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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Editors and Contributors

GUEST EDITOR

Jade Mark B. Capiñanes earned his bachelor’s degree in English at Mindanao State University in General Santos City. He has been a fellow for essay at the 2016 Davao Writers Workshop and the 2017 University of Santo Tomas National Writers Workshop. His “A Portrait of a Young Man as a Banak” won third prize at the Essay Category of the 2017 Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature.

REGULAR EDITORS

Jude Ortega is a short story writer from Senator Ninoy Aquino, Sultan Kudarat. He has been a fellow in two regional and four national writers workshops. In 2015, he received honorable mention at the inaugural F. Sionil José Young Writers Awards. His short story collection Seekers of Spirits is forthcoming from the University of the Philippines Press.

M.J. Cagumbay Tumamac is a writer for children and reading advocate.

CONTRIBUTORS

Rio Alma is the pen name of National Artist for Literature Virgilio S. Almario. He is a poet, critic, translator, editor, teacher, and cultural manager. He is currently the chairman of the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts.

Mark Angeles was a writer-in-residence of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa in the United States in 2013. He is the author of the children’s books Si Znork, Ang Kabayong Mahilig Matulog and Si Andoy, Batang Tondo, the short story collection Gagambeks at mga Kuwentong Waratpad, and the poetry books Emotero, Patikim, and Threesome. He received awards for his works from Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino, Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Foundation for Literature, and Philippine Board on Books for Young People.

Rogelio Braga is a playwright, fictionist, and essayist born and raised in Manila. Among his notable works on theater are “Ang Mga Mananahi,” “Ang Bayot, Ang Meranao, at ang Habal-Habal sa Isang Nakababagot na Paghihintay sa Kanto ng Lanao del Norte,” “So Sanggibo a Ranon na Piyatay o Satiman a Tadman,” and “Mas Mabigat ang Liwanag sa Kalungkutan.” His short stories appeared in various publications such as TOMAS and Ani. He was a fellow for fiction at the UST, Ateneo, and UP national writers workshops and for Art Criticism at J. Elizalde Navarro National Writers Workshop for Criticism in the Arts and Humanities.

Reparado B. Galos III is a poet and lawyer. He was a fellow at the Linangan sa Imahen, Retorika, at Anyo’s poetry clinic in 2006 and became a member of the group in 2007. His poetry collection in Filipino won first prize at the Maningning Miclat Poetry Awards in 2015.

Jeric F. Jimenez is a graduate of AB Filipinolohiya at Polytechnic University of the Philippines–Sta. Mesa in Manila. He has taught in elementary, junior high school, senior high school, and college. His short stories are included in the anthologies Piglas: Antolohiya ng mga Kuwentong Pambata and Saanman: Mga Kuwento sa Biyahe, Bagahe, at Balikbayan Box.

Johanna Michelle Lim is a brand strategist, creative director, and travel writer based in Cebu City. She was a fellow at the 54th Silliman University National Writers Workshop and is the author of What Distance Tells Us, a collection of travel essays.

Bernadette V. Neri writes fiction and plays and teaches creative writing at the Department of Filipino and Philippine Literature, University of the Philippines–Diliman. She is the author of the children’s book Ang Ikaklit sa Aming Hardin. She is originally from Gabaldon, Nueva Ecija.

Jose Victor Peñaranda was a poet and community development practitioner. He was the author of the poetry collections Voyage in Dry Season (Sipat Publishing), Pilgrim in Transit (Anvil Publishing), and Lucid Lightning (UST Publishing). He received awards for his poetry from the Carlos Palanca Memorial Foundation for Literature, Manila Critics Circle, Philippines Free Press Award, Unyon ng mga Manunulat sa Pilipinas, and Philippines Graphic’s Nick Joaquin Literary Awards. He was born in Manila in 1953 and passed away in 2017.

Ralph Jake T. Wabingga is a college instructor and used to be a writer and producer for television. He was a fellow for fiction at the Davao Writers Workshop in 2017. He is from Sulop, Davao del Sur.