Excerpt from “Fealty: A Story of Love and War in the Philippines, 1942”

Excerpt from “Fealty: A Story of Love and War in the Philippines, 1942”

Four days after the invasion of Cotabato and two hours before his lengthy incarceration, Vicente Estoña lay half-lucid in the crook of a tamarind tree whose lower limbs were tangled with those of a mabolo reaching for the light. What remained of his exhausted troops clung among branches nearby. When they’d first escaped into the trees, Vicente believed they would only need survive the night. He’d entertained plans of harrying Japan from penetrating the Mindanao countryside, of dying a hero at least, rather than enduring the shame of wasting and expiring like a trapped monkey.

He felt worst about his men, stuck up here like dusty mahogany santos. Vicente, at least, had assumed the responsibility of his position. As Mindanao Secretary of Agriculture, a newly minted gentleman-farmer (or so the poet in him dreamed), he would be fighting anyway, war or no war, scrambling to navigate the bitterness and aggression of the Moro, who’d treatied with the U.S. but barely tolerated the resulting Filipino governance, and the corresponding Filipino refusal to acknowledge even minimal Moro sovereignty.

But the invasion had forged strange alliances, for among his treed troops were boys from southern Mindanao, almost certainly Moro boys. They’d first held rifles only a few months ago, but fought as if they’d been at war all their lives. They also seemed used to deprivation, unlike himself, or Bem, the sad-eyed soldier who shared Vicente’s tree. Bem, a transplant from Luzon like Vicente, was a gentleman farmer’s son. Courage he had, but more desk-education than battle experience. After two days on fly-sized rations and no rest longer than a catnap, Bem had already begun to hallucinate. He lowed sometimes, calling to invisible carabao to bring home their milk. He clucked to reassure unseen hens into laying.

Helmeted men in gray uniforms, arms marked with the rising sun, patrolled nearby. The web loosened, but did not yet break. No chance of descent or escape. Not yet.

They’d stopped drinking water by the end of the first day, filling their canteens instead with piss. Nibbled hardtack and unripe mabolo had turned Vicente’s bowels to stone. He had tucked tamarind into his pockets to relieve the constipation later, though it seemed unlikely he’d live to eat it. He could not call to his men. He was able to communicate only with Bem, and only through glances, ever more vacant. He saw torment, thirst and deprivation, in Bem’s eyes, and could only assume that his own eyes looked much the same. Someone’s body or mind would soon betray them all. Someone would fall. Or jump.

**

Vicente had been gone nearly a week, preparing Cotabato’s defense, when his wife Leoncia began singing good-bye to the outrageous plants in his garden. “Grow,” she crooned. The half-acre of reclaimed jungle teemed with agricultural experiments that she’d hardly dared touch before: giant cabbages for seed, melons and grapes on twisting vines. The damned apple tree was completely failing, no matter how Vicente tried to interbreed it with things like mango or breadfruit.

“Stay rooted, when the jungle comes for you. Grow for him.”

The Army had come through days ago, warning them to evacuate, but many in the village lingered. Families caught and dried a few more catfish. They bartered the last of their goods, two laying hens for a good dog, a kettle for a cauldron, a sack of rice for a flat of canned beef. Leoncia had already stockpiled as much as her family would need for months. The rice mill and its cottage awaited them in Upi, promising shelter and sustenance. Yet she too lprolonged her good-byes to Vicente, to Salimbao, to everything still standing against Japan.

“Grow for him, damn you.” She’d never been much of a singer.

She was applying compost tea to the grapevine when she heard children squealing over a dead snake.

“Its head is chopped off! But not all the way — look!”

“Ugh, why would I want to?”

“You can see its teeth!”

She first heard the planes as she headed around the house to reprimand them; even a dead river viper carried venom in its fangs. From across the slow river, she saw that her own children were not there. Vicente’s mother, no taller than the tallest ten-year-old, had already gotten up from her shady chair in the breadfruit grove, where she liked to recite the rosary.

“Sigé!” she scolded. “A snake that big can kill a dog. Come na, play elsewhere!”

In two steps more, the planes grew louder. Within three steps Leoncia turned her eyes skyward, and before she’d taken a fourth, a bomb blast had thrown her into the side of the house. Somehow she found her feet, and without thinking she was running.

She was built to lift and carry, but life had taught her to run well and often. She’d run from the orphanage her first morning there, sure that her mother must be nearby, and she’d run back faster, frightened by the dogs in the market. She’d run even faster after the invasion of Manila, racing the other women to Cotabato to hear news of Vicente’s company. The walk home had been slow, one slow out-breath of relief. Today the race began again.

She lifted Vicente’s mother out of the mud. The old woman did not even draw a final breath. The blast had crushed her chest. For a moment she gripped the edge of Leoncia’s blouse between thumb and forefinger, and then her hand slipped away.

Leoncia’s own children survived purely out of luck. Other children did not. She found eleven-year-old Jing standing by her best friend’s torn body, rolling one of her grandmother’s silver rosary beads between her fingers. She would not come away. When Leoncia finally lifted her and bore her to the house, the child’s feet dangling past her mother’s knees, Jing did not protest. She put the bead into Leoncia’s hand and remained mute against her mother’s shoulder.

The Filipino-American Army surged through, urgent this time, running hard.

“You people shouldn’t be here!” cried an American officer, a man with the patchy beard of youth, though his weariness aged him. “Go now! Get out!”

Leoncia’s English was decent, though she used it seldom these days. She managed to press the rosary bead into his hand. “For my husband, please,” she said. “Vicente Estoña.”

He tried to protest, but she nodded at him and forced his hand closed around the bead. “You will find him. You will. We go to the mountains. To Upi. Tell him.”

Leoncia had procured a decommissioned Army truck, a half-rotted monster retired at the end of the U.S. struggle against the Moro years before. She gestured at it now. She’d hurried Jing and her siblings into it, along with the hens, the last of the stockpiled canned goods, and the bedding. Leoncia herself still wore the blouse and skirt she’d worn to bury Vicente’s mother. She’d sponged it as clean as she could, but the stains persisted. The officer took it all in. He shook his head and tucked the bead into a breast pocket.

“Vee-sent-ay Ess-tone-ya,” he said. “All right. But Ma’am, you must go now. Take the children and go, do you understand? We are demolishing everything between Cotabato and Davao. Burning everything! Do you understand?”

He jogged away. Not far off, his men had already set fire to Salimbao market. Before nightfall, Cotabato would be razed to the ground.

More than an hour after finding the rosary bead, Jing was still not speaking. Leoncia supposed there was not much to speak about. From the driver’s seat of the truck she heard her son in back calling his sister’s name, “Jing, Jing.”

But Jing did not answer.