Antonio Fermin Enriquez
A boy came down the dirt trail dragging one foot behind the other, like one in a trance. As he walked step after step, his feet scuffed the dust behind him in a puff of cloud. His head was bent over his chest, and he raised it every time he lifted his feet forward and dragged them one behind the other. Now when he looked up he saw the sun hanging like a red ball over the horizon. And below the horizon was a small village with flat sun-scorched savannas flanking each side and a dark highway cutting through it.
I says, “We can rest here. Stop a while, old one.”
“No” the old man says.
I says, “I is very tired.”
The old man says, “Just a few more steps, Manolo. And we will be on the highway.”
The boy was really alone. No one was with him although he seemed to talk to an old man. But in his mind the old man was with him and speaking to him as if he were there in his make-believe world. He had been with him for two nights and a day. The old man who was really dead now, had started the journey with the boy to the city. Now he lay way back behind, beside the trail with only a stone marking his grave. The boy had buried him there and continued with his journey.
I says, “Does you think we can get a drink of water there?”
The old man says, “We will ask the first house we come to.”
I says, “I wish I had the water now … And some food.”
He seemed to hear the old man in his mind. Now he tried to swallow his saliva to wet his throat, but even the back of his mouth was too dry. Something gnawed at his empty stomach. He could not go on. He bit his under lip till it hurt and ran the tip of his tongue along the hard parched skin of his mouth.
“We will rest in the village, Manolo. It is not too far now,” says the old man. “Look, you can see the houses.”
The boy took a step and then another, dragging his feet one behind the other. He kept his under lip clamped between his teeth so he could go on. The sun was now a quarter of the way down the horizon and the red rays sunk deep in the small village beside the highway. The boy turned round the bend, lifting his eyes at every step he made, and as he came at the end of the curve, the trail abruptly vanished and became the highway.
Meanwhile, the sun had completely sunk in the horizon; and after a while the lights in the village came on. Along the highway, the trucks and cars came rolling by with only their dim lights on, for there was yet enough daylight to drive on. A hundred yards off was a gasoline station.
The boy looked toward one and then the other end of the highway. Then he crossed the road and walked up along the side of it. There were some pies de gallo grass beside the ditch, and his feet hurt on the sharp, crushed rocks lying along the highway. He turned right toward the gasoline station just as a car swerved past him and halted in front of the station. He went on until he stood under the glaring electric lamps.
A man in baggy pants and uniform khaki shirt, with a blue star insignia sewed over his breast pocket, came to the car and lifted it is hood. A hot cloud hissed through the radiator as he turned the metal cap. Then he came up around the carand stood beside the driver’s door. He said, “When is you coming back, Mon?” — wiping off the dust on the glass window with an old rag.
Said the man called Mon, “Oo, maybe Monday or Tuesday.”
Mon said, “Same. Ah, thirty liters, Please check my tires.”
The driver dropped the car keys on the man’s open palm. The man in the baggy pants went over to the back of the car, already fingering the tank key in one hand, and pulling the gasoline rubber hose with the other. He bent over the mouth of the gasoline tank, tipped the hose into it, and filled the tank with gasoline. Standing under the electric lamps near the gasoline machine, the boy heard it click and whirr, and, turning round, he saw the liter numbers going round in a circle.
The man in the baggy pants lifted his head and looked at the boy. He noticed that the boy’s shirt was dirty and torn at the sleeves, and that standing there under the light his legs were caked with mud. The boy walked up past the driver toward the man and stopped before him. He looked up at the man’s face, his eyes peering out from inside their sockets. Said the man in the baggy pants, “What does you want, ‘noy?”
The boy said nothing.
“We does not want kids hanging around here. Better move away, ‘noy. Go on.
He said nothing.
He ran the tip of his tongue between the parched skin of his lips. He felt very thirsty. He blinked his eyes, for the electric arc light white and glaring before him, had pierced through them. On each end of the driveway, the pair of arc lamps were like two noon suns against the dark of the sky.
The man in the baggy pants looked suspiciously down at the boy. Then he went round the car, pushing the boy aside, and tapped the tires with his fist to check the air. As he walked over to the front of the car, the driver put a hand out through the window and placed some bills in his hand. He thrust the bills in his trousers pocket, and walked on toward a water faucet beside the gasoline station. He picked up a bucket of water, walked back to the car, poured some water into the radiator and shut the hood closed. He made a sign with his hand, and the car slid down the driveway and on to the highway.
