'Amidah (Study 2)' by Jim Davis-Rosenthal
Amidah (Study 2), Jim Davis-Rosenthal, 1999.

 

 

When the Soldier Sleeps in the Fields
Michael Ramos

 

The Philippines, May 1941

 

José rose early with his mother, when the sleep lay moist at the corners of his eyes, and his mother's hair still smelled of their bamboo floor. They heard the streams running and the rustle of cogon grass in the breeze. The lizards woke and walked slowly down the walls of the house, to sit beneath the floor and bring good luck to their family.

His mother took some flour from the uppermost shelf, and José got a jar of milk. They stood beside each other and mixed the two, José standing on a coconut stump, working his hands in his own little bowl. He watched her and tried to mix as she did until his hands and fingers began to ache.

"Let mama give it a special mixing," she said, then she thrust her own hands vigorously into his bowl, kneading the dough until it was round and soft like a tiny white cloud.

His father rose, woke the other children with a gentle tug on their toes. The chickens began to mutter about the yard, and the carabao lumbered along the road to the fields. Their house filled with the smell of baking bread. Still warm, José placed the bread into a basket and took it through the streets of Batac. "Pandusol," he sang. "Sweet pandusol for sale." The mynah birds answered, bringing even the most bashful women from their homes.

Just when the youngest baby was old enough to be bathed by one of the children, José's mother became pregnant again. "Oh no," thought José. "Isn't our family big enough?" The other children felt his mother's stomach and listened for the baby's heartbeat, but José stood back and watched. "I've seen it before," he told them, as if he had no interest. "It was like this when you were born." He barely ate his food, and he sat quietly on the floor until it was time for bed.

In the morning he worked silently beside his mother, not even bringing himself to look in her direction. Slowly he began to work the dough. It was soft and familiar, as warm as the insides of a ripe papaya. The smell of the bread, the sounds of the early morning, and the presence of his mother beside him made him realize that nothing had changed, new baby or not.

That morning he sold his bread as he always did, but on his way, he stopped at the church. "Please, God, I'm sorry I had those thoughts about the new baby. I promise to always take care of him and all my family, too."
His baby brother was born small but strong. The labor of giving birth left his mother weak. José was outside watering the vegetables when he heard his father call from inside the house. "José. Come quick! I need your help."

His mother lay in the shadows, directly on the bamboo floor. Sweat covered her forehead, and she breathed loudly through her mouth. Mrs. Laurel, the shopkeeper's wife, held the new baby, and his father cradled his mother's head in his lap. "Your mother is not doing well," said his father. "Make a vinegar bath for her. Make it strong."

José and his father stayed up all night, holding his mother and bathing her in vinegar. Mrs. Laurel slept with the baby and the other children on the floor. His father wiped the sweat from his mother's forehead with a silk handkerchief. He was a schoolteacher, and the tips of his fingernails were always yellow from where the chalk dust had gotten up underneath. In the darkness, his father's fingernails seemed to glow as they rubbed over his mother's forehead.

José sponged the vinegar bath over his mother. He was nervous and careful not to let his fingers touch her naked body. He found it difficult to look at her, and he was grateful for the darkness that shadowed the details of her body.

His father told stories of his mother as a girl. "She wasn't the prettiest one, but she was very smart and shy." As he spoke, he continued to caress her forehead. "The mayor's son, Gregorio, wanted to marry her. One time he sent a pig to her family, to win their favor and show he was serious. He was rich and he acted rich. He rode around in his calesa and smoked cigars and asked your mother if she wanted a ride. But..."said José's father. He looked up and shrugged his shoulders. "She chose to marry me. I don't know why."

His father pinched the corner of his eyes, and José turned away, afraid that his father might cry. "Papa, I think you're tired. Why don't you lie down and I'll take care of her."

"No. I'll stay up, but I'll lean against the wall to rest my back." He scooted along the floor, propped against the wall, and was soon fast asleep, his head cocked sharply off to the side.

