Acacia: Barrio Tale (written by Alex Maskara 2000)
Any barrio folk who had left for decades would probably think the way I do think tonight: Having been absent for nearly twenty years, and knowing I'd never see at least half the folks I knew last alive when I come back, what is left is only the memory the barrio had left me. With one caveat: Since I'm getting old, my memory is no longer as sharp as it was. The vivid pictures I now remember acquire a watercolor-like appearance, they become more or fewer postcards. That's probably the reason why the Japanese filmmaker Kurosawa made so many beautiful Japanese films. He saw Japan in the deepest reaches of his brain. I may not be able to see the barrio the way he saw Japan in films, but I see something in it alright. And it's always beautiful and sad, the way life and the past had always been for me.
I lie in bed thinking of the people who owned the houses I passed on my way home. Indang Odelia, dead. Apung Gelia, dead. Indang Lucresia, dead. Indang Marinela, dead. Apung Anting-ting, dead. And so forth and so on. There is no point mentioning them all. What's important is how we spent our time in the barrio together when being old and dead were the least of our concerns. I am surprised at how fast time would erase us all. Memory is the only lingering proof we were once living and moving souls on the face of the earth.
I really don't want to think morbid thoughts. But as I remember it, my past in the barrio was far from glorious and happy. My barrio days were full of poverty and struggles, being mocked and bullied for the same reasons. Maybe you'd say, why not think of the barrio at present? Yes, but, the present in my barrio would just get me more depressed. The last time I visited, it was totally congested. Majority of the people living there I hardly knew. The ones I knew were either senile or dead. My contemporaries were either abroad or too proud to see me. Even now they regard my good fortunes as mere luck.
That's probably the truth. Even I myself cannot win everything. I can't live perfectly in two different places. I'm the floating guy: I live somewhere between two continents. Between two cultures. Amidst so many differences in attitudes and culture. So many racial undertones. So, really, I can't win anything. My barrio treats me no different from how I got treated when I was young and my adopted country would always think of me as the perennial stranger, the alien in the midst. There is nothing stable in this world. There is nothing fixed. Changes are inevitable. That being the case, I just rely on my memory.
My memory focuses on something permanent in my barrio: the acacia tree standing right beside the derelict Beauty Parlor of Coca where jeepneys load and unload passengers. Coca lured men into her den, promising them love and sex while she stood beside the acacia tree. She was a has-been prostitute in Gabella, the only whore house in the barrio. Men would no longer come to her, it was rumored she was infected with all kinds of sexually transmitted diseases.
Ha! But I'm in no mood to talk about Coca right now. I want to talk about the acacia tree.
The tree - so old, very very old, now stands with all its trunk burnt to leave a hollow space in its stead. Like a disemboweled body. What is now left is a circle of bark, and wonder of all wonders, the bark still keeps the tree alive as it bears new leaves year out. Whoever burned the tree must be dead by now, the acacia tree has outlived even its murderers. It has outlived all wars, all fads, all heroism, all sins, all gossips, all - everything. And with my limited existence on this earth, I too will be outlived by this tree. It's an immortal tree. It's the very barrio itself.
My Grandfather warned me about the Kapre residing by the acacia tree. Kapre's silhouette - half horse/half man can be found sitting at night on top of the tree when there's a full moon. Smoke rises out of his tobacco and with a guttural voice asking: And where have you been? Where are you going?
When my Grandfather was still young, he was asked the same questions by the Kapre. He found himself three barrios away from his house in the middle of the night without knowing how. He had to knock on people's doors to ask how to find his way home. "Because," he whispered to my ears. "The Kapre was offended when I did not ask his permission as I passed by his tree. He made me lose my way."
If that happens to you, and the Kapre muddles your brain, all you need is to turn your shirt inside-out, that's the antidote to his power.
Many nights I'd sit by the window that provided me a view of the acacia and stare and stare at its thick head - many nights I found the Kapre atop the tree, without his cigar of course. And I'd wonder how he could confuse people. I was never permitted by my Mother to get near the tree, not because of the Kapre but because of Coca's dubious reputation. No one wanted anybody to get close to her Beauty Parlor, especially at night. People hated her past and no matter how much change she had done to herself, she was ostracized. That's how cruel the barrio folk could be at times. Coca eventually left for another island never to return.
It was a beautiful life then. People competed in terms of the cleanliness of houses, colorful gardens, and the design of curtains. Dogs slept in the afternoons too lazy to even stir when a stranger visited. Life was so satisfying the only time they'd charge you of a crime is when you skipped the Sunday mass. No one fought over anything else.
It is never known when the Kapre left. But the people knew he went away when Coca's old Beauty Parlor was turned into a grocery store owned by a woman whose husband left for Saudi Arabia and became suddenly rich.
In one day, everybody wondered about going abroad and how much money they could make working abroad. The competition shifted from cleaner houses / beautiful gardens/curtains to how fast someone could work in Saudi Arabia or Japan or the US. Everyone in the barrio began contemplating how life abroad would be, how much the dollar-peso conversion was, what businesses Dollars can build up in the barrio. So the barrio folk left out in droves - they left thinking that working abroad was just temporary. All they needed was to earn a few dollars and come back with sufficient capital for small businesses. Some left so they could put their children through school and some left for simple competition - they did not want to be left out.
Families were divided. Fathers disappeared. Mothers acted like Fathers. Children had so much money they developed vices. They were put through schools but they studied half-heartedly, they could not see the importance of learning and eventually earning a living because, look, someone was providing them money and food from abroad. Why study hard? Why work hard? And everywhere, people were building stores. People were buying jeepneys. Some tricycles. They gutted their houses and replaced them with bungalows. They tore out their gardens and paved their backyards to park their vehicles. They cut down trees to give space for their stores.
That's the reason why the acacia tree got burned. A stupid nugget head tried to get rid of it to build a sari-sari store but it didn't work out. The acacia survived but the Kapre left.
No one should ever let the Kapre go because in leaving, as the superstition said in the old days, everyone will get confused and memory will vanish.
When I go home and meet the barrio folk, I don't remember having met the majority of them in the past. It is said they came from other parts of the country and the locals, except for a few, are no longer living here. When I introduce myself, no one in the barrio seems to remember me - my name belongs to someone they heard a long time ago. What the people are preoccupied with are means and ways to leave the barrio. They train for jobs that will bring them abroad as Nurses, nannies, caregivers, domestics, laborers, ship workers, and even prostitutes. They encourage more strangers to live in this barrio to increase the number of consumers. They are now even contemplating calling on Congress to approve the conversion of the barrio into a city.
I was one of those who left to work abroad twenty years ago.
And because of that, maybe I was saved from the curse of forgetfulness that I still remember sometimes.
At night I turn my shirt inside-out and when the moon is full I get into the hollow center of the acacia tree. In that space, I try to remember.
But even the acacia's walls have been cracking, ready to disappear. Forever.