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Authors: Saud Alsanousi

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BOOK: The Bamboo Stalk
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Once, when I was six and Merla was ten, I said to my mother,
‘Mama, I want to marry Merla.'

My mother burst out laughing. ‘It looks like you're going to turn Muslim quicker than I imagined,' she said.

Mama Aida also looked surprised. ‘Are Muslims allowed to marry their cousins?' she asked.

Mother nodded, and I said, ‘In that case I'm a Muslim!'

Mama Aida put her hand to her breast and said, ‘Perish the thought. My daughter and I are Catholics.' She roared with laughter and pointed at me threateningly. ‘Go back to your father's country, and marry your grandmother if you want,' she said.

That day I was upset that there was something to prevent me marrying Merla. I was in love with her and very jealous, but all those were childish dreams that soon faded. It came back years later in a different form, in dreams that were different from the dreams of childhood.

Merla, her boldness, her rebelliousness, her crazy talk, hanging out on the streets of Manila – the mestiza girl and the Arab boy, drinking iced tea in front of the juice stands on the pavement, visiting Fort Santiago, the old Spanish citadel, our trips up the mountains and down the valleys and into the Biak-no-Bato caves, sitting by the lake with a view of the famous Taal volcano and watching the boats with fishermen seared by the sun.

On those trips, we had fun for free, as Merla put it. We only spent a minimal amount on transport and sometimes, but rarely, some of the places charged a fee to enter a world that seemed infinite. Everything except the train or the bus or the Jeepny and the entrance charge, if there was one, was free. No one tries to charge for the hours you spend looking at the volcano. No one tells you your time is up when you're sitting under a giant tree that has grown out of the heart of a massive boulder. No one tells you
not to float on the surface of the lake, looking up at the clouds and counting them. There's nothing to stop you reaching out and picking a delicious fruit, and sharing it with the one you love.

‘Have you noticed? Nature gives us happiness for free,' Merla said.

‘But we bought tickets to go in,' I said, stuffing my hand into the pocket of my shorts and taking out two pieces of yellow paper. ‘Do you think they have the right to make us pay?' I asked.

Merla looked at the sky, then the trees and the rocks around us. ‘It's not nature's fault if people charge for things they don't own,' she said.

She paused and then continued. ‘Besides, we bought the tickets just to get through the gate, and after that everything is free.'

I didn't comment on what she said even if I wasn't convinced, since because of our age difference, which seemed massive, I thought that Merla was wise and understood everything. I also wanted to avoid getting into an argument with her, because I would lose in the end as usual, and because, as a boy of fourteen at the time, I voluntarily deferred to the judgment of a girl of eighteen.

We were in Biak-no-Bato that day, some time in 2002. It's an awesome place on a giant scale, with massive trees that reach the sky and giant boulders overhanging steep cliffs. It was my first trip with Merla so far from home. I looked like the travellers I had seen on television. Like an explorer, I had a backpack with everything I needed for the trip. I wore shorts that went just below my knees and that looked baggy because they had so many pockets, and high boots that were good for walking on rough, stony ground. Merla carried a flashlight that we used when it was dark in the caves. She wore a
white blouse with short sleeves and very skimpy denim shorts, and tied her hair back. Damn her! If only she weren't my cousin.

Obviously she was my guide, because she had visited the place before, and she asked the official guide not to come inside with us. I followed her, listening to her explanation. ‘Many years ago the heroes of the revolution stayed in these caves,' she said, ‘making their plans for revolution out of sight of the Spanish occupiers.'

She talked a lot about the history of the place. When the path was clear I listened, but I ignored what she was saying when the going was tough, for example when we had to climb steps through clefts in the rock. When I felt dizzy halfway across a wooden suspension bridge I asked her to stop talking. She made fun of me: ‘These bridges and stairways were made for people like you, you wimp!' she said. She pushed me on, urged me to keep walking. ‘These bridges and stairways didn't exist when the heroes of the revolution stayed here,' she added.

‘So how did they move from one cave to another?' I asked.

