January–June 2021 (Issue 43)


Two COVID-19 Essays by Rezeile Eigo Brahim
Pandemic Drives and the Kindling of a New Fascination” by Dalziel Chaz B. Oyao
Golden Fighting Cocks” by Romeo E. Tejada Jr.
Fleeing the Fly Zone” by Daniel E. Costas
Nang Minsang Sumakit ang Aking Tiyan” ni Marvin Ric Mendoza Esteban

The Long Road to Asik-Asik” by Erwin Cabucos
The Creature That Devoured the Sun and the Moon” by John Mark G. Parlingayan
The Balut Vendor” by John Mark G. Parlingayan
Sa Layla Sari-Sari Store” ni Mary Divine C. Escleto

hamartia” by Julius Marc Taborete
Burol ng Kamusmusan” ni Angelo Lenard Yu
Ayaw Kong Magmahal ng Selosa” ni Philip Jay Leaño
Araw at Buwan” ni Mary Divine C. Escleto
Paghulat sa Imo” ni Stalingrad Samulde Dollosa
Ikaw, Labing Gamhanan” ni Luis B. Bahay Jr.
Keeper of the Unkept” by Ghermaine Marie M. Micaroz
Kapag Umiyak ang Langit” ni John Dave B. Pacheco
Langit sa Karimlan” ni Jerusalem D. Nalig

Editors and Contributors


Introduction to Issue 43

“It might not be COVID-19 that directly hit us, but our foiled lockdown plans, the emergency surgery, and being quarantined together reconnected us and brought us back closer than ever,” so goes a line in “Change of Plans, Change of Hearts,” an essay by Rezeile Eigo Brahim. The line summarizes the essay and reflects the message of four other essays featured in this issue—“The Voice in the Window,” also by Brahim; “Pandemic Drives and the Kindling of a New Fascination” by Dalziel Chaz B. Oyao; “Golden Fighting Cocks” by Romeo E. Tejada Jr.; and “Fleeing the Fly Zone” by Daniel E. Costas.

With a death toll of nearly four million and counting, COVID-19 has been a massive blow to humanity, and writing about it helps us understand our predicament, so in the early part of the year, the Facebook page Sulat SOX conducted a pandemic-themed essay writing contest with the Philippine College of Physicians–SOCSKSARGEN Chapter, headed by hematologist, oncologist, and award-winning essayist Noel Pingoy. The five essays mentioned earlier were finalists in the contest. (“Remembering the Bygones” by Rexcel Samulde was also a finalist, but the essay is not included in this issue because he’s one of the editors.)

The sixth essay in this issue, “Nang Minsang Sumakit ang Aking Tiyan” by Marvin Ric Mendoza Esteban, is written in Filipino and not about COVID-19, but it’s eeriely relevant since it deals with sickness and the Filipinos’ propensity to seek help from traditional healers instead of going to the doctor.

Death figures prominently in the selected works of fiction. In “The Long Road to Asik-Asik” by Erwin Cabucos, a man carries out reluctantly the last wishes of the brother he hates. Inspired by Filipino myths, “The Creature That Devoured the Sun and the Moon” by John Mark G. Parlingayan is about a boy who hunts a bird that turns out to be a vengeful monster. In “The Balut Vendor,” also by Parlingayan, the narrator observes the relationship of his departed grandparents with an old neighbor. In “Sa Layla Sari-Sari Store,” a Cebuano short story by Mary Divine C. Escleto, a seemingly deranged woman recalls a massacre.

Alluding heavily to Greek mythology but grounded in Philippine reality, “hamartia” by Julius Marc Taborete is a suite of poems about healing and healers. The rest of the poems deal with matters that are not related to the pandemic, but they were written during the pandemic. In the Filipino poem “Burol ng Kamusmusan” by Angelo Lenard Yu, the speaker bids goobye to his hometown. In another Filipino poem, “Ayaw Kong Magmahal ng Selosa” by Philip Jay Leaño, the speaker’s heart beats for things other than a girl. Also written in Filipino, “Araw at Buwan” by Escleto likens the fate of a couple to the fluid interaction of nature’s major forces.

Five of the poems were shortlisted in another contest of Sulat SOX—“Paghulat sa Imo” (Hiligaynon) by Stalingrad Samulde Dollosa; “Ikaw, Labing Gamhanan” (Cebuano) by Luis B. Bahay Jr.; “Keeper of the Unkept” by Ghermaine Marie M. Micaroz; “Kapag Umiyak ang Langit” (Filipino) by John Dave B. Pacheco; and “Langit sa Karimlan” (Filipino) by Jerusalem D. Nalig. Sponsored by writer Blaise Francisco, the contest encouraged poets in the region to write love poems that veer from overt, and hence sentimental, expression of feelings. In Dollosa’s winning poem, a lover waits by the table, laid on which are the beloved’s sauce of choice and a sweating pitcher, among simple food for dinner: Init pa ang sinugba nga tilapya. / Napreparar na ang luyag mo nga sawsawan: . . . Ginabalhas na ang pitsel.

The featured works about the pandemic are mostly hopeful, especially the essays since the contest encouraged writers in the region to share how they had been “holding on.” At the time, COVID-19 remained largely a threat to us. Transmission was sporadic, and the imposed community quarantine was mainly preventive. Now, after the government loosened the restrictions before conducting mass vaccination, the virus has spread so much faster out of metropolitan areas. Death has come closer to us, taking away people we are connected with—the sister of a former classmate, the friend of a cousin, our own grandfather. In the uncertain days ahead, this journal will remain steadfast on the side, supportive of frontliners, a refuge to writers and readers.

Jude Ortega
Senator Ninoy Aquino, Sultan Kudarat

Two COVID-19 Essays

By Rezeile Eigo Brahim

Change of Plans, Change of Hearts

When the lockdown was announced, we had a plan: stock up on essentials, follow health protocols, try to not get sick. We bought vitamin supplements and altered our diets, getting as much fruit and vegetables to ensure that our immune system could fight the dreaded virus. We were prepared. Or so we thought.

Near the end of March 2020, just a couple of weeks after the early cancellation of classes, my husband complained of pain in his lower abdomen. I thought it was just indigestion, or maybe flatulence. I denied the thought of it being serious because I wanted to stick to our plan of staying away from the hospital. But his pain worsened. It became so unbearable for him that it left me no choice but to rush him to the emergency room.

