By JOSE V. MONTEBON JR.
The man swayed before the woman on the floor. His face was a dark crimson and a streak of saliva ran down his chin. He was breathing heavily like a carabao in the fields at midday. The woman tried to lift herself up with one arm but soon collapsed. One of the straps of her chemise had slid off her shoulder, showing a red raw welt across her bare skin. She could feel the wind coming through the slits of the bamboo floor slowly drying her moist face. She felt she could no longer cry; even if she tried to, the tears would not come any more.
She remembered the first time his fist landed on her cheek that Sunday morning ten years before. She was sitting on one of the rungs of the stairs nursing her son. He had just finished dressing and was about to leave for the cockpit. “Soling, I need five pesos.” He mumbled the words.
She looked up and took the child away from her breast. “Five pesos? What for, Merto?”
He turned his back on her and sat on a stool nearby. She stood up, cradling the baby in her arms. “You know I don’t have much money!” She could not help raising her voice.
He stood abruptly. She cowered when she saw his face. For the first time, she saw anger there. She saw the hand darting towards her face. She gasped when the blow landed, not so much for the stinging pain but because of the unexpectedness of it all. She did not expect it from him. Not from Merto, the loving husband and tender father. But her cheek was burning and tears were welling in her eyes.
That had been the beginning.
The leather belt swished in the air and the body quivered from the impact. In one corner, the boy watched as the flickering wick of the lamp cast grotesque shadows on the woman on the floor. He winced each time he heard the sound of leather against flesh, and he covered his eyes every time the belt descended. As he watched his mother sprawled on the floor, blood pounded in his temples trying to gush out from his head.
That Sunday afternoon had not been a happy one for Roberto. One of his hens had strayed and he had searched through the thickets and bushes. His search had been fruitless. Now, as the sun sank in the west, he sat sulking before the table.
“Hoy, Berto, look what I brought you,” Mamerto shouted as he ascended the bamboo steps. Before he could reach the landing, mother and son knew he was drunk. He held a rope in his hand, the other end was tied to the neck of a dog. “Here. Now you’ll have somebody to play with.” He tried to lead the dog to the boy but it refused to budge from where it was standing. “Hoy, Berto! Don’t you want him?” His voice rose to a pitch bordering on anger.
“Yes, yes, Tatay.” Roberto answered immediately and stood up.
“Then give him something to eat.”
Roberto slowly approached the dog, which stared at him with its round black eyes. He put out his hand to pat its head but the dog growled, baring its sharp teeth. He withdrew the hand instantly.
“Ha…ha! Afraid, eh, Berto?” The man slapped the dog with his open palm. It whined and lowered its head. “See? He’s timid. If you know how. Ha…ha.” Mamerto tossed the rope to Roberto and went to where his wife stood. Placing a heavy arm around her waist, he drew her to him. “Soling, I won ten pesos on the bulanting. I had Pare Insong take the cock to his house. It hasn’t a scratch on its body. We’ll take it to Sipayao tomorrow. Ha…ha. Imagine, that dog was about to be butchered by Insong. I gave him fifty centavos. Ha…ha.” His laughter drowned all other sounds in the room. “Come, let us have supper.”
“Berto,” his mother called to him, “go light the lamp.” Roberto tied the dog to a post and went to the stove. Taking a match, he lit the wick. Soon thick smoke began seeping inside the nearly empty bottle. The smoke looked like mountain fog in the early morning. Roberto turned to his mother. “Nanay, why does the smoke go inside the bottle?”
“It passes through the wick,” she answered as she started setting the table.
“But smoke always goes up. This one does not. See? The bottle’s full of smoke now.”
“That’s because there is no more kerosene. And the smoke cannot get out although it wants to because of the wick stopping it at the mouth.”
“Stop asking foolish question, Berto, and get ready to eat,” his father interrupted as he sat down at the table. “I’m hungry.”
