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The Happiest Boy in the World

2006-07-13 23:50

  One warm July night Julio was writing a letter to-of all people-his landlord, Ka Ponso. It was about his son Jose who wanted to go to school in Mansalay, the town where Ka Ponso lived.

  They had moved here to the island of Mindoro about a year ago because Julio had been unable to find any land of his own to farm. As it was, he thought himself lucky when Ka Ponso agreed to take him on as a tenant.

  “Dear Compadre,” he started writing. A while before, his wife had given birth to a baby. Ka Ponso had happened to be in the neighborhood and offered to be the baby's godfather. After that they had begun to call each other compadre. Julio was writing in Tagalog, bending earnestly over a piece of paper torn out of his son's school notebook.

  It was many months since he had had a writing implement in his hand. That was when he had gone to the municipal office in Mansalay to file a homestead application. Then he had used a pen and, to his surprise, had been able to fill in the blank form neatly. Nothing had come of the application, although Ka Ponso had assured him he had looked into the matter and talked with the officials concerned. Now, using a pencil instead of a pen, Julio was sure he could make his latter legible enough for Ka Ponso.

  “It's about my boy Jose,” he wrote. “He's in the sixth grade now.” He didn't add that Jose had had to miss a year of school since coming here to Mindoro. “Since he's quite a poor hand at looking after your carabaos, I thought it would be best that he go to school in the town.”

  He leaned back against the wall. He was sitting on the floor writing one end of the long wooden bench that was the sole piece of furniture in their one-room house. The bench was in one corner. Across from it stood the stove. To his right, his wife and the baby girl lay under a hemp mosquito net. Jose too was here, sprawled beside a sack of un-husked rice by the doorway. He had been out all afternoon looking for one of Ka Ponso's carabaos that had strayed away to the newly planted rice clearings along the other side of the river. Now Jose was snoring lightly, like the tired youth he was. He was twelve years old.

  The yellow flame of the kerosene lamp flickered ceaselessly. The dank smell of food, mainly fish broth, that had been spilled from many a bowl and dried on the bench now seemed to rise from the very texture of the wood itself. The stark fact of their poverty, if Julio's nature had been sensitive to it, might have struck him a hard and sudden blow; but as it was, he just looked about the room, even as the smell assailed his nostrils, and stared a moment at the mosquito net and then at Jose as he lay there by the door. Then he went on with his letter.

  “This boy Jose, compadre,” he wrote, “is quite an industrious lad. If only you can make him do anything you wish, any work. He can cook rice, and I'm sure he'd do well washing dishes.”

  Julio recalled his last visit to Ka Ponso's place about three months ago, during the fiesta. It was a big house with many servants. The floors were so polished you could almost see your own image under your feet as you walked, and there was always a servant who followed you about with a rag to wipe away the smudges of dirt that your feet left on the floor.

  “I hope you will not think of this as a great bother,” Julio continued, trying his best to phrase his thoughts. He had a vague fear that Ka Ponso might not regard his letter favorably. But he wrote on, slowly and steadily, stopping only from time to time to regard what he had written. “We shall repay you for whatever you can do for us, compadre. It's true that we already owe you for many things, but my wife and I will do all we can indeed to repay you.”

  Rereading the last sentence and realizing that he had mentioned his wife, Julio recalled that during the first month after their arrival here they had received five large measures of rice from Ka Ponso. Later he had been told that at harvest time he would have to pay back twice that amount. Perhaps this was usury, but it was strictly in keeping with the custom in those parts, and Julio was not the sort to complain. Besides, he never thought of Ka Ponso as anything other than his spiritual compadre, as they say, his true friend.

  Suddenly he began wondering how Jose would act in Ka Ponso's house, unaccustomed as he was to so many things there. The boy might even stumble over a chair and break some dishes. . . . On and on went his thoughts, worrying about the boy.

  “And I wish you would treat Jose as you would your own son, compadre. You may beat him if he does something wrong. Indeed, I want him to look up to you as a second father.”

  Julio felt that he had nothing more to say, that he had written the longest letter in all his life. For a moment the fingers of his right hand felt numb, and this was a funny thing, he thought, since he had scarcely filled the page. He leaned back again and smiled to himself.

  Well, he had completed the letter. He had feared he would never be able to write it. But now he was done, and, it seemed, the letter read well. The next day he must send Jose off with it.

  About six o'clock the following morning, a boy of twelve was riding a carabao along the riverbed road to town. He made a very puny load on the carabao's broad back. Walking close behind the carabao, the father accompanied him as far as the bend of the riverbed. When the beast hesitated to cross the small rivulet that cut the road as it passed a clump of bamboo, the man picked up a stick and prodded the animal. Then he handed the stick to the boy, as one might give a precious gift.

  The father didn't cross the stream, but only stood there on the bank. “Mind that you take care of the letter,” he called out from where he stood. “Do you have it there in your shirt pocket?”

  The boy fumbled in his pocket. When he had found the letter, he called: “No, Tatay, I won't lose it.”

  “And take good care of the carabao,” Julio added. “I'll come to town myself in a day or two to get it back. I just want to finish the planting first.”

  Then Julio started walking back home, thinking of the work that awaited him in his cleaning that day. But he remembered something more to tell his son. Stopping, he called out to him again. “And that letter,” he shouted. “Be sure and give it to Ka Ponso as soon as you reach town. Then be good and do everything he asks you to do. Remember-everything.”

  From atop the carabao, Jose yelled back: “Yes, Tatay, yes,” and rode on. Fastened to his saddle were a small bundle of clothes and a little package of rice. The latter was food for his first week in town. It was customary for schoolboys from the barrio or farm to provides themselves in this simple manner. In Jose's case, even if he was going to live at Ka Ponso's, Julio did not want it to be said that he had forgotten this little matter of the first week's food.

  Now the boy was out of his father's sight, concealed by a stand of tall hemp plants, their green leaves glimmering in the morning sun. Thinking of his father, Jose grew suddenly curious about the letter in his shirt pocket. He stopped his carabao under a shady tree by the roadside. A bird sang in a bush close by, and Jose could hear it as he read the letter.

  Jumping from word to word, he found it difficult to understand his father's dialect now that he saw it in writing. But as the meaning of each sentence became clear to him, he experienced a curious exultation. It was as though he was the happiest boy in the world and that bird was singing expressly for him. He also heard the tinkling of the stream far away. There he and his father had parted. The world seemed full of bird song and music from the stream.

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