As the year ends, we reaffirm our commitment to be a venue of the best literary works in the region. The works that we have in this issue—one essay, two short stories, three poems, and one play—are finely crafted and satisfying in both substance and form. Some of them are from writers who have carved out a name for themselves, and the rest are from new voices discovered in local literary undertakings. No particular theme holds the works together, but each of them gives you a glimpse of, and even immerses you fully in, the complexities of life in this part of the country.

In the Filipino essay “Aden Bon Besen Uyag-Uyag” (May Buhay Pa Pala), Mubarak Tahir looks back on his childhood in Datu Piang, Maguindanao, and how the fighting between insurgents and government troops affected his community and shaped the way he views the world. Tahir is a much-needed voice in our literature. Our narrative on the armed conflict in Mindanao have been dominated by voices from one side. Here is an opportunity to hear “the other side,” and then perhaps see that there are no sides to the story, that we all have the same story. The essay won the third prize at the 2017 Palanca Awards, and it is an honor for Cotabato Literary Journal to be its first venue of publication.

“Heneral” by Estrella Taño Golingay is a coming-of-age story set in Surallah, South Cotabato, the writer’s hometown. It tells of a boy who eagerly takes care of the family’s hog so that once it is sold, his parents might be persuaded to buy him a basketball and a secondhand cellphone—sources of great joy for an ordinary lad like him. Golingay, an award-winning poet, rarely writes fiction, so we are delighted to bring you something new from her.

“Tagu-taguan,” a Filipino flash fiction by Blesselle Fiel, is the winner of the 2017 South Cotabato Fiction Contest. The young writer has created a simple and well-structured story to remind us of the dark times that we are living in. The bodies on the streets are piling up, and the voices against the carnage are getting stronger by the day, but most Filipinos choose not to see and listen. Stories like Fiel’s must be told over and again. Always, people must ask, Who is the criminal, and who is the victim?

“San Gerardo and the Exocoetidae” by Gerald Galindez is the winner of the 2017 Cotabato Province Poetry Contest. An ode to the flying fish, the poem is the breather that we need from the barrage of saccharine rhymes that our young writers seem so fond of today. Similar somewhat to Saint Francis of Assissi, the speaker exalts animals for the inspiration that they can give human beings: “You hid your pains inside your scales so I could live / You let me swim, you let me breathe.” We hope to gather more pieces like this, for local and even Philippine literature have a dearth of works about the sea, even if our region has a shoreline that stretches for hundreds of kilometers and our country is made up of more than seven thousand islands.

Both “Cotabato” by Allen Samsuya and “Sometimes on the Road to Kidapawan” by Paul Randy Gumanao have appeared before in Dagmay: The Literary Journal of the Davao Writers Guild. We are republishing the poems here because they were born of deep longing for Cotabato Region. They were written when Samsuya and Gumanao were studying in Davao City and home was something they would only go back to occasionally. In Samsuya’s poem, the speaker seems dismissive at first of Cotabato City, describing it as a place where “we have nothing better to do,” but we learn eventually that the humdrum of the city may be a redeeming quality. The poem won the first place at the Jimmy Y. Balacuit Literary Awards given to the fellows of the 2011 Iligan National Writers Workshop. In Gumanao’s poem, the speaker yearns for home and for someone to go home to. In lean, fluid language, the young master shows us yet again how love poetry should be.

In “Pagda-dwaya,” a Filipino one-act play by Norman Ralph Isla, a Muslim woman finds herself in a frustrating situation—her husband, the man who promised her that she would be the only woman in his life, is taking a second wife. The first wife feels that she has so much to lose in the arrangement and nothing to gain, and naturally we commiserate with her. But as the story unfolds, as we learn more about the Islamic practice, and as we know the characters better, our view gradually changes.

With these seven literary works, we bid 2017 goodbye. It has been an abundant year for the region’s literature; nearly a hundred poems, stories, essays, and plays appeared in this journal. In those works, through imagination and re-imagination, our local writers have shown readers how the people here view our own region and the rest of the world. We thank all the supporters, readers, contributors, and former editors. With the harvest that we’ve had this year, we feel confident that 2018 will be another great year.


Jude Ortega
Senator Ninoy Aquino, Sultan Kudarat


Introduction to Issue 14

Since midnight, the girl had been telling us that she had a third eye, and right at that moment, she said she could see something in the darkness, across the street and under a tree. I turned my head and, just as I expected, saw nothing but harmless shadows. I don’t believe in supernatural beings. I believe instead that science can explain everything, or at least it eventually will. I am not afraid of supernatural beings. But having panic disorder, I am afraid of so many other things.

For me, the girl should not be afraid of the things that she is afraid of, for they do not exist in the first place. In the same way, for her, and for most people, I shouldn’t be afraid of the things that I am afraid of, for even if they exist, they’re not as harmful as my mind perceives them. I get panic attacks whenever I get afraid of death and whenever I get afraid of getting insane, and I get panic attacks whenever I get afraid of having panic attacks. In other words, I’m afraid of being afraid.

Others may feel grateful for not having a third eye or panic disorder, but as the works in this issue show, fear comes in various forms and affects our lives more than we can see or we are willing to admit. The five stories and four poems help us examine our fears—as individuals, as Filipinos, and as human beings.

“Koronadal Horror Story” by Matt S. F. Jones of Banga, South Cotabato, is about a young man who suddenly experiences all sorts of horrifying things one night. The Hiligaynon story is an ongoing series in Jones’s Facebook timeline, and excerpted for this journal is the part where the young man sees something creepy in an eatery and encounters a maniacal old man in a street. Unabashedly genre, peppered with banters, and written in the eclectic language of young Ilonggos of Mindanao, the story is a fun kind of scare.

In Jones’s story, seeing an albularyo, or a folk healer, is hinted at as a possible solution to the narrator’s nightmares. In “Fireflies” by Adonis Hornoz of Isulan, Sultan Kudarat, a child with an affliction is actually taken to an albularyo. The story shows that our fears are not always relieved or resolved. When we are bound to our cultural beliefs and limited by our economic capability, the solution that we seek for our nightmare may only give us a worse nightmare.

A nightmare may also be disguised as a blessing. In “Nowheresville,” a work-in-progress by Jonathan Susvilla of Isulan, Sultan Kudarat, a man finds himself gifted with an extraordinary ability one day. Instead of having a more meaningful life, or at least an easier one, he is faced with difficult choices. We are often afraid of making decisions, especially when we think of ourselves more than we think of others. And we are more afraid of what we can do than of what we can’t do.

Fear can be stronger than any other feeling. In the flash fiction “How I Remember Us” by Gian Carlo Licanda of Maasim, Sarangani Province, the narrator’s most poignant memory of a lover is not when they were happiest but when they were about to part ways. We are all afraid of being left by our loved ones. We are all afraid of being alone.

Some loved ones leave us, and some are taken away from us. It’s difficult to tell which is worse. In “Mithi,” an excerpt from a Filipino novel by Boon Kristoffer Lauw of General Santos City, readers witness the horror a family goes through in a time of martial law. The narrator’s mother is a subversive, and in search of her, military men barge into her home and forces her family to reveal her whereabouts. The scene shows what a totalitarian regime can do to innocent civilians.

Like Lauw’s story, the poems in this issue deal with our fear of those who are more powerful than us. No one specific is mentioned in “Hide and Seek” by John Dominic Arellano of Tacurong City, Sultan Kudarat, but the source of fear must be someone close to the narrator, someone who is part of both his past and his present. Some people in our lives are constant sources of fear, but due to our ties with them, to our lack of will to be free, to things that are beyond our control, or to their other, redeeming qualities, we sometimes have to go on living with them and bear the suffering that they are causing us.

In “War” and “Death by Fear,” both by David Jayson Oquendo of Polomolok, South Cotabato, the source of fear is obviously the government, but being held accountable are the people who support the government. The so-called war on drugs of the current administration has resulted to thousands of deaths, including those of innocent ones. No one is safe anymore. Anyone can be a victim of mistaken identity or of corrupt men in uniform.

“Karinderya,” a Filipino spoken word poem by Kiel Mark Guerrero of Tacurong City, Sultan Kudarat, is also about extrajudicial killings, but the blame is put directly on the country’s draconian ruler. Many Filipinos catapulted him to power due to their hatred and fear of criminality. As a result, however, instead of providing comfort and protection, he became a new source of fear, especially for the poor. The authorities have yet to provide a proof to the public that they have brought down a big-time syndicate, while every day, slippers-wearing pushers and runners are gunned down in alleys.

The literary works in this issue can help us understand our own fears. But more importantly perhaps, they can help us acknowledge and understand the fears of others. We all have fears, and we have different fears, and even if they’re the same, we have different ways of dealing with them.

The others, aside from me, also turned and looked at the tree across the street, where the girl said she could see something. The others, like me, must have also not seen anything, or were too inebriated to be spooked by anything. Most of us remained quiet, but I was breathing deeply, making myself calm. Unbeknown to my companions, I was having a panic attack right at that moment. I was seeing a different kind of ghost. It’s a part of me. It dwells in me.

Jude Ortega
Senator Ninoy Aquino, Sultan Kudarat


A Year of a Hundred Little Steps

Kiel Mark Guerrero, a nineteen-year-old college student, leans close to the microphone and tells the audience, “The title of my poem is ‘Carinderia.’” It must be about promiscuity, I think right away. It must be about someone who entertains suitors and lovers the way a cheap eatery caters to everyone who wants to eat. Guerrero, after all, a regular in local spoken word events, is known for pieces that are by turns dramatic, amusing, and suggestive.

The poem starts with a mother, not a lover: Nakahilera / Ang mga putaheng luto ni ina / Para sa pananghalian / Sa harap ng aming munting tindahan. In the next lines, the mother remains the focus of the poem: Si inay / Binubugaw / Ang mga langaw. I wait for the transition to, or appearance of, the narrator’s lover, and Guerrero continues: Si inay / Binubugaw ang mga batang hamog / Na pinipilit makisalo / At paulit-ulit nanghihingi ng dalawang limang piso. I can’t believe what I’m hearing. Guerrero is talking about street children begging for food and money. He’s not talking about love and promiscuity. The poem, apparently, is a poem about social issues and not the typical hugot—sentimental spoken word pieces about unrequited love or failed relationships—that I expected from the young poet.

