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The Conjure Man Of Siargao






Source: Anting-anting Stories

When I woke that morning, the monkey was sitting on the footboard
of my bed, looking at me. Not one of those impudent beasts that do
nothing but grin and chatter, but a solemn, old-man looking animal,
with a fatherly, benevolent face.

All the same, monkeys are never to be trusted, even if you know more
about them than I could about one which had appeared unannounced in
my sleeping room over night.

"Filipe!" I shouted, "Filipe!"

The woven bamboo walls of a Philippine house allow sound and air to
pass freely, and my native servant promptly entered the room.

"Take that monkey away," I said.

"Oh Senor," cried Filipe. "Never! You cannot mean it. The Conjure
man of Siargao brought him to you this morning, as a gift. Much good
always comes to the house which the Conjure man smiles on."

"Who in the name of Magellan is the Conjure man, and why is he smiling
on me?" I asked.

"He is an old, old man who has lived back in the mountains for many
years. He knows more conjure charms than any other man or woman in
Siargao. The mountain apes come to his house to be fed, and people
say that he can talk with them. He left no message, but brought the
monkey, and said that the beast was for you."

"Well, take the creature out of the room while I dress, can't you?"

"Si, Senor," Filipe replied; but the way in which he went about the
task showed that for him, at least, a gift monkey from the Conjure man
of Siargao was no ordinary animal. The monkey, after gravely inspecting
the hand which Filipe respectfully extended to him, condescended to
step from the footboard of the bed upon it, and be borne from the room.

After that the "wise man," for I gave the little animal this name,
was a regular member of my family, and in time I came to be attached to
him. He was never mischievous or noisy, and would sit for an hour at a
time on the back of a chair watching me while I wrote or read. He was
expert in catching scorpions and the other nuisances of that kind which
make Philippine housekeeping a burden to the flesh, and never after
he was brought to me did we have any annoyance from them. He seemed
to feel that the hunting of such vermin was his especial duty, and,
in fact, I learned later that he had been regularly trained to do this.

Chiefly, though, he helped me in the increase of prestige which he gave
me with the natives. Filipe treated me with almost as much respect as
he did the monkey, when he realised that for some inscrutable reason
the Conjure man had chosen to favour me with his friendship. The
villagers, after that early morning visit, looked upon my thatched
bamboo hut as a sort of temple, and I suspect more than once crept
stealthily up conveniently close trees at night to try to peer between
the slats of which the house was built, to learn in that way if they
could, what the inner rooms of the temple were like.

My house was "up a tree." Up several trees, in fact. Like most of
those in Siargao it was built on posts and the sawed off trunks
of palm trees. The floor was eight feet above the ground, and we
entered by way of a ladder which at night we drew up after us, or
rather I drew up, for since Filipe slept at home, the "wise man" and
I had our house to ourselves at night. The morning the monkey came,
Filipe was prevailed upon to borrow a ladder from another house,
and burglarise my home to the extent of putting the monkey in.

I had been in Siargao for two years, as the agent of a Hong Kong firm
which was trying to build up the hemp industry there. That was before
the American occupation of the islands. The village where I lived
was the seaport. I would have been insufferably lonesome if I had
not had something to interest me in my very abundant spare time, for
during much of the year I was, or rather I had supposed I was, with the
exception of the Padre, the only white man on the island. Twice a year
the Spanish tax collector came and stayed long enough to wring every
particle of money which he possibly could out of the poor natives, and
then supplemented this by taking in addition such articles of produce
as could be easily handled, and would have a money value in Manila.

The interest which I have referred to as sustaining me was in
the plants, trees and flowers of the island. I was not a trained
naturalist, but I had a fair knowledge of commercial tropic vegetation
before I came to the island, and this had proved a good foundation
to work on. Our hemp plantation was well inland, and in going to and
from this I began to study the possibilities of the wild trees and
plants. It ended in my being able to write a very fair description of
the vegetation of this part of the archipelago, explaining how many
of the plants might be utilized for medicine or food, and the trees
for lumber, dyestuffs or food.

