Francisco Sionil Jose – The God Stealer
- Pages: 33
- Word count: 8228
- Category: Philippines
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They were the best of friends and that was possible because they worked in the same office and both were young and imbued with a freshness in outlook. Sam Christie was twenty – eight and his Filipino assistant, Philip Latak, was twenty – six and was – just as Sam had been at the Agency before he assumed his post – intelligent and industrious. “That is to be expected,” the official whom Sam replaced explained “because Philip is Ifugao and you don’t know patience until you have seen the rice terraces his ancestors built.”
“You will find,” Sam Christie was also told, “that the Igorots, like the Ilocanos, no matter how urbanized they already are, entertain a sense of inferiority. Not Philip. He is proud of his being Ifugao. He talks about it the first chance he gets.” Now, on this December dawn, Sam Christie was on his way to Ifugao with his native assistant. It was last month in the Philippines and in a matter of days he would return to Boston for that leave which he had not had in years. The bus station was actually a narrow sidestreet which sloped down to a deserted plaza, one of the many in the summer capital.
Sam could make out the shapes of the stone buildings huddled, it seemed, in the cold, their narrow windows shuttered and the frames advertising Coca – Cola above their doorways indistinct in the dark. Philip Latak seemed listless. They had been in the station for over half an hour and still there was no bus. He zipped his old suede jacket up to his neck. It had been four years that he had lived in Manila and during all these years he had never gone home. Now, the cold of the pine – clad mountains seemed to bother him. He turned to Sam and, with a hint of urgency – “One favour, Sam. Let me take a swig.”
Sam and Christie said, “Sure, you are welcome to it. Just make sure we have some left when we get Ifugao.” He stopped, brought out a bottle of White Label – one of the four – in the bag which also contained bars of candy and cartons of cigarettes and matches for the natives. He removed the tinfoil and handed the bottle to his companion. Phil raised it to his lips and made happy gurgling sounds. “Rice wine – I hope there’s still a jar around when we get to my grandfather’s. He couldn’t be as seriously sick as my brother wrote. As long as he has wine he will live. Hell, it’s not as potent as this, but it can knock out a man, too.”
Sam Christie kidded his companion about the weather. They had arrived in the summer capital the previous day and the bracing air and the scent of pine had invigorated him. “It’s like New England in the spring,” he said. “In winter, when it really gets cold, I can still go around quite naked by your standards. I sent home a clipping this week, something in the Manila papers about it being chilly. And it was only 68! My old man will get a kick out of that.” “But it’s really cold!” Philip Latak said ruefully. He handed the bottle back to Sam Christie, who took a swig, too. “You don’t know how good it is to have that along. Do you know how much it costs nowadays? Twenty – four bucks.” “It’s cheaper at the commissary,” Sam Christie said simply. He threw his chest out, flexed his lean arms and inhaled. He wore a white, dacron shirt with the sleeves rolled up.
“I’m glad you didn’t fall for those carvings in Manila,” Phil said after a while. A Grecian urn, a Japanese sword, a Siamese mask – and now, an Ifugao God. The Siamese mask,” Sam spoke in a monotone, “it was really a bargain. A student was going to Boston. He needed the dollars, so I told him he could get the money from my father. Forty dollars – and the mask was worth more than that.”
Now, the gray buildings around them emerged from the dark with white, definite shapes. The east was starting to glow and more people had arrived with crates and battered rattan suitcases. In the chill most of them were quiet. A coffee shop opened along the street with a great deal of clatter and in its warm, golden light Sam Christie could see the heavy, peasant faces, their happy anticipation as the steaming cups were pushed before them.
The bus finally came and Sam Christie, because he was a foreigner, was given the seat of honour, next to the driver. It was an old bus, with woven rattan seats and side entrances that admitted not only people, but cargo, fowl, and pigs. They did not wait long, for the bats filled up quickly with government clerks going to their posts and hefty Igorots, in their bare feet or with canvas shoes who sat in the rear, talking and smelling of earth and strong tobacco.
After the bus had started, for the first time during their stay in Baguio, Sam Christie felt sleepy. He dozed, his head knocking intermittently against the hard edge of his seat and in that limbo between wakefulness and sleep he hurtled briefly to his home in Boston, to that basement study his father had tidied up, in it the mementoes of his years with the Agency. Sam had not actually intended to serve in the Agency, but he had always wanted to travel and, after college, a career with the Agency offered him the best chance of seeing the world.
Soon it was light. The bus hugged the thin line of a road that was carved on the mountainside. Pine trees studded both sides of the road and beyond their green, across the ravines and the gray socks, was shimmery sky and endless ranges also draped with this mist that swirled, pervasive and alive, to their very faces. And Sam Christie, in the midst of all this whiteness and life, was quiet.
