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Sunday, April 3, 2011

Rice by Manuel E. Arguilla


Slowly, Pablo unhitched the carabao from the empty sled. He laid a horny palm on the back of the tired animal; the thick; coarse-haired skin was warm and dry like sun heated earth. The carabao by quietly, licking with its dark colored tongue and beads of moisture that hung on the stiff hairs around its nostrils. Dropping the yoke inside the sled, Pablo led the beast to a young tamarind tree almost as high as nipa hut beside it. A bundle of fresh green zacate lay under the tree and the carabao began to feed upon it hungrily. Pablo watched the animal a moment, half listening to its snuffling as it buried its mouth in the sweet-smelling zacate. A sudden weakness came upon him and black spots whirled before his eyes. He felt so hungry he could have gone down on his knees beside the carabao and chewed the grass.

"Eat," he said in a thin, wheezy voice. "You can have all the grass you want." He slapped the animal's smooth, fat rump, and turned to the house, his hand falling limpy to his side.

"Sebia," he called, raising his voice until it broke shrilly, "Sebia!"

No answering voice came from the hut. He bent low to pass under a length of hard bamboo used as a storm prop, muttering to himself how careless of his wife it was to leave the house with the door open. Toward the side where the prop slanted upward against the eaves, the hunt leaned sharply. The whole frail structure in fact looked as though it might collapse at any moments. But this year it has weathered four heavy storms without any greater damage than the sharp inclined toward the west, and that has been taken care of by the prop. As he looked at the house, Pablo did not see how squalid it was. He saw the snapping nipa walls, the shutterless windows, the rotting floor of the shaky batalan, the roofless shed over the low ladder,but there were familiar sights that had ceased to arouse his interest.

He wiped his muddy feet on the grass that grew knee deep in the yard. He could hear the sound of pounding in the neighboring hut and, going to the broken-down fence that separated the two houses, he called out weakly, "Osiang, do you where my wife and children have gone?"

"Eh?" What is it Mang Pablo?" Te loud voice of a woman broke out the hut. You are home already? Where are your companions? Did you see my husband? Did you not come together? Where is he? Where is the shameless son-of-a-whore?"

"Andres is talking with some of the men at the house. Osiang, do you know where Sebia and the children are?"

"Why doesn't he come home?" He knows I have been waiting the whole day for the rice he is bringing home! I am so hungry I cannot even drag my bones away from stove. What is he doing at the house of Elis, the shameless, good for nothing son-of-a-whore?"

Pablo moved away from the fence, stumbling a little, for the long blades of grass got in his way. "There is no rice, Osiang," he called back wheezily over his shoulder, but evidently the woman did not hear him, for she went on talking: "Mang Pablo, how many cavanes of rice did you borrow? Sebia told me you are to cook the rice as soon as you came home. She went with thechildren to the creek for snails. I told them to be careful and throw away whatever they gather if they see a watchman coming. God save our souls! What kind of life is this when we cannot even get snails from the fields? Pay a multa of five cavanes for a handful of snails!" Osiang spat noisily through the slats of her floor. She had not once shown her face. Pablo could hear her busily pounding in a little stone mortar.

"There is no rice, Osiang," he whispered. He felt too tired and weak to raise his voice.

He sat on the ladder and waited for his wife and children. He removed his rain-stained hat of buri palm leaf, placing it atop one of the upright pieces of bamboo supporting the steps of the ladder. Before him, as far as his uncertain gaze could make out, stretched the rice fields of the Hacienda Consuelo. The afternoon sun brought out the gold in the green of the young rice plants. Harvest time was two months off and in the house of Pablo there was no rice to eat...

That morning he and several other tenants had driven over with their sleds to the house of the Senora to borrow grain. The sleds had been loaded with the cavanes of rice. Pablo remembered with what willingness he had heaved the sacks to his sled-five sacks-the rice grains bursting through the tiny holes of the juice covers. Then the announcement:

"Five sacks of rice borrowed today become ten at harvest time."

"We have always borrowed tersiohan - four cavanes become six," the man had repeated over and over. Although they used to find even this arrangement difficult and burdensome, they now insisted upon it eagerly.

"Tersiohan!" they had begged.

"Not takipan - that is too much. What will be left to us?"

"The storms have destroyed half of my rice plants..."

"I have six children to feed..."

