A Night in the Hills by Paz Marquez Benitez (Short Story)

HOW Gerardo Luna came by his dream no one could have told, not even he. He was a salesman in a jewelry store on Rosario street and had been little else. His job he had inherited from his father, one might say; for his father before him had leaned behind the self-same counter, also solicitous, also short-sighted and thin of hair.

After office hours, if he was tired, he took the street car to his home in Intramuros. If he was feeling well, he walked; not frequent­ly, however, for he was frail of constitution and not unduly thrifty. The stairs of his house were narrow and dark and rank with charac­teristic odors from a Chinese sari-sari store which occupied part of the ground floor.

He would sit down to a supper which savored strongly of Chinese cooking. He was a fastidious eater. He liked to have the courses spread out where he could survey them all. He would sample each and daintily pick out his favorite portions—the wing tips, the liver, the brains from the chicken course, the tail-end from the fish. He ate appreciatively, but rarely with much appetite. After supper he spent quite a time picking his teeth meditatively, thinking of this and that. On the verge of dozing he would perhaps think of the forest.

For his dream concerned the forest. He wanted to go to the forest. He had wanted to go ever since he could remember. The forest was beautiful. Straight-growing trees. Clear streams. A mountain brook which he might follow back to its source up among the clouds. Perhaps the thought that most charmed and enslaved him was of seeing the image of the forest in the water. He would see the infinitely far blue of the sky in the clear stream, as in his childhood, when playing in his father’s azotea, he saw in the water-jars an image of the sky and of the pomelo tree that bent over the railing, also to look at the sky in the jars.

Only once did he speak of this dream of his. One day, Ambo the gatherer of orchids came up from the provinces to buy some cheap ear-rings for his wife’s store. He had proudly told Gerardo that the orchid season had been good and had netted him over a thousand pesos. Then he talked to him of orchids and where they were to be found and also of the trees that he knew as he knew the palm of his hand. He spoke of sleeping in the forest, of living there for weeks at a time. Gerardo had listened with his prominent eyes staring and with thrills coursing through his spare body. At home he told his wife about the conversation, and she was interested in the business aspect of it.

“It would be nice to go with him once,” he ventured hopefully.

“Yes,” she agreed, “but I doubt if he would let you in on his business.”

“No,” he sounded apologetically. “But just to have the experience, to be out.”

“Out?” doubtfully.

“To be out of doors, in the hills,” he said precipitately.

“Why? That would be just courting discomfort and even sickness. And for nothing.”

He was silent.

He never mentioned the dream again. It was a sensitive, well-mannered dream which nevertheless grew in its quiet way. It lived under Gerardo Luna’s pigeon chest and filled it with something, not warm or sweet, but cool and green and murmurous with waters.

He was under forty. One of these days when he least expected it the dream would come true. How, he did not know. It seemed so unlikely that he would deliberately contrive things so as to make the dream a fact. That would he very difficult.

Then his wife died.

And now, at last, he was to see the forest. For Ambo had come once more, this time with tales of newly opened public land up on a forest plateau where he had been gathering orchids. If Gerardo was interested—he seemed to be—they would go out and locate a good piece. Gerardo was interested—not exactly in land, but Ambo need not be told.

He had big false teeth that did not quite fit into his gums. When he was excited, as he was now, he spluttered and stammered and his teeth got in the way of his words.

“I am leaving town tomorrow morning.” he informed Sotera. “Will—”

“Leaving town? Where are you going?”

“S-someone is inviting me to look at some land in Laguna.”

“Land? What are you going to do with land?”

That question had never occurred to him.

“Why,” he stammered, “Ra-raise something, I-I suppose.”

“How can you raise anything! You don’t know anything about it. You haven’t even seen a carabao!”

“Don’t exaggerate, Ate. You know that is not true.”

“Hitched to a carreton, yes; but hitched to a plow—”

“Never mind!” said Gerardo patiently. “I just want to leave you my keys tomorrow and ask you to look after the house.”

“Who is this man you are going with?”

“Ambo, who came to the store to buy some cheap jewelry. His wife has a little business in jewels. He suggested that I—g-go with him.”

He found himself then putting the thing as matter-of-factly and plausibly as he could. He emphasized the immense possibilities of land and waxed eloquently over the idea that land was the only form of wealth that could not he carried away.

