During the Summer, the Rivers Run Red in the Philippines
I’d already had my first checkup with Doktor Framil. ‘Before the procedure make sure to sit on a batya to loosen everything up,’ he’d instructed. ‘We don’t want you too tight when it’s time.’
Papa made sure that I did exactly what the Doktor said. He bought me a plastic batya, normally used for doing laundry by hand, and filled it with hot water and leafy bayabas branches. I felt like a teabag waiting to brew. At this point, Papa was already retired. He had more time for family and fewer meetings to occupy his days. After Dad moved away almost a year earlier, Papa stepped up as my father. Much to my uncles’ jealousy, the father that I got from Papa was patient, suave and always available—a far cry from the workhorse insurance salesman they knew growing up. I didn’t know that Papa.
All I knew was the Papa in the car with me the day of my procedure. He drove slowly. He packed for me: a bunch of old newspapers so I wouldn’t track blood into his Ford Everest (a post-retirement gift from his youngest son), and Mami’s skirt.
Doktor Framil didn’t see the need for the nurses, operating rooms or the admin-heavy bureaucracy of a general hospital. He preferred simple, non-invasive procedures at his home instead.
We arrived at the Framil’s for my appointment fifteen minutes early. Someone was in there with him. Size 6 Spider-Man tsinelas sat by the screen door (Hey, I have those too!), beside a pair of men’s Rusty Lopez loafers. I was quietly reading my Daredevil comics, a gift from my uncle in the States, when a wail of pain rose from behind the screen door. I tried to ignore it: I felt like I was listening in on something I shouldn’t. If the tsinelas was on the other foot, I wouldn’t want anyone to hear me going through a tuli.
The child screamed again, this cry harder to ignore. He sobbed at the end. ‘It’s over now.’ Doktor Framil’s droll voice coming through the screen door. ‘No need for all that crying. See, it’s over now! Apir!’
I heard the faint slap of a pathetic high five. This kid is such a wuss, I thought. That’s not gonna be me. The kid emerged with his dad. He looked down, ashamed to meet our gaze. I would be too if I cried that much.
‘Your turn, buddy!’ The dad said to me, his wire-framed glasses lifting up as he smiled. ‘It’s not that painful. Renz just had too much sugar today.’
I smiled in Renz’s direction, even waving to get his attention, but his eyes were fixed to the floor.
‘Good job, Renz,’ I said, weakly.
I watched as they walked to their car, Renz walking with an odd gait, his pants a weird shape. I realised that Renz’s pants weren’t pants at all but instead a long, dark skirt that he kept tucked between his legs. His dad opened the door for him like he was a princess. They drove away slowly, the dad carrying precious cargo.
I’d understood tuli as a rite of passage, a gateway through which I entered a boy and emerged a man. Unlike Renz, I was happy to be here. I couldn’t wait to be tuli, not supot. The day I turned eleven, I asked Papa when I could get it. Papa was the only adult male in the house I trusted. Technically, there was Tito King, but he was always away doing law school things in the city. Plus, I didn’t want Tito King to see my titi; I would never hear the end of it. He would call me burat for the rest of my life. Papa told me, ‘next summer’. That summer was now this summer, the summer all of my classmates would be getting it.
My dad couldn’t go as he was overseas, so Papa came in his place. My mum couldn’t make it either: besides being a girl, she also had to work. She was so busy that I couldn’t even borrow her skirt, so I had to use Mami’s. It was long and flowery, and scratched my skin: it was made of Filipino fabric woven from pineapples. ‘It doesn’t stain,’ Mami told me. ‘I don’t want your tebong blood on my good skirts.’
‘I don’t know why you had a home birth,’ Papa would complain to my mother. ‘He could’ve had it done in the hospital when he was baby like his cousin, Nico. That would’ve been much easier.’ The truth was, my mother was still unsure if she believed in tuli. She thought I should have the choice when I was older, not have it made for me when I was a baby. Why would my first act as a mother be to mutilate my son?
My mother had good intentions in giving me a choice on what to do with my junk, but she was in a losing battle with this one. That summer, everybody was getting it. This trend continued into the next summer and the one after that. The longer I waited, the smaller and smaller I looked to my peers. ‘Why are you waiting so long?’ they said. ‘Are you afraid? Are you a pussy?’ It would be social suicide. Supot! Supot! Supot! all the girls would say while pointing at my cojones. Tuli was the only logical step forward, not Supot!
Even at 11, I knew supot had certain connotations. Supots don’t take regular showers. Supots have regular cheese buildups. Supots have a higher chance of being bading, a cross-dresser, or 5’2. I didn’t want to be any of these things. I wanted to be normal, like my uncles and Papa. Like my dad.
