August 23, 2018

Tuba

Over gallons and gallons of tuba ---the quintessentially popular Filipino beverage made out of palm or coconut trees--- I once in a while congregate with some friends from the neighborhood. I am not really so inclined to wallow on the native wine but lately, I had the keenest desire to socialize with the people I know just across the street and thus, I had grown fonder and fonder of the bittersweet taste of tuba every time I went out and join the men from the neighborhood. I wasn't as outgoing as I am now before where I usually stay indoor even during the weekends, reading piles of magazines and newspapers with the television always blaring in the living room.

But once about six months ago, a familiar face from our vicinity invited me to a birthday celebration and there were just a lot of drinking that day and then I tasted tuba as the tip of my tongue felt the rich saccharine quality of the beverage that went with a touch of savory bitterness at the end. Not that it was the first time that I have tasted the native drink. When I was in college, I clearly remember one sojourn into the mountainside just outside the city limits and during a stopover to a very small but neat sari-sari store, we were offered to buy a gallon of fresh tuba just newly taken out of the palms of the coconut tree just standing by that store. One of my companions was very adventurous that day and so we sat down to finish about two gallons of tuba. The first time I tasted it, I thought it was so smooth to the taste and so cool as it enters the mouth. There was one problem for me though about the drink---the smell is a little bit overpowering especially when you already have more than what you should be drinking.

But now, I can easily ignore the stench. Perhaps, one can get used to it through some time and become oblivious to the smell completely. One of my friend from the neighborhood once declaimed that tuba is the grape wine of the Philippines, that by drinking it, we somehow recollect a part of the life of  Jesus Christ, where in the past He had often convened with His disciples through bottles and bottles of grape wine. I responded quite positively to this very keen observation from a friend and I said that maybe, if  Christ indeed were born in our country, He would have enjoyed the exotic taste of tuba.

Tuba is actually constituted by fermenting the sap extracted from the palm leaves of coconut trees. It is the beverage of choice among the people from the lowlands as well as the hinterlands---the farmers, the fishermen, the laborers and even the tricycle drivers. You could say it is the condiment that soothes the ailing bodice of the masses, the magical wine that inspires the laborer to labor for more and the rural lover to serenade more ardently and sing more ballads, with gusto, while the moon is so full at twilight time.

Through this magical wine, I have known many new friends that speak to me and relate to me like they have known me for a thousand years. We converse at times of some vacuous things in life, some foolishness of youth, about some fleeting things like love and lovers, even of such frivolous things as the number of stars in the sky, and we became gleeful somehow of these fleeting things and our laughters resonate through the windy atmosphere of our neighborhood. But sometime, we talk of the more salient part of life, like the families we are responsible for, the children we rear and educate as well as the harshness of the economy and the stinging effect of rising prices to our shallow pockets.

Lustre Street, if you could only observed more closely, is a cornucopia of everyday reality. Some part of the neighborhood consists of the better-positioned in life with their houses newly-painted while they parade their classy automobiles as they pass by us. In the larger portion of the community dwells the more humble inhabitants and even the poorer ones, as small wooden houses outnumber the large ones by a ratio of fifty to one. Most of my friends are carpenters and masons while others drive the pedicab and some sell fish in the market. And then there are some of them who take their daily bread by carrying sacks and sacks of copra over their very young bodies, day-in and day-out. I have learned that a laborer in the port area earns only about fifty pesos after carrying sacks and sacks of load for almost a day. I find these situation so sad and regrettable. I wonder if the fifty pesos would suffice to answer the cost of food on the table, the fare to workplaces and for the education of their children. I guess, not. I guess they could not do anything but accept the lack of so many things in life. And I guess, with tuba on hand, they often cure the tiredness of their swollen muscles and empty stomachs through gallons and gallons of it, as if the native drink is the narcotic that relieves all the pains of poverty.

And then there are those who just do not have any form of permanent livelihood, who merely stands by the street while waiting for some opportunity for work. They often ask if somebody needed to have the grasses cut in their lawns or if they needed repairs on their toilets. They are often still so young to carry copra at the port area or whose frailty in physique is not as virile fit for a port laborer.

Even those friends I have who are accomplished carpenters and masons, they often complain that many times, work is harder to find. A group of them---Nonoy, Dan and Erwin---had just finished six-month worth of construction work on a plea market but now, they have gone for almost two weeks without work, and of course without any income for their households. Nyor Tony and another Dan on the one hand are still waiting for a certain Peter to arrive from out-of-town in order for their work on a bungalow within the neighborhood to resume. They too had not worked for many weeks. Toti and Paco have been contracted for some painting jobs just once a week and so they still have a problem where to source their daily bread during the rest of the week. Dodong was luckier. He had found employment in a government project in Barangay Ayala and pay is more than average.

Often, the people I know in the neighborhood paints the whole picture of hardship and constant struggle by the Filipino people at present where even those who are willing to work upon harsh conditions still could not find work. Even for carpenters and masons, the opportunity to find the means of livelihood is still very difficult, like threading the very small eye of a needle. Where in the world our country had gone too? To the dogs? There is a sort of panic in my mind thinking how many of our fellow countrymen have long endured the harshness of poverty and lack of opportunity. If only our senators and congressmen, jueteng lords, tycoons, hardware owners, the cabinet members, the President herself, the big business people, the bankers, the mayors and the governors, the political strategists, the U.S. envoys, the ambassadors, the mall owners, the manufacturers and the lot could even just for one day see for themselves first hand, upon close inspection and somehow experience the difficulties many of our countrymen suffers everyday, every time the sun rises from the east and settles in the west, then perhaps they would stop all their follies, all their bickering like who has the bigger pork barrel and who has lesser. If they could only fully comprehend the extent of our people's suffering, then maybe they'd all become less greedy and not full of self-interest as they are right now, as suddenly they would be patriotic and altruistic enough to help alleviate the plight of the poor amongst us, not next year or next month, but now, this moment, ahora mismo!

