I Prayed on a Wood
By Dondon Luna
All eyes were darted towards him. Amidst the lingering silence of the room, they waited for words to come out from his quivering furrowed lips. There was no reason to hide his old age—it was blatant: his hairline was thinning and had turned to ghostly white; his back was sloping a bit, making him 1 inch shorter than he used to be; most of his skin gave an image of a crooked dry soil like the desert; his eyes were watery and white specks had eaten the inner sides of his eyes. He was old, and he was about to speak in front of a hundred strangers.
He was perspiring hard. Sweats ran off over his wrinkled and ancient skin. He has been doing this for ages, but this limelight was different—he was about to tell a secret from his uncommon past life, an epoch-old story that had been kept hidden beneath the caress of his closet.
He slowly wandered his weary eyes, closely examining the room, the unfamiliar faces and the old routine—his head was faintly shaking. The hush was already growing into a deafening whisper, so he closed his eyes, took a deep breath, opened his eyes again and began his story:
It was 1944, a moon-lighted night on the mountains of Quezon province. He had forgotten the month and the day, but in the lobes of his memory this story is so vivid and clear. The tale started as they tried to escape from the wrath of the inhumane Japanese infantry. He was 16 years old then, carrying an old rifle, and ready to pull the trigger anytime. He was only 12 when his father enlisted him to the guerrillas of Southern Luzon. Since the occupation of the Americans, his father had been a member of the Filipino rebels. He never had a normal childhood. His mother left them when he was 3 years old. Since then, he and his father lived in the swamped mountains of Lucban, Quezon, always running, hiding—anxious of what tomorrow would bring.
He never had a chance to go to school. He traveled barefooted each night as his father’s troops evacuate from one nest to another. And as his father engaged in war, he would hide himself behind an old touted tree or a massive rock to protect his scrawny lean body. Literally, he had lived all his life in the jungle, a Tarzan-kid. He never went down—he was innocent from all the advances and developments happening below the forested hills, naïve of the life outside the bounds of the mountains. His knowledge was limited to guns, the guerillas, the Japanese and the frequency radios commanding their every move.
On the third year of the enemy’s occupation, their leader assigned him to convoy a group of people routing to the left side of the mountains, to a safer cave 70 feet from the ground. He remembered how the radios had spoken: the whole town has been ransacked by the Japanese. Townspeople had taken their usual escape from a miserable fate—the forest. The guerrillas acted as their compass and life vest. To cover all the people, they would segregate into smaller groups. Being the youngest, and since there was no one who wanted to escort a group of villagers who called themselves Devotos, he was forced to walk by them—most of the guerrillas have lost their faith to any divinity whatsoever—indeed, the war had changed them in a number of unfathomable ways.
There were four Devotos: a 60-year old lady, a mother in her 40s, her twenty-year old son, and a middle aged man with a crippled right hand. They were carrying a long and bulky rectangular kind of glass-walled box—at least, it was how he saw it the first time he met them burdening their shoulders with it. They were all scared and worried. He saw horror in their weeping eyes.
The box they were carrying seemed heavy. At first, he had no idea what was inside it. Although he tried to catch a glimpse each time they stop to rest, still he cannot figure out what was lying in the box—the moonlight was not helpful either, it was being blocked by the sturdy thick leaves above them. All he can see from his vantage point was an elongated silky cloth cover.
After a mile of walk in the middle of the sullied terrain, lady luck was suddenly on his side; he got the chance to see what was inside the box when the man with the crippled hand tripped. The box wobbled and the covering cloth altered, exposing some details. He intuitively caught the crippled man. This gave him the opportunity to feed his curiosity. He finally saw the thing inside the transparent box. What he found out back then was disappointing for him. He saw a wooden carve of a bearded man, sleeping or dead—he had no idea. The thought that all the while he was guarding a non-sensical wooden sculpture was so disappointing.
