The Pangs of Building: Chapter 4 by J.E. Santos 05/27/2018 4: The Uncanny Threat His actions, he couldn’t believe it, had led him to this place—Atsuete—a commune shared by only a few people, but nonetheless brimming with life. In front of the small, busy community, his inquiries on the nature of triumph, defeat, and certainty came to him, perhaps to categorize instinctively the feeling of finding a place—after a long and arduous journey—that was unknown to him and to most people. Could Karl Michael Cruz call this a triumph or could this be an impending defeat, he thought, for although the commune was highly promising, he was not sure if this new environment would give him the missing piece that he needed to alleviate his thoughts and feelings of inadequacies. Still he stepped in. In front of the commune, about ten feet from where Karl Michael was standing, was a large rectangle wooden signage nailed on an acacia tree whose leaves were strangely dry compared to that of other trees in the area. Carved in the signage was ATSUETE. And Atsuete was like Samuel had described. Some neighbors used bamboo fences, some used the wood of guava trees—all fences were no taller than three feet. Variations of morning glory flowers—light-blue, violet; yellow—commonly embraced these fences. Everyone in the commune had things to do. The summer air was neither warm nor cool—it was just, as Karl Michael put it, what it should be. Aside from these details, Samuel mentioned in his chat, that Karl Michael must look for an old woman named Guada who was the head of the commune. “You can’t miss her house. It’s the only wooden house there with two floors and a weird fence.” Samuel added. He walked slowly inspecting the simple wooden houses, the trees; the busy commune that he once thought was just made up by some crazy bibliophile. It was all true and for the first time, Karl Michael felt he won something—that this was not some sort of false achievement, but rather a personal one that required no appraiser. And so he forged ahead. “Magandang umaga po!” he greeted a man, who seemed to be in his late sixties, caging several chickens. The old man stoically nodded and then resumed his activity. The same could be said to a thin middle aged woman who was stuffing what seemed to be strips of dried meat in a basket. A man with thinning hair bagging kilos of rice reacted the same way, so was the busy white bearded farmer; so was a lady—perhaps the same age as him—who fed domesticated black hogs. Karl Michael then noticed that unlike what Samuel had told him, these folks—the old and the not so old—were far from hospitable. But as Karl Michael approached a peculiar looking wooden house with two floors with an eccentric but nonetheless aesthetically pleasing fence design (uneven and perpendicularly placed branches forming small shapes—triangles, hexagons, and such—within the fence’s symmetrical height), one old woman, still with good posture, stepped out of the door and welcomed Karl Michael with a genuine smile. “Young man,” she said. “can I help you?” “Yes,” he said. And automatically, as he felt the dryness of his mouth he followed with, “a glass of water, ‘Nay.” without a moment’s thought, the old woman went back inside her house and minutes later went out with a glass of water. She opened the fence’s door and gave the glass of water to the stranger. “Strange. You looked younger at a distance.” she said to Karl Michael inspecting his face discreetly. “I’m guessing you’re in your late thirties. You don’t have to answer that if you don’t want to.” “No, it’s fine.” and Karl Michael emptied the glass in one gulp. After wiping his lips with the back of his hand, he responded. “That was a bit close. I’ll be turning thirty-five eleven weeks from now.” “I see.” she said holding her chin with her right thumb; her index and middle finger on her lips. “And what brings you here?” “I—I’m here for…” and Karl Michael stuttered as he struggled to combine words which would generate an acceptable and reasonable justification for his visit. “Are you here to live authentically or die peacefully?” it was a question that caught Karl Michael off guard. He paused for nearly a minute before he could give an honest answer. “At this point, I don’t know. I can’t tell.” “I see that you just brought a small backpack with you and you never thought of carrying water on your way here so I assumed you came here for the latter. If you don’t mind me asking, what did you bring in there?” “Some clothes, some cash, an empty 500ml tumbler, a pocket knife, pencils, graphic pens, markers, and a sketch pad.” “Pencils, graphic pens, markers, and a sketch pad, you say? Are you an artist?” “No. I’m actually trying to be an official librarian.” “Trying to be—” she reiterated with curiosity. “Official…” “Yes, I haven’t passed my examination so…” “You are trying to be or you were trying to be? Because right now, you’re here and the answer must be the latter. So you’ve given up on that?” “I wouldn’t say I’ve given up on—” “Then why are you here?” the old woman said, and Karl Michael could not help it, but be silent. He was not ready for this—to be asked of questions way too personal by a complete stranger. “That was a rhetorical question.” she said smiling. “A friend,” Karl Michael said and he paused thinking if it was right to label Samuel as his friend, and then decided it didn’t