Learning to Shoot
by Monica Macansantos
While Paulette’s comrades satisfied themselves with marching through rainforest for days on end, unable to admit to themselves that they were terrified of being caught in an ambush, she practiced shooting faraway targets every morning, choosing to quiet her doubts within the split-second stillness she inhabited before every shot.
Sometimes it was a can set upon a tree stump, sometimes it was a tree trunk itself. Later on, when she was told that she was wasting precious bullets that were difficult to procure, she started shooting at birds in mid-flight, forest pigeons that her squad’s cook, Ka Selmo, could turn into a luscious adobo feast for her comrades. She had honed her sharpshooting skills with a mania that others did not possess, and while she had never dreamed of fulfilling a higher calling within the movement, her talent would go to waste, they all said, if it wasn’t put to good use.
To win this revolution, they had to eliminate the people’s oppressors, not just the soldiers who protected the powerful from the revolution’s bullets. In the town fiestas and crowded plazas to which she was deployed, she could easily blend in: she was a woman, after all, and why would a flower vendor with pretty eyes be watching a mayor’s daily movements, waiting for the perfect opportunity to get a perfect shot?
The enemy was no longer just an abstract, invisible force, but a potbellied man with sweat stains beneath the sleeves of his barong, or a pale Chinese rice merchant with pomaded hair who jogged near the town’s man-made lake at the crack of dawn. These were actual men with actual sins whose lives she could end with a single bullet to the head, she who could shoot birds as skillfully as she could kill people. If she had once felt that the war they fought was child’s play, that all she and her comrades did was toy with the idea of revolution as they gathered around the campfires of their well-hidden camps, she was now tasked with deciding the fates of the people’s enemies, with learning the details of their lives, the bars they frequented, the mistresses they kept, the sound of their children’s laughter behind the imposing iron gates of their mansions. These men were fathers, husbands, drinking buddies, lovers. And yet there was a calming silence as she brought their figures into focus at the tip of her gun’s barrel, that quiet place between in breath and out breath in which time, and her heart, stood still. It was this silence that she craved, despite knowing its cruel, messy aftermath. To be brave was to transcend doubt. It meant sacrificing one’s life to this single daredevil moment in which one’s intentions were cleansed of their murderous beginnings.
The mayor whose bloodied body lay outside the gate of his mistress’s bungalow had ordered the murder of a peasant leader. The son of the mayor of another town was a logging magnate, and had laid hectares of rainforest at the foothills of the Sierra Madre to waste, ordering the execution of a radio announcer who had exposed his under-the-table dealings. The lieutenant on leave, visiting his aged mother, had ordered the torture and execution of many of Paulette’s comrades. To plant bullets in their bodies was to enter the heart of this war, that quiet eye in the middle of a gathering storm.
It didn’t matter who these people were, or who was issuing the commands to eliminate them—she was in no position to question the ruling of a revolutionary court. It didn’t matter if the balding, rotund policeman who had been sentenced to death in a secret court deep in the Sierra Madre had kind eyes and seemed to be a good father to his daughters. Every morning for two weeks, she sat in the pedicab of her getaway driver, pretending to be a woman bound for work, observing how he dropped his daughters off at school, wondering whether she had isolated the perfect moment to end his life, or whether it was best to find another time in the day when his death would not cause as much heartbreak. Which was why she chose this day in July, a day in which she would find him walking down the steps of the town hall after his weekly lunchtime meetings with the vice-mayor, meetings in which, according to her higher-ranking comrades, he and the vice-mayor went over dossiers that contained the names and addresses of peasants that were sympathetic to their cause. She brought her arms around Jacob’s chest as they sped through the rain towards the town plaza, and she worried about missing her target as water poured down her motorcycle helmet in rivulets, obscuring her view of the road. But she was safe behind her disguise, and if she made a mistake, no one, at least, would remember her face.
Jacob was fast and dependable. Before returning to his family in the provinces to work as an informer and driver for the NPA, he had worked as a delivery boy for Tropical Hut, and could weave through Manila traffic at breakneck speed to deliver hot burgers and chicken to apartment dwellers and office workers in Makati. He had gathered information about this policeman from informers, sending his knowledge to the revolutionary court before their verdict was handed down. She had depended on him to deliver her to her two previous hits, and he had perfect reflexes, stepping on the brakes just as she had the opportunity to get a clean shot, and stepping on the accelerator the moment her target closed his eyes in anticipation of death. It almost seemed as though she and Jacob were of the same mind, knowing when one would pull the trigger, and when the other would steer them away from harm.
