When he woke up he found the house bathed in golden light. The sudden brightness made his eyes smart and he closed them again. He lay there for some time, unmoving, listening. The bells were not ringing any longer, and it was to the pealing of many bells he had awakened. He listened more intently. When he was sure there was only silence in the house, he opened his eyes again. He sprang from the bed, a boy of nine bouncing years, with short, scrawny legs and arms. He ran out of his room into the sala. It was still, empty and big. He hurried to a window and flung the shutters open. The light cut a standing parallelogram upon the front yard. He leaned a little out of the window and listened for footsteps. He withdrew and crossed the floor of his room once more. He lay down on his bed again.
He could not sleep anymore. It should be past midnight now, time to wake up, time to eat and be happy. People always ate good food and felt very happy at this particular time of the night on this particular day of the year. There were many, many things that made people happy; things he understood because he saw them and felt them; things he didn’t understand because he could not see them. Perhaps he felt them, but he was too young to give much thought to them. There was the bright gleam in the eyes of his father and his mother and in the eyes of the other people he knew. Why the bright and joyous gleam was there, he did not bother to understand; it was enough it was there, kind and gentle. And that made him happy, too.
“Go to sleep now, Daniel,” his father told him earlier in the evening.
“Yes, son,” his mother said. “Go to sleep now. You have to get up before midnight if you want to go to church with us.”
He had been tired. The whole day, he had been out playing with the boys in the neighborhood. They had been playing war. He was a captain, leading soldiers to battle. He loved to play war. He loved to hold a gun, at the time it was a toy gun, one that would make a loud bang when you pulled the trigger.
The day had been full of happiness. It was always like that in his town on the day before the midnight mass. Houses were gay and laced with colored paper. Lanterns hung by the windows, lanterns of different designs and varying colors. And in every house, there were cakes and rice and meat to eat. No one in town seemed poor on this day.
He had been happy and tired the whole day. And when he went to sleep, he had slept soundly. Now he remembered how his mother had come to wake him up.
“Daniel,” she said, softly, gently. “Daniel. Wake up.”
He had stirred, half conscious, mumbling some words he could not remember fully now.
“Wake up, son,” he heard his mother again. “It’s time to go to church.”
He was too tired and too sleepy. His limbs seemed leaden and pasted to the bedsheets. He did not want to get up. He did not think of the fun in the church, of the boys he knew who would be there. He only thought of how good it was to lie there, with eyes closed, lost to the world he had known so far. The world of boys and harmless abandon, of play and make-believe that never seemed to end, of romping legs and shouting lips, of laughter. It was a world of laughter most of the time.
Now that he was all alone in the house, he wished he had gone with his mother. He could dress now, and go to church. But he would have to walk alone in the dark. Besides, the bells had ceased ringing. The mass would be over soon and his mother and his father would be home. It would not be long now.
“A gun, Father. A toy gun. That is what I want for a gift.”
All of a sudden, he sprang up, bounced out of the bed and ran into the sala. Yes, it was there. The tree. It was standing tall and bright. The paper laces ran down from its tip to the floor. And there were white flakes as if snow had fallen upon the tree all night. “What is snow, Mother?” She had told him about it. And now, as he looked at the tree, he wished it were really snowing outside, as it would be snowing now in the country her mother had told him about. He wondered how it would feel in the snow, how it would be to be running about in the snow, playing war with a toy gun in your hand in the snow. He smiled. And then there was the way the small bulbs that were spread all over the tree went: off and on, off and on, off and on –– red, green, blue orange, and pink bulbs going off and on. This always made him wonder. When he asked his father about it, he had not explained it to him.
He stared at the tall and bright tree. There was a pile at its foot, a pile of gifts wrapped in gay paper wrappers, neatly bound with green and red and blue twine.
He walked to the foot of the tree, squatted and began to ransack the pile of gifts. He lifted and looked at each of them. But it was not there. He looked about some more. There was a bicycle. He looked at it for a while, amused. But soon he was again looking for the thing he wanted most. And when he did not find it, he felt a hollowness within him.
He heard footfalls on the staircase. He did not move.
The door opened. Daniel sprang to his feet and walked toward his parents to greet them. He saw how happy his father and his mother were. They smiled down at him –– kindly, lovingly. He kissed their hands.