And so with my carpenter friends who sometimes have work and most of the time logging around and walking about because work is not at hand, I just said to them once that I wish there would be more buildings to be constructed, more houses to be built, more roads to be paved, more walls to be painted, more sand and gravel to be melded and more cement to be poured. By then, they can have work almost all the time.

August 15, 2018

Technicolor Winged Horse

Once I had asked my grandfather about my grandmother's weakness and general immobility. He told me that it was indeed because of a disease that afflicted her and that she would not be able to speak so well anymore. What I really wanted to asked him was why she would scream at times into the midnight that everyone in the house would be awaken. What kind of disease would let one scream into the night was the thing I wanted to inquire upon. But as a toddler, I bet there are things that we do not even know how to ask, when vocabulary would not be enough to elucidate our inquiry. Everytime she was attacked by such "disease", Uncle Mameng and the servants would come and help my grandfather calmed her down, to reassure her that everything was all right. She was always murmuring about some person she was afraid of; a one she calls "the jinn".

"There are no jinns. You are just imagining" my grandpa always assured her while she would lay there wide-eyed and trembling. From the looked on her eyes, pity was the natural thing I could feel for her. She was like a child afraid of something.

"I have checked the whole house and there was no Jinn around" my uncle would add to further reassure her.

At times the attacked on her nocturnal sleep would be so serious enough that in the stillness of the dawn, we would packed the necessities and head for the hospital, staying there for nearly a week every time.

At such a young age, my grandmother's predicament affected me so much that I had always hoped then that I was already grown up and be able to help her, wishing earnestly to appease her. Those dreams of flying had made me somehow distant from her, a little bit wary of her and somewhat disturbed that the winged old woman in my dreams somehow looked like her. And yet, I felt so much for her. Besides those were merely dreams.

Once I decided to investigate the cause or causes of the "weakness" of my grandmother. I was relatively confident that I would find some answers however tender my mind at that time. It was in the apartment's bathroom with its yellow darkened light and perpetual wet floor that she had pointed to be the place where she had seen the "jinn". The bathroom had malfunctioning equipment that always had that pungent smell typical of aging lavatories, full of slime and fungi stuck to walls and corners giving it a dark green shadow all over, from the floor to the ceiling. What augments the general dimness was the decision of the household to put a bulb of the weakest power that even at daytime, I would always feel like it was already midnight whenever I enter it. There was desperation written all over it that anyone who went into the toilet would realize immediately that it was a place where the smell would remain even if best efforts to clean it up would be undertaken.

As I relieved myself, I tried to stay longer when the apartment was quiet and everyone was either asleep in the afternoon or were out for work. I examined the ceilings for some clue and stared at the walls for holes and cavities to where the jinn might be hiding. When I convinced myself at that time that there would be no such signs of the unknown being, I stepped back and headed for the door. As I turned my head, suddenly I saw in the corner of my left eye a huge shadow of a man that goes from the floor towards the ceiling, the shape of its head folding into the surface of the ceiling. The hairs at the back of my head stood up and I felt my skin trembled. Despite such apparent terror however, I gathered all of my strength to focus my stare into the wall but the shadow was not there anymore. I went quickly outside and found the afternoon very still as usual.

I went to the garden in the front yard where I usually enjoyed my solitariness when the sun was readying to fall towards sunset and played in the gardens, picking some leaves and mangling some stems. My cousins would be asleep in that hour of the afternoon while I did not developed such habit, allowing me so much time alone to play with whatever my mind could think of. As I put some stones into holes that I have previously dug in the ground, I pondered upon the shadow in the toilet. Was it the shadow of the "jinn"? It was a huge being I thought and the image of the shadow was vivid enough that I was able to surmise that it wore a g-string garment on its body and had a strip of clothe wrapped around its head while its hair was shoulder length, like an ancient warrior. He must have held spears and knives but such things did not appear to me.

I kept on digging holes and putting stones and coins into them and then covering back the holes, ironing out the surface to look as if the soil were never disturbed. Such was the kind of solitary games I played. I have reckoned then so early in my life, when I dug up the stones and coins the day after, that plants and trees could grow from the ground and flowers multiply too; but stones and money would not.

I had perhaps had a very strong desire to tell my grandfather about the shadow but somehow I did not had enough inclination to put them into words while my grandmother kept wailing in the middle of the night every now and then. Then after a while, her predicament eased towards serenity that she just stared and sat in her rocking chair until she died in the hospital one day while I was looking after her. My Aunt Julpa cried first and asked me what have I done that she died. Of course, I did not know what to say but her asking was etched so much into my mind that every now and then I would ask myself if indeed I had done something to hasten her death. But as I child that I was then, the disturbance of Aunt Julpa's inquiry just faded into memory till now that I earnestly attempt to recollect those events so far into my childhood.

There were a lot of card games played while the family was mourning the death of Hadja Dayhana and the smell of brewed coffee permeated as the men would take turns in making the coffin. They were in jest as they kept on putting one up against each other about who is the better carpenter. My father attempted to drive a nail into its rightful place but the rest laughed that Salip Hussin could never become a sharp carpenter. This had somehow eased my apprehensions about Aunt Julpa the day before. Every one was in a light mood that everything must have been all right and done with. Dying in the latest of ages seemed to be most acceptable to all. But when my grandmother was finally rested to the ground, as the men held her body so gently and tucked her into the crevices of the ground, almost everyone was teary eyed and Aunt Julpa was even talking to my dead grandmother while we throw soil to cover the grave, about why she had to leave, about her being not able to come and visit her frequently. How could she talked to a dead person I thought? Would her cries and words be heard and not flow into the rural wind of Taluksangay? This had somehow recuperated the apprehensions I had about her.

