TagayBy Raymund Fernandez
Cebu Daily News
After his breakfast of tinolang manok Bisaya, the priest went the rounds visiting households in the highland village. The trail to the houses were footpaths meandering through gentle slopes bordered on one side by a sudden drop into the Bukidnon mountain range; at the other, a stone cliff rising into the sky for hundreds of feet. Water gushed out from its crevices, feeding several streams, and pools where villagers bathed and did the morning laundry, the water steaming into the misty cold. It was a natural paradise. But the priest could only wonder how long this paradise would last. He wondered who would “own” it finally in the end or if somebody else owned it already. Who would come around to say they had the papers to prove ownership of something only God and these people can possibly own?
In every house he was always offered something to eat. Inevitably, the fare included the staple camote, boiled or roasted. Anything else was special. Corn was special. Rice, even more so. Meat was a rarity unless a local horse died. In which case, the meal might include kusahos, the tough horse-meat sun-dried to some amount of tenderness, but always posing a big challenge on the teeth of the elderly. Always, it would have that horse-aroma, which the locals loved. The priest politely hid his distaste. Given a choice, he would rather prefer the monitor lizard or halo, which tasted something close to chicken with a distinct taste and smell of the forest. Then there were the occasional birds, always looking comically helpless and tiny on the serving plate. The people here were never hungry.
Their problem was medicine—antibiotics for infections, painkillers, cough syrup and and analgesic. For worse problems, a decision always had to be made. Bring the sick down to the city or wait out the malady leaving it finally to God’s will? The priest wondered what the batting average for the latter was. He was never here long enough to know for sure. On the other hand, the locals did not think of life as something within their grasp to control. There was a time of dying for everyone. And that time was never wrong. They will wail and cry out at funerals but these were never cries of atonement for some outstanding sin. Nor were they cries of regret. They were merely utterance to accept the natural span of life, ritual-signs of farewell voiced out into Heaven to confess the hope it will be there for the loved one, now passed away, and that it would be a better place. In their mind and heart, they did not die. They only went away down the footpath to another place never to return.
Thus, in the priest’s mind, they did not believe in something too far off from his own religion. Left to themselves, he had no doubt his own God would take them up into His arms in a saving embrace. And so he went about looking for new people in the village, especially new babies. He went about baptizing everyone he met, most times secretly without their permission. They could volunteer to be baptized through the usual rite in the chapel at some later time. But all of the village had been baptized. Some, perhaps, more times than others, for the priest has grown forgetful in his old age, and of course, he kept no record of his secret baptisms. For him it never hurt to be sure.
Finally by late afternoon, he turned the bend to Datu Juan’s home where other four village elders were also gathered. They sat on the bamboo floor, Datu Yoku pouring the rum into the glass and passing it around in a circle. He is the eldest of the Datus. His traditional role was to hold in his head the story of the village itself. This, he has to teach by rote to his children so the story would never die. They believe this story to be sacred. It is the village itself. Should the story die, so, too, will the village. Not just its people but everything of the village, its houses, its hills, its springs, its plots of corn and camote, every rock and pebble, every blade of grass that is here. All these would disappear if the story was ever forgotten.
The priest sat silently until Datu Yoku threw at him a betel nut wrapped in a cone of leaf. This was the ritual signal for him to speak. With his chew, he continued to narrate to them his story. It is a serial story of all that was “out there.” Soon he would have to convince one of them to travel with him to the city to speak with a lawyer who might be able to give them the legal title to their land if such was available. Try as he would, he could not fully explain to them why this was a matter of life and death for them. They would rather hear the story of his God. This was always the more difficult story to tell. For how could he tell this story without invoking inside him a fundamental dissonance? How could he explain that the village’s enemies were the Christians themselves? That they were closing in with their roads and their lawyers waiting to take away from them everything? Given the world as it is now, how can a priest tell his flock the Savior’s story so that it would actually save them?
The priest invoked in his mind the help of the Holy Spirit as he downed his tagay of rum. The effects of the chew had gone to his head. He would need that too. He began slowly to speak.
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