A Convict’s Twilight by: Arturo Belleza Rotor
Posted October 19, 2008on:
In the convict camps of Davao, the day is short. Twilight comes early, much earlier than it does elsewhere in the world. It seemed to me that way the first day I was there. I do not think that the feeling is due alone to the sense of solitude brought about by one’s being in the midst of thousands of hectares of virgin forest. For I have lived in other forests before. And these are not the tallest trees I have seen, nor the oldest, and I have already experience that terror overcomes one when he losses a trail. No, the end of the day here and the beginning of the night are brought about by more subtle forces than the movement of heavenly bodies, influences more mysterious than light or darkness, heat or cold, the shifting of vagrant winds. Perhaps it is not really the end of the day that comes so soon, but merely the feeling that it is ended. What matter is not the daily passage of the sun through an arc that ends somewhere in neither the west, nor the lengthening shadows, nor the reddish afterglow that tints the top of the tallest Lauan. It is more than that. It is a premonition more than an actual experience, a foretaste rather than a sensation, a thought, instinct with the sad beauty of every twilight that has passed before, that the hour signifies the end of the day’s work, the cessation of all the hurrying and stumbling during the day. A chance to sit down or lie among the cool hedges that grow near the spring, to bow your head or rest your bowed head on sleep and forgetting, and the expectations of the sensation is peaceful and resigned where the actual sensation itself is often restless and troubled.
This twilight comes when I see the convict emerge from the forest into the clearing. They look weary as they trudge single file to their barracks, backs bent not so much by the weight of the heavy spades, picks, baskets, that they carry as by the unseen burned that they have piled on their shoulders. They have just finished the day’s work of opening new farms or keeping those already open from being swallowed again by the wilderness. Some of the men are caked with mad up to their waists; they have spent the morning clearing the streams of fallen logs and boulders, deepening them so that the water will not stagnate and breed malaria-bearing mosquito. Others are covered with soot, their faces and arm cress-crossed with black lines in crazy patterns, as if they had been playing with charcoal and painted each other’s faces. But they looked tired and dirty, even their eyebrows are matted with black dust, their uniforms are in tatters; they have not been playing. They are the men who first entered a kaingin after it had burned out. The soot on their faces they got when they brushed against the charred and matted branches, as they worked in a cloud of ashes rooting out the smoldering stumps. For me, night begins when I see these men returning home, though it may be long before darkness comes and the air turns cold.
The forest, always silent, now assumes that calm is more breathless and awesome than silence. The breeze dies down, the leaves cease to rustle, the animals of the wood slink away to their lairs. One sees only an occasional crow. Its obstreperous caw-caw-caw echoing and re-echoing for miles around. No angelus rings here, for the nearest church is a day’s journey away, down the river and along the coast. But one does not need to hear the tolling of distant bells to be reminded of the hour for prayer. One must pray here, if only to relieve the terrifying solitude, to stay the gathering darkness. Here one must kneel down, make the sign of the cross, join the twilight host that like a solemn invocation rises above the heads of the tallest to heaven.
The darkness comes like a sluggish, ever deepening stream Imperceptibly it crawls, inch by inch, and as it crawls, it swallows everything that stands in its way, first the towering trees, from their buttressed roots to the highest quivering leaf, then the shrubs and the undergrowth. One knows that it has reached a certain point by sound and movement cease, the creaking of the stiff branches, the scampering of the small animals under the trees, even the wind as it hurries through the lattice of leaves and vines seems arrested in its flight. Over the deep holes left by decaying logs, the deep puddle made by the wild boar, this stream swirls, eddies, and forms little unplumbed pools. Arriving at the edge of the woods and at the beginning of the cleared area of corn and bananas, its progress is faster, because here there are no trees and vines to obstruct its way. Here it broadens cut without shallow, and finally inundates the whole valley.
