The first “hill” is Gil Puti (my kuya), the second was Gil Itim (my squatter best friend) and the third was Gil Kilay (a boy from Zobel street). Puti means white and Itim means black. My older brother Gil (pronounced like “hill”) pulled a lot of his bloodline features from my mom’s Spanish father. My brother ran like the winds of the Pyrenees mountains. At times, it looked like he was going to fall forward. But he always caught up with his legs and afterwards ran truly again. Every new kid in the neighborhood who thought himself a fast runner would always have to race my brother for proof. Until I left for another country, until the end of my childhood, I saw no one beat my brother.
I saw all the challengers because I was the one who did most of the challenging, sometimes unbeknownst to my brother. He would just find out that same day.
“Oh, yeah, Gil,” I would nonchalantly tell him, “Roger, that new kid on the block, the Visayan, is going to race you after school today.”
“What, only now, you tell me?” he would say. But he would do it. And he would win. I would race him every now and then, just to see if I was getting closer to beating him, but he would beat me every time. The only time I beat my brother was when we were running away from someone or something, like a big dog chasing us because we were stealing fruits from the premises of the local veterinarian, or from a big drunken man with a knife because we messed up shining his white shoes. I was better in zigzagging, changing directions, jumping and climbing fences.
Once I accidentally started a mini forest fire across our street which had no houses yet, just shrubs, trees, and bushes, in short, a forest to us kids. There was a pesky beehive there where I had found one of my favorite hiding places, and I got so irritated with the wasps buzzing and biting and stressing me out, I struck a match and lit the hive on fire. Initially, we all jumped with glee, but then we realized that the beehive was sitting on branches and leaves and other combustible things. The branch holding the beehive exploded into flames and before I knew it, I was watching the inferno from a window of my friend’s place. I saw my brother being interviewed by a policeman who was taking notes. Later, he would tell us that the cop took his name down and warned him that the next time he could go to jail. He was suspected for my misdeed. In things like that, escaping, running away, I was more successful.
Years later, in Canada, I heard my brother screaming from inside our toilet. I opened the door and I saw him sprawled on the floor, writhing in pain, clutching his groin. His hernia had burst. From both sides. And we rushed him to the hospital. He was okay after a few days, but of course he couldn’t run yet. The very first day that the doctor said he could run, I challenged him to a race, figuring this was the best chance I had in ever beating him. I guess that’s where they got the word “handicap.” I got closer, but he still beat me. After that I gave up. I mean, if you can’t beat him lame, when can you beat him? He ran like a wild horse in the wind. The fastest boy in Zobel-Teresa neighborhood lived in number 7 Teresa, Ermita, Manila. Though now, it is not “7” anymore. They’ve changed the numbering system of the streets, along with a lot of other things.
Gil Itim was the second Gil. He became my best friend, though I did not see much of him.
At the end of Teresa Street was the Pasig River. Here, on the shifting unsteady banks, lived Gil Itim with his squatter family. My parents never forbade our friendship. Not that it would have mattered, for Gil Itim was an engaging, trustworthy and enjoyable companion, always with a smile, white teeth flashing on his very dark face and sort of kinky hair. He might have been part Ita. His hair was both kinky and wavy and full on his head except for that peklat scar he had on top of it. It was big. It looked and felt like a walnut. He told me he dove into the Pasig and hit a rock underneath with his head. It was high tide. The water hid the rock. Like myself, when I first learned to swim, he also had had a rude awakening with The Pasig. It was he who had coaxed me to jump into the Pasig without knowing how to swim. I drowned of course, but that’s another story that I told somewhere else. Even if my parents forbade our friendship, I would have thought that they really didn’t mean it. They just say that to kids so they would obey and keep out of harm’s way thinking that the poor lived a more dangerous life than the middle class and the rich. Every time there was something missing in the neighborhood, people would always blame the poor first. My mother, a teacher in Philippine Normal School, had told me this one time. But I hardly listened to such nonsense, because Gil Itim to me was the most honest person I knew. And the happiest, too. At least, it seemed that way to my young eyes.
Gil Itim made everybody laugh, including and starting with, himself. There was really no one else like him. I don’t know if my Mom ever knew I went, though not often, to Gil Itim’s shanty at the end of the road, which was on the topmost bank of the Pasig River. She probably did. I heard her later tell people at times that her son's good friend lived by the Pasig. Just like several times I heard her tell people how I was born under her father’s house while Japanese soldiers were marching on the street in front of the gate. That story is also elsewhere.
