Did you know that Mayon volcano is surrounded by deep coconut forests and rice paddies? Because of the rich volcanic soil, farmers refuse to leave the area, despite the ongoing danger of a possible eruption.
Gregorio waved at a group of women washing clothes by a riverbed. John asked him to pause for a minute so he could watch them beat the cloth with flat boards against the river rocks. It looked like backbreaking work, and they were soaked with soap and water, but appeared to be enjoying themselves by laughing their chores away.
“Haven’t you ever seen this before?”
“Not really,” John admitted. “Back home we use washing machines.”
“How can a machine do as good a job as a human being?”
John shrugged. “I never really thought about it; my mother does the laundry.”
“I can’t imagine the clothes would get any cleaner that way.”
“You’re probably right,” John said. “Shall we move on?”
“We should stop and eat soon. Aren’t you hungry?”
“You don’t need to persuade me to eat,” John said, smiling. “What do you have?”
“They packed us a picnic lunch,” Gregorio said, kicking his horse forward. He headed toward a large mango tree in full bloom, more than able to provide the shade they would need. After he hopped off the mare, he began to unload some of the items he’d managed to stuff into the saddlebags without weighing them down. He pulled a folded mat from one bag and spread it out on a flat surface. It was large enough to sit or sleep two adults comfortably.
“That’s convenient,” John said. “What’s it made of?”
“Yeah,” John said, pointing at the multicolored spread.
“Some kind of grass the women weave together. People sleep on them all the time.”
“On a mattress?” John asked.
“No.” Gregorio laughed. “On the floor.”
“Bet it would be uncomfortable without any kind of cushion.”
“It’s better than sleeping on dirt.”
“I suppose so. Do you sleep on one every day?”
“No, I have a bed.”
“Lucky for you.”
“More than you know,” Gregorio explained. “I had grandparents who took care of my mother and me. A lot of tisoys have to fend for themselves.”
“It’s short for mestizo. That’s what they call half-breeds around here.”
“Was a Spaniard. He died before I was born.”
“That explains it.”
“Your height and the pine-colored eyes.”
“What’s a pine?”
“Haven’t you ever seen a Christmas tree?”
“Only in pictures.”
“What do you people use to decorate during the holidays?”
“Paper lanterns and nativity scenes.”
“Oh. Pine trees are tall and willowy, much like you, in varying shades of green.”
“I’m not that tall, and I’m certainly not green,” the Filipino stated bluntly. “Get your eyes checked.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my eyes,” John said gruffly, “I see you clearly. You’re at least five inches taller than most of the men around here.”
Gregorio blinked several times, trying to figure out if there was any meaning to this conversation. His brain said no, but his body didn’t agree. The redhead’s piercing gaze was doing funny things to his stomach. Moving before John realized how he was affecting him, Gregorio reached for more bundles from another bag and began to spread out their impromptu feast. There were several pieces of cold chicken, slices of breakfast ham, and wedges of hard cheese. John watched his guide grab a pandesal, the soft roll they’d had earlier, and break it in half. He stuffed it with ham and cheese and then handed it to his guest. “Eat,” he said.
“Thanks.” John took the proffered sandwich and shoved half of it in his mouth. “This is good,” he garbled.
“You want something to drink?”
“What do you have?”
“Nothing yet.” Gregorio stood and pulled a large knife out of another saddlebag, kicked off his sandals, and headed toward one of the coconut trees.
John watched him scramble up the tree like a monkey, reaching the top in no time. He hacked at a few branches and the nuts dropped like bombs. The man was barely winded when he came back down. He lopped off the top of one coconut and then pierced a hole in the hard shell. Putting it up to his lips, he began to drink the liquid while John stared, captivated by Gregorio’s bobbing Adam’s apple and the juices overflowing down his chin. He stopped drinking and licked his full lips. “What’s the matter?” Gregorio asked.
“Aren’t you planning to share?”
“Sorry,” he replied, embarrassed by his lack of good manners. “I got thirsty climbing.” He replicated his movements with the second coconut and handed it over to John. “Here, drink up.”
“This is fucking convenient, isn’t it?”
“If you can climb.” Gregorio grinned. “You would probably die of thirst.”
He loped away before John’s open hand connected on his arm.
Laughing, he began to climb up the much easier mango tree.
“Now what are you doing?”
“Getting our dessert!”
He grabbed a plump yellow mango and twisted it off the branch, sending it whistling through the air like a torpedo. “Catch,” he screamed at John, who moved reflexively and caught it without a problem. Gregorio twisted off another and hurled it toward John’s waiting hand. When he was back, sitting cross-legged in front of John, he stuck his knife into one end of the mango and began peeling back the skin as if it were a banana. After it was completely denuded, the plump yellow flesh exposed, he pushed it toward John and said, “Take a bite.”
John reached for Gregorio’s hand, overlaying his stout fingers over the slender ones holding up the mango. He bit into the meaty fruit, all the while staring into the green eyes that watched intently. The juices erupted, flooding his mouth with sweet nectar. Gregorio turned the mango slowly so John could bite into another side, ignoring the liquid running down his fingers in sticky rivulets. He was hypnotized by the hunger flaring in John’s striking blue eyes, not quite sure what to make of it, but unable to look away. After John got his fill, Gregorio put the seed down and began licking the juice off his fingers.
He took his time and sucked on each digit, pulling them in and out of his mouth, deliberately employing his tongue in a provocative way, making the American fidget. Gregorio was empowered by his effect on the redhead and felt his own body reacting to the moment. He wanted this to go on forever; on the other hand, he was disturbed by the physical attraction between them. What in God’s name was happening? The Marine had been handpicked by Ignacio for one of the girls. He was a man’s man and had the right medals to prove it. Still, the yearning in John’s eyes belied everything Gregorio believed to be true about him. The consequences of making the wrong assumption could be the biggest mistake of his life.
Finally, John choked out, “Are you done?”
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