I packed our bags and dropped off the kids at my in-laws. While my seven-year-old was happily playing and running around without the slightest care in the world, my youngest was bitterly sobbing in protest. I soothed him with hugs and kisses and promises. I told him it would be just a few days. But as it turned out, I was not able to see him and his brother for three weeks.

The hospital admission was admirably fast and smooth. I was able to quickly secure a room. My husband’s urologist and surgeon, whom we already contacted prior that day, came immediately and was very supportive. My husband needed an emergency surgery. However, there was a little complication. A possible COVID-19 patient was in the operating room, and it needed thorough disinfection before my husband could undergo his operation. So it was scheduled early the next day. Faced in a need of making a sudden decision and knowing the risk of COVID-19, our fear and panic escalated. Settling in our room that night, we talked and prayed together, for a while forgetting the serious rift we had previously, a dent in our relationship that we were still working hard to fix.

On the day of the operation, I remember holding my husband’s hand in a firm, reassuring grip before the orderlies wheeled him to the operating room. I stayed watching through the glass doors of the OR until they disappeared out of my sight. And then I was alone. Hospital COVID-19 protocol allowed only one visitor. I sat there outside the OR and waited the longest two hours and forty minutes of my life, the silence broken only by occasional echoes of disembodied footfalls somewhere in the halls. As the minutes continued to drag on with nobody else to talk to and with nothing else to do, I found myself holding on to my wedding ring, circling it around my finger. And in that moment I wanted nothing in the world but his safety. No matter how difficult the challenge we suffered that almost broke us apart, I knew that I still did not want to lose the man I had married.

The days in the hospital following his successful surgery were spent in both his recovery and in us contemplating the struggles and hard times we had gone and were going through. And somehow, in the midst of knowing the uncertainties ahead, coupled with the fear of a medical emergency, we reestablished a stronger bond and a restored marital mutual trust.

Although the hospital stay was only eight days, we had to be home-quarantined for two weeks as a precaution against possible COVID-19 transmission. Work leaves were filed, and the children stayed at the in-laws. This was the first time in eight years that we were spending some long alone time together. The quarantine protocols had given us the much-needed moment for our hearts to recuperate too. The fourteen days were spent in sleeping in, cuddles, and long talks over afternoon tea. We were able to rekindle intimacy without being intimate. Just like our dating days. It might not be COVID-19 that directly hit us, but our foiled lockdown plans, the emergency surgery, and being quarantined together reconnected us and brought us back closer than ever. We were in that battle together.

The Voice in the Window

I was having my tea on the porch and watching my two boys as they got their bicycles ready. It was a sunny afternoon about three months into the lockdown. Every day was a struggle to keep seven-year-old Wiki and four-year-old Mamon from being bored. And since I did not want them to have too much screen time, I made sure to keep them busy by inventing games, making arts and crafts, or simply playing along with whatever fantasy world they had in mind for the day.

The boys were happily racing on their bikes on our wide lawn when a sad, pleading voice came floating from our neighbor’s window. “Kuya Wiki . . . Kuya . . .”

It was Gab, the daughter of our neighbor. Their window opens directly to our lawn. Gab’s plump little face peered at the boys with longing.

“Kuya!” she called again.

The boys stopped in their tracks to look up, acknowledging Gab. She used to come to our house to play before the pandemic.

“Kuya, could you please come around to my house,” she said in perfectly articulated English. “Please, kuya. Let’s play. I’m stuck here forever.” It had always delighted me to hear the little girl speak like she’s best friends with Peppa, but now it just made me sad that her only company for the rest of the quarantine was the pink piglet on television.

Wiki answered a firm no, explaining about the virus. TV and the internet had made the kids well aware of what was happening around and why they were not allowed to go outside. Mamon even calls COVID-19 the “yayay ng Earth.” It is quite surprisingly impressive to know how little children are very perceptive and cognizant of their environment.

“I’m so lonely!” Gab whimpered. “I have no friends!” Louder now. Suddenly the jalousie closed with a loud clank. Then we heard banging of doors, shuffling of tiny feet, and then a loud rapping at the gate.

The boys looked at me. Although they had declined Gab, their eyes spoke what their hearts truly yearned for. As I watched the desperation formed on their little faces, I wanted very much to tell them to open the gate and let them play with Gab. I wanted to disregard all protocols and just let them enjoy like they had always done before the virus restricted everyone. But I heaved a sigh and shook my head, a gesture they clearly understood and, although grudgingly, followed. They unwillingly waved goodbye at Gab and ran inside.

“Sorry, Gab,” I said. “Kuya Wiki and Mamon can’t play with you.”

“Oh, okay,” Gab responded in a soft voice, defeated.

Her dad soon came to fetch her, carrying a stick. While the kids and I huddled in the bedroom, we could still hear Gab quietly crying as she was being led back to their home.

“Umiyak siya, Mama,” Wiki whispered. “Kawawa naman si Gab.” His words sent pangs of guilt and sadness in my heart. Was it too much? Did I overreact? I was torn between wanting them to value the importance of following laws and protocols and wanting them to value friendship. Patiently, I explained to them that Gab was still their friend, and after the pandemic, they would have their play dates again and ride their bikes together. They huddled closer to me, and I hugged them tighter, trying to suppress my tears. My heart broke for Gab, for my sons, and for all the children who were forced to endure isolation, feeling frustrated and in desperate want of company.

Pandemic Drives and the Kindling of a New Fascination

By Dalziel Chaz B. Oyao

There was fragile excitement in me the first time I was asked by my mother to pick up my sister from work. She was working in one of the malls here in General Santos City, and each day, she would talk about how bleak the situation had become. The corridors once trod by crowds of shoppers were empty, and the smallest sounds echoed in the unlit corners of the mall. “It’s like those zombie shooter games,” she would say. I would then try to picture them as much and see a grim image.

Although her daily narratives were vividly enthralling, I enjoyed my part of the routine even more. My job was mostly to take her to work and then pick her up when she needed to be home. Even though I didn’t particularly appreciate waking up so early, it was the feeling of seeing the city again that compensated for it. In the morning, the highways were so light and empty that I could speed as much as I wanted, and in the afternoon, the sunset was undisturbed and the soft glow of streetlights blended into twilight. In those times, the nakedness of the streets often felt satisfying. Even though it was still, when you saw it in the correct angle, it felt absolutely desolate.

