by Karl Shaddox
1945, Ilocos Sur, Philippines
Not until he was past the Deluxe did Teo notice the absolute quiet of the garden. This was strange because the teahouse never closed during the day, any day. He stopped and the dray, loaded with the stone blank, bumped his backside, pushing him a step further. He got out of his yoke to peek over the fence. Cups of tea steamed on their saucers, cigarettes burned in their trays, newspaper edges flapped in the breeze, but the chairs were empty. Stepping along the perimeter he followed low, unintelligible wisps of voices in the air to the edge of the hill. Their backs to him in a closed phalanx, the patrons stood pointing towards the low horizon. Following the imperative of their fingertips, Teo turned to see in the distance tall, gossamer spirals of smoke rising like dried weed stalks here and there in the town.
For a long, hypnotic moment he looked with them in wonder at the spectacle. Fires were not infrequent in Quirino. Every week there were one or two cooking gas fires, but it was strange to see several at once. His eyes returned to the patrons. Some strode back toward the tables, hands clasped behind in consternation; others remained, transfixed by the sight. Teo returned to the dray, took a sip of tea from his jug and put a sugar cube in his mouth. He did not have time to gawk and speculate further about the smoke. If he were to deliver the blank to the warehouse before sundown as agreed, he had to be on his way. He checked the chocks securing the stone and leaned into the yoke.
The Deluxe teahouse sat at the top of a long, low hill draymen in the area called “Old Gatekeeper” for the reason that if a man could pull a loaded dray to the top, he could be a drayman. When he could no longer, he had to quit. As with getting the dray up the hill, managing it down the other side presented challenges of its own, but with frequent use of the hand brake, Teo brought everything to level ground without incident.
As he rested he noticed more people in the oncoming lane than usual at that time of day. Some walked carrying nothing but a bag over their shoulder with belongings. Others guided bicycles loaded with bundles or pushed carts with wailing babies, furniture and household articles. Very soon the way became saturated with people spilling off onto the shoulders of the road. Light travelers impatient with the traffic’s pace struck off across the adjoining fields. A lone automobile, mired in the sea of bodies, honked its horn.
Ordinarily no one took much notice of Teo other than to lob curses at him. On the busy road between the suburb of Pugo-Rosario and Quirino, draymen were nuisances in the road like standing pools of water, sleeping cows or the plops of shit they left behind, convenient sites on which to vent the frustrations of travel on the busy highway. Now, however, people heaved against Teo and kicked at the dray till he was forced to a standstill. A man in the white uniform of the civil guard approached and slapped him hard on the head. “Where are you going, asshole? Let these people pass. Push your dray off the road and go back where you came from.” Teo, as impervious as the block of limestone he carried, looked down at his feet saying nothing. He had come too far already, over Gatekeeper Hill, and could not go back. Besides, failure to deliver the blank was unthinkable. Not fulfilling the terms of the contract would give the warehouse owners and engravers great leverage against his brother, Efrem. They would conspire to withhold commissions so he would have to make ruinously low bids to get contracts. Teo would never hear the end of it. But there was more to Teo’s urgency than the welfare of his brother’s business: if Teo did not deliver the blank, he could not marry.
When he first mentioned his desire to take a wife, Efrem laughed, but when he saw his younger brother was determined, he became stern and forbid it outright. “I will not allow it. Taking a wife would not be good for the business. A wife costs money and you do not earn enough. Besides you know nothing about married life. It is not what you think.” Having been married himself for a short time Efrem did not speak without experience. When his young wife first came to live with them, she attempted to make their austere hut at the mouth of the mine a home, hanging pictures on the walls, putting up curtains, even sweeping the dirt floor. But she could not rid the place of the ubiquitous powder emanating from the mine and tracked in by the brothers half a dozen times a day. After some months, she quietly surrendered to the dust and dodged disarray of the brothers. With scissors, but without benefit of a mirror, she cut her hair close to the scalp. As her clothes wore out, she did not replace them with new women’s clothing but pulled on Efrem’s old work trousers and shirts. People who did not know them assumed they were a household of three bachelor brothers. Less than a year into their marriage, Teo came home one evening to find his sister-in-law and her belongings gone and Efrem disposed to deep silence. On matters of business and mining stone, no one knew more than Efrem. He was never wrong. But he knew nothing about women. Teo vowed not to repeat his older brother’s mistake by bringing a wife home to the hut. With the premium earned for timely delivery of the stone blank, he would rent a flat in town, away from the mine.
The death of a rich man’s nephew was the break he had been waiting for, a recompense for his years of hard labor and loneliness. The morning before, Efrem had come home with the winning bid from the largest engraver in Quirino. The aging nephew had died under ignominious circumstances – disease from years of drinking and whoring catching up with him – and, as it was the height of the hot season, to say nothing of the indiscreet nature of the bachelor’s death, burial had to be hasty. A large stone for a memorial was wanted at once for which expediency the engraver had agreed to pay a very generous premium. After learning of his share, Teo slipped out to the house of his fiancée. Nydia was overjoyed when he told her the good news, but in his eagerness and passion, Teo blurted out the circumstances of the bonus, “How lucky we are this nephew has died!” Even as he spoke, he realized he had said too much. Her smile collapsed to a tight frown, her small frame became heavy in his arms. She declared that it would be unlucky for them to begin their life benefiting from an untimely death. Teo thought quickly. He was not himself superstitious about such things but he knew not to call her foolish for believing so innocently in jinxes. “Nydia,” he said patiently, “a stone worker benefits from every death but his own. This playboy died from his excess appetites. You can see this is God’s blessing on us. It is His way to keep a balance in life between good and bad.” She turned away, unmoved by his argument for cosmic equilibrium. Delight at another’s death was an inauspicious way to begin wedded life. “Better no marriage than an unlucky one.” Then, smiling, she said, “For God to bless our marriage, Teo, you must take only the regular fee.”
