I was alone and old and it was a sweltering Monday afternoon. Sleepy, I was lying on my rattan hammock outside of my home when a girl, around nine years old, came to me because she had gotten so pale she thought she needed a physician.
“But I am no physician, young girl. I’m a physicist,” I said, not getting out of my hammock.
“But aren’t you a doctor?” she asked, gripping the edge of the hammock. She was so small and so close to me I needed to get up to avoid the smell of moss stuck on her hair.
“I am a doctor in physics, not a medical doctor, so if you could please go back to your parents now, for they may be looking for you.”
I stood up and she tugged the hem of my shirt, still pleading.
“But I have travelled so long with my dog, Champ, just to reach you. We’ve crossed seven rivers and my dog died on the way here. I need your help.”
“What help?” I asked, trying to get her hands off my shirt.
“I’m getting so, so pale I’m afraid I’m becoming invisible.”
Then she extended her hands and indeed they were oddly pale her skin looked like layers of gossamers, that I could see through her if I just drew myself closer. Her face, I noticed, was as white as my balding hair. But I told her, “No. There is nothing I can do.”
I turned my back and she desperately ran after me.
“No, doctor! Please don’t turn your back on me! Look! Look what’s happening!”
And when I turned around, I noticed how one of her fingers had turned translucent.
“Have you got no daughter, doctor?” she asked, a voice of a six-your-old articulating the thought of a middle-aged lady.
“Don’t call me doctor,” I said, taken aback still by her partial invisibility, “and I did have a daughter, but she died a long time ago.”
“Then you should know how it feels to lose a daughter, sir,” she said, back to her pleading face.
I sighed and fixed my stare at the abandoned hammock. It somehow turned into an empty cradle.
I looked at her and her hand was gone.
“Please don’t take your eyes off me. It makes me paler,” she said. “My dog had been looking after me during our journey and see what happened when he died.”
“So you just want me to look at you?”
“I don’t know.”
I wanted to shoo her away and shut the door but I was afraid the moment I open it I would see only her orange headband and her orange dress floating over her orange sandals. I let her in and made sure my eyes were all on her, trying my best not to blink.
She walked around the house dazzled by how large it was.
“It’s only large because it’s empty,” I said, but she was no longer listening, for she was already taking her sandals off, heading toward the couch. As she was jumping on it, I stared at her, for I had to stare at her, and realized I had not seen a girl for a long time. I had not seen a hair so curly bouncing over tiny shoulders. She was flailing her hands as though there was music only she could hear.
She fell from the couch and it shook me from my recollection. I ran toward her and pulled her up, asking if she was okay. She just giggled and said everything was fine, but she was getting hungry.
“Do you have biscuits, sir?” she asked. “Champ and I only ate moss on the way here I think they’re growing and greening inside my stomach.”
I lead her to the kitchen table and together we ate the cookies that had been untouched inside that tin box for weeks. As she ate biscuits after biscuits, leaving not even crumbs, my eyes were still on her, for I had to, but also because I was looking at how her hand was slowly going back to normal.
She yawned and slouched on her chair.
“I’m tired,” she said just as I was about to remind her it was rude to yawn at the dining table. “Do you have storybooks, sir? Will you read me storybooks?”
“Isn’t it too early for bedtime stories?” I asked.
“But I am sleepy.”
I took her to my daughter’s room upstairs, keeping an eye on her, telling her not to move too much for she might trip. We reached my daughter’s room I hadn’t opened for years. She walked around the room and ran her fingers along the edges of the unused cradle, poked the bobo penguin doll, traced the surface of the empty bookshelves, asking, “Sir, where are the storybooks?”
I did not know how to tell her there were none, for there was suddenly no one to read them to, that going there for the storybooks was just an excuse to go to the room I hadn’t visited for years.
“I forgot I sold them a long time ago,” I said instead. “But I could tell you a story!”
The truth was that I knew no children’s story, that all my life I had been burying my head on my books I had forgotten stories that once filled me happiness when I was little. Having thought of the most childish story, I asked, “Do you want to hear the story of a young man and an apple?”
She seemed excited, not knowing that minutes afterward, she would be yawning as I lectured her about gravity. So this is how you make a young girl sleep, I told myself. Talk about gravity like it is a beautiful unicorn, when gravity is what’s responsible for a heart getting heavy, when gravity is what pulls a wife’s body down when she decides to hang herself, when gravity, too, pulls an infant out of its mother’s womb during a miscarriage.
I looked at the girl already sleeping on my lap as I was in the middle of grappling for an answer to her question: will I still have my gravity when I become invisible? You will not become invisible, young girl, I should have told her. I should have comforted her by saying I will never take my eyes off her, that this time I will pay more attention, for there are things more fascinating than my hunger for knowledge and validation. I should have read her stories about wizards and witches than talk to her about Newton. I should have come home when I knew they needed my affection. I did not notice I was already smoothing the girl’s curly hair, humming a lullaby I practiced a long time ago when she told me we were pregnant.
But I was old and alone and it was a sweltering Monday afternoon when I was supposedly lying on my hammock. My own humming lulled me to sleep. I felt my eyes drooping and I tried to fight back, but something in my head told me there was no way I could do it, and that I had been like that always. I tried to pinch myself several times but my back always felt the comfortable couch. Humming and rubbing her hair, I did not notice my eyes were already closed as I lay back and started to snore.
When I awoke, I felt the weightlessness on my lap. She was no longer there. But I knew she was in the room somewhere. It was just that I could not see her. Feeling so sorry, feeling so angry at myself for having slept, I searched for a floating dress that could have been roaming around the house. Desperate, I was about to shout her name, but I remembered I never asked for her name in the first place. But I knew she was there. She must be hiding, furious at me and how I slept when I promised I would not take my eyes off her. There must be traces of her inside the house—some foot marks she had left or pieces of furniture slightly moved to tell me where she went. But the house felt so empty that my footsteps echoed inside it.
I searched for her until sunset, until silence enveloped me like a suffocating bag to make me feel how I was so old and so alone and it was a cold Monday night and no one could look after me. I caught a glimpse of me on the window pane. I’m getting pale, I realized. I’m getting so, so pale.
Reil Benedict Obinque is a calculus and physics teacher in Ateneo de Davao Senior High School. Some of his works have appeared in Dagmay, Philippines Graphic, Manila Times, Likhaan: The Journal of Contemporary Philippine Literature, and The Brown Orient.
These are true: In 2003, the circus came to Manila and an elephant escaped. The eight-foot-tall mass of hide and ivory took a stroll
down EDSA, causing much traffic. In Olutanga Island, there is a man who speaks to sea snakes. Their local nickname
is walo-walo, because their venom kills in eight days. They do not harm him, but only live in his hut. Calamba
is native to a man who underwent 17 plastic surgeries to look like Superman. Visit any karaoke joint in the country—
residents believe a certain Frank Sinatra single kills. My sister has three moles precisely, which when aligned form Orion’s
Belt. When she first showed me this, I demanded: How did that happen? North of my hometown a boy born paraplegic
stands up and walks at the age of ten. His mother says it was a gift from a saint. Whenever I am kneeling to a Virgin of Miracles, I ask:
Is it you who writes this stuff? The devotees are a wave of hands, reaching to grab your consecrations, the ironies
you have to offer. I’m at the back of the line, sick of all these riddles. When I dig up all these bones, I’m sure
some femur or phalange will be missing. I’d stalk a magician after the show, search his pockets
for rabbit holes. I am always waiting to be seized by one more plot twist. God, just tell me how you did it.
2019 SPEAKS TO 2009
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
Capitalism finds a way to make you pay for things you can download for free. You’re okay with it.
Borat plays a dictator. Then he fights authoritarianism.
Friendster and MySpace are dead. Do not trust their successor.
You’ve spent over 70 hours on a TV show that will disappoint. But you’d do it all over again.
Spider-man is black. He’s also monochrome. He’s also a pig.
The Jonas Brothers break up. Don’t worry, they’re back.
Mexico’s drug war is coming to your street like gossip on the galleon from Acapulco.
Pigs are still getting sick. This time, humans can’t catch it.
