Beyond the Flames and the Smoke

Summer afternoons in tropical Philippines are always stagnantly humid and scorching hot. It seems like the sun enjoys itself punishing us poor souls for living in the equatorial region. At least that was what it felt like one summer afternoon before I started fifth grade.

Coffee House Readings

While I was rapidly losing water and wits, the flowers were in full bloom and the Bermuda grass that carpeted our garden was a healthy green. Even the mango and guava trees bore fruit in the dehydrating weather. And this was all thanks to my mother and her magical green thumb. But Mama herself was not pleased at all. She was a perfectionist, you see, and the ever fruitless avocado tree was a huge wart in her garden. She tried to fix the problem that day, and she placed me in charge to execute the plan. I was finally given the chance. The middle-child, who always wanted the same trust the oldest gets and the attention the youngest receives, was finally going to shine. It was about damn time. But the only problem was, I did not shine; I burned instead.

Our veranda was failing in its secondary purpose of making the place cooler. I was hopelessly swaying back and forth on the rocking chair to generate some breeze for myself. But the to and fro feat only gave out warm, muggy air, and a squeaky noise. And I had enough of it. Frustrated and consequently bored, I walked over to my seven-year-old brother who was digging up the soil with his Batmobile.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"Burying The Joker. He just died. Batman killed him," he said, in a matter-of-fact way.

"Do you want me to get a flower for him?" I inquired, wanting to be of some use to the ongoing ceremony.

My brother nodded, and so I walked over to the rose bush. I saw my mom looking up at the avocado tree just beside the roses, and heard her threaten it, "It's been three summers already. All you do is stand there and grow leaves and flowers, but no fruit. Should I have you taken down?" Then she gave the poor tree "the look." Oh no, I thought. When you get Mama's signature razor-sharp glare, you clearly did something wrong and there is no escaping punishment. I walked up to her and asked what was happening. She said she was going to smoke the tree in a few minutes.

"Smoke? Why?" I inquired, curious.

"I called your Lolo, and he told me that we should smoke it. Smoke helps the flowers become fruits," she answered, scouting the tree's white flowers.

My grandfather was a skillful gardener so everyone in the family trusted him when it came to plant problems like this one. Mama explained the plan – she needed to build a bonfire of dead leaves, twigs and branches at the foot of the avocado tree so that the smoke could rise up and envelop the leaves and the flowers. The idea was adventurous, so I asked her if my brother and I could help. Mama hesitated for a moment, but ultimately agreed.

"But you're in charge," she warned.

I nodded gleefully, and asked if I could snatch off one rose.

"Just one, and not from the bunch that's still blooming," she said.

I quickly grabbed a rose and skipped my way back to my brother. I waved the rose at him, and set it down where the funeral mound was. "Rest in peace, Joker," I declared.

My brother and I now had to make the bonfire. Since it was a general gardening afternoon, there were already raked triangular mounds of dead leaves and twigs all over the garden, so we just needed to transport each mound to the avocado tree. When we had set up two fat piles of dead organic materials by the trunk, Mama came over with a pail of water and started to ignite one of the mounds.

"Okay, Det, if the bonfire is running out, add three handfuls to it from the other mound. Don't put too much at once though because it would create flames rather than smoke. And we only want smoke, not flames. If the bonfire gives off flames, sprinkle a little water over it to kill them off," she instructed thoroughly.

"I got it, Ma. Don't worry," I smiled at her.

"Good. Well, I'm going back inside to get ready for dinner. When you finish, put the entire bonfire out with the water, and come back inside," she said.

I nodded again.

"And take care of your brother, and watch out for the roses!" she exclaimed as she walked away from us.

"I will! Oh, I want spaghetti for dinner!" I yelled back.

And then it was just my brother and I. For some time, we just sat there cross-legged on the Bermuda grass looking after the smoke. Then we finally got bored, so we each picked up a wooden stick and became swordfighters. We fought around the garden – zigzagging our way through the two Indian trees, Clunk!, clashing our swords by the bougainvillea, Thwack!, and circling around the bonfire, Crack!. We were enjoying the act so much that we got caught up in it. My brother and I decided that smoke in the background was cool, but fiery flames would be more awesome. We grinned at each other mischievously.

"Wait! But Mama told you only smoke," he hesitated.

"Don't worry. A few small flames are not that bad. Plus, I'll kill them off after," I reasoned.