Once, while gravely ill, I lost consciousness and, since then, light leaving the world has always reminded me of consciousness leaving a sick body. I do not recall any struggling to retain it, the outward flow was so smooth, so placid, so gradual. I desired to prolong it, not because I wanted to retain a clear perception of objective, but because, losing it, I knew that I would also loss an ineffable peace. I wanted to keep indefinitely that twilight interval between awareness and insensibility. Twilight here in the convict’s camps is like that. It is different from any other twilight. For the sake of the convict, it comes early so that he may work early. It stays so that after his toiling he does not have to go to sleep right away; it delays the coming of night and the command to sleep. For it is the only hour that the convict has for playing. All morning he works in the fields and the shops, and at night he sleeps like a log with a hundred out hers in long barn-like quarters; but between these two states, between a fretful existence and a brief lethargy. He has this hour of crepuscule. It is the only hour he can really forget he is a convict. It is an hour of forgetfulness of the sin and its atonement; an hour to play at being free. During this short time he is like you and me; afterwards he is again the unfortunate, taciturn. Self-conscious and servile, the man who marches with heavy feet and a heavier heart.
As soon as the men are gathered, the roll is called, and the presence of everyone is checked. After they have dispersed to return the tools and implements to the tool house, they receive the evening ration. Then comes the hour for play. Their pleasures are simple, their games few. The indoor baseball team goes out to the field and spirited battle is played between two camps. Or it may be volleyball or foot race. Group became bigger or break up, the men wander from barrack to barrack, loiter by the water pump, join other groups nears the general store and exchange bits of news and opinions. Soon everybody is playing or watching others plays and enjoying the games as much as if were active participants, from the embezzler, who teaches his dog to retrieve a stick, to the murderer with his guitar who hurries to join the colony’s string band composed of men like him who are serving sentence of from twenty years of life imprisonment.
The air resounds with their cheers and laughter. These people could not have been happier if they were little children playing patintero in some remote barrio. Thieves, rustlers, smugglers, hardened recidivists, as well as bewildered, boyish killers, all take part in one big game. The game of forgetting, a game with no rules to be followed. Strenuous and difficult as any exhilarating and rough a game which only these men understand fully, a game in which all with except those who are too weak to play it or those who do not see it as a game, or those who have been tired of playing it, twilight after twilight, year in and year out.
Once the colony had a radio and is provided the most exciting game of all. In the midst of their chess or do mine, when a certain hour, some of the men would drop everything they held and rush to the place where the radio was; a room above the general store. And there first was too small to contain all of them, only those who get there first went up, the rest sat down on the benches and stools around the store. When I was new there, I did not understand what drew them like that. At first I thought it was the dance music they liked so much. Later on I learned that this was not the case. For one day when I joined the group below at that hour, the radio was playing a well-known dance piece, but nobody seemed to be listening, and they were making enough noise to drown the music
but when it stopped and a voice announced, “the English Information Period” all noise cease and the place became as silent as a church. Benches were move over so carefully, shuffling legs became still. The men talked to each other and only in whispers, and then only ask about some word they did not catch. I doubt if they understood what they heard, for the voice spoke of a battle in Africa, the political situation in Europe, a strike in America, the problems of the Commonwealth. I do not think knew English. But apparently that were hearing a strange voice telling them of strange happenings in far countries. Very easily one could make believe that he was seeing these events himself, taking an active part in them. That was the most exhilarating game of all, more satisfying than baseball or ping-pong, more than baseball or ping-pong it brought sweat readily and that delicious sense of tiredness which comes from hard putting all your heart into the game.
And then twilight ends, and the voice from, and all the games. Tomorrow is another day and another night and between the two another hour for play. But the men do not look forward to it. Only the new arrivals do that, with their calendars where each day that passes is carefully crossed out in colored pencil. Those who have been here five or ten years often smile at these fellows, knowing full well that after a few months they will not keep track of the days anymore, nor of the hours, nor whether it is morning or night or twilight.
I was surprised to see Cornelio at the hospital that morning. “Why, I thought you were in Iwahig” “I was transferred here sir,” he answered, “I arrived about a week ago.”
The man looked healthier and less reticent than when I had seen him last. I guessed at the reason. “Parole”
“Not yet, sir, but soon maybe.”
“And your wife?”
“She came with me, with my son. I have a son now sir, who was born in the Colony. They went to Tayabas to see my mother soon after we came here but I am expecting them this afternoon. I have been expecting them for the last three days. I shall tell her you are here sir.”
It was like seeing an old friend to see Cornelio here. The joy on his face when he saw me was unmistakable. He had never forgotten the time he pulled through a bad attack of black water fever and he thought that just because I had prescribed a few injections he owed his life to me. His wife thought so too. He wrote to her as soon as he was able to and when I got back to Manila she was waiting for me. She wept soon as she began to thank me, but I do not think it was so much for you that her husband was saved from death as for her helplessness to reward me, her realization that any reward would always be inadequate. Cynically I thought at the time, must we got to convicts to find honest acknowledgement of a debt. The men who are free, have they no such simple qualities as sincerity and gratefulness?
