It was a small stream in a shady clearing, barely larger than my arms outstretched, just a few inches above my ankle. In and along it were stones of different sizes. I would go there before going to school in the morning and after coming home. I kept it clean by picking up and burying the dried leaves and rearranging the stones that seem out of place.
No one else knew about it, and it became the secret center of my love for the forest. If I wasn’t in school or at home doing chores, I was by its banks, where I read or just listened to the sound of the gushing water.
I was in early sixth grade, just twelve years old, when I first met him.
On a mild Saturday morning, when one of those fog spells that used to cast themselves upon Kidapawan was floating about the sunless air, I went to the stream as I usually did at that time of day. I had with me a book on Philippine mythology that a classmate had lent me.
To my surprise, someone was bathing in the stream when I arrived. The bather was a boy of around my age. When I arrived, his back was turned away from me, but he faced towards me the moment he realized my presence.
He was naked.
Quickly, I turned away and said sorry. With more excuses and apologies, I took my leave and left.
Even after I got home, I couldn’t get my mind off him. His skin, I remembered was pale and almost cloud-like. His lips were thin and smooth, forming a passive frown. The expression on his face, framed by shoulder length black hair was cold and otherworldly.
I wondered who he was, and concluded that he must have been a son of some resident in Phase 2. But why hadn’t I seen him before? Perhaps, I thought, he went to NDKC, so there was little chance I could have met him…
I returned the next day. Because I was not able to clean the stream the day before, there were more leaves than usual and one of the large stones on the other side was out of place.
After cleaning the banks, I returned to the stone I called my “sitting stone” and began reading the book I brought with me.
While reading about the few accounts about the Tagabayew, the fluvial Bagobo spirit that flirted with unsuspecting young mortals, I first heard his voice.
“That’s an interesting book…”
I looked up behind me, and there he was, standing: the boy from the day before. This time, he was wearing a white shirt.
“It is!” I replied. “It’s about the gods and goddesses of Philippine tribes.”
He sat beside me with his knees folded. Then, he looked at the book, at the page I had left open.
He said at length: “I heard the Tagabayew, is somehow ‘paired’ with the Inajew, a sky spirit. I don’t know how though.”
And with that, he fell silent and stared at the stream.
Instead of reading, I too stared at the stream with him. The stream had many riffles, and there were deep areas that formed pools.
“I’m Lily.” I said.
“Kei.” He replied without looking at me. And we returned to our silence.
We remained that way for some time. It was quiet and calm, with only the stream’s delicate humming breaking the stillness.
When the sun began to set, I stood up and excused myself. Mamang must’ve finished cooking dinner. He nodded and said farewell.
For the next few months, he would be there whenever I arrived. He would be by the stream, sitting on that stone, sometimes with his knees folded, sometimes with his legs crossed. I would come and clean the stream, and he would help me by digging the shallow pit in which I would bury the leaves and twigs.
I brought the book on mythology with me for several months, and I would read a story with him every time I went there. Often, he knew more about the myths and legends than was written in the book, and he would tell me what he knew.
A day after we finished the book, I went to the stream. When we finished cleaning, we resumed our usual seat on the large stone, and for some time, we fell into our shared silence.
Then, right around midday, he spoke.
“Do you think there are fish in this stream?”
He shook his head.
“Or any living things in it?” I added.
“Do you see any?” he replied. I shook my head.
“I prefer it that way.” And I resumed my stare at the stream.
“But the banks have been rich with the leaves we’ve been burying.” He said, still staring at me. “Don’t you think it would be better if we let plants start growing? Flowers wouldn’t be too bad.”
I looked at him again and he smiled back at me…
And his smile stayed on my mind up until that night. As I lay in bed, I imagined him, his skin pale as clouds, his hair dark as night and his expression cold as the stream yet warm as the morning sun that made it sparkle. Then, with the sound of the stream in my mind’s ear, it hit me: Kei was a boy, and he was handsome.
The the sound of the stream echoed throughout the grove, while in my mind, his beauty lingered. Then, all I knew, as I went through that grove, was that I wanted to be wet, terribly craving to be wet. And as I walked, I was very much pleased that ahead water flowed. Then the image of the stream became Kei, but the desire remained: I was pleased that with him water flowed also, and that I wanted to be wet with that water.
Then, with a delightful splash, I was drenched. And with gentle hands, he picked me up from the stream stone by stone, for I was made of different stones, and in the middle of the stream, he made me into a cairn, and sturdily I dripped with his water.
Then, I was underground, and everything was dark. Slowly, I emerged from underground as a seedling growing on the banks of his stream, the warm coldness of his water giving me life. I looked at him, trying to find any other life that dared share and defile his warm coldness with me. But I saw no fish and no living thing in him, and I was pleased.
When I woke up that morning, I knew that I wasn’t a little girl anymore. Blushing with the previous night’s ecstasy, I went to the stream.
I was a bit worried when I saw a discarded piece of some junk food wrapper drifting inside one enclosed pool when I arrived. I picked it up and put it aside, noting to myself that I would take it home to dispose of it.
When I saw Kei, he was sitting yet again on the stone.
When I asked if someone came to the clearing, he nodded in response without looking away from the stream.
I noticed a dark patch beside his left eye.
“What happened to that!?” I asked in alarm. “Are you okay? Does it still hurt?”
“It’s okay.” He said.
Taking his word, I sat beside him and looked at the stream as well. But we did not speak much on that day.
In the following days, I saw the stream grow dirtier as nearby families began throwing garbage in it. At first we tried cleaning it, but the garbage kept increasing until it became impossible.
Kei was suffering more and more. Every time I went to the stream, I saw him with more bruises. At first, he just shrugged it off as he helped me clean away the garbage. But as the days passed his bruises increased and he grew more quiet.
And it did not help that I was growing busy with graduation.
One day, I arrived and to my horror, a large pile of garbage had been dumped on one end of the stream. To make it worse, the cairn across had been demolished.
Kei was still on the stone, staring at the now dirty water. But when I came near him, I realized that he was crying.
“What happened? Did someone hurt you?”
“Who did it!? Did your parents do it to you?”
He nodded again, and I felt a profound sense of hopelessness. His parents were hurting him: I could not do anything about it.
I fell on my knees beside him as his tears continued to fall. All I could do was embrace him and feel sorry for him…
Then, we had to part.
A teacher offered me a scholarship in Davao. Of course, Mamang and Papang were delighted.
But I wasn’t too happy. Studying in Davao meant I would leave my hometown…and Kei.
But I could not do anything. Mamang and Papang urged me to take the scholarship, and I had no choice but to listen to them.
So not without a heavy heart, I bade Kei farewell.
When I arrived at the stream, it was worse than ever. The garbage had increased. The water had turned grey. It smelled terrible. And there was no hope of putting back the cairn together.
I approached Kei to explain to him my departure, but he did not respond. I never heard his voice again.
I felt helpless as I walked away. In a way that he did not know, he had touched me, and yet I could do nothing while he was being destroyed…
I did not return to Kidapawan for four years. The breaks were either very busy with outside activites or the family had gone to Davao, so there was no need to go home.
But upon my graduation from High School, I immediately returned home rushing towards the stream.
When I reached it, it had run dry. In its place was garbage. Some of the trees had even been felled to make room for refuse. The stream that had once meandered in my childhood had now become a dumpsite for the barangay.
It had ceased from flowing, but the life and soul it had given me continues to live on. I was a little girl when I found that stream, and I still was one when I first met Kei. But, as I spent more time with him by that stream, I found myself growing up until I realized that I wasn’t a little girl anymore.
Karlo Antonio David is an AB English student of Ateneo de Davao.