Water and Glass

By Johanna Michelle Lim
Essay

Labindalawang kabayo,” my skylab driver assesses.

This was the value in livestock, the Tboli’s accepted currency, if he bought me as wife. I would be his sixth, the latest in a collection that he hopes will equal that of his father’s, who had thirty-nine.

As a joke, I demand the herd to be all white—pure, ethereal bodies that cross between dream and wake, the line of which dims with the fog surrounding Sbu, where a man could accumulate six life partners in the same time frame that I have accumulated none.

Walang problema!” he replies, and proceeds to tally every white stallion we pass in the next days.

Mark nudges to a concrete house where several studs are grazing in overgrown grass. A sign. The more horses a man has in his front yard, the more wives.

Pero sa linya ko, una ka na hindi tagadito,” he says in seriousness. A foreigner, and college graduate at that. More expensive than his other wives, whom he bought for only six horses, but well worth it.

Stumped, I ask him why.

Kasi puwede mo ako dalhin sa labas.”

*

A week ago, I choose Mark from the mass of motorcycle drivers in Seloton’s market. He boasts he is the favorite among foreigners.

Mark talks about the “outside” as if it might as well have been an alternate universe, a glass house to be broken into, even while it is a mere ride away.

All of what I describe to him of my every-days in Cebu—the coffee shops, grocery shopping, yoga sessions—seem like a drunkard’s rant. And whatever details that support them—the traffic, the lack of time, of sleep—I find myself exaggerating, describing a world bolder, or more chaotic, than what it actually is.

In the end, he clarifies, did everyone look like the characters from On The Wings of Love like you described, or prettier?

For him, the outside meant he didn’t have the load of fifteen mouths to feed. No sacks of rice to portion. No wives to rotate his weekends around. No squabbles to moderate among his constituents in Sitio Laodanay, Bakdulong.

Like his fellow skylab drivers, Mark entertains the notion of a foreigner whisking him away to the better side.

*

Mark has hazel brown eyes speckled with gold, and framed with the blackest of lashes that stand out from his bearded face. Between us, he looks like the foreign one. A full Tboli.

I make the mistake of telling him how striking they are. Deep-set and defined. Enough to draw a woman’s envy. It was a flippant comment. An accidental flirtation.

“Alam n’yo ba ano’ng ibig sabihin ng skylab?” Mark asks with a voice that has teased and taunted since then.

What?I answer as we approach a waterfront bungalow in wooden stilts. The element in the lake, the same Dwata that shows herself in a weaver’s dream, has already taken me.

I cup a water lily in my palm, purposely detaching, half listening. But Mark insists on delivering the punchline.

Skylab. Short for sakay na, lab.”

*

The motorcycle is Mark’s steed, and stage.

He sings every chance he gets, timing the highs and lows of his lines to match the Cotabato landscape. He sings to congratulate himself for conquering an incline in Traan Kini Springs. He sings when we pass through the rice fields of Hasiman, his baritone cutting through the strain of cicadas carried by wind.

Iyan, Tboli ‘yan.” Mark points a man going out of a general merchandise store. And him, and him.

The full breeds, and half-breeds. The ones from datu ancestry, and the nouveau riche. He lets go of the accelerator in order to point out to them.

He corrects my pronunciation of his tribe’s name as if to not know is a rub on their status as minority. Tboli, he repeats, is said with a soft roll on the second syllable.

How powerful it would be, I prod, to have his voice as medium for a chant, an oral story of mountain and light. Sometimes I catch myself wanting Mark to fulfill the caricature of the Tboli in my mind. The one I came to South Cotabato for, to find whatever answer lies in their simplicity.

Is that what he is afraid of? His Tboli identity oversimplified, or used as entertainment? My inquiries to him come out as judgment. He lets it go by singing the first lines of Journey’s “Faithfully.”

*

We make a game out of spotting full-blooded Tboli, his guesses strategic, mine trivial, relying on the color of skin, the only common denominator I spot in all his targets.

Iyan Ilonggo.” He points to a chink-eyed, fair man just off the sidewalk.

The Ilonggos are overtaking Sbu, he says with a grimace. The population is now seventy residents for every thirty immigrants. The rich Ilonggos open stores, and buy land in Poblacion. They bring with them skinny jeans, batchoy, and a dangerous dilution to a people that have too many issues with modernization as is. Adding a different culture, religion, and language to the mix seems like a step closer to extinction.

Mark shrugs it off though. They have also brought with them his prized videoke set. P5 a song. P5 for temporary release.

His magnum opus, “Kahit Isang Saglit,” becomes the soundtrack to tilapia and Tanduay meals. It will be his winning number in Tawag ng Tanghalan, the record of his escape, one that will take him out of this place if his wheels cannot.

Tagalog, a language we both do not own, is the language we slip into as common ground to each other’s novelty. It is new land. With it, we are both outsiders.

“Kahit sandali/Kahit isang saglit/Mayakap ka . . .” he sings at Aguilar’s, a restaurant specializing in—what else—tilapia, for what seemed like the twentieth time. The owner lets him be. He is good for business.

He takes my hand as he holds on to the last line. I don’t have the heart to tell him his masterpiece reminds me not of romance but of funerals.

*

What I want to tell Mark is that I understand his urgency, the need to be anywhere other than there. Away. Away from the pressures of carrying a whole people’s identity. It is this sentiment that landed me in Sbu in the first place.

There is a certain kind of tourist that comes to these parts. They thrive on the underdeveloped, hoping the place remains in a standstill like carefully preserved specimen.

This is the part of the narrative I guiltily leave out. Whereas Mark longs for escape, his cage is built by the economic enablement of tourists like myself who push him back, and make him stay.

Ancestry. Lineage. Obligation. Such impediments. He seems to hate it all.

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The Border Express

By Mikhael M. Labrador
Essay

The train parked at the Aranyaphratet station looked more like a novelty. I was curious to see how it would run. The exterior was dignified, the paint on it polished, but it was one of those old trains, quite unlike the ones I had been on before. I must say that, aside from practical considerations, this was the reason why I wanted to go on it. With my girlfriend, Rose, I had just visited Vietnam and Cambodia and was bound for Thailand to complete the last leg of our itinerary. To save $10 or about P500 each on fare money, we decided to take the train from the border town of Aranyaprathet to the country’s capital of Bangkok. I had learned about it beforehand as part of my research for our trip. I was glad to know that Rose was up for it as well, perhaps more so than myself. She too romanticized the notion of a long, albeit arduous, travel by train.

A handful of people were already in line when we arrived, but the ticket booth was still closed. Before falling in line ourselves, we decided to have a quick lunch outside the station, at what would be the Thai equivalent of the Filipino karinderya. The food was more than enough to make us hopeful for the rest of our trip. When we returned inside the terminal, the line had grown by just about a few more people, us included. Locals made up most of it. Some of them were monks in their traditional orange garb. There were a few other tourists, and a hardy looking bunch we made. I wondered if we shared the same reasons for being there.