As he left her house, he sighed at the equally immoderate demands his brother and fiancée put upon him. There was no way to comply with Nydia’s wishes and refuse the premium. Efrem would know immediately upon remittance something was amiss, and his plan for a secret marriage would be revealed. Teo was not by nature a deceitful person. He had neither the sophistication nor the desire to mislead others, but he realized that were he to marry, he could tell them nothing of his plans. Their own stubbornness demanded it.
In time, the surge of people from Quirino lessened and Teo continued on toward the warehouse with the blank. He entered a town emptied of life. The streets were bare, stores and houses shuttered and deserted. No number of cooking gas fires would have caused everyone to leave like this, he thought. He recalled some years ago a powerful temblor collapsed a poor neighborhood at the edge of the town. Dwellings built of unfired brick toppled when the earth turned to slurry, burying alive many families as they slept and starting numerous fires. Most of the town emptied onto the plain in a surge of terrified refugees. But Teo had felt no trembling today, he saw no fallen houses. Still, as a precaution, he eased the dray into the middle of the thoroughfare away from the buildings should they collapse.
Though eerie and disconcerting, the deserted streets were not unwelcomed by the drayman. Indeed, he thought, his timing for this run could not have been more auspicious. Navigating a load through the congested streets of Quirino was an unpleasant business, worse even than the strain up Gatekeeper Hill. Traffic, when not snarled and knotted to a standstill, scraped by in each direction in fits and starts. Officers delayed him at every turn making him yield and detour. Now, with the streets quiet and empty, the town seemed to welcome him and his magnificent blank. He turned the dray down a main thoroughfare which would take him directly to the river bridge on the other side of which was the warehouse district. The route would take half an hour off the usual time. He could make the deadline with time to spare. Heartened, Teo took a swallow from his jug of tea and leaned again into the yoke.
He did not see the plume of black smoke coming up from behind the dome of the municipal building until he turned the corner. In the middle of the street a small automobile burned on its side like the enflamed head of a beast fallen to earth. To avoid the intense heat, Teo moved the dray to the very edge of the gutter. Keeping his eyes on the blazing auto, he did not see the heap of smoldering rags in his path until he was almost upon it. At the last second, he turned the leads to straddle the obstacle, but as he did so, a head, scorched and blackened, rose from the debris and looked at him with eyes bleached of color. Startled, Teo forced the leads away, banging the wheel into the curb. “Son-of-a-bitch!” he yelled as the leads slammed down onto the pavement, jarring his arms painfully. He heard the awful sound of the blank shifting forward and jumped clear of the leads. Certain the stone would move no more, he unyoked himself.
On the other side of the dray, the head advanced toward him. Teo saw it was attached to a body with trousers, burnt and torn, revealing the pink and charred flesh of an upper thigh. He did not have to look closer to see that the poor fellow was in a bad way. Unsure what to do, Teo stayed on his side of the dray and surveyed the square for someone or something to make sense of this horrific scene. But the square was empty; even the civil guard’s red and white box at the center of the intersection was abandoned. Now the black head was making sounds directed at him. Cautiously, Teo came out from behind the dray to see the man pulling himself forward hand over hand.
Teo came near. “What happened to you?”
In a faltering voice, hoarse with exertion, he said, “They stopped my car and beat me. They burned me and ran a truck over my legs.”
“Who did?” Teo recoiled, looking around the square wondering who would do this terrible thing.
“Devil soldiers. Help me.”
“How can I help you?” Teo’s question was to point out the futility of assisting him. The poor man lay in a puddle of his own blood leaking from somewhere near his hips. Though Teo had no experience with trauma of this nature, it was clear this man with such severe and general injury did not have long to live. What could be done for him? He scanned again the square but saw no one. This was none of his business. He thought of picking up the leads and leaving the man to his bad luck. No one had seen him stop. No one would see him go. He turned to inspect the blank. It was not harmed but it had slid forward some inches. This was a serious development. Loaded with extreme care, the stone on his two-wheeled dray was balanced so deftly that a small boy could have held the leads in one hand with little effort. If it is unbalanced, the stone can be upset, crashing down on his legs or tossing him skyward like an unwitting acrobat. Teo tested the leads and found them heavy. Weight would have to be added at the back. He hesitated for a moment before returning to the injured man, “Here, I will take you to the hospital.”
The man’s legs were bent and twisted at impossible angles. He smelled of gasoline and shit where he lost control below his hips. Teo reached under his arms and slid the man’s considerable bulk towards the back of the dray. Taking a breath, he lifted him into the space where the blank had shifted forward. With his shoulder he nudged the man against the stone and folded his legs in after him. Back in the yoke, Teo took a drink of tea and put a sugar cube in his mouth. He tested the leads. The dray was balanced, almost.