José bathed his mother once more then dabbed her dry with a towel. He covered her with a blanket, then folded her arms across her chest. He sat with his mother the rest of the night, wiping her forehead with his father's silk handkerchief.

The next morning the sun came over the hills and pierced their thatched roof to fall on his mother's cheek. She opened her eyes, and it was as if she had just been sleeping for several days. "Where is my baby?' she asked.

"Mama, are you all right?"

"Yes, I think so. But let me hold my baby."

"I'm right here," said José, and he buried himself in his mother's arms.

She smelled of vinegar for a week, but other than that, she recovered quickly. They named the baby Ignacio.

 

In December the farmers slept late, and the women rose early to bake and decorate the town for Christmas. They hung streamers and painted coconut shells from the sampaloc tree in front of the mayor's quarters. José walked along with his basket of bread. He sang, but the mynah birds did not respond. The town dogs began to howl, and they paced back and forth along the streets. From the south, José heard a low moaning noise. He saw a crowd of planes approaching from over the mountains. They flew so low, the palmetto trees bent in their wake, and he could smell the hot exhaust from their engines.

That afternoon his father and the other schoolteachers went to Benigno Laurel's store to listen to the radio. The shopkeeper told them, "The Japanese have bombed America. Now they are coming for the Philippines."

"I don't know why," said Pablo Zialcita. "We never did nothing to them." He spat on the ground.

For the next week the Japanese planes flew by every morning. Sometimes their bombs exploded close by, shaking the earth, and the sky filled with smoke and flying dirt. None of the children went to school, and José stayed at home to comfort the young ones, though he too felt afraid.

Shortly after Christmas, the Japanese marched up the mountain. The soldiers wore heavy black boots and carried rifles that bounced along, rattling their bolts. The Japanese took over the streets. The mayor surrendered the town quietly.

José watched the soldiers from the grove of coconut trees in front of his house. He had never seen a Japanese person before, and he was surprised to see they looked like Filipinos. Before, he imagined they were big and fat like their bombs, but they were small with dark hair and dark skin. Some had narrow eyes. Many did not. If you changed their clothes, gave a Filipino the boots and a rifle and a Japanese the bolo knife and bare feet, it would be hard to tell which was which.

President Quezon spoke on the radio. He told the Filipino people to be benign and liberal and to recognize the interests of the new Japanese masters. The next day some soldiers pulled the mayor from his quarters. They said he was a traitor, and they shot him and hung his body outside for people to see.

The image of the mayor's dead body prodded José's imagination. The creak of a sampaloc tree sounded like a body swinging from a rope.

Whenever he passed the mayor's quarters, José lowered his head and hurried past. The mayor's son Gregorio became mayor, and soon the Japanese flag flew from all the flagpoles in Batac.

 

Gregorio changed many things his first few months as mayor. He closed the schools and limited Mass to once on Saturday night and once on Sunday. He forbade the shopkeeper from tuning his radio to the American station. The town became quiet. Even the carabao walked quietly, and the dogs surrendered their favorite napping places to groups of soldiers and their rifles.

One afternoon, José and his father went to the Laurel's store and found Pablo Zialcita sitting on the porch, strumming his guitar and talking to a stranger. The stranger was short and very dark, and he nodded politely in response to Uncle Pablo's stories.

When the stranger saw José and his father, he rose from the chair. "I am Fidel Arturo, from Ifugao province," he said.

"I am Getulio Orosco, and this is my oldest son, José."

Fidel Arturo gave up his chair and took a seat on a coconut tree stump. He asked Uncle Pablo to play a rice planting song from his native province. "I have been away for over a year now, and sometimes I get homesick," he explained.

He was there the next week, and the week after that, too. He and Getulio had quiet conversations about the war, then nodded and looked about the town. One afternoon walking back from the store, José's father told him, "Fidel Arturo is working for the Americans. He has a dozen men, and they live in a cave in the hills. He is telling the truth." They walked without speaking, then stopped. "This Fidel Arturo wants me to spy on the Japanese."

"Papa..."

