Pieces of Dumaguete
By Nerisa del Carmen Guevara.
Excerpts from The Mermaid Travels
SUNDAY, MAY 1
The first day. I never liked planes. They never prepared me for leaving or arriving. Surrounded by a numbness of padded seats and sifted air, everything is static. No jolt of wheel on gravel and stone, or sound of water being sliced by the prow to give me any hint that time had passed. Here the stewardess walked on, softly, on the carpet and handed me a plastic cup without even spilling a drop of water.
A sudden screech later, movement, and the stewardess announced that we had landed.
My eyes were blue mirrors as I descended from the plane. I scanned the sun-bleached runway, which stretched towards blue water. This sea was bluer than the sky.
There was a ‘69 Mustang, all red, waiting for us. Helen, niece of the Tiempos’, waved a blue cartolina the words NATIONAL WRITERS WORKSHOP. Isabel, the workshop secretary, was cutting a deal with two tricycle drivers to carry the luggage and some of fellows who could not fit into the car.
I had expected a bus or a jeep to fetch us because nine of us had arrived from Manila.
Five of us crammed into the Mustang and the other four rode the trike (a tricycle with a four capacity side load). Corinna, whom I had met in the launching of Ladlad, was a med student from UP and my seatmate on the plane. There were other fellows from UP too: Sandra, BenC, Doreen and Dough, and Lilibeth from DLSU and Edel from Pamantasan.
After a bumpy ride over short stretches of alternating dirt and concrete roads, we reached a wooden house rubbed dark brown with age where a bougainvillea curled its withered fingers around the posts of the balcony. This was going to be our home, the Little Children of the Philippines House in Claytown, Daro,
As we were settling into the three rooms on the second floor assigned to us, Mommy Josie and Daddy Boy arrived from Davao and after that, Mang Mel and Myke arrived from Cebu and Calbi from Jolo.
Each room had around six to eight beds. The women, being the majority, claimed two rooms. The female UP fellows claimed the one opposite the men’s room across the living area and the rest of us took the room beside them. I claimed the lower deck of a double bed overlooking a water tank and a pond filled with green lotus and kangkong and promptly covered the mattress with my favorite black malong and draped the screen window with a gauze tie-dyed scarf.
I had bought the malong in a mall as a birthday gift to myself early in the year. It was a strange piece, my med friends said, whatever was I going to use it for? Something, I said. Now my bed rippled with tinatik fishes and the breeze blew softly colored into a chatter of unpacking women.
After going through the motions of dusting the tops of beds, we set about looking for food. The volunteer helpers, Annabel and Cherry, told us to take a trike into the city proper and go to Moby’s Express. We left in batches. Lilibeth and I left together, and we ended up paying ten pesos (we learned later that the regular fare was two pesos each) and getting lost because I didn’t know how to speak Cebuano. Bacolod, my Visayan home, was only six hours away from Dumaguete but the language here was Cebuano and not Ilonggo as I had hoped so. I was frustrated in my silence as the rest of the Manila fellows. The other fellows also got lost and we somehow met up as we walked aimlessly through the side streets, which ran through the district into the spine of the seawall like the teeth of a fine comb. We found Moby’s eventually, a half-provincial restaurant half-modern fast food outlet snug between a shoe repair store and a telegram station. I had batchoy because I missed Bacolod, not having visited for the last five years, and waited for my childhood to come rushing with the first spoonful. It didn’t. The noodles were dry, and the soup was thin. Maybe I was biased, thinking Bacolod batchoy superior to theirs and resolved right there and then to discover Dumagueteño cuisine.
After lunch, Lilybeth and I headed for the seawall, which was the place all side streets seemed to lead to. We passed by an old white stone Spanish house with a balcony full of chimes, tinkling in the sea wind. We stood in front of the house for a while listening to the newness of this sound: the rush of sea foam into the steel and porcelain fingers of chimes. There was nothing else in the air than this. Was that what peace was?
We moved on to the seawall, which stretched from the pier all the way to what seemed like a park and learned that this was called the Boulevard. Pine trees grew along the first half from the pier and large acacias, centuries old stood along the half leading to the park. We sat down under the two o’clock shadow of one of the ancient trees and bought the iced buko that a boy was peddling around. Lovers, arm around waist, and families with little children running ahead, passed us by. They stopped for a second or two behind us, curious of the talk of strangers. But Lilybeth and I didn’t really talk much. We were silenced by the sight of so much sea. Siquijor floated over the horizon like an enchanted blue rock. I thought of my “Sea Poem.” It was ironic how I had written this poem without even a glimpse of sea. But I knew somehow. This sea that I looked at, this sea that stared at me was my familiar and I decided that I would know her again on this trip.
