Island of Child`s Fear, Shame and Faith
Elizabeth Padillo Olesen
Chapter 1: A Child in the World of Oppressive Adults
1 When a Child Is Teased to an Old Man
The local folks called him Dadong. He walked with a wooden cane with movements like a mad chicken, almost dumping his body to the ground. His hair was white and his face could not hide the wrinkles which were witness to his passing years. The other children in the island called him, “the walking dirty old man”. It must be because of his old torn white jacket and tattered pants which seemed to be his only set of clothes for all the days in a week. But above all, to my childhood memory, he was a scary figure of malice under the clear bright sun.
Dadong was the watchman of the community cemetery. His bamboo house stood at the entrance of the gate of the cemetery where local folks buried their dead. In the island a cemetery was detached from the residential area. It was as if life and death were two different worlds and the place of the dead, the cemetery, was a place to visit only during day time when the sun would shine brightly. Otherwise, during the nights, when the dogs barked and the cicadas sang tunes, and the silence of the night was only disturbed by the humming of the winds and the collision of the leaves, the cemetery was taken as the place of the underworld that one must not tread on.
So we, the children, wondered how a man like Dadong could ever thrive at the mouth of the cemetery. He was called the guardian of the dead. That made him scary to the little children. But not only that, Dadong was part of my unconscious child, a scary child in me that detested his sight that would like simply to run away from him as if I was confronted with a horrible monster.
When I was 8 years old, I used to join with other children gather firewood from the heart of the
the little forest in the island. Equipped with baskets and bolos, we would be combing the area for fallen debris of wood, dried branches or trunks of dead trees, or fallen parts of coconut trees that had stood for many seasons, and we would bring these goods to our mothers` kitchens to be used for cooking our daily food. There were no electrical devices in the island, no electricity that could have run some stoves for cooking, no electricity to light our nights. That was much a luxury during my childhood and we continued to cook our food by the traditional way of using firewood which we the children gathered, a practice that had been there for many decades.
As firewood was related to our daily intake of food, I saw my essential role to be out into the little forest to gather firewood for mother’s kitchen. As more and more people lived in our island, I realized too, that the little forest that used to hide fallen debris as fuel for our cooking became much thinner and smaller. We were forced therefore to go much deeper, inside and along the fences of the cemetery, down deep into the thick bushes that hid the graves.
For many months during the year, the cemetery stood seemingly untouched by human violence. This brought me to mind how the buried dead human bodies on the ground could richly fertilize the surrounding plants. And here they grew much livelier and healthier when the heavy rains of June poured upon them. During hot summer, dead branches and young coconut fruits, eaten by rats fell to the ground and dried by the hot sun. At the end of October, local folks used to clear up the sight, clean up the graves of their loved ones, pull out the standing shrubs and bushes and replace them with flowers or bouquets that could live through only the few days during the observance of the All Souls` Day and All Saints` Day every first and second of November.
From June to August where there was more need to gather firewood to pile up in mother’s kitchen because of the rains in the monsoon, there was more need to go closer to the cemetery, before the local folks should clear up the area for the annual November celebration. For me, the visit at the cemetery as small kids alone often sent a tickling fear inside me, as I associated the place with ghosts and witches. However, that was something I could laugh at. Mother often told me that ghosts and witches were only stories and not true. When the other kids in our group would start to scare us with their own strange voices, I always was the one to remind the rest that ghosts and witches were only stories to be heard.
The greater fear that lurked within my senses during these visits was the sight of Dadong. For a number of times, I was fortunate that the visits denied us from seeing the old man. Perhaps he was only sleeping. Or perhaps he was only hiding. Or perhaps he was scared of encountering people. The local folks said that he had lived so much secluded now, that it was only very seldom that he could be seen in the residential area. We wondered who could have brought him food, or where could he get his food? Or was it possible that he had died already or perhaps, simply buried himself?
During one particular visit, we could see his small nipa hut at the entrance of the gate. The roof bore some holes, unattended for long. Scattered husks of corn and peeling of bananas, turned black and brown by the heat of the sun, dirtied the ground. Attached to his nipa hut was a clothesline of thin rope which bore hanged washed clothes that were still dripping with water. I was sure that the old man Dadong must have been inside his hut. Actually, I did not know what kind of person he was. Was he good with children? Was he generous enough to give them candies? I could not even remember that I had ever heard his voice; neither had seen him face to face. Would he run after us or scold us for having intruded into the cemetery for some firewood? Would he hide us in one of the open graves?