They had spent the night with Jacob’s father and six siblings in their bamboo hovel, at the edge of a small plot of land where Jacob’s family had planted rice and raised vegetables for several generations. The next morning she watched him unlatch his motorcycle from the small metal cab that housed two rows of seats for passengers. Despite having spent the night with his family several times, she knew little about him. The silence with which he bore the burdens of a difficult life was, according to her comrades, evidence of a quiet, instinctive understanding of the people’s struggle. This was why he was assigned to tasks that required physical nimbleness and daring: his job was not to understand the ideological underpinnings of the revolution, but to bring about its physical actualization. He was the perfect foot soldier, silent and unquestioning, while Paulette found herself strangely unsure of her task at hand as she slid behind him on his motorcycle’s seat, preparing herself for the moment when she would have to end this policeman’s life.
It was not as though she found this policeman exceptional. This wasn’t her first time to kill a man whom she assumed to be a good father to his children—she assumed this of almost all the men she had killed, for the money they made from cheating hardworking peasants of their harvest earnings, extracting kickbacks from their pork barrel funds, or in the case of this policeman, extorting bribes from public officials, would always go into the building of large, beautiful homes for their families and mistresses, and into the matriculation of their children in private schools and fancy Catholic universities in Manila. They loved their wives and children so much, they chose to disregard the needs of the people they were supposed to serve, the peasants who planted their rice, the servants who raised their children and prepared their meals, the office workers who lived in overcrowded boarding houses, dreaming of marrying their sweethearts and buying houses of their own.
Or maybe this policeman was exceptional—through her sunglasses, she would watch him from afar as he walked his daughters to the gate of their school, his hands in his pockets as he marched between his daughters, telling them jokes.
But the revolution had made its ruling, and she was not in a position to obstruct the revolution’s onward course. Although she was intelligent, she was no ideologue—she lacked the forceful, determined belief in words printed on the page, and she had little patience for the obscure, meandering language bandied about by ex-professors who were clumsy with guns but held sway over their younger comrades by laying out the ideological roadmap for every encounter and every assassination made. It was only when she honed her shooting skills that their teachings began to make sense, for in forgetting that she had a will of her own, she found herself possessed by a force that was impersonal in its gauging of distance and speed, and precise in its selection of its victims. Her unwieldy, questioning self did not possess the same power to enforce equal justice, to swiftly implement the revolution’s will.
And perhaps this policeman too would have to surrender himself to the revolution, whether he was guilty or innocent, a major player or a pawn of the powerful. She could not afford to question the revolution’s judgment as she and Jacob sped through the rain, dodging cars, pedicabs, and delivery vans as they made their way towards the town plaza. Even her own father, himself a member of the bourgeoisie, was kind to his children; this did not make him any less guilty of colluding with his own class to reinforce the existing structures of the feudal system. If she were ordered to perform her father’s execution, would it be right for her to refuse?
Which was why Gabriel and Sam’s target practice session at her parents’ backyard on a chilly Saturday afternoon took her outside those blissful memories each successful shot, as though every clumsy misfire existed within that space where her own anguish raged. From the living room where she sat, she could hear Gabriel shout curses at a tin can after failing, numerous times, to hit it with the pellets of her brother’s toy pistol, and her own brother’s labored breathing as he pumped the gun’s slide up and down before she raised her head to see him half-heartedly point it at the can.
She remembered how the policeman held a green and white umbrella above his balding head as he descended the town hall’s steps, how he hunched his broad shoulders underneath the umbrella’s protective shade as he stepped around puddles and held his briefcase to his chest. He was a large man, and yet he seemed so child-like in his fear of water. She remembered how her gun felt heavy in her hand as she raised it and took aim, how Jacob, whose foot was surely on the accelerator, hissed at her to pull the trigger. Which she did, missing the policeman by about a yard. The policeman had spotted them by this time, and pulled out his own gun from his holster, allowing his briefcase to splash into a puddle and his umbrella to roll down the town hall steps as he took his aim. She felt a sharp pain in her shoulder as she watched Jacob collapse to the ground, blood pooling on his T-shirt, around the spot where the bullet had entered. She could have used that time to make a run for it, but she found herself screaming, and before she could slide off her motorcycle seat and break into a run, their hands had gotten to her.
“Be careful, you might hit a neighbor’s window,” Manang Rosing called out to the two boys from the kitchen window, as though assuming that these boys were in complete control of where their pellets landed. They had both swaggered into the house in military gear that afternoon, sweating and giggling with excitement as they made their way to the kitchen without giving Paulette, who was sitting in the living room, as much as a look.