There must something in my grandmother that gives spark and liveliness to the house that after she died, there was a gradual silencing of the household and everyone was more incline to frown, more inclined to be introspective that conversations became lesser and us children played lesser games, as if a great lonely shadow was cast over the household. If anybody missed her among the members of the house--including the servants--no one could tell, the least myself. It was the newfound serenity of the surroundings that everyday I had wished that all those who played card games in the mourning of my grandmother would come and played those card games again and again, to make the noise stifle the sadness of the gardens and of the front yards, to fill the air with coffee smell again and of rice cakes. But this was never so. And so in the afternoons, I kept playing in the garden, careful that the traces of stems mangled and flower picked would not be apparent enough less my Aunt Nene would call upon to inquire upon the suspects and then the guilty malefactor, which would be either one of my cousins or me. I went about to pretend that I was like the older men who did the coffin thinking that I might become a good carpenter, unlike my father. It was in sunny days that I loved to play alone in the yards when the air was a little yellowish and everything seemed to glow, like the image of those pictures not developed properly and everything in the picture would be bright yellow. I smelled the air and they were thick that almost I could see the wind swooping by, and caressing my hair so gently. I smelled such air so smoothly they seemed to be delicious, like chicken or chiffon cake thickly covered with butter. In one of those sunny afternoons, I had looked towards the sky and observed the sun. I tried to examine if the sun had come nearer towards the ground that everything looked brighter. And my mind got stoned when suddenly the clouds move so agile that a hole in the sky formed, like a gate opening. And then I saw a very colorful image coming into the center of the hole. What a beautiful kite it was I said that it had the bluest of blue and the greenest of all green. It was a horse with the head of a woman with its hand waving at me. A kite would not do such things I told myself. And the gate in the sky closed and the technicolor horse disappeared.

I wanted to ask my grandfather if kites could stare back and waved at us while in the sky but somehow, I did not ask anymore. It happened in those very early years where my vocabulary was not yet efficient to elucidate every thought I had then.

June 12, 2018

Dirty Sox

Not only in these moments that I have pondered the possibility of writing a long overdue requiem for an old friend that had already gone to the netherworld, but also in many other instances before.


Maybe I just hadn’t had the time before or maybe the time wasn’t just right. And so now I shall speak of him in the best of manners and as far as my remembrances of him could take.

Aziz Vernon Mustapha was closer to me as a brother than as a friend. I met him during our first years in Ateneo de Zamboanga, in a time and place that was etched in my mind like mildew on a rock. He was sweating so furiously one sunny afternoon when he appeared out of nowhere and suddenly sat beside me without any prelude in a Religion 101 class that we had both attended. He kept on scrubbing the area around the back of his neck with a handy towel and that made me a little uneasy. It was the first week of school that year and I panned around the entire length of the room for any familiar faces, as well as amiable countenances that I could be comfortable with, those that I could possibly associate with later on. I did not find one familiar soul and most of them looked grim and sordid. Anyone sitting for a Religion class in Adez has exactly nothing to be cheerful for and everything to grieve. The words coming out of the religion teacher’s mouth can border from the murderously boring towards the unforgivably commonplace. I am now a strong advocate of religion and I assure you that religion is not such a dreary subject to brood over. Do not get me wrong on this. It is just that when we were so young and adventurous then, the matters of faith took a major backseat from our thoughts and attention, and became farthest from the pyramid of our wants and desires.

I attempted at a conversation with Aziz by asking: “What’s that CD about?”

Aziz handed me the square object that he was holding tightly in his hands like a precious ancient artifact (he held it so tightly as I have observed then) and I found out for myself that it was a recording of live performances by the Filipino new wave band “The Dawn”.

I said: “I like their songs and Jett Pangan was sublime in ‘Enveloped Ideas’; or something to that effect.

Aziz nodded and never spoke a single word to me up to that moment. I had rescinded my forward engagements towards him because of his seeming nonchalance. Sheik Bagis, the religion teacher that was in front of us called my attention and told me to shut up and be attentive. I did not notice the classes were about to start that I felt a little sore from embarrassment for the first time ever. I am not kidding. I was such a diligent student for most of my high school years that until that moment, my attention inside a classroom had not been questioned and called for. I never minded this discomfort so much and began to keep quiet and pretended to listen to what the teacher was reading from a fading textbook. Sheik Bagis knew me fairly well since he had also been one of my teachers in high school. He proctored us in SRA. I am never sure now what the exact denotation of the acronym SRA but Standard Reading Activity seems to be the approximate term.

Later that week, I was sitting with my Tau Gamma fraternity brods in the bench near the Ateneo Chapel when John Suico, a classmate from high school walked towards my direction. I stood up to meet him and gave him a hug. He was with Aziz. It was so long ago that we have been together so I asked where he had been?

“I was in Davao” John said. “ Our family had some business there you know.” He continued.

“How about you? I heard you were in Silliman with Tony?” John asked me.

I narrated to him how I spent one whole year in Silliman but found some difficulties there that I had to come back again to Ateneo and take up accountancy. John explained to me that he had likewise met Aziz just recently. “Pics, this is Vernon”. Pics was my nickname while Vernon is the name John use to refer to Aziz. I said, “I know him. We’re in the same class in religion”.