Mulan supports a fascist regime.
You’ll stand for hours in a protest all because someone wants to bury a dictator and a hatchet.
My Chemical Romance breaks up. Don’t worry, they’re back.
The feud between Kanye West and Taylor Swift doesn’t end.
A Filipino hosts Blue’s Clues.
There are only 27 endemic hornbills left on the island of Sulu.
Everyone is sick of Harry Potter now, mostly due to J.K. Rowling’s Twitter account.
The Amazon is on fire.
The Philippines is the last country in the world where divorce isn’t legal, after the Vatican.
People will clap for Kim Jong Un and boo Aung Sun Suu Kyi.
So many people you do not know are dead. The two prevailing causes are dengue and hitmen.
Polio was eradicated. It’s back.
At the airport, before their flight home, your nephews—you have nephews—will cling to your side, and ask you for stories.
The world is coming together. The world is coming to shit.
In short, the period is so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
The excavation began in June. My companion Billy is a scientist, so he only ever believes in facts. I’d like to believe I’m a number one fan of this artifact, so hard to come by since Pluto’s on-and-off undeclaration as a planet cut short its lifespan. Everyone on earth was minding their own business when the Internet crashed into it like an asteroid and jumpstarted the cretaceous post-truth. Climate change makes for a good deadline—what a great and terrible headline that would be, if we ever get to release it. But today we might as well be devotees looking for their God. We had had many leads: The space rover we cast gave us only rocks. The Antarctic expedition was a bust. The probes we sent to the Pacific came up empty. We had heard that the Gobi Desert was once a sea, so we pressed the shells we found there to our ears: white noise. Sometimes I worry: Have we been searching for truth so long that we don’t recognize it? What was the last thing it said before it left? Do we even remember what it looked like— a fossil? A papyrus? A voice? I’ve heard so many people claim to hear him preaching in the Andes, his voice bouncing off the back of a mountain. Only the other day he was trapped at the bottom of a well in Egypt. But you can believe no one nowadays. How could we, since truth went missing? And once we found him, how were we to present him? Would he resist examination? Or was he lost somewhere, his leg trapped in some canyon or cave, waiting to be found? Some afternoons I’d tell Billy, he’s so close now I could reach out and tug his sleeve. Or, can you hear him? He’s laughing at us this very minute. But at night when the tent is wrapped in the chirping of crickets, I think of how afraid I am of chasing the most sought after interview in the world. When we find truth, would I be angry at him, or relieved? Would I ask first how could you, or do aliens really exist? or how many times did you manifest in George Orwell’s 1984? Sometimes I wonder if he’s off on a mission to eat, pray, love in some Tibetan monastery or Indian yoga camp. Sometimes I wonder if he wants to be found. So many people break their backs every day, waiting for him to arrive: schoolteachers, private eyes, criminals lined up on death rows. One minute he is in a newsroom in New York, the next in a birthing room in Kenya. Nowadays, rarely ever in urban spaces, and almost never in America. And what if I’ve been walking on truth all along? What if truth had many surfaces? What if truth was a sphere? Sometimes I doubt even my companions, but trust is different from truth. Billy is the most honest person I know, holding the team’s shit all together. He tells us the earth isn’t flat and we believe it. Once, on the way to a campsite, our raw thanksgiving chicken tumbled out of the icebox, exploding on the mudtracked road. He told us the microbes would kill us if we ate it. We were relieved to have someone confirm our biases, but best believe we’d have gobbled it up at the slightest pang of hunger. So we roasted marshmallows instead, on some forgotten backbone of Canada, watching the ice melt. He says when the truth finally occurs to us, we’ll never believe what he has to say. He says, we’ll probably think he’s a poem. We’ll come up with all these adaptations of him. We’ll cut him up into obscene lines. No way, I tell him. Yes way, he says. The truth can say whatever the fuck it wants, and we’ll all still hear something else.
HERE AT THE END OF ALL THINGS
You would not believe how many people abandon their pets. The pet store was clearing shelves, so I took a bone and a dog and drove. The news delivers until it can’t— a few hours before it happens, the last station broadcasts its last goodbye: Thank you, and good night. The end will be live tweeted, anyway. At my office carpark, I call my parents to tell them I love them. I hit the road with an eighties playlist. But there’s a traffic jam here, at the end of the world, so I get out and walk the dog to nowhere. I thought that I would at least be busy with paperwork, or sex. Instead, I am looking for my friends in the last diners, the last gas stations, the last Korean supermarkets. They are always in the last place you look. I think of my bullies, including the senile landlady who refused to close the pipe when we blew off a tap by accident. I think of my exes, even the one I never call my ex. I think of the neighborhoods I have lived in, their flower pots and stray kittens. I turn them over in my head, empty their alleyways to walk my ghosts in them. How must they be doing, I wonder, here at the end of all things? I thought when it would arrive I would be angry; instead, I am tired. But we have our afterlives for tiredness. Today is for walking as far as you can. The orchestra played Autumn right into the ocean as the Titanic sank. In the morning we will all be frozen. I find my friends in our favorite picnic spot, blanket spread, spreading strawberry jam on bread, overlooking the end. I pull up a chair. The dog chases a butterfly. Here at the end of all things, I am looking over the edge: Everything is still. The world flickers, like a mirage— or like a television channel, right before the static.
Regine Cabato is a journalist based in Manila. She is a recipient of the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Award and Loyola Schools Award for the Arts for poetry. Her poems have been published in Kritika Kultura, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, and Rambutan Literary, among others. She hails from Zamboanga City.
Introduction: The Past in Ruins, a Future in Bloom
While there have been numerous studies on the margins of the Cordillera Protected Area (CPA), botanical explorations in the post-Quake ruins of the area formerly called the “Metro Baguio-La Trinidad” have been sparse. After a month of research in the said zone, we present to you the results of a series of field immersions by our botanical expeditionary group.
After a 9.6-magnitude earthquake levelled what was once an overdeveloped mountain city in the year 2030, citizens received practically no support from the national government as the entire country at that time was experiencing a total societal collapse. With all government functions (including scientific agencies) paralyzed to a halt, populations left the ruins of Metro Baguio and migrated to larger cities. Thus, it was only after a full century that scientists were able to re-enter the now inhospitable Cordillera mountains.
The Baguio-La Trinidad area specifically, is a fascinating field because it is one of the few places rife with opportunities for botanists to study post-civilization flora. Its relative ecological isolation also adds interest when it comes to biodiversity and unique ecosystems.
The undisturbed status of post-Quake Baguio-La Trinidad’s flora has been established by two factors. The first are the natural barriers that cropped up after the 2030 earthquake, effectively blocking major and minor entry points into the zone. The second is the government’s decision to mark the entire Cordillera highlands as a protected area after the Quake. Due to the persistent local beliefs about ‘ghosts’ of the victims of the 2030 earthquake still roaming the forests, public discussion on the famed city became a taboo topic (Miekle, 2116).
Regarding the former: even up to now, geologists find it mysterious how the area’s landscape managed to change in such a dramatic manner. But while we cannot underestimate the role of “The Quake” in the area’s geological transformation, we know that the stage for the city’s ruin has already been set for quite some time before it happened. Decades before the earthquake struck, the city has been burdened by a host of urban problems, including relentless ‘development’ of vacant green areas, an uncontrollable urban sprawl brought by lack of housing options, and others. All of these led to geological hazards such as ground subsidence, erosion, etc. which were bound to exacerbate the effects of even the mildest seismic activities.
Interestingly, we have evidence that in ingenious ways that only nature itself could design, pre-Quake urban flora has also adapted to the relentless urban scourge. For instance, according to records, the “septic lumot” (Leucobryum reynosum/ septic moss) which emerged in the city’s rusty water and sewage system in the late 2020s was considered as “public enemy number 1” by Baguio Midland Courier’s 2029 year-end list. Its resistance to herbicides of the time, its fast propagation, and its density were a major headache to residents and the Water District. But they failed to realize that their enemy was created in their own image: Leucobryum reynosum developed its most destructive traits in the city’s gentrified communities, when a certain group of residents cultivated the invasive moss species for their terrariums, unintentionally altering its traits (Dal-ew, 2115). A short-lived craze for terrariums gripped Baguio, and coupled with faulty water systems connecting the myriad high-rise developments all over the city, led to a city-wide moss invasion that clogged toilets and made tourists hurry back to their vans while covering their noses.