Growing up, he was thought that everyone is going to die; what differentiates a worthwhile living from a non-sense existence is the way he dies. Fighting and dying for freedom is an absolute dream for people like him. Ever since he carried his rusting rifle, he readied himself for the inevitable—having a principle in his heart that he was doing the noble thing for the country. But knowing that that night could be the end of everything for him, he wished he could die heroically for the country. However, it was upsetting for him having the knowledge that he was combating the total darkness, the dangerous forestry, and the possible attack of the enemy just for a piece of wood which was totally alien to him.
The thought gave him the sudden impetus to leave the four and join his father in the east side of the mountain where they were defending the documents and files of the municipio. For him, that was worth dying for. Nonetheless, he gave them the benefit of the doubt and asked, “Who’s this?”
“Santo Sepulcro,” the mother hardly stated with heavy breathing interruptions. She said it as if it was a real person lying and just sleeping in the box.
“It’s Hesukristo, my son,” the gray headed old lady added—there was hardship and crisp on her every word. It was the first time when it came into his senses that a real aging woman was with them. In their seemingly endless journey, all that mattered to him were the path they were taking, the echoing sounds of gunshots far away, and the shadows of every tree in their trail. Aside from the box, in which he was so curious about, he never thought of them. But when the old lady spoke with hardship, he became suddenly aware that she was really thin, petite and very weak—and she was actually burdened by the huge box which he estimated weighing 300 pounds. As an innocent gesture, he offered to carry the side of the old lady.
“No son,” the aged lady hesitated, “we need you to guard the way of Santo Sepulcro.” He then distanced himself from the group without a word and readied his rifle, keenly opened his sharp ears, and examined every part of their track—just like what his father had taught him.
As they tiredly walk another half mile, he cannot but wonder why those four people exerted so much energy and time just to keep safe a piece of wood. Actually, he realized that it could put them in danger; the heavy wood slowed them down—he can feel the enemy was fast approaching, he can hear them inching nearer and nearer from where they were. He was sure that the Japanese will catch them because of their slow pace. The box was very visible, it can catch attention especially that the silky cloth and the glass flickered each time the moon rays tapped the box—it was an open invitation for the enemy. All these facts led him to accept their doomed destiny in the hands of the Japanese. They’re close and death was marching with them, he thought at that time.
The four started murmuring repetitively, “Lord, help us and save us. Our Father who art in heaven…” as they passed through wild grasses that scratched their bare legs, sharp stones that sore their feet, and dirty mud where blood-sucking leeches jumped for their flesh—not to mention the pain their shoulders bore. As he pondered their unfortunate scenario, he felt a bit of sympathy. He swayed his eyes left and right until he saw a fitting place to hide.
“In here,” he shouted. The four altered their direction and followed the boy with the gun. As they sat down, though there was nothing homey in the place—same wild dirty earth, he remembered—he felt the comfort it brought for the quartet, all of them holding their aching shoulders as they found their places.
Suddenly, they heard a loud explosion from afar—it echoed in the stillness of the mountain. They covered their ears. The mother started crying. Her son rushed by his mother’s side and comforted her. Her tears were like summoning the war to stop. Meanwhile, the boy aimed his rifle to nowhere, searching for a target—there was nobody in the dark surrounding. With a ready gun, he also eyed his four companions. Their breaths were heavy and fast.
“We cannot carry that thing forever,” he cannot avoid saying, seeing them so tired and aimless, “the Japanese will eventually find us because of that. Without that box we can reach the cave faster.”
“We cannot leave the Santo Sepulcro,” the old lady whispered, with sobs interruptions, “I understand, son, that you don’t know Him. But for us, he is our life.”
For a moment, he thought that they were crazy. He cannot imagine depending his life on a wood. Despite the obvious doubts in the boy’s eyes, the old lady continued, “every summer, the town gathered and gave praise to God in front of this image—praying for bountiful harvest, for healing or just to thank Him for giving us life.”
“My hand was cured because of Him,” the crippled-hand man interrupted.
