It was early morning of a pay day, an auspicious day in the remote coal-mining village of Capillahan. A growing crowd loitered around the shack where the paymaster will distribute the monthly wages of the miners. A makeshift market was about to open, laying the groundwork for the events of the day.
Smiling lady sellers were setting up their vending tables with the usual merchandise- cheap cigarettes, dried fish, corn grits, kerosene, and tuba ,a liquor fermented from coconut sap. Wooden benches for drinkers to sit on would later surround the tables.
In ubiquitous corners, gambling hosts were preparing their circular stone slabs for the three-coin tossing game.
Jun, a visitor from the town proper, was anxiously searching for a vendor who sells kinutil, a popular punch prepared from tuba, raw chicken eggs and hot chocolate when belching sounds of an approaching coal truck reverberated through the surrounding hills. The truck must be strenuously climbing over those steep inclines, he surmised.
“Get ready, he’s coming, the moneyman is coming,” excitedly announced Francesca, a stout lady vendor. The truck’s very important passenger is the much awaited wage paymaster of the coal mine.
Capillahan, a remote mountain village resting at the foot of a thickly forested peak is part of the coastal town of Danao. It was known since the American colonial days to have large coal deposits underneath its rolling grounds but commercial mining there started only years after the Second World War. Its natives then lived a dreary existence as they were practically isolated from the town proper. They subsisted on corn and vegetables from shifting hillside farms, freely-roaming poultry feeding mainly on worms in the ground, wild vegetables and fruits abundant in the nearby forest and water from the rain and from a spring spouted at the side of the mountain peak.
Life in the village took a different turn when Sir Josefino’s clan started commercial coal mining operations after the war. Many of the able bodied young men shifted from the farms to working in the mine pits. With cash coming regularly in wages, more children were sent to school and day-long wet markets were held more often than in the past. By the new dirt road laid to the village, the natives learned to interact and trade more frequently with residents from the town proper.
Few enduring cultural practices were left unchanged by the way of life brought by the coal mines. The serenade remained popular for starting courtship, women still kept the household purse, and men still engaged in tuba drinking binges on social occasions.
The mine pits of Capilahan had simple configurations and were dug and operated with ordinary tools and indigenous materials. A pit is started by digging vertically or with a slight downward slope to locate a coal vein. Coal excavation follows the vein’s course, usually horizontal or slightly sloping, forming an underground tunnel. Coal bricks cracked and severed from the vein are transported to the ground surface on bamboo baskets manually carried along the stretch of the tunnel to a loading point. There a windlass raises them up to the ground level. Picks and shovels were used for digging and for cracking coal materials from its vein, hard wood gathered from nearby forest for timbers to prevent soil movement and pit collapse, and carbide lamps for lighting inside the tunnel.
The miners were generally aware of dangers lurking in the mine pits, mainly toxic gas, coal fires, and pit flooding by trapped underground water. Mostly uneducated, they were not aware of the science behind these phenomena but found ways of avoiding them.
When the coal truck arrived, the women who for sometime were sitting on the green grass, gossiping, stood up and noisily lined up to the pay counter to collect their man’s wages for the month. “Easy ladies, you’ll all get your pay,” smiled the paymaster.
They gossiped some more after collecting, shopped for household needs, bantered or argued with their men and went home.
“Why are the women collecting the pay and not the miners?” asked a puzzled Jun. “Tell you later kid,” winked Francesca.
Most of the miners stayed after pleading and haggling with their ladies for spending money. With their women gone they would be free to do their things. Most bought cigarettes and started smoking. They smoked real cigarettes that day instead of the usual rolled duhat leaves. They clustered into different groups around drinking tables sipping tuba, sharing light stories about their maiden’s eccentricities and bragging of close getaways from their wrath.
At dusk, the disparate groups joined by Jun and Francesca coalesced into a crowd around Anastacio’s drinking table. Seated with him were close friends, unschooled but seasoned old miners. Most in the crowd did not partake of the drinking binge aware of Anastacio’s rule to “drink until you fall”. They just sat on the grass eager to hear tales of wisdom from the masters.
Anastacio was a village leader and a miner celebrated for his uncanny knack to strike a coal vein every time he digs a pit and for his vaunted guts in pacifying or scaring violent troublemakers. He likes to talk and welcomes a willing audience around his drinking table. On that day, many of them were there waiting for him.
Anastacio’s sessions were the villager’s window to the outside world. The village then did not have a single TV or radio set and telephones were unheard of.
Seated comfortably at his table with a glass of tuba, Anastacio peered at the crowd and spotted Damaso.
“Maso, what’s new in the forest?”
“Wild vegetable, a new one Tacio…saw the birds pecking it. I gathered some and tried it yesterday…tasted like moringa. I’ll bring some to the pit.” Damaso replied meekly.