The low number of people made boarding smooth, and we got settled in no time. Not long after, I felt the engine come alive, and without a whistle, a bell, or some sort of signal that I had expected, the train chugged away slow and sturdy. “Larga na ta,” I told Rose. “Unsa na oras?” she asked. I checked the time and answered her. We were reasonably within schedule. “Piktyuri ko bi,” I sheepishly requested. Rose took a picture of me holding up my ticket, and upon reviewing what she had taken, she quipped, “Daw missing person ka.” We both laughed at my picture and took a few more before surrendering our attentions to the view outside our window.

The train had not gotten far yet, and I was just starting my slow drift into reflection and daydream as I looked outside. I watched as the sights unravelled before me. Green fields that stretched out for kilometers in every direction accounted for most of it. It was rice country. Much of my childhood was set in a similar backdrop, so the landscape and the frames of life in it felt familiar but beautiful all the same. Here and there, Buddhist temples, rural Thai architecture, and local presence served as quaint reminders to me of where I was. All of which happily broke my nostalgic state. Taking a break from her own private thoughts, Rose roused me for a conversation. “Ma-remind ko sa katong ‘Town of Cats’ ni Murakami,” she said. No doubt because of the train part in that story. The one that we were on rumbled from the rushing wind, but Rose’s enthusiasm pierced through as we talked about the story and other things for a while. Soon, our topic drifted to our current endeavor. Kiddingly I told her, “Kabayo na lang kuwang, kumpleto na ta para sa biyahe nga ni. Nag-plane na ta, bus, motor, barko, bike, ug train na pud ron.” She told me how excited she’d been about this part of our journey. Our window gazing resumed. We were sitting in front of each other, looking out from opposite directions. On my side, Cambodia gradually became farther, while on hers, Bangkok drew closer.

Every now and then the train would stop at minor stations along the way. For the first few, it seemed like no one hopped off, or at least nobody from our section. The train was well on its way. The engine, I imagined, was hot and its gears were nimble in their movements. We picked up speed as we moved further into the interior of the country, and the distance between the terminals became farther, or so it felt. Up to that point, we had not shared our seats with anyone, and there were plenty of vacant ones left. Eventually, the train filled up with people. I looked out for the food vendors I had read about and seen in videos during my research for our trip. No luck just yet. I wasn’t hungry anyway. During one of the stops—and I can’t, for the life of me, remember which one as there were so many—a man came over to where I was and proceeded to put his belongings in the overhead compartment above us. I scooted inside my seat to make room for him. Just then, he handed me his water bottle and what I could only describe as a towel rolled into a log. I was not familiar with the general etiquette of train riding, so this act caught me by surprise. I received his things, still somewhat bashful towards what was happening, but the man had a cordial way about him that made it easy for me to oblige. He had a fixed smile on his face that I was quick to return.

I looked over at Rose, and she too was smiling, amused by what was happening. The man asked for his things back from me. He placed the towel last along with his luggage and kept his water bottle in hand. As expected, he sat beside me. He held his thumb up at my direction and said, “OK!” He made the same gesture to Rose, and we both nodded back at him. Like any agreeable tourist, I welcomed any chance for interaction with the locals, so I decided to start a conversation with my new seatmate. Bangkok was still hours away after all, and it would help to pass the time. But it did not take long before I learned that his English vocabulary was limited to “OK” and “Where you from?” I could not hold it against him, being aware of my own shortcoming for not knowing his language. I told him that we were from the Philippines, to which he replied, “Ohhh, Philippines!” The conversation that would follow seemed hopeless. In my head I wished for him to utter “Manny Pacquiao,” like they did in Cambodia when I told them where we were from. That would have bought us a good few more seconds. Unfortunately, this never happened, and if he had dropped the whole thing right then, I would not have objected. But he was friendly to a fault. He had an earnest look on his face as he somewhat expected for the conversation to continue. The discussion became a rough version of sign language. Lucky for me, my landlord of eight years is legally deaf, and I had practice with this sort of exchange. It was all small talk and formalities, but each sentence was hard-fought. Rose also held her own, and I was convinced that she was enjoying herself. Clearly she too had had some practice. She certainly made good use of our makeshift interactions with the other locals over our past few weeks abroad.

There was a brief intermission that followed our initial chitchat. Sometime within the pause, my seatmate stood up, reached for his belongings, and took out what I had perceived earlier to be a rolled-up towel. He hung it up on his sleeves and looked like someone who was about to take a bath. Looking at my direction, he pointed his finger to his chest and uttered, “Islam.” The inside of the train being noisy, and my attention not yet complete, I responded by stating my name. I thought he had introduced himself at last, so I proceeded by doing the same thing. He swayed his head in disagreement and reiterated himself: “Islam.” I did not bother to respond any further realizing the blunder of my first one. Instead, I put on an awkward smile to affirm my understanding. He went to the back of our car and stopped at one of the few empty seats left. He covered its surface with his sheets and knelt down on it. It was a time of the day for him to pray. I caught Rose chuckling away at my mistake. “Religion na diay imong pangalan,” she teased me. I stated my excuse, laughing at my own slip. “Grabe, may religion siya nga iyaha ba!” Rose egged on. I waited for the man to come back and to try and correct myself. But by the time he did, I saw no point to it anymore and just made room for him just as I had done previously. When he was getting ready to sit back down, he told me for the last time and for safe measure: “Islam.” I nodded back at him as Rose kept a cheeky grin.

I called my seatmate’s attention to ask him about his tattoos, which he had a few of spread throughout his arms and some on his face and neck. They looked rustic and were not immediately noticeable. We dove right back into the same way that we had been carrying out our previous conversations. In his efforts to explain, he fixed his hands together like someone holding a hammer and chisel. I knew that in the context of our conversation, he was referring to the manner in which his tattoos were made—the old way—a painful process that was proven by his facial expression as he described it to me. He also tried to explain the meaning of each one, but I was not sure if I had translated it correctly in my head. I understood enough that they were all imposed on him by ritual. He looked proud of his markings, and he showed them off like they were trophies or medals. At one point, he directed my focus to a specific location below his pelvic regions. Next, he put two fingers together to mimic the needles that were used, went back to a hammer-and-chisel motion, and put on what was the grimmest face I’d seen him make. Apparently, and perhaps the information could have been spared from me, he also had a tattoo somewhere in the genital area. Needless to say, that was one mark he didn’t bother to show, but it made for an entertaining topic nonetheless.

A couple of times or more, I snuck out to the back and had a cigarette or two. I peeked, with half of my body hanging from the side of the train, to catch a windy glimpse of the places we passed by. In one case, I just stood there looking at the draw bars that linked our section to the next one, and I watched as the clamps pushed and pulled on each other, locked in their hypnotic dance.

My girlfriend stayed in her seat and had succumbed to napping. It was late afternoon when she woke up, just in time for us to buy snacks from the food vendors that had already been making their rounds by then. We bought a light starchy snack that helped to elevate our moods. The lady that was sitting across from us offered us some of her food, which we timidly declined. However, to return the courtesy, we gave her and my seatmate some dried lotus seeds that we had brought with us from Cambodia. It was eventually passed around to the other commuters within close proximity. It was great how food spoke for us in our attempts at being friendly. It added to the peacefulness in the late afternoon ambience.

