In the Dugout at Balangiga

by Kawika Guillermo

            Even from the dugout I notice her dark eyebrow shifting nervously. It’s more than just some decoration.

            The baseball flies past the foul line and Captain Connell looks towards her with his finger up, as he does when we run drills. Her face turns toward him in a small smile.

            “That’s called a foul,” he tells her, bending down to look in her eyes. “fow-el. Got that, Pocahontas?”

            Her hair, stuck up in the frame of a gigantic rose, bobs up and down as she nods at him. The Captain started calling her Pocahontas weeks ago, since she spoke Spanish as well as the other islander dialects. She proved herself as useful as her Indian namesake when we took the shore and she persuaded the friars to close the ports to keep the insurgents out. When we took this port town, she bartered with the local men to move their families to a set of green tents we had constructed, where we could keep a watchful eye. With an unquestioning obedience she translated our commands to the locals: to stay and work or they would have to be dead.

            With these deeds, everyone has welcomed her into our Company. She drifts like a soft white cloud that wanders among us, But every now and again, I can feel her quiet energy like thunder about to break.

            The captain smiles through his thin black mustache and readies his stance for the next pitch. The Company seems tense, knees-crouched as they spread-out onto the outfield in their khaki uniforms and campaign hats. The bat strikes the ball with a loud smack. The only proper baseball of the US 9th Infantry goes sailing past the cathedral and into the nearby forest.

            The Captain whistles for one of the local boys to search for it in the jungle.

            “Get, get!”

            I catch her looking at me again. That hair, when facing my direction, has the shape of an oncoming steamer ship. Her face reads disappointment, or perhaps anger. We are both observers now, she the Pocahontas, and I the least effective soldier in Company C. Since we took the town from the rebels I’ve been on the rails. It didn’t feel healthy, us capturing every male in the town, taking their boleros, keeping them from their children, and looting their houses. Then us pouring salt-water into their leader’s throat while the Captain taunted them, calling them Asian niggers. The next morning, I had the genius idea to ask the Captain what we were fighting for. It wasn’t aggressive, really. Perhaps the church bells were too much for an obedient Irish Catholic like me. I had no problem serving, of course, but these people were different. Their freedom was dearer to them than life.

            Asking that question got me shoveling trenches with the other captors. Come game-time, it got me in the dugout. I don’t know why I asked—honest to God, I just felt sorry for them.    

            I hear gunshots. The second and third basemen are taking pot-shots into the jungle thicket at about 1,200 yards. They laugh as the boy comes running out of the jungle, holding the white baseball up in his right hand.     

 

 

            When night-time rolls around the workers come in to prepare the town for a fiesta, joined by women and men of the cloth. Still under field punishment, I lull outside the church and listen to the revelry inside, my hands attached in shiny iron chains that had never been used until now. Since I lost the spirit to fight, my firearm too was taken away, and I merely watch the others from the Company patrol the perimeter. Inside, I hear them slurp the priest’s wine.

            I feel something tip my hat. It’s her—Pocahontas. Her stripped red dress bounces as she moves in front of me. Yellow and red beads hang from her neckline as she looks back, with a curious grin. “You coming sir?” she says, her eyebrow lifting toward the dense dark forest. The Company sentries on patrol are behind the church now. I knew it—her eyebrow tilts, her exhaustion at dealing with the captain, her sinister grins.

            She takes me on a familiar trail. Her bare feet remember the dark path, the same path our Company followed when we first chased the insurgents out. We pass a burned-down house where earlier in the week I found one of them fanning a fire and I killed him with my old Long Tom. I killed the others like jack rabbits hopping out of the bushes. I had put down seven that I know of, perhaps ten, if they did not survive.            

            She brings me to an old Spaniard’s house overlooking the town. The house has been looted hollow. Every drawer has been pulled out, and the old chandeliers lay broken on the floor, too heavy to carry off. Pocahontas leads me to the master bedroom, where a cask of palm wine sits squeezed between two rolled-up rugs.

            She unsheathes a bolo from behind the bed and sits on the cushion, spinning the blade, just to let me know she has it.

            “Bottom’s up,” she says, handing me a swig of wine.

 

            That blade stays between us all night. I never ask if I am her prisoner; I was already in chains anyways. With our attitudes lubricated by the wine, we do not feel the need to talk, until the “gong!” of the church bells echo over the forest canopy.

            Overtaken by the wine, I am not sure what I am seeing: the town lit-up in an orange blaze, the sparks of gunfire upon the walls of the cathedral. I hear screams and the battle wails of conch shells.

            “What’s happening!” I say.

            But I can see it on her brow. That secret intention. The quiet energy, released in a flash that burns apart the air itself.

            She approaches the broken-in window, as if looking at a painting, and says calmly. “It is happening.” Turning to me, “They were looking for a fight.”

            I notice she says “they” and not “you.” I don’t know why, but I take it as an invitation, and touch her shoulder.

            Her eyebrow shoots up. I’m not sure how to read it, and I go for her neck—kissing it in rabbit pecks, grabbing her body between my fingers until a sharp pain screeches from them.

            She screams something in the native language and points the blood-drenched blade at me—I can’t see where my fingers landed, mixed in perhaps with the broken glass and discarded rugs.

            I run, my hands clasped together, my legs carrying me through the forests, towards the glimmering firelight. The pain throbs in my hand as blood pours from where my index and middle finger used to be. I hear rifles fire in the distance as the throbbing pain turns into a hammering, irrepressible anger. I stumble upon a group of insurgents, about seven or so, their backs to me as they take pot-shots towards the Church. Without thinking I take one down, choking him with the same chain that my Captain put on me when I asked too many questions. I grip him, my half-fingers spitting blood onto his nape. The others are quick to stab into me with their boleros.

            Dying, I watch smoke spew from the Church’s steeple. Those trapped inside pull the Church bell’s rope, tugging onto hope.

 

In the Dugout at Balangiga

Print Friendly