My writing teacher once advised me: Never write a story in which nothing but bad things happen to the main character. She said it’s a disservice to the reader. However, she also told me to always write the truth. So in this story, I’ll disregard the first advice in favor of the second. This is about the death of Nong Fred, and among all accounts of the event, I believe mine is the closest to the truth, for I asked around with the thoroughness of an investigator.
Nong Fred was a widower and sixty years old when he died. Several witnesses were present in his last hours. One was Berto, forty-two years old and a councilor of the village. Berto was the officer on duty the day Nong Fred would die, and he went to the barangay hall before eight in the morning. When the official passed by the basketball court, before he opened the office, he noticed some young men who were acting strange. They were wearing basketball jerseys, but instead of playing they were whispering to one another, cracking jokes nervously.
“What’s going on here?” Berto asked.
The boys giggled like girls and pointed at the hut beside the barangay hall. “Take a look, Nong Berts,” said Jimmy, a gangly boy of sixteen.
“Are you fooling me?” Berto said. “Do you want Prido to think I’m peeping on him?”
Nong Fred—“Prido” or “Prid” to most people in our Visayan-speaking village—had been living in the hut for a couple of months. The hut was actually a guardhouse intended for barangay tanods, and Nong Fred was not a tanod. However, he was the driver of the village-owned dump truck, so the widower was not forbidden (nor officially permitted) to overstay in the premises of the barangay hall.
Berto told the boys, “Tell me what you were talking about.”
“See it for yourself,” Jimmy said, dribbling the ball, not bothering to look at the official.
Berto scratched his head in irritation, tugging at the hair that had long fallen off. In his most councilor-y voice, he said, “Are you going to tell me or what?”
“It’s Nong Prid,” Jimmy said. “He’s rolling on his shit.”
The boys giggled again.
Frowning, Berto walked to the hut. He had thought Jimmy was being figurative or just his usual crass self when he said shit, but as soon as the councilor reached the threshold of the hut, a familiar but much more sickening odor assaulted him. He cursed aloud and pinched his nose.
Nong Fred was lying on the large bamboo bed. The tall and dark-skinned man was moaning. His shorts were wet, darker at the back portion. Still moaning, his eyes half-closed, he slowly sat up. Berto stood transfixed, watching Nong Fred struggle. Nong Fred moved his feet off the bed and reached for the windowsill. He was probably trying to get up. But before he could lean on the wall, his knees gave in, and he fell back on the bed, gasping aloud.
The thud, muffled by the straw mat and kapok-filled pillows, jolted Berto back to his senses. He walked fast out of the hut.
The boys were laughing in stifled voices, giving one another high-fives. “See?” Jimmy said.
“All of you,” Berto told the teenagers, “go help Prido clean himself.”
“What?” Jimmy said. “We’re not caregivers, Nong Berts. Why don’t you do it yourself? You’re a councilor, a public servant.”
“You good-for-nothings,” Berto said. “Call Junior, then. He must be in their home. Tell him what’s happening to his father.”
“All right,” Jimmy said. The other boys and he walked away. As soon as they were on the road, they broke out into raucous laughter, retelling to one another what had happened, making animated gestures.
Berto went to the barangay hall and opened it. He swept the floor, turned the radio on, and sat on a chair, his feet propped up on the chairwoman’s desk. He listened rapt to the anchor blasting some politician, and promptly forgot about Nong Fred.
After thirty minutes or so, the fifty-five-year-old barangay chairwoman came in. She was there to mediate on some petty conflict between neighbors. The meeting was scheduled at nine.
The chairwoman glared at Berto’s feet. Berto pulled his feet off the desk and stood in attention like a startled soldier. Rummaging in his mind for anything that could avert the woman’s attention, Berto remembered Nong Fred. He told her about the driver.
Berto led the chairwoman to the hut. He stayed a few feet from the door and told her to go inside.
She shrieked and walked out as soon as she saw Nong Fred. “Damn you, Berto!” she said. “You said he’s lying on his feces. I saw a different kind of stool.”
“What do you mean?” Berto asked.
“His shorts have been pulled down to his knees.”