The third Gil was Gil Kilay, which means eyebrow. He did not live on Teresa Street where we did. He lived on Zobel, the bigger street that crossed Teresa. Kilay, of course was not his real name. He got that name because of me. Somewhat similar to that story about setting the mini forest on fire, I had another misdeed associated with his name. It was my favorite time of year, and it was one of my favorite toys that we could tolerably mess with during the Christmas season, which was not so bad because in the Philippines, the Christmas season is four months long, September to January. The toy was the Filipino cannon made of bamboo. We put a mouth-size hole on top, we took out the nodes inside the hollow, we inserted a projectile (usually a tin can) at the other end, we poured a little kerosene in the hole on top, we blew and blew and blew through that hole until the kerosene was good and dry, then we twisted and lighted a piece of old newspaper or cloth, and placed it carefully closer and closer to the hole until it detonated and propelled the tin can on the other end of the bamboo like a cannonball.
Then there was Delfin the neighborhood tough guy. We tolerated his acting the neighborhood toughie, but it was not OK with us that he was not a sharer of good things, a swapang. He always wanted to be in a better position than the rest. He bullied people into giving him things yet he never shared. He would eat in front of us and never offer. We were taught to offer first, even if you did not really want to. Once we saw Delfin across the dirt road that was Teresa Street. He was on someone’s porch coming in and out, and he did not see us. “Now,” I said. “Let’s hit him now. Help me set this up, Gil,” I asked. “Sure thing,” said Gil, who lived on Zobel Street. We were on a veranda ourselves in the open so we moved a little to the side where the bougainvilleas might hide us.
“Is it ready?” I asked Gil, who was already going through the process of aiming and putting the tin can on the other end, and I was twisting some old rags and getting prepared to dip it in kerosene. “Ready?”
“Not yet. Almost. Let’s make this a good, strong one. Hit that putangina right in his face.” I had not known Gil hated Delfin this much. Probably bullied him once or twice before.
I was “sighting” Delfin as he was going in and out and I had to time it and tell Gil what to do and when to get his face out of the way so I could light the goddamn thing na. I was worried that Delfin might stay inside and we wouldn’t have a shot at him. So, I kept hurrying Gil to get the kerosene dry with his blowing already. Gil was the best blower of cannons among my friends. He had a reputation. “I’m gonna light it na. Get your face out of the way. He’s right there. Nakalantad, in full view! Hurry!”
“Just one more fuckin minute, pare. This is our only shot at that asshole. We can’t mess it up. I’m gonna make it good.”
“Quit your yapping and blow and get your ugly face out of there!”
Just as I said that Delfin made a move that signaled he might leave the porch and go inside the house, out of target range. So, I said again, “Your face, out of the way! He‘s going inside the house.”
I couldn’t wait. I lit the bamboo cannon just as Gil was taking his face away from the blow hole and the thing exploded like Mt. Mayon Volcano to our young ears. Delfin turned to see where the noise came from and as he did so his face was smashed by the speeding and accurate projectile. Gil and I were laughing and couldn’t beathe, until I saw it. He stopped and asked me, “What are you looking at?” We went inside and took a good look at his face. One eyebrow was completely gone, burned away. By the time I left the country, the thing had never really repaired itself; it remained hairless as the day it was depleted. So, ever since our cannon saga his name became Gil Kilay. The best bamboo cannon blower in the neighborhood got his name from that incident on the ground floor porch of 7 Teresa, Ermita, Manila.
I left my neighborhood and the Philippines when I was 12 and I did not return until 19 years later. I was 31. I went back to my old neighborhood of Teresa Street. I also went back to see Aling Idad, the fruit peeling lady to whom I still owed money. I wrote about that in a section of Seasons by the Bay called “The Mango Lady.” I walked the smallness of Teresa Street with the numbers of houses now in the 800’s and 900’s. Seven Teresa was not seven any more. It was 814b or some such ignominious and metallic number. The music in the street was gone. I could not find anybody I recognized at all. Then I came upon a young man smiling and sitting on a chair beside a table outside a sari-sari store. I found out he was one of the people of my boyhood, Lito, someone in the periphery of my childhood but certainly a person of that time and place. I asked him where Gil Itim was and he said they moved out long ago. They got evicted from their place by the river. I walked all the way to the river, where the big aratiles tree still stood hanging over the bank near a bridge-walk, and I saw no familiar faces. I did not stay too long. I talked to Lito for about 20 minutes. I asked where Gil Kilay was and he said he had not seen him for a while, either. He heard he got kidnapped. I asked him where Roger was (the one who challenged my brother to a race and lost) and he said he got shot. Got himself caught in the web of politics. I asked where Delfin was, he said he heard he was either in jail or dead. He was not sure, and added that it was too bad that I missed all the fun when I left for America. “Hey, man,” Lito said. “You remember so much more than me and I’ve been here all my life!”
I said goodbye to Lito and Teresa Street. I walked away and at this telling, have yet to return. What for? In many ways, Teresa Street has never left me. I don’t feel the need to go there anymore. It always comes to me, anyway.
Oscar Peñaranda is an educator, writer, and culture-bearer for and from both shores of the Pacific, and is a recipient of the prestigious Gawad Alagad ni Balagtas for lifetime achievement for his writings and endeavors. He currently sits on the board for the San Francisco Filipino Cultural Center.
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