When I was four, I lived with my mother and brothers and sisters in a small town on the island of Luzon. Father’s farm had been destroyed in 1918 by one of our sudden Philippine floods, so for several years afterward we all lived in the town, though he preffered living in the country. We had a next-door neighbor, a very rich man, whose sons and daughters seldom came out of the house. While we boys and girls played and sand in the sun, his children stayed inside and kept the windows closed. His house was so tall that his children could look in the windows of our house and watch us as we played, or slept, or ate, when there was any food in the house to eat.
Now, this rich man’s servants were always frying and cooking something good, and the aroma of the food was wafted down to us from the windows of the big house. We hung about and took all the wonderful smell of the food into our beings. Sometimes, in the morning, our whole family stood outside the windows of the rich man’s house and listened to the musical sizzling of thick strips of bacon or ham. I can remember one afternoon when our neighbor’s servants roasted three chickens. The chickens were young and tender and the fat that dripped into the burning coals gave off an enchanting odor. We watched the servants turn the beautiful birds and inhaled the heavenly spirit that drifted out to us.
Some days the rich man appeared at a window and glowered down at us. He looked at us one by one, as though he were condemning us. We were all healthy because we went out in the sun every day and bathed in the cool water of the river that flowed from the mountains into the sea. Sometimes we wrestled with one another in the house before we went out to play.
We were always in the best of spirits and our laughter was contagious. Other neighbors who passed by our house often stopped in our yard and joined us in our laughter.
Laughter was our only wealth. Father was a laughing man. He would go in to the living room and stand in front of the tall mirror, stretching his mouth into grotesque shapes with his fingers and making faces at himself, and then he would rush into the kitchen, roaring with laughter.
There was plenty to make us laugh. There was, for instance, the day one of my brothers came home and brought a small bundle under his arm, pretending that he brought something to eat, maybe a leg of lamb or something as extravagant as that to make our mouths water. He rushed to mother and through the bundle into her lap. We all stood around, watching mother undo the complicated strings. Suddenly a black cat leaped out of the bundle and ran wildly around the house. Mother chased my brother and beat him with her little fists, while the rest of us bent double, choking with laughter.
Another time one of my sisters suddenly started screaming in the middle of the night. Mother reached her first and tried to calm her. My sister criedand groaned. When father lifted the lamp, my sister stared at us with shame in her eyes.
“What is it?” Father asked.
“I’m pregnant!” she cried.
“Don’t be a fool!” Father shouted.
“You’re only a child,” Mother said.
“I’m pregnant, I tell you!” she cried.
Father knelt by my sister. He put his hand on her belly and rubbed it gently. “How do you know you are pregnant?” he asked.
“Feel it!” she cried.
We put our hands on her belly. There was something moving inside. Father was frightened. Mother was shocked. “Who’s the man?” she asked.
“There’s no man,” my sister said.
‘What is it then?” Father asked.
Suddenly my sister opened her blouse and a bullfrog jumped out. Mother fainted, father dropped the lamp, the oil spilled on the floor, and my sister’s blanket caught fire. One of my brothers laughed so hard he rolled on the floor.
When the fire was extinguished and Mother was revived, we turned to bed and tried to sleep, but Father kept on laughing so loud we could not sleep any more. Mother got up again and lighted the oil lamp; we rolled up the mats on the floor and began dancing about and laughing with all our might. We made so much noise that all our neighbors except the rich family came into the yard and joined us in loud, genuine laughter.
It was like that for years.
As time went on, the rich man’s children became thin and anemic, while we grew even more robust and full of fire. Our faces were bright and rosy, but theirs were pale and sad. The rich man started to cough at night; then he coughed day and night. His wife began coughing too. Then the children started to cough one after the other. At night their coughing sounded like barking of a herd of seals. We hung outside their windows and listened to them. We wondered what had happened to them. We knew that they were not sick from lack of nourishing food because they were still always frying something delicious to eat.