John had apparently got to know about Aziz in the orientation seminar given that year for incoming freshmen and transferees. I forgot the orientation schedule that if I remember too well, I might have been flying kites that day somewhere in the vicinity of the rice field just adjacent to our neighborhood.

I had surmised then that Aziz was a man of few words when during our initial encounters, he seem to have not spoken to me even a single word. But later, as our friendship blossomed, he had become the most gregarious among the three of us.

One afternoon, on a break from that arduous Citizen Military Training we usually had in college, we were munching on fried bananas when John noticed something. “What’s that smell?” he asked and we all look around for the possible source of the unwelcome scent. “ I do not smell anything.” I answered back. “It’s your shoes Pics. Your socks are dirty”. I protested that observation from John and I said that it was only in his mind. But I must have been guilty that one afternoon for I remember not a few times did I resorted to wearing socks that wasn’t fully dried up. I was not a sock person back then when I was in college. Usually, whenever Sundays were near approaching, it was usually the night before that I usually remember that I had to wear socks for the CMT drills the following day. I had to scurry up and wash some socks that I almost always left dirty and unattended in some dark corner of our house. Bad habits that I had then you might say but in college, I never really wore those big and heavy shoes that called for the wearing of socks, like the way those humongous basketball rubber shoes many wore during those years when Michael Jordan was the god of many gangly youths. All my loafers then were topsiders and some look like kung-fu shoes. I like those kinds of shoes better since they were so windy and my feet felt breezy in them all the time and I never had to wear socks often. Besides, you won’t have to go through the usually lengthy ceremony of tying up laces that big shoes demand. You can just pick up those topsiders and slip them into your feet and up you go in a jiffy.

John and Aziz both laughed citing my smelly socks but I just disregarded them. As the three of us were heading downtown, after that afternoon’s CMT session, I uttered to them while my eyebrows were furrowed from deep thought, a suggestion that could make our associations more rewarding and productive. I said, “You know what, ‘Dirty Socks’ seems to be a good name for a band”. Right up to that moment, we were really dreaming of forming a rock band and we were so serious about it that we have made acquaintances with some Ateneans who were already playing in one. They both agreed to this band moniker but later on, we had to change it to “Dirty Sox” to make it sound spikier.

We had a friend named Stephen then and he was already in a band. In fact, he was the bandleader of a band that played heavy metal music by Metallica and Iron Maiden. That time, if a band could play “Enter Sandman” with silkiness and spontaneity, that band is popular as hell. Every time Stephen and his band mates were rehearsing in Stephen’s house, we would be present just watching them and learning the craft from a distance. We all knew how to play the guitar but we were not so refined in that field that we had to observe how others did it. I had to learn how to play drums myself because John had wanted so much to be the lead guitarist and Aziz coveted the role of the bass player like he was yearning for a woman. Being unassuming that I was then, I agreed to beat the drums for them even when I had no professional training whatsoever in that field. Aziz had good things to say about my voice though. According to him, my voice was both full and raspy and among the three of us, I had the finest voice. So I had asked both of them that perhaps I could be the lead singer. They both answered yes to this particular intimation. But I eventually asked them about how I could be the singer of the band when at the same time I had to be the drummer? John said almost in a whisper, “Pics, if Phil Collins could both play the drums and sing the lead vocals for Genesis, I can see no reason why you could not do it.” I did not know how to react at first to this particular opinion of John but to be sure I was elated with the comparison to Phil Collins so I agreed to be both the singer and the drummer. In my lone moments after that, I had felt so confused and challenged thinking what great trouble I had found myself agreeing to become both the drummer and the singer. I reckoned that it would demand from me too much exertion for having to do two tasks at the same time. Yet, I let pass those doubtfulness and decided for myself that from then on, I should face the challenge of becoming the Phil Collins of the Philippines.

When Stephen bandmates quitted on him one by one, we tried applying as his new band mates but he would not take any of us. He said our skill was still far from performance level. We said we could try harder in practice and play all the songs he want us to carry out but he would not let up. We were so disappointed with Stephen that we made jokes about him when he wasn’t around and laugh so hard on them. John said that at first Stephen had a complete band made of four individuals like U2. Then when a bandmate said quits, they became a trio like The Police. Then after another band mate left the band, they became a duo like Tears For Fears or Wham. Then Stephen became alone and became George Michael singing “Careless Whisper” like a cross-dresser in the middle of Plaza Pershing. We laughed so hard to this humorous crack at Stephen for being an inconsiderate fool, I mean friend. Even when all his band mates had quitted on him, he remains unwelcoming to our propositions of becoming his new bandmates.

I remember that I wasn’t only the singer and the drummer for “The Dirty Sox”, but I was also its main songwriter. Our first original composition was a song called “Sitting On My Backseat”. Part of the song’s lyrics goes this way on a D-G-C-G chord progression.

STANZA

D G C , G
Sitting on my back seat.

D G C, G
Playing with my yo-yo.

D G C, G
Waiting for the sundown.

D G C, G
Looking for a showdown.

CHORUS

F G C, G
Sitting on the back seat with the radio on.

F G C,G
Sitting on the back seat with the radio on.

F G C,G
Sitting on the back seat with the radio on.

F G D,G
And it feels like sunshine.

F G D,G
And it feels like moonshine.

Forgive the simplicity of the lyrics but that was how crude my writings back then, right about the time when I was still a college freshman. Aziz queried me about the meaning of the song’s lyrics and what the hell I was doing sitting on my backseat. He said that maybe I should change some wordings of the song to give it more sense. I refused to be edited and I said the person in the song is sitting in the backseat of a car listening to the radio and that he enjoyed that activity so much that it felt like a good sunshine on an ultra-cool afternoon for him—pure and simple. John on the other hand praised this eponymous composition of mine that he compared it to the Clash punk classic “Should I Stay or Should I Go”. It was so simple John added and the chord progression was so strong and very rock-oriented that according to him, the intro for the song “Sitting On My Backseat” reminded him of the fierce guitar in the intro part of Deep Purple’s “Smoke On The Water”.

