A Smell of Burning Starts the Day
Copyright 1988 by Susan Tichy
Capas   At a P.C. Sergeant's House    Galang

Photograph, Agta Bowman    Mabuhay NPA

from Inheritance: The Water Cure    Essay: Forms of Temptation


"You made a mistake" are the first words
we hear when our feet touch ground.
And they bang the side of the bus
for us, to stop it. "Quickly,
get back on!" Jeepney drivers, children,
women from the market stalls
behind us, even the uniformed man
with a pistol and leather shoes--
crying, "Sir, Ma'am, someone
has fooled you, please, there is nothing
here." It's hotter here than the city,
that's what we notice first, and the lack
of color. But we look east
and it's there--Arayat, a pale blue cone
above the bare exhaustion of the plain.
Bundles of firewood, sacks of charcoal, leaking
a black powder into the dust;
piles of palm hats, bunches of broom-grass,
some still carrying seed; and multicolored
bouquets of plastic shoes--
this we pass in half a block, the crowd trailing
yet hanging back, making no offers
to carry, sell, or direct.
And that's what we notice next,
the caution. Two drivers
come to their senses first: wherever
we mean to be, someone might be paid
to take us. So, when we drag our luggage
into the first open store,
sit down and order beer,
they sit down too, to watch us,
until the one who's braver,'
or speaks better English,
or is more in need of money,
asks us where we're from.

Colorado--no, they don't know it.
Rocky Mountains--no, they don't know it.
John Denver--yes, they know him! So,
we are from John Denver, and why are we here?
Are we Air force, Navy, Marines?
Civilian--but that is a word the woman
who owns the store must translate. And yes,
there are in this half of the province 
two hotels. "I will take you,"
says the less bashful driver,
and moves a few feet closer.
But when we begin to negotiate
the price of a day's hire,
based on the price of gas and beer,
our best guess of how much more
than what they need they'll ask for,
we have again this problem-- "Ma'am,
there is nothing here. Perhaps
you will let me drive you to the seashore."
So we give the whole list of places
we're come to see. They're all within
twenty miles of the store we're sitting in, but
we must say it again,
and a third time. At last they begin
to laugh and poke each other,
to talk back and forth so fast
that the only word we recognize
is revolución. Yes, we can start with a list
of barangays. Yes we can see them
all in a day--no, two,--three at most.
And the mountains, yes, and the bombing range.
"But please do not be disappointed.
There is no scenery, only
like you see here, but worse."

By now the man with sunglasses
is sitting at our table,
and he cannot seem to stop smiling
with his many gold teeth. He has no idea
just what he has gotten into,
but we have accepted his price.
It means he will have a new roof
before the rains begin.
It means he will have a day off
before the end of the year.
It is something like the sky opening,
saying there will be rice,
something like the lucky break
his wife has long believed in.
And he wants to start right now,
right away, does not even want
to drink the beer we paid for. He takes
our luggage, seats us, in solitary splendor,
in the twenty-passnger jeep--
and we're off, three innocents, a little
breathless, a little drunk. We leave
pavement, turn left down a line of trees
so the mountain is behind us.
And we're all smiling, all polite, watching
each other in the rear-view mirror.
We've come to see the only thing they have.
He understands. But none of us knows yet
if we can see it, if any word
we have in common names it. We name ourselves
as we speed west, a cloud of dust already
attched to us like a sail.
Anxious to please, he begins to explain
a few things we will need to know.
How his province is poor. How the people farm.
And how in the hills beyond the cane
a few who don't farm live
by hunting orchids, the flowers that grow
on nothing.