The sea is filled
With more than the sky
The moon heals
Around our waists
The shadows on our skin
Slick and wet
Like a seal’s.
I am part of
That draws me into
Veined like the strongest
Of fishermen’s nets.
Into the depths
Of a rhythm older
Than the tides
To plant wet stars
On your navel
Shattering the moon
Into a dozen
On my spine
The trail of salt
Running down the slopes
Mapped out by your
To the rhythm
Eating the stars
On my body
As the constellations
Multiply and merge
Into bits of the moon
In the stillness
Of our stare
We went home and while everyone else took a siesta, I sat in the living room under a wooden ceiling fan and watched it turn in the summer heat. The blades made no sound. They sliced the air neatly into thin strips. Silence trickled like sweat. I never thought that I would miss the city. But here, now, after deciding to run away from the cold metal noise of the city, my ears are empty of sound.
Late that evening, the dogs congregated at an intersection behind the house and howled at exactly ten o’clock and stopped at exactly twelve. The cock crowed a thousand times before seven and the lizards boldly scampered on the floor like rats.
Believe this. When I woke up this morning, the first sound I heard was Enigma’s “Return to the Innocence,” and when I stepped out, there was MTV on a new model Sony TV and cable, too. So this place isn’t far away from the Hollywood channel after all.
We meet the Tiempos today.
Under the shadow of this tree
We are speckled
With pieces of sun
Sliding between the leaves.
The wind falls
Through the silences
Of roughened bark.
We are above it all
Perched like birds
Sitting on the branch
Like the foamed thoughts
Of the poets meditating
On the seawall below.
Siquijor seems nearer to us
Than in our dreams
And when the wind
Into our shirts
We puff up like chicks
Wanting to fly.
MONDAY, MAY 2
The Tiempos’. Mommy Edith stepped into the Dragon Room, her hair careless around her shoulders, the years soft around her eyes, I was in awe.
I think it will always be this way: writers will be bloodied, and some writers will be saved … sometimes. What makes this workshop different is that we were a family bonded by the blood of craft. Mommy Edith commented on the poetry while Daddy Ed commented on fiction. It’s amazing how their marriage encompassed not only their own golden love but also the love of literature. They were our parents here and they treated us like their own children. They even had little arguments about certain works in front of us like real parents. And Daddy Ed, like a real dad, always admitted his mistakes after Mommy left the room.
Writers will come to be in the panel and will be different every week unlike in UP Baguio where our panelists stayed with us for the whole two weeks. Here, at the Dragon Room of the CAP Building along the Boulevard our sessions started at nine and ended at eleven to make way for lunch and siesta; they resumed at three and go on until five. They say that we will have a session on a beach at least once a week. I was very excited about this.
I discovered that siesta time was very important in this part of the country. Shops closed to sleep. Large dogs dug into the dirt roads looking for cool, damp earth and, once comfortable, are oblivious to the passing trikes. The only places open are Lee’s Supermarket and the restaurants. The roads were empty except for the boulders of dogs.
RJ Ledesma arrived today after the morning session with Gina, an Atenean. It was odd for me to see him again. The last time we met, two years ago, partying like crazy, writing was the farthest thing from our mind. What made us change?
We walked to Silliman Canteen for lunch and RJ and I got reacquainted. Gina, I thought was either RJ’s sister or girlfriend. She was neither. This voluptuous little Atenean had the richest laugh I ever heard. She completed our triumvirate of food trippers.
WEDNESDAY, MAY 4
To be a stranger. After the morning session, RJ wanted to eat someplace mausok so we walked along the road in front of Silliman and followed the trail of smoke to a restaurant called Jo’s and ordered their smoking specialty chicken inato—barbecue with rice costing only P33. The Dumaguete sauce was a combination of Rufina and sili. Here they called toyo, patis and vinegar, langgaw and vinegar flavored with sili and onions was sinamak. I always preferred to dip my chicken in the Bacolod mix, which was patis and sinamak.
I set out on my own after that and headed for the Boulevard and sat on the seawall listening to Clannad and Kitaro’s Dream. That day had fool’s weather, fine rain against a painfully blue sky, so I wore my navy blue trench coat, my black Chinese cap and sunglasses, my hair in a tight braid. I looked out of place but I didn’t care. I felt that in this world, it was okay to be a stranger. It was finally okay to be different. I walked the entire Boulevard, the sound of the waves repeating in my right ear, the gentle rumbling of trikes in my left. As I walked, I slowly unraveled my braid and felt the wind move through my hair as it moved over the water. Maybe in this strange place I could find myself.
