The GuerillaS' Rucksacks
Donna Lee Miele
Within a few weeks of her escape, the girl outgrew her only dress and had nothing to wear. Trying not to make a fuss, I gave her something of mine. She thanked me. She looked so ashamed. That she, a child forced to comfort soldiers, should suffer shame for a baby fathered by violence, made me glower. No doubt that made her feel worse. Her face began to collapse like a grass shack in the wind.
“Please, Mam,” she said. “I can work.”
“Of course you can,” I said. “There is always work.”
The weather should have been friendlier. The monsoons did not usually come so early. Rain poured down during the part of the day that should be driest, and left behind dense, moist air all night long. We could not dry or mill grain for days. But the monsoons also discouraged visits from patrolling soldiers. I taught the girl to make rucksacks for the guerrilla army from the empty grain sacks.
She was reluctant at first. My own daughter, who was only a year younger but by God’s grace would remain a child for a few years more, told her, “They’re impossible!” and complained about the hemp fabric cutting one’s hands. “The needles will poke through to your lap and leave blood on your skirt,” she said. “Only Mother’s skin is thick enough to keep from bleeding.”
My daughter was never a seamstress. Only her academic achievements may one day let her rise above the station of laundress. If the war does not end, who knows whether her academic achievements will mean anything.
But the pregnant girl was more eager to prove herself than to worry about a little blood—and since she wore my dress, anyway, I reassured her that it didn’t matter. The stains would wash out. She even smiled, knowing that my daughter would be the one to wash out the stains.
She began with pinning the pieces I cut. Within two days she was basting. I showed her the backstitch necessary for the longer seams. Before the end of that month she could sew all but the straps, which I had to make from long strips of muslin and fold, press, fold, press, finishing them and fixing them in place with a strong, steady hand, lest my needle break in two.
By the day on which we finished the rucksacks, her belly had grown to nearly fill my dress—my dress! And I a fat old woman of thirty-five who’d borne so many babies. Yet her arms and knees were still a child’s arms and knees. Her face was thinner, maybe, than it had been when she first arrived.
“Look,” I said, “We’re done.” The rucksacks, made of smooth, crackling hemp, looked like plain rice sacks when laid flat. The straps revealed themselves only when one lifted the sack. They were cleverly and well made.
To my surprise, her face shook and almost crumpled. “I thought there would be more work,” she said.
It took me a stunned moment to realize she meant, Don’t send me away.
“We’re done,” I repeated. “In exchange for the rucksacks, the guerrillas have promised to lead us to refuge.” Of course, I could not know whether the price of our deliverance would be fully paid by the rucksacks, nor whether deliverance was truly possible. All I’d done was all I could do.
The girl, I’d learned, did not speak much, but I knew she understood this even better than I did. The war might never end. Childhood would always be stripped away too soon.
Still, something settled and eased in her expression when I said us. I could hear her breath soften as her brow-line and lips relaxed. I’d come to know her well enough that I think I understood the change: it was a child’s joy, relief, and sense of revelation, complicated by a woman’s wariness; but more importantly, something had smoothed out the shame so that she could look me in the eye. It was something like pride.
Imagine the Nighttime Sea
My husband taught our daughters to swim in the way he said he’d been taught. He waited until they were old enough to climb above our sight in the ipil trees and to run beyond the reach of our voices. This, he said, was when learning to swim became a matter of life or death. We were river people.
He took them, first the eldest, then a year later the younger one, to the end of our slatted wooden walkway, where the river ran sluggish and deep. He tied a rope around her chest, picked her up laughing, told her to keep her mouth closed, and threw her in. He pulled her up gasping, made sure she hadn’t sucked water, and when she was ready, he threw her in again.
It didn’t take long for either of them to swim, and as far as I knew, neither became afraid of the water. The swimming lessons were, though, yet another reason for them to fear us. They came back from the river slick-haired and exhilarated, but where they used to clamber into my husband’s embrace and demand the commissary chocolates he brought home each Saturday, they began staying just out of his reach—the eldest, then, a year later, the younger one.
We both had punishing hands, my husband and I. I’ve slapped my daughters’ mouths to warn them against the fruit they’d just plucked from the ground. My husband has thrashed them for rude speech. But with my other hand, to replace the bad fruit, I would offer pan de coca and hot rice with a fresh egg steamed on top; and my husband, in place of rudeness, taught them all the hymns and love songs he once sang for me.
We always told them that such lessons were given out of love—sometimes out of fear for their lives. I hope they believe it.
I pray that I can continue to believe it myself. O Lord, how young they appear, as we leave the fires behind, and they lean blank faces against the shoulders of my husband’s fleeing guerrilla soldiers.
We have succeeded in this moment of the war. Our guerrillas have driven back the occupying forces. Ours, I say, because my husband trained them and I fed, clothed, and shielded them in the days leading up to the attack. The enemy has guerrillas of its own, and any soldier, however well-trained and supplied, can turn. Ours will not, we say, because there among them is the boy whose mother died of a fever and whose youngest sister was saved by my care. And there is his father, whose grain we have milled and always sold for a fair price. His rifle was granted to him through the force of my husband’s reputation. He goes ahead to scout a path to the sea for tomorrow, and sends word back through his son that the camp is secure.
“They will not be after us tonight,” I tell my daughters, as we risk a little cooking fire and the day falls. I don’t tell them my fears for tomorrow. They understand that their father has led an important victory. They are able to smile. I promise them a refuge by the sea in a place too far for the enemy to send its scouts, with an aunt they’ve never met, my husband’s kinswoman, the cousin of a cousin so far removed that the war will never find them. They envision one of the divine maidens from the old stories, watching for them with eyes like the noonday sun. Caught up in the vision, I allow myself to lie outright only once. “We’ll leave in the morning,” I say.
They are able to sleep.
My husband and I begin preparations at once. If we journey with the guerrillas to the refuge by the sea, it will not remain a refuge for long.
We risk a last look at our daughters. The fires have gone out and it’s really too dark to see anything. They are two small humps beside the scout’s son, who is barely larger than a fifty-kilo sack himself. A few steps into the jungle and they are gone from our sight, gone from our reach.
If anything should happen to them, O Lord, in my blindness and stupidity, let me be struck dead. Angels dear, you guided me when I was far younger than my youngest daughter, and had to make my way alone. God gave them the blessing of sisterhood, each with the other to rely upon. I learned to swim in the river on my own when I was younger than my youngest daughter. I learned to swim without a rope.
The truth is, I’ve never swum in the sea. The truth is, I have never known God to barter fairly. Between my daughters and death, there has probably never been anything thicker than an ipil bough; not even thicker than the hemp fiber of a rope wound in haste, during wartime. On the unmarked paths of the jungle, it’s as dark as I imagine the nighttime sea must be. I don’t expect to see any more clearly tomorrow.
Donna Lee Miele was born in Brooklyn to a Filipina mother, who grew up a fugitive during World War II and retained only a dreamlike slideshow of memories. Donna weaves much of her fiction by wondering about the experiences behind those snapshots. She's pleased to have received a Pushcart nomination, an honorable mention in the Glimmer Train Family Matters contest, and a spot among the finalists for the 2016 Salamander Fiction Prize; and she recommends that you visit MendaCity Review, Atticus Review, and Red Fez, the excellent publications that have embraced her stories.