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READ LIKE A WRITER, a teaching blog


By Christine Kohler

I do not recommend reading this chapter if you have not read my historical novel NO SURRENDER SOLDIER, set on Guam. But if you have read the coming-of-age story and are curious about the editorial process, you might find this fascinating. In the original version, I wrote this “Stations of the Cross” chapter (28) as a dénouement between the resolution (Chapter 27) and the ending (Chapter 29).

However, when Jacquelyn Mitchard, executive editor at Merit Press, wanted to acquire NO SURRENDER SOLDIER, she asked how I could tone down the Christian-Catholicism aspect of the novel. (No objections were made to the Buddhist-Shinto religious aspect.) This was actually an easy choice/fix because in the very early stages of my writing the novel my critique partner, Carmen Richardson, once said to me, “Christine, you will probably have to take this chapter out. But you can always publish it later (as a vignette).” And so here it is, an exclusive, one year later after the publication of NO SURRENDER SOLDIER by Merit Press.

This is an out-take, like movie out-takes after you’ve watched the movie. It’s the chapter that landed on the cutting room floor before publication. And I’m sharing it with you now for those who enjoyed NO SURRENDER SOLDIER. This chapter came out of my experience reporting on The Stations of the Cross in Guam while working for the Pacific Daily News, a Gannett daily.

NO SURRENDER SOLDIER (Merit Press, 2014)

It was Good Friday. In two days would be my Confirmation Day. How could I go through with this? Three months ago I stalked a man, intending to kill him. Murder is one of the biggest sins. I knew that from Catechism. I also learned that Jesus said if you murder someone in your heart you’re just as damned.

Maybe I’d committed the unpardonable sin and God couldn’t forgive me.

I had two days to figure out how to break the news to my parents that I couldn’t go through with Confirmation; I wasn’t ready. Confirmation wasn’t something I could fake, like fudging on an essay exam even though I hadn’t studied. God knew my heart had committed murder, and a bunch of lesser sins, too.

My family was at home, packing for the pilgrimage up Mount Jumullong Manglo in remembrance of the Fourteen Stations of the Cross. I guess I was supposed to go on the pilgrimage to pay penance for my sins. In the past, I’d just always gone to have a good time with my friends, seeing who could get up the mountain first, figuring we had to make a stop with the friars and priests at every station. This was the first time I actually had to take part in the procession.

“Kiko, please get a blanket for Tatan.” Nana covered her head with a black scarf Nana bihu Pilar had crocheted, and tied it under her chin. “If he can’t make it up the mountain I’m going to take him to the car to lie down in the back seat.

“Want me stay home with him? I can do that.”

“No, just ’cause his lytico-bodig is getting worse, Doc Blas says that doesn’t mean he isn’t fit as a carabao physically. Besides, I talked to the priest about him going today, and he says it might do Tatan good spiritually to see the cross and hear the prayers.”

Tata stopped in mid-air from stacking Spam sandwiches into a cooler. “If not’ing else, the climb might wear him out. Then we can get some sleep for a night or two.”

Nana pretended to swat Tata with a wooden spoon. He winked at her. I knew what Tata was talking about, it was plenty hard to sleep some nights with Tatan getting up and pacing. Tata even had to put little bolts at the top of the doors and windows to keep Tatan from going out and getting lost. Or to prevent him from climbing out the bathroom window naked again.

“But I’ll stay home if you need me to,” I said. “I don’t mind watching Tatan.”

Tata and Nana looked at each other. Tata said, “What? And have you miss carrying that five-hundred-pound cross up the mountain to the last Station? You afraid of getting a hernia?”

“Kiko?” Nana said. “Is there somet’ing you not telling us?”

“Any more stragglers you found in the boonies, or land mines in the yard?” Tata laughed.

Tatan came in from the living room where he had been dozing in front of the TV. He said something so garbled I couldn’t understand him. Nana turned on the tap and poured him a glass of water. Tata finished packing the cooler. As he picked up the cooler to take it to the car, Nana pressed her hand on Tata’s arm and looked him in the eyes. “Ferdinand, I’m not going back to work after Spring break is over. You’ve got to hire someone to help at the store. When Kiko goes back to school, I’m staying home with my tatan.”

Tata leaned the cooler on the edge of the table, and sighed. “I’ve been expecting this. Kiko’s nearly a man now. He can work at the store weekends and summers.” He picked the cooler up and took it out to the car.

Guess now’s not a good time to tell them. Later. I went to the linen closet in the bathroom to fetch a blanket.

I helped Tata load up the car and Nana eased Tatan into the back seat. It had stormed the night before, but the sun played hide-and-seek with clouds as we drove to the foot of the mountain.

When we reached Jumullong Manglo, nearly everyone on the island gathered to begin the trek up the mountain to erect a cross in remembrance of Christ’s death on Calvary.

Tomas raced up to our Datsun as we were getting out. “Bro, I thought you weren’t coming. This is going to be so cool. It’s our turn to do the last Station. Are you ready?” Tomas trotted backward. “Come on. Our whole class is waiting for you.”