Everybody inside the train had assumed a more relaxed state. The images outside looked more delicate. Large water birds glided in the cooler breeze, and the colour of everything softened under the semi-shade. I shifted my focus to the opposite side of where we were, and I noticed a beautiful sunset had taken shape. I called for Rose to take a look, but she had already been doing so. She pulled out her camera and hurriedly took some pictures hoping not to miss the opportunity. I also took a few myself. However, upon examining the pictures we had taken, it was made clear to us how much they failed to capture what was before our eyes. We stowed back the camera and instead just enjoyed the scenery. “Nindot no? Murag best sunset ko ni so far,” Rose gushed. There was no need for me to add to her already apt description, so I remained silent. People’s attentions gravitated toward the spectacle, locals and us foreigners alike. Little children pointed to it with glee, which only made the draw even more irresistible. It was a welcomed while before the lovely ball of orange in the sky disappeared into the horizon. After which, the train lights came on, and it was finally evening. The hour indicated that we were way past our halfway mark, and our journey continued with no delays.

The stops that followed took on a different vibe, and the distance between each one became shorter once again. The stations looked more up to date and busier. The closer we got to the city, the more the English translations became present at every sign. The exchange of passengers also became more hectic. People left, and even more boarded to take their place. We hit our first highway after hours of nothing but farmlands. Not very far in the distance lay the illuminated facade of a metropolis. I checked the time again as Rose showed me our Google map location on her phone. My seatmate, figuring out what we were doing, held his hand up, pinching together his thumb and pinkie finger. I knew he meant to say that we were close. I imitated his actions to let him know that I understood. It did not take long before the view from outside our window had drastically changed as we passed by sections of the city, one neighborhood after another.

Some houses were so close to the railway that I caught faint smells of incense and overheard muffled conversations in Thai. We often had to stop to make way for traffic on the road and for other trains that were either going in our direction or against. “Mura pud og Pilipinas,” Rose mutters. I agreed, but as we observed further, the differences were far too many and far too distinct that our first impressions were quickly overridden. We were both in agreement when it came to this and with our wide-eyed demeanor for simply being there. Rose’s face lit up as we reviewed our plans for the coming week. In that moment, we became oblivious to our tiredness. All we knew was that we had practically arrived in Bangkok, and our legs, numb as they were from hours of sitting, were ready to wander.

The sign said hua lamphong station, and a dark, abysmal tunnel was our entrance to it. We passed by a glass elevator that gave us a good idea of just how far down it went. The last few nudges toward our final stop were slow. My excitement verged on impatience, enough for me to stick my head out of the window to try and investigate the delay. Rose urged me to settle down and to get our bags. I stood up to take our luggage down from the overhead compartment. My seatmate already carried his own on his lap, as was the case with everyone else around us. The train went inside and down the tunnel only to emerge back up and out of the other end. We had stopped for good, and everybody hopped off. There was a long walk between us and the exit. Rose and I followed the crowd of people that headed for it. The inside of the terminal was grand. There were old and modern models of trains that juxtaposed each other as they parked in their individual lanes. I figured that my seatmate went ahead until we saw him waiting for us by the gates. He kindly gave us directions to the taxi pickup area, but we had plans to take the metro bus instead. We made our way out together and said our goodbyes before we parted ways.

Outside Hua Lamphong, the evening made for a quieter scene. But in the morning, and I was sure of this, people would come once more as they always had, and the train would run again; whether heading back or moving forward is all up to perspective. The old train, the one I made out to be a heap, would always be loyal to its tracks for however long it could be made to endure. As we moved on into the city and toward the bright lights where other unknown things awaited us, I thought how good a metaphor that was for all of our boneheaded adventures.

Riding a Tricycle

By Noel Pingoy
Essay

Ten years ago

Sometimes the very things that we loathe strengthen the life in us. As with most of my patients, loss, crisis, and even conflict goad the will to live in ways that are previously deemed unthinkable. People who used to think they aren’t good enough may even astonish themselves with random acts of benevolence and audacity. When it happens, people grow bigger than the impediments that box them, surprisingly too large enough to liberate them from issues that constantly nag and haunt, and consequently live beyond these limitations.

I learned a lot of lessons when I decided to become a commuter six months ago as part of austere lifestyle changes that I believed would define a simple life. In May I gave up my cable TV subscription. A few weeks later I had my DSL disconnected after reaching the minimum period of subscription. Would I say that my life had been more difficult, less exciting, even boring? Au contraire il est difficile de concevoir quelque chose de plus satisfaisant. Instead of spending countless hours in front of the idiot box munching insalubrious junk that augments avoirdupois as much as it encourages ennui, I buried myself in pages of printed wisdom, sweated a little of the excess pounds in the gym, or simply allowed my OC self more hours of sleep and rest that I initially thought were outrageous. I also brushed up on my French, which I had forgotten while attempting to build up the fortitude to remember that the u in gozaimasu and desu is usually not voiced (rather unsuccessfully but I ain’t giving up anyway). The amount that I used to spend for cable TV and internet surfing are instead diverted to the funds of the family council, thus giving some measure to the things that could be easily given up in favor of certain meaningful pursuits that shape and strengthen relationships.

But nothing has taught me more about the wholeness of life than taking the public transport daily to and from work. I am probably the only doctor in General Santos City who is fully dependent on tricycles and habal-habal (motorcycles that ply certain routes in the city, often using the back roads to elude the LTO cops) as I move from one hospital to another. When my driver left without notice at the start of the year, I relied on my brother who lives just a few meters away for my daily rounds until he had to beg off to attend to more pressing concerns. However things are perceived now, I will always remember with deep appreciation and fondness the times together. Since I don’t drive a car, I planned of getting a motorcycle myself to which most of the family and friends disapproved considering the incidence of accidents involving two-wheels in the city. Too unsafe, some said.

It was difficult at first, but in time I discovered what matters and the value of a spartan life. In due time the daily tricycle rides to work became my prayer-in-motion, even a sanctuary from everything that is not genuine in me and in the culture that I grew up to. Where was it written that doctors should drive the latest car models? That doctors who take public transport are kawawa or katawa-tawa? But some people I know believe that to be so. Sitting in a cramped sidecar, stooping so low that I fear my chin would brush my knees anytime the tricycle navigates a hump, I was simply Noel, neither the hematologist nor the medical oncologist, far from the image I have learned to imagine about myself. Inside that vehicle, I often start my day taking my masks off and let go of my self-expectations (even self-importance). Some people I know have dismissed this as something that I don’t have another choice anyway, and it’s true initially. But later I realized that however one goes to work does not really matter at all. I grew up in a society where image and extensions of it in the form of material possessions are valued highly. Sometimes over relationships. People struggle for self-sufficiency, abundance, or mastery and, in holding close these qualities, become blinkered to deeper human truths like humility, respect, and compassion, even contemptuous of anything in themselves and in other people.

This capacity to suffer and accept weakness is a virtue that I have long struggled to overcome. Acknowledging my vulnerability allowed me to connect to other people who too embrace their own vulnerabilities. When I stop pretending to be strong and independent, I draw out the instinctive kindness in other people. By showing this soft side, people tend to be more helpful, more generous, and even more appreciative of what they have. Simple endorphin rush! They feel good about themselves in a noble, unselfish way just being able to hold on a door for someone to pass through it. I live in a village that’s a bit far from the city, so I try to avoid staying out late. Looking back at those six months, I realized how dear friends are, colleagues who are otherwise tired from their busy practice but take the extra pains to bring me home and see me step into the gate safely. In medicine, it is often taught that part of being a professional is to allow for some space, even distance, to be objective. I learned from my colleagues one truth: to truly serve others, one must do it not only with the hands and eyes but with the heart and soul as well.