Someone in the bus recognized Philip and he called out in the native tongue, “Ip – pig!” the name did not jell at once and the man shouted again. Philip turned to the man and acknowledged the greeting and to Sam he explained: “That’s my name up here – and that’s why I was baptized Philip.”
Sam Christie realized there were many things he did not know about Phil. “Tell me more about your grandfather,” he said. “There isn’t much worth knowing about him,” Philip said. “How old is he?”
“Eighty or more.”
“He must be a character,” Sam Christie said.
“And the village doctor,” Philip said. “Mumbo – jumbo stuff, you know. I was taken ill when I was young – something I ate, perhaps. I had to go to the Mission Hospital – and that evening he came and right there in the ward he danced to drive away the evil spirit that had gotten hold of me.”
“And the doctor?”
“He was broad – minded,” Philip said, still laughing. “They withstood it, the gongs and stamping.” “It must be have been quite a night.”
“Hell, I was never so embarrassed in my life,” Philip Latak said, shaking his head, “Much later, thinking of it,” his voice became soft and a smile lingered in his thick – lidded eyes, “I realized that the old man never did that thing again for anyone, not even when his own son – my father – lay dying.”
Now they were in the heart of the highlands. The pine trees were bigger, loftier than those in Baguio, and most were wreathing with hoary moss. Sunflowers burst on the slopes, bright yellow against the grass. The sun rode over the mountains and the rocks shone – and over everything the mist, as fine as powder, danced. The bus swung around the curves and it paused, twice or thrice to allow them to take coffee. It was past noon when they reached the feral fringes of the Ifugao country. The trip had not been exhausting, for there was much to see. Sam Christie, gazing down at the ravines, at the geometric patterns of the sweet – potato patches there and the crystal waters that cascaded down the mountainsides and the streams below, remembered the Alpine roads of Europe and those of his own New England – and about these he talked effusively. “See how vegetation changes. The people, too. The mountains,” Sam Christie said, “breed independence. Mountain people are always self – reliant.”
Then, at turn of a hill, they came, without warning upon the water – filled rice terraces stretched out in the sun and laid out tier upon shining tier to the very summit of the mountains. And in the face of that achievement, Sam Christie did not speak. After a while he nudged Philip. “Yeah, the terraces are colossal.” And he wished he had expressed his admiration better, for he had sounded so empty and trite.
The first view of the terraces left in Sam’s mind a kind of stupefaction which, when it had cleared, was replaced by a sense of wastefulness. He mused on whether or not these terraces were necessary, since he knew that beyond these hand – carved genealogical monuments were plains that could be had for the asking. “And you say that these terraces do not produce enough food for the people?” Philip Latak turned quizzically to him. “Hell, if I can live here, would I go to Manila?” Their destination was no more than a cluster of houses beyond the gleaming tiers. A creek ran through the town, white with froth among the rocks, and across the creek, beyond the town, was a hill, on top of which stood the Mission – four red – roofed buildings – the chapel, the school, the hospital, and residence.
“That’s where I first learned about Jesus Christ and scotch,” Philip Latak said. “They marked me for success.” Another peal of laughter.
The bus shuddered into first gear as it dipped down the gravel road and in a while they were in the town, along its main street lined with wooden frame houses. It conformed with the usual small – town arrangement and was properly palisaded with stores, whose fronts were plastered with impieties of soft – drink and patent – medicine signs. And in the stores were crowds of people, heavy – jowled Ifugaos in G – string and tattered Western coats that must have reached them in relief packages from the United States. The women wore the native gay blouses and skirts.
The two travellers got down from the bus and walked to one of the bigger houses, a shapeless wooden building with rusting tin proof and cheap, printed curtains. It was a boarding house and a small curio store was on the ground floor, together with the usual merchandise of country shops: canned sardines and squid, milk, soap, matches, kerosene, a few bolts and twine. The landlady, an acquaintance of Philip Latak, assigned them a bare room, which overlooked the creek and the mountain terraced to the very summit.
“We could stay in my brother’s place,” Philip Latak reiterated apologetically as they brought their things up, “but there is no plumbing there.”
Past noon, after a plentiful lunch of fried highland rice and venison, they headed for the footpath that broke from the street and disappeared behind a turn of hillside. The walk to Philip Latak’s village itself was not far from the town and wherever they turned the terraces were sheets of mirror that dogged them.
The village was no more than ten houses in a valley, which were no different from the other Ifugao homes. They stood on stilts and all their four posts were crowned with circular rat guards. A lone house roofed with tin stood at one end of the village. “My brother’s,” Philip said.
“Shall I bring the candies out now?” Sam asked. He had, at Phil’s suggestion, brought them along, together with matches and cheap cigarettes, for his “private assistance program.” Sadek, Philip’s brother, was home. “You have decided to visit us after all” he greeted Philip in English and with a tinge of sarcasm. He was older and spoke with authority. “I thought the city had won you so completely that you have forgotten this humble place and its humble people.”
