by jeaneth s.
A searing indictment against tyranny and violence, a stirring story review
| One very short story (fiction) disturbed me in one of my leisurely readings. “The Feast” by Latin writer Policarpo Baron is just a few pages but on the night that I read it, I was haunted in my sleep.
It gives us graphic images of men, women and children – almost an entire village – massacred in a village square at some fictional town named San Fernando of the Winds, told in the first person by a narrator who identifies himself as Abelardo Cruz. It is a depiction of police oppression --the worst kind -- that captured the scenes during and after the massacre in the story in harrowing details.
It is set straight out of a remote village where tyranny has become the rule, law and justice have ceased to exist and savagery is of such proportions that dead bodies are piled up and left to rot like sacks of commodities.
Written in the genre of magic realism, the piece is a searing indictment against police brutality, of tyranny and oppression and poignantly caught by the kind of symbolism that guts your soul.
It is a feast, but not the kind we expect.
The story starts innocently enough. The main character, Abelardo goes to the village center to watch a pool game. He orders lemonade and sits down in a corner. A man he doesn’t know comes up to him, provoking him to a fight. Abelardo hits him when he threw beer to his face. Police come in and arrest Abelardo, dumps him in jail at the police barracks inside the village square. Apparently, the entire drama is a frame-up. Also, the setting indicates the times not being ordinary times; the village is overrun by police and they pick up people arbitrarily. People whisper in doorways “They have taken Abelardo” in a systematic suspicious taking away of people like in a police state or a state of rebellion where suspected rebels or activists are “taken away” by the police. Abelardo is shoved into the dingy cell and he says: “I went in because otherwise they are going to shove me in on the end of a rifle butt.”
He speaks of the time when there were no policemen in San Bernardo of the Winds, “What I mean is, there weren’t no one that would make their (the children’s) life hell.” An atmosphere of fear and tension pervades in the village.
That night, as he huddles by his cell, a crowd starts to gather in the barracks, shouting as in a protest rally, and the police cock their rifles. The character listens and from the din of voices, says: “they were a lot of them, around a hundred at least… familiar voices chanting insults at the policemen” and the policemen saying “disperse.” He estimates ominously—eight policemen with six bullets “to hand” against the crowd. A lawyer arrives probably a ‘human rights lawyer,’ and the police point their guns at him, refusing to relent, warning that Abelardo “would not be removed from the spot by any god or person.” Abelardo is resigned to his fate –“I wasn’t sure of being still alive in the morning.”
The people stay unmoved. The following day, the police reinforcements arrive. Then the carnage happens. Bayonets drawn, the police force their way through and position themselves between the people and the barracks. The leader, a lieutenant orders the crowd to disperse; they turn a deaf ear and instead gang up on the police, “jumping up and down with their arms in the air and fists clenched; faces becoming redder.” The people apparently belong to a rebel community and attack the lieutenant who pretends to be brave. Pushed and threatened, he shouts “Fire!”
Here the narrator tells us, in chilling detail you might as well be viewing our own disgraceful “Ampatuan Massacre” re-created by Varon, only, his is fiction:
I saw them fall. The women ran as fast as they are able and the children, too and the policemen crouched forward…shooting all the time and the square begin to fill with bodies. Some over the square and others stretched out in the dust and on the leaves of the tamarind, ceiba and cashew trees. All night long I heard the screams of the dying. My heart bled for all the people who were strewn over the square: men, women and youngsters just beginning life…the policemen finished off the wounded and went after those who have run, breaking down doors and firing on animals…
Just as when we think we have been disturbed enough, the writer continues, with more horrifying descriptions. First, he describes the piles of bodies slowly decaying in the square and how, with the beginning smell, attracts a kind of bird. But instead of using for example, the familiar vulture that eats carcasses, he uses buzzards, probably because the buzzard is a bird of prey related to hawks. And the image of the hawk is one of greed and lust, stealthy but powerful; the buzzards, to me, stand for the mighty preying on the weak, the corrupting evil of power. The vulture does not depict power; it is a low-flying, greedy bird. The hawk or the buzzard is just as greedy but it stalks powerfully, ominously. With the stink of the dead, the narrator speaks of the coming of the buzzards:
The bodies had been lying for several days out in the square in the dust and the leaves. The color of the bloodstains had changed in the sun, the bodies had become bloated, had turned pale and were beginning to smell. It was then, with the stench, that the first buzzards arrived…
The writer’s description of the arrivals of the buzzards to feed on the corpses is riveting in a horrible way. First, he says, only a few circle above the village but soon enough, they gather in number, coming all over the neighboring villages. And then, as they circle low, they form an ominous black cloud, almost sitting on rooftops. And then, the writer gives us a terrifying image of so many buzzards lying in-wait for their “meal” at twilight, like “All the buzzards of the world have come here.” They come down slow, opening their wings, making spitting noises. They wait patiently as if for something or for someone before they rush down to feast on the dead below.
We imagine then, hunters stalking their victims in the dark, making “spitting noises” and “run[ning] their feet” impatiently – both gestures of rabid hunger, a very vivid unsettling image, indeed. Even the choice of the twilight setting appropriately deepens the horror of the impending “feast.”
The writer builds up the grotesque atmosphere with the use of symbolic images. The injection of buzzards in the story, as if they were real, is very effective; it amplifies the whole surreal scene. Meanwhile, these buzzards could be construed as policemen on the prowl or tyrants of power ‘feasting’ on their prey; they are menacing they are evil, they are dangerous. Their hunger is the rabid hunger for power, for suppression and conquest. And their hunger is unrelenting: “And all night long there was this flying, that swooping of buzzards.”
And then the writer delivers the coup d’ grace:
And in the morning, a large old buzzard, going grey with age…came down and walked amongst the bodies and stood on top of the bloated stomachs and scrubbed his beak in the hair and faces…Finally coming to rest on top of a body in the centre of the square, he sunk his beak in with all his force, steadying himself with his legs, pulling his body backwards and tearing out the flesh. When that first buzzard had eaten, he craned his neck and look at the others. And then, yes…the others flew on to the bodies…and the village was all a flap of wings, a tugging and a hammering of beaks…
The large old buzzard is the quintessential tyrant in strife-ridden countries, the warlord in the Philippines, the godfather of mafias. He leads the gory “feast” and his minions follow his lead. The buzzard “pulling his body backward and tearing out the flesh” is the ultimate image of vicious exploitation; no description rivals it; that buzzard by Varon is the devil tyrant personified, feeding on the dead.
Even the character who touts himself as courageous, is shaken by the scene. “Abelardo’s knees don’t give out on him for no reason,” but he flees. The buzzards are startled for a while, but as soon as Abelardo disappears down the river, they get back to their “feast’ of the corpses--- “Nobody was going to disturb them now, because there was nobody left alive in San Bernardo of the Winds and the police had abandoned the place sometime before…” The town is silenced by the evil of oppression and greed.