Berto let out a soundless laughter.
Nong Fred probably wanted to clean himself and change his clothes, but he was too weak to continue moving. Some people, though, would later say that he must be feeling hot because his soul was already starting to be burned in hell.
“Let’s not bother with him,” Berto told the chairwoman. “I’ve asked some boys who were here to call Junior.” He grinned. “I’m sure Junior will be pissed that his father had a drink too many.”
“What are you talking about?” the chairwoman said. “Prido has long stopped drinking, even before his wife died. That’s the reason I chose him to be the driver of the dump truck.”
“So if Prido’s not drunk,” Berto said, “what’s happening to him?”
“He’s sick. But there’s nothing to worry about. He’s been like that for almost a year now. Haven’t you noticed? He’s bloated and has dark patches on his skin. He claims he’s a victim of hiwit, that someone paid a sorcerer to put a curse on him. What’s taking those boys so long?”
“Oh, you know those kids,” Berto said. “Something must have caught their attention along the way. They’ll be back here with Junior any moment now.”
“Know what,” the chairwoman said, “I’m not sure if Junior would come. Prido and he are not in good terms. That’s why Prido has rarely gone home for the last few months.”
“Junior should come,” Berto said. “Who does he expect to take care of his father? They have no relatives here in the village, and his sister lives in her husband’s farm, quite a long walk from here.”
The quarreling parties arrived, and the chairwoman and Berto stopped talking about Nong Fred and went back to the barangay hall. The neighbors were having a dispute over the common boundary of their farms and who owned the mango and coconut trees therein. The argument became more heated by the minute, and the chairwoman could not see it ending anytime soon, so at ten in the morning, she called for a break.
Berto found Jimmy playing alone in the basketball court. “Where are the other guys?” he asked.
“They’ve gone home,” Jimmy said.
“Where’s Junior? Has he tended to his father?”
“He didn’t come with us,” Jimmy answered. “When we told him about Nong Prid, he acted as though he didn’t hear anything.”
“What? So Prido’s still a mess in there?”
“Go check on him,” Berto said.
Reluctantly Jimmy obeyed. He walked out of the hut after a few seconds inside, his face flushed with fear. “I think he’s no longer breathing!” he said.
In a quaking voice, Berto called the chairwoman aloud. The chairwoman and the warring neighbors rushed out of the barangay hall. With Berto, they all went to the hut. There they found Nong Fred almost naked. His shorts and underwear were in a bundle around his ankles, and his shirt was pulled up to his armpits. His exposed chest was still, no longer rising and falling.
If you’re not from the village, you must be aghast with how the people reacted to Nong Fred’s condition. He could have been saved by a quick and basic medical response. He died not of an irreversible curse but of simple dehydration. The village midwife had been on duty that day in the health center, a stone’s throw away from the guardhouse and the barangay hall. If someone cared enough to tell her what was happening to Nong Fred, she could determine in no time his illness and address it. The health center had a box full of spare Oresol packs.
After Nong Fred breathed his last, stories of last encounters with him sprang up, and I tied up the loose ends. I found out that he had been suffering from loose bowels, and had not eaten anything, for at least twenty-four hours.
Nong Fred died between eight-thirty and ten Wednesday morning. On Monday night that week, Macmac and another tanod had dozed off in the same bed with Nong Fred. “In the wee hours of the morning,” Macmac narrated to me during the wake, “I felt Nong Prid get up quite a few times. I didn’t mind it much that time. Only when he had died did it occur to me that his stomach must be aching. He must have kept coming back to the comfort room at the back of the barangay hall.”
“So you left early that Tuesday morning?” I asked Macmac. I was playing cards with him and two other guys.
Macmac puffed on his cigarette. He then frowned at his cards. I thought he wouldn’t answer me, but after passing a card to the player on his right, he said, “No. I hanged around there for a while. My fellow tanod went home at about five in the morning, but I stayed with Nong Prid and cooked rice.”
Macmac is a thirty-year-old unmarried man still living with his parents in a ramshackle hut full of scabby younger siblings. During his nighttime duty as a tanod, he would cook for Nong Fred and wash the dishes in exchange for free supper and breakfast. The two men never had any verbal agreement about the setup; it just happened.