With an eye on the lowering sun, Teo hurried along the main boulevard through town. When he reached a large intersection near the river he stopped. The hospital was straight ahead another two miles. Down the road to his left, across the bridge, in a district of low tin sided buildings, was the warehouse where he was to deliver the blank. If he hurried, he could be there in 20 minutes. But what to do with the poor man at the back of the dray? He could not take him there. No one had seen them yet but with people at the warehouse things could become difficult. The police would be called, Efrem and Nydia were sure to hear, and his deception collapse. Teo unyoked himself and propped the leads. The poor man looked as though he had already passed, but Teo saw the barely perceptible rise and fall of his chest. Again he glanced around for someone to tell him what to do. It occurred to him that like everywhere else, there would be no one at the warehouse. But he could not take that chance. The premium would be forfeited if he was not there on time. They would cut him no slack. Now he had not more than 20 minutes to deliver the blank as contracted. Getting to the hospital and back would take almost an hour. But even if he started for the hospital at this moment, the man may well die on the way, and the blank would not be delivered either. Everyone would lose.
“You must wait here,” he said. “I will drop off the blank then come back for you. It will be lighter. I will get you to the hospital quickly.”
As he put his arms around the man to lower him to the side of the road, he heard the sound of a vehicle approaching along the river. Teo rushed, yelling and waving his hands, to a spot where he would be visible. Slowing, the truck turned at the intersection and came to a stop in front of him. Seeing it was an official vehicle of some kind, Teo was encouraged but then noticed the occupants were not the regular civil guard he knew but soldiers in a uniform he had not seen before. He put his hands down and backed up to the dray. When the driver got out, Teo bowed his head and forced a smile, “Hello, Brother. There is a man here who needs help.”
The man in cap and uniform regarded Teo silently. He turned back to the truck and nodded for the other soldier to get out. He came close and asked Teo who he was and where he had come from. “Please,” Teo replied. “I will tell you all that and more later. Right now we must hurry. I found a man injured in the road. He is in a very bad way and must be taken to the hospital this moment.” The uniformed man walked past Teo to the back of the dray where the man lay slumped against the stone blank. “Who is this?” the soldier asked. “Is he your friend?”
“No. I have never seen him before. I told you I found him in this condition. He asked me for help. As a good Christian I could not leave him to die in the street. You can see he is in a bad way and has not much time. Here I will put him in the truck for you.”
The soldier was not listening but continued to regard the injured man. Teo fell silent and watched as a thin worm of blood from the man’s body crept forward along the dray bed till it disappeared beneath the blank. The poor man appeared to be dead already but the uniformed man removed a baton from his belt and prodded him on the cheek until his eyes parted.
“Who are you?” he demanded several times. The man’s lips moved but he said no words.
“Stand him up,” the soldier commanded Teo.
“His legs—,” Teo began to explain.
“Stand him up!”
Teo lowered him from the back of the dray but had to support the man’s body with his own, holding his head erect. The soldier continued his interrogation, asking the man who he was over and over, each time becoming louder and more insistent. Once the poor man mumbled a word but it was not understood. Still the soldier shouted. The other soldier approached and, taking a small pistol from one of the cases on his belt, chambered a round and pushed the muzzle against the man’s head. The man opened his eyes and raised a hand as though to bat at a buzzing fly but as he did so, there was a crisp Pop! from the little gun. The man slipped through Teo’s arms collapsing onto the ground like an empty sack.
As if he still held the man, Teo did not move. Something warm and wet on his nose cooled as it dried in the breeze, but he dared not raise his hand to wipe it away, nor move his foot on which the man’s head leaked freely. What had happened? His mind spun furiously grasping for an explanation. Who was this man to be shot like a dog in the street? A thief taking advantage of the general disorder to steal a car? They had captured him and left him in the road as an example to other would be outlaws. Why else would they do this thing? He should never have stopped. It was none of his business. He noticed out the corner of his eye flecks of blood and a bit of flesh and hair stuck to the blank. The master of the warehouse would never accept it blemished. He would go down to the river for water to wash it off the moment these soldiers let him go. There was still time, not much.
“Take this stone off your cart and come with us,” the soldier said.
“I swear to you before God I had nothing to do with this man!” Teo pleaded. “I was only delivering this blank. I picked him up as an act of mercy—.” The soldier did not let him finish explaining but swung his baton smartly across Teo’s face. In shock and disbelief, he wiped the blood from his mouth and spit a shard of tooth to the ground. “Please! I am no looter. My brother will tell you. Allow me to deliver this blank first, and I will come back and explain everything. Look, I am almost there, just across the river. I will hurry. Ten minutes. You will see.” But the soldier silenced him with another blow to the side of his head filling his ear with blood. Dazed, Teo bellowed in pain and ducked beneath the dray. The soldier stooped striking savagely at the drayman’s hands raised to protect himself. Teo crawled to the other side of the dray but the other soldier was waiting there with the pistol pointed at his head.
Because it was on a hill, the dray had to be turned around before the blank could be unloaded. But Teo’s hands, wet with blood, could get no purchase on the leads. He pulled off his headband, tore it in two and bound the strips of cloth around his broken knuckles. Still the dray wouldn’t budge. Looking beneath he discovered a wheel chocked by the dead man’s swollen palm. Irritated at the delay, the soldiers shouted and struck Teo repeatedly on the back. He pushed with all his strength until the wheel moved. But the force was too great, and the dray began to move down the hill, rear end first. With the loss of the man’s weight at the back, it was unbalanced and could not be controlled. Teo ran behind guiding as best he could as it careened this way and that towards the river. He reached for the break and tugged hard, but it was not made to stop the dray going backward. The wheel, spinning backwards, pitched the breakshoe high into the air. Ahead, the street ran into the road, but the dray was moving too fast to make the turn. With Teo still holding onto the leads, it sped straight across the road and down the sloping embankment toward the river.
