By: Sassa Ramos
My father usually leaves to home to open his store at the public market at around 3 a.m. every day, seven days a week, rain or shine. It takes him approximately seven minutes of brisk walking from our house to the main square where the market is. The subdivision where we live is lined with houses on both sides of a straight road. There are about 50 houses on either side of the road. From our village, he has to get to the diversion road which is already very near the market. Perpendicular to the entrance of the subdivision, this diversion road is a busy route by day for tricycles, buses, and other automobiles heading north to Manila or to adjoining subdivisions. At about 3:10 am my father has just enough time to continue walking up to the church of the Lady of the Gate atop a hill, down to and around the park, along the national highway to the provincial hospital, and back to the market. By quarter to 4, he would proceed to unlock his small merchandise store, arrange his wares, and would be just in time to cater to a group of barrio women for their daily sari-sari store marketing. The money exchanged by these patrons for goods is very important.
As it signifies pabuenas for the day. If my father is a bit late, even by a few minutes, the customers would go to another store, and obviously that is a regrettable loss of income. Waking up early and opening the store for business even before the sun comes up have become his daily tasks for more than 20 years. Although it sounds unsafe, surprisingly my father has not experienced anything unusual, scary or life-threatening from being out in the streets during early mornings. There was only one incident of an attempted hold up by two armed men who intercepted him on his route to the market, but fortunately let him go when he told then he wasn’t carrying anything valuable, which was true. One morning, he went out of the house at 3 a.m. as usual. Street lamps blazed all the way to the division road. The air was crisp and mild, typical of summer. The neighbors were all still in deep slumber and blessedly quiet at that unholy hour. There was only the occasional hooting of birds, and the intermittent mating calls of noisy cats. He bid goodbye to our sleepy dogs, and carefully locked the gate. Inside the dark house he was leaving behind, my mother and all three of us children were asleep. He peered out into the chiaroscuro of the inky sky and the light stain made by the half moon and the street lamps. He was all alone. My father tells me now how exhilarating it felt them to be the only one awake, intrepid and absurdly alive as though the world was literally at his feet. He walked briskly, timing his breathing. His running shoes squeaked faintly against the cement pavement. On the yard of one of the neighbors, there stood a towering mango tree with branches extending haughtily over the roadway. In daylight, this tree is a sight to behold: Strong brown trunk gnarled with age, a canopy of luxurious green leaves, and, in summer, branches that are heavy with fragrant green mangoes. As long as I can remember, it was an unpopular tree and children were not tempted to conquer its straight and sturdy trunk that only began branching out into a crown of leaves about seven feet from the ground. In a few minutes my father was right under the mango tree’s shadow. Suddenly, a powerful and angry wind exploded above him. The leaves and branches trashed and shrieked as though a violent typhoons was raging. His nape felt a sensation so strange that in a matter of seconds, his body was covered in goosebumps. He stopped and suddenly became aware of his accelerating heartbeat and parched throat. Looking around, he saw that other trees in the vicinity were very still: there was no fluke wind anywhere else. Outside the immediate area where we stood rooted, everything was calm and quiet. Yet above him, the fury was astounding. Branches flailed wildly as though they were caught in the grasp of some horrific power. Stories like this were common in the barrios, where trees were more numerous than houses, where houses were situated far away from each other, and a lone man out at an ungodly hour was an easy target for many kinds of supernatural experiences. My father was familiar with stories of Uyog, where engkantos play tricks on human senses. Maybe uyog is the product of an overactive imagination, who knows . But right there and then, in the midst of the populated subdivision, my father could not think of any other explanation for what was happening. In recounting this tale today, he tells me of one story of a villager in his native barrio of Namantao, who was walking home slightly tipsy one night and who had to cross several out-of-the-way rice fields to his house. There was only the moon to light his steps, but it was a familiar path he never had any problems in the past passing that way. That night however, in the midst of the field that had grown suddenly quiet, that man could not find his way out of the field for hours. There were lights in the distance that looked like oil lamps from faraway houses, but when he tried to reach them by walking in their direction, they would disappear, only to reappear in another part of the horizon. In the end, the man took off his shirt and wore it inside out, and in exhaustion camped out on the side of a paddy, where the soil was dry, to wait until morning. He woke up when the sun was up and shining, astonished to find that his house was only a few more meters from where he slept. That early morning, my father refused to look up at the furious tree above him. He resisted the temptation to wear his shirt out, as was the custom to counter uyog according to old folks. He paused there only briefly. My father took a huge gulp of the cold air, and walked away briskly. He was tempted to look back, but finally decided against it.