I know Cornelio well. I recall clearly the first time I saw him. It was here in Bilibid, in a cell, where he had been placed in solitary confinement. His quietness that was not resignation. There was no trace of sullenness in him, nor of that grim hiding of time that convicts who have been severely disciplined often show for weeks after their sentence. I had attempted to find out why he was there, what offense he had committed and although he answered me politely enough, soon I began to feel that I was despicable interloper praying officiously into his private affairs. It was something in his impeccably courteous manner. That in itself was surprising enough for here in Bilibid, every inmate seems only to glad to get anybody to listen to his life history. You ask a patient for his symptoms and he sill start with his childhood, his family troubles, his accomplishments, the story of the crime for which he was unjustly condemned. Later on if you are still listening, he will tell you where he buried the money before he was captured. Not so with Cornelio. He answers my questions and nothing more, and when I realized my mistake, I almost felt like apologizing to him.
A few years afterwards I found him in the convict camps of Davao when that Colony was just being carved out of a dark and matted wilderness. I saw him strip red to the waist, swinging an axe as expertly as if he had been used to the work all his life. I watched him as he scampered away with the others when the signal came that the great trees were toppling over. Except that he was tanned by the sun and scarred all over with scratches from rattan vines, he was unchanged. He was still the reserved, soft-spoken somewhat self assured prisoner. It seemed that he had quietly worked out his problem, found its solution and settling his eyes on the road ahead, had resolved that for no reason at all would be linger by the wayside. Somehow he did not seem to be a convict, he did not belong to the place, he was merely visiting these men and would leave shortly. If there was ever anybody who deserved to regain his freedom, it was Cornelio. He had expiated his crime fully, further incarceration served no useful purpose.
Seeing him that day brought Davao and Iwahig back to me. I talked with dozens of convicts and saw hundreds of them, morning and afternoon. Again the question came to me about which I had thought of hundred times before. Which made imprisonment more complete and absolute, the massive walls and iron gates of Bilibid, or the unfenced forest of Davao? Here in Manila freedom and liberty were just on the other side of the wall. In Davao, the nearest settled town was a day’s journey away. If I were a convict would I prefer to be in Manila where I could bear the rumble of a great city, where I could catch occasional glimpses of tall buildings, of the multitude hurrying by? Being so near life, feeling its strong pulsating rhythm, would my own pulse quicken? Would the day of my isolation pass sooner if an every hour of the day was made aware of the sounds that augment the sense of my isolation?
Probable not, probably I would prefer to be in Davao. There, tramping the field, following a river down stream and exploring its muddy banks for catfish, sitting down that flat stone near the spring one could better hold to the delusion that one is free. All you have to do to be free, to throw away chains and shackles, to discard a numbered uniform, so to discredit your sense. You will find many who are only too willing to help you in the face of contrary facts; your companions, the officials, will do all they can to make you feel that you are not really a convict. They will talk kindly to you and give wise and advice, food and clothes, take care of you when you are sick, and there in Davao, the place provides a fitting setting. There are no walls here except the impenetrable wall of forest, the only sentries you see are hoary trees, row upon row, unbending, unrelaxing in their vigilance, keeping a century old watch day and night. Here in Manila so near freedom and yet never any nearer, one can easily forget to laugh.
Going back to the hospital that afternoon, I noticed that the observation tower and platform was full of visitors. I thought there might be something new going on and so I ascended the ladder. This tower, reached by three flights, is built in the center of the compound. Up there an armed guard is posted day and night; he commands clear view of every corner of the yard. Around this tower a sort of sort a platform is built, which would server as a grandstand where visitors are sometimes allowed during parades, reviews or games.
Here, one gets a general view of the construction of the whole reservation. The general building are grouped along a large circle whose center is this tower. The outermost circumference is the wall, so high and forbidding from below, here looking like only a few a low fence. Inside this are the long stone-walled barrack all convening toward the center. Outside wall is another world, the aspect and extent of which those inside see only dimly, in memory or more vividly in imagination. Sometimes they hear various sounds that rise above the wall and are carried inside, but they do not seem to have any meaning. In some corners of the yard, one may hear more and see more an airplane passing by, an electric sign apparently suspended in mid-air, the spire of the nearest church pointed, towards the sky like a finger of exhortation.