Somehow, I wandered onto the Pier trying to find Pinipig Crunch. I stopped in front of a sari-sari store with a big Magnolia sign over it and waited to be entertained. Before I knew it, two men stood close on each of my sides and two more came up behind me. Their shadows closed around me and they stank of sea brine. I didn’t dare look. I didn’t say a word hoping that they’d think me foreign. Slowly I walked away and they followed me until I got out of the pier. Close call.
That same afternoon, I passed around a piece of paper urging everyone to go to the public market to eat tsokolate and bud-bod kabog. I had talked to Neil before I left for Dumaguete and remembered all his stories about Silliman and vowed to follow every step. The treat was delicious, almost like Churros con Chocolate but the chocolate sauce was really rich and thick served in little white cups and the bud-bod kabog was made of finely ground rice shaped into thin fingers of suman and wrapped in coconut leaves.
We bought our dinner there, too. Blue Marlin for only P20 in slabs charbroiled on little portable grills lining the fringe of the market with smoke and puso, rice cooked in woven pyramids of coconut leaves for only P3.
This group was very domestic. For two days now we had gone home for dinner and said grace before meals and talked about going to church on Sunday. That is, in the case of the Catholics. Mommy Josie and Daddy Boy were Protestants and Calbi was a Muslim but all of us kept faith in our own way. Nobody wanted to go out after 8 pm and everyone either played Scrabble or Boggle.
Sandra and the other UP fellows locked themselves in their room every night and their laughter reverberated throughout the house until the early hours of the morning. They also passed notes during sessions and burst out laughing at the strangest of times. They are the isolationists now.
THURSDAY, MAY 5
The language of home. I was allergic to seawater. My toes and fingers were always gauzed as a child because I spent most of my afternoons on the beach. I thought that my toes would melt into fins and my fingers would grow webs. This was natural, of course, because I thought that I was going to be a mermaid.
Five years I made Manila my home and never had a glimpse of sea in all that time. I remained human and lost my tan. Today, at Bacong Tree House, I jumped out of the jeep and felt sand. I thought to myself, the mermaid is home.
The sea was always blue here. It smelled of fresh oysters. Everything smelled alive. Edel took a picture of me in my long light blue skirt, white halter top and shawl standing on top of a boulder at low tide. When I waded back to shore, Myke called me sirena and I believed him.
I touched the sea and it offered me a small bouquet of seaweed on my big toe. The waves undulated warm then cold on the salt-bleached knuckles of smoothened boulders scattered on the shore.
Ton-ton Kintanar, a poet from Cebu, arrived today. We spied him from the tree house. From above, we thought that he was a woman with his long almost flaxen hair and pale arms. He was not facing us then. But when he climbed the tree house, he surprised us all. Ton-ton looked like a mad saint come down from the altar. He was so pale. His eyes were a wild glinting amber. And that laugh. I felt that he had seen daemons.
The sea had drowned out all of their voices during the morning session. I became deaf to anything else. It was as if I could touch the sound of the waves. I felt the water in my mind.
I rediscovered the habit of shore as I followed the path of the random seafoam and picked up some beautiful broken shells. A salt bleached tiger cowrie speckled with holes had the constellation Orion sprawled on its back. A smaller cowrie had dry old lips. They were mute. They had no more stories to tell. These shells were lost to the sea like me. I had only begun to relearn the language of home.
I walked further along the shore and found the roots of a large tree still gripping the sand after its trunk had been cut down. I arranged the shells and stones on the grooves the saw made in an order the sea seemed to dictate. It was an equation of sorts, lines of shell and stone vertically and horizontally unified into a whole. This was the key, I just knew.
1:30 p.m., I decided to swim. The waves pulled me to my knees as they rolled from the shore. I thought that they would swallow me. Drops of bittersweet water touched my tongue and I gasped with the newness of it. The mermaid is afraid of drowning. How very odd.
I found a stretch of rocks covered with fine sea grass as furry as dogs. Lilybeth and I adopted a rock with especially fine and crisp yellow-green leaves for the day and called it simply Dog.
Stratenfall. That same evening, a former Silliman fellow named Mickey Ybañez took us to South Sea Resort to visit Krip Yuson and have some beers. I had heard of Mickey from the Thomasian fellows who came before me. They called him a green-eyed giant. I could see why. He was a tall, robust Kastila with kelp green eyes and a smile that knew pain. I thought: this guy has the duende.
South Sea Resort was such a beautiful place. It was built along the seawall so we could hear the sea at low tide. The cottages looked like a string of lighted Japanese paper lanterns facing the sea wall. I was so tired that, while Krip and the others were talking and drinking, I lay down on the edge of the pool and looked at the sky. The stars were as honest as they’d ever be. I stargazed until I thought that I would fall on their sharp edges. I don’t exactly know when I fell asleep. I woke up in time to see the white tail of a star shooting into the sea.
