To Pull a Hook

By Kurt Joshua O. Comendador
Nonfiction

Ako na pud kuya bi,” my younger brother Sean said while trying to take the fishing rod from me.

Paghulat gud,” I told him, moving the rod out of his reach. “Nagahulat na ang talakitok sa akoa o.”

Ganina pa man ka.

Lima na lang ka labay,” I promised him. I whipped the line out into the sea, away from the shore.

* * *

My fancy for fishing started with envy. I was hooked into it after seeing an episode of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer on television. The titular character and his rowdy gang of country boys had run away from their homes and were fishing in the Mississippi River to feed themselves, competing who had the biggest catch in the process. I watched with envy as they roasted the fish over open fire and devoured them when they were cooked.

I was seven years old back then at my grandparents’ farm somewhere deep in Polomolok, South Cotabato. There was nothing much to do except for the daily trips to the river that my grandfather and I had to take to tend the cows. People in Polomolok mostly farmed for a living. On special occasions, a cow, maybe a goat, and a couple of chickens would be butchered for a feast, but the daily diet consisted of vegetables, which was virtually everywhere, and fish—fish from the market and fish from the river. My grandparents were able to buy fish from the market, but I wanted to try eating fish that I myself had caught.

Fishing was originally developed to find food in the wild for survival. As time progressed, fishing evolved to include the activity as a pastime. Recreational fishing is a luxury for those who have pockets full of money with time on their hands to cast carbon-fiber retractable fishing rods with high-end reel and a line of nylon connected to a floater or a sinker with a plethora of colorful artificial baits, one for each type of fish. While this is so, the tackle, or the entire fishing equipment, used in Polomolok only consists of a good-length bagakay (a kind of thin bamboo) for a rod, a coil of thin, transparent nylon, and a single hook. Baits can be found wherever there is moist and healthy soil.

Tay, bakal na bala sang bunit,” I requested my grandfather one day.

Sa sunod ah,” he answered.

The dialogue continued for days.

Same plea, same answer—always sa sunod, sa sunod, sa sunod.

One morning, I woke up only to see the sun high above the coconut trees behind our house, too late to join Tatay down the river, as he should have been already back by this hour, but not too late for morning cartoons—time to watch Tom Sawyer and his friends again. As the house lacked walls, I immediately saw Nanay at the sink, busy with the dishes. I asked her where Tatay was.

Nagkadto sa Proper,” she replied through the clinks and clanks of plates.

Somehow, someway, I thought that the time had finally come.

I took a late breakfast of rice and inun-unan, fish cooked in vinegar. Midway through my meal, the sound of Tatay’s motorcycle engine came sputtering toward the house. The loud barks of our dogs welcomed him. He appeared at the doorway moments later with a plastic bag in his hand.

Ano na, Tay?” I asked while trying to peer through the white, plastic bag he was carrying.

Mga gipangbakal ko sa Proper ah,” he replied.

He unloaded the things on the table: a pack of dried fish, three cans of sardines, two packs of instant noodles, and a bundle of sweet bananas. That was all. Disappointed, I resumed eating my meal, thinking that perhaps I would receive it sa sunod. Then a small plastic pouch landed on the table just in front of my plate. Without uttering anything, Tatay immediately went into his room, the only room separated by walls in the house. In the pouch was a coil of new fishing line and a set of fishing hooks. His room might have been surrounded by walls, but his heart wasn’t. I was glad.

I went out on my first fishing trip with Tito, Tatay’s nephew, three days after Tatay bought the materials. We couldn’t find a good pole, so we only took a fishing line coiled around a tin can. We started toward the river after breakfast, at about eight in the morning. It was about thirty minutes’ walk from the house, past the purok center, through a cornfield, and finally, down a hill. The sound of the deep, masculine gush of the river was a welcoming sound to hear after the hike under the summer sun. I couldn’t wait to wade in the water to get across to familiar grounds where Tatay’s cattle were grazing.

I thought it took forever for Tito to get across. Together, we went further down the riverbank where we thought the water was deep and there would be plenty of fish. We sat on a grassy patch and prepared our fishing line. I watched Tito, also a first timer, took out an earthworm and skewered it with the hook. I shuddered as I watched the hook emerge on the other end of its body—I still do whenever I remember that moment.

Whenever there was a slightest movement on the nylon, we would immediately pull out the line, hoping that a fish was hanging at the end of the line. It was maddening. The fish didn’t seem to be biting. Every time we pulled it out, the worm would emerge in one piece. I felt pity for the worm. I felt stupid sending it again and again into the water.