As things got a little better and as the lockdown got more relaxed, I was able to go to more places with the family, although, of course, I had to maintain that routine of picking up my sister and always keeping safe in the process. There were more people to interact with then, so the anxiety would often balloon. Despite these fears, it felt relieving to watch the streets roar with activity again and the city beginning to fill with a little bit more light than it had in the past few months. The slow and somewhat unsteady or uncertain resurrection of the city felt relieving for the time being.

There were days when I refused to drive or even just go out of the house. These were times when I was either exhausted or perhaps too anxious to do anything for the day. But however spent I felt, I could not refuse a good look at the city. Frankly, it was best when I wasn’t the one driving. I got to look at the outside without having to think too much about crashing. I could lean on the glass to see and feel for myself how much the world had changed. With at least one go each week, there was unyielding joy in looking at the roads I’d seen the thousandth time. There was happiness in witnessing civic movement, no matter how relaxed or robust it was. There was an unexplainable delight in seeing the architecture of urban life lingering and rising where it could.

During these moments, I’d usually despise myself for being unable to explain this feeling, this enchantment of one’s hometown as elaborate as possible. But then I was sure other people would have their version of this fascination, and for some, it might even be more mesmerizing to them than it would ever be for me.

Recalling this, I still have that excitement, but it’s much firmer and intense now. It’s both funny and tragic how I’ve only been able to see and admire more of this city during its unfortunate downtime due to the pandemic. I’m not saying it needed this global crisis for me to admire this city. I know I would have found this place, my hometown, in all of its graces, growing stronger in me each year anyway. And although that routine is over as of the moment, I suppose it’s a good thing since I’m now able to go to many places now unrestrained by schedules. For the reader’s assurance, this freedom will not go to waste. More inspired than ever, I suppose I’ll write more about this city now, and this, to be honest, has to be the best way to begin.

Golden Fighting Cocks

By Romeo E. Tejada Jr.

My younger brother has an odd fascination with fighting cocks, and I don’t approve of it. Every morning, he sacrifices an hour to prepare their food and water, pet them, and comb their sparkling feathers with his bare fingers. He reminds me of our grandfather, a cockfighting enthusiast who sacrificed his meals and medicine and eventually had to be operated on for gastric ulcer. “My brother is treading the path of doom,” I often think.

I’ve been staying at our house with my mom and six siblings during this pandemic. Unlike the empty streets, our house is filled with commotion and brawling. Our house is just another cockfighting arena after all. My youngest sister would punch my youngest brother, showing maneuvers better than an MMA fighter, ending in either of them crying because of the fight or because of the punishment from our mom, while I record their sudden outburst. Oftentimes, my younger siblings would complain about their endless unintelligible modules, chores, and my mom. As a supportive brother, I tease them with their deadlines. “Halaaaa!” I would often say just to rattle their senses.

Inspired by my brother’s fighting cocks, my mom bought native hens, culled chicks, ducks, turkeys, and piglets and reared them. Under my younger brother’s tutelage, these animals grew in our rented lot that became a humble farm in the middle of our municipality. Slowly, I managed to accept that I’m the “dejado” (underdog); my younger brother won the derby.

It was lunch when my mom decided to finally eat a family-reared chicken, a few months after the purchase. Adobo was on the menu, and fumes from the kitchen filled our house and tickled our noses. The kids showed a dichotomy of excitement and sadness while scribbling in their notebooks, waiting for the food. They had been living witnesses of the cute chick’s growth, and we were about to devour it. They didn’t say what they were feeling, but I knew.

Food was served finally, and I plundered the second biggest dollop of meat. I saw my younger siblings’ faces when we were eating; they were not feeling blue anymore. The tender meat, its sweet and salty ambrosial flavor complementing the rice, flared our simple lunch into an otherworldly feast. With enough livestock in our arsenal, such festivity was bound to happen frequently.

A few months later, the price of pork skyrocketed and we sold our pigs. Seeing both of them tied and weighed and hearing their reverberating squeaks in a hot noon was tormenting for us, but we had to survive. No strings attached. On that same month, the chickens and ducks started laying eggs. Instantly, I became the guardian of eggs because some of them would go missing.

While I was in bed, I heard a sudden movement outside and crunching dry leaves. I tiptoed toward the door. I grabbed the pair of scissors that was used to cut our ducks’ wings to minimize their mobility, and served as my knife. I tried hard to suppress my breathing, grabbed my phone, and tapped video recording while covering its flashlight with my sweating palm.

I slowly opened the door, fully exposed my phone, and raised my knife to scare the culprit. I ran toward the noise. I recorded everything, and I caught the ducks—breeding—in the middle of the night. Out of pure respect to privacy, I left the scene and returned to my bed. To this day, I haven’t found out who is stealing the eggs.

It’s ironic that I despised fighting cocks before and now protect their eggs. I’ve slowly learned to appreciate my brother’s talent in rearing animals, knowledge on vitamins and medicine for his fighting cocks, and dedication to feeding them on time with reminders from our mother. It became a source of income and food. I ate chicken meat; I retracted my words. Once he matures, he could become a cockfighting aficionado, a veterinarian, or whatever path he chooses. I, together with my family, will bet on our “llamado.”

Fleeing the Fly Zone

By Daniel E. Costas

The metro was a scene stripped of its usual glory of jeepneys and trucks choking the space-tight intersection even in the late hours of the deepest nights. For the first time, tar-tattooed tires had ditched the streets. No whiff of gas and engine smoke perfumed the air. A. Bonifacio’s bustle had slipped through a slumber, and the whistling of the wind—about the lamentation of roads over empty pavements—was the only sound there was.

I gazed upon this stillness the city had fallen into through a hazy window etched with spiderwebs on one side. The images I seized were all blurred, but everything was clear to me: the vibrations that kept the city alive had been vanquished from the sociability realm and the city’s tempo in allegro had faded to an adagio.

Though not one figure resembled me from the view my eyes were set on, uncannily, the projections still spoke to me.

I reckon it was the emotions that the ghosted reign outside and I shared. All sorts of loneliness must’ve sipped to me because just like the building and the streets, I was left behind all alone. But unlike them, I didn’t have the wind to tell my story to.