John, Aziz and I were never really able to fully form our band called “The Dirty Sox”. We did not have the right amount of money to buy ourselves a complete set of instruments. With some savings, we were able to acquire a second hand bass guitar but that was all what we have gotten then. Usually, we just end up popping out in some other band’s practice sessions and when that band was resting for a while, we hopped in and play some number, hoping to hone our skills all the more. Most of those who were already in a regular band were mostly acquaintances from high school that they are just real kind to allow us to just appear in their rehearsals and made use of their instruments while they take some brief recesses. It was sort of a trade-off. I was already a writer then for the Beacon Newsmagazine, the official publication of the Ateneo de Zamboanga and I had featured those bands in some articles, or made some mentions about them. Perhaps, they decided that they could make use of some music journalist hanging around their necks.

John was already back in Davao when finally, me and Aziz were already able to form a band with a complete set of musical instruments. We were already working in the same government agency by then, earning quite contently and being able to buy those costly musical apparatus. Except for the drum set which would have cost us a fortune if we have gotten them. One of our officemate turned out to be a hobbyist of drums and he had a drum set he kept at home although he wasn’t in any band at all.

But without John, the camaraderie was never the same and the magic of three or four people longing for each other’s musical support, the kind that band mates usually have, was not present at all. And besides, we could not pour so much of our time into the band since both me and Aziz held crucial positions in our office—positions that demanded more attention than we were willing to give. I was the legal assistant reviewing piles and piles of project applications, examining each time if each folder was complete in its legal requirements while he was the procuring officer that took care of the adequacy of supplies and materials.

Farouq, the designated drummer, always had some excuse tacked under his belt. He had to bring his kids to the mall every time whenever weekend came and Schulk, our supposedly other member playing rhythm guitar was a computer programmer that always had some clients calling him on his ever-ringing bulky Motorola. After a while, we stopped pursuing the dream of forming a band as newer realities set in like being married and having children, being so busy taking care of them when the night came. Aside from that, work in the office had become so demanding that soon our rehearsals became so infrequent until there was none at all.

When our employment contracts were ended by the agency we were working for, I went into dried fish business with some capital from Aziz but the endeavor never really took off until I decided to take the bar examinations for the first time. While, we were still in the agency, a few months before our work ended there, Aziz was rushed to the hospital one morning as he suddenly lost consciousness while he was preparing to go to work, and needed blood transfusion so direly that I had to assist his brother in finding the proper blood source. I received the call while I was doing some task in the office and without asking permission from my boss, I headed for the door. While I was in the tricycle on my way to the hospital, my mind whirled like a train, asking what perhaps was Aziz’s malady that he needed to have blood transfusion.

I found out later, as I arrived at the hospital panting and perspiration was all over me, that he needed to be operated on in order to take away the kidneys that had failed him. I saw how his feet become so bloated as he lay there in bed. He was conscious and he told me, “Pics, why of all people this has to happen to me? My son is still young. Take care of my son if the worst comes.” I consoled him that everything will be all right and that he should not speak words like that. I wanted to cry thinking how in his most difficult times, Aziz thought of nothing except his son Jakob, my godson.

For two years, Aziz had to go through a laborious process called dialysis and his medicines was too costly that his parents struggled to maintain them and he needed them in such great volume that the boxes in the back of their house were stacked so high towards the ceiling.

While he struggled through nearly three years of painful medication, I could not remember him cry or looked so grim even once, the way sick people do. He was even extra cheerful in some moments like nothing was wrong at all. Perhaps, he was just hiding from me the many fears that he had to struggle against or maybe he was just all too positive that someday, his discomfort would someday vanish like a smoke in the wind. So every now and then, we still go about like nothing happened and I was relieved to see him up and about again. We played guitars while sipping some warm coffee while at times we go downtown and watch people pass by while inside the mall and talked on almost everything there is to talk about and also about the friends we had, some that were present still and those who aren’t anymore. Aziz had a way with conversation that when I was with him, there was no moment when we ran out of something to say or mean. I am naturally an introspective individual that I usually do not speak much but Aziz could always find something to say or utter.

Then came a time when his phone calls to me became infrequent, and since I was also struggling with some of my life’s own hurdles then, like failing the bar, an unstable business, joblessness, and other similar concerns, my visit to him also became infrequent that the distance between each visit to him could go for an extended period of a month or two. In the last six months of Aziz in this material world, I have observed quite well how his health deteriorated so quickly that the last time I saw him, he had became reed thin and he was struggling to carry himself—he had to walk with a cane in hand.

That fateful night when Aziz mom informed me by phone that finally Aziz had finally succumb to the illness that had longed bothered him, I sat by the stairway and tried to absorb the news with all my mind’s might and resolve. It was near midnight already and all I could hear was the songs of crickets in the shadowy bushes nearby. I kept telling myself that it was the moment that I had feared and yet at the same time it was also the moment that I saw coming. I convinced myself that Aziz should be better situated there in the afterlife, in the loving arms of the Lord, than be here and suffer that highly debilitating and often-cruel disease.