There is more to learn from life’s precarious edges than being in the safe comfortable middle. Taking the public transport for the past six months has definitely shuffled my belief systems like a deck of cards. While others might see this as something sad or pathetic, there is much wisdom about a card that had been at the bottom of the deck for most of my conscious adult life suddenly turning up the top card, the one that really mattered at the end of the day. My patients with cancer, and now the tricycle and habal-habal drivers, have enriched my life with their example: that no matter how carefully they sort their cards and repeatedly shift through their hands in the presence of death or material inadequacies, the top card is rarely possession or superiority or control. Some people call it respect or goodwill. Doctors who honor the Hippocratic Oath call it harmlessness. Others view theirs as integrity. I call mine love.

First Aid

By Mariz Leona
Essay

I woke up early. “Wow, himala!” one of my friends said. “Aga pa nagbugtaw ang iban dira.” My friends knew how late I usually woke up. I didn’t say a word and headed to the shore. As I watched the sun rose to its glorious throne, I could still hear the laughter of my friends, but my whole being was soon absorbed in the magnificent view in front of me, blended with the sea breeze and the sounds of calming waves. What a wonderful way to start a day, I thought. The past few days, I’d been broke—financially, mentally, and spiritually. That’s why I decided to spend a night with my friends in a beach in General Santos City, just twenty-five pesos away from our boarding house. I inhaled deeply, calming myself. After about ten seconds, I exhaled. I exhaled all my frustrations and despairs.

I looked at my toenails, and I felt like crying again because I had broken one of them the night before. The nail was separated from the flesh. We had been happily playing in the water when I stubbed my foot on a rock. At first I didn’t feel anything, but when we decided to return to our rented cottage, there I immediately felt something weird. When I looked at my feet, I burst out crying. One of my toenails was bleeding. My friends gathered around me, and when they found out why I was crying, they all laughed. I was dismayed by their reactions. My toe seriously hurt. They helped me nevertheless. They asked me to sit down and gave me a nail cutter to remove the nail, but I couldn’t do it myself. I was scared. So one of them did the job while I was whimpering like a pig being killed, and I cried aloud when someone poured alcohol on my toe. I thanked God for giving me friends who knew what to do in that kind of situation, even if they laughed at me.

“Mars, puli na ta,” one of my friends shouted at me. I blew a heavy sigh and said, “So this is the end of happy hour. Back to reality na naman.

“Asa mo, ga?” asked a tricycle driver outside the resort. “Uhaw mi, ’ya,” we answered, referring to the village where our boarding houses were located. My friends negotiated the fare with the driver. I didn’t join the discussion. I sat on the front seat of the tricycle. I liked it there. Every one of us liked it there because it was the most comfortable seat. That’s why I went in first and secured the spot for myself. When my friends and the driver had agreed on the fare, we started the journey.

Yes, it was a journey for me. Somehow I regretted sitting at the front because of the cold wind, but I was consoled by the nice view of the road. Watching the road was relaxing, until we came upon a vehicular accident. “Sus, kaaga pa disgrasya na,” the driver said as he slowed down. My friends made comments on the scene before us. I couldn’t understand them clearly because my heart was beating so hard. I didn’t like that kind of situation, especially in front of my eyes. The bus, probably owned by a private company, was in the inner lane of its opposite direction; the accident must have been its fault. The motorcycle that collided with it was outside the cemented part of the road.

I saw the conductor rush out of the bus, followed by a lady, maybe to check what had happened. The tricycle we were riding stopped beside the driver of the motorcycle. He was prone on the ground. We got out of the tricycle immediately. “Kuya, dal-on ta sa ospital,” I told our driver. He seemed oblivious of what I said, so I said it again to my friends. “Gasyung,” one of them answered me. “Indi na pwede tandugon sa amo na nga posisyon.”

I looked at the driver of the motorcycle, which I immediately regretted. He was catching his breath. He inhaled, and it took about thirty seconds before he exhaled. “Oh, Jesus!” was the only thing I said.

I stepped away from the scene as more people gathered around. They were from their vehicles too and happened to see the commotion. There were no houses in the area. I silently prayed for the safety of the injured man. I was trembling. I felt like crying. “Tabangi ninyo!” a woman shouted. “Nagtawag na kog ambulance,” answered the woman who had come out of the bus earlier. I could tell from her clothes that she was working for a canning company nearby, so I was confused why she couldn’t give the man first aid. I had read that companies required their employees to be trained in first aid. It occurred to me that maybe the training wasn’t required in her company, but I thought her co-workers and she needed the training more than most employees because they were working in a high-risk environment.

Nobody was touching the body. No one was knowledgeable of first aid.

“Sakay na mo, ga,” I heard our driver say. With a heavy heart, I rode the tricycle again. “Pag di pa mag-abot ang ambulance in twenty minutes, mapatay to ba,” one of my friends said. “Ginalagas na gud niya iyang ginhawa.” The driver joined the conversation: “Dili man gud to pwede isakay sa tricycle kay nakahapa. Basi ako pay makasala ato.” One of my friends at the back said, “If ako maging presidente, himuon ko jud batas na dapat tanang tao sa Pilipinas kabalo og first aid.” I thought so too.

I remembered that I had once attended a first-aid seminar organized by Philippine Red Cross. I was still in high school then. Many of the participants were not interested, including me. The only lesson that I could remember was that you had to put pressure on the wound if there was a lot of bleeding. The driver of the motorcycle was bleeding on the head earlier, and I knew I should have put pressure on his wound. But I didn’t do it. I didn’t do it because I forgot.

The driver of the tricycle drove slower. He must have been shaken by the accident too. “Wala pa lagi may nag-agi na ambulance?” I asked my friends. They were talking about other things, and nobody seemed to hear me. I watched every vehicle on the other side of the road, hoping to see an ambulance. We reached the part where the tricycle had to leave the national highway to proceed to Ohaw. “Wala pa jud ambulance na nag-agi ba,” I commented again. “Basi city pa to gikan,” one of my friends answered me. “Wala ba diay ambulance ang mga barangay na lapit diri?” I asked. “Wala siguro e,” was the answer.

That night in my boarding house, I remembered when I accidently poured boiling water on my legs at home. I shouted for help, and my mother came to the rescue. But she didn’t know what to do, so she shouted for help to no one in particular. Some of our neighbors came, and each of them had an idea what should be done. “May petroleum jelly kamo?” “Butangi sang langgaw!” “Kamatis. Effective ang kamatis.” Though I was hurt and crying, I couldn’t help but note that some of the suggestions were ridiculous. Were they planning to cook adobo or paksiw? Who in her right mind would put vinegar on her burnt flesh? If everyone around had known how to give first aid, the suggestions would have been the same and logical.

Lying in bed, I kept on thinking about the bleeding man on the road. I was still disturbed that I had not seen an ambulance or even just heard a siren. Maybe no rescue arrived. “Pag ako naging presidente, tanang tao dapat hawod sa first aid,” I found myself blurting out.

