• A short story by Alan Dugan

    Christmas in the Hills

    Illustration by Perry Mallari

    Illustration by Perry Mallari

    In a clearing on the shoulder of a hill covered with abaca and coconut trees, the Espiritu family huddled inside their hut, worried that the raging storm would blow away the cogon roofing of their makeshift shelter. The frame of the hut was sturdy enough, reinforced by poles on all sides, and the roofing fastened down with bamboo slats. The wind whispered through the sawali walls, and kept the fire on the rock-lined hearth on the ground floor dancing wildly.

    It was close to Christmas Day and the northeast monsoon had brought continuous rain and strong winds through the month of December 1944. Feliza Espiritu with a shawl wrapped around her was wondering when her eldest son, Jimmy, would come on furlough. She was comforted by the fact that five of six children were with her—two teenaged sons, a preteen daughter, an eight-year old son, and a six-year-old daughter—all bundled up sitting on logs around the fire. She was glad that before the rains her two teenaged sons had stocked up on cassava, camote, and gabi from their lati, a clearing in the coconut grove near the provincial highway. They had a sturdier dwelling near the lati but they were advised to move farther inland because of fighting along the road.

    In October 1944, the people in the poblacion were told by the guerillas to move to the countryside. The Americans had already landed in Leyte, with General MacArthur announcing his return with President Osmeña and calling for all guerillas to intensify their war against the Japanese. American planes since September had carried out bombing raids on Japanese airfields and strafing of Japanese convoys caught along the highway.

    The Espiritus had just arrived from Manila in late August taking one of the last trains out of Tutuban reaching Naga after 19 excruciating hours standing in the overcrowded coach all the way. After an overnight stay in Naga, they took a much shorter train trip to Legaspi where a charcoal fed bus brought them to Sorsogon. From the provincial capital they rode in a baroto across the choppy bay to Casiguran, helping the crew bail out water from waves that threaten to sink the boat. They were let off all drawn out on a beach near the highway. The boatmen refused to take them to the next town controlled by a rival guerrilla group. The Espiritus walked on the deserted highway, carrying their luggage four kilometers to Juban.

    At the outskirts of the town, they were met by guerrillas of Major Lapuz. Feliza explained to them that Juban was her hometown and that they had fled Manila, which she heard would be raided soon by American planes. One of the guerillas turned out to be a nephew of Feliza. “But where is Tio David?” he asked. “In a Japanese prison,” Feliza said. He smiled, “guerilya man?” She nodded. He escorted them to the poblacion where Feliza’s older sister, married to a mestizo planter, had a bahay na bato.

    It was her husband, David who advised her in a note smuggled out from Bilibid, to leave for Sorsogon because of guerrilla reports of impending raids in Manila. The city then was tense. There were food shortages, and beggars were dying in the streets.

    In Juban, there was no shortage of food though the Espiritus had to subsist largely of cassava, camote, and gabi supplemented with vegetables like gabi leaves, green papaya, malunggay, pako, unripe jackfruit usually cooked in coconut milk. For protein they had fish bartered with rootcrops, or snails, small crabs and shrimps from the streams. They had rice only when relatives with paddy fields gifted them with palay which they pounded and winnowed. How they missed the food they were used to in Manila especially before the war.

    It did not take long before Jimmy the eldest joined the guerrillas of Major Lapuz. He had in fact been with the guerrillas in Laguna but in a zona or round-up conducted by the Japanese he was caught in town and was detained for several months. He was released on amnesty granted to prisoners during the inauguration of the puppet Republic. His father who was caught earlier in Pasay for organizing an intelligence unit outside Manila was not so lucky. David Espiritu was tortured in Fort Santiago and sentenced to prison for 20 years in Bilibid.

    Huddling around the fire inside the hut in the woods that Christmas, the Espiritus talked about what they did and ate before the war, the schools they went to, their friends, family outings. They were resigned to not seeing their father David while the Japanese occupied the country. They were hopeful they would be reunited when the war was over. Feliza regularly led the family in prayers for the safety of David.

    Now, Feliza felt anxious about his eldest son Jimmy risking his life again fighting with the guerrillas. She had kept the rest of the family together during the Japanese Occupation in Manila, doing buy-and-sell while her two teenaged sons worked in various odd jobs.

    This Christmas Eve, the children all helped to prepare their noche buena. They had some rice with their cassava and camote and chicken tinola, thanks to the two teenaged sons for catching a stray pullet. Her daughter fashioned a star made from sticks and anahaw leaves, and hung it by the door.

    “We are in the midst of war,” Feliza told them before eating, “but I can feel it, the spirit of Christmas. Let’s pray for your father and for Jimmy.”

    The sky had cleared after their meal and they sat on benches outside the hut under the starless night. Light from the oil lamps caught their figuresand made shadows in the surroundings. Thus they talked of past Christmases, with Feliza reminiscing about her childhood in Juban, how she met David who was then an academic supervisor while she was just 17 years old, the daughter of a hacendero and former interna in La Concordia in Manila.

    The children were engrossed listening to their mother when they heard a voice from afar and saw a flashlight bobbing up and down the trail. As in a chorus they shouted “Jimmy!” He had returned bearing gifts—chocolate candy bars, some GI canned goods, and army edition Time magazines. Jimmy said a US submarine brought these together with arms they needed. His brothers marveled checking out hisarmy flashlight and the pistol by his side.

    Feliza sighed and hugged her eldest son who then stooped to hug Vicky, the youngest while the rest took turns embracing Jimmy.


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