Thursday, 11 October 2012

A MINI-SHORT STORY: Birds of my youth

Left: The "Ibong Simbahan" (Brown Shrike) which is very common in the province makes belfries, church ceilings and trees around churches its favorite home. Right: The Plain Throated-Sunbird is commonly known in the writer's home province as "pitsiw" because of the high-pitch, shrill sound it makes. But to the local folks, any bird of similar look with its shrill tweet is called "pitsiw". - Photo courtesy of Delia-and-Chuck bird album


IN MY YOUTH, I was a heartless bird hunter. 

My usual victims were the tiny "Ibong Simbahan" (church birds) that made belfries, church ceilings and tall acacia trees around the churchyard their permanent homes. 

And for my crime, my mother hanged me a number of times from the kitchen beams of our nipa-roofed house while I wiggled my small crumpled body inside a huge jute-sack that was used to pack newly-baked copra meat. 

While the sack dangled and shook from the rope that held it, I wept my muffled cry, undecided whether I should repent for my deeds or move on with my life the next day - hunting birds. 

It was mother's way of getting back at me for my cruelty to the poor creatures, in the hope that I would remember it the next day when I saw again another helpless bird perched on the clothesline, casting me back to bird crime. 

Regardless, the episodic hanging did not work. 

As a child I easily recovered the trauma of being confined inside a sack as it dangled from the beam over our small dining table. 

Seeing that tiny "Ibong Simbahan" as it recoiled in pain with its feathers exploding in mid-air was the thing that fired my juvenile psyche. 

Child brutality such as the usual dose of punishment mother inflicted on me was not addressed by lawmaker then, in 1956, that captured moment when I was a stubborn six-year old and the Philippines was more interested in getting back on its feet after being brutalized in the recent war, lesser concerned with family law to be able to think about protecting children from their parents. 

My mother used to admonish me: "You better stop it … or else … what can you get from that tiny bird? That was nothing, if it was the meat you were after! We can butcher your pet "tandang" (rooster) so you can have "adobong manok" (stewed chicken) tonight." 

The real issue remained that I was not after the meat at all; I wanted to show off to my friends in the neighborhood - also hunters like me - that my birdie memorial park under our stilt-house was expanding. 

In my last count of the tiny crosses that marked each grave, there were 17, excluding those that I failed to recover because they landed on rooftops and those that were blasted away towards our neighbors' fenced property. 

Overtime, mother got tired of hooking up the sack on the beams with me inside. The effort of lifting me up was telling. 

Overtime, she gave up on my pigheadedness and I went on with my exciting life chasing away those "Ibong Simbahan" around the neighborhood. 

I STILL REMEMBER the first kill ever that I made.
We lived in a barrio called Parang, in the fishing town of Mambulao, Camarines Norte that sat next to a mangrove we called "pakatan" whose brackish water was being fed by the Mambulao Bay. 

At high tide, the swamp water teemed with various types of crabs, shrimp and fish, while the mangrove trees were home to several types of birds - from tiny ones like "maya" (rice bird) or "pitsiw", that bird that gave off excited high-pitch and shrill sounds, to the bigger ones that made squeaky noises like kingfishers, or wild doves cooing. 

The swamp was our - meaning my friends and me - favorite playground on weekends. 

Despite the stinking mud that sucked us up to our thighs, we never failed to come back to this place because, for all we knew, this was our hunting grounds and birds were plentiful. 

I was the youngest in the group of my neighborhood friends. 

I was just starting to use slingshot as my newest toy. 

Until my father made me my first slingshot from two pieces of black rubber strips cut out from an interior of a vehicle tire and a 'Y' from a guava tree branch, I was confined to just playing with my toy car fashioned out of four small empty milk cans and a large sardine can. 

The slingshot was the coolest toy father ever gave me and with that, I started practicing, and in no time at all, I had honed my skills by firing small round stones into a row of empty milk cans perched atop our neighbor's wooded fence. 

When I told my peers I was ready to join them in their next hunting safari, confident that I could now shoot straight with a 70 to 100 per cent accuracy, they agreed in unison. 