One who has not been there cannot begin to understand the possibilities
of the forests under the hands of a man who really knows them. One
of the first things which interested me was a bet Filipe made with
me that he could serve me a whole meal, sufficient and palatable,
and use nothing but bamboo in doing this.

The only thing Filipe asked to have to work with was a "machete,"
a sharp native sword. With this he walked to the nearest clump of
bamboo, split open a dry joint, and cutting out two sticks of a
certain peculiar shape made a fire by rubbing them together. Having
got his fire he split another large green joint, the center of which
he hollowed out. This he filled with water and set on the fire, where
it would resist the action of the heat until the water in it boiled,
just as I have seen water in a pitcher plant's leaf in America set on
the coals of a blacksmith's fire and boiled vigorously. In this water
he stewed some fresh young bamboo shoots, which make a most delicious
kind of "greens," and finally made me from the wood a platter off
which to eat and a knife and fork to eat with. I acknowledged that
he had won the bet.

It was on one of the excursions which I made into the forest in my
study of these natural resources, that I met the Conjure man. I had
been curious to see him ever since he had called on me that morning
before I was awake, and left the "wise man," in lieu of a card, but
inquiry of Filipe and various other natives invariably elicited the
reply that they did not know where he lived. I learned afterwards
that the liars went to him frequently, for charms and medicines to
use in sickness, at the very time they were telling me that they did
not even know in what part of the forest his home was. Later events
showed that fear could make them do what coaxing could not.

It happened that one of my expeditions took me well up the side of a
mountain which the natives called Tuylpit, so near as I could catch
their pronunciation. I never saw the name in print. The mountain's
sides were rocky enough so that they were not so impassable on
account of the dense under-growth as much of the island was, and I had
much less trouble than usual going forward after I left the regular
"carabaos" (water buffalo) track.

I had gone on up the mountain for some distance, Filipe, as usual,
following me, when, turning to speak to him, I found to my amazement
that the fellow was gone. How, when or where he had disappeared I
could not imagine, for he had answered a question of mine only a
moment before.

If I had been surprised to find myself alone, I was ten times more
surprised to turn back again and find that I was not alone.

A man stood in the path in front of me, an old man, but standing well
erect, and with keen dark eyes looking out at me from under shaggy
white eyebrows.

I knew at once, or felt rather than knew, for the knowledge was
instinctive, that this must be the Conjure man of Siargao, but I was
dumbfounded to find him, not, as I had supposed, a native, but a white
man, as surely as I am one. Before I could pull myself together enough
to speak to him, he spoke to me, in Spanish, calling me by name.

"You see I know your name," he said, and then added, as if he saw
the question in my eyes, "Yes, it was I who brought the monkey to
your house. I knew so long as he was there no man or woman on this
island would molest you.

"You wonder why I did it? Because in all the time you have been here,
and in all your going about the island, you have never cruelly killed
the animals, as most white men do who come here. The creatures of the
forest are all I have had to love, for many years, and I have liked
you because you have spared them. How I happened to come here first,
and why I have stayed here all these years, is nothing to you. Quite
likely you would not be so comfortable here alone with me if you
knew. Anyway, you are not to know. You are alone, you see. Your servant
took good care to get out of the way when he knew that I was coming."

"How did you know my name," I made out to ask, "and so much about me?"

"The natives have told me much of you, when they have been to me
for medicines, which they are too thickheaded to see for themselves,
although they grow beneath their feet. Then I have seen you many times
myself, when you have been in the forest, and had no idea that I,
or any one, for that matter, was watching you."

"Why do I see you now, then?" I asked.

"Because the desire to speak once more to a white man grew too strong
to be resisted. Because you happened to come, to-day, near my home,
to which," he added, with a very courteous inclination of his head,
"I hope that you will be so good as to accompany me."

I wish that I could describe that strange home so that others could
see it as I did.