The whole evening, and not just Guerrero’s performance, was a surprise to me. When the three-hour Hugot sa Kalye ended, I noted that seven of the fifteen performers, or nearly half, had non-hugot poems. Gabrielle Corine Torato opened the event with a poem about suicide and depression. Aldrick Lawrence Velasco followed her with a poem about nature and salvation. Dan Zapanta Rivera, like Guerrero, dared the audience to take a stand on political issues. And John Efrael Igot, Justice Jelojos, and Iris Saqueño spoke about language and nationalism. This is a far cry from one year ago, in Hugot Marbel, the first spoken word event in the city. In that event, all of the nearly twenty open mic performers, including Guerrero, talked about their crushes who ignored them, their boyfriends or girlfriends who did not value them, and their exes who had hurt them.

There is nothing wrong, of course, with writing about love—ah, love is a wondrous thing to feel and share about with others—but definitely, it is not healthy if all young writers, spoken word poets or otherwise, write about the same thing and in the same way. While my co-organizers and I label most of our poetry events “Hugot” to attract as much audience as the venue can accommodate, we always share our own non-hugot writings, and we have been hoping for (not imposing on) the open mic performers to explore themes other than the usual. Now many of them do, by their own decision or influenced by the literary writings they’ve been exposed to. Their definition of love has expanded from romantic to patriotic. The purpose of their poems is evolving from self-expression to social action.

Helping some spoken word artists become woke, as evident in Hugot sa Kalye, is one of the many things that we are proud to have accomplished and to be celebrating this month, the first anniversary of Cotabato Literary Journal. This online publication was launched in Hugot Marbel, and as I stated in the introduction to the maiden issue, the publication and the poetry event are “intertwined.” Both are part of “a literary wave . . . surging across the region.” Allow me now to recall what has transpired between Hugot Marbel and Hugot sa Kalye.

In its first twelve issues, Cotabato Literary Journal featured seventy-seven works from forty writers in the region, plus a profile of essayist Noel Pingoy by Kloyde Caday and a profile of Tboli storyteller Témê Damon by M.J. Cagumbay Tumamac. Some of the literary works, especially the award-winning ones from established writers, had been published before. We included them in this journal because they deserve to be accessed more easily by readers in the region. We also published award-winning works that had not appeared in other publications—the play “Killing the Issue” by Karlo Antonio David, the Filipino poem “Pananaginip kay Tud Bulul” by M.J. Cagumbay Tumamac, the story “Day of Mourning” by Jude Ortega, and the Hiligaynon story “Paborito ni Daddy” by Nal Andrea Jalando-on. Except for the first two issues, most of the works that appeared in this journal were published for the first time. One of them, “A Portrait of a Young Man as a Banak” by Jade Mark Capiñanes, which appeared in the January 2017 issue, eventually won the third prize in the Essay category of the 2017 Don Carlos Palanca Annual Memorial Awards.

This journal has so far lived up to its mission to be “a repository of the best works that writers from Cotabato Region have produced and a showcase as well of their best new works.” We are careful with our decisions, however. We do not want to be purveyors of elitism that seems to pervade the Philippine literary community. We welcomed writers who had not been published, most notably, Alvin Pomperada, Doren John Bernasol, Mariz Leona, Michael John Otanes, Hannah Adtoon Leceña, and John Gied Calpotura. We published each of them more than once. They are students or were still students when their bylines first appeared in this journal. And to further democratize literature, we created last month the Facebook page Sulat SOX, which aims to be a supplement to Cotabato Literary Journal. The page features shorter works.

Several editors worked for free to keep Cotabato Literary Journal running: Saquina Karla Guiam (September 2016–August 2017), M.J. Cagumbay Tumamac (October 2016–May 2017), Jude Ortega (September 2016–February 2017), Paul Randy Gumanao (March 2017–August 2017), Andrea Lim (June 2017–August 2017), and Jade Mark Capiñanes (June 2017–August 2017). Blaise Francisco of General Santos City, now based somewhere in Europe, takes care of the expenses for the domain name and hosting of this journal’s website.

To discover more voices, we organized province-wide writing contests, and although no winner  and finalists were declared for the South Cotabato Poetry Contest, the results were encouraging in the two others. John Gied Calpotura, a high school student in Tacurong City, won the Sultan Kudarat Fiction Contest. The three flash fictions that were selected as finalists turned out to be all his, and the prize was given to “Shoebox,” which appeared in the July 2017 issue of this journal. Spencer Pahang, a senior high school student in Kidapawan City, won the Cotabato Province Essay Contest, and his piece, “Better this Way,” was published in the August 2017 issue of this journal. Mayamen Hashmin, a college student, and Ira Shayne Salvaleon, a senior high school student, were the other finalists.

To help aspiring writers hone their skills and to help students become more familiar with local literature, we conducted workshops and seminars. With Generoso Opulencia, an award-winning and multilingual local poet, we organized the South Cotabato Poetry Workshop in Refuge Café in Koronadal City. The workshop ran for three hours every Saturday from October to November 2016. Opulencia mentored the ten participants for free. With Erwin Cabucos, an award-winning short story writer who grew up in Kabacan and is now living in Australia, we organized the Cotabato Province Creative Writing Seminar on April 10, 2017. Cabucos, along with four local writers, gave free lectures to more than a hundred students of the University of Southern Mindanao. With the help of Michael Angelo Yambok, a coordinator of the National Commission on Culture and the Arts, we organized Smulat: Short Story Writing Workshop for Teens on June 2–3, 2017, in SLT Homestay in Lake Sebu, South Cotabato. Seven local writers mentored the twelve participants. Sharmin Tanael’s “Kukum,” one of the best output of the workshop, appears in the current issue of this journal.

Four award-winning writers from outside the region granted our invitations to share their knowledge with us. Jose Victor Peñaranda, a poet who has worked in many countries, visited General Santos City on December 16, 2016, and gave a private lecture to several local writers in Hotel San Marco. Wilfredo Pascual, an essayist who lives in the United States, gave a talk at the SM Activity Center in General Santos City on February 20, 2017. Manuel Avenido Jr., a fictionist who writes in Cebuano, met with local writers in Namnam Restobar in General Santos City on May 14, 2017, for an interview and a poetry reading. Edgar Calabia Samar, a poet and novelist who writes in Filipino, gave a lecture at Mindanao State University in General Santos City on August 24, 2017, and at St. Alexius College in Koronadal City, South Cotabato, on August 26, 2017.

Spurred by an invitation to the 3rd Iloilo Zine Fest on August 26–27, 2017, we created several zines. David Jayson Oquendo edited Pioneer, which contains works by ten young writers from General Santos City, and Alvin Pomperada and Hannah Adtoon Leceña edited Alaala ng Paglimot, which contains spoken word poems from twelve writers in the region. Individual zines include M.J. Cagumbay Tumamac’s Kailangan, Paul Randy Gumanao’s Hiwalayan, Andrea D. Lim’s So Far, Princess Alilaya Plang’s Ikaw, Ako, at Pag-ibig, and Jude Ortega’s Mga Kuwentong Peysbuk.

We’ve been using different approaches and platforms to help promote and develop local literature, but we are known most for our Hugot spoken word events, and other writers have been throwing shade on us for catering to popular taste. We are unapologetic about it. We do not want to shape local literature according to the standards and whims of the literati. We are not looking for talents who can make it to national writers workshops, win literary awards, or be published by mainstream and university presses. (Although if that happens, we will be glad.) What we want is for the people in our region to read our own writers and for our writers to write about our region. If Manila and other regions like Cotabato writing, it should be because Cotabato writing is distinct, not because it suits their taste. And if the best way to achieve this goal is by using the popularity of hugot, then use the popularity of hugot we will. We have to start somewhere.

On September 2, 2016, we conducted Hugot Marbel at 99 Brewery in Koronadal City, South Cotabato. On the 30th of the same month, we conducted Hugot Tacurong at Woodland Restobar in Tacurong City, Sultan Kudarat, and on the 20th of the following month, we conducted Hugot Kidapawan at Porticus Restobar in Kidapawan City, Cotabato Province. We organized two more spoken word events in Sultan Kudarat—Hugot Isulan in the capital town on December 2, 2016, and Hugot Kulaman in Senator Ninoy Aquino on February 14, 2017, during the municipality’s foundation anniversary celebration. The two events, sponsored by the local governments and held in front of the municipal halls, were staged as contests. Gerlie Cariño, Bryant Lee Morales, and Hanna Mae Bautista won the first, second, and third prizes, respectively, in Hugot Isulan. Jeraicca Keith Facturanan, Chem Aubrey Tanquerido, and Jonary Dejongoy won the first, second, and third prizes, respectively, in Hugot Kulaman.

On July 9, 2017, in partnership with the Provincial Tourism Council of South Cotabato and in celebration of the province’s foundation anniversary, we conducted Hugot Tnalak at the parking area of South Cotabato Sports Complex, along Alunan Avenue, in Koronadal City. So many performers registered that we had to organize a second part of the event on July 16, 2017, this time in partnership with 99 Brewery. The council again invited us in its celebration of Tourism Month, so we conducted Hugot sa Kalye on September 10, 2017, in the same venue as the first Hugot Tnalak. Whenever the Hugot event was held in a restobar, the venue would always be filled to overflowing, and the size of the crowd never failed to amaze us even if we had seen it time and again.

We had traditional, intimate poetry readings, of course. When the South Cotabato Poetry Workshop ended, on November 19, 2016, we conducted Poetry Jam at Refuge Café. For Bonifacio Day on November 30, 2016, we conducted Para kay Boni at 99 Brewery in General Santos City on the eve of the celebration and then Pag-ibig sa Tinubuang Lupa at Refuge Café and iRock Café in Koronadal City on the day of the celebration itself. On April 30, 2017, the eve of Labor Day, we conducted Night Shift in Namnam Restobar in General Santos City.

For us to manage well our activities, we selected interim officers for areas that our network has reached. In Cotabato Province, Kloyde Caday served as chairperson and Ericka Jan Gadat as secretary. In Sultan Kudarat, Adonis Hornoz served as chairperson, Jude Ortega as vice chairperson, and Trexie Gina Salmeo Sy as secretary. In South Cotabato, Ruben Castañares III served as chairperson, Louie Pacardo as vice chairperson, and Rose Vannelou Ramos as secretary. In General Santos City, Saquina Karla Guiam served as chairperson and Jade Mark Capiñanes as secretary. We did some reshuffling recently to keep the local associations dynamic. Also with us in our activities were David Jayson Oquendo, Rossel Audencial, Jesse Angelo Altez, Ken Rix Baldoza, Genory Vanz Alfasain, Alvin Pomperada, Michael Suplaag, Jim Raborar, and M.J. Cagumbay Tumamac. Lastly, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the elder writers who had been patient with and supportive of us—Noel Pingoy, Gilbert Tan, Generoso Opulencia, Rita Gadi, Estrella Taño Golingay, and Rufa Cagoco Guiam.

