Your callused palms have been thickened by sap
from encrusted tobacco. This mortifies you
when shaking hands, even when extending
a hand, the roughness and spasmodic twitches
from daylong contact
of the arms, the body
to harsh heat and sudden rain.
You are not yet sixty, to my knowledge
you are only fiftyish
but already lined with sorrow:
much like your children who in their youth
have been wizened to old age by the continued hoarseness
of having to beg for morsels.
It would have been nice if the callused pads of your palms
were as thick as the pocket of your old shirt—
you would rather work yourself to the bone all day
as long as a festive bounty lines the kuribot
and pasagad of your husband.
The forced smile cannot hide
the bleak outlook. Groaning
is the stomach that twists
from the prospect of backbreaking
labor and monumental
effort in exchange
for a few coins.
Roda Tajon works for a non-governmental organization that advocates for indigenous peoples’ rights. She currently lives in Ilocos Sur and Quezon City.
Kristine Ong Muslim is the author of nine books of fiction and poetry, including The Drone Outside (Eibonvale Press, 2017), Black Arcadia (University of the Philippines Press, 2017), Meditations of a Beast (Cornerstone Press, 2016), Butterfly Dream (Snuggly Books, 2016), Age of Blight (Unnamed Press, 2016), and Lifeboat (University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2015). She is also the translator of several bilingual volumes: Marlon Hacla’s Melismas (forthcoming from Oomph Press) and There Are Angels Walking the Fields (forthcoming from Broken Sleep Books), as well as Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles’s Three Books (forthcoming from Broken Sleep Books), Hollow (forthcoming from Fernwood Press), Twelve Clay Birds: Selected Poems (forthcoming from De La Salle University Publishing House), and Walang Halong Biro (De La Salle University Publishing House, 2018). Widely anthologized, Muslim’s short stories have appeared in Conjunctions, Dazed Digital, Tin House,and World Literature Today. She grew up and continues to live in a rural town in southern Philippines.
The van roared through the mud-and-brick village and past the ghost mines, ignoring the dust-stained faces of striking laborers, both old and young, who remained defiant in their picket line. The miners hurled makeshift roofs, safety ropes and clumps of dirt at the passing vehicle, which only flew over the head of the heavily armed security guards. Soon, the sound of a warning shot and the distinctive smell of chemically-treated water would cause the workers to run in all directions, leaving a trail of sandy storm of panic, anger and desperation.
Despite the wailing of the siren accompanied by the monotonous grumbling of the SeaSong, a machine played over and over that mimicked the sound of the ocean and drowned out the sound of other things, Faye could hear the distant screams of her fellow laborers. It was a muted, almost indiscernible thing－the screaming－but Faye knew all too well what a hasty dispersal was like. She sat on the dirt floor of the communal bedroom and rocked her little sister, Mara, who was coughing the sickness out of her lungs.
“Ssssshhhh. There, there. Easy now,” Faye comforted her five-year old sister. The two of them were linked in an embrace, their version of supplication to the gods of battered lungs. The little girl continued to wheeze and, slowly, painfully slowly, when her airways had cleared up a bit, went on another frenzied bout of coughs.
In their village, living meant having a mortgage on your lungs. As soon as they were born, their first inhalation was that of air and all the invisible things that came with it: the toxic vapors, the particulate matter, the profound heaviness. Since the mining corporation had set foot on this village, the locals tried a myriad of methods to keep the invisible sickness at bay, from homemade air purifiers to bandanas soaked in diluted vinegar. None of these worked, of course, but it made the laborers feel like they were not completely losing. It was but the whim of fate and genetic predisposition that determined when and how grave the affliction would be. Some lived into their graying years, until one innocent afternoon when their respiratory tract would choke like a flood-saturated engine. Others, lived to their primes, only to be engulfed in dyspnoea and delirium brought about by the cancer that had been eating away at them. Many, like Mara, were simply born with the disease.
Mara’s body spasmed some more until she finally vomited out a huge gray-green dollop of goo. The little girl fell back to their mattress, exhausted. Faye rose and headed to the dirty kitchen outside. At the sound of the tap water hitting the kettle, Mara shouted from the bedroom, “C-contaminated!”
“Again?!” Faye snapped.
“They announced it last night, during your shift.”
“Don’t worry, Ate. It’s only for 24 hours. I stored a gallon and placed it under the sink. Maybe we can boil from there, too?”
“What will I ever do without you!” Faye shouted
Mara chuckled weakly then added, “Ate, I think they need you at the site.”
“Then let them need me,” Faye said.
Faye poured the hot water into a metal cup and added in a few herbs to ease Mara’s coughing. She headed back to their room and watched her sister gingerly sip the bitter concoction. The bedroom should overlook the four main mining sites, linked underground by a network of tunnels. But the heavy curtains they had draped to protect their sleeping quarters from air particles also ensured that the room was in an almost permanent state of darkness. The rumbling of the SeaSong faltered for a bit, but it was enough for Faye to hear the distinctive bursts of consecutive gunfire. Those weren’t just warning shots.
“I’m fine here, Ate. I swear. But please be careful when you go back there.” Mara pleaded.
Faye ruffled her little sister’s hair then decided against wearing a protective scarf. It was the same anyway, and hiding her face wouldn’t help her at a time like this. Faye went out and walked to the picket line. As soon as the workers caught sight of her, they beamed and cheered. The mood immediately lifted, and the crowd gave way to let her through to the front, the section reserved for the most fervent protesters. And when Faye approached these protesters and asked them to retreat for the day, so that they could regroup and have enough strength for tomorrow, they followed her command. They did so because the order came from the lone survivor of the deadly collapse that had instigated the strike. The collapse that took away 19 lives, including Faye and Mara’s parents.
The cave-in was accompanied by yet another deadly typhoon, causing the mine site to be inundated with mud water and poisonous fumes. Later investigations would reveal that a series of cloud-to-ground lightning strikes hit the mine entrance and a methane well that had been previously drilled. The search and rescue mission went on for two days, and by then everyone had accepted that it would be more of a retrieval operation. And yet, on the third day, the unconscious body of Faye was found sheltered in an emergency safety hole, beside her were three empty portable air packs. A few feet away from her were the bodies of her parents covered in muck. Had the rescuers arrived a minute or two later, then Faye would have been no different from them. With odds like that, it was but expected when everyone in the village started treating her like some sort of a revolutionary leader, an icon, a messiah. But Faye was not any of those, far from it.
And so the men and women dispersed for the day: the armed private security stopped firing and kept their weapons, while the striking laborers retreated to finishing up their tasks in exchange of a day’s wage. The mining site, which had never experienced a lull before, hummed back to life.
After the great flooding that swallowed two-thirds of the country, the mountains became the last haven for the remaining survivors. It was the world that Faye had always known, but the elders talked about the sea that was once blue and gentle and giving. A body of water that was so different from the towering black monstrosity that engulfed entire coastal towns, staking claim to both land and lives. The only reminder of that horror now was the SeaSong being played over and over, but people knew better than go down the mountains, even if it meant living in the village that gave their lungs no respite.
The village clambered up the barren slope of one of the mountains among parallel ranges. Beneath the arid earth, hundreds of pipelines and tunnels built five decades ago snaked through; while an array of silos, smokestacks, storehouses and workers’ dormitories stood above ground. Day after day, the workers dug, extracted and segregated natural resources, yet they never knew to what end. Faye was only sixteen. Half of her life she had already surrendered to the mining village, and whatever the village had given in return was as ephemeral and soluble as the years that she could never bring back.
“No casualties today,” Lian reported as she approached Faye.
Faye flipped through her tattered notepad. She had known Lian all her life—from digging their first rat-hole mines at eight, to mastering the different kinds of ores, to negotiating the terms of their newly formed union. Lian lost her father to a cave-in when they were twelve, so she needed to work extra shifts for her family to afford the rent in the dormitory.
“Are you sure? Not even a bruise? A twisted ankle maybe?”
As Faye and Lian continued going over the notes, two men in identical all-black clothing approached. The girls recognized one of them as Caloy, a former head miner. Caloy lowered his visor, as if that would shield him from the piercing glares of his former co-workers.
“Won’t you look who’s here!” Lian exclaimed. “Guess an asshole still looks like an asshole no matter how hard he cleans up.”
“I’m only doing my job, Lian.”
“What brings you here?” Faye asked, before Lian could come up with another retort.
“I have a message from Mr. Villareal.”
“From the big boss himself?” Lian asked. “Guess we’ve struck a chord now, Faye, eh?”
Caloy could only shrug.
“As far as I know, Mr. Villareal isn’t too keen on being a part of the negotiating team.” Faye replied. “We will only to talk to them about our terms and no one else.”
“Look, you and I, we’re the same—”
Faye chuckled, “No we’re not.”
“Sure. I’m not here to contest that anyway. But let me tell you this: Mr. Villareal always gets what he wants. If he wants to talk to you then, trust me, that’s gonna happen one way or another.”
The girls remained silent. Caloy went on and pointed at the dirt road where the vans were parked. “Go down that road tomorrow before sunup. A ride will be waiting for you. That’s all I have to say.”
Caloy put on his face mask to signal the end of the conversation, then proceeded to wipe his dusty hands clean, as though ridding himself of the dirt. He turned without another word and headed to the van.
The sky was still gray when Faye and Lian went out of the dormitory and made their wordless way to the agreed pickup place. Faye barely slept a wink that night, her anxious mind oscillating between the forthcoming meeting with Mr. Villareal and Mara’s pitiful coughing.
Caloy was already there when they showed up, holding the van door open and signaling for them to walk faster. They went down the steep terrain, and it took about forty-five minutes of driving until the last of the village establishments was finally out sight. While the village stood isolated on top of a mountain, everything that they needed was already there: the plaza lined with plastic ornamental trees for public congregations, shops and grocery stores that allowed the workers to pay in scrip, a shabbily built clinic, and even a modest place of worship for the few religious workers. After the great flooding and they found themselves trapped on a barren mountain, the first settlers in what would then become the mining village were just thankful when Mr. Villareal showed up one day and helped them make sense of the place.
The van pulled to a stop. Instead of a bulk of a building that they had expected, they were brought to a vast open field where a vehicle that they had never seen before caused a tiny dust storm where it stood. It was the latest model of a city airbus, one with tilt-rotors that allowed it to fly as both aircraft or helicopter.
Faye and Lian followed Caloy into the airbus and clambered cautiously inside. Two other men in immaculate suits assisted them and made sure they were comfortably seated and safely fastened in their reclining chairs. A voice announced that they were about to takeoff. The airbus smoothly ascended, and slowly the gray and brown mining village grew smaller and smaller until it was but a dot. An overwhelming sensation took over Faye, the whole world that she had known since birth suddenly swallowed by the immensity of this view from the top. And for the first time she saw it all completely: so jagged and violent, cocooned in the thick blood-orange layer of haze that was beneath them.
As the airbus started to make its descent, Faye noticed that the smog which enveloped their side of the mountain range was nonexistent there. The air was clear enough for Faye to count no more than eight mansions, each with sparkling roof tiles, sprawling lawns and pristine pools. Faye was rendered speechless by the foreignness of it all.
“Faye…Faye?! Are you okay?” Lian’s worried face was but a few inches away from her.
Faye did not realize that she had been shaking. Her ratty notebook containing her carefully compiled negotiating terms was clasped tightly in her damp, quivering hands.
“We’re here. Do you need a moment?”
Faye only shook her head.
The two girls stepped out of the airbus, and walked on a cobbled path that divided a finely manicured lawn. Never in their lives had they seen anything so green and so clean. And the air—it was empty. None of that familiar dusty thickness, none of that rotten smell that was like a mixture of sulfur and phosphorous and sewage. It carried nothing. Faye breathed in greedy lungfuls until she felt lightheaded. For a brief moment, she entertained the thought of finding a way to bottle up some air so Mara could enjoy it too.
