In its youth, the lake could have been a small jewel of water, prism of cerulean light and hazy gold at morning, topaz of purple shadows at dusk. It lay in the heart of the volcano, but for all its placid beauty, it claimed the volcano as its heart as well, for in the fury of the earth and its searing viscera, water and fire became the same substance. Theories of violence have described how the lake’s first volcanic mountain could not withstand its very own power, until one or more terrible explosions spewed out its core, emptied its slopes until the enormous mountain itself keeled over, fire and brimstone giving way to bittersweet water, much like the origin and destiny of springs. Perhaps this is how the gemstone of water burst and overflowed; or perhaps, the nearby sea lent its waters to the hollowed land, and rain filled up the immense cauldron, which would grow wider and deeper with succeeding explosions, swallowing lakeshore villages and towns that boasted of forts and cathedrals.
The volcano has garnered the fame of belonging to the ten deadliest in the world, but Jesse had never thought of the lake and its volcano as famous or deadly. It was amazing, just that, to be anywhere along the Tagaytay Ridge, and to understand, despite the hubbub of restaurants and tourists, that she was standing at the precipice of an ancient cauldron. As a child she had waded for hours in the shallows of those primordial waters, and played with her cousins on the sand of shores that had once formed the base of a mountain now only as tangible as the eruption that shattered it. Thus, when she asked Sidhi and Marshmallow Matt to pack their bags and come to the lake with her, she could not sell the idea by quoting some encyclopedia or travel brochure. There did not seem to be enough words to convey the wonder she felt for the lake and its volcano, for the shores and the island that assured her there was something bigger in the world than her own sorrows. Language had failed her this often.
But the two men did concede, because Matt, for one, realized that shopping with co-teachers (who liked to bait him into outing himself even though they were the ones pretending to be straight) was not how he wanted to spend the school’s special three-day holiday, while Sid, who swore this cheerfully on his father’s grave even though the old man was almost certainly alive somewhere, had never been to any kind of beach his entire life.
Or perhaps the real reason they agreed to come—and of course neither said anything to the other because it wasn’t the sort of thing they talked about—was the death anniversary that had gone by almost unheeded. Jesse’s younger sister had died over a year ago, but tragedies tended to feel recent, the pain never truly distant, and maybe Sid and Matt knew this, too. They also knew that Jesse disliked condolences, and had she understood the nature of their kindness she would have argued that the trip to the lake had nothing to do with her sister, that she was going there not to grieve or to heal, but to find a cousin whom no one in the family had seen for over a decade.
Glancing up from the clothes she was packing for the trip, Jesse held her hands out against the patch of afternoon sky, all bright blue through her window. She kept the position, arms raised, palms forward, the blue light seeping through, and for some time she puzzled over how one year could seem longer than ten.
Lady of the Lake
We gave her many names. Birheng Gala, Birhen sa Dala, Our Lady of Caysasay. Each name means something, and all of them are true.
When she had been very young, Jesse used to have nightmares of wandering the halls of her school so late at night that her footsteps echoed off the stones and flew out the window into the solid dark. She was all alone but it was not solitude that was the problem, because at the end of one of the corridors she would always stumble upon a statue of Mary, which was as tall as a real woman but as stiff as the wood and plaster that gave it form. Its thick hair was like tangles of black seaweed, and its face had grown so dark and pocked with age that it gave the veiled head an almost bloody glow.
And then, seeing her, Mary would move its rigid limbs and walk.
When she saw the statue in the Caysasay shrine a few years later, Jesse was surprised to find how much reality disappointed her nightmare. Our Lady was less than a foot high, and, because it was perched on such a tall and distant altar, Jesse mistook it to be a dirty Sto. Niño. Her father scolded her for her irreverence—This is the miraculous Lady of Caysasay, who led the people of Old Taal to its final home, who tasked the kingfishers to be her emissaries—
One of her older cousins overheard and laughed when Jesse tried explaining the nightmare, so to get back at this cousin, Jesse began calling her Ate Lady. The older girl had long, thick, wavy hair—not quite like the statues’, but close enough, from Jesse’s view. Lady chortled and went along with it, probably because it was a nicer nickname than what the elders might have given her. In their village, the worse-sounding the nickname, the better.: “Barok,” for example, or “Kurdapya.” Jesse recalled her aunts referring to one especially unfortunate kid as “Batotoy.” It was hard to remember anyone’s real name after that.
