[EXCLUSIVE] “Returned Home for Christmas after Years of Absence: A Personal Reflection and a Tale” by Elmer Omar Bascos Pizo

Editor’s note: Elmer Omar Bascos Pizo is from the Philippines. In 1981, he received a degree in Agricultural Engineering from Benguet State University. He taught poultry production in high school before he went to Saudi Arabia as an agriculturist. Shocked by the cruel working conditions in the company he worked for, he recorded them on a daily basis. Upon his return to the Philippines, the bus he was riding to Pangasinan was involved in a head-on collision with another bus. Six passengers died. He suffered a concussion and later lost his short-term memory. His neurologist suggested writing to get his memory back. A fellow at the Vermont Studio Center (2006), Elmer’s poems have been included in print and online publications in the United States and the Philippines. In April 2019, Bamboo Ridge Press released his book, Leaving Our Shadows Behind Us. He received the Elliot Cades Literary Award from the Hawai‘i Literary Arts Council during the October 2021 Hawai‘i Book & Music Festival.

A Special Christmas

by Elmer Omar Bascos Pizo

i.

I was a Grade-5 pupil in elementary school in the late sixties when I noticed this man holding one end of a piece of manila rope, probably six- to seven-feet long, looped around the neck of a fat white pig with bristled hair. He might have been in his early fifties. I’m not exaggering about the state of his physique when I say he could have been the personification of an insect of the walking-stick kind. The pig was a few feet behind him, grunting, while they walked through the streets of Poblacion in Asingan, a small town in Eastern Pangasinan. It was a mixed Pangasinense-Ilocano speaking province in Northern Luzon. I was about to leave the house for school. Our neighbour, Nana Feliza, a widow and a retired high-school teacher in her mid-sixties, waved and called out his name. “Guillermo! Hoy!” The man stopped and they chatted for a while. I heard words like “in heat” and “swollen reproductive organ”. They were also haggling over the pig’s service fee. Nana Feliza and Tata Guillermo, pig in tow, went behind her house, where, a few feet away was a pig pen built of bamboo under an ancient tamarind tree. It could house two. Out of curiosity, I followed them.

She pulled aside a makeshift latch to open the gate to the pen. Tata Guillermo untied the rope from his pig’s neck. “Oh! Your pig already ate. It will have a difficult time handling my boar. This you should know!” But Nana Feliza wouldn’t have anything with Tata Guillermo’s concern. “Just let your pig do its thing,” she insisted. “Then we’ll see how everything goes.” Hesitantly, he guided the pig inside where a sow had just finished its breakfast of rice bran blended with chopped kangkong stalks. The pen’s floor was of bare dirt. Immediately, the man’s pig, which we called Takal in the Ilocano language, mounted the sow. Its first attempt was a failure. The second as well. Surprised and scared, the teacher’s sow ran away, squealing. But she had nowhere to go. The pen was small. The boar walked around and stopped right behind the sow. It was grunting, eager to mount at the sow again. Before the third attempt could happen, I heard my name being called. The whole neighbourhood could hear my name bouncing against the inside walls of their houses. That was how loud he was. My classmate was waving at me as if in panic. At the same time, he was telling me I would already be late if I kept watching. Grudgingly, I left.

Later, while we were taking a short break from working on a fence in my Industrial Arts class—the last of my three classes that morning—I related what I saw to Sir Roman, my patient and diligent teacher. He told me that since Nana Feliza’s sow was in-heat, she wanted to take advantage of it to get her pregnant. “At any cost?” I asked with my eyes wide-open, eager to hear his reply. He nodded. “If her pig gives birth, it’ll be as many as eight to ten piglets. And if they all survive until they reach an age when they no longer depend on their mother’s milk, she can sell them for a good profit. She might keep some to fatten until they reach market weight. That’s when she can sell them to butchers or buyers in need of pigs for their parties. The man’s boar is raised and groomed for the sole purpose of breeding. He can also earn a substantial amount by allowing his pig to inseminate sows. He can even ask for some piglets for free when they reach three months. When his boar gets to three years of age, it may become less aggressive, and have health issues and poor semen quality. Then it’s time to replace it. This is the culling process. Before this happens, he already has a younger male pig groomed. He will sell his old boar to a butcher for its meat, and for making chicaron, pindang, tocino or longganisa.” Sir Roman had given me a small but significant lecture on a boar’s role in the life of a sow. That was my first encounter with a boar attempting to inseminate a sow in heat, and thereafter it was common to see men walking around in the early morning with their boars in tow, looking for backyard pig-breeders looking to have their sows in heat get pregnant. They were looking forward to getting handsome returns on the pigs they’d raise.

ii.

