Kipil and Paksiw for Mamay

Nonfiction by | October 15, 2017

My first memory of Tupi, South Cotabato was of a small room beside the kitchen of the old ancestral house. The kids were not allowed to play or make noises near the room where my grandfather Sotero, lived. The only time we would enter during visits was when we would mano upon arriving in the house and to mano again before we leave for home. Sotero was my mother’s father and the only grandparent I had the chance to touch, talk to, and serve meals for. My other grandparents died before I was born. We call Sotero Mamay because he was from Batangas and that was how grandchildren there called their grandfathers.

After World War 2, Mamay, together with my grandmother’s family, decided to move south to Mindanao where apparently things were safer and progress was more feasible than up in Luzon. Mamay was in his 20’s when they moved south. Back then, accumulation of land properties was easier and needed less legal processes. My grandfather found a land in South Cotabato just beside Dole Philippine’s pineapple plantation. During his time, hectares and hectares of vacant agricultural lands were there for the taking, no one owns them except a handful of huge companies including Dole Philippines.

The land he discovered looked more like a jungle compared to its neighboring pineapple plantation. He decided to clean the entire 18-hectare land with the help of his family. They cultivated the land, cut off unnecessary vines, and planted vegetables with their own bare hands. By simply cleaning the entire area that no one owned, it was implied Mamay was taking possession of it. It was that easy back then. But Dole Philippines saw how much potential the cleaned area had for their business, so they decided to plant pineapples on some specific areas that Mamay cleaned. They did that several times.

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What I Remember When I Think About Kuya Mai

Nonfiction by | September 24, 2017

I was 9 years old when Kuya Mai passed away. He was my uncle but we call him Kuya Mai. A month before he was sent to the hospital, a fish bone was stuck in his throat. After that incident, I was so careful every time I eat fish that I even separate the bones of anchovies before eating so that I’ll not be sent to the hospital like him.

Kuya Mai had some peculiar things going on on his body. There were giant pimples growing on his legs. He occasionally let us- his nieces and nephews prick his giant pimples and he would say that the thick yellowish fluid that comes out is uric acid. That time, I have no idea what a uric acid is. To my eyes it was disgusting but I still participated as I don’t want to be left out. Kuya Mai loved kids. For a man who never got married, it was quite a wonder. During his trips from local seminars and trainings he would bring us goodies. He called those goodies “secret”. Most of the time it is a Nestlé made chocolate- a Kisses, Hersheys or a Gandour chocolate called Safari. Childishly, I secretly wished him to be always out-of-town so that when he came back he would bring us lots of “secret”. Sometimes he would bribe us with “secret” to massage his head or legs. Continue reading What I Remember When I Think About Kuya Mai

A Portrait of a Young Man as a Banak

Nonfiction by | September 10, 2017

(This Essay was first published in Cotabato Literary Journal)

From time to time, almost to the point of rarity, a school of peculiar banak visited Panacan, the place where I grew up. They were a spectacle: if they had visited more often, the place would have been a tourist spot. Unlike the common one-footers that could be caught using lanit, they were roughly two feet long and swam in a group of around twenty to thirty. Nobody knew when they would visit, and when they did the place would immediately come to life: the children, barely catching a glimpse of them, would run over the wooden bridges that connected, like a web, our little coastal community; the fishermen would hastily equip themselves with harpoons, although nobody, as far as I can remember, would catch a single one of those elusive banak. Nobody was ever prepared for their swift, unannounced appearance.

Our community was a small purok in Panacan, a barangay in Davao City, but to this day I still wonder whether the purok was named Jasa or Jacona. When somebody asked me where I lived, I found it difficult to answer. Perhaps it is one of the usual difficulties you encounter when you live in an informal settlement, in which you develop a rather unusual sense of home. “Sa Trese,” or at Trese, was the most convenient reply, but it was not that specific. So most of the time I would say, “Atbang lang sa Macondray,” or just in front of Macondray.

Over the phone Mama told me she would meet me at 7-Eleven, in front of the flyover at Agdao, Davao City. I had just arrived after a three-hour ride from General Santos City. Standing in front of Ecoland terminal, I told her I did not exactly know where our meeting place was.
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Notes on Kumbira 2017

Nonfiction by | August 27, 2017

As a belated celebration of the National Literature Month (NLM), the Davao Writers Guild, in partnership with the National Commission on Culture and the Arts, and the College of Education of Notre Dame University organized Kumbira: A Panel Discussion on Mindanawon Writing in Cotabato City on August 11, 2017. Kumbira has been an annual literary reading activity of the Davao Writers Guild even before NLM was signed into law in 2015. Previous Kumbira activities have been held in Holy Cross of Davao College, in Samal Island, in Kapalong, and as part of NLM at the People’s Park in 2015 and at the Taboan of Matina Town Square in 2016.

In keeping with the group’s mission of providing support to growing literary communities outside of Davao City, the Davao Writers Guild decided to hold its annual literary reading and forum in Cotabato. I initiated the Guild’s partnership with Notre Dame University by reaching out to Delma Yuarata, the program head for the university’s College of Education. Yuarata used to be my English teacher in grade school, and she was also my first writing coach. When I told her about the Guild’s plans of conducting an outreach activity outside of Davao City, particularly in Southern Mindanao, I suggested that it might be a good idea if the literary forum can be held in Notre Dame University, my alma mater. She gladly volunteered to facilitate the preparations for the event—all we had to do was bring writers to Cotabato City.