In fact, as early as 2019, the effects of unmitigated urban activity on wildlife in the city have already been observed. In Baoanan’s study (2019) of a certain forest park near the former Convention Center, she noted that “there has been a considerable decrease in the number of resident birds in the tree park due to the noise coming from the said amusement park” (referring to a development project called Skyranch in the latter half of 2010s). The tree park, which was “home for diverse species and provides ecosystem service in the form of microclimate regulation and nutrient cycling,” was one of the last ecological refuge within the city before it was fully engulfed by overdevelopment and hyper-tourism in the latter half of 2020s. These final gasps for life from the city’s pre-cataclysmic flora and fauna heralded the city’s ecological death, long before it was hit by the Earthquake. Ironically, when Chapis and Yang’s post-cataclysmic expedition first surveyed the area, the two remarked that they “were struck by the profound silence of the forest and the stoic fawns [they] crossed paths with,” saying that they “tip-toed into the depths of the long slumbering forest, as if trying not to disturb a child on an afternoon nap.”
With reverence for nature’s nonchalant persistence, we present to you some of the most remarkable plants our team has discovered in our first botanical expedition into the depths of the Cordillera Protected Area. We would also like to acknowledge the help of the Northern Luzon Historical Collective, James Chapis and Robert Yang of the Pre-quake Explorers Society, Miles Herrera, Nikki Camille Malabad, John Levi Masuli, Amihan Fernandez, Jesusa Paquibot, Ivan Emil Labayne, the Bilo-bilo Gastronomical Squad, Archivos Filipinos (for their invaluable archives), and our friends and family for their unwavering support. This research endeavor would not have been possible without you.
— The Pedantic Pedestrians Botanical Research Group
Baonan, Zenaida. “Species Richness and Carbon Stock Assessment of the GSIS Tree Park, Baguio City.” Forum on Preservation of the Last Forest Patches in the City, University of the Philippines Baguio 2018. From Miles Herrera’s historical archive collection.
Baguio Midland Courier. “Year Ender List for 2029.” From Miles Herrera’s historical archive collection.
Dal-ew, Cherry. Tracing the Stank: Ethnobotanical History of the ‘Leucobryum reynosum.’ April 6, 2115.
Miekle, Michael. Urban Myths on the Cordillera-Northern Luzon Protected Zone. January 2116.
Pedantic Pedestrians (PP), a laboratory for experimenting with modes of cultural production. PP has launched four folios online, held a book launch without a book, released an Oncept Series and helped organize a small press expo in Baguio City. Other works can be seen and downloaded in the group’s site.
Its height does not overshadow Its length does not protrude Its strength does not falter
It’s sufficient always in all its uses.
self-translated from Ibaloy
Its decomposition and its disappearance is not something you’ll lament because you know that is how it is going to prepare for its perennial showing up again.
self-translated from Ibaloy
It plows well It is strong in harrowing It can endure the heat
Equally shares Father’s works in the fields.
Melvin Clemente Magsanoc was raised in a small community overshadowed by the majestic Mt. Pulag in the mystical town of Kabayan, Benguet. He is Ibaloy by language and ethnicity; he traces his ancestry on the maternal side from Tuba, Benguet and Baguio City, and his paternal side from Kabayan. He was a fellow at the first and second NCCA – UP Baguio Cordillera Creative Writing Workshop. He is one of the founding members of Ubbog Cordillera Writers. Some of his poems have been published in the Ubbog Journals, Ubod Anthology, and the Philippines Graphic. He lives in Baguio City and he is currently a faculty member of the Senior High School department of Baguio City National High School. He writes poems in Ibaloy then translates them to English or the other way around.
You pin your faith to the levity of feeling, and like dawn ushered in by the iridescence of the rusted roof, the belief that, at times, not all suffering comes from sorrow; but the truth is I often want to say that this holiness too can gash, that the connections these things share are fragile—that even the wind drowns in the waves, that it is not only the changing season the flock of wild ducks flee from, that even the most constant star can lead astray. Look for the breeding grounds of locusts and find the nest of primordial fears. While, out in the open sea, the dorado’s agile darting—repetitive, thrashing against the line—changing its color at the brink of death: blue, green, yellow. It is often for beauty that our violence is concealed. All I want to say is, magnificence does not lie at such throes. Here, the newly mown grass can abrade. Here is a handful of salt and tell me the pain of being stung in the eye.
Translated from Filipino
She was again seized by wonder. She saw
Two long braids of cloudscape; white threads
In the sky’s forehead. She knew the seagull and pelicans
That pecked at the barnacles which had drifted, clinging
To her body but it was not the wings that unfurled what so
Astonished her. She longed to introduce herself.
She suddenly let out a geyser from her blowhole,
Taking chances at the abrupt turn. But further it went.
Before submerging herself again, she felt the sprinkling
Water coming back and while looking up, it was as if
The cloudscape itself had unleashed the rain.
Translated from Filipino
At the end of it all only your eyelids shall remain. Here
By the coast. Flies examine the map you have left
From your journey. Its moss gradually fading.
There is no sadness in going on one’s own. You are
Like an unexpected pilgrim succumbed to a town’s mysterious
Plague. A bag clings on your shoulders and the burden
To heal your wounds, you bring nothing else but
Five petals of jasmine, four strands
Of cat fur, two bands of broken
Rosaries and a pair of clouded goggles.
One by one you erase them from yourself while the language
Of those you meet changes, oaths erased
In the name of countries. Until you forget
Where you have come from. How many times have you shed off
Your scabs and scattered islands remain by your body before
Having told yourself you’ve toiled enough. So you disrobe yourself.
At the first instant you realize that the horizon
Was within reach, you say never have I left.
Translated from Filipino
“We are attracted to every aspect of life that represents a last illusion yet unshattered…” —Barbara Cully
Watch, the catfish are crawling on their knees, crossing the newly soaked asphalt, the weather herding them to the unknown, and at a glance, they are like heirlooms handed down and lost: tickets from a departure and a homecoming, a bottle filled with sand, a dried stingray whip. The clouds’ reflections are still shadows in the field that had been flooded. In other words, this is what remains. Later, by the wick still unlit, the grandchildren will sit around their grandfather, begging for stories. Before, they used to pass the days harvesting and cooking spinach. From the mire, they dug out a helmet, after a while, a boot and later, a bayonet. The old man decides not to tell what else they’ve seen. And after, he will shift to his dazzling romance with their grandmother. Their storytelling will be interrupted by the gargling of the transistor radio: tomorrow will be clearer. Tomorrow as though a promise.
Translated from Filipino
This is how large we know
Of death: like a galley
Subsumed by hunger or war.
As it beached by the shore,
We became pirates in search
For whatever we could exploit.
But what might we find beneath
The scales of which we know not of?
The unease caught us in a net,
That a curse might befall anyone
Who tasted its flesh. The sea held
Countless secrets and here, one lay.
Someone said, this one swallows up
Those who have disappeared and drowned
Whenever a storm reaches the sea.
It is but a child, he said,
Compared to Jonah’s whale.
Many nodded at his words.
Another added, this beast
Is the sea spirit’s mystical steed.
It might be its horse or if not, its elephant.
Like a superstition in cooking,
Some were convinced we might end up
Finished like the fishes once we ate it.
So it was with a picture taken
That we were content
To share this one memento.
Enrique S. Villasis is a poet and a scriptwriter. His first book of poems Agua was published by Librong Lira and a finalist for the National Book Awards. He worked for ABS-CBN as a television writer before the Philippine government politically harassed and denied the franchise of the network.
Bernard Capinpin is a poet and translator. He is currently working on a translation of Ramon Guillermo’s Ang Makina ni Mang Turing. He resides in Quezon City.
No one can be cruel or too shy
for you, blooming hedgehog,
sea urchin on dry land.
You are a living relic, a myth
with all the colors, one with
a tarsier of a flower.