Even if the activities were held in specific areas, the writers of the other areas almost always helped out. We moved as a region. We took the steps together, so even if they were little steps, they accumulated and amounted to a leap.

Kiel Mark Guerrero’s “Carinderia” gets overtly political as it further unfolds. An unusual customer arrives. His clothes are formal and immaculate (Nakasuot ng puting barong / Walang bahid ng mantsa ng kasinungalingan / Puro papuri’t kalinisan). The reference for me is clear. The man is a politician from Mindanao who shookt imperial Manila with his overwhelming victory in the national elections, due largely to his reputation for being incorruptible and his promise of true change. Soon, for the narrator of the poem, as it has been for the country, the impressive man does something sinister (Inani pati ang aking respeto / Hanggang siya’y nagturo).

The man points at several dishes on display, and the poem gets grimmer and grimmer, until the man points at the literally bloody dish that no doubt fits his appetite most: At itinuro mo ang dinuguan / Ano’ng nangyari sa Perlas ng Silangan? . . . Nagdanak sa bawat sulok ang dugo / Itinapon ang mga katawan sa lahat ng dako. The man, though, is far from finished. He points at the father of the house ultimately, accusing him of possessing prohibited drugs: Si itay / Nakuhaan daw siya ng bato. And the narrator cries against the selective justice: Doon ka magturo sa mamahaling kainan / Doon naman nababagay ang iyong kasuotan. The poem ends with a hackneyed saying that now becomes layered given the context: Pakakatandaan mo, sa bawat pagturo ng iyong hintuturo, mas maraming daliri ang bumabalik sa ’yo.

The poem is dark, and made darker by the fact that it is a reflection of our current reality. We are ruled by a mad man, and we are living in a divided land. Our bodies are fired up, but our souls are lost. It’s ironic, though. While the poem reminds me that the pall of gloom on our streets gets thicker by the day, it gives me hope. It’s a ray of light.


Jude Ortega
Koronadal City, South Cotabato



Issue 5 Introduction

It is widely acknowledged that Filipinos are family-oriented, and this trait can’t be more evident than this time of year. For most of us, Christmas Eve is best spent with our parents, in our childhood home, New Year’s Day should be spent with our immediate family in our current residence, and the vacation time between the two major celebrations is the best date to hold family reunions. Thus, for this issue of Cotabato Literary Journal, we deemed it fitting to feature works that deal with home and family; however, most of the works that we were able to gather go beyond, and even against, the portrait of family as usually depicted in greeting cards and noche buena advertisements.

Jade Mark Capiñanes’s essay, “The Portrait of a Young Man as a Banak,” is about the places that he has lived in—Davao City, Polomolok in South Cotabato, and General Santos City—and the struggles that his family have gone through, the same struggles that caused him to live in those different places. Capiñanes observes that the banak, the peculiar fish that would sometimes appear in the community where he grew up, have become mere visitors to the place that was named after them. The fish have, in a manner of speaking, become strangers to their own home, and Capiñanes’s jouney in life so far parallels the banak’s unusual migratory behavior. In a lucid and engaging language, the young writer deftly weaves the different locations, the past and the present, the exposition and the rumination. He may still be in search of an actual home, but talentwise, he seems to have found it in writing.

Noel Pingoy, an oncologist in General Santos City, is known for his poignant essays related to his profession, but for this issue, we decided to feature his writings that show other sides of him. In “Other Disclosures,” a suite of short essays, he writes about—and for—his family, his friends, and Koronadal City, his hometown. Permeating the pieces are universal values that Pingoy holds dear and readers would do well to embrace or at least ponder upon, especially in this age where, through social media, anyone can express an opinion and any opinion can become a mantra of millions. Pingoy’s pieces here are more straightforward than his lengthier essays about his life as a doctor, but the trademark warmth and eloquence are ever present.

Mariz Leona’s “Uma,” the only fiction we have for this issue, is set in Lambayong, Sultan Kudarat, the young writer’s hometown. The story is about a rural family facing the effects of technological advancement. The change is rather simple—a mobile harvesting machine is procured and rented out by someone of better means in the neighborhood—but for a family whose main source of income is the father’s daily wage as a farm laborer, the effects are devastating. The story could easily degenerate into a melodrama and overt excoriation of technology and small-scale capitalism, but with a sensibility that seems advanced for her age, Leona handles the plot and characters with subtlety and makes the story more about resilience. She also has quite an ear for dialogue, capturing with precision the kind of Hiligaynon that is spoken here in Cotabato Region.

In “Early Morning in Surallah,” Estrella Taño Golingay shows once more why she is one of the foremost female poets in the region. At the start, the poem appears to be about a humdrum routine or a touching moment with a loved one, but it turns out to be about memories in the past that creep their way to the present. The setting may be a specific town in South Cotabato, but readers from anywhere else in the region would feel the same unease, for our own hometowns cast similar shadows in our lives.

Andrea Lim’s “Homesickness” encapsulates the longing for our family all of us must have felt—if not right now, in the past; if not frequently, at least once. The terse language of the poem is only apt, for indeed, homesickness doesn’t always have to be cured, or it may not be cured at all. The young poet surely knows the subject, for she has known and left several homes, having been a resident of several cities, including General Santos.

Whether you are yearning to be home or you are yearning for a home, the works in this issue will speak with you like a family member who understands. Literature, after all, is meant to help us make sense of life, and Cotabato Literary Journal is meant to address the more specific concerns of the people in our region. This is our fifth issue, and for the past five months, this online publication has become home to excellent pieces from local writers, and maybe to the writers themselves and the readers as well. For the new year, we hope to make the family bigger. Fate chooses our homes for us or takes away our homes from us. Let’s have one of our own choosing, and let’s keep the hearth burning.

Jude Ortega
Senator Ninoy Aquino, Sultan Kudarat

Issue 3 Introduction

We believe we’re on the right track. We have been making good on our promises, as laid out in the introduction to the maiden issue of this online literary journal.

After the public poetry reading in General Santos on July 29, similar events have been conducted in Koronadal (September 2), Tacurong (September 30), and Kidapawan (October 20), and preparations are being made for Cotabato. Soon we will have brought poetry closer to all the five cities of the region.

In the areas where poetry readings have been conducted, we have also selected interim officers to take care of recruitment and other literature-related undertakings. The officers have facilitated some activities, the most notable of which is the ongoing South Cotabato Poetry Workshop, an eight-session course for ten aspiring poets, taught by award-winning multilingual poet Generoso Opulencia.

And this literary journal, of course, continues to be a reliable venue for the best new works of local writers. This issue features six poems, two each from veteran writers Estrella Taño Golingay and Generoso Opulencia and one each from young poets Florence Jay Salcedo and Adonis Hornoz. Golingay’s “Trail” and Hornoz’s “Little Statue” are distinctly Mindanawon, while the other works have universal themes. Also included in this issue is a story from Jude Ortega. “Day of Mourning” was one of the top five winners in a 2015 nationwide short story competition that received 176 entries.

This issue, the third, is leaner than the first two because we have gathered before most of the winning works of Cotabato writers and we are focusing on discovering new voices, but we are well within our goal, which is to feature works from at least five writers every month. Expect the coming issues to contain a similar number of poems and stories.

We are grateful to our contributors for their trust in us. We are likewise thankful to the more or less five hundred individuals who have attended our poetry readings, especially the nearly one hundred open mike performers. They surprise us each time. Lastly, we thank the managements of our venues—DG’s Restobar in General Santos, 99 Brewery in Koronadal, Woodland Restobar in Tacurong, and Porticus Restobar in Kidapawan for the poetry readings and Refuge Cafe in Koronadal for the poetry workshop.

Months ago, most of us have been strangers. Now we are no doubt a community—brought together by literature, contributing whatever each one can to literature. We must really be on the right track.

Jude Ortega
Isulan, Sultan Kudarat

Day of Mourning

By Jude Ortega

(An earlier version of this story received honorable mention at the 2015 F. Sionil José Young Writers Awards.)

Gayang wakes to the howling of dogs at one or two in the morning. She gets down the bed, moving slowly so as not to disturb her sleeping grandson, and goes to the kitchen, where she drinks a glass of water. The dogs out on the street keep howling. She’s certain that the noise also bothers her neighbors, but while she wants to throw stones at the animals to quiet them, her neighbors wouldn’t. They would not step into the darkness outside. They’re Ilonggos, and as such, most of them believe that there’s an aswang around whenever dogs howl.

She doesn’t find the belief of her neighbors strange or laughable. In fact, she wishes right now that she belonged to their tribe, for if she were to interpret the noise based on the beliefs of her own tribe, she would have a greater cause for worry—something much more common and real than aswangs. As a Maguindanaon, she grew up believing that whenever dogs howl, they’re telling human beings that someone close to them has just passed away.

She puts the empty glass on the sink. The water hasn’t helped at all. Her heart is still racing. She thinks of her son in Mamasapano. He’s the only person whom she might have lost. He’s the last person who could be taken away from her. Her husband and her other sons have been taken away before.

The noise outside dies down. She goes back to the only bedroom of the small house and lies beside her eight-year-old grandson. She holds him close to her, still thinking of her son, the boy’s father. The howling of the dogs has not been the first indication of what might have happened to her son. The dogs have only reinforced the fear that has been gnawing her since the other day, when the news came out that government forces had an “encounter” with separatist rebels in a town in Maguindanao. The news shocked the nation, and continues to shock as more information about the incident is revealed. More than forty have been killed on the government’s side, allegedly outnumbered and ambushed by the rebels, and this happened at a time when the peace talks are coming to what most Filipinos thought a successful conclusion.

The news has not mentioned how many have been killed, if any, on the side of the Muslim rebels. It seems to Gayang that the rebels are being portrayed as cold-blooded killers who pounced on innocent prey. One part of her wishes it were true so that she wouldn’t have to worry about her son. But she knows better. The government forces have not been sleeping or eating supper in their headquarters when they were killed. They were in the rebel’s territory on a mission. They were armed, and they most likely attacked with speed, without any warning. She knows how these things go, even if she’s just an ordinary civilian who sells homemade sweets in the public market of Tacurong. She knows because her family was living in Pikit when the Estrada administration declared an all-out war against Muslim rebels, fifteen years ago. She lived close to the heart of the battlefield.

At the earliest sign of light, she wakes up her grandson to take a bath.

“It’s too early, Grandma,” Amil complains, not rising from the bed, his eyes half-closed. “I still have enough time to sleep. I won’t be late.”

“You’re not going to school today,” says Gayang. “We’re going somewhere.”

Amil’s eyes open wide. He grins. She knows why he’s delighted. He doesn’t like going to school. He doesn’t like his classmates, who are mostly Ilonggos, who are mostly Christians. They’re not nice to him. He sometimes comes home red-faced in frustration or self-pity and with his uniform disheveled in some parts. She would always ask him what happened, and he would always answer, “Nothing.”