This year’s Kumbira also featured SOX Writers, the umbrella organization of literary groups from the SOCCSKSARGEN region to help them build a wider network with young and budding writers from Cotabato City. Jade Mark Capiñanes, Saquina Guiam, and MJ Tumamac, all from General Santos City, participated as panelists. The Guild members who were with me in the panel were current DWG President John Bengan, Darylle Rubino, Macario Tiu, and Lualhati Abreu.

The participating writers read their works to an audience of around 200 teachers, English majors, and high school students from Notre Dame University, most of whom had not yet met a local writer before the event. Before each reading, the writers shared with the audience the motivation behind their works.

Both John Bengan and Macario Tiu shared works about Davao City and emphasized the importance of writing about Mindanao by writing about home. Bengan read his recently published short story about a Davao public servant who drives a taxi at night as a means for him to watch over his city, and Tiu shared his award-winning work, Tsuru, a story set in Malayal, Zamboanga del Norte that tells the story of Peryang and her Japanese friend.

MJ Tumamac also found his consciousness of the story at home, where he first attempted writing stories to describe his childhood experiences. As an adult, Tumamac aims to preserve the same childhood experience through his writing. Darylle Rubino also discussed how the longing for the comforts of his hometown has been the impulse in his own writing. He shared Flom’lok, his concrete poem about home, shaped in the form of Mt. Matutum. Jade Mark Capiñanes, on the other hand, read parts of his recent Palanca award-winning essay, A Portrait of a Young Man as a Banak, where he narrated the struggles of his family that led him to reside in Polomok in South Cotabato, and then in General Santos City. Capiñanes also discussed his advocacy of using social media as a platform for literature. He said that sharing his writing exercises on Facebook has helped him improve his craft, as Facebook helps him gather comments directly from his readers.

Saquina Guiam, a Maguindanaoan writer from General Santos City, shared her experiences of writing from and about home. Asked about how writers can write about and from Mindanao without offending people of other ethnic groups, Guiam cites from experience the importance of rigorous inquiry and research in writing about a particular culture. Guiam also expressed that acceptance of valid comments from members of the ethnic group is also equally important in writing about a particular culture. On the other hand, Lualhati Abreu, a Manila-born writer, and the most senior of the writers, also echoed Guiam’s advice about research when she described her experiences of writing her award-winning Martial Law memoir, Agaw Dilim, Agaw Liwanag.

Since the literary forum was the first of its kind in Notre Dame University, the students took the opportunity to ask the writers for tips and advice about writing, accepting criticism, and publishing. The students were encouraged to submit their writing to Cotabato Literary Journal, the online journal of SOX Writers and to Dagmay, the literary folio of the Davao Writers Guild. They were also urged to form a young writers group in the city with the help of SOX Writers, whose member-organizations already include writers groups from North Cotabato, South Cotabato, General Santos City, and Sultan Kudarat Province.

In the Davao Writers Guild, we believe that building literary communities is essential in developing a vigorous literary movement in Mindanao. Writing is a solitary activity, but the life of the Mindanawon writer doesn’t need to be the same. It is through the community that young writers are provided with a steadily increasing number of avenues for their writing. It is through the community that Davao City now enjoys literary activities organized by different literary groups in the city. It is also through networking and community building that SOX Writers have managed to organize literary readings, contests, and seminars, even when its members live in different cities and provinces.

As for me, Notre Dame University is where I started writing and Cotabato City is where I first developed my passion for literature. I am grateful that with the help of the Davao Writers Guild, I am given the opportunity to come back to my roots, and help others create a beginning for themselves as well.

Gracielle Deanne Tubera is the current Vice President the Davao Writers Guild. She is a B. S. Nursing graduate of the Ateneo de Davao University, where she now works as Technical Assistant to the University President for Resource Generation and Special Projects.

Sudoku with Love

Nonfiction by | August 20, 2017

I never thought that a simple logical game could change my perspective in life. Sudoku, a number-placement, brain-stimulating puzzle, once became a refeshing activity during a gloomy season of my life. It served as a temporary source of happiness in a time when hopelessness became a constant companion. Those nights were long as I spent every minute pouring out my thoughts on pen and paper. In the mornings, I slept longer than the required hours, refusing to meet the sunlight for I detested the false promises it could bring.

One day, I was looking through a pile of old newspapers to find something thought-provoking to read. As I scanned the pages of a Sunday comic issue, I saw a whole page filled with Sudoku puzzles. It was labeled “easy.” For a beginner, easy was what I needed. Out of curiosity, I attempted to solve one puzzle.

Sudoku is a 9-by-9 grid with nine 3-by-3 sub-grids that compose the whole puzzle. To solve the puzzle, the grid should be filled with the numbers 1 to 9 without repeating the digits on each column and each row. There is only one solution to every puzzle. A wrong number placed on the 3-by-3 sub-grid results in an incomplete game.

After solving one piece, a sense of accomplishment sparked my inactive brain. I immediately began to fill out one after another like a famished wolf devouring each prey in sight. That day, I fell in love with Sudoku.

To up the challenge, I decided to introduce Sudoku to my father, a crossword puzzle enthusiast. I figured he might enjoy the same activity for he was fond of mind-boggling activities. I copied the Sudoku puzzles from the newspaper, carelessly at that, so I could teach him the dynamics of my newfound game.