I was in an isolation of my own. Yes, the microbes asserted dominion over my body. It was not a long stretch of assumption to leap into when flu and shivers blanketed my nights. So when my family deliberated to spend the lockdown in Nueva Vizcaya, I held still in Quezon City. But I guess I hopped on to a false conclusion. A few days after my family left, the infections also followed suit, and I regained the manna that the influenza had siphoned from me.

Though it was a conscious decision to remain unmoved, I couldn’t stop tossing the coin even after the tail was revealed. The days of solitude that gleamed my mind and soul were the same days of solitude that gloomed my mind and soul. So what even kind of confliction did I delve into?

A butterfly-wallpapered room held me captive for what seemed like forever, yet it didn’t feel like an escape to a garden or a paradise. It felt like a dumpster with flies of anxiety lounging in the crevices of my brain.

On some days, these flies dispersed when I put on a show for the reflection staring back in the mirror or when I painted either of my canvases—my sketchpad or my face. But on most days, the flies would swarm back with shrilling doubts and regrets that berated my existence or with more questions that lambasted my thought process. Loudest of them all was the fly buzzing with a constant reminder of the shambles the timing of the chaos had caused.

Before the cage-up, the fulfillment of my summer fantasy was to baste my lips with the grease and juice of the famed Cebu lechon, to witness my friend toss her bouquet, and to search my soul in the city of pines. But just like the pines of Baguio, my plans were fogged by the pandemonium.

With my shredded-paper-thin plans, what was left were letters of a story my own wind had to pass on.

A. Bonifacio awakened with every dawn again. The air sniffed the aroma of pollution and coughed through it once more. Tar dripping from the buffet of wheels served on a concrete platter for the metro lathered the streets once again. But I was no longer there to stare down from the cobwebbed window.

Timing is a funny thing, but now I laugh with it after it laughed at me.

I fled the zone of flies—of anxieties domineering over me—and have returned to my hometown. These days, I still bask myself in the debris of the summer of apocalypse. Even though some flies still cling to me, it was rather peaceful for my head to know it’s now in a safer and happier place—metaphorically and literally.

The threat might loom for who knows till when. I’ll just put my plans on hold for now while I hold on to them and wait for life’s tempo to sync with mine.

Nang Minsang Sumakit ang Aking Tiyan

Ni Marvin Ric Mendoza Esteban

“Sanggali, sanggalo. Sanggalo, sanggali.”

Hawak ng isang maugat, mabuto, at kulu-kulubot na kamay ang aking tiyan noon. Sa pagkakaalaala ko ay Sabado iyon, walang pasok.

Basta’t walang pasok sa eskuwela, umaakyat kaming magkakaibigan sa mga puno ng bayabas, aratiles, o mangga. Kung hindi naman, nagtatampisaw kami sa mababaw na ilog na di kalayuan sa bahay. Lagi naman akong pinaalalahanan ng aking ina na mag-ingat at baka raw mapagdiskitahan kami ng mga maligno at elementong hindi nakikita. Ang tawag ng matatanda sa naturang parusa ay buyag. At dahil likas na yata sa bata ang sumuway, tumakas ako minsan.

Nang umuwi na, nakaramdam ako ng kakaiba sa aking tiyan. Parang kinukurot ang aking bituka sa umpisa hanggang sa sobrang sakit na. Halos hindi ko na noon maituwid ang aking pagtindig.

Sa sandaling iyon, ewan ko ba sa pagkakataon, naroon ang lola ko sa tuhod na ayon kay Nanay ay mahusay na manggagamot.

Habang namimilipit ako sa sakit, hinawakan ni Lola ang aking tiyan. Pinisil niya ang pusod ko at saka idiniin. Tiningnan ko ang mukha niya, at napako ang aking paningin sa kaniyang bibig. At nakita kong bumulong siya ng mga salitang ni isa man ay wala akong maintindihan.

“Sanggali, sanggalo. Sanggalo, sanggali.”

Kuwento ni Nanay, isa si Lola sa mga hinahangaang albularyo sa Sitio Kulambog sa Lebak, Sultan Kudarat. Halos araw-araw daw sa kaniyang dampa ay may bumibisitang mga may sakit na nagbabaka-sakaling gumaling—mga inatake ng highblood at na-stroke, mga may sakit sa balat, mga nilalagnat o giniginaw, at mga kinulam o binarang. Kahit may kalayuan ang bahay ni Lola at may ospital naman sa sentro ng bayan, pinupuntahan pa rin siya. Mas pinipili ng mga tao na mahirapang umakyat sa matarik na bundok at maglakad nang humigit-kumulang apat na kilometro para lamang sa kagalingan.

Madalas ding nagdadala ng alay ang mga tao kapalit ng inaasahan nilang paggaling. Dumami nga raw ang mga manok at kambing sa bakuran ni Lola dahil dito. Kung minsan naman, pera ang iniiwan ng mga tao sa hagdan bago sila tuluyang umalis. Hindi ko na itinanong pa kay Nanay kung saan napupunta ang mga iyon.

Pinitik ni Lola ang tiyan ko nang pitong beses, paikot sa aking pusod. Bawat pitik niya ay tila pagpapalayas sa sakit na aking nararamdaman. Pagkatapos, bumulong siyang muli at lumura ng laway na kulay dilaw. Humikab din siya at umiling na tila nasasaktan. Parang hinihigop ng katawan niya ang sakit na mula sa aking tiyan.

Hindi ako makapaniwala dahil pagkalipas ng ilang sandali, unti-unting nawala ang kirot ng aking tiyan. Nawala ang sakit kahit wala akong gamot na ininom. Habang tulala, humanga ang aking puso sa isang kapangyarihang bumalot sa pananampalatayang noon ko lang din nakilala.

Ayaw ko sanang maniwala lalo pa’t napanood ko ang pelikula ni Nora Aunor na Himala, at tandang-tanda ko pa nang sabihin niyang, “Walang himala! Hindi totoong may himala. Tayo ang gumagawa ng himala. Tayo ang gumagawa ng mga sumpa!” Pagkatapos noon ay binaril siya.

Sa TV ko unang nasaksihan ang pagbubulgar na ngayon ko lang lubusang inuunawa. Kung tama si Nora Aunor na walang himala, paano ako gumaling? At kung totoo ang himala, bakit may mga ginagamot ding hindi gumagaling?