An old man happened to pass by. He was barefoot and wearing shabby short pants and a dirty old jacket over a ragged shirt. His skin was dark with shades of crimson, like fine-aged leather. “Gaano kamo da?” he asked.

Gapamunit, Kol,” Tito answered.

Ahay!” blurted out the old man. “Indi kamo makadakop da. Didto kamo sa hinay ang dalihig sang tubig ho.” He pointed downstream, at a spot where the river curved. He looked terrible in his shabby clothes, but it seemed that we were more pitiful than he was. He had the wisdom we didn’t have. He had the experience we couldn’t hold a candle to. To him, we were the worms that needed help.

We followed the advice of the old man. We waited and waited. Every time we noticed movement in the line, we pulled it out. This time, we were at least getting some results—the worm would come out nibbled. We had to replace the bitten worm every time. On one try, half of the worm’s body went missing. It was funny how fishing in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was easy as could be: The characters only had to sit on the edge of the water with a fishing pole, and all of a sudden, they already had something scaly for lunch. Huckleberry Finn even survived living by himself in the forest by eating fish he caught from the river. Not only is truth stranger than fiction; truth is harder than fiction, too.

If Tom Sawyer had his Mississippi River, we had our Silway River. It had brown, muddy water, and at its deepest part, it only reached the hips of adults. Silway River is the river that runs from Polomolok to General Santos City. In Google Maps, it looks like a giant snake slithering through the two places before finally joining Sarangani Bay at Barangay Labangal in the city. There were plenty of ways on how fishing was done in the river. The most common was by using a fishing pole. Another common way was pangurinti, done by stunning the fish with electric rods connected to a car battery. Another one was pang-atas. I only saw this once on our way home, but from what I remember, the men isolated a part of the river with a long tarpaulin, and as the spot ran out of water, they used a net to catch the fish that were trapped and swimming downstream.

Hala! Ari na, kuy!

Tito’s voice distracted me from watching the cliff on the other side of the river. I turned and saw him with his arm raised, struggling to pull the line out of the water. Something had taken the bait! We had caught something! Could it be a tilapia? Could it be a catfish or even an eel? I didn’t have a clear view of it when he lifted it out of the water. Black and white, black and white. It was all that I could see. The fish was spinning with the line? Was it a fish? It had limbs. A turtle? We caught a turtle? A snake-necked turtle!

Tito immediately went into action: He took the snake turtle and laid it on its soft, leathery carapace. We had to remove the hook that had pierced through its cheek without getting bitten. Every time Tito’s finger went near its pointed snout, the turtle snapped violently and without hesitation. Back then, we knew—I knew—that there was only one way to remove the hook out of the turtle’s mouth. But I wanted to try all other possible ways first.

Butunga na lang nang hook, Tito,” I said.

Di pwede kay masangit iya punta,” my uncle said.

I knew it was impossible. The hook had a barb, and pulling the hook would embed the barb deeper into the flesh.

Utda ang punta eh,” I said.

Tito fell silent. He didn’t tell me that what I had suggested was almost impossible to do, too.

So he had to do the inevitable: using the jagged edge of the lid of the can where we were keeping our worms, he tore the turtle’s cheek, and then he removed the hook with his hand.

I could not imagine how it must’ve felt for the turtle. The pain must’ve been unbearable—to have someone slice your cheek, going from side to side, until the soft, delicate flesh tore open and the hook could be removed. I thought that the turtle must be envious of us humans: there were no hooks to catch us.

If the turtle could talk, I’d also like to ask it why it bit something that wasn’t meant for him.

We continued fishing until the afternoon and we ran out of bait worms. The turtle was the only catch we had for the whole day. On our way back to the house, some of my Tito’s friends saw the turtle inside our net bag. “Mas namit pa na sa manok ba,” they said. “Amon na lang na bi.”

We declined. It was our sole prize, and we were determined to take it home.

Ay abaw!” exclaimed Nanay when she saw the turtle in the net bag.

Kanami sang dakop niyo ba!” said Tatay with a laugh.

We put the turtle into our empty concrete fish pond where guppies, mollies, and carps used to swim.

Sometimes, I would bring over other kids in the neighborhood to show them the turtle. “Baw, dako dako ba,” gushed one. That might’ve been the first time they saw a turtle snake as big as an adult’s hand. “Gin-ano niyo na pagdakop?” one of them asked.

Ginbunit eh,” I said.

Ti, ano ginapakaon niyo sina hay?

