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Directly opposite the dirt road, just across the rice fields, Teo and Isko trek the weir that was made in the middle of the meadows to connect the road to a village hidden in clusters of bamboo. The protruding pathway breaks the yellow green monotony of the horizon that ends at the start of the bamboo clusters which are of deep green shade.
The young men reach the end of the fields and pass through bent bamboos which serve as nature’s constructed gate leading to a small village. Upon walking deeper into the village, the bamboo clusters are joined by mango and tamarind trees that stood randomly across the road.
The first sign of habitation greet the young men as they walk further; an old woman sitting on her nipa hut balcony winnowing rice grains in a bilao woven from dried palm tree leaves. The old lady would toss the rice into the air to clean the grains of stones and dirt, then she would catch the rice grains back into her bilao.
“Good day, Segnor” she clutches to her bilao and smiles at the young men showing her buyo tainted teeth with its extracts gathered in the corner of her mouth along with her saliva.
Teo nods at the old lady and proceeds to walk further into the village, now seeing houses scatter on the side of the road with its clustering roofs of dried nipa, bamboo stilts and walls of dried palm leaves. The houses are separated apart by their gardens of different vegetation, or a random tree of mango and tamarind. Some houses have animals of either ducks, or chickens, or both roaming the gardens, while stray dogs would roam on the road which Teo and Isko came across already on a third instance.
“Can you still claim that Diego must have drank too much pangasi like your Uncle’s wife, Segnor?” Isko retorts, “That boy must have not had his first sip of liquor yet. This is not just another plain sighting of the Burned Man. This time he is really back to abduct children again”
“For all we know the bandits could have taken advantage of the fact that this town believes such creature exists and used that belief to distract the town of their arrival” Teo answers calmly
“How could you still deny the existence of the Maranhig when it was you who first claimed that it took Lito into the old church ruins?” Isko stubbornly asks while walking behind his Segnor
Teo pauses walking to face his friend and he gently puts his right hand on Isko’s shoulder;
“I have seen things in the city which could easily eclipse whatever I witnessed back then”
The young men fell silent as they march through the entrails of the village. Thick smoke greets them from dried leaves being burned in the front lawn in one of the small houses. The smoke intensely mists their eyes and its burned grassy scent grips them. Children run off from behind them racing through the smoke and into the last house on the corner; on its lawn people are gathered prying on its residents. The news of the abduction of the young boy that lives in that house spread through the village, and the neighbors flock the front yard to enquire on how the family is coping up with their loss.
lsko has to forcibly lunge his body against the horde of people to make a clear path for him and his segnor. Once inside, they see Diego squatting on a corner chopping off fire wood with a bolo; on his right a water-filled cauldron with firewood burning underneath it, its smoke making its way to Diego's eyes as he sobs silently. Whether his weeping is due to the smoke getting into his eyes; or his brother's abduction; no one can tell since the young man seems to be unaware of his surrounding as Isko and Teo are already an arm's length away from him without him noticing them.
"Good noon, Diego" Teo disturbs
Diego rises and drops the bolo and the piece of firewood he was working on to face his segnor and lsko. Behind the young men, Diego sees the stunned faces of the neighbors upon seeing him being oblivious of their landlord
"My apologies, Segnor. I did not expect you'd be here" he cuts, "what do we have the pleasure of having your presence here?" he asks calmly
"I heard about Utoy," Teo responds
Diego is left astonished upon tracing the concern on Teo's voice. When he could not contain it anymore, his tears bursts and he weeps like a child covering his face with his right arm as if trying to hide from the curious eyes before him. The inquisitive neighbors seem to finally find their affirmation to their curiosities with Diego's expression of grief, as they can be heard whispering;
"How miserable he must feel being the last to see his brother before he vanished" says one
"He was supposed to look after him," quips another
"He must have been haunted with guilt”
Teo steps in to calm Diego and shields him from the meddling neighbors’ eyes as Isko picks up the bolo and proceeds in chopping the firewood off. The lamp boy then gathers himself together and wipes the tears on his cheeks, staining it with dust from his hand.
“We came home earlier from lighting the lamps of the stone house, we even brought home a bowl of vegetable soup as Nanang Ditas claimed there was so much left over. Utoy and I stayed up late last night for we were discussing mother’s coming birthday and my brother dreamed of giving her a new pair of blouse and saya. We fell asleep thinking how mother would look on her new clothes, than the usual tattered dress that she puts on. I woke up in the middle of the dawn feeling cold for we forgot to close the windows the night before. That was when I noticed him gone. I panicked and had to run out of the house to look for him everywhere; in the backyard and across the roads, he was nowhere to be found. I was walking without really knowing where to find him until I reached the clusters of bamboo and saw him in the middle of the weir, walking away with a hooded figure holding him. I called out to him to make them stop, but when Utoy looked back he was just smiling at me peacefully. Then I saw the man holding him; his hands were burned and his face is covered by the shadows of his hood, that was when I knew it was the Burned Man who took him. I was terrified and just stood there and watched them walk away” Diego sobs
Teo taps the boy at his back to calm him. With the boy sobbing before him, he imagines how he must have been feeling to take the blame for his brother’s disappearance. All the while he is quite astounded by how familiar the story of Utoy’s disappearance was to him