Paglisan ng hapon

I lied.

Sabi ko hindi ko ramdam, hindi ko ramdam na malapit na magtatapos ang mga araw namin sa kolehiyo.

Ngayong araw, napa check  ko na sa aking adviser ang aking thesis. Okay na ni, hambal niya, ready for hardbound na. Dali dali kong dinala sa pinakamalapit at pinakamurang shop na nag piprint at nagpa-pabookbind ng mga thesis. Naniniwala kasi akong walang silbi ang thesis ko, balak ko ngang itapon ang kopya ko sa isang pangpang doon sa Sarangani, dapat doon sa may mataas na cliff para dramatic ang dating. Pero hindi about sa thesis ko ang kwento nato.

Naalala ko noon, noong first year pa ako, pagkatapos ng klase, di na ako nagpapalipas ng oras sa eskwelahan. Pagkatapos ng klase, dali-dali na akong pupunta sa paradahan ng jeep para umuwi. Wala pa kasi akong ka close na mga kaklase. Maraming kaibigan, pero hindi sapat para pigilan ang excitement ko sa pag-uwi. May mga invites galing sa iba’t ibang orgs at societies pero di ko pinapansin. Alas kwatro ng hapon. Ramdam na ang pagod sa buong araw sa eskwela.  Lagkit na lagkit na ang balat dahil sa paghahalo ng alikabok at pawis. Isali na rin ang bigat ng ulo at mata sa antok. Pagdating sa paradahan, pahirapan pa ang pagsakay. Sa dami ng gustong umuwi, halos ka kumpetensya mo ang lahat ng estudyante ng MSU. Oo, competitive raw ang mga MSUans, pero hiling ko, wag naman sana nilang dalhin kahit sa uwian. Pero hindi eh, paano ka makakauwi kung di ka makikibaka? The answer is you don’t. Oo, makakauwi ka pero mapapatagal ang naghihintay na meryenda sa bahay, ang internet, ang bagong bihis na damit pambahay, ang malamig na tubig ng banyo. Ipagpapaliban mo ba yun dahil sa pagka weakshit mo? Hindi. Kaya natuto akong makisiksik at makipag agawan. First come, first serve. Indiscriminate. Kanya-kanya bawa’t isa. Naalala ko na may isang lalake di na nakapagpigil, ilang jeep na kasi ang dumaan, di pa rin siya nakasakay. May bagong jeep na dumaan, habang pumupwesto pa lang, dinumog na ng mga estudyante. Siya naman, napunta sa likuran. Ayun, na frustrate, sumigaw: “Pota, inyo na lang ng jeep! kaona na ninyo! Mabusog ta mo!” True story. 

Di ko talaga mailarawan ang relief kapag umandar na ang jeep, masikip kasi at mainit sa loob. Somehow, it felt lonely pero comforting, parang wala kasi akong buhay, eskwela-bahay lang. Wala pa kasing ibang iniisip kung hindi tulog o kompyuter lang. Pag alis ng jeep, diretso lang mula sa paradahan harap ng Office of Students Affairs, tapos liko pakaliwa sa gilid ng iconic na water tank ng MSU harap ng H-Building, tapos isa namang liko pakaliwa banda sa asul na building ng College of Fisheries, tapos liko pakanan sa harap ng Y-building. Diretso lang, walang liko, hanggang sa maabot na ang gate. Di ko na babanggitin lahat pero iyon ang daan namin araw araw papalabas ng campus. Bawat sakay sa jeep ay isang panibagong adventure kahit iisa lang naman ang ruta na tinatahak araw araw: Mga bagong mukha, samu’t saring pagkato, iba’t ibang tsismis. Pero ang laging nandiyan, ay ang sarap sa pakiramdam na at the end of the day, with the sun behind your back, ay makakauwi ka na talaga. Pero shit, nakatry talaga ako nakatulog sa jeep habang nakapatong ang ulo ko sa balikat ng Biology Teacher ko.

Third year, nakabili sila mommy ng scooter. Bilang na lang sa daliri ang mga sandaling sumakay ako ng jeep. Lumilipas ng di pinapansin ang hapon. Dilim na ako kung umuwi sa mga panahon na yon. Nalulong na kasi sa barkada, sa mga gawaing eskwelahan, o sa mga extracurricular activities. Kung umuwi man ng mas maaga, ito ay dahil may importanteng gawain. Parati na lang umuuwi na stressed at maraming iniisip. Mas lumala pa pag sapit ng fourth year. Nakakalungkot. Nakaka-putang ina. Sa pagsusulat ko neto, biglang sumakit ang ulo ko sa pagalala ng mga panahong sakal na sakal kami sa gawaing pang eskwela. Halos wala na akong time ma appreciate ang mga simpleng bagay. Chos.