As the man in the baggy pants spun on his heels to set the bucket down by the faucet, he came face to face with the boy or rather he looked down and their eyes met, the boy’s eyes having that same quality of peering out from inside of their sockets. They were like a pair of burnt holes in a blanket, and the boy more like a scarecrow than anything else with his long arms and stilt legs. “What!” The man in the baggy pants said. “Oo, do not stand in the way, ‘noy.”
The boy said, “Sir, Could I please, sir —— ”
The man was suspicious of the boy. He craned his neck and looked past the boy on to a bunch of tires lying beside the station building. The boy, he thought, could be only a camouflage while the older boys were stealing his tires and tools. So he said, “Go on. Do not stand in the way. Go on.”
The boy said, “Please, sir. Could I… please, sir—— ”
The sun-scorched hue on the boy’s face made his skin look like a leper’s. Suddenly, the peering quality in his eyes vanished and turned into a pair of dirty water pools. Then his lips began to move, to form words, the hard dry tongue slithering; and, somehow, the man seemed to hear the words, though not a word came through the boys parched lips. He said, “Is it only water you want, ‘noy?”
“Sir!” —That was all. As though the man would understand, knowing without him saying the words, but merely forming them in his parched lips that refused to talk or say anything.
The man looked down at the bucket in his hands as though to make sure there was still water in it. Then, he put up his face. “Here,” he said. “Alright. Here, then … ”
The boy’s long arms stretched out and grasped the bucket, nearly pulling it away from the man’s hand that was wound round the handle. The man stood back to watch the boy drink from the brim of the bucket.
The boy felt the water lance through his lungs and rip through his stomach like a ball of lead. After a while, the hardness became soft and smooth. The man had seen the boy’s head disappear in the bucket, and now, as it tilted back, he saw the boy, face wet and beady, the water dripping down his chin on to his chest. The boy returned the water bucket, looked at the man once, and then muttering something through his lips, he walked past him and down the driveway.
The man set the bucket down by the faucet and thrusting his fist into his trousers pocket marched up into the station. His wife who was entering an account on the journal book looked up at him. She was sitting behind the table. Her face had an unnatural pallor, and it iswas increased by the table lamp before her. But she had a pleasing face, the kind of face that had been pretty when she was young. The wife said, “What is the matter, Pa?”
He said, “Nothing.” He pulled his fist out of his pocket and placed the paper bills into the cash box. He had his back to her.
She said, “What is really the matter?”
He said, “The boy’s eyes… they was so sad and his face so pitiful.”
“What boy? Was you talking with a boy out there?” his wife said, her hand poised with the pencil in mid-air.
The man turned round and faced his wife. He was angry and cross about something and he wished he could grasp it in his bare hands and choke it to death. That was the way he knew how to kill it. The boy had made him angry. But why? he thought despairingly. All at one time, he felt pity and anger for the boy. And the anger, a part of it now, was his distrust and suspicion not only in the boy but in everything. He said, “Some boy … you know, the kind of boys who comes in here and runs off with some of our tools or a tire perhaps.”
His wife looking up curiously at him said, “What did he want?”
He said, “Just a drink of water.”
“Oo —— ” she looked down at the journal book and commenced to write something on it. Then she said, “Was that Mon in his car?"
The husband said, “Ugh-huh.”
After a while she tilted her face back and said, “I was thinking , Pa, maybe we could take off on a week’s vacation. Visit Mama at the farm.”
He said, “O, o. But no one will look after the station.”
The wife said, “Maybe we could get someone, Just for a week.”
The man said to her, almost angrily, “Whom can we trust? You cannot trust anybody nowadays.”
His wife said, “Well, I was just thinking, Pa.”
Meanwhile, the boy was walking along down the highway. The sharp crushed pebbles made his toes cringe, and he bit his under lip, till it nearly bled, to lessen the pain. From his chest down to his trunk, he felt fresh and fine, for the water had cleared his head and cooled his breast. He wished, though, his feet and legs would stop aching and not hurt him very much.
The boy walked off the highway and sat down beside the ditch. The grass was tall on the slope, and the dark came with a certain coolness as the settling of fog in the hills where he and the old man had lived comfortably alone in a small hut by the river bank. Behind him the trucks and the cars, now with their full lights on, sped up and down the highway. The whooshing the rumbling shook the night air, it rippled through the tall grass, and fiercely blew the dust and burnt motor fuel at him. Below the slope was a nipa-thatched house, with its door already closed, but a faint light came through a window crack. It was the first house he saw from the gasoline station, and there were no other houses nearby.