Ambot ay. Kung ano ang ihaboy da eh.” Banana peels, rice, pieces of leftover fish, fruits, anything, I explained.

In an article published in the Philippine Star in 2013, it was revealed that the Chinese softshell turtle is threatening the freshwater fish population in Central Luzon. Fishpond owners and operators grew weary of the invasive species since they prey on local fish species, especially milkfish and tilapia fingerlings. Farmers are complaining of receiving bites from snake turtle hiding beneath the mud of their rice paddies. However, I rarely heard of them as a problem before in Polomolok. In fact, people would be happy if they managed to catch one of them.

In a segment of Born to Be Wild aired in 2017, I learned that Pampanga has the biggest population of Chinese softshell turtle with a market for its meat: people are really buying live snake turtles for food!

I didn’t know why, but the turtle died after about a week of captivity. I still try to figure out what happened, but as a kid, I thought that maybe we should have let Tito’s friends slaughter it. At least, it would not have died for nothing. It died alone, away from its habitat, away from its home, its carcass buried on the soil where coconuts grew.

Days after, we went on another fishing trip. This time, Tatay went with us. We woke up early in the morning and hastily ate our hanggop, or cooked rice poured with hot water and flavored with salt.

Dal-a tong silupin,” Tatay said, pointing to the plastic bag containing hooks and lines.

Wala man ta stick,” I said.

Pati lang bala.

The three of us began hiking at about six in the morning. The morning air felt as though they were seeping through my arms and into my back, causing me to shiver from time to time. Tatay seemed amused. We were cold, while he was warm in his jacket.

We followed the usual path to his parcel of land beside the river. He then made Tito and me wait in a hut surrounded by foxtails, brushwood, and all kinds of balubagon. He returned after an hour. “Dal-a ning paya oh, kag kadto kamo to sa may puno sang ipil-ipil,” he told us. “Kalot kamo to kag kwa kamo ulod kay may kadtoan lang ko anay. Kita lang ta sa may pispan sa likod sang bayog,” he said.

Tito and I took a coconut shell lying on the ground and went to the ipil-ipil tree, while Tatay went about his business. The worms under the tree were larger than the worms I had seen before, about the size of my fingers back then. I couldn’t help but wonder back then if what had made them grow so big. I managed to catch a few of them. The way the worms moved about in my hands tickled, so I dumped them into the shell as soon as I caught them.

We made our way through the thick wild grass to the fish pond behind the clumps of bamboo called bayog, just in time to see Tatay walking toward us, carrying three stalks of bagakay, a thinner family of those big, towering, and heavy ones. One of them was fifteen feet long, much longer than the others.

Almost every body of water has its distinct smell, and this wasn’t any different. The pond smelled of putrid mud and algae, but there were tilapias and paitan, or small freshwater fish with bitter flesh. The word rotten may be associated with death. It is synonymous with decay, the slow and gradual decline of life. But to us, this smell was only superficial. Life thrived in the waters: fishes and snails, tangkong and takway, and whatnot. Each contributed to the system we were living off. It was rotten, putrid, pungent, and acrid, but the pond, entirely by its presence, told a whole new different story, brought a whole new meaning. I wonder if it’s the same with us.

When we started fishing, I understood why Tatay took a longer pole. Tito and I, with our shorter poles, had to stand close to the putrescent waters of the pond, our feet tangled in takway and tangkong, while Tatay sat on the grassy slope away from the water. I envied him, looking so relaxed and carefree. I wished I also had a longer pole.

We didn’t catch any despite fishing the entire afternoon. I nearly had one. Through the clear waters, we saw the fishes nibble at the worm. When I saw a tilapia took a huge bite of the bait, I instantly yanked it out of the water. I saw a small fish hanging at the end of the line. But just when I thought I finally had my first catch, it fell back into the water!

A few days before leaving for General Santos City to start the school year, I went to the river with Tatay to see the extent of the flood that the previous day’s rain had brought. I saw a number of local kids walking and kicking about in the brown, muddy puddles that were formed when the water rose above the riverbank. We approached them, walking through the ankle-deep puddles.

The biggest kid of the group was carrying a big can of powdered milk. Not concerned with our presence, they continued kicking the water around. To my surprise, a fish jumped out of the water! A kid then shoved the fish out of the water to the taller grass, the few which were not submerged in floodwater.

Gaano kamo da?” asked Tatay.

Nagapanakop isda, Kol,” said the kid carrying the can.

Bi, palantaw sang dakop niyo bi.”

The kid showed us the can. They had managed to catch four tilapias, wiggling inside the cramped space.