“When Nong Fred woke up,” Macmac continued as we went on playing, “I asked him for some money to buy fish. He gave me a one-hundred-peso bill. I bought a large fish and a pack of cigarettes. We each took a stick and smoked, but he went out of the hut while I grilled the fish. He checked the dump truck and fiddled a little with the engine, which went cranky a couple of days before. When I put the food on the bed and asked him to eat with me, he told me to go ahead. I left him the upper part of the fish and went home after washing the—” Macmac stared at me. “Are you going to throw or just listen to me?”
“Just a second,” I said. I chose a low card in my hand and passed it to Macmac.
Some people who had been to the barangay hall that Tuesday saw Nong Fred go in or out of the comfort room. No one thought, however, that he was having diarrhea since he did not complain to anyone, nor had anyone stayed with him long enough to notice. In addition, the dump truck was parked in front of the hut, so no one was enticed to while away the hours in the hut.
On Tuesday night, another pair of tanods, Tata and Toto, went inside the hut. It was already seven in the evening, and Nong Fred was asleep on the bed. Tata and Toto poked around for anything to eat, and found a fish’s head lying on cold, half-eaten rice inside a pot. The two men asked Nong Fred if they could have the fish as sumsuman. When the driver grunted, they took it as a yes. They thought the fish was Nong Fred’s leftover meal; they didn’t know that he had not eaten what Macmac had set aside for him. They took the fish to the top of the dump truck’s head and consumed it with a lapad.
When the bottle of rum was emptied, and Tata and Toto had exchanged countless tall tales, they roved around the village to reprimand those who were violating the curfew. They ordered storeowners to shut down the videoke machines, sent home a pair of sneaking young lovers, and even whipped stray dogs.
At about eleven in the evening, Tata and Toto returned to the guardhouse, less drunk but tired from all the action. Without bothering to turn the lights on, they slumped beside Nong Fred and started snoring within minutes.
At about one in the morning, Tata was awakened by a stench. He shone his flashlight on the bed and saw the mess that the three of them were rolling in. Tata tried to wake up Toto, but Toto pushed Tata’s hand away and rolled to his side, exposing his wet back to the pale glow of the flashlight. Disgusted, Tata spat on the earthen floor and walked home.
For some reason, Toto never became aware of the bad smell. When he woke up at about five in the morning, the day Nong Fred would die, the only unusual thing the tanod noticed was that Tata had left him. Still lightheaded from the drink the night before, Toto walked home too. His wife was the first to notice the sticky stain on the back of his shirt.
Many people could have helped Nong Fred. But nobody did. It seemed that all the universe conspired to leave him to his death. If the truck’s engine had not broken down, the vehicle would have to transport some load and Nong Fred would have to tell the barangay chairwoman why he couldn’t drive. If the midwife had not scolded Jimmy, her son, for playing basketball too early to avoid doing household chores, the boy would have told his mother about Nong Fred. If the fever of Nong Fred’s grandson had not subsided on Tuesday night, his daughter would have gone to the health center early that Wednesday to ask for medicine and probably check on her father. There were so many ifs. Some said the village officials were to blame. Others said the blood was in Junior’s hands, for letting his pride get the better of him at such a critical time. Most people, though, agreed that it was no one’s fault but Nong Fred’s.
Nobody was concerned enough for Nong Fred because nobody in the village genuinely liked him. The man was a bully, and the worst kind, for his victims were kids. He never let an opportunity pass to taunt boys who in his eyes were less than perfect—boys with physical deformities, gay boys, fat boys, skinny boys, short boys, boys with runny noses, boys who walk to school barefoot, boys with drunkard fathers, boys with fat mothers, boys with no father or mother. He would taunt the boys whether they were alone, with other kids, or with their mothers. Nong Fred would not taunt the boys only if their fathers were around. The cruel man just wanted to humiliate the boys, not to get himself in trouble with their fathers.
