Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Witch

By: Mikejuha


I was ten years old when I had this group of friends, about my age, who were really naughty. During our spare time we would congregate at the front yard of one of these friends’ house. The front yard happens to be facing the road. Whenever we ran out of things to do, we would stone everyone passing by that road: boys, elderly people, vehicle, etc, just to scare them. And when the poor terrified persons would focus their furious eyes towards our direction, we would scamper to hide laughing vigorously at our wickedness.

There was this one old woman who lived in a bamboo hut on the hill nearby the road, opposite this friend's house. The hut used to be a place to smoke and dry copra but the owner did not use it anymore. It measured like four square meters; its thatch was rotting and was dotted with cracks and openings. Inside, a narrow bamboo elevation just enough to lie down could be seen and for which the old woman used as her bed and the whole flooring was the filled ground used to be the hollow for producing fire and smoke. On its surroundings, cacao and coconut trees abounded which made it a cool and dark place even on a noon sun.

The old woman was in her seventies, had a long grey hair and usually wore an old dark patched dress. At her age, she looked healthy and strong although she walked like her body was bent all the time. She did all her chores: cooking, laundry, cleaning the surroundings, and fetching water. She also gathers fire woods and odd fallen coconuts which she used to sell for a living. The only things she personally treasured were that hut, a handful of old dresses, and an arched silky comb which she always slot in on her hair.

My friends call her a witch because the woman just sprung up from nowhere and she looked horrifying with her long grey hair and fiery eyes. When she arrived in our place, many children got sick and a few had died. It could have been just a coincidence but since then, everyone’s hair would stand just by the sight of the hut where she lived.

The old woman had no relatives and we did not see anyone visiting her. Like my friends, I believed that she was really a witch. So every time we thought of nasty things and we could see no passers-by to scare, we would attack her hut until she would go out frantically yelling, “Stop it! Stop it!” and we would scamper for a hide laughing and chortling in all evilness.

One day when we got tired of waiting for passers-by, our minds were focused on the “witch’s” house. So we crossed the road, climbed up the hill bringing along packs of stones like soldiers aiming for a battle. And when we reached at a safe throwing distance, we inundated the poor old woman’s hut with stones until she went out darting and yelling. But we continued. I went nearer, hurled a huge rock into the top of the hut and it fell down straight into the floor creating a gaping hole on the roof. Everyone cheered in what I did. Then, as another friend hurled a fist-size stone into the hut, it accidentally landed on the old woman’s face. She fell into the ground, her forehead bleeding. Everyone ran in panic and someone shouted, “Run, or the witch will kill us all!”

I stood there petrified at the bleeding face of the old woman. She cried in pain and struggled to stand up. I could not figure out what exactly to do with my mind screaming, “Run! She’s a witch! She’s a witch!” But a feeling of sympathy crept into my system. I rushed straight to the old woman, helped her up, assisted her to walk and sit into the wooden, decapitated chair which she probably took from someone’s garbage.

Seeing the blood still oozing from her head, I removed my shirt instinctively and pressed it on her wound. I held it for a few minutes, the woman seemed motionless, not saying any word but I saw tears flowed down her face. Then she held the cloth on her forehead as I remained flabbergasted. She still did not talk.

As I looked around and saw the inside of her house for the first time, I felt a sudden surge of pity. All the possessions she had were so meager, even garbage-like. She did not have a radio, no tap water, no relaxing bed or furniture, not even a mosquito net. She had a coconut shell for a glass, and her bolo was a blunt metal with a cloth wrapped at its tip to make for a handle. And in one part of the wall, I saw a wooden crucifix, a rosary hung on it and a picture of the blessed Mary posted beside. “How could people call her a ‘witch’?” was all my mind could ask. All I saw in her was an old woman who, in spite of everything, still struggled to move on to find peace and meaning in her remaining life.

“Lola (grandma), I am sorry for what I and my friends did; they said you are a witch so we stoned your hut” I said in an air of compunction.

She smiled exposing her two swelling lower front teeth, her only remaining, looked at me and said, “It’s ok my little boy. It’s what some people call me” her face gradually turned sad “But, I’m ok; you have nothing to worry. Thank you for helping me. God will have mercy on you. Oh... look at your shirt; it’s soaked with blood now. Your mama will be angry with you” as she removed it from her forehead, handed it to me. Her wound already stopped bleeding.