I didn’t really think Papang would appreciate Sudoku for we rarely shared the same interests. For one, I indulged in pasta. He, on the other hand, derived pleasure from pancit. I gobbled pizza; he fancied sweets. I preferred iced tea; he consumed softdrinks. I relished fresh durian; he liked to put milk on it. I licked ice cream on cones; he ate ice cream spread in a sandwich.

Who was I to break his solid relationship with the crossword puzzle? He has been holding a pen in one hand, and a folded newspaper with a crossword puzzle on the other hand since his bachelor days.

One time, he called the office of a local newspaper to complain that they were recycling their crossword puzzles. I could hear frustration in his voice as he argued with the person on the other end of the line. He threatened to cut his subscription unless they produce new sets of puzzles.

“Ok lang ka, ‘Pang?”

“Suya kaayo! Gibalikbalik lang ilang crossword. Sayang-sayang lang ta og palit og newspaper.”

Amusing, really, for who would have thought someone would pay that much attention to newspaper crossword puzzles?

My father held the title of being the quietest son among his siblings. Being a man of few words, he would rather shell out cash and treat his friends to drinks than be forced to tell a story. To woo the woman he loved, one of the beautiful faces in Zamboanga, he hired someone to serenade my mother during their courtship stage. It was his actions, more than endearing words that captured, not just my mother’s heart, but also her parents’. He literally climbed a steep mountain for her sweet “yes,” impressing my grandparents.

I recently learned that people found it challenging to start a conversation with him especially when he seemed to be lost in space solving his crossword puzzles. I was surprised when they commented on how intimidating he could be, probably because of his quiet composure. My siblings and I already got accustomed to his reserved behavior that I would find myself shaking my head in disagreement coupled with a silent chuckle when his colleagues share how frightened they were in approaching him. Contrary to what these people thought, Papang usually welcomed an interruption when he’s engrossed in solving his crossword puzzle; a conversation even.

Papang had worked as an accountant until the company was restructured. He lost his job and strived to look for new employment but was not successful. I was twelve years old that time, back when my mother was heavy with their fourth child. Since then, our family struggled to make ends meet. Ironic it was that my father tried to venture into sales as a source of income when he lacked the gift of gab. He and Mamang invested in various network marketing companies without any substantial returns, emptying the few savings they had left.

During the times of plenty, my siblings and I would rush outside at the sound of Papang’s footsteps as he entered the house. We always anticipated his BH or “Bring Home”. BH was anything Papang could buy on his way home from the office. When Papang lost his job, there was no BH to look forward to anymore.

One particular morning, my father came home holding two pieces of paper in his hands. He showed them to me with a smile as if they were winning lottery tickets. These were Sudoku puzzles drafted by his own hands. Two puzzles alike: one for me, and another for him. It was the best BH for me during our downtrodden days.

The time I presented the Sudoku instructions to Papang, he easily figured out how to fill the numbers inside the 9-by-9 grid. At last, we finally discovered an activity we can officially call a shared interest! Oh, how I loved to race with him in answering each puzzle. I would feel triumph and pride when I could finish solving one ahead of him, something he was completely oblivious about.

It was not unusual for Papang to walk an extra mile to encourage his children. When I became a volunteer teacher in a school for missionaries’ children, I was stressed and worn out from the unending list of tasks added by rowdy students. The challenge was so exasperating that I hid in a corner to weep. This crossword-addict-turned-Sudoku-fan came to console me. I began to rant as if I knew how as I poured out my heart to him. He lovingly wrapped me around his arms and whispered, “I am so proud of you.” Those words of approval signaled a green light for a flood of tears.

When Papang noticed how enthusiastic I had become in solving Sudoku puzzles, he exerted effort to bond with me. Since he couldn’t afford to buy me a collection, he asked vendors from different newsstands if he could copy the Sudoku puzzles from their newspaper display. He usually drew two kinds of each puzzle available there: one for me, and one for him. It would take him a longer time than an average person though, for he used a ruler to trace every horizontal and vertical line of each grid, and wrote every number with his best printed handwriting making it look like a puzzle printed from a computer. I told him that he did not have to perfectly copy the puzzles for I would just throw them away after I solved them, but he always handed me his perfect replicas of Sudoku.

Papang produced dozens of his handmade copies of Sudoku puzzles for my indulgence. They were the highlights of my day, like dextrose to an ailing patient. I crumpled them immediately and sent them to the garbage bin after filling up the numbers 1-9 to the right boxes. All but one puzzle, which is safely tucked in the pages of my journal. Papang gave this piece to me at the time when an opportunity to embark on a promising future in Manila came.

My family and I were at the Francisco Bangoy International Airport, spending our last quality time together. When it was time to bid farewell to everyone — after the obligatory hugging and kissing took place– my father, teary-eyed, forcing himself to smile, showed me the last Sudoku puzzle he created for me. It was written on a cardboard. I needed to hurriedly leave for time was downright cruel to interrupt our last moments together. So Papang quickly slipped the puzzle inside my handbag without saying a word.

As I was waiting for my flight in the passenger’s lounge, I took the puzzle and decided to solve it to kill some time. But then, I discovered that it was the hardest one to solve so far. Not because it was hard per se, but because I couldn’t control my hands from shaking nor my tears from falling just by looking at the puzzle. I repeatedly blinked my eyes to halt the tears as I did not want to make a scene. I wondered how he drafted this one. I knew he was going to miss his Sudoku partner. Was this the reason why he wrote it on a cardboard? Considering how long it takes for him to make a puzzle, he did actually allot time so he could give this to me as I started a new journey. Scenes of his kindness and acts of love flashed in my memory. I was sure I was going to miss this man– he who always saw me as beautiful even when I woke up with uncombed hair and in a defeated mood at a late hour of the day.