matter so he continued. “suggested that I visit this place—Atsuete—because, as he said, it changed him.” “And when did your friend visit this place? “About eight years ago.” “I see…” the old woman’s gleeful tone suddenly changed. “What’s your name, young man?” “Karl… Karl Michael.” “Carl with a “C” or with a “K”?” “With a “K”.” “Did your father name you after Karl Marx?” “Not exactly. He said I was named after Karl Jaspers—the German-Swiss philosopher who introduced transcendence—” “I know who he is, Karl.” “Oh… That’s good. Well, my second name, Michael, I suspected was just a filler name because “Karl Cruz” would basically sound lacking and so they—my father and late mother—added that. Thus here I am. I go by the name Karl Michael. I take it that your name is Guada.” “Yes. That is my name.” “And you are the head of this commune.” “Yes, I am.” “I am pleased to meet you.” “I am, too, Karl. But it seems that you have visited Atsuete at the wrong time.” “And why is that?” “I don’t know what’s special about this place. Perhaps it’s the weather, perhaps the trees, perhaps the people; perhaps it’s our way of living; or perhaps it’s the idea of living away from the chatter of the modern life that draws strangers to visit here. I can’t really say. But while it is true that we had several guests in the past here either wanting to experience how to live authentically or die peacefully, that’s not the case now. The last three guests that we had wanted a life changing experience here, but instead they died—and their deaths were far from peaceful. In point of fact, their deaths were something parents could not fathom happening to their children.” “What happened?” “I think we still have time for a cup of coffee.” And so the old woman Guada invited Karl Michael to her house. ~~~ Five years ago, two years after Samuel had left the commune of Atsuete, seven visitors—one of whom was armed with a GLOCK 17—entered it. Two of these men wore a full beard: the tall and lanky one (who went by the alias Tulog) with short curly hair looked like he was in his early thirties; the short and muscular one (Kardong Kana) with a bald spot seemed he was pushing fifty. Three were short dark skinned young men with menacing stares: Ike—a stout man who may be quite fond of eating a lot, Dong—a man with two silver plated upper teeth; Henry—he who badly admired Dong’s silver teeth and had halitosis as later known by the people of Atsuete. Behind them were two men perhaps in their mid-thirties: Guapo—he who was quite good looking and Dirty Harry—the man with the gun. Sure, the people of Atsuete were fond of guests—either looking for a place to contemplate in the hope of living authentically or seeking a place where they could die in peace, every once in a while, but these men were different. They neither seek living nor dying. They were there to send Atsuete a message which its people had been following to the very day Karl Michael entered the commune. Without asking who the head of the commune was, Dong unwarrantedly pulled a wooden chair from a neighborhood, sat on it, waited for the people to pile up, and said, “This village isn’t safe.” he then looked at Dirty Harry wearing a smug smile. He continued. “There are bandits looking for your village; several of whom we have fought last week in our camp two kilometers, east, from here. We killed a few of them, most escaped, and we held one captive. The bastard was wounded on the knee. Naturally, we asked him why they targeted our camp. We’re a peaceful faction. We just wanted to live our lives away from the system of the current leaders of this country, away from terrorists; away from thieves and scoundrels—why attack us, I said? The man said it was a mistake. What they were really after was a small village which he described to be this one.” “Who are you people?” an old man beside Guada shouted. Dong’s smile was a cross between smugness and irritation. “Like I said, we are a peaceful faction. A faction of a few. Our camp is two kilometers from here. And for your own safety, it’s best that you don’t find out the name of our faction. We are not terrorists, we are not bandits, we are not the rebels that you may have heard in distant towns—we are a peaceful faction. Basically, we come here to warn you about the bandits that we encountered last week. It’s fortunate that we found your village first before they did. Because if not, then—” “We have no guarantee that you are what you say you are.” intruded Guada. “We only have your words which can either state truth or falsity.” Dirty Harry then stared at her intently, as if determining who she was in this village through the command of her voice. “Who are you again?” Dong said to her. “Guada—the head of this commune.” “Good. Good. Guada, we are happy to meet you. We sincerely apologize if we forgot to ask for the head of this village before bringing our news. Well now,” Dong flashed his silver plated upper teeth “to answer your concern, this guy behind me,” he pointed at Dirty Harry. “is Harry Magat—you can call him Ka Harry. Now, if we are under the pretext of a peaceful faction, but in reality, we’re actually bandits, as you suspect—” “I did not warrant any suspicion that you were bandits, what I said is that we do not know who you are and we cannot guarantee that you are what you say you are based on your short anecdote.” “How about you let me finish