Book Excerpt: 'The Fire Beneath: Tales of Gold' by Almira Astudillo Gilles

Almira Astudio Gilles will appear at Asia Society on December 7 to discuss her book "The Fire Beneath: Tales of Philippine Gold."

In 1981, Berto Morales was digging on a government irrigation project in the Philippines when he accidentally struck a shiny, golden object. Though Morales wasn't aware of it at the time, his discovery turned out to be a relic of a pre-colonial era in the Philippines, a nearly forgotten civilization that had been rich in golden artifacts. In the ensuing years, these objects have become well-known throughout the art world, most appearing on display at Asia Society's acclaimed Philippine Gold: Treasures of Forgotten Kingdoms exhibition this fall. But for Morales, the findings did not turn into the windfall he had anticipated.

In her novel The Fire Beneath: Tales of Gold, the author Almira Astudillo Gilles uses Morales' fortuitous discovery as inspiration, weaving together a narrative involving discovery and concealment, greed and generosity, and secularization and spirituality. Gilles, whose book was awarded the 2012 Philippine Presidential Award for literature, will appear in conversation with Florina H. Capistrano-Baker at Asia Society on December 7. At the conclusion of the event, Gilles will sign copies of her book, which is also available at the AsiaStore.

In the following excerpt from The Fire Beneath, Gilles describes what happened when the poor bulldozer chanced upon a highly unusual object — one that would change his life forever:

A piece of metal protruded from the freshly excavated soil where moisture and sand combined to create a muddy trench. The second he fished the object out it became clear this was not a belt buckle. It was, however, long like a belt, heavy, and made of a dull yellow metal. He wiped it with his shirt, careful not to scratch the veneer with bits of grit that covered it. He could see strands of delicately interwoven cords of yellow metal, unlike anything he had ever seen. From conversations with his wife — she had inherited a few pieces of jewelry from a rich uncle — he concluded that these were gold-plated. This unusual piece would be a nice present for Selina. If she didn’t want it, he might be able to fetch an excellent price from the lady who hoarded jewelry under her bed instead of keeping them in the bank vault.

Amazed that such a thing of beauty would be left unclaimed, he carried it to the bulldozer. He knew that muriatic acid was a good test of gold. Dipping a rag in battery fluid, he gently wiped a corner of the belt. The metal gleamed. His excitement growing, he continued to polish the belt. With each application of acid the sheen did not rub off but glowed a deeper yellow, revealing intricate whorls and curls and braids fashioned into an incandescent girdle about four feet long. His eyes affirmed that it was gold.

“I’m not going to work tomorrow,” Obert shouted. “Damn the stove. I’m buying a new one!”

He wrapped the gold belt around his waist, fumbling with what appeared to be the clasp. It hung to the middle of his thigh, but the heavy weight pressing on his flesh made him feel substantial. He felt like a king.

A sobering thought struck him. A king would own more treasure than one belt. Was there more?

Obert jerked his head to his side, his eyes darting left, right, up, down. Swiveling his head to the left, his eyes scanned all over and, seeing nothing, he twisted his entire body around so quickly that he pulled a muscle. Enough of this. He needed a more systematic method. But where to start?

The sun’s slanted rays began to cast an amber tinge on the ground and Obert knew that shiny objects would be harder to find. He needed to act quickly. He had to be at the bus in an hour.

Another question plagued him. Why had nobody else seen anything? The pit crawled with workers every day. But nobody wanted to come to his area: they avoided the place when the bulldozer was churning up dust, and nobody really wanted to talk to him anyway. One incident earlier that day stood out, though. A coworker was at the dried-up riverbed, supposedly doing what a grader does, when he called out to Obert.

“Hey, Araw, look at this,” the coworker said, holding up a metal object. “Looks like a bowl. Not a very well made one. Lopsided, won’t even balance. Heavy, though.” He hurled it off to the side, where it landed on higher ground.

Carrying the rag still wet with battery solution, Obert ran to where the grader had flung the bowl. This man was young and athletic, and he had thrown it as far as he could, way up to the side of the hill. The slope was steep, but the thought of more gold propelled Obert upward. Ignoring rocks and sinking into crevices, he stumbled higher to where he thought the bowl might have landed, looking this way and that for a glint of metal, an odd shaped object.

The bowl had landed right side up. It looked about the size of a small coconut with the top half sliced off. Obert grabbed it with one hand, his arm dropping suddenly with the weight of it. Falling on his knees, he cradled the bowl in his lap and wiped it with the rag dipped in acid. The surface was mostly unadorned except for two raised lines at the rim. He raised the bowl to eye level with both hands, marveling at the smoothness of the metal. His feverish polishing had not betrayed a single spot of gray.

Down on his knees, the perfect position for a prayer, he whispered, “Thanks and praise be to the Lord.”

