borrowed time and lost track of both the day and the date. By their estimate another month passed without any sign of Miguel. They could only assume he was dead. Six others from the group also died from various disorders. One woman complained that she could no longer walk well, and everyone wondered if she would drop from her illness, too. Weak or not, others still able to keep going on their own two feet were grateful to be alive. There were few supplies remaining when the people finally reached a heavily wooded area. With relief they approached a river and prayed that no enemy was hidden about. The fighters assured them that the area was clear, so the group spread out to rest and search for food. They took time to wash their clothing and linens, but when they spread cotton sheets across the ground to dry there came a surprise. An airplane flew directly over and dropped several crates and canvas packs. Tuto cried out when the attached parachutes opened. “Run for your life!”

Everyone was frightened and scattered to the trees. They expected the delivery to explode and crouched low with covered heads. Instead of experiencing a rainfall of debris, they heard the thud of one falling object after another. The people stood up dumfounded. American soldiers arrived soon after to gather what they claimed as theirs. Apparently, the supplies were supposed to target a large 76 tarpaulin spread nearby. The men apologized for mistaking the people’s bright, white markers as the specified drop site. Everyone enjoyed a good laugh with the children tackling Tuto to the ground. “Run for your life!” they chorused. In relief they passed for weeks without further incident after that unfortunate blunder. Lydia spent some quiet time having Florencia recite her family tree. Since they both were the last of their family lines, she urged her daughter to commit the information to memory for her future children. One evening, under the moonlight, the girl was retracing her family line. “After Grandfather Antonio there’s my great-grandfather, Lordrigo. He was married to my great-grandmother, Carmelita-”Florencia looked down. “--this makes me think of Carmen Mendoza. I

can’t help but miss her sometimes.” Lydia sat closer. “I think of my best friend often, too.” “You mean Gloria.” The woman nodded. “I only hope those other families that didn’t make it out with us are alive and well. ‘Encia, I hope you understand that difficult times must come in life, but my own parents taught me that God doesn’t leave us facing more than we can bear.” Florencia agreed. “I don’t know how young I was, but I remember standing by the stream near Uncle Gorio’s hut. There was a sliver of grass fluttering from a chunk of dirt out in the middle.” She paused to pluck a green blade by her feet. “Water ran past on both sides, and for some reason, I believed that someone had to make all these things of nature.” She looked to the clouds. “Now I know that I was thinking of God, and if a bit of grass were kept safe and dry from the water, I believed He would keep me safe, too.” Lydia sniffled and watched Florencia leave to join her friends. “If we make it out of this war, Lila, I want to take ‘Encia to Manila. She’s never seen the city.” Lila touched her hand. “She’s becoming quite a young lady.” “Yes.” Lydia grinned. “Still, once in a while the little girl in her

pops out--did you know that she and her friends stole Cecilia’s clothes while she was bathing in the river last night?” “Can you be sure it was them?” “The boys saw them put the clothes back with her belongings.” She shook her head. “I know it’s not funny, but poor Cecilia was bathing and had to sneak back naked to get her spare skirt.” Lila laughed. “At least no harm was done. The youngsters are sometimes frightened or bored. They need to enjoy a bit of fun.” 77 Pablo broke the conversation when he came with good news. “The soldiers say we can set up permanent camp in Santa Maria if no one wants to travel any further than that. It’s less than a day’s walk away.” Guerrillas confirmed the village to be clear of Japanese and that food was to be found. Meat was also available because many cattle grazed about. The people were too excited to sleep and left at the crack of dawn. The valley trail was heard to be an easy one, which led east toward the Cagayan River. “Surely the war is coming to an end!” cheered an elderly man. He thrust a fist in the air. “Until then, we finally have a place to call home.”

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