A maid appeared by the main entrance. “This way, Miss Faye, Miss Lian.”
They were ushered into an expansive living space that breathed luxury: intricately patterned wallcovering and panels, gold leaf lighting against soft blue, custom sofas in luscious fabric, and a gallery-like backdrop showcasing antiques and photos of what appeared to be various mining villages.
“Please, make yourselves comfortable,” a voice suddenly said.
It was Mr. Villareal, stepping in from the veranda.
Faye and Helen settled on the couple of wing chairs facing the coffee table. Mr. Villareal sat across them and in this closeness, Faye noticed some sort of incongruity about the man. If she remembered correctly, Mr. Villareal should be in his late eighties now. The skin on his face was taut, especially across the forehead, yet what was visible from his arms down to his hand was wrinkled, as though belonging to a different man. His hair, full and jet-black, had soft curls slightly tucked back. He had an easy smile, but his eyes projected nothing but cunning and aggression.
“Finally, I get to meet the girls who are creating quite a ruckus in my 41A7 site.” Mr. Villareal let out an exaggerated sigh.
It was the first time that they ever heard their place being referred to as the 41A7. Mr. Villareal snapped his fingers and soon another maid appeared bearing a tray with all sorts of snacks and refreshments for the guests. But what really caught Faye’s eyes was the tall glass of ice water, clear and bubbling. She picked up the glass with great care and drank from it without prompting, almost forgetting the reason why they were there. Mr. Villareal eyed her hungry gulps and had to clear his throat to get back Faye’s attention.
“As I was saying,” the old man continued, “I have an offer to make.”
Faye reddened at the sudden impulse for the drink that took over her. She wiped the corners of her mouth with her sleeves and mentally reanchored her thoughts.
“This is all unnecessary, then,” Faye replied. “You could’ve just channeled that to your negotiating team.”
“You misunderstand me. I have an offer to make to you two. No one else.”
Faye was caught off-guard so she turned to Lian, who seemed to have missed the entire conversation. She was caught awestruck in her chair, gazing longingly at her glass of iced water, but never taking a sip from it.
At their silence, Mr. Villareal continued. “I am a very busy man, so I’ll lay it all down for you. What you’re demanding for your co-workers is just impossible. Is that unfair? Why, yes, of course. But a world that is fair is a world without a 41A7 site in the first place. And I admit, that is a much better world than this. Unfortunately for you, you live in this world, this ugly world. The world where I get to run 41A7.”
Mr. Villareal waved and the maid came over and handed Faye and Lian each a folder containing stapled papers.
“Those are your contracts,” he continued. “Your families’ accumulated debts in the 41A7 shops paid for, plus two years worth of salary in full to each of you. Straightaway and confidential, of course, as soon as you convince your coworkers to end the strike.”
Faye stared at the papers in her hand, her notebook full of terms forgotten on her lap. She turned to Lian who was captivated, already caught in the mental arithmetic of what that sum of money could bring her. It could buy them time, healing and ease. A lifetime of chasing any one of these, and here in an instant was a quick fix. But Faye also saw how her dear friend would never agree to this deal, this betrayal. Or, perhaps, she would but she would not be able to live with that decision for the rest of her life.
Faye slapped the paper on the table. “This is a waste of time. Come on, Lian. It’s time to go.”
The two girls strode off to the main entrance, Caloy and two other escorts tailing behind them.
Outside, Lian started sobbing. “I’m so sorry,” she said, tear-streaked and trembling. “I would never, Faye. Never. I was just…overwhelmed. You understand that, right?”
“It’s okay, it’s okay.” Faye replied, comforting her friend.
As they were about to enter the airbus, Faye cursed. “I left my notebook!” Faye said. “You go ahead, I’ll go back and out again. Give me a minute.”
Mr. Villareal remained unmoved when Faye returned.
“I want a place here,” Faye said, gathering her notes.
“I know,” the old man nodded.
“I want a place for me and my sister here.” Faye cleared her throat. “We will work to pay for our stay. And you will send my sister to your best doctors or specialists to rid her of that illness.”
Mr. Villareal smiled, “It’s a done deal.”
“Have Caloy send a statement from your end saying that we were being hostile and our terms terribly lopsided. We will fight back some more. Then cut our water supply short. Give me a week and I will persuade them that we can’t hold out anymore. They’ll agree with me.”
“Of course,” Mr. Villareal replied. “You are their messiah, after all.”
“Exactly a day after that, you will have someone come for my sister and me to bring us here, and we will never have to go back to the mining village ever again.”
“Let’s shake on that.” Mr. Villareal extended his hand, “I knew you were the smart one.”
Faye shook his hand. It felt cold and frail, as if the hand of someone long dead.
The sun was already high up in the sky when Faye and Lian made the long walk back to the mining village. The entire ride from the airbus to the van felt like an eternity of tensed silence. Dizziness took over Faye, the bitter-sour taste of bile prominent in her mouth. The SeaSong drowned the sound of her heaving and the pebbles crunching under her heavy footfalls. She held up her hand to stop Lian from walking further.
Just as she was about to say something, Faye fell to the ground and wretched and vomited. Lian rushed to her friend’s side and started to rub Faye’s back for comfort.
Faye wiped her mouth, her eyes bright with tears. “I’m so sorry, Lian.”
“It’s okay, it’s okay.” Lian replied, embracing her tightly.
Sigrid Marianne Gayangos was born and raised in Zamboanga City. Her works have appeared or are forthcoming in Fantasy: Fiction for Young Adults, Maximum Volume: Best New Philippine Fiction 3, Philippine Speculative Fiction 12, Likhaan Journal 13, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, OMBAK Southeast Asia’s Weird Fiction Journal, and The Best Small Fictions 2019, among other publications. Currently based in Dumaguete City, she divides her time between training a bunch of mathletes and finishing her first collection of short stories.
I am the ambulance siren awakening you in the afternoons. I am the bruises on both cheeks; remove the mask and you lose this battle. I am the cough cracking the air into droplets of chaos. I am the doctor who died because a patient denied their symptoms. I am every emergency room that overflows with all the fears you cannot name. I am the fever that rises as your breath falters, the gloved fist that will pound on your chest. I am a government pointing all its guns to God. I am the healthcare worker hosed down with hydrogen peroxide while heading to the hospital. I am each infected patient – identities classified but never invisible. I am jade eggs and juice mixes joining forces to administer cure and joy for this joke of a disease. I am the knots tying themselves in the intestines of a child who has never known shelter. I am the lies that cost billions in blood and islands to uphold. I am the monitor that will beep one final moment. I am norepinephrine, dobutamine, dopamine – everything the world has concocted: not enough. I am the oxygen you breathe through layers of filters. I am the politico who tested positive but refused to disclose their result in time. I am the one question this quarantine has led you to consider. I am a recovered statistic – a ray of stubborn light in this regime. I am the streets – vacuous as a dictator’s heart. I am a test that confirms the diagnosis days after the patient has expired. I am the underbelly of the slums, upturned palms that know all the words for hunger. I am the virus. Or am I the vaccine? I am the wailing of all those wives and mothers who were disallowed to weep those this war took. I am the x-ray that gives you away. I am your conscience, or what remains. I am the zoom and buzz of a busy workday: everything you yearn for of what has passed.
From the Early Days of the Plague, 21st Century
And the sky will come for you once. Just sit tight until it’s done.
- Whiteout Conditions, The New Pornographers
Zero drugs exist
to treat this disease. You’re unsure
if you’ll last this year of your training,
considering you’re young but eat nothing
healthy. X no longer stands
for places on a map, rather as constant
variable for amount of afflicted, recovered,
or dead as the days pass
into months. What remains of the world?
Vacant streets. No one veers out into the open
without hearing the words virus or vaccine,
and they repeat this to themselves,
as though in prayer. Unseen, it persists and grows
like a tiny god. Underneath all those layers
of protective clothing, you continue to feel ill-
equipped, radioactive. This is the best
your government has offered you; this is the most
your friends can provide. Take all the vitamins you can
for a negative result. The skin of your hands crack
as you run it through soap and water
again and again. Wash away the sins of the world - You rest
a good seven days before returning
to the hospital once more. Questions exceed
all answers you are permitted to utter, and some days
you curse yourself into a quiet penance for treating a patient
less like a person and more as a source
of infection. Over and over this repeats. Who is to blame
that the oxygen you now breathe could be laced
with poison? Numbers pile on lists
pile on graphs pile
on unclaimed bodies
disregarded by those in power. You continue
to plough on like a machine, move
your body against all misgivings. You've seen their lungs,
rigid and pale like glass, and you wonder how long
it will take before something plants itself inside you
until you break. You keep
the mask on like a talisman, until all but a knife is needed
to inscribe new grooves into your face. Your jaws ache
each time you operate: the scalpel shakes as your goggles fog
from sweat. Your incisions run smooth
even if you can barely inhale the room air.
You follow all instructions intended
to keep you alive. You make haste
as you work. The hospital is host to hordes
of pathogens. You change gowns and gloves
after you change rooms, go over this ritual
to prevent yourself from going
mad. They praise you for fighting
in the frontlines of this alleged war
yet the fogs fail to lift. The figures
rise: Fallen friends, people reduced
to pixels on a screen. You run
empty after every shift but feign the energy
of a child. The world encourages you to risk
your life, daily. It’s your duty
as a doctor now. Never mind your dreams,
or fears of dying. You cleanse your body
every time you arrive home, call
the ones you love, despite the cities
and hemispheres between. You breathe, bless
the corners of your small apartment
with alcohol and bleach, beseech
what remains of heaven
for a miracle. You remember all those patients
promptly placed in bags, transported away,
elsewhere to burn: their final moments
alone, all ablaze.
Alyza May Timbol Taguilaso a resident doctor training in General Surgery at Ospital ng Muntinlupa. She is a graduate of the University of the East Ramon Magsaysay Memorial Medical Center, Inc. and the Ateneo de Manila University. Her poems have appeared in High Chair, Stone Telling Magazine, Philippines Free Press, and Kritika Kultura, to name a few. She was a fellow for English Poetry in the 10th Iyas, 10th Ateneo, and 50th Silliman University National Writers workshops. Last 2019, she presented papers discussing reexpansion pulmonary edema in the CHEST Congress in Bangkok, Thailand and American Thoracic Society in Dallas, Texas.
El Conocida del otro (Recognizing the strange): Dismantling self and other in “The Last of the Sama-sellang”
I knelt beside him and found myself unable to resist the urge to lay my hand on the sama-sellang’s heaving chest. It did not recoil at my touch. I was struck by the warmth of its body. This was neither plastic caricature nor just the object of many songs and legends. This was a living creature, the last of its kind, its hot mass continued to pulse under my palm, struggling to persist despite the cruelty that it had endured. “I am so sorry,” I whispered. “There was nothing you could do,” Mr. Tsai said as he continued to caress the creature.
—Excerpt from “The Last of the Sama-sellang” by Sigrid Marianne Gayangos, published in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Fiction, July 2018 (Issue 40: Writing the Philippines) www.asiancha.com/content/view/3237/673/
“The Last of the Sama-sellang” is a short story by Sigrid Marianne Gayangos recounting the last few events leading to the death of a creature, the last of its kind, a demise that is also woefully extinction, the extermination of a species. But the story is also an account of a first encounter between human (the narrator) and animal (sama-sellang), an encounter made possible by extraction of the creature from its habitat (the deep seas of the Zamboanga Peninsula) and journey to “no man’s land,” both meeting at the liminal house on bamboo stilts of a certain Mr. Tsai. In the story, this taking of the creature is not so much an act of confiscation from its home as that of rescue from those who have already caused so much pain resulting in its slaughter. And the narrator’s journey into no man’s land is not so much encroachment as it is atonement for the suffering and the slaughter caused by humans.
