Gangrene is about the youth of the seventies who responded to the Marcos dictatorship courageously and with great sacrifice. The title is also symbolic.
The short story first appeared in the Diliman Review, the publication of the University of the Philippines.
I wrote Gangrene after my son, Eddie, told me about a call he received from a classmate's mother. Her son, his classmate, had disappeared. She was calling all his friends asking if they knew where he was, and that if any of them knew something, they should get in touch with her.
Eddie said the boy's mother was crying. Did he know what happened to his classmate? Eddie said he was an activist, that he had joined the rebels in the mountains.
By F. Sionil José
Major Aromin met him at the pad; and through the diminishing whine of the helicopter engine, his former Executive Officer made the usual amenities.
"It was a good flight, Aro,” Colonel Sison said. “But could you not have informed me much earlier?”
“There was no way, Sir,” Major Aromin said apologetically as they walked through the expanse of dying grass towards the white-washed buildings of the camp and the base hospital ahead. “It was only this morning that I knew. As a matter of fact, since I did the surgery, it was I who asked him. You cannot imagine my shock when I found out. Of course, I knew way back that one of your sons …”
"How was the surgery?” Colonel Sison asked. At fifty, Major Aromin was the Army’s best brain surgeon.
Major Aromin fell in step with the colonel who seemed ready to break into a run. The colonel was trim like most officers; tennis and jogging helped keep him in shape.
“Routine, Sir. We had to amputate the right leg. We thought well above the demarcation line and early enough. But we were too late. I know that now. We gave blood transfusions, of course.”
"Was he in great pain?”
“When he was brought in, he already had this infected leg wound. And of course, they tried to force information out of him. You know what I mean …”
Colonel Sison breathed heavily. He could not bear to ask how his son fared under questioning. He would request the field report - the details, although that seemed so futile and useless now. “He was never physically strong,” he murmured.
“He was in the ward, Sir,” Major Aromin was saying. “But this morning, after I found out, I had him transferred to a room. So you and the family can be alone with him. Will they come tomorrow, Sir? I hope it is not too late …”
“I felt it better not to tell them anything.”
“I broke it to him, Sir,” Major Aromin said. “I told him that we did not want to bury him in an anonymous plot. That was when he gave me your name."
“Thank you, Aro,” Colonel Sison said. “Thank you very much.”
The base hospital was beyond the parade ground. In the harsh April afternoon, the white-washed building with an asbestos roof stood out like a massive box above which loomed the Sierra Madres. They passed the line of agoho trees where there was some shade. In front of the barracks for the enlisted men, a volleyball game was in progress.
The men at the lobby saluted as they entered and Colonel Sison returned the salutes with a tentative lift of the hand. It was no different within the building; it was just as warm and he started to sweat.
Willy was only nineteen when he left and now, he was here. What could seven years do to a boy, a junior in engineering school, brilliant with figures and also with words? There was so much promise in him.
The room was at the end of the corridor and as they approached, a nurse came out with a medicine tray. To Major Aromin’s unspoken question, the nurse said, “He is awake, Sir.”
He pushed the door open and strode in. So, this was what seven years had done to his oldest son. The face so thin and pale, the hair stringy, the lips now colorless. Willy was in regulation blue pyjamas, his right stub of a leg cocooned in bandages. His eyes lit up at once. “Papa, Papa,” he said softly.
Colonel Sison held his son’s hand - it was rough. Poor Willy, he did not do any work except shine his shoes, weed the garden or wash the car … and now, his hand was calloused. Colonel Sison’s chest tightened and in the afternoon heat he suddenly felt cold. At least, I am not too late, he told himself.
“You have white hair now, Papa,” Willy said, smiling, showing the gap where they had knocked some of his teeth out.
The colonel drew a hand over his head. “Yes, son. That is what age brings.” He remembered the old joke among his colleagues. “I spent fifty years putting that white there. I won’t dye it.”
Willy’s voice was the same, quiet and warm. “But that is all, Papa. You look the same.”
Colonel Sison wanted to say something nice, like you look well yourself, but the words would not shape. He had never given his four children any of that bullshit; he would not do so now.
“And Mama, how is she? Tell me about Sammy and Beth. And Timmy ... he must be big now. I do not carry any pictures. I just keep all of you here, in my mind." He tried to lift his arm in a gesture but could not raise it.