Then, turning to Sam, Sadek said, “I must apologize, sir, for my brother, for his bringing you to this poor house. His deed embarrasses us…”
“We work in the same office,” Sam said simply, feeling uneasy at hearing the speech. “I know, sir,” Sadek said.
Philip Latak held his brother by the shoulder. “You see, Sam,” he said, “my brother dislikes me. Like my grandfather, he feels that I shouldn’t have left this place, that I should rot here. Hell, everyone knows the terraces are good for the eye, but they can’t produce enough for the stomach.”
“That’s not a nice thing to say,” Sam said warily, not wanting to be drawn into a family quarrel. “But it’s true,” Philip Latak said with a nervous laugh. “My brother dislikes me. All of them here dislike me. They think that by living in Manila for a few years I have forgotten what is to be an Ifugao. I can’t help it, Sam. I like it down there. Hell, they will never understand. My grandfather – do you know that on the day I left he followed me to the town, to the bus, pleading with me and at the same time scolding me? He said I’d get all his terraces. But I like it down there, Sam,” he threw his chest and yawned. Unmindful of his younger brother’s ribbing Sadek dragged in some battered chairs from within the house and set them in the living room. He was a farmer and the weariness of working the terraces showed in his massive arms, in his sunburned and stolid face. His wife, who was an Ifugao like him, with high cheekbones and firm, dumpy legs, came out and served them Coca – Cola. Sam Christie accepted the drink, washed it down his throat politely, excruciatingly, for it was the first time that he took warm Coke and it curdled his tongue.
Sadek said, “Grandfather had a high fever and we all thought the end was near. I didn’t want to bother you, but the old man said you should come. He is no longer angry with you for leaving, Ip – pig. He has forgiven you…” “There’s nothing to forgive, my brother,” Philip Latak said, “but if he wants to he can show his forgiveness by opening his wine jar. Is he drinking still?”
“He has abandoned the jar for some time now,” Sadek said, “but now that you are here, he will drink again.” Then the children started stealing in, five of them with grime on their faces, their feet caked with mud, their bellies shiny and disproportionately rounded and big. They stood, wide – eyed, near the sagging wall. The tallest and the oldest, a boy of thirteen or twelve, Sadek pointed out as Philip’s namesake.
Philip bent down and thrust a fistful of candy at his nephews and nieces. They did not move. They hedged closer to one another, their brows, their simple faces empty of recognition, of that simple spark that would tell him, Ip – Pig, that he belonged here. He spoke in the native tongue, but that did not help either. The children held their scrawny hands behind them and stepped back until their backs were pressed against the wall.
“Hell, you are all my relatives, aren’t you?” he asked. Turning to Sam, “Give it to them. Maybe, they like you better.” His open palm brimming with the tinsel – wrapped sweets, Sam strode to the oldest, to Philip’s namesake, and tousled the youngster’s black, matted hair. He knelt, pinched the cheeks of the dirty child next to the oldest and placed a candy in his small hand. In another moment it was all noise, the children scrambling over the young American and about the floor, where the candy had spilled. Philip Latak watched them, and above the happy sounds, the squeals of children, Sadek said, “You see now that even your relatives do not know you, Ip – pig. You speak our tongue, you have our blood – but you are a stranger nevertheless.” “See what I mean, Sam?” Philip Latak said. He strode to the door. Beyond the betel – nut plams in the yard, up a sharp incline, was his grandfather’s house. It stood on four stilts like all the rest and below its roof were the bleached skulls of goats, dogs, pigs, and carabaos which the old man had butchered in past feats. He had the most number of skulls in the village to show his social position. Now new skulls would be added to this collection.
“Well, he will recognize and I won’t be a stranger to him. Come,” Philip Latak turned to his friend, “let us see the old man.”
They toiled up the hill, which was greasy although steps had been gouged out on it for easier climbing. Before going up the slender rungs of the old house Philip Latak called his grandfather twice. Sam Christie waited under the grass marquee that extended above the doorway. He couldn’t see what transpired inside and there was no invitation for him to come up. However, some could hear, Philip speaking in his native tongue and there was also a crackled, old voice, high pitched with excitement and pleasure. And, listening to the pleasant sounds of the homecoming, he smiled and called to mind the homecomings, he, too, had known, and he thought how the next vacation would be, his father and his mother at the Back Bay station, the luggage in the back seat, and on his lap this wooden idol which he now sought.