“Why, whatever happens, your land will be there. Nothing can possibly take it away. You may lose one crop, two, three. Que importe! The land will still he there.”

Sotera said coldly, “I do not see any sense in it. How can you think of land when a pawnshop is so much more profitable? Think! People coming to you to urge you to accept their business. There’s Peregrina. She would make the right partner for you, the right wife. Why don’t you decide?”

“If I marry her, I’ll keep a pawnshop—no, if I keep a pawnshop I’ll marry her,” he said hurriedly.

He knew quite without vanity that Peregrina would take him the minute he proposed. But he could not propose. Not now that he had visions of himself completely made over, ranging the forest at will, knowing it thoroughly as Ambo knew it, fearless, free. No, not Peregrina for him! Not even for his own sake, much less Sotera’s.

Sotera was Ate Tere to him through a devious reckoning of rela­tionship that was not without ingenuity. For Gerardo Luna was a younger brother to the former mistress of Sotera’s also younger brother, and it was to Sotera’s credit that when her brother died after a death-bed marriage she took Gerardo under her wings and married him off to a poor relation who took good care of him and submitted his problem as well as her own to Sotera’s competent management. Now that Gerardo was a widower she intended to repeat the good office and provide him with another poor relation guaranteed to look after his physical and economic well-being and, in addition, guaranteed to stay healthy and not die on him. “Marrying to play nurse to your wife,” was certainly not Sotera’s idea of a worthwhile marriage.

This time, however, he was not so tractable. He never openly opposed her plans, but he would not commit himself. Not that he failed to realize the disadvantages of widowerhood. How much more comfortable it would be to give up resisting, marry good, fat Peregri­na, and be taken care of until he died for she would surely outlive him.

But he could not, he must not. Uncomfortable though he was, he still looked on his widowerhood as something not fortuitous, but a feat triumphantly achieved. The thought of another marriage was to shed his wings, was to feel himself in a small, warm room, while overhead someone shut down on him an opening that gave him the sky.

So to the hills he went with the gatherer of orchids.

AMONG the foothills noon found them. He was weary and wet with sweat.

“Can’t we get water?” he asked dispiritedly.

“We are coming to water,” said Ambo. “We shall be there in ten minutes.”

Up a huge scorched log Ambo clambered, the party following. Along it they edged precariously to avoid the charred twigs and branches that strewed the ground. Here and there a wisp of smoke still curled feebly out of the ashes.

“A new kaingin,” said Ambo. “The owner will be around, I suppose. He will not be going home before the end of the week. Too far.”

A little farther they came upon the owner, a young man with a cheerful face streaked and smudged from his work. He stood looking at them, his two hands resting on the shaft of his axe.

“Where are you going?” he asked quietly and casually. All these people were casual and quiet.

“Looking at some land,” said Ambo. “Mang Gerardo is from Manila. We are going to sleep up there.”

He looked at Gerardo Luna curiously and reviewed the two por­ters and their load. An admiring look slowly appeared in his likeable eyes.

“There is a spring around here, isn’t there? Or is it dried up?”

“No, there is still water in it. Very little but good.”

They clambered over logs and stumps down a flight of steps cut into the side of the hill. At the foot sheltered by an overhanging fern-covered rock was what at first seemed only a wetness. The young man squatted before it and lifted off a mat of leaves from a tiny little pool. Taking his tin cup he cleared the surface by trailing the bottom of the cup on it. Then he scooped up some of the water. It was cool and clear, with an indescribable tang of leaf and rock. It seemed the very essence of the hills.

He sat with the young man on a fallen log and talked with him. The young man said that he was a high school graduate, that he had taught school for a while and had laid aside some money with which he had bought this land. Then he had got married, and as soon as he could manage it he would build a home here near this spring. His voice was peaceful and even. Gerardo suddenly heard his own voice and was embarrassed. He lowered his tone and tried to capture the other’s quiet.

That house would be like those he had seen on the way—brown, and in time flecked with gray. The surroundings would be stripped bare. There would be san franciscos around it and probably beer bottles stuck in the ground. In the evening the burning leaves in the yard would send a pleasant odor of smoke through the two rooms, driving away the mosquitoes, then wandering out-doors again into the forest. At night the red fire in the kitchen would glow through the door of the batalan and would be visible in the forest.