"Five becomes ten," the encargado said, "Either that or you get no rice."

They had gathered around Elis. In the end every man had silently emptied his loaded sled and prepared to leave.

The senora had come out, her cane beating a rapid tattoo on the polished floor of the porch; she was an old woman with a chin that quivered as she spoke to them, lifeless false teeth clenched tightly in her anger.

"Do you see those trucks?" she had finished, pointing to three big red trucks under the mango tree in the yard. "If you do not take the rice today, tonight the trucks will carry every sack in sight to the city. Then I hope you all starve you ungrateful beasts!"

It was Elis who drove away first. The others followed. The sacks of rice lay there in the yard in the sun, piled across each other...

"Mang Pablo," loud voice of Osiang broke again, "are you cooking rice yet? If you have no fire, come here under the window with some dry ice straw and I'll give you two of three coals from my stove. I am boiling a pinchful of bran. It will do to check my hunger a bit while I wait for that shameless Andres."

"Wait, Osiang," Pablo said, and finding this mouth had gone dry, he stepped into the kitchen and from the red clay jar dipped himself a glass of water. He came down with the sheaf of rice straw in his fist. Passing the tamarind tree, he pulled down a lomb covered with new leaves, light green and juicy. He filed his mouth with them and walked on to Osiang's hut, munching the sourish leaves.

"here I am, Osiang," he said, but he had to strike the wall of the hut before he could attract the attention of Osiang, who had gone back to her pounding and could not hear Pablo's weak, wheezy voice.

She came to the window talking loudly. Her face, when she looked out, was a dark, earthy brown with high, sharp cheekbones and small pig-like eyes. She had a wide mouth and large teeth discolored from smoking tobacco. Short, graying hair fell straight on either side of her face, escaping from the loose knot she had at the back of her head. A square necked white cotton dress exposed half of her flat, bony chest.

"Whoresone!" she exclaimed, as one of the pieces of coal she was transferring from a coconut shell to the straw in Pablo's hand rolled away.

Pablo looked up to her and wanted to tell her again that there was no rice, but he could not bring himself to do it. Osiang went back to her pounding after all. He spat out the greenish liquid. It reminded him of crushed caterpillars.

Smoke began to issue forth fro the twisted straw in his hand. He was preparing to climb over the intervening fence when he saw Andres coming down the path from the direction of Eli's house. The man appeared excited. He gestured with his arm to Pablo to wait for him.


Pablo drew back the leg he had over the fence. The smoking sheaf of straw in his hand, he went slowly to meet Andres. Osiang was still pounding in her little stone mortar. The sharp thudding of the stone pestle against the mortar seemed to Pablo unnaturally loud. Anders had stopped beneath the clump of bamboo some distance from his hut. He stood beside his carabao - a much younger man than Pablo - dark, broad, squat. He wrote a printed camisa de chino, threadbare at the neck and shoulders, the sleeves cut short above the elbows so that his arm hung out, thick-muscled awkward.

"Are you coming with us?" he asked Pablo, his voice granting in his throat as he strove a speak quietly. There was in his small eyes a fierce, desperate look that Pablo found to meet.

"Don't be a fool, Andres," he said, coughing to clear his throat and trying to appear calm.

Andres breathed hard. He glared at the older man. But Pablo was looking down at the smoking straw in his hand. He could feel the heat steadily increasing and he shifted his hold farther from the burning end. Andres turned to his carabao with a curse. Pablo took a step forward until he stood close to the younger man. "What can you do Andres?" he said. "You say you will stop the trucks bearing the rice to the city. That will be robbery.

"Five cavanes paid back double is robbery too, only the robbers do not go to jail,"
"Perhaps there will be a killing..."
"We will take that chance."
"You will all be sent to bilibid."
"What will become of the wife and the children behind? Who will feed them?"
"They are starving right now under our very eyes."
"But you are here with them."
"That is worse."

The smoke from the burning rice straw got into Pablo's mouth and he was shaken a fit of coughing. "What do you hope to gain by stealing a truck load of rice?" he asked when he recovered his breath.

"Food," Andres said tersely.
"Is that all?"
"Food for our wives and children. Food for everybody. That is enough!"
"What will happen if the stolen rice is gone? Will you go on robbing?"
"It is not stealing. The rice is ours."