FRIDAY, MAY 6
Mark. “The moon is dead”, he said. It was devastating but true. Mark is famous for such truths, Mickey told me. He was the mad man of Silliman. A long story, how it happened but he comes every year and sits in a corner blurting his truths. Despair is of tic-tac-toe and butterflies. He wants us to come home with him to watch his father play bingo with the ducks. The other fellows didn’t really talk to him. I know sometime I will talk to him. I envied him. He had crossed over.
RJ, Mickey and I went to Lab-as Restaurant for lunch, a trike ride from the Boulevard. Lab-as meant fresh in Cebuano and fresh it was. The binakhaw was their specialty. It was like kinilaw, prepared from raw fish (bangus, tangigue and the like) soaked in vinegar and bakawan sap and topped with chopped onions for flavor. This was the appetizer that preceded our inihiaw na baboy and steamed lapu-lapu.
While we talked and ate, tilapia swam beneath the bamboo-slatted floor. The entire restaurant stood on stilts over a fishpond. Mickey told us that past workshops batches stayed here and before that the fellows stayed in the dorms on Silliman. But certain people could not understand writers and their bohemian ways so they were moved away from the conventional eyes of the University. Mickey said that Dumaguete frees souls like birds. Is there a paradise bird inside me?
You make your words
In the corner dust.
Your metaphors are green
As little leaves
Images that take root
In the cracks
Of our sadness.
Yes, the moon is dead.
Is of tic-tac-toes
I wish that I could meet
Your father, Bullfrog
And play bingo
With the ducks.
The afternoon sun
Stings our eyes.
And write poems
While you close
SUNDAY, MAY 8
Apo Island. Sandra got sick during the week. It was only a matter of time before I did, too. First I tried to self-cure then I called beloved Dad, the real doctor. He was mad, of course, and wanted me to go home. I said no. I thought that this was a good place to die. Maybe I was delirious when I decided to go to Apo Island.
It was definitely worth it. We rode the bus to Salawaki Beach, passing by the sign along the highway that said, “The end of the world is at hand.” From there we took a banca to the island. In the middle of the trip, I felt uneasy not seeing land behind or before me. But that soon faded at the sight of emerald green in startling contrast to the blue-ness of the sea. It was a paradise. The women on the island, upon seeing our banca, hurried to the shore, their malong-wrapped bodies flapping as if winged, with their bilaos full of shells. I was fascinated with the malong so I bought one from them, red and black in a pattern of fans and a pair of abalone shells with dark nacre souls.
I loved the reefs. RJ taught me how to snorkel and I was enthralled by the sight of live coral, parrot fishes, clown fishes, sea cucumbers, and so many things I hadn’t even seen in my Zoology classes. The water was so cold coming from the open sea. The current was strong, pressing us against the reef. But beneath the surface, it was still, warm and quiet. The water mirrored sky. The sun looked like a shimmering yellow ball and around me, fishes flew like multicolored birds. Home. Home.
Spent, I sat on the dead part of the reef. It was like sitting in a pool because the coral lime was smoothened by the current and covered with sea moss. I found a shark’s tooth. Old, and sharp.
We went to the other side of the island to visit a small resort there owned by a Frenchman. Each step we took was music. The shore was covered with fragments of coral from the reef and salt-smoothened deep blue bits of sea glass that tinkled as they rolled in and out with the tide. I picked up as much as I could. Some pieces were midnight blue and I found a rare piece that was light blue, almost white. On this side of the island, we saw how the sea had shaped the rock into its waves. We climbed the stone steps to a bamboo flat jutting out of a hill and got a good view of the cove. We spotted a white cockatoo sitting on a tree near the flat. It was a vision of feathered quiet. Yellow crown of feathers, it was king of the island. I have never seen a bird like that so free.
The trip back to Dumaguete was orgasmic. The waves were choppy and everyone was afraid that the banca would break. Ton- ton was frantically bailing water out with a small plastic container. I was not afraid. I was absolutely mad about it. I loved the way the sea heaved beneath me. I listened to Clannad on my Walkman and laughed at the waves. I laughed and spread my arms, not holding on to the banca, and laughed some more. The waves slapped our faces. I thought of the movie, The Piano, and relished the thought of throwing myself overboard. The boat would break if they stopped to save me. “What a death. What a surprise. I chose life.”
I saw another falling star tonight and the Southern Cross has risen over our front porch. At last, I am south enough to see it.
MONDAY, MAY 9
Sans Rival. Ma’am Ophie arrived yesterday as an additional panelist for the week. After the afternoon session, we went to Sans Rival, a little pastry shop, a short walk from the CAP Building.
