Keepers of the Flame

1995 © by DH Hidalgo

Chapter 1: Abayaw Prepares for the Haddan

The morning mist hung over the mountaintops and drifted slowly with the breeze. A water buffalo stood motionless in a fallow rice paddy. A distant waterfall fed gurgling streams into aqueducts of hollowed tree trunks through rice enclosures. Hamlets of wooden huts on stilts dotted the quiet landscape.

Under one of the huts, in one of the hamlets, barefooted men dressed in loincloths sat around a mountain priest in silence. The mombaki was reciting an epic poem in a droning lilt, as he haruspicated over the bile and liver of a dead chicken. With a scrawny finger, he poked at the entrails, deciphering a message from the gods. Abayaw, who was whittling two cane reeds into darts, glanced at the mombaki now and then.

A dispute settlement was going to take place that afternoon. Abayaw’s family and their neighbour were bickering over a boundary between their adjacent rice fields. The area in contention was only a metre long, but the haddan in a few hours was important to both. The Ifugaos of the Philippines were not one to trifle with ambiguities.

Centuries ago, this cultural minority built the rice terraces. Using pointed stones, wooden spades and their bare hands, they carved ledges of rice paddies out of the barren mountain slopes. With each shelf held by walls of packed mud, they skilfully channelled water from streams and rivers, irrigating each and every rice enclosure. Thousands upon thousands of kilometres of rice shelves now line the mountainsides, and while building all these without engineering instruments, they could not afford to be imprecise.

“Yaw!” Dulmog whispered, “where’s your egg?” Abayaw looked up and pointed with a quick tilt of his nose to his hipbag nearby.

Abayaw seemed an unlikely choice to represent the family in a contest of physical prowess. He was born with one leg significantly shorter than the other. So instead of clambering the cumbersome stairways of the mountains to work in the rice fields, he attended school. He also spent his time wandering in the forest, wading in the rivers, and exploring the mysterious massive stone ruins, believed to date from 2,000 BC, in the wilderness of Potia. Sometimes, one could spot him limping along the dikes, patting mud into the chinks of its walls. But he was chosen to do battle with the neighbour because the Ifugaos know that a physical handicap does not deter a brilliant mind.

The mombaki finally finished his monotonous chanting. He looked up at the sky with outstretched arms, appealing to the sun, the moon, the stars, the gods and all the forces in the universe worth petitioning to. While this impassioned supplication was going on, the chicken was discreetly handed over to the womenfolk to be prepared for the mombaki’s lunch. Everyone quietly welcomed the wild chirping of forest crickets.

An Ifugao elder, who had been chewing a betel nut all this time, spat the red juice out and slowly got up on his feet. Had the gods looked favourably on the sacrifice? he inquired of the mombaki. There was a collective sigh of relief as the mombaki solemnly nodded his head. One by one, the others stood up and stretched their cramped limbs, slowly dispersing here and there to thatched-roof huts where sleeping boards and reed mats awaited them. They would gather again later to witness the haddan.

Meanwhile, in another distant hamlet, under a hut on stilts, a similar ritual was taking place. The mombaki of the rival family likewise nodded his head.