If the Almighty would let me live again and give me a chance to choose another father out of ten different successful wealthy men next to Papang, I would still pick my Sudoku partner. “Lord,” I’d say, pointing to the man who is holding the logic game, imperfect and poor, “I still want him.”

Funny how a piece of Sudoku was given to me as a remembrance, when others would be granted a more expensive farewell gift. But this gift was priceless. For beneath the numbers, the boxes, the grid, and the lines, a message can be decoded by the heart that cannot be deciphered by the mind: a father’s devotion to his downhearted daughter. For me, it was a gesture of love.

Karen Quiñones-Axalan was a fellow to the Davao Writers Workshop in 2009. She is a graduate of BS Community Development at the University of Southeastern Philippines.


Nonfiction by | August 6, 2017

Photo of Sitio Inanuran by Jade Monteverde Baylon

She knew her husband was close to death as the man sat back in his rusty-framed hospital bed. His skin—darkened from decades of working in the fields—was pale, almost lifeless. The calloused hands were limp. An IV tube remained taped to one of them—a last lifeline. His eyes remained closed. Whenever he opened them by sheer force of will, it was to catch a glimpse of his wife, the pastor, sitting beside him with her hands together and her eyes closed. She had been praying for days for her husband’s healing. As she did so, the sun sank to the West as the jagged teeth of black mountains pierced the fabric of the sky. The clouds opened up and an orange veil fell upon the world. It was as if the day itself refused to die. But nothing can hold back its end, and with it, all hopes for a miracle for him faded. The light that crept out slowly through the screened windows took with it the life of the day. The air in the public hospital was stale. The smell of ammonia spread from one ward to the next like a warning to visitors. She prayed again. She had been trying to talk to God for days. Amy, the once lively woman had fallen silent, tearfully looking at her husband Bartolome suffering.

She had hoped for a miracle. There was nothing she could do but cling to it. It was too late to pump it out of his stomach. A poison often used to kill field rats had already reached Bartolome’s liver. It had come from a bellyful of rice, becoming a fire that spread from one vein to the next. It had killed every cell it could find. He was motionless. Pain filled each impulse; his brain was dying too. They had but a few hours to say goodbye. Amy, who held on to his hand, prayed she could help him stay alive. But as she watched him writhe in seizures of pain, she knew she could do nothing. Who would have thought death was as painful as this?

When Amy spoke to me about their story, her face showed a melancholy that was not usually there. The day began warming up the sleeping Sitio of Inanuran. The sound of children rushing off to the nearby school mixed in with the sound of stick brooms against the hardened dirt. We were on the porch of the house we had rented for my three-day stay in San Pedro. This small barangay was where their story began. The stout woman sat on the bench. Her dark skin wrinkled by age. Her eyes looked tired from the years past. If there were a number for the times she had asked for the miracle, it had long since evaded her when she spoke to me about it in September 2016.

As she tended to the cooking fire in the kitchen, I got my notebook from my bag and began asking her for translations of certain phrases and words. It was for another essay, I told her. One that focused on language. The sad look in her eyes disappeared for a brief moment. I began saying Binisaya phrases and she replied with their Tagakaolo counterparts. This was my way of breaking her away from her silences. I never thought about asking her how her husband died. It seemed too painful a subject to even consider bringing up.

I continued by asking her about her home and where it was. She stretched her hand and pointed down the road that we had passed to get to Sitio Inanuran. The Barangay site we stayed in was a collection of houses huddled against a wall of dirt. The place was once a slope. Years before, the government had sent bulldozers to clear the area in order to build the barangay center of San Pedro. The site stretched toward the nearby hill. Houses, both made of wood, sinasa, and concrete hollow blocks can be seen rising up and down with the slopes. Their galvanized iron roofs were mosaics of rust and mirror-like metal when viewed from above. But Amy did not live in this lively village. Somewhere in the hills, behind the thick brush and the remaining trees was her home in Sitio Kituroc. Curious as to what home was in the Tagakaolo language, I asked her as she was placing the blackened pot of uncooked rice over the orange flame. She looked up and turned to me. “Puy-anan.”

Puy-anan [Tagakaolo] (noun); [Cebuano] panimalay; [Tagalog] tahanan; [English] home

When I met her, Amelita Maligon was a 46-year-old mother of two from San Pedro— a distant barangay located deep in the mountain ranges of Santa Maria. Her sons James and Jaeiger lived with her in their small house in Kituroc, a sitio hidden under the shadow of what Amy said were the last lawaan trees in the area.

After I found out she was from San Pedro, I told my father to ask her if she could be my guide when I did my fieldwork. She agreed. We were together for three days in a place that was undoubtedly far from my home. Before that, she had stayed an entire month with us, working as our helper.

One of eight siblings, Amelita Maligon was the last one to get married in 2008. She and her husband Bartolome had been engaged for more than a decade by then, and already had two children living with them in their house. When they first decided to have a family, they knew nothing about the decade they would spend living together as an unmarried couple. In spite of their Christian friends’ advice, they chose to have children before they were united by the church. Love, it seemed, transcended the power of the institution Amy had so passionately served. The church could not prevent them from having a family of their own. Their home would not be complete without their two children James and Jaeger.