Secondly, they needed somebody to carry a bag heavily loaded with small rounded stone ammunition, which they gathered from the dusty mining road that passed in front of our barrio. 

Inside the mangrove, we huddled as I distributed a good deal of ammo to each of my hunting mates. We were five in the group. Having done that, we broke off, each man going to their favorite spot deep in the mangrove. 

Being a neophyte, I was left alone in a pool of muddy water that girdled me up to my thighs. I didn't really know what to do, or where to go. 

Meanwhile, the birds were happily chirping among a thick canopy of wild branches and leaves protected by a wide spread of spider webs with the king spider jealously nesting right in the middle, ready to spring at any intruder. 

It was my first trip to this part of my youthful world and the sight of lush vegetation that lorded over the whole place was just overwhelming. 

It occurred to me that the birds were unmindful of my presence as they fluttered among the blooms of flowers and berries dangling from the branches about three feet above my head. 

Suddenly, I recovered from the spectacle, remembering that I was there not to be impressed by the awesome nature, but to find out if I could really shoot straight and hit a bulls-eye. 

The stress overwhelmed me as I stretched out, eyeing one particular bird - a "pitsiw" with all the glory of sun on its shiny yellow, blue and brownish feathers bouncing off the 3 o'clock sunlight. 

This time, it was just four feet above me fluttering its wings at what seemed a million flutters per second. 

It was pecking with its long, tiny, pointed beak on reddish berries, which I surmised to be very sweet.

"Here he is," I told my self, trying to calm my nerves. 

I raised my left hand that held the sling and aligned it with my target, then slowly pulled back with my right hand until it was fully taut and touching my right shoulder. 

Holding my breath and confident that my quarry was on my imaginary cross-hairs, I fired. 


The bird was nowhere! Did I hit him? I blinked my eyes, disbelieving that I missed from that distance. 

With my head feeling light, I felt I was going to explode with tension, while the hair at the back of my neck stood and I felt it as a pulling sensation. 

I struggled across the mud that swallowed me up to my knees to see the other side of the island that hosted the thick bush where the bird was feeding just seconds before. 

I searched and searched around the dirty water that flooded that side of the bush, closely eyeballing the dimmed muddy surface around the island as it was darkened by the leaves blocking sunlight. 

I was almost ready to give up.

Then I saw it. 

Its two-inch long body was lying on its back in the mud with the yellow feathers in the chest well intact. It was on that spot where I aimed my stone, yet it seemed the plumage in its chest remained untouched. 

Suddenly, my hands started to shake. 

It might have been from extreme excitement of making my first kill, or the contrast of sheer guilt over the harm that I just inflicted on a helpless creature. 

With my right hand still trembling violently, I plucked my first trophy from the mud and raising it towards the light, I realized it was headless! 

As my thumb fondled the wound that was still oozing blood, I wondered where the head might had been. 

Listening for the sounds of my buddies and wondering where they were at that moment, I decided to take a break. 

I dropped my trophy into the left breast pocket of my shirt and climbed back to the dry ground of the mangrove to wait for my buddies. 

That moment, I suddenly lost my mood to pursue another bird. My hands were still shaking. 

MY HUNTING days went on till I reached Grade 6, during which I became more expert with my slingshot and aggressive in the pursuit of my helpless quarry, until one day, I met Fidel who was of my age. 

He was a son of a Negrito (Aeta) family that used to work at my father's hillside coconut plantation in Bicol, in the Philippines. 

Since he loved hunting not only birds, decidedly wild animals as well, we became close friends and commenced hunting together with our slingshots whenever father let me tag along to the farm to see the crops. 

One grand summer, our family went to the farm for a brief vacation and Fidel's clan was working on the newly-burned "kaingin" (slash-and-burn farm) that father wanted to plant with coconuts. 

He brought me great news: He said he had discovered a place up in the mountain, a two-hour climb from my father's plantation, where there were millions of birds for the taking. 

Seeing a picture of a million birds fluffing inside my head, I was overwhelmed by excitement. We quickly we decided that we could set off at 7am the next day. 