Tuli leads to growth spurts. I was so tired of being shorter than my peers, always in front of the human school bus. I can’t wait to be taller, I told myself. I was taller than Kenneth when he was supot and now that he’s tuli, he’s dunking basketballs over my head. Kenneth was so brave, he got tuli’d when he was nine!
‘I’ll just be a moment,’ Doktor Framil said from the other room. ‘I’m cleaning up.’
I looked at Papa, sweat beading on my forehead. ‘Natatakot ka ba? | Are you afraid?’ Papa asked, concern on his face.
‘Of course not,’ I said, barely convincing myself.
TWHIP! I jumped when the screen door opened and slammed on the wall. It was Doktor Framil.
‘Sino ang susunod na biktima?! | Who’s my next victim?!’ he asked.
He pointed at me and beckoned, like a schoolyard taunt. ‘Take off your shorts,’ Doktor Framil said. ‘Why are they so tight?’ He frowned at the sight of my tighty-whities. ‘Why did you bother wearing underwear?’ he said, like I’d committed a crime. ‘You know, you’re not going to be wearing those for awhile, at least not for a couple of months. You’re going au naturale! Only skirts for you if you want to go outside.’
Suddenly, it became clear why boys do this during the summer break.
A long recovery never crossed my mind. I thought I’d turn up, have my flap removed, my tonk stitched up, then go. I knew there was going to be some recovery time but months? No one warned me, not even Papa. I was 11, so time moved like molasses. I was always eager for something to happen. The next couple of months, grounded at home, wearing no underwear? I might as well be bare-assed in prison until the next lifetime.
‘You’ll be recovered before you know it,’ Papa said, sensing my annoyance. ‘Huwag kang magalala.’
I took off my undies and laid on Doktor Framil’s lily-white clinic bed, trying to let my mind wander anywhere but here.
I thought about Mami back home and her food that was waiting for me. I wondered when my mother would be home or if she was home already. What she would think when she saw me in Mami’s skirt. I thought about my growth spurt and wondered if I’d make the basketball team. If not, I could stick to volleyball, be a centre perhaps.
I gazed up at the ceiling, the patchy white paint cracking and peeling at the edges. He took a thin sheet with a small (big-ish) hole cutout in the middle and placed it below my waist. My bits peeked through the hole, open for business. I tried not to look at the sharp instruments of cutting and slashing in my periphery. Doktor Framil was preparing for surgery: I heard the thwap of the gloves and then squelching as he rubbed his hands together to sterilise them thoroughly.
Doktor Framil pulled out a small silver syringe. ‘For the pain,’ he said, winking underneath his face shield.
He injected the anaesthesia directly into my peepee. I looked. Immediately, I felt dizzy from regret. The last time I saw my foreskin, it was like a swollen eye refusing to open. I was surprised how much blood Doktor Framil’s tiny prick could cause.
A thought dawned on me. I didn’t know what it was going to look like afterwards. Would I still recognise it? What if it didn’t recognise me?
I just wanted it to be over. I stared at the nearest corner of the ceiling. When my eyes drifted to what was happening waist down, I looked at a different part of the ceiling. I thought about food again: maybe Mami had bought me fast food because she couldn’t be bothered cooking. Maybe Jollibee’s Jolly HotDog or ChowKing’s steamed siomai were waiting for me at home. I shifted my sights to a different corner of the room. I tried not to think about the amount of bandages, new and bloodied, that kept appearing on my periphery. Maybe it’s not Jollibee, maybe it’s McDo. He pulled bloodied bandages from regions I didn’t think I had to worry about bleeding. Maybe Mami kept it simple and bought me ChickenJoy.
The procedure was quicker than I’d expected. When it was over, I tried to jump to my feet and immediately felt lightheaded. I heard Doktor Framil’s calm voice. ‘Not so fast, be careful.’ He worried that the dressing on the stitches would come off.
‘I loaded you up with so much local, you’ll feel nothing for the rest of the day,’ Doktor Framil reassured me. ‘Even when something goes wrong.’
Papa handed Mami’s skirt to Doktor Framil, who was unsure how to open it up. After some fumbling and a few swear words (I could almost hear Mami saying, ‘How many men does it take to put on a skirt?’), they gave up and helped me put it on the way my mother put on her nightie, head-first from the bottom, working my way up. The skirt’s fabric was more comfortable than I thought, the roughness giving it weight. It felt luxurious, thoughtful.
‘Anything we need to know before going home?’ Papa asked Doktor Framil.