The straw in Pablo's hand burst into sudden flame. He threw it away. It fell in path, the fire dying out as the straw scattered and burning coals rolled in all directions.

"I must get some rice straws," Pablo said in his thin, wheezy voice. "Osiang, your wife is waiting for you."

As he turned to leave, Andres whispered hoarsely to him, "before the moon rises tonight, the first truck will pass around the bend by the bridge..."

Pablo did not look back. He had seen his wife and three children approaching the hut from the fields. They were accompanied by a man. He hurried to meet them. A moment later the loud voice of Osiang burst out of the hut of Andres, but Pablo had no ear for other things just then. The man with his wife was the field watchman.

"They were fishing in the fields," the watchman said stolidly, He was a thickset, dull-faced fellow clad in khaki shirt and khaki trousers. "You will pay a fine of five cavanes."

"We are only gathering snails," Sebia protested sobbing. She was wet. Her skirt clung to her thin legs dripping water and slow trickle of mud.

"Five cavanes," the watchman said. "I came to tell you so that you will know--" speaking to Pablo. He turned and strode away.

Pablo watched the broad, khaki covered back of the watchman. "I suppose he has to earn his rice too," he said in his wheezy voice, feeling an immense weariness and hopelessness settle upon him.

He looked at his wife, weeping noisily, and the children streak with dark-blue mud, the two older boys thin like sticks, and the youngest a girl of six. Five cavanes of rice for a handful of snails! How much is five cavanes to five hungry people?

"Itay, I'm hungry," Sabel, the girl said. The two boys looked up at him mutely. They were cold and shivering and full of the knowledge of what had happened.

"I was just going to get fire from Osiang," Pablo heard himself say.
"You have not cooked the rice?" Sebia asked, moving wearily to the ladder.
"There is no rice."

Sebia listened in silence while he told her why there was no rice.

"Then what were you going to cook with the fire?" she asked finally.
"I don't know," he was forced to say. "I thought I would wait for you and the children."
"Where shall we ever get the rice to pay the multa?" Sebia asked irrelevantly. At their feet the children began to whimper.

"Itay, I'm hungry," Sabel repeated.

Pablo took her up his arms. He carried her to the carabao and placed her on its broad, warm back. The child stopped whimpering and began to kick with her legs. The carabao switched its tails, he struck with its mud-encrusted tip across her face. She covered her eyes with both hands and burst out crying. Pablo put her down, tried to pry away her hands from her eyes, but she refused to uncover them and cried as though in great pain.

"Sebia, Pablo called, and his wife hurried, he picked up a stout piece of wood lying nearby and began to beat the carabao. He gripped the piece of wood with both hands and struck the dumb beast with all his strength. His breath came in gasps. The carabao wheeled around the tamarind tree until its rope was wound about the trunk and the animal could not make another turn. It stood there snorting with pain and fear as the blows of Pablo rained down its back.

The piece of wood at last broke and Pablo was left with a short stub in his hands. He gazed at it, sobbing with rage and weakness, then he ran to the hut, crying. "Give me my bolo, Sebia, give me my bolo. We shall have food tonight." But Sebia held him and would not let him go until he quieted down and sat with back against the wall of the hut. Sabel had stopped crying. The two boys sat by the cold stove.

"God save me," Pablo said, brokenly. He brought up his knees and, dropping his face between them, wept like a child.


Sebia lay down with Sabel and watched pablo. She followed his movements wordlessly as he got up and took his bolo from the wall and belted it around his waist. She did not rise to stop him. She lay there on the floor and watched his husband put his hat and go down the low ladder. She listened and learned he had not gone near the carabao.

Outside, the darkness had thickened. Pablo picked his way through the tall grass in the yard. He stopped to look back in the house. In the twilight the hut did not seem to lean so much. He tightened the belt of the heavy bolo around his waist. Pulling the old buri hat firmly over his head, he joined Andres, who stood waiting by the broken down fence. I silence they walked together to the house of Elis.

7 comments:

  1. hey... thanks for posting it on your blog.. your a savior

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  2. You're welcome Rea. God Bless.

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  3. Are you a student? From what school?

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  4. Hey,thanks man. Saved my ass today.

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  5. thanks for this! but in my copy of the story (Phil Lit of Lumbera) it didn't have the word 'horny' on the second sentence... ;)

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