Friday, August 9, 2013

Fiction - The Black Man in the Forest, by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard

This is my short story that's part of my first collection, Woman With Horns and Other Stories. "The Black Man in the Forest" was first published in Amerasia Journal, UCLA, Vol 12, No.1. 
Copyright 2013 by Cecilia Brainard, all rights reserved 
Philippines, 1901
            By mid-day, the old general and his men stumbled into that part of the forest where they felt they could stop and make camp. The stronger men immediately searched for food; some dug for roots, others set traps for lizards and sparrows. The skin-and-bones ones collapsed in heaps under the bushes.
            General Gregorio studied his men then did something he instructed them never to do - he left the scraggly group of soldiers and walked to the river. He drank some water and sat on a boulder to contemplate his situation. He had seven men, three guns, ten bullets, and eight rusty machetes. They had no food nor medicines. Even before this point of desperation, they had relied on saliva, herbs, and faith to heal their wounded who eventually died and were buried in unmarked graves as his army was driven back into the mountains by the Americans.
            He stared at his gun with two bullets and the machete hanging from his belt, and he snorted at his fate. Their only hope was to find General Macario and his regiment. Otherwise they would all be killed by the snotty-nosed Americans — young enough to be his grandchildren — with their blue uniforms and Krag rifles.
            General Gregorio was thinking this when a shot split through his reverie, knocking him over. He felt a sharp sting on his left thigh, then warm fluid oozing down his leg to the river bank. When he fell, his hand had been on the gun and he lay there not breathing, willing his heart to be still. The general heard the crunching of twigs, the rustling of bushes, and heavy footsteps. He felt a foot poke him in the back. When he heard the metallic sound of a rifle being cocked, General Gregorio swiftly rolled over and aimed his gun. He fired a bullet that entered the forehead of a black soldier. With a frozen look the black man cried, “Sara,” then crumpled.
            Although his left leg felt like burning coal, the general got up and fired the remaining bullet into the man's chest. Then he kicked the soldier's rifle away. Certain that the man was dead, the general went to the river and ripped his pants to tend his wound. He washed it and squeezed the flesh around the bullet hole to force tainted blood out. It was a clean wound; the bullet had gone straight through, and the general was relieved. He had seen too many wounds fester. He had watched men lose parts of themselves, first a hand, then an arm, until their brains went into delirium from the poison travelling through their arteries and finally they died.
            All his men, even the frailest with death looking over his shoulders, rushed to the river. They were shouting, waving their guns and machetes. One of them thrust his knife into the black man's heart. The small dark one among them who had healing hands went to General Gregorio and inspected his leg. He tied a piece of cloth around the general's thigh to slow the bleeding and said they would have to use the juice of guava shoots to hasten cure. “The dampness of the forest,” he said looking around, “is not good for this.”
            The general realized that his legs were wobbly and that his hands were shaking fiercely. Embarrassed at his weakness, he shooed away the little man who then joined the others around the corpse.
            “If not for his uniform, I'd swear he was an agta or some other enchanted being,” said the soldier whom they called Liver-eater. He was a big man from the north who liked to eat his enemies' livers for courage.
            “He is big but he's not enchanted,” another replied. “I have seen black men among the enemy.”
            Liver-eater spat on the ground next to the body. “I have seen only the ones like albinos with hair the color of corn kernels. Some have cat-eyes; scared the shit out of me.  But the albino-types — their liver is filled with bile and tastes bitter.
            The small dark one knelt down and put his hand against the soldier's hand. “Look, he's darker than me. He must have been under the sun for a long time. And his arm is twice as long as mine. He must have eaten well.” The small man pinched the soldier's arm. “Damn, the man's got flesh! This man ate meat and all the rice he wanted. None of that fish and corn meal I grew up on. He had thick goat's milk, butter so rich it made you dizzy, and sticky wild honey.”
            The talk of food made them sigh, even General Gregorio. Their mouths watered at the thought of real food; their spirits longed for companionable meals with charming women and happy children. Their minds began fixing on memories: Christmas dinners with families where they gorged on roasted pig and pickled papaya; picnics where they feasted on enormous Lapu-Lapu fish stuffed with tomatoes and herbs; May fiestas with hams, potatoes, and sweet gelatinous desserts. They had subsisted on roots and lizards, listened to children wailing, smelled the stench of blood for so long.
            “Well, now,” General Gregorio said to snap them out of their dreams, “there might be more Americans around.” He ordered some men to patrol the area and told the rest to continue with their business. “I'll handle the dead man and I'll distribute his belongings tonight,” spoke the general.
            All but Liver-eater left. With feet planted apart, he stared evely at the general, stubbornly refusing to budge. “We'll see,” the general said in a loud voice, standing erect on his weak legs until Liver-eater walked away.
            General Gregorio had been a soldier for enough time for a chico tree to grow from a seed to maturity. He had personally killed seventeen Spaniards, Americans, and even Filipinos. Once, he had hanged a handsome, big-bosomed woman who had betrayed them. He had done many things to survive, to make his beliefs reality, but he did not consider himself a barbaric man, and eating human flesh was abhorrent to him.