‘Just make sure to not get it wet for the next couple of days. Put a plastic bag over it if he wants to shower.’ Papa nodded intently to show he won’t forget.
‘Of course, there will be pain, but that’s expected,’ said Doktor Framil. ‘There might also be some bleeding for the next few days, also expected. The bleeding can be up to three or four bottle caps. If it gets more than that, call me, it probably means one of the stitches has come undone. If he has a fever, make sure that he takes round-the-clock paracetamol. Do you have some paracetamol at home?’
‘I think so.’ Papa didn’t know, he wasn’t the type to know. ‘I’ll ask my wife.’
‘And how about you?’ Doktor Framil turned to me. ‘How are you feeling?’
‘Good. A little numb,’ I told him, as I pressed parts of my bottom half I couldn’t feel.
‘That’s normal. Don’t worry, it’s still there,’ Doktor Framil said. ‘I made sure to leave the good parts for your girlfriend.’
Papa laughed. Doktor Framil laughed too, pleased with himself. He must’ve been telling this joke to everyone all summer.
‘Just remember, don’t let any girls see your weenie before it heals or else,’ he told me, wagging his finger in my face. ‘Mangagangamatis ‘yan. | Your dick will be so sore it will look like a tomato.’
Papa drove me home. I insisted he drive as slow as he could manage: there was a precious (extremely painful) package here that couldn’t come unwrapped. I held Mami’s skirt a few inches above my Jolly Hotdog. I’d thought that the big hoo-ha was about the surgery itself, with the knives and the stitches and the blood and the skin-removal. But no one told me about the excruciating pain if anything touched the tip of my Woody Woodpecker, or the embarrassment of wearing a skirt.
‘Don’t worry about the skirt,’ Papa said. ‘You’re eleven, no one cares.’ That’s the problem, Papa, I thought to myself. I care because I am eleven.
Papa stopped the car. I thought we were home but we weren’t. We were in a paddy field: the sun at its peak, a water buffalo trampling the area until it was soggy enough to plant rice seedlings.
Papa cleared his throat and looked at me so intently I thought he was going to gouge my eye out. He stared silently for so long, I assumed I was in trouble.
‘You’re a man now,’ Papa said seriously. ‘There are things in life you need to know how to do.’ I was confused, unsure what he was talking about. I was in pain and wearing my grandmother’s skirt in public. All I wanted was to go home.
Papa cleared his throat and adjusted his seat forward and leaned closer. ‘You need to know how to clean your dick.’
‘You need to make sure that you get into the sides, the corners where the head meets the trun-’
‘Okay, Papa. Can we just go home?’ I interrupted, disgusted.
‘No, you need to know this,’ Papa insisted. ‘Or girls won’t want to see it.’
Papa told me with graphic detail how he cleaned his dick. He warned if I ever saw white flecks or anything green after a thorough shower, it was time to see Doktor Framil.
I turned away to watch the water buffalo finish ploughing his section of the field, his owner shaking the seeds in his bag, getting ready to sow.
‘Once you have it cleaned, then you can let girls see it.’ Papa started the car, ending my first and only talk about the birds, the bees and the STDs.
When we arrived home, Mami prepared my bed for me. ‘Don’t worry, I know what to do,’ she said. ‘All four of my sons went through the same thing you’re going through.’
She placed a small cup of melon juice beside my bed, made just how I liked it: with spoonfuls of sugar, teeth-breaking in its sweetness. I lay down with my knees up, careful not to let anything touch. My body must have already metabolised the local anaesthesia because it felt like a thousand hedgehogs had cannonballed on my ding-a-ling.
My bedroom door swung open. It was my sister Chocolate with the family camera. ‘Smile!’ she laughed as she pressed the button, the flash blinding my eyes. I stood up quickly and Mami’s skirt brushed against my stitches. I experienced a pain I’d never forget.
Papa came to escort a cackling Chocolate away. He came back with the camera and said, ‘You keep this.’ He then recounted the story of his own tuli. He was young when he had it.
‘Just six years old, much younger than my peers.’ He was ‘very very brave.’
In those days, boys who wanted tuli had to gather under a mango tree and sit on a wooden bench, to face the town’s mangtutuli, who held a labaha and a mallet. He’d give you guava leaves to chew, then place the razor on the area to be circumcised and strike it once with the mallet – one punishing pop, a penile crunch.
‘At that point, the mangtutuli would remind you to keep chewing,’ Papa said. ‘O hindi ka gagaling.’