The water in the river was very cold. Roberto did not want to go to the river so early in the morning but his father had insisted that he give the dog a bath. Call him Dominante, his father told him. He’s a brave dog.
He pulled the rope to get the dog in the water but it had dug its forelegs into the sand, straining to break loose from the rope around its neck. “Dominante!” he shouted.
The dog only showed its fangs. Roberto picked up a bamboo stick lying nearby.
“Dominante!” He shouted again, raising the stick in a threatening gesture.
The dog lowered its head and stood up. Slowly, Roberto dragged Dominante toward the water. He went to where the river was deepest. The dog paddled its legs, trying desperately to keep its head above the water. The boy did not release the rope as Dominante was struggling to swim to the nearest bank. He wanted to keep the dog in the water as long as he could stand the cold, to test its endurance and ferocity; for had not his father said that Dominante was a brave dog? As it tried frantically not to drown, it made a whining sound. Was it afraid to die? He smiled. The dog was so helpless before him. In a few more minutes, strength would leave its body and Dominante would begin to sink, down to the bottom of the river.
Suddenly, he jerked the rope in his hand. A dark figure was approaching, following the path that led to the shallow well on the riverbank. He hastened toward land, pulling the dog along with him. Seeing a flat stone, he sat down and waited. His legs were trembling and it was not from the coldness of the water.
“Hoy, Berto, you are early this morning,” the man called as he set down the bamboo tube near the well.
He heaved a sign of relief. It was not his father.
“That’s a handsome dog you have there.” The man was taking off his shirt.
“Yes, yes, Mang Tasio. He’s a good dog. Tatay gave him to me.”
The words came out mechanically, as if they had been rehearsed in the boy’s mind for a long time. As he sat staring at the man who was about to plunge into the river, he unwound unconsciously the rope around his hand.
In one quick bound, the dog dashed forward, running up the slight slope, toward the path that led to the coconut trees. “Dominante!” Roberto raced after the dog, forgetting his clothes, which he had spread on the trunk of a dead tree.
He ran with the speed of the wind; but the dog was even faster. He nearly stumbled as he stubbed his toe on a jutting stone. Stopping for a moment to rub the aching toe with his hand, he realized he had left his clothes on the riverbank. He straightened up abruptly and headed back for the river.
Roberto climbed the bamboo stairs briskly, taking the steps two at a time. When he came to the kitchen, he saw his mother in one corner, tears streaming down her cheeks.
“What happened, Nanay?”
He shouldn’t have asked that question, he told himself. It would be his father again, he was sure. He was the only one who made his mother cry. But then, talking to her seemed the right thing to do at the moment. He wanted to ask her where Dominante was. He didn’t.
When she did not answer or move from where she was standing, he made a motion to leave. His eyes fell momentarily on the floor. He stopped. There were dark splotches all over the once shiny floor.
He left the kitchen instantly. “Dominante… ‘Toy, ‘toy,” he called at the top of his voice, proceeding at once to their sleeping room.
There, on top of a heap of dirty clothes and rags, lay Dominante, his body covered with brown earth. The dog saw him, but did not move. Roberto took the rope in his hand and yanked the dog from out of the soggy mass of clothing. He jerked the rope so violently that Dominante howled in pain. His mother turned to him when he stepped into the kitchen. She did not speak, but her tear-stained eyes seemed to say: Now you know why I’m crying. That dog adds to the misery of this house. Is it not enough that your father beats me when he comes home drunk?
He left her then, pulling Dominante after him. Once outside the house, he led the dog to where the guava trees grew thick and abundant. After tying the end of the rope to a sturdy trunk, he reached out for a branch and plucked the leaves off. He brought it down suddenly against his leg. There was a burning sensation where the branch landed and red welt showed across his bare leg. Roberto slowly approached Dominante, gripping the stick firmly in his hand. He towered over the dog with one thought in his mind—the dog had to be punished. He raised the stick to strike but it was suspended in mid-air as if a hand reached out and held it back. The thought of his father coming home drunk in the evening flashed in his mind. His father would see the wounds on the dog’s body and eventually he would find out. From him. But he knew that his father would not take it out on him. It was his mother who would suffer. Always.
