FAR down the palm-lined road they appeared, nearing with perplexing rapidity. The head of my companion snapped forward and his eyes flamed. They came in a file down the road, between the palm trees, in the glowing tropic light, swinging along with smooth, resistless progress. They seemed to glide; the bamboo poles, balanced on their shoulders, slid as if on invisible tracks laid above the ground, and the tuba buckets at the ends were steady as if floating in the air. Soon they were near. The play of their great thigh muscles became visible. They turned the corner of the plaza with a new burst of speed, and then they passed us in magnificent action. Down their naked heels came in turn, pounding the ground; in one long, smooth sweep from waist to toe the legs flashed back in a quivering of ropy sinew. Their naked bronze busts glistening with sweat, and the supple back muscles, giving at each step beneath the bamboo poles, undulated liquidly beneath the golden skin. Through the palm leaves covering the buckets a slight froth played like silver lace. They passed us in a flash of gleaming bronze; the creak of the bamboo poles shrieked in our ears; the pungent, sulphurous odour of the tuba stung our nostrils, and then they vanished in the kaleidoscopic colour-play of the market.
My eyes fell upon my companion. He was leaning forward, his shrivelled legs collapsed beneath the trunk, his whole weight upon his hands, his head straining ahead like that of a bird in flight, and in his eyes something strange and moving—a soft, regretful gleam, yes—God bless me, how strange it seemed in that sullen, stolid cripple!—a look of longing, longing infinite.
From this day I watched him, watched him as the tuba-carriers flashed into the pueblo, at high noon.
He was about forty years old, and above the waist he was beautiful. From the belt the body shot upward, broadening like a Greek urn into a deep chest, and wide, massive shoulders. Beneath the gleaming terra-cotta skin the muscle played in elastic bundles of power. His face was hatchet-carved, with a relentless jaw and eagle nose, and his straight black hair was ennobled by a sprinkle of gray.
But below the waist was ruin. He had been ham-strung. His legs were folded flaccidly beneath the trunk, the calf against the thigh—powerless things which, as he dragged himself on his hands, trailed limply behind as if some ignoble, useless attachment of the great body above.
It was not often that he courted this humiliation. Usually he was in his nipa hut in the coconuts, silent and alone. But regularly, a little before noon, he dragged himself to his station in front of the store of Gong Ah Deam, merchant and usurer, and there, leaning against the wall, he watched and waited for the coming of the mañangetes. There was something tragic about the man, a singular dignity of woe, and as he crouched there, that quality made him appear as tall as those about him. He never spoke, and an awe—partly superstitious, I think—kept a vacant circle around him.
One day that man told me his story. He told it to me in hoarse whispers, impelled by some torturing desire to unburden himself, in front of the store of Gong Ah Deam, there, awaiting the coming of the tuba-carriers.
"I was one of them, señor," he said, pointing with his chin toward the far vista where the tuba-men would presently appear; "I was a mañangete; yes, the strongest and fleetest of them. For five years I was the leader of the file. They would challenge me often at first. As we strained toward the far pueblo, in turn each would move up and try to pass me, but I only quickened a little as the man tugged at my side, his breath whistling like the wind through the coco trees, his legs stiffening till they cracked, till finally he dropped back, gasping, to the foot of the line, the tuba running down the sides of the bucket, while another spurted up to wrest from me the honour. After two years they ceased to challenge me—all except one. I was their acknowledged king—except by one. His name was Herrera. He was small and light and stringy. He had no chance against me. I could laugh and sing as he walked at my elbow, agonising with the effort. Day after day, as I raced proudly along, the long line behind me, the bamboo pole springing lightly on my shoulder, the tuba frothing in the buckets, I felt him start out of his place; soon his hot breath was on my neck, and out of the corner of my eye I saw his evil, yellow face. I hummed and sang and cracked my muscle with walking. And he hung on, I don't know how, señor, he hung on mile after mile, till I thought he would die. Then suddenly he reeled and sobbed, and inch by inch I passed him, proudly smiling, while his heart burst with bitterness. We rushed into the pueblo, and as I, raising my head, spurted with new speed, and each man, his eyes glued upon the back ahead, strained to keep up, I knew that he was last in the line, staggering blindly, his tuba spilling at every step, a disgraceful spectacle. And to my ears came the laughter of the women, pointing their fingers at him.
"They looked at me with longing eyes; they laughed at him. For I was strong and beautiful, señor. Look at these arms—they were a third bigger then. And my thighs—they are shrivelled and soft now, like meat that has hung in the market too long—but they were like the trunk of the iron tree, strong as the carabao's, fleet as the mountain deer's. And he was small and dried, and his legs were bowed.
"Señor, I knew why he challenged me thus day after day. He loved Constancia Torres. And I loved her, too.
"We had played together when children; we were youths and did not know it; one day I saw her come out of the bath and suddenly I was a man. Her dripping patadyon, wrapped high beneath her armpits, followed the curves of her body like a long caress; above, her shoulders glowed like polished gold, and over all there fell to her heels the glistening glory of her black hair. And her eyes were deep as the pools of the Cabancalan, and her voice was soft as the sigh of the breeze through the sugar cane at sundown, and I loved her, señor.
