CRISTINA QUERRER (1)
"Wherein orchids in their deathlike beauty unfold like torpid butterflies..." ~John Fowler
The Butterfly Catcher is set in the Cordillera mountain region of the Philippines during World War II. The year is 1945 and 19-year-old Beatriz Tagataw is an Ifugao girl who comes from a long line of rice planters living in the Philippine mountain region. Beatriz was always a curious child who likes to stray away from her tribe to imagine and explore the whole world of butterflies—a constant kaleidoscopic display alongside the trails where she one day stumbles on a Japanese soldier, named Tsukuda. Tsukuda had defected from his unit because he held a very brave and unheard belief of opposing being a part of the engine of terror, as a Japanese soldier of the time.
One up-and-coming Filipino opera singer, Bituin Sarayaga, witnesses her family killed before her eyes before being taken away into forced prostitution, one of the so-called “Comfort Women” who are kidnapped, detained, and raped daily by a slew of Japanese soldiers. Another factor of the story is from American GI perspectives of SGT Cloud and Specialist McKinney. SGT Cloud is a Native American who joined the Army to escape life on the reservation. He finds himself caught in the battle at Cabanatuan with SPC McKinney who is his African American buddy from Athens, Georgia. They also stumble upon a downed Mexican fighter pilot, part of the 201st Fighter Squadron (Mexico) that aided the U.S. war effort, shot down by the Japanese. Together they form an underground militia along with Filipino Scouts and save many U.S. troops –victims of the Bataan Death March and others until the surrender of the Japanese in the Cordillera mountains.
The setting is filled with lush, green jungles and waterfalls in the mountainous rice terraces weaving to the sky, juxtaposed by the harsh, machinery of violence and combat—of Tsukuda on the run and Beatriz harboring the enemy. The story serves to educate and become a vehicle for understanding when worlds converge cataclysmically through war.
Cordilleras Mountain Region, Philippines, 1945
The rucksack stabbed deep into his sides which caused him to surrender his body and rifle to the ground. The heavy oxygen produced by the massive lungs of the jungle and the mountain’s high altitude weighed heavily on him as he gasped for air. It was a blur of emerald green with each delirious step for he couldn’t make out the imposing rice terraces before him—his wound prevented such clarity. He had to stop right there despite the sounds of trailing voices and the footsteps of fellow soldiers who were after him.
When day merged into night in its slow steady succession, he woke to the sounds of monkeys intermingling with other shrilling sounds from the belly of the beast. He barely distinguished the small primates with sinewy, curly tails, scurrying through the canopy and wondered what malevolence lurked within the bottomless jungle. The moon provided a torch against the shadows and the depths of darkness, but he couldn’t turn to anyone, so he tightened his grip on his rifle and held it ever so closely to his chest until daybreak.
Corporal Mansori Tsukuda remembered the day he was drafted into the Japanese Imperial Army. It was a day full of trouble and disbelief. He had to leave behind his wife, child, mother, and older uncles to tend to the rice fields because all the able-bodied men were whisked away. He kept the pictures of his wife and child in the breast pocket of his uniform and whenever he had a private moment, he would steal a kiss from his wife and daughter. He wondered if his superiors had any love for their families from the way they ordered them to perform some unthinkable things. Before his eyes, he saw fellow citizens from all lifestyles transform into monsters. He even saw his own hands pull the trigger in self-defense—though luckily he never had to perform such close and up front abhorrence, sinisterly and without empathy, such as the time his officer, 2nd Lieutenant Kimura, pulled a trigger on an infant’s innocent head while it laid in its mother’s arms and while its father knelt by her side.
Tsukuda ran as fast as he could, not caring who saw him, and why—making a run for it—B-lining it into the tree line. He vomited at the sight of the floating pieces of the precious babe flying into the atmosphere and onto his parents’ faces.
