Ari’s recent posting on pu-pu platter conjectures on the possibility that the kapre of Tagalog mythology — described, at least when I was growing up, as a cigar-smoking, gaunt figure of frightening appearance, living in balete trees — and the cafre, or African slaves brought over to the Philippines by the Portuguese. Fanciful, he calls it (and I agree), but not necessarily: racial imagination gone wild has, after all, conjured up images of Filipinos as monkeys without tails and Jews having horns under their yarmulkes.
This suddenly reminds me of the ancient (and to my childhood eyes, unbelievably tall) mango tree that used to stand by our old gate in my childhood home in Los Banos. Living memory (at least among interviews my father made with LB oldtimers) pegged its age around the turn of the century and, despite my arboreal ignorance, I have no reason to doubt it. But there were apparently various stories about the tree, with people claiming to see balls of fire swirling around it, or mysterious bonfires at the foot of the tree (this I did see once), or a dwende living near it, or, most popularly, a kapre actually living in the tree. Some neighbors (or at least their grandparents) would apparently ask for permission (“Nakikiraan po“) before passing by the tree. Indeed, sometime in the late ’70s, the newspaper delivery kid would keep delivering our newspaper (by mistake, he said) to a woman in a white flowing gown who would be standing by the tree early in the morning.
At some point in the mid-’80s my father wanted the mango tree cut down — or, at least, some of its thick branches, which were hanging perilously over the greenhouse and the plants he sold. No one in town wanted to touch it at all, and the only person he could find lived several kilometers away in San Pablo. The treecutter kept having problems with his treesaw, which either wouldn’t start or wouldn’t cut the tree at all; next, he started complaining about a sudden pain in his neck; and, scariest of all, he died mysteriously (I am not making this up) a couple of months later. My father simply let the mango tree be, until lightning finally hit it in the late ’80s and it caught fire. All that is left of it now is a burned-out, 5-foot high trunk.