Slowly dropping the stick to his side, he turned his eyes away from the dog. His vision swept the nearby cornfields and rested on the mountains that loomed dark and huge in the west. Grey clouds hung low on the mountaintops. The fog had not yet lifted and he remembered the thick white smoke in the bottle, whirling as if it wanted to come out.
He glanced down at the dog again. He could not take it back to the house now. His mother would know that it had not been punished. What would she think on him? He did not know. But his father—he was ruthless and brutal; his mother—she would understand.
Roberto strode back to the house, leaving the dog tied to the tree. Once, he heard Dominante let out a low howl. He did not look back. When he entered the house, his mother was still in the kitchen. She was on her hands and knees, vigorously wiping the floor with the sack, which they used for wiping their feet. She looked up when he came to the door. He avoided her eyes and walked over to where the corn feed was.
He was feeding the chickens when he heard somebody approach from behind. It was Kario, Mang Tasio’s eldest son. “Berto, Tatay told me that you have a very beautiful dog. May I see him?” the boy asked when he came to his side.
“He is not here,” he answered curtly. He continued scattering the grains on the ground.
“Where is he?”
Roberto kicked the big red rooster that was trying to scare all the other chickens away. It scurried away in pain.
“Is he in the house, ha, Berto?” asked Kario, tugging at his arm. “Tatay said he is a beautiful dog.”
Roberto left Kario standing there among the chickens pecking at the corn grains on the ground.
The dried fish soaked in vinegar and pepper lay untouched before him. He did not want to come to the table but he had to eat his breakfast for the day. “Where is the dog?” his mother asked across the table.
“I left him there, Nanay,” he answered without looking at her.
“Among the guava trees.”
There was a silence after that. Silence that was broken only by the sound of metal against plate. Then: “Did you kill him?”
“No, Nanay, no.” The answer was spontaneous.
“What did you do with him then?”
He sat stiffly on the stool without answering the question. Somehow he wanted to say that he could not beat the dog, that this would only serve to provoke his father into beating her—for he was cruel and merciless and would make her pay for the beating, blow for blow, but instead he said: “I beat him, Nanay.” He felt a surge of warmth spread all over his face. He had lied.
Pushing back the stool with his legs, he stood up and left the table. He could not face the guilt showing on his face.
Mamerto came home very late that evening. He made a great deal of noise as he bumped against the bamboo stools lined up near the door. “Gaddem this house!” He staggered toward the kitchen, his hands groping for support in the dark. Someone stirred in the other room. Soon, a dark figure approached Mamerto. “Where is my supper, salbahis?”
“I will light the lamp, Merto,” his wife said softly as she walked over to the stove. Soon the improved wick of the bottle of kerosene was burning brightly. The man went to the table and sat down on the bench. He buried his face in his hands, his fingers kneading the bulging veins on his forehead. He muttered unintelligible words as he sat there—and once or twice, a curse escaped his lips.
The woman set the food before him, then took a seat across the table. He looked at the plate of rice and fish. Lifting the spoon wearily, he began poking at the dried fish.
“That bulanting. Ha! Running with just a scratch on the wing. Coward! And I bet all my money on it,” he spoke to himself. He raised his eyes to his wife. “You! Why are you smiling? Are you happy I lost all my money? Ha?”
“Merto, I’m…not smiling,” she stammered.
He stood up instantly and pushed the table against her violently. The bottle of kerosene toppled over, rolling on the bamboo floor. “Gaddem! You are useless!” he shouted.
“Merto, please. The neighbors,” she pleaded in the darkness.
“Ha, now you’re afraid of the neighbors! Gaddem the neighbors!” He strode toward her and she ran to escape him but he followed her until she stood against a bamboo wall.