"Shhh," he said. "Do not tell your mother. I don't want her to worry. I am telling you because he thinks you might be of some help. I agree. But it will be dangerous, and you should make up your own mind."

His father rarely asked for help. Only once, the night he bathed his mother in vinegar, had his father ever asked him for anything. "Yes Papa," said José. "I want to help you."

 

In the spring, the war moved closer to Batac. The Japanese captured a group of American soldiers and brought them to the town to die. The truck of prisoners rumbled past José's house, and he saw the Americans, large, blond and dirty, roped together at the wrists and bleeding from their wounds. He thought of ways he might help them escape. Gregorio had the Americans executed on the lawn outside his quarters. "Do not try to help the enemy," said Gregorio, "or you'll be shot with them."

The next day Manuel Osmeña was found dead in a rice paddy. Gregorio said the boy had been a spy for the Americans. José had never seen so many men killed. At first, the deaths haunted him, but then he learned to think of the men as animals--as pigs, chickens, or goats. It was the only way he could get through the days without feeling like a coward, or sleep at night without dreaming.

During the morning, he and his father were careful to watch for any Japanese troops that passed along the road. Days would go by with no activity, then several trucks of soldiers would pass, stirring up dust and scattering chickens into the ditch. José and his father would each make a quick note as to what day and time the troops passed, their direction, and an estimate of how many men.

José had another assignment. In the afternoon, three days a week, he took up a position inside the church. The church was across the street from the mayor's quarters, and José was to keep track of all the townspeople who came and went. He discovered a spot, high up in the bell tower, where he could see perfectly onto the street and into the mayor's quarters. He could watch the activity at the Laurel's store, who sat listening to Uncle Pablo's on the porch, who helped Mrs. Laurel string the sampuagita blossoms for Sunday mass.

On the first moonless night of each month, Fidel Arturo came down from the cave in the hillside to listen to the information gathered by José and his father. The conversations were brief. As a precaution, José stood guard among the coconut trees and watched for strangers coming up the road.
One night, he heard the heavy boots of Japanese soldiers marching down the road to their house. He heard their rifles bounce along their shoulders, then they stopped to discuss some matter in their clipped, harsh tongue. José ran through the coconut trees to his house. He was barefoot and light and barely made any noise. "Papa," he said. "The soldiers are coming."

His father and Fidel Arturo exchanged a glance. "If you run, they might catch you," said his father. "Stay with us and hide beneath the house."

José led his family down the back steps, and his mother pushed aside the grass next to the house. One by one, youngest to oldest, they crawled beneath the house. Fidel Arturo followed the children, and their mother went last. "Hurry," said José's father.

The soldiers came before he was able to hide. They easily kicked in the front door. They hit Getulio with their rifle butts, then kicked him when he fell to the floor. "Spy!" they shouted in Ilocano. "American bastard," said one in English. They lifted him up, tied his hands behind his back, and pushed him out the door. The baby Ignacio started to cough, and José stuffed a handful of mud in his mouth. "Shhh," he whispered.

Underneath the house was damp and smelled of dog. Four of the soldiers stayed behind to dump bowls and baskets of the family's food into their pockets. They stuck the bayonets of their chocolate-colored rifles into sacks of rice, emptying them into jars and tin cans. José saw everything from between the bamboo slats of the floor. Watching the soldiers, he wondered if he should try to fight back, but Fidel Arturo's heavy arm kept him from moving.

The soldiers stayed, made a fire in the front yard, killed and roasted some chickens. The evening grew cold, made worse by the dampness beneath the house. As the night wore on, José's anger became dulled with fatigue. He turned his attention to the young ones, making sure they were quiet and not afraid as they spent the night huddled together in the cogon grass and mud.

In the morning, José and his mother went to the mayor's quarters to inquire about their father. Japanese soldiers sat on Gregorio's lawn and watched his mother as she walked. The soldiers wore helmets, and it was hard to see their eyes. "Hey Jane. Want some poke?" said one in English. José moved closer to his mother and placed his arm on her hip as they stepped inside. They met an older man who stood behind a counter. He had large ears, made even more prominent by his military haircut and narrow face. "We have heard nothing of the man you describe," he told them. "Men leave their wives all the time. Perhaps he found someone prettier," he said, and he walked away. In this way, José learned that his father was dead.