Ice Candy

By Jhessa Gales
Essay

When I was younger, my mother used to sell ice candy in our sari-sari store. She personally made it in chocolate, milk with peanut, and buko flavors. My brother and I used to help her, without her knowing that we took it like coffee when freshly boiled and like ice cream when frozen. Unfortunately, no secrets can be kept for a long time; we were caught and never allowed to help again.

Ice candy became one of my favorite food, even until I reached high school. My friends and I would walk home almost every day just so we could buy some ice candy in a store. The store’s ice candy was different from my mother’s. It was just strawberry-flavored powdered juice. But it still gave me the same feeling. It was still soft like ice cream when it melted in my mouth.

One morning, the sun was bright and the sky was bluish. If I remember it right, it was Friday. I didn’t wake up late owing to my beloved mother’s voice. Like every other morning, Mama gave my brother and me a lecture on how hard her life had been and how easy our lives were. She asked us again and again why it was so hard for us to wake up early. “Leave me alone, Ma! I slept very late last night because I had to finish that book.” I said it in my head, but I pointed the book: Leave Me Alone, Ma.

When I left for school, Mama reminded me that I had been given enough money and I should not walk. I waited for a tricycle. “Malas!” I uttered when the tricycle that picked me up was driven by Boy Kamang. I wished it had been Boy Untol. In those days, my friends and I liked giving tricycle drivers nicknames based on how slow or fast they drove. I was OK with moderate speed, but Boy Kamang was just annoyingly different.

Our school was not far, but neither was it near. When we passed the bridge, I observed that the river was so clear, unlike the other day, when it looked like a chocolate drink.

Our classroom was not a normal room. We were using the science laboratory due to insufficiency of classrooms. We had long rectangular tables surrounded by tall stools. I was friends with my seatmates, and just like other students, we spent most of the day talking. When our classes ended, we decided to walk home, despite what my mother told me. We wanted to stop by the store where we often bought ice candy.

We walked on the national highway until we reached a large bridge. Under the bridge was the start of the shortcut to our village. We had to cross the river and then walk up a rocky hill with tall grass, which I found insulting, for they were as tall as I was or higher.

Thereafter, I felt surreal. It was so wonderful walking on the riprap. The water was clear.  Jean, my cousin, was cracking jokes, and the rest of us laughed aloud. Our loud voices rang above the silent river and in the gigantic trees waving at us.

I looked at the sky. It was clear. I looked at the river. It was clear—a while ago!

I called my friends and shouted, “Baha!”

We became frantic. The chocolate-colored water was getting nearer. It wasn’t raining, and the weather was good, so the flood must be from the mountains. We decided to walk barefoot, not minding the sharp stones and other objects that we stepped on. What I had in mind was that I should live! I should survive! There was no time to entertain any physical pain.

Every second became harder for us to move, for the riprap was cut in the middle of the river and we had to wade through the water. The risk was at its maximum level. But there was no turning back. Going back was as dangerous as moving forward. So we decided to continue walking toward the opposite riverbank.

The riverbank was about twelve inches wide only, and some part of it was falling. We then climbed the hill up to the peak, and only up there were we able to breathe and thank heavens for not letting the mad river take us.

When we reached our favorite store, we bought ice candy from it. Each of us had saved six pesos for walking home instead of riding a tricycle, so each of us bought six pieces, or six pesos worth, of ice candy. Our lives could have ended due to our desire to eat ice candy. I wondered if I should have listened that morning to my mother, an ice candy maker.

Frédéric

By Kurt Joshua Comendador
Essay and Short Story

It’s a cold night. I’m left alone as my family has gone for a visit to a relative’s house. With nothing to do, I rummage through the pieces strewn all over the face of the piano: Scott Joplin, Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Clementi, and many others. Deep into the layers of printed pieces, I come across Frédéric Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat Major, op. 9, no. 2. I pull it out and try sight-reading it. Many wrong notes later, I decide to stop and listen to it. Again. After so many times listening to it, I still don’t get tired of the music. Easy to the ears and easy to the mind, the music perfectly matches the ambience of the night. Before I know it, I drift to sleep, and then I’m awakened by an entirely new music.

The music begins to flow like honey: slow, fluidic, and tantalizing. A gentle cascade of poetically beautiful passages, as if performed by cherubs on their harps. It doesn’t take long for me to identify it: Chopin’s Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise Brilliante in E-flat Major, op. 22. The music engulfs me, making me feel as though I’m floating on a clear lake, its glassy surface reflecting the serene light of the full moon on a cloudless night.

A nocturne. A lullaby. A blanket, soft as velvet, wrapping my very soul. Slowly, all my troubles, all my worries and anxieties, lightened. It is just me and the music, dancing and playing to the extremes of reality and imagination. It takes me to the time when innocence, hope, and dreams are synonymous to your very existence. Yes, like a baby in a cradle being rocked softly by the benevolent waves of the ocean we call life.

* * *

“Frédéric,” Nicholas muttered as he received the child from his wife.

“I did not quite hear you, Nick,” Justyna said as she propped herself up in the bed. Do you mind repeating what you’ve just said?”

“We’ll call him Frédéric,” Nicholas said in a more audible and distinct voice.

“Frédéric,” Justyna reiterated with an agreeing smile. “Frédéric Chopin.”

“Can I see him father?” said a young girl, tugging gently at Nicholas’s jacket.

“Definitely, Ludwika,” Nicholas said.

Ludwika slightly backed away as Nicholas lowered himself, carefully so as not to shake the infant. Ludwika tiptoed towards her now-crouching father and peeked sheepishly at Frédéric.

“You’re going to be a good sister to him, wouldn’t you, Ludwika?” Nicholas said, never taking his gaze off his newborn son. His face, as if painted by happiness himself, grinned from ear to ear.

“Yes!” Ludwika cried. “I will be a good sister to him, Father!”

Frédéric twitched.

“Now don’t speak too loudly or he might cry!” Nicholas said with a laugh.

Ludwika, as if instinctively, covered her mouth with both hands, putting them down immediately to resume talking: “I will take good care of him, Father! I will teach him how to write or maybe teach him how to play the piano. I will definitely be a good sister to him, Father!”

“Now that’s enough, you two,” Justyna interrupted. “Return him here. Frédéric and I could use some rest.”

Nicholas returned Frédéric to his wife and stepped back. “We’ll be back before dinner.” He kissed Justyna on the forehead and proceeded to exit the room with Ludwika skipping behind him. Nicholas opened the door and waved goodbye to Justyna.

“Goodbye, Mother! Goodbye, Frédéric!” bade Ludwika

* * *

The music flows continuously, like rain in a gentle torrent on a cold November morning. A kindle of curiosity arouses within me. A longing to know something, to discover something new. The music, like a hand, leads me on. The essence of curiosity prominent in the tranquility and warmth of the piece.  Curiosity—discoverer of gifts, revealer of talents, and leader of all willing to learn.

