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.