Christmas in a Little Barrio: a Short Story for Children by Ceres Alabado

[This story appeared in the anthology book Childcraft: The How and Why Library; Volume 3: Children Everywhere (1975). The story was accompanied by illustrations by Rod Perez.]

In villages, or barrios as they are known in the Philippines, many people live in little one-room houses. The houses are built of palm leaves and bamboo.

In a little barrio by the sea lived Piit, Ulalia, Inggo, and their father and mother.

Their home was a nipa-thatched hut on the swampy shore of a cove beyond which was the sea. When the strong winds from the south blew, their little hut trembled like the nipa palms lining the strip of land. At night, if they had a candle to light their home, they closed their bamboo window to keep out the wind. If not, they opened it wide so that they could at least look out into the starry night.

One day, Father, who was a fisherman, suddenly fell ill and after a few days, became paralyzed. Although he could talk and swallow food, he could not move a leg, a hand, or an arm. Mother had to feed him and to take care of him as if he was a child.

Thus it fell upon Piit, who was ten years old, and Ulalia, his sister, who was a year younger, to work for their living. They had to leave school and henceforth take their father’s place in the sea, under the sun.

At first they thought it was easy. Piit knew how Father had worked so hard. But always Father smiled, as if he never grew tired. Work was fun. Sometimes Piit had helped him drive those bamboo poles deep into the sand under the sea, not too far out, just beyond the nipa swamp surrounding their little hut where the sea began. Or, after three months, when the oysters had grown at the bottom of those poles and were ready to be gathered, sometimes Piit would jump into Father’s banca and accompany him out to the open sea, there to watch him dive again and again into the water and reappear with armfuls of the craggy, brackish oysters of the sea. Father would laugh and shake so heartily, sometimes the oysters all spilled back into the sea.

But to work alone, without Father, was different. Not daring to venture out into the open sea, Piit and Ulalia confined their hunt to the waist-deep swampy water around their hut where, their bare feet sloshing away in the mud, they would stumble upon the rough clusters underneath. With bare hands or pointed stick they would pull and pry and shake the sharp hard shells off the stones or the stumps of nipa palms. Their hands and feet got bruised and scratched; their bodies soaked in mire and salty water. At the end of the day, their wrinkled hands and feet were numb, their bodies cold. Mother would give them hot steaming rice to eat at sunset. Before they fell asleep she would tell them to pray to God to give them strength.

In the morning, Mother was up before the sun. She would count the oysters, a hundred a heap, and leave them at the foot of their ladder for sale to the people passing by. If there had been a big catch, she would set aside some extra rough shells, break them open with a knife and scrape off the oyster meat into earthen jars where she knew oysters keep for days. When Piit and Ulalia awoke, she would send them out to peddle in the streets in town and with the money they earned, to buy two gantas of rice for their meals at home.

Months passed. The work soon became like a game to them. Sometimes they even thought it better than school. But alas, the time came when they had exhausted the hidden oysters in the swamps. Every day they gathered less and less. Now they could not even fill up a basket. They could not even buy one ganta of rice to eat.

Mother kept silent. She could not, no, she would not tell her children to go out into the sea as their father had done before. Fear gripped her heart. But she spoke not a word of it.

Piit and Ulalia did not know what to do. They staked out bamboo poles in the swamp but these they knew would not bear oysters overnight, not until months and months later. It would be a long, long wait. They were hungry. They were all hungry. All day, every day, Inggo had only rice water to drink and his thumb to suck. All night long he cried as if his whole body would burst. The next morning he, too, was sick.

The night breeze became cooler. From the low window of their nipa hut, Piit and Ulalia watched the shadows of the fishermen as they set out to sea, this time much earlier, for the nights were getting longer, the days shorter.

Then Piit looked up. He scanned the darkening sky above the sea.

“There is no star,” Ulalia whispered, as if she knew what Piit was thinking. “And we have no light.”

They were sitting side by side on the worn buri mat laid out on the bamboo floor close to the window. The rest of the family had gone to sleep huddled together on the far end of the mat.

“Soon it will be Christmas,” said Piit. He, too, was very careful not to raise his voice above a whisper, for Mother had just dozed off from tiredness. Inggo had been feverish and restless the last three days, and it was all Mother could do to rock him in her arms to sleep.

“I wish—I wish how I wish we could have something for Christmas,” sighed Piit.

“Yes, and Inggo and Father well by then,” whispered Ulalia.

But the days and the nights passed and Inggo was still feverish. Now he was shivering from cold. It seemed Mother could never gather enough warmth in her arms to wrap around the chilled little body.

And then came the time of the early morning Masses, the misa de gallo, held every day in church, nine days before Christmas. Everywhere the cool air was filled with a certain festive joyousness. Everyone could feel it as he trudged dutifully on to town.

