The village of Saclit was a border town, on the edge of Kalinga and Mountain Province. New People’s Army communist rebels rustled through the green woods and came in for rice and blue LP tanks for their generators. My father, the first time, was asked if he was going for the drugs or the girls. The man on the jeepney was eager to sell him both.
I wasn’t afraid of it. The rebels claimed to be for the poor. It wasn’t logical for the rebels to harm my family. It wouldn’t have fit their propaganda to stop the free blood sugar testing. If it had been the Abu Sayyaf, then I would be frightened. The friend of our friend lost her husband to them the year our family moved to the Philippines. There had been a lot of tongues wagging, questions about my parents’ sanity. Besides, wasn’t the Philippines a Christian country? Why did they need missionaries? That was before the shooting in Colorado proved that American and familiar didn’t guarantee safety. The safest place was in the center of God’s will. Besides, the Abu Sayyaf were in Mindanao, a different island, waves apart. This was Mountain Province, where people nodded and said “Good morning,” as you walked by and asked where you were going. The dark whispers added a sense of adventure, made the story better for retelling.
It was like the long swinging bridge at Anabel, I thought. My sisters and I bounced on it, while the foreigners and the Lowlanders stared too long through the holes of the recycled World War II metal runway at the whirling river below.
I leaned into Ate Mindel Ing-Inga (a respectful term meaning “big sister”) as the red and yellow jeepney lurched up the mountain towards it. Ate Mindel’s husband, Pastor Steve, sat up top on the luggage rack with sacks of rice, blue gas tanks, a basket of chickens, and the spare tire. Their daughter, Stevonnie Bless, slept against her mother, tucked in a sarong.
We made it without changing tires, landslides, or slipping down the mountain. Already, it was going better than last time. Less exciting, but much easier.
Despite the dark whispers, the village was mundane. A long way up the mountain, with a path half-paved, part red mud, part gravel that slipped under your feet, but ordinary. Close houses of grey concrete, chickens pecking around. There was no weaving, like Can-eo or Sagada. No giant swinging bridge. Perhaps, a few more wooden houses than normal.
Still, I felt the thrilling pressure of adulthood as we walked through the village, stepping over knee-height fences. (Saclit didn’t have pigpens.) It was my first trip by myself. Well, without my family. Her my adult trip. The Ing-Ingas were close family friends. But Ate Mindel was careful to call me “lady”, especially after my 15th birthday.
And it was me who was chosen. Not my parents. Not my sisters who were always the first to grab babies and very reluctant to share. I had expected it to be my sister who was always mistaken as the eldest. She was taller, beautiful, graceful, responsible, the one the rest of my sisters followed. But they had chosen me as the godparent of their daughter.
The Inga-Ingas stopped to chat with people and remind them of the dedication service. I smiled and listened. I didn’t know much, just a little Ilocano, and that didn’t help much. Ilocano was a trade language. Here in their home, people spoke their own dialect. One word I knew, “Americano,” I was always hearing it.
At the parsonage below the church, I held and sang to Stevonne while Ate Mindel prepared a meal of rice and a donated squash. The parsonage was small, two rooms and a storage room of vitamin rice donated for the Odong and Peping landslides. No bathroom or “comfort room” though. In the day, the Ing-Ingas went to their neighbor’s house. She was a nice, wrinkled woman who didn’t speak any English and her bathroom had no door, just a short curtain at the side of the stairs. At night, they went outside under the stars.
As they cleaned up, Ate Mindel said, “And let’s pray the rats don’t bite us while we’re sleeping.”
Pastor Steve slept upstairs on one of the wooden pews. Ate Mindel unrolled a mat with pinch-thick white foam and a shiny foil side. My father called them “space blankets.” I lay my glasses and flashlight by my head. She turned off the light. I tried to sleep but I kept listening. I could hear them, the scritch-scratching, clicking of many toenails on wood. Ate Mindel was not one to joke. Stay still, I thought. Ignore. It was closer now. Ate Mindel was sleeping. I did not want to wake her, like a frightened child. I was an adult now. I could handle it.
Never mind my gratitude when Pastor Steve prevented me from decorating the church when the drunk man arrived. Never mind that the last time I was in Saclit, I had shared a room with my father since my room had gongs with the traditional jawbone handles and I was sure they weren’t pig. My former hosts had offered for me stay with them again but I had chosen rats over bones and I didn’t want to leave the Ing-Ingas.
I could do this.
The sounds increased.
I wasn’t going to sleep like this. I had to see it. Just turn on the flashlight and I could see it, maybe scare it away.
I couldn’t find the flashlight. Ate Mindel woke up to my rustling and found it. It was just a moth in a cellophane bag.
There was a scream in the night. A rat fell off the church. Pastor Steve yelled and threw his flip-flop at another one.
The morning of the dedication was beautiful with sunshine and the sound of women pounding rice. Ate Mindel whitened her face with baby powder. I was able to find an outhouse for a cold dipper bath.
It was that morning that Ate Mindel told me that rats only bite if they smell food and not if you washed your hands.
The dedication was solemn. The visiting pastor asked if the godparents would help the parents nurture their child, physically, mentally, and spiritually? Whether we were willing to take this vow before the congregation? Ate Mindel translated. She was one of the few who remembered. The weight and warmth of Stevonnie overwhelmed me. I prayed for health, pictured it flowing from my hands like streams of light. I longed that she would lead a bright life, full of joy, strong, and able to make others smile like the song you hum on a beautiful morning.
As required for a Filipino celebration, there was a feast of rice, pancit noodles, and sticky rice. I was given a mountain of sticky rice and was struggling to eat it all and plotting a way to sneak the excess to chickens or stray dogs so I didn’t offend by not finishing it. Ate Mindel told me it was ok.
We missed the jeepney back. I always missed the jeepney back from Saclit. I also always fell on the gravel path down to the highway, with more shame than pain, no matter how I watched my feet or walked sideways.
We flagged down a blue survey van. It went forward a little, then back a little, then forward a little more. Pastor Steve was frantic that my parents would worry. I wasn’t, I knew my parents trusted him. Pastor Steve was so worried, he leapt out of the van to try to hitchhike on an apparently empty ambulance. He tangled his foot in the seatbelt and was close to needing the ambulance himself. The ambulance was not empty. It went on. The van also went on, forward a little, back. We finally caught a bus safe back home to Bontoc.
My adventure was over. I had survived. No rat bites. And now I was a little less afraid of growing up. It would happen. And I had to do it well. I had a little one to take care of.