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FIELDNOTES: December in Naga

DECEMBER 3 in Naga was windy. There was a drizzle in the afternoon, which soon turned into a strong rain. But at 8 in the evening, there was only the wind and the chill.

December has come to Naga. The days are for memories.

Why is it that we always think of the past in terms of storms and cold days? Perhaps, it is because remembering always brings about poignancy, some sadness that is almost companion to heartbreaks. Thoughts slow down when we try to remember the years gone and a sunny, bright day does not give us pause, nor does it provide us with a moment to linger on those days that are no more.

I remember as a young boy how the city got so cold always in November and December that we – an older brother, a younger one and I – always fought for this Made-in-Yugoslavia trench coat. It was that cold that we had to dress up like some spy in those dark, sinister movies. The imagination must have been stronger in those years but I do recall how our father would even cover the walls of our rooms with thick mats when the December wind blew angrily from the vacant lot near our old home.

How much did the climate change?

After the October-November semestral break, we would go back to classrooms in our great jackets and sweater. By December, an early gift would always be a sweater or a wind-breaker.

It was cold then. I always wondered how the young man selling pan de sal in the early mornings survived the cold in thin, white shirts. He would unfailingly come to our door at 5 or 6 in the morning. He would have this rattan basket covered with thick, brown paper, under which were three types of bread: the pan de sal, ensaymada, and pan de coco. The taste of the bread was also unfailingly consistent: the pan de sal had just the right amount of salt and sweetness in it, the ensaymada with confectionery sugar melted in one’s mouth. It was the pan de coco that was the centerpiece of his trade: the coconut inside was dark and sweet but never sugary.

No one remembers among us when this young man stopped selling bread. It was already the 70s and he was delivering newspapers and magazines to us.

Then Martial Law came. No one bothered with the climate. No one worried about typhoons. The world had stopped for many of us. There was only this fear around us. And there was “Bagyo.”

“Bagyo” was not her name. She had a name, which we would discover much, much later. She was an old woman for that was how she looked. She could be just in her 50s but something made her even older.

She would gather kangkong every day from the swamp near our home. After having collected the vegetables, she would find a clean paved part of the sidewalk and bundle cleanly her harvest. One afternoon, a Sunday, we offered her some food. She was happy but did not have an appetite for the quite sumptuous lunch we gave her. She started conversing with my aunt who discovered that she was from Sorsogon. We found her to be “normal” and not the demented woman everyone thought her to be.

We found out more many “normal” things about Tiang Tasya, the name she gave us. We never found out though why the loud utterance of “Bagyo” would suddenly transform her into a screaming banshee, a wild woman out to kill anyone. The more young boys shouted “Bagyo,” the more unnerved she became. She would scream “Parakpatakan kamo!” (Lightning Strikes You!), and gather mud from the swamp to throw at her tormentors or at the walls that sheltered her enemies.

In one of those quiet moments with her, Tiyang Tasya related to my aunt how one day, she saw her child, who was still an infant then, being bitten and carried away by a big dog. She said she never saw her child again. It was not certain whether this scene was the reason for her mind being unhinged. Maybe there was no child at all.

The storms came and the trees were uprooted. Typhoons came but the wonderful chill of November and December, and even January never came back.

We moved to another place. We forgot about Tiyang Tasya.

I moved to Manila. My sister followed. A brother went to Germany to study. He came back and began working in far-off places. A nephew was born. Nieces followed. Grandparents passed away. My elder brother succumbed to cancer. The younger brother opted to work abroad. He came home very rarely. Our father died. My sister stayed permanently abroad. I came home to be with my mother. She passed on last May. I started travelling. I finished my book about childhood’s tales.

December came and went. Christmas arrived and left. There were cold days but I never seemed to notice them anymore. There are explanations for everything now about warm days in December and cold days in April and May. They are words that celebrate technologies and the human being’s superior mind. We do not need to listen to them. We should have, by this time, discovered, that the heat or cold in any month is more than just atmospheric, astronomical, and geophysical.

This December, a Christmas tree was early in our home. For the first time, we have a “blue” Christmas tree, with the balls and tinsels in silver, periwinkle and royal blue. Many years back, I wanted this kind of tree but I was outvoted. A blue Christmas tree is a sad Christmas tree, they admonished me.

December kept changing even as we kept the same old Christmas tree. But I miss the terribly cold days when there were people around. Those cold December kept me terrifically warm and assured me of love, which, for Rilke, “consists of two solitudes that meet, protect and greet each other.” And yet, it is love. But yet, it is solitude.

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