first, Guada.” “Alright. Go ahead.” “Thank you.” Dong then cleared his throat and continued. “We would have brought high powered guns. But no! Even with such a risk, that of a chance encounter with the bandits that I have mentioned, we decided that the best approach to meet you people, not to mention, to assure you of our good intention, is that we come here almost unarmed. Ka Harry just brought his gun just in case we encounter the bandits. In other words, we came to find you risking our lives and guaranteeing that we’re not here to cause alarm or worse, terror. If that’s not convincing to you, I don’t know what is.” for several minutes, the nameless peaceful faction gave the people of Atsuete time to discuss this matter each to each. As the murmurs faded, Guada spoke. “We never had such a problem before—dealing with outsiders, especially bandits.” “I’m afraid you have that now.” answered Dong. “But we can guarantee your people’s safety.” “We don’t have money to pay you with. This community lives through the collective efforts of people farming, fishing, and gathering. We have little use for money here. Four times a year, Diego and Lito along with a few young men go down to town to sell dried meat, smoked fish, and fresh vegetables. After which, they buy clothes, medicines, batteries for radios, and other basic things our people need—” “I don’t know who Diego and Lito are, Guada. You’re dropping names that I don’t know.” “Right. Sorry.” “It’s imperative that you let me finish first.” Dong said with authority. “You see, communication fails when the speaker fails to grasp the context of the message. That happens because of certain noises. Barriers, am I right? I learned this in my third year—in high school. Now, these noises can either be external or internal. We can say that your assumptions about us are internal noises. Something you need to suppress first so communication can become successful. Well now, if you’re ready to suppress these noises, I’m going to continue. Guada, are you ready?” “Yes.” Guada said reluctantly. “Thank you. Well, Guada, people of this village, we don’t need your money. We are just here to ensure everyone’s safety because that’s what our peaceful faction has been doing over the years. That’s what we stand for—to protect those who can’t protect themselves. But, of course, in order for us to keep those bandits out of your village, we also need your help. We are not skilled farmers, fishermen, and gatherers like you people. Our faction has little resources, and this has been our problem throughout the years. It would be a great help if you can donate a few provisions—good for ten men—for us at least every 15th and 30th of the month. We won’t bother you with the medicine and other needs. We’ll take care of that. This is all we asked for, and in exchange we can guarantee everyone’s safety.” It was only logical for Guada to be highly skeptical of this peaceful faction so the head of the commune said she would think about it for a week or so. The peaceful faction then left Atsuete accordingly saying that they would return next week for Guada’s answer. Three days after the peaceful faction’s visit, two young women, both gatherers—one the daughter of a late fisherman; the other the wife of a farmer—in Atsuete went missing. After two days of searching, they found one beside the bamboo trees lifeless and with stab wounds to the neck and chest. It was the daughter of the late fisherman. The body was nine-hundred meters away from Atsuete. They held a one-day funeral for the woman and then buried her near the closest river the other day. The other one was never found. Such grief this brought to the missing person’s husband. Upon this heinous predicament, the people of Atsuete realized that the threat was real. There were really bandits near their area, and for the first time they were filled with dread and uncertainty. Guada and several old men and women of Atsuete suspected that the death of one and the disappearance of another was the work of the peaceful faction—that of the seven men who offered their protection, but there was no way of telling if they were really the culprit or if what they said about the bandits were true. All these people knew was that they were in grave danger, and Atsuete was facing an uncanny threat way, way beyond their capacity. A week later, the peaceful faction returned to Atsuete. Again, Ka Harry—who was secretly named by the old men of the commune as “Dirty Harry”—was the only one who carried a weapon—the GLOCK 17. Guada—being filled with dread and uncertainty—decided to make arrangements with the peaceful faction. She told the seven men of the recent unfortunate incident which had taken place three days after they left Atsuete. They all seemed taken aback upon hearing this, and after which they promised that such an unfortunate incident would never happen again under their watch. ~~~ “But unfortunate things did continue to happen, am I right?” Karl Michael said to Guada. His coffee had gotten cold after focusing on Guada’s story. They were in Guada’s living room. “Yes. Unfortunately you are correct.” Guada replied. “This is the reason why I urge you now to turn back. You don’t want to hear the fate of the previous guests here during the time we got under the peaceful faction’s protection.”

*Photo credit to “Quantum Noise” Album Art Cover: “Beta Decay”