Whispering shades of orange, yellow, and red, dawn creeps up onto the emerald mountains just slowly reaching for the clouds and the sky blue, bringing a silent chill to the native birds perching onto the sleeping caraboos and to the now-awaken villagers strolling through columns of the lush grassy fields ready to start another day that would soon not last. And the first layer of the sun rays touched the rice paddies. Usually, strolling along the grassy fields was peaceful, but since the Japanese invasion, the villagers were on a lookout. Most mornings, people would be running around spreading news about the Japanese invasion in Bataan. Working families in the fields showed up to hear the latest gossip: more than 70,000 Filipino and American troops died in the Bataan Death March on their way to prison camps. The look on their faces—their silent cry, their unrest, baggy eyes, their shaking fingers; the villagers were terrified. Secret group meetings were always held in the rice fields and in the provincial captain’s house discussing strategies. It was before the sunrise touched the rice paddies that they would hold their meetings.
“When are they going to be here?”, a woman asked. She held on to her crying baby close to her chest.
“We should leave this place!” Most teen boys shouted. Their eyes filled with determination.
“We can’t just leave! Where would we go?” The old, wise men protested. They could never believe that one day they would have to leave their beloved hometown.
“Mag laban tayo! LABAN!” Hundreds of fists rose up, and shouts of anger bellowed through the air.
“PARA SA MGA KAPAMILYA! PARA SA KAPWA! PARA SA PILIPINAS!”
Cries and roars filled the meeting place that even the children followed along with the adults. Some of the villagers didn’t join in. They didn’t want to fight that would cause more deaths in their country. They wanted to flee. What would happen to them if they fight against the Japanese?
FIGHT! FIGHT! LABAN!
They might lose everything they lived and earned for.
FIGHT! FIGHT! LABAN!
Arguments never ended properly…
I looked up at the blue sky and squinted before the bright, torturous sun. Turning twelve a few days after the news of the Bataan Death March wasn’t so much surprising. After all, I didn’t like birthday parties. Everyone was too busy about the invasion, but a few farmers returned to their work in the fields. My body was well-built like a boy so my job every morning was to take the kalabaw out and help papa plow the rice fields. But mostly, I liked riding on top of Babe, our kalabaw, while papa plows behind. I didn’t hesitate to get mud over my raggy-hemmed dress that Tita Fina handed down to me. She scolded me for always ruining my nice dresses when working in the mud or playing with my friends.
Across the rice fields, I spotted American military uniforms marching up ahead with their jeeps zooming by. A group of children ran beside the them, shouting for chocolate. Their hands waved wildly in the air trying to catch their attention. I wanted to join them and eat chocolate, but I had to refrain myself from getting scolded again.
Behind me, papa’s breathing became heavier. It was hard work, but papa doesn’t show any signs of exhaustion. Papa can be intimidating and quick-tempered, but mama was always patient and self-reserved. Ever since mama died of typhoid fever, he had been working a lot more and had become more stricter with me and my sisters. We don’t talk to papa a lot because he scares us.
“Loretta.” His sturdy voice echoed through my ears.
“Po?” I quickly tied Babe’s tether to a pole as he crouched down and nibbled on grass.
I didn’t want to go home. That meant I’ll only have to hear the bickering of my step mom and my sisters and do house chores as if I was under house arrest.
“But, I can–”
He touched my face and stared at me. He looked angry, but his eyes showed pity and gentleness.
“Your face is already dark. Alis, alis. Go!” He shooed me away.
When I arrived into our bamboo house, Tita Fina already started to scold me once her eyes landed on my muddy dress and sun-burnt skin.
“Loretta!” My name echoed through the air. I heard our next door neighbors laughing.
“Tingnan sa sarilyo mo! Ang panguet mo! Hindi ka babae! Bastus!”
I gave a grumpy face as she swears at me for being ugly. She tried to keep our family status in good shape, but I always ended up lowering our standards.
She pinched my muddy dress in disgrace and forcefully pushed me to our shower outside the house. The buckets were already filled with cold water pumped from the village well. She made me kneel down as she tried to pour water over my head and scrubbed me clean from top to bottom. I was pretty sure blood was oozing out from my skin.
