Princess of the Mountain
The train chugged noisily into town.
"Here comes the train! Come on, everybody. Hurry up. Hurry!" A group of children, just out from school, swooped down towards the railroad station to watch the passengers alight from it. There were no passengers for Magaldan.
But, wait. There is one. An ancient man with a white beard flowing down to his knees is wobbling down its steps. The iron horse then belches out a cloud of black smoke; whizzes our of town again.
All the children start gawking at the old man. He is such a sight with his run-down sandals, an odd crumpled bag dangling from his arm and a strangely-lettered cane in his hand. He walks to one of the brown, paint-peeled benches in the waiting room of the station. He looks very tired and sits down with a thud of his buttocks on the hard bench.
"Good afternoon, Lolo," chorused the children. "Where have you been?" The aged man did not seem to hear them. He kept fanning himself with a tattered buri hat.
The old man's silence did not stop the curious children from asking more questions. "Were you a soldier before? What is your cane for? Why does it have writings that we can neither read nor understand," questioned Lito, the oldest of the children in the group.
Higtala inched her way through the cluster of children around the man. She was carrying a glass filled with water. "Perhaps Lolo would like to drink some water," she said. She was a puny girl, no taller than the old man's knee. But, as she jostled her way among the boys, her pigtails got caught in one of Lito's shirt buttons. As she untangled to set it free, some of the water spilled on the stranger's frayed sandals. "A thousand pardons, Lolo," she begged. "I did not mean to spill water on your tired feet. I only meant to quench your thirst . . ."
"Ah, a thoughtful and respectful child, at last!" exclaimed Lolo to himself. "Tell me, Child," the gray-haired man spoke in a guttural tone, "What is your name and where do you live?"
"My name is Higtala, Lolo," the little girl answered cheerfully. "We live in a hut nearby. And if you wish, you may rest and sup with us. My mother will be very happy to have you."
"Lead me then, Child . . ." And taking his strange cane and worn-out bag, he walked, surrounded by the group of curious tots, to little Higtala's home.
...Aling Nena was very happy to see the ancient man. She did not seem surprised that her daughter had brought a strange visitor.
Just as the little girl had said, Aling Nena was very happy to see the ancient man. She did not seem surprised that her daughter had brought a strange visitor. She hurriedly put out a cake of soap together with a basin of water and bade him to refresh himself.
The old man sat on a rocking chair by the window in the kitchen while Higtala's mother prepared an early evening meal. He carried an air of being at home in his new surroundings. "You have an angelic little daughter," he remarked.
"You must have had a tiring day," Aling Nena commented. "If you wish to retire early, please do so."
"Thank you, thank you," repeated the aged visitor. That meal has certainly strengthened me. I feel that I owe the children a story which they have been trying to wangle out from me the moment I arrived. Now, I am good and ready."
The children, who had been waiting in the small living room, screamed a chorus of delight. They assembled themselves on the bamboo-slit floor while the old man leaned his big frame on the sawali wall. The once noisy children sat in eager silence waiting for the story to begin.
"Somebody here asked me whether I was a soldier during my younger days . . . and . . . where I got this strange cane."
"Oh, yes, Lolo. That's what we like." Lito cried excitedly.
"Tell us that story; tell us. Do." echoed the children drawing closer to him.
"But, first tell us your name. Then let's start the game," the smaller children begged.
The old man smoothed his mustache, smiling as he did so. "My name? What's my name? But just the same, as you say, let's start the game."
The children nodded in silent assent.
"They call me Apo Alapo. Far up in the mountain, that's where I come from. There, the cold wind hoots among the trees all day. And the sun casts checkered shadows on a wide carpet of grass. It was there that my father built a nipa hunt, just as big as this one, to protect us from the elements.
"As a child, I used to roam in the forest. I befriended all the birds and animals there for I had no playmates. I learned to love each wayside flower; came to know when each plant was going to bloom. I had to play alone from sunrise to sunset because my parents went to work on the sides of the mountain to till the soil.
One day, when I was about seven years old, I followed them secretly to their place of work. There, I saw the hardship that my mother and father had to endure. Each one of them carried a big stone on his shoulder walking along the steep and slippery trails to the side of the mountain. After gathering a heap of stones this way, they would then put the stones one on top of the other to form a wall. The wall was held together by a mixture of sticky red mud and soil.
The old man looked around to see if any of the children were getting drowsy. Everybody was wide-awake. Apo moistened his lips and continued: "My parents worked without resting during the day. But, by sunset, they could only finish a small portion of their job.
This backbreaking task of my parents and all the other parents in the community went on for years.
"This backbreaking task of my parents and all the other parents in the community went on for years. Other tribes on the other side of the mountain were also building their own pagew (rice paddy).
"As soon as I was old enough, I joined them in their work. During the first few days, I fell . . . whoops! I slipped . . . Ooouch! on the muddy trail many times. There were wounds on my hands. My palms grew thick and hard." He paused. "Here, feel them," he offered his palms to the children who silently felt, gingerly traced, excitedly touched and briefly caressed them.