We sat at one of the four or five small tables in a garage snug between two houses. Ma’am Ophie ordered slices of Sans Rival and coke. It melted in our mouths, this mocha, creme butter frozen treat sprinkled with cashew nuts. I think that I shall never taste better. When I learned that a slice cost only seven pesos, I ordered three more slices and gobbled them up instantly before going home.
While climbing the stairs of the house, I got a whiff of the tangy aroma of Daddy Boy’s sinigang na parrot fish. He had finally decided to cook it in all its metallic blue-green glory. We purchased it from a fisherman passing through Salawaki Beach, for lunch on Apo Island. It had been forgotten in the ice box until the end of the trip. Now it simmered in the pot waiting to be eaten.
TUESDAY, MAY 10
Calo. Hats are appropriate here, in this estuary resort where sea and river meet. The water has broken into mirrors reflecting the sun. I sat on a cemented edge, and dangled my leg and felt the cold river water swirl against the warm seawater. The estuary floor was covered with fat smooth stones. Perfect wading for even the finicky like Dough who thought very rock an accomplice hiding criminal sea animals.
We discussed the manuscripts sitting in a circle under the shade of an enormous acacia and, not far, a lone kingfisher watched us from its driftwood throne. I thought that there were many birds hidden in this tree.
During the break, I did my usual scavenging and found some unusual oblong stones with a single hole running through each of them. They would make good mobile material. I also picked up an almost elliptical stone with a small concave depression rather than a hole. It was poised like a seal with its shadow eye staring at me. I gave this to Ma’am Ophie who was resting in the shade with her large sunglasses, blue shorts and buri hat. The salt air and heat had made her white skin rosy around the cheeks and knees. Then I waded to where Edel, Sandra, Dough, Corinna and RJ were. Ton-ton and Myke joined in the splashing and dunking until Mommy Edith called us back to shore.
RJ fell asleep during the afternoon session right beside Ma’am Ophie. We were all tired and sat limply in our plastic chairs still dripping wet. Ricky de Ungria busily sketched us into his notebook. We probably looked like a flock of wet birds drying in the sea wind.
THURSDAY, MAY 12
Siamese Cats. At 7:00 p.m., the Easy Ride picked us up and brought us to Galleria Christina’s for Mommy Edith’s book launching and annual poetry reading. Every year, Kitty Tanaguchi, the owner of Galleria Christina, would open her doors to the Dumaguete workshop fellows to give them a venue for their poetry reading. She is an artist herself. Long limbed dancers that moved over impasto cities and dreamscapes filled every canvas in her house. Eerie windows to her soul.
The house was an artist’s dream come true. Stonewalls lined with beautiful paintings, cabinets filled with various curios, antique porcelain bowls, glass beads and silver. Old books not available in Manila were piled on one table covered with a thin layer of dust and nearly every corner contained some unusual statue made of wood and stone acquired from her travels.
The garden glowed yellow under strands of capiz lanterns. There were various trees and shrubs that grew over a thick carpet of carabao grass. Flat stones led us to a canopy prepared in the middle of white steel garden sets. To the left was a dap-ay, a circle of flat stones lining a circular depression dug into the earth where our Igorot ancestors probably made a fire and talked for hours under the piercing sky.
I felt like I was in a funeral. Ton-ton had that same feeling. There was a heaviness in the air we could not explain. It pressed down on us as we read poems under the canopy. The chairs were in severe rows and columns and the long narrow table filled with Mommy Edith’s books was set in front of us where the coffin should be. We felt death somehow as soft and poised as the Siamese cats roaming around the garden. I read the poem about the house near the Boulevard, Chime House, while holding a small brass Japanese bell. They loved it. Ma’m Ophie wanted a copy of it.
After the reading and the cocktails, I wandered through the wares Kitty had on sale. I found a tubao unlike any tubao I had seen in Manila. Gold, orange, pink and purple thread was woven in a way that made the cloth iridescent. It felt heavy and precious in my hands. I bought it and Ton-ton bought the other one, which shimmered, red and black. I think it will be a semi-permanent part of my ensemble.
I bought a copy of Mommy Edith’s book and she wrote a little note at the back of its cover::
Life, my dear, is more beautiful than any death you could ever imagine!
That night, in my black summer dress, I curled up with the cats, and stroked their dark brown faces.
The wind leaves
In this house
To tell and retell
Tinkling a memory
Of how the lips
The tales of mermaids.
Where our fingers
Ice falling into
An empty glass,
Where in our games
The wind follows
With its laughter
Combing into our hair.
The dead leaves
Are fallen tongues
An open window.
