Most of Sonny’s students were fascinated by his stories of what he called “back home.” Our American upbringings did not tell us anything about this unique world across the Pacific Ocean. We listened raptly to his revelations about languages, customs and peoples we had never known. Especially interesting were his stories of the jungles of Cebu – a place of monkeys, vipers, rattan, bamboo, and exotic fruits.
I suppose Mike Braten and I tested our master’s patience with our unrelenting curiosity. We asked him a barrage of questions and, to his credit, he answered all of them with good grace. One night in 1986, he shared the following story:
1968 was a hard year for the people of Bogo Town, near Cebu City, Cebu, Philippine Islands. Fishing was off and jobs in the city were hard to come by. The rainy season came in with a vengeance. Tough and resourceful, the people of Bogo carried on with the cycle of daily life. They knew they could survive another hard year if necessary.
Ninoy’s family were the first victims. His neighbors heard his curses and ran to help. “What is it?” they asked in unison. Ninoy lamented the loss of his prize pig. The thieves had struck in the middle of a dark, rainy night. No one had been seen, and the rain had erased all tracks. The cowards had stolen food from a poor man’s table. It was agreed that the pig thieves would pay a heavy price if caught.
The authorities would not involve themselves in such a small matter. These hardworking people had no political power, and no government help would be forthcoming. As ever, the people of the village would band together for mutual survival. The men agreed to be more vigilant and the wise ones polished and sharpened their blades.
Four nights later, Ninoy’s neighbor was struck. White-hot anger surged through the village. Pride as well as property had been lost. Again, no sign of the marauders had been detected. The village elders surmised that the thieves had both times come in where the river narrowed into a natural crossing. A trap would have to be set and swift justice dealt to the thieves. Juni was selected to lead a group of seven men to the ambush site. An obvious choice, Juni was a natural leader. He would get the job done.
That night found the seven in their ambush positions before dark. Each was armed with the deadly “Pinute” blade common in the Visayan region. The razor-sharp, narrow-bladed swords were clutched in sweaty hands.
I have often pictured myself as one of the seven. Unable to see or hear their targets in the velvet jungle blackness, only courage, intelligence and skill at arms would allow them to prevail. Imagine the stink of fear on these men as they prayed to God for strength and ultimate victory. Every sound or the slightest breeze would trigger an electric jolt of adrenaline. Each warrior thought only of duty, honor and mutual survival. Doubts and fear would be dealt with after the battle. With mingled relief and disappointment, they watched the sun rise.
Again the seven entrenched themselves the following night. Another battle for self-control raged within each man. Hours passed slowly. An icy stab of fear lanced Juanito’s stomach – he had been dozing. With shame, he realized he had endangered the whole group. A sudden glimpse of the moon calmed his fear. Juni knew they were out there. The flash of the moon proved him right.
All froze as they heard Juni’s battle cry, running feet, and the sound of the slashing of flesh. All attacked the enemy in a whirlwind of flashing blades the instant the shock wore off. After the onslaught of slashes and thrusts, Juni, their leader, called for a halt. With elation, the men realized they had not lost a single man. Weak in the knees and nauseated, the men stared at the fallen enemy.
With shock, the victors realized the band of thieves was, in fact, a gigantic jungle snake similar to a python, almost twenty feet long and large enough to feed on pigs – or men.
Immediately, Juni sent a runner back to the barrio. All the residents grabbed pots, baskets and any kind of vessel that would carry the spoils of victory back home. The deadly serpent was cut into equal portions where it fell. All shared in the bounty of nutritious snake meat. Honor and safety were restored to the tiny community.
We thanked our master for the visit to a wonderful and exotic world. He gave me a look that told me I was expected to comment. I said, “They came together for mutual survival, and the whole group shared the windfall gain.” The master said enigmatically, “Maybe there is more.”