The story is set is a desolate place where two nipa huts are the only visible houses. The occupants of both the houses are distant and cold towards each other. Their attitudes reflect the remoteness and emptiness of their location.
They have an unyielding fence between them to stay at arm’s length from each other. But the bamboo fence was not always there. The parched soil between the two houses was once rich and fertile as the neighbours used to share a bond of warmth and care. But it all changed one night.
Their rancour and hatred stem from their history and what happened that one night. Aling Biang caught her husband with their neighbour, Aling Sebia. Aling Sebia was a childless widow who showed a lack of guilt and remorse at her actions.
The husband of Aling Biang left after his misdemeanour was caught and his wife did not bother to pursue after him. The betrayal, the hurt, and the memory had hardened her heart.
Both the women were left with a festering dislike for each other, so much so that they refused to even water the vegetable rows between the two houses, lest the water replenished their neighbour’s plants.
As the story unfolds, we read about Aling Sebia’s pregnancy and the only person who could help her was Aling Biang. And she did but even that did not end the bitterness which goes on unabated. The children of the two women,
Sebia’s daughter and Biang’s son Iking grow up oblivious to each other’s existence. They are innocent victims of their family feud. They, too, are sentenced to desolation on either side of the merciless bamboo fence. They both are not gifted physically but in their loneliness, long for company and even friendship.
One day Iking sneaks a peek at the girl through the withering fence and his heart is captivated by her. Even though she seems uglier than him, the need for companionship makes him fall for the only girl he has ever seen.
Then he hears her play the guitar. She does not complete her notes and Iking is desperate to hear her complete. Aling Biang tries to instil hatred in Iking’s in Iking’s heart but he shows signs of quiet resistance.
Gradually but surely he gets drawn to the music coming from the house next to his. He even starts sleeping by the door where he is able to hear the guitar being played by the girl. He feels the urge to destroy the fence but his mother bolsters the decaying fence and eventually even the guitar stops playing.
Then the story moves for three years and we arrive on Christmas day. Iking is emaciated and weak having being deprived of the girl’s sight and music. His mother Aling Biang asks him to rest while she prays to God.
But Iking only yearns to hear the guitar and goes to the fence. Through the slits in the fence, he whispers to the girl. He wants her to play the guitar and she looks at him, seemingly in agreement.
He waits for the girl to honour his muted request. But there is no music. He is afraid that the girl might have a fence in her against him even though he does not. Unfortunately, at 2 in the morning, the boy dies before the girl could answer his wishes.
At 2:03 am, guitar music comes. But it is too late and Iking’s last wish goes unanswered. Even though the musical notes are now complete, they have lost their patron. Aling Biang scoffs at the guitar music as she considers it disrespectful to his son’s death.
In the end, even his death fails to soften her heart and bring the modicum of sensitivity and forgiveness. The fence remains as formidable as before. The story leaves the reader with many questions.
Where is the man who was as guilty as Aling Sebia? Why can not the two victims, the two neighbours, show compassion to each other? Why does the flame of hate be more powerful than the winds of empathy and forgiveness?
The prime teaching of the story is the importance of forgiveness. Forgiveness offers a chance to reconcile our differences. The lesson highlighted is that our actions have consequences and it is unhealthy to carry grudges when those consequences are adverse.
Human beings are liable to make mistakes and errors but it is higher human quality to forgive mistakes and make room for repentance. If we learn to forgive each other then we can help foster mutual trust and confidence.
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