Ngayon, makalipas ang labinlimang taon, hindi pa rin nawawala sa isipan ko ang pangyayaring nagbukas sa akin sa malawak na katotohanang sinusubukang pasinungalingan at ipaliwanag ng mga eksperto na maaari din namang kasinungalingang nagmukhang totoo lamang sa tulad kong nakaranas ng hiwaga at kababalaghan.

Naalaala ko ang pangyayaring iyon habang nanonood ako sa YouTube ng programang Kapuso Mo, Jessica Soho. Tungkol ang episode sa isang babaeng gumagamot sa Iloilo na tinatawag na manugbutbot. Nakakukuha siya ng mga bato sa katawan ng ginagamot gamit ang damong plagtiki. Dinarayo rin siya ng mga tao sa kanilang bayan dahil sa mga testimonya ng mga gumaling.

Pero natuklasan sa bandang wakas ng videona dinadaya niya lang pala ang paningin ng mga tao. Hindi totoong galing sa katawan ng mga ginagamot ang mga bato. Iniitsa ito ng isa niyang kamay. Nahagip ito ng kamera kaya hindi na siya makapagkaila. Pero ang mga taong minsang napagaling ay patuloy ang pagtitiwala sa babae.

Bunsod nito, naisip kong marahil ay maaari nga tayong mapagaling ng ating paniniwala. “It is a matter of faith,” sabi nga nila. Kung gusto nating gumaling, maniwala tayong gagaling tayo, at gagaling nga tayo. Pero ang tanong, Sino o ano ang magpapagaling? Ang kapangyarihan sa likod ng pagpapagaling ay hindi na natin malalaman dahil sekreto ito ng kalikasan. Gusto mang ipaalam ng kalikasan, hindi puwede dahil sekreto nga, at sa palagay ko ay hindi ito mahahagip ng kamera kahit kailan.

Lahat ng mga bagay ay pilit na ipinaliliwanag ng siyensiya, mula sa pagkakabuo ng tao hanggang sa bakit namamatay ang tao. Pero may mga pagkakataong puwang ang kasagutan sa mga tanong at tanging puso ng tao ang mag-uutos sa isip kung alin ang dapat paniwalaan. Hindi na nakapagtataka kung wala nang malignong kikilalanin ang susunod na henerasyon dahil na rin sa mga pagbubulgar na ginagawa ng mga siyentista (at pagbubulgar din pala ng  Kapuso Mo, Jessica Soho na kada Linggo ay may episode na mahiwaga).

Puno ng hiwaga ang mundo. Nagkakasakit ang malulusog at gumagaling ang mga masakitin. Humahaba ang buhay ng matatanda, at may mga batang hindi na inaabot ng pagtanda. Gumaganda ang mga pangit at pumapangit ang magaganda. Kung isipin natin, hindi na ito hiwaga. Katotohanan na ito.

Samakatuwid, ang hiwaga ay katotohanan at ang katotohanan ay hiwaga. May mga nangyayari sa mundo na kahit hindi naipaliliwanag ay totoo. Patunay lamang ito na hindi lahat ng katotohanan ay dapat ipaliwanag.

“Sanggali, sanggalo. Sanggalo, sanggali.” Hanggang ngayon ay sinasaliksik ko ang ibig sabihin ng mga salitang ito. May mga orasyon na isinasambit ang mga manggagamot sa baryo o tinatawag na albularyo. Hindi nga lang naiintindihan dahil “gift” daw ang pagkakaroon nito. At madalas, ipinamamana pa ito. Sa kaso ko, gumaling ang sakit ng aking tiyan dahil sa orasyon—talagang hiwaga. Pero mas hiwaga sana kung nalaman ko kung paano manahin ang “gift” na iyon.

Ngayong panahon, sa tuwing nagkakasakit ako, sa ospital na ako pumupunta. Pero minsan, kapag sabay na sumasakit ang aking tiyan at bulsa, naaalaala ko ang lola ko sa tuhod at ang kaniyang mga bulong.

The Long Road to Asik-Asik

By Erwin Cabucos

Dodong watches his saliva disappear in the wind as the bus flies along Marcos Highway. He snorts and thinks he would spat on his brother’s ashes if they weren’t sealed in a jar inside his bag. He could easily do it now if he really wanted to: undo the tape, pull the lid and spit on his brother’s remains—and nobody in the world would know except him and his brother. “Puta ka, Basti,” he mutters. “Unta na-realize nimo ang imong gibuhat bag-o ka namatay.” His lips purse. He smooths out his jeans as he sits up and allows the air to sweep his face and hair.

Dodong sighs and places the backpack on the seat, worried it may fall. So what if it falls and breaks, and the ash flies all over in the bus? He imagines people inhaling the dust, like it’s coming from the road. He hadn’t bothered with the air-conditioned route from the city. What the heck! This is Mindanao. This is the Philippines. I’m used to this. And I don’t care about him, let alone his fucking ash. A warm bus won’t matter to a dead person. He blows another globule of fluid from his mouth out the window. This time it expands in the wind like a spiderweb before disappearing behind the bus. Dodong looks to the front and sighs again.

Maybe not . . . for now. He decides to keep the peace with his brother as he has discretely done for years. Silence can sometimes heal wounds. His thoughts are still with Miranda who had lived unhappily with her new partner until she passed away quietly, buried in front of her daughter—the innocent fruit of Basti’s vile deed—and away from Dodong, who would have given heaven and earth for her. It would’ve been a happy world. Miranda and I, Miranda and I and our family—but cut short by the bastard. Gago ka, Basti! And why am I given the task of scattering your ashes, livestreamed on Facebook after a difficult trek to a remote place? Half my luck!

He pulls the strap of the bag tight and winds it around the arm of his seat, and decides to eat the candied peanuts saved in his jeans’ pocket. He hears his teeth crunch the nuts, and the sugar relieves his aching stomach. But what can relieve a wound to the heart?

The bus stops in Pigcawayan town, and vendors crowd the aisle, forcing women, children, and men to squeeze up against one another as they go up and down. Should he buy more peanuts? What about eggs? Is he really hungry? Should he have bibingka or SkyFlakes? What would be best to take on the walk to the falls?

He doesn’t have to do this, but because everyone wants him to, he feels he has no choice. The blisters and the chafing, the exhaustion and the sunburn, are not something to look forward to—all for one who cunningly projected himself a hero, sending money from Dubai to his poor relatives in the Philippines. He was good at that, but if he didn’t go overseas, I would’ve ended up smashing his head on the rocks. Today I wanted to indulge myself in a lazy weekend after a stressful week at work—but that’s been taken from me. Even dead, the bastard’s claws reach out to me from the ground.