“Where have you been?” Paulette asked them, putting down the patterns for a dress.
“Quirino Hill,” Sam answered, cracking open two sweaty bottles of Coca-Cola before pushing one towards Gabriel, who chugged down his drink, too thirsty to meet her eye.
“Looks like you’re all kitted out,” she said.
“These are all Gabby’s,” Sam said, pulling at his camouflage vest. “He owns all the army gear.” Gabriel raised his eyes from his Coke bottle, punctuating Sam’s statement with a tight-lipped smile.
He and Sam guzzled down their Cokes before they made their way to the backyard, ambling past her as though whatever adventure they had just undertaken had rendered them immune to her judgment. From the living room she watched Sam set a watering can on a wooden stool. Had Gabriel’s parents become neglectful, allowing their son and his best friend to swagger around town in Carlos’s clothes? Gabriel watched on, shifting his weight from one leg to the other, placing his hands on his hips as he watched Sam take aim at the can with his toy gun. The PCs probably saw in Gabriel a teenage boy playing soldier, while she saw a budding method actor, inhabiting a role his brother once played by donning his brother’s clothes and feigning a confident invincibility.
Sam took the first shot, standing with two feet apart before taking aim. As expected, his shot missed the watering can. Who told him to stand like that when firing a gun? He was firmly balanced on the ground, at the very least, but someone had to tell him to step his right foot back. He had probably seen people grip a gun with one hand, without using the other hand for support, in the movies. Silly boy. This was just child’s play, nothing to take too seriously.
He handed the gun to Gabriel who aimed and fired without bothering to take time to gather himself before pulling the trigger. He was showing off to his friend, and she heard a loud wooden ping at the end of the yard. “Shit,” he yelled, lowering the gun before raising it and firing again.
And here she was, separated from these two boys by a pane of glass, a pile of women’s magazines by her side. Her mother had left these for her to peruse for ideas for a new dress, and she had opened one to a spread of four women at a tea party in summertime, standing, in various degrees of nonchalance, beside a buffet table laden with cakes and gold-rimmed saucers. Under her mother’s watch she was becoming another woman, one who expressed her unspoken desires through the quiet elegance of domestic bliss. It was true that she could soothe herself by gathering these bits and details of feminine details, these geometric prints, this pleated elastic waist that accentuated the bust while giving the belly a skirtful of space. She had half a mind to ask these two boys to go play elsewhere, and she was surprised by how this thought had occurred to her, as though her mother’s quiet striving for domestic peace had finally reorganized her patterns of thought. But no, it wasn’t just that. This was cheap mimicry, this game they were playing, and as the plastic ping of her brother’s cheap pellet gun rang in her ears, she turned to see Gabriel unbutton his army jacket, stripping down to a sweat-stained undershirt that hugged his bony frame. He had caught her eye, and smiled. She had been excluded from this adolescent battle of egos, but her presence was nonetheless appreciated; for Gabriel, at least, she was there to admire him.
She almost envied their innocence, their child-like fascination with murder. They could lust for the idea, squeezing the gun too hard, or else tilting it to the side, Hollywood-style, yelling “Come on!” in frustration as the tin can before them remained unhurt. To these boys, murder would always remain a dream. She remembered how killing had allowed her to escape her own rage, and uncertainty, when her emotions had nearly consumed her.
She rose from the couch and made her way to the backyard. Both boys were sweating by this time, wincing with frustration as she stepped onto the deck. The watering can continued to stand before them, uncompromising in its stillness.
“Just thought I’d get some fresh air,” she said, finding a wrought iron chair to sit on.
“This is stupid,” Gabriel said. The gun was in his hand, and he placed it down on the glass table before wiping his palms on his shirt and turning to Sam. “This was your idea.”
“No it wasn’t. All I said was that I had a gun at home. He’s the one who was talking about shooting targets,” Sam said, wiping the sweat off his brow with his arm.
“We were just talking about shooting up Soviets and Vietcong,” Gabriel said, handing the gun back to Sam, who held up his palm and shook his head.
“I’m about done. I used to be good at this,” Sam said, taking a seat on the deck steps and burying his head in his hands.
“Soviets and Vietcong,” Paulette said. “What made you think about Soviets and Vietcong?”
“Nothing much, really,” Gabriel said, setting the gun down. “We were just talking about Captain America a while ago, while we were hiking up Quirino Hill.”
“He’s obsessed with Captain America,” Sam said.