Back at the bulldozer, he set the bowl beside the belt. The bright yellow of the gold shone in sharp contrast to the dull and dusty yellow of the tractor paint, but the image was not incongruous. The universe had somehow aligned to bring treasure and tractor together and in the middle stood Obert, a grateful beneficiary. He felt that the time of the gold’s discovery had come. The gold had cried out to be revealed, and the excavator had come to its rescue.

But certainly, more would be waiting to be unearthed. Obert had not matriculated past high school, but he suspected that this find was linked to the ancients. Nobody in recent history would own that much gold — imagine, using the precious metal for a simple, lopsided bowl. The belt and bowl were solid gold, not gold flakes betraying a lead core. Gold must have been abundant then, just there for the picking. Hundreds of years later, he was picking too.

It was getting late, and Obert knew he had to start his walk to the truck. The driver would never leave him. They were close in age and friendly with each other, but the rest of the crew would be restless. He also knew that this would be his only chance to gather all the gold in the vicinity. Now exposed, the pieces lay vulnerable to anybody who would come the next morning. But nobody else deserved this treasure. He had been the first to find it. God had anointed him.

Deciding that the best way to scout the area would be to divide it into four sections, he went for the farthest corner first. Already the riverbed had yielded something, so he went back to it, bending low to the ground, kicking at the dirt with his shoes. This technique proved to be effective. Picking up everything that had even the lightest glint of metal, he found a necklace, a small statue, a bracelet. He scoured the area, and when he found no more, moved to the next one. On the west side he found another belt, a long heavy tassel of about six feet with a loop at the end, a cup. He unearthed a birdlike creature that did not belong to any myth or folktale he was familiar with. In the third section lay another belt — the ancients apparently liked decorating their waists — more bracelets, a pair of earrings. He kicked, he knelt, he pushed the soil with his hands. Aware that he was running out of time, Obert moved on to the final section and, without even stopping to admire the pieces that he was finding, kept at his feverish dance of recovery. He fashioned a pouch with the ends of his shirttails, deposited the artifacts in them, and rushed to the bucket of his bulldozer. The last area was particularly productive, giving up two necklaces, a mask, some sort of headpiece, flat plates of different geometric shapes, more odd animal-like creatures.

Exhausted, Obert paused to look at his collection. There were so many pieces, probably about forty, and he debated whether he should clean them up before going home. Some may not be gold and not worth taking, but he balked at the thought of leaving anything behind. There was just one thing to do. Dipping his rag in battery solution, he went to work, quickly wiping each object. He did not have to clean the entire thing: spot cleaning would be sufficient to determine how deep the color gold went. When all had been wiped, Obert determined that not a single one was gold-plated. All the pieces were gold to the core.

A new problem emerged, one that he had not considered in his excitement. How would he carry everything to the truck? Should he hide it somewhere and come back each workday, bringing a load at a time? That would be too risky. His efficiency and hard work at excavating had paid off with progress, and his job here was almost done, leaving three days at most. The engineers would come to measure, the drillers would come to drill, graders would come to smoothen the surface. No, he needed to bring everything home today.

A burlap bag containing bananas lay on the floor of his bulldozer. The woman who had sold the bananas to him had an extra sack and she offered it to him for a few pesos. When he hesitated on the purchase, she offered to lend the bag to him, not wanting to lose the sale, guessing correctly that her customer worried about how to bring the fruit home. “Stroke of genius,” he said, congratulating himself on the idea. Under his loose shirt, he wrapped three belts around his waist. Taking a few steps to test the load, he buckled at first, but reminded himself that he had no choice. The rest of the gold went inside the sack; the fabric seemed strong enough to bear the weight of his treasure. Not trusting his traveling companions, he placed the bananas on top of the bounty and tied it into a thick knot. The bag was heavy, but nothing on earth would have stopped him from carrying it. “My family will be well provided for,” he said, heaving the sack on his shouder.

So intent was Obert on not returning to work that he took precautions to disable the bulldozer. Knowing that broken machinery took a long time to repair, he snipped the alternator cables. It would take at least a week just to order parts. By then, he would have found a suitable place to hide the gold while inquiring about selling it without arousing suspicion. News traveled fast in his town. Rumors flew through open windows and thin walls, made its way down narrow alleys, found its way to church confessionals.

But first, gratitude had to be expressed. He took his rag again and started to wipe the bulldozer reverently, saying, “Thank you, scraper.” As he polished the blade, engine, cab, repeating his incantation of thanks, he knew that he and his machine would soon part permanently. As a final gesture of leave-taking, he kissed the alternator and wrapped his arms around a row of bucket teeth.

Excerpted from The Fire Beneath: Tales of Gold © 2012 by Almira Astudillo Gilles. Reproduced by permission of PAWA Inc.. All rights reserved.

About the Author

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Matt Schiavenza is the Senior Content Manager at Asia Society. Previously, he worked as an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he helped launch and then oversee the China Channel.