You had to view it from a certain angle to see it under the blazing sun. But once you do, spider webs stand out against the sky as if lit from within. I carefully tug on a strand upwards with open palms to feel how taut and durable it was. If it was flimsy and easily gave, the spider that spun it was small. The tougher they were, the bigger the spider. The air smelled of baked earth, grass, wild blossoms and cow dung. I had never been to a rice field before but many years later the aroma of rice fields under the noon-day sun would send me years back in time precisely to this moment. My legs bled from kalmot pusa– A creeping plant whose thorns looked like cat-claws that came off its stem and caught on your skin in neat straight lines. I am 8 years old. What a great day to be hunting for spiders.
I was in the company of, to my knowledge at the time, the best at this peculiar skill–Putol, Makenbord (Mockingbird? He was Caucasian) and Eddie-boy… They were informal settlers from a squatter colony called Fatima in our village.
I had a bike imported and given to me by an uncle who was in the US Navy and was based in Japan. This bike had foot-brakes. You applied the brakes by pedaling backwards–a novelty that elicited oohs and ahs from my spider-hunting friends. In exchange for riding around several blocks on my bike, they would teach me the fine art of tracking spiders. I get to keep the ones I was able to catch myself. The rest were bartered for more time on my bike. I sat on the gutter wondering how my newly caught spiders would fare in battle while waiting for my bike to re-appear on either end of the street. On not a few occasions I also wondered if I would actually see my brand new bike again. The prospect of my bike getting stolen frightened me so much it took all of my will power not to barf and make a fool of myself in front of my friends. It also didn’t help that I had only met my ‘friends’ about a couple of hours ago. A few more hours later, with the last of the daylight reluctantly draining from the sky, my bike is returned to me. I had felt so sick with worry, I had no more energy left to feel any relief. I glanced at my 2 matchboxes full of mean and exotic-looking spiders for consolation all the way home. If my parents had even the slightest idea how far away I had wandered from the house and who I’d been with, they’d have blown enough capillaries to earn them a trip to the nearest emergency room. Instead they just said something about how a kid can smell so awful, where on earth have I been (I said at the neighbors a block away. Nanay: Maraming tinik sa bahay nila? Puro sugat binti mo o!), that I smelled like I just swam in a sewer (Saang imburnal ka galing??), and orders me to hit the shower.
A few months later, I’d exceed the skill of my friends and would later on catch hundreds upon hundreds of spiders over the course of my grade school years, selling off my surplus to awestruck and gullible elementary students where I went to school. My spiders cost from 5 pesos up to a cool 50 pesos and they came with free lessons on the concept of debt, amortization and interest rates.
Spiders would fight to death on a tingting—the woody spine of a coconut leaf. A kid would slide out the drawer of his matchbox and tap their thumbs from under to coax the sleeping gladiator out and onto the tingting. Another kid would likewise draw out his bet and the short battle would ensue. The air would be filled with wonder, anticipation and electricity. There would usually be quite a number of kids huddled around cheering, shouting, egging, in a wild orgy of primal lust for blood and death.. Some were silent in seeming suspended animation, rapt in awe. Incidentally this was also a venue to enrich your vocabulary with the coolest swear words and obscenities to have ever come out in the national language, with all kids well-represented from all grade-levels yelling, gago! tarantado! pak yu!, putang ina mo ka!, puking ina mo ka!, akamputa! (Grades1 to 6). Puta ina!, puki ina! Tantado! (Kindergarten and Prep) with testosterone-charged gusto and abandon that would’ve put the most foul-mouthed black rapper-slash-gangster on crack to shame.
The peaceful and leisurely hike to the camping site in one of the peaks of Mt Batulao in Batangas decades later found me smiling to myself while watching these childhood memories like a movie in my head. Hikes were usually an activity that did not involve much talk even if you had company so usually your thoughts flew off where it pleased. I try to figure out why my mind chose this particular part of my past and I reckoned it was the faint glimpse of a strand of spider web I had seen from afar a few hours ago.
(To be continued)