Repulsion made him hyperventilate as he watched his superior officer unflinchingly stand still with the slight curl of a smirk appearing on his face. The mother would not let go of her headless baby. As she cried hysterically, Lieutenant Kimura took it upon himself to execute the poor woman just to quiet her down. Then he turned quickly around and did the same to her husband. The thud of their bodies falling to the ground was a common sound that reverberated in Tsukuda’s nightmares.
In his first military training, Tsukuda froze to the spot when he was passed a rifle bayonet and was ordered to stab the dummy in its head.
“Tsukuda!” his drill instructor yelled, running straight at him. “Stab him! Kill him!” He yelled so hard and then pushed Tsukuda to the ground. Tsukuda was stunned because it felt foreign to him—the act went against every harmonious thing that ever existed. He reluctantly followed the instructions and pretended to mind his business.
Each military exercise brought the realization that this is not what where he wanted to be. Every day his heart ached more and more for his family.
Since then, his days washed out with grey overtones, of unfeeling apparatuses and men of steel marching through his rice-planting town. They practically bulldozed the countryside by their mere presence. Now, despite all the grand greenness of the Philippine mountainside, everything still looked and felt insipid because of what he left behind in Manila—a trail of decaying bodies.
He spent his last night witnessing the commotion in the barracks his fellow soldiers were making with their latest conquest.
One of his fellow soldiers was harassing her, harshly pulling at her arm to go with him. Tsukuda in a pitying impulse ran a block between her and the soldier. He said something to the other soldier and gave him a cigarette. The man snatched the cigarette, laughed, and then went off to the next. Tsukuda led the woman into his sleeping quarters and kindly gestured her to sit on his cot.
“Tsukuda” he pointed to himself, implying that was his name, flashing a boyish, impish smile. Slowly, the woman replied, “Bituin.” Tsukuda repeated her name “Bit-tew-win” and both smiled at his effort. He gestured for her to lie down and she hesitated because she was worried about his intention. He then pulled the blanket that was on his cot over her and, to Bituin’s surprise, slowly laid down with her. He hugged her softly and kissed her once then twice. His acts multiplied to a flurry of kisses all over her face and neck as he found himself enthralled with excitement. He started rubbing her all over her body. All he knew was that those moments made pain leave his body until, finally, pleasure returned. As he got more aggressive and began to unbuckle his pants, Bituin started to cry. She had thought she was with a kind man, not like the other heartless men who would do her harm, but he was going to do the same things the others did to her and the other women.
Tsukuda recognized the fact that he missed his wife and the violence of war must have possessed him for a moment. He withdrew immediately with shame, mortified that he offended her and that he was about to cross the line and join the ranks of men before him who sought pleasure at all costs. Bituin looked at Tsukuda with indignity but with hushed gratefulness. “Salamat,” her eyes said, Thank you. The Japanese soldiers had detained Bituin by forcing their way into her family’s home. They shot her mother and father on the premise, dragged her away, and forced her into a work camp with other Filipina women of childbearing ages, mostly teenagers like her. The first few nights were those of unfathomable panic.
One by one, the women were taken out and forced to go to the Japanese soldiers’ quarters where they were raped. The dispositions of their abusers reflected on the harshness of their torture. They corralled them into a forsaken building with cots partitioned by sheets. This was when the real systematic torture began. When the first man came to her partitioned space, he immediately took off his pants.
Her body tensed up with fear at the thought of what was to be. Then they multiplied like tropical roaches, black, gargantuan creepy-crawlies that scampered about on their beds, a virulent disease like tremendous bloodsuckers that also took in their lives. Japanese soldiers came by truckloads, one by one, morning, day or night. The women must have seen an average of twenty to thirty men a day, forcibly raped that many times a day, every single day. Torment came two ways it seemed: forced in or forced out.
Ending her own life was the only way out of this existence, to force her way out on her own terms, she thought, because all the people she loved were gone now. No sooner than when she started to rip the sheets into wide long strips for ropes to hang herself, the way other girls had done when a Japanese soldier came to her corner and forced her to follow him. They crossed the middle of the camp while guards standing post proliferated the perimeter of barbed wire fences. He led her to the other side of the camp where she knew that only higher officials stayed. She walked down a dark pathway and up a few steps into the foyer of Colonel Yamada’s elegant officer’s quarters.