The narrator, speaking as the first person singular “I,” describes the sama-sellang at first sight as “a creature that looked like a human-whale chimera gone wrong.” The sama-sellang as the Other marked by its difference (human but whale, whale but human) and abjection (gone wrong, distorted, depleted)—the former by virtue of its resistance to classification, the latter because of exploitation, as colonizer plunders colonized.
The setting, a house past the two familiar, visible islands of Sta. Cruz, is reached via a two-hour banca ride from the mainland and across the Basilan Strait. The length of time it took to reach this house suggests a journey from the island province of Basilan, which can be found South of Zamboanga City. Sta. Cruz, which is about 20 minutes away from mainland Zamboanga, is one of the more popular tourism destinations in the region and whose pinkish sand is advertised as a must- see peculiarity.
This “peculiarity” is caused by the erosion of red-looking organ pipe corals which eventually wash ashore mixing with the white sand, symptomatic of the area’s history with illegal coral reef mining. Tubipora musica or the organ pipe coral is included in the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species classified as Near Threatened (NT) since 2008 . Fishing communities of the earlier years also resorted to dynamite fishing until the area was converted into a Protected Zone under the management of the City Government of Zamboanga and the Protected Area Management Office.
Visitors who wanted to see Sta. Cruz are given an orientation before they set foot in motorized vintas that will bring them across the sea to the island. The orientation stresses the prohibition against bringing back sand to the mainland whether or not it be accidental. The guides remind everyone to check even their pockets for sand and to drain these out in the island before returning.
The orientation also announces the Sta. Cruz islands’ status as protected area, declared under Presidential Proclamation No. 271 in 2000 under the category of Protected Landscape and Seascape and its peripheral waters as buffer zone. This proclamation, more importantly, upholds the rights of indigenous communities of the islands to custody, protection, and habitation of the area.
The writer of the short story, who was born and raised in Zamboanga City, carves a path for the narrator past the mangroves in Sta. Cruz and through what she writes as a “seemingly impregnable tangle of interlocking branches [that] discouraged even the most daring wanderer.” The urgency to arrive to this reticent area of the island is made known when the journey’s turmoil is finally replaced by a halcyon sunset, with the first trace of a wound amidst—or, more appropriately, of—the sea: the smell of rot.
With the horizon so close and yet still perpetually receding in the house beset by serene salt water, the smell of decay can only mean a festering wound from a body. Scent is the first intimation of death. This potent detail in the story only prefigures what the title itself divulges, the last of the Sama-sellang. One death that is not exorcised of its consequences. Or another one consequence of a previous hundred deaths.
Mr. Tsai’s house, that which concurrently separates and connects the realms of human and animal in the story, becomes a cursory death bed for the sama-sellang. And even for those who are accustomed to the sea, who discern her temper through her marejada (volatile tides), who revere her generous provision of fish and fruit, she becomes pernicious waters. Even for her children, endemic creatures she bears in her womb and nourishes, like the sama-sellang, such that leaving these creatures in her waters would be leaving them to peril. How does home turn into hazard?
In a place far North of Canada called the Baffin Islands, an indigenous community called the Inuit have a word in their Inuktitut language to describe a sense that something has grown to behave differently and unexpectedly. Something that had always been familiar, a place—your home—for example, suddenly grew different—strange—even while you have just been residing in it all this time. This word is Uggianaqtuq, ‘like a familiar friend behaving strangely’, which the Inuit people have used to describe changes in the weather in recent years .
“This … this is the sama-sellang?” the narrator asks Mr. Tsai, the man who has taken it upon himself to care for the creature in his house, having been afflicted by a malaise and dejection that can only come to those who recognize this loss.
Scientists have long been trying to explain to us how extinctions are a major driver in the loss of biodiversity. This reduction of biodiversity exacerbates our changing climate. A study conducted by biologist David U. Hooper and his colleagues establishes that reduced biodiversity is as dangerous as global warming and reduces “nature’s ability to provide goods and services such as food, clean water and a stable climate.”3 The high rates of extinctions we are experiencing, the study cites, are caused by habitat loss, overharvesting and other human caused-environmental changes.
In the story, the writer builds a case for the symbiotic relationship present not only between sama-sellang and ocean (its home), but also between sama-sellang and human. Thus, also the interdependency of human and ocean.
She describes the creature by making an allusion to the Greek Chimera. In this instance the chimera is not one that is goat, snake and lion, but one that is human and whale—a creature which is of sea and land.
Inside the pool was a creature that looked like a human-whale chimera gone wrong: its eyes sunken into dark holes; a tear on its face, which could only be the mouth, revealed many sharp, fang-like teeth; its skin (or was it scale?) was blue-gray all over, all six feet of it, with patches of pink and green. Next to the pool, Mr. Tsai knelt and caressed the head of the wheezing creature.
The Chimera in Greek mythology was killed by Bellerophon, a man wrongfully banished and blamed for crimes he did not commit. In a bout to prove himself and win the favor of the gods, he killed the Chimera, a female fire-breathing creature by throwing a spear with a block of lead into her mouth. The Chimera’s fire breath melted the block of lead Bellerophon dropped into her mouth, blocking her air passage and suffocating her until she died.
However, the writer further qualifies this comparison to the chimera with the words “gone wrong”—indicating a creature unrestored, unhealed, ailing, impaired, traumatized. Through this, the writer demystifies what she also writes as mystical, if not miraculous: “It (the sama-sellang and presumably also this encounter with it),” the narrator thinks as s/he crouches, “was the stuff of folktales—the ancient sea dwellers who tamed waves and sunk ships, who whispered to and ordered winds according to their whims, who were as old as the southern islands and seas themselves.”
The mythology surrounding the creature and its sacredness does not apparently hold against what it could be worth in the underground market. The sama-sellang is bludgeoned into being commodity. Their famed gem-like scales whose exquisiteness must be so otherworldly makes so viable a commodity it has sustained an underground trade until the death of the last of the species. An illegal trade built on exploitation, one cannot help but ponder about the degree of complicity (to a reader, even Mr. Tsai must be suspect as are the people of the mainland) required to make it possible. Who benefits from this and what is the price we have all traded for aid in the smooth operation of these creatures’ capture and in the traffic of their scales?
The sama-sellang in this story, despite its imminent demise and its “dull, sickly mound,” was still able to sell for a hundred-thousand to a Malaysian trader. Nothing specific was stated in the story, so one could imagine no other use for those scales but ornamentation, given their shimmer and gem-like quality. A life in exchange for embellishments in one’s home. This perversity results not just in multiple wounds on the poor sama-sellang but in its body’s inability to induce healing, making it a dead creature before it even dies.
“The Last of the Sama-sellang” draws attention to these veiled exploits amidst, despite, and linked to a looming ecological disaster. The short story, while it considers a sole death, contemplates the last one of an entire species signaling the slaughters preceding the one we read about. The death of the sama-sellang is the last one because there is no more sama-sellang to kill and not because the slaughterers have somehow reformed or ceased killing these creatures for gain.
The narrator’s question “Will it live?”, a typical response in the face of an ailing life, not only misdirects our agony towards palliative measures but conceals the more imperative questions to confront: “Will we let them live?” or “Are we going to stop?” thus pointing to the real problem—humanity’s excesses rooted in its delusional agency over all of creation. The anthropocentric order of things.
But a realization eventually befalls the narrator as s/he moves closer and is able to touch the sama-sellang: the creature mystified and objectified into commodity, is a warm, living, breathing, sentient, vulnerable mortal.
I knelt beside him and found myself unable to resist the urge to lay my hand on the sama-sellang’s heaving chest. It did not recoil at my touch. I was struck by the warmth of its body. This was neither plastic caricature nor just the object of many songs and legends. This was a living creature, the last of its kind, its hot mass continued to pulse under my palm, struggling to persist despite the cruelty that it had endured.
Our indigenous tribes and communities have known for so long: we are of the world. The world is not of us. Today, it is the country’s indigenous peoples who are at the forefront in the fight for the protection and cultivation of our environment. They must be given the space and support to speak, act, and teach us before it is too late. And we always think it is not yet too late.
Mr. Tsai is one character who, having lived with the sea and acted as caretaker of its creatures, including the sama-sellang, resembles and represents our indigenous communities. “It belongs to the ocean. We are not worthy of their purity,” hesays. In the creature’s last moments, Mr. Tsai knelt, caressed, and never left its side. The old man wore a garb similar to the way the Samal tribes of the Sulu Archipelago dressed.
One of the first moments we see Mr. Tsai with the creature is in a tableau so resembling a mother caressing her child to sleep and reminiscent of Michaelangelo’s (c. 1498-1500) or William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s “Pietà” (1876), which both depict religious imagery, Mary holding, almost carrying, Jesus’ body after crucifixion. William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s “Pietà” (1876), however, differs from Michaelangelo’s work because it shows a non-acquiescent expression on Mary in the face of her son’s death. This painting has been described as a scream in—or, more aptly, to—the face of loss.
Mr. Tsai demonstrates the same devastation in silent protest, being afflicted by a loss as if—or, because—the creature is his own. The sama-sellang pushes closer to the man and as he clasped the dying creature’s hands, it drew fitful breaths. What he does next is another one of the story’s ingenious use of imagery—in the final moment, Mr. Tsai leans his forehead against that of the sama-sellang. In this gesture, the two seemingly merge into one: “one forehead to another, hands and fins, sallow skin and intricate patterns on the old man’s sash,” the writer paints. And as the sama-sellang took its final breath, Mr. Tsai held it in his embrace.
The sama-sellang let out a final sound, a growl that was at once pitiful and terrifying. It reverberated around the tiny house, and as the echo died away, so did the beating under my hand. And then, darkness descended unannounced.
Mr. Tsai continued to hold the creature in his embrace. I rose as quietly as I could and headed to the makeshift stairs that faced the quiet sea.
The Sama-sellang’s name coupled with the story’s setting makes direct reference to the Samal (also Sama) peoples of the Sulu Archipelago, whose communities have settled in Tawi-Tawi, an island located further South West of mainland Zamboanga. Many are still nomadic and can be found in many other parts of Mindanao. A community of Sama Banguingui also continue to live in and care for the islands of Sta. Cruz.
Like other indigenous tribes of the Zamboanga Peninsula, the Samal have been historically dispersed and pushed to the peripheries because of colonial forces and power struggles with other tribes in Mindanao.
Today, a handful of street mendicants are identified as Samal-Badjaos or simply called Badjao. Despite their pervasiveness, the Badjaos are relegated to the peripheries of a dominant culture that has delineated what it means to be civilized and savage. The Badjao, also called sea gypsies, are of sea and land like the sama-sellang. “They are among the most obscure, misunderstood and marginalized among Filipino ethnic-linguistic groups,” writes Bobby Lagsa in an report entitled “Plight of the Badjao: Forgotten, nameless, faceless .”
The same report iterates what Lorenzo Reyes, then Chancellor of the Mindanao State University-Tawi-Tawi College of Technology and Oceanography (MSU-TCTO), calls for: a redress through social justice that includes social, educational and economic development for the Badjao people.
Because of difference (abjection assigned by historical and social agents), the Badjaos straddle the line between visibility and invisibility. And being relegated to the peripheries means not belonging to the “central” culture.
When appended with the suffix –ing, the word “other” becomes “othering,” which directly contradicts “belonging”—a more familiar term, albeit much more fraught in more ways than othering. An article from the Othering and Belonging multimedia journal of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, defines “othering” as “a set of dynamics, processes, and structures that engender marginality and persistent inequality across any of the full range of human differences based on group identities .”