Like how the hammer inside the piano strikes the strings to produce sound, man and idea must collide in order to create a work of art. A child’s curiosity, coupled by the nurturing guidance of the parents, will create an entirely new individual: a child prodigy. The perpetual flow of gracious notes seems like a portal to the mind of a piano prodigy, enchanted to play his wildest fantasy and imagination, improvising and playing by feel. My mind is enveloped in a blissful feeling, swept by the cold serene river that is the music.

* * *

Frédéric watched as his mother played the piano. The way Justyna caressed the keys of the piano enthralled the one-year-old.

“Handsome boy!” said Justyna. “What’s the problem? Don’t you like the music?”

Frédéric let out a laugh and extended both of his hands in the air, begging to be picked up, giggling, cooing, and smiling.

“Oh, you want to sit with me? Is that it?” Justyna asked. She picked up her son and put him on her lap. “Now you behave, Frédéric, else you’re going to fall.”

Frédéric’s eyes lit up when his mother began playing, his head turning eagerly from side to side, following the hands of his mother. Frédéric clapped and giggled, as if he appreciated the music being played for him, to the delight of his mother. “Why do I have this feeling that you would be a great pianist someday, my little Frédéric?” she whispered to him.

And after three years . . .

“Justyna! Ludwika!” Nicholas called out. “To the music room! Hasten!”

“Is something the matter, Father?” Ludwika asked, Justyna just behind her, wiping her hands on her apron.

“Behold this!” Nicholas said. “Frédéric will perform Bach’s first minuet. I taught it to him just this afternoon, and now prepare to be amazed by the progress he has made.”

Frédéric sat on the piano and proceeded to play the heralded piece. He pressed the keys intently. His movement appeared to be effortless, with no wasted motion and unnecessary movements, his arms apart to the side of his body. Frédéric produced rich and elegant tones as though he had practiced the piano far longer than his age. His legs hung lazily on the bench as his legs were still too short to reach the floor. On and on he went. One-two-three, one-two-three, went the beat on Frédéric’s mind, careful not to disrupt the timing. The littleness of his hands made the last few measure difficult to execute. Nevertheless, he finished the piece, and it was a job well done, worthy of the applause of his family.

“Bravo!” said his mother. “Bravo, Frédéric!”

“Thank you, Mama!” Frédéric blushed.

“Well done, little brother!” Ludwika said. “Sooner or later, you’ll be even better than me.”

“Thank you, Ludwika,” Frédéric said. “I’m sorry, but I am certain that something smells burning in here!”

“I think it comes from the kitchen,” Nicholas said, sniffing the air.

Justyna stood still, her eyes wide open. “Oh no! My pies!” she exclaimed with a gasp and then promptly scampered to the kitchen. The rest of the family burst out in laughter. The newest member of the family, Emilia, watched from her crib, sucking nonchalantly on her pacifier.

* * *

The relaxing cascade of music comes to a temporary halt: no crash, no violent impact, and no sudden collision that perturbs the earnest meditation I’ve been thrown into. The music smoothly transitions—like a seasoned driver flawlessly shifting gears—into an entirely new character: a simple formal march with a distinct beat. The music carries a soothing air that further emolliates my mind and soul, taking me to a whole new scene.

The music carries nostalgia unto me, as it reminds me the very first time I played in public: the uncomplicated sound resembles an easy piece that new students learn for their first recital. There is something magical in it—something powerful, something sentimental, something appealing. Then again, who forgets their first? I close my eyes and imagine the first public recital of Frédéric when he was eight years old.

* * *

“How are you feeling, son?” Nicholas asked Frédéric backstage.

“I feel excellent, a little excited perhaps,” Frédéric replied.

“God bless you! I wish I had your confidence!”

The host ended his introduction and presented Frédéric to the crowd that had gathered to witness his first public recital. On the front row sat Frédéric’s mother and two sisters, Ludwika and Emilia. Nicholas scurried to his seat, bent as low as possible.

Frédéric walked to the center of the stage where the piano was placed. He stood still for a moment, briefly scanned his audience, took a bow, and then took his position on the piano. Frédéric’s professionalism and stately manners endeared him to the crowd, prompting an applause.

The clapping stopped, and the performance started. Here was the boy who had grown up in a musical family. Here was a boy proclaimed as musical genius by his first teachers. Here was the boy who, at seven, had published his first musical composition. This was his first public recital. Waltzes, marches, mazurkas—these were some of the music he played that day. The stage was his, and the crowd offered him their time and attention. Each minute increased the amazement of the crowd that, in the end, the place was about to crumble to the thunderous standing ovation the crowed bestowed on him. The cheers, however, were no greater than that of Frédéric’s family: “Bravo, Frédéric! Bravo!” they exclaimed in unison.

* * *

Tears begin to form on the corner of my eyes as the emotions begin to swell. There is sadness in its beauty, like a desperate plea for solace. It has a character of a swan song: a longing and questioning aura, a final offering before moving on to the next stage, a request for consolation. The music is a plea for a return to the past, to cherish loving memories once again, to be with loved ones again for even just a single day, to return to the place of origin, the place we call home. The music merely shows that life is indeed a fleeting moment.

The featherlike music wafts into my ears and directly goes into my heart. The piece’s subtlety carries overwhelming woes that pierce the soul, a proof that music is indeed a powerful being, able to carry happiness, relief, sadness, and pleasure through its nuances.

* * *

“It is time for you to leave, Frédéric,” Nicholas said. Justyna was standing beside her husband, sobbing silently, wiping her tears with a white handkerchief.

Frédéric stood up from squatting beside Emilia’s grave. “I just want to make sure I have spent some time with Emilia, Father,” Frédéric said with a sigh. He wiped the headstone, revealing the transcription:

She disappeared at fourteen
the spring of life
like a flower
in which beauty
the fruit flourished
hope.
April 10, 1827

“I am sure that Emilia would be happy for you, Frédéric,” Nicholas said. “I am certain she will watch over you.”

“I still have doubts whether I can endure being away from here, Father.”

“Nineteen years is enough, Frédéric. Poland is too small for you. We must go now. Everyone is waiting for you.”

Teachers, friends, and family had gathered at the toll gate to bid Frédéric adieu and wish him good luck.

“Oh, Frédéric!” cried Constance, Frédéric’s sweetheart. “You must remember us. Many others may better praise you and adore you, but none would love you stronger than we!”

“I will never forget you, my love!” Frédéric answered. “Nor I will forget anyone of you. For my heart will forever remain in here and my loyalty forever reside in this country. Farewell, Mother and Father! Farewell, Constance! Farewell, Ludwika! Farewell, Poland!”

As the coach carrying Frédéric started rolling down the road, the people behind started singing a song composed by Professor Elsner, Frédéric’s headmaster in the conservatory of music. Such a touching act caused Frédéric to weep bitterly.

* * *

The melancholic music fades away, just like the screams of an airplane taking off: before you know it, there is nothing you could hear. I want to chase after it, as though it’s a runaway kite, with the thread glancing off your fingers, but there’s nothing I can do but to long after it, wishing it would come back. What’s left is an obscure mixture of feelings.

All of a sudden, like a pre-invasion salvo of artillery nobody expects, the music comes alive. Like a team of stallions thrown into a gallant gallop by the crack of a whip by the coachman. Formal, noble, and energetic. A brilliant and majestic processional tune fitting to announce the arrival of a king. The music is so enthralling, it throws me into a fervor, making me move my head and hands unconsciously, mimicking the actions of a conductor as he directs an orchestra, feeling the music at the same time. It is magical, and from it I have no escape.

