Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Gladiator by Sigfredo R. Iñigo

Philippine children bet on gladiatoral battles between spiders, by Sigfredo R. Iñigo

Dawn found Achilles spread-eagled on his web, now glistening with the cold dew, which he had spun the night before on the branch of a mahogany tree deep in the Philippine jungle. Suddenly, the branch stirred although there was no wind. Achilles tried to scurry inside a curved leaf when a tiny hand abruptly snatched him. The intruder, a boy, blew softly into the spider wriggling inside his cupped hand to soothe him back into sleep. When Achilles ceased struggling, the boy eased him gently into a tiny compartment in a spider house made from a discarded matchbox.

As he climbed down, the boy was excited. Achilles was a good catch, that he was sure of. He could tell by the way the spider wriggled its strong spindly arms when he grabbed it, its tiny mass sending electricity up his arm.

At the village, the boy sauntered toward a group of kids and some grown-ups watching a spider fight in progress. The boys who owned the spiders sat on the ground, cross-legged, their eyes fixed on the tiny gladiators. Each kept his spider on a short needle-thin stick taken from the strand of a coconut broom. The spiders kept on scurrying across the length of their stick until the two sticks came in contact with each other.

Eventually, one was caught in a net of silk. The spider spun it round and round to the applause of the winning bettors. The owner of the losing spider flicked it to the ground and stamped at it with his bare foot.

"My champion is like Pacman: he gobbles up his enemies," Bal-la, the owner of the winning spider boasted. He let his spider crawl up and down his arms while waiting for takers. The black fighter had beaten three challengers in a row and Bal-la's pockets jingled heavily with coins. The grown-ups betted heavily among themselves. Betting was done as in a cockfight, each combatant either a llamado, which was the odds-on favorite, or dejado, the underdog, like most of the arachnids that ended up squished on the gravel road.

The morning was still cool, but the ground was already littered with many dead and dying spiders. Most were gathered at night or at early dawn from the surrounding woods. Some of the grown-ups went to the jungle at night, carrying kerosene lamps, searching for their silky webs. A searcher boasted he had found three hundred in one night. He sold the creatures to those who have made spider fighting a full-time business, at least during the rainy season when spiders multiplied along with the bugs on which they preyed. Almost every village, after the rice paddies had been planted and there was nothing to do but weed the fields and take the carabaos to pasture, took to spider fighting as pastime.

"Oy, Onyok," Bal-la called the newcomer. "Found something? Want to fight?"

Onyok did not want to pit his spider against Bal-la's. Bal-la was bigger than him, and he had the nasty habit of flicking at his ear when he was not looking. When he protested, Bal-la always pretended to be innocent, but he knew, and couldn't complain. Bal-la once rained down blows on him when he dared confront him, and Onyok went home with a bloody face. He had to pass through the batalan to wash his wounds so as not to let his mother see them.

Onyok took out his matchbox and opened it slowly. Inside were tiny beehive-like compartments, each containing a spider. He picked up a piece of broomstick and with one end gently prodded his newest find.

Achilles did not stir. The boy poked at him gently with the stick, trying to lift him up. Achilles emerged from his corner and waved his front arms lazily, as if tasting the wind. Then he curled upside down, and seemed to go back to sleep.

The onlookers were silent. They looked back and forth at the newcomer and the current champion.

"Oy, this one's ordinan," said a bettor, pointing to the bright red markings on its back. The villagers believed such a marked spider would be a fierce fighter.

"Aw, it's a coward," Bal-la said. "Like its owner. Mine can beat it with just a flick."

Betting seriously began with the spiders evenly matched. Bal-la placed his black warrior back on the stick where it scurried back and forth. It looked mean. "He's hungry after all those fights," said one. The odds shifted a little in its favor.

