I had clocked out of work early that day and I felt that a walk was in order. Walking clears my head, the motion of my feet creating a familiar and soothing cadence that runs counterpoint to the mad tempo of my mind.
I was fortunate enough to be working near the beachfront and the recent rains had left the long strip of coastline relatively empty and the loneliness was inviting. I walked there, taking off my shoes, my only companions the slowly drying seaweed, a few hermit crabs and the wan sun. The gray sand made a satisfying squish between my toes, the sound reminding me of my childhood in Batangas. Squish. Squish. Squish. For a moment, I forgot whatever I was thinking about. I was a child again.
I had walked down half the length of the beach when a small bit of refracted sunlight coming from the dense forest beside the beach caught my eye. I almost thought it was someone flashing a light in my direction, as if to warn me that this was private property and I was supposed to keep away, but I disabused myself of that notion. Nobody really owned this beach. It was technically owned by the small township where I was working. I knew that because it was my job to know everything about this island.
Curious, I walked into the forest to investigate. The undergrowth in this part of the forest had been cleared making a small path that I followed. At the end of the path, I saw what had been causing the reflection, a small lamp that hung from the rafters of a small hut.
“Hello? Is anyone here?” I called out in the local dialect.
“Come over here. I am just at the back of the house.” a hoarse voice answered from the behind the hut. I walked around the hut and I saw a tall but old man. He was naked from the waist up, his old skin had a shrunken quality that could only be the result of working in the sun for too long. His hair was a shock of white that looked like it had not been combed in a decade. He was standing in a knee deep pit and he was holding a small spade, using it to dig deeper. He stopped digging for a moment and looked at me.
“Have you eaten? I have a few sweet potatoes somewhere here.” he asked.
“No. Thank you. I already ate.”
I was lying. I had not eaten yet but this was all part of the ritual greeting of Filipinos. The owners of the house ask if the guest has eaten. The guest always politely declines.
He nodded and as if we had some sort of tacit understanding, he went back to work. I stood there for a few minutes just staring at this old man. His muscles were working hard, each time he dug into the ground you could see the strain in his face. It was a strange sight. I, a young man in the prime of his youth, barefoot while wearing a white office shirt and khaki pants and carrying his loafers. He, an old man in the dusk of his life, digging a hole in the middle of nowhere.
“Do you need any help?” I asked.
He shook his head resolutely and continued digging into the black, wet soil.
“Grandfather, it’s okay. I don’t mind getting dirty.” I insisted.
He looked at me with resignation. He nodded and got up out of the pit. I jumped down into the pit and started working. I was working hard. The soil was soft but had heft. In a few minutes, I was already sodden, drenched from the sweat of work. This did not bother me however, as physical labor was always something I enjoyed. Thinking on the other hand is painful and I strove to reduce the decisions I make each day. I worked in silence, reveling in the workings of my own body.
It goes on like this for some time then the old man lights a cigarette he had stashed somewhere. Then he started telling stories to pass the time.
“I met a Japanese soldier once,” the old man started. “I think he was a kamikaze pilot and his plane had crashed into the sea over yonder. He somehow survived and he swam to this beach. I found him on the beach and I took care of him. I did not even know we were at war. He lived here for three years. He taught me Nihongo and origami while I taught him Kiniray-a and how to make fishing nets.”
He stopped for a moment and went inside. He had taken out a piece of newspaper and he started folding it. After a few minutes, he showed me a paper frog. He smiled at me and I realized that he only had two teeth left.
“The Americans found out though and they took him away. I never saw him again.”
He told me about his wife Carmelita. He had met his wife after the war and they settled somewhere in Cebu. They had two children, Lily and Anthony. They grew up to be fine people and they moved to Manila. Carmelita died ten years ago from diabetes and the old man decided to return here, the island of his birth. He then told me other stories about life here in the island like how you would know if a storm was coming or when the white mushrooms were safe to eat.
“Did you know that this forest is haunted?” he asked me. I replied in the negative, the skeptic in me knowing all small towns had their own ghost stories. He took a breathe and started talking.
“Well I don’t think the right term for it is haunted. Magical. There is something magical here. At night when the fireflies come out sometimes, I see a young woman dancing in the forest. She was dancing with the fireflies. Don’t mistake this one for the delusions of an geezer but she was naked.” He laughed softly. “Stark naked here in the middle of the forest. Don’t laugh me young man but that’s what I saw. She was beautiful. She had skin so pale that it glowed. She was so beautiful that I just stood there watching her and I could not say anything else. I didn’t even stop to think of why she’s here alone in the forest or why she was naked and all but I felt that she belonged here. Imagine that.”
The old man stopped for a moment and looked at the pit. He told me that the pit I was digging was deep enough.
“Grandfather, what is this pit for anyway?” I ask.
“Memories. The pit is to bury memories.”
He motioned for me to get out of the pit. I complied. He goes inside the house and takes out something covered in a rag. He jumps into the pit and I saw what he was carrying. It was a old revolver. I knew what he was going to do.
“Don’t do this!” I cried out.
He smiled at me and shook his head. I tryied to move from where I was standing but I was rooted to the spot, as if something was holding me down. He cocked the hammer of the revolver and he pointed the gun to his chest. The shot rang out in the forest and the birds flew out, startled by the sudden thunder of the discharge. The old man crumpled to floor of the pit. I did not know we were making his grave.
It took me a while to absorb everything that had happened. I move from where I was standing and I look down at the pit we had dug. His chest was obliterated. You know how people say that when someone dies happy they seemed like they were sleeping, as if they had achieved the peace that they have long sought for. Despite the violence he had inflicted on his chest, that is what he looked like. Peaceful.
I knew what I had to do. I knew why I was here. The darkness had already crept in but I knew I had to bury him, to bury his memories. I spent the greater part of the night returning all the soil we had unearthed. I realized that I had forgotten to ask his name.
I took the paper frog he had made and I find my way back to the beach. I started stumbling to the town where I lived. The fireflies had come out, guiding me back home.