The opening barrage finished, the landing party follows. The music turns into a radiant and lively dance theme. It’s like watching an old master fill the canvas with colors, watching his paintbrush trail behind colors from his mystical pallet to create a masterpiece. I see a man dancing with Destiny in the form of a beautiful woman. The woman dances coyly, being elusive and playful as can be. Oftentimes, it appears the man has finally caught the woman, but every time, he lets her get away. The man knows enough that it has only begun—the night is young and so are they—and the music is far from over. He keeps on dancing. Just he and the woman. Alone in the cosmic parquet of life, sooner or later, he shall triumph.

* * *

Frédéric arrived in Vienna and immediately resumed his familiar life, taking no time to acclimatize to his current repertoire—playing in theatres and grand saloons, displaying his elegant techniques and expressive renditions of his pieces that were absolutely new to the people of Austria. Frédéric jumped from one saloon to another, from theatre to theatre, from one aristocrat’s lavish home to another. Chopin was leading a musician’s dream of fame and fortune, but it didn’t stop him from writing home as much as possible.

 . . . Luxembourg and Berlin. It is still not confirmed, but I might go to London one of these days. P.S. Send my regards to Mother and Father. Love, Frédéric

 Ludwika lowered the letter that she had read aloud.

“Good Lord!” Justyna said. “Frédéric must be really absorbed with all these travels!”

“It is no question, Justyna,” Nicholas said. “It has always been like that and always will be. Where were you when Frédéric played at almost every grand saloon in the country when he was young? Not to mention the times when he played for the royal families of Poland and Germany. The world is ready for our Frédéric!”

“I absolutely have that on my mind, but it just never fails to amaze me,” Justyna said.

“Don’t quarrel now, you two,” Ludwika teased her parents. “It would be better if you just pray for Brother while I write an answer to him. We must keep him updated of what is happening here.”

* * *

The music is a stark contrast to the youthful and lyrical character of the spianato. Highly dramatic, more technical and much grander in style. The entirely new music is a sound that comes from heartfelt rendering from the keyboard: feeling of despair, confusion, and self-doubt mixed into the fury of regal music. It is filled with angst and rage, with passages similar to asking questions. It is filled with rising and falling intonations, with masterful variation of volume and tones. It is indeed emotionally evoking. Such is the power of music when manipulated by a virtuoso.

* * *

“What am I going to, Tytus?” Frédéric asked as he shuffled across the room in his apartment.

“You must steady yourself, Mr. Chopin,” replied Tytus in a consoling tone. Tytus is a fellow student of Chopin, as what Frédéric is now referred to, at the Warsaw Lyceum.

“I want to return to Poland and fight with our brothers, Tytus!”

“You must remain here, Mr. Chopin. You are much too valuable to lose.”

“I am just a pianist, Tytus. I am no more special than the man feeding the dogs when it comes to serving the country.”

“You are not merely a pianist, Mr. Chopin. You are Poland’s future! The very embodiment of Poland’s spirit! You will support our cause through your music!”

Chopin sat on the divan, and not a moment passed when someone knocked on the door. “Do me a favor, Tytus. Answer the door for me, will you?” Chopin scowled, pressing his forehead with his fingers.

After a while, Tytus said, “It is a letter, Mr. Chopin.”

“From whom is it this time?” Chopin said, clearly distressed.

“It came from Poland. It’s from Constance. Constance wrote you a letter, Mr. Chopin!”

“Constance! I haven’t heard from her for a year. Quick! Give me that letter!”

Chopin’s enlivened mood didn’t last long. His body slouched as he read the letter.  “Oh God! No!” cried Chopin, bursting in tears. The outpouring sorrow could no longer be suppressed. Like a dam crumbling from the surmounting water, Chopin cried his heart out. “Why do these have to happen to me?” yelled Chopin bitterly.

“What is the matter, Mr. Chopin?” asked Tytus.

“Co-co-Constance will be married to someone else, Tytus!” Chopin replied, barely getting the words out of his mouth.

“Mr. Chopin, I feel terrible for you, but it would be her loss, not yours.”

“What have I done to deserve this, Tytus?”

“Mr. Chopin—”

“I shouldn’t have left! I shouldn’t have left! I shouldn’t—” Chopin paused midsentence, his mouth gasping for air, his movements erratic. He grasped his chest.

“Mr. Chopin!” exclaimed Tytus, rushing to assist the musician. “What happened? Good Lord!”

Chopin had dropped on the floor, moving spasmodically, mouth gaping, eyes wide open. Tytus was horrified.

Hours later, the doctor told Tytus, “He has gone weak. He needs to rest as much as possible to fully recover. I strongly advise him to refrain from long travels. As for now, he will be all right. Just don’t let him do anything that might agitate him.”

“What about concerts, Doctor?” Tytus asked.

“If he wants to be better, he must avoid it. He can still teach and play, but performing in a concert would be too exhausting for him.”

Chopin did exactly as what the doctor had advised. Secluded in his room, with his diminished health and with no other outlet to pour his grief, Chopin’s talents ripened. As Tytus returned to Poland to fight, Chopin emptied his sentiments on the piano, never once playing in public in his time of recuperation. On a warm day eight months later, he received a letter from François-Antoine Habeneck, inviting him to play in the Paris Conservatory.

“I must go,” Chopin told himself. “I am ready. I will go to Paris. I must perform even if it costs me my life.”

Chopin set out into his journey to France, together with his new companion, Simon.

“I really think I’m quite ready for this, Simon,” Chopin said, as their stagecoach rolled steadily to Paris. “But still I’m feeling uneasy”

“Don’t worry about it, Mr. Chopin,” Simon said. “I think you will do just fine.”

The day came for the concert. Chopin paced back and forth in the backstage of the theatre.

“What is the matter, Monsieur Chopin?” asked Habeneck, the mastermind of the event.

“I am excited, Monsieur Habeneck!”

“Oh, I thought it was something else,” Habeneck said. “You better steady yourself now, Monsieur Chopin. You’re going to be called out any minute now.”

The female host announced, “Mesdames et Messieurs, vous présentant l’immortel, Monsieur Chopin!”

“There’s your cue now, Monsieur!” exclaimed Habeneck. “Show them what music is all about!”

Chopin strutted to the center of the stage, gave the host a peck on each cheek, and assumed his position on the piano bench.

Chopin hovered his arms above the keyboard, like a heron’s wings preparing for flight. With a controlled drop, Chopin struck the first key perfectly, twitching his head as his ears registered the sound of perfection. All his pent-up emotions were relieved, all his experiences were incorporated into his music, and all his misery was exhausted on that concert. Chopin’s body language clearly signified his joy and displayed his ecstasy. Chopin took flight with the polonaise, like a stallion, running wild and free in the plains of the west. It was a majestic performance, evident in the thunderous applause of his audience.

