KILLING TIME IN A WARM PLACE (an extract).
Fiction by JOSE Y. DALISAY, Jr.
Camp Sunflower was a converted Army barracks in a military reservation on the outskirts of the city. It had been built for forty people but there were over a hundred of us in it by mid-March, gathered over the months and trucked there from various processing centers in the capital region. We bunked in pairs, over and under. Jong had taken the spot below mine shortly after he was trucked in, early in February. Some nights I would hear him murmur, and when I asked him about it he said that he had been praying.
I, too, prayed, but quietly, for uneventful sleep and for a miracle in the morning. It happened now and then at reveille, after calisthenics. The Commandant was a captain who liked to make a show of disdaining his mission, and he would have Sergeant Quiones hold everyone in formation while he shuffled our papers in his guardhouse office, letting their thump and crackle come across over the PA system into the one ear those minutes fused our beings into. Our hearts pounded even as we tried to recover from the push-ups and the jumping jacks. Then, as the sweat crusted on us, he would read the names in a reluctant whine–Peneyra, Gaffud, Dimalanta–and there would be whoops and yells from among the chosen, and a cold, astonished panic within the rest of us, at least those of us who still would not believe that prison, without trial and without sentence, was our natural lot at age eighteen.
At dusk we would sit in rows on long benches facing west where the city was, gazing out across the barbed wire fence at the sky turning into dappled shades of pink and orange and purple. We would slap thighs and shoulders, trade cigarettes and candybars, exchange confidences, pass the day’s news through the hopelessly uneven sieve of our opinions. We recreated society as we had known it, mimicking its noises, while we waited for the darkness to congeal and for the red Marlboro neon sign to light up somewhere in Guadalupe and blink like the most trusting and constant of fireflies. And then as though by previous agreement our chatter would subside, although few would have left their seats, and man and boy we would all keep still, eyes on the sign, palms on the edge, souls long vanished between and past the wires. Then it would be too much. A man would crack a joke. The spell would be broken and we would all file in for supper and chess.
There was always a chess tournament about. The organizers had devised a complicated system for separating the masters from the novices, and I belonged to the latter among whom chess was still fun. We adored the gambit, made reckless sacrifices, argued touch-moves, favored the eccentric. We were in love with the notion of capturing queens, cornering kings, torturing knights and annihilating pawns. Chess became our most popular pastime, without much else to do after supper besides talking.
Sometimes we found a topic that was new to all of us, or had been nearly forgotten so that it was almost new, and we would give up chess for the pleasure of talking. Nearly everything important, of course, was a memory, something we had each brought in with us, and it was a matter of rummaging through our brains and putting a smart sheen on whatever story we found before serving it up.
We valued most the stories that newcomers told of the network of resistance to the martial-law regime that was building up on the outside, operating out of rented quarters, basements, backrooms and corners of friendly houses. Now and then the clean-living citizens of this and that neighborhood would waken to find their walls awash in crudely paintbrushed red: “Fight martial law with people’s war!” “Down with the US-Marcos dictatorship!” “Long live the national democratic revolution!” Most of these people would shake their heads and wash or scrape the slogans off before the Metrocom arrived. Now and then a gang of strollers in the park would link their arms and urge revolt: “Dare to struggle, conquer fear!” And they would keep at it, startling passersby into acknowledging their misery, until security men flashing their .45’s came cursing and scrambling through the crowd. There would be a chase over hedges, across avenues, down alleyways, into the murk of the city’s guts.
And there would be captures, betrayals, surrenders, reprisals–when a runner stumbled, when a father broke, or when, by some tacit miracle, a community sprang to its feet to fence in its own. Even then: borrowing a wartime tactic from the Kempeitai, soldiers and policemen would throw dragnets over suspect zones, always at night, the better to tumble the menfolk out of bed onto the street in their shorts, to establish virility by heft, pedigree by tattoo, and ideology by some obscure but unfailing code of physiognomy.
Communists, one major in intelligence was supposed to have theorized, wore a composite mask of guilt, depravity and outright menace–doubtlessly engendered by their atheism, drug addiction, loose morals and lust for power. The remark made the rounds of the prison camps, and those of us who had retained or regained their humor spent time to measure and to argue nasal proportions and to confirm the unusual depression of the philtrum in those whom we knew to be guilty as charged. We were to hear that the major’s observations perked up the mornings in Manila’s coffeeshops, where it was soon rumored further that the major had submitted his pet theory to the National Defense College for his masters thesis, and that it had been acclaimed, and that consequently the major, until then just another ambitious mediocrity, had been promoted for his extraordinary perception.
