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Juana discovered the tree on the outskirts of Hacienda Isabella during the harvest season of 1745, while other towering trees began to bow with the weight of ripe, golden fruits and rain leaves all over the plantation’s muddy grounds. Day hadn’t yet broken when she decided to walk to the Del Valle manor, leaving the hut she shared with four other cooks to wander into the stretch of land beyond the rice paddies and banana stalks. She’d awakened to hunger pains and a dry throat, and wanted to pluck a fruit from a tree before an encomendero could catch and whip her. This was one of the first rules she learned from Aling Nena, who’d imparted her wisdom over a pot of boiling coconut oil. “Watch out for the whippings,” she said, “they’re worse than what your mother could’ve ever given you at home. Just keep your head bowed.” For a seemingly endless expanse of plains and trees, the hacienda was uncompromising.
Early morning light trickled through a thick canopy of leaves. Juana ached for the barangay of Santa Cruz, where she used to eat the fruits of Hacienda Isabella without fear, and her brother Manuel used to return to their nipa hut with baskets spilling with fresh fish and mangos. To Juana, there was nothing better than feeling her teeth slice through the sweet fibers or her lips pucker at the taste of a barely ripe fruit. She looked forward to the days when she would cook small feasts for their home of five, sometimes inviting other girls and boys from the neighborhood to share the chickens she gutted with knives, and the fruits of Manuel’s labor. Manuel always ate more than everyone else, and sometimes whole meals would pass without him saying a word.
It was on a night like that when Juana last saw him. Nanay, Leon, and Maria were asleep on their cots. A rustling outside woke her up, and she rolled out of her hammock to find Manuel’s empty.
She found him sitting by the door of their hut, carving into a block of wood with a machete. Even though he was only two years older than her, Manuel had arms and hands browned from tilling the hacienda fields and the slouch of an old man. They talked quietly of nothing in particular, careful not to let their family hear through the bamboo walls, with Manuel slicing wood and keeping his fingers dangerously close to the blade. When he turned his wrist, Juana noticed the calluses on his hands and the sheathed bolo resting against his leg. There was a mark on his arm in the shape of a sun.
“What’s that?” Juana asked. Manuel had been working at the hacienda for months now, but there were some things he refused to talk about.
“Just a wound,” he said. Juana knew he was lying. He wasn’t looking at her. The mark on his arm looked too dark to be old blood. Manuel caught her staring and finally spoke. He filled up the dead air with how the orange sunrises greeted him during the picking seasons. He and Isay, another farmer, would wake up early to see them, and chuckle whenever the rich Spanish family who owned the hacienda spoke Tagalog in a funny accent, during the few times they descended from their mansion to speak to the encomenderos. How he, Isay, and their friends would drink after a long day in the fields. He left the next morning without a goodbye.
Weeks passed and no one in Santa Cruz knew what had become of Manuel, not even the old women who gossiped at the daily masses Juana attended. The few pesos her mother was making while washing Jesuits’ robes weren’t enough for the old men who ran the rice granaries of Laguna. Juana, Leon, and Maria had to stop attending the Jesuit school in the center of town, and soon Juana became tired of cooking the same meals over and over again, flavorless without the spices she would have spent on.
They had felt hunger before, after her father had died, driving Manuel to work as a farmer. But the hole in her stomach felt deeper this time. Perhaps Manuel’s disappearance was a betrayal. Had he left them for Isay, or decided to keep his bounty of fruits in the hacienda? Juana understood why her brother might want to leave them behind, for she often thought of doing so, too.
One afternoon, after burning the small fish she was able to catch from the nearby creek, Juana held her mother’s hand and proclaimed she would go to the hacienda herself.
That was six days ago. As Juana now treaded the forest floor, she thought about how much of Manuel’s stories were true. Other kasamas refused to speak about him. It was as though Manuel’s name were a dirty word, the kind that Juana would go to confession for. Maybe he did elope with Isay, or become a tulisan on the slopes of Mount Makiling.