These parallel threads connecting sama-sellang and real-life Samal also drive attention to the links between colonialism and capitalism, both drivers of ecological change and disaster, the former being a vehicle of the latter and vice versa. The Badjao is made less human, the sama-sellang is made more animal favoring the othering that distorts the colonized into what the colonizer sees fit to serve the established order to maintain power. Rolando Tolentino writes, “Of what use, then, is a colonizer, if the colony has been taken out of its aegis, out of savagery—where the savage has become civilized… For the colonizer, elements of the colonized’s savagery remain crucial to his colonial enterprise, that which defines the logos of colonialism… ”
It is in the interest of the I that the Other is kept inferior and subservient. It is for the benefit of capitalist and colonialist powers to portray the indigenous wardens of the sea, the Samal, as abject. It is easier to assume no responsibility in their slaughter when one knows very little about the sama-sellang.
Egyptian-French social scientist and activist Samir Amin, in an interview for French daily L’Humanité (Humanity in English), explains that capitalism is inseparable from colonialism . He says that colonialism was not caused by just some conspiracy. To him, the goals of colonialism align with the goals of capitalism. When asked to explain how the system of colonial exploitation worked, Amin stresses how capitalism, for example, has for so long plundered the resources of the peripheries, which is part of, if not central, to the overall colonial project:
It has been based on unequal exchange, that is, the exchange of manufactured products, sold very expensively in the colonies by commercial monopolies supported by the State, for the purchase of products or primary products at very low prices, since they were based on labour that was almost without cost―provided by the peasants and workers located at the periphery. During all the stages of capitalism, the plunder of the resources of the peripheries, the oppression of colonized peoples, their direct or indirect exploitation by capital, remain the common characteristics of the phenomenon of colonialism.
The capture of the sama-sellang for its scales to be scraped and sold at high prices in the underground market illustrates this unequal exchange that Amin points out. Never mind, for example, the communities who are dependent on the sea and her gifts, who will be affected by her poisoning and devastation, or the death of her species, so long as one profits handsomely and gains more capital.
Because the story operates in the intersection of the postcolonial and the ecocritical, this othering of the sama-sellang assigns a value subsuming the life of the creature to the whims of men. To the current state of affairs, all these “little” exploits causing the loss of biodiversity and exacerbating the climate crisis come at a low cost if these can yield continuous profit that secures power and capital for corporations and the governments they hold at leash. The deaths resulting from the pillage of those whose lives and welfare are not central concerns (those relegated to the peripheries) come second only to the accumulation of power and profit. The extinction of the sama-sellang is a mere complication.
So, in a bout to prove humanity’s supremacy over God’s creation, the human-whale chimeras are killed as if humans are central to story of the universe and its ecosystems. This is done not to win the favor of gods, but to show power and dominion over other living beings.
While human greed is scrutinized, the story branches further into a call to recognize one other symbiotic relationship—that between human and ocean. The interdependence of the I and the Other, and the demise of the I without the Other.
“In literature,” writes Jonathan Hart in a chapter entitled “The Literary and the Other” of his book The Poetics of Otherness: War, Trauma, and Literature, “the relation between the reader and the writer is like that of self and other… Each is other to himself or herself or, in other terms, each person is both self and other. ”
The story plays with this dynamic precisely demonstrating what Hart means as an identity simultaneously holding both I and Other. And it is in holding both I and Other that this dichotomy shatters. And in this shattering comes the decentralization of man in the greater scheme of things.
While the sama-sellang is marked as animal/creature, having been mystified as is usual for the colonial object which is made obscure, it is also at the center of the story, hence playing both subject and object. This centering, although insufficient to make a case for the sama-sellang’s subversion of his position in the colonial order and can easily slip into colonial fixation, gives room to interrogate the supremacy of human (or the prototypical “I” in the anthropocentric order of things) over animal.
More importantly, this also calls into question the very need for a hierarchical order—this particular one—an obsession that is very characteristically anthropocentric, and consequently calls for a recalibration or a change in direction towards biocentrism or the “ethical perspective holding that all life deserves equal moral consideration or has equal moral standing .”
The story plays with this delineation, and while the sama-sellang being animal/creature is subsumed to the whims of men, it is also one man grieves for because he grieves also for himself. The grief is possible only because the I identifies itself with the Other and in Hart’s conjecture, is both I and the Other. The story makes it clear that Mr. Tsai in his traditional garb is mirror image to the sama-sellang as he leans his forehead onto the animal’s, a union and dismantling of I and Other.
The story calls into question not the positioning of which groups of people or living organisms are at center and at periphery, but the very notion of this arrangement, the need to maintain a center itself. The need to maintain abjection caused by systemic neglect, discrimination through development that is non-inclusive in the greater scheme of things.
And even as the dominant order assigns inferiority to the Samal, they are those who stand to educate us, like other indigenous communities, about how to reverse the effects of climate change to prevent the ecological disaster that we are causing. Leslie Bauzon, chairperson of Division VIII of the National Research Council of the Philippines (NCRP-DOST), says that the Badjao’s “navigational and boat buildings skills are an indication of their knowledge and creativity .” This means the problem is not the configuration of communities or the differences that abound among peoples, but the meaning system used to explain these configuration and differences.
“To know there is a wound and a scar, someone has to recognize it in a world full of misrecognition,” Hart writes . This recognition of invisibility and obscurity is a crucial first step. The next step is to interrogate reality as it is seen from where we stand. This would mean pointing out the incongruences.
Locally, it is seeing the ludicrous and ironic placement of a sign warning locals not to bathe in the shore and waters off the R.T. Lim boulevard, a site from where the protected landscape and sea scape of Sta. Cruz can easily be seen. The shores of this part of the mainland have been contaminated because of hospital waste thrown into the sea water. The beach which smells of rot and salt because of this contamination is still a famous spot for swimming among those who disregard the sign they put up. Everyday, the wind carries the smell of the water to the many motorists and passengers who make their way to the schools and offices across the road by the boulevard. The sign by the beach says:
CAUTION WARNING: UNSAFE FOR SWIMMING WATER TEMPORARILY POLLUTED BECAUSE OF HIGH BACTERIA LEVELS WHICH MAY POSE A RISK TO YOUR HEALTH.
This is the same sea that surrounds Sta. Cruz.
1  Obura, D., Fenner, D., Hoeksema, B., Devantier, L. and Sheppard, C. Tubipora musica. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2008: e.T133065A3589084. dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK. 2008.RLTS.T133065A3589084.en.
2  From UNESCO.org’s “The Inuit, First Witnesses of Climate Changes”, Peter Coles writes about Shari Fox and GearHeard’s work in helping document the Inuit people’s experiences of the changing climate. He cites, for instance, how certain members of the community died from a snow storm that happened unexpectedly. Having been long adapted to their home environment and its climate, the community suddenly faces the predicament of being unable to read it.
3  David U. Hooper, E. Carol Adair, Bradley J. Cardinale, Jarrett E. K. Byrnes, Bruce A. Hungate, Kristin L. Matulich, Andrew Gonzalez, J. Emmett Duffy, Lars Gamfeldt, and Mary I. O’Connor, “A global synthesis reveals biodiversity loss as a major driver of ecosystem change,” Nature, 2012; DOI: 10.1038/nature11118.
11  Jonathan Hart, The Literary and the Other, The Poetics of Otherness: War, Trauma, and Literature, p. 27.
Floraime Oliveros Pantaleta writes poetry and nonfiction. She also translates from Chavacano and English. Currently, she teaches Creative Writing, Literature and Language courses at the College of Liberal Arts, Western Mindanao State University in Zamboanga City. She holds a degree in Literature and Linguistics from the Mindanao State University – Iligan Institute of Technology (MSU-IIT). She hails from Isabela City, Basilan.
The bus I rode arrived at the terminal in Digos at high noon. The driver might have been holding his bowels because he drove the Mindanao Star bus like a maniac. And because I was also in a hurry, I didn’t complain. When the bus turned to its designated corner, the passengers from Davao got up. Some of them carried boxes printed with the words “Nutristar” and “Boysen.” Others were carrying plastic bags from the NCCC supermarket. Some men brought big bags and it was clear on their faces that they wanted to get out. There were mothers carrying or tugging along their children. One child had thrown up during the trip.
When I glanced outside the window, vendors stared up at me with eyes that said, “Buy from me, buy my wares.”
Before, the vendors could climb into the bus to sell water, nuts, boiled egg, durian candy, Chippy, Nova, pork rinds, and other items they carried on their shoulders. Now, they could only stay outside, unable to speak to passengers beyond the closed windows. Most of the buses to Kidapawan or Cotabato had air-conditioning. It had been years since I’d taken a non-airconditioned bus.
Sometimes, it was nerve-wracking to take the Mindanao Star bus because of the accidents their drivers had been involved in. But it was the same with passenger vans. Because of their reckless driving, a lot of horrifying accidents had happened, most of which quickly posted on Facebook. You could clearly see blood and brains splattered on the pavement. That was why whenever I take the bus or a van, I never forgot to pray, looking up at the sky. Even if there was a fear of accidents, I had to go to Davao every so often to transact with GSIS, NSO, and other agencies of government.
My body was exhausted from waking up early just to line up at GSIS. Good thing the transaction was quick and I was able to go home right away. The heat was oppressive even if the news said that the northern winds had begun and blow. Passengers flocked to the terminals because it was almost Christmas. And bus operators took advantage by indiscriminately increasing fare.
Good thing I brought my ID from UM. I was still taking a master’s degree, but I wasn’t sure if they’d accept my ID for the student discount. Fortunately, the bus conductor barely looked at the ID I handed over.
Sitting beside me was a woman of a certain age. She said to me, “The fare’s too high, Day, right? Last week, it was only 95 pesos, and now it’s 111. Ah! It’s Christmas after all!”
“Really,” was all I could say.
When the bus conductor went over to punch our tickets, he asked where I was headed.
“71 only,” I said.
“Ma’am, I’ll still give you Bansalan ticket, Ma’am, okay?” the conductor said, punching the tickets.
The conductor said to the woman: “Was that your box in the compartment below, Nang? We’ll charge 20 pesos more, okay?”
The woman nodded at the bus conductor, and then asked me: “You’re getting off 71, Day? I’m also from Matanao, somewhere in Tinago. But I’ll get off Bansalan because I have a lot of things with me.”
I nodded, too tired to make small talk. I wanted to go home and sleep.
The passengers going to Digos got off the bus. Some passengers went down to the terminal to go to the restrooms, leaving behind their backpacks. Sometimes I’d wonder if there were bombs inside the bags left behind, we’d all be gone.
Then I’d ask myself: “Would I go to heaven? Lord! Please let my soul in.” This was my silent prayer.
Sometimes I grow paranoid when taking the bus and going to terminals. I remembered a pastor who was inside a bus, waiting for his wife. The person sitting next to him had a bomb inside his bag. They recovered only half of his body. I could still recall the pastor’s face. He was actually good-looking. That was why I listened and gazed at him when he delivered sermons. They had just gotten married when the bombing took place.
Perhaps the fear never left you if you were from Davao or Mindanao. Vigilance and doubt overcome you whenever you were on a bus or at a crowded terminal often targeted by terrorists.
Apart from terrorists, there were also the panhandlers. If the terrorists brought fear, the panhandlers brought inconvenience. The frequent panhandler at the Digos terminal climbed into our bus. Slowly the familiar face emerged, wearing a large and blackened t-shirt, denim pants torn at the knees. He even wore an ID where his name and face appeared. His name was: Robin Nabaro.
