On my family’s old farm, there grew an old mango tree. Papa said it was the oldest in the whole barrio. After the monsoons passed, as the sun roasted our thatched roof, and the rats began sniffing around our fields, golden mangoes would appear in between the leaves of that old tree.
There were four of us kids back then, Kuya Richie, Ate Charity, Baby Papito, and me. After doing our chores, we’d run as fast as we could, from every corner of the farm, to meet at the tree. Ate Charity would wait with Papito in her arms as Richie and I climbed up and grabbed as many mangoes as we could carry. Each one was bright yellow like the sun and bigger than the palms of our hands. Once we found one as big as Baby Papito. We gathered our bounty in our shirts and slide down the tree to share it underneath the wide deep green leaves.
However, Nanay was always worried we’d spoil our dinner, so we only ate one each before coming in to wash and help with dinner. For some reason, she was always uneasy about us going by the tree. She knew the mangoes were large, fresh, and juicy. But even the allure of the golden fruit could not shake her nerves.
“Raul! Richie! Charity! I told you not to sit underneath that tree!” said our mother as we came in one day.
I placed my share of mangoes onto the table. “But, Nanay, it’s nice and cool down there. And we were only there for a little bit.”
She went up to my head and pinched my ear. “I know how long you were there. I was watching. Now go wash your hands and stay away from that tree!”
We never paid her much mind until the day before Tito Mario left for America.
Tito Mario was Nanay’s big brother and he had landed a construction contract in the United States. To send him off the whole family gathered on our farm, the same farm we had for several generations. Lola came all the way from Manilla to be back home and to send her eldest son off.
Kuya Richie, Ate Charity, and I were the only kids in the family, at the time. Baby Papito was being passed around like a little saint from one aunt to another. So, as the grown-ups were gathered inside preparing the dinner and gossiping about this and that, we three planned to sneak out to the mango tree. Just when we were tip-toeing our way through the house, dodging between legs of aunts, uncles, and cousins, I felt a tight bony hand grab my arm.
“Where are you going, anak?” said Lola.
I turned around.
“Just outside, po,” I said. I tried to free myself from her hands.
“Why not stay and visit, anak? We haven’t seen you since Chirstimas,” she said.
“I’ll come back, po, I promise, I just want to grab some mangoes for Tito Mar,” I said, freeing myself at last.
“From where, Raul? That tree. It is too dark to go near that wicked thing!” she said, almost shouting, “Anak, come back!”
By then I was already outside. Richie was looking at me, annoyed.
“What kept you,” he said.
“Lola…” I replied.
He clicked his tongue before motioning me towards the tree.
Lola was right, it was dark outside, but the light from the house help guide us to the tree. Before that night, we had never dared go out to the mango tree after sunset. Nanay would never have it. But she was too busy to stop us and we were hungry for sun-ripened mangoes — not the bitter store bought ones Tita Margie brought.
When we reached the base of the tree, I noticed mango pits scattered around the ground. I picked one up. It had no meat on it — it was clean all around. I tossed it to Richie and Charity.
“Maybe a wild pig got to the fallen fruit,” said Charity.
“Pigs don’t leave pits this clean,” I said.
“Whatever, let’s just get some fruit and go,” said Richie.
He was already half way up the tree when I started my climb. Once my shirt was half way filled, I heard Charity gasp.
“Ate?” I said. “Are you okay?”
“Yes,” she replied, “I think. I felt something grab my ankle. Please hurry!”
“You’re just imagining it.” said Richie. He winked at me. “Girls, right?”
I giggled and continued harvesting the mangoes.
In minutes we were down on the ground and filling up the crates Ate Charity had brought with her.
“Let’s get inside fast.” said Charity.
Richie and I nodded. We each picked up a crate and started to head back to the house. But, there was a whole in my crate. Mangoes started falling out of it with each step I took. I only noticed because Richie turned around to gloat about how faster he was at climbing the tree than me.
“Hey, slow bro, you are trailing mangoes. Go pick them up!” he said.
I looked behind me. Sure enough, there was a trail of golden fruit right behind me. I sighed, found the hole in the crate, used my shirt to fill it in, and and started picking up each mango.
Charity and Richie were already inside by the time I picked up the last one. I was angry that they left me behind so I kicked the tree and sat down.
“Fine. I’ll just eat this crate all by myself.” I thought.
I began eating the mangoes underneath the tree, taking angry, bitter bites out of the sweet fruit. I three the pit to the ground and tried to reach for another when I realized I could not get up. My shorts were caught on something.
“Just got caught in the roots,” I thought. So, I pulled harder.
However, the harder I pulled, the more stuck I felt. I looked for the root, thinking I could tear it off of me. It was too dark for me to see, so I looked with both hands, near the ground. With my face close to the ground, and my hands to my right side, I found what I thought to be a root.
But roots shouldn’t feel like bony fingers.
I shook that thought away and pulled. The root felt as cold as ice. Pulling it felt as futile as pulling an ox with one hand. But I kept trying, pulling with as much might as I could muster.
That was when I heard a voice, “Mango…”
I stifled a scream. The voice had come directly below me. I don’t know if I was driven by curiosity or by madness but I started digging at the ground directly in front of me, between my legs.
“Mango…” the voice said. I could hear it better with each passing handful of dirt.
Then, I felt my finger nails scrap against something hard and smooth, like porcelain. The light from the house faced me and as a brushed more dirt of the cold surface, I could just make out the outline of an eye socket.
“Mango…” the voice said. As it spoke, a black eye appeared and glared at me from the darkness.
After that, all I remembered was the scream that came out of my mouth of its own accord and the darkness that followed. I woke up surrounded by Nanay, Lola, and a few of my aunts. I tried to speak, but they hushed me and told me to get more rest.
It wasn’t until after I started going to Uni that I remembered that night. Nanay had become more strict about when we could go near the old tree. Papa had placed more soil on top of the ground, around the tree, making a small hill around it. And Lola became more somber.
She was staying at my parents house, her house really, when I came to visit my senior year of Uni. We visited and talked about old days and the future. I had mentioned the mangoes in passing, and how I would brag about how lucky I was for being raised on a farm to my classmates when Lola looked at me with sad eyes.
“No, anak,” she said. “We are not lucky to have the tree. It is our burden.”
I looked at her. The confusion must have been apparent on my face because she then continued. I will make it brief, for the history of my family’s land is long and tied tightly to the history of our island nation. During WWII, Japanese soldiers took control of the town next to our small village. It was only a matter of time before they came to our barrio. The men were already off fighting for our country elsewhere. Only the women were left and our farm stood between the village property and the Japanese soldiers. So my great grandmother and her sisters came up with a plan. They would lure each soldier to the farm, with promises of sweet mango and much more, and murder them. Their plan worked.
The whole unit of soldiers were led to the farm and each drank poisoned mango juice from the hands of my great grandmother. Their bodies were buried underneath a mango tree, as a final sign of victory.
“As the monsoons came and went, more soil would be swept into the rivers and off the bones of those soldiers. That is why your mother and I never wanted you children near that tree.” she said. “Well, one reason, any way.”
She got up, and patted me on the back.
I went outside, shocked, and sat on the steps leading to the yard with the tree. As I sat there, pondering over what Lola just said, I swear I could hear a faint voice whisper,