Tita Fina dressed me quickly in my room. She couldn’t trust me dressing up myself. I winced every time she tried to untangle my long, black hair with mama’s jewel comb. My three sisters in the living room teased me. I stuck out my tongue at them, but I only received a slap on my mouth. My older sisters were twins. They like to do things together without me. We get along, but because I always arrive home with mud and grass in my hair, they get annoyed and complain about my “nature.” My eight year old sister was very talkative and can never keep a secret that there came a point when I growled at her and bit her finger. Of course, since she’s Tita Fina’s favorite, I got punished by kneeling on raw rice for nearly an hour. Although she was irritating, I was probably closer to her possibly because we share a room together. I was the middle child. The black sheep. The troublemaker. Among us sisters, I am the darkest whereas my sisters’ skin were pure white as a Castillan just like mama. When Tita Fina came to be our new mother, she looked at me with distaste. I didn’t get along with her very well as my sisters. Everything I do, she was against it.
In the neigborhood:
“Loretta! Stop playing with the boys!”
In a friend’s house:
“Loretta, sit up straight and smile,” she said through her gritted teeth as she pinched my behind.
Always Loretta this, Loretta that.
“Susmaryosep! You’re a girl!”
Mama wasn’t like Tita Fina. She didn’t care about appearance and social status. Most of the time, I felt I was the only one who was lonely.
When the sun disappeared along the mountains, bright torches were lit and a line of farmers and wives marched past our house and through the fields. Papa went to join them. I couldn’t join because Tita Fina wanted to teach me manners. An hour passed, and papa hadn’t returned yet. It was just seven. I set the table while my sisters prepared the food until papa came. He seemed worried but didn’t care to share the news over the dinner table. I hardly saw him like that. His brows furrowed – eyes darting about in concern. When we all gathered in the living room, I sat on the ground between the twins.
“We have to leave,” papa began. His voice sounded hoarse.
Tita Fina and my sisters gasped. “Why? What’s happening?”
At the meeting, papa explained, news was sent over that the Japanese troops were stationing in the province. They needed a base for rest and resources. The village meeting was in a uproar because most villagers were against it and were planning an attack on the Japanese arrival.
“We leave tomorrow morning,” papa said.
“What? Where would we go?” Tita Fina asked. The only home she had was here. She had no other family relatives but us. “Moving all of our belongings is difficult.” She surveyed around the house.
“We pack only what we need.”
My younger sister was shaken up about the whole idea of leaving. She knelt beside papa and rested her head on his lap as he stroke her hair just like what mama used to do.
Papa turned to look at me.
“Why don’t we leave now?”
I saw him twitch his lips. “Let’s leave now so–”
“Ano sabi mo, Loretta?” Tita Fina gave me a fierce look. “Do you know where we should go?”
“Yes! To Mama’s province!” I glanced at papa. He didn’t say anything. He stared at mama’s portrait on the wall.
“Pero malayo sa Timong Visayas! How do you expect us to travel that far?”
“We pack only what we need.” I repeated papa’s words. “You can stay here if you like.”
Tita Fina’s face blushed. Her face seemed like it was about to explode.
“Loretta, enough.” Papa stood up. I thought he was going to slap me for being rude to Tita Fina. Instead, he walked past me.
“We leave before sunrise. To Visayas.”
Tita Fina followed Papa. My sisters gave out light sighs and retreated to our rooms. After packing some clothes and mama’s jeweled comb, I drifted off to sleep. I didn’t know what was happening, but the screaming of my little sister woke me up.
“Ate, ate! Nandito na sila!”
I looked up at her face, and tears were in her eyes. Her hair was a mess and felt her cold hands on my skin. From the look on her face, I knew.
They are here.