“They are all fine, Willy,” Colonel Sison said. “I am sorry I could not bring them with me just now … tomorrow, after I have prepared them for this …”
“Will there be a tomorrow, Papa?” Willy asked.
Colonel Sison held his son’s shoulder and pressed it. “I can only hope, son,” he said.
He could see through the window, at the far end of the building, a platoon in battle greens alighting from three weapon carriers, which had just pulled in. They had a wounded man on a stretcher.
“Your Mama,” the colonel said brightly, “she looks the same. Still pretty. She complains of chest pains now and then and I tell her that with me in the house, she is becoming a hypochondriac. She worries about you all the time. Whenever there is a story in the papers about encounters in Samar, or in this area, she always reads avidly. She never stops asking the wives of officers in the field whom she knows. You know, to this day, she keeps calling some of your friends, especially those whom she has met, who have been to the house, pleading with them to let her know if they have heard from you."
“I am sorry, Papa,” Willie said. “I did not mean to give her so many problems. That is why, when I wrote that letter, I told her not to expect to see me again …”
"She keeps that letter and reads and re-reads it. After all, you are the oldest - and the oldest is always special …”
“And her orchids?”
“I brought her five new ones from Singapore last month. I was there for a conference. They are her only hobby, you know. The cattleyas bloomed two months ago and the house was full of them. Imagine, even the toilet with a cattleya!”
"I miss the house,” Willy said. “Have you fixed the kitchen roof already? And who goes up there now to patch it up and clean the gutter?”
“That’s Sammy’s job now,” Colonel Sison said.
“It has been a long time, Willy,” Colonel Sison said. “He is ten now, you know. And very bright. I think he is the brightest among you all, at his age, anyway.”
"There goes Papa, making a favorite of the youngest as usual. But I am not envious. Remember Beth? How she asked when Mama was expecting Timmy if she would still be loved once the baby came?”
Colonel Sison grinned. “Well, he is pampered all right. But not in the way you think. He gets ordered around and he sometimes wishes he had a younger brother or sister so that he could order someone around too.”
“What is he good at?”
“Everything. Music, science, and math - his report card is full of O’s - meaning Outstanding. He is also fond of animals. He has five cats."
“What about Bat?”
“The poor dog strayed out into the street one night - four, five years ago, I think, and disappeared. He must have been dognapped. I wonder how they had enjoyed Bat - he was more than ten years old."
“It was still meat,” Willy said. “There were weeks we did not have meat at all. And when I was hungry, you know what I did? I dreamed of Mama’s paella and her special Sunday chicken curry."
The door opened and Major Aromin peeped in. “Nothing, Sir. I just want to tell you that we are getting all the reports ready when you leave …”
Then they were alone again. “What reports, Papa? About me? You need not read them. They will not say anything because I did not tell them anything!”
He held his son’s hand again. “We have so little time ... I don’t want to ask you questions. I did not come here to do that. Willy, we missed you …”
Again, the smile on the pinched, pallid face. “I missed you, too. The house. Two years ago, on Mama’s birthday, I happened to be in Manila. I broke discipline and visited the house. It was about eight in the evening. I had hoped there would be someone outside, Mama, perhaps, watering the lawn. But everyone was inside. I could hear the stereo playing the Bee Gees. I saw the old Toyota in the driveway, newly painted. I did not linger..."
“Oh, Willy, why did you not just come in? You know how it is. Unless there is an emergency for me, at seven, we are all in the house, just as it has always been!”
The wan smile again. “Anyway, I heard your voices. I walked past the house slowly, twice. Everything seemed all right.”
“Not everything is all right. Not everything! At least, this was where we had agreed …”
“Papa, don’t try and comfort me. You see, I was told - else I would not have given them your name. My mind is still clear, though.”
The colonel did not speak. What could he tell this boy whom he had cradled in his arms and mind? They had shared so many things together. He was the oldest, he had watched him grow, saw the look of triumph in his eyes when the boy beat him for the first time in tennis. Then their hunting trip in the marshes of Laguna, when Willy got two ducks and he had nothing. How glorious were those days then.
“I don’t want to die, Papa. Please believe that. I was very careful. All of us. We have so much to do and we have so little time. There are many things you don’t know, Papa. What is happening high up there. What is happening all over the country. The newspapers, nothing there but lies, Papa.”