“It doesn’t look anywhere near being cured,” stating the obvious, the boy raised the query.
“Pepe here cannot move the rest of his arm in the past,” the old lady disrupted, “but after he became a devotee of Santo Sepulcro last Holy Week, he was able to move it.”
“I believe He cured me,” said the disabled man while touching the side of the wooden box.
“When my boy was an infant,” the sobbing mother entered the conversation, “he had this sickness. I thought he was going to die. I prayed hard to Santo Sepulcro in our church to heal my son, and when I went home he was there crawling actively again,” then she kissed the hand of her son.
He suddenly felt the envy of not having a mother to caress his tired soul. He, then, turned his eyes on the old lady, “how about you? What’s your story?”
“Son, my life is enough to thank God. When I was a little girl, I first experienced the terror of war when my father was a Filipino soldier fighting against the Spaniards. I thought the war would end after the Spaniards left the country. I thought everything will go back to normal, but the Americans came—my father kept on fighting. We lived underground and in the mountains. My mother would cry each night, thinking about my father. He died eventually while in the battlefield. My mother died with a heart attack after that year,” she stopped for awhile and closed her eyes. Then with a quaint smile on her face, she said, “With my experience, I never thought I can live this long—this is something I should be thankful to the Lord.”
Silence followed her narrative. The wind made a creepy whoosh sound. Suddenly, he felt a sharp object at his back. When he turned his head he saw a Japanese soldier pointing his bayonet on him. The soldier shouted in Japanese, he knew it meant to drop his rifle. Scared, he obeyed. Another indifferent shout compelled him to raise his arms and kneeled, sobbing a bit. Two other soldiers emerged. The cry of the mother grew louder, the embrace of her son tightened, the crippled man raised his arms, and so did the old lady.
At that moment, he knew he was going to die.
The soldiers were mockingly laughing. One opened the box and took off the clothing. He was about to pull the trigger on the wood when the crippled man ran over to stop him. The man was shot straight on his chest. The cry grew louder, the sobbing was getting faster.
The two soldiers took the mother and son. They pushed them in front of who appears to be their captain. Without hesitation, he stabbed the mother on her stomach and then the son on his chest. They both stumbled to the ground—blood creeping and joining the soil. The captain, then, aimed his gun on the old lady. She was calm as if she long accepted her death. He fired his gun which violently threw the aged woman.
It was his time to die. The captain walked near him. He was trembling in fear. He turned his head on the wooden image of the bearded man in the box. He closed his eyes and began repeating in his mind the murmurs he heard from them, “Lord, help us and save us. Our Father who art in heaven…”
The captain positioned to pull the trigger. He closed his eyes and accepted his fate. Then suddenly, he heard a gunshot fired from behind. The captain fell over in front of him. He opened his eyes, he saw the other two Japanese soldiers raising their hands—their guns were on the ground. He widened his view and saw guerrillas surrounding them. He saw his father with gun in position—he was the one who took the shot. He ran to him and enveloped his arm around him.
“It’s over son, it’s over,” with a faint smile on his face, his father said while tapping his back. He smiled back at him and puffed a sweet breath of relief.
After a portion of silent breathing, the reverie was over. He was back from the trance and in front of the hundred—he was old again. The same thick sweat raced off from his hair down to his semi-pointed chin. After his last phrase, the silence was deafening. All their eyes were still fixed at him. There were silent tears among the women. Deep but quiet breaths were simultaneous. It’s time for his last words.
“Let’s not forget those four. They had given their lives for what they believed. Let them be models of how we should be living our life—a life that has meaning and purpose. If it weren’t for them, our feast of Santo Sepulcro had been long gone. For me, I will remember that night with them forever—because of them, my life has never been the same; because of them, I am who I am today.”
He took a last look at the audience and left the lectern bit by bit. He strode slowly to his old chair facing the people. They all stood and recited something aloud. When he was back to his place, a young man, wearing the same long white robe like him, went near and whispered, “Father, I was blessed by your sermon.”