But even so the regime, acting on sounder wisdom gained from Forts Bragg and Leavenworth, mounted its operations not with caliper and mole chart (not until much later, when the major’s theories–by then the brigadier general’s–underwent a revival) but with M-16, howitzer and silver on the front, and with tuneful invitations on the airwaves for the citizenry to partake of the new martial enthusiasm: “A new sun rises, a new life, new strength, new honor, in the New Society!” A father’s bass or a mother’s alto, the one with authority and the other with assurance, would then intone the price to pay for such wonderful novelties: “For national progress–discipline!”
Chastened so kindly, many of the prodigal wept and were forgiven, and there were many even among us who came to agree that the hour for revolt had passed, that civil liberty, for all its clamor and cacophony, had failed woefully to build roads, to curb crime, to feed the poor and to satisfy the rich, and that, therefore, national self-discipline and constructive subordination were worth trying. In this envigorating vista, a New Filipino family could walk cleanswept streets at night without fear of being waylaid by the perverse and the destitute, who were themselves learning the virtues of self-effacement in jail, field and factory. A New Filipino entrepreneur could choose the best of partners and invest in resort palaces, tobacco, tennis-ball production or car-assembly plants, or better yet in banks to nourish these timely ventures, and expect to reap the just rewards of a guaranteed industrial peace. The New Filipino reader could expect to take his morning coffee with any one of the new government-approved dailies, revel in their optimism, and go off to work comforted in the thought that given the dire and stressful vicissitudes of life in the outside world, there was no better place on earth to be that very moment but in the Philippines, among her 7, 100 sunblest isles.
Indeed it was for many a happy and hopeful time when futures could be bought and marriages sealed on the strength of record prices for copra on the London exchange, and on the threshold of careers in development management and in national security administration, careers financed by willing money from the World Bank, USAID, the Japanese and a host of other less-exalted benefactors, all of them eager to participate in the cause of national progress through discipline. A massive injection of investments at the top, so the gurus prescribed, would surely seep down to the masses by simple logic of gravity, in time; it was only a matter of time. (And in time I would myself believe this.)
But there were others, obstinate in their unhappy abstractions, who resisted all conversion. Some would remain where they were and be content for the time being with rolling slogans in their mouths, like talismans, between shut teeth. Many would pack their young lives into a bag, or summarize them in notes, never adequate, to parent, lover and friend, and vanish into some transcendent state—“up there,” in the vocabulary of the initiate–where the angels bore Kalashnikovs and rained lightning on the oppressor.
Whatever Kalashnikovs remained: the Constabulary armories were teeming with a stupendous assortment of weapons, surrendered by or confiscated from the outgunned public–homemade sumpaks and paltiks, Colts, S & W’s, Brownings, Armalites, grenade launchers, Czechoslovakian and Israeli assault rifles. The mere rumor that the Constabulary was employing hypersensitive metal detectors in its zoning operations ferreted more firearms out of drawers, cabinets and underground caches; if not the rumors, then the promised penalty of twenty years at hard labor for illegal possession of any firearm beyond a pellet gun. Citing impressive gun-collection figures chalked up on a board and displaying a disarmed tribal headman between them, the chiefs of the Constabulary and of the Metropolitan Command had declared on the broadcast news that Philippine society was finally being rid of harm after three hundred years of warfare against something or other. “Smiling martial law” was how the newspapers described the public face of Presidential Proclamation No. 1081. The smile of discipline sat smartly on the country’s lips. Long hair had been outlawed. The midnight curfew returned the vagabond home. Walls were whitewashed and front yards trimmed, from Forbes Park to Camp Sunflower.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
JOSE DALISAY is an English professor and director of the Institute of Creative Writing at the University of the Philippines. He is the author of more than twenty books, including novels, story collections, plays, and essays; a recipient of the National Book Award from the Manila Critics Circle; and was named by the Cultural Center of the Philippines Centennial Honors List as one of the top 100 most accomplished and influential Filipino artists of the past century.