With my shoulder bag heavy with our pack lunch and snacks, bolstered with a canister of drinking water, Fidel and I started the arduous climb towards his "bird paradise", unmindful of the sharp-edged grasses and spiny bushes that cut into our skin as we waged through the deep jungle.
When we stopped, we were standing on a spot where I could see a panorama of coconut farms spanning the space between the left and the right corners of my eyes and fading into the aqua-blue horizon. 

Towards the western edge of the skyline, I could see the silhouette of my hometown Jose Panganiban some 15km away, accenting a trace of ribbon-thin light-blue asphalt highway that snaked across the newly-reaped rice fields. 

"This is it," Fidel said in whisper, as he thrust his lips outwards, towards a darkened spot under a canopy of heavy foliage, from which countless bunches of tiny blue-black berries hung suspended. 

I regarded the spot with keen interest: a carved out rock water basin between the boulders, about three feet wide and five inches deep. 

A thin stream of water from the bottom of a moss-covered boulder 10m high and sitting next to the rock basin was cascading in a rush of tumbling water. 

I asked Fidel about the birds, and he said "just hang on … it's still early." 

With that, we settled behind a bush just about six meters from the basin and ate our morning snacks of boiled sweet potatoes and cassava without talking. 

Meanwhile, the serenity was shattered by occasional rasping of cicadas, or the sudden squawk of a marauding airborne crow somewhere out of sight. 

Tension rose gradually as a thick beam of sunlight filtered through the foliage, falling onto the pool basin; flash silvery splattered white light momentarily blinded my eyes. 

I was getting restless. I nudged Fidel, indicating the upcoming action. 

Before he could respond, in a flash and out of nowhere, a sudden puff of wind shattered the silence around us as the feathered covey descended upon the pool and exploded into a sing-song of chatter, as ninety to one hundred tiny birds of rainbow colors rippled the water with an epic assaulting blur of their wings. 

Water sprayed wildly, exploding outward and upward as the birds plunged in, with some almost touching the bottom. 

While half of the flock frolicked in the pool exercising their rite of early morning bath, followed by another batch of some 20 birds of dark-blue and green plumage that were larger than the first group. 

They barged in from the air noisily on the other side of the canopy and landed on the edge of the basin. 

They were loudly chirping, cooing, reportedly squawking a symphony of maddened discordant competitive tunes, as if no-one species was in charge to conduct the chorus of music into melody.

Ten or fifteen of the bathers would wing up to snatch blueberries, then, with a sense of frolic, dive back into the water. 

A pair of tiny yellow and blue birds broke from the group and fluttered out of view, then, in a moment jetted back to the rim of the basin to make love. 

Their mating consummated, the lovers went back into the cool morning water and stayed there with the rest, dipping their tiny heads and shaking their feathers dry. 

More birds in batches homed in one after the other for the plunge and berries, and then vanished in thin air as quickly as they had made their unannounced coming. 

The dreamy scene was repeated for as if time stood still.
Behind the bush that camouflaged us, I was agape with wonder, as my two hands lamely held my loaded slingshot. 

Fidel's eyes were nailed on one of the bigger birds - a wild dove, while I imagined him drooling over its sweet, tender meat roasting over coal. 

He was aiming and raring to shoot. 

In a lowered voice, he urged me on: "Let's do it, Boboy." 

I pretended I didn't hear, leaving him to excitedly whisper again: "Let's get them now." My eyes were glued on the spectacle. 

I quickly whispered back: "It's all right Fidel. No need for that anymore. Let's just watch them." 

Disappointed, he stared at me in great disbelief as he leaned back against the rock next to him and started fumbling his hands inside the bag for the lunch pack. 

The hunt had been sacked: nature had won. The spectacle we had experienced had overruled our destructive plans.
OVER THE next few summers, Fidel and I went back to his "bird paradise" to marvel upon the magic of nature manifested time and again at the birds' pool. 

Throughout my growing-up years, I still carried my slingshot wherever I went, but this time I was shooting empty milk cans and mad dogs for targets. 

From that time forward, whenever I saw an "Ibong Simbahan" perched on power lines, or anywhere, I would aim my unloaded slingshot at it and tell myself, "I know I could get you, but what's the point". 

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