Until then he had been able to think of men and soldiers as animals, but he could not imagine his father could be killed the same as a pig. He knew his father was a good man whose soul would go directly to heaven. But he wanted to see the body. He wanted to know where his father was buried so he could drop to his knees on the spot and embrace the earth with his arms. Suddenly he felt very alone and afraid he would be a coward. He didn't think he could take care of his family, and he folded inside his mother's arms and wept.

 

The next afternoon, José went back to the bell tower of the church. The window frame had not been oiled in many months, and the wood was cracked where the sun liked to linger. José spit into his hands and rubbed it into the wood. He looked out onto the town for a gash of fresh earth where his father might be buried. But he saw nothing unusual, no activity except for a group of dogs poking nervously around a Japanese campsite.

Then he saw his mother being escorted to the mayor's quarters by two Japanese soldiers. As she passed, the townspeople and other soldiers turned their heads to watch. He'd seen other women pass by the soldiers, but only his mother made them all pause and notice her presence. She walked in the same unhurried way she always did, and when one of the soldiers tried to guide her up the stairs by the elbow, she pulled away forcefully.

José hurried down the steps of the bell tower, not caring if anyone saw him. He ran across the street and up the clean white stairs of the mayor's quarters. He stopped abruptly when he saw the man with the big ears cleaning a handgun on the counter. "Get out of here, boy," said the man, and José backed away. He paused outside the door, and two soldiers came up the stairs, the bayonets of their rifles glinting in the sun. "Get out of our way," they said, and José jumped from the stairs to the ground. He glanced back at the soldiers, then ran to the church across the street. Quietly, he climbed the stairs to his place in the tower.

He saw that his mother had been taken into the mayor's office. The windows were open for the breeze, and he could see her sitting on a chair in front of the mayor's desk. Gregorio, walked back and forth, smoked a cigar and occasionally put a hand on his mother's shoulder. From his position, José could not see Gregorio when he disappeared behind the desk. He couldn't see the picture of the Japanese emperor, the one that had replaced George Washingtonís on the wall to Gregorio's left. And he couldn't hear Gregorio tell his mother that his father was still alive.

"I don't believe you," said Herminia.

"You must trust me," said Gregorio. "It's the truth." He gave her a smile. He had grown a mustache since becoming mayor, and it curled around the ends of his mouth.

"I want to see my husband," she said.

Gregorio passed in front of the open window, paused to look at the church, then he ran his fingers through her hair and touched the back of her neck. "All in good time," he said. "Your hair smells lovely. I have some of the finest Japanese shampoo, made with coconut oil. You may have as much as you like." He clapped his hands twice and a young boy, barefoot, in a white barong, appeared at the door. "Bring Mrs. Orosco some kalamansit juice, and for myself, a cup of green tea." The boy glanced at Herminia then disappeared quickly down the hall.

"What do you want?' she said.

Gregorio ignored her and went to his desk to light a cigar. "The Japanese and I have a very nice arrangement. They have complete freedom to do what they wish in Batac. In return, I am given a good life and a certain number of favors to bestow on my friends." He reached into a drawer and pulled out a small burlap sack. He dumped what appeared to be dried cassaba chips onto the desk. There were about two dozen of them, but they weren't cassaba chips at all. They were darker, thick and leathery, and some of them seemed to have dried mud on their edges.

"Do you know what these are?" he asked. She sat silently. "They're ears. Ears of the Americans and people who have crossed me."

"You are a disgusting pig of a man," she said.

"And you are a very beautiful woman," said Gregorio. He prodded the ears with his cigar. "I can take you to your husband this afternoon if you like," he said. She did not respond. He balanced the cigar on the edge of the desk and let it go out. Again he crossed to the open window, but this time he brought the shutters closed and latched them tightly. "Do you remember when we were young, Herminia? I could have any woman I wanted except for you. I don't know why you had such power over me, but now, things are different." He sat down on the corner of the desk. "I still have strong feelings for you. Getulio was working for the guerrillas. There was nothing I could do. But the Japanese and I...we have an arrangement, and I was able to keep him alive. I have this power now, you see? I like it."