After she began calling her cousin “Lady,” the dream never returned, not when her sister was born, not even when her sister died.
What Jesse had been dreaming about, ever since the death a year ago, were children. In that chiaroscuro which dreams often favor, she would see children sitting in rows as if they were in the classroom. She could believe that the dreams were just the debris of the day’s classes: some of the children in her dreams would simply look like younger versions of her students; in weirder dreams they would resemble her co-teachers. And these dreams, which felt much like everyday life, did not bother her.
What bothered her were the rare, vividly colored dreams about a small, solitary child, whose face never revealed itself, and whose name always eluded her.
For Jesse, the namelessness was the nightmare.
She had looked up the name Matthew when she had first met Matt, and had been pleased to discover that the name meant “gift of the Lord,” and at some point she had felt its aptness so sappily that she’d found the need to trivialize the name by affixing “Marshmallow” to it. Sidhi, on the other hand, had been named for passion, even rage, but she didn’t call him by it, not anymore, because it was too lovely a Filipino word for the kind of person he was. So it was always Sid, Sid the hotheaded two-timing hack writer.
She had always wondered what it was like to write narratives, or at least, what it would’ve been like had she been part of one. Majoring in teaching social studies, she had amassed a treasure trove of historical names, but even the most basic of dates and events eluded her memory so often that she barely passed her courses. Nevertheless, she managed to land a job at the high school, where she met Matt and Sid, both English teachers then, and even though Sid eventually went freelance and Matt often got too busy checking themes to hang out, they had been buddies ever since.
Would they still be buddies, now that she had quit teaching?
The guys wanted to know why Jesse wanted to see her cousin so badly. She knew this, but even if Matt had asked, she wouldn’t have been able to articulate the reason. She wasn’t even sure if she could name her reason, especially since whenever she tried to recall her cousin’s face—wide mouth, a dimple?—she could never be certain about the memory. Just a brightness in her eyes, and other details—the jeep’s dusty upholstery, an oily leaf-wrapped bundle of sweet suman, the scent of the lakeside air—these images had been carved deep and sharp, but her cousin’s face remained nothing but a bright flux. She didn’t seem to be on social media, and their old photo albums had not gone missing a few years back.
The worst lapse in Jesse’s recollection was the most shameful of all. She couldn’t remember her cousin’s real name, and there was no one around that she wanted to ask.
At dawn, Jesse woke up thrashing from a dream of a squat, bright blue volcano, globules of light, and the child. Everywhere else the world was a vapid shade of green.
Jesse sat up in bed. The lights and colors of the dream always seemed to conspire into a shadow that hid the child’s face. Was it Matt? Sid? Her sister? Or her cousin?
Jesse-blue, her cousin’s letter had begun. Come back to the lake.
Dancing like Maningcad
By the lake, as the day grew older waiting for the occasional tourist group, Mang Gudeng walked to the boats and listened to the men exchanging gossip. There were the usual updates about the tilapia fry crowding in the fish pens, the crops inland, the newest videoke bar in town. Some events of note: the barangay captain fired a magnum during a meeting, a neighbor who had been going through a right-of-way land dispute was now having an affair with a municipal hall clerk, another communications tower that had refused to pay the revolutionary tax had burned down. Gudeng watched the man who had spoken of the latter, the man, in his forties, who was not a regular from any of the lake resorts, whose face he felt he recognized but could not place. Did he know him from the poblacion or from farther away—from Lemery? Taal? Surely not from Manila, where he had lived for a few decades, a long, long time ago.
He was some years away from returning to his hometown when an American scientist by the name of Thomas Hargrove made the rounds of the lakeshore villages. It was in the 1980s, and some of Gudeng’s friends from their old village still remembered the salt-and-pepper hair, the wide-rimmed eyeglasses, and even the square, sunburned jaw of the persistent American who was looking for sapao—manmade structures in the water—for he was apparently obsessed with uncovering the lake’s historical legends. In the depths of its waters waited ancient churches and fortresses, remnants of the great Taal Province, survivors of the volcano’s overflowing wrath.