‘They were heroes and . . .' she said, sticking out her tongue to make fun of me.

‘And what?' I asked, wondering why she hadn't finished her sentence and impatient to hear her answer.

She pointed at the massive boulders. ‘The rocks must have been in league with them when they let them stay inside the caves,' she whispered, as if she didn't want the rocks to hear her.

With my cousin Merla even ordinary stories became fantasies. She had an amazing ability to turn the simplest of stories into myths. She was a magician, Merla.

She was walking along, and I was following, looking at her body from behind – its curves, the way she swayed when she
walked, the softness of her legs, the
MM
tattoo on her arm. I wanted to remove one of the
M
's and put a
J
in its place. The dream I had had a few days earlier was very much on my mind as I watched her. The only thing that distracted me from my fantasies was the feeling of claustrophobia when the path took us up between massive boulders and the tangled branches above us blocked out the sunlight and the breeze.

Halfway across one big wooden bridge between two bluffs on either side of a large lake, Merla stopped and pointed down.

‘Lots of workers drowned in this lake when they were building this bridge,' she said.

I held tight to the ropes on the side of the bridge. I plucked up courage and tried to look down, but it was no use.

‘They say this bridge couldn't have been built here without some sacrifices,' Merla continued.

She put her hand on my shoulder. A strange, unexpected feeling came over me. She slowly brought her face close to mine. I shivered with pleasure and closed my eyes. I moved my face closer to hers, but suddenly she hit me on the head with her flashlight.

‘What are you doing, you idiot?' she shouted.

Confused, with the palm of my hand I rubbed the spot at the front of my head where she had hit me. I didn't say anything because it was obvious what I had been about to do. Merla got over what had happened, as if nothing had happened. She opened her eyes wide and finished off what she had been saying before I had closed my eyes.

‘The workers who drowned,' she whispered, ‘were sacrificial offerings to the spirit of the place, to persuade them to let humans build the bridge.'

She shook her head sadly. ‘They must have been good people,' she said.

And because I didn't pay much attention to what she was saying, she carried on explaining. ‘Rizal said the victim must be pure and spotless if the sacrifice is to be acceptable,' she said.

I wasn't thinking about the tragedy of the dead workers when they built the bridge, or about what Rizal said. I was too busy thinking about the bump that had started to form on my head and Merla's expression ‘the spirit of the place'. My mind wandered. I looked around at the big rocks, the giant trees and the vast caves. I swear I could hear the rocks groaning around me, the leaves rustling, the trickling of the water, everything whispering something in languages I did not understand.

Ever since that day I've believed that everything has a spirit. Everything. Looking at the lake below the hanging bridge, Merla said, ‘I'd like to end my life by jumping from this bridge.'

I looked at her suspiciously and said, ‘But my mother says only cowards who can't face up to life try to commit suicide.' She didn't hear me, or perhaps she just pretended not to hear.

While we were on the bridge, the birds in the sky suddenly disappeared. ‘Follow me,' said Merla as she headed deeper into the forest. We could hear the birds twittering and making other calls from somewhere in the trees. As we walked along, Merla said, ‘Hurry up. It's going to rain.' I looked at the sky through the tangle of branches but I couldn't see any sign of clouds.

‘How can you tell that, Merla?' I asked.

She pointed to the trees. ‘See how the birds have hidden away,' she said.

Then she turned to a wall of rock on her left. ‘Look here,' she said.

Thousands of ants were climbing the wall.

‘What's that got to do with rain?' I asked.

‘You don't understand anything,' she answered irritably.

I hated the way she boasted that she knew everything. Sometimes I had questions to which I didn't know the answers. I would be about to ask my cousin, who had more experience than me, but I would hold back in case she gave me her usual answer: ‘You don't understand anything.'

We kept walking along the narrow paths that overlooked the deep valleys between the massive rocks. Clouds gathered and within minutes they blocked out the rays of the sun. Claps of thunder started to shake the place, and torrential rain soon followed. The clouds just dumped all the water they were carrying, proving to me that I really didn't understand anything.