The following afternoon, we buried the remains of my friend in a seaside cemetery over a brimming sun that slowly descended on the horizon. The sky was clear and cloudless that day. I had seen the sky clearly that one fateful day and the sea was calm as a windless night. I had reckoned that it was a beautiful day for him to go away. I heard his father pronounced to the Lord his own pleadings as Aziz was gradually laid down to the ground. “That is my son, my Lord! That is my son that is being buried there!” Aziz’s father was saying those words as tears rolled down from his swollen eyes. I was not able to hold back some my own tears that I had to wipe them to look like I had not cried at all.

You could say that I had prepared myself for his passing that when his passing finally came, I had not been overtaken by so much grief and sorrow. But once, a few weeks after his death, while I was strumming a song titled “A Letter To Elise”, I wasn’t able to hold back tears that just flowed from my eyes automatically like a river that was dammed for too long and finally let gone by the opening of floodgates, as the song reminded me of him and I cried like a child and cried so hard that I wished he was still alive and walking like the man that I knew him to be and be there to receive my calls whenever I dial his numbers. But he wasn’t there already.

Aziz was more than a friend to me in more ways than one. When we were together, there was never a dull moment. We could just stroll along the side streets of downtown Zamboanga and sipped some cappuccino in a nearby donut store and our afternoon easily becomes delightful and full of joy. We usually talk about music and our favorite TV show “Friends” and we would laugh so hard recalling the many antics of Joey, Ross, Chandler, Monica, Peevee and Rachel. At other times, we just strum along an acoustic guitar and sang the song of our lives even in moments when the strings were not fine-tuned and our voices could not hit the nicer notes.

As I turn back time and reminisce the days that we both had, I am continually reminded of one of his favorite songs from his favorite band “The Cure” entitled “A Letter To Elise” and the song goes:

And every time I try I try to pick it up like falling sand.
As fast as I pick it up, it runs away through my clutching hands.
And there is nothing else I can really do.
There’s nothing else I can really do, at all….

It is not that there was nothing else I could do for him or could have done for him. It is only that I had to be brave for him in many times in the past so that he could be brave for his own self. I never really knew if he needed my urging for him to face courageously his own challenges while he suffered through that malady but in my mind, he had always appeared stronger than what could be expected from a person in his situation. I always thought that I should have visited him more during his last remaining days but I wasn’t there at his side as much as I would like to. And now I continually pray for him and plead to the Lord that his soul be taken into the great harbor of salvation. I believe that when the time comes, Aziz will be alive again in the company of angels and the Almighty who is in Heaven.

(A post from 2003)

October 22, 2017

When The Dead Came Marching In

There was one fish story that brought me to the very ends of the world it seems, so far away that running water does not exist and a paved road is an alien concept.

My cousin King came to me on a warm day, the kind of day that my head is loose and every idea could grow and expand into some humongous concept. The kind of weather that the breeze is almost thick you could see them pass by, making you light inside and cheery. It was this cheeriness perhaps that took a bite into salesmanship, an amateur one that I realized later.

"I am busy with some business prospect," I mentioned to grasp some talking points. King always seeks tutoring with his school assignments.

" That must be a good prospect," he condescended.

"What do you know about silk?" I asked. Perhaps he must have known some who could give me some idea.

" Not much" he said. He seemed to know nothing. Bet that's why I was always ghost writing his report.

"It's something we could grow from silkworms" I answered my own questions. "We have to nurture worms and the most part of the work is growing hectares and hectares of mulberry trees to feed these worms."

"Oh" he exclaimed and I felt hopeful." I know such worm. I saw some huge ones in the beaches of Tawi-Tawi. They sell well."

He was talking about some other specie of worm.

"Why don't you try dried fish?" King suggested later on.

"What about them?", I asked.

"They cost half as less back at home."

I went for the calculator and grinned at the prospect. A week after, we were heading for the islands, about two boat-rides away, three hundred miles downward, and near the Malaysian border.

Banaran Island is place rich in lore, the ones you hear from the elders whenever they visit us. I had been there once but that was way back in my childhood. There was one ghost story about the place that I could not forget. When we were kids, my two brothers and me and my sister would always seek some retelling after retelling about such particular incident from the visitors from down south. As children, we craved for fear and scurry for more mysteries. The scarier it gets, the more attentive we became. It was like eating pepper; it hurts to eat more and yet wanted to eat more and more. At night, after we took our meal, we washed our bodies from sweat and put on fresher clothes and then we troop into the living room where the available storyteller would be waiting for us.

One night, they always started the story, when ships and boats was not supposed to sail anymore, when the air is so fragile and the wind was harsh, a ferry sunk on the way to Banaran from the main island of Bongao. All those aboard did not survive the tragedy. This accident had happened about two decades ago and it had caused so much distressed to those whose relations were part of the doomed voyage and due to the large number of victims, the sinking of the ferry cast a huge shadow over the entire province of Tawi-Tawi and would be remembered as a sorrowful time for the area for years to come.

Island life then might have been darker without electricity, and lonelier without the touch of modernity that every death lays every possibility of otherworldly apparitions and the wanderings of ghosts.

Then came the night when the wind whistled and overhanging clouds made the night more sinister. When the dogs howl started to howl incessantly, the elders in the island would call for their children the doors and windows were so locked that even air could not come in.

The yards have become empty and even cats would scurry for safety. Not even crickets were brave enough to serenade the eerily hushed night. It was a night that humongous clouds would cover almost the entire sky. Everything you see would be cast in shadow and the stars were all absent. They said that it had become so dark that when they look towards the sea, they could see nothing but darkness. No glow of the sea would reflect and the waves did not made a sound the way they usually make.

The island folks first heard the sound of drumbeats reverberating through the cold and wet atmosphere. "Tom…tom…tom…tom…" The beat did go until it got faster and faster. They could feel the air get thicker they said and the smell of decay became so overpowering according to one account that their stomach would ache, urging to regurgitate.