The book had been published in the 1990s, but it was only recently that a copy found its way to Mang Gudeng, and by then his eyes had become too poor to read the text. A girl who’d had some schooling from town visited him weekly, and she would read aloud to him from the book. More than the accounts of the search for the sapao and the lost towns of Taal, Mang Gudeng liked the part where the American quoted reports about how, during the 1754 eruption, “the lake waters threw up dead alligators and fish, including sharks.”
Mang Gudeng had been a very small child when he last imagined that he saw a shark’s fin cutting the lake’s mirror surface. The sharks had long gone, and he had never met the alligators. Of course it was nothing but the fantasies of a child who lived in a fishing village, the nightmare of sharks and other monsters of the deep threatening the boats the way he’d heard from the fishermen’s children who had gone to the sea, but there were always larger monsters to worry about.
Mang Gudeng was eighty years old although he wasn’t very sure of his birth date, because it had been so long ago since he was born. He had been thinking himself eighty years old for the past couple of years. His only real marker of age was the war: he’d been young, hiding from the Japanese soldiers with his childhood friend in the rice fields and the caves, at times surviving on nothing more than the tiny buds on weeds and grass.
After the war he returned to school, then he helped with the boats and the fish and the harvests, but eventually he moved to Manila to see what the city offered. When he left, his childhood friend had just married; they never saw each other again, though years later, he would meet his son. In Manila Gudeng married a Pampangeña. This used to be frowned upon among the Tagalogs supposedly because of the Macabebe and the role they had played in the victory of the Americans at the turn of the century, but Gudeng had survived young adolescence during the Japanese Occupation knowing the fragile limits of his own humanity and could no longer hold the historical grudge. Besides, it was also taboo to marry a Bisaya, an Ilongga, or, simply anyone who wasn’t also Tagalog. Regionality did not matter to him, because he loved his wife, and while they never had children, they lived happily for many years.
In the 1960s he heard news that a huge eruption had buried his little village in ash and mud, the lake waters sweeping away the debris of houses and livestock, but even in the city where he worked as stevedore and construction worker he was witnessing dozens of deaths: men falling from great heights, buildings and empires collapsing from weak foundations, burying workers; minor criminals drowning by the pier in shadowy nights.
One night his wife was crossing the street to meet him when a police jeep swerved out of nowhere and ran her down. He gazed at her delicate, shredded skin as she lay in the sweltering emergency room of a government hospital where people crowded aimlessly like specters. Dawn broke and still no one turned to look at them, not even when he started wailing.
He met his childhood friend’s son the year of his wife’s death. The boy was a university student, and he and his organization went around the factories and construction sites almost secretly, talking to the workers, but while the boy was an intelligent speaker who must have made his father proud, it was the group leader’s name that Gudeng would remember years later, when, finally exhausted and utterly lost, he would return to the lake and find that one of his old neighbors now owned a small resort that could hire him as a groundskeeper.
There were men from the woods and the mountains, further inland than Gudeng could imagine, who sometimes crept out of their hiding places with guns and threats of arson. Gudeng’s neighbor-turned-employer had a mansion in the town and would’ve been targeted, too, if Gudeng had not recognized one of the men who came in the night. You called yourself Maningcad, he said to the man with unruly hair.
The man, who was in his thirties by then, carried an ancient revolver as well as a hunting knife, but when he recognized Mang Gudeng, the weapons slid back into hiding, and they exchanged stories until his comrades finished their business. In that half-hour together, Maningcad managed to remind the older man of an old folk verse of the Taaleños by breaking into awkward song and dance. Maningcad laughed and said it was his comrade—the son of Gudeng’s childhood friend—who had taught him the little song, back when things had become difficult in Manila and they had both wished they could go home. Gudeng inquired after his friend’s son, but Maningcad had not heard from him in years.
Occasionally Gudeng would hear news that these men returned to the other resorts, to the houses of the wealthiest men in the town, to the business establishments in the area, but they never bothered the resort he worked in again.