Ay bi, panghatag man para may sud-anon kami,” Tatay joked.

Indi pwede, Kol, kay sud-anon man namon ni,” the kid said.

The huddle broke up, and they resumed kicking in the puddles again. Envious of their catch, I went to a large puddle nearby and started kicking around the water.

Ara! Ara! Dakpa niyo! Dakpa!” a kid shouted.

I turned around and saw the kid pointing at something on the grass. I followed the kids as they rushed toward their friend. There, on the ground, on its back, was a snake turtle, slightly smaller than the one we had caught earlier in the summer.

Tatay, the other kids, and I gathered around the turtle. The big kid slipped through, sat down, and picked it up. The turtle immediately retracted his long snake-like neck. He gave the can of fish to one of his companions.

Bantay ha,” tatay warned them. “Makagat kamo sina.”

Tagai bala ko sang stick,” said the kid.

One of his companions gave him a bamboo twig. The kid proceeded to aggravate the turtle, poking its snout with the twig. The turtle in turn snapped at the object. The huge kid continued teasing the turtle. Once, it firmly bit the twig, and he pulled it away, causing the turtle’s neck to extend.

Pabay-i niyo na lang na,” I said.

I don’t know if they heard me or they just chose to ignore me. Not contented, the kid once again pulled the turtle’s head and twisted it. I saw the life fade away from the eyes of the turtle.

I felt someone tap my head. It was Tatay. “Dali na, kuy,” he said. “Puli na ta.”

I still wanted to kick around the puddles, hoping I could still catch some fish. I followed him as he made his way toward the riverbank. I turned my head around in time to see the kid throw the turtle to the flooded river.

It was already dark when we reached the gate of Tatay’s farm. Two neighboring teens passed us by as they ran toward their homes. They were shirtless, dripping wet, illuminated by a motorcycle’s headlight. I saw that they were carrying fish impaled on a thick strand of nylon. It was the last time I saw someone carrying fish from the river.

I’ve never spent a whole summer in Polomolok after that, but over the years, on some weekends, we would visit the farm, and if time permitted, we’d go on a trip down the river. I was told that the poles were given to relatives living near the river, and in one of those trips, I saw that the poles were still around, stuck on the roof of their hut. I couldn’t help but wonder how many fish they had caught using those.

The envy? I no longer felt it. It was gone. Like the pond we used to fish years ago.

* * *

Naay nipaak!” I said while the waves of the sea gently crashed on my thighs. “Naay nipaak!” I could see the tip of our cheap carbon-fiber fishing rod bend against the weight of the fish.

Sige, sige,” my brother said. “Biraha lang pirmi.”

I spun the reel handle as fast as possible while constantly pulling on the rod. When I finally pulled it out of the water, a talakitok was hanging at the end of the line.

Paunsa ni tanggalon ang taga, Sean?” I asked my brother. The hook was completely stuck in the talakitok’s cheek.

Ambot. Wala ko kabalo.”

I began to twist the hook in all directions, but still it wouldn’t come off. It reminded me of the turtle my tito and I caught years ago. It kept me from trying hard enough. “Unsaon nato ni? Buy-an na lang nato ni?

Ayaw na oy. Nagadugo na man gani na iyang aping oh.”

It was either this fish or the memory of the turtle. One had to go.

I let my brother take a try at removing the hook. “Di man nako kaya, kuya,” he said after a while. “Ikaw na lang. Imoha bitaw nang dakop.”

So it was decided. The thought of the turtle had to go. I forcefully pushed the hook, which removed it from the talakitok’s cheek.

“Sorry, fish,” my brother said jokingly as I pulled the hook out of the fish’s mouth, “but a man’s gotta eat.”

I wrapped the fish at the bottom of my shirt and took it to our cottage, where the rest of my family were. There was no reason to show them my catch. Perhaps I just wanted them to envy me. As I grew up and came to know the world a little bit better, I understood that we were not any different from the snake turtle: we were also prone to bite things that weren’t for us.

We ate the talakitok for dinner, wasting none of it. We didn’t make the same mistake as before: to waste a creature’s life for nothing. After twelve years, the purpose of the turtle’s death was finally realized, and its thought lived on.

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Editors and Contributors

REGULAR EDITORS

Eric Gerard H. Nebran is an educator and illustrator from General Santos City. He is currently a PhD Comparative Literature student at the University of the Philippines–Diliman. His research interests include orality, history, and literary productions of his hometown.