He moves the bag to make room for a boy who innocuously slumps his backside on the seat next to him. The bus is full, and it inches its way through an intersection before revving onto the highway. Cool wind soothes the skin on Dodong’s face, smiling at the thought that the surge of oxygen should revitalize his pores, defying his mid-forties looks. Ah, most importantly, let me breathe air untainted by my dungeon of unhappiness.

The lady from a church that preaches on buses starts to prattle at the front: “Turn away from your sin or you will rot in hell. Accept him now as your personal lord and savior. Amen!”

Dodong is thankful she isn’t near him or he would have become infuriated by her noise and unsolicited ideas. Last time he encountered her on his way to Davao, the crowd was shocked when he screamed at her to shut up—and she retaliated by praying over him, exorcising his devils and praying that Satan would leave the “stupid man” on the bus. I could have punched the bitch, but I kept still for peace.

Now all he hears is the lady’s faint voice persisting against the howls of the wind. Dodong moves his attention to the rice fields that stretch to the horizon. Brown huts hide among coconut palms, and farmers on the backs of carabaos give depth to the canvas etched under the broad, blue sky. The bus slices through the busy highway of jeepneys, tricycles, and motorcycles. Dodong places the backpack on his lap. The bus movement lulls him to sleep.

While trekking to the falls, Dodong starts Facebook live on his phone and raises his selfie stick to pan across the hills. His screen rains with thumbs up and hearts. He sees, among others, likes from his parents in Cotabato City, his sister Andrea in Tacloban, his other sister Luz in Hong Kong, his uncle in Baguio, and his nephew Andrew in Western Samar. His cousins and other relatives in General Santos and Cebu are online too. His brother’s friends in Dubai and Manila are present. Dodong’s live funeral event is watched by about three hundred viewers from across the archipelago and the world. He grins at the thought that it wouldn’t be possible if it were done in real life. A throng of three hundred at Asik-Asik Falls gathered to pour someone’s ashes in the water would horrify the locals and the visitors alike.

He is breathing hard as he climbs down the steep concrete steps. His legs ache and his back throbs with pain, a sharp reminder of last year’s slipped disc. The rocking jar in his backpack punches his back with each stride, not helping the agony. The sun sears his head, and the heat burns his skin. His hand is about to surrender from holding the selfie stick up. He wants to scream to the hills how much he hates his brother and how the absence of remorse from Basti has made it even more painful. Couldn’t you at least say sorry? He pouts and grimaces, making sure the camera doesn’t capture his facial contortions.

He’s about to stop and close his eyes in exhaustion, but the waterfalls below that he’s approaching are like treasures that glitter in the sun. He reaches the Falls where white sprays of glistening water burst like crystals through the green wall on a mountain and splash as they hit the stream below. Lots of waterfalls. He closes his eyes to allow the breathtaking view to imprint on his mind and then opens them again to marvel at the spectacular sight, his ears blasted by the gushing of water. So much water. Generous. Abundant. Refreshing.

He understands now why his brother chose this place for his ashes to be scattered. It’s fucking beautiful. There’s a surge of energy around here. He forces the back end of the selfie stick into the ground and places some rocks around the stick for support. He positions the urn in front of the camera, and he is unfazed by the small number of visitors captured in the frame. His livestream continues, and his screen is flooded with smiles, grins, thumbs-up, and everything positive. The impact of his brother’s life on his family is wide, but to Dodong, it is yet to be reckoned. One thing is for sure, his tiredness seems to have gone away.

If you had not taken advantage of Miranda, she wouldn’t have left me. We would have wedded and lived like a family. Dodong remembers the night his fiancé left him, crying on the phone that she loved him but was no longer worthy to be his wife—a disgrace to his family, their family, especially because of the baby conceived from the act. She was so sorry.

Dodong’s heart broke on the day she died from cancer many years later, while her new partner was off gallivanting with other women. Kawawa. I should have been there for you, Miranda.

He wipes his face. I know. Dodong realizes something he should do in this moment, the final moment. Duplaan tika. Gago ka! Suddenly the sound of water pierces his ears, and the strengthening wind chills him, diverting his attention to the falls. The water makes him feel better and lighter. A vision of the ash flowing with the current gives him comfort.

Slowly, he opens the jar. He is surprised to find an envelope, with his name on it, sitting on the ash. He can’t stop the trembling of his hands as his fingers tear it open to reveal the card inside. His eyes well with tears, and his lips purse while reading the words: Pasayloa ko, Dong. Pasayloa ko sa tanan-tanan. He tears the card into pieces and lets them fall from his hands and fly like confetti, landing on the water, softening the stubborn hurt in his heart. I have to let go. Everyone asks what was on the card, but Dodong ignores them. All that matters now is that the tightness in his heart is starting to fade away.

Carefully, he tips the contents of the jar into the water. The ashes kiss the current, some escaping to the air. Dodong shakes the jar to make sure all the ashes are emptied. After rinsing the jar, he whispers, “Goodbye.” He breathes in, and his body shudders as he breathes out.

The whole screen is flooded with sad faces and cries. He spins slowly and relishes the white of the waterfalls, the green of the mountain, and the blue of the sky, healing his wounds. A hornbill song reverberates across the mountain, and munia birds fly in a tight flock. He doesn’t bother moving the camera. The stillness in the shot should bring peace to this funeral. “Basti,” he softly says.

The cool spray of Asik-Asik Falls dampening his skin lingers in his mind as he treks back to the top of the hill.

He learns later that Basti has bequeathed him a windfall, but this has less impact on him than Basti’s words.

The Creature That Devoured the Sun and the Moon

By John Mark G. Parlingayan

Goyo took his chosen stone and immediately put it in his slingshot. He held the Y-shaped frame in his nondominant hand with two rubber strips attached to the prongs. The end of the strips tended to hold the projectile, which at the moment was the stone that he was holding. His dominant hand held the rubber and drew it back, ready to hit the target. Amid the bloody-orange sky due to sunset, heading for the night, the bird, his target, fell immediately to the ground.

“Bull’s eye!” Goyo uttered to his friend Endong while checking the bird, which had a short neck and a short slender bill with a fleshy cere drenched in blood.

“You’re really good,” Endong said.