I found the usual motley collection of Sunday visitors, mostly relatives of the prisoners came from neighboring towns for the monthly visit, a group of tourist in white duck or shorts, sun helmets askew, cameras slung over their shoulder. There was really nothing new. I had seen this routine review and callisthenic exercise innumerable times. First the prison bond came out, with a great blare of trumpets and roughly roll of drums. The prisoners then followed coming out of their where saluted, and on to their appointed places. There were a few exercises with dummy guns, and calisthenics and gymnastics, briskly and mechanically done. It was the weekly picture of order and obedience and discipline.
The drill was almost half through when, chancing to turn my head slightly, I espied a figure to my left and somewhat behind me. It was a woman, her back turned toward me, and towards the whole crowd. She alone faced that was, for the rest of us were looking the opposite direction where the exercises were going on. Half squat tin, half-kneeling, she held a baby clasped in her arms. She seemed strangely familiar. I looked more closely and recognized Cornelio’s wife.
She was dress in blacked, in the cheap fashion of the poor, a thin old shawl around her shoulders, the hem of her skirt frayed and grey with dust. I stepped forward to a have word with her, but stopped short when I saw how intent she was on something. I followed her graze, followed it to the prisoner’s barracks, saw it fixed on the one directly in front of us. I was somewhat perplexed for I knew the buildings were empty except for the trustees who stood, one to each building, just at the entrance. And then I saw that the men in front of that building, standing against the iron-barred door, was looking up at her. I could not at first make out his features, because the light was failing already, but before I finally did so, I knew it was, that it must be, Cornelio,; it could not have been any other person.
She must have been there from the beginning, the must have been looking at each other like that for that for the last hour. Although she was almost at the edge of the platform, about a hundred yards still lay between them; they were too far away to talk to each other, to even see each other’s eyes clearly. But by the way he looked down. I knew they had been speaking to each other all this time. She must have just arrived from Tayabas, too late to catch the visitor’s hour and meet her husband, but not too late to got a glimpse of him from here. From her cramped position she hardly moved, except when the baby became restless and then she patted his head and murmured something. Once in a while she held him up in her arm, for the father to see him or perhaps in an excess of naïve expectation that at this age and from this distance the baby would recognize his father. And in his place the man did not move, not even shift his weight from leg to leg.
Every now and then one of the spectators regarded her dubiously thinking it queer that this woman would be alone like that in one corner of the platform, not paying any attention to what was going on. But he did not see what she saw, Cornelio was too far away. And nobody came near and spoke to her. Perhaps if anyone had she would not have seen him, nor hear his voice.
Gradually I found myself looking at the two of them and like them forgetting all the others first at the man, then at the woman, wondering if after all they were not really talking audible to one another in a language not only beyond my sense of hearing, but also utterly beyond my pitiful comprehension. I strove hard to see her lips move, I desired intensely to see her even wave her hand at the figure opposite. If she had so much as whispered his name, I am sure I would have heard it above the din of that band, above the sound of marching feet.
But I could not make out anything and after a while the roll of the drums and the sound of men’s feet keeping time mechanically became less and less distinct. The silence recalled the forest, a great forest at twilight, the afterglow tinting the tallest trees a dull red, the animals slinking to their lairs, the wind being arrested in its flight as it passed through the lactase of leaves. The night falling was consciousness leaving a sick body, restlessness and strife and pain being replaced by a profound peace. I seemed to hear the sound of a distant bell tolling and that silhouette of the woman kneeling naturally brought the thought of angelus; the woman was praying, the silence itself was a prayer, the darkening world’s daily invocation at twilight.
It was somebody touching my shoulder and starting me unduly that made me look around. I saw a guard by my side and seeing him, I also saw that there were no more people here, that the review had ended and the visitors gone home. I nodded and the guard left me and approached the woman. She rose. Took the shawl from her shoulder and wrapped it around the baby, holding him close, laying him check against hers. As she stepped down the ladder she looked back once, but she did not wave her hand. Following a few paces behind her and picking my steps carefully because it was almost dark, I stopped for a moment and looked back also. But I saw nothing. Night had fallen.