She found herself in the clearing. A circle of muddy ground surrounded a single tree, isolating it from all other forms of life. It was shorter than all the other nearby trees and no taller than Juana’s thin, brown shoulders, with a trunk that was twisted and gnarled like that of a balete tree. Juana held the single bulb that dangled from one of the twiglike branches and rolled it around her palm as though it were a gem.
How strange, she thought. She had never seen such a crop—not in any of the markets of Santa Cruz she used to frequent or on the hacienda. The fruit had the texture of old skin and shared the color of chico. Peeking out from the peeling rind were clear, gelatinous berries, and Juana’s mouth watered at the sight of them. Would they be as sickly sweet as lansones or sour as tough mango fibers? Could she dice and drop them into the frog stew she and her fellows kasamas slurped daily, sweetening the dreary brew into something akin to ginataan? Perhaps Manuel might’ve known its name.
The clanging of distant bells interrupted her reverie. It was time to head to the kitchens of the Del Valle mansion, where the encomenderos would no doubt be awaiting their first meal of the day. Juana let go of the fruit.
The Del Valle family owned the hacienda, but Aling Nena was certainly the lord of the kitchens. Juana and the other cooks scrambled around while she barked orders in swift Tagalog, concocting a melody of foods for the encomenderos: tablea chocolate, lumps of rice cakes, sausages, nuts, and pristine eggs. Juana would have been afraid of her, but she knew that Aling Nena was like jackfruit—full of spines and hardness but sweet inside. It was Aling Nena who clothed her in an old muslin dress and showed her around the plantation. Yet like the jackfruit, Aling Nena kept her secrets. When pressed about Manuel, her old, yellowing teeth formed a grimace. “Who knows?” she said. “Nobody knows what goes on here anymore. All we do is put food in our bellies.”
By the time the food was delicately placed on china plates, the encomenderos were lounging in the mansion’s high-ceilinged comedor, puffing on cigars and pink-skinned from the Philippine heat. The air was thick with smoke and cologne. Paintings of pale men adorned the comedor. Don Esteban Del Valle sat at the head of the table. According to the women of the kitchens, he was only in Hacienda Isabella once a month, as he had a larger mansion in a faraway town fit for him and his insulares family. He was a robust man whose mustache bobbed as he spoke in Spanish to the men around him. They scarcely glanced at Juana when she set their meals before them. Juana strained to decipher their speech as she and the other cooks stood with their backs to the walls.
“Are they still difficult?” Don Del Valle asked.
“Who?” said Don Perico, through a mouthful of meat.
“Them.” Don Del Valle gestured his cigar to the wide window that overlooked the hacienda fields. Juana could barely see the kasamas toiling in the fields. From afar, they looked like ants.
Don Arcos, whom Juana had seen stalking the fields of the hacienda, drummed his sausage-like fingers on the table. He was a stout man with a cotton-white beard. “You know how indios are. Indolente. Sometimes I catch a man sleeping under a tree, and sometimes men count rotten fruit when we take stock of the harvest. Like all children, they need a beating or two. But no, they haven’t been difficult since August. They’ve learned to fear my men.”
August? Juana thought. That was the month Manuel left.
Without warning, someone spat with gusto. It was Don Santiago. He’d coughed out a wad of sausage, bright red and mangled. It was still raw. His eyes bulged behind gold-rimmed spectacles, and his hair was greasy with sweat.
“Which one of you is responsible for this?” he said.
There was silence. Aling Nena had her hands clasped so tightly together that her knuckles had whitened. She was the one who’d thrown the necklace of sausages into the fire. The impact had left a burn on Juana’s arm, as she’d been working beside her. Now the fresh red welts on Aling Nena’s nape peeked from under her dress collar. Juana saw her tremble for the first time.
Another moment of stillness.
Juana stepped forward and felt her mouth go dry. “It was me,” she said.
She did not dare look at Aling Nena. Don Arcos grunted and stood up, picking up the lash he’d set on the floor beneath him.
