There is something about familiar places that makes one wistful for things past. Simply watching the length of a street in one’s hometown can induce a diarrhea of memories. Catching a glimpse of a run-down gate in the old neighborhood or the sun sinking at the edge of a field is sure to put one in a nostalgic mode. Finding oneself back in the streets of one’s childhood is certainly no exception.
Mayao Road, barangay Mayao’s main thoroughfare, is a straight and narrow path that starts where the modest home of the Barcelons – whose sons were tall and played good basketball – used to stand and ends where the Busac Road begins in the middle of the farmlands. That road has two streets branching both ways. The path that turns left has remained unpaved for many generations. It turns muddy in the rainy months and dusty in the dry season. It goes past the barangay kiosk, skirts a brief stretch of the earth dike, and curves right and then left into Mayao’s innermost districts.
It was somewhere at a bend down this street, not far from the kiosk, on a warm and lazy evening in the 1980s that Mayao’s barangay captain was arrested by a group of NPA cadres for his involvement in the murder of a fellow barangay captain. This incident took place a few months after the town mayor’s brother, an Army colonel who was then on vacation in Oas, was gunned down by suspected rebels on the street near his house near the town’s commercial area, also known as the centro, in broad daylight. The colonel, a handsome and charming man who was well-liked in his neighborhood, was on his way to a nearby store for his daily dose of cigarettes. He had apparently been on the NPA’s hit list for having allegedly sent Army troops to run repeatedly after the rebels in the town’s mountainous regions during his brother’s extended tenure as mayor of Oas under Marcos’s martial rule.
Rumor had it that the colonel’s assassins had been seen at least once emerging from the house of the barangay captain of Obaliw, a village parallel to Mayao on the other side of the river. The colonel’s death reportedly sent the mayor, a man known to have a short fuse, on a rampage. Mayao’s barangay captain had often announced to anyone who cared to listen that he was a relative of the mayor, and went to great lengths to prove his loyalty to the latter. On the day Obaliw’s barangay captain disappeared, Mayao’s barangay captain came to fetch the former at a meeting of local officials in one of the town’s three central elementary schools, reportedly upon the invitation of the mayor. That night, the barangay chairman of Obaliw, who was in the twilight of his years, failed to return home. His lifeless body was found the next day dumped in a ditch by a rice field two or three towns into Camarines Sur. He was identified through the wedding band on his finger. His death was to be the first of a series of suspected vendetta killings in Oas that lasted several years. Mayao’s barangay captain, taken many weeks since that last killing, was never seen again. His family ultimately resigned themselves to his fate. Several others met a similar fate, causing a public outcry. But no one was ever haled to court to answer for these killings and, over time, they gradually faded from memory.
An earth dike runs parallel to the Mayao Road, on its southern or left side, toward Libon. It has kept at bay the town’s old river – which flows from Mayon Volcano, snakes through several towns before reaching Oas and then Libon, and branches out into numerous tributaries across the territories it runs through. Decades ago, only a few families lived along the riverbank. But as the local population grew, more houses were erected on the dike on both sides of the waterway. Children who had the audacity to swim in the river sometimes ended up being claimed by it. On several occasions in the last four decades, the river broke through the dike on Mayao’s side, inundating wide areas of the barangay’s residential and farm land.
The path that turns right several meters past the street that branches to the left connects the Mayao Road to the Bangkusay Road, which is parallel to the main road. From the national highway, the Bangkusay Road leads straight to the town’s Roman Catholic cemetery. It runs past the rice fields that give an unimpeded view of Mount Mayon in the northeast and the distant farmlands of neighboring Polangui to the north. The connecting road, which stops right at the entrance of the old cemetery, spans an entire block. The whole area adjoining the old public cemetery along this path has now been converted into a memorial park by its private owners.
The side of the street facing both cemeteries belongs to two clans, more than half of which is owned by the family that runs the oldest rice mill in the barangay. It is that part of the block occupying the corner of Mayao Road and the route that turns right toward the cemeteries. To this family belonged Lola Miti, a tall good-looking woman whose hair was white as an ogis (a white-feathered rooster). Those who grew up in the neighborhood remember her with fondness, for she always gave children more than their money’s worth whenever they came to her daughter’s sari-sari store. To them she was an angel in light-colored dusters, the female and trim version of Santa Claus, who gave them two or three extra pieces of the ear-shaped tango crackers, colored dilemon candies, or those chewy belekoy that stained one’s teeth with a brownish juice – to her daughter’s consternation. She called every one of them babâ, or dear one. When she died in her 90s, the entire barangay poured out into the streets to mourn her passing and join her funeral procession.