The soldiers ran after Teo shouting and threatening. “Stop it, fool!” They fired shots in the air, but Teo could do nothing and had to let go of the leads. As he did so, the dray lost all balance and slammed its rear to the ground, launching the blank into the air. The great stone tumbled once, twice before hitting the river with a tremendous plop!
Along the riverfront, gun boats and barges gleamed in the sun. Soldiers, stripped to their waists, off loaded crates and containers onto the docks. A man with a clipboard indicated to Teo that he would have to work for them. Shaking his head, he began to explain that there was a mistake; he was no accessory to the theft of the auto. But the soldiers did not let him continue. With a length of wire they bound him from behind at his elbows and forced the metal loop of a mooring line over his head. Another soldier threw the loose end over the boom of a crane, and with a great yank, three of their number hoisted the drayman aloft by his neck. They let him hang to choke and kick for a minute before letting him down. He said nothing more about his innocence.
In the days to come, Teo hauled supplies piled high on his dray – sacks, crates and containers of all sizes – to places of storage near the river front. A fat soldier, armed with a rifle, rode atop the load, snapping the mooring line to make him go and jerking it to make him stop. Days became weeks. When Teo was not pulling or loading and unloading the dray, he slept beneath it and ate whatever was tossed in his direction. Over time, the muscles on his arms and legs shrank from the lack of nutrition. His broken hands, battered from the beating on the roadside, hardened about the leads like roots growing around a rock.
He was not watched closely, and there were numerous opportunities to escape. Most anytime he could have let go the leads and upset the driver from his perch with all the cargo tumbling down on him. Because the man was drunk much of the time, it would have been no difficulty for Teo to seize his rifle and turn it on him. But he did not think of getting free. In some way he understood the pain and suffering he endured daily was warranted as a correction of sorts for having deceived his brother and Nydia. He had overreached, bearing too much, and had upset everything. Now he had only the restraint of the leads to contend with, the weight he pulled and the rein about his neck. The driver told him where to go and what to do, and, like an obliging beast, he complied.
One evening he pulled his loaded dray to a neglected quarter near the remains of the old town wall. Lately, they had had to venture further from the docks because it was difficult to find space they had not already filled with supplies. Over the centuries laborers had pilfered so many stones from the low wall that little of it remained. But a squat drum tower, used once to tell the time and alert the citizens to a fire or other danger, remained intact. Mimosa and pickerel issued thickly from between the crevices of the rough and irregular limestone blocks, some large as a coffin, others small as a footrest. Storks entered through a wide breech in the rotting rafters of the roof to squawk and squabble over choice nesting spots on the narrow stone ledges. The clay floor was damp, splotched with droppings and littered with feathers, egg shells and the remains of fallen infant birds, shimmering with ants.
The freight on the dray was a dozen metal containers of toluene, a liquid explosive. The casks were not large but deceptively heavy. Always the driver had ridden up on the dray, but on this particular run, he trailed behind at some distance. If there were a mishap with the explosive, he did not want to be blown up. Inside the tower, Teo propped the leads and went about unloading the casks. He did not know what was in them because he was never told what he hauled, so he went about standing them in neat ranks and files on the earthen floor. He noticed, however, the peculiar behavior of the driver and suspected something bad was going to happen. He was aware that the number of soldiers in Quirino had dwindled since his capture. Less troops meant fewer supplies to be transported and stored by him and his dray. When he was no longer useful he knew they would shoot him. They had done that to a horse that had fallen in the street and couldn’t get up. Now they would do that to him. The driver was keeping his distance to get a clean shot. Teo did not look up from his work. He did not want to see the soldier shoulder his rifle. But after the last cask was placed, he approached Teo, laughing in his silly way and patting him on the head for the work he had done satisfactorily. With a heavy lock and chain, they secured the wooden doors of the tower.
On the return to the docks, they passed two soldiers playing a game on a grid chalked on the walkway. The driver reined Teo to a halt and climbed down to join them. They continued to play until it began to rain and then got on the dray. At an intersection, they met a patrol of three soldiers drinking under the awning of a storefront. All got down and gathered around a fire burning in a brazier to dry off. One of the soldiers, plainly drunk, came up to Teo and clubbed him on the head with his fist, yelling to the others that monkeys were not worth liberating. After striking Teo again, the driver and others restrained their comrade and got him back under the awning, but this only made him angry and he reached for his rifle. While the others held him back, the driver clapped his hands and shooed Teo in the direction of the docks.
Unfamiliar with this part of town, Teo wandered around in the heavy rain unable to find his way back to the docks. When it was dark, he stopped beside the service door of a shop and against the rusty edges of the dray’s leaf springs, sawed through the fibers of the mooring line. Though he had been shackled to it for weeks, he was sad to leave the dray behind. Too weak to wrestle the metal loop from his neck, he gathered the tail end of the line in his hands and walked away. Freed of the dray and without someone telling him what to do, Teo was uneasy and walked around without direction in the empty streets for hours. Yielding to the gradual slope of the streets, however, he came to the river and then to the road by the bridge he knew well. From there he turned toward his brother’s mine in the suburb of Pugo-Rosario.