But after a while, the visions he conjured were dispelled. The effusion within the hut had subsided into some sort of spirited talking and Philip was saying “Americano – Americano.” Sam heard the old man raise his voice, this time in anger and not in pleasure. Then silence, a rustling within the house, the door stirring and Philip easing himself down the ladder, on his face a numbed, crestfallen look. And, without another word, he hurried down the hill, the American behind him. Philip Latak explained later on the way back to the town: “I had asked him where we could get a god and he said he didn’t know. And when I told him it was for an American friend he got mad. He never liked strangers, Sam. He said they took everything away from him – tranquillity, me. Hell, you can’t do anything to an old man, Sam. We shouldn’t have bothered with him at all. Now, tell me, have I spoiled your first day here?”
Sam objected vehemently.
“The old man wants a feast tomorrow night. My bienvenida of course.” “You will be a damned fool if you don’t go,” Sam said. “I’m thinking about you. You shouldn’t come,” Philip said. “It will be a bore and a ghastly sight.” But Sam Christie’s interest had been piqued and even when he realized that Philip Latak really did not want him to come he decided that this was one party he would not miss.
They visited the Mission the following day after having hiked to the villages. As Philip Latak had warned, their search was fruitless. They struggled up terraces and were met by howling dogs and barebottomed children and old Ifugaos, who offered them sweet potatoes and rice wine. To all of them Sam Christie was impeccably polite and charitable with his matches and his candies. And after this initial amenity, Philip would start talking and always sullen silence would answer him, and he would turn to Sam, a foolish, optimistic grin on his face.
Reverend Doone, who managed the Mission, invited them for lunch. He was quite pleased to have a fellow American as guest. He was a San Fransiscan, and one consolation of his assignment was its meagre similarity to San Francisco. “In the afternoons,” he said with nostalgia, “when the mist drifts in and starts to wrap the terraces and the hills, I’m reminded of the ocean fog which steals over the white hills of San Francisco – and then I feel like I’m home.” They had finished lunch and were in the living room of the Mission, sipping coffee, while Philip Latak was in the kitchen, where he had gone to joke with old friends. Sam’s knowledge of San Francisco was limited to a drizzly afternoon at the airport, an iron – cold rain and a nasty wind that crept under the top coat, clammy and gripping, and he kept quiet while Reverend Doone reminisced.
The missionary was a short man with a bulbous nose and heavy brows and homesickness written all over his pallid face. Then it was Sam’s turn and he rambled about the places he had seen – Greece ans the marble ruins glinting in the sun, the urn; Japan, the small green country, and the samurai sword. And now, an Ifugao God. Reverend Doone reiterated what Philip had said. “You must understand their religion,” he said, “and if you understand it, then you’ll know why it’s difficult to get this god. Then you’ll know why the Ifugaos are so attached to it. It’s a religion based on fear, retribution. Every calamity or every luck which happens to them is based on this relief. A good harvest means the gods are pleased. A bad one means they are angered.”
“It’s not different from Christianity then,” Sam said. “Christianity is based on fear, too – fear of hell and final judgment.” Reverend Doone drew back, laid his cup of coffee on the well – worn table and spoke sternly. “Christianity is based on love. That’s the difference. You are in the Agency and you should know the significance of this distinction.” Reverend Doone became thoughtful again. “Besides,” he said, “Christianity is based on the belief that man has a soul and that soul is eternal.” “What happens when a man loses his soul?” Sam asked.
“I wish I could answer that,” Reverend Doone said humbly. “All I can say is that a man without a soul is nothing. A pig in the sty that lives only for food. Without a soul…”
“Does the Ifugao believe in a soul?”
Reverend Doone smiled gravely, “His god – he believes in them.” “Can a man lose his soul?” Sam insisted.
“You have seen examples,” Reverend Doone smiled wanly. “In the city – people are corrupted by easy living, the pleasures of senses and the flesh, the mass corruption that is seeping into the government and everything. A generation of soulless men is growing up and dictating the future…”
“How can one who loses his soul regain it?” Sam came back with sudden life. “It takes cataclysm, something tragic to knock a man back to his wits, to make him realize his loss…” “They are all human beings. But look what is in this mountain – locked country. It is poor – let there be no doubt about it. They don’t make enough to eat. But there is less greed here and pettiness here. There are no land – grabbers, no scandals.” Going down the hill, Sam decided to bare his mind to Philip who was below him, teetering on the sleepy trail, he said with finality. “Phil, I must not leave Ifugao without that god. It’s more than just a souvenir. It will remind me of you, of this place. The samurai sword – you should have seen the place where I got it and the people I had to deal with to get it.
It’s not just some souvenir, mind you. It belonged to a soldier who had fought in the South Pacific and had managed somehow to save the thing when he was made prisoner. But his daughter – it’s a sad story – she had to go to college, she was majoring English and she didn’t have tuition money.” In the comfort of their little room back in the town, Sam brought out his liquor. “Well,” he said as he poured a glass for Philip. “At least the hike did me good. All that walking and all these people – how nice they were, how they offered us wine and sweet potatoes.” “You get a lot better in cocktail parties,” Philip Latak said. “How many people in Manila would feel honoured to attend the parties you go to?”