Amy and Bartolome first spoke to each other in the summer of 1990. It was a time when there was an abundance of trees and fireflies in the hills. This distant, mountainous Sitio of San Pedro in Santa Maria was hidden by the thick foliage of the lawaan forests—a jungle that stretched for miles on end and hid the most diverse wildlife imaginable. The nights there were lit up only by a few things: stars, moon, fireflies, and kerosene flame, the last a lot harder to come by then.

In this serene land, Amy had become accustomed to her father’s overprotective nature. By the age nine, the young Amelita Maligon was told to stop going to school after firefights had broken out between the military and the rebels. Her father tried to keep her and her siblings away from the dangers of the world’s wars.

One night in 1990, a young Bartolome Daligasao came to the Maligon house. Amy’s father, the Elder Maligon had rules regarding her interaction with men.

“Grabe gyud ka strikto ni Papa uy!” she laughed as she recounted her father’s strict nature when it came to men and his young Amelita. The landed father was careful to not let his daughter go with complete strangers, worried that they might take with them the daughter’s inheritance, too. He was prepared to give her a share of the family land for her future family.

When Bartolome came that night of the Flores de Mayo, the Elder Maligon must have greeted him with a grunt and several hundred questions. After the young Bartolome told the Elder of his intentions—which was to escort the daughter through the lawaan forest to the event, the father could do nothing but nod. He knew the boy’s family, and trusted him to protect his beloved child on the journey. The Elder gave in to the young man’s determination. It was a good sign, Bartolome must have thought as he carried the kerosene lamp through the wilderness. The woman whom he had fallen for in church was with him at last.

Years later, when I met her, Amelita Maligon was no longer the daughter of a landed man. The Elder Maligon had passed away long before our encounter, and with his death came the trials that would define Amy, her family, and her faith. The years that followed the loss of the Elder had been rough on them. The lands of her father became untilled. All the animals had been sold off. The horse paid for her hospital bills. The pigs, for her medication. The goats, for her children’s tuition in their new school in the Poblacion.

I told Amy that I wanted to go to her house. I imagined it to be lonely, surrounded by a bamboo fence, flowers, and a patch of earth with all sorts of vegetables—a common setting for a family home.

“It’s a long walk,” she said. Though she remarked later that the distance was bearable. “An hour’s walk.”

In 1990, the couple moved into the house that Bartolome had built. The house with walls made of sinasa bamboo planks stood under the shade of the large mango tree beside it. Amy told me that James, one of her sons, had once scared away an aswang hiding up in the mango tree’s branches. This house was her reminder of the better days they had shared. She would have to leave it when the time came. Amy, the landed man’s daughter, came to live with the poor man’s son—a cliché that was beautiful in its simple truth.

Because they weren’t married and were considered “live-in partners,” Amy felt the pressure to stop preaching in their church. To live with a person who was not her husband was a sin. She knew that and believed it. But she never stopped going to church. Her faith, her resolve, and her will were strong.

Bartolome worked the fields that Amy had inherited from her father. By this time, the forest had started to retreat into the deep valleys and the high slopes. The loggers had found Sta. Maria’s lawaan to be strong and profitable. As the walls of trees fell, the people turned to cultivating corn—a crop that was easy to grow and seemed to be more profitable because the trees that were also used to create charcoal disappeared.

The husband would leave his wife when the sun hung low in the Eastern sky, casting a corn-colored glow on the balding mountainsides. It is better to leave early, Amy said, the sun isn’t as hot and the soil, still cool. Bartolome would head out for their uma, their patch of farmland where he would plant corn and other crops like squash. By the time the sun had risen to its highest point, Bartolome would be sitting by the door, listening to the wild monkeys that still inhabited the trees that remained standing near their home.

While Bartolome was out on the uma or farming grounds, Amy worked on keeping their animals fed. The pigs in their pens would take their share of slop, the chickens would rejoice as corn rained from Amy’s godly hands, and the horse—one that Bartolome managed to buy over the years—would whinny contentedly in the shade of the mango tree. When she saw her husband’s silhouette in the distance, Amy would always greet Bartolome by preparing a hot cup of corn coffee, some boiled cassava root, and warmth that rivaled the sun’s. The simple life of a native, she would later tell me. They lived in the joy brought about by family, and not the things the lowland folk obsessed over. They were in their own version of paradise.

Isig Tagakaolo; [Cebuano] anak nga lalake; [Tagalog] anak na lalake; [English] son

Amelita Maligon came to our home in Digos on the back of an overheating motorcycle, the smoke from which was hardly visible in the noonday sun. The El Niño of 2016 still clung to the July heat. She rode the aging Kawasaki motorcycle for more than an hour, and when I saw her standing outside the house, her backside was either sore or numb from the rough road.

From our gate, she waved her hands to get attention. The sun made her seem like a mirage with her brightly colored clothes. Her hair and face were partially covered by the pink cloth she wore as a shield against the dust of the road. There was a heat wave that had killed most of the grass and shrubbery, their golden husks rustled loudly whenever the dry wind blew.

The loud noise from the television made our dogs’ barks almost inaudible inside the house. When we finally saw her, she had been standing there with the motorcycle driver for more than five minutes. Stocky and sunburnt, she had an energy that seemed to defy her age. Her laugh was loud, her hands small and rough, just like her feet. Worried that her hair’s length—falling down to the base of her spine—would be considered unfit for work in the kitchen, she wore her salt and pepper hair in a bun. Her eyes were small and brown and her smile was the biggest one I’ve ever seen; we knew her joy was real.