"Fine," he gave in ."Flames would be so cool!"

So I started putting handful after handful of the second pile onto the bonfire. I saw the flames rise, and it was the perfect background. We resumed our scene as the flames grew redder, matching the color of the forming dusk. By ironic luck, the dusk brought a slight wind with it, which not only helped the flames grow but also dangerously edged them towards the rose bush. Unfortunately, I was too entranced by the crackle of the flames and the clash of the swords to notice the emerging danger. But Mama, who decided to check up on us, saw that the flames were directing their dehydrating and possibly flower-injuring heat to her prized roses.

"Adrienne!" she yelled, furiously charging to our direction.

My brother and I stopped in the middle of a clash and looked to our obviously fuming mother. What's wrong? I nervously thought. She pointed at the disastrous event happening behind me. I turned around and saw the red orange waves flailing at the bush. My eyes grew in horror. Oh no!!!

When she got to the scene, Mama gave me "the look." The resulting punishment, however, was not few stinging pinches to my side or wicked hand slaps to my buttocks region. No, it was more brutal. Mama told me to stand beside the rose bush and experience the fire myself.

I shook my head. "No. I don't want to. Let's just kill the fire."

"No! Go and stand beside the plant," she commanded, pointing at my spot. "Now!"

I indignantly set myself beside the bush. Once there, I immediately felt the searing heat all over my face, my arms and my legs. My eyes began to water. It was hot, too hot. Beyond the flames and the smoke, I heard her sermon.

"This is your problem. How many times have I told you to follow what I say? Is your head really that hard? It's always in with one ear, out with the other for you. Nothing stays in," she charged.

"I know. But I was going to kill the flam-," I reasoned.

"Don't make excuses," she cut me off. "You are too careless. It's all about having fun and playing for you, no? What about the roses?"

Her words hit me. I tried to keep the salty tears from running down my cheeks. I held on to them with the anger brewing inside me. I watched her interrogate my brother and give him three pinches to his side. But that was it. Nothing more.

"It's not fair!" I screamed, jumping up-and-down out of anger and the thought that it might relieve the sting to my skin. "Why am I the only one here?! Biboy agreed to this too! He never gets in trouble! I'm always the one to take the hit!

She turned her gaze from my brother and glared at me. "Because you're the older one. And I left you in charge here. I told you to be careful with the roses. But what did you do? You took advantage of that trust, and went your own way."

By now, the tears were irrepressibly rushing down my steaming face. She saw them.

"You need to learn how to value and respect others, even plants. They would appreciate the care. And in turn they would respect and value you as well," she counseled, calmer now.

"But why do I always get the punishment? Why can't I be like Ate? You never punish her; you just talk to her. You even let her say something back," I pursued, bringing in my seventeen-year-old sister to the ongoing back and forth.

"You're not ready yet. You're only ten years old. You would not understand," she replied. "I told you that experience is the best teacher. Responsibility, respectfulness and the others – you need to experience them to learn them. You sister's old enough to just be reminded of the traits she already knows; that's why she doesn't get pinch or slap or this anymore."

I seemed to understand what she was saying, but I still thought that it was unfair.

"And you should know that your Ate also got pinches and slaps when she was your age. And Biboy is already getting some," she added, hinting."No one escapes them, Det."

"No one escapes them, Det" rang in my head. I looked up at her, wiping my tears. By now,her glare had softened into a caring gaze, and she finally told me to come back to her side. Mama then asked me to help put out the fire, and re-hydrate the rose bush, especially its flowers. Before handingme the pail of water, my brother splashed some to my face. It felt good after the whole incident, so I held back from yelling at him for doing it. I guess that was his way of saying "sorry."

When we finished, our trio walked back inside the house for dinner. We sandwiched Mama in the middle; my brother held on to her left hand, while I wrapped my arms around her waist.

"I don't want the roses to die. They look and smell really good," I told her.

"I think they'll survive. They've been blooming their way through this hot summer, so I'm sure they're going to be fine," Mama agreed.

"How about the avocado?" I asked.

"Well, we water and fertilize it regularly. And now we just smoked it. So maybe it can thank us by giving us fruit, right?" Mama said.

"I guess. But we should smoke it again to make it healthier," I suggested.

Mama looked at me and smiled. "Tomorrow. But for now, let's have some spaghetti."