Globose or tubular you
are nothing short of cosmic
with posies this spectral.
Prickly, yes, but what isn’t,
when only you can unclench
secrets from radials of corolla
whether or not anyone’s ready
for your many fanged edges.
Equal parts rhythm and spikes,
you deserve ceremony, eyes.
We will hold you up high
like a trophy or sundial
even if our fingers hurt. For
everything that captivates must
require sacrifice, a little danger.
In 1989, pushing at around 170 miles per hour, the Shinkansen speeds out of a tunnel as if announced with an explosion. Its exit carries a sound so thick and full that crowns of trees quiver like a thousand boneless fingers. The Japanese then turn to birds to perfect the train: owl feathers for rigs, penguin belly for pantograph, kingfisher beak for frontispiece. Machines continue to stir quieter as man move swifter, as if possessed by the impetus of wind. So what do birds turn to us for? What does kindness owe us when we name our conveniences with violence, comforts with terror, like bullets out of something graceful, alive?
* * *
I still wish we are kinder, even in a world poorly designed.
Statement of the Problem
Is it worth pursuing those that evade us?
Current State of Technology
Off the coast that could be any other coasts in the world—the Atlantic, maybe, or Bantayan—scientists mimic shark skins to create antibacterial plastic and study patterns of schools of fish to ascertain wind turbine compositions. Meanwhile, the glaciers have lost another monument, and like the death of a star, no one could hear a sound.
The devil is in the details. As well as in everything we want.
We know too well this deep and subterraneous urge to uncover: this breaking, this peeking beyond the clam’s lips.
Some pearls must be worth more than the others.
* * *
Sometime in the future, we see cars that are becoming more cars than jaguars or horses or beetles, disbanded across streets like alien urchins. The din takes a different octave all around us. We’ve been here before: Gears and bolts taking over elegant muscle. The symmetry of thoraxes giving way to shellacked hoods. Antennae going wireless. Keyholes becoming the last semblance of mouths to be fed. Listen now. The highways are no longer breathing.
F. Jordan Carnice holds a BA in creative writing from Silliman University and a BSc in information technology from STI. His works are published in Philippines Free Press, Voice & Verse Poetry Magazine, LONTAR: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, among other places. He has released two poetry chapbooks—Weights & Cushions (2018) and How to Make an Accident (2019). He is also visual artist who is currently based in Bohol with his three cats.
ON FROGS AND ORCHESTRAS: INTERVIEW WITH LEVI MASULI
In an interview, Levi Masuli of Pedantic Pedestrians talked about his project of recording frog sounds across the metro, the sonic dimension of ecosystems and how the pandemic might have changed soundscapes.
Ivan Emil A. Labayne and Levi Masuli are part of Pedantic Pedestrians (PP), a laboratory for experimenting with modes of cultural production. PP has launched four folios online, held a book launch without a book, released an Oncept Series and helped organize a small press expo in Baguio City.
Ivan Emil A. Labayne: Early this year, you mentioned your plan to volunteer as a research assistant to record frog sounds in Southern Luzon. Is it correct—Southern Luzon? The task is part of a research of an office based in Los Baños, Laguna where you also planned to relocate from Quezon City. What drove you to make this decision—both the recording of frog sounds and the relocation to a city outside Metro Manila?
Levi Masuli: Recently, I became interested in frog sounds. I was reading something about acoustic ecology when I came across a hypothesis that when animals share the same habitat, they tend to exploit vacant spectrums to avoid spectral or temporal overlaps. For instance, flycatchers (Empidonax minimus) insert their short songs between the longer songs of the red-eyed vireos (Vireo olivaceus). In short, animals and insects don’t sing over each other, and they don’t just sing whenever they want. They make space for others, either through leaving lulls for others or by vocalizing in a particular spectrum range.
This explains why when a certain frog species creates a bass-y croak, you won’t find another species in the vicinity with a similar croak. You’ll more likely find another species or creature with a higher-pitched vocalization. Thus, nature is literally a self-orchestrated orchestra, or a well-balanced surround mix – in high definition!
This hypothesis also posits that more established ecosystems have more complex interspecies coordination. Newer ecosystems or those recently disturbed have less complex soundscapes. This is because the species need time to figure out how to organize their vocalizations and make everything harmonious.
Following this hypothesis, I wanted to move away from the metro to look for more complex soundscapes where there is more interspecies coordination. Nonetheless, I recently realized that it would also be interesting to listen to the changes in the soundscapes in the urban areas, given that the dramatic change in human mobility (due to the lockdown) may have led to the flourishing of certain urban ecosystems. To be honest, I don’t want to put too much emphasis between urban and rural ecosystems, as it implies one is more ‘pure’ or complex than the other. Nature changes may it be in the city or the countryside. Ecological disturbances happen everywhere. It’s just a matter of paying attention to the details.
Ivan: I find nice the point you made about animals “avoid[ing] spectral or temporal overlaps,” as if making way for each other; it’s opposite sense in Filipino, hindi sila nagsasapawan; they do not try to top each other, as if competing. This rhymes with your later point about nature being “a well-balanced surround mix” and perhaps also to your quest for “more complex soundscapes where there is more interspecie coordination.”
Speaking of coordination and balance, I’d like to ask you about “disciplines” or “fields”—words that tend to smack of connotations of segregation. Your academic background is on literature, language, the arts and now you are transitioning—if you approve of that term—to this new field, this new undertaking.
How was it like: what do you think helped in redirecting your interest from the arts to the natural environment? Or, to follow a different premise: how do you think your literary and arts background relate to your current interests in the natural environment and sound?
Levi: The segregation of disciplines is a recent phenomenon. After all, the firsts naturalists in the Philippines were priests. I don’t see it as a transition. Scientists also write, and poets live in the same natural and sonic world as everybody else does. The only difference is the training, the technical knowledges, things that can be bridged by collaborating with others and doing your own research.
Ivan: I want to know more about your familiarity with, and deployment of the scientific names of species. You evinced this in your first response, in relation to flycatchers and the red-eyed vireos. In a video you uploaded weeks ago, I noticed how you gave the scientific name of the frog whose croak you recorded. Is this deliberate on your part—becoming familiar with scientific names, and using them, where possible? If so, what significance do you attribute to these?
Levi: It’s deliberate simply because it is practical to know them. It also helps to know the local names.
Ivan: Are you currently pursuing other projects that relate to, or inspired by your interest in the natural environment, or the natural sciences in general?
Levi: I am looking to record as much frog sounds as I can during the rainy season as this is when they are most active.
Levi Masuli, currently based in the Philippines, works primarily with sound and text. He is part of the writing group, Pedantic Pedestrians. His work can be viewed at https://levimasuli.com/.
Ivan Emil A. Labayne is a researcher, teacher and freelance writer, maintaining columns in local weeklies Northern Dispatch and Baguio Chronicle. His creative and critical works are published in journals Kritika Kultura, The Cordillera Review, Entrada, Hasaan and Katipunan and in online platforms Cha, Jacket2 and New Mandala. He blogs here.