First week ng May. Katatapos lang ng pinakaunang SOX Summer Writing Camp kung saan nagsilbi ako bilang camp director. Isang malaking bawas sa workload. Kinabukasan nun, deadline na ng submission ng appplication for graduation. May posibilidad pa namang ieextend pa ng Admin ang deadline, pero I don’t want to take that risk. Pumunta ako sa school ng mga tanghali at inasikaso lahat ng mga kailangan asikasuhin. I didn’t bother to have lunch hanggang sa wala ng kulang sa kapirasong papel. Isinubmit ko na agad sa in-charge ang application ko. Di ko  talagang nalimutan huminga ng malalim. Umuwi na ako, sakay ng aking dilaw na scooter. Mula sa Y-Building, tinahak ko ang daanan ng mga jeep. Mag aalas kwatro na, pero very solitary ang feels ng eskwelahan, almost melancholy, parang naglaho ang mga magaaral. Napansin ko ang liwanag ng hapon, dilaw na may konting shade ng orange. For a moment, wala akong ibang iniisip but to live in that moment. Mahinahon, yung walang deadlines na iniisip. Yung nabubuhay ko lang sa sandaling iyon, yung tipong parang tumigil ang daloy ng oras. Binagalan ko ang takbo ng scooter pero hindi pa rin sapat. Nalagpasan ko pa rin ang sandali. Nakauwi ako ng maaga na meryenda at tulog lang ang nasa isipan.

Ngayon ay tapos na ang ang mga requirements ko, antayan na lang. Bilang na lang sa daliri ang pagbalik ko sa eskwelahan. Sa aking nalalapit na paglisan sa unibersidad, tiyak na patuloy parin ang paglipas ng maghapon sa eskwela.

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To Pull a Hook

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

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

Ganina pa man ka.

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

Sa sunod ah,” he answered.

The dialogue continued for days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mga gipangbakal ko sa Proper ah,” he replied.

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

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

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

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

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

Gapamunit, Kol,” Tito answered.

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

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

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

Hala! Ari na, kuy!

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

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

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

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

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

Utda ang punta eh,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ginbunit eh,” I said.

Ti, ano ginapakaon niyo sina hay?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wala man ta stick,” I said.

Pati lang bala.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gaano ka mo da?” asked Tatay.

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

Bi, palantaw sang dakop niyo bi.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tagai bala ko sang stick,” said the kid.

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

Pabay-i niyo na lang na,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

Ambot. Wala ko kabalo.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


This essay won first prize in the inaugural Lagulad Prize, a regionwide essay writing contest organized by Cotabato Literary Journal and first appeared in their online journal at Cotabato Literary Journal

The old man on the corner

Have you seen the old man on the street corner? The one with the lose spectacles? my mother asked.

I turned my eyes off the road for awhile to see the old man, I recognized him as a tricycle driver from my brothers’ school. He was thin and frail, he was wearing a blue polo shirt. His eyeglasses clung loosely on his nose. But when he saw my mother, he flashed a very big smile.

Yes, I have, I said. Where’s his tricycle?

He’s sold it, she said.

Why? To put money in KAPA? I said, seriously.

No, I think he used the money to go to Iloilo. He nearly died because of illness, he went to see his mother for the last time.

Really? He goes to the other church, right? I said.

Yes, he does. He just got back. It’s good to see that he finally recovered.

Why did he go to Iloilo? I asked, curious. Doesn’t he have a family here?

It was really sad, my mother said, his mother really cried when she found out that his son is dying that’s why he went to Iloilo, to spend his last moments with his mother. It really is a pity. He also had to take care of his wife with cancer. It reached a point where he himself would insert the catheter because his wife couldn’t pee anymore.

Is she dead? What about his children? I asked.

Yes, some time ago. His children are here but they also have their own lives, my mother replied.

I wondered about him as a husband, a father, and a son. Would I be the same when I grow old? To be strong and be patient when my wife is dying as well? To sell off what I have to spend what would be my final moments with my aging mother? To live without the companion of my children? To go through everything he went through and still flash my biggest smile when I meet someone I know while I stand in the corner of the street?

I didn’t talk anymore. I only stared on the road in front of me.