Imagine a big, broad house, thatched, and built of bamboo, like all
of those in Siargao, that the earthquakes need not shake them down,
but built, in this case, upon the ground. A man to whom even the snakes
of the forest were submissive, as they were to this man, had no need
to perch in trees, as the rest of us must do, in order to sleep in
safety. Above the house the plumy tops of a group of great palm trees
waved in the air. Birds, more beautiful than any I had ever seen
on the island, flirted their brilliant feathers in the trees around
the house, and in the vines which laced the tops of the palm trees
together a troop of monkeys was chattering. The birds showed no fear
of us, and one, a gorgeous paroquet, flew from the tree in which it
had been perched and settled on the shoulder of the Conjure man. The
monkeys, when they saw us, set up a chorus of welcoming cries, and
began letting themselves down from the tree tops. My guide threw a
handful of rice on the ground for the bird, and tossed a basket of
tamarinds to where the monkeys could get them. Then, having placed
me in a comfortable hammock woven of cocoanut fibre, and brought me
a pipe and some excellent native tobacco, he slung another hammock
for himself, and settled down in it to ask me questions.

Imagine telling the news of the world for the last quarter of a century
to an intelligent and once well-educated man who has known nothing of
what has happened in all that time except what he might learn from
ignorant natives, who had obtained their knowledge second hand from
Spanish tax collectors only a trifle less ignorant than themselves.

Just in the middle of a sentence I became aware that some one was
looking at me from the door of the house behind me. Somebody or
something, I had an uncomfortable feeling that I did not quite know
which. I twisted around in the hammock to where I could look.

An enormous big ape stood erect in the doorway, steadying herself
by one hand placed against the door casing. She was looking at me
intently, as if she did not just know what to do.

My host had seen me turn in the hammock. "Europa," he said, and then
added some words which I did not understand.

The huge beast came towards me, walking erect, and gravely held out a
long and bony paw for me to shake. Then, as if satisfied that she had
done all that hospitality demanded of her, she walked to the further
end of the thatch verandah and stood there looking off into the forest,
from which there came a few minutes later the most unearthly and yet
most human cry I ever heard.

I sprang out of my hammock, but before I could ask, "what was
that?" the big ape had answered the cry with another one as weird as
the first.

"Sit down, I beg of you," my host said. "That was only Atlas, Europa's
mate, calling to her to let us know that he is nearly home. They
startled you. I should have introduced them to you before now."

While he was still talking, another ape, bigger than the first, came
in sight beneath the palms. Europa went to meet him, and they came
to the house together.

As I am a living man that enormous animal, uncanny looking creature,
walked up to me and shook hands. The Conjure man had not spoken to him,
that was certain. If any one had told him to do this it must have been
Europa. The demands of politeness satisfied, the strange couple went
to the farther side of the verandah and squatted down in the shade.

"Can you talk with them?" I suddenly made bold to ask.

"Who told you I could?" the Conjure man inquired sharply.

"Filipe," I said.

But his question was the only answer my question ever received.

Later, when I said it was time for me to start for home, he set me out
a meal of fruit and boiled rice. I quite expected to hear him order
Europa to wait on the table, but he did not, and when I came away,
and he came with me down the mountain as far as the "carabaos" track,
the two big apes stayed on the verandah as if to guard the house.

When we parted at the foot of the mountain, although I am sure he
had enjoyed my visit, my strange host did not ask me to come again,
and when he gently declined my invitation for him to come and see me,
I did not repeat it. I had a feeling that it would do no good to urge
him, and that if a time ever came when he wanted to see me again he
would make the wish known to me of his own accord.

It was not more than a month after my visit to the mountain home
that the Spanish tax collector came for his semi-annual harvest. The
boat which brought him would call for him a month later, and in
the intervening time he would have got together all the property
which could be squeezed or beaten out of the miserable natives. This
particular man had been there before, and I heartily disliked him,
as the worst of his kind I had yet seen. Inasmuch as he represented
the government to which I also had to pay taxes and was, except for
the Padre, about the only white man I saw unless it was when some of
our own agents came to Siargao, I felt disgusted when I saw that this
man had returned. He brought with him, on this trip, as a servant,
a good-for-nothing native who had gone away with him six months
before to save his neck from the just wrath of his own people for a
crime which he had committed. Secure in the protection afforded by
his employer's position, and the squad of Tagalog soldiers sent to
help in collecting the taxes, this man had the effrontery to come
back and swell about among his fellow people, any one of whom would
have cut his throat in a minute if they could have done it without
fear of detection by the tax collector.