This man who was not from any of the lake resorts, whose face seemed familiar even though he was a stranger—this man talked like Maningcad and his comrades, and the thought of the years made Gudeng stand up in front of the men and begin to sing:
Ang babaing Lipa’y maputi ang tiyan,
Maitim ang likod at manggagamasan;
Ang babaing Taal ay gayundin naman,
Ang lipak ng puwit ay ganggasangkalan.
Mang Gudeng gyrated as much as his brittle spine allowed. At the first line he rubbed his stomach; at the second he turned his back on the men; at the third he put his hands on his hips; and at the last he slapped his thin butt-cheeks and wiggled all the way to the final syllable. To say that his audience of sunburnt, hard-drinking boatmen was astonished would be an understatement, but their loud amusement did give Gudeng the courage to whisper to the stranger the name of the person who had taught him the little dance.
“I know,” said the man, and something in the way he spoke made everything clear to Gudeng.
Gudeng said, “I would like something to remember him by.”
“More than the song?”
“Because of it, perhaps.”
The boatmen teased Mang Gudeng and asked him to sing again. But now that he knew that the man who had taught him the dance would never come back, Mang Gudeng only smiled and said he was retiring to his hut.
As teenagers—or, more precisely, when Jesse was about ten and Lady was fourteen—the cousins escaped to the lakeshore, some distance from where the boats rocked to and fro in the shallow water. On the beach the girls would sit among the afternoon debris of palm fronds and coconut shells and watch the blue-gray expanse of water tread the distance to the volcano island, and to Mt. Makulot which was in Cuenca on the other side of the lake. From that distance the island and the mountain seemed to slope and sink amid water and haze to resemble a rough-hewn trident, and sometimes a great crown, the way the clouds played tricks with the sunlight and let it break golden upon the water. The girls would perceive this and each would try to imagine some immense god or goddess sleeping at the bottom of the lake, and it was not hard to be overwhelmed by the possibility, for the lake stretched and rippled like a great endless sea.
They would attempt to talk about this but fail to understand the precise connection between body and water and dream, so they would fall silent and pick up the rolls of suman and eat very daintily, and, washing the fine sticky rice from their fingers in the lakewater, they would begin talking about real things: grandmother’s new dog, Kuya Arnold’s new crush, Jesse’s new classmate. In between stories they managed to share the liter of Sprite evenly between them, each girl taking one solemn swig after the other, but sometimes strange, little things would wash up out of the lakewater—a pair of bright rosy shrimp, alive and wriggling, or luminous green freshwater crabs, each just a little larger than an adult’s thumbnail, tiptoeing from some hole under the coconut shells—and it would take Lady all her strength to stop Jesse from marinating the animals in Sprite.
“The lake will become angry,” Lady would exclaim, always, in the singsong voice of the region. She was instantly cautious where the lake was involved. At the lake, with Lady by her side, Jesse always had to forego her curiosity to appease her favorite cousin’s fears.
That the lake would grow angry—what could that mean to anyone who had never known the religion of water? It meant nothing to Jesse if not for this older cousin who, despite her propensity for mischief, seemed to understand something about the water and the land, the way fishermen and farmers know the language of flora and fauna, the way these people could talk to the earth and hear the river whispering answers. Lady was a child of the people, and to Jesse, then a child herself, that was the most wondrous thing of all: that through Lady, she, too, became kin of this lake and its shores.
So they would stay there among the palm fronds and the harmless swirling tongues of water, with Lady plucking stories effortlessly from the sand and the tides and the impending stars, until the sky above the cragged trident turned purple and gold and they had to go home. As the years went by, Jesse and Lady grew up and began to change, and before they even noticed it, the stories they told started changing as well, along with the sand and the water and even the stars of the lake. Even the adoration of a little girl for an ate faded in the light of the stars, it seemed, until finally, inevitably, the two girls drifted away from each other—until finally, they discovered they had their own stars, and their own stories.
Except now Jesse had lost her younger sister, and in effect, everything else. So when she’d received the letter from Lady, whom nobody from the family had seen for almost a decade, she’d known at once that it was time to find her.