“Please, Merto, please,” she begged. But the man did not hear her at all.
A fist shot out and landed on the woman’s cheek. She staggered. The fist struck her stomach and she sagged to the floor, crying in pain. His foot hit her breast with a dull thud. The leather belt glided away from the trousers.
Inside the room, Roberto lied wide awake. He heard the sound of a body collapsing to the floor and the scream that accompanied it. Taking the pillow in his hand, he coiled it tightly around his head, trying to drown the screams that echoed and reechoed in his head. The sounds became distant now, but the room was beginning to warm. His breath was hot and moist and soon he was breathing hard and sweating profusely—sweat that was like water in the early morning. It seeped through his clothes and dampened the buri mat.
Hours passed, it seemed to him, since he heard the body fall. There were no screams now, no cries. Just silence. A kind of silence that seemed to make the roof of the house close in on him. And in the darkness he closed his eyes every time he felt the roof was descending, waiting for it to come crashing down. It did not. But the silence remained.
Something brushed against his legs and he curled them up instinctively. He sensed that somebody was beside him on the mat, and releasing the pillow that covered his head, he sat up abruptly. A dark figure lay huddled on the mat. “Nay,” he called out softly, stretching out his hand to touch her. She was sobbing and he could feel the faint trembling of her body. Taking the sheet that laid at his feet, he gently spread it over her.
When Roberto awoke the next morning, dawn was already breaking. He bundled the mat and pillow, then walked out of the room. His mother stood beside the stove, bending low to blow air through the tayhopan into the fire. She straightened up when she saw him. He stared. Her right cheek was swollen and bluish, and on her forehead there was a lump that was shiny and red. The feeling came back again. He was about to say something when his mother spoke: “Berto, the dog ate the fish for breakfast.” He did not move from where he was. The lamp bottle lay overturned in the sink. Then with one quick movement, he dashed out of the kitchen.
Roberto climbed the bamboo stairs slowly. He proceeded to the table where his father and mother were eating.
“What’s the matter, Berto? Are you ill?” his father asked when he saw that the boy was not touching the food.
He shook his head in answer.
“Hmmm,” Mamerto cleared his throat. “Don’t we have any other food, Soling?”
“There was fish,” she answered, “but the dog ate it.”
“Dominante?” He looked around him. “Where is that dog?”
The woman and the boy did not speak.
“Berto, where is Dominante?” There was anger in Merto’s voice.
Roberto slowly raised his eyes to him. Their glances met—and held each other for a moment—then, he softly said, just loud enough for him to hear: “I killed him.”
Jose Villahermosa Montebon Jr. was a lawyer, public servant, and writer. As a college student in Silliman University in the late 1940s, he worked as a student assistant to help pay for his tuition, but also contributed to the artistic culture that was being shaped on campus. He started writing in 1949. His column for the Sillimanian Magazine, “Point of View,” which he co-wrote with Kenneth Woods under the pseudonymous by-line of Alphonse and Gaston, compiled their passionate literary criticism, taking note for the most part the literary works being produced by Silliman writers which were being published either locally or in national and international publications such as Philippines Free Press, This Week [the Sunday magazine of the Manila Chronicle], Graphic Report, Saturday Magazine of the Philippines, Evening News Saturday Magazine, Philippine Review, Sunday Times Magazine, and Weekly Women’s Magazine, as well as Poetry Magazine in Chicago. In 1954, he won the second prize of the prestigious Philippines Free Press short story contest with his piece “Bottle Full of Smoke,” which proved such a popular story it was eventually translated to Russian. Soon after graduation from Silliman, he turned to the practice of law, and later on, politics. He was elected as Dumaguete City Councilor, and then became the OIC of Dumaguete City, and then its Vice-Mayor, in 1986-1987. His short stories are belated collected in Cupful of Anger, Bottle Full of Smoke, published in 2017.
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