She wore, almost as a uniform, a skirt that ran down to her calves. The denim one she wore when she arrived would be worn three times within the week. She brought around only four skirts since she did not wear shorts or pants. She came all the way to Digos from her home in Kituroc, leaving her sons in Santa Maria to work for us. Her father would not have wanted this life for her, but here she was. The Elder Maligon’s daughter had come to work as a helper in the patag, the plains.

When Amy climbed up the steps to the front door of our house in Digos, she carried two bags of clothes and an uneasiness that materialized as lines on her forehead. She sat quietly with her hands on her lap as my mother and father talked to her. They would ask questions and she would answer. When she was asked why she wanted to work for us, she told them she had two sons who were studying in Santa Maria. She had abandoned farming to find a new source of income in the plains. She had left her home to help in ours.

Amy started working almost immediately. She would stay to work for us until my grandparents left for the U.S. After that, she was to go home to San Pedro until my father would contact her again to accompany me on my trip. I was even happier then to have her accompany me to her home.

When we were in San Pedro, she would introduce me to the people she knew. People were curious. They would talk to her in Tagakaolo, and I would attempt to recognize the phrases. The recurring word was the word isig.

“Isig ni Sir Baylon,” she would say to those who asked.

When we were in the kitchen, I asked her what it meant, and she told me that it stood for “son,” the counterpart of which was “bobay” or daughter.

Amy and her husband had James, their first son, twelve years after they had built their house. When they were asked why they took so much time before having a kid, she would simply answer with a smile. They wanted time for themselves, to enjoy each other’s company until they were ready for one more person in the family. Maybe religion had affected that decision. Christian religions forbid bearing children outside marriage.

Her sons were the reason Amy came to work for us. Amy needed to provide for their tuition and allowance, so she left her home in Kituroc to find jobs in the patag.

We were still in the kitchen when she told me this. I asked her how they say “I love you,” in Tagakaolo. Her response was something I did not expect and I was surprised to hear it. The words and their meaning were far from the abstract word “love.” It was pure definition.

“Pi ginawan ta kaw,”
she said.

Pi ginawan ta kaw [Tagakaolo] (phrase): [Cebuano] literally: “Ikaw akong ginhawa” Gihigugma nako ka; [Tagalog] literally: Ikaw ang hininga ko, Mahal kita [English] literally: You are the air I breathe, I love you

They met in 1982, a time when the quiet of the forest nights was dispelled by the sound of crackling gunfire in the distance. This was at the height of the conflict between the government and its enemies in the area. The uneasy feeling that kept Amelita from school only a few months earlier had come back. Her father steered them away from conflict whenever he could, and that was the reason she never got to be a fifth grader. At thirteen, she was a teacher in her local church. A young leader, some would prefer to call her.

If one were asked why the stars were so much brighter out in the forest, a possible answer would be because of the bullets that eventually tore through the very fabric of night whenever the rebels met the government under the shadow of the towering lawaan, a hardwood that reached a height of fifty meters red-tinged bark.

She was thirteen when she first met him in church. It was not love at first sight, she said. Time, in a way, helped Bartolome fall for her. So much so that he would eventually marry her. In the years that followed their first meeting, Amelita became Pastor Amy to both teenagers and children. Bartolome remained a quiet spectator and admirer. She saw him, he saw her, but not much happened between the two of them. She had a habit of crying inside the church as her hand reached out to God—who she says was invisible and all-powerful. Her great faith didn’t seem to estrange Bartolome from her. Love or the thought of it had planted a seed in Bartolome, and it grew every day. The only men Amy loved were her father and her God, and this man was determined to change that.

When Bartolome finally realized that he liked Amy, he became religious. Once a “backslider,” he turned his life around and followed what the pastor always reminded them of—never miss the service. Whenever he went to the church, it was to see the woman whom he had found crying in the tiny crowd inside the church. Amelita saw him as a face in the crowd whose smile had made her feel lighter inside. A good man, she admitted.

They became acquaintances, but not close friends. Members of the opposite sexes didn’t really interact that much— except when they were married or were mad at each other. A quiet boy who was two years older than her, Bartolome often stayed at the back of the church, coming to the front only to put his tithe in the basket she held out. Her sweet smile would meet his, and the blessings he had asked for in exchange for the spare change clinking in the rattan basket were met.

He got sick a lot, Amy said, probably so she would be asked to pray over him —laying her hands on his forehead and his chest while she closed her eyes to pray for him to get better. And he did feel better. Warmth returned to his hands and color to his cheeks. She performed the grandest miracles for him.

On the night of the procession, Amy, along with her closest friends left Kituroc for San Antonio—one of the more populated communities that was far from the Poblacion of Santa Maria, an hour’s ride away by skylab (a modified motorcycle that had metal extensions like wings on both sides to carry passengers and all sorts of things). Her father was overprotective of his daughter. He did not want to leave so he asked for the help of the younger men he knew. They were to accompany the girls and be their official chaperones. The smile on Bartolome’s face must have been priceless. Amy, who by that time had grown to love the quiet boy, felt nervous at the thought of his arm locked around hers.

When the night of the Flores de Mayo was over, Bartolome confessed his feelings for Amy. She loved him back, but she was cautious. She asked if his love was for her, or for the things she would inherit from her father, and in some way, he convinced her that it was not. He loved her; that was enough.

Their dates were long walks to Amy’s house from the church. A thirty-minute hike through the woods didn’t feel like thirty minutes, she said, smiling at the memory. She continued to talk about the times when he would bring her fruits during his visits.