“You did not go to church with us,” his mother said. “You did not see the three kings and the stable. You did not see the Virgin Mary and the Child. It was beautiful, Daniel.”
“Yes, Mother. I wish I did not sleep so soundly.”
“Flora and Marta should be here now,” his father said.
The maids had gone to church, too. His mother had bought for each of them a new dress.
“They are here now, Father,” he said, hearing the footsteps ascending the staircase.
When the maids entered the room, Daniel’s father said: “Now, we can eat.”
Daniel followed the maids to the kitchen. He watched them set the table for the noche buena. As they worked, he listened to them chatter about the things they saw in church.
His mother and his father joined them. Soon they were engrossed in the sumptuous midnight meal. But even as they ate, Daniel was silent, thinking of the toy gun. He had told his father about it. Now, how could he have forgotten?
“What is the matter, son?” his father asked, beaming.
Daniel managed to smile, but he did not say anything.
When the midnight meal was over and they had gone back to the sala, his mother started distributing the gifts. There was a package for Flora, another for Marta. There were packages for his mother and his father. There were finely wrapped things for him. And then there was the bicycle. Daniel gathered his things in his arms and silently crossed over to his room. He left the bicycle under the tall and bright tree.
“Daniel,” his father called after some time.
“Yes, Father,” he answered from his room where he had once more slipped into bed.
“Come out here.”
He appeared before his father, trying hard to look pleased.
“Yes, Father?” he said.
“Look,” his father said, producing a long, slim package from behind him. “Will this make you happy?”
It was as neatly packed as the others. Hastily, he broke the twine and tore off the wrapping. There it was, a box with the beautiful toy gun drawn on it. Daniel became frantic with joy as he opened the box.
“Father!” he exclaimed. “An automatic rifle! Yes, an automatic rifle, Father!”
And then he was laughing and firing his toy gun, rattling it as though it were a real automatic rifle.
His father had provided the toy gun with a leather strap, and Daniel would sling it on his shoulder and look at himself in the mirror. And he would seem to see squads of soldiers marching, like those he saw march of afternoons on the grounds in front of the cadre. He would be at the head of the column, commanding, marching proudly to war.
The war he knew was a group of neighborhood boys divided into two contingents. He would lead one group; another boy would lead the other. Bamboo poles and pieces of wood were jerked into firing position at the sound of a command, young bodies plunged into skirmish behind bushes and weed growths and boom bang bang, boom bang bang, boom bang bang, boom bang bang would come from innocent lips.
And as in war, there were those who were supposed to die, those who were supposed to get wounded, and those who were supposed to be lucky and never got hit. Daniel was supposed to be lucky and never got hit in any of these encounters. He would be there, at the head of his group, rattling his gun in rapid fire, advancing, firing, and pursuing a supposedly retreating enemy. And then, when he could no longer see any of the withdrawing troops, he would order his men to halt and cease firing, imperious and conqueror-like in his gait and pose. He would personally take care of the wounded, list down casualties, and supervise burial of the dead. Some would be limping beside him, their hero, as they formed a procession, marching to the music of tin cans and cracked frying pans, following their unfortunate comrades to their graves.
It was a kind of war where there was laughter after it was all over. It was a kind of war where the wounded were as hale as ever and the dead alive. It was a kind of war where wound and death left no scar on the flesh and in the mind.
“How’s my captain?” Daniel’s father would ask the boy when he arrived in the evening, still breathing hard from the arduous gun play.
“Very well, Father,” the boy would answer.
“How was the battle today?”
“It was a hard fight, Father. But we beat them.”
“How about your men? Any of them died?”
“Ten, Father. More wounded. I said eighteen should be wounded but another boy said it was good to get wounded because he didn’t have to fight anymore. Others heard him and they decided to get wounded, too. Anyway, we won.”
The boy laughed. The father laughed with the boy. There was no alien note in the laughter of both because it was a time of peace, a time of joy in a world of boys and dreams.
Years later, Daniel looked at the toy gun covered by the cobwebs of years. Then he looked at the gun in his hand, it was real, loaded with death.
Men should not be holding guns. Men should not seek to hold guns. Men should not play war with guns. Only boys should play war –– cheerfully; only boys could play wars without crying over it afterwards.
He looked at the toy gun. Behind it was his childhood, confident, unafraid, at peace with all. Now… And Daniel wanted to scream.
First published in the Philippines Free Press, December 9, 1950