One of the things I disliked were people who panhandled. They depended on handouts. A lazy bunch. They’d use their misfortunes just so they could beg. Others who asked wouldn’t even accept a peso but five. There are others who might have a “disability” but still work hard. There was also a law about prohibiting people from giving to panhandlers. “Anti-Medicancy Law,” I would always tell my students whenever they asked if it was right to give alms. I would never give, because if I did, I would not have been able to help them. I would have helped in pushing them further down.
He began with his script that I’d already memorized. Since I’d been in college in Davao, I’d been taking the bus. That was why I recognize his face very well. Until now, he still used the same lines.
“I am Robin Nabaro. I was a victim of a hit and run. I’m only asking for spare change, to buy some food. Just to buy some food, Mamser, Mamser, just spare change. They say it’s better to ask than to steal.”
In my mind, I mockingly recited his lines, “I am Robin Nabaro, blah, blah, blah.”
He began to collect coins. He treated the small aisle inside the bus. The passanger in front of me pulled out some coins. He even struggled because he had a large belly. In my mind, I was pouting. “Don’t give him anything. He’s gotten used to it already. There are blind, mute, and people without limbs who work to earn their keep. He’s just lazy.”
When he reached my seat, I looked out the window so our eyes wouldn’t meet. But then, to my surprise, something pierced my heart. An emotion I couldn’t grasp. He got off the bus, carrying with him my deep regret upon not giving anything.
“No one else still in the restroom? Nobody in the restroom? Because we’re about to go,” said the bus conductor who brought me back to my senses.
The bus pulled away and turned. Lindsey Store, RB Gowns and Botique, Bamboo Resto, and other signs that were still in the city. When we left Digos, the sign boards disappeared one by one, giving way to a view of rice fields, grassland, the wilderness. As we passed Barangay Mati, I saw several potted plants along the road. There were so few of them this time, the cogon and bamboo huts receding from the road because of “road widening” projects.
Upon reaching the Capitol in front of the Davao del Sur Coliseum, I sent my husband a text message saying that I was about to arrive: “Just a few minutes, I’ll be home.” Barangay Colorado, Sinaragan, Camanchilles.
“Oh, 71, we’re at 71!” said the conductor. Carrying my black shoulder back, I squeezed myself sideways along the narrow aisle of the bus. The bus unlatched the door, as though hissing. After the bus had left, as I was about to cross the street, a red car suddenly appeared before me. Deafening, the car sped off.
In a blink, the surroundings went dark. And in me stirred unease, dread, fatigue, regret, and horror.
“I am Robin Nabaro…” came my last thought.
Elizabeth Joy Serrano-Quijano is a graduate of BA Mass Communication. She is a college instructor teaching Development Communication in Southern Philippines Agribusiness and Marine and Aquatic School of Technology (SPAMAST)–Malita, Davao Occidental. She is proud of her Ibaloi, Kapampangan, and Blaan roots. Her writings are her advocacy for the indigenous people of Davao del Sur, and are focused on the indigenous people, and on motherhood and children, as she is also a mother and a wife.
John Bengan teaches writing and literature at the University of the Philippines in Mindanao. His stories have appeared in Likhaan, Kritika Kultura, Asian Cha, and BooksActually’s Gold Standard, an anthology of Asian fiction from Math Paper Press. His translations of Elizabeth Joy Serrano-Quijano’s fiction have appeared in Words Without Borders, LIT, World Literature Today, and Shenandoah.
He told me one day, I will leave soon, I’m going to miss you, I said. No, you won’t, I’m just a shadow, I am here, always, but never really there fleeting, you’ll never see but always there, whenever you think of me. I’m in the street of Pratunam haunting, walking aimlessly, looking but not finding, lost in the profusion of colors, in Babel of tongues, I am there fleeting, you’ll never see but always there, whenever you think of me. I asked, Would you remember me? Perhaps, when the wind blows from the Southeast, or when the storm ravages the land, or when I smell the brewed coffee, or a cat meowing, waiting for my attention. Fleeting, I’ll never see you but always there whenever I think of you. I said, Fleeting, like a shadow, I’ll never see you but always there whenever I think of you.
I make bed again, in this room, that was once strange, now a home, for the night,
for many nights, I no longer count how I lay my head on a pillow curve by hundreds of heads from different times and places,
I sleep in a bed, that comforts tired bodies from roaming around the city that never sleeps,
dreamless, waiting for the next body to lie down with.
Eunice Barbara C. Novio is a Thailand-based freelance journalist. She has been an EFL (English as Foreign Language) lecturer at Vongchavalitkul University in Nakhon Ratchasima since 2014 and an adjunct professor at St. Robert’s Global Education-Philippine Christian University in Pratunam, Bangkok since 2017. She also writes poetry while having coffee, which is almost all the time. Her poems are published in Philippines Graphic, Sunday Times Magazine, Dimes Show Review, Blue Mountain Arts, and elsewhere. Her first collection of poetry translated into Thai language, O Matter was published in Thailand in February 2020.
Alongside, she writes for Inquirer.net, and her articles have also appeared on the Asia Focus segment of Bangkok Post, Asia Times, America Media, and The Nation. She is a two-time Plaridel Award winner of Philippine American Press Club for feature/profile stories.
If it’s heads, take the path with the gnarled trees and faint buzzing of something coming alive.
Tails, take the one that’s half concrete, half wasteland.
If neither appears, take a gambit.
Somebody told me giant flowers bloom at this one place but don’t take my word for it—I mean, I hear they can reach and kiss stars and never burn or wither.
I wouldn’t know; I’ve never traveled on my own before.
Saquina Karla C. Guiam is a Best of the Net-nominated poet. Her work has appeared in Outlook Springs, the Philippine Speculative Fiction volume 11, Augur Mag, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, and others. She is currently finishing her Master’s degree in English at Ateneo de Davao University.
The Acoustics of Solitude: On Éliane Radigue’s Adnos I, II, III
Electronic composer and sound artist Éliane Radigue was born in 1932 and grew up in Les Halles, Paris, where daily life was punctuated by the noises of the Second World War and the German Occupation. She trained as a classical musician until, in the 1950s, she heard Pierre Schaeffer’s Étude aux chemins de fer (Railway Study, 1948), which changed her ideas of what could be considered music, or more precisely affirmed that the sounds of warplanes which she also sensed as music could be conceived as such. In 1970 she took up a residency at New York University where she began working with analog synthesizers, particularly the ARP 2500, which became her instrument of choice for more than thirty years. Radigue often refers to the synthesizer as a friend and spouse; she chose it for its distinct and delicate voice—its particular sonority. Working only with the potentiometers (knobs), she turns them with careful precision to produce the sounds she desires. They are sub-harmonic, atonal and sustained, often compared to the sound of a drone and sometimes described as meditation music. Radigue states that her works are profane but inspired by the sacred . What is offered by Radigue’s oeuvre, apart from a distinct career defined by the singular pursuit of her own sound, is the synthesis of spirituality and philosophy with technology.
The Adnos cycle was composed between the years 1973 and 1982. I consider this period between 1974 and 1982 as a definitive moment in Radigue’s life and work, what I describe as her aural life, as it encompassed a spiritual transition for Radigue, taking her through two pauses following the completion of Adnos I in 1974. The first happened at Mills College in Oakwood, California. Three young French Buddhists approached and informed her that she wasn’t the one making her music . The second happened in New York City. While chatting with her daughter-in-law, Radigue leaned on the couch, one hand over her ear, and saw that her daughter-in-law’s lips were moving but could not hear her. “So, the discoveries of Buddhism and the fact that I was half-deaf, they happened around the same time. The two events together made me decide to mark a stop in my path as a composer .” In relation to these events, Radigue says her choice to work with the ARP 2500 synthesizer as one that was as easily made as her decision to study Buddhism .
Her electronic compositions contain certain signature sounds: the hiss or static, the thin oscillation, and the swell which is present in Adnos I and II. The Adnos cycle begins with a sustained electronic whistle that grows by circling around itself. The middle of Adnos I is punctuated by the distant sound of gongs, which creates a ripple that cuts through the whistle, amplifying the swell that ultimately leads to the pulse and reverberations in Adnos II.
The sound that issues forth from Adnos is a spectral companion. Where is my spectral companion headed? The meaning is to be found in the title, as explained by Radigue: ad in Latin means “towards” or “going towards”, movement and direction, a body going through a course (of healing, restoration, aging, decomposition); nos or noos is a philosophical concept in Greek that refers to the realm of consciousness, of knowing, reason, intuition, intelligence and spirit. The composition can be understood, in these terms, as a portal and key to a higher realm of being. Considering the encounter Radigue had with the three young Buddhists and her devoted study of Buddhism—where chants play a vital role in meditation that paves the way to mental fortitude and equanimity—the Adnos cycle can be considered the threshold in a period of Radigue’s career marked by compositions that embody the value of self-knowledge.
The listening experiments that I have conducted in various spaces and in different conditions is a means of achieving self-understanding as a person and as a writer. Listening to Radigue’s compositions, studying her aural life, and listening to myself (at this point all three are intertwined), I have been offered a guiding hand. Sound artist Julia Eckhardt writes, “Her role as a composer is not to control, but to share and guide a process .”
Adné: this is said of any part tied or welded to another and which appears to be part of it .
I listened to the Adnos cycle in my bedroom. The colors are warm here, the curtain is magenta with a sheen of gold, the bed comforter is purple, my fleece blanket is deep red, the walls are beige, the furniture handsome brown, and the plants add a touch of refreshing green. A statue of Our Lady of Manaoag painted gold and Our Lady of Guadalupe stand on the bedside table. The lampshade issues a warm yellow glow. These are the conditions with which I listened to the Adnos cycle. Being aware of the colors and the sensation of listening in an enclosed space added to the experience which informs the interpretations I made of the composition. The space suggests the womb as a place of rest and transmutation. (The bed, which dominates my space, is where I lie while listening, where I write, read and do my needle-work). A place of magic. My room is also the phantom mother I have fashioned for myself in the absence of my real mother. My real pursuit in all the cities of the world is after ghosts and mothers.
The conditions of this space (as well as the spaces I have happened upon for listening to L’Île Re-Sonante and Trilogie de la Mort) are instrumental to the experience of listening. The images, colors, and sensations that come to mind are connected to the sound—each one shapes the form of the other. When I describe a reverberation or a hum, an image, or a suggestion of it, comes to mind. I listen to still create images and places in my mind for my writing . This became explicit when I listed the things and images I thought about while listening to the Adnos cycle.
a single thread
a pin of light
the jungle at night
a muted shade of blue
the smoothness of eggshells
the deep, melancholy green of Balete  leaves
There is a coldness about Adnos that complemented the warmth of my womb-room, a place of comfort that preserves the integrity of my voice. Coldness here isn’t about the distance at which temperature travels but its proximity; which to me is the condition of containing myself in a space with the sound. Far from the familiar din of the city, in coldness that is the condition of the acoustics of solitude, I grew to be more aware of my interior state. Artist and writer Salome Vogelin writes “hearing is full of doubt: phenomenological doubt of the listener having heard and himself hearing it… there is no place where I am not simultaneous with the heard. However far its source, the sound sits in my ear .” The apprehension, or doubt, is the body attempting to move towards a certainty (and a hope for a favorable outcome, far from evil and danger), to know for sure what it is that is heard and one’s place in relation to what is heard. If I consider my bedroom a space of privacy and comfort, introducing the sound within my space, whether through my computer or a headset, adds another presence in the room— an electronic composition, sound, that has the ability to order thought but also unravel and dissolve it into chaos and noise. Listening brings me to a space and condition where I might choose to feel things rather than regard them and to describe rather than appraise. Then comes the attempt to translate the sensation and experience into a cohesive text.
Ados: a bank of earth used to protect plantings from the north wind and expose them more directly to the rays of the sun .