“I just found a pile of old Captain Americas in my brother’s closet, that’s all. He’s great.” Gabriel lowered his eyes upon saying this, as though ashamed of his sudden candor.
“I never really got into comic books, sadly,” Paulette said, pulling her skirt around her legs. “During my time, if you were caught reading comic books in school, you could be suspended.”
“It’s the same way now. Mom doesn’t like it when I buy comic books. She said I should read real books instead,” Sam said, resting his chin upon his closed fists.
“At least I won’t be caught dead reading Tagalog comic books,” Gabriel said, with a giggle. “Maybe Sam, but not me.”
It was three in the afternoon, and the clouds had cleared, exposing them to a blast of sunlight that sharpened the edges of objects and made Paulette keenly aware of her own physical heft. She had grown heavier over the past month, and in three more months, if all went right, she would be bringing a child into the world. She would be leaving them afterwards, this yard, these two boys, her family, her child, for Carlos and the revolution in the hills. She hadn’t yet written back to Carlos, whose letter arrived at her doorstep the previous week, whose letters she was growing tired of reading. “Be warm without giving yourself away,” he had written in his last letter, and her eyes rested on Gabriel, who lay down on the deck chair before her and closed his eyes. Three months was a long time to be away, long enough to adapt to a new physical space, a new sense of belonging.
“You give up quite easily,” she said, addressing both of them.
“We’re just saving ourselves from embarrassment,” Gabriel said, resting his forehead on his forearm.
It was a quiet Saturday afternoon, and the faint sound of an afternoon radio telenovela intimated Manang Rosing’s presence in their laundry room at the back of the house. She could understand why any young boy would have a sudden, unexplained urge to shoot at a can—the stultifying blandness was emasculating. She herself had succumbed to the comfortable silence of her family’s neighborhood, forgetting who her true enemies were as she immersed herself in dress patterns and afternoon conversations over comic books and Soviets.
She was itching to have a shot at the can. She hadn’t held a gun in months, and the can taunted her from afar.
Sam eyed her from his seat, as though in warning. Who was he to silence her, to put her in her place? It was only a game, and she knew how to shoot better than he did. It would only be one shot, and a perfect one wouldn’t implicate her in any crime. She could hear Carlos whispering in her ear as she picked up the gun, saying This isn’t wise, stop, think of our child, and if she were to be honest to herself she liked hearing the urgency in his voice, the furious reaching out.
“You might do better,” Gabriel said, peering at her from beneath his forearm.
“I’ve never held a gun in my life,” she said, picking up the gun and allowing it to rest on her palm.
“There’s also such a thing as beginner’s luck,” Gabriel said.
“Be careful. You might hit a window,” Sam said, visibly annoyed.
“What made you think that I’d hit a window?” Paulette said, proceeding towards the steps of the deck, where she had a clear, unobstructed view the can. Although she had planned to mess this one up, there was a certain stillness that overcame her as she raised the toy gun.
She breathed in, steadied herself within this pause of breath, and exhaled, pulling the trigger.
A metallic ping brought the dream to its proper end. “Damn!” she heard Gabriel cry out. A ray of light pierced her line of vision, a reflection from the can’s metallic sheen as it lay on the grass, inanimate in its defeat. She allowed Sam’s disapproving gaze to linger in the corner of her eye as she put the gun down on the table.
“Would you want it to be a boy, or a girl?” Gabriel asked, as they lay on their backs on deck chairs, watching the late afternoon sky deepen into a dark orange pall.
“I do like girls, but a boy would be nice too.”
“So you wouldn’t prefer a boy?”
“Not really. I’d love my child, either way.”
“I think boys give our parents more headaches than girls do.”
“Don’t be too sure about that. I gave my mother a lot of headaches, while they’re worried that Sam’s turning out to be too nice.”
“So you were a problem child?”
“Pretty much. Although I started acting out when I was a bit older than you.”
“When you were in college?”
“Yeah. Around that time.”
“Were you an activist?”
She hadn’t expected him to use the word, and it hung in the air like an accusation.
“No. Just a regular pain in the ass who thought that insulting her parents was cool.” She laughed, wondering if she were merely throwing a blanket over an obvious truth.
“I get that feeling sometimes with my parents. That I’m a pain in the ass to them.”
“I don’t know. It’s just that things have been hard for them lately, and I haven’t made it any easier for them.”
“I’m sure you’re not a pain to them,” she said. “You’re their child. You probably make things easier for them, just by being there for them.”
“I hope so. But whenever my Dad looks at me it’s as if he wished I wasn’t there.”
“What makes you think that?”
“It’s just a feeling.”