Many years ago, saying goodbye, Theo had told a friend: “You need money to make a difference.” And to this day he would say the same thing to anyone who would listen, although it never did make the best kind of impression.
Today he was having lunch with a tall, attractive woman in one of the many establishments overlooking the lake, and he was ashamed to admit that he wasn’t charming her with the small talk as much as he would’ve liked. She kept staring out at the blue, which was the whole point of scenic views, granted, but he wished she would glance at him every once in a while, just so he would remember that he wasn’t just part of the furniture. After all, he had purchased the hawk being illegally sold at the roadside to impress her.
Lawin. Theo had wanted to wait before they let it escape; it had been bound too long and couldn’t have the strength to fly the distance back to its home, which would mean that it would be easy target for the same peddler and others like him, to be sold to animal collectors. At the very least they should have brought it out of Tagaytay City, further out where there were less people and estate developments, or at least where there were more trees for the bird to disappear in. But instead of agreeing, Katarina had insisted they release it as soon as possible, so Theo had driven up to the parts of the Ridge where retreat houses and convents maintained a strange silence among the brush and the woods, and they cut the rope and watched the bird stretch its huge wings and then, after hopping along with a subtle limp, the lawin took flight. He did not turn to see where it went.
When he was young his parents kept hens in the yard, and the hens had broods of chicks, and he’d seen many a chick snatched up in the talons of a hawk. Some bright afternoons he would look up from his work in the fields and see the formidable shape of the bird sailing across the sky, and it would look so graceful up there, like some creature sent by God to guard the universe, that it was possible to forgive it for its thievery.
His mother had shot one before. An illness had wiped out half the broods, and the hawk had been about to snatch up one of the last chicks. It was the first and only time that Theo saw her with a gun, and afterwards she asked Theo’s father to bury the revolver with the corpse of the hawk. Even in death the bird was handsome, its ruffled feathers tawny and luminous, and when he and his father had smoothed over the last shovelful of earth on the grave, his father said regretfully, “It had killed dragons before.”
To this day Theo did not know whether his father had meant the revolver or the hawk .
A waitress approached them with their orders. Steam wafted off the sinigang na maliputo and crispy tawilis. He had ordered them like an expert, knowing that these were the specialties of the restaurant, but he almost spit out his mango juice when he saw that the small breaded fish on the platter were not the famed tawilis at all but manansi, which were also a type of sardine but were far too ordinary to be that expensive. It was the fish commonly used for tuyo, and was darker and scalier than the sleeker, freshwater tawilis.
They must think we’re tourists, he thought in disgust. Manansi wasn’t even on the menu—
He raised a hand to call the waitress back, but the look on Katarina’s distracted face gave him pause. If he pointed out that the restaurant had served them manansi instead of tawilis, he would have to argue with the chefs—because it couldn’t be a mistake, especially not to anyone who knew enough to be in the kitchen—and possibly cause himself to be banned from the restaurant. On the other hand, if he didn’t point it out, then maybe Katarina wouldn’t notice and he could just manage to sit out the awkward feeling of knowing that he’d allowed these profiteering pigs to pull one over their customers.
He watched the woman fork a breaded fish, listened to the crunch from her lips, waited for her reaction. There was none.
He wondered why she had asked to come here. It wasn’t like they knew each other from parties or work; they had only their children, who were friends, and outside of that there had only been the cordial greetings. They were supposed to talk about an investment in stocks, then when he’d driven up to meet her in Gateway she had a little suitcase with her, and the next thing he knew they were in Tagaytay haggling over the price of a hawk’s freedom.
“Where is your family from?” he said as they ate. Noncommittal answers: she was born and raised in the Makati area, back when it was all swamp and alley, and that was all the country that she knew.
He wanted to tell her what a real swamp was like, and while he was almost sure that the lands of his youth had long ago vanished in their secret places, he could still recall the smell of the wet earth where he had hunted for the dragon that his father used to frighten him about. There were lizards larger than tuko, which flew from tree to tree, and there were snakes that hid in the boundaries of the rice paddies, but in the muddy parts where the trees had stumped trunks and the plants wound across the terrain with their thick limbs of thorn, the strangest reptile he had ever seen hid itself from the world.