“Of course,” Goyo said. “Tatay was a good hunter back in old days, and he taught me so well.”

Solomon, a farmer, once told his son Goyo about his fondness of hunting birds when he was a child. He and his friends would even take the act of hunting into gambling. The person with the most number of birds killed would eventually win. Bragging, he always told his son that he always won, and bird hunting was the only game he knew he was good at. Fascinated, Goyo asked him for a slingshot, and Solomon gave it to the boy as a gift when the boy turned ten.

When Goyo reached home, he was greeted by his mother’s usual displeased tone because he came late again. “Are you not afraid of the spirits in the forest?” Lena said.

He did not answer his mother. He kept eating the sweet potato cooked over an open fire in their home. They mostly consumed root crops, corn, and rice, sometimes anything caught in the forest, such as birds, rodents, snakes, or even lizards when there was no more to eat. While he was staring blankly at his plate on their wooden table, with light from the fire tainting his innocent face, his mother talked continuously.

The elders in their village believed that hunting animals was dangerous. They believed that there were spirits or guardians who were assigned in protecting forests, valleys, and hills, and a class of spirits was vicious especially to people who had hurt something under their protection. Goyo’s parents believed such stories and beliefs.

Goyo would be irritated every time his Nay Lena blustered about the danger of hunting in the forest. Then that would lead to her ranting about how she really hated her husband for coming home drunk with his favorite coconut wine and how she really felt the burden of the kind of life she had. She believed that their family was cursed for disobeying and disrespecting the sacred spirits. That big belief, out of frustration about what kind of life they’d been living. He couldn’t blame his mother. He saw how she suffered from the insecurities of his father. How his Tay Solomon would accuse his Nay Lena of an affair with another man. How his feelings of being small and not enough were being displaced toward his mother and how both of his parents would wind up fighting furiously when the crops in their little land were destroyed by pests or a natural disaster. These became more complicated when his father would do nothing except drink for he could no longer hunt birds because of cataract.

After finishing his food, Goyo said politely, “I’ll go to sleep Nay.”

“All right,” his mother replied. “Prepare our banig already. Your father is coming home drunk for sure. I’ll wait for him.”

Before Goyo closed his eyes, he noticed the appearance of his mother. Her pale face painted a portrait of a tired woman at the edge of the pitfall, floating in darkness like the moon as sun left the night. He felt bad for her whenever his father hurt her. But he also felt bad for his father whenever he diminished gradually in size and strength every time she talked. As perfectly guessed by his Nay Lena, his Tay Solomon arrived drunk. She was right, but not all the time, he thought.

Goyo felt a light peck by a hard object on his head. He was awakened by it and was welcomed by strong winds from an unknown source. He found himself in a shore where the crystals of water were produced by the lights of adlaw and bulan, finally finding each other. The strange place was painted with flesh to red hues. Gloomy atmosphere along with the giant dragon-like bird were hovering in the sky. The creature was bigger than an island; it could devour the sun and moon. Goyo immediately grabbed his slingshot as it came to devour him. Its beak opened widely as beam of lights stricken him straight in the face.

He woke up from his dream with direct sunlight given by the morning outside their window. It’s weekend, so he didn’t need to worry about waking up early and walking to school for hours. He found his mother eating alone at their table. She prepared his favorite dried fish and boiled egg. His father had probably left the house to farm early in the morning.

“Let’s eat. I cooked your favorite food.”

Goyo joined his mother at the table.

He noticed some bruises on his mother’s arm. He wanted to ask his mother if his father had hurt her again but decided not to. He continued eating silently. He just already knew that they had brought pain to each other again as usual. She had talked, and he had hit her, leaving marks on her body.

He could no longer take the silence. Goyo immediately went outside with his slingshot to hunt birds again. He went to his friend’s house, but Endong was not there. His mom told Goyo that he went fishing with his father in the creek. Alone, Goyo walked rapidly until he reached the place where he and Endong used to hunt birds.  Surrounded by big trees and clear skies, the dancers of the air performed a simulation of graceful movements, flying and transferring from one tree to another, mating, laying eggs, which would eventually turn to chicks. He then started aiming at his target.

He walked home late noon, satisfied, for he was able to shot three fowl. He had felt the hunger before taking his last and most difficult shot. The bird had flown higher, and he aimed for it with much effort, maintaining his stable hands and his sharp eyes. At last, Goyo was able to hit his target and was victorious before he went for late lunch.

He ran home expecting a great meal to be prepared by his mother from the three dead birds in his right hand. On the way, he noticed the color of violent clouds slowly covering the sky. He felt strange, as though something macabre had happened. He was near their house when he saw a giant creature perching on the roof of their hut. It was the bird, with its wildly moving corneas, sharp claws, feet hard as steel, and large span of wings. The light atmosphere of the supposedly bright late noon turned heavy. The heaviness of the unknown crawled to his shoulder, breaking him into pieces.

Goyo opened the door. The screeching sound it produced led him to the prone body of his Tay Solomon, drenched in blood as if he was a bird hunted by a child—hunted by him.  Goyo’s body was frozen by the gust of wind from the continuously flapping wings of the unknown, flying away. His father’s body had been pecked by a hard object, in his upper torso, lying in dirt, as if wounded by a knife in a cockfight. His mother was nowhere to be found. Maybe the creature devoured her before it escaped, before it flew as high as it could until it was gone. Goyo screamed, but no sound came out of his throat.

“This is just a dream like last night,” he said in a flustered voice. “Please!”

The large creature did devour the sun and the moon and eventually did the same with the earth.

The Balut Vendor

By John Mark G. Parlingayan

The customer cracked the balut with her fork and peeled the top of it. She was then welcomed by the broth. The sun had set, and Maharlika Street was filled with the songs of cicadas in the trees and darkness. A few motorcycles sharply passed the dirt road that was slippery when wet and sandy and baked hard when dry. The houses and the irrigation that the street was known for lay close to the narrow road. Neighbors bumped into one another. People crossed a few steps when buying from the sari-sari store opposite their house or when eating under the colorful umbrellas of the waiting balut vendors with their just-cooked delicacy. One of the vendors was Tiyo Tatang, my grandparents’ closest friend.