--Tarlac Province, Philippines, 1985

At a P.C. Sergeant's House 
Zambales Mountains

The food is good: beef, flat fish,
and dog, with vegetables--some of them
parts of trees--and fruit.
We sit under a tree whose branches shade
five hundred square feet of ground,
while the man who brought us tries to explain
who we are. We don't understand,
but they're laughing, just as
on the way here we were told
He is one of the most notorious, like a joke.
In the clearing that makes a barangay,
the jungle is not forgotten, neither
its presence, or the colors
of its quickly receding face--
on open fires, the white
of rice in blackened pots;
and beside the green of palm leaves, cut
and laid over plates of food,
the red polka-dot dress
of the sergeant's wife. Above that,
her bashful but uncontrollable smile.
Her husband sits with his back to the house,
facing the ragged line
where jungle and the irrigated vines
of squash and eggplant meet.
He wears no uniform, just
a tee-shirt, white on the bulk of his skin.
And you have to admire how clean he looks
on this day of dry-season dust.
You have to admire the calm
with which he displays
no weapons, not even a knife.
"I'll tell you how much they hate him,"
said our friend as we entered the house.
"His wife can cook, but we will be
his only guests for fiesta."
And it's true. There's only us,
and behind the wide trunk of the tree
an old woman crouching
by a blue plastic tub. She washes our dishes
with her head tipped slightly back,
eyes closed, listening
to birds beyond the clearing,
cicadas overhead, and the bell-like laughter
of her two dead sons. The sergeant
never looks at her. His wife
taps one temple, to explain. We nod,
though we will never know
the sacred names of her sons, or
which side they were on. Our friend asks
with his eyes if we understand:
this is not the beginning
of policy; this is the end.
The sergant eats. The woman
]wears nothing under her thin dress
but the dry folds of her skin.
Who we are--he doesn't care.
His smile is vague. His eyes
look for something on the cleared ground
behind us. He ignores us
all--as a hunted animal listens
only for one sound.
We drop the name of his colonel
into the pool of talk
and it lands heavy, it lies there
like a murder weapon no one dares
retrieve, though it's in plain sight.

P.C. = Philippine Constabulary

First published in The American Voice (1986)


Manila, where the single open eye
of a child looked back at me
from a torn basket
on pavement.

Without anger there is no hope,
so taught the great 
uncle of all who hope.

In his country now the angry slay
the angry. Ports are closed.


Turning a corner into  a street
of flowers. Behind the flowers, children
play with a sick cat, push it
into a puddle, into a pile
of flowers burning.

In their lives, no walls.


So you follow the teachings.
You have this treasure, compassion,
and you spread it among the poor.
Soon you get scared, like a rich man.
When it's gone, what will you do?


Go on. Stop
at a table made from cardboard,
covered in cloth.
You smoke, so buy one
of these three cigarettes for sale.

Buy another, light it
for the boy who counts your change.

Keep going. Step into the path
of a cop. Say you're sorry
as fruit rolls under your knees, and the one
he's chasing turns the corner.


I know the diamond is wrapped in this cloth,
so wrote the great lover
of God and wine.

 A drunk shouts,
"Why are you laughing?"
and follows down the street.

"He has not always been one of us,"
they tell me.
First he was a teacher.
Next he was a prisoner.
Now he is a teacher
of fools.


In the mountains, a beggar
keeps his eyes cast down,
his cup raised, his body
crouched in its smallest shape,

and does not touch the stone
wall of the bank behind him.

For the poor are always with us,
so taught the great speaker
of riddles.

At a place between towns, a woman
washes herself at a pump.
She wears a bra, and washes
over, under, around it, guards
the arbitrary privacy
of two handfuls of flesh.

It is everything.


How simple to say life is simple
where the sucking mouth gets its share of dust.
The barrio women seem hardly to know
they are climbed on, tugged at, scratched
by all these children, precious
and parasitic as orchids.


Just walking around I learn--
wood is scarce, water pumped
by foot. And only two things
are done here: talk and work.
I can't do either. I sit.

And a man on a carabao, looking at me,
lets it carry him into the branch of a tree.


An island.
Sand floats in the whiskey,
lies on my tongue
long after the ebb of talk.

--The goodness of food.
--The economics of exploitation.
--The history of revolt.