These thoughts and the sight of his house sent a revolting fear inside me. When one of the kids, Lena, shouted for Dadong`s name, perhaps only to find out if there was a presence of an adult in that seeming lonely jungle, I felt a revolting shame and fear inside me that drove me to run away from our group. I ran and ran without looking back. I saw that other children ran also, scampering their way though the bushes as if I had inflicted on them my own fear.
The mention of Dadong`s name was like a torture in my soul. For sometime, I could hear children in school calling me by the name Dadong. They were teasing me and calling me by an old man`s name instead of my own sweet name. But not only that, the way they called me by Dadong`s name was full of malice as they said that I was Dadong`s girlfriend and that I had sex with that old man. How on earth could I ever understand! I could not understand why the little children in my island dared ever say those words to me, a great degradation to my fragile existence as a child, a seeming crime in my young heart, told in the open which I did not know and understand. And they continued calling me Dadong as if it was their joy when I would be sad. They knew too well that every time I heard being called by that name, I would run away and cry. And there was no adult or any member in my own family who punished any child calling me by the name of a dirty old man.
2 No Secret in the Island
Mother did not actually tell me what was behind the story of Dadong in relation to me. I only heard her telling the story to a group of women who were gathered to give a helping hand to a neighbour who had delivered a baby. I learned that the people in the island did not hide secrets since happening in their lives were exciting themes to share about. There were no great books to read but only personal stories to share and listen to.
My mother narrated that I was five years old that time. As head in the village, my father’s role was to take care of the weak and the needy. Dadong was a single old man without wife and children, who was then invited by my parents to stay with them, free of food and lodging. I had actually very vague memories of him, if ever there was a time that he stayed with us in our family. The only thing I could remember of him was a figure of an old man with a dirty white jacket and a cane stick that he used to hold on in order to make a balance every time he walked. But I had not seen him anymore for a long time. It was only his name that made up his existence.
So mother continued to narrate that one day father was out fishing. She and my sister, Gloria, went out to help a neighbour who was giving birth. The birth of a child was a great event in the island. Neighbours came and gave a helping hand. There was no hospital in the island. We had only a midwife who could be called on anytime when the contraction of a woman would begin. Children would also be gathered, playing around, to partly partake of the joy about the coming in of a new life to the world.
Mother said that I was left sleeping in a cradle when they left the house. A cradle was a hanging swing made out of ropes and bamboos attached to the two posts in the house. This was the easy way of putting infants and children to sleep quickly and soundly. Mother said that there was only Dadong in the house. It was okay to leave a child alone as long as an adult was there.
She continued to narrate that when she and my sister came back, they saw Dadong who had already removed his clothes in front of me. Naked, he attempted to pick me up from the cradle. It was this very sight that met mother’s eyes which she interpreted as Dadong’s attempt to molest a fragile child of five.
She said that she asked him, “What are you doing, Dadong?” to which the old man responded in a defensive manner, “No, I had not done anything wrong. I only wanted to swing the cradle.”
Convinced that the old man had a wicked intention of molesting me, father and mother decided that he could not stay with us anymore. The village council in their meeting suggested that Dadong could stay at the gate of the cemetery, to serve as the watch keeper, to which service the village council would supply him food for living.
I had not seen Dadong anymore for a long time. But the story of his attempted crime became part of the nasty jokes that the small children and even my own brothers hurled to me. And my only defence was crying and running away. I wished I could tell mother that she could learn to keep a secret, that I was hurt hearing her telling a story with me as a central figure with an old man. I wished I could tell her about the hurts that the jokes other children inflicted on me. But no, I was only a child. We were not allowed to say things against our parents, neither to question their ways of doing. My only sure defence was my own tears.
I wondered if there were other stories in the island, which were buried as secrets. But this went on, the life in the island, the stories of one were a property of all to talk about, to giggle about, to be scared about and to retell over and over again. Nobody thought that the openness of a fragile story affecting a child would ever leave a scar that a child like me had to battle for many years.
When I was in high school, I began to like a boy, to fall in love. But all the time I was scared for a shadow of a man walking side by side with me in an open road. Maybe I had forgotten Dadong. Maybe I had forgotten the tremor in my spine when hearing his name when Lena called me by Dadong`s name in the cemetery. Maybe he had become a buried memory to the small children who had grown up like me. But the shadow of fear followed me for many years which courage and faith gave me the grace to exorcise it.
(to be continued in the following sections 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 9,10, 1l, 12, 13, 14, 15. ...)