After almost six years in the United States, I paid a visit to my mother, my brother and sister in Asingan. I took a month-long vacation to spend Christmas and New Year with them. From Honolulu I travelled to the Philippines on 22 December 1995.  My mother, brother and sister were not expecting me at all. I arrived home at midday. Mother was feeding four piglets—a male and three females, at the back of her unfinished bungalow. They were housed in a pen built with concrete blocks, with corrugated roof and concrete floor with good drainage. The pen was sheltered by the thick branches of a mango tree. This tree was from a sapling I had sent her five years previously to plant. A septic tank collected all the waste water. She told me the piglets were from the sow she had just sold a week earlier after she had given birth to eight piglets for the fourth time. She had already sold half of the litter. All the old sow’s pregnancies were had been by the “boar rental” method. “If you had informed me that you would be coming home for Christmas, I could have kept the pig,” she said almost in a whisper. Dismay was visible on her face. “Don’t worry, mother. We will look for a lelechonin,” I smiled at her.

After resting from the long trip for a few hours, and though still a bit groggy from jet lag, I asked my brother to help me look for a pig suitable for lechon. And a goat for kilawin, kaldereta, pinapaitan and salkon. It was a Christmas tradition for many families in the Philippines to serve lechon during the noche buena. Brother and I went to two barangays where people were selling pigs and goats. We brought home a seven-month-old, 275-kilo pig for lechon; a 14-month-old, 355-kilo pig for dinardaraan, igado, afritada, lauya, lechon kawali, adobo, embutido and dinakdakan; and a one-year-old, 70-kilo Anglo Nubian goat for kaldereta, kilawin, pinapaitan, and salkon. I asked mother to invite her brothers and sisters and their families in Villasis, her former fellow teachers and a few surviving relatives of my late father, and our neighbours to the house on Christmas Eve. I asked my brother to invite his friends to come and help us butcher the animals and prepare the food the next day. At such short notice, the next afternoon, his friends and some neighbours came. We had a frenetic time butchering the animals and getting everything ready for the Christmas party the next day. Beer, gin and Pedro Domecq bottles were emptied of their contents while we worked. Spam and corned beef were our pulutans.

Before evening came on Christmas Eve, the guests arrived in hordes. How priceless it was to see old faces again after so many years away. The warmth of their embrace and their laughter meant so much. Indeed, we had a joyful Christmas celebration and a small reunion of sorts. Christmas celebrations in Hawai‘i were often dull. I soaked in what I missed around me in Hawai‘i—the genuineness and warmth of the people surrounding me. We had our fill with the traditional Ilocano-Pangasinan dishes, kankanen, puto Calasiao, patupat, suman, tupig and bibingka. We swapped jokes and stories. Some from the old days of our youth. Bottles of San Miguel beer, Ginebra San Miguel gin, Laguna-lambanog, and the two 750-ml bottles I brought with meJustirini & Brooks and Jim Beam—flowed until they were empty. To make our party complete, my brother had a friend who could sing very well. He entertained us through the night in between his own swigs of gin and Jim Beam. After we had dinner, I asked my sister to distribute small bags of candies, raisins and chocolates she re-packed from wholesale bags I brought from Hawai‘i. The lechon, kilawin, kaldereta, dinakdakan, lechon kawali, pinapaitan were gone. The afritada, igado, dinardaraan, lauya, adobo, were still plenty. My brother asked if he could keep the salkon, lechon kawali and embutido for him and his friends to finish the next day. Before our guests left, I asked them to bring home food for members of their family who could not come and join us in the celebration.

H E M U S TT H I N K
A B O U T T H E I F
.

