THE water canon hits me like a crashing wave upon the rocks. It feels like one of Manny Pacquiao’s punches, multiplied tenfold. I am thrown metres from the picket line, grazing my elbows. My school uniform is blasted up to my neck and Sister Mary’s veil flies into the air like a paper plane, falling in a limp dishevelled heap to the ground.
The stale air is permeated by horrified shrieks. Mud flecks everybody’s skin and clothes indiscriminately and the world becomes a whole lot more brown. We become like a clump of reeds flattened by a typhoon. Eventually water stops streaming at us. Elders from the Baranganian tribe shiver, and rise slowly, looking frazzled as they come to terms with what has just hit them. My schoolmates from San Pedro Calungsod High School in Southern Philippines scuttle away to escape the possibility of more fire hosing, but I stay with Sister Mary, our principal. As the leader of Kabacan Altar Boys Club, I feel I am second in rank after her, representing our school at this rally.
I sweep my palm down my face so I can see better. Sister Mary and I move to the Acacia trees well away from the line of policemen with helmets, shields and batons. People follow us. Our broken placards, crumpled banners and torn signs are left behind like soaked trash.
‘Those police are cruel,’ Sister Mary mumbles, drying her face and dabbing her grazed elbow with a handkerchief. She looks different from what I am used to seeing her at school, as if she’s been stripped of her dignity as a person. I like Sister Mary as a teacher. She used to cheer on our basketball team last season, but I admire her more now, standing up for those who don’t have a voice in society. ‘I can’t believe they’re doing this to us, tormenting us and wrecking our land.’ She shakes her head, staring at the police who look like aliens in front of the dispersed Barangan tribe and locals in the town plaza.
‘Bastards!’ I shake my head.
Her lips curl before she lets out a series of decided nods that seem to have been hauled from her angry gut.
The protest leader yells, ‘Dili ninyo kami mapildi! You can’t beat us! Bad karma will storm down on you, money-hungry lot!’ His face bursts with rage. ‘Red Life Mining, you’ve brought us down. Red Death Mining, leave our town!’
The crowd holds hands and repeats after their leader in staccato: ‘Red Life Mining, you’ve brought us down. Red Death Mining, leave our town!’
Sister Mary looks around for the rest of her students. ‘Rex,’ she calls me, ‘where have they gone? I hope they haven’t been up to some mischief.’ She pinches the skin of her throat. ‘I knew I shouldn’t have brought you kids here.’
‘Sister, we’re not kids anymore and I like being here. Don’t worry, I’ll find them.’ I dash through the crowd and start searching for teenage boys wearing white polo shirts embroidered with the image of Saint Pedro Calungsod and school logo: Peace through Justice. I cannot see anyone from our group. I am lost in this ocean of noise and tempestuous rage. The protesters’ knees are shaking and their screams deafen me. We were a jeepneyful when we left Kabacan to travel here in Barangan early this morning.
I become frantic, scanning every inch of the centre of town: behind the stage, under the balut vendor shed, at the side of the toilet… Then, behind the banana trees at the base of the hill, I see a group of teenagers with no tops and no pants on, giggling and laughing. Their clothes are strewn on a tuft of Carabao grass nearby. I run towards them. ‘Are you guys, okay?’ They are just waiting for their clothes to dry. They’re giving me thumbs up, looking like those in the soft drink ad. Sister Mary thanks me for checking on them.
Mayor Salcedo’s stomach is about to pop out of his white polo shirt as he takes the stage to speak to the crowd. ‘Pasensiya na mga kababayan. Sorry, everyone. We didn’t intend to harm you, but the police saw someone throwing a banana on the stage and that triggered the use of the water cannons. We didn’t know what it was initially and what else may be thrown next at our officials. We want you to be able to rally, but in a peaceful manner. And we want to explain the benefits of mining here in Barangan.’
‘Boo!’ the crowd thunders, cupping their mouths.
‘You see, we now live in an industrialised world in need of metal,’ Mayor Salcedo continues. ‘We need mining. Metal is vital.’
‘What, at the expense of our lives?’ roars a man from the back. ‘We won’t vote for you again! You should be with us, not against us!’
