2004/02/09

The Hermit of Elley Hill


It must have been towards the end of school year 1983-1984, when solicitation for the school yearbook was picking up. I don’t know what came to my mind when I heard that a relatively well-off hermit was spending 40 days on top of Elley Hill.

I only recall looking out from my window in Room #3 of Dorm A and seeing the quiet outline of Elley hill against the sky. It was neither imposing nor unreachable. In fact, it seemed to beckon. I knew I had to reach its heights--to solicit for the yearbook.

Unfortunately, my classmates were not as enthusiastic. There was only one person I was able to convince to go with me on the mission--Jeffrey.

On the day we agreed, we took a Matuod jeepney bound for Manga District.

Reaching Ubujan District, we strained our necks to peer from the jeepney’s window. The contour of Elley Hill appeared behind the coconut trees. We didn’t know the way up. We only had the hill as our guide.

We disembarked in an area we thought was nearest to the base of the hill. It was somewhere in Ubujan, where we saw a small clearing near the main road. We crossed the clearing.

The field we traversed was scorched. It was a corn field. The owner must have burnt all the dried stalks after harvesting. Ashes gathered on our feet as we trudge on the field that was gradually rising. We reached the base of the hill and started on our upward trek. The sun was searing for it was around 10AM. There was no road uphill--or so we thought. We simply trudge straight up from the base. There were few vegetation and lots of rocks. The wind became cooler as we neared the summit.

We didn’t talk much except to laugh at our own folly. Sometimes we would stop to look back and appreciate the view. We would try to identify to which direction the seminary was or where our houses were. Then we saw the roof of a makeshift structure at the top.

Then we saw him--the hermit, who was kind enough to accommodate two lost souls on a serious undertaking. I admit he looked surprised to have visitors. In fact, he thought we were simply on a hiking expedition. He never expected us to be looking for him. But he was a good host. He told us lots of stories about his own mystical journey. He even told us about life during the second world war, about the long and deep cave on Elley Hill that sustained the people during the war. There are saltwater fishes in the cave, according to him. He told us that the hill is pockmarked with caves. He seemed surprised that we didn’t encounter one on the way up. And, by the way, he told us, there is a road leading up to the top of the hill. It was exactly on the other side of the path we took. It was supposed to be an easy walk--not as steep as our newfound pathway.

He was brewing leaves in a kettle. He offered us a drink. We drank from the same cup. It was a bitter herb. He said it was medicinal, said to heal a lot of ailments. We nodded our appreciation as we drank dutifully. He told us stories of his anting-anting (talisman), his snake-skin belt, and even showed us a book of prayers, which, with my little knowledge of Latin--after going through years declining rosa, rosae, silva, silvae and conjugating ero, eras and ponere, poneo--I was sure were not Latin at all.

Then he brought us to a spot and called our attention to a magnificent view. We were looking southward. He pointed towards the direction of the sea, which was carved by the curve of Taloto beach.

The picture of the Birhen sa Barangay, which was drawn by a blind person, he explained, had a similar back drop. He surmised that what the blind man saw when he drew that image was a scene from Elley Hill. And we were supposed to be standing right on that spot. He said that we were seeing what the blind person saw. It was really Elley Hill in his mind. So the Virgin Mary was here on this Hill. I did remember an uncanny similarity.

Then our “lesson” shifted to visions. It was then that he asked us to face north. The rolling plain beneath the hill on its northern side facing Kabawan District was green, filled with coconut trees. There were no houses in sight. Only the long stretch of green that met the sky. The sun at that point was near the zenith, and he asked us to face the sun with our arms outstretched. We were to quiet down our thoughts, feel the wind caressing our skin, and hear the distant sounds. With what seemed like a prayer, he mumbled words and wrapped something around our waist as we agonized under the sun. Our outstretched arms were aching. He too did the same, standing between me and Jeffrey. I was hoping nobody would see us, otherwise they might think we were enacting Calvary and mistook me for one of the thieves.

After what seemed like an hour, I opened my eyes a little and looked towards the direction of Jeffrey. I saw that his elbows were resting on his side. Slowly, I did the same.

We never deciphered what the point of the whole exercise was. The only conclusion he offered was about stamina--that I had a good stamina. But for us it was a question of knowing the meaning of that sacrifice than stamina.

We left him a little past 12 noon, taking the same route that we took going up. The trip back was easier and faster.

It was a journey that long remained in our memory. The view was astounding--the seminary (I swear I could make out the outline of my room in Dorm A), the island of Panglao, the sea, and the coconut tree-covered plain. It was probably a personal journey, too. For we proved that we were daring enough to venture into something we wanted to do. We didn’t bring anything on that journey, not even a canteen of water. Not even food. And, I came to realize later, we didn’t even bring a solicitation letter. (msa)