However, as suddenly as it came, the delight in the boy’s face disappears, replaced by a pall of suspicion. She also knows why. She can read his mind: Grandmother nags me every morning to wake up and move faster so that I won’t be late for school. There’s nothing else she wants me to do but go to school every day and learn to read fast and do numbers quick. There’s nothing special to this day. There’s something wrong.

Amil sits up and asks her, “Where are we going, Grandma?”

“To Mamasapano,” answers Gayang, pulling the boy’s shirt over his head.

“To Father?” he says, excited again.

“Stop asking so many questions.”

“Grandma,” he complains, “answer me.”

“I have something else to do there. I’m not sure if we can visit your father. Mamasapano is a big place, you know.”

“Oh why, Grandma?”

She doesn’t want the boy to expect anything because he might just be disappointed. However, neither has she the heart to deprive him of a little something to hope for. She sighs. “All right. I’ll see. If we have enough time, we’ll go visit your father.”

“Yes!” Amil exclaims, raising his arms in the air.

“Hurry now. It’s going to be a long trip. We have to ride a multicab to Isulan, a Town Ace to Maganoy, and a Honda to Mamasapano. We have to start early.”

Amil takes off his shorts and, with just his underpants on, runs to the pump at the back of the house.

At the terminal to Isulan, Gayang and Amil find the first multicab in the queue almost full already. The national highway between Tacurong and Isulan is the busiest in Sultan Kudarat, so early passengers are not an unusual sight at the terminal. “Go to the front,” Gayang tells Amil at the door, at the rear of the vehicle; she spoke in Tagalog, not in Maguindanaon, as she always does whenever she’s out of the house.

Amil and Gayang inch their way between the rows of knees. Passengers of multicabs usually stay as close as possible to the door so that they can conveniently get out of the cramped vehicle, which means that if you’re among the last ones to get in, you have to stoop through the narrow path to the front. Gayang doesn’t mind the inconvenience this time. She’s taking the farthest seat anyway because it’s where she can have her grandson sit on her lap without disturbing the other passengers and without having to pay for him.

In less than five minutes, the multicab is full. The underage barker has cramped sixteen adults in it, fourteen in the two long seats at the back and two beside the driver at the front. As the vehicle rolls off the parking area, Amil falls asleep, his butt slumped on Gayang’s leg, his head leaning on her shoulder.

Gayang isn’t sure how exactly her fellow passengers came to talk about “what happened in Mamasapano.” She just noticed them exchanging information and opinions as though they’re longtime neighbors or friends. A middle-aged couple on the other seat must have been talking about it first, and then the woman beside Gayang chimed in. Soon, five or six of the passengers, speaking in Hiligaynon, are having a spirited conversation, fully aware that the rest can hear them.

“It’s a massacre,” the woman beside Gayang declares, as if she witnessed the incident herself. When the woman got into the multicab earlier, she was struggling with a large reed basket, which she put upright on the floor, between her legs. She gestures as she talks, letting go of the handles of the basket that she’s been clasping together. The mouth of the basket gapes wider, revealing more clearly the contents. Gayang finds out that the woman beside her is her Ilonggo counterpart. They have the same occupation. The basket contains the Ilonggo dessert suman, and the slices have the same size and are wrapped individually in a transparent plastic sheet, an obvious indication that they’re for sale. Instead of suman, though, Gayang makes the specialty of her own tribe, tinagtag. “It’s not an encounter,” the suman vendor adds. “It’s a massacre. The rebels killed the soldiers without mercy.”

“They’re not really soldiers,” says the man who has his wife with him. “They’re SAF—Special Action Forces. They’re part of the Philippine National Police. But yes, they’re not much different from military men.”

His wife beams with pride as she stares at her husband’s face, as if the information he knows makes him a cut above ordinary rumormongers. Her hand is clasped with his. Gayang finds their display of affection inappropriate, especially for their age. They appear to be in their forties, yet they’re acting as though they’re teenagers who have just started dating. “Pitiful men,” says the wife, running her fingers along her husband’s forearm. “Killed like their lives meant nothing. The rebels are just making a fool of the government, and the government doesn’t know any better. They should know that Muslims cannot be trusted.”

Gayang freezes on her seat. Obviously, her fellow passengers don’t have the slightest suspicion that she’s a Muslim. Not that they have a reason to. She looks just like them. Her blouse, the best that she has, worn just two or three times before, was from the bargain section of a local department store, and her secondhand yet brand-new-looking skirt was from an ukay-ukay stall in the public market. She has also decided not to wear a tandong today; she only covers her head when selling her product, as a protection from the sun and because customers seem to want it that way—they want their tinagtag authentic, cooked and sold by an obviously Maguindanaon woman. Moreover, Gayang has spoken to her grandson in Tagalog instead of Maguindanaon.

“They’ll never stop causing conflicts,” says the husband. “First, there was the MNLF. When the government signed an agreement with them, some of their members broke away and formed the MILF. Now that the government is having a peace talk with the MILF, another group has emerged, calling themselves BIFF. It will never end.”

Many of the other passengers murmur approval.

“That’s why to this day I remain loyal to Erap,” says the suman vendor. “Only he succeeded in making Mindanao peaceful.”

Gayang shudders. How dare this woman beside her proclaim her loyalty to the deposed president. What’s to admire in the former actor and his all-out war against the Moro separatists? Gayang lost a husband, two sons, and dozens of relatives in that war. She was there in the killing fields, going through the horror of it all, while the president was sitting in his palace in Manila or in bed with one of his mistresses, thinking the lives lost were just characters in the action movies he used to star in, and this suman vendor was in her house in Tacurong or Isulan watching everything unfold on her television, grieving for the handful of Christian soldiers who were killed and rejoicing about the hundreds of Muslim rebels who met the same fate.

“Noynoy is really abnoy,” says the wife, calling the current president feeble-minded. “He lets the Moros have things their way. Peace talks won’t get us anywhere. All-out war is the best solution to the problem here in Mindanao.”

“Yes, there should be an all-out war again,” says a male voice from the rear of the multicab. Gayang can’t see who it is because there are three or four persons between them. More disembodied voices agree. Soon, almost everyone seems to have joined the conversation, each one speaking loudly. Gayang can no longer distinguish if they’re simply trying to be heard over the rumbling of the engine or they’re carried away. She has not seen such a thing happen in a public transport before. Though it’s not unusual for a group of teenagers to be raucous, strangers normally don’t exchange more than a line or two. These people seem to be getting mad. Gayang suddenly fears for his grandson. They might hurt her and the boy if they find out they’re Muslims. She holds Amil closer to her. He has remained asleep despite the noise.

Gayang can’t wait to get out of the multicab, but she knows she has to endure the company of the Ilonggos for some ten minutes more. They’re milking the subject dry, but they show no sign of losing fervor. At some points, whenever it’s difficult to get the attention of the whole group, seatmates have their own one-on-one conversations. Their points are repetitive: The president is stupid. The troopers are pitiful. The rebels are evil. The Moro savages deserve nothing less than death. All the Ilonggos seem to share the same conviction, except for the girl of thirteen or fourteen sitting opposite Gayang. The girl, in jeans and a pink shirt, looks like she has not washed her face and combed her hair since she woke up that morning; she must have spent the night in someone else’s house. Inside the multicab, she’s lost in her own world. Her eyes are glued to her pink cellphone, her fingers moving furiously on the keypad. Every message she receives and composes seems to make her giggle. Every now and then, though, probably while waiting for a reply, she would look up from her cellphone and listen to the conversation of the other passengers, but before could be affected in any way by the passionate exchange of opinions, her phone would vibrate and she would withdraw again from the world around her.

Gayang is relieved a little that the unconcerned girl is seated in front of her. No one would wonder why she has not joined the conversation and expressed her own sentiments against Muslims. She’s fully relieved when she notices from the landscape that the multicab is already near Isulan and the trip will be over soon. The terminal of Town Aces bound for Maguindanao is near the traffic circle, and multicabs from Tacurong pass by the traffic circle before the public market, so Gayang and Amil will be getting off the vehicle ahead of the other passengers. Gayang lightly shakes the boy. “Wake up,” she whispers to him in Tagalog. He stirs.

When the multicab is near the traffic circle, Gayang knocks on the thick glass behind the driver. The vehicle pulls to the side and stops. Gayang shakes Amil more strongly. He opens his eyes and asks her in Maguindanaon, “Are we there yet, Grandma?”

The multicab is filled with silence, and the other passengers stare in surprise at Gayang and Amil. When the vehicle has been slowing down, the volume of the voices has also lowered, so many of the passengers heard Amil speak.

“No,” Gayang answers Amil, also in Maguindanaon since there’s no point now in keeping her ethnicity from the others. “We’re still in Isulan. Go down now.”

Amil obeys and walks between the queues of knees. The other passengers seem ashamed of the words that they uttered earlier. The wife buries her face behind the shoulder of her husband. The suman vendor pulls her large basket closer to her so that the boy can pass more easily. Indeed, how could they forget that there’s a good chance that at least one of their fellow passengers is a Muslim? Maguindanaons constitute a considerable portion of the population.

Gayang feels a little better upon sensing the remorse of the Christians. They’re not completely callous, after all. However, when Gayang looks at the teenage girl in front of her, she’s stumped to find the girl glaring at her. The girl stares at Gayang from head to toe and then up again. Gayang stands up and follows Amil out of the vehicle. She holds her grandson by the hand and walks to the front of the multicab to pay for her twenty-peso fare. It’s a relief for her that this is how passengers pay the driver in Isulan and Tacurong. She heard that in busier towns and cities, passengers pay while the vehicle is running and the passengers at the back have to hand their money to the passengers near the front. It would have required her to interact more with her fellow passengers.

Even when the multicab has left her and Amil, Gayang can still feel the stare of the teenage girl—she who has been busy texting all the time and who has seemed to not know or care enough about the issue. Why is the most ignorant the quickest to judge?

Gayang leads Amil to a Town Ace parked at the side of the road. Town Aces, which look like multicabs, only bigger, travels all the way to Cotabato City, but Gayang and Amil will ride only for the first half of the trip. They will get off in Sharif Aguak, and from there, Gayang and Amil will finally go to Mamasapano by riding a public utility motorcycle, called Honda by the locals regardless of the brand.

While the grandmother and grandson are waiting for the Town Ace to be filled, a female passenger remarks in Tagalog to no one in particular, “So it is true. They wrapped the round ball with a black cloth.”