A Chronicle of a Christmas long gone

It’s 2006. You and your siblings are sprawling on the floor of the living room, playing with the toys you received from the Christmas parties you have attended, surrounded by your family exchanging smiles, stories and laughter. A Christmas tree is standing on the corner, glowing with the colors of the Christmas lights, donned with red and gray Christmas balls, gold ribbons, Christmas socks and angels. Ah, and a star reigns on top of the highest bough. A favorite TV station plays “Tuloy na tuloy pa rin ang Pasko”, performed by Orange and Lemons, for who knows how many times already. Occasionally, fireworks burst out of nowhere. Plenty of fireworks, playing a constant staccato of explosions and from time to time, a spray of cracking pyrotechnics.

You seem content, but deep down, you’re getting anxious. Only hours before, you and you’re dad hanged a bag on the darkest, farthest part outside your house. You cannot wait to take a look if Santa really brought you gifts. You ask your dad if you can check the bags already. He says No. Not yet. He has you and your siblings light up some sparklers instead. You light a sparkler and marvel at it sparkle brightly, sometimes you hold it above your head, sometimes you point it to the ground, and most oftentimes, you spin it round and round. You even spell your name with it.

Gradually, the explosions are becoming more frequent. They’re getting louder, they’re getting closer. Off the distance, you hear the roar of a motorcycle engine or a long press of the car horn. It’s about time, someone in your family said.

All of you went out and admire the dazzling pyrotechnic display high above the skies.. The colors red, green, and yellow filled the black mantle of the night. Explosions. Lots of explosions. And loud noises, too. Sometimes, a firework will fly and will burst bigger than the rest, with an explosion loud enough, it will shake you through your core. On the streets, a rapid crackle of Juda’s Belt, Picolo, and plenty more firecrackers beat on your ear drums. From the corner of your eye, you see a pyrotechnic fountain spewing shiny flame from the ground ten feet into the air. Oh, the air. It starts to smell of gunpowder. You ask for another box of sparklers, the one with the image of The Statue of Liberty on it, but your dad gives you better: Lusis. And then there is smoke. And the smoke smells of gunpowder, too.

Then, as gradually as they start, the excitement begins to fade. You greet each other “Merry Christmas”. One by one, your family return inside the house. Your dad say, You can take the bags now. You ran as fast as you can to where you hanged your bag. The bag looks empty, your heart begins to pound through your chest. You make your way through the darkness. It cannot be, you thought, Santa mustn’t have forgotten about me. Then, you reach for it. It feels heavy. You immediately know it was a box. You squeal out of excitement. You pull it down and rush back to your dad.

Daddy, you say, Santa brought something for me!

Your dad rubs your head. You head back inside the house and find out that your siblings’ bags are also filled with gifts. Santa didn’t forgot about them, too.

The adults begins to flood to the kitchen. “Tuloy na tuloy pa rin ang Pasko” is playing once again, while sudden and individual explosions burst past the grandeur minutes of midnight. You’re sprawling on the floor once again, opening the gifts Santa brought.

Last Christmas

The last time I went caroling was nine years ago when I was in grade six. It knew it happened on the twenty-third of December, as my friends said that it was the last “acceptable” day to go caroling–Nobody should go caroling on the twenty fourth and beyond, they said. I remember we spent the whole afternoon with my friends preparing our song lineup and making our instruments-a makeshift tambourine out of wire and tin caps, drums out of empty milk cans, and maracas out of plastic bottles filled with pebbles.

By nightfall, we were ready to roam our neighborhood and the nearby subdivision. We went from one house to another, singing songs like “Joy to the world”, “Pasko na naman”, the jovial chorus of “Feliz Navidad”, and the classic favorite, “Boom Tarat Tarat” among many others. I remember we were out of lyrics most of the time, even inventing our own on the fly. What mattered the most for me, and maybe for all of us back then, is that we sang our hearts out all the time and the few precious coins we would receive. When we ran out of songs, we would yell “Namamasko po!” until somebody would come out to hand us some loose change and of course, we would not forget to sing: “Thank you, Thank you. Ang babait ninyo, Thank you!”

At one house, after giving us some coins, the lady talked to our group.

“Ayaw mog balik ha?” she said. We were shaken, we thought she was mad at us–Nothing good happens when adults are mad, at least from what I experienced until then. But still we continued our “panaygon.”

Then, we went to the biggest, grandest house of the nearby subdivision, The last house we would carol before heading for home. As we sang, an elderly lady came out to see us. We assumed that she was the owner of the house. We sang more excitedly, and played our instruments livelier– all for the prospect of receiving a larger sum of money.