Colonel Sison bowed. “Let us not talk like this, Willy. I just want to see you alive, that’s all. Your mama, your sister and brothers. Timmy - he has never really seen you. He asks about you and sometimes, we make up stories. But even at his age … And now, son, I want you to grant your father a favor …”
“What can I do, Papa?”
“It is about Sammy and Beth. Sammy is twenty-three now. But Beth - she is only nineteen …” Again, the cold, clammy feeling, the tightening of the chest. “Willy - I fear for them. I think they will also leave very soon, like you did."
The gaunt face brightened. "They will? How do you know?”
Colonel Sison shook his head. “They did not tell me. I just know it. I can feel it - the way it was when you left. Your Mama and I - we are sick with worry.”
The smile lingered on the shrunken face. “You will lose all of us, Papa. That is how it is anyway. And soon, it will be just Mama and you - just like when you started out. At least, this way, you will know where your two other children will go. Remember Mama’s story about her former classmate in college? How her three sons became priests? It is not really too different, you know …”
Colonel Sison’s voice was a hoarse whisper. “I want you alive. I don’t want your brother and sister …”
"To be like me? Like this?”
His eyes had misted and there was an unmistakable tremor in his voice. “I am your father, Willy.”
“I wish you could be proud of me, Papa.”
Colonel Sison could feel his son appraise him, his uniform.
"But this is not for me to say. I know I am an embarrassment to you … maybe, a bar to your promotion. Loyalty being the highest virtue now in the army, because of me, maybe they don’t trust you. But at the very least, please don’t be ashamed of me. Or Sammy and Beth … I did what is right.”
“I am not ashamed of you, Willy,” Colonel Sison said emphatically. “But Sammy and Beth - I don’t want to lose them, too. Please, talk with them. And Beth - she is so young. So very young!”
“Not anymore, Papa. At nineteen, you know many things. I cannot talk with them, I never did. And after what has happened to me, what can I tell them? As for Beth - there are many women with us. If they join it is their free choice. They found out by themselves. And they will not be alone …”
Colonel Sison gripped his son’s hand. “Willy, we have gone through this before. All those demonstrations you joined. The teach-ins. I understand. I really do. I did not come here to argue but to see you. To find what I can still do …”
"Nothing now, Papa. It is enough you have come.”
“I want you alive, Willy.”
“And be comfortable as it has always been? Perhaps, that was the reason, but really it is not. I thank you for what you have done for me, my education …”
"You said that in your letter,” the colonel reminded him.
“I thank you, Papa, for it, so I could see better the terrible rot around us.”
“I want you alive,” Colonel Sison said.
“To see the rot spread? We know everything has worsened. And the leaders, they are making money on the carrion of the young. Papa, I have no regrets other than we have to see each other like this."
“I want you alive,” Colonel Sison repeated.
The volleyball game outside had ceased; it was beginning to cool. They had just a few moments more.
“When we come tomorrow, what do you want us to bring you?”
“I had not expected you to come, Papa. I thought that when I died, they would just inform you. Perhaps, I should have told them at the very end. But inside me, I really wanted to see you, Mama, my brothers and sister."
“We will drive the whole night if there is no plane or helicopter available tomorrow. Whichever way, we will be here early in the morning."
“No, Papa. Please don’t bring them here anymore. I don’t want them to see me like this. But you are different. You are a doctor. You are used to this …”
“I am your father. I want Sammy and Beth to come so they will know what awaits them.”
“They know, Papa. There is no need to tell them. From the very beginning, I knew. I was prepared for this. Believe me.”
Colonel Sison was silent.
Beyond the open window, the grim ranges of the Sierra Madre loomed, dark green and seemingly close.
He could make out the outline of giant trees close to the summit. But he knew the mountains were still miles away. They had flown over the folds of the foothills and the pilot had pointed out to him the areas that were not safe. Now, the sun burnished the summit with slivers of blue as it eased down. Time to go. The pilot had said they should lift off while there was still light, and he could hear the helicopter engine revving up. He wanted so much to tarry, to savor this last meeting.
“I should be back in the house before nine tonight,” he said. He stood up then bent over and embraced the thin, wasted body, smelled the musty bedding, the disinfectant and that pervasive odor of hospitals which had clung to his son.
“Thank you, Papa.”
Colonel Sison stood up. He did not want his son to see the tears that scalded his eyes so he turned quickly and marched to the door.