Gayang and the other passengers look at the direction of the traffic circle. She can’t see what the woman is referring to. The very tall pedestal, made of intersecting arches, and the large statue of Sultan Kudarat on top are not covered in a black cloth. It takes a while for Gayang to notice the one-meter-high cloth wrapped around the base of the monument.

“It’s for PO2 Gregorio, one of the Fallen Forty-Four,” says a male passenger, also in Tagalog. “He’s from here.”

“It’s so sad,” says another female passenger. “They say he was supposed to marry his girlfriend this year. He was just twenty-three or twenty-four.”

Gayang feels uneasy. What happened in the multicab has been unpleasant, to say the least. She doesn’t want to go through it again, especially since the trip will be much longer now. It will take the Town Ace about an hour to reach Sharif Aguak. To Gayang’s relief, none of the other passengers seems keen on talking about the issue further. They probably don’t want to take the risk of offending anyone, for normally, those who are traveling to Cotabato City belong to different tribes and Muslims outnumber Christians.

At nine in the morning, Gayang and Amil are already in Barangay Tukalinapao in Mamasapano, standing in front of a hut beside the muddy road. A woman comes out of the hut. “Come in,” she says, staring at Gayang with anxiety and then at Amil with pity.

As soon as they’re inside the hut, Gayang says, “Do you know what happened, Warda?” Gayang feels that she doesn’t need to specify what she wants to know.

Warda shakes her head. “No. I can’t tell you anything, Gayang. You have to ask Rakman about that.” Rakman is Warda’s husband and Gayang’s cousin. He’s a local commander of the Moro rebels.

“Where is he?” Gayang asks.

“I’ll send for him.” Warda calls one of her children and gives him instructions. The child leaves running through the backdoor. “He won’t be back right away,” Warda tells Gayang. “Let’s have coffee first.”

The two women have coffee while watching the children play. Warda is much younger than Gayang and Rakman, and her children are still kids. That’s because she’s Rakman’s third wife. She points at Amil and tells Gayang, “Is that your grandson? He’s so big now.”

“Yes,” says Gayang. “He’s already in grade two.”

“Any news from his mother?”

“No. She left the boy to me when he wasn’t even a year old. She said she was just going to Gensan to look for work. I haven’t heard from her since. Someone told me last year, though, that she’s in Manila.”

Warda shakes her head. “Young Muslims nowadays,” she says, though she’s only a few years older than Gayang’s son. “They live together and part ways without any formal marriage and divorce. They’ve been influenced by Christians.”

It occurs to Gayang that Warda herself has been influenced by Christians. Warda did not marry Rakman until he built her a hut of her own beside the road, away from the first two wives, who live in the same hut in the hills. She’s more like a mistress than a third wife. Gayang, however, doesn’t say anything about this to Warda. “I can’t blame the girl, Warda,” she says instead. “She wanted to be married to my son, but we couldn’t give her family any dowry, and after she gave birth to my grandson, my son left her and decided to stay here in Mamasapano. Anyway, I don’t think much about it now. I’m just happy that I have a grandson to keep me company.”

The two women sip their coffee in silence. There isn’t really anything much that they can talk about. They barely know each other. Gayang seldom comes here in Mamasapano. It’s her son who visits her and Amil in Tacurong every two or three months.

When their mugs have been emptied, Warda excuses herself to prepare for lunch. After putting on the fire a pot that contains rice and water, she returns to Gayang. It has been an hour since Gayang and Amil arrived, and there’s still no sign of Rakman. The young messenger hasn’t come back also. “Rakman must be attending to something,” says Warda. “But he’ll be here for sure. He’ll find time for you.”

“Is he in your farm?” Gayang asks.

“No. With what happened, none of the people here will be doing what they ordinarily do. No one will be looking after their farms for days and even weeks. Rakman must be in his other house, where his first and second wives live. I told my son to look for his father there. My husband has been going there frequently since the other day, and of course, it’s not to sleep with those two hags. He meets his fellow commanders there. They’re probably planning what to do next. I heard the Justice secretary is coming over to investigate.”

“What about my son? Where is he? You must know something, Warda.”

“I can’t tell you what I don’t know for sure, Gayang. Your son has his own hut in our farm, and I heard he stays often in a camp or something. I don’t get to monitor his whereabouts. Only my husband can answer your questions.”

“You must have heard the shots.”

“I did. It went on the whole day, although not constantly. There would be silence for a few hours, and whenever I thought it had ended, it would start again. I even packed some of our stuff, in case we had to evacuate. I really wish I could tell you if your son was there or not, Gayang. But I know nothing much. In a place like this, it’s better to know nothing than to be good at keeping secrets. I avoid getting involved in Rakman’s activities as much as I can. I focus on raising the children properly, on making sure that they get at least a semblance of a normal family life.”

Gayang nods. “I understand. That’s what I also tried to do when we were still in Pikit, though my husband was not really actively involved in the insurgency.” She steals a glance at Warda’s children. Their clothes are gray with dirt. Snot drips from their noses. She wonders how much attention Warda is really giving them. “Aren’t they supposed to be in school today?” she asks.

Warda shifts a little on her seat. “Oh. I’ve been allowing them to miss school. It’s dangerous for them to go anywhere. After the incident a few days ago, who knows what the crazy soldiers would do?”

Gayang has a feeling that Warda has been allowing her children to miss school even before the incident. Warda’s words often exceed her actions. But Gayang doesn’t take it against her. Gayang feels that a woman with such a personality is in a way good for Rakman, who treats women, especially his first two wives, like servants.

Rakman doesn’t appear until one in the afternoon, after the women and children have taken their lunch. Like most of the rebels, the commander is wearing a T-shirt, fatigue pants, and rubber shoes, and a long gun is slung on his shoulder. He was also wearing sunglasses, and wound around his neck is a gray scarf printed with tiny black squares. Perhaps the only indication that he’s a high-ranking official is his potbelly and the overbearing way he carries himself. “Where’s my son, Rakman?” Gayang asks him right away. “Take me to him.”

“You can’t see him,” says Rakman. “You wouldn’t like what you would see.”

“I’ve seen everything. I’ve lost a lot of loved ones, some of them right before my eyes. Don’t be protective of me. It’s too late for that. If you care for what I feel, you shouldn’t have persuaded my son to come here and fight with you.”

“Your son needed no persuasion. He came here of his own accord.”

This always happens whenever Gayang sees her cousin. She believes that Rakman brainwashed her son. The young man originally came here in Mamasapano to work a small piece of land owned by Rakman. Months later, she found out that he was spending more time with a gun than with a plow. Rakman claims that the young man approached him, not the other way around, about fighting for the separatist movement. Gayang takes a deep breath. She doesn’t want to argue with Rakman right now. Blaming him has caused a rift between them, but it did nothing to change her son’s mind. “Just take me to him please,” she says.

Rakman shrugs. He let Gayang and Amil ride with him in his motorcycle. They cross cornfields, rice fields, coconut farms, banana plantations, and fallow lands. They stop in a small clearing in a wooded and weedy area. They got off the motorcycle.

“Why are we here, Grandma?” Amil asks. “I thought we’re going to see Father.”

Gayang doesn’t answer the boy. Her eyes are fixed on the clearing. The topsoil is upturned, which means that the ground has been dug up and refilled recently. She knows now what happened to her son. The howling dogs were indeed giving her a message.

She has felt that this is what she would find out, but the intuition, the premonition, and her experiences have not been enough to prepare her. The pain that engulfs her is rather physical. It doesn’t just wrench her heart. She feels as though she has been punched in the gut. She’s dizzy and weak. She falls to her knees and wails.

“Stop that, Gayang,” says Rakman. “There is nothing to grieve. Your son died an honorable death.”

Amil suddenly understands what’s going on. “Father!” he says, tears welling from his eyes.

“Be quiet, the two of you!” Rakman orders. “The men in this grave gave their lives for the nation—our nation. They gave their lives so that our people can be free. They did what they wanted to do. Don’t be like the Christians. They’re crying murder, massacre even, for the deaths of the policemen, but aren’t those policemen just doing their job? Isn’t dying a risk that goes with their duty?”

“Don’t tell me not to grieve, Rakman,” says Gayang. “You didn’t lose a son.”

“I treated your son like he was mine.”

“You didn’t give birth to him. You didn’t raise him. He is mine alone, and no one has the right to take him away from me.”

Rakman walks away, cursing under his breath. Gayang takes Amil into her arms. They cry the name of the person they have lost. They weep without restraint. Rakman squats in front of his motorcycle and tinkers with the engine, though there’s really nothing to check or fix. He only walks back to Gayang and Amil when the weeping subsides a little. He wipes the tears off the boy’s face. “I was there with your father,” he tells Amil. “You should be proud of him. He did not shout or cry. The pain was nothing to him. He was very brave. You should also be brave.”

Amil says nothing, but his sobs become more controlled.

“We are a family of brave men,” Rakman continues. “We’re not like those Christian soldiers. They wept like girls, calling for their mothers, as we—”

“Leave the kid alone!” Gayang shouts. She pulls Amil away from Rakman. “Don’t poison my grandson’s mind. I’ve had enough. I’ve lost so many. He’s the only one I’ve got left.”

“We will never stop until we get what is rightfully ours,” says Rakman. “The deaths of your husband and your sons will be for nothing if we stop now.”

“You were not trying to get what is rightfully ours. They say you were coddling a terrorist.”

“Who’s a terrorist in this war, Gayang? You and your family were innocent civilians in Pikit, but what did the government soldiers do to you? Weren’t they terrorists too? Who’s the terrorist and who’s the hero? It’s not for the government, for the Christians, to decide!”

Gayang closes her eyes and breathes deeply. When she opens her eyes, she says, “I just lost a son. I just lost yet another loved one. I don’t want to talk about peace and honor and love for one’s people.” She wants to stay by the grave for as long as she can, but she knows that Rakman won’t stop blabbering against the government and the Christians. He will keep on dictating her how to take the death of her son. She tells him, “Please take us back to your house. I want to go home.”

“What home? Are you referring to the Christian-dominated city where you peddle tinagtag like a beggar? That’s not your home. It will never be your home—you will never have a home—until we get back all the land that the Christians have stolen from us.”

“Please. Just take me and my grandson now on your motorcycle.”

Gayang feels as though Rakman wants to crush her with his stare, but without any additional word, he walks to his motorcycle. It’s around two in the afternoon. Gayang and Amil have enough time to travel. They’ll be back in Tacurong before sunset. She stares at the grave for the last time.