            He began to feel dizzy so he sat on the ground and put his head between his legs. When his head cleared, he checked his leg once more, tightening the cloth, muttering “merde” because of the excruciating pain that radiated to the tip of his hair. He was an old soldier and he had been hurt before. He had two giant scars: a saber-mark on his right arm and a machete-gash on his back; but he had never been hit by a bullet until now. An anger welled in him. If the wound rots, he could lose his leg, he could die — the general glared at the dead man wishing there was still life in him so he could snuff it out again. But the black soldier was immobile like a beached whale, with flies buzzing over him, some sucking his blood. General Gregorio noticed that the man's eyes were open. The dead man still had the frozen expression of terror on his face.  General Gregorio felt a sense of elation, of vengeance.
            But soon his elation gave way to fear because the soldier seemed to be staring across the river. Afraid of an enemy attack, the general glanced that way but saw only huge rocks, thick vegetation, and monkeys swinging in the branches. Shafts of sunlight streamed into the forest.  In the distance parrots screeched.
            Calming himself, the general turned to the black man once more. He observed the neat little hole on his forehead and the blood crusting on his springy black hair. The dead man's mouth was slightly open, still saying the “a” of Sara. The general flicked the flies of the man's face, wondering who Sara was. Years ago, when the Spaniard had swung his saber at his face and his right hand had flown up to catch the sword, General Gregorio had shouted “Mama.” When the traitorous Filipino threw the machete at his back, he had called out “Marta.” Sara must be his wife or lover, thought the general. Instantly he had the mental image of a young woman with skin the color of narra wood, humming as she scattered sliced onions over a thick slab of meat.
            Shivering at his vision, the general proceeded to gather the man's possessions: a rifle, thirty bullets, a pair of leather boots barely scuffed, a chewed-up bit of beef jerky, a gold pocket watch, a knife, some silver coins, but no pictures, no papers of identity whatsoever. In this forest, on this river bank, this black man was nameless. And yet, the general thought, surely he did have a name. He most certainly had a mother who had carried him in her womb, brought him into the world, and gave him a name. There was a woman Sara whom he remembered even as the bullet pierced his skull — and surely Sara called this man by name. The general became somber at these thoughts and he felt a longing to name his person. He called him John because it seemed that many Americans were named John.
            John's eyes made the general uneasy so he closed the eyelids stretching the skin over the troubled eyes. Then the general forced the black man's jaws together. General Gregorio sat back and tried to imagine a hint of peace on that face. But the blood on the forehead and chest troubled him. Ignoring his pain, the general dragged the man near the water and washed the blood from his head and hair. He removed the bloody shirt which he washed in the river, then he cleaned the man's battered chest. As the general rubbed off the sticky blood and poured water over the dark oily skin, a strange feeling crept into the general's heart. He looked at John who was young, strong, and dead. If the black soldier had been a better shot, General Gregorio would have been in his place.
            And if he were dead, who would mourn him? His parents had long been dead, his mother dying during childbirth and his father from cholera. Marta, whose memory he nurtured in his soul, was a grandmother to grandchildren who were not his. He had spent so many years being a warrior, a soldier so long that he had forgotten the silky feel of a woman's hair, her gentle laughter; so long that he had forgotten the hush and peace of an old stone church; so long that often he forgot what he was fighting for; so long that he was reduced to fighting for mere survival. He had no real ties, no family, no friends. No one would mourn his death.
            This made him sad and this sorrow saturated his being. He waited for the sun and air to dry John's skin and shirt, and before his muscles became rigid, the general put John's shirt back on. It came to General Gregorio then to change John's name to Abraham because it was a more unique name, a name that went better with Sara.
            General Gregorio buttoned up Abraham's shirt and covered the buttonhole with his hair. Now Abraham looked better; he appeared like a giant boy sleeping and dreaming troubled dreams.
            Liver-eater appeared on the riverside with an insistent face and the general waved him away. When at last Liver-eater begrudgingly left, the general looked at Abraham who was now turning stiff, and he could not bear the idea of Liver-eater getting hold of him. His leg throbbing with pain, the general brought Abraham to the river where the current was strong. He released him and watched the body float downstream until it sank. Gathering his thoughts, General Gregorio decided to tell him men that the river had risen, taking Abraham away. He would lie to give the black man this bit of dignity. And tomorrow, they would have to start at dawn, before the fog lifted, before the sun's rays slanted into the forest, and they would have to find General Macario and his men, or perish.
Copyright 2013 by Cecilia M. Brainard, all rights reserved
 Read also:
The Turkish Seamstress in Ubec
Flip Gothic
Manila Without Verna
Winning Hearts and Minds 
The Black Man in the Forest
The Old Mansion near the Plaza
tags: fiction, short story, literature, Philippine literature, Philippine American War, Spanish American War, Philippines, Spain, Cecilia Brainard

No comments: