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".

Tuba