Her memory takes her to a similar grave fifteen years ago, in the wake of the all-out war. One of those who had been buried in the grave was one of her loved ones, either her husband or her eldest son. No one could tell her for sure. The bodies had been hurled into the pit without being properly identified, for the diggers had been working in a hurry. They had been afraid of the gunfire ringing out in the background, and they had been racing against the setting sun, for it’s the custom of Muslims to bury the dead on the day of death. Gayang had only learned of the burial days after it happened. When she visited the grave, she did not know whom to cry for. She cried for everyone, for no one.

The uncertain details of her loss made the scene indelible in her mind. Gayang can clearly remember until now that she had a child with her that day. The child was already heavy, but she carried him in her arms so that she could whisper to him that she would never allow the same thing to happen to him. They would leave Pikit and live in Tacurong, where her family had a tiny home lot, where she believed they could live peacefully, far enough from the armed conflicts between the government forces and the separatist rebels. That child was now a dead man, buried in an unmarked grave in Mamasapano, along with probably a dozen of his brothers in arms, judging by the size of the clearing.

Gayang stares at Amil. She wants to pull him up and tell him that his will be a different life, that he will be spared from the decades-old violence that plagues Mindanao. But he’s much too heavy for her. Her bones are no longer as strong as they have once been. Her thighs are now aching merely from letting him sit on her lap on the trip earlier. More importantly, she no longer has the heart to make promises.

Gayang and Amil ride Rakman’s motorcycle. They once again travel along farmlands and fallow areas. Rakman’s gun is slung on his back, the long barrel pointed above, and Gayang notices that her grandson is staring at the gun. She wraps an arm around the boy, and he leans back on her and touches her arm. “Don’t make me mourn for you,” she whispers. “Wait for me to die.” The boy stares up at her, clueless of what she’s talking about, and when she doesn’t say another word, he returns his gaze to the gun. They ride in silence the rest of the way.

A Quest to Recapture the Spirits

By Jude Ortega

(An earlier version of this story won the first prize at the 2013 Jimmy Y. Balacuit Literary Awards, given to the fellows of the 20th Iligan National Writers Workshop. This version first appeared in the November 2014 issue of Expanded Horizons.)

Nang Moray, the best-known albularia in half a dozen villages, woke up one day to find the spirits gone. She summoned them through her usual chants and rituals, but she did not receive any response. The spirits did not manifest to her in any way, not even in the form of a soft whisper in the wind or a faint shadow darting past the corner of her eye. They had left her without any warning, without leaving any trace for her to follow, as though they had not been her companions for nearly half a century, as though they had never existed. After several days of calling in vain for them, she set out to look for her friends.

The sixty-year-old albularia could think of a number of reasons why the spirits disappeared, but her biggest suspicion was that they had been drawn to another—maybe stronger, she hated to admit it—center of energy. For the past several months, Nang Moray had been hearing about a new healer in the capital town. The man, whether on purpose or by accident, must have lured the spirits away from Nang Moray’s abode. Nang Moray did not know exactly what to do with the other healer. She decided she should go to his place and observe first. She told herself that if she found out her suspicion was true, and the man took away the spirits with ill intentions, she wouldn’t let him get away with it.

Nang Moray lived in the town of Esperanza, and Isulan, the capital town of Sultan Kudarat, was just twenty minutes away. She rode a jeepney and alighted at the public market of Isulan. She was quite familiar with the place, so she had no trouble looking for the terminal of tricycles bound for Kawayan, the slightly remote village where she had heard her rival lived.

A man in his twenties approached Nang Moray. She assumed immediately that he was a driver, for his arms were covered with garish-red cooling sleeves designed with black dragons, a recent trend among tricycle and skylab drivers. He asked Nang Moray, “Are you going to Kawayan, La?”

The albularia was not able to say anything and only managed to nod. She was usually loquacious and would respond to mundane questions with a lengthy answer. Her long experience in handling patients had taught her that making people comfortable with her was the first step in healing them. Words, however, failed her this moment because the young man had called her “Lola.” She was reminded of her age. Though she was well aware that half her hair had turned gray and her face was lined with wrinkles, she was not used to being referred to as a grandmother. Nang Moray had no grandchildren, for all her four children died when they were too young to marry, and her patients, who were mostly her age or younger, addressed her as “Nang” or “Nanay,” not “Lola” or “Iyay.”

The driver led Nang Moray to the back of the sidecar. The front was already filled. Seated in it were three persons, two in the main seat and one in the extra, narrow seat. As soon as Nang Moray was seated at the back, she heard the old man in front grunt in pain, leaning on the woman beside him. Nang Moray stared at the horizontal mirror attached near the ceiling of the vehicle, and she saw the reflection of the man and the woman. There was no doubt that they were father and daughter. Their noses, which looked like the base of a coconut frond, seemed to have sprouted from the same trunk.

The old man groaned louder. His daughter turned to the driver and asked, “Aren’t we going yet?”

“In a while,” the driver said. “Just two more passengers.”

Ah, Diyos ko!” the father said, his hand grappling at the wall of the vehicle as though he was blind. The other hand was pressed against his belly. “I can no longer take this.”

Nang Moray, having seen countless patients in pain, could tell that the father was suffering from no ordinary affliction. He seemed to be a man who had grown old toiling under the sun and drinking gallons of tuba, and men like him usually kept their pain to themselves as long as they could help it. If they were crying like a child, especially in front of their own children, the pain must be equivalent to having three aching teeth.

Diyos ko,” the father said again. “Hijo de puta!

Nang Moray was alarmed. When men like him called out to heavens and cursed in the same breath, the pain was as severe as having ten aching teeth. She glanced around, looking for spirits. She wanted to help the old man. But as she had expected, there was no spirit hovering around. Spirits shied away from crowded, noisy places.

“How much is the fare?” the third passenger in front, a man in his forties, asked the driver.

“Twelve pesos per person,” the driver answered.

“We’ll pay for the empty seats,” the passenger said. Nang Moray realized he was a companion of the father and daughter.

“All right,” the driver said, hopping at the motorcycle at once, as though afraid the passenger would change his mind. “That’s an additional twenty-four pesos.”

“No problem,” the man said. “Just hurry up.” He was seated on the narrow seat in front of his companions, so he had to sit sideways. His body faced the door, his knees jutting out of the vehicle. Now that his neck was twisted toward the driver, Nang Moray was able to see his face better. He did not look like the father and daughter, but he looked three times more worried than the daughter was.

“Kawayan’s not very far,” the driver said. “We’ll be there in fifteen minutes.” The tricycle winded its way out of the public market. For some reason, the sick old man stopped whimpering.

When the tricycle moved off the highway and started to run on unpaved road, the driver told the family, “You’re going to Doc Sonny, eh? Don’t worry, he’s really good.” He spoke aloud, so Nang Moray could hear his voice over the hum of the engine. “I’ve brought so many patients to his house, and almost all of them later claimed they were healed.”

The daughter nodded. “So we heard,” she said in an equally loud voice. “The doctors in the provincial hospital seem unable to cure Tatay, so we decided to take him to Doc Sonny.”

At first the conversation confused Nang Moray, but almost immediately she figured out that “Doc Sonny” was a faith healer—the faith healer she was looking for. The family and she had the same destination. She wondered why her rival was called a doctor. She strained her ear forward so as not to miss a word in the conversation. She didn’t have to exert much effort, though. Unlike many people her age, she was still sharp of hearing.

The tricycle ran over a bumpy spot, jolting up the passengers a few inches from the seat. “Puta!” the sick man shouted. “Diyos ko, puta!

Nang Moray peeked out the tricycle, hoping to see spirits in the less bustling surroundings. The spirits didn’t have to be her friends. She knew how to ask for a favor from spirits that she had only met for the first time. Her eyes surveyed the rice fields flanking the road, and her heart leaped when she saw wisps of smoke gliding around a tree. To her dismay, however, the spirits were pale-colored and shrieked at one another. They were young—she guessed they came into existence after the Second World War—and oblivious to human pain.

“Hold on, Tay,” the third passenger in front said, his eyes on the verge of tears. He tried to rub the sick man’s arm, but with surprising vigor, the sick man brushed off the hand.

“Just let him be, Pang,” the woman told the man. Nang Moray realized he was her husband.

The man did not seem to take offense with what his father-in-law did, but he turned to the side and looked out the vehicle. He reminded Nang Moray of Mando, her late husband. Mando had a thoughtfulness that bordered on cowardice. Every time she gave birth to their children, he would cry as he held her hand, while she only gritted her teeth and grunted in a low voice. Whenever one of the children got sick, he would be unable to sleep at night, kissing the kid every now and then and telling him or her to fight, until Nang Moray would be annoyed and tell him to leave the kid to rest. In his last days, however, Mando showed extraordinary courage. Tiny worms slowly ate him alive from the legs up. Every morning, while he still had strength in his arms, he would silently drag himself near the hearth, pick the wriggling creatures one by one, and toss them into the fire.

The tricycle driver said to no one in particular, “I’m sorry. I’ll drive more carefully. Iyoy is suffering from what, by the way? Kidney stones?”

“No,” the woman answered. “The ultrasound showed his kidneys are all right. No stones. The doctor said he’s got prostate cancer instead.”

“Prostate? Where is that?” the driver said. Nang Moray, too, had no idea what kind of cancer it was.

“It’s a common disease of men nowadays,” the woman said.

The driver looked uneasy, and the woman seemed to relish this. She explained further, “The prostate is found somewhere in the groin of men. It’s a kind of sex organ, and women don’t have it. The ultrasound showed my father’s prostate has grade four enlargement.”

“Grade four?” the driver said. “It sounds like your father’s prostate is going to school. I thought cancers are classified by stages.”

The woman said, “The grade has something to do with how the cells look, while the stage has something to do with how the cancer has spread. My father’s cancer is in stage two, meaning it’s still confined in his prostate. Stages three and four mean the cancer has spread to other organs.”

“You explain well.”

The woman beamed. “Oh, I was able to go to college for a few semesters.” To show more of her skill, she added, “As to the grades of prostate cancer, grade one means all the cells still look normal and grade five means all the cells no longer look normal.”

“I see,” the driver said. “With Doc Sonny, though, it does not matter at all in what stage or grade your cancer is. A month ago, he got a female patient with stage three breast cancer. She was already so thin and weak. Now I heard she already sweeps her yard. Doc Sonny can cure you as long as you believe.”

“We believe in him,” the woman said. “He has also cured someone from our town. We’d rather resort to Doc Sonny’s care than stay in a hospital. The provincial has no specialist who can operate on Tatay. When we went to the private clinic of a specialist, we were told we must prepare seventy thousand pesos. My god, where would we get such an amount!”

“Indeed, hospitals will suck you dry,” the driver said. “While Doc Sonny, he does not ask for any amount. Donation only. Oh, here we are.”