He had to run to the river to wash the blood away. Then, the guava leaves he’d been chewing were used to dress the wound. No need for stitches. Papa became very familiar with the flavour of guava leaves that summer, as he had to chew it like gum and spit them on his utin to help it heal. ‘During the summer, the rivers in the Philippines would turn red,’ he said.
Like every story Papa told me, this one involved the Pagsanjan river. He told me once that when he was seven, his dad taught him and his siblings how to swim. One afternoon, they were woken from their peaceful siesta and dragged to the river by their sando. After they rowed their father’s dinghy to the middle of the river, he grabbed them by the shoulder one-by-one and pushed them out of the dinghy, then oared away without warning. ‘Now, swim towards the shore,’ my great-grandfather commanded, pushing their grubby little hands off the dinghy with the oar as he drifted further and further away. I guess, in the end, they learned how to swim.
I’m not sure we truly live in the same era as the people we love. I can’t be the only kid who thought my grandparents were from another time. There was my grandfather’s time, the time of bad swimming lessons. There was my father’s time, the time where Mami nursed them after their tuli. Now, it was my time. Same as my dad’s except I had Mami and Papa beside me and my dad was noticeably absent—in another country, making sure he had enough money to pay for my private school. I thought, What stories about swimming to shore will I tell my son when he goes to his tuli? I wondered if he would think my ways were violent, sad, or of my time.
I took a nap and dreamt about Papa’s tuli. I dreamt about his nerves, the pain after the pop, and the soothing coolness of the river. I dreamt about my friends becoming men too, wearing their grandmothers’ skirts, the gates of adulthood a few guava spits away.
I woke up alone in my bedroom, my mind spinning. I couldn’t tell what time it was. How long was I asleep for? The curtains were drawn and it was dark outside, but could be 6pm or 6am. I was hot, cold, then hot again. I had a fever, my jaw chattering, chills all over my body.
There was a sharp pain around my titi. I lifted my skirt: no blood, good news. But my joystick had turned into a large bunion. This is it, this is the tomato Doktor Framil was talking about. I screamed. Papa burst through the door.
‘Anong nangyayari?’ A grain of half-chewed rice stuck to the corner of his mouth. I caught him mid-dinner.
‘Nangangamatis ako!’ I told him. ‘My penis, it … it looks like a tomato.’
‘Don’t panic, that’s normal,’ Papa said, panicking.
‘Anong nangyayari? Pwede ba kong pumasok?’ I heard Mami from my room.
‘NO!’ Papa and I both screamed. Papa slammed the door shut behind him.
He scratched his head, dishevelling his usually unruffled white hair. He searched for the paper bag full of medicines, opening bags of sari-sari store snacks Mami left me in case I got hungry later. Papa found nothing, so he opened the door and screamed down to the dining table where Mami, Mama, my sister, Tito King and his pregnant girlfriend sat eating.
‘Alam niyo kung nasaan ‘yung paracetamol at ibuprofen?!’
Mami answered, ‘Katabi lang ng Santo Niño! | Should be right beside the baby Jesus figurine!’
Papa shut the door and walked to my dresser where Santo Niño stood, the candles flickering beside him giving the room a holy, ethereal glow. ‘Here it is.’ Papa held up the amber glass to the light. He opened the bottle and eyeballed 10ml into the cap. ‘Drink this,’ he said, handing me a pink goo.
‘What? No water? Daddy always gives me water,’ I told him.
He ran to the kitchen for a cup full of water, damsak-damsak liquid on the ground. He should really clean that, I thought. Before Mami sees or she’ll freak. I closed my eyes and pinched my nose to down the paracetamol. Papa opened another amber bottle with ibuprofen, pouring 10ml again, this goo was a thick translucent white. I did the same manoeuvre. Eyes closed, nose pinched, one clean swallow.
‘I’m sorry, I don’t know what happened,’ I wallowed. ‘I thought people only go nangangamatis if a girl saw it.’
‘That’s just an old wives’ tale,’ he told me.
‘I think it was Chocolate,’ I said. ‘She took a picture of it, remember?’
‘She didn’t see anything.’
‘Girls are not allowed to see. Doktor Framil told me.’
‘No one saw. Mami didn’t see. Choc-choc didn’t see.’
‘But … why did it go red and really big?’
‘It’s just what happens when it’s healing. You did really well,’ Papa said, a father’s love in his voice. ‘Go back to sleep. I’ll be here in the morning.’
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joseph Trinidad is a Filipino writer. His writing is mostly about small towns, exploring their connection to queerhood, displacement, and brownness. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Landfall, The Spinoff, and Migrant Zine Collective. He is the winner of the 2023 Adam Foundation Prize with his MA folio Lucky Creatures.