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Saturday, April 2, 2011

Midsummer (Manuel E. Arguilla)


He pulled down his hat until the wide brim touched his shoulders. He crouched lower under the cover of his cart and peered ahead. The road seemed to writhe under the lash of the noon-day heat; it swum from side to side, humped and bent itself like a feeling serpent, and disappeared behind the spur of a low hill on which grew a scrawny thicket of bamboo.

There was not a house in sight. Along the left side of the road ran the deep, dry gorge of a stream, the banks sparsely covered by sun-burned cogon grass. In places, the rocky, waterless bed showed aridly. Farther, beyond the shimmer of quivering heat waves rose ancient hills not less blue than the cloud-palisaded sky. On the right stretched a land waste of low rolling dunes. Scattered clumps of hardy ledda relieved the otherwise barren monotony of the landscape. Far away he could discern a thin indigo line that was the sea.


The grating of the cartwheels on the pebbles of the road and the almost soundless shuffle of the weary bull but emphasized the stillness. Now and then came the dry rustling of falling earth as lumps from the cracked sides of the gorge fell down to the bottom.

He struck at the bull with the slack of the rope. The animal broke into a heavy trot. The dust stirred slumbrously. The bull slowed down, threw up his head, and a glistening thread of saliva spun out into the dry air. The dying rays of the sun were reflected in points of light on the wet, heaving flanks.

The man in the cart did not notice the woman until she had rounded the spur of land and stood unmoving beside the road, watching the cart and its occupant come toward her. She was young, surprisingly sweet and fresh amidst her parched surroundings. A gaily stripped kerchief covered her head, the ends tied at the nape of her neck. She wore a homespun bodice of light red cloth with small white checks. Her skirt was also homespun and showed a pattern of white checks with narrow stripes of yellow and red. With both hands she held by the mouth a large, apparently empty, water jug, the cool red of which blended well with her dress. She was barefoot.

She stood straight and still beside the road and regarded him with frank curiosity. Suddenly she turned and disappeared into the dry gorge. Coming to where she had stood a few moments before, he pulled up the bull and got out of the cart. He saw where a narrow path had been cut into the bank and stood a while lost in thought, absently wiping the perspiration from his face. Then he unhitched his bull and for a few moments, with strong brown fingers, kneaded the hot neck of the beast. Driving the animal before him, he followed the path. It led up the dry bed of the stream; the sharp fragments of sun-heated rocks were like burning coals under his feet. There was no sign of the young woman.

He came upon her beyond a bed in the gorge, where a big mango tree, which had partly fallen from the side of the ravine, cast its cool shade over a well.

She had filled her jar and was rolling the kerchief around her hand into a flat coil which she placed on her head. Without glancing at him, where he had stopped some distance off, she sat down of her heels, gathering the fold of her skirt between her wide-spread knees. She tilted the brimful jar to remove part of the water. One hand on the rim, the other supporting the bottom, she began to raise it to her head. She knelt on one kneeresting, for a moment, the jar onto her head, getting to her feet at the same time. But she staggered a little and water splashed down on her breast. The single bodice instantly clung to her bosom molding the twin hillocks of her breasts warmly brown through the wet cloth. One arm remained uplifted, holding the jar, while the other shook the clinging cloth free of her drenched flesh. Then not once having raised her eyes, she passed by the young man, who stood mutely gazing beside his bull. The animal had found some grass along the path and was industriously grazing.

He turned to watch the graceful figure beneath the jar until it vanished around a bend in the path leading to the road. Then he led the bull to the well, and tethered it to a root of the mango tree.

"The underpart of her arm is white and smooth," he said to his blurred image on the water of the well, as he leaned over before lowering the bucket made of half a petroleum can. "And her hair is thick and black." The bucket struck with a rattling impact. It filled with one long gurgle. He threw his hat on the grass and pulled the bucket up with both hands.

The twisted bamboo rope bit into his hardened palms, and he thought how... the same rope must hurt her.

He placed the dripping bucket on a flat stone, and the bull drank. "Son of lightning!" he said, thumping the side of the bull after it had drunk the third bucketful, "you drink like the great Kuantitao!" A low, rich rumbling rolled through the cavernous body of the beast. He tied it again to the root, and the animal idly rubbed its horns against the wood. The sun had fallen from the perpendicular, and noticing that the bull stood partly exposed to the sun, he pushed it farther into shade. He fanned himself with his hat. He whistled to entice the wind from the sea, but not a breeze stirred.

After a while he put on his hat and hurriedly walked the short distance through the gorge up to the road where his cart stood. From inside he took a jute sack which he slung over one shoulder. With the other arm, he gathered part of the hay at the bottom of the cart. He returned to the well, slips of straw falling behind him as he picked his way from one tuft of grass to another, for the broken rocks of the path has grown exceedingly hot.

He gave the hay to the bull, Its rump was again in the sun, and he had to push it back. "Fool, do you want to broil yourself alive?" he said good-humoredly, slapping the thick haunches. It switched its long-haired tail and fell to eating. The dry, sweet-smelling hay made harsh gritting sounds in the mouth of the hungry animal. Saliva rolled out from the corners, clung to the stiff hairs that fringed the thick lower lip, fell and gleamed and evaporated in the heated air.

He took out of the jute sack a polished coconut shell. The top had been sawed off and holes bored at opposite sides, through which a string tied to the lower part of the shell passed in a loop. The smaller piece could thus be slipped up and down as a cover. The coconut shell contained cooked rice still a little warm. Buried on the top was an egg now boiled hard. He next brought out a bamboo tube of salt, a cake of brown sugar wrapped in banana leaf, and some dried shrimps. Then he spread the sack in what remained of the shade, placed his simple meal thereon, and prepared to eat his dinner. But first he drew a bucketful of water from the well, setting the bucket on a rock. He seated himself on another rock and ate with his fingers. From time to time he drank from the bucket.