Jude Ortega is the author of the short story collection Seekers of Spirits (University of the Philippines Press, 2018). He studied political science at Notre Dame of Marbel University in South Cotabato and currently divides his time between Senator Ninoy Aquino and Isulan, both in Sultan Kudarat.

CONTRIBUTORS

Doren John Bernasol is from Koronadal City and a graduate of Bachelor of Arts in Filipino from Mindanao State University in General Santos City. He’s currently working for Zuellig Pharma in Davao City.

Kurt Joshua O. Comendador is an AB English student at Mindanao State University in General Santos City, where he also serves as associate editor of the official student publication and as president of a book reading club. He was a fellow at the 2018 Davao Writers Workshop and at the recently concluded 3rd Nueva Ecija Personal Essay Writing Workshop. His piece that appears in this issue won the inaugural Lagulad Prize, a regionwide essay writing contest organized by Cotabato Literary Journal.

Jermaine Dela Cruz studied Bachelor of Arts in English Language and Literature at Mindanao State University in General Santos City. She works as managing editor of Standout GenSan, the official publication of General Santos City Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Inc., and she currently serves as interim chairperson of Pangandungan, General Santos City’s writers’ association.

Allan Ace Dignadice is from Koronadal City, South Cotabato, and a BS Electronics Engineering student at Mindanao State University in General Santos City. He is a former editor in chief of the official school publication of Koronadal Comprehensive National High School.

Norsalim S. Haron is from Pikit, Cotabato Province, and teaches at Rajah Muda National High School in the same town. He is a graduate of Bachelor in Secondary Education, major in Filipino, at the University of Southern Mindanao in Kabacan, Cotabato Province.

Marc Jeff Lañada was born and raised in General Santos City. He is a graduate of BA Communication Arts in the University of the Philippines–Mindanao. He was a fellow at the 2017 Davao Writers Workshop, and some of his works have appeared in Dagmay, the literary journal of Davao Writers Guild.

Frédéric

By Kurt Joshua Comendador
Essay and Short Story

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

“Definitely, Ludwika,” Nicholas said.

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

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

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

Frédéric twitched.

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

And after three years . . .

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you, Mama!” Frédéric blushed.

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

 Ludwika lowered the letter that she had read aloud.

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mr. Chopin—”

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

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

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

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

“What about concerts, Doctor?” Tytus asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am excited, Monsieur Habeneck!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

A Dream in a Minor Key

By Kurt Joshua O. Comendador
Essay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

Editor and Contributors

EDITOR

Jude Ortega has been a fellow for fiction at the 2016 UP National Writers Workshop and in five other writers workshops. He divides his time between Senator Ninoy Aquino and Isulan, both in Sultan Kudarat Province.

CONTRIBUTORS

Al-faidz Omar grew up in the Municipality of Palimbang, Sultan Kudarat. Currently a student at Western Mindanao State University in Zamboanga City, he writes to contemplate his own feeling and discover the mysteries within.

Krizza Nadine A. Calmerin loves writing poetry and fiction and experimenting with the literary forms. She is currently a Bachelor of Secondary Education (major in English) student at Mindanao State University-General Santos.

Jonamari Kristin Ordinario-Floresta is from Kidapawan City but is currently pursuing her doctorate degree in Educational Administration at the University of Sydney in Australia. She writes stories for children, teaches at Kumon Sydney, and speaks in several international conferences.

Kurt Joshua O. Comendador of General Santos is an AB English student; trainee at Bagwis, MSU-GenSan’s school publication; and the president of the book reading club, Valoræx.

Jerome Cenina was born in Brgy. Spring, Alabel, Sarangani Province. He is currently studying at Notre Dame of Dadiangas University as a Humanities and Social Sciences Grade 12 student. He has always dreamed of becoming a lawyer and writer.

PG Murillo is an Information Technology student at STI College-GenSan and a member of the rap artist group Katagang Pinoy ng Malayang 083. He served as the battle emcee of Digmaan GenSan Rap Battle League, placed first at the Rap Battle of GenSan Summer Youth Fest 2017, and was recognized as a Spoken Word Poetry Artist by his school.

Ryan Christian Dulay Tuan is a senior high school student (Humanities and Social Sciences specialization track) at Lake Sebu National High School. He is an active member of the Lake Sebu Youth Network.

Sharmin Tanael is a Bachelor of Elementary Education student at Notre Dame of Marbel University in Koronadal City, South Cotabato. She is from Lake Sebu, South Cotabato.

Merhana Macabangin is a writer, illustrator, and Education student from Polomolok, South Cotabato. Her works are usually about Muslims and the Maguindanaon.