Berto didn’t have much sympathy for Nong Fred because one of the councilor’s sons had a cleft lip. Though Berto himself had not heard Nong Fred mimic the boy’s breathy speaking, Berto’s wife did, several times, and told her husband about it each time. The politician might have ignored Nong Fred’s sin if the latter would vote for him during elections. But everyone knew that Nong Fred didn’t vote or go to church or attend parents’ meetings when his two children were still in school. The only thing he was dedicated to was his job as a driver, most likely because it brought him money. So Berto could not see any reason why he should go out of his way and wipe the man’s stinking ass.
The basketball players and Tata weren’t fond of Nong Fred because each of them had, at least once, been taunted by the man when they were younger. (Nong Fred did not find it fun to make fun of anyone older than sixteen, except maybe those who were small for their age.) Besides, the young men might not even wipe the ass of their own fathers.
As to the barangay chairwoman, well, she’s simply dense. She cannot determine on her own which situations need urgent action and which ones need deliberation. She only won in the election because her late father was a former village chief and her opponents weren’t any smarter than she.
When Jimmy said Nong Fred no longer appeared to be breathing, someone finally had the heart to touch the driver, but only to check his neck for pulse. The man turned to others and shook his head.
The chairwoman ordered some people to call Junior and his sister, Shiela. Though Shiela lived farther, she arrived well ahead of Junior, and her husband was with her. When Junior appeared, Shiela’s husband was already washing Nong Fred inside the hut. Junior merely looked at the scene once, sat on a bench beside the basketball court, and smoked, looking neither relieved nor mournful.
Shiela’s husband, a distant relative of mine, told me that the rift between Nong Fred and Junior stemmed from Nong Fred’s plan to sell the family’s house. The father wanted to spend the money for his illness. The son was against the idea because the house was their only property left. The family’s money had been used up before for Nong Fred’s wife, who had to seek cure from half a dozen doctors and faith healers before succumbing to a chronic and complicated illness. Nong Fred did not send his children to college, so if Nong Fred died, Junior would have no source of income other than the fruit trees growing in their backyard. Junior told Shiela’s husband, “If the money runs out and Papa dies, what will I spend for his funeral?”
Junior made good with his own plans. He paid for most of his father’s expenses. He sold all the ripe durians and rambutans in the backyard and used the income to pay for half the bills. The remaining half of the amount he borrowed from a lender, charged to the next harvest.
During the five-night wake, only a handful of people paid respect to the dead, most of them gambling addicts. The others were there because they had nothing better to do. There was a commotion involving Shiela. She drove two women out of the funeral because she overheard them talking ill of her family.
“Why are you here?” the first woman is said to have asked.
The second woman answered, “Someone told me no one was here last night, so I took pity on Nong Fred’s children and came here. How about you?”
“I just want to make sure he’s really dead.”
Of course, like most stories that go around our village—or any village, for that matter—the version that reached me must have been padded and shaved a number of times. Nonetheless, the feelings expressed by the two women were shared by many in our place. When Nong Fred was buried, less than thirty people attended, mostly relatives of Shiela’s husband.
It has occurred to some of us that Nong Fred might have been himself an abused child. He might have been picked on by the adults around him for his dark skin. Our suspicion became stronger when someone pointed out that nobody had heard Nong Fred taunt dark-skinned kids, and Macmac, the only kid he seemed to tolerate, had coffee-colored skin. In any case, we didn’t dwell on the matter. We didn’t try to understand Nong Fred. In our hearts there was no room for a man who, until his last breath, refused to ask for help. Nong Fred never admitted that he was weak, that he could be as powerless as a kid.
The day after the burial, a Monday, the boys walking to school seemed cheerier than before. They chatted in louder voices. They ran after one another in abandon, not afraid of bumping into someone who would tell them they were not perfect and thus not worthy to be loved.
It takes a good leader to make a certain territory a better place to live in, a saying goes. In our village, it took a death.
barangay – the basic political unit in the Philippines; village
hiwit – a curse believed to cause pain, disfigurement, and eventually death to the victim
kapitana – village chairwoman
lapad – a bottle containing 375 mL of rum
nong – Visayan term of respect for an older man
sumsuman – food taken in with an alcoholic beverage
tanod – civilian guard