We ran between the boulders and took shelter in the largest cave. We sat together on a big rock inside the cave. All we could see through the entrance to the cave was the rain pouring down in sheets and a dark green haze. The place was very damp inside and the combined smell of wet earth and bat droppings gave me a strange feeling. Merla turned on her flashlight and swept the beam over the rocks above us. There were hundreds of bats hanging head down from the rocks.

I was right next to Merla. My leg was touching her wet, bare leg. I had various feelings, but not fear. I would never be frightened in Merla's presence, even if we faced death together.

I remembered the dream. A sense of numbness began to seep into my body from the part that was touching her leg. I could feel the pulse in my temples, and the humidity, wherever it came from, added to my sense of confusion.

‘What are you thinking about?' asked Merla.

‘Nothing,' I replied without thinking, as if on the defensive
against some implied accusation.

Who was I trying to lie to, I wonder. Merla didn't wait long before hitting back. ‘Don't imagine that I don't understand you,' she said.

The raindrops pounded the rocky ground outside the cave with a staccato rhythm matched by my heartbeats. ‘For some time now, the way you look at me, the way you behave,' Merla continued.

She moved her face close to mine. I could feel her breath. The air she breathed out went into my lungs as I breathed in. Her eyes stared into my eyes. My eyes, open this time, were fixed on her flashlight. The blood throbbed under the bruise on my head.

‘What you're thinking is impossible, José,' she said.

I felt a fear I had never known in her presence. ‘Yes, yes, impossible,' I agreed.

We were still face to face. ‘Why is it impossible?' she asked. ‘Do you know why?'

I looked straight into her eyes. ‘Because you're my cousin,' I said.

She smiled a strange half-hearted smile. ‘A silly reason like that wouldn't stop me doing something that I really wanted,' she said.

She turned to face the entrance to the cave. ‘There's another reason that prevents me,' she said.

She switched off the flashlight. The light was so faint I could hardly see her face. ‘If you weren't a man . . .' she continued.

 

19

‘José, José, José.'

I was fed up with being summoned by my grandfather. The grievance rankled, but it rarely came to the surface and never passed my lips.

When my mother talked about how she had suffered, psychologically at least, when working for the old lady in Kuwait, I didn't understand what she meant until I found myself working so hard for Mendoza.

After a long, exhausting day, I would leave my window open to hear the sound of the crickets, but that was rarely the only thing I heard.

‘Damn you, bastards!' Mendoza's drunken voice, alongside the sound of the crickets. ‘Merla.' He said Merla's name in a hushed voice, then shouted out my name: ‘José!'

I didn't answer.

‘You bastards.'

I opened my eyes. The shadows of the bamboo plants danced on the walls of my room, cast by the flickering candlelight that shone through Grandfather's window.

‘José!'

I stuck my fingers in my ears. The silence was unbearable. I took my fingers out. I listened carefully. The crickets came back, and . . .

‘José!'

I pretended to be asleep.

‘I know you can hear me.'

The sound of wood knocking against wood. A cup of
tuba
on the table.

‘I hate bastards!' shouted Mendoza.

I jumped to the window, put my arms through the iron bars and imagined I had my hands around his neck.

‘I'm not a bastard,' I said.

Mendoza didn't respond. Might he perhaps come through the door behind me? He didn't stay silent for long.

‘Can you prove that?' he said, and burst out laughing, then started to cough.

‘Curse these crickets. I wish they'd come and live in my room, so that I could hear them and close the window at the same time.'

I brought our brief conversation to an end by slamming the window shut.

*   *   *

‘José!'

Now it was the next morning. ‘Bring me a banana.'

‘A yellow banana,' he added after a moment's pause.

Of course the banana should be yellow, so why did my grandfather insist on saying what colour. Ah! He knew the banana trees around our house only had bunches of small green bananas that weren't ready to pick yet.
I hate you, Mendoza.

BOOK: The Bamboo Stalk
9.71Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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