“They are a bore,” Sam said. “And I have to be there – that’s the difference. I have to be there to spread sweetness and light. Sometimes, it makes me sick, but I have to be there.”
Phil was silent. He emptied the glass and raised his muddy shoes to the woollen sheet on his cot. Toying with his empty glass, he asks the question Sam loathed most: “Why are you with the Agency, Sam?” He did not hesitate. “Because I have to be somewhere, just as you have to be somewhere. It’s that simple.” “I’m glad you are in the Agency, Sam. We need people like you.” Sam emptied his glass, too, and sank into his cot. Dust had gathered outside. Fireflies ignited the grove of pine on the ledge below the house and farther, across the creek, above the brooding terraces, the stars shone. After a while Philip Latak spoke again: “We will be luckier tomorrow, I know. You’ll have your god, Sam. There’s a way. I can steal one for you.”
Sam stood up and waved his lean hands. “You can’t do that,” he said with great solemnity. “That’s not fair. And what will happen to you or to the man whose god you will steal?” “Lots – if you believe all that trash,” Philip said lightly “I’ll be afflicted with pain, same with the owner. But he can always make another. It’s not so difficult to carve a new one. I tried it when I was young, before I went to the Mission.” “You cannot steal a god, not even for me,” Sam said.
Philip laughed. “Let’s not be bull – headed about this. It’s the least I can do for you. You made this vacation possible and that raise. Do you know that I have been with the Agency for four years and I never got a raise until you came?” “You had it coming. It’s that simple.”
“You’ll have your god.” Philip Latak said gravely.
They did not have supper at the boarding house because in a while Sadek arrived to fetch them. He wore an old straw hat, a faded flannel coat and old denim pants. “The butchers are ready and the guests are waiting and Grandfather has opened his wine jar.” The hike to the village was not difficult as it had been the previous day. Sam had become an expert in scaling the dikes, in balancing himself on the strips of slippery earth that formed the terrace embankment, in jumping across the conduits of spring water that continuously gushed from springs higher up in the mountain to the terraces. When they reached the village many people had already gathered and on the crest of the hill, on which the old man’s house stood, a huge fire bloomed and the flames crackled and threw quivering shadows upon the betel palms. In the orange light Sam, could discern the unsmiling faces of men carrying spears, the women and the children, and beyond the scattered groups, near the slope, inside a bamboo corral, were about a dozen squealing pigs, dogs, and goats, all ready for the sacrificial knife.
Philip Latak acknowledged the greetings, then breaking away from the tenuous groups, he went to his grandfather’s hut. Waiting outside, Sam heard the same words of endearment. A pause, then the wooden door opened and Philip peeped out. “It’s okay, Sam. Come up.”
And Sam, pleased with the prospect of being inside an Ifugao house for the first time, dashed up the ladder. The old man really looked ancient and, in the light of the stove fire that lived and died at one end of the one – room house, Sam could see the careworn face, stoic and unsmiling. Sam took in everything; the hollow cheeks, the white, scraggly hair, the horn hands and the big – boned knees. The patriarch was half – naked like the other Ifugaos, but his loin cloth had a belt with circular bone embellishments and around his neck dangled a necklace of bronze. To Sam the old man extended a bowl of rice wine and Sam took it and lifted it to his lips, savoured the gentle tang and acridness of it.
He then sat down on the mud – splattered floor. Beyond the open door, in the blaze of the bonfire, the pigs were already being butchered and someone had started beating the gongs and their deep, sonorous whang rang sharp and clear above the grunts of the dying animals.
The light in the hut became alive again and showed the artefacts within: an old, gray pillow, dirty with use, a few rusty – tipped spears, fish traps and a small wooden trunk. The whole house smelled of filth, of chicken droppings, and dank earth, but Sam Christie ignored these smells and attended only to the old man, who had now risen, his bony frame shaking, and from a compartment in the roof, brought out his black and ghastly – looking god, no taller than two feet, and set it before the fire before his grandson.
Someone called at the door and thrust to them a wooden bowl of blood. Philip Latak picked it up and gave it to the old man, who was kneeling. Slowly, piously, the old man poured the living, frothy blood on the idol’s head and the blood washed down the ugly head to its arms and legs, to its very feet and as he poured the blood, in his crackled voice, he recited a prayer. Philip turned to his American friend and, with usual levity said: “My grandfather is thanking his god that I’m here. He says he can die now because he has seen me again.”
