Forests #3, or: The Village

Travelers among Mountains and Streams - Fan K'uan, c. 1000 A.D.


The town of San Diego lies almost at the shores of the lake, amid open fields and rice paddies. It exports sugar, rice, coffee, and fruit, or sells them wholesale to the Chinese, who take advantage of the simplemindedness of the workers, or their vices.

When boys climb to the topmost vault of the church tower, which is covered in moss and climbing vines, they burst into exultant cries at the beauty of the panorama unfolding before their eyes. Each knows how to find his little house, his small nest among that cover of thatch, tile, zinc, and palm leaves divided by orchards, and gardens. Everything serves as a sign: a tree, a tamarind with its sparse foliage, a coconut palm with nuts like Astarte the goddess of fertility or the Diana of Ephesus with its many breasts, the swaying cane reads, a bonga-pine, a cross. There lies the river, a monstrous glass serpent asleep in a green carpet; from time to time in the sandy bed, rocks strewn here and there jut up to roll the current. There the riverbed narrows between two high banks, and naked, twisted tree-roots cling. Here the river flows down a soft incline and widens and eddies. There, in the distance, a tiny house, built into the ledge, defies height, wind, and the abyss; its thin posts make it seem like a giant mosquito stalking the reptile it is about to attack. The trunks of palm or other trees still bear their bark though they shift and roll as they connect the banks. If they are poor bridges, at least they serve as wonderful gym apparatus on which one can practice one's balance. Young boys bathing in the river take great pleasure in watching nervous women pass over them, baskets atop their heads, or old men, who shake violently and drop their canes into the water.

But what always draws attention is what one would call a spur of forest amid a section of tilled earth. It is an ancient stand of hollow trunks, which die only when lighting strikes the upper canopy and sets it afire. It is said the fire turns back on itself and dies where it began. There are boulders, which time and nature have attired in a pelt of moss; dust has left layer upon layer in their hollows. Rain holds it there 'til birds sow seed. Tropical vegetation grows liberally. Thickets and underbrush, tangled one and another like woven blankets, flow from one plant to the next. They hang from branches, cling to roots and to the ground and, as if Flora were still not satisfied, one plant grapples with another. Moss and fungi live on the cracked bark, while hanging plants, such gracious guests, entwine their arms with the leaves of the hosting trees.

The stand is held in great awe. Odd legends swirl around it, the most realistic of which and, hence, the least often believed and understood, is the following.

When the town was still a miserable pile of shacks and grass grew wildly in the so-called streets, in the times when deer and wild boar wandered about the town at night, there appeared one day an old Spaniard with deep eyes, who spoke fairly good Tagalog. After visiting and touring parcels of several areas, he asked for the owners of the wood, where various thermal springs flowed. A few men came along pretending to be the owners, and the old man acquired the land from them in exchange for clothes, jewels, and some money. Then, without anyone knowing how it came to be, the old man disappeared. The people thought he was bewitched, and when a fetid odor began to emerge from the forest, it drew the attention of a few shepherds. They followed the trail until they came upon the old man in a state of putrefaction, hanging from the branch of a baliti tree. When he was alive, he struck fear into the hearts of men because of his deep, cavernous voice, his deep-set eyes, and the way he laughed without making a sound. But now, dead, and a suicide to boot, he disrupted the women's sleep. They threw the jewels into the river and burned the clothing, and ever since the corpse was buried at the foot of that banana tree, no one was willing to venture near it. One shepherd, who was looking for his animals, told of having seen lights. Young men wandered by and claimed to have heard lamenting. One lovesick young man, in order to draw the attention of his would-be lover, vowed to spend the night beneath the tree and wind a long bulrush around its trunk. He died of a raging fever, which befell him the day after the night of his vow. Many stories and legends continue to circulate about the place.

Less than a few months had gone by when a young man appeared. In all appearances a Spanish half-breed, he claimed to be the dead man's son. He settled in the spot and proceeded to dedicate himself to farming, especially the planting of indigo. Don Saturnino was a taciturn man of violent character, cruel at times but energetic and a hard worker. He encircled his father's grave with a wall, and rarely visited it. After a few years, he married a young woman from Manila, with whom he had Don Rafael, Crisóstomo's father.

From the time he was young, Don Rafael was beloved by his workers. His farm, established and maintained by his father, developed quickly. New residents flowed in, including a great many Chinese. The hamlet soon became a village with a native priest, then a town. The native priest died and Father Dámaso arrived, but the tomb and the old boundaries were respected. From time to time boys, armed with sticks and stones, would wander in the environs to gather guavas, papayas, lomboi, and other such things, and it happened that whenever these tasks were going well or when they were contemplating the rope that swung from the branch, a few stones would fall from who knows where. Then, with a cry of "the old man, the old man!" they would run through the rocks and boulders, and not stop until they were out of the forest. Some were pale, others out of breath, and still others were crying, but no one was laughing at all.

--José Rizal, Noli Me Tangere, 1887 (trans. Harold Augenbraum, Penguin, 2006), p.62-64.



[A photograph of Rizal's execution came to light in the 1920s. Taken from a distance, it shows a man in a dark suit and bowler hat standing several paces from a firing squad, with tall, straight trees in the background. Several historians have questioned its authenticity - eyewitnesses have claimed there were no trees in Bagumbayan at the time - but it is often printed as the only extant photograph of Rizal's execution. --Harold Augenbraum, Noli Me Tangere, p.xxiv.]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fan Kuan - Tremendous! And "Noli Me Tangere" does sound great, not like what I thought it'd be. I like the painterly quality of this photo too, rather daguerrotype-esque.