"Every time I carried a new load of stones, my shoulder wounds would sting again and again." Apo Alapo then unbuttoned his dusty coat and showed the children his right shoulder. There were scars of three deep wounds on them. "Can you imagine how painful they got whenever I carried a heavy stone?" The children sighed. Some were teary-eyed.
"Like most of you, I wanted to grumble about my work. Yet, the patience of my parents gave me courage to continue the wearisome toil. They told me that their own parents and their parents before them worked so that each generation had to continue the work their parents had not finished. They said, too, that the rice terraces we were building would serve as a lasting monument to man's capacity and endurance for work against all kinds of hardships. Above all they said that the pagew would provide good planting ground for rice to ensure a bountiful harvest for our community during our generation and the generations to come.
"I had no time to join other young people who attended merry-makings, fiestas and wedding parties. The task that lay before us seemed endless . . .
"One unusually hot day, a spell of dizziness overcame me while at work. At that time, my mother was sick. Father had gone to the village to fetch the herbolario. Thus, I was left alone to work that day.
"I did not know that I had fainted from overwork until I heard footsteps pattering around me. My eyelids felt heavy. Through half-closed eyes, I saw a queer little brown man squatting by my side. Another fat man, who looked like a midget, was busy inspecting my chest. The next one was busy massaging my knees with some foul-smelling mixture. Still another was feeling my pulse with his tiny hand. I rose halfway but sank down again because I felt that my head weighed like a thousand kilos.
"The first tiny man sidled up to my ear telling me not to move as I was very sick. I was so helpless that I allowed them to do whatever they wished to do with me. I closed my eyes. Much, much later, I realized that I was in a cold damp cave. It was, it seemed, the little men's kingdom. How I got there was a mystery to me.
"A troop of little tanned men marched back and forth as if to guard me. They looked like toy soldiers with oily skins. They carried tiny spears on their shoulders.
"At the farther end of the cave was a fire over which some little women were cooking food that bore an odd aroma. One tiny brown woman carried a small bowl to feed me. It took more than two dozen bowls to satisfy my hunger. The last bowl she brought was filled with a green and white liquid. It burned my tongue. I howled in protest. All the puny men thought it was something to rejoice about. They all shouted in glee. The soldiers cast their spears away. Everybody went into a merry dance, jumping up and down with delight.
"The first brown man climbed up to my shoulders and whispered in my ear that they were all glad that I have recovered from my illness. My beard had started to grow; somebody thoughtfully combed it. A cute, young lady scrubbed my face and arms. I had a general clean-up.
"The next day I was told that I could continue my work in the fields. I expressed my gratitude for their care and promised them that I would also help them anytime they need it. In return, the only thing that they asked me was not to tell any other mortal about my stay in their happy little kingdom.
"I felt as strong as ten carabaos and went back to work at once. My father was greatly surprised upon seeing me. He thought that a group of young men had asked me to join them to attend a distant village's weeklong fiesta. I told him that I got lost in the forest. Although he did not believe my white lie, he just smiled to himself. 'How is my dear mother/' I asked.
"'You better see her first,' he advised. 'She is anxious to see you.' "'All right then,' I answered. 'I'll go and see her first. But, don't worry, I will make up for my absence.'
"I rushed to the field early next morning. To my great surprise, a heap of stones lay in one corner of our rice paddy. These were ready to be placed into the unfinished wall. I worked as fast as I could. Before I knew it, it was sundown. The following day, a new pile of stones were there again ready for the additional wall. Day in and day out, a new pile of stones were there for me. It truly lessened my burden. I knew of no neighbor who would do me such a favor. I had a happy feeling it was the handiwork of the little brown men who nursed me back to life.
"So, one day, I decided to pay them a visit. As soon as I reached the clearing which was supposed to be the entrance to that united, toy-like kingdom, I got deeply confused for I could not locate the door. I retraced my steps to the field. While I worked, I thought deeply about the mystery of the little kingdom's lost door.
"Another year passed. My parents and I were very happy and thankful that our work was already half-complete. We planted rice on the paddies; we were expecting a rich harvest come the eleventh month.
... I saw the glow of a cigar tip flickering by our window, I scrambled up to catch the supposed thief who had invaded our house. Who do you think I saw? Why, two of my little brown friends...
"One dark night, as I lay on a mat waiting for sleep to carry me to dreamland, I saw the glow of a cigar tip flickering by our window, I scrambled up to catch the supposed thief who had invaded our house. Who do you think I saw? Why, two of my little brown friends. One was dangling his upturned shoes on his toes as he smoked a giant cigar with visible delight; the other sat with his chin cupped in his hand. He was downcastas though the earth was about to fall on his bowed little head.
"'Oh, yes,' I said in joyous greeting, 'I have been looking for you to thank you for gathering stones for me. You have been so kind, so helpful, so generous, so . . .'