Not a creature crossed his path. Everywhere along the road, the aftermath of pillaging patrols was evident: houses and shops, burned to the foundation stones, a bus, its body scorched purple by fire, sat on its rims like a downed elephant. As he walked, it looked as if families, in their headlong flight from the burning town, had turned their homes inside out, strewing in their wake clothing, cookware, furniture, portraits of grandparents. At the top of Gatekeeper Hill, the Deluxe stood, but the interior had been gutted and broken tables and chairs were thrown about the garden. Nearing home, Teo looked for the footbridge that spanned the deep gorge between the road and his brother’s mine. It had been cut away from the other side together with the gondola used for ferrying the blanks. With difficulty he climbed down the escarpment and up the other bank. He was surprised the hut was standing but there was no sign of his brother. Teo found his cot and fell asleep at once.
Late the next morning he awoke. The dust of neglect and abandonment covered everything. In the bottom of a bowl he found scraps of moldy food, but his teeth hurt too much to chew the dried, hard chunks and he had to swallow them whole. Later with a file he cut through the metal of the mooring line around his neck, but the exertion of the task exhausted him so that he fell back to sleep. When he awoke again it was dark. He could see nothing but felt someone breathing near his face. “Efrem?” he whispered. The breath stopped. Footsteps moved away towards the path down to the stream. “Efrem,” he called again but got no reply. Teo followed the figure down to the stream, getting close enough to confirm that it was indeed his older brother. In a trap were two small mud turtles. Efrem smashed their backs against a stone and with much noise sucked out their innards. Teo came up and sat behind him. With slow, laborious movements, Efrem peeled the hard skin of the heads and feet and rebaited the trap. When he finished, Teo stood up but Efrem walked by taking no notice of him. “Efrem!” he said again and sat down to rest. It occurred to him that perhaps his brother did not answer because either he or Efrem was a ghost. He waded into the stream and stopped midway to drink and slap water onto his face. He did not feel like a ghost but he did not know what it was like to be dead, so there was no way to know for sure. He climbed the opposite bank of the gorge and walked the short distance to Nydia’s home. The house was deserted, but because nothing was burned, she and her mother had likely escaped with others to the countryside. He ate a handful of moldy rice from a sack in the kitchen and slept that night on the cement floor of her living room.
The next day he waited till dark and walked the road back to Quirino. Near morning he returned to the mine with tins of dried fish and a cloth full of flour taken from one of the depots he had carried freight to. Over his elbow he carried a paint can filled with kerosene for the lamps. Stuffed in the pockets of his shorts were a bag of hard candy and a bundle of bidis. While the fish soaked in water, Teo fumbled with the bidis, managed to get one lit and nearly fainted from the tobacco’s narcotic effects. Later he consumed two cans of fish and a bowl of porridge made from the flour, gulping it like a dog only to heave it up minutes later in one explosive spasm. In the days that followed, he ate slowly, a little at a time, and got stronger. The ghostly feeling of not knowing whether he was alive or dead left him. Efrem was eating too. Like a rat he came out at night from the mine back by the rock face to take the food Teo looted from the depots. Teo awoke to hear his chewing and sucking noises and smell the smoke of burning bidis.
Feeding them both, he had to make regular nighttime raids into Quirino to get food, fuel and other items from one or another of the supply depots. Because he had stocked them, he knew where the storehouses were. It was not difficult getting inside. There was always a window or a coal chute to crawl through, but it was a dangerous mission nevertheless with armed patrols roaming the streets. He carried one of the big iron mallets Efrem used to drive the spikes into the rock face. With this he broke open the crates and containers. Bang! Bang! The lids shattered under the blows. Most of the time he opened crates only to find something he had no use for, socks and underwear, tooth paste, boot oil, machine parts, but he never returned to the mine empty handed.
As his health returned, Teo did not sleep so much and there were long hours sitting near the kerosene lamp smoking one bidi after another. Efrem was taking food and bidis openly now, but his older brother would say nothing nor look at him. Efrem’s bad humor, Teo concluded, was because of his failure to deliver the blank, the most beautiful piece of stone to come out of the mine. But that was something that could not be helped. He had tried to keep the terms of the contract but could not. He had been captured, starved, worked like an animal, threatened with death, his hands broken. Efrem could sulk in silence all he liked. He, Teo, had suffered more.
One night Efrem came out from the rock face to find no bidis. As there were only a few to last until his next raid into town, Teo had hidden what was left of the bundle for himself. Efrem snorted about in anger and, for the first time since his return, looked his younger brother in the eye. But it was a glare void of warmth and recognition. Teo did not shrink but met his scowl. “So, Brother, your eyes are working again. If your ears are working too, then listen. I won’t carry food and cigarettes for you any longer. You have to carry your own.”
From his years working in the dark mine, Efrem had the eyes of a cat in the night and the nose of a dog. Together with Teo’s heavy-hand on the mallet, the nocturnal runs into Quirino to pillage the stores of supplies became routine affairs. Efrem could pick up the peculiar stink of the patrolling soldiers and the smell of cordite and oil off their rifles two blocks distant, in time to disappear into the shadow of an alley. Once inside, Teo followed as Efrem made his way among the stacks of crates, barrels and cartons. No more risk, time and effort wasted breaking open a container to find ball bearings, paint or replacement parts for an artillery gun. Efrem brought his nose close to the crate and nodded. Down came the mallet, Bang! Bang! The containers yielded like eggshells to Teo’s blows. The brothers carried their spoils back to the mine in haversacks taken from a crate of a hundred haversacks.
One night, picking something from this depot and something from that one, Efrem stopped in front of an abandoned furniture factory and raised his nose to the air.
