smoke

I write better when I smoke. Don’t ask me to reduce it to a science.

Eid Mubarak

 

The headman of the village stood with his head bowed in the middle of the road, an island of stillness as his village erupted in chaos. The marines were coming and everyone knew that they would bring retribution with them. 

Children sat crying in the dirt while their mothers and sisters ran around frantically stuffing clothes and instant noodles into plastic bags. Here and there, arguments broke out about what to take; a prized transistor radio, a broken mirror, a box of love-letters. All the while, the rumble of distant engines grew louder and louder.

The dirt road down the middle of the village ran fluid with women and children. The old men stayed in the shade, their eyes staring off into the distance. Soldiers didn’t hurt old men. Just the young ones, and the village’s young men were already dead or dying in the jungles and the rice paddies.

Suddenly, the noise from the engines stopped. The trucks had arrived. For a second, everyone froze in place gripped by the kind of panic that steals voices. Even the children fell silent. 

From the lead truck, a man in fatigues stepped out and looked around. His eyes squinting against the noonday sun. He found the headman right away, and began striding purposefully towards the old man. Behind him, soldiers streamed out of the truck like startled ants. “Sarge!” they shouted.

At the sight of the soldiers, the women screamed and the mad rush to get out of the village resumed. But still, the soldier and his men pressed on. The soldier seemed oblivious to everything going on around him, intent on his quarry, while his men held their rifles close and pointed outwards, their eyes darting this way and that, waiting for ambush. But the ambush never came.

When the Sergeant finally reached the headman, he bowed his head and, over the din of the pounding boots of his men forming a ring around the two of them, said “Abu.”

“Iqbal is dead. I am sorry.”

For the first time, the headman looked up with tears in his eyes. “I should have never let my sons go.”

“I’ve brought the others. I know you will see to it that everything that needs to be done gets done.”

With that, the Sergeant turned around and walked back to the truck, shouting orders as he went. Tailgates clanged as the trucks were opened and the soldiers left behind started gently taking out bodies wrapped in brightly colored blankets.

When the women saw the bodies being carefully laid out on the dirt road, the flow out of the village swirled in on itself, a humann eddy, and slowly they inched their way back towards the trucks. From the crowd of women and the general murmur of anxious muttering, individual voices rose to the surface.

“Kasan?”

“Murad?”

“Boogie?”

By the time all the bodies had been laid down, the exodus had been forgotten and the wailing had started to reach for the heavens. Most found the men they had thought they would never see again. The others beat their chests so loudly it seemed like they would kill themselves. And maybe it would have been better if they had. Dead, they would not have to wonder what happened to their missing husbands and sons.

Leaving the grieving women, the soldiers quietly boarded the trucks again and soon, the signal to roll out of the village came.

The Sergeant sat in the front of the truck with his eyes firmly on the road out of the village. He imagined Iqbal walking the same road, and fought hard to fight down the bile that rose to his throat. The old man was right, he never should have let Iqbal go. Come to that, the Sergeant shrugged, he never should have let me go either. “Then maybe I could have greeted him eid mubarak instead of having to tell him that my brother was dead.”

The soldier driving the truck turned to him in mild surprise. “Sarge?”

“Wala. Bilisan mo. Malamit na dumilim.”

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Filed under: stories, , , ,

4 Responses

  1. hi, rom. got the chance to read this article on filipino voices.

    would like to ask your permission if i can repost this on my blog.

    thanks.

  2. rom says:

    hector: welcome to the smoking room! Damned decent of you to ask permission, son of priam. I would be honored if you reposted this on your blog. 😀

  3. pleasure is mine. maraming salamat.

  4. sandraraven says:

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

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