In our compound, where concrete fences separated the houses, yellow lights flashed from the gates. A lot of people visited our house, comforting themselves with caffeine and board games. Relatives from far places also arrived to share their condolences and join the cortege during the wake. It was already the third night. Lolo Etot and Lola Emily were each placed in a casket, with bright gold tapestry on the background and fresh flowers beside the bier. In silence, in front of our small wooden bridge to cross the irrigation, I saw Tiyo Tatang’s weather-beaten figure. He had a chiseled, grubby face and fine complexion. He was in his seventies, beaten by time as it continued to pass by like transportations taking the rough street in front of his balut place. Tiyo continued to work even at this time.

Names of their loved ones were written on purple ribbons, reminding the family of Lolo Etot and Lola Emily’s favorite ube halaya, which was sweet, unlike the bitter situation of losing someone. I could still remember the first time I’d seen Lolo’s and Lola’s bodies in the morgue. I was engrossed with the sad portrait of two lovers facing death together. Tears fell from my eyes. The sound of grief from my family struck me. It was like the cry of gypsies, the sad melody that was always playing on my head.

Much of what surprised me was the extreme weeping of Tiyo Tatang beside the body of Lola Emily. He was like that probably because of the pain of losing a friend, especially a friend who was considered a part of the family. I stared a bit longer at Tiyo before being approached by the mortician.

Balut is also considered an aphrodisiac, yet ironically, Tiyo Tatang never had a child. When I was seven, out of curiosity, I asked my mom how Tiyo Tatang is related to our family. My mom told me that Tiyo had been a third wheel to Lolo Etot and Lola Emily back when they were in high school in South Cotabato. Later on, the couple decided to settle in Kabacan in North Cotabato, just across Tiyo Tatang’s house, where he had been living alone since his mother passed away. Lola Emily, if still alive, would probably able to remember the soul of Tiyo drowning in felicity when he found out that his best of friends would be his neighbors. From that day on, Tiyo Tatang had been a part of the Catalina family. He was able to witness the ups and downs of raising a family, children playing back and forth like there was no tomorrow until time made them grow. He was there when the once little kids asking him for free food became adults and built their own family.

Lolo Etot would tell Tiyo to start building his own family, but he would just hear it like a hum in the wind. Tiyo Tatang did have past relationships. He had girlfriends, but he shared with Lolo Etot that all those women were not on a par with the woman whom he regarded as his one true love. But Lolo Etot, even until his death, wasn’t able to know who the woman was or what happened between Tiyo Tatang and her. If Lolo Etot were still living, he would probably state the same advice, and Tiyo Tatang would still probably ignore it, left to exist as though not existing.

The mortician told me that he had removed the moisture and sealed the caskets. He then went out as he had finished his work. Everyone would definitely not stay when they had finished their work and mission in life, like Lolo Etot and Lola Emily.

* * *

My sister Tentay arrived at 8:45 in the evening. She came from a writing workshop in Davao. At first, she did not want to attend the workshop because it meant leaving our grandparents’ wake, but I convinced her to go, telling her that Lolo and Lola would also want her to make something out of her passion in creative writing. Tentay loved our grandparents so much because they raised us for almost two years when our father had to stay in Davao to be treated for brain tumor. Our mother, the third child of Lolo and Lola, joined our father in taking the somber days of their lives, making them sturdy for what more the life had to give. They did feel the pungent side of life, but they were guided by Lolo Etot and Lola Emily and were definitely prayed for by Tiyo Tatang.

I remembered when Tentay got bitten by a dog while eating balut. Lolo Etot had given her a treat. She ate three baluts and even got another one to take home. As she was crossing the road past the gate, while enchanted with the moon in the night sky, sipping on the balut, she was unaware of the sprawled canine on the ground and stepped on it. Our parents spent a big amount of money for her vaccination. She wasn’t able to play outside for some time. My childish anger toward Lolo Etot and Tiyo Tatang lasted for about the same time. I blamed them for giving Tentay the balut that caused the accident. The two old men blamed themselves as well, mugged by their conscience, but people reminded them that the whole thing was an accident. In time the feelings disappeared, and in time they reached their destination, at least for Lolo Etot and Lola Emily. Tiyo remained on the alley.

On the day of my grandparents’ burial, I reminded Tiyo that it would start at one in the afternoon. Tiyo Tatang stood still with his lanky physique, replying with a dull nod. He stammered. Then his sobs thudded, like heavy objects falling to the ground, as heavy as his feeling at the moment, as heavy as the two caskets that the staff of the funeral home carried out of the house. The cemetery was five kilometers away from Maharlika Street.

The vehicles lined up as they ushered two good souls to heaven. Playing on a stereo was the song “Awit ng Anak sa Magulang.” As the car moved, the view outside started to blur. Amid the heat of sunlight and the warm breeze of July, everything started to move fast until it became almost invisible to the naked eye. The clinks and clanks of the engine, the weary heads of toy dogs on the dashboard, the croon of people close to heart as they sobbed—together they made harmonious the procession for Lola Emily and Lolo Etot, who had both suffered from illnesses, the former from pneumonia and the latter from complications of his kidney disease.

We arrived at the open white-painted gate of the cemetery. The landscape was designed with artistry, with healthy green grass planted on a hectare of land. Some families had built mausoleums. At the edge of the plain where the sun would likely set, a tent of white and purple colors was standing, and under was a hole surrounded by plastic chairs. Four metal bars were placed on the sides of the rectangular hole as part of the machinery that the staff would use to lower the caskets in a fluid manner.

We lined up to have our final glance. First were the families, and the other relatives were next. Tiyo Tatang had his final look just as the grandchildren bid their final goodbyes. Sadness was painted on his face. His relationship with Lolo and Lola had been broken, like a bird’s egg. The shell had cracked, and there was nothing to protect the embryo inside. As the the caskets were lowered, I noticed Tiyo Tatang walking away, his steps long and decisive in an unspecified direction. He disappeared just as his friends were being buried, just as the sun set, beautiful and calming.

* * *

“Tiyo, penge pong suka!”

I asked Tiyo Tatang for a vinegar the night after the burial. I then added a little salt and drained it to the soup before proceeding. I peeled off most of the shell and ate the balut in two to three bites to avoid seeing the embryo. I was afraid of the feeling of chewing on a duckling, but I couldn’t stop eating balut, for it was my favorite snack. And the balut vendor already lost two good friends. Like me, he was just afraid—fearful and uncertain of living a life without Lolo Etot and Lola Emily, of continuing his life alone as though enclosed in a shell.