The forest was there, near enough for his upturned eyes to reach. The way was steep, the path rising ruthlessly from the clearing in an almost straight course. His eyes were wistful, and he sighed tremulously. The student followed his gaze upward.

Then he said, “It must take money to live in Manila. If I had the capital I would have gone into business in Manila.”

“Why?” Gerardo was surprised.

“Why—because the money is there, and if one wishes to fish he must go where the fishes are. However,” he continued slowly after a silence, “it is not likely that I shall ever do that. Well, this little place is all right.”

They left the high school graduate standing on the clearing, his weight resting on one foot, his eyes following them as they toiled up the perpendicular path. At the top of the climb Gerardo sat on the ground and looked down on the green fields far below, the lake in the distance, the clearings on the hill sides, and then on the diminishing figure of the high school graduate now busily hacking away, making the most of the remaining hours of day-light. Perched above them all, he felt an exhilaration in his painfully drumming chest.

Soon they entered the dim forest.

Here was the trail that once was followed by the galleon traders when, to outwit those that lay in wait for them, they landed the treasure on the eastern shores of Luzon, and, crossing the Cordillera on this secret trail, brought it to Laguna. A trail centuries old. Stalwart adventurers, imperious and fearless, treasure coveted by others as imperious and fearless, carriers bent beneath burden almost too great to bear—stuff of ancient splendors and ancient griefs.

ON his bed of twigs and small branches, under a roughly contrived roof Gerardo lay down that evening after automatically crossing himself. He shifted around until at last he settled into a comfortable hollow. The fire was burning brightly, fed occasionally with dead branches that the men had collected into a pile. Ambo and the porters were sitting on the black oilcloth that had served them for a dining table. They sat with their arms hugging their knees and talked together in peaceable tones punctuated with brief laughter. From where he lay Gerardo Luna could feel the warmth of the fire on his face.

He was drifting into deeply contented slumber, lulled by the even tones of his companions. Voices out-doors had a strange quality. They blended with the wind, and, on its waves, flowed gently around and past one who listened. In the haze of new sleep he thought he was listening not to human voices, but to something more elemental. A warm sea on level stretches of beach. Or, if he had ever known such a thing, raindrops on the bamboos.

He awoke uneasily after an hour or two. The men were still talking, but intermittently. The fire was not so bright nor so warm.

Ambo was saying:

“Gather more firewood. We must keep the fire burning all night. You may sleep. I shall wake up once in a while to put on more wood.”

Gerardo was reassured. The thought that he would have to sleep in the dark not knowing whether snakes were crawling towards him was intolerable. He settled once more into light slumber.

The men talked on. They did not sing as boatmen would have done while paddling their bancas in the dark. Perhaps only sea-folk sang and hill-folk kept silence. For sea-folk bear no burdens to weigh them down to the earth. Into whatever wilderness of remote sea their wanderer’s hearts may urge them, they may load their treasures in sturdy craft, pull at the oar or invoke the wind, and raise their voices in song. The depths of ocean beneath, the height of sky above, and between, a song floating out on the darkness. A song in the hills would only add to the lonesomeness a hundredfold.

He woke up again feeling that the little twigs underneath him had suddenly acquired uncomfortable proportions. Surely when he lay down they were almost unnoticeable. He raised himself on his elbow and carefully scrutinized his mat for snakes. He shook his blanket out and once more eased himself into a new and smoother corner. The men were now absolutely quiet, except for their snoring. The fire was burning low. Ambo evidently had failed to wake up in time to feed it.

He thought of getting up to attend to the fire, but hesitated. He lay listening to the forest and sensing the darkness. How vast that darkness! Mile upon mile of it all around. Lost somewhere in it, a little flicker, a little warmth.

He got up. He found his limbs stiff and his muscles sore. He ­could not straighten his back without discomfort. He went out of the tent and carefully arranged two small logs on the fire. The air was chilly. He looked about him at the sleeping men huddled together and doubled up for warmth. He looked toward his tent, fit­fully lighted by the fire that was now crackling and rising higher. And at last his gaze lifted to look into the forest. Straight white trunks gleaming dimly in the darkness. The startling glimmer of a firefly. Outside of the circle of the fire was the measureless unknown, hostile now, he felt. Or was it he who was hostile? This fire was the only protection, the only thing that isolated this little strip of space and made it shelter for defenseless man. Let the fire go out and the unknown would roll in and engulf them all in darkness. He hastily placed four more logs on the fire and retreated to his tent.

