Saturday, April 10, 2010

Night rites

WHEN people gather in the country, the eating is always the centerpiece.

Does what comes after the eating dwindle or increase in importance?

Some nights ago, I was among friends, watching an azure sky deepen into a purple mantle, draped around the slopes of Negros. The second round of rice had been served and left untouched; children and wives had gone up to bed.

The table was cleared of everything but one or two platters of the dinner that had just been shared. Was someone still expected for a late repast?

The return of the men brought the answer. Bottles of local rhum and beer and a packet of powdered orange juice became, in the care of Bernie, a concoction known as “mestiza.”

A few hours ago, Bernie and I measured out the powdered juice we made into cool drinks to wash down the lunch shared by all families. Bernie I remembered because of his daughter, a petite tyrant who wouldn’t lend her tiny fuchsia slip-ons to me.

Here was Bernie again after supper had been cleared: over the cloudy orange mixture he turned upside down a long-necked empty bottle and flicked a lighter near the bottle’s opening, which burst into flame.

Quick motions of Bernie’s wrist made fronds of smoke uncurl inside the upended bottle. The gossamer tendrils were then swallowed by the orange mixture “boiling” into the bottle’s cavity, which quickly subsided and tamely flowed back to the plastic jug of “mestiza.”

Only after this spectacle would Bernie, father and magician now turned gunner, pour a shot and pass around the “tagay”.

According to the men, this is a ritual well-known to those who love a drink. They called this “exorcising the spirit of the drink.”

Richard, the group philosopher and newly married father of Philip, who turned one that day, said solemnly that driving away the alcoholic spirits makes those who imbibe the “mestiza” smell less strongly and recover more quickly from nightly bouts with the spirit of the bottle.

Before I could ask which was more practical magic—exorcising the spirit of the bottle or not touching the bottle at all—Joel took out a roll of dried “lomboy” leaves and a packet of tobacco leaves.

A “likin,” which is a native hand-rolled cigarette beloved by those who puff this to “close” a meal—is an endangered art.

It is not only that in places like Kanipaan, where our friends live, there are no “lomboy” trees left standing. The art of “combing” a petrified leaf so it does not crack and split but regains a lost memory of luster to curl softly around a slim tendril of tobacco is as much threatened by mass-manufactured cigarettes as by ecological heedlessness.

The men split and waste many of the “lomboy” leaves before admitting they are not “combing” masters. Combing is best done by running a smooth-edged object several times to draw out a leaf’s curl. The best “sudlay (comb)” are, according to the men, the matchboxes of old that used to be made of good wood, the blunt edge of a bolo, a certain type of clam or, a concession to modernity, a plastic disposable lighter.

The information that old-timers once used seashells to make a “lomboy likin” was shared by Cecille, Bernie’s partner. She and the other wives have joined the men after their children have gone to sleep.

I recognize this other nightly rite: bedtime and mothers. After all how many fathers sway and hum their babies to sleep?

Too early for any of us to remember but still too primal to forget must be the draw of the breast, the smell of milk spilling from the rooting O of a puckered mouth, soaking flesh and cloth, seeping into a milk-scented oblivion.

Exorcising bottle spirits may be esoteric; hand-rolling a “lomboy” cigarette, romantic.

I am glad, though, that bedtime and mothers remains a nightly ritual for many.

( 09173226131)

* First published in the Apr. 11, 2010 issue of Sun.Star Cebu's "Matamata" column

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