Some peek into the darkness to investigate the source of the drumbeats and as if in a sudden, the yards became illuminated, as if the sky parted instantly and the moon belched out its head. The moonlight gave those few brave souls the undeniable sight of a parade of people going in circles in the middle of the community plaza, walking in a line. Most of them have limbs unattached and their faces were white as chalk. The leader of the parade was in fact a headless drumbeater carrying his own separated head. The children cried when they heard some of their fathers and mothers wailing and shouting. They scurried into corners as if it would be of much help to them. They hide in thick fabrics and sweated horrendously. The men were ready with their bolos anticipating any physical attack by the limbless walkers.

No such attacked occurred as they sighed every time they tell and retell the haunting. The drum beatings carried forth through the dawn and many were not able to sleep that night. They said the ghosts was somehow taunting them as the beatings would suddenly stop and then came back again gradually, slowly and then frantically. The sounds of the drums were suddenly loud and then suddenly calm.

When the morning came, the entire island populace was awestruck with fear that nobody spoke much. The children were kept inside their homes most of the time even when the sun is blazing in the sky. Many went to the nearby cemetery to make some offerings while the men embarked on a lengthy prayer session so arduous that it started just after sunrise and ended when midnight was already around the corner. The air was so full of the smell of burnt sulfur, as the prayers involved the burning of small yellowish stone-like bits of sulfur.

The shock in their faces was so apparent that in a matter of hours, most of their countenance shrunk and withered so gravely. They were bowed and their heads stooped all day long, a sign of surrender to the menace of the unknown. There was no knowing what was to come really. Most of them until that time had not really fully believed in ghost but since that night, their greatest fears came true.

At first, they said, the parade of dead people came every now and then, especially while the moon was full or at least fairly illuminating. Then they came less frequently, sometimes catching them by surprise. The parade would announce its haunting by the sound of drums, starting rhythmically slow until it gets faster and faster as children cried aloud and the dogs howled into the night wind. It was really very fortunate that the dead persons physically harmed nobody although the emotional injury was so palpable.

The parade of the dead, some told us had successfully lessen the island population by at least half. Many left their homes to seek some habitat in nearby islands and Banaran became the more silent. Many houses lay empty and were allowed to wither by themselves.

Most of my relatives, as we were told, decided to stay despite the haunting, for they said, they would never know another place aside from Banaran where our forefathers settled and died through the years.

From my autobiography "A Prophet's Life".

September 09, 2017

THE ARTIC MONSTER BENEATH c.1993


I want to be with you always
While I continue to live for you,
Your innocent eyes strike me
Like warm lightning from the sky.

The sea is now a landless scenery
But your wind is present and I am comforted,
Further much to go,
I want you by my side.

If the sky hides the sun
This darkness abhors the wind,
When every sight becomes near
Each sound I hear is deafening.

I am afloat this wooden raft my sweet child,
I want to sail but I move slowly
The water that carries me
Contains a huge fearful creature.

When the sky is in thick gray oil paint,
The sea is icy solid water.
How I want you near me;
I want to be with you always.

September 08, 2017

The Sea Is A Monster (Part I)


The sea is a monster, unbridgeable by midnight, mollusk skins and arms,
Strangled upon itself, heaving its own breath, fearful by its own breathe,
The day surpasses the dim-light, sharks and serpents alike,
Bestows the Caribbean myth, of longing by a son to father, slave to hero, martyr to saint and
Then thereafter.

There is a great apology, to nature, which is life-giving, but bestows death upon its own might.
The sea is a serpent, a vampire, a misunderstanding of nature.
The dead arises, when laughter becomes whimsical, a longing emotion cures the sickness of doubt.
The night arrives like a brisk man walking, headless with chains on his feet,
Unable to flee, the breathe of the sea.

It is a ploy! A warlock's gambit, or a man of science, that serenades through the dawn unperturbed by its own viscous flight,
Such as a stream of ravaging water, from cliff to sea, from break of dawn, towards twilight,
Like a lover’s cross, a woman’s tale and a war hero’s lament.
And then thereafter.

July 15, 2017

The Mystical Old Man

You could fall in love in such tender ages this I realized when I stepped into first grade. Those feelings might have been merely infatuations. I was not sure. Nothing is so certain with emotions especially that of a child.

I could always write "C-H-A-I-R" or "U-M-B-R-E-L-L-A" when our teacher instructed us to identify things on the board. That was how Julie chose a seat beside me. She was like a leech poring into all the answers I have got on my paper while I was always ever willing to share them. She was there with her angelic face looking perpetually it seemed at my paper. In such closeness, I could study the gentle features of her face, the wide-eyed girl who also happened to be a neighbor of ours although their house was far enough that she was not with the regular kids I play with every afternoon.

Julie had a face of dolls my cousins used to play and she wore dresses like those dolls wore. With flowers and sunbeams in them embroidered like badges. Her hair was always prim and her shoes shiny. When rainy seasons came, she was the only child who carried to school an umbrella made for kids while we carry the larger ones, whose length were nearly our heights, making us looked laughable and tragic it seems.

Even in the gardening activities, I would be the one toiling for her that it felt good to be so needed while she enjoyed being so dependent. At that age, the littlest of vocabulary in our minds never allowed us much conversation that what I did was merely stare at her face and wonder how it attracts my attention so much. In the afternoon, I would go home ahead so that I could again examine her face while she walked past Hadja Saniya's house.

One day she shook the entire class as she narrated to us, while we were playing in the fields, how she had a dwarf friend that she had put in the bottle. I inquired so earnestly if the dwarf was still there and said that in fact she had spoken to one of them that morning.