When talk of their relationship reached the Elder Maligon, Amy’s father, he sent for Bartolome and his family. Tradition meant that a marriage was to be made before anything else happened. The Maligon and Daligasao families met and made the arrangements. In Filipino communities, the union of two meant the union of their blood. Amy knew nothing of the meeting between the Maligon and the Daligasao— Bartolome’s family. She later found out that they had already arranged the bugay that Bartolome ought to give to Amy’s family—fifteen thousand pesos, a carabao, and a horse that was strong enough for the occasional horse-fight.

If the gifts were not satisfactory, the wedding was delayed. Bartolome’s family, just like most families in the community, lived off the earth. The little money they got from selling charcoal and their produce was not enough to meet the Elder Maligon’s demands. Those days, farmers had money, but not much. They found everything they needed under the shade of the great trees, and maybe only lowlander greed would find its bounty meager.

They couldn’t afford the horse that Amy’s father wanted so they asked if the carabao and the money were enough. And to their surprise, they were.

Marriage has always been an expensive pursuit, especially in the mountains. Supplies had to be brought up by horseback or motorcycle, and that meant slow and costly deliveries. The fog used to hide the roads behind a curtain of moist cloud, which made travel treacherous. The cliffs that one had to walk beside were deep and the canopy of trees that covered the land below hid every evidence of an accident. These, and all sorts of other problems, including the death of the Elder Maligon had kept Amy and Bartolome’s wedding from taking place.

It would take nearly fourteen years for them to finally say their wedding vows in front of their family and friends. When they had their second son Jaeiger in 2004, the couple decided that they had to get married. They were now a family, and Amy thought God needed to bless it. By then, the roads were more passable, but trips were still dangerous, and often fatal. Bartolome kept working in the fields, from seeding to harvest, year after year, keeping a little bit of the money for the wedding. Amy had managed to sell enough of her farm animals to make the necessary preparations while she made sure she had enough left to rear the next generation and feed the guests. In 2008, with the six-year-old James holding on to his father’s hand, and four-year-old Jaeiger holding on to his mother’s, Amy and Bartolome got married in the church where they first met.

Weddings were expensive. Preparing a festivity that would be joined by hundreds was no mere task. Food—usually goats, pigs, and cows—had to be delivered from faraway sitios. Soft drinks and rice came from places as far as the Poblacion itself. “Kuman kaw,” phrases rang out more often, and louder from that banquet, and people would come and have a great time. But that feast, no matter how big it was, would not be the most defining meal in Amy and Bartolome’s lives.

Kuman kaw Tagakaolo: [Cebuano] Mangaon ta; [Tagalog] kumain tayo; [English] Come eat with us.

In 2013, while Amy and her children were in the Poblacion, her husband got invited to a gathering for a celebration of sorts. It was also a meeting of different farmers. The uplands were where the government’s enemies hid, and they would do anything to keep the rebels from getting the upper hand.

At the gathering, Bartolome and his companions were given rice rations. Perhaps the harvest was bad because of the previous year’s drought. They needed all the rice they could get. The farmers talked about a lot of things. From politics to religion, the group of men, who were mostly farmers, and leaders of the communities debated and laughed together. And where there was a lively crowd, there was sure to be an abundance of food.

When Bartolome arrived at his house in Kituroc, he brought the ration with him. In the day that followed, while he was alone in their home, he cooked the rice and ate it. After finishing a plateful, he began to feel a piercing pain inside him. He felt a fire burning in his stomach, causing him to vomit. Muscle spasms followed and further pain. Amy returned home as soon as she got the news, leaving her boys in the Poblacion. When she got there, her husband’s face was pale, his eyes nearly lifeless, and his voice weak. He needed one of her miracles again. Amy prayed, and she did so until tears ran down her cheeks. Their friends gathered outside their house, preparing the motorcycle that was going to take Bartolome to the hospital.

The rice he had eaten was laced with a potent rat poison. The military had intended for the rice to be given out to enemies of the state—insurgents who often organized the gatherings in the mountains. By the time they saw the toxicology report, it was too late. The poison ransacked Bartolome’s system and destroyed his liver and kidneys. His brain drowned in an agony he was never supposed to experience. A day in the hospital was all Amy and her boys had with Bartolome. They prayed. Amelita Maligon cried the way she always did in church. As Bartolome lay silently moaning for the pain to stop, she begged for God to spare the love of her life.

Maligon Tagakaolo [Cebuano] kusgan, lig-on; [Tagalog] matatag; [English] strong, sturdy.
After several months of farming, she had grown tired and pawned off her lands. The hard earth had calloused her hands and feet to the point of cracking. This job was now her only source of income apart from the two thousand pesos she got from the government’s 4Ps program.

In their home in Kituroc, Amy’s animals were sold off. Her horse paid for her hospital bills, the pigs, for her medication, and the goats for her children’s tuition in their new school in the Poblacion. When I went to her place for the second time, I finally asked her about why she was where she was, and she told me her story.

We often talked about the people, the stories behind each individual, and even the stories of the land itself. The once vibrant forests are gone. Fields of corn covered the mountains like a carpet wrought of golden string. Corn was easy to plant, she said, giving me a lecture on the four-month process that was corn farming: You plant, you wait, you harvest, you wait, you burn, you plant.

She took me around the barangay. Going from one house gto the next, we spent the hours visiting her relatives. She introduced me to her friends and the barangay officials; some people even thought I was her new husband.