Mr Smith, the Canadian CEO of Red Life Mining moves to the microphone. His sleeves are rolled up. ‘You will not need to swim in the river anymore. You do not need to bring your animals to drink in it anymore. We will build a massive pump for your town where you will get fresh and clean water.’ The sweat under his armpits has darkened his white shirt.
‘We can’t swim or fish in your pump water!’ yells an old man wearing a brown bandana.
‘What if your pump dries-up or stops working? Where are we and our livestock supposed to get water, then?’ screams another.
Mr Smith’s voice goes high-pitched. ‘The Barangan Water Pumping Station will operate at full capacity every day to supply water for the whole town, especially those who live near the river.’ He places his hands on his hips, pausing intermittently, disrupted by the heckling crowd. ‘The water will be treated and will be safe for everybody. You can bathe in it, even supply your farms with it! You can even cook your rice with it. It will be big. Five electricity generators. My company’s gift to your community!’
‘We don’t need your stupid pump!’ hoots a Baranganian lady. ‘We have the river given to us for free by Sandawa!’
The older women in indigenous skirts and blouses have beads of stones, feathers and tree bark hanging around their necks. One smiles at me with a crimson mouth from the betel nut she chews. Another lady next to her throws rolled green leaves with a nut and lime powder mixture into her mouth. I remember my grandmother making the mixture herself. She never used to swallow it, but she chewed and spat the red juice all day. Another kind of red stuff she used to make was the mixture from the atsuete seeds; she’d soak the seeds and used the water as food colouring for her chicken and potato stew, producing red gravy.
In the distance, I see the balding tip of Mt Hagok-Hagok. It looks wounded from the exposed patches of dynamite blasts. The rain water last week must have caused the river to weep and bleed. We, in Kabacan, a couple of towns away from here, had sudden deluge. The Apo River was swollen of murky water. The fertiliser father applied was wasted. Towns are easily affected. Everything seems connected.
I walk towards the boys, thinking I can get them to doing something significant along with the rest of Barangan town people who work their backside off against these Napoleons.
‘Hi Rex!’ Estella, Mayor Salcedo’s daughter, smiles at me as she walks out from behind the banana trees, holding some bark sheaths. I didn’t expect her to be around. She looks hot with her long hair and white dress above her knees. Like she’s just resurrected from Satis House. Ernesto is so lucky – but not to have the mayor as future father-in-law. ‘Would you care to join us?’ she says.
‘Why are you here?’ I reply.
‘Ernesto sent me a text, Papa is here, so I caught the next jeepney.’
‘Estella, this is their land. Their ancestors are buried here. Every inch of this mountain means life for them, and for us, too. We should support, not stop them.’
‘Rex, calm down. I’m with you, guys.’
I scoff. ‘What are you holding, then?’
From the moment she explains it to me and I tell her what else we can do with the banana sheaths, I feel a shiver up my spine. As if the tribal god Sandawa has empowered our minds for what we are about to embark on. Estella and I share our idea with the boys and they love it. They give each other high fives. Like ants, they swarm to get the other materials we need.
Arnel, Marlon and Ronald come back with more banana stems. The boys peel sheaths from them and continue plaiting, making longer and thicker ropes.
Ryan and Xander drop some green coconuts in our midst. They nod their heads as they tell us about the old lady who let them harvest coconuts and lent a knife and a bowl. ‘She hasn’t got much in life but she is trusting and generous,’ says Ryan. Some people are simply happy and generous, even though they haven’t got much.
Brix and Steven come back with some atsuete pods. Ely and I scour the atsuete seeds from the pods with our fingers and mix them with coconut water in the bowl. We rub the seeds with our fingers and palms to squeeze the red colour from them. We laugh at our crimson-coloured hands.
Mr Smith keeps rumbling on. ‘Bear in mind that these bridges and children’s playgrounds we will build for you cost us millions, but we’re happy to give them to you free because we care about you.”
‘No, we don’t need them!’ The crowd chants. The cacophony seems to take-over the loud speakers, but the men on stage look unperturbed. Police at the front stand tall and firm.