2nd Lieutenant Kimura, the sniffling, scrawny, devious man who derived pleasure from other people's pain, led the girlinto another small room. With his watchful eye, he waited there with her until Colonel Yamada entered. Japanese opera music wafted through the air. The room was elegant with dim lights and a harmonious atmosphere smelling of sweet wisteria. Bituin fidgeted, nervously tugging at her dingy dress, looking down at her raggedy flip-flops on her coarse feet. She was already imagining what was to be expected of her—this time they will kill her for sure. She then stopped tapping the floor and sat straight up when she assured herself that death would be quick after he has his way with her, if he doesn’t right away, she’d make sure he did.
Colonel Yamada entered the room regally like a king. Kimura bowed in subservience and Bituin hurried to her feet. Colonel Yamada looked at Bituin up and down and ordered his servant to give her an exquisite long box. She was reluctant to open it but by the look on the Colonel’s face, she didn’t refuse. Within it she discovered an elegant black sequined dress. She was confused as to why he gave it to her. She was frightened even more at the thought of what the Colonel was trying to suggest.
She was ordered to take a hot bath, dry her hair, and put on the dress. She was led back into the room where Colonel Yamada, 2nd Lieutenant Kimura, and a few more officers sat around patiently as if in the parlor of an art salon awaiting a performance. The room fell silent and the men had expressions of astonishment, as if they came upon a breathtaking piece of artwork. Bituin did look lovely in the dress and matching shoes, but then again, it was primarily because she was able to wash up and look like a human being.
The servant put a record in the old Victrola. A strangely familiar piece of music began to play. Bituin didn’t understand. Why were they playing the song that she was taught to sing in her formal music school where the sweet Señora Concepcion so diligently guided her to perform? How did they know about this aria?
“Ejia,” Señora Concepcion would say, “straighten your back and look straight ahead.” And that’s what she did automatically upon hearing the first chords of the tune. As if a spell took over, she was taken away to a time of discipline and restraint, unaware of her audience. The music picked her up and she was looking down at the soldiers, unsure of where to go.
Little did she know that upon the murder of her parents, a soldier confiscated their things and within it were her musical notes, sheets, and a record of the music to her aria. As Bituin stood before the soldiers, the servant placed a musical stand with her personal music sheet that continaed her own handwriting on the margins. Bituin couldn’t stop the tears from falling. She now realized why she was there and the atrocious exploitation they did to obtain her family’s personal belongings. In fact, as she looked around the room, she realized that this was how Colonel Yamada furnished his well-designed quarters—from other Filipino families, churches and establishments. It was bad enough to know that these soldiers had murdered her people, but these men built their fortresses with them; they also lived among dead people’s things.
The officers were getting a little impatient so she mustered all the strength she had within her to do what they came to see and hear. She transferred herself in front of Señora Concepcion who was in front of the piano and began to sing like she had instructed her many times. Before her abduction, Bituin was preparing a performance at Quiapo Church in the most illustrious, educated and elite district of Manila. The Quiapo Church’s history went all the way back to the late 1500’s when Franciscan missionaries arrived. All that is gone now and so is her family’s bloodline, a narrative brought to a halt.
Cristina Querrer was born and raised in the Philippines, post-Vietnam War, during the Marcos regime, pre-Mount Pinatubo eruption, as a (US Air Force) military child. She graduated high school from former Wagner High School, Clark Air Force Base, Philippines, in 1985 and received her MFA in Creative Writing. Querrer has two published books of poetry, By Astrolabes & Constellations and The Art of Exporting. She is a multidisciplinary artist, writer, and podcaster: You can listen to her podcast at http://yourartsygirlpodcast.com/episodes and visit her website at: http://cristinaquerrer.com. The Butterfly Catcher is her first novel-in-progress set in the Cordillera mountain region of the Philippines during World War II.