I looked outside our bedroom window, and I saw light. It looked like it was morning, but it was bright fire lighting up around our house. When I finally came to, a man—tall, lean, and furry eyebrows—barged into our room and started shouting at us. I didn’t understand him. He was Japanese, and our house was invaded. In the living room, Tita Fina and papa were leaning on each other, while my sisters huddled closely on the ground, and I rushed over to them. We couldn’t do anything. My eyes were drooping, and I was still tired. Everything just happened so fast. I thought they were going to kill us, but instead, they dragged us outside to the center of the village along with the rest of the families. They rounded us in a circle with our hands to our heads as we kneeled down. Some of the villagers had bruises on their faces, and the women’s hair were disheveled. The Japanese soldiers wore a tan military uniform with a yellow star centered on a red, rectangular bar on the collars. Each of them had a rifle in their hand. They were not smiling. They stared down at us.
Whispers circulated in the circle.
“They’re dead,” I heard.
“I don’t know.”
“I heard gunshots earlier.”
“It was sudden.”
“They must have been caught.”
“Or they probably ran away.”
“Oh Diyos, please help us!”
Another gunshot through the air.
We tried to close our ears with our shaking hands, and the whisperings suddenly stopped.
A man stood out outside the circle. He wasn’t wearing a tan military uniform or holding a rifle.
He didn’t look Japanese.
“So he’s a traitor,” I heard.
“Traidor!” someone yelled from the crowd.
A Japanese soldier, who looked like he was the leader, spoke to the traitor. His face was nervous, nodding each time he understood what the Japanese leader said.
“We won’t kill anyone if you cooperate with us.”
Another gunshot through the air.
The Japanese leader next to him shouted angrily.
“Listen,” the traitor said. “Listen, if we don’t cooperate, they’ll torture us. They’re here for shelter and
reinforcements. They won’t harm us unless we threaten them.”
That was assuring, but the villagers weren’t convinced. Looking frustrated, the Japanese leader grabbed a man from the circle to the center with him and pointed a pistol to his head.
“Wag!” probably relatives of his screamed. NO!
The Japanese leader angrily shouted. The traitor repeated his words again. When no one said anything but paid their attention to the chosen victim, the Japanese leader raised his pistol over the victims head and struck him. The victim fell to the ground hard. His face landed first on the dirt. I heard a bone crack, and I winced at the sight of his face. Thick, red blood oozed from his forehead like a waterfall. I thought he was dead, but I relaxed when he coughed.
As he slowly tried to pick himself up, the Japanese leader suddenly started to kick him on his ribs. Again and again. On his right and on his left. He stepped on the legs of the poor guy and smirked at the sound of his agony. His eyes filled with entertainment. It was going over hand that the other Japanese soldiers had to break up the scene.
“Stop, stop! Please stop!” Cries of pain echoed from the crowd.
The victim was curled up in a ball on the dirt. He was still breathing, but it was faint. Satisfied that we understood the consequences, the Japanese leader brushed himself away from his subordinates. After the night we were invaded, we were able to go back to our homes. No one was allowed to leave the village. The rules were simple. We had to provide supplies for the Japanese, stay home before our curfew at 9pm, and cooperate with them. If we don’t, we might end up like that beaten villager.That night, I couldn’t sleep. Neither did the whole village.
After a few days, the Japanese soldiers made themselves at home as if owning everything on our property, especially the women. Papa didn’t like it so he cut all of our hairs into a bowl-cut shape to prevent us from being attractive. I cried so much when my beautiful long hair was gone even Tita Fina cried. My hair was my only beauty, and I can never use mama’s precious jewel comb run down my long hair. Tita Fina got depressed every day. She hated the cutting of our hairs. She hated the Japanese soldiers controlling the village. She hated how they show up and try to talk to her. She refused to go outside for fear they would do something bad to her. When I took a close look at her, she didn’t seem to be an ugly witch anymore. She seemed to be kinder to me since the raid. She also had not been lecturing me about my appearance and my boyish attitude. Surpisingly, I missed that. She was always wandering around the house lost in thought. I thought maybe she was too scared.