A Tale of Craving, in Three Parts

by Elmer Omar Bascos Pizo

Boar

Klang! Klang! The Catholic church’s bells are pealing. It’s 4:00 on a muggy Monday morning. It’s May, the second month of the five-month rice-planting season. Convoys of farmers riding on the backs of their water buffaloes on the road heading to farms. Wild roosters exchanging crows, astray cats trading punches in the neighbourhood. Noise is up in the air—birds can’t restrain themselves from chasing each other from branch to branch. Celestino, living by himself at 65, gets up from his shack. He goes straight to the kitchen area, not bothering to gurgle his mouth, or to rub off those crusty stuff clinging in the corners of his eyes. His stomach grumbling, he lifts up the lid of the pot thick with soot from years of sitting on top of a clay stove fuelled by stacks of firewood every time he cooks. Roaches are having a feast on his leftover rice. Baaam! He slams the lid back on! “Nak ti sal’it! Awan la ket ngarud makanen! Inun- una-andak metten! ‘Kin inayo ketdi! Apay ngata aya nga pinarsuana kayo ti Apo!” He cusses at the roaches. His heart pounding, stomach growling, he drags his feet on the bare earth floor to the back of his yard stirring dust in his wake. It’s a must for his boar to be checked if it can walk without any hint of stiffness in its feet and legs.

He took a bite of moskada, put on his wide-brimmed kallugong. Before the sun is up, he has to walk with his boar around Poblacion and within the nearby barangays in hunt for customers. Mating must be done in the morning when both pigs don’t have any food in their stomach. With a full stomach, the boar will face a difficult situation in mounting the sow. And the sow may not be able to handle the weight of the boar. Their sexual desire stymied—I can assure you, no one can stop them from squeaking, rumbling and growling the rest of the day. Customers who prefer the natural method, are eager to have their sows inseminated when they’re in heat. If they miss this opportunity, they have to wait for another three weeks for the sows’ vulva to swell once more. A sign they’re ready for mating again.

Business is brisk. His Duroc boar has already mated with three sows. Two more and they can go back home. The rest of sows waiting to be serviced can be taken care of by other rental boar owners going around the town. At 500 pesos per service, he needs to limit his boar’s service to five sows a day. Its strength and the potency of its reproductive fluid need to be preserved for another day. Still considered as young at nine months, the boar is already a father to many healthy piglets in Sinapog, a sitio in Asingan.

Sow

After three months, three weeks and three days, it gives birth to nine piglets. Pepito’s grinning from ear to ear. The gap from his missing two upper teeth showing. A sharp contrast to his gums darkened by his habit of chewing moskada. One evening he was riding his bike, the bike’s fork gave way to his weight. He stumbled and fell, mouth first on the asphalt. Dazed and groggy, he was able to get up. When he spat, blood and teeth came out from his mouth. What’s good about his accident? His skull wasn’t cracked, jaws not separated, neck not broken.What’s bad in this moment—He has yet to clip his piglets’ teeth. But he’s already counting his profit. He must think about the “If.” That is if his piglets can grow and reach three months and he can sell them at 2000 pesos each. Disease, accidents, deaths are a grim possibility—factors to consider in raising backyard pigs.

Lechon de Leche

 i. The Craving

The image of a three-month old pig, its skin crackling from the heat while its roasting over a mound of glowing, smoking charcoals, floats over his head. “High blood pressure, diabetes, gout don’t mean a thing,” he mumbles, letting a small yet defiant smile escape from his face. “It’s only once in a while, Benito,” he addresses himself. “How can you ignore that tender, juicy meat dipped in a liver sauce? That ‘krarrkkk’ when you bite into that skin roasted to a golden brown? The base of your tongue filled with crispiness? Besides, you still have your pills.”

ii.  The Butcher

He’s the main butcher at the town’s slaughter house. His knives of different shapes, weights and lengths are always at their sharpest. During his off days, he can be seen honing them on a select stone he picked from the nearby Tanggal Sinapog. To test them for sharpness, in a single bold pass, he slices through the whole length of a coupon bond being held by his other hand. If the blade cleanly goes through without hesitation or stopping, he’s satisfied. It’s already 100% sharp. His hands, literally and figuratively, are thickly-coated with blood from cattle, chickens, pigs, water buffaloes, goats, even dogs he has
butchered through the 15 years since he started in this trade.

iii. The Preparation

Karlito, hired by Don Benito to butcher and roast the pig of his dream, adds more firewood to the open-fire stove. The water is already burbling inside a large metal pot. Slightly over 17 kilograms, the suckling pig, brought by Pepito to his house this early morning, is now lying lifeless, disemboweled on a table he built for his victims. Pity and sadness in Arnoldo’s heart. But what can he do about it? It must be the destiny of pigs to be consumed by humans. Eaten in excess, they have an understated way of exacting revenge. Humans, fond of consuming pork beyond their limits, will not get away from the resulting diseases. Hypertension, high bad cholesterol, heart disease can take their tolls. Often, they result in sudden, unexpected death.