"'Do, do," bantered the better-humored one. 'Say more.'
"'Stop that prattle,' warned the sad-faced one, 'and tell him of our mission.'
"'Go ahead, say it,' I invited.
"'Well, you are the only big man we can trust,' began my first visitor.
"'And you are the only one who can truly and sincerely help us,' added the grieving one.
"'There is a great sadness in our kingdom,' said my first pal in a more serious tone.
"'For a group of white men who toured the mines close to our encampment captured our little princess. Our soothsayer predicts that if the princess is not helped by a good man within the next forty-eight hours, she will be placed in a small iron cage and exhibited in a public zoo like any other animal. Perhaps,' he said, 'she will be brought to the Botanical Gardens.'
"'You know that there will be no peace in our-once-happy-kingdom.'
"'Our Princess Higtala has to be returned. To us, she is more beautiful than the stars. Try your best to find her so that our kingdom will be happy once more.'
"I was angered and saddened by the news. I felt as if my chest would break. My tongue felt swollen too. I could not utter a word.
"'You have been chosen by our king to look for the princess. We, all our people, beg you not to return until you have found her.'
"'While you are looking for her, we promise to do our best for your parents and your people. We shall provide them all the stones for the pagew on the mountainsides. . .'
"'You will please leave tonight,' pleaded the first man.
"'Tonight?' I asked in disbelief.
"'Yes, here is a bag containing everything you need.'
"I took the bag and examined what was inside. It was empty.
"The light-hearted undersized friend of mine started to holler with laughter. A sharp look from the second man brought back the problem. 'Look,' said he, 'wish for some clothes and you'll find them there.'
"I did. When I peered into the bag, there was a set of clothes such as the men in the city wear. What more there was a bunch of money in the coat pocket.
"'See what I mean?' queried the first man. 'You can defeat Houdini any time.'
"'Who is he?' I asked. 'Is he the one who snatched the princess?'
"At this, both men broke into tiny peals of laughter, threw their caps in the air as though the 'mission' was a whole joke. 'Houdini,' explained my first chum, 'is the greatest magician in the world. But, with this bag, you can beat him.'
"'Here, too, is a cane,' offered the second little man. 'If you find the princess surrounded by evil men, just say Bambo! and it will hit one hundred heads in one second. If you find the princess surrounded by an iron fence, just say Aris! and it will break down the iron fence. On the other hand, if you are fleeing from the white men and you need to delay them, just say Awag! and it will build a stone wall or an iron fence through which your pursuers cannot pass. Finally, when you get tired of walking and you want a new kind of transportation, just say Alad! and it will carry you to your place of destination.'
"'Fine, fine,' I said. 'May I try its powers?' So taking the cane I commanded: 'Bambo' and it began prancing back and forth between my two friends' heads. 'Tigil!' I said, and it stopped.
"'A good friend you turn out to be,' complained my first chum as he nursed several lumps on his forehead.
"'Sorry, I thought the stick was only supposed to hit enemies.'
"'Yes, but that cane thinks that anyone in your presence needs to be whipped the moment you command it to do so.'
"Without further ado, I stepped on the magic cane and ordered it to take me to Manila, the city of so many businesses where all the big, white men lived in high, cold buildings. I visited all of them asking people whether they knew of any white man who had come from the mines in the Mountain Province. I found no one who could give me the important information. I asked my magic bag to give me a map of the city so I could go from one big house to another, still my search was fruitless.
"By a stroke of good fortune, a speaking box, they now call it radio announced that a white man had issued an alarm about the escape of a live, little girl from the mountains. And would you believe it? He called the princess a 'dangerous witch.' A handsome reward was offered for the return of this 'prisoner.' The announcer said that the little girl would probably seek a way to go back to the Mountain Province.
"I was glad that the princess had managed to escape. But, where could I find her? How could I face her people who had entrusted me to save her? How far could her dainty little feet carry her? A thousand worries burdened me. Poor, lovely princess!
"Since then I have traveled from town to town, half-way through the country looking for our lost princess of the mountain. Now that you know my story, I must be on my way . . ."
"Where are you going, Apo Alapo?" chorused the children. "Don't go now. Tomorrow, we will help you look for the princess."
"Thank you, thank you," he replied. "I really have to go."
Just then Higtala's mother came in and advised the children to let Lolo take a rest. One by one, the children left reluctantly, each one pledging his willingness to help look for the princess.
The next morning a group of curious townspeople ogled at the house of Aling Nena. In place of the nipa hut was a cute, homey bungalow. But, Higtala was gone. So was the ancient man with the long, white beard flowing down to his knees.
© Margarita Francia-Villaluz
Reprinted with permission from the Estate of Margarita Francia-Villaluz. Copyright 1975 by G. Francia-Villaluz. Published by Manlapaz Publishing Co. This story won Second Prize in the PAMANA Children's Story Contest, 1967.