When he pulled the sleeves of Juana’s dress to expose her shoulders, she wanted to cry, run back to Santa Cruz, and hide in her mother’s arms. Arms crossed to protect her chest, she tried to keep track of the lashes. One. Two. Three. Four. Each one fell with a crack. Each time, Juana felt a sharp pain shoot through her spine. The men continued smoking and eating, but Don Santiago watched with a glint in his eye.
Once it was finally over, she was dismissed back to the kitchens. The other cooks weren’t permitted to leave until the men had finished their breakfast. Juana took shelter beneath one of the tables and pressed her hands to her wounds, finding blood trickling down her fingers like oil. Her shoulders wouldn’t stop shaking.
Aling Nena returned not long after and put her arms around Juana. “You foolish child,” she said. Juana broke into quiet sobs while another cook named Feliza pressed a water-soaked rag to Juana’s wounds. The other cooks gathered around.
Feliza hugged Juana too. Juana buried her face in Feliza’s hair. “Those bastards,” Feliza said. “I’m so sorry, Juana. You don’t deserve this. No one deserves this.”
Aling Nena laid her hand on Juana’s head. “Thank you, anak,” she said.
Feliza held Juana’s face in her hands. “You should come with us,” she said. She told Juana that she and many other kasamas would be meeting on Sabado evening to talk of revolution, change. Kilusan, as she called it. “Come with us. Help us fight back.”
The other women in the room began to whisper in agreement, while Aling Nena inhaled sharply. “Feliza.”
“What? She can think for herself. Surely she knows how wrong this is.”
Fight back. Juana recalled the stories her mother had told her of men taking up arms in Batangas, setting fire to their masters’ houses, and raging over barren hills. Did Feliza mean the same?
Juana didn’t respond. Tears were still falling. Feliza touched her hand. “Eleven tonight at the biggest hut. Just follow me. We can tell you about your brother, too.”
The rest of the week passed without incident. Juana and the women cooked for the encomenderos every day, soaking their hands in oil, flour, and chicken blood. Juana’s tears dried, but her wounds were slow to heal—she felt them sting whenever the cloth of her dress pressed against her skin.
Whenever a dish lacked a vital ingredient, Juana was sent out to the fields to retrieve it. The way to and from the mansion was long, but thankfully paved with dirt roads. Men stooped over rice paddies and stations to continue their harvest—a cycle of bending, gathering, and shifting. Flies hovered over carabaos. The air was hot and unforgiving. Straw hats shaded the kasamas’ faces, and pants were rolled up to avoid mud. As Juana anticipated that night’s meeting and finally learning what had become of Manuel, the hours crawled by. Curiosity ate away at her like a termite.
Juana was crossing a rice field when she heard shouts from behind her. A young man with a rough sack across his shirtless back was having words with an encomendero. The encomendero was stern and spoke Tagalog with a thick accent. “You’re not getting any more rice or money from me. Get back to work.”
“Letse. You’re killing us,” the young man said, turning around and spitting on the ground.
The next thing Juana knew, the young man had been grabbed by the collar of his shirt. A fist slammed into his stomach. The blow was so strong that he crumpled to the ground. The farmers in the fields looked up with fear.
Juana bit her lip and picked up the pace. She didn’t want to be caught staring.
That night, Juana followed Feliza through the small forest of workers’ huts with a torch lighting their way. The hut Feliza spoke of was made of nipa and cogon grass, full of warm bodies illuminated by firelight. The mat on the floor crumpled under the attendees’ weights, and once Juana and Feliza had sat down, Juana looked up to see the young man she’d seen hurt that afternoon. He was in the middle of a rousing speech, and all eyes were glued on him.
His name was Amado, and he was a handsome man with a high forehead and a set jaw. He wore a red bandana around his neck, and his hair and face was streaked with dirt from a day’s work. He stood proud and tall over the other workers, pounding his chest and speaking in a booming voice.