Theo had always known that the dragon couldn’t exist. Except that it did, and he knew this, too—he knew it because he had seen it, the way his father before him had.
“’Taga, Itay!‘” he echoed.
Katarina tore her gaze from the lake to glance at him curiously.
“’Taga, Itay,‘” he said. “They say that’s how Tagaytay got its name. There was a war, and a boy on the ridge, scouting ahead of his father, spotted the enemy and yelled ‘Taga, Itay!‘, and the father met this enemy with the curve of his bolo.”
“Who’s ‘They’?” asked Katarina.
“The ‘They’ in ‘They say’.”
She laughed, and for some reason the image of a dozen butterflies fluttered through Theo’s mind. “I’m just messing with you,” she said. “I think it’s fascinating.”
What exactly is fascinating, he thought, almost dreamily, The story of Tagaytay’s name, or the parts that our fathers played in the war, or the fact that you’re messing with me? His wife was in another country and her daughters had gone, but none of it mattered because Katarina’s fascination was a lie, and his own stature was a lie, and he found himself no longer caring, thinking instead of the father and his son trudging home from the swamp, decades before the boy learned how much farther the world spanned away from the fields and the groves and the hiding places of childhood. The bolo glinted in the light of the sun.
Into the Arms of the Sea
Two roads glint in the noonlight now: the one through the towns and cities, moving into little highways that curve by Makulot, through domains with Tagalog names like Alitagtag and Balisong and the places called after generals and saints, and you will travel under flags and colorful banners that tell you there is or will be a fiesta here, in this or that town that thrived under heavy Spanish influence or in footnotes of Tagalog resistance, with the painted chapels and elaborate facades of government offices, and everything will smell of the fading magic of the Cuenca woods and the dust of history and the rice fields and from far away, if you are lucky, you will even smell the salt of the sea.
The other road is the one that rises away from the sea, to trace the ridge of a sleeping volcano and glance upon the island and lake and fire it left behind in its repose, and then winds all around and down past the estates and coconut palaces and woods and ravines and villages where the chickens still cross the road. And eventually this road joins the first one through the town of Lemery, just as the Pansipit River links the lake to Balayan Bay, just as old towns link the volcano to the sea. Because the towns and cities through which the first road may pass—Tanauan, Lipa, Bauan, Taal—once belonged to the lake, and more than once the volcano and its lake claimed these towns, until they were forced to move away from the ashes and floods, and meet the gentler arms of the sea.
On the map, Lemery is right beside Balayan Bay, and the village of Nonong Casto is filled with beach resorts that you can reach driving onto a dirt road that brings you past fields planted with tomato, corn or eggplant in the summer, and rice stalks during the rains; if the season is right you will catch glimpses of white egrets atop carabaos, too, and everything can be novel and quaint as long as there aren’t too many jeeps or cars because the dirt roads are not only dusty but also very narrow. Or you can go deeper into Lemery until you reach Agoncillo and San Nicolas where there also are the beaches of the lake, and the choice just depends on whether you want your water salty or fresh, or more importantly, whether or not you want the complications of folklore and magic, because while the sea never runs out of mermaids, the lake has its own secrets.
Better than mermaids? Maybe, for these secrets, at least, are real, just as magic surpasses the art of smoke and mirrors: the nature of illusion is the magic.
If you look at the old maps, the maps before the 1754 volcanic eruption, you will find the lake identified as yet another bay of the South China Sea, or, where it is called laeuna de Taal, you will see a strait of water connecting the lake to the sea. If you compare these maps with its contemporaries you will find that the channel used to be much wider than the Pansipit River is today, and that the town of Lemery is not on these old maps, that perhaps it stands today on land reclaimed from both sea and lake, sand and volcanic ash, which is why coral and seashells may still be found even on higher ground, or why much of the land is rich and fertile.