The boy returned with a bamboo tray. His right arm was withered and virtually useless, and he balanced the tray carefully with his left arm. He set the kalamansit juice on a silver coaster for Herminia and poured Gregorio his tea. Gregorio made a quick motion with his fingers, and the boy closed the door on his way out.

"Please," said Gregorio, and he led them to the couch. "Things could get very difficult for you and the children. I have the means to take care of you and your family. Perhaps we can work out an arrangement."

She clutched her glass with both hands and refused to look at him.

"You are still a very beautiful woman," said Gregorio, and he stroked her cheek with the back of his hand.

Herminia sat on the couch and stared helplessly at the closed shutters. "I want to see my husband first," she said.

 

As long as José could see his mother, he felt she was safe, and he stared intently through the mayor's window at her. Then Gregorio drew the shutters. "No," whispered José. He knew he must do something, so he left his post in the tower. He snuck around to the side of the mayor's quarters and hid behind a tree. He looked at the closed window, now close enough for him to hit with a rock.

A heavy hand clamped his shoulder from behind. "What are you doing?"

José jumped and broke free of the soldier's grasp. "Mama, come to the window. It's me José. Come."

"Get moving," said the soldier, and he pushed José in the back. "Move." The soldier pushed again, and José fell to the ground. He got up and ran across the street. The soldier didn't follow, just stood there and watched. José threw a rock at the soldier, then took off running down the road.

He ran to the Laurel's store and paused on the porch to catch his breath. Pablo Zialcita sat on a coconut stump, smoking, playing his guitar for a pair of sleeping dogs. "Why are you running?" he asked.

"No reason," said José.

Inside, Mrs. Laurel picked pebbles from a basket of rice. She said she was sorry to hear about his father. "Please accept our condolences," she said. "How is your family? How is your mother?"

He had come to the store seeking help, but now he felt ashamed that he had run away. "She's fine," he told Mrs. Laurel.

"Your mother is a strong woman," said the shopkeeper's wife. "Make sure no harm comes to her." Benigno Laurel gave him a small package of rice and some dried squid. Auntie Zialcita left a small basket of fruit. "Take these to your mother," said the shopkeeper, and he patted José on the hand.

José went back to the mayor's quarters. He sat outside the shuttered window for a time and considered what he might do. Japanese soldiers surrounded the building.

Then he saw his mother emerge from a side entrance. "Mama," he shouted, and he ran and hugged her at the waist. "I'm so glad you're safe," he said.

"Where did you come from?" she said. "Of course I am safe."

She smelled slightly of coconut, and he held her in his arms for a long time. He couldn't tell her what he had seen. She didn't know he was spying for Fidel Arturo, and he was afraid if he told her she would become upset. "I have some things for you from Mrs. Laurel and Auntie Zialcita," he said. He hugged her again and said nothing more.

Fidel Arturo no longer came to visit José. Still, out of respect for his father, every afternoon José climbed into the bell tower and took his spot beside the window. He brought pieces of fresh coconut, and he rubbed the oily meat into the barren spots of wood. He looked out over his town, which now seemed lifeless. In the gardens there was only garlic and an occasional okra bush, but no flowers or melon or sweet toy lanca. Only the mayor's quarters showed any activity, and that was where José eventually settled his gaze.

Sometimes he would never see his mother arrive. He looked up and saw her through the open window, sitting on the couch with the mayor. Then the boy in the white barong would come and close the shutters with his one good arm. Other times, José came to the church and found the mayor's windows already closed. Always he would see her leave by the side entrance, glance, and brush her hair back.

The townspeople began treating him differently. The shopkeeper and his wife gave him what he asked for without saying anything. If he sat on the porch, no one sat with him. They looked at him and walked away whispering. Auntie Zialcita ignored him altogether.