Except Piit and Ulalia. Although they had Mother’s permission and they had resolved, cross their hearts, to wake up at the stroke of dawn, they never did make it to the Mass in town. Like Mother, they, too, were too tired from the day’s work to wake up earlier than usual.

The church bell would peal its last beckoning call, a few hurrying feet shuffle nearby on the dirt road leading to the church, the gay chattering and giggling of neighbors echo through the stillness of the holy dawn, yet there they were, these two—Piit and Ulalia who had promised each other to wake up this one last time—still curled up in deep tired slumber.

Not even the delicious smell of sticky rice puto bumbong and bibingka cooking at roadside stands a few meters from their home could tickle their nostrils and get them started. Not even the firecrackers and kuwitis bursting into joyful thanksgiving after the Deo Gratias of the Mass, would as much as stir a muscle of their motionless little legs. Nothing. Not even Mother’s gentle push on their shoulders, “Children, children, you mustn’t oversleep. There’s work to do. And you know I count on you!”

Piit and Ulalia slept on and on and on.

Until the sun came up, hot and bright upon their brown unwashed faces. That was what always woke them up.

And today it was the day before Christmas.

Inggo was still feverish. He had become thinner and paler. It seemed he had only a flicker of life left in him.

Piit woke up early. Without telling Ulalia, Mother, or anyone, he took Father’s knife and his banca and rowed out, around the cove almost into the sea. The suns was just rising on the horizon. A slight breeze brushed past him. His banca lifted and fell idly on the little swells. He had been here often in the past with Father. Now he had only to follow what he remembered was the glassy path which led to Father’s bamboo poles standing upright in a row like a fence set upon the sea.

As soon as he was within reach of the first pole, he made a grab for it and quickly fastened his banca tight to it. Biting the knife between his teeth as he had seen Father do, he dove straight down to the bottom of the pole. As fast as he could pry the sharp shells off the poles and gather them up in his arms, he surfaced back, his chest heaving as he hurled his load down into the banca. Up and down he raced until he was so tired he thought he would stop breathing.

Once, a wind rising in little puffs and gusts heeled the banca over to one side and almost spilled the oysters back into the water. Pik scrambled onto the opposite side, but as the wind suddenly dropped, the banca soon righted itself. For fear of losing his already big haul, he decided to head back home. He was getting weak with thirst and hunger and exhaustion, but now joy hammered hard in his heart.

Mother had begun to worry and wonder where Pitt was. She had called out to the winds for him. She had sent out Ulalia, who was working alone in the swamp, to look for him. This boy, she muttered to herself, was giving her added trouble. But when she saw him rounding the cove jubilantly with his banca-load of big fresh oysters, she completely forgot all her fears and anger.

“My biggest catch, Mother,” Piit called out to her between breaths, “and all by myself ! By myself, you know that!”

“Yes, I know, I know. I can see that,” was all Mother could say.

It did not take them long to sell all of Piit’s new catch. Before the end of the day, Piit and Ulalia counted twenty centavos left over from their earnings after having bought the two gantas of rice for Mother.

They laid the coins on a flat stone by the roadside and divided the money equally between them for each to spend as he pleased.

“Ten for you, ten for me,” Piit counted.

“Wait, wait. Don’t you think we should tell Mother first?” Ulalia asked.

Piit agreed. And they put the twenty centavos together again.

But Mother knew before they could tell her about the surplus. “That will be yours. Buy yourselves anything you wish.”

“Anything, Mother? Really, really?” The two cried out loud with delight, skipping away. They climbed down the ladder and parted.

The stars that appeared that night glimmered brighter than ever. The crisp evening breeze sweeping the waters of the sea kept rhythm with the song in the hearts of the two happy children. Soon they were lulled to an early sleep as their mother once more told them the story of the star that shone so bright the Three Wise Men knew for sure it was the star that would lead them to the manger of the King of Kings.

Father hummed a lullaby for Inggo, lying still beside him:

Sleep, little babe
A star shines in the night
To guide you in your flight.
Smile, little babe
A star shines from afar
To bring joy to your heart.

As the church bell rang at last for the Christmas midnight Mass, Piit and Ulalia suddenly awoke. The bright stars beaming on their faces were like the warm stinging rays of the morning sun that often roused them in their sleep.

Inggo started to cry, “Ma . . . Ma. . . .”

Mother dragged herself close to the little one to cuddle him. No longer shivering nor feverish, now he began to cry for milk.

And there was milk.

“I bought that, fresh from our neighbor’s carabao,” said

“There!” said Ulalia, as she struck a match to light one ittle white wax candle. “I bought that.”

“Why, it is Christmas day, I had almost forgotten,” Mother exclaimed. “A merry, holy Christmas!”