“I bet he doesn’t feel that way.”
He shifted in his chair, and when she turned her head towards him, his right leg was slung over his left, in an uncomfortable show of nonchalance.
“I think he does. I think he hates me.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“I don’t know. It’s just that I’m in his way, and that his life would be easier if I wasn’t around to be looked after.” He stretched his arms, nearly brushing her face with his fingertips.
“My Mom has a job now so we don’t have to ask for money from other people anymore. But my Dad doesn’t seem to be ok with my Mom working. He was the one who worked until he lost his job.”
“Must be a bit of a change for him.”
“It is. They fight a lot these days.”
“They’re probably just going through a rough patch. All couples do.”
“But they’ve never fought this much before.”
“Well, that’s because your father has never lost his job before. It’s a huge change, for him. But it won’t always be like that.”
“You think so?”
“Sure I do.” Was this his first time to open up to anyone else outside his family? Well there was always Sam, and perhaps Ricky as well, but she was touched by the way he unburdened himself with her, as though, in trusting her with his own secrets, he was allowing himself to breathe.
“It’s hard for any man to lose his job. His pride must have been wounded, and to see your mother working is going to make him hurt even more. But you shouldn’t think that they wish you weren’t around. They’re just going through a rough patch. It has nothing to do with you.”
His feet dangled in the air, at the edge of his chair. Like Carlos, he was slightly pigeon-toed, but his feet were pale and smooth, unburnished by years of walking on heavy terrain. His feet, in the true sense of the word, were baby-soft.
“It’s not that. It’s just that, sometimes I get the feeling that my Dad doesn’t trust me as much because of what my brother did. You probably know by now. Well, everyone knows what happened to my parents.”
He lay on his side, facing her. “My Dad’s no communist, and neither is my Mom. Just to make things clear. And it was unfair because they didn’t do anything. It was my brother they were looking for, and they thought my parents knew where he was hiding even if they knew nothing.”
He was lying on his back now, and together they watched clouds streak across the deepening orange light of dusk. “They didn’t take me in for questioning, but in school they all thought that I was in on it too, somehow, or that at least I could turn communist too.”
“But you’re different from your brother. You both lead separate lives.”
“He definitely was living another life, because we had no clue what he was up to.”
She brought her arms above her head and stretched, feeling the chill of the night air usher her back into her warm home. She rolled onto her side and pushed herself up, so that her head hovered above Gabriel’s slender, brown figure. He glanced up at her and asked, “It’s possible to think that you know someone when you actually don’t, no?”
Pressing her palms against her seat, she said, “I don’t think you can ever know someone, at least not one hundred percent.”
“Just feels strange to know that I never really knew him.”
“Well, sometimes we keep secrets from the people we love the most to protect them. I know it’s sad, but it’s true.”
“Ate Paulie, can I ask you something without making you angry?”
“I’d have to know what the question is,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest. A door slammed shut, and she could hear her mother ask Manang Rosing, in a velvety voice, if she had done anything with a jar of peanut sauce she had bought the previous day.
“Did the father of your child leave you?”
“I left him, actually,” she said, rubbing her arms. It was cold; it was time for them to come inside. “And that’s all I’ll tell you.”
“That’s all right,” he said. He swung his feet to the ground. “You’re so strong, being able to bear a child alone.”
“Oh, I’m not alone in this. I’ve got them,” she said, gesturing with her head towards the illuminated interior of the house. Through the French doors, they could see Sam sitting on the floor before the TV, the robots of Voltes V flashing across his pale, transfixed face, and her mother resting her elbows on the kitchen’s bar, watching her father pour her a glass of wine. She couldn’t see Manang Rosing from where she sat, but a welcoming hissing sound from the kitchen reminded her of Manang Rosing’s invisible yet constant presence. She had it easy, as she could see, while Gabriel had every reason to envy her. The least she could do was to sustain his loyalty for this warm tableau, for with them he would be safe. It would be cruel for her to disentangle her life from his, to deny responsibility for his family’s undoing.
Monica Macansantos was a James A. Michener Fellow for Writing at the University of Texas at Austin, where she earned her MFA in Fiction, and recently earned her PhD in Creative Writing from the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. Her recent fiction and nonfiction has appeared in failbetter, WSQ: Women's Studies Quarterly, Takahe, and Aotearotica, among other places. Her nonfiction (published in TAYO) was recognized as Notable in The Best American Essays 2016, while her fiction has been recognized with citations from the Glimmer Train Fiction Open. She is Branches Nonfiction Editor of Rambutan Literary and is currently working on her first novel.