Outside, the rhythm of the gongs quickened and fierce chanting started, filled the air, the hut, crept under the very skin and into the subconscious. The old man picked up the idol again and, standing, he returned to its niche. “Let’s go down,” Philip said. They made their way to the iron cauldrons, where rice was cooking, and to the butcher’s table where big chunks of pork and dog meat were being distributed to the guests. For some time, Sam Christie watched the dancers and the singers, but the steps and the tune did not have any variation and soon he was bored – completely so. The hiking that had preoccupied them during the day began to weigh on his spirits and he told Philip Latak who was with the old man before newly opened wine jar, that he would like to return to the boarding house. No, he did not need any guide. He knew the way, having gone through the route thrice. But Sadek would not let him go alone and, after more senseless palaver, Sam finally broke away from the party and headed for the town with Sadek behind him.
The night was cool, as all nights in the Ifugao country are and that evening, as he lay on his cot, he mused. In his ears the din of gongs still rang, in his mind’s eye loomed the shrunken, unsmiling face of the Ifugao. He saw again the dancers, their brown, sweating bodies whirling before the fire, their guttural voices rising as one, and finally, the wooden god, dirty and black and drenched with blood. And recalling all this in vivid sharpness, he thought he smelled, too, that peculiar odour of blood and the dirt of many years that had gathered in the old man’s house. Sam Christie went to sleep with the wind soughing the pines, the cicadas whirring in the grass. He had no idea what time it was, but it must have been past midnight. The clatter woke him up and, without risking, he groped for the flashlight under his pillow. He lifted the mosquito net and beamed the light at the dark from which had paused at the door. It was Philip Latak, swaying and holding on to a black, bloody mass. Sam let the ray play on Phil’s face, at the splotch on his breast – the sacrificial blood – and finally, on the thing.
“I told you I’d get it,” Philip Latak said with drunken triumph. “I told you I’d steal a god,” and staggering forward, he shoved his grandfather’s idol at his friend.
Sam Christie, too surprised to speak, pushed the idol away and it fell with a thud on the floor. “You shouldn’t have done it!” was all he could say. Philip Latak stumbled, the flashlight beam still on his shiny, porcine face. He fumbled with the stub of candle on the table and in a while the room was bright. “What a night,” he crowed, heaving himself in his cot. “No, you don’t have to worry. No one saw me. I did it when all were busy dancing and drinking. I danced a little, too, you know – with the old man. He is going to give me everything, his terraces, his spears, his wine jars. We danced and my legs – they are not rusty at all.” Philip Latak stood up and started prancing.
Sam bolted up, too, and held him by the shoulder. “You’ll be waking up everyone up. Go to bed now and we will talk in the morning.”
Philip Latak sank back on his cot. The air around him was heavy with the smell of sweat, rice wine, and earth. “He will be surprised,” he repeated. “He will be surprised – and when he does he will perhaps get drunk and make a new one. Then there will be another feast to celebrate the new god – and another god to steal…” “You are lucky to have someone who loves you so much. And you did him wrong,” Sam said sullenly. He sat on the edge of his cot and looked down at the dirty thing that lay his feet.
“He did himself wrong,” Philip said. “He was wrong in being so attached to me who no longer believes in these idols. Sadek – you have seen his house. It’s different. And not because he has the money to build a different house. It’s because he doesn’t believe in the old things any more. He cannot say that aloud.” Phil whacked his stomach. “Not while he lives with a hundred ignorant natives.” “It’s a miserable thing to do,” Sam said. “Take it back tomorrow.” “Take it back?” Phil turned to him with a mocking leer. “Now, that’s good of you. Hell, after my trouble…”
“Yes,” Sam said. “Take it back.” But there was no conviction in him, because in the back of his mind he was grateful that Philip Latak had brought him this dirty god, because it was real, because it had significance and meaning and was no cheap tourist bait, such as those that were displayed in the hotel lobbies in Manila. “I won’t,” Philip said resolutely. “If I do, I’ll look bad. That would be the death of my grandfather.” “I’ll take it back if you won’t,” Sam said almost inaudibly. “He will kill you.”
“Don’t frighten me.”
“Hell, I’m just stating a fact,” Phil said. “Do you think he would be happy to know that his god had been fondled by a stranger?” “It’s no time for jokes,” Sam said, lying down. “That isn’t funny at all.” And in his mind’s resolute eye, there crowded again one irrefrangible darkness and in it, like a light, was the old man’s wrinkled face, dirtied with the mud of the terraces, the eyes narrow and gleaming with wisdom, with hate. He wished he knew more about him, for to know him would be to discover this miserly land and the hardiness (or was it foolhardiness?) which it nourished. And it was these thoughts that were rankling his mind when he heard Philip Latak snore, heard his slow, pleasant breathing and with his hand, Sam picked up the taper and quashed its flame. At the same time Sam Christie woke up it was already daylight and the sun lay pure and dazzling on the rough pine sidings of the room. It was Philip Latak who had stirred him, his voice shrill and grating. Sam blinked, then sat up and walked to the door, where Philip was talking with a boy.