“Every day the fields yield sacks of rice and tiklis of fruits, but where is our share? What do we get for feasting on the fruits we picked? Whippings and beatings. We can’t leave because of our debts. Four reals a month cannot feed a man or his family or satisfy the debt. The system is violent and must be stopped with violence. Though we must be wiser this time; we cannot let what happened last time happen again.” He slammed his fist in his palm and murmurs of agreement rippled throughout the room. He went on to detail a plan, to which more voices began to chime in and patch the scheme together. The Don’s family would be arriving soon, and they would strike under cover at night, slitting their throats. The insulares would die screaming and the hacienda would be the first indio plantation. The bolo knives and daggers would be stored in Amado’s hut. While the men fleshed the plan out with more details and proclamations, Juana scanned the hut for Manuel. He was nowhere to be found.
Tuba was passed around in coconut shells, and as the kasamas drank from it, the air seemed to lighten. Laughter and cheers began to fill the hut alongside talk of revolution and violence. Juana felt her muscles relax. Everyone wore happiness well.
In the haze of alcohol, Juana approached Amado. After introducing herself, she said, “Feliza told me you might know what became of Manuel. He was my brother.”
Amado’s machismo fell away. His eyes clouded, and he took Juana’s hand. “Follow me,” he said.
He led Juana through the trees she had wandered through just a week before. The hacienda looked different in the darkness—the sheer number of trees created a maze, while cicadas chirped and fireflies danced. Bats looked like fruits hanging from trees. The Del Valle mansion lights winked in the distance.
“So you’re Juana,” Amado said. “Manuel always spoke fondly of you and your cooking. Your brother was a good man.”
“If he was a good man, then what happened to him?” Juana asked, picking up her pace to match Amado’s. His arms were crosshatched with scars, and a bolo was strapped to his waist. “Please tell me. I came here to look for him. Did he leave with Isay?”
Amado shook his head and swore. “So no one told you. Very well, then. We tried to take the hacienda last August. It was my father’s idea—that month no one was receiving coins, the rains wouldn’t stop, women were being hurt, and we were starving. It would have taken us ten lifetimes to pay off each of our debts. We spent many years praying for God’s help or a bountiful enough harvest, but neither came. So fifty of us branded ourselves with the symbol of a sun and swore an oath under St. Isidro, and we marched to the mansion one morning with spears and knives. But the encomenderos had guns. I saw the bullets rip through their chests and heard them screaming like beasts, so I fled. Like a coward.” He shut his eyes and hung his head. Juana felt the air turn heavy with anger and sorrow. “That night Don Arcos rounded up every man and woman here and we saw piles of what were once men, barefoot and limp, loaded in a cart with flies flying over them. I saw my father’s eye being feasted on by maggots. The Don told us to remember that sight; remember it and never take arms again. This is what God does to fucking sinners. He and his men dug a hole in the ground and made us watch each body fall.” Amado put his hand on Juana’s back, and she felt her stomach sink like a stone the second he said: “Juana—your brother was one of those bodies. They buried him here, beneath that tree. Isay, too.”
They’d arrived in the clearing with the lonely tree and its circle of mud. Juana felt a sharp pain in her chest and dropped to her knees. Amado was saying something, but she could not hear him. Manuel was gone. Manuel, who'd cared for her all her life. Manuel, who'd taught her to fish in the creeks and told her bedtime stories. Manuel, who'd fought to put food on her table, and to live. Her fingers clawed at the dirt. She wanted to dig him out from the ground and hold him and shout and cry until the entire hacienda heard, but nothing came out from her mouth besides labored and tired breaths.
Juana spent the next few days foraging for flowers for the unmarked grave. Mango flowers, ylang-ylang, kalachuchi, and champaka now encircled the base of the tree, and Juana found herself praying to St. Isidro, day and night, for the eternal repose of Manuel’s soul and for the chance at receiving her salary at last. Aling Nena noticed Juana’s swollen eyes and gave Juana more kitchen work, thinking that it would distract her from staring into space and crying like a child. Amado sometimes visited Juana’s hut to invite her to more midnight meetings. She accepted them and helped the men coat their blades with rust. She wondered when she could return home and tell her family the truth. Perhaps she could steal a fruit or two, just like Manuel did.
