Monday, June 15, 2009

This Elusive Bird Helped Shy Dupax Boys Get Circumcised

When I was growing up, we uncircumcised boys hated being teased by our elders when out of nowhere the sound “ku-ku-ku-kuk… supput… supput!” reverberated in the grassy thickets. And so, days before Holy Week, you would see adolescents contacting one another so they could go as a team to undergo the razor on Huebes Santo or Sabado de Gloria or any day within the Lenten season except Good Friday.

I chanced upon this tsakuk by the river in Langka-Mammayang, upstream of Dupax del Sur, Nueva Vizcaya, one cloudy day in September 2010

I don’t know about the rural Tagalogs, Bicolanos, Cebuanos, Boholanos, Ilongos, Kapampangans, Pangasinenses, Cordillerans, Ifugaos, Kalingas, Ibanags, Muslims, Lumads, or even Ilocanos in Ilocos Republic. But we young and old male citizens of Dupax in southern Nueva Vizcaya are quite particular – or rather, used to be very sensitive – as to whether one is circumcised or not.

Being circumcised was such a badge of honor in our part of the woods. Conversely, not being circumcised would mean something to be ashamed of. Thus, when word gets out that a particular guy was seen bathing in the Abannatan stream or the Benay river with his “manhood” still in tact and not open like what a normal man’s should be, pretty soon the whole town would know about it.

If the "uncut" guy were an English-speaking European, the conclusion would be that the Caucasian husband of a local maiden would also be like him. If the subject happened to be a local, not long after the discovery, the word supput (Ilocano and Isinay term for “uncircumcised”) would be appended to his first name as if it were an integral part of the one he was baptized with. 

Not only that. The poor guy’s being “supput” would be a talk of the town or barrio for several generations or for as long as he lived.  And so, if he were still around or when somebody remembers, his case would be cited as an example of a billy-goat-smelling guy being able to get women pregnant even if the skin of his phallus has not undergone the razor’s cut. If he has gone to Kingdom come or migrated to less nosy villages but anyone of his boys would still be around, the stigma would remain like a monument and so the poor kid would still be called ana^ Anut Supput (Isinay for “child of Anut the Uncircumcised”).

In grade school, if your circumcised male classmates would know that you are like Anut, you better sharpen the way you stare or get ready to project a murderous don’t-test-my-patience look. For, more often than not, during recess or before the school bell rings for the afternoon classes, they would tease you with something like “give me salt” especially when a couple of guys came to class with their T-shirts bursting with marasaba (literally “banana-like” in ripeness) tamarind fruits they hauled down from a child-friendly tree on the way to school.

The reference to salt comes from the fact that uncircumcised “birds” are known to have whitish and salt-like particles technically called smegma. Oh well, that grainy material (called kaper in Ilocano) is indeed salty as it forms when the penis is left unwashed for long and part of the urine dries up and accumulates as salt on its way out of the prepuce.

The Conspiratorial Bird
Like most teasing events, however, the kantiaw (jeering)  didn’t end when the tamarind trees or, alternatively, the mango trees, have ran out of fruits. Thanks (but no thanks) to a bird that kept the song playing. This bird is the Philippine coucal (Centropus viridis), a species of cuckoo that is native to the Philippines and described by avid Philippine-bird photographer Romy Ocon in his blog ( as “more commonly heard than seen, as it prefers to skulk in the dense grasses or undergrowth.”

Called tsakuk, kakuk or sakuk in Ilocano, siggu^ in Isinay, and sabukot in Tagalog, the bird played a large part in sending boys of Dupax, be they Isinay or Ilocano or Tagalog, to the mangngugit or circumcision man. (Hey, don’t ask me about gays, particularly if they also underwent circumcision. As far as I recall, when I was a boy, there were not so many of such creatures in our part of Planet Earth then; if ever there were some, their closet must have been so tight shut as to get noticed.)

The love call of the tsakuk didn’t exactly say when it is season to undergo circumcision, much unlike the way the song at twilight of the pitpitaw (a type of cuckoo, I gave it that name by onomatopoea or by the sound it made) would mean no rain the following day. Nor was the presence of this often solitary bird in the bamboo clumps or the tall Miscanthus reeds (runo in Ilocano and Isinay) would mean the coming of a specific activity or weather phenomenon.

The tsakuk rather made us “unbaptized” boys hate it, hate our uncles, hate the older boys who had already undergone circumcision. For when out of no where the sound “ku-ku-ku-kuk… supput… supput!” reverberated in the thickets and made its way to the consciousness of our elders, almost always someone among them would stop planting rice and call out: “Nangngegmo, barok? Agpakugitka kanon!” (Did you hear that, son? It says it’s time for you to get circumcised!)