The tricycle stopped in front of a house, which was identical to most houses in the outskirts of Isulan. The lower half was made of hollow blocks, and the upper part was covered with weaved African palm. A scooter was parked in the front yard. “You’re lucky,” the driver said. “Doc Sonny doesn’t have so many patients today. Sometimes, the yard is full of vehicles, some of them four-wheeled.”

The family paid the driver and stepped out of the tricycle. The old man cried in pain again as his companions assisted him. He paused after almost every step.

“Do you want me to carry you, Tay?” the son-in-law asked.

Puta,” the sick man said. “Don’t touch me.”

The daughter said, “Please stop cursing, Tay,” which only made the sick man utter more expletives.

The driver, who was watching the family, giggled soundlessly. “Poor man,” he said.

Nang Moray couldn’t determine if he was referring to the sick man or the son-in-law. Nonetheless, she told the driver, “Cursing helps him bear the pain.” She alighted from the tricycle and handed her fare.

“You’re just here, too?” the driver said.

“Yes,” Nang Moray said. She had given the driver a twenty-peso bill, and the young man was taking his time counting her change.

“You’re going to consult Doc Sonny?”

“No,” she said. But realizing the driver might ask more questions, she lied, “I mean, yes. I’m having trouble with my back.” She stretched out her open palm toward the driver to signify that she was waiting for her change.

The driver counted faster, handed her the coins, and told her, “You came to the right place. Doc Sonny offers hassle-free treatment. He’s not your usual albulario. He doesn’t perform rituals or ask you to offer something to spirits.”

Nang Moray wasn’t able to say anything until the tricycle left. When she turned to the family, she saw them disappear into the doorway. She followed them to the house.

A woman about forty years old had welcomed the visitors to the living room. “Is this the patient?” she asked, touching the grumpy old man at the back.

The couple nodded.

“Doc Sonny is inside the clinic, treating someone,” the woman said, pointing behind the heavy curtains that covered what should normally be a dining area. “But he will attend to you in a short while. For the meantime, here.” She fumbled at the pocket of her duster and took out a ballpoint pen and a tiny piece of paper. She gave them to the sick man’s daughter. “Please write the full name of the patient.” With emphasis, she added, “Include the full middle name.”

Without any question, the daughter did as she was told.

“I am Doc Sonny’s assistant, by the way,” the woman introduced herself. “You may call me Nurse Lydia.”

Nang Moray’s eyes inspected Lydia. Her shoulder-length hair looked as though she had not used a comb since she woke up that morning, and her floral duster had faded from being washed so many times. Detergent had obliterated the printed stems that connected the pale flowers and light-green leaves. She did not in any way resemble a nurse, just as the house did not in any way resemble a clinic or hospital.

The curtains parted, and a young couple came out. The woman was pregnant.

“Oh,” Lydia said. “The checkup is done.”

Checkup! Nang Moray thought in indignation. That term is for real doctors only.

The young couple bade Lydia goodbye and went out of the door. The curtains parted again, and a smiling young man peeked out. He had a deep dimple on both cheeks.

“That’s Doc Sonny,” Nurse Lydia said. “My son.”

Nang Moray stared at her rival in surprise. He seemed to be just eighteen or nineteen.

“Good mor—” The young man was not able to finish his greeting when his eyes met Nang Moray’s. She knew that he sensed something peculiar about her. “W-who’s the patient?” the young man asked.

“My father,” the daughter of the sick man said, standing up from the long bamboo seat.

Doc Sonny avoided Nang Moray’s eyes and told the others, “Please take the patient here.” He disappeared again behind the curtains.

Lydia assisted the family. Nang Moray watched as the old man was slowly guided to the other side of the curtains. Outside the house, she heard an engine come to life and then fade away. The pregnant woman and her husband must have left, riding the motorcycle that had been parked in the yard.

Lydia came out of “the clinic” and asked Nang Moray, “Are you not with them?”

“No,” Nang Moray said.

“I’m sorry,” Lydia said, sitting beside the older woman. “I think you have to wait for a while. It looks like the man’s condition is serious. Write your name first.” She gave Nang Moray another piece of paper and the pen that was used by the sick man’s daughter.

Behind the curtains, Doc Sonny said, “Teodoro Ogatis Flaminiano.”

“He’s reading the patient’s name,” Nurse Lydia explained to Nang Moray. “He can diagnose the patient’s illness from the name alone.”

“He doesn’t consult spirits?”

“He does. He has a number of guides.”

Nang Moray stared around the house. She could not see or feel the presence of any spirit.

Doc Sonny was speaking to the patient. “Tatay Teo, I can tell from your name that there’s something wrong in your abdomen.”

“That’s true, Doc,” Nong Teo’s daughter said. “He’s got—”

“Kidney trouble,” Doc Sonny said.

There was silence.

“Am I right?” Doc Sonny said.

“Actually, Doc,” Nong Teo’s daughter said with hesitation, “we’ve brought Tatay to a hospital, and the ultrasound showed his kidneys are fine. No stones or any abnormality. His prostate is enlarged instead.”

“Ah yes,” Doc Sonny said. “Of course. The prostate and kidneys are connected. All problems in the abdomen really start from the kidneys. Oftentimes, the affliction goes down and causes the legs to swell. In your father’s case, the swelling did not descend farther and stayed in the groin.”

It occurred to Nang Moray that the boy was a quack. There was no spirit around, so he had no guide whatsoever. He was swindling his patients.

Doc Sonny said, “Your father’s prostate is in grade four.”

“Oh, Doc Sonny,” Nong Teo’s daughter said. “That’s what also the doctor—I mean, the previous doctor—told us.”

Nang Moray was confused. She wondered how the boy knew about the exact grade of the prostate, how he was able to determine the patient’s ailment without the aid of spirits.

Doc Sonny continued, “It’s grade four leading to stage one.”

“So it’s not cancer yet?” the daughter asked.

“It’s not. But your father must be healed the soonest possible time.”

“Oh, thank you so much, Doc Sonny. We were so worried that Tatay’s got cancer. You give us hope.”

It struck Nang Moray that the woman believed the boy more than in the doctor in the private hospital. The boy had a different and crude explanation for the stages and grades of prostate cancer, but the woman took his word for truth. Nang Moray could not blame the woman. Doctors did not know everything. They did not believe that evil spirits had something to do with illnesses, but Nang Moray, having a third eye and herself capable of curing diseases, knew better. As to the boy, however, she could not decide yet if he truly had a healing power or he was just a good trickster.

Nang Moray told Lydia, “I can’t feel the spirits.”

“Of course, you can’t,” Lydia said. “They only show themselves to Doc Sonny.”

Nang Moray held her tongue. Nobody in the place knew that she was a healer herself.

Lydia explained, “Sonny used to be a nursing student, but he had to stop because I could no longer send him to school. Last year, he was stricken by a serious illness. He died of it. But he came back to life after maybe half an hour. Spirits then started to come to him and help him heal other people.”

Nang Moray nodded. So that explains it, she thought. The boy had some knowledge about medicine, and that was what he had been using to determine the illnesses of his patients. He was not truly capable of communicating with spirits. The story about him dying and then coming back to life was most likely something he and Lydia had spun. It was an all too common story among purported healers. In Nang Moray’s case, she gained the trust and friendship of the spirits painstakingly. She started, at the age of ten, as an apprentice of a babaylan, the younger sister of her maternal grandmother. She found it difficult to believe that spirits would liaise with a human being in so abrupt a manner as what happened to the boy. She saw a glimmer of hope. The boy had not taken away her friends, and she still had a chance to find them.

Inside “the clinic,” the daughter of the sick man asked, “So what do we need to do now, Doc? How are you going to cure my father?”

“First, your father must use a catheter again,” Doc Sonny answered. “He must be able to urinate. When you went to the hospital, the doctor had your father wear a catheter, right?”

“How did you know, Doc? Oh, I’m sorry for asking. I know, spirits are guiding you. You’re right. They made my father wear a catheter in the hospital. After a week, Tatay felt better, so we went home. Then last night, Tatay felt pain again in his abdomen. We decided to come here instead of going to the hospital, for the doctor might insist Tatay should undergo an operation. We can’t afford the seventy thousand the hospital is asking from us.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll perform the operation. You don’t have to spend so much money with me, and I won’t open up or even just touch your father’s abdomen.”

“Really, Doc? I’m so happy to hear that.”

“Yes, but first, I’m afraid you have to go back to the hospital. Have a nurse put a catheter on your father and then come back here tomorrow for the operation.”

“We’ll do that, Doc. Thank you. But could you do something right now to ease my father’s pain?”

“Yes, I’ll give your father first aid.”

Nurse Lydia stood up and told Nang Moray, “Please excuse me. Doc Sonny needs my assistance. Don’t worry, the first aid normally doesn’t take much time. It will be over in a minute.”

Nang Moray nodded, and when Nurse Lydia had gone behind the curtains, she stood up too. She had to leave now. She no longer had any business in the house. When she reached the doorway, however, a cry of pain stopped her in her tracks.

“Don’t touch me!” the sick man shouted behind the curtains.

“Tay,” the daughter said, “you have to get up. We have to go back to the hospital.”

“It hurts,” the father said. “God, it hurts!” He then uttered a string of expletives.

As the sick man cursed, Nang Moray heard thuds and creaks and saw the curtains shake. The man must be pounding with his fist the bamboo bed he was lying on. The daughter wailed in distress, asking his father to stop and imploring Doc Sonny to do something. The others behind the curtains were also talking in panicked voices. Forgetting where she was and why she was there, driven by a desire to help, Nang Moray rushed to “the clinic.” She gasped when she parted the curtains.

Dark haze was swirling around the sick man, and the other human beings, including Doc Sonny, seemed unaware of the malevolent presence. The boy, muttering something useless, was pointing his two outstretched fingers at the sick man’s exposed abdomen. “Let me do it,” Nang Moray said, brushing aside the boy’s hand. She heard protests, but she blocked out everything else in her senses.

She might be unable to summon good spirits, but driving away evil spirits was another thing. She took out the tiny bottle that was always slung around her neck and hidden under her blouse. She then pulled open the cap, poured a drop of coconut oil from inside the bottle to the tip of her index and middle fingers, and with the oil made a sign of the cross on the sick man’s abdomen. While making the sign, she repeatedly uttered a phrase from the Latin version of Our Father. The haze gave out a shriek and, in the form of a horned serpent, darted out of the door at the back of the house. The sick man whimpered and, still conscious, collapsed on the bed.

The other people in the room stared at Nang Moray in bewilderment.

“It’s gone,” Nang Moray said. “The bad spirit has left.”

“It’s true,” the sick man said. “The pain has stopped. Am I healed now?”