“This is not a storehouse,” Teo said. “I never delivered here.” But Efrem was already trying the lock on the door. It was secure, so they went around the side of the building looking for a window to enter. All had strong bars forbidding entry.
“This is close to the docks. It’s dangerous,” Teo said, but Efrem was not listening. He motioned to Teo to lace his hands in a stirrup. Once on the roof, he disappeared. Smoking bidi after bidi, Teo waited in the alley behind a bush. Minutes later, at a noise from the roof, Teo saw a wooden keg teetering at the edge of the cornice. With a rope tied around its mid section, Efrem lowered the keg into the open arms of his brother.
“What is it?”
Efrem said nothing but handed him the mallet. Bang! The smell of fermented grain wafted into the air. Efrem emptied a jug of kerosene and dipped it into the keg. Each took a drink. The liquor spread like flaming oil down Teo’s throat to lodge in his gut. They took another drink and then topped off the jug. Together they rolled the keg on its rim behind the bush and made their way back to the mine.
After three cups of the liquor, Teo passed out on the mine floor. He awoke in the afternoon to his head throbbing as though his brain were seeping through the seams in his skull. Through half opened eyes, he made out Efrem sitting with his back against the rock face still awake, still drinking. It was painful to focus his eyes, but Teo looked at his brother and said, “I know you are angry the blank was not delivered, but it could not be helped. There was a man in the street. He was set on fire and run over by a truck. When I stopped, the blank shifted so I could not go on. I told the man I would take him to the hospital and put him on the back to balance the dray. No one saw me do this. But God who watches over us did not let this pass. When the soldiers stopped me, I was almost to the warehouse, less than a mile away. They shot him like a dog and made me unload the blank. It was lost to the river.” Efrem said nothing, so Teo spoke louder. “They worked me like an animal. I was as good as dead! There was every reason for it.” He got up and went over to his brother. “But I’m alive, Efrem. Maybe God wants good to come from this bad.”
Efrem pushed him away, “Go away, Teo. The blank does not matter.”
Teo did not drink any more of the liquor after that evening but Efrem stayed drunk for much of the time. When he was out of liquor, he grunted to the effect that they were stopping at the storehouse to refill the pail. During this time, other than to sleep and eat, Teo did not stay in the mine but would go into Quirino to watch the movements of the remaining soldiers. There were fewer boats by the docks and sometimes he saw no soldiers in the streets at all. One night as he was returning home, he saw a uniformed man sleeping against a column. He stopped in the shadows for a moment to think how he would get by him then noticed the queer angle of his head. Coming closer he saw that the soldier, an officer, was dead though there was no sign of injury. On his belt Teo saw the leather case of a pistol and opened it. The weapon sat snugly in its holster like the meat of a nut. Teo clasped the smooth, heavy object between his stiff knuckles. He held it against the dead officer’s head. It did not seem so strange and astonishing, as it had at the time he witnessed it, to press the muzzle to a man’s head and pull the trigger. He took off the soldier’s thick leather belt and stripped it of all its appurtenances, flashlight, canteen, everything but the gun holster. Throwing away the rope binding his shorts, he strapped the weapon to his waist.
On another night he retrieved the dray abandoned when he fled his captors. On one side someone had ripped off a plank on the bed but given up on taking the rest, a testament to its sturdy construction. The tires still held air. Teo was very excited when he showed it to Efrem the next morning. It meant getting their business up and running again, but Efrem looked at it and said, “Good. Tonight we will bring back the whole keg.”
“No!” Teo protested, “I took a big risk bringing it here. Walking through town is dangerous enough, but pulling a dray through the streets is a sure way to get killed.”
“What are you worried about? You have said yourself there are few soldiers in town.”
“Few does not mean none. Besides, I did not rescue this dray to carry whiskey. It’s for hauling blanks.” All morning Efrem argued and would not leave it alone. Teo wished his brother would give him the silent treatment again and go back by himself to the rock face.
“Look,” Efrem said, “you can see it cannot be used for blanks in this condition and must be repaired. If you help me bring the keg back tonight, I will fix the bed and replace the broken lead. Then you can haul all the blanks you want.”
Teo had to consider his proposition, for though he could curl his hardened hands around the leads, sawing a length of wood and fitting it into the steel frame of the dray bed would be difficult tasks for him. He agreed to help for one trip. Thereafter the dray would be used for blanks.
Arriving at the factory in the middle of the night, Teo scanned the deserted street for signs of a patrol. He backed the dray down the alley and rolled the keg on its end, much lighter now from Efrem’s constant refilling, up the ramp and onto the dray bed. This would not be so bad, Teo thought and yoked himself into the harness. When he was ready, he looked around for Efrem but he was climbing back up to the roof.
“What are you doing?” he hissed.
“That one’s almost empty.”
Teo was angry, but there was nothing to do. He knew how stubborn his brother was when his mind was made up and arguing now might bring a patrol down on them. He hid behind the bushes again but there was no concealing the dray and the keg of liquor. If a patrol passed and stopped to investigate, they would find him. He had the pistol but what was that against rifles? After a long and anxious wait, he heard the keg bumping down the wall. Together they rolled it up the ramp and secured it with the other onto the draybed.
Traveling back streets they moved swiftly till they came out at the river a mile above the docks. Here rows of leafy catalpa trees joined branches overhead in a tunnel of shadow hiding them from the light of a waxing moon. But nothing could muffle the noise from a wheel. Its bearings gone dry, the axle screeched plaintively like bone on bone with each revolution. When they reached the foot of the bridge, Teo stopped.