FROM HUNYANGO MAN ANG TAO (EVEN IF HUMANS ARE CHAMELEONS)
Translated from Filipino
A tiny bottle was born in a sweltering factory. He was wrapped in a package, given a name, then placed in a box with his fellow newborns. All of them were brought to stores all over the city, arranged in a cold room where they await being purchased. The bottle wonders why his parents would just abandon him, and withhold their care and affection. They pushed him toward a clear glass that contained a strange world. The refrigerator door opens and a hand reaches for the bottle. Placed in front of a cashier who weighed its value. The man takes out ten pesos. He takes the bottle and outside quickly gulps down its contents. The man then throws him onto the open sea where he floats not knowing where the current would take him the next moment or the next day. Noon came and exposed the bottle to its scorching light. The bottle tried to weep but his mouth had already begun to dissolve, to disintegrate into tiny pieces. Then his body. Finally his head. His tiny parts dispersed into the water. So tiny that fish failed to see him. A tiny one came by. Opened its mouth and ingested him. The fish didn’t know. It just went on to eat whatever bit it could from the sea. A day into playing with his fish friends a huge net descended upon them. They were all hauled unto a ship. Brought to a factory where they were unloaded, moved around, and rolled over again and again. After going through a number of hands, its head wad removed, the rest of him canned. Wrapped in a package, too, and given a name. The cans were brought to the grocery store, then picked up by someone cooking sautéed sardines for some workers’ lunch. But that day no one wanted the dish so the cook took it home for their kids. The kids didn’t want sardines, too, it was always fish day in and day out. This kid got a good scolding. The rest of the brood cried. The sardines were put in a plastic bag and thrown outside. Another group of kids was waiting by the garbage bin. By now they knew what time the cook would throw something out. They opened the discarded plastic bag. Sardines—what a lucky day. Quickly they dug in but the eldest seized the fish and moved away from the frenzy. He devoured the fish he held in his hands. It remained in his stomach for years until he felt hunger anew. His companions had been frolicking by the shore when he, now a young man, felt a pang in his midsection. A sharp pain where he put the sardines. The others, swimming farther away from him, didn’t notice. He tried to come closer to them so they’d hear his cries for help. But that day the waves had been heavy, leaden. They dislodged his feet from the seafloor. He stumbled. Set adrift beyond what was visible from the shore. In this state the sun found him. The sun saw how his body began to disintegrate, broken apart by the water into tiny pieces. Broken apart until it was as small as drizzle. From the tiny breaks in the flesh emerged the plastic and their siblings.
Janssen Cunanan lives in Makati City, Philippines. He is currently a member of AUX (Artists in BPO Unite for Social Change), a cultural organization that utilizes art in fighting for labor rights and advancing national democracy. His works appeared in Plural: Online Prose Journal, ALPAS Journal, and SmokeLong Quarterly.
Glenn Diaz‘s first book The Quiet Ones (Ateneo Press, 2017) is set in the Philippine call center industry. He lives in Manila.
As Sr. Josephine Wallang mopped the floors of Sto. Basilio in preparation for the day’s math lessons, she slapped a fly which had perched itself on her forearm, and noticed a ripple jump from puddle to puddle, before the earth fell from under her.
Thelma Arsenal, one of Adiway’s five best bakers, would later tell to the provincial government, officials from the Department of National Resources, and various fact-finding groups that she witnessed the ground beneath Sto. Basilio crumble like a badly-baked cake. Chunks of earth slid down the mountain’s edge to the remains of the Bagat River below. The river, which served as a primary water-source for Adiway and several communities in the Cordilleras, crept where it once rushed. Over the years, its waters had receded, inch by slow inch, until two barren gorges surfaced alongside it, and the townspeople had to turn to other bodies of water. The river had also developed a rotten-egg smell, and those who had last swam in it—in the clean parts, at least, before they knew better – reported itchiness, rashes, and tiny red marks. A teenager even reported a strange sac on his ankle. The Starway Mining Corporation attributed the river’s evolution to natural climate change.
Arsenio Arsenal, barangay councilor and Thelma’s husband, participated in the relief operations following the landslide. On its way to the river, Sto. Basilio had passed through several acres of rice-paddies, whose farmers were now being housed in the town hall on the other end of Adiway. They found the church completely dismembered—its wet, wooden body scattered along the upturned earth on the dry riverbank and floating with the oatmeal-like sledge from Starway’s nearby tailings dam. Arsenio clasped a hand more tightly over his face-mask. The stench seeped in everywhere. He spotted Sr. Wallang’s old, mud-colored Nissan upturned, its wheels floating on the watery surface.
The digging took the better part of the week. As the clean-up crew surveyed the landslide’s damage, the rest of the townspeople—once the day’s work was finished—would visit the site to see if they had finally found the body. When Arsenio saw the white edge of fabric peeking out of the muck, he prepared himself for the broken body, the decaying flesh and ruins of the good nun’s face. But all they unearthed was the tablecloth for the altar, washed by night-soil and mineral waste. Sr. Wallang was nowhere to be found.
When she had first arrived in Adiway, the community could not give her a school. Her abbess had already informed her that the town did not have much in terms of modernities or comforts, other than the chilly mountain air, which the abbess stated might help her cool down. Sr. Wallang brushed the comment aside, and was glad she could stay in the Cordilleras after a long, hot lifetime in Metro Manila.
On her initial visit to her supposed flock, she found the sun was fiercer than she had anticipated. There was a sign greeting, “Welcome to the Gold-Town of Adiway,” with Starway Mining Corporation’s trio of golden stars underneath, as well as a cartoon of a happy miner in a hard hat, with his blonde-haired family. Much of the land had already been stripped of topsoil, and even more had been allocated for the company’s various structures: tailings dams to hold the wastes of the mines, underground tunnels to divert water for the processing site, barracks for the workers, cordoned-off lots for the promised school and community center. But since the school was still a promise, the town had no budget of its own to rebuild the old elementary school, which had been swept away by last year’s flash floods and storm. So, they gave her dominion over the haunted church of Sto. Basilio.
The church was empty. Fr. Acero, the previous priest had relocated to Baguio City when he claimed his first year in Adiway had been disturbed by a spirit of death, which had manifested in an army of black worms, robbing him of sleep. Such superstitious behavior seemed unbecoming of a priest, so the townspeople allowed him to leave. Some of the more pious residents trekked four miles into the next town to hear mass, but most had been content to know the Almighty knew they did good works, loved most of their neighbors, and kept their promises. Upon hearing this, Sr. Josephine assured them that God understood their predicament; she was a nun, and was not authorized to officiate mass, but she said weekly catechism, for the meanwhile, should be enough to satisfy their spiritual hunger.
Their physical and mental hungers were different matters altogether. The elders informed her that the seasons had grown stranger and stranger in the recent decades. Rain fell in the months it was not supposed to, while the crackling dryness reached even the cool peaks of the hills. Life cycles had to be revised. More and more of the men-folk traveled to the lowlands to eke out a living or took up employment with Starway, which quickly set them to work harvesting the buried hoards of gold and copper. They coughed more frequently.
As her car rumbled through the landscape to settle into Adiway permanently, she witnessed huge machines, sitting idly in the distance, next to mountainous piles of dirt and rock. Imposing concrete buildings were protected by barbed-wire fences, manned by armed men in uniform. Cars filled their parking lots. She drove even further, her car rumbling for mercy, until she reached the ramshackle barangay hall, where to her and her car’s further dismay, they directed her upland. When she reached the church, she surveyed the grounds, found cracks multiplying wherever she looked, and climbed up the small bell-tower to get a better view of the flock. Clumps of green and earth had been pulled out from the fields and mountain ranges. The wound-purple sky seeped through the cracked windows. In the shadow of the altar and cross, Sr. Wallang better understood Fr. Acero’s superstitions. The church seemed a home to night creatures. The rotting pews rattled, coal-eyed insects darted at the sides of her vision, and she heard herself utter a black murmur to God, startling her heart into silence, before she rushed to the back of the church to prepare her room.
Sr. Josephine met the golden woman during the dialogue between the government, the townspeople, and the mining company. She was a manager at Starway’s human resources division, and wore more jewels than the Nuestra Senora del Santisimo Rosario at the height of the feast of La Naval de Manila. The metal hung from her ears, encircled her fingers and wrists. She wore a gilded cross around her neck, to add some piety to her opulence. Even the frames of her eye-glasses appeared golden. Unlike Nuestra Senora, no one flocked to her, even the ones who weren’t poring over documents and reports and figures or the ones who had only been called to the barangay hall to give their testimonies, no one wanted to talk to her. Her bodyguard and driver stood behind her.
“Just a simple garment, something for galunggong shopping,” Hannah de Ramos whispered into Josephine’s ear. Hannah was one of her oldest friends. They had gone to the same high school in Manila, and were planning on entering the convent together when she suffered a crisis of faith and left Josephine alone at the doors of St. Benedict. She found she could not cultivate any anger in her heart towards Hannah, especially when their lives intertwined again, year later, when Josephine moved up north for her mission and Hannah began working with an environmental group as their legal counsel.