"Please, Ma'am, eat more."

"My number-one boyfriend
comes back next week
from Detroit."

"The army kills our carabao.
They eat, but we cannot plow."

Two tourists,
four boatmen,
and a whore.


But I saw the revolution, once.
It looked like a tired man
who said, "My house is yours,"

I said, "No, mine is yours."

We kept that up--
mine, yours,
mine, yours,
mine, yours.


At a creek, trhee men are washing
--two peasants
and a builder of tunnetls.

The countryside surrounds the city--
it is what he came to teach them,
yet he feels surprise

when the one he calls
picks up a gun to kill him.


Go on, but slow:
the gait

of a carabao holds the jeep
in a cloud of its own dust.

Black hair white,
white skin brown.

If you're trapped 
it is not by this. The fist

that bangs the side of the open jeep
is small. A child of six--

she points to me, giggles,
and salutes.

Galang, literally grace, is the custom of respecting the dignity of others. From the Pampango, a Filipino language.

First published in Beloit Poetry Journal (1988)

Photograph, Agta Bowman

They wave us out
of the jeep--buy
plants, buy brightly
painted arrows,
too small to kill.
When I actually come
the women fade, the boy
stops laughing, the man
uncoils from the ground,
stands with his bow
that kills,
his young goat sleeping,
tethered, at his feet.
In his hand a dozen
bamboo arrows, tips filed
from metal gleaned
on the U.S. bombing range--
these points for birds,
these for small game--
their flat shapes traditional
as grass
which binds them to the shaft.
The man doesn't smile,
but holds the gaze of the camera.
Around him, orchids.
Around him, a bright
white light,
which on film he seems
to have taken into himself.
Nothing else.
But his family is here,
visible in the skill
with which his bow
is strung.
In their silence, I am here.
And history is here;
it's a tool.

"Mabuhay, NPA"

Those who trust us educate us. --GEORGE ELIOT
In your house are four pieces of furniture--
couch, chair, cabinet,
and a table where two can sit.
We sit, and your shy wife
sets rice, tinapá, vinegar, salt
before us. Her sister has gone to a barrio store,
so there is, for my husband, beer,
and, for me, a Coke and a glass
with a piece of ice.
You are standing, talking
of the day you built this house. Sun dazzles
through palm walls, and I'm thinking

of what my husband told me about water.
Deadly is the word he used. When he lived here
half the children died. And I've seen,
in three days, two funerals, the coffin
not straining the arms of the four men
who carried it down the road. But it was
a long time ago he lived here
and since then much has changed.
The children still leave school
at ten. They marry young--
it is all you have, each other--
and die old at any age. You're speaking

of your mother's death, your father's wife,
of the church and how you choose
--Católic or Iglesia--not
by faith but by the hours of the mass.
For you work on the day of rest.
But some things change.
In twenty years the government
has paved roads and drilled wells
and killed. You can drive now in two hours
from the slums of Manila, penned behind muraled walls
and false house fronts, palms growing
on the filled-in bay. What can't be penned

is people. Moved out one hundred thousand
at a time, they come back, put up a shack so small
the children sleep in the daytime
while their parents work the streets,
selling cigarettes one at a time; streets
where a child of nine who sells herself
for a dollar or two is proud
to have risen above her family.
All night with a foreign man--it is
the first bed she has ever seen...
Here, too, the worst is hidden. You know
how to move aside, how to hide what hurts

behind an eye that watches though it never looks.
Five years of peace in this province.
Five years of cockfights, business.
You can walk down the street, as you could not then,
and see them--the brother
of a man found in a shot-up jeep; the major
who ordered death over dinner; a boy
who was six when he found his first body
face-down by the Bamban Bridge.
Less visible are the women, some
who were raped, one whose baby
was drop-kicked into a wall. The roads