Perched upside down on his stick, Achilles remained unmoved, even when prodded with Onyok's finger. Bal-la let his spider travel the length of his stick, and as it reached the end, brought the point of the stick against that of Achilles. The other spider moved on to Achilles' stick. One of its arms touched the strand supporting Achilles, as if testing its strength. A spider does that in order to snap it, as a man tries to slice a rope on which his opponent hung. Most spiders do it against smaller opponents.

Despite the prodding, Achilles was motionless as ever. His appearance was that of an octopus with its tentacles all tucked up. He was born, or hatched, in the jungle as the monsoon rains came, and he was among the lucky ones who escaped predators, feeding on the flying things that got tangled on his web night after night. As he increased in size and strength, so did his appetite and daring, until he no longer feared the colorful dragonflies that trashed wildly as they got caught in his deadly trap. These and other large insects he attacked in a swirling motion until they were enveloped, helpless, in his sticky web. Sometimes, other spiders drifted near his nest. He attacked them and sucked the juices out of their dead bodies.

The champion decided it now must put up or clam up. Cautiously it approached, waving its arms out in front daintily like a pair of antennae. To the onlookers, he seemed like a pugilist that shadow boxes before going in. The tips of its two arms - the longest - touched Achilles by no more than a hair but it was enough. Achilles exploded with sudden fury, his motions a blur. Then it was over. The erstwhile champion dropped to the ground with an inaudible thud. Morosely, Bal-la poked at its rear end with the stick. On its back where Achilles had sank his fangs there was a tiny trickle of amber-like juice. Sounds of tsk-tsk-tsk were heard from all around. The winning bettors smacked their lips and collected from the losers.

In most spider fights, either combatant tries to wrap his opponent in thick strands of silk, which he furiously draws out from his posterior and casts away like a fishing net. Some spiders, like Achilles, grapple and bite. They flail with their arms, so thin and flimsy to human eyes, yet hammer-like in effect against their own kind. Achilles simply overwhelmed the other with his more powerful strokes, finishing the other with the fatal bite.

Four more challengers were pitted against Achilles but they were no match for the 'ordained' one. Since most of the spiders left were not of championship calibre, they were made to fight each other in a free-for-all: placed on a small ceramic bowl, they attacked each other, releasing strands of web in a frenzy until only one or none survived. It was less exciting than a single combat, but it helped pass the hours.

At the end of the day, Onyok's pockets were heavy with coins as he enclosed Achilles softly in his fist and blew through it. Then he let him dangle in mid-air and caught him squarely right inside his portion of the matchbox where he slept instantly. That night, Achilles slept with the body of one of his victims which he sucked to replenish his strength. The matchbox was on top of an inverted cup which Onyok placed on a saucer filled with water to keep out the ants.

The next morning, Achilles took on more challengers, finishing them with his whirlwind attack. But he was visibly tiring. He was now spinning silken threads and hurling them at his enemy. He wanted to curl up inside a leaf and wait for dark when he could build his web.

In the afternoon, just before sunset, Onyok was about to go home when Bal-la came up. He was grinning, his fist closed.

"What have you got?" they asked him.

Bal-la opened his fist triumphantly. Out came a yellow spider, bigger than Achilles. It also had bright red markings on its back. The crowd looked in awe as it crawled up Bal-la's arm, stopping every now and then as if to flex its muscles.

Onyok hesitated. He did not want Achilles to fight anymore. He had noted that after every fight Achilles seemed to age. He dreaded to see his champion beaten. But the crowd's blood was up, and he couldn't back down. He took Achilles from the matchbox.

Bal-la placed his spider on a broom stick. Although larger than Achilles, it glided to and fro with ease, and he had to switch his hold of the stick's end frequently to keep it from traveling up his arm. "This one's a karasaeng," Bal-la bragged. He meant a cobra.

The crowd considered the new challenger llamado. Excited shouts caused the townsfolk, now returning from their farms, to pause and see what the ruckus was all about. Onyok was afraid his mother would recognize him and give him a tongue-lashing.