We all grouped around her for dwarf stories and she would tell them with so much energy that she sweated sometimes.

From then on, she was full of dwarf stories that my classmates proceeded to disregard her. Perhaps, bandwagons were a fact of life even in our tender ages that even I started to isolate her. She became bitter and always in argument when we chided her about the dwarfs. Until one day one of the dwarfs died and it seemed she never spoke again and became all the more introspective and isolated. In the second grade, she had changed classes but I continued to examine her face whenever she was around. As she grew older, the dresses she wore disappeared and started to wear jeans and t-shirts, and before we knew it, she had developed lesbian tendencies and became silent.

When I entered high school my grandfather took me back and paid for the expensive fees of my catholic schooling. He had become weaker and weaker that perhaps, he needed someone to tend over him when weakness consumed him altogether. He had bouts with asthma that often, we both slept in the hospital for days. The hospital became my second home during those years while I struggled with my studies.

In his healthier days, he would give me Arabic lessons and great myths of old. Being a Moslem preacher that he was, he was always writing some Arabic scribbles into his minute notebooks and I would ask about them.

"It is the mysteries of the world." He would always say. I wanted to ask if for who does he writes it for when almost nobody could understand Arabic but I did not.

I would observe him scribbling all afternoon like a well-versed scholar on composing his post-graduate opus. He had an apprentice whom he always consults every now and then, a young preacher named Abirin, who was also our relations. I would go along with him to these frequent visits and indeed they compared notes. I observed so keenly how they relate and strangely enough, they do not speak as much to each other but they would smile and grunt as if they understood each other. One time, they had this ritual where they lit up a candle and Abirin was holding the Tasbi, the Moslem prayer beads, and held it up that it lay there static in a hanging position. There was no one around except the three of us. Both of them continue to mumble Arabic verses that they both seemed to fall into a trance, including me that my sight got plastered into the hanging Tasbi. Then all of a sudden, the beads swayed back and forth, about forty-five degrees from left to right. Then it went forth in wild circular motion without the hands of Abirin moving. Then if stop so abruptly that even at that age, it must have been impossible. When after a while, the Tasbi stopped completely in a forty-five degrees position, for a bout sixty seconds and this had astounded me so much for I know this is not how gravity actually works. My hairs stood up and felt a sadness so deep that I wept there so hard, and tears flowed from my eyes like a river. Both of them pacified me telling me that "it's alright. It's all right. Stop your crying". And they were both smiling at each other without conversing in dialogues.

One of the manuscripts that Hadji Unih was writing one afternoon was a wide paper with shapes in them. It was so wide that he had to fold it before tucking it into his black leather case. In the middle of it all was a circle and at each side were three rectangular shapes. At each corner was a triangle and within the shapes were Arabic verses. I was particularly mystified by the work that I asked him its meaning and consequences. "It's the mystery of our existence," he would vaguely answer again. I imagined those writings to be charms that I had a keen eye on them, coveting them in my heart that I planned to tuck them away. I daydreamed that they would give me powers of the supernatural kind. One that could make me disappear perhaps and become invisible or one that would afford me extreme luck and plow in mountains and mountains of money and other riches. But it was only after he died that I have got hold of the paper that I wanted most. Not by stealing it away as I had planned but by just appearing in my sight several nights after he had died. All his garments and materials were distributed among the relations including all his writings and paraphernalia. It was only the one that I coveted much that I found in the empty closet that we both used to share. I was so consumed with sadness that after putting the paper in my bag I just forgot about it and did not mind it much until years later. His death meant that I had to go back to my mother and started the "silent years" of my life.

The death of Hadji Unih was like the world falling down on me. I awoke to a newer set of reality where the very person that almost became everything to me, to be the father and a mother, to provide every garment and every toy, suddenly disappeared. My body became literarily wobbly that uncertainties of future things cast a huge gloom into my mindset.

I became the more introspective and the change was so abrupt that my classmates once took notice of this change and ask if something wrong was happening to me. I said there was none.

As I visited his tomb every now and then, I would take a stone from the surface of the ground where he was buried thinking and hoping that his spirit would into the stone and guide me throughout my life. I would be like a man gone out of his head as I spoke to him while my words just flew into the wind. Extreme introspection was the consequence of his death to my person but sadness was not so. A week after he died, my mother and many others would still cry, especially my mother who even months and years after, she would wake up in the middle of the night to sit by the dimly lit kitchen of Hadja Saniya and cried. But I did not cry as much. Weeks after his death, I was playing basketball with so much fire that I excelled in it. I cried once and then never again. My body became lighter that despite the abrupt change in the things that I have, as compared to the things he had been affording me, I never cried so much over him. As if somebody was lifting me up and protected me from longing so much for him.

And yet, the lack of things was a something that I had to struggle with and took me a long time to adjust.

Years later, he would appear in my dreams. One of those dreams I quite remember so well. We were walking along the bridges and planks of a Moslem community by the sea, like typical communities of Samals. It was unlike any community that I see or that I have been. As we were walking, his footsteps became faster and faster, leaving me a little behind and struggling with my own footsteps. Then he walked faster that the distance between us became wider and wider until he ran suddenly forward. I was teary-eyed calling out for him, not to leave me behind. I could see him run and suddenly dived into the water below and swam towards the deeper sea. I was flooded with tears as I ran after him and I also jumped into the water. I struggled to swim as water poured in through my mouth and suddenly he appeared from under and carried me while he swam like a swooping tornado. When we were in the middle of the sea, he suddenly became a crocodile. I did not mind it so much as the ride gave me a serene exaltation, and a wide grin was on my face. The dream ended as we approached the beautiful orange sunset against the blue horizon

Tuba