“Maybe we can get some food there,” I says. “You stay here, old one.” It is easy to bring the old man back in his mind. All he has to do is to say something that they both shared, and the old man would be with him. Because two days before, the old man was lying down at the side of the trail and feeling worst than ever since the beginning of their journey. The old man said, “You must go on without me, Manolo.”
The boys said, “No-no, I does not wish to go without you.”
The old man said, “Listen, Manolo, If you go on, I will be with you. But if you go back, then you shall be alone.”
The old man seemed to see the beginning of the trail a long way away in back of his mind. He could see the small hut, where he and the boy lived alone together, the river beside it where he and the boy would fish, and the small room where they slept together; and here in the hills the boy had grown up till he was nine years old. Then one morning they both went down the hills following the trail to begin their journey to the city. The boy said, “My wish, is to be with you.”
“Do you believe me, Manolo?”
The boy began to cry quietly.
The old one said, “No-no, do not cry, you must trust me. Whatever I have told you shall come true. So stop it, and go now immediately.”
Said the boy, “Let me stay with you and take care of you, old one. Then we can begin the journey together.”
The old man said, “You must go now. Only when you go will I be with you.”
But the boy did not leave him, and when the old man died the next day, the boy buried him beside the trail and placed a stone to mark his grave. Then he went on down the trail, alone, but somehow he could bring the old man back by speaking of something that he knew they could share together. For the old man had told him so.
The boy, now, went down the slope and climbed the steps of the house. He knocked on the door and stood back. Then he heard movements in the back room and light steps coming up the sala to the door. A woman’s smallish face peered through the crack. It was an old face, and her cheeks were hollow as if all her molar teeth had been pulled. She said, “What do you want, ‘noy?”
The boy said, “Do you have some food to spare, please?”
“No. Go away.” The door shut on his face.
Then it opened back a little, widening the crack. Her smallish face would be seen peering through the crack again, and she asked, “Are you all by yourself?”
The boy said, “Yes, ma’am.”
Said the woman, You is not lying to me, is you, ‘noy? I does not want to have strangers in when my husband is not here.” She craned her neck and look past the boy and into the dark outside. The boy looked over his shoulders as if he himself did not trust his own words. “Anyway, there is only left-over from tonights supper,” she said. “Just about enough to feed one little mouth.”
The boy said, “No, mum; not lying. I is alone, alone by myself.”
“I has only half a fish and bananas. Those I has enough.”
He said, “It is alright, mum, I has had nothing to eat since yesterday.”
The woman widened the crack.
The boy slid through the crack and stepped into the house. The woman closed the door behind him and dropped the bar down in the groove. She was quite certain that no one had followed the boy into the house, yet she was still suspicious. Now she turned round, going to the kitchen, saying, “Sit down there, ‘noy, by the table.”
He sat on a wooden stool, watching the door of the kitchen where the woman had gone off. He heard her moving round After a while, the woman emerged through the door and set the plate of rice and dried fish and some boiled bananas in front of him on the table. There was a pitcher of water that was half-full, covered with a piece of clean, white cloth. A glass of water stood beside it.
The woman walked past the table and stood beside the door where she could watch the boy and at the window all at one time. The boy slipped a piece of dried fish into his pocket while the womans face was turned toward the window. He commenced to eat, hungrily chewing even the bones of the fish and choking on his bananas he put into his mouth. She watched him suspiciously, but twice the boy was able to slip a banana under his shirt. She said, “What is you doing, ‘noy, out alone by yourself?” Her cheeks collapsed in her face like a punctured balloon when she spoke.
The boy chewing on the dried fish said, “I is just passing through, mum.”
“Passing through? Where is you going?”
“ — “To the city, mum.”
The woman said, “Does your parents know? Is they aware you is traveling alone?”
He said, “They does not know, mum. An old man took care of me.”
He went on eating, trying to chew rapidly as he could the food on his plate. He swallowed a large bite of boiled banana and a fistful of rice and nearly choked on them. The woman asked, after the boy had finished eating, “Where is the old man now?”
The word nearly slipped out from his mouth. He was about to tell her that the old one was outside waiting for him in his make-believe world. In his dream-world, in his make-believe, the old man was as real as the smallish face woman. Truly he is waiting for me outside, he thought. I have some food for him. “He is back at the trail,” the boy said, without looking up from the table.