I noticed, though, that the servant was particularly careful to sleep
in the same house with his master, and did not go home at night,
as Filipe did. The government representative had a house of his own,
which was occupied only when he was on the island. It was somewhat
larger than the other houses of the place, but like them was built
on posts well up from the ground, and reached by a ladder which could
be taken up at will, as, I noticed, it always was at night.

When the collector had been in Siargao less than a week, I was
surprised to have him come to my place one day and ask me abruptly
if I had ever seen any big apes in my excursions over the island.

I am obliged to confess that I lied to him very promptly and directly,
for I told him at once that I never had. You see there had come into
my mind at once what the lonely old man on the mountain had said
about men who came and killed the animals he loved, and I could see
as plainly as when I left them there, the two big apes sitting on the
verandah of his home, watching us as we came down the mountain path,
and waiting to welcome him when he came home.

The "wise man," sitting on top of the tallest piece of furniture
in the room, to which he had promptly mounted when my caller came
in, said nothing, but his solemn eyes looked at me in a way which
makes me half willing to swear that he had understood every word,
and countenanced my untruthfulness.

The tax collector looked up at the monkey suspiciously, as if he
sometime might have heard how the animal came into my possession,
as, in fact, I had reason afterwards to think he had.

"Caramba," he grunted. "I have reason to think there are big apes
here. Juan," his black-leg--in every sense of the word--servant,
"has told me there is an old man here who has tamed them. He says he
knows where the man lives, back in the mountains.

"If I can find a big ape while I am here, this time," he went on,
"I mean to have him or his hide. There was an agent for a museum of
some kind in England, in Manila when I came away, and he told me he
would give me fifty dollars for the skin of such a beast."

He went on talking in this way for quite a while, but I did not
more than half hear what he was saying, for I was trying to think
of some way in which I could send word to the old man to guard his
companions. I finally decided, however, that Juan, though quite vile
enough to do such a thing, would never dare to guide his employer to
the Conjure man's house.

I did not properly measure the heart of a native doubly driven by
hate of a former master from whom he is free, and fear of a master
by whom he is employed at the present time.

The very next day Juan went to the Conjure man's house, and in his
master's name demanded that one of the apes be brought, dead or alive,
to the tax collector's office.

The only answer he brought back, except a slashed face on which the
blood was even then not dry, was:

"Does a father slay his children at a stranger's bidding?"

The next day I was in the forest all day long. When I came home
in the edge of the evening, and passed the tax collector's house,
I said words which I should not wish to write down here, although I
almost believe that the tears which were running down my cheeks at the
time washed the record of my language off the recording angel's book,
just as they would have blotted out the words upon this sheet of paper.

Europa, noble great animal, lay dead on the ground in front of the
house, the slim, strong paw, like a right hand, which she had reached
out to welcome me, drabbled with dirt where it had dragged behind the
"carabaos" cart in which she had been brought, and which had been
hardly large enough to hold her huge body.

I knew it was Europa. I would have known her anywhere, even if
Filipe, white with fear and rage, had not told me the story when I
reached home.

Juan had guided the tax collector to the mountain home in an evil
moment when its owner and Atlas, by some chance were away. The Spaniard
had shot Europa, standing in the door, as I had seen her standing,
and the two men had brought the body down the mountain.

I think Filipe, and perhaps the other natives, expected nothing less
than that the village, if not the whole island, would be destroyed by
fire from the sky, that night, or swallowed up in the earth, but the
night passed with perfect quiet. Not a sound was heard, nor a thing
done to disturb our sleep, or if, as I imagine was the case with some
of us who did not sleep, our peace.

Only, in the morning, when no one was seen stirring about the tax
collector's house, and then it grew noon and the lattices were not
opened or the ladder let down, the Tagalog soldiers brought another
ladder and put it against the house, and I climbed up and went in,
to find the two men who stayed there, the Spaniard and Juan, dead on
the floor. Their swollen faces, black and awful to look at, I have
seen in bad dreams since. On the throat of each were the blue marks
of long, strong fingers.

And the body of Europa was gone.





Next: Mrs Hannah Smith Nurse

Previous: The Cave In The Side Of Coron



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