One day the rich man appeared at a window and stood there a long time. He looked at my sisters, who had grown fat with laughing, then at my brothers, whose arms and legs were like the molave, which is the sturdiest tree in the Philippines. He banged down the window and ran through the house, shutting all the windows.
From that day on, the windows of our neighbor’s house were closed. The children did not come outdoors anymore. We could still hear the servants cooking in the kitchen, and no matter how tight the windows were shut, the aroma of the food came to us in the wind and drifted gratuitously into our house.
One morning a policeman from the presidencia came to our house with a sealed paper. The rich
man had filled a complaint against us. Father took me with him when he went to the town clerk and asked him what it was all about. He told Father the man claimed that for years we had been stealing the spirit of his wealth and food.
When the day came for us to appear in court, Father brushed his old army uniform and borrowed a pair of shoes from one of my brothers. We were the first to arrive. Father sat on a chair in the center of the courtroom. Mother occupied a chair by the door. We children sat on a long bench by the wall. Father kept jumping up his chair and stabbing the air with his arms, as though he were defending himself before an imaginary jury.
The rich man arrived. He had grown old and feeble; his face was scarred with deep lines. With him was his young lawyer. Spectators came in and almost filled the chairs. The judge entered the room and sat on a high chair. We stood up in a hurry and sat down again.
After the courtroom preliminaries, the judge took at father. “Do you have a lawyer?” he asked.
“I don’t need a lawyer judge.” He said.
“Proceed,” said the judge.
The rich man’s lawyer jumped and pointed his finger at Father, “Do you or do you not agree that you have been stealing the spirit of the complainant’s wealth and food?”
“I do not!” Father said.
“Do you or do you not agree that while the complainant’s servants cooked and fried fat legs of lambs and young chicken breasts, you and your family hung outside your windows and inhaled the heavenly spirit of the food?”
“I agree,” Father said.
“How do you account for that?”
Father got up and paced around, scratching his head thoughtfully. Then he said, “I would like to see the children of the complainant, Judge.”
“Bring the children of the complainant.”
They came shyly. The spectators covered their mouths with their hands. They were so amazed to see the children so thin and pale. The children walked silently to a bench and sat down without looking up. They stared at the floor and moved their hands uneasily.
Father could not say anything at first. He just stood by his chair and looked at them. Finally he said, “I should like to cross-examine the complainant.”
“Do you claim that we stole the spirit of your wealth and became a laughing family while yours became morose and sad?” Father asked.
“Then we are going to pay you right now,” Father said. He walked over to where we children were sitting on the bench and took my straw hat off my lap and began filling it up with centavo pieces that he took out his pockets. He went to Mother, who added a fistful of silver coins. My brothers threw in their small change.
“May I walk to the room across the hall and stay there for a minutes, Judge?” Father asked.
“As you wish.”
“Thank you,” Father said. He strode into the other room with the hat in his hands. It was almost full of coins. The doors of both rooms were wide open.
“Are you ready?” Father called.
“Proceed.” The judge said.
The sweet tinkle of coins carried beautifully into the room. The spectators turned their faces toward the sound with wonder. Father came back and stood before the complainant.
“Did you hear it?” he asked.
“Hear what?” the man asked.
“The spirit of the money when I shook this hat?” he asked.
“Then you are paid.” Father said.
The rich man opened his mouth to speak and fell to the floor without a sound. The lawyer rushed to his aid. The judge pounded his gravel.
“Case dismissed,” he said.
Father strutted around the courtroom. The judge even came down to his high chair to shake hands with him. “By the way,” he whispered, “I had an uncle who died laughing.”
“You like to hear my family laugh, judge?” Father asked.
Did you hear that children?” Father said.
My sister started it. The rest of us followed them and soon the spectators were laughing with us, holding their bellies and bending over the chairs. And the laughter of the judge was the loudest of all.