Its blood, sprinkled with a couple pinches of sea salt. is slow to coagulate in a medium mixing bowl. Pepito, at his request, stays to help him prepare and roast the pig. Tied to one of the posts of the bamboo fence leaning to one side, a female goat, chewing grass, waits for its turn to see the face of death. Hair on the pig’s neck poured with boiling water he scrapes them off with the blunt edge of a 1×4 piece of wood. Gently but firmly. Because if one isn’t careful, the slightest cut can result in a customer refusing it; some are forever wanting a skin with no visible blemishes and cuts. Take the time as the process is repeated all over the body until all hair is removed. Done, he hangs the body from its feet on a clothesline for an hour to drain any remaining blood through its mouth and nose.

He unties the goat, binds its legs with a rope, places it on the table, pats four, five times the jugular vein in its neck with the side of its knife’s blade, tells Pepito to hold tight and steady the smaller mixing bowl below it, and with a sudden thrust, the pointed end of his knife pierces the skin directly to that main vein. Blood spurts, the goat lets a long scream, kicks the air with its bound legs until it takes its final breath. Meanwhile, flies huddle around the bowl. The smell of blood to them must be sweet. “Manong,” he says. “Will you burn the goat’s hair, then scrape them off with that 1 x 4 piece of wood? Wash well the body after. I will take care of the rest when I’m done preparing the pig.”

vi. The Lechon

He unties the pig from the clothesline, places its body on another table, rubs it with a sponge soaked in vinegar to remove any remaining dead skin. Done, he washes it with cold water. He pats dry the entire body with a wash cloth which at any moment can disintegrate due to old age, from being over used. He rubs the whole body with a salt and pepper blend. Lemon grass stalks, garlic, onion, bay leaves, salt, karimbuaya leaves, salamagi shoots, peppercorns—he stuffed all of them in the open cavity. Then, with the skill of a shoemaker, he sews shut the pig’s belly with an improvised needle and a cooking twine. He picks up an 8 foot bamboo pole from his lumber rack mounted under the house’s low-hanging ceiling. He pumps more water to the 5-gallon bucket from his hand pump, washes the bamboo pole of accumulated cobwebs and dirt, wipes it dry with a worn-out t-shirt. He brushes some vegetable cooking oil on it. The pole is gently pushed from the back to the mouth of the pig until the pig is in the middle of the pole. He ties the front legs beside the mouth and its stretched hind legs to the back of the pole.

The charcoals on both sides of the pit are burning red. Pepito has the glaze prepared—a mixture of soy sauce, cooking oil, 7-Up and water. He has added a long stick to the handle of the paint brush too. It’s safer for him to glaze the body that way. Karlito, perspiring from the heat, positions the pole in the middle of the pit. And at least three feet away from the glowing coals. On a small bench, he takes a sit. Slowly, he turns the pole in a rotating motion. The tendons of his hands and arms showing as they bear the weight of the pig. The meat is cooked evenly and the skin isn’t burned this way. Every now and then, Pepito brushes glaze from the head up to the feet of the pig. When one of them grows tired, they switch in rotating the pole. Smoke from the burning drops of melted fat gets into their eyes. They shed tears as if they’re crying for the departed pig.

Three hours into the roasting process, the skin is uniformly golden brown. A hint their pig is cooked. Karlito takes the pole out of the pit. Gently, he places it on the butcher’s table draped with banana leaves. Pepito covers the lechon with banana leaves as well. They want to preserve the warmth of the meat. At the same time, they need to stop the flies from taking a bite of the skin and to prevent them from laying their much-dreaded eggs on them.

v. The Don

Wedged between his front teeth, the edge of the nail of his left middle finger. Nervousness, anxiety is building up inside of him. His phone isn’t ringing yet. He swirls the ice in his glass half-filled with Jack Daniels. His eyes closed, he brings the glass near his nose. He takes a whiff of it. Then he swirls the glass again. I can assume the cling-clang of the ice cube as it bangs the circular sides of the glass has a calming effect in him.

His daughter, a registered nurse living in New Jersey, sent that bottle of single barrel whiskey to him through her friend who visited the Philippines before the pandemic.

Tan, tan, tan. Tan, tan, tan, tan. The phone sounds off. Karlito is at the other end of the line. “Good morning, Sir,” he greets the old man. “Your lechon de leche is on its way. “Yes! I can smell it! How long until you’ll be here?” he replies. “Come quickly. We’ll all drink and eat to death!”

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