The town mayor officiated the meeting. The golden woman spoke first. She talked of the Philippines becoming flooded with hot money, profit from foreign investors who bought metal ore stocks because of their potential for mountainous profit. The world market glittered, and Adiway had an opportunity to share the wealth, through jobs and a school for the town.
“Ms. Evangelista, whatever benefits you promise, you started your operations without getting either the environmental compliance certificate or consent from the community, which means that you’re operating here illegally.”
The golden woman presented a document from her sleek, brown-leather bag. It was a document, granting Starway access to major portions of the town, signed by Fr. Acero. Sr. Josephine gripped the edges of the table to suppress the urge to flip it over, and she could feel the red building up in her face.
“That’s not valid,” Hannah replied. “He’s not a member of the community. You can’t rely on his consent to lend legitimacy to your rampant plunder.”
“Legally, he is. I can show you his cedula, and the land title of the church of Sto. Basilio, under his name. He owns property in Adiway, so he’s a member of the community.”
The next hour involved even more alienating conversation between Hannah and Ms. Evangelista, where they fought on derivative trading, financial bonds, speculative bonds, covalent and metallic bonds, and the golden woman evinced such a thorough knowledge for all these kinds of bonds that Sr. Josephine surmised she had no space left for human bonds. The meeting ended when Ms. Evangelista proclaimed that no one understood her. In the middle of her tirade, Sr. Josephine’s vision suddenly abandoned her, mosquitoes stung her ear and spiders crawled on her palms. A thousands buzzards flooded the room. Night creatures threatened to overwhelm her. She felt Hannah’s hand on her cold nape, and she stirred into consciousness, to the golden woman announcing the operations would continue as they planned, otherwise hot money would flee from the country. Hannah asked if she were okay, and Sr. Josephine asked for a cup of water.
Hannah left the following morning, to follow up a case in the neighboring town of Bukod. There, she inspected bodies of water rendered acidic by waste from one of Starway’s copper mines. They were supposed to introduce lime to bring the acidity back to normal levels, but Hannah told Sr. Josephine they appeared to be cutting costs.
Two days later, schools of dead fish surfaced in Bagat River, and it developed the smell of bitter almonds. Sr. Josephine contacted an environmental group from the capital, and they arrived a week later, to study the river’s chemical composition. With their test strips, they found concentrations of cyanide in the water. The group told her that cyanide leaching was one method of extracting gold from the ore.
Sr. Wallang and Thelma, flanked by a crowd of townspeople, marched into Starway’s local administrative building to present the findings. Ms. Evangelista greeted them, and claimed that the results were part of the river’s natural processes. Cyanide was a naturally-occurring substance. She gestured to the armed guards, who validated her claims.
“It’s getting worse,” Thelma told the nun, as she closed shop. Sr. Josephine walked in just before closing time, and the baker welcomed her presence, since they were both searching for human conversation.
“When I was a child, it never flooded,” she said. “Sometimes the crops would go bad, and we would go hungry, but there was always deer in the forest, or other villages to trade with. Now, I don’t know. At least I still have some bread.”
Sr. Josephine felt her own inadequacy gnaw at her soul. Everything in her head sounded too pithy, if she had said it out loud.
“There is no theft if the refusal of goods is contrary to reason or the welfare of the community. There is no theft if using the property of others is the only way to provide for someone’s basic needs’” Sr. Wallang said. “That’s what the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us.”
“Careful, sister,” Thelma replied. “If the wrong people hear you, they might think you’re one of the people from the mountains.”
“Aren’t we all from the mountains?”
“You know what I mean.”
“What did you think of Ms. Evangelista?”
“I didn’t understand her,” Thelma said. “All her talk, she made it like the entire problem was that we didn’t understand her.”
“Do you think that’s the entire problem?”
Thelma stared at her quizzically. Sr. Josephine told her she could take her time. After a few minutes, she responded.
“With all her education, she should know how to explain what she’s doing, and how it’s going to benefit us. And if we still can’t understand it, how we benefit, maybe we actually don’t, and there’s something wrong with her and her people,” she said.
“I think she’s arrogant,” she added. “I think she and all her bosses should live here forever, so that they know the actual price of what they’re doing. They should swim in the river, and drink the water, and work the land for their breakfast.”
Thelma offered Sr. Josephine the last of the day’s goods, which the nun accepted with much thanks for her generosity. The baker told her it wasn’t generosity, but the fact they would expire if left uneaten for the night.
Stuffed with bread, Sr. Josephine found her night prayers full of computations and figures. To produce a gold ring, you’ll need to sift through and throw away two tons of waste. Ms. Evangelista had at four gold rings on her fingers, or eight tons of waste on her hands. The country produces forty-eight tons of gold per year. How many tons of waste is that? And where does all that waste go? Rain started falling through the gaps and cracks on the church roof. Sr. Josephine worried she spent too much time on such earthly matters, but asked herself what else she was meant to do on earth. On earth that was being hollowed and hollowed. She floated in the dark, alone, the god of death and his animals having retreated into the empty pits of the world.
When storm season came, Adiway and the rest of the region were destabilized. Underground tunnels collapsed, landfills overflowed, vats of water were overturned, and the wind blew doors off houses. In the gloom of the church of Sto. Basilio, the families of Adiway ate their relief goods by candle-light. Sr. Josephine tried singing church hymns to break the wet madness of the storm, but realized that it didn’t contribute any peace.
With her radio, they listened to what was occurring in the other regions of the country. The roads around Adiway were impassable, and chunks of lands had caved-in under the pressure of the typhoon. Farther away, in the cities helicopters were rescuing people stranded on rooftops. The water fell on concrete streets and alleyways, found nowhere else to go, and gathered in pools until it threatened to overwhelm the cities’ inhabitants. Thankfully, there was still some soil and forest to absorb the worst of the flooding in Adiway, but the majority of the town were either trapped in their homes, in the town hall, or in the church, if their homes had been swept away. Sr. Josephine muttered a heretical prayer, for Starway to be flooded into oblivion.
The typhoon continued for several days. During lulls in the storm, Sr. Josephine would venture outside and shine a flashlight in the sky, to signal any rescue teams that they needed more supplies. She gathered edible wet bark from trees and roots, and boiled them for food when the packed noodles and sardines ran out. They even ate the bags of communion wafers, and ancient boxes of wine Thelma had found in the storage closet, underneath a pile of moth-eaten cassocks.
When the typhoon finally passed, Sr. Josephine accompanied the people into the town proper to take account of what had been damaged. They found nearly everything splintered and rain-lashed. They also found that Starway’s administrative building was not spared the damage, but that there were already men repairing its windows, mending its doors, ensuring operations returned to normal, as quickly as possible.
Sr. Josephine sat in the lobby of the hotel in Bukod, listening to a harmless, instrumental song. She focused on the song to prevent the red from coming back up to her face. She told the receptionist that she was waiting for a friend, and he believed her, because she was evidently a woman of God and grace. The receptionist was now at his post, sleeping. No one else entered or left the hotel. In fact, almost no one walked the streets of Bukod, Sr. Josephine figured they were probably still reeling and recovering from the effects of the storm.
A few days prior, as Sr. Josephine Wallang mopped the floors of Sto. Basilio in preparation for the day’s math lessons, Hannah arrived with news, and she felt the earth fall from under her.
“I tried to reach you earlier, but the roads were terrible,” Hannah told her. “Hurry, come with me to Bukod. The petition against Starway is going to court today. We’ll know, based on the judge’s decision, how good our legal chances are.”
In the hotel lobby, Sr. Josephine reflected that she shouldn’t have expected anything more. Of course, the judge would rule in favor of Starway. He ruled that there was no negligence, that the evidence presented by the people of Bukod was lacking, because they had not reached the same level of education as Starway’s legal technicians, and so their arguments did not hold water. Ms. Evangelista was there, because she had to be there. She shot the nun a poisonous smile as the judge read his decision.
Then, she received the panicked text from Thelma, telling her about the landslide that had engulfed Sto. Basilio, asking her where on God’s earth she was. She managed to text a brief “I’m okay,” before a long dark night of the soul fell on her. She spent a day and night lying on the bed of Hannah’s boarding house, refusing food or drink.