‘We don’t need your salvation. Spare us from your destruction!’ everyone chants again.
Brix stirs our red mixture with a crushed green twig before using it as a paintbrush to write bold texts on our chests and backs. He scribbles Mt Hagok-Hagok on my chest and back, Our Apo River on Xander’s, Our Copper, Our Gold, Our Farmlands, Our People, on others. He also paints vertical lines down our lips.
We put the rope we have woven around our necks and Estella knots them together with a longer rope which she will pull when we do the act. Estella reminds us to march to the front of the stage first with sullen faces, then, to crawl low on the ground when she signals.
Estella heaves a deep breath. ‘It’s time!’ She smiles and her eyes light up.
I feel nervous. If my parents find out I participated in the protest, they’ll go nuts. They warned me about Father’s brother Uncle Romeo who works as a security guard at the open pit site. He’ll lose his job if I’m seen protesting. I’ll be grounded: no more games, no more internet, no more pocket money and no more hanging out with friends. The punishment always comes in fours. Mother says the number has a bad omen.
Ely and Ryan run to the crowd and whisper to them to sing Kapaligiran—the love-your-environment song.
Mr Smith stops speaking as we pace slowly to the front of the stage. We remain serious. A slight microphone feedback bleats through the speakers but it is overpowered by the crowd’s a capella version of the song. The police aim the water canon at us but Mayor Salcedo flies in front of them, throws his hands in the air, and tells them not to even think about it because the girl at the front pulling the rope that drags the necks of the bunch of idiots with skin writings, is his beloved daughter.
Half the police are mesmerised by Estella’s beauty. Her white dress shimmers in the sun while we, in comparison, look scummy. Estella walks slowly in time with the tune and looks down at us with a sad face. Sometimes she pulls the rope tightly, chafing our skin. I have to hold the rope away to stop it from choking me.
Then she places her palm, facing down, just above her chest. We duck down and crawl like crabs. My grazed elbows hurt but I try to ignore it. We get to the middle of the space and we freeze. Estella steps to us and kicks us. Everyone is quiet, staring at us. This is the still image we want to project.
Estella runs to the stage and up to Mr Smith. She hugs him and reaches to kiss him.
He lowers his face and squirms.
Estella vomits a goo of red liquid from her mouth. It rolls down the Canadian’s chest and stomach, staining his white shirt. He looks like a vampire that has just sucked a victim dry.
Mayor Salcedo grimaces and pulls Estella away. ‘What are you doing here?’ His brows draw together in a frown.
‘Papa,’ she grins like Dracula. ‘I am putting the blood back where it belongs!’
‘Go to my car immediately, you stupid girl!’ He points in the direction of their Pajero. ‘I will have a word with you when we get home! You don’t know how much trouble you’re in right now, young lady!’ He turns to Mr Smith and asks him if he is okay.
Estella doesn’t heed her father’s words. She runs back from the stage and stands near us.
Suddenly the tribe’s faglong and tananggong musical instruments pierce the air, reverberating off the hills. When the song is over, the Baranganian tribe’s men, women and children walk to the front and start their own tune. They dance. They kick their legs backwards and wave their hands above their heads as they tilt to the side. The rest of the people clap.
We remain still, lying in the mud. I breathe in between my underarm and my chest, filling my lungs with the muddy smell. I have never felt this close to the earth. I hear the thudding of people’s feet; muddy water splatters onto my cheek and drips down onto my lips. I watch Sister Mary smudging her white habit with mud. Her veil is still nowhere to be seen. She lies at the end of our line, lays her cheek on the ground and closes her eyes. I close my eyes, too, and try to feel the closeness people have to the earth.
Eventually bystanders pull us up and we slowly stand and join the dancing crowd. The police stand agape in front of us as Mr Smith leaves the stage, shaking his head. With red teeth and mouths, the old Baranganian ladies grin to each other, dancing, bending, waving, turning and yodelling. An eagle flies above us. The crowd looks up and waves.
Erwin Cabucos is a Filipino-Australian writer and teacher residing in Algester, Australia.