The woman walked away from the door and peered out the window. Then she walked over to the table and took the piece of white cloth off from the mouth of the pitcher. She poured him a glass of water and set the pitcher down on the table. The boy drank off the glass and wiped his mouth on his sleeves. He stood up and the woman went ahead of him to the door. She lifted the bar off the groove, and the boy went out through the door. She said, “If I were the old man, I would not have you tramping through the country by yourself. A boy like you could get in a lot of trouble.—Why did he ever let you go ahead all alone, hah?”
The boy said, “He has left me, mum.”
She asked, “Oo, is he waiting for you in the city? I thought you said he was back at the trail.”
The boy said nothing. He went down the steps, his bare feet swishing on the wooden slabs of the stairs. “Wait,” the woman said. “You, there —— ” she passed the door following the boy outside. “What kind of an old man is he to … Does he not care what happens to you along the way?” The boy went down the steps of the house and down onto the ground. “Hoy,” the woman said. “You, boy —— ” He went on, beginning to cross the small garden planted with cosmos flowers beside the house. “Now, you there,” she said. “Wait. Now, you wait.” The boy then stopped among the cosmos plants and looked back over his shoulder. “What did you say you were going to the city for?”
Said the boy, “My mother sent for me.”
The woman stood under the porch, and said, “Why did she send for you?”
Said the boy, “She sent for me, so I could go to school. She says I is old enough now. I is nine years old already, mum.”
She said, “And the old man?”
The boy said nothing. He turned and started walking along the ditch which ran alongside the highway. The woman went into the house, barred the door, and brought the empty dishes to the kitchen sink. Then she cleaned the table and with a rag wiped off the rice grains that had fallen on the table. She swept them off with the rag to one corner of the table and caught the rice grains in her open palm; not noticing that almost all her boiled bananas were gone. She walked to the window. She leaned out and peeped sidewise into the dark, but the boy was not anywhere in sight.
The boy had crossed the ditch and was walking on the green slope of the highway. The tall grass reached to his waist. Now and then, the twin lights of a car would sweep the dark, and for a moment the boy would be suspended in the lights as though he had stopped walking and his feet had ceased moving. Then the car would speed on, and the dark would come in as suddenly as it had vanished.
I do not like her, old one, I am thinking. I would not have eaten anything, if I was not so hungry.Then, “Let us rest here. It is too dark to go on now. Here, I brought you some food.” I draw a piece of fish out from my trousers pocket, and then put it right back in. It satisfied me very much that I had given the old 1some food. After walking a while in the dark, I sit down on the slope of the ditch. I stretch out my legs, sitting there straight-legged beside the highway without a thought in my head. Then I lie back on the grass, closed my eyes, and immediately fell asleep.
The boy first felt the sunlight filtering thro his eyelids. He batted his eyes, closed them, and sealed them with an arm across his eyes. But soon he tasted the heat of the sun on his lips, and he knew he would not be able to sleep again. So he sat up, took out the piece of fried fish from his pocket and the boiled bananas from under his shirt, put some bananas down on the grass beside him, and then commenced to eat.
When he had finished eating he looked round where he could get a drink of water. He did not wish to go back to the frightened, small fish-faced woman. Maybe, he thought, I can get a drink of water at the next house. Or at the next village.
“Let us walk already, Manolo,” I hears the old man say.
I says, “It is early yet, old one.”
He says, “We starts now while there is yet no sun.”
I can hear the old man speak in my mind as though he was here and not lying at the side of the trail many kilometers away with a stone marking his grave.
He says, “Come on, hijo.”
I says, “How far is it yet, old one?”
He says, “Maybe about a hundred kilometers more.”
The boy stood up from the green slope and climbed into the highway. About this time the sun was already a quarter of the way up beyond the hills. Now, standing on the highway with the sun behind him, he saw it is orange-red reflections along the highway and on the roof beams of the houses and on the flat country before him, with his shadow tall and flat ahead like the land on the travel catalogue.
He began to walk, dragging his feet one behind the other, and lifting his face at every step. After he had gone some hundred yards, his feet began to hurt, the toes cringing, and the crushed sharp rocks cutting his skin and opening up old sores. He limped, his back arched in a hump melting into a similar stance. He took a step and then another, his body from the waist up not moving except his head; and, somehow, the boy felt the old man beside him and their steps falling together and scuffing the dust in a puff of cloud.
Meanwhile, along the highway, huge trucks and cars came whooshing and rolling by.