“What is it?” Efrem asked breathing hard.
“Rest. I’m not used to pulling a dray.”
“What about the patrols?”
“They do not come out this far anymore.”
Teo propped the leads. They leaned against the wheels and lit bidis.
“There,” Teo said, gesturing at the river.
Efrem frowned uncomprehending.
“It’s what I’ve been telling you, but you won’t listen. The blank is in the river. It’s waiting for us. There!” he said, pointing emphatically.
Efrem snorted. “I told you. None of that matters.” He took a last pull on his bidi and threw it on the ground. “Let’s go.”
“What are you saying?”
“Don’t be stupid. The business is dead. I will never cut into the rock face again and you will never haul blanks to the warehouse. You’re broken and weak. Look at your hands. You cannot hold your pecker, how will you grip the dray again with a real load?”
“Why are you talking this way? Every day I am getting stronger. We can put the footbridge and gondola back up, return with the winches and pull the blank out of the river. We are in an industry with a sure future, brother. People will die no matter how this trouble turns out.”
“I did not know mother left me such a fool to raise. You think this is like a job left at the end of the day, and we can pick it up the next morning where we left off? There is no one to bury but you and me. You will bury me or I will bury you.” He lifted the leads and took a few steps before setting them down again. Catching his breath, he raised his voice in exasperation. “Everything is thrown up, don’t you see? All along the road, houses are turned inside out; it’s all blown away and won’t come back!” He paced up and down in front of Teo, panting, his words coming as though he searched for them on the ground to cast up into his younger brother’s face. “Let’s go,” he said. “You were in such a big hurry to get off the streets.”
Teo got off the tire and made his way down the bank.
“Where are you going?” Efrem asked. “You’ll bring a patrol.”
Stepping into the water, Teo said, “Everything is thrown up, like you say, brother, even the blank. It flew through the air like a leaf. But it did not blow away. It came down here in the river, as good as the day we cut it from the rock face. Only the blank is left us to make good come from bad. We are not broken furniture and rusting pots on the side of the road. We have stone in our blood, Efrem. We must be like the blank, impervious to what has happened.”
He took off the belt and holster. The river before him was flat and glossy, black as oil. Wading in he put his hands out in front of him, feeling his way forward. Almost floating now, he moved sideways in the water up to his chin. Across the river, beneath an overhanging row of etching and engraving shops, the water burbled and percolated from acids, salts and waste water from latrines. Here underfoot, Teo felt an assortment of cans, bottles and rubble but no stone blank. He turned to orient himself and saw Efrem coming down the bank with the jug of liquor in his hand. He beckoned Teo to come out of the water and join him on the bank. Efrem took his brother’s arm and pulled him down. “Forget about the blank and sit down. There is something I want to tell you.” He took a drink from the jug. “When the patrols came up the road, they stopped at each house and burned everything. I heard the commotion and came out to see a family running up the road. Two soldiers pursued them not far behind. They were coming right for the footbridge. But I ran out with a knife and cut the bridge and gondola away before they got there. Then I hid in a crevice by the rockface. But like a giant ear the mine caught the sounds of the rifles and the cries of the family as they were shot. I heard clearly as if I stood there in the road. I cannot go back to the rockface without hearing them again.” He looked around but more out of annoyance at having talked so much than anxiety about patrols. “You are fooling yourself, Teo, if you think the blank will square things between you and God. God may watch us, but He doesn’t watch over us. It’s the dead we must settle accounts with. Leave the blank in the river for the poor man you used to balance the dray.”
Teo stood up. “You’re not the one to lecture me on deception, brother. You won’t forget that family by drinking yourself into a stupor each day but by getting the business back up and running.”
Efrem missed with the first swing of his fist, but striking again, caught Teo on the side of his head. Together they fell into the water and stood up swinging. Efrem struck again but a blow from Teo’s hardened knuckles knocked his older brother into the mud with blood streaming from his head. He lay for a long moment unmoving. Teo knelt beside him, rubbing his face with the back of his hand.
Efrem opened his eyes and looked about, unsure where he was. “Be quiet,” he said.
“We have talked too much.”
For a long time they sat on the river bank. Efrem continued drinking, muddling through a cutter’s chant sung to the tempo of a mallet striking the head of a stone splitter. His words were so slurred and garbled by the liquor that had Teo not known the song by heart, he would not have understood.
Teo awoke just before dawn. They would have to go before the sun came up lighting up the streets. He strapped on the holster and woke Efrem who could not be persuaded to climb the bank and had to be carried. Thinking how he would have to roll off the kegs to make room for Efrem, he did not see the lone soldier coming toward them until he raised his rifle. Quickly Teo dropped Efrem on the dray before knocking the soldier to the ground. Jumping onto his chest he saw the soldier was just a very big boy. Still he slammed his face repeatedly with his fists. The boy put up his hands to protect himself but Teo pulled them away, and struck him wherever he was exposed. With one hand, he slipped the automatic from the holster but could not get his stiff finger through the small trigger guard. He would have to fire it with both hands, but the boy would not hold still long enough to be shot. Each time Teo brought the barrel up to his head, he jerked away. At last with a knee on his chest, Teo had him pinned. With both fists he struck the boy-soldier a terrific blow to the head stunning him momentarily. Pointing the gun he squeezed the trigger. Pop! The boy lurched and the bullet missed, kicking up the dirt beside his ear. He pulled an arm free and grasped Teo’s hands to force the gun away, but Teo was stronger and tilted the muzzle down against the boy’s head to just above his eye. He fired. Pop! The boy jerked again. Teo thought he had missed once more then saw dark fluid pooling in one eye from where the boy’s nose had been. He had not been hit mortally, however, and would have to be shot again. Pushing him down with his chest, Teo forced the barrel up into the boy’s throat below his ear, but before he could fire, the boy wrenched his hips throwing the drayman off. Grabbing his rifle, he stood and fired, but Teo was already scrambling down the bank into the river. As he dove, a bullet punched into the water beside him leaving a thin trail of bubbles. Surfacing he heard one shot and then another. Diving deeper he did not come up till he was beneath the wide shadow of the bridge. The boy still fired round after round. After a moment, Teo realized he was not firing at him but at Efrem where he had been left on the dray.