One day, when I caught her sleeping on the rocking chair, I silently tiptoed to take a good look at her face out of curiosity. Her face was pale but calm. I have always seen her giving me dark looks, but I rarely saw her sleeping up close. Her bangs covered her closed eyes so I reached down and swept them to the sides. Her head was resting on her shoulders so I carefully, carefully moved her head up and put a pillow between her head and shoulder. Maybe I should be nicer to her more often, I thought.
The days slowly turned into weeks and later it became almost two months since the Japanese arrival in the province. No one got into trouble yet, but the village was still whispering rumors that it will all be over soon.
When will it be over?
It was a still night and the village was quiet. It was curfew hours and the Japanese soldiers were taking turns guarding the streets. Suddenly, there were gunshots out in the field. Ratatat! Ratatat!We shut the doors and windows and gathered in papa and Tita Fina’s room together. The gunshots were distant, but they were slowly coming nearer to our house. We heard pounding and banging on our front door.
“Manong Greg! Fina! Alis na kayo!” someone shouted.
The rebellion group, who escaped when the Japanese first arrived in the village, were able to seek help from other neighboring villages and came back with more people to fight against the invaders. Papa immediately carried my little sister as Tita Fina kept me and my sisters closer to her. It was hectic outside. Everyone was running around and bending down trying to avoid bullets shot in the air. It was so dark that it was difficult to see where we were going. I held on to Tita Fina’s dress tightly as we hurriedly ran to safety.
“We’re going up the mountains,” Papa said. “It should be safer than down here.”
People were shouting at one another and to the Japanese soldiers simultaneously.
“Hurry! To the mountains!” the farmers shouted.
I wasn’t paying attention when I suddenly bumped into a lady crying for her lost child, then an old guy, then a boy struggling to his feet. During the chaos, I couldn’t grip on to Tita Fina’s dress, and I was surrounded by frantic people running and screaming at each other.
“Tita Fina!” I shouted. I never expected to call for her, but I did.
I spotted my little sister’s bobbing head and tried to follow the trail leading to her.
“Loretta!” My name echoed through the air.
Follow their voice, I thought.
But before I could meet them at the base of the mountain, someone grabbed me from
More gunshots. Ratatat! Ratatat!
I struggled with my enemy. His heavy arms wouldn’t let me go. I turned and bit him, but he didn’t budge. I saw papa rushing over to me. He had a look of terror on his face. He tried to pull me away from the Japanese soldier who grabbed me by the waist, but he wasn’t alone. They must have heard that the villagers were heading up to the mountains and tried to capture them. One soldier who kept holding on to me fell to the ground when papa punched him to the side of his rib. Another soldier sprang up behind papa.
I spun around. I saw black smoke rising from the houses and people laying lifeless on the ground. Are they dead or are they pretending to be dead?
Through the smoke, I thought I heard mama calling out to me. But it wasn’t. Tita Fina pushed me away and slammed her thin body to papa and the Japanese soldier. All three of them dropped to the ground. The sound of bullet shots deafened my ears as I struggled to get up. Another soldier grabbed Tita Fina’s hair and started beating her.
“Run away! Find your sisters!” She shouted at me. I shook my head.
I am not going to lose another family member. I won’t.
Before I knew it, I slammed my body to the Japanese soldier and violently kicked his ribs just like how the Japanese leader tortured a man in the village roundup.
I am not going to lose another family member. I won’t. I kept telling myself.
People were being dragged away by the angry Japanese soldiers. Even with a surprise attack, we were still outnumbered. Tita Fina had tears in her eyes and hugged me. I hugged back. After this–I decided–After all this chaos, I’ll call her mama. Mama should be glad. Papa pulled Tita Fina and me closer, and we huddled together toward the mountains.
It was crowded and felt like the village was in a small box. Our feet were tired of running, but we still kept going. What I heard next was a large explosion. Vroomp!It came from a Japanese tank exploding at our homes shooting up pillars of fire and smoke. The village screamed. Everyone was now running away from the tanks and pushing us forward. I couldn’t grab on to papa’s hand, and I was already separated from Tita Fina. I was lost. Vroomp! The tanks kept exploding our village. My ears went deaf, and I felt dizzy.
My name echoed through the air for the last time.