“Bayani…wake up.” Lualhati poked her brother’s shoulders to the beat of the bouncing jeepney over rough terrain. He woke when she buzzed in his ear and nearly swatted her face thinking a large mosquito was attacking.
“What is it? Better be a good reason for waking me out of a peaceful dream.”
“How much longer til we get to the airport?”
“Ugh…you woke me to tell time?” Bayani squeezes his ten year old sister’s shoulder, leaving charcoal fingerprints. “We still have to get around Taal lake and go through Manila before we reach Ninoy Aquino International…maybe another thirty minutes if this jeepney doesn’t break down from the weight of the passengers piled on like bunches of bananas.”
“Good…my but aches. Riding a water buffalo would have been kinder to my behind.”
“Try sleeping instead of complaining. So what are you holding in that sack?”
“Not telling. It’s a surprise for you, my charcoal prince, when we get to Aunt Dalisay’s home in…where does she live again?”
“Brooklyn, New York…a continent and two oceans away from Tagaytay City.”
“Don’t worry. Haven’t I taken good care of you since our parents died? You can believe me when I say we’ll have a better life there. Everyday will be the joy of a festival. Aunt Dalisay says one American store could feed our nation.”
Lualhati nods and wipes a tear off her cheek before her brother notices. She closes her eyes and tries to recall the details of her parents’ faces and focus the hazy image, but the details drift away in the breeze. One clear memory lingers of her mother’s warm body cuddling at bedtime as she told folktales. “Please tell me the story of The Man and the Coconuts again…it will help pass the time.”
“Don’t you ever get tired of that one?”
Lualhati shakes her head and smiles.
“Okay…next time you tell me the story.” Bayani would rather recite a tale to forget the look of death he last saw on their mother’s face as sickness drained her golden color away.
One day an American tourist came to the Philippines and gathered a large amount of coconuts from a bountiful tree and began to load them in a basket on his horse. He started toward the road and met a young boy who he asked, “How long will it take me to get to the village from here?”
“If you go slowly,” said the boy looking at the load on the horse, “you will arrive very soon; but if you go fast it will take you all day.”
The man could not believe this strange advice, so he hurried his horse. But the coconuts fell off, and he had to stop to pick them up. Then he hurried his horse all the more to make up for lost time, but the coconuts fell off again. Many times he did this and it was night when he reached the village.” Bayani couldn’t resist adding, “And then a hairy monster gobbled up all the fruit and stuffed the stupid man in a coconut shell.”
Lualhati laughed at the tale with a twist. “What will you miss the most?”
“Hmm…I’ll miss sifting through garbage to find wood for charcoal and getting covered in black soot. And of course I’ll miss swatting the disease carrying mosquitoes that like my legs.”
“I know what you’ll miss most – kissy, kissy face with Marikit.” Lualhati blew fake kisses out the window and giggled. “I’m gonna miss our view of the Taal Volcano. It reminds me of mama’s words: “We may not see God, but He is alive and working in our hearts, just like the secret action in Taal. And we don’t want to see the anger of either one.”
“I will miss climbing trees for coconuts and the comfortable climate of Tagaytay.”
“I can’t wait to see snow. In books, it looks like God sprinkled sugar on mounds of vanilla ice cream. I want to taste it.”
As soon as the plane screeched to a halt, Lualhati handed Bayani her surprise.
“A coconut! Thanks.”
“Walang anuman. ”
“Utang na loob. You quit school to work for the charcoal factory so I could go and learn to read.”
“Let’s go. I’m ready for a new life and some coconut milk.”
Source: Mabel Cook Cole, Philippine Folk Tales (Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1916), p. 88.
Utang na loob: “a debt of the inner self” Filipinos try to generously repay favors and kind acts.
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