When I moved from Manila to New York, I knew that the rain felt and sounded different.
I come to know a city by its lights and I remember it through its sounds. In the same way, I remember dreams based on how loud or quiet they are. Cities are fragments of dreams and nightmares. Sounds swirl in the air like dust. Dust as history— everyone and everything that has at some point passed through a place to settle upon pavements and gravestones and doors. Roaming the city leads to an encounter with all kinds of sound that seem to meld with the movement through places—a blur from one place to the next. And similarly Radigue’s compositions are, on one level, perceived as continuous droning or humming but are in fact full of crests without resolve and reverberations, and are in constant flux. The stillness and cessation, pauses in a waiting room or at a subway station, are as frazzling as the constant, frenetic movement. The wandering, at some point, ends and I settled in my private space with the dust I have gathered. The pulses and oscillations in Adnos poured into me, and restored equilibrium while unravelling knotted feelings. On the floor are a tangle of threads from a project I had neglected.
In the often solitary act of writing, as with musical composition and for any creative pursuits, are a myriad of decisions and choices made at each step. Radigue’s aural life is marked by monumental and minute choices—the pursuit of her own sound, the effort to balance between her career and family, the preference for piloting her ARP 2500 synthesizer with switches and knobs rather than a keyboard, and leaving works-in-progress for a couple of months before resuming.
The practice of making conscious choices, those made when one is in full possession of oneself and fully aware of one’s position, not acting out of the sense of threats against survival and of fear, has been a theme of my writing life. The choices I made for this study in turn inform my habits of listening. For instance, listening to Adnos in one sitting, then again but one installment at a time and while doing other things—I was interested, for instance, in how the sound would affect my reading, while writing by hand, or when walking or sitting still. I felt it heightened my sense of a space and its qualities. I felt more at ease and attentive, and I realize that I am contained in a sonosphere, described by Pauline Oliveros as “the sonorous or sonic envelope of the earth… I conceive of the sonosphere as beginning at the core of the earth and radiating in ever increasing fractal connections, vibrating sonically through and encircling the earth. The sonosphere includes all sounds that can be perceived by humans, animals, brids, plants, trees, and machines .” My existence is filled with sounds that I can use and transform, but which have also been here before me and will exceed my existence . Even when I am alone, I am not alone. The acoustics of solitude suggest this paradoxical condition and the extremes of mundanity and profundity that preside over my life.
Music critic Geeta Dayal writes about Radigue’s approach to making electronic music as “less about controlling sounds and more about surrendering to them .” In listening, the act of surrendering occurs in conjunction with engagement. There is a sense of apprehension and uncertainty in hearing, a mixture of trust and fear— fear of what is heard and unseen (or yet to be seen) and the trust (into oneself and the situation) to move forward, an action that leads to encounter and experience.
Adnos: Moving stones in the riverbed doesn’t affect the course of the water, but modifies the liquid shape .
Radigue does not perform live with her ARP 2500 synthesizer. It seems idiosyncratic but reflects practical concerns. The ARP 2500 is an unwieldy instrument, and some of her compositions require that several synthesizers and musicians be present on stage at once . The choice is also due to Radigue’s own sense of how the sound is received by the space (i.e. the listening venue) and the listener’s consciousness and body—“I have always wanted the sound to be made very enveloping, without a feeling of right or left .” Radigue wants the sound to come forth in a certain way, which she achieves through careful and precise manipulation. Composing for her is an arduous analogical process of recording on tape, working with modulations and frequencies in the synthesizer, and adjusting or redoing an entire piece . Yet she recognizes that the sound itself is a body with its own qualities that she can hold only at a certain point. She makes a decision to be aware of what things are to be left to chance and to accept fortuitous sonic accidents—“I considered sound as an autonomous life that needed to be respected .”
Halfway through Adnos II, a stream of humming is switched off, leaving a single channel of sound that leads to a temporary cessation. The composition moves into a series of sustained reverberations accompanied by a hiss in Adnos III. At the time I first listened in my bedroom, when it played from a speaker and the sound diffused into the room, it was subtle and so gentle that I would sometimes strain to hear. In another instance, I listened to the composition with a headset to bring the sound closer to my ear. It felt as if a mild electric current coursed through my body and soothed me. The sensation was similar to the apparatus my trauma therapist asked me to use—two objects shaped like pebbles connected to a small machine that looked like a guitar pedal amplifier . I held the objects in my hands while she regulated the vibrations and pulses with different knobs. She asked me to think of a place of comfort and I immediately thought of my childhood home. Especially the kitchen because I enjoyed sharing meals with my family. It had a view of the creek and the jungle that covered the hills where I grew up. Cool wind passed through the windows and lulled me to sleep. It’s strange because the place of comfort was also a site of discomfort and feelings of abandonment, desolation—from the green hills that have been disfigured and turned into a golf course to the empty, broken house itself after my father’s death. So, in recollecting, I began to cry. I come to know of my grief by the amount of strength it takes to transmute it into grace.
The hisses, granular vibrations like sand falling through an hourglass, and reverberations in Adnos III are punctuated with sounds like water dripping on stones. Towards the middle, these sounds morphed into a four-tone cadence akin to chimes or the pulsation of sunlight when it hits placid waves at low tide. This cadence reaches a plateau of subdued sound. The chiming is repeated towards a luminous end, where it turns into a series of waves that overlap with each other. It slows into a low-pitched oscillation dominated by a dimming hiss or static before silence.
 “I didn’t want to take the keyboard, because I was sure if at one point I got discouraged, I would have the temptation of going back to it!… I was sure that I would just work with the potentiometers.” Éliane Radigue and Julia Eckhardt, Intermediary Spaces, 57.
 Ibid, 142.
 Radigue provides no explanation of what she thought the three young French Buddhists meant, merely describing that their statement was a “strange and disturbing thing”. I surmise they were commenting on the latent spirituality in her music. Ibid., 132.
 Ibid., 133.
 “… Much like the discovery of the ARP, Buddhism was evident for me. I didn’t need to look anymore, I could devote myself to it. It was during the same period that I did Adnos II and Adnos III.” Ibid, 133.
 Ibid., 35.
 This text (and succeeding ones) comes from a text Radigue wrote for the Adnos cycle. Ibid, 182.
 Éliane Radigue in her notes on the Adnos cycle: “Only listening is requested, like a double and absent attention that is simultaneously towards an image proposed from the outside, of which the reflection lives in thought in the interior world.” Ibid., 182.
 The Balete is several species of trees from the genus Ficus, also known as the Strangler Fig.
 Salome Vogelin. Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound (New York: Continuum, 2010), xii.
 Ibid, 182.
 Pauline Oliveros, “Auralizing the Sonosphere: A Vocabulary for Inner Sound and Sounding”, in Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2004), 91.
 Christoph Cox. Sonic Flux: Sound, Art, and Metaphysics (Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 2018).
 Geeta Dayal. “An incandescent force-field: the electronic composer’s Chry-Ptus is reissued”, 4Columns, October 4, 2019, http://4columns.org/dayal-geeta/eliane-radigue.
 Ibid., 182.
 In 2011, Radigue played L’Île Re-Sonante at Presences Electroniques (Electronic Presences), a festival of experimental electronic music, 2011 at Paris, France. The electronic composition was played with a digital instrument in front of a live audience.
 Ibid., 120.
 “… when I was doing pieces which lasted for seventy or eighty minutes, if something wrong is happening at seventy-five minutes, everything had to be redone from the beginning.” Éliane Radigue, Pink Noises: women in electronic music and sound interview by Tara Rodgers (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2010), 58.
 Ibid., 32.
 This is an Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing apparatus used by psychotherapists to alleviate a patient’s distress rooted in traumatic memories.
Zeny May D. Recidoro is a writer and scholar residing in New York City. She is a recipient of the Asian Cultural Council fellowship grant in 2018 and 2019 and is pursuing an MFA in Art Writing and Criticism at the School of Visual Arts. She graduated with a degree in Art Studies from the University of the Philippines – Diliman in 2014. Her literary works have been published in Lontar: A Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, quarrtsiluni, Terse Journal, Unlikely Journal, Kritika Kultura, Queen Mobs Tea House, and Berfois. As an art writer, she has written for the Brooklyn Rail and Degree Critical. Recidoro was raised in San Pedro, Laguna, Philippines.
Silencing Schemes: Notes on the Philippine Art Scene in the Face of Fascism
Recently, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) released the call for nominations for the Order of National Artists, the highest recognition given to Filipino individuals “who have made significant contributions to the development of Philippine Arts.”
A few weeks before this call, F. Sionil Jose’s articles in Hindsight , his column for the Philippine Star, drew widespread condemnation for justifying the state-sponsored closure of ABS-CBN, the largest broadcast network in the Philippines, and the cyberlibel conviction of Maria Ressa, Chief Executive Officer of Rappler, a leading online media outfit. Like the avid supporters of President Duterte, he refused to acknowledge that these two cases are attacks on press freedom. It should be emphasized that F. Sionil Jose is a National Artist for Literature.
These incidents offer a glimpse into how Filipino artists have been grappling and perhaps could grapple with the present-day challenges to art-making.
Faced with the COVID-19 pandemic’s lockdown regulations and other mobility restrictions, many Filipino artists have turned mostly to digital platforms, sometimes as a means for survival. Performances, workshops, and even exhibits nowadays are produced and conducted for online audiences. Though the quality of engagements is arguably lower than what was possible before the pandemic, this compromise in platform has at least enabled the continuation of artistic initiatives.
But should Filipino artists settle for just continuing their pre-pandemic initiatives and concerns when the worst danger to art-making is not COVID-19?
While the NCCA has provided—after much pressure from the community—modest financial assistance to a number of artists rendered jobless by the pandemic, its call for nominations for the Order of National Artists, among other business-as-usual endeavors in the middle of a serious health crisis, signifies apathy for far more urgent issues, including the Duterte administration’s sustained and sweeping attacks on press freedom and free expression—basic rights that make artistic expression possible in the first place.
Under the Duterte government, artists and creatives, media practitioners, and the people as a whole suffer different kinds of silencing schemes especially in the midst of this pandemic. Since the beginning of the world’s longest lockdown, dozens of ordinary Filipinos have each received a subpoena from the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) for simply taking issue with the Duterte government’s incompetence and expressing their displeasure on their social media accounts . One of the subpoenaed individuals is a student, who allegedly posted distasteful remarks against Bong Go, Duterte’s Man-Friday-turned-Senator. Others, however, weren’t as lucky to get subpoenaed as they were illegally arrested. Two teachers had been illegally arrested. And so was Cebu-based artist Bambi Beltran for her sarcastic post on Facebook.
Meanwhile, major media outfits have not been the only target of silencing schemes by the Duterte government. In fact, attacks on ABS-CBN and Rappler are only magnified—in terms of media coverage—versions of the exact same attacks happening to alternative media for some time. On July 26, copies of Pinoy Weekly, an alternative publication, were seized by state forces in Pandi, Bulacan for alleged subversion . In February, Frenchie Mae Cumpio of Eastern Vista, an alternative media outfit in Tacloban, was arrested for reporting about human rights violations and other military abuses in peasant communities .
Even films became subject to silencing schemes. Three weeks prior to the opening of the “film festival that aims to support local independent cinema,” Sinag Maynila disqualified Jay Altajeros’ Walang Kasarian ang Digmang Bayan (The Revolution Knows No Gender) for its alleged deviation from the original script.
Exposing the atrocities of the Duterte government through following the lives of a nun, an activist, a striking worker, and a documentarist slaughtered by the military, Digmang Bayan dares to speak out: “Ako mismo ang papatay kay Duterte!” (“I will kill Duterte myself!”) says the character played by the actress Rita Avila in the film.