“It’s ok Lola, I still have many shirts” I said receiving my shirt and moved closer to her to wipe the remaining trace of blood and tears from her face. As I wiped her face, I felt her tenderness, her frailty as well as her strength of will and spirit. It seemed that something in me had known her already. Probably, it was the grandmother figure which I saw in her but I never had experienced in my childhood. My fear had totally vanished.

“What is your name?” She asked.

“Michael” I said as I sat on a bamboo bench.

“What a very nice name! Where do you live, Michael?”

“We live beside that road”, pointing to the road just below the hill “Maybe half a kilometer from here”

“And do you still have your parents and grandparents?”

“My parents; I have no more grandparents. My father said my grandmother is still alive but she’s in the other island-province, and I have never seen her”

“Oh, she must be old too, like me” she smiled. “You know, I had a son. He looked like you when he was a kid. His name was Jeremy. When he turned twenty, he went to the big city and since then, I never heard from him anymore. I don’t know if he is still alive today”

“Do you still remember his face?”

“Yes, sometimes, he appears in my dream” she said as tears loomed in her eyes.

“But, how about your husband, or your brother or sister... why don’t you go with them?”

“Oh... I have no brother or sister, Michael; my husband died a long time ago. When he harvested coconuts, he fell from one of the trees.”

“How about your house... where did you stay before?”

“O Michael, you are too young but very inquisitive...” she released a huge smile. “It’s a long story but let’s just say I sold it, although I did not receive any money for it. The new owner kicked me out. They said I signed something that will prove I already received the payment. It was a long time ago. Since then, I stayed on the streets, in any place. And one evening as I was trekking that road looking for a place to sleep, I saw this hut and decided to stay, scavenged things from everyone’s garbage so I can use them.” She paused in a deep sigh and continued, “Hmm, sometimes life is just so hard to live and to understand. But I’m almost there. When I die, I can say to myself and to God that the life He gave me was difficult and painful but I was able to surmount it until the end, without complaint, without surrender...”

I felt a deep sense of pity for what I heard. It was as if a knife pierced into my heart knowing that after other ruthless people deceitfully took her house from her, there I was demolishing her new-found one. I could not anymore understand about the other things she said about life. Perhaps, I was just too young to find out what she meant.

“Don’t worry, Lola, my father is a skilled carpenter, I will ask him to repair your roof so that when rain comes, you will be safe here.”

“O, thank you Michael. If your father will do that, I will be very happy. But, otherwise, it’s ok. I can just place a plastic and some cardboard and it will be ok.” Then she continued, “Oh, you can call me Lola Ayang”

That was how I knew Lola Ayang. Since that encounter, I would already come and visit her, bring her foods or anything that could be of help to her. I even accompanied her to gather firewood or fallen odd coconuts which she would sell. In return, she would tell me different stories. My friends were still skeptical about my friendship with the old woman, but one time when they snooped around to investigate what I was doing in her hut, they heard Lola Ayang narrating me a story. When they heard it, one by one they came out from their hiding places and sat beside me all enthusiastic to listen. And when the story was over, all I heard were my friends clapping their hands and asking questions about what happened to the different characters of the story, and so on. I felt so happy to see my friends so delighted with Lola Ayang’s story. They seemed to have a change of heart.

Then one by one, I introduced them to Lola Ayang. When it was Roger’s turn I said, “Lola, this is Roger, the one who hit you in the face. Say sorry to Lola Ayang, Roger.” I demanded.

Hesitatingly, Roger said, “I’m sorry Lola Ayang. I will never do it again.”

Lola Ayang just smiled and said, “O, forget it. Just never do it again with anyone, ok?”

Since then, Lola Ayang’s hut became our hangout. We would help her in her chores, play games, climbed up the trees that surrounded the hut, or simply listen to Lola’s story. With us following and guarding her wherever she went, she became like the Snow White in the fairy tale and we, the dwarfs. The old woman seemed to have the charm which caught us spellbound. And the good thing was that we never stoned anyone passing by the road anymore. We followed whatever Lola Ayang told us to do or not to do.