One year after the soldiers took his father, the family honored his memory. They walked together to church, then returned home to a hot meal of rice and some chickens that had been saved for a special occasion. The food put everyone except José in good spirits. After the meal he went outside to stir the fire with a stick and feed scraps of food to the dogs. "What is wrong with you?" asked his mother.

"This whole thing is a joke," he said. "You ruin the memory of my father."

"You don't understand."

"I understand my father was dead less than one week, and already you took up with another man."

"No," said his mother. She took him by the wrist. "Your father is still alive. I have seen him."

José pulled away and scratched the ground with his stick. He thought of the time he saw his mother naked, when he bathed her with vinegar, afraid to look or touch her body. Gregorio had been with his mother. He'd touched her body with his pig-like hands. "I don't believe you," said José.

"It's true," she said. "You don't know all I've done for you."

"Liar," he said. "Whore." She slapped him hard across the face. She slapped him again, and he fell to the ground. She beat him with his own stick, and he covered his head with his arms. He lay on the ground and said nothing. She beat him until the stick broke, and then she walked away.

 

After that, José could no longer bear to look at his mother or stay in her house. He made the town his home, living in its streets and the church. During the day he sat in the bell tower and gazed out absently at the town. Except for the mayor's quarters, none of the buildings had been painted in over three years, and they were stained with the paw prints of muddy dogs and the soot from soldiers' jeeps.

The first night away from home, José went to the Osmeña house when he got hungry. They were surprised to see him. They remembered when he used to play marbles with their own son, now dead, and they fed José a large but simple meal of rice and sinagong. The next night he returned to the Osmeña's, but he was no longer welcome. "You should go home to your own family. You should be ashamed deserting them like this. Who is there to help take care of the young ones?"

But José refused to go home, and he slept in the church, on the hard stones behind the altar. One night, he was in the church eating stolen food when he heard someone pull on the heavy wooden door. Quickly he crawled beneath a pew. He heard the door open then close, and then the sound of boots striking the stone floor.

"José," said a voice. "It's me, Fidel Arturo."

José poked his head around the pew. The church was too dark to make out the face, but the shape of the body looked familiar.

"José."

"Fidel Arturo?" It was him. José went up to the guerrilla and embraced him. He smelled of sweat and dried blood, and the hair on his face was scruffy and stiff. "How did you find me?" asked José.

"It's a small town. People talk. They say that you're a beggar now."

The two of them sat down together on the floor. "I want to join your group," José said. "I want to live with you in the mountains and shoot the Japanese."

"No," said Fidel Arturo. "Listen to me. The war is almost over. The Americans have landed, and there is much fighting in Manila. I came to tell you you must go home. That's all I can say. I must go."

"Take me with you," said José. "I want to fight. I am not a coward."

"I know," said Fidel Arturo, "but I can't. Listen to me. Go home. You'll be much safer if you stay with your family."

"Why did you come to tell me, if you are in danger?

Fidel Arturo shrugged. "Your father saved my life once. Some things it's hard to forget." He rose from the cold floor and started to leave.

"Wait," said José, and he got up to follow. "Do you know?" he asked. He hung his head. "Do you know about my mother and the mayor?"

"Yes. We know of your mother's affair."

"Are you going to shoot her?" asked José.

"No."

"I wish you would," he said, and he looked up into Fidel Arturo's face. "She has ruined our family. Everyone knows she's a whore."

"She is your mother," said Fidel Arturo. He touched José on the shoulder. "Don't be so quick to judge her."

"But my father..."

"Your father is dead. You are still alive. Gregorio knows of your spying. He could have had you killed long ago, but he didn't. Why is that? Your mother? What do you think? You are still alive because of what she's done. Things are not so simple, my young friend. Let me tell you something. In a field of cogon grass the soldiers sleep beneath a mosquito net. Sometimes, even when you are careful, the rats will crawl underneath the net. Open the net, and the rats escape, but now a swarm of mosquitoes takes their place. So who is right, the one that sleeps with the rats, or the one that sleeps with the mosquitoes? What is your mother supposed to choose, when everything is so disagreeable?"