“Fantastique! Excellent! Bravo!” the French shouted. Chopin basked in the glory of musicianship. Soon enough, flowers were delivered to Chopin by bouquets. It was a magnificent concert indeed, one which immortalized him to those who witnessed his greatness. It was the last grand concert Chopin would offer as he would never enter the concert platform again. Chopin fully reached his peak of his fully mature style—a style in which pianistic virtuosity was placed at the service of expression.

* * *

It has taken me a few seconds to realize that I’m clapping with the audience. Such is the power of Frédéric Chopin’s music, able to garner appreciation and acclamation almost two hundred years later. At the conclusion of the piece, the music is thrown into a frolic frenzy, a music of great gaiety, a music for the man who has finally captivated Destiny, the beautiful woman who initially eluded him.

The music ends, and so does my imagination. The music of Chopin has invigorated my spirit and my musical self. From a very somber beginning to a splendid ending, it has taken me into a journey of what may have been the musician’s life. With renewed hope and confidence, I return to the piano and attempted to play another one of his pieces.

A Dream in a Minor Key

By Kurt Joshua O. Comendador
Essay

It was the summer at the end of fifth grade. My brother, after seeing a violin ensemble perform at our church, managed to convince my parents to enroll him in music lessons. He wanted to play the violin, but my parents believed that he should start with the piano in order to establish a solid musical foundation.

Ubani lang imong manghod, Kuy. Pa-lesson lang sad ka’g apil.”

I agreed to go. After all, what was I to lose? Never did I know that it would be one of the most important decisions in my life.

Learning the piano is roughly the same as going to school: you start in Kindergarten (Kinder A and B), and then Grade 1 until Grade 8. I finished the Kinder B book in a month, skipping the entire Kinder A book. Maybe because of my age, I quickly understood what was being taught to me. I was promoted to Grade 1 right after. The pieces got more complex, so I needed to practice more often to keep up. As I learned and mastered one piece after another, I got this satisfaction I couldn’t describe. The joy of playing the pieces was very pleasurable sensation. The gliding of the fingers through the black and white keys of the keyboard had a very intimate feeling to it. Playing the right keys, hearing the right notes, magnified these feelings a hundred times over. I played the piano with vigor. I was young then, very passionate.

An obstacle appeared when I was in Grade 6: I got busier and lost my time for piano lessons. I spent my time practicing and learning alone. By this time, I had improved a bit and started playing church hymns, most of which were arranged with four voices. Meaning, I had to read and play multiple notes at a time. It was a hard and taxing effort, one which required multitasking: identify the notes, find the right keys, position the fingers, to name a few. It also required patience and dedication.

Pag makahuman ka og isa ka piyesa, Kuy, hatagan tika’g dyis,” my father would tell me.

I got more motivated than ever. Getting 10 pesos was a good reward for me back then, coupled with the happiness of playing a piece. Whenever I mastered a piece, I couldn’t wait to play it during our evening family worships, always gleaming with pride and pleasure.

The piano, for me, was a way of life. I needed to practice every single day. A day without practice was a wasted day. There was one time when my little 54-key electric keyboard, bought from a surplus store, got broken and was not repaired for three months. Missing three months of practice was a very big deal for me, especially that I’d already claimed to be a pianist. So, like a good musician, I practiced without sounds. It was boring and dull, but I needed to keep my senses sharp and keep myself from, so to speak, accumulating rusts.

The year 2013 was one of the best years of my life. I started following the Boston Red Sox and watched them become the world champions in October, in that year. I also bought the very first book in my collection. It was also in that year that my parents finally managed to buy a real piano: a Trebel Vertigrand. I was also starting to play at our church as a substitute pianist. I’d always give the song leader, however, a list of the songs I could play.

It was all the same throughout the year: lessons, practice, play. I was always craving for more. I had the thirst for learning and playing the most difficult pieces. I wanted to be a concert pianist. I wanted people to see me at my best in a concert hall, just me and my piano up the stage. When I was in high school, if anyone asked me what I wanted to be, I would almost always answer, “Concert pianist.” Although I also wanted to be a pilot, I thought that it was too ambitious.

*

At the end of high school, like almost everyone, I had to pick a course for college. That was the moment my dream took a huge detour. My song changed from a major key to a minor key.

Gusto nako mag-music school, My,” I opened up to my mom.

Dili man na puwede kay dapat mag-professional jud ka,” my mom replied.

I couldn’t understand. Why couldn’t I follow my dream? Was it about the money? The nature of work? I couldn’t understand. Wasn’t music a profession?

My parents and I fought over it for some time. These fights were sometimes so bitter it could leave my mother crying.

Gusto ko ninyo mag-abogado kay gusto ninyo modato. Tanan wala ninyo nabuhat, ipabuhat ninyo sa ako,” I would blurt out sometimes.

My parents are both professionals. My mom is a registered pharmacist, and my dad is an engineer. I couldn’t understand them at all. Why didn’t they want me to become a professional pianist? Why couldn’t they let me chase after my dream?

Bitter and rejected, I followed them. I enrolled in the English program of Mindanao State University in our city. But still I continued my piano-playing. When I reached college, it all became too much. I knew I was running out of time.

*

I’d gone through many music teachers, but the last teachers I had were by far the most influential, as they were the ones I ran to when I was already mature enough to understand things.

The words of Ma’am Malou seemed like a distant echo: “Talented kaayo ka, Kurt, ba. Pag-apas sa akoa sa Cavite ha? Didto ka mag-school sa CUP.

Ma’am Marian introduced me to technical playing, improving my touch to the keys. She always emphasized that I should play with emotions, to harness them to enhance my performance. Our lessons were always filled with her friendly, albeit sometimes fierce, reminder to “keep it soft, don’t band the keyboard.” She pledged to help me enter a music school, even offering to give lessons for free.

Then came Ma’am Dianne, my last teacher, but the first one who encouraged me to finish my current degree first. “Tapusin mo na lang muna ‘yung degree mo. Tapos tutulungan kitang makarating sa Maynila.” She refined my skills and helped me in interpreting pieces according to the period they were composed and who composed them. She would help me with a condition: I must return to GenSan to help other aspiring musicians.

To each of them, I only had the same reply: “Sige, ma’am, apas ra ko sa inyo puhon.” I always said that with a reassuring smile.

*

I’ve always believed that I can do it and catch up with my former music teachers. But deep inside, downcast feelings engulf me. My mentors always support me, confident that I will follow their words. But at this rate, I know I’m already letting them down. I’m losing hope. I no longer have the fire that fueled me before. I remember my friends: Ate Jasmin and Kuya Sid. They want me to be music majors like them. I always thought that I could be like them. But that was before.

I can only hope that I could meet them someday, not as their student, but as their equal. I believe that no matter how skilled he/she is, an amateur pianist can never equal a professional one, except perhaps the gifted ones. But what a truly great day that would be: when my dream finally becomes a reality, when it’s time that my life transposed into a major key.

Sitting by the piano tonight, I remember the musical pieces I used to play. The night is young and quiet, a good time to play music. A sonatina by Clementi is a good piece to start. The first few notes are heavenly. Full of emotions, I close my eyes and play it by memory. Years of practice has imprinted that piece into my mind and body. It all feels like a blur, a glitch, a painful memory. I’ve lost my tempo, I’ve lost my tension. But still, with my eyes closed, fingers bumping each other every once in a while, I tap away on the piano keys.