The morning sunlight shone in Rosa dela Cruz’s eyes as she stretched her aching back. She had lost count of how many hours she had been stooping down as she methodically cut the pieces of pork to be cooked for the celebrations this morning. Already much of the meat she had cut had been cooked into adobo, that sweet-sour-salty dish that her grandmother used to cook when she was still alive. Neighbors agreed, it was the best adobo anywhere in town. Grandmother’s mother taught her how to cook it.

This was the same dish her grandmother’s mother was cooking when Emilio Ladron came to Rosa dela Cruz’s great-grandfather’s hut in the middle of the fields, where it has stood since his grandfather built it. It was a simple hut, its roof made of nipa and the walls of split bamboo weaved together in such a way that only women of her town could do. The simple hut had a simple door and no lock; great-grandma used to say to her daughter that their neighbors had always been friendly with one another and no one would dare steal from another’s house before the Ladrons came.

And thay day the Ladrons did come. Emilio Ladron, his Spanish heritage evident in his golden brown hair, blue eyes, aquiline nose and pale skin, arrived with two men on grandmother’s birthday, hence the adobo that her mother was cooking. Emilio Ladron, whose pale skin was already turning red from being under the sun too long, announced himself loudly and demanded to speak to Francisco Santiago, Rosa’s great-grandfather. Francisco stepped out of their simple hut with its nipa roof and bamboo walls, and Emilio Ladron, with one of the men with him translating his words, in no uncertain terms and with all the arrogance only a conqueror of lands could muster, told Francisco that by the grace of God and the almighty king, may he live forever, who sits on a throne of pure gold in a far away land across the wide, open sea, that this land which Francisco Santiago’s grandfather cleared with his own two hands and an ancient axe was now the property of Emilio Ladron and his descendants forever and ever.

Francisco Santiago, dumbfounded, thought this was all a great joke by his neighbors and laughed wuite loudly, whereupon the much-insulted Emilio Ladron and his men proceeded to pummel some sense into what they thought was Francisco’s addled brain. After Francisco was manhandled, punched, kicked and turned upside down, only then was he convinced that Emilio was serious. Emilio, on the other hand, was of the mind to bury Francisco six feet under ground but then thought better of it; after all, somebody had to work the land he now owned, correct? And so he let Francisco go, but only with the sternest reminder that Francisco pay him three-fourths of the crops Francisco will harvest come summer. Francisco, already confused and scared of being manhandled again, had no choice but to nod his head.

Rosa, her back still aching from stooping down so long, turned west, still holding the bloody kitchen knife in her right hand. To the west, just beyond the dirty outdoor kitchen Rosa was working in, was a large mango tree, it’s branches spread out over a vast area. Already some of her co-workers, tired from working since dawn, were taking a break under the mango tree’s branches.

When Rosa’s grandmother Alejandra was born, her father Francisco planted a little mango seed in their backyard. The mango seed sprouted and grew in the same way that Alejandra did. It was under that mango tree that Alejandra buried her father, three years after Emilio Ladron’s fateful visit. Two years later, it was also under that mango tree that a party to celebrate her wedding to her childhood sweetheart Pedro dela Cruz was held. The mango tree bore witness to Juan sucking milk from his mother Alejandra’s breast.

One night, when Juan was only seven, eight men came to their simple hut in the middle of field and broke down the door. Juan, his three younger brothers and two sisters, his mother Alejandra and his father woke up in surprise. Four of the men held Pedro down while the other four violently herded Alejandra and her children to one corner of the house. The men holding Pedro down accused him of involvement in subversive activities to undermine His Majesty’s royal government as well as in making trouble for Emilio Ladron. They brought him out to the back of the house. There, at dawn, when Emilio Ladron’s accursed men had left, and with a rope around his neck and hanging from a branch of the mango tree, Alejandra found her dead husband.

Rosa, reliving the morbid scene of finding her dead grandfather hanging from the mango tree as if she were the unlucky Alejandra, gripped the knife in her left hand more tightly. She felt a rage in her belly and a fire in her heart as she heard her own wails escape from her chapped lips, shaking not only the bamboo walls of their own little hut but those of their neighbor’s houses in the surrounding farms. Rosa, in the backyard of the great Ladron family’s house, in the midst of all the bustling activity in preparation for the fiesta that day, felt so alone in the middle of all these people. She felt such grief and anger that her heart threatened to explode, and for release her eyes searched around for something to strike at.

In the distance, Benigno Ladron, grandson of the infamous Emilio, came out of the door facing the house’s backyard, looking fresh from a bath and wearing a straw hat and an immaculately white shirt. He started shouting at Rosa’s resting co-workers to get back to work.

Rosa, still gripping the knife which she used earlier to slice pieces of pig meat, with her blood and anger pounding thorugh her veins, took a step towards Benigno.

(TO BE CONTINUED)

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