“Kanta lang? Dapat may sayaw rin! Di ako magbibigay kung walang sayaw!” she said. It was an eager challenge. Our group looked at each other. We never expected that my brother, aged two that time, would come up huge at the moment. He danced to the music of “Boom, Tarat Tarat”, imitating the dance steps he saw on the Willie Revillame’s noontime show–moving his hands, shaking his hips, all to the delight of the old lady. I swear she was laughing, and smiling, and clapping her hands that time. At the end, she gave us a one-hundred peso bill.

Before going our separate ways, we split our “revenue” among ourselves–all of which we spent on firecrackers the following day which we set off on Christmas Eve. Of course, my brother got his share too.

The voice of the stern lady resonates until this day: “Ayaw mog balik, ha?”

and we never did.

Nor we went caroling again. Nor spent another Christmas in the company of each other again. For me, it was the last true Christmas I ever spent.

I would pay even more than a hundred pesos to experience it once again.

Nocturne Op. 1 No.1

For the first time since I started to try my hand in writing, I was kept awake by a crippling thought of self-doubt. Am I good enough? Can I keep moving forward? What if I couldn’t get any better? I felt weak. I felt vulnerable. I felt that there was a wall in front of me, a huge one, bigger than ever before. For the first time, I thought of quitting to write.

My mind flashed back to when I was still practicing the piano, the thought of quitting was with me all the time. I couldn’t seem to move past the level I was currently at. In short, I was stuck: Stuck in a quagmire of self-doubt and melodramatic shit. And also, there was fear—fear that I wouldn’t be able to pass that challenge at all. I thought back then that this might really be my limits. That I can no longer take another step forward at all. That feeling returned once again, last night to be exact.

When I think of it, a part of being a musician still remains in me. Perhaps, it even formed what they call the “backbone” of a person, something that holds them up and keeps them from falling.  Where did I get the guts for taking criticisms? The knack for learning something new? The thirst for making things better? It was all from the time when I was still practicing classical piano: the whole eight years of it.

As I stared at the ceiling last night, new questions began to parade into my mind, like weary travelers from distant lands: What did I do to get where I am right now? What did I do back then, when I was still a musician, to overcome this similar situation? though these travelers may be strangers from foreign lands, they came bearing gifts—answers that may be of help. Maybe due to the busier time of the academic year, I might have neglected the often-daily “sesh”-es that formed the building blocks of my writing: I’ll have to resume them soon enough. The flurry of events that happened the past two months (winning two essay competitions, fellowship to a writers workshop and a special fellowship to another) might also have contributed to the building self-imposed pressure on my self: I forgot that I was still a fledgling learning to take flight, a newcomer among the veterans, a stranger exploring uncharted territory. What I need is to learn the essentials and master the basics of writing; hone the skills I currently have, absorb whatever information that is available before going further and farther into the unknown. Just like playing the piano, master the basic technique first and everything will follow.

With that, I put my self at ease. There was no need to rush. No need to break through the wall when you can slowly and carefully scale over it. I was so deep in my thoughts earlier that I failed to see the moonlight illuminate my room: my book shelves, the books, the scattered draft papers on my writing desk, and my trusty laptop. It was calm and silent. And there was no fear. On the far side of the room, away from the window and opposite from my bed, was completely dark. But I was not afraid, for I knew what lies ahead.

I felt for my phone, put on my earphones and the last thing I knew, I was listening to the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, looking at the moon beams, waiting for sleep.

The 29th Month

I really have trouble saving money.  I couldn’t help it, but by the end of the day, my daily allowance would simply disappear.  Yesterday, however, was different— I decided to cut back on my daily expenses.

Dang it, I thought while driving to the city after school, What could I buy with the money I have left? To be perfectly honest, It really wasn’t a matter of what to buy. From the start, I already have something in my mind. It was more of a question whether to buy or not to buy. I hate to say it, but before the day ended, I still wouldn’t be able to save a dime.

By the time I arrived at the city, I have decided already. I remembered that it was three years ago when I last made a purchase there.

“How much for one?” I asked the woman.

“Twenty Five Pesos, sir.” Damn, I thought. Back in the day, it only costs Fifteen Pesos. It doesn’t matter though, I have the money.

“I’ll take three.”

“Should I wrap it separately or as one?” she asked me.

“Wrap it as one, please.”

She went inside her stall for a moment and when she returned, she gave me the items, wrapped in cellophane. I paid her the exact amount.

I left immediately. I hate being broke, but I hate the smell of flowers even more. but it was a small price to pay for making someone happy.