by barbara barquez ricafrente
Even in his sixties, he was still quick with the latigo, a lead-tipped whip, with which he slew those green snakes that disguised themselves as coconut blades and inhabited the coconut trees around his house. But that was just about all he killed, for Antero was a man predisposed to giving instead of taking away. He often smiled, and told the children stories about the longest chocolate train and invisible beings that wore psychedelic coats and frowned on children who did not take a nap at siesta time.
This man, whose face was a field of countless tiny moles, liked to part his straight jet-black hair in the middle and plaster it down with pomade. His rubber slippers were the delight of his grandchildren, for these had craters that were like tiny multicolored whirlpools carved into them to accommodate the unforgiving calluses that were the plague of Antero’s soles and made walking painful. A light sleeper, he spent nights curled up on his leather cot by the kitchen, the one spot in the house that gave him the most pleasure.
Though he smoked at least two packs of unfiltered Rosalina a day, his breath was sweet as the White Rabbit candies he always kept in a jar in his cupboard. He was forever busy in the kitchen, whipping up the tastiest Chinese dishes while singing those incomprehensible tunes he had picked up from his adoptive Chinese family. At the dining table, he often successfully coaxed his grandchildren into eating more than the amount of food they were willing to take, and praised them profusely whenever they consumed everything on their plates. Some afternoons he would bring the small ones to the railway tracks, teaching them to watch for the faintest sound of an approaching train by placing an ear on the rail.
On certain Sundays he would put on his gray long-sleeved Chinese garb and, wielding a wooden cane with which to ward off hostile dogs, walked some two kilometers to the town’s only bakery for a chat with the two full-blooded Chinese brothers who owned it. He engaged them in animated Chinese conversations over steaming black coffee and those galletas that could nick the teeth, laughing without making a sound and forever gesturing with his hands.
Though a non-Chinese, Antero grew up in China. He was only about five when he migrated to that country with his stepfather, a Chinese merchant, who brought him along in place of his mother, who had refused to board the boat when it was time to leave. He had been orphaned by his Filipino father soon after his birth in January 1900 in Albay, a Philippine province famed as much for the majestic Mount Mayon as for its dishes done in generous amounts of coconut milk and the hottest of peppers – the siling labuyo.
The merchant belonged to a large trading clan that occupied a spacious wooden house outside Canton, the Flower City. While Antero lived there, bandits ransacked the house a number of times. Its tenants had to hide themselves in its built-in bunkers as soon as they heard horses’ hooves and the battering ram against the door, after which the bandits proceeded to strip the house of almost everything.
Accompanying the merchant to the burgeoning cities of Canton and Macau where they sold grains and other goods, Antero quickly learned Fookien and a smattering of Mandarin. He also tagged along with his adoptive family to Buddhist temples, where they prayed for prosperity and good fortune. He listened to their stories as he watched them cook, hummed their love songs, and grew his hair down to his thighs and braided it the way young Chinese men did in that era.
Upon his return to the Philippine islands at the age of thirty, Antero married a sixteen-year-old lass named Remedios, who bore him five children. He opened a store that sold basic necessities, and business was brisk for some years. But this was interrupted by the Japanese invasion of the archipelago at the beginning of the Pacific war. When the imperial army began to force all adult Filipino males into hard labor, the women had to dress him up as a woman so Antero could escape with them into the mountains, where they spent the war years. Within this small community, Antero was cook, storyteller, and confidante. He also concocted balms for headaches, cuts, and insect bites, and placebos for minor health complaints. It was told later on that had Antero not fled into the mountains, his frail body would not have survived hard labor.
He never took anything too seriously and drove Remedios, a devout Catholic, truly mad whenever he teased her about her insistence on leaving the house before daybreak to get holy embers from the church some two kilometers away. In jest, he told her to simply get whatever she needed from the kitchen hearth, where embers glowed perpetually. She threw tantrums over such teasing, but always relented by joining him at breakfast and laughing at his antics when she returned from church by daylight.
He once had Brownie, a big gentle dog named for the color of its fur. He cried when it died of old age, and buried it under his favorite mango tree that bore the most luscious fruit. He told his grandchildren the mango owed its sweetness to Brownie, who slept at the foot of the tree. He himself lived much longer, though not long enough to outlast an ousted and terribly ailing dictator who once said he did not intend to die. Antero finally passed on at 87 in the cradle of that house where time passed all too quickly and memories were sweet.
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