“I’m sorry I woke you up,” he said, turning momentarily to him, “My nephew,” a pause. “It’s grandfather.” His voice was no longer drunken. “I have to leave you here.”
“Anything the matter?”
Philip had already packed his things and the boy held them, the canvas bag and the old suede jacket. “My grandfather is dying, Sam. He collapsed – an attack.”
When Sam found words again, all he could ask was, “Why… how…” “Hell, that should be no riddle,” Philip said. “The feast last night. The dancing and the drinking. It must have been too much for his heart. And at his age…”
“I’ll be back as soon as I can, but don’t wait, whatever your plans are.” After the two had gone, Sam returned to the room and picked up the idol. In the light he saw that the blood had dried and had lost its colour. The idol was heavy, so Sam quickly deduced that it must be made of good hardwood. It was crudely shaped and its proportions were almost grotesque. The arms were too long and the legs were mere stumps. The feet, on other hand, were huge. It was not very different, Sam concluded lightly, from the creations of sculptors who called themselves modernists. And wrapping it up in an old newspaper, he pushed it under his cot near his mud – caked shoes. The next day, Sam Christie idled in the town and developed the acquaintance of the Chief of Police, a small man with a pinched, anonymous face that gained character only when he smiled, for then he bared a set of buckteeth reddened from chewing betel – nut.
He was extremely hospitable and had volunteered to guide him to wherever he wanted to hike. They had tried the villages farther up the mountains. It was early afternoon when they returned and the mist, white as starch in the sum, had started to crawl again down into town. The Chief of Police had been very helpful almost to the point of obsequiousness and Sam asked him to come up for a drink. After the Chief had savoured every drop in his glass, he declaimed. “Indeed, I am honoured to taste this most wonderful hospitality, which should be reserved only for important people…”
The party could have gone further, but it was at this moment that Sadek arrived. Philip’s brother did not waste words. “It’s about my brother,” he said. He looked down self – consciously at his shoes – they were a trifle big and Sam saw immediately that the pair was not Sadek’s but Philip’s. He saw, too, that the jacket which Sadek wore was Philip’s old suede. And as if Sam’s unspoken scrutiny bothered him, Sadek took the jacket off and held it behind him. “How is he?” Sam asked. He did not wait for an answer. “Come, let’s have a drink.” He held the Ifugao by the arm, but Sadek squirmed free from his grasp.
“I still have a half bottle of scotch,” Sam said brightly. “It’s the best in the world,” Sadek said humbly, but he did not move. “Nothing but the best for Americans.” Sam did not press. “When is Phil coming back?” he asked. “There was nothing we could do,” Sadek said. He did not face the young American and a faraway gaze was in his eyes. “Our grandfather…”
“He is dead?”
Sam took the news calmly. He did not find it, its finality, depressing and he was surprised even that the death of someone who was dear to a friend had not affected him at all. In the back of his mind, he even found himself thinking that, perhaps, it was best that the old man had died, so that his passing would seal, forever, as far as Philip Latak was concerned, the family’s concern with the idol’s dubious grace.
“And Phil?” Sam asked.
“He isn’t going back to Manila,” Sadek said simply, smiling again that meaningless grin of peasants. “And why not?”
Sadek did not speak.
“Tell me more,” Sam insisted. “Does his decision have something to do with burial customs and all that sort of thing?” “It’s not matter of custom, sir!”
“I must see him.”
Sadek faced the American squarely now. “Mr. Christie, you cannot do anything now. You must go back to Manila.” And wheeling round, the Ifugao walked out in the street. Sam followed him, rifled by the unexpected show of rudeness. “I cannot leave like this, Sadek. I’m sorry about what happened to your grandfather. In a time of grief I should at least be able to express my… my condolence.” “You have already done that, sir.”
Sadek paused again. “All right then,” he said sharply. “Do come,” then softly, supplicatingly, “Please, please don’t think we are being unreasonable – and don’t make me responsible for what will happen.” Sam Christie was now troubled. “How did the old man die?” That was the question he wanted to ask and when he did it seemed as if the words were strangled from his throat.
Walking slowly, Sadek glanced at the stranger keeping step behind him. “It happened in the morning after the feast. He had a lot of wine.”
“Of course, of course,” Sam said. “I saw him gulp it like water. A man his age shouldn’t have indulged in drinking like he did.” “But it wasn’t the drink that did it, sir,” Sadek said emphatically. “It was the loss of the god. It was stolen.” “It was not the god,” Sam said aloud and the words were not for Sadek alone, but for himself that he was not involved, that his hands were unsoiled. And a pang of regret, of sadness, touched him. “No,” he said. “It wasn’t the god. It couldn’t be as simple as that. The liquor, the dancing, the exertion – these did it.”