The filmmaker Brillante Mendoza, Sinag Maynila Founder and Duterte supporter, offered no explanation on the disqualification. Why would he need to when his political stance, most apparent in his film Mindanao (2019), where military men are depicted as heroes,  has also been exhibited twice when he himself directed two of Duterte’s State of the Nation Address (SONA)?
Mostly experienced by counterculture artists seeking further accessibility, exclusion or gatekeeping usually happens in institutionalized platforms like Sinag Maynila. It is not unusual for these platforms to be run by established artists upholding some kind of prestige, ideology, and in Mendoza’s case, power, that they don’t want to share with other creators, especially nonconforming ones. If Digmang Bayan‘s exclusion says something about artistic practices in the Philippines, that would be the necessity of more independent productions and further empowerment of artists to make these independent productions happen.
Not all silencing schemes are direct. Some can appear in the form of prestige.
Parasite, a 2019 Korean film exposing the tumultuousness of the gap between a wealthy and an impoverished family, is one example. By bagging a back-to-back Oscars win as Best Foreign Language Film and Best Picture, the film succumbs to silencing through co-optation, a common defeat for artistic productions banking heavily on content to assert relevance. One could only imagine the irony of a film—supposedly carrying a powerful social commentary—being bestowed a “historic award” by a body that brazenly splurges for a one-night ceremony; WalletHub, as mentioned in Forbes, reported that the 2020 Oscars had cost $44 million .
The sheer number of Filipino filmmakers hailing the win did not come as a surprise. As creators who have to rely heavily on prestige so their productions could reach a wider audience, Filipino filmmakers had to pander to entities like the Oscars which, in validating artistic productions, is actually co-opting their relevance.
Aestheticism is another form of silencing. The silencing in this case more acutely manifests as it comes more from the artist and not from award-giving bodies. In Art Fair Philippines, heralding itself as “the premier platform for the best in modern and contemporary visual art,” featured Dukot Survival, Manny Montelibano’s glass-encased installation of burnt rice decked with small plastic human figures. Art Fair Philippines recognized Dukot Survival as the winning piece costing P90,000.
Apart from its insult to landless farmers, who for decades have been fighting for genuine land reform even at the cost of their lives, and to the majority who are left with no choice but to eat burnt rice, as detailed in Ibong Adorno , Dukot Survival silences peasants’ narratives by making a spectacle out of the very product they create with their labor. The exhibit, where Dukot Survival was shown, had an entrance fee of P350.00 ($7), an amount much higher than what most Filipino farmers earn in a day. In Hacienda Luisita, a sugarcane plantation in Tarlac, a farmer earns as low as P9.50 ($.20) for a week’s worth of work.
Silencing by aestheticism isn’t something new, either. For a country espousing the irony of scarcity vis-à-vis richness, the Philippines is also home to many artists who are always on the hunt for opportunities, willfully exoticizing and making prettified depictions of subjects such as poverty. This tendency dates as far back as the American Period. The Filipino critic Alice Guillermo writes: “There came new patrons for visual arts under the new colonial government. They were the Americans who first came here in the beginning of the current century. They looked for ricefields, native huts, carabaos, including colorful farmers fit for tourist postcards. Fernando Amorsolo, who became popular in the Commonwealth Period, was the main painter who responded to this need. Hundreds of paintings depicting handsome men and women amidst farm life came from him. Women working at the farm, selling fruits, cooking rice, bathing in the brook became the new kind of muse in paintings. These images however maintained the feudal depictions of women such as coyness. Although these pictures charmed people, they were far from the reality of farmers’ uprising against abusive government-backed landlords in the countryside.” Aestheticism’s danger lies not only in seeing something that should be transformed beautiful, but also in believing that the act of its showcasing is a step to its transformation.
In the face of these silencing schemes and the intensifying attacks on press freedom, free expression, and cultural workers, Sama-Samang Artista para sa Kilusang Agraryo (SAKA) or Artists Alliance for Genuine Land Reform and Rural Development and the Concerned Artists of the Philippines (CAP), launched during the month of arts two campaigns: “Free the Artists” and “Artists Fight Back.”
Formed in 2011 to demand the release of poet-activist Ericson Acosta, “Free the Artists” finds renewal in the recent illegal arrests of some cultural workers. One of which is Alvin Fortaliza, a choreographer and director of Bansiwag Cultural Network, who was arrested in Bohol more than a year ago on false charges . He still remains in jail despite the lack of evidence. The same goes for the members of Teatro Obrero, who were hijacked by the military on their way to the Escalante Massacre Commemoration in Bacolod City .
Meanwhile, CAP soft-launched the “Artists Fight Back” campaign on February 24 by lighting the walls of Camp Crame with the image of Duterte in a boldly stylized Wanted ad poster. The campaign aims to show the solidarity of artists against Duterte’s attacks on democracy.
While most of us are being made to believe that the biggest challenge now to art-making is its continuation despite the pandemic, other artists, especially the dissenting ones, are being silenced in different ways. Worse, through murder and illegal arrest. Even it survives, what would be left of art if it loses its capacity for dissent?
The art scene in the Philippines cannot be divorced from the struggle of artists for genuine freedom, as artists are still at the mercy of institutional validation, as landlords still parade their capability to accumulate artworks, as dissenting artists still get disenfranchised in various platforms, as press freedom and free expression perpetually remain under threat.
 Jose, Francisco Sionil, “The Oligarchy and ABS-CBN: Don’t Give Them Your ‘Balls’,” The Philippine Star. May 18, 2020. https://www.philstar.com/opinion/2020/05/18/2014744/oligarchy-and-abs-cbn-dont-give-them-your-balls
 Buan, Lian, “NBI Summons ‘More Than a Dozen’ for Coronavirus Posts,” Rappler. April 2, 2020. https://rappler.com/nation/nbi-summons-more-than-dozen-people-social-media-coronavirus-posts
 De Leon, Sarah, “Pinoy Weekly Copies Seized by Police in Pandi, Bulacan,” Manila Today. July 26, 2020. https://manilatoday.net/pinoy-weekly-copies-seized-by-police-in-pandi-bulacan/
 Committee to Protect Journalists, “Philippine journalist Frenchiemae Cumpio detained since February on firearms charges,” Committee to Protect Journalists. April 22, 2020. https://cpj.org/2020/04/philippine-journalist-frenchiemae-cumpio-detained/
 Estrada, Roma, “Film and Fascism: Notes on the First Cinema Kritika,” Bulatlat. February 6, 2020. https://www.bulatlat.com/2020/02/06/film-and-fascism-notes-on-the-first-cinema-kritika
 Feldman, Dana, “Oscars 2020: By The Numbers,” Forbes. February 4, 2020. https://www.forbes.com/sites/danafeldman/2020/02/04/oscars-2020-by-the-numbers/amp/
 Ibong Adorno, “Hunger Aesthetics,” Facebook. February 27, 2020. https://www.facebook.com/279025725900361/posts/842320432904218/
 Umil, Anne Marxze, “Groups Slam Arrest of Artist, Party-list Leader in Bohol,” Bulatlat. March 6, 2019. https://www.bulatlat.com/2019/03/06/groups-slam-arrest-of-artist-party-list-volunteer-in-bohol/ Marlon Maldos, who took over his position in Bansiwag Cultural Network, was murdered on March 17, 2020 in Bohol.
 Karapatan, “Mass Arrest of 9 Cultural Workers in Negros, Indicative of De Facto ML in the Island,” Karapatan. September 19, 2019. https://www.karapatan.org/Mass+arrest+of+9+cultural+workers+in+Negros%2C+indicative+of+de+facto+ML+in+the+island
Roma Estrada has taught for ten years in different high schools and universities. She also writes for Gantala Press, Ibong Adorno, and Concerned Artists of the Philippines. Currently maintaining a column for Davao Today, an alternative online media outfit, she also co-edited LILA, a poetry anthology by women, and Kult, a collection of capsule critiques. Her other works can be read in the anthologies Umaalma, Kumikibo (Gantala Press, 2018) and Sigwa: Climate Fiction Anthology from the Philippines, forthcoming from the Polytechnic University of the Philippines Press.
Paking and his Nanay Sayong were getting ready to pray the Holy Rosary as the dark was gently falling. It was the first Friday of the month, the day of each month when Nanay Sayong vowed to pray novenas for all of her remaining life. At twenty-nine years old, Paking had not once dodged his Nanay’s bidding to say the Holy Rosary with her. He was only twelve years old when his Tatay died, and from that time, his Nanay Sayong never missed a novena on the promised day. Paking was just lighting the candles when he heard loud commotion from the house next door. Something crashing. Voices yelling and screaming.
“Maria Santissima, go and help Taling,” Nay Sayong whispered to him urgently. “I don’t like the noises coming from that house next door.”
The old woman had barely finished talking when they heard bare feet thudding on the ground, heading in their direction, and going up their porch. Their door slammed open. Taling burst in, wearing a torn blouse, hair in disarray, her face distorted with terror.
“Paking, please come to the house.”
They raced each other back to Taling’s house. When they got inside, Paking instantly saw Taling’s husband, Cardo, sprawled by the hearth, just four steps from the door. Cardo had both hands on a fresh wound trying to stop the blood that that was gushing out profusely. He glared at them, fear and anger in his face. The machete with its gleaming blood-stained blade was still lying on the floor beside him near his head.
Paking stopped, temporarily nailed on his feet, he felt the world spinning around him. His head was light and he felt ready to collapse.
Taling went straight left to the alcove, leaving the door leaf hanging open so that Paking saw his two godchildren inside. The three-year old Sara and Junior who just turned two last March, were soundly asleep. They were oblivious to the fact that just a few steps away, their father was lying in a pool of his own blood. Taling stared at the sleeping children for a little while. Then she picked up a t-shirt. She came out of the room and pressed the clothing on the gash on Cardo’s neck.
“’King. Help please. Let’s get him to a hospital.”
Paking broke out of his momentary blankness. Blinking a few times, he heard Taling’s words piercing his senses, and then he rushed out and ran to Apyong’s house. Apyong was a driver of a passenger jeepney in their barangay, paying a boundary fee for his use of the vehicle.
In little time, Apyong’s jeep rumbled into Taling’s front yard. Paking got off, and after him, Apyong’s teenage daughter. Paking put his arms around Cardo and walked him out of his shack, and helped him into the jeep. Apyong’s young daughter stayed behind to mind the ‘sleeping children.
Paking made the borrowed jeep fly on the road. The sarao’s motor roared, choking occasionally when he in his panic made some untimely gear-shifts. Grain-size blobs of sweat flowed down his body. His throat was dry and his heart was drumming in his chest. He kept praying there won’t be any counter-flow, thinking of Apyong’s warning that the brake was rather slow on the uptake. Luck, so far, had been on their side, people were at supper, and the road was clear, traffic was light, not too many vehicles were out. They needed to get to the hospital fast, Cardo was losing a lot of blood.
As he drove, Paking took quick glances on the rearview mirror at his passengers. Cardo was stretched out in the back part of the seat, almost falling out, his legs extended to the bench on the opposite side. His eyes, turned to Taling who was seated to his right, were venomous with hatred. Taling had one hand busy, pressing a piece of cloth against Cardo’s wound trying to stop the bleeding, the other hand holding on for balance to the jeep’s window side. Her head was turned away from Cardo, her eyes focused forward on the windshield. She would look at Cardo now and then, quickly removing her eyes with a look of disgust. Cardo was ranting, heaping threats and curses upon Taling.
“You! Si’a, si’a, how dare you. You wanted me dead so you could run around free with another man.”
Taling pressed the cloth harder against Cardo’s wound.
“Agi ! Agi, nga yawa ka!” Cardo screamed, sitting up with a start and taking hold of Taling’s hand that was pressing the cloth on his wound. She snapped back,
Cardo stared outside of the jeep, turning his head away from Taling grumbling.
