THAT oaf in the low-resolution picture is me alright, wooden pestle in hand and letting its weight wrench out silicate bits of chaff from edible rice grains that we cooked for supper in that work foray in a far-flung sylvan precinct of Montalban, Rizal. The picture belies the lesson I was sharing with a young public school teacher who admitted he writes a mawkish hand.
Picture me in easy earnest discourse, in cerebral intercourse: There’s hideous yet hidden strength in beauty—and both beast and beauty are to be nurtured in hands-on chores, in the most menial of tasks of day-to-day life. Say, hewing wood for kindling with an ax. Tilling land. Cutting with a makeshift heavy sword for a thousand times, pumping out water from an artesian well. Or, in this instance, in the unsophisticated barog way of gleaning rice that turns up unpolished grains or pinawa, fibrous bran (darak that goes into hog feed) intact to give a more filling tummy ballast.
So much painful tedium endured, so much tons of muscle memory are infused to the wrist and upper torso. That, in turn, must be coaxed—aye, drilled over and over—to be polished. To loosen the built-up knot of intensity in an easy rill-flow of writing by hand, or care-free dawdling, even allowing the thrum of the heart to surge through wrist-pulse to express itself in unhurried caressing, weaving movement of the palm.
So cultivated, beauty becomes-- lends itself in anything it touches, a wonderful contagion. And if destiny can be read in the tangle of lines on the hand, fate would read as faith firm and kismet deciphers as kisses ardent.
In decades past, my romance with Oryza sativa had been cheerless—even left my arms with itchy nicks and cuts as if rice grass blades found ready whetstone or strop in one’s limbs. Anyway, there’s wee comfort in a line from Amado V. Hernandez, “ang tabak ay tumatalim sa pisngi ng kapwa tabak,” a bolo’s edge is sharpened against another bolo’s edge. Mananatili ang palay sa dahong-palay kahit mawalay sa palayan—the rice plant remains in the deadly paddy viper even if such serpent be estranged from its paddy haunts. A tidbit of insight is proffered: empty husks or ipa’t tulyapis stand proud while those bulked up with sustenance bow down in obeisance.
Paddies turned out to be haunts of yummy edibles that went well with rice— bullfrogs that had their predators in herons, vipers, and us who turned up such delights as minced pork stuffed fare or batute, or uncomplicated fricassee, or the usual adobo and tinola; escargots or plain kuhol; freshwater crabs (talangka) with pale crimson roe that tops caviar flavor anytime, hey, try doing it as pasta sauce; mole crickets (kamaru) that can be stewed to crisp morsels…some mudfish, the native golden-bellied catfish that tastes of butter plus the old-fashioned flavorful paddy rats, snipes, quails, and, ah, a deadly cobra or two. These delights thrive in paddies where rice is grown.
And yes, the instructions for brewing tapuy and sake must have come with the first handfuls of unhusked rice grains that sun god Amaterazu O-Kami transmuted from sunlight and handed out to soil-tillers eons ago. So we imbibed lessons and the giddiness from having a drink too many, the starch-turned-alcohol burned bright into the brain, knocked us off. As if felled by a bolt of sunstroke…
I’ve told my children I won’t go through that lot of fussing about the soil and irrigation to yield stacks of palay that’ll go through some more fussing—threshing, drying out in the sun, milling. There’s better quality carbohydrate in, say, substitute staples like saba bananas or corn than in rice. Too, a square meter patch of soil planted to corn or saba gives a higher yield than a square meter of soil devoted to rice. On top of that, there’s lesser fuss in raising and reaping either saba or corn.
But we’re stuck with rice…