“No,” Nang Moray said. “Bad spirits feed on the illness of a human being. They will come again. For them to go away completely, your physical malaise must be eradicated first.”

“Who are you?” Lydia butted in.

Nang Moray was reminded that she was in the house of other people. “I-I’m sorry,” she stammered. “I shouldn’t be here.”

The boy touched Nang Moray on the arm. “You’re a healer,” he said.

Nang Moray pulled away. She turned to the family who had been with her in the tricycle. “Go to the doctor,” she said. “Or to another healer.” She then rushed out of the room.

The boy followed her. “Iyay, please,” he said. “I want to know you.”

Still walking fast and without looking back, she told him, “Stop fooling people!”

“I’m not fooling people. I’m really a healer. I have guides.”

Nang Moray stopped walking. “I don’t see them.”

“They’re not here right now. They left when you arrived.”

“What a convenient excuse.”

“I’m telling the truth. I still have so much to learn. I sometimes don’t know why spirits behave in a certain way. Maybe you can help me.”

Nang Moray continued walking.

“Iyay, please!”

“Let me leave!”

When Nang Moray reached the road, there was no tricycle in sight, so she kept on walking, not minding the dust and the heat of the sun. The boy had stopped bothering her, but even if she didn’t look back, she knew that he was watching her walk away. The silence told her so.

After a few minutes, a tricycle stopped beside Nang Moray. “To the market?” the driver asked. Without answering, Nang Moray stepped into the vehicle, and as soon as she was seated, the driver asked her again. “Is your checkup over?”

It was the same tricycle that she had ridden earlier. “Yes,” she told the driver. “The checkup was quick.”

The tricycle sped up. The driver said, “I went back to Doc Sonny’s house to wait for your fellow passengers earlier, but Doc Sonny said they’re staying there for a while. He told me to go after you instead. Thanks to him, at least I have one passenger on the way back to the market.”

Nang Moray nodded. She was in no mood to talk to the driver, or to anyone for that matter, but he was quite garrulous. He asked, “How did it go? The checkup.”

She lied. “Doc Sonny just gave me a bottle of coconut oil. He instructed me to apply it on my back every night.”

“That’s weird. Doc Sonny does not usually give anything to his patients. My wife and I go to him regularly. He just points at the afflicted part of the body, chants some inaudible prayer, and then gives us a list of food that we shouldn’t eat.”

Nang Moray opted not to comment. She pretended to be busy looking at the view beside the road.

“Doc Sonny is a good healer.” The driver kept on talking. “But sometimes my wife and I feel we really need medicine. For that, we go to Nong Ontit in Bagumbayan. He doesn’t want to be called ‘doctor,’ but he acts more like a doctor than Doc Sonny. He checks your eyes and mouth and gives out prescriptions.”

“He knows the name of tablets?”

“Yes. Tablets, capsules, syrups. And not just paracetamol or mefenamic acid, mind you. Even the ones that are hard to spell.”

“Isn’t that dangerous?”

“No. Aside from having a guide, if you know what I mean, Nong Ontit is quite familiar with medicines. He used to work in a pharmacy. Similar to Doc Sonny. He was a nursing student before he died and came back to life. Don’t you find it interesting? There’s a new trend among healers now, especially the popular ones. They know some science. They’re more like doctors than albularios. I think gone are the days of smelly ointments and chicken offerings.” The driver chuckled.

“But there are still a lot of good old-fashioned albularios,” Nang Moray said, trying not to raise her voice. “Have you heard of Nang Moray?”

“From Esperanza?”


“I know her. My mother used to go to her. But I don’t. I hope you’re not her friend or relative”—the driver chuckled again—“but I trust Doc Sonny and Nong Ontit more. Nang Moray is a has-been. Only old people and those who live in the boondocks continue to trust her methods. Why, have you been her patient?”

“N-no,” Nang Moray said. “I just heard of her.”

When she reached her home, Nang Moray once again called the spirits, but none of them appeared. She sat near the window and stared at her yard. There had been days when it was crowded with vehicles, some of them even four-wheeled, but now it was empty, and she thought with dread that it would be so from then on.

For most of the day the following weeks, Nang Moray spent her time gazing out the window, reminiscing about her heydays as an albularia, wishing for her spirit friends to reappear gliding toward her. She swore to herself that if they did come back, she would take them without any question. She would work with them again as though they had never left.

She had to refuse her visitors who came to be healed, and their number was dwindling. When one day she sensed a person standing in her yard, she did not bother to even look at him. She remained leaning on the window, her forearms resting on the sill, her chin resting on her forearms. She had no enthusiasm to greet someone she would only send away in a while. The person, for his part, remained standing in silence, as though patiently waiting for her to finish her waking dream.

When Nang Moray eventually stared at the stranger, her jaw dropped. It was Doc Sonny. She was not surprised to find out that it was he. She was surprised that he looked so young—younger than she remembered him to be—even if his face was serious and his youthful dimples were not shown.

She opened the door, and he greeted her, “Good morning, Nang Moray.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, “but I cannot entertain visitors today.”

“I am not alone,” he said. She frowned, not understanding what he meant, and he explained, “I was telling the truth. They went away when you were coming to my house, and they came back when you left.”

She found his statements still too cryptic, but before she could clarify further what he had said, the wind blew and the spirits that she had been looking for appeared. So the spirits had indeed gone to the boy.

The spirits did not come close to her or go inside the house through the door or windows, but they encircled the humble structure, as though inspecting a property that they had abandoned but still considered their own.

“Come in,” Nang Moray told Doc Sonny, and as soon as the visitor was seated, she said, “Are you giving them back to me?”

“But, Nang Moray,” Doc Sonny said, “I cannot give back what I have not taken away. The spirits came to me of their own accord.”

She had a feeling that he was telling the truth, but her heart was filled with rancor for him. “I do not believe you,” she said. “You did something to lure the spirits to your house. In any case, you can let them go. They will come back to me.”

“They won’t go back to you. They won’t go anywhere else.”

“So why are you here?”

“There are so many things I still don’t understand. I need someone who will teach me. I need your help, Nang Moray.”

Nang Moray was struck speechless. She had not entertained the possibility that the other healer would come to her to be her apprentice. When she found her voice, it was quivering and full of spite. “So you’re not only keen on stealing the spirits. You want me lose my place among healers. You want me to lose everything.”

“I am not going to replace you, Nang. I am only asking you to share your knowledge with me, not to transfer it to me.”

“All the same. Without the spirits, I can’t heal serious illnesses. I’m reduced to a manughilot, someone who kneads aching muscles. Have you thought of that?”

“But, Nang, the spirits have decided. I can’t make them go back to you. Perhaps you can do something to make them go back to you. I won’t prevent that from happening. But as long as they want to be with me, I’ll accept them. I’ll take care of them.”

“Hah! You don’t know what you are talking about. Keeping spirits in your stead takes more than lighting an incense or guarding a tree for them. You have to give your life.”

“I’m willing to spend the rest of my life healing other people if this is what God wants me to do.”

“I’m not being metaphorical. The woman who taught me to be an albularia was killed by evil spirits, and she was a babaylan. She was a powerful healer. She knew the ancient arts of healing. But she was still defeated. The good spirits were not able to save her. The same thing might happen to you.”

“It didn’t happen to you. Clearly you’re no ordinary albularia. You’re also a babaylan. And if evil spirits were not able to defeat you and you share with me your knowledge, then I will be spared from meeting a tragic end.”

Nang Moray shook her head. “I am not a babaylan. I am not worthy of such a name. Though I am still alive, my fate was worse than that of my master. The evil spirits killed my husband and our four very young children! Now be stubborn and sacrifice your mother’s life.”

Doc Sonny grew pale. For the first time since he talked to her, Nang Moray saw him waver. “S-surely, there’s a way,” he said. “These things need not happen.”

Nang Moray didn’t know if her heart was touched with pity for the young man or she wanted to scare him more into giving up. She decided to give him an explanation, to let him in on some babaylans’ secrets. “Healers will always be vulnerable,” she started. “That’s because there are different kinds of spirits, and a healer must know all of them well. When I was in your house, the spirit I drove away from there came into existence during the Spanish occupation. It was something that can be defeated by Catholic rituals and Latin prayers. You can’t see those kinds of spirits—”

“I saw it when it was fleeing,” Doc Sonny interrupted. “It looked like a huge snake and had horns.”

“All right. But your third eye isn’t strong enough yet to see it while it was still coming, and you don’t know the rituals against it.”

With his silence, Doc Sonny admitted that Nang Moray was right. She continued, “I’m not saying that I will, but I can teach you those rituals. I know how to defeat, or at least drive away, spirits that came into existence as far back as seven or eight hundred years ago. The problem is that, as far as I know, no one can teach you to fight ancient spirits. They no longer abound and not many of them are malevolent, but our lack of knowledge makes us healers and our family and patients defenseless against them.” Nang Moray thought that with her last statement, she sounded as though she was recognizing Doc Sonny as a legitimate healer, as someone who belonged to the age-old family of babaylans. She didn’t want the young man to have such an impression, so she added, “You don’t have to feel responsible for the spirits. If you don’t want to keep them and they deem me no longer fit to take care of them, they can look for another person. For every generation, there are always a few people who are born with a third eye.”

“But . . . Maybe in other parts of the country, there are babaylans there who know how to fight ancient spirits.”

“I’m afraid the knowledge has been completely lost. I went to Panay and Negros once to look for such a person, but I didn’t find any.”

Long silence followed. When Doc Sonny opened his mouth, he said, “Thank you, Nang Moray, for talking to me. I think I need some time to think over matters.”

Nang Moray nodded.

She led him to the door. From several directions, the spirits floated and formed a cluster in the front yard, waiting for their new friend. When Doc Sonny was about to turn away, Nang Moray was suddenly gripped with fear that he would not come back. It dawned on her that there was something greater at stake, something greater than her pride. “Perhaps,” she said aloud, and waited for him to face her. When he did, she continued, “Perhaps the babaylans themselves were to blame. At some point in history, maybe one generation refused or failed to pass on their knowledge to the next.”

Doc Sonny smiled. With his dimples, he looked so young and sweet and even guileless. She could no longer understand why she had considered him a threat. “And perhaps,” he said, “one generation was unwilling to learn from their predecessors or did not brave the danger that came with the calling.”

“You know where to find me when you’re ready.”

Doc Sonny nodded. She watched him walk away, the spirits gliding around him, stirring the wind and causing the leaves to rustle. Now she knew: he was not her rival; he was her successor. He was not the other healer; he was the new healer. She did not call the spirits to come back to her. She whispered instead, “Guide him. Give him the courage that he needs, just like what you did to me when you found me.” She then bade them goodbye.