When the food was gone, Teo took the mallet one evening and set out from the mine for Quirino. On the outskirts of town, a figure came toward him pushing a conveyance of some kind. Though he could see by the moonlight that it was not a soldier but a young man, still in his teens, Teo moved into the shadows. He was going to let him pass but seeing he pushed what appeared in the dim light to be a dray, Teo stepped into the road.
Startled, the young man said, “What do you want?”
Fitted onto the bed of the dray, Teo saw a gaming table surfaced with dirty and stained felt. In the days before the trouble, young men like this fellow pushed game carts through the streets charging a small fee to play. Teo saw immediately this was not the reinforced dray for carrying stone, but a lighter one, something for delivering inventory across town. Still he asked, “Where did you get this dray?”
“It’s a gaming table, can’t you see?”
With his slanted hat brim and a shiny coat with wide lapels, the young man dressed to suggest a connection with the entertainment industry. Teo could see that his own ragged clothes, wild look and the big mallet in his hand had unnerved him, so he pressed further, “You working for the soldiers?”
“What soldiers? Did you just return from the countryside? They have all gone. Do you want to play or what?” When Teo did not answer, the young man bent to pick up the leads. Teo stepped closer and pushed him away.
“You looted this dray. I am taking back what doesn’t belong to you. The police would do the same and worse. Here.” He upended the gaming table onto the ground. “Perhaps you stole that too but take it with you.”
He raised a hand to strike him, but Teo dealt his chest a blow knocking him to the ground. “Go away or it will be bad for you.” When he had gone, Teo took up the leads and pulled it into the dark town.
The young man was right, there were no soldiers. They had all gone. But in the shadowy streets, Teo saw many young men moving about singly and in small groups. He walked on towards the docks until he came to a depot where he and Efrem had found food. With the soldiers gone, he did not have to go to the back and crawl through the incinerator chimney. He could come through the front. Bang! Bang! The doors broke from their hinges and clattered to the floor. Teo entered and emerged a moment later with a bag of barley and some cans of fish. The noise caught the attention of every man in the street. Within minutes they converged on the storehouse and stripped it of all it held. In the confusion, someone snatched the barley and fish from Teo’s arms. A similar frenzy took place at the next depot he broke into. Teo ate a few dried pears and some bites of a cake before they too were lost. Soon a small mob was following him about the streets, storming into the storehouses as soon as the doors gave way. It did not matter whether they found something to eat or not, everything was gone in a flurry of grabbing, pushing and shouting. So furious was the looting, Teo was unable to take anything for himself.
Hours later a group of men gathered around Teo to see where he would go next, but there was nowhere to take them. Nothing remained of all Teo had transported from the docks, and yet the mob, by now his mob, did not disperse; they wanted more. Teo wanted more too. What he saw in the eyes of the mob and felt in himself was a larger reckoning, a rage that had yet to spend itself. He remembered the tower down by the town wall and the casks he’d set there the day he escaped. He would take them there. He turned for the dray he’d forced from the young man on the road, but in the tumult of smashing and looting, he forgot where he’d left it.
the tower, he found an elderly man striking the doors with a stone. Other than
making a racket, his feeble blows accomplished nothing. Still he turned and
glared at Teo and at the men behind him. “Go away and find your own,” he said. Teo
stepped forward and knocked the stone from his hand. With two blows from the
mallet, the doors caved. He walked into the interior, crunching broken egg
shells and smearing droppings with his feet. A stork, perched above on a stone outcropping,
scolded and flapped its wings restlessly. Here were the rows of metal casks
stacked just as he had left them. The mob crowded in after him onto the packed dirt
floor. Those in back pushed and shoved to get closer but no one made a move
towards the casks. They were not like the goods in the depots strewn about
haphazardly but arranged in orderly ranks and files. The men waited, faces
pressed together like a pack of animals, desperate for the go-ahead, the first
smashing blow of chaos. Teo bent and sniffed at the casks like Efrem would have
but detected only the acrid odor of damp metal. Rocking the nearest one, he
felt the telltale sloshing of liquid inside. He noticed then the casks though
smaller were similar in shape to the kegs of liquor he and Efrem had looted
from the furniture warehouse. The mob stirred behind him like waves behind a
seawall. Someone shouted, “What’s in them?” Teo didn’t answer, but he thought he knew.
There was no cover to smash like the kegs of liquor, but girdling the middle, a
band of orange rust betrayed a seam. Teo rolled a cask out and balanced it on
its side. The men stood back. He raised the mallet over his head and came down
with all his heart.