He could not sleep. He felt absolutely alone. Aloneness was like hunger in that it drove away sleep.

He remembered his wife. He had a fleeting thought of God. Then he remembered his wife again. Probably not his wife as her­self, as a definite personality, but merely as a companion and a minis­terer to his comfort. Not his wife, but a wife. His mind recreated a scene which had no reason at all for persisting as a memory. There was very little to it. He had waked one midnight to find his wife sit­ting up in the bed they shared. She had on her flannel camisa de chino, always more or less dingy, and she was telling her beads. “What are you doing?” he had asked. “I forgot to say my prayers,” she had answered.

He was oppressed by nostalgia. And because he did not know what it was he wanted his longing became keener. Not for his wife, nor for his life in the city. Not for his parents nor even for his lost childhood. What was there in these that could provoke anything remotely resembling this regret? What was not within the life span could not be memories. Something more remote even than race memory. His longing went farther back, to some age in Paradise maybe when the soul of man was limitless and unshackled: when it embraced the infinite and did not hunger because it had the inexhaustible at its command.

When he woke again the fire was smoldering. But there was a light in the forest, an eerie light. It was diffused and cold. He wondered what it was. There were noises now where before had seemed only the silence itself. There were a continuous trilling, strange night-calls and a peculiar, soft clinking which recurred at regular intervals. Forest noises. There was the noise, too, of nearby waters.

One of the men woke up and said something to another who was also evidently awake, Gerardo called out.

“What noise is that?”

“Which noise?”

“That queer, ringing noise.”

“That? That’s caused by tree worms, I have been told.”

He had a sudden vision of long, strong worms drumming with their heads on the barks of trees.

“The other noise is the worm noise,” corrected Ambo. “That hissing. That noise you are talking about is made by crickets.”

“What is that light?” he presently asked.

“That is the moon,” said Ambo.

“The moon!” Gerardo exclaimed and fell silent. He would never understand the forest.

Later he asked, “Where is that water that I hear?”

“A little farther and lower, I did not wish to camp there because of the leeches. At daylight we shall stop there, if you wish.”

When he awoke again it was to find the dawn invading the forest. He knew the feel of the dawn from the many misas de gallo that he had gone to on December mornings. The approach of day-light gave him a feeling of relief. And he was saddened.

He sat quietly on a flat stone with his legs in the water and looked around. He was still sore all over. His neck ached, his back hurt, his joints troubled him. He sat there, his wet shirt tightly plastered over his meager form and wondered confusedly about many things. The sky showed overhead through the rift in the trees. The sun looked through that opening on the rushing water. The sky was high and blue. It was as it always had been in his dreams, beau­tiful as he had always thought it would be. But he would never come back. This little corner of the earth hidden in the hills would never again be before his gaze.

He looked up again at the blue sky and thought of God. God for him was always up in the sky. Only the God he thought of now was not the God he had always known. This God he was thinking of was another God. He was wondering if when man died and moved on to another life he would not find there the things he missed and so wished to have. He had a deep certainty that that would be so, that after his mortal life was over and we came against that obstruc­tion called death, our lives, like a stream that runs up against a dam, would still flow on, in courses fuller and smoother. This must be so. He had a feeling, almost an instinct, that he was not wrong. And a Being, all wise and compassionate, would enable us to remedy our frustrations and heartaches.

HE went straight to Sotera’s to get the key to his house. In the half light of the stairs he met Peregrina, who in the solicitous expression of her eyes saw the dust on his face, his hands, and his hair, saw the unkempt air of the whole of him. He muttered something polite and hurried up stairs, self-consciousness hampering his feet. Peregrina, quite without embarrassment, turned and climbed the stairs after him.

On his way out with the keys in his hand he saw her at the head of the stairs anxiously lingering. He stopped and considered her thoughtfully.

“Pereg, as soon as I get these clothes off I shall come to ask you a question that is very—very important to me.”

As she smiled eagerly but uncertainly into his face, he heard a jangling in his hand. He felt, queerly, that something was closing above his hand, and that whoever was closing it, was rattling the keys.