Beside Anastacio, was a beaming Eugenio holding his own glass of tuba.
“Say Genio, I heard you had fun in the fiesta of Mantija and friends told me your brother Pio did some stunt there.”
“Ayyy Tacio, it was good. We eat the house one by one.” replied Eugenio in words that sounded strange to the crowd.
Unable to comprehend, the crowd fell silent. Puzzled, Jun turned to Francesca. “What does he mean by eating the house one by one?”
“He is always waiting for an opportunity to show off his few words of carabao English. He means that they dined in every house they went to,” explained Francesca giggling.
“Common Genio, we don’t understand Spanish. Say it in our language and tell us about Pio’s stunt,” urged Anastacio.
“Ayyy Senor, I spoke in English not Spanish,” Eugenio proudly explained in the vernacular.
“Pio got drunk early. He pulled and brandished his knife, scratched a circle on the ground and challenged anyone to cross its perimeter.”
“Anyone dared?” inquired Raymundo who was seated in front of Eugenio.
“No, no one. And Pio was so intoxicated he puked, slumped and slept in his circle. He suddenly woke up when he heard approaching footsteps then rose and ran like hell.”
“Why, what made Pio so scared even with a knife in his hands. You said he was challenging anyone,” inquired a toothless old miner.
“Ayyy, it was his wife Mira. Pio knew it was Mira’s footsteps. It happened many times before. He cannot stand her sermon followed by flood of tears. So he ran home. It was close. He stumbled a few times… not a great escape.”
Francesca giggled and the crowd clapped and roared until tears streaked on their faces.
A matron in the crowd stood up when the laughter subsided.
“What really happened to the two guys we buried last week? It’s a pity, they were still young. May the Good Lord have mercy on them!
“Bad air, bad air did them,” offered Raymundo.
“They were young, strong and bold. But they were not yet familiar with the deadly enemies we face inside the tunnel.”
“The avoidable ones are coal fires and underground water. An impending coal fire is easy to detect because we can smell from afar the air that causes coal to burn and also it sucks the light from our carbide lamp. Tunnel flooding with underground water is also not difficult to escape from because we can sense it coming or see it happening.”
“The third, the bad air, is the worst. It is a traitor enemy and is like a phantom…it cannot be seen. It smalls like grapefruit in the beginning and lures us into going towards it. And when we are under its fold, it suddenly sucks out all the air from our lungs. Tacio, I think the way to handle this menace is to dig another pit to intersect with the tunnel near its front end so that fresh air can push the bad one from one pit opening to another. Or I wish we have a way of blowing fresh air into and sucking the bad one from the tunnel.”
“I tried to save the kids. I wrapped a perfumed handkerchief around my nose and had me lowered down the pit by the windlass to get the kids up. But the bad air was so strong. I was barely able to rope the kids to bring all of us up before I ran out of breath. The scent of the perfume was not able to shield the deadly effect of the bad air.”
Raymundo paused, drank his glass of tuba and sat down. The master had divulged a universal truth that stunned the crowd into deafening silence. It was almost midnight as chilly monsoon gales blew over their heads.
Anastacio seemed lost in his thoughts as he rose.
“Friends, it’s getting late and we now have to go home to our waiting maidens. We should be thankful to them. They make both ends meet by holding the purse tightly till the next pay day. Tomorrow we will dig another pit with our strong hands and strike a good vein. God gave us the gift of finding and extracting the bounties beneath the land although sometimes we have to pay for it with our dear lives.
To me it’s more like giving back to the Good Earth for the treasures that we took out from its womb. Sometimes we are reminded that we have to give back some while searching for ways and waiting for better things to come. When machines and our educated children arrive, the ways of mining that we now know will be forgotten and our generation will fade into the shadows. ”
Past midnight, young miners started strumming guitars and bandurias as the crowd hummed a ballad sang by generations of village folks and started walking home.
The student’s curiosity in Jun had not left him. He turned to Francesca and asked again. “Really, why were the women collecting the wages instead of the miners themselves?”
“Listen lad, after long days of hard work, some of them lose their heads during pay day and spend on drinks and gambling their entire month’s wage. Nothing left for the family. Sir Josefino got fed up berating those fools and giving advances to their tearful wives. He ordered wages to be handed only to women family members,” declared Francesca.
Jun walked home pondering on another puzzle. “How did Anastacio manage to strike a coal vein every time he digs?” he asked himself. This, he will spend a lifetime seeking an answer.
Years later, when Sir Josefino and his hardy miners were long gone, their descendants, the new generation of entrepreneurs and miners employed better technologies in coal mining operations.
Anastacio’s vision came to pass.