go to every barangay. So does the telephone,
so do the armed informants called
Civilian Home Defense, and the  haevily
guarded workers who dig the wells...
So I think the ice is pure now, when it's dumped
from the freezer into the cart of the man
with three fingers on his right hand.
He pushes the block in front of his knees,
under awnings and soft-drink signs,
baskets and hanging flowers.
In front of each customer's store
he takes his rusted, large-toothed saw

and cuts, carefully drawing sawdust
over the new, clean wound.
What's left at the end of the row of shops
he wheels to the market, leaves
with vegetable scraps and chickens
under the stall of a woman
who sells garlic, ginger, and peas.
She too has a saw, and when ice is wanted
it's dragged out into the open, cut,
and dragged back, forming a pool that runs with others
under the hands of egg-washers, pans of rotting fish.
With his pay, the old man drinks,

and when he sees Americans, he follows them
and calls them, "Brother, where are you going?"
When he was young he stood in this street
throwing balls of rice to prisoners
climbing from the trains, So now,
when he stands before us, shouting
in an old, split voice, his neighbors don't smile
though he's toothless and ugly and strange.
What's real is not for shame. This man
was a chemical engineer. "They beat me.
They beat me and beat me and beat me."
Then "Shhh..." He puts his fingers to his lips,

and the stumps are blue and shiny
like the fine blade of a bolo.
How he lives on his few pesos
is a matter of family pride. You work
twelve hours a day, seven days a week,
while at night the highway by your house
is quiet for three hours. "The road is life,"
you say, though it means no rest. As you speak,
a Volkswagen stops outside. They are buying three trays
of fish, these people in shorts and polo shirts.
They could be kings--with those teeth, with that car
like a jewel resting on a blanket of palm and heat.

And you too seem drunk with the story you tell
in clear words--hatred, hope.
In your bloodshot eyes there is no distance
between vision and flesh. Though stooped
from working what you will never own,
you straighten when you speak... 
When we think of the future
we think of distance, the thousands
of miles, hours, islands--but here it is, here
in the blood excitement makes visible
under your skin. Even when you remember
yourself, your guests, when you tell us,

"I am sorry. Eat." When you ask, "Forgive me
for speaking of my troubles..." All this time
the ice is melting in my glass. All this time
the man who wheels it through the street
is sleeping through the killing heat of one day.
You say, "I think we will count the years
till we see each other again."
But the tears you bring to my eyes
run into the dust on my face; they vanish.
For here is your life--family pictures
on this wall like any other. And you think
when you say "They must let us live"

that you are not speaking of us.
For we too keep a secret well--our fear
that the future will be decided
not in words but in our bodies...
"A good shot," you said this morning
where branches of mango feathered over a wall.
Two words; and I thought as I tried for focus,
for patterns of leaf and sun,
how you could not tell if the author
fell dead ten feet from the wall.
Was she one of those smiling schoolgirls
whose bright uniforms flutter all over the town,

or younger, one of the children
who sometimes just tuch my skin.
For luck, they say...
Could you see from where you were standing
how my hand shook, how I woried
less about the P.C.--that sudden 
black they make in daylight--
than about my camera settings?
How would I capture that bright,
clear red, color of revolution
and love...? "You will tell this story,"
you say. And you too think luck has come,

a pair of strangers, who sit at your table,
eat your food. But I'm no fool, I don't want
what lives here, what feeds on you.
Long ago I read that even a man in prison
can be free. And it was easy, I thought,
that clean separation of ourselves...
When a duck walks into the house
you call out, "Hello, Easter dinner!"
then smile when your daughter lays her cheek
on its spotted head. It's still acage
of ribs--is that the story?
I know it did not help you
that I picked up my glass and drank.

Mabuhay is a greeting translatable as welcome or long-live. The NPA or New People's Army is a revolutionary movement founded in Capas, Tarlac, in 1969. Tinapá is a kind of smoked fish. The Iglesia ni Cristo is a Christian sect native to the Philippines. A bolo is comparable to a machete.

First published in Faces and tongues: Poetry and Prose about People and War (Laughing Waters Press, 1986)