“Go with your class, Son,” my tata urged.

I started to take off, then cupped my hands and hollered, “Tomas! Be there in a sec.” I ran back to the car, popped the trunk and pulled out a big stick. “Here.” I handed the stick to Tatan, who was in a stupor. Nana took his hand and formed it around the walking stick. “I carved this with my knife Tata gave me, then sanded it down and polished it up in shop class.”

“Oh, Kiko, that’s so sweet of you.” Nana reached up with the hand holding her rosary beads, cupped my face, and pressed her cheek against mine. “Pray for Sammy today,” she whispered before letting me go.

“I will, Nana.” Pray for me, I wanted to say, but didn’t.

Tata patted twice between my shoulder blades. “Go. Your friends are waiting.”

I ran to catch up to Tomas and the rest of our Confirmation class. The host congregation from MongMong village led the procession. Men and women hoisted the cross to their shoulders. Children skipped up and down, and raised their arms to try and touch the cross on its way to the first Station, which symbolized where Jesus was condemned to death.

The base of the mountain sloped gently, not like the steep cliffs on the north and south shores. I had trouble working my way around the overweight friars in their heavy brown cloaks, the lame, and manamkos to get to Tomas and my class as they approached the second Station, which signified Jesus bearing his cross.

“This is the journey of suffering,” said the priest leading the procession.

I wove around an order of nuns to reach Tomas.

“Where’s Tatan?” he asked. I jabbed my thumb backward. Tomas craned his neck to see where I pointed, then bobbed his head after he must have spotted Tatan.

I wondered where Daphne was so I stretched my neck up to look ahead, then behind me. I tripped and fell.

“You okay, bro?” Tomas helped me up. “Hey, your knee’s bleeding.”

I brushed pebbles off my knee. “Hope Nana’s not mad I ripped my pants.”

We reached the Third Station, and the priest told us to mourn on the path to the Fourth Station. I searched for my nana further downhill. I couldn’t see her, but I was sure she was crying, twisting her wedding ring, and saying the rosary. I kept my promise. I prayed for Sammy. Dear God,…I prayed like I’ve never prayed before. I prayed from deep inside my heart, take care of Sammy. Keep him safe. And bring him home.

I figured praying for Sammy at the cross was the best way I could mourn my nana’s losses—all of her losses, which seemed many on account of the war that stole her innocence, but blessed her with Sammy. And now this other war, the one in Vietnam that stole her blessing. She certainly had reason to mourn like Madre Maria must have done for her son.

The higher I climbed, the narrower and steeper the path. I watched some guys from my Confirmation class take shortcuts, and thought about suggesting to Tomas we do the same. Maybe we’d come across Daphne and we could all walk together. Dust puffed up as one guy taking the shortcut slipped down, down, down the side.

“Whoa,” Tomas said, “he’s got a hard row to hoe now, getting back up the hill.” I nodded, and was glad I’d stayed on the right path.

The sun rose high as we trekked further up the mountain. Five, six, seven Stations, we paused and bowed our heads as the priest read scriptures intended to cause us to consider the price Christ paid for our sins.

In my mind, I yelled at God, Have I committed the unpardonable sin? I tell you, I wanted to murder that soldier to get even for the man who hurt my nana!

With a staff like a shepherd’s, the priest moved forward to the next Station, and the next. The brush grew sparser and scragglier. I glanced back at the Catholics climbing below. It seemed they snaked all the way to the bottom of the mountain still. I knew they wouldn’t all make it to the top, and hoped Nana and Tatan would be among those who did. I bumped into the back of Tomas. One foot slid out from under me and I slipped again. Tomas grabbed me before I plunged off the path.

“I better watch where I’m stepping. T’anks,”

“No problem,” Tomas said. “That’s what friends are for.”

Daphne came up behind me. Neither of us said anything ‘cause the priest was reading a scripture. She untied her navy blue bandana covering her head, bent, and wiped blood dripping from my knee.

“T’anks,” I whispered, embarrassed. Then crossed myself after the priest finished the scriptures and said, “Amen.”

“Ten down and one to go before it’s our turn. Ready, bro?” Tomas backhanded my chest.

I pointed to Daphne’s bandana. “Now what are you going to wear for a head covering?”

She folded it in a triangle with the blood on the inside.

“It still shows.” I checked my pockets. Why, for once, couldn’t I have listened to Nana
and carried a handkerchief?

Daphne rolled her bandana until it was no wider than the rope I hung Simon from the tree with. She wrapped it over her long hair and tied it underneath in back like a headband.

“Is that, you know, allowed? I mean, it’s not covering much.”

“I’m sure God understands.” She smiled so big I thought my heart would burst, and blood and water would flow down the side of the mountain like Talofofo falls. I stepped back. Dirt and rocks crumbled from under my feet. Daphne grabbed my arm. When I slid she started to fall with me. Tomas caught Daphne. Together, they reached out and steadied me back on the narrow path.