The rest of that block belongs to a family of highly skilled carpenters and gold miners, some of whom left many years ago to join the gold rush somewhere in Mindanao. Their houses occupy the corner of the connecting street nearest to the old cemetery and the Bangkusay Road. A creek that runs between a portion of the Mayao and Bangkusay roads cuts through the two lots and divides the old cemetery from the new one. Back in the 70s when only the old cemetery was in place, the vacant lot next to it was planted to anahaw, coconut trees, and all manner of vegetation. It was also the graveyard for our fallen kites that were fashioned from the pages of old Free Press magazines. We would run there whenever our kites took an irreversible nosedive or whenever the thread – which we called, rightly or wrongly, irudibila – snapped and the kite which sometimes bore the face of Sergio Osmeña Jr., a rather chubby Ninoy Aquino, or Ferdinand Marcos would end up in that area. On certain afternoons we tried to catch dragonflies of all colors there, but our older playmates constantly warned us against disturbing and offending the unseen ones, so we desisted.
In the late 60s up to the 70s, drunkards occasionally challenged each other to a fistfight on Mayao Road. But theirs was more of a duel of words – specifically incomprehensible taunts and dares – than anything else, for the protagonists were too drunk to be able to raise their fists at all or go for each other’s jugular. They usually just fell where they stood, wobbling like fools in their drunkenness. At one time, one of them tried to wave a sundang, used mostly for cutting and chopping wood for fuel, but ended up crying on the street for no apparent reason, sending everyone laughing. On another occasion, one rolled right down into the canal on the right side of the road and landed face down, almost drowning in water that was only three inches deep.
Children played turubigan, better known as patintero, on that road on full-moon nights. On one such night, our neighbor Tô Inggo – who, like a good number of males in the neighborhood, had a drinking habit – was walking home from a drinking session. Upon hearing the sound of the kikik (a bird with a distinctly shrill sound that was believed to be the harbinger of the asuwang), he made a dash for his house, slipped on the bamboo bridge connecting his house to the street, and fell into the creek below that flowed between the two cemeteries about half a kilometer away. He was the same person who, fed up with his wife’s nagging, once tried to hang himself with a rope used as a leash for his carabao. Drunk as usual, he tied one end of the rope to a beam right above the second-floor window, put the noose around his neck, stepped onto the window sill, and bid the world goodbye before jumping to the ground. But the rope was so lengthy that he ended up spraining a leg when he landed in the dust. It effectively put a stop to his wife’s nagging, though.
The Mayao and Bangkusay roads, and the route connecting them, are always jammed with people headed for their loved ones’ graves on the first two days of November. Friends in school used to tease me about our “fiesta nin mga tulang” or “feast of bones,” and I simply shrugged it off with a smile.
Funeral processions ply those roads throughout the year. In my youth, these processions were often accompanied by a funeral band led by Tô Titot, whose major occupation was that of a barber. As the band’s major, he wielded a baton, and put on a crisp white uniform, white gloves, and his deadly weapons – a pair of pointed leather shoes, topped with a shiny black cap that resembled that of a policeman. His drummers and those who played wind instruments wore the same uniform, but for the cap. It was always a pleasure to watch them do their slow march. We used to drop whatever we were doing at the sound of the band’s drums, rush toward the cemetery to watch the band execute their slow movements and the mourners display their grief, and try to peer into coffins for a glimpse of the deceased. One time, I was hoisted by the cemetery caretaker onto an elevated wooden plank for a good view of the casket, and was jarred at the sight of a very old woman whose cheeks were so pallid and sunken, her nostrils clogged with cotton, and her jaws held together with a kerchief tied around her face to keep her mouth closed. It made me sick to my stomach, and never again did i join my playmates on such little adventures.
Once I came upon rain falling on one side of the Mayao Road, right in front of Lola Miti’s house, while the other half of the street was hot and dry. It was a sight that got all of us kids jumping like crazy, which in turn got the dogs in the area all excited and barking at us, at the rain, and at the dry part of the street that hissed whenever raindrops strayed there.
Indeed, it always gives one a pang of nostalgia to remember those years when the trees on both sides of Mayao Road glowed with fireflies, when boys whose hair was plastered with Three Flowers pomade perpetually chewed gum at brightly lit public dances, when kids got stung by wasps in a game of hide-and-seek and took a dip in the creek’s clear waters and raided the fruit trees ahead of the birds throughout the morning of their lives.
by barbara barquez ricafrente