Sadek did not answer. They went down the incline and at the base of the terraces the path was wide and level again. Then, softly, “My grandfather always love Ip – pig – Philip – more than anyone of us. He wanted to see Ip – pig before he died. He died in Ip – pig’s arms.”
Near the hill on which stood the old man’s house Sadek paused again. “We buried him there,” he pointed to a new digging on the side of the hill, “and we held another feast this morning. Two feasts in so short a time. One was a welcome to a youth gone astray, the other a farewell to him who gave us blood in us…”
At the edge of the hilltop the open pits which had served as stoves still smoked and the dried blood of the butchered animals stained the earth. Sadek faced Sam. “My brother… he will not starve here, but he will no longer have the pleasures that he knew. Will that be good to him, Mr. Christie?” He did not wait for an answer and he droned, “As long as he works… but he is no longer a farmer of course. We are not learned like him and we have never been to Manila. But my brother…” and, shaking his head as if a great weight had fallen on his shoulders, Sadek left the young American.
Now there was nothing to do but go up the Ifugao hut, this flimsy thing of straw hat had survived all of time’s ravages, this house that was also granary and altar, which had retained its shape through hungry years and was, as it stood on this patch of earth, everything that endured.
And as he approached it, Sam Christie found himself asking why he was here, among these primitive monuments, when he could very well be in his apartment in Manila, enjoying his liquor and his books and, maybe, a mestiza thrown in, too. “Phil?” Sam Christie stood in the sun, crinkling his brow and wondering if he had spoken a bit too harshly or too loudly to disturb the silence within. “Phil, are you there?”
“Phil,” he repeated, raising his voice.
“I heard you,” Philip Latak’s reply from within the hut was abrupt and gruff.
“I thought you would forget. Remember, tomorrow morning, we are leaving. I’ve already packed and I was waiting. You didn’t even send word. We will still shop, Phil. And that woven stuff and the utensils – do you know if we can get them before we leave tomorrow?”
“You can’t mean what you say,” Sam said. “Come on, we still have many things to do. But if it’s against the custom – that is, if you have to stay here for more weeks after the burial –“ The words exploded from the hut with a viciousness that jolted Sam: “Damn it. I’m not coming!” It was no longer voice. It was something elemental and distressing. “I’m not going back, do you hear? You can bring the whole mountain with you if you care. The god, my grandfather’s god – isn’t it enough payment for your kindness?” The words, their keenness, their meaning, bit deep. “Let us be reasonable,” Sam said, his voice starting to quiver. “I didn’t want you to steal the idol, Phil.”
“You would have gotten it anyway,” the voice quieted down, “because you are always curious and determined. I could forgive myself for having stolen it, but the old man – he had always been wise, Sam. I killed him because I wanted to be free from these… these terraces, because I wanted to be grateful. I killed him who loved me most…” a faltering and a stifled sob. “Don’t blame me Phil.” Sam choked on the words. “I didn’t want to steal it. Remember, I even wanted to return it? Besides, I could have gone on searching until I found one I could buy…”
“That’s it!” the voice within the hut had become a shriek. “That’s it! You’ll always find a way because you have all the money. You can buy everything, even gods.”
His face burning with bewilderment and shame, Sam Christie moved towards the ladder. “Phil, let’s talk this over. We are friends, Phil,” he said in a low, anguished voice.
“You are not a friend,” the voice within the grass hut had become a wail. “If you are, you wouldn’t have come here searching for gods to buy.”
“We are friends,” Sam insisted, toiling up the ladder and at the top rung, he pushed aside the flimsy bamboo door. In the semi – darkness, amid the poverty and the soot of many years, Sam Christie saw Philip Latak squatting before the same earthen stove aglow with embers. And in this glow Sam Christie saw his friend – not the Philip Latak with a suede jacket, but a well – built Ifugao attired in the simple costume of the highlands, his broad flanks uncovered, and around his waist was the black – and – red breech cloth with yellow tassels. From his neck dangled the bronze necklace of an Ifugao warrior. Philip Latak did not, even face Sam. He seemed completely absorbed in his work and, with the sharp blade in his hands, he started scraping again the block of wood which he held tightly between his knees. “Leave me alone, Sam,” Philip Latak said softly, as if all grief had been squeezed from him. “I have to finish this and it will take time.”
Sam Christie’s ever – observant eyes lingered on the face. Where he had seen it before? Was it Greece – or in Japan – or in Siam? The recognition came swiftly, savagely; with waterly legs and trembling hands, he stepped down and let the door slide quietly back into place. He knew then that Philip Latak really had work to do and it would take some time before he could finish a new god to replace the old one, the stolen idol which he was bringing home to America to take its place among his souvenirs of benighted and faraway places.