I felt bad. Daphne’s hands were scraped and her dress was dirty. I untucked my white shirt and with the tail end wiped the palms of her hands near her wrists where they bled. “Do they sting?”

“A little.” Daphne blushed. She brushed off her skirt. “I’m such a klutz.”

“You? A klutz? I’m the screw-up.”

“It’s okay.” Tomas linked his arm around my neck. “God loves you anyway. Come on. We’re almost there. It’s the Twelfth Station.”

We pressed closer to the cross. A man drew out a metal mallet and three railroad spikes. He hammered the nails into the cross with such force that the ping, ping, ping echoed throughout the valley.

Gray clouds billowed overhead.

“A shower would be nice.” I wiped sweat off my forehead.

“I hope the storm holds off until after we get home,” Daphne said.

Distant thunder rumbled as we reached the Thirteenth Station, which represented soldiers taking Christ down from the cross.

This is it. I have to take up the cross next. Can I do it? I wondered.

“Stop that! Stop that over there,” the priest yelled to a man with a lace veil tied over his face and nothing on but a white wrapped loin cloth.

A Filipino man had whipped his back bloody with a split bamboo stick and leather strap. He ripped the veil off his face and cried out, “I pay penance for my sins and the sins of my family.” He threw himself prostrate on the ground and another Filipino man caned him below his waist.

“Why do they do that?” Daphne whispered.

I used to just think they were stupid. But now I understood why. “ ’Cause they don’t feel worthy.”

“Stop, I say!” the priest called with a voice of authority. “In the name of Jesus who has paid the price for your sins.”

The man stopped beating the other man. He crawled up from the ground and they both huffed off back down the mountain.

“Man, they’re not even going to finish,” Tomas said. “Only one Station left.”

“Well, I’m finishing this pilgrimage.” Even if I’m not worthy. It’s like the priest said,
Jesus did it for me on the cross. “You with me?”

Tomas and Daphne nodded.

“I’m ready. Let’s do it.”

Tomas, Daphne and me joined our Confirmation class jostling for positions under the wooden cross. Tomas and me pressed our bodies under the crossbar. Daphne lagged back with the other girls who lifted and carried the base of the tree.

Though I’d seen men and women bend under the burden of the heavy cross, I had thought it was because they were weaker than me and my buddies. I always thought when it would be our turn us guys would lift it up high like a banner.

As the older men and women who had bore the cross from Station Thirteen let go, my knees buckled under the weight of the cross; this doubled over my back.

I molded my shoulders and out-stretched arms under the crossbeam. Tomas did the same, linking arms with me to form a stronger bond to carry the cross. Like carabao in the fields, we plowed forward to Station Fourteen.

Step by excruciating step. One foot in front of the other. Us Confirmation candidates climbed to the top the mountain, bearing our cross on our backs.

A shower burst from clouds overhead. Cool rain baptized me better than a dip in the ocean. We reached the Fourteen Station, where Christ’s body was laid in a cave.
The priest called us to stop and lift the burden of the cross off our backs. Tomas and me straightened our bodies as the cross rose up on the Guam’s version of Calvary.

I felt free and light from having the burden of the cross lifted. I took Daphne’s hand and we practically ran with our classmates down the mountain.

At the bottom of the mountain stood Tatan, leaning on his walking stick between Tata and Nana.

“You did good,” Nana said. “I remember when it was Sammy’s turn to carry the cross….” Her voice trailed off in sadness. Then she perked up as if a happier memory came to her. “Did you know Sammy sought the blessing of our priest before he left for…” Nana couldn’t say it. Vietnam. But I knew what she meant. I hadn’t known about Sammy going to the priest, but was glad she told me that now. I knew how my brother felt. I was ready for the priest’s blessing, too. It was time to grow up and be a man, as Sammy told me before leaving for war. That’s what he was doing. A man’s job. What he felt he had to do. I respected that.

“We’re pleased with you, Son.” Tata shook my hand.

Tatan took deep gulping breaths, hunching his shoulders each time he swallowed. He looked worn and tired. Not just from the pilgrimage, but lost-looking, like a little boy who stands between his parents when walking across a busy street. His eyes were dull and listless.

“You didn’t get to go up the mountain?” I asked.

“We went far enough,” Tata said. “It’s okay. We’ve had our day. It was your turn.”

“We prayed for Sammy on the mountain. That was why I came,” Nana said. “We all had different reasons for coming. Today I would have been satisfied to sit at the First Station and pray. But you, look at you, you made it to the top!”

She stood on her tip-toes and reached her arm around my neck and pressed her cheek against mine. As I hugged her, I wished she had prayed for me, too. But when I felt her whole body sigh, I was glad she didn’t need to worry about me. It would have been too much to bear, to have two sons lost. It gave me peace to know I had found my way on that mountain.

The Tanakas walked by and Tomas called to me, “Want to come over to my house before Mass tonight?”

“Run along,” Tata said.

I hesitated. My parents looked wore out. “It’ll be all right?”

“Sure,” Nana said. “It will be all right.”

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