 

The next night, José heard troops marching along the road. He heard trucks in low gear, struggle up the mountains toward Batac. He hurried up the bell tower to look out on the street. At first, he thought the soldiers were Americans, but then he realized they were Japanese in retreat.

He went downstairs and stood outside the church. "I am not afraid of you. This is my town," he yelled at them. "You are the cowards, not I. Do you hear me, cowards?" The soldiers ignored him. They shifted their rifles from one shoulder to the other and kept marching. By morning, most of them were gone from Batac.

The guerrillas struck from the hills. They released the prisoners from jail and rounded up townspeople who had helped the Japanese. They found Gregorio and his family cowering in a closet in his quarters, and they marched them outside to the courtyard in front of the church.

A crowd of angry townspeople began to form, shouting insults at him, his wife, and their two sons. José was in the crowd, jumping up and down to get a better look. He hurled a rock, and it struck Gregorio's wife in the ankle. Fidel Arturo prodded them along with the bayonet of his rifle.

"I want to say some final words," said Gregorio. Fidel Arturo nodded and allowed him to step in front of the crowd. "My fellow townspeople..." They shouted him down and pelted him with dirt.

"Silence," yelled Fidel Arturo, and he fired his pistol in the air. The people became quiet.

Gregorio's wrists were tied behind his back, and he strained against the ropes in pain. He turned to his family to collect his thoughts. "I want to say that whatever I have done was mostly for your best interests. I know you don't believe this, but what would we have gained by resistance? Who among you would still be alive if I defied the Japanese in every way? Wouldn't they have killed you all? I have tried to do what's right. God have mercy on my soul, and God bless the Philippine Islands." He bent over and kissed his wife on the cheek.

Fidel Arturo fired a bullet through the back of Gregorio's head. He shot Gregorio's wife and his children. The people began to sing. Some of them cried.

José walked aimlessly through his town. The grass along the roadside had been trampled by the soldiers. Dead carabao and chickens lay in the ditch. Even the wind, blowing lightly through the cogon grass sounded to José like the last breath of a dying man.

When he turned the corner to his house, he saw a man standing in the grove of coconut trees in their yard. José shook his head. "Papa," he cried, and he ran to embrace him. His mother and brothers and sisters came screaming from the house, and they all met by the coconut trees. They hugged each other and cried. They dropped to their knees and huddled in the dirt, whispering, kissing each other on the cheek and neck.

That night they listened to their father say how grateful he was to be back with his family. Several times he thought he was going to be shot with the other prisoners, but at the last minute his life had been spared. He reached across the table and took his wife by the hand.

José watched his parents, and there was silence at the table. His father, it seemed, had risen from the dead, but it was not his father's presence that was odd, it was his mother's. She was like a stranger to him, and he wondered if he was like a stranger to her. Did she sit there and ask, "Who is this boy? I used to have a son, long ago, but he left me and his brothers and sisters."

She reached across the table and took his hand. "It's good to have you back," she whispered.

He felt ashamed and lowered his head without responding. He knew his family would be the subject of much gossip among the townspeople. They would whisper about his mother. They would talk about him too, how he had deserted his family to live in the streets. What kind of boy leaves his family at their most difficult time? Together he and his mother would bring the family great shame.

That night he lay in his old sleeping space on the floor beneath the window. Compared to the stone floor of the church, the bamboo of his house was soft and comforting. He soon became groggy with sleep, and he heard the voice of his mother, whisper to his father in the dark. He couldn't see them, he couldn't make out her words, but he knew they were there, looking in to watch their children sleep.

 

 

 

Text © 1996, 1999 by Michael Ramos
"When the Soldier Sleeps in the Fields" first appeared in Many Mountains Moving, Volume II, Number 3, as the Literary Award Honoree in Fiction. The work appears here by permission of the author.


Original Graphic Image "Amidah (Study 2)" © 2000 by Jim Davis-Rosenthal


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