SATURDAY, MAY 14
Larga. I woke up to an earthquake today and although it seemed like a sure omen not to go to Siquijor, I shrugged off the thought, slipped into my white shorts and shirt, wrapped the tubao around my head and kept on packing. Finally, Sandra, Dough, Corinna, Doreen and Ben-C decided to join us again after Apo Island. RJ, Gina, Lilybeth, Ton-ton, Myke and I went to the pier to ask about the boats leaving for Siquijor. The office didn’t have a written schedule so they told us to ask the boats docked on the pier. Ton-ton did all the talking and learned that the earliest trip was 6:30 am.
So we were there, at 6:30 am with another hundred or so people who also wanted to go to Siquijor. The boats filled up without us so we ran to the Boulevard where other boats were docking. A curious thing happened. It must have been part of a custom because the people in charge of the pa-lista were carried from the boat on the shoulders of the cargadors so that they wouldn’t get wet and, instead of letting them down right away on the sea wall, they ran around in circles and a crowd of desperate passengers chased them around.
We let RJ join the chase but he was too much of a gentleman to push and shove for seats. Lilybeth was the most disappointed of all. We all knew that we wouldn’t get another chance to go to Siquijor anymore. So we walked away, spotted a lane of flower stalls and bought roses for ourselves to make us feel better. I hot a head of six pink roses on one stem. RJ, being the gentleman that he is, bought a red rose for each of us. We went home and they placed their roses in coke bottles and glasses filled with water. I flopped on the bed with my roses and didn’t give them a second glance. I found withered roses more beautiful, more permanent.
I woke up with the roses limp on my bed and the rain falling. It was late in the morning with time to spare before lunch so I bundled up my hair in the tubao and ran outside. Edel and I walked in the rain. It fell the way we felt. We walked around the house without a word to each other, past the open Protestant chapel, past the fruit trees, around to the back of the house and up the back stairs.
Isabel was there when we came into the living room. She invited us to go to Salawaki Beach. Rain-drenched, we agreed. Edel put on some dry clothes, while I dripped all the way to the Easy Ride.
Taby’s family owned Salawaki Beach. Salawaki means sea urchin and there were a lot of them there, strewn in the water before they cleaned up the beach and made it into a resort. We had lunch there. I ordered Inihaw na Baboy and Binak-haw. Afterwards, Ton-ton and I walked to the estuary as we first planned a week ago but didn’t do because of Apo Island. We both had our tubaos on to keep our hair in place and when the sea wind whipped through our hair, we would brush away the loose strands with our fingers from each other’s eyes.
I collected more broken shells. Ton-ton gave me an empty crab claw and said, “Something to remember me, bay!” and laughed like a saint gone mad. I found a black pebble heart and gave it to him and we lay on the sand and talked in metaphors while the thin copper-skinned sons of fishermen shouted, “Hoy gising!” behind us. RJ called us back before sunset. It could have been wonderful to see the sun set on the beach. Maybe next week.
MONDAY, MAY 16
Chin Loong. I woke up today feeling each quivering muscle taut from the climb. Slower, heavier, more determined I climbed out of bed and felt a hollowness beneath my tense diaphragm. RJ did not bring me dinner, so I slept through the night without eating. Being the gentleman that he is, he apologized, but because we all woke up late, there was no time for breakfast and I attended the morning session distracted with hunger.
For a change in cuisine, we all joined the panelists at Chin Loong for lunch, an open air Chinese restaurant in front of the Boulevard. RJ unknowingly sat beneath a poster of himself holding a Royal True Orange. So when the waitress asked him what he wanted to drink, we immediately blurted, Royal, and laughed. RJ whispered Sprite to the waitress and hid behind the menu while Sandra, sitting in another table with Corinna, Dough, Doreen and Ben-C, waved the bottle of Royal she was drinking in his direction.
I ordered Ox-Tongue and Hong-Kong rice for two and when Silvia asked if we were sharing the rice, I said no and they were all surprised. In the two weeks we had been together, I ate like a bird. Now, I was able to finish a meal good for two people, half of Silvia’s rice and, while they were finishing their meals, I looked longingly across the street at Sansrival which had, unfortunately closed for siesta.
Batik. I met Bing after lunch. She was a visiting fellow of a past Silliman Workshop whom I met in the Baguio workshop a month ago. That morning, I told her about my fascination with batik and she told me that she would take me to the Muslim Trade Center after lunch.
We waited for each other in front of the CAP building and took a trike from there to the Trade Center which was a flea market wedged between two buildings where different coloured malongs and tubaos hung from hooks and waved like flags in the sea wind. We entered the center and found bolts Indonesian batik cloth in one of the stalls sold for P 90 a yard. I was ecstatic. There were amazing lengths of tie dyed cloth in various combinations of vibrant blues, pinks, yellows and oranges splayed like psychedelic suns. I bought three yards of sea green and pink suns and two yards of yellow and red. Bing suggested that we go to her seamstress who had a shop nearby. I readily agreed and had the green cloth made into a summer dress. It would be ready by Friday.