He was half through with his meal when the girl came down the path once more. She had
changed the wetted bodice. He watched her with lowered head as she approached, and felt a difficulty in continuing to eat, but went through the motions of filling his mouth nevertheless. He strained his eyes looking at the girl from beneath his eyebrows. How graceful she was! Her hips tapered smoothly down to round thighs and supple legs, showing against her skirt and moving straight and free. Her shoulders, small but firm, bore her shapely neck and head with shy pride.

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When she was very near, he ate more hurriedly, so that he almost choked. He did not look at her. She placed the jar between three stones. When she picked up the rope of the bucket, he came to himself. He looked up--straight into her face. He saw her eyes. They were brown and were regarding him gravely, without embarrassment; he forget his own timidity.

"Won't you join me, Ading?" he said simply. He remained seated.

Her lips parted in a half smile and a little dimple appeared high upon her right cheek. She shook her head and said: "God reward you, Manong."

"Perhaps the poor food I have is not fit for you?"

"No, no. It isn't that. How can you think of it? I should be ashamed. It is that I have must eaten myself. That is why I came to get water in the middle of the day--we ran out of it. I see you have eggs and shrimps and sugar. Why, be had nothing but rice and salt."

"Salt? Surely you joke."

"I would be ashamed..."

"But what is the matter with salt?"

"Salt...salt...Makes baby stout," he intoned. "My grandmother used to sing that to me when I complained of our food."

They laughed and felt more at ease and regarded each other more openly. He took a long time fingering his rice before raising it to his mouth, the while he gazed up at her and smiled for no reason. She smile back in turn and gave the rope which she held an absent-minded tug. The bucket came down from its perch of rock in a miniature flood. He leaped to his feet with a surprised yell, and the next instant the jute sack on which he lay his meal was drenched. Only the rice inside the coconut shell and the bamboo of tube of salt were saved from the water.

She was distressed, but he only laughed.

"It is nothing," he said. "It was time I stopped eating. I have filled up to my neck."

"Forgive me, Manong," she insisted. "It was all my fault. Such a clumsy creature I am."

"It was not your fault," she assured him. "I am to blame for placing the bucket of water where I did."

"I will draw you another bucketful," he said. "I am stronger than you."

"No, you must let me do it."

But when he caught hold of the bucket and stretched forth a brawny arm for the coil of rope in her hands, she surrendered both to him quickly and drew back a step as though shy of his touch. He lowered the bucket with his back to her, and she had time to take in the tallness of him, the breadth of his shoulders, the sinewy strength of his legs. Down below in the small of his back, two parallel ridges of rope-like muscle stuck out against the wet shirt. As he hauled up the bucket, muscles rippled all over his body. His hair, which was wavy, cut short behind but long in fronts fell in a cluster over his forehead.

"Let me hold the bucket while you drink," she offered.

He flashed her a smile over his shoulders as he poured the water into her jar, and again lowered the bucket.

"No, no, you must not do that." She hurried to his side and held one of his arms. "I couldn't let you, a stranger..."

"Why not?" He smiled down at her, and noticed a slight film of moisture clinging to the down on her upper lip and experienced a sudden desire to wipe it away with his forefinger. He continued to lower the bucket while she had to stand by.

"Hadn't you better move over to the shade?" he suggested, as the bucket struck the water.

"What shall I do there?" she asked sharply, as though the idea of seeking protection from the heat were contemptible to her.

"You will get roasted standing here in the sun," he said, and began to haul up the bucket.

But she remained beside him, catching the rope as it feel from his hands, coiling it carefully. The jar was filled, with plenty to drink as she tilted the half-filled can until the water lapped the rim. He gulped a mouthful, gargled noisily, spewed it out, then commenced to drink in earnest. He took long, deep droughts of the sweetish water, for he was more thirsty than he had thought. A chuckling sound persisted in forming inside his throat at every swallow. It made him self-conscious. He was breathless when through, and red in the face.

"I don't know why it makes that sound," he said, fingering his throat and laughing shamefacedly.

"Father also makes that sound when he drinks, and mother always laughs at him," she said. She untied the headkerchief over her hair and started to roll it.

Then sun had descended considerably and there was now hardly any shade under the tree. The bull was gathering with its tongue stray slips of straw. He untied the animal to lead it to the other side of the girl who spoke; "Manong, why don't you come to our house and bring your animal with you? There is shade and you can sleep, though our house is very poor."

She had already placed the jar on her head and stood, half-turned to him, waiting for his answer.

"I would be troubling you, Ading."

"No. You come. I have told mother about you." She turned and went down the path.

He sent the bull after her with smart slap on its side. Then he quickly gathered the remains of his meal, put them inside the jute sack which had almost dried, and himself followed. Then seeing that the bull had stopped to nibble the tufts of grass that dotted the bottom of the gorge, he picked up the dragging rope and urged the animal on into a trot. They caught up with the girl near the cart. She stopped to wait.

He did not volunteer a word. He walked a step behind, the bull lumbering in front. More than ever he was conscious of her person. She carried the jar on her head without holding it. Her hands swung to her even steps. He drew back his square shoulders, lifted his chin, and sniffed the motionless air. There was a flourish in the way he flicked the rump of the bull with the rope in his hand. He felt strong. He felt very strong. He felt that he could follow the slender, lithe figure to the end of the world.


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