She took more walks through the trees, flowers in hand. She couldn’t help but imagine how he must’ve felt in his last moments, charging at armed men with a sharp bolo and a fistful of rage, the wave of bullets and the agony of death.
Juana laid the flowers by the tree and knelt to pray a novena for the dead. Once she had finished, she gazed up at the fruits. She plucked one from its stem, but just as she was about to sink her teeth into it, she heard a rustling from behind her. A man had emerged from the trees. Don Santiago.
Juana’s heart thumped with fear.
“What do we have here?” he said, closing the distance between them.
“Perdón, senor,” Juana stammered. “I just wanted some breakfast.” She wanted to run, but she was frozen. She had not yet changed into her kitchen clothes, and could feel the breeze through her thin night dress. Don Santiago’s gaze would not leave her exposed legs.
He took the fruit from her hand and bit it. Its juice dripped down his chin and he licked it without shame. “Ah. You’re the girl who I had whipped. I remember you.” Prayers came to Juana’s mind and left in an instant.
She felt his hand rest on her bare shoulder. He kneaded her skin and leaned in close, but when she pushed him away, she felt a brutal punch strike her stomach. The breath was knocked out of her, and the don pushed her down on the ground. His hands pulled her hair and shoved the hem of her dress up, and as she screamed a hundred nos and helps she tried to keep her legs together, kicking and attempting to resist his weight and break free—until suddenly the don’s hands found his throat. His eyes bulged like a fly’s, and his skin turned blue. He gasped for air, choking, frothing blood at the mouth, unable to speak.
Juana crawled out from underneath him and watched as a spasm overtook his body. He crumpled to the forest floor and made no more sounds. The fruit lay next to him, crushed by his palm during his anguish.
Juana slowly began to breathe again, and picked up what remained of the cursed fruit. Its berries glistened in the sun, but now her mouth was dry.
Her mind went blank. Her feet carried her back to the tree, and she picked more fruits from their stems, cradling them in her palm before placing them in her pocket. She left Don Santiago where he belonged—in the dirt, exposed to the elements. When she returned the next morning, his body had disappeared, as though it had been swallowed by the bloody earth.
News of Don Santiago’s disappearance spread like wildfire. On the day before the Del Valle family’s arrival, Don Arcos rounded up every kasama and cook on a patch of land near their homes. Everyone was ordered to take their hats off and watch as guardia civil searched their huts. They stood uneasy in a line of bowed heads.
A uniformed man emerged from Amado’s hut. In his hands were two rusty bolos.
Don Arcos dragged Amado from his spot in the line and spat on his face. The men who tried to stop the don were shot in the head. Juana wanted to step forward like she had for Aling Nena, but Feliza held her back with a firm grip, and the terror of her encounter with Don Santiago washed over her like a wave. A rope was hung around Amado’s neck and strung around a tree branch. Juana watched, her belly ripped open with horror, as Amado’s strong legs danced in the air and his neck snapped after a slow few minutes. A torch was set to the wall of Amado’s hut. The nipa erupted in flames, crackling like laughter. No one spoke. There was nothing else now.
Later that night in the crowded kitchen of the Del Valle mansion, Juana prepared the simplest food she knew: rice. Sifting the pot of white grains and feeling granules between her rough fingers. Boiling water with salt. Patience and attention. Juana then took a knife and disembowelled the fruit, separating the peel from the pulp and crushing the berries into a juice that smelled of sweat and dirt. She mixed it into the rice bowl tinged with rosemary and lemongrass, hoping that the herbs would mask the smell of death. She reveled in the power her hands now had—how easily it came.
Juana opened the doors leading to the comedor herself and served the fruit-tinged rice on each of the encomenderos’ china plates. She waited with her back to the wall, patient and eager to see their mouths taste their fill of blood and dirt.