Home. Isabel Huggan, a Canadian fictionist with honey curls, visited us during the afternoon session. She was writing a book on creative writing workshops here and abroad and she came to ask us why we attended this workshop. I told her that in our individual lives back wherever we came from, we were usually branded weird or insane and we lived accepting that. In the span of this three-week workshop, I discovered that I was different and that all of us here were different and that made us all the same and because we were the same we accepted each other. I told her it wasn’t within the sessions that we learned to be writers, it was outside, during the breaks, and at night because it was there that we started to find out who we were and if we knew that, we would know to write about.
She liked my answer. After the session, Marj Evasco approached me and told me that she liked the way I thought. That was the first time that anyone had ever told me that before.
TUESDAY, MAY 17
Angel. The CAP secretary, Isabel, gave Ton-ton a telegram as we entered the Dragon Room for the morning session. As he read the telegram, I saw the fire inside him leave his eyes. A silence washed over him and his face changed from that of a mad saint into that of a Pre-Raphaelite angel. His hair, usually in wild wisps around him, had settled around his shoulders in black waves and softened the pale oval of his face. His eyes became black glass that looked heavenwards and his gaze never left the ceiling as the morning session progressed. His mother had died in Manila and this sadness had made him beautiful.
Rose beer. He was silent the entire day and smiled softly from time to time. He did not attend the afternoon session to make plans to go back to Cebu the next day. We had avoided all talk about the nearing end of the workshop. And now, his empty chair tells me, its truth was inevitable and had arrived too soon.
Myke, Mickey, Mark and I stayed with him after dinner in the front balcony of the house. I sat beside him and watched the madness come back after two glasses of beer. He laughed and talked about how his mother wouldn’t be able to recognize him in the after life because of the color of his hair. He had dyed it black a few days after he arrived in Dumaguete.
Between gulps of beer, I watched him take Lilybeth’s withered roses out of the glass half filled with a mixture of old water and aspirin and fill it with beer. I watched Mickey dare Ton-ton to drink from the glass; watched Ton-ton take large gulps until he emptied the glass and slammed it down on the table, christening it rose beer declaring it the drink of the gods.
I followed them down to the Open Protestant Chapel and watched Ton-ton try to balance himself on the thin backrest of one of the pews. Mark cradled his guitar, rocked back and forth singing the line “ life is pain” over and over. I sat on one of the pews, wrapped my arms around my folded legs pressed against my chest and hummed along.
WEDNESDAY, MAY 18
Leaving. Ton-ton left early today. He came into the room and woke me up as he placed his hand on my head and told me he was leaving. He had his red tubao on his head and wore a sad smile. We clasped hands in a secret handshake and let go. Edel, Lilybeth, and Myke took him to the pier. I stayed behind and watched them from the front balcony. He looked back and waved. I watched him. I watched him disappear.
THURSDAY, MAY 19
Governor’s Residence. This was our last beach session and it was a farewell of sorts to the ocean I most loved. It was a beach house with high thatched roofs built along the Boulevard sea wall. I made a run for the jutting part of the wall where the waves were crashing in a froth and asked BenC to take a picture of me sitting down in the red malong I bought on Apo Island. The wind was solid, blowing towards the land that I felt that I could lean against it like a wall and not fall. As the wind pushed forward, the waves pulled back from the shore. It was an endless tug of war. I gave into the wind and crawled back into land before the rhythm of the waves could coax me to fall.
I decided to walk the shore one last time. I followed the already familiar lace of sea foam and searched among its frills for more broken shells. Sea glass of various shades of green was majority of my find. The interesting pieces, though, were partly broken blue bottles, a light blue mug handle and pieces of ancient blue China probably washed up from sunken galleon lost in time. I kept these in flap of my malong, which I tucked into knot around my waist like a pouch.
I found a small blue stone mottled with ocher that looked like the earth flattened between thumb and fore finger. An unusual world. My world, the ocean seemed to say. This world.
As I walked, I talked to the ocean, called it mother, and promised to return. The waves swirled its hands around me, wrapping my feet in froth and let go.
FRIDAY, MAY 20
Graduation. We woke up today to the sound of Isabel’s voice calling us to the living room. We walked sluggishly into the room. Half yawning, half-stretching, we learned that Daddy Ed was sick and our last session was canceled.
We had planned a little program for them to celebrate their wedding anniversary and our graduation and we were disappointed that we could not present it. BenC, was going to play the guitar and we would sing a song and RJ would mimic the person we most hated in the batch. I could almost imagine the laughter.
Isabel sat out on the front porch and gave us each our certificates and congratulated us for finishing the workshop. I looked at the crisp paper, forced a smile and went back to my room and carefully tucked it away.