Preparing for the Cut
Naturally, no matter how afraid we were then of getting our “birds” kissed by the barber’s razor, we would murmur to ourselves something like “Never again!” And so, there and then we would resolve for the nth time to finally undergo the rite of kugit (circumcision) come Lenten Season. 

The foreplay, as it were, would take time.

In addition to going after the tsakuk with a pocketful of river pebbles and our ever-present slingshots when our extrasensory perceptions said there was one about to sound off its irritating call in the ledda (bittuh in Isinay; talahib in Tagalog; scientific name Saccharum spontaneum) reeds nearby, we would be doing a number of preparations for when the big day comes.

Not exactly in any order of priority, one activity would be to scout around the barrio for cousins or playmates or newly arrived migrants from Central Luzon, the Ilocos or the Cordillera provinces who are also ready and willing to undergo the rite. It seemed the fear let alone the pain of undergoing the razor would be greatly lessened when it is shared with other kids.

We would also be asking from those who have recently undergone the cut who was the best mangngugit in the village – plus how much he would accept as “doctor’s fee” or, alternatively, if it was okay to give him a handful of fermented then dried betel nut plus a bottle of gin or Siok Tong.

Depending on how far the skin of your manhood could be retracted backward from its tip, we would also spend more time than ever getting rid of its salt deposits when we bathed by the river. As was normal for us river-loving boys then, we would compare notes as to how much could our respective skins be pulled back. (Note: There would always be hair-like green algae in the more placid parts of the river and we would put some of them around our birds, imagining how the real appearance would be when we would grow up and have genuine hair where there was none before.)

Help from a Wild Plant
If our skin was not yet ready, we would be looking for the shrub with milky sap we called kuribetbet (Tagalog kampupot or pandakaki; scientific name Tabernaemontana pandacaqui). The plant grew by itself by the river bank or on the roadside and we used its sap to shrink our boils or to stop our skin itches, particularly ringworm (Ilocano kurad; Isinay aksep; Tagalog buni), from spreading to other parts of our body.

I don’t remember now who advised us to use the plant’s milk to make our “birds” ready for the cut but I do recall experimenting with it a couple of times and, indeed, the magic worked and gave me a half centimeter mileage each time (but not before I felt stinging pain at first followed by a burning itch that quickly went off once I jumped back to the soothing coolness of the ever friendly river).
Kuribetbet (pandakaki) leaves and fruits from

Lent is Circumcision Time
Lent (often referred to as Cuaresma or Holy Week) mercifully always coincided with summer vacation from school. It was also that brief time of the year when we hyperactive kids hang our slingshots and took a break from our bird-sniping, grasshopper-snatching, cicada-catching, and dragonfly-torturing pursuits. 

In place of going outdoors, we farm kids would be asked to help our old folks husk corn, shell peanuts, roll tobacco leaves, baby sit younger cousins or sisters, help squeeze out spiny amaranth or bamboo thorns lodged on an elder's soles, etc.

In many parts of Philippine Christendom, Lent also meant undergoing certain forms of physical sacrifice as form of penitence and “sympathy” with the crucified Son of God.

Like circumcision.

There is a happy confluence to all this, as I see it now. It is as if Holy Week was purposely designed to allow boys the opportunity to go through the rites of manhood that the Man on the Cross was said to have similarly undergone as a boy. Consider, for example, the following:

  • First, the school break meant freedom from  school assignments, rough schoolmates, and daily classes that would otherwise stay on the way of getting one’s phallic wound heal quickly. 
  • Second, the good behavior enforced by the Lenten “curfew” meant one’s elders would not say no to a few coins to buy a bottle of gin or to ask one from grandmother’s mini store to use as “thank you” to the circumcision expert.
  • Third, since the past few days of Lent saw one being able to do many chores as well as favors, the days after the cut would mean well deserved exemption from such chores as splitting wood, fetching water, taking the carabao to the hills, and riding one’s bike to town for some errands. 
  • And fourth, the bloodletting plus the throbbing pain days after the cut would pass for a cleansing of sorts and a penitencia that befits the season.

Goodbye to Boyhood
I’ll soon post a more detailed or rather a blow-by-blow account of how I underwent the passage from boyhood to manhood. 

For now, let me park by saying something close to blasphemy. Since the circumcision was made on or earlier than Huebes Santo (Maundy Thursday) and the Sunday after would be Easter, hallelujah – the church bells that went silent since Good Friday would sound like thunder again, saying the Lord has risen… but also seemingly proclaiming to no one in particular: there’s a newly born man in town! 

A new man who no longer gives a damn even if a million tsakuk birds would sing “ku-ku-ku-kuk… supput… supput” all day long! –CHARLZ CASTRO

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