“Isig ni Sir Baylon,” she would explain to the puzzled people, and they would smile.

Amy was a mother to me in the few days I stayed there. Whenever she saw me moping, she would try to distract me with a conversation. One time, she even told me to go and swim in the river with her, and I did. She liked to talk about her kids. Whenever I asked her about her children, her replies would always come with a hint of pride for what they have been able to accomplish in school. She said that her children would come home during weekends to help her with the chores, farm work, and they would even play around the mango tree that stood beside their Kituroc home.

Her eyes were squinted over the fields of corn turning gold under the sun. Her feet, planted on the same soil. Her roots delved deep into the earth the way the old lawaan trees did. She looked at me and smiled at the way I gasped for air only moments after we began climbing the slope of a hill. She was forty-six and not an ounce of exhaustion showed on her face. The lines on her face probably stood for the years she had lived through, all the pain she had experienced.

I asked myself what it was that made her so happy in spite of all the problems she has experienced. With her stocky stance, she is a rock. Her calloused hands were caring and strong, and her tired smile expressed the realest joy. She has truly lived up to her name.

Jade Monteverde Baylon hails from Digos City. He graduated from the UP Mindanao Creative Writing Program this year and is an alumnus of the Davao Writers Workshop.

How the World Explains My Mother’s Illness

Nonfiction by | July 23, 2017

Nothing was more consoling than hearing the whirr of the stretcher’s wheels on the tiled floor as the stretcher approached our room. She dozed with eyes half-closed, letting out breaths to assure us that her sleep meant survival. Four lanky men lifted her body to place her on the hospital bed. It was easier to carry her after her dramatic weight loss. The skin on her limbs wrinkled like the ones on a dried calamansi. The nurse handed me a small transparent jar with my Mamang’s cut-out small intestine floating in the formalin solution. In front of me was a green wall, warm enough to shout of vitality and hope. Mamang’s desperate rhythms of air also seemed to say, ‘Nak, Mamang is okay. At times like this, it’s hard to say we could lose her anytime. Hard to say.


She had never been sickly before an intestinal obstruction. Papang thought her diligence slowed her down. She would take her meals at nine, two, and half-past eight. After dinnertime, she would head straight to the sink to wash the plates and glasses, wipe the dining table, and scrub its dark spots. Then at morning, we would find her at our sari-sari store. I’d often see her accommodate all kinds of customers: ladies her age back-chatting their neighbors, men asking for a beer before midday and promising to pay before dusk, and Ilonggo kids who do not know what snacks were good for them.

I was convinced she was too busy that she forgets herself at times. Mamang often complained about her ulcer. She brought a tiny White Flower menthol balm everywhere she went. I remembered how many times I would wake up at midnight by her footsteps. She paced around the kitchen and the lounge room. I could sense that she was trying hard to conceal her noise, but I could also imagine her eating snacks perhaps to bear the pain she had. Her favorite midnight snack is a biscuit so crunchy you could hear her teeth breaking it in two. Her spoon often hit her ceramic mug while she stirred her hot milk.

Despite all that, she was fit enough to have her belly cut open thrice. Mamang would cook vegetables. She cooked the best pinakbet. The slices might be of irregular sizes, but the okra and string beans were cooked to perfection. I may not have learned how to speak Ilocano, but she made sure we’d be known as one by the food we preferred to eat.

There was one dish of hers that I hated though: ampalaya with egg. She’d slice the ampalaya thickly, and wouldn’t bother soaking them in a bowl of water and salt. I’d much prefer them squeezed out of their green bitter juice, but Mamang disagreed. She said that that would remove the vegetable’s nutrients and anti-diabetes effects. She said I might as well eat eggs with garlic and onion, without the ampalaya.

Continue reading How the World Explains My Mother’s Illness

Biyak: Isang Liham na Hindi ko Binigay

Nonfiction by | June 18, 2017

Namataan ko na naman ang banaag ng dalitang nagkukubli sa iyong mga mapupugay na mata. Makapal man ang maskarang araw-araw mong suot, hindi nito nalilinlang ang aking paningi’t nababatid ko ang iyong hilahil. Masigla man ang kilos na iyong pinapamalas, napupuna kong nasasaid nang marahan ang iyong kasiyaha’t kaluluwa.

Ni minsa’y di ako tumigil sa kakaasang mapagtanto mong nahihinuha ko ang iyong nadarama. Pagkatapos ay unti-unti mong huhubarin ang dispras mong yari sa pagpapanggap. Isisiwalat mo ang iyong totoong damdami’t ipapahiwatig gamit ang mga salitang dapat noon mo pa binigkas. Tinikis na yakap ang ihahandog ko sa maaari mong paghumyaw. Kusa kong ilalahad ang aking mga tenga nang sa gayo’y marinig ko lahat ng iyong pagtutungyaw at daing sa buhay. Handa akong maging tambakan ng iyong emosyon. Maaari mo akong gawing sandalan.

Hindi ako magsasawang pakinggan ang iyong mga hikbing dulot ng pighati. Sakali mang di ko maikola kung ano man ang nabakli, hayaan mong damputin ko ang pitak-pitak ng iyong pagkataong nakakalat. Gamit ang mga ito’y lilikha ako ng isang obra maestra; isang mosaik na magkahiwalay man ang mga piraso pero kung iyong pagmamasda’y tila buo.

Erika San Diego is a student in UP Mindanao.