“If I survive this–. Just wait. Nga yawa ka, expect more to come your way.”
“Let’s see,” Taling shot back. Cardo glared at Taling. A scowl distorting his face, he spat outside the jeep.
Past the Alajas Machine Shop, Paking heard the bells of the Redemptorist Church. He glanced at his passengers.
“We’re almost there.”
Past El Reposo, Paking saw the crosses and the stone angels showing over the concrete walls of the city’s graveyard. Casting a sideways look them, he knocked on the jeepney seat beside him and mumbled a prayer,
“Tabi la, tabi la, we’re just passing through. Please don’t take any interest now on this other one here.”
Taling returned her attention to Cardo. Moving closer to him, she put her hands under his armpits and pulled him up to sit straighter on the seat and keep him from sprawling.
They were now by the Redemptorist and as Paking maneuvered the vehicle into the Bethany hospital compound, he still managed to make the sign of the Cross with his other hand.
“‘King,” Cardo commented mockingly, “you’ll get beyond heaven, the way you’re carrying on. Please whisper a word to San Pedro for me, will you?”
“‘Im’ iroy, Cardo. Don’t make that kind of joke now.”
The jeep headed straight to the emergency. Paking jumped quickly out of the jeep and went to his passengers at the back. He helped Cardo down, supporting him as he walked him to the emergency room. Taling followed the two men, carrying the blood-steeped cloth. A tall thin nurse met them at the entrance and guided them to a vacant bed. The nurse made Cardo lie down. A doctor came and with him another nurse with yellow-dyed hair. They examined the wound which was beginning to bleed again.
“‘Deep laceration, severed artery. I can see his collar bone. Nurse, do the temp first, and then take him to X-ray. After the X-ray, take him to the O.R.”
“Yes, Doc,” the thin lanky nurse said.
The doctor turned to Paking and asked,
“How did he get this?” turning quickly back to look at Cardo’s wound, putting on his gloves meanwhile.
“That’s how he was, Doc. He came home with that wound,” Taling spoke up. “I’m guessing he got into a fight when he was outside. He’s drunk.”
Cardo turned his head away when he heard Taling’s words. He fixed his angry eyes on the curtains surrounding his bed. Tears were stinging his eyes, but before they could flow out, he quickly wiped them off with the back of his hands.
“What about you, Mrs? What happened to you? Your face is all swollen.”
“Oo, Doc,” Taling replied, quickly running a hand to smoothen her hair and bringing it down to cover the left side of her face which was most battered. “Aw, inin, kuan Doc, it’s nothing. I just happened to fall on my face.”
“Sige, that’s what you’re saying,” the doctor said with a wry smile on his face.
“Ada, this husband of yours, his wound is big, reaching the bone. We have to operate on him.”
The two nurses and the doctor were on either side of Cardo. Taling moved to the foot of the bed so the nurses and the doctor could position themselves properly around him. Taling touched her face gingerly, wincing a little at the pain she felt on the swollen part.
While the medical people were working on Cardo, Paking left the emergency room. His hurried steps took him to the hospital garden. He found a bench and sat down.
Paking and Cardo were the closest of friends since they were children. Their folks were old residents of Manlurip, and the two of them also grew up in the same place. One late afternoon when they were both still unmarried, he found Cardo waiting for him to go out from his job at Washington Trading. He was sitting on the sidewalk.
“Oy , pare, what brings you here? Waiting long?”
“You took a long time, coming out. Aren’t you supposed to be done at six?”
“Five o’clock, actually. But I’m in charge of the warehouse. I can’t leave until the bodega is closed. It’s my responsibility.”
Cardo stood up and lighted a cigarette.
“Nga yawa, P’re, Taling is pregnant,” Cardo said.
Cardo had been after Taling for the longest time, the bedimpled morena, daughter of a snackfood hawker in the market, the one near the meat section. Taling had long hair, a ready smile for everyone, and moved gracefully. Her eyes had long lashes, and when she turned them on you, you would feel as if she saw everything to the very depth of your soul. People also referred to Taling as Alias CocaCola Beauty, because her body, they said, had the symmetry of an eight-ounce Coke bottle–small waist and broad hips.
“The Alias CocaCola girl? Younger sister of Jun Brown, the butcher in the market?”
“Hala ka, nim’ iroy, you’re not telling me you plan on running away from this one too, like you did with that other one in Ormoc. If you try to escape from this one, Padi, you won’t ever be able to return to Tacloban forever.”
“Exactly what I’m afraid of, nga yawa. So I suppose it’s goodbye my happy days for me this time, that’s what I think. Puta, pare, that brother of hers nga yawa, he might cut me up.”
“Well, that’s because you peck anywhere the pecking is good, nga yawa you don’t take care to check who you’re putting on the lurch. Now then, have you paid your respects to Jun?”
“How can I not do it? They went to my work place earlier today, in motorbikes, and there were three of them.”
After a week, Cardo and Taling were married in civil rites. Taling’s mother, a market vendor, cried for her youngest daughter all throughout the wedding ceremony which was presided over by a justice of the peace. Cardo built a little hut across the street from Paking’s house. From his porch, Paking can look down on the yard of Cardo and Taling’s domestic premises.
When their daughter Sara was learning to take her steps on their porch, Taling started selling puto and iraid, snack food that she and her mother used to sell in the market. Then she added dried fish, rice, some canned goods, and tuba to her stocks. Listening from their own house, Paking overheard his Nanay Sayong once, talking to Taling while she was buying tuba.
“’Day Taling, I’m buying tuba again. Half a gallon, make sure it’s bahal, ha?”
“Of course, Nang Sayong. Here’s your special.”
“‘Mamay ano, this small store of yours is becoming bigger.”
“Buyag, Nang. Well, I’m really working hard on this, ’cause if I depended on Cardo, we will all starve. You know about that fellow, when he receives his pay, it goes straight to the galonan. When he comes home, his pocket is drained, he’s drunk, and he’s also angry.”
“Just keep on praying, Taling. Pray to San Antonio de Padua, that he will see the light.”
“Haguy, Nang Sayong, the saints are probably deafened by my prayers already.”
“Don’t be discouraged, Iday.”
“I don’t mind his being jobless every now and then, as long as he doesn’t do the things he does. He comes home drunk and angry, acting like lord and master. If he doesn’t like the food I serve him, he would throw away everything in the yard, claypot and all.”
“Nothing we can do about it. It is what it is. You can’t very well leave your husband, you know. It’s no good to have your children grow up without a father. You’d be no better than any disgraced woman.”
When he was a boy, Paking would often catch his Nanay Sayong standing by the hearth, wiping her tears. He would ask her, “What is it, Nay?” and she would tell him, “Got a mote in my eyes.” He remembered seeing bruises, on her arms, her feet. Several times Apoy Teban, came to give her a massage because she had pulled a muscle, or dislodged a joint which she would say, she got when she stumbled in the river while washing clothes.
He was in Grade 6 when a man came to their house, the foreman of the jobsite where his father was working. When the man left, he went into the house and peaked into his Nanay’s room. She had her back to the door, her hands were raised, she was hitting the air above her head with her fist. Paking saw his Nanay’s face reflected in the mirror, tears streaming from her eyes but her face was beaming with joy, as though some pall has been removed from it. He heard his Nanay sobbing,
“Salamat, Diyos ko, salamat Senyor San Antonio, salamat for listening to my pleadings. I promise to pray the novena as long as the breath is on me.”
The hair on his skin prickled, Paking hurriedly left the house and ran straight to the beach. When he returned in the afternoon, his father’s corpse had been taken home. He had been electrocuted while he was painting the Jansen Building of DWU.
Earlier, as he puttered in the kitchen , preparing the evening meal, Paking heard the quarreling going on in the house across the street. It made him uneasy, sensing a palpable strain of violence in the voices of Cardo and Taling.
“What’s wrong with you, nga birat ka, what devil has got into you!”
“Puta ka, whore, you’ve been crapping on my head all along these many days now. You’re not just selling tuba, you’re selling more. You’re selling bites of pleasure. How long has this been going on?”
Cardo slung abuse after abuse on Taling, his voice raised, as though he wanted the whole barrio to know of their shame.
“Who is the gossip that brought you this story, ha? My little store is feeding you, diputa ka, don’t ever say foul things against it. You don’t even help me run it!”
“Watch out if I catch you. I will surely catch you. Don’t deny it. Someone told me about it. Baa, you will really get it from me, I’ll break that face of yours into many pieces.”
“Just try it, nim’ iroy, just try it. If you do, only one of us will come out alive.”
Paking was about to go down, walk over to the other house and call Cardo to break up the quarrel between the couple. But it was the time for him and his Nanay to say the Rosary. Time did not wait for him, he was unable to help the couple, he was too late. If he only he had known it would go this far…
From where he was sitting, Paking saw a woman enter the main door of the church, face the altar and spread out her arms. Then she knelt and began moving towards the altar on her knees. He could not see her face, but he can imagine it, the eyes closed, the lips moving in whispered prayer. What could she be praying for? Was it for freedom such as his Nanay Sayong prayed for? Or was she praying for forgiveness for a bitter wish perversely granted? This was what his Nanay’s endless novenas were for. Paking shivered.
His Nanay never remarried. When any of their relatives would mention the idea of marriage–she was still young, it would be fine for her to remarry–his Nanay would reply, What for? My heart is finally light and easy. Or she would say, I won’t have myself tricked again, I find no bitterness sleeping all by myself, no not at all.
In a while, Paking saw Taling going out of the emergency room. She went to the sikyu who quickly pointed to her where he was sitting. She walked over to him. When Taling was near, he scooted over to one end of the bench. Taling sat down on the space he had vacated for her. She sat down and began crying. Paking did not know where to look, he shook his head and all he could utter was, “Tsk tsk tsk.”
Taling stood up, removed her wedding ring from her finger. She took hold of Paking’s hand and laid the ring on his palm, closing his fingers around it. She looked at him intensely.
“I’m going home to get the children. You take care of him.”
He took his gaze away from her. He looked away and heaved a deep breath. Paking nodded his head, twice, softly.
Taling stood up and walked away briskly towards the hospital gate, not once turning her head. He followed with his eyes the departing figure of Taling, until she crossed the street and boarded a jeep that was cruising for fares by the entrance of the Redemptorist Church.
Paking lighted a cigarette and looked at his watch. He was calculating the time it would take for Cardo to come out of the operating room.
Firie Jill T. Ramos writes poems (siday), fiction/susumaton, and children’s stories in Waray. She won the 2019 National Commission for Culture and the Arts Writers Prize for the Novel in Waray. Her poems and stories appeared in different anthologies and journals. She has a degree in Communication Arts and Education from the University of the Philippines and has worked as a teacher for two decades. Firie Jill T. Ramos, who lives in Tacloban City, is currently working on her novel.
Merlie M. Alunan was awarded Professor Emeritus upon her retirement from the University of the Philippines Tacloban College in 2008. She lives in Tacloban City and continues to write books that support the work of writers in the Visayan mother tongues. Her poetry has been recognized by the Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature. Her life work has also been honored by UMPIL, the Sunthorn Phu Award by the Kingdom of Thailand, the Ananda Coomaraswamy Fellowship of the Republic of India. Four books, Sa Atong Dila (University of the Philippines Press 2015) and Susumaton Oral Narratives of Leyte (Ateneo de Manila University Press 2016), Tinalunay Anthology of Waray Literature (University of the Philippines Press 2017) and Running with Ghosts and other Poems (Ateneo de Naga University Press 2017) won the National Book Award in 2016 and 2017 and 2018 respectively. Alunan lives in and writes from Tacloban City.