Unlike in his previous encounters, Achilles was instantly alert when he saw the challenger. He approached him cautiously, arms outstretched, like a wrestler looking for a good hold. The other did likewise. Achilles, intent on grabbing the other and biting it like his previous victims, lashed out fiercely but his arms lacked their former power. The 'cobra' released thick ribbons of web against Achilles, who evaded them. As they fought, each tried to snap the silken thread on which the other clung, and Achilles' thread gave way, but he did not fall to the ground: a fighting spider always releases extra strands to the wind, almost invisible to the human eye, as 'assurance'. As Achilles fell, one of those strands had stuck to Onyok's shirt, and he landed on it like a trapeze artist. Onyok again placed him on the stick. Again and again, the 'cobra' snapped his web, and he glided to the ground, only to be returned to his stick to face the challenger. The 'cobra', after sometime, seemed a little scared, like a human being. Imagine flinging your enemy out of the ring, only to find him face to face with you again after a few seconds. Suddenly, the 'cobra' turned the other way and scurried along the length of the stick. "Come on and fight!" shouted the crowd. But Bal-la replaced the stick in his other hand, prodding the yellow spider with his finger. The 'cobra' quickly traveled the length of the stick, thinking it had escaped, but as he reached the end, he walked right into the arms of Achilles. Both fought furiously. Achilles managed to snap the other's thread and the 'cobra' dangled downward. Bal-la gave a soft tug to the thread to coax the spider up, but the 'cobra', now afraid, released more strands in order to escape. Bal-la prodded it with his finger but it turned around every time it was brought within striking distance of Achilles. Clearly he did not want to fight anymore. One of its arms, in fact, was bent upward, and to the spectators it looked like a token of surrender.

"Tiyope!" the crowd roared. "Coward!"

Bal-la flung the 'cobra' in disgust. Onyok was about to place Achilles inside his matchbox when Bal-la swiftly flicked at it with his middle finger, throwing him a few feet away. He crumpled on the dirt and lay still.

Onyok was choked with rage. His face reddened and he almost cried. Bal-la the bully just looked at him. As the smaller boy approached, Bal-la went into a boxer's stance, daring the other to fight.

"Oy, oy, oy, look out! Onyok's mad!"

Onyok flung himself against the bigger boy in blind fury. He was aware of thudding blows, of a dull pain as his thin body absorbed the other's punches. Once he tasted blood. But he kept on coming until a star exploded in his brain and he found himself down on his knees, bewildered. He got up, only to be knocked down again.

"Stop! He's had enough!"

Bal-la paused, then proudly raised his arms like a prizefighter. Onyok drove into him like a bull, and his weight knocked the other into the ground, stunning him. Then Onyok was all over him, straddling him, biting his face, clawing his throat, gouging his eyes. Hands finally grabbed him and separated him from the prostate Bal-la, now covered with wounds and scratches.

"Oy, let's bet on them. This is better than a spider match," cried one of the grown-ups.

Onyok's shirt was drenched in blood, but he gamely stood his ground. He raised his arms, remembering how Achilles raised his before pummeling his foe. The crowd roared. He looked at Bal-la and noticed that he seemed not as confident as before. He was not used to this kind of streetfight. His eyes darted around as if looking for a way out. Instantly Onyok locked his arms around the bully's neck and forced him to his knees. He was surprised to find it easy.

"That's enough," someone said. Onyok let the other go, conscious of the new respect now accorded him by the amazed onlookers.

Onyok limped slowly home, feeling like a man. Near the forest, he stopped and took out what remained of Achilles. He wanted to have one last look at his champion. Slowly, he held him in his palm. Onyok was about to flick him away when an arm stirred. He was still alive! Onyok placed the spider on his matchbox and hoisted himself on a nearby tree. He took out Achilles, probing its posterior with his thumb and forefinger until he found a silken, invisible thread. He held it between his two fingers and raised it. Achilles dangled downward, his arms outstretched, flinging out more strands of silken thread. Finally, one of them was attached to a leaf, and he crawled to it. He was free.

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