"Of course I won her. I went to her father one evening and asked for her and got her. She stood aside while I spoke; a corner of her camisa had slipped down from her left shoulder and the light shone on the golden skin. She did not smile when her father assented. Next day we were married by Padre Marcelino, and she did not smile.
"But I did not care, señor. It seemed such a little thing, her indifference, near my love. Señor, you have seen the hot breath of the monsoon pass over the land, day after day, month after month, till the palms and the bamboo and the sugar cane all bend its self-willed way. My love was the hot monsoon and she was the bamboo wisp.
"I took her away to my new nipa-hut, under the coconut palms. And I trembled to my own happiness as the violin vibrates to its own music.
"I could not sleep those days, señor, I was so happy. At sundown I climbed the tall coconut trees, my bolo between my teeth. I hacked at the shoots above and hung my buckets, and then slid down and found her. We stood long at the window, señor, in the night. The wind blew softly through the trees. Beneath the leaves the stars shone upon our love, and when the breeze ceased, so quiet was it, señor, that we could hear the gentle dripping of the tuba in the buckets, above us in the sky. And we would stay thus many hours of the night, señor, my arms about her, her soft body against mine, and it was only later that I remembered that all the caresses came from me.
"Señor, I was so happy, that I forgot to hate. The day after my marriage I let Herrera lead into the pueblo. The next day he was not in line, nor ever after. Señor, the man who forgets to hate is a fool.
"All about me there was a rippling of evil laughter, and winkings and signs and tappings of fingers on foreheads. And I was blind.
"One afternoon, late, as I was coming back to my hut, my empty buckets swinging on the pole, my eyes fixed upon the little nipa-roof already showing through the trees, and hunger of love in my heart, I tripped against a liana across the path. There was a whirr of pliable bamboo and something sharp whistled through the air and struck me there, behind the knee, with the sound of the butcher's cleaver cutting meat. I fell, and my legs were as they are now. Señor, you have fought in the war; you know the bamboo-trap. A bamboo-trap had been laid for me.
"My legs were gone, but something terrible whispered in my heart that I should be home. And I was there almost as quick as if I had been still a man, and not a worm.
"Señor, the house was deserted. As I crawled about like a dog smelling tracks, there was not a trace of the woman I loved.
"Then all that my eyes had refused to see, all that my ears had refused to hear poured into me in a black tide. I knew why the pueblo had laughed. And throwing myself on my back I shivered all night with pain and lust to kill."
The man suddenly leaned forward and his eyes flamed. The mañangetes were rushing into the town. Smoothly they glided around the plaza, and then they passed us in a flash of gleaming bronze. The creaking of the bamboo poles shrieked in our ears, the pungent sulphurous odour of the tuba bit our nostrils, and long with a wistful look the cripple followed them till they were lost in the palpitating colour-play of the market.
Four miles from Cabancalan there is a lonely pile of rocks of evil repute. Heavy, cannon-like reports come from it at times, and a sickening smell of sulphur pinches the nostrils a quarter of a mile away.
I was passing the place at noon one day when I saw a man crawling queerly among the rocks. His movements were so suspicious that I dismounted and followed him.
I gained fast and finally a full look as he passed around a big boulder intensified my surprise. It was the cripple of the pueblo, the old mañangete.
He was labouring heavily, dragging himself on his hands, his big chest wet with perspiration, and a glint of baneful determination in his eye. After a dolorous scramble through putrescent vegetation and leprous rocks, he slid down a little ravine into a cup-like depression bare of plant life except at the farther end, where a gigantic banyan embraced the earth with its huge tentacle roots.
He crawled to the middle of the clearing, and then he stopped, on his hands and knees, looking at something on the ground which I could not see. I waited for half an hour, but he remained thus in this strange posture and I silently crawled back and away.
The next morning, early, I was back at the place. I slid down the little ravine into the cup-like depression. It was deserted. A white object on the ground caught my eye. It was a human skull.
It was a human skull, white and polished with age. And its lower jaw was twisted in a most abominable grin.
I touched the thing to roll it over. It was fast. I felt beneath. The sharp, saw-like edge of vertebræ rasped my fingers. I dug the earth beneath. The vertebræ extended downward for a few inches and then the smooth collar bones crossed them at right angles.
I understood. An entire skeleton was there, buried upright to the neck. I thought I understood also the abominable grin.
I did not want to see any more; but as I turned away a whiteness among the octopus-like tentacles of the banyan compelled me.
I took a few steps and stood before a skeleton. It was tied upright to the banyan roots by an iron chain, corroded with rust. There was no flesh on the thing, but a stream of heavy black hair cascaded down from the skull to the heels, undulating in and out of the ribs.
One more thing I noticed. The hollow eyes of the skeleton among the banyan roots were focused upon the centre of the clearing. In the centre of the clearing was the skull of the horrible grin, and its staring orbits were turned upon the roots of the banyan tree.
For a moment I was too cold to climb out of the place. Yet when I succeeded my body was wet with perspiration.
- Mañangete is a Negros Visayan dialect word, denominating the men who gather tuba. Tuba is the fermented sap of the coconut palm, obtained by incisions made at the top of the tree.