“We no longer need to know war the way you learned it, sir,” I said to uncle as I wheeled him out to the graveled path on the front yard, to give him his monthly haircut, to suit him up in his old jacket. He grumbled and cursed, and chewed what was left of his gums, squishy noises they made with his tongue. He took out a photo from the breast pocket, the only photo he had of them three brothers. The only photo he knew.
Now with pasty skin, camphor smell, and milky eyes, uncle saw my father cry once. It was in the photo. They had fought at the front line during wartime in the south. Eldest among the three, my father bent over by the window. The morning sun slanted high—perhaps mirrored—to the ceiling. Sunlight or artificial light, either way, the light gave no warmth in the hospital room, only the starkness of shadows, the nakedness of the shiny floor. My uncle had just kissed their youngest brother in his deathbed and covered his still pliant body with cloth. A journalist caught the scene and the photo ran in the newspapers, in magazines, through international news agencies, through the wires, through the web. It reached the heavens, but God did not care. Abroad, it won an award, while back at home, my uncle lost everything.
“War separated us,” uncle said, “your father and I.” I knew that I looked like the brother they lost. I heard it many times. Our hair parts in the same direction, towards left, towards noon, towards a bright future. Father never liked how my eyes looked up to him, never ruffled my hair, never lifted me up in the living room to reach for the light bulb with my little hands. Uncle never had a family of his own, so he adored me by bringing me to parks, buying plastic guns, suiting me up in small camouflage green jackets.
This morning, his joints pained him again to waking tears. Also, yesterday morning, the morning before yesterday, every morning till his Lord God in His high golden throne have mercy on him and take away his pain. His brothers were in his dreams again, he said. “When I die, do not fight in the war. Promise me.” He turned his head on the pillow for a moment, slowly as if he lost his thoughts; then he looked up to me. “Why did you have to die so young? Are you here to take me?”
“We no longer need to fight the war the way you did it, sir,” I said to my uncle who was once a soldier. “War ended years ago.” He was wearing his old military jacket again, green like moss, green like the age of the stones. He never listened; no, he could not hear my voice as I wheeled him to the graveled path. He never stirred; no, he could not heed from beyond the sleep he could not wake. No. He could not turn, could not hear from above the distant marching drums of his youth, the stomping sounds of boots shifting towards home.
I take uncle’s jacket for a wash and in the breast pocket, I find the photo crumpled and faded. In his heart, I was a sibling. In his dreams, I had died a thousand times. I take the photo, touch it wrinkly surface like uncle’s rough palms. I hold it before the sun to give it the proper light it deserves. I hear myself saying, “my brother, my brother!” No, I do not have a brother, or a sister. No. Father did not give me a sibling to whose leaving I could weep.
Jeff Javier is a graduate of the UP Mindanao Creative Writing Program.