If you grew up in a town like this you would know what it was like to wake before first light to trudge as far as your little feet can carry you, with one or two chickens which you would be selling in upland towns slung over your shoulders, and a scythe or bolo tied to your waist for cutting grass for the cows. You would be used to the weight of poultry and grass, so that when harvest time came you would be ready to take up sacks of rice or crops and carry them across the fields if there was no available cart. There would be days when the work would be easier, when you stayed at home to wax the floors and tend to the livestock while your mother sat at her bastidor to embroider barongs which you would also help her sell. You would have learned how to bring out the fragrance of garlic, onion and ginger in the paksiw; how to take care of the cacao trees and to toast and pound and mix the beans to make tablea; how to cook nilupak and suman and other ricecakes and then wrap them in the shreds of banana leaf; how to scale the coconut trees that towered over your house. And when you had time on your own you would have climbed an acacia and stolen a martinés chick from its nest and trimmed its tongue every day to teach it to speak; you would have chased around the musang as often as you chased around the roosters and hens; you would have spent afternoons after school or work with your friends, smoking tobacco and jumping into the Pansipit River, both leisurely activities of children in your youth; you would have borrowed your friends’ comics to follow the latest novela, or tuned in to the radio for the continuation of the week’s drama; and at night, as you lay in bed, you would have listened to the tuko and the sounds it made in its reptilian throat, to the wings of the fruit bats as they hung under the rafters of your house, and you huddled closer to your brothers and sisters, all of you thinking about the demons that hunted in the dark, the shape-shifting aswang, the crying tianak in the woods, the bamboo stalks that bent by themselves, the fireflies that signaled the presence of a diwata, and you would be thankful that you were safe inside your family’s house, and that you could sleep with the happy knowledge that morning would come, because day always brought a hundred things to do regardless of the season and left you little time to be truly afraid.
As you grew older you would discover that in fact there was much to fear during the day. You feared that your family might one day suffer the fate of your neighbors, whose fathers had many wives, or drove the household to bankruptcy because of sabong and the dozen other vices that men needed to keep sane; you feared that when you or your brothers and sisters got sick, your mother’s prayers and panatas would be as useless as the albolaryo’s rituals; you feared your father’s stoicism and thriftiness; you feared that the floods would ruin the seedlings and the harvest would not provide enough for you to go to school; you feared the bullies in your class and the line of 7s you were prone to collect on your report card; you feared that while you were in school in town the volcano would erupt and you would go home to find your house buried under tons of ash; you feared that you would not finish school at all, that your father would not even let you take the entrance test to a college in Manila, that you would not find a good job and you would have to go home with nothing to show for yourself or the years that the harvests had made possible.
Or if you did succeed, in Manila or elsewhere on the globe, what you might find the most fearful is the thought of going home. Visiting would be fine, but to live there again would be unthinkable. You think of your children and you cannot imagine waking them up at dawn to work in the fields or feed the livestock or do any of the things you did in your childhood; you are horrified at the thought of their learning to blow smoke rings at the age of eight, which was the age you learned, and of their having asthma attacks because of the smell of the cigarettes and kaingin and hog dung; you are appalled at the news of crime and drugs and out-of-school youths and abusive barangay tanods, and while you are filled with sadness at the fact that things today have become so different from the way they used to be, you are also relieved, because today things could also be so much better. In the past you hoped and prayed hard and still Manila was your only salvation; nowadays if you have enough savings you can go to colder countries and if you can work there with even half the care and perseverance that you worked with at home, the rewards are greater than anything you have ever dared to imagine.
And so, many of the old houses lost their sawali walls and dirt floors and outdoor kasilyas, rising into eight-bedroom mansions with garages of beautiful bright cars, and home became a nice place to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there again, not in its old state anyway, and the old beliefs were lost as well, because the time of the earth and the rivers had gone and there was no longer any use for their religion.
Except, maybe, to the people on the rim—the people who live on the junctures of the past and the present, who know something of the secret stories, who have caught glimpses of the old faith and the ones that replaced it, who are unable to cross into either and are rooted to the spot, eking out a life in the little space that remains to them, no matter how tenuous this ground is.
We live in this place, too, and know that, soon, we too must fall.
Si Anna Sanchez ay guro sa Department of English and Comparative Literature sa Unibersidad ng Pilipinas, Diliman. Awtor siya ng How to Pacify a Distraught Infant (UP Press, 2018), Frog Leap and Other Stories (NCCA, 2005), at tatlong new adult novels.