We decided to visit them in their house that afternoon. Flowers were bought and little tokens of appreciation were made and we left in batches for their house at around three. After a rickety ride on Silliman road and a couple of twists and turns, we reached their front gate and passed under an arch of vines cascading with purple flowers. It was a modest house surrounded with tall fortune plants. It was not theirs, though. We learned, after giving Mommy a lot of hugs and kisses and commending her for the garden outside, that they had a larger house some years back with a big pond and fruit trees which Dad Ed tended with great care. This was Mommy’s sister’s house where they moved in after losing the house due to bankruptcy. Though this news had saddened us, this memory did not seem to affect Mommy at all.
After offering us some of the lechon roasting outside, she proceeded to pull out photo albums and showed us pictures of the past Silliman workshoppers. We saw Krip Yuson with long lush hair looking very much a hippie, malong and all. Ma’m Ophie, had always been pale, we concluded, with her ebony hair and large dark eyes.
Daddy Ed got up from bed and, though weak, sat with us and told us stories of the old Silliman days. The day ended well but quietly.
Milky Way. That night Mickey, Baron, and I had dinner. Mickey, because of our long nights together with Ton-ton and Myke, had become my brother and protector after Ton-ton had left. This giant was loving and gentle and followed me wherever I went.
Baron Barbers was a popular singer during the eighties. He had the color of oil and beautiful onyx eyes. He sold American-Indian inspired chokers and beads to the fellows at the start of the week and gave me the necklace I was eyeing, a wooden orange and brown bead necklace with a white oval shell pendant, brown rays spread like a star at the center of it. He seemed to fancy me. Maybe it was because I called him a pharaoh the first time I saw him, that he invited me out tonight.
After dinner, we went to the Boulevard and while Mickey and Baron talked about the comet that was going to explode on Jupiter and end the world, I stared at the sprinkling of stars, scattered in an arc over the sea.; The Milky way, finally. An appropriate gift. Enough stars to fill all my nights in Manila until I returned.
SATURDAY, MAY 21
Dumagit. After packing and shopping in Sidlakan where I bought a green tie-dyed sleeveless shirt, I fell asleep. When I woke up, it was already sunset and Mickey was outside my door waiting to take me to Diutay’s place.
I opened my suitcase and looked at the rows of neatly folded clothes. I brought out my white embroidered Indian blouse, slipped it over my shorts and sandals and stepped out of the room.
Mickey stood up from his chair in the shadows and said, “Now we will say good-bye the proper way.”
We rode to Silliman Beach and the night gathered behind us. We reached Diutay’s home around 6:00 pm. It was high tide and the waves were moaning as if in pain. Leaving all of this is pain, I thought, as I walked to Duitay’s house for the last time.
Diutay embraced me and led me to the work hut. His brothers were there, sitting around the stove with their skin drums and flutes heaped up for a magic fire. Beer was passed around and as a special treat, courtesy of Mickey, a few joints of sweet grass. Stories were told.
Mickey said that the name Dumaguete came from the word dumagit which meant to kidnap. Dumaguete was once a pirate route and so the province gained the name and the generations of pirate children that ply the route. He also said that once you set foot on Dumaguete you are lost forever. I am afraid that he was telling the truth.
Diutay tapped his flute on the bottle and started a rhythm. The drums followed first soft like footsteps, then hard like thunder. We started stomping our feet on the soft dirt ground and clapping our hands as if trying to catch the notes in mid air. Our hearts became one with the drums taut heart. The kubings rasped like cicadas. I closed my eyes and let the sound of his flute curl around my legs, felt the notes tingle to the tips of my fingers, and I began to dance. I became fish moving in the ocean’s heart. Then his song spread like a net and caught me then I became a bird, then the drums’ thunder brought me back into myself and I became human again, clapping, stomping to the final notes of the drum, to the last cry of the flute.
Then there was silence and Diutay looked at me and said, “Stay. Diri ka na lang.”
I knew then, as I made my way back to Clay Town, I was lost forever.
SUNDAY, MAY 22
Departure. Good-bye. These words did not roll off my tongue as easily as the luggage on the warm wooden floor. The Mustang came for us again for the last time at 8:00 am. Mickey came earlier and helped bring the luggage over the stairs and with a sweep of his giant hand over the handle, gingerly pushed them into the trunk of the car.
I put everything I could hand-carry into my beach bag. The broken shells. The sea glass. The stones. The withered roses. I watched the room empty with memory.
We arrived at the airport, in time for the fight and as Mickey engulfed me with a huge hug, he called me Sister and promised to write. Mark came and gave me an old shirt where he painted “life is pain” and told me, “LIVE.”
Clutching the shirt as I walked up the airplane ladder, I said to myself, “Yes. Yes.”