One afternoon, it was raining hard. The radio announced that there was a typhoon. While I was in the comfort of my house, I suddenly remembered Lola Ayang. “God! I forgot to ask my father to repair her damaged roof!” I screamed. So, feeling guilty and worried about what could have happened to her, I put on a raincoat, took an umbrella and prepared to check on the old woman.

But Just as I was about to leave, my mom stopped me, “Michael, where are you going! It is raining hard and the wind is so strong, you could be harmed outside!” she shouted.

“Mom, I’ll go check on Lola Ayang, I damaged her roof and it was not repaired!” I pleadingly reasoned.

“Ok, wait there, I’ll ask your father to come with you!”

So my father and I went out. When we reached the hut, Lola Ayang was lying on her small bed all soaked with the rainwater and shaking in the cold temperature. Her lips were paper-white and all her things were wet. My father and I assisted her to stand. “Lola, you will come with us to my house, ok?”

She did not answer but allowed us to guide her until we reached our house still shaking. Mother helped her to change her wet clothes with her old ones. After she had changed, mom gave her a hot chocolate to drink. All she could say was, “Thank you! Thank you! God will have mercy on you”

She slept with us for one night. And when the weather was fine the following day, father hurried to repair her hut’s roof, using nipa leaves from the creek in our farm. I and my friends helped in the repair too. Lola Ayang was so happy.

That day, I stayed behind after the roof was fully restored and everyone left. I helped her fix her other wet things when suddenly she said, “Michael, when I am gone and you will meet or know of someone by the name of Jeremy, ask him who his mother was. I have a feeling that he’s just there and I will not live that long to see him anymore... At least, if you meet him, you can tell him all about me. Will you promise that?”

“Yes, Lola I promise” I replied, so full of innocence on what made her say that.

One morning as my friend Roger was playing by the road near Lola Ayang’s hut, a mad dog, its eyes red and fiery and its saliva dangling from its mouth appeared and upon seeing Roger, chased him. Roger ran as fast as he could to Lola Ayang’s hut. Lola Ayang hurriedly took her bolo and faced the approaching dog. While Roger was able to free himself from the dog’s chase, it was Lola Ayang whom the dog tackled. As the dog approached, Lola readied the bolo for a big whack. But the dog bit Lola Ayang’s leg first before she could hit it in the head. The dog fell on the ground as all of us scampered to hit its still moving body with anything we could get hold of.

When we were sure the dog was already dead, we shouted for joy and celebration. But in the corner, there was Lola Ayang seemingly in pain from the bite of the dog. I approached her, “Are you OK, Lola?”

“I will be fine” she said her voice struggling, her hand laid over her wound. “I just need a little rest and I will be fine.” Then she looked for some old clothes to bind it.

Having heard of Lola’s assurance that she was fine, we proceeded to bury the dead dog and left the old woman allowing her take a rest.

But it was the last time. The following day, she was found dead in her hut due to the mad dog’s bite.

I could not believe my eyes when I saw Lola Ayang lying lifeless on her bed. She looked in pain but her face revealed the strength that she must have mustered to fight for life. I felt my tears just flowed down.

All of my friends went to the hut. And there was Roger crying so hard in all remorse and gratefulness. But no amount of tears could bring her back to life. Until the end, Lola Ayang stood up to make one last act of kindness: to offer her life just so that Roger – the boy who hit her on the face – could live.

When everyone learned of Lola Ayang’s heroism, everyone in the village gathered at her hut to show their sympathy, gratitude, and admiration. They extended help and everything they could contribute to give the old woman a decent burial. For those who believed she was a witch, she was vindicated. In her death, Lola Ayang regained the respect and love that she long deserved.

Until this moment, all I could remember of the old woman was her smile, her stories, her determination, her contentment in spite of everything, her unquestioning faith, and her wish to find her Jeremy.

I don’t know if I will ever find Jeremy to tell him her story. But her story lives in me, in my friends, and in those whose lives she touched. Wherever she may be, I know that she now have the peace, the comfort, and the happiness that she rightfully deserves.


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