She figured there was nowhere else the golden woman would stay. There was only one hotel in Bukod with electricity and running water, and she had nothing else to do in this foreign town. The hours ticked slowly. She fingered the heavy metal cross around her neck, and wondered about the feasibility of her endeavor, the entire purpose of it. Supposing she even saw the golden woman, what would she do? Would shaming her publicly have any effect on the shares of Starway? Would a curse return the stolen wealth beneath the ground? She felt herself lifted up, and possessed by a foreign power when she spotted Ms. Evangelista come out from an elevator and enter the ladies’ bathroom. Sr. Josephine followed her inside. She locked the door behind her.
The bathroom was surprisingly spacious, tiled in pink and smelling of pleasantly-tangy citrus. Ms. Evangelista was completely oblivious to the nun’s presence, fixing her hair in the mirror, before she entered a cubicle. There weren’t any cameras inside, of course, since it was the ladies’ bathroom. And Sr. Josephine couldn’t recall seeing any cameras in the lobby and in the corridor leading to the CR. Even if it had air-conditioning, it was still a small hotel in the mountains, the owners had better things to spend their money on than cameras, and the rooms probably didn’t have anything worthwhile to steal. The metal around her neck grew colder. Ms. Evangelista emerged from the cubicle, and Josephine uttered a dark cry to God.
When her self returned to her, she found the golden women stripped of all her gold. Her jewelry was in the nun’s hands now, while the woman was asleep, her hands tied around the cubicle’s legs with the sister’s metal cross. The mirror was broken. A metal trashcan was lying on its side, streaked with something red. Her heart nearly leapt out of her chest. She grabbed the woman’s wrist and felt for a pulse, which was faint, but still there, and her heart gained some semblance of peace. She got up to wash the red from her knuckles. When she left the bathroom, she made sure the door was still locked, and that she smiled at the receptionist on her way out, though she found him still asleep. She rushed as quickly as she could back to Hannah’s boarding house. In her head, Josephine planned what she would tell her friend, how she would insist they leave Bukod and return to Adiway as soon as possible. Crying would be necessary, to ensure that Hannah understood the gravity of the situation. Josephine wouldn’t tell her what had happened, to ensure her friend didn’t suffer any culpability. The future, sin, they would be matters to sort out as soon as she returned to her ruined church. The gold weighed heavy in her pockets.
Lakan Daza Umali is a graduate student at the University of the Philippines Diliman. He lives in Metro Manila.
Who’s going with who? Sheila asks, her perfectly plucked brows gracefully arched, even as her own gaze wanders to the broad back of the school jock, seven servbot aisles away.
What are you wearing? is what Rachel of the bountiful curls would like to know, her head tilting this way and that, always just narrowly avoiding the whizzing monidrones.
Isn’t it exciting? But curvaceous Donna isn’t really expecting a reply, only waiting for an opportunity to squeal and giggle at the same time.
The boys are uncharacteristically interested in the topic as well. Thin-boned Jared thinks the Eclipse Party will spell his demise: how can anyone fathom that an asthmatic-diabetic would survive outside a biosphere? Lucas the Brash believes the adventure is worth a thousand deaths, and says so in a tone that irks Jared; the resulting argument inevitably draws the attention of a monidrone.
Brix–with-the-unsettling-eyes eventually intervenes and calms the two before a third warning is issued, but then betrays you by saying he’s looking forward to hearing a certain kind of quiet, one untainted by the whir of generator engines.
You of the bushy brows and untameable hair; you, the one everyone refers to as ‘the new girl’ even though you’ve been enrolled in Bio72’s school system for the past year; you don’t want to talk about the Eclipse Party, because doing so will mean dealing with the elaborate tale your Papa spun about birthrights and birthduties and shitty artifacts and fucked-up moon-threatening monsters. And until Brix actually spoke out, you hadn’t thought he’d want to talk about it either. The two of you had shared eye-rolls, subtle sighs, and discreet shoulder shrugs since you’d been coopted into their clique. In your mind, you’d begun thinking of him as an ally, a comrade, even perhaps as a friend. But here he is, keeping the Eclipse Party conversation alive by offering insights (looking at you), speaking as if he’d always been interested in parties (looking at you), then going about smiling awkwardly and expecting a response (looking at you).
You suddenly feel the weight of everyone’s attention.
(Papa always said that the right moment would inevitably find you. It would chase and track you, hound and haunt you, pursue you to the ends of the universe and seek you out from the safety of darkness until you were exposed to the fates as either a coward or a hero. Papa also said that your family descended from aliens tasked to protect this world from a mooneater. It was hard to take Papa seriously.)
You nod because you foolishly think this is the safest option, given the circumstances. Donna squeals then giggles; Jared and Lucas get into a pushing match that finally earns them a visit to the Overseers; Rachel tosses her head back while Sheila lowers her raised eyebrow. You’re still trying to figure out what happened when Brix says—as though it were the most natural thing in the world—that he’ll pick you up at seven.
As the world moves on—as Jared and Lucas are escorted by a drone and two bots out of the cafeteria, as Sheila and Donna and Rachel’s shallow chatter resumes—Brix casually puts an arm around your chair. You notice it but you’re too shocked to lean back, and too shocked to lean away. Instead, you sit still, wondering how in all of biosphere you got yourself a date on the same night that you’re supposed to fight Bal’un of the Void.
a voicechip of Papa’s Bullshit
T’kish-bila had fifteen moons; fifteen beautiful moons for the fifteen luminescent queens, for the fifteen long months, for the fifteen intersecting fortunes held in perfect harmony.
But from the vast emptiness came the mooneaters, the Rdaskanas. Longer and larger than drukanh’i, more terrifying and fearsome than orgkli-hian, they are led by the mightiest of them, Bal’un of the Void. The Rdaskanas are creatures of hunger and madness driven only to consume the stars and the moons, and when they came, they brought with them the promise of infinite darkness.
The warriors marched, the wizards chanted, the people prayed and the queens sang, but still the Rdaskanas swallowed fourteen moons and killed the fourteen divinities that defended them. It was not until the last queen, in the last month, holding on to the last remaining fortune, discovered the secret symphony embedded in her bones that T’kish-bila found salvation. And so it was that she who was the youngest, she who remained, she who still stood, obliterated the armies of mooneaters with the song in her bones.
But mighty Bal’un of the Void could not be destroyed as easily. With all that was left of her, the lone luminescent queen produced a melody of mourning and triumph by splashing her blood and bone against the wind, against the ground where her sisters died, against the skin of the greatest of devourers, against everything that was lost and everything that can yet still be, until the sound of prayer and hope and fury and desperation resonated with such force that it pushed Bal’un of the Void to the vast blackness, diminished, defeated, wounded but not dead, exiled to worlds that have no music in their queens.
a rebellion of sorts
Mama is asking you the usual things in her usual slurred manner: How are you today? What did you do in school? Are you ready to fight Bal’un of the Void?
You mumble something vague which only draws more questions: Shouldn’t you be practicing with the artifact? Are you sure you remember what your Papa taught you? What about your back-up plans, have you even made them like I told you to?
Mama, like the bulky household monidrone, is old. She was old when she had you; older still when Papa died. Now, she spends her days sitting in an antique rocking chair, her fine, silver hair up in a bun, flesh-colored nodes attached to her pulse points continuously monitoring her vitals. She usually stores enough energy to stand and shift seats when you come home—an act of strength purely for your benefit. You usually pretend not to see the periodic tremors that torment her—an act of defiance against the inevitable that you put on for both your sakes.
Despite her debilitating illness, it was Mama who insisted to push through with Papa’s plan of transferring to Bio72, one of the few technically capable biospheres that allow its citizenry monitored fieldtrips in unenveloped environs. This was the year of the mooneater—at least according to arcane calculations that your Papa made which you never understood—and the original plan was for Papa to accompany you to the Eclipse Party and deal with the hidden threat to the world as he has purportedly done once before, as his family has purportedly done in all previous generations.
But then, Papa died.
Mama says you don’t understand how important this is. You’re the one born with the ability to save the world. You’re the one who can operate the artifact. You’re the one tasked and gifted. Only you—
It’s at this moment that you finally snap.
(Papa always said you were special. He said that on the night you were born, the heavens echoed the joyful harmonies of luminescent queens of a distant galaxy. When you were six, and then again when you were eight, and then lastly when you were twelve, you would get into fights with people who bullied smaller people, odd people, people like you. And you would lose. And your Papa would say you’re special, don’t doubt it, hush, don’t cry, be brave, hush, you will be strong someday, you will save the world, hush, have faith. For too long a time, you believed.)
Only me? you say. But what you really want to say is that you’re not special, just a girl who wants to hold on to something real for once, and to move on, and damn the artifact because that’s not yours, and it’s not you, and you don’t want any part of it, because there’s nothing special about you, no music, no symphony, no magic hidden in your blood or in your bones.
But all that comes out as a growl, not unlike the growls Papa used to make when he played make believe with you, when you were much younger.
You repeat, only me? and when you can’t get any other words out, you blurt: I have a date, and who gives a shit about Bal’un. And you tell yourself that you don’t care, you don’t fucking care you mentioned Bal’un’s name so clearly in the presence of a monidorone, and that it sounds crazy and irrelevant and stupid if, in fact, your Papa’s stories are true, because everything he said is fiction, every goddamn thing he made you believe is a lie.
You stomp to your room and slam the door. You hear the monirdone outside drop to the floor followed by a rare silence. Eventually, the monidrone picks itself up, coughs itself to a start, then grumbles to a roar. Only then do you cry.
a hologram’s welcoming words of wisdom
Welcome adventurers and explorers. The annual tour of the unenveloped environs by the graduating students and their companions has long been the highlight of Bio72’s founding festivities. This is a particularly special year as the expedition coincides with a rare lunar eclipse, usually unviewable within biosphere grounds. To celebrate, the Overseers are hosting an Eclipse Viewing Party where, under protective surveillance, you will be allowed to view the heavenly alignment and partake of a special meal especially crafted for this occasion.
Bio72 is only one of 12 biospheres equipped with state of the art monidrone technology that then permits people to safely explore the Red Glade, the Viridian Forest and the Arch. But while we take your well-being seriously, we cannot guarantee your protection from the elements unless you follow these protocols:
Do not leave the touring party. Please make sure that your tour leader and botguides are in your line of vision at all times.
Do not touch or retrieve items from the grounds. Reasonably priced souvenir items – especially sanitized for the purpose of bringing back into a biosphere – are available at the viewing deck at the end of the tour.
Do not interact with the animals. Animals can be carriers of diseases or bacteria which can not only infect you, but other citizens as well.
Always keep your locator nodes activated. Aside from serving as a mapping and tracking system, these will also provide periodic updates of your vitals to our capable health technicians.
As our partners, we expect you to strictly comply with all of these protocols in addition to any other directions your tour leader may provide. Violations will be punished accordingly.
Thank you for trusting us. We know you will have a wonderful time.
an unexpected surprise
Brix is holding your hand. He has been holding your hand ever since he picked you up at exactly seven. He kept on holding your hand even as your mother silently shot him disapproving looks as he valiantly attempted polite conversation. He didn’t let go of your hand despite the teasing the two of you endured when you met up with the rest of the gang. And he’s still holding your hand now, even though you’re both gloved and you can barely feel the heat of his palm.
It’s not unpleasant.
The tour leader along with the botguides have been busy pointing out interesting things in the Red Glade (named after the scarlet flowers that grow abundantly close to the ground, which curly Rachel stole from), the Viridian Forests (the unimaginative appellation for the vibrantly green cluster of trees in which Sheila and her jock were found ‘accidentally’ wandering off), and continue to do so as your batch makes your way to the Arch (the purported city center in a time gone by where you suspect Lucas and Jared will get their third and final violation for disturbing the peace). You only pay enough attention to follow the instructions. Your mind is distracted by Brix whose eyes are darker without all the manmade light, and the artifact in your pouch which miraculously got through the detectors.
Mama said just before you left that she believes you will do the right thing. Mama’s immense faith in you is such a stark contrast to the dizzying depth of your doubts. You don’t know if you have it in you to believe, much less do anything. All you know is that there’s boy beside you, and it seems like he likes you though you don’t know why, and he’s solid and normal and real.
You wonder if he thinks the same about you.
You wonder what the hell has gotten into him when, just a few minutes before the lunar eclipse, he suddenly pulls you to the side, takes quick steps diagonally to the left, and then a sharp turn.
You no longer have the tour leader in sight. You can hear an odd rustling in the bushes behind you. When you think it can’t get any worse, Brix switches off the locator node on your wrist.
(Papa always said that the artifact would activate when it needed to, not a moment before. He first said this to you after your expression revealed your disappointment at being shown a long bone-shaped piece of metal. At the ripe old age of five, you had expected it to be glittery. At the very least, it should have gleamed. But Papa said what he did and over time you were convinced that, when you really needed it, it would be as magical and as wonderful as a piece of bone and left over blood from a luminescent queen should be. Papa was good with words like that.)
You try to pull away but Brix only tightens his grasp.
No, it’s nothing like that—oh fuck, this isn’t coming out the way it should, isn’t it? Brix asks and you nod, because you don’t know how it should come out, only that you’re in some place where you shouldn’t be. You turn to the side to try and catch a glimpse of the tour guide through the thick of the trees, but you see nothing, just foliage and shadow. Brix is still spouting words, looking earnest except for his even darker eyes, but the only thing you catch is: this is supposed to be romantic.
You laugh at that. It’s a spontaneous laugh, and it’s a little hysterical to your ears, but Brix laughs with you, and suddenly, you’re not as afraid anymore. When Brix leans forward, still smiling, you don’t step back.
That’s when you notice the shadows swirling, dripping, taking shape behind him as the ground begins to tremble. With no time to scream, no time to run away, only enough time to take a gigantic leap of faith, you take the artifact out of your pouch.
a video clip of Papa’s confession
All the stories I told you, daughter—aliens, symphonies, bloodlines and duties—are lies. They are products of my imagination. Any threat to a biosphere can be capably handled by the Overseers. Any threat to any biosphere can be resolved by use of current technology.
Don’t believe me.
Instead, believe in yourself. I’m sorry but you’ll have to do things on your own now. You’ll have to learn what to trust and when. All these things a father should have taught you, I can only tell you in words now.
Remember these words. I love you. Always.
a return to the familiar
A heartbeat later, the shadows are screaming. The artifact in your hands pulses blinding light as it thrums a familiar song. In the distance, you hear your name being called, and Brix’s name, and shouts to stay calm, and an army of monidrones whizzing through the forest, all while the earthquake gains in intensity, all while Bal’un of the Void roars in anger and loneliness and hunger.
You are calm and, perhaps strangest of all, you’re smiling. Above you, in the gaps between the trees, you see the curve of a pale moon. You know its secret now. You can hear the moon sing its tale in the symphony that emanates from the artifact. You know the names of the moon’s dead sisters. You can hear the moon’s voice resound in your bones.
When you turn toward Brix’s direction, you are not afraid. Brix is all but gone now, swallowed by the shadows except for his eyes that to you, seem to gleam. You take a step forward, and another, and another until you are surrounded by darkness, until you can no longer hear the persistent buzz of drones, until you are in the very heart of a monster.
Don’t worry, you say to Bal’un of the Void, knowing in this instance, if only in this one instance, your words have weight, I’m here. And then as if you’ve always know what to do, you put the artifact to your lips. And blow.
Kate Osias believes that love, chocolate and the right kind of madness can save the world. She has won five Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, the Gig Book Contest, Canvas Story Writing Contest, the 10th Romeo Forbes Children’s Storywriting Competition, and the Nick Joaquin Literary Awards. Her work has been cited by Publisher’s Weekly and the Year’s Best Fantasy and Science Fiction. She has been published locally, online and abroad, and has co-edited the sixth, seventh and eleventh volumes of Philippine Speculative Fiction. Her first collection, Heroes, Villains and Other Women, is a finalist in the National Book Awards (2019) and is available via Ateneo de Manila University Press.