The sea of ashes has pervaded my dreams for the the third time this week. The dream always took place near dawn. I was on a floating platform, standing on a pile of ashes. When I tried to scoop water from the the scarlet sea, a pair of badly burned hands dragged me down. I always woke up with that feeling that I was already consumed by fire. I thought that this was my subconscious telling me to get home quickly, especially now that my Mother had just died.
Home was a small island called Andunay. The last time I was there, trouble was already brewing in paradise. My Father, a prominent man among his peers, wanted to introduce modern tools and gadgets to the Andunayan people. He believed that it was time to abolish traditional ways of living, and even sent me off the island to study in a progressive school.
My Mother, on the other hand, was dead serious about protecting the old ways. She believed that technology could only defile the people. She was considered by many as a religious figure, and was held in high esteem as the lighter of the flame during the ceremonial fire. She had followers who complied with her orders without question. At the same time, my Mother was also known to take extreme measures when it came to her beliefs. At one point, she was hounded with the suspicion of burning living people. But nothing could be proven.
Mother told me once: “Andunay has always been a clean island both physically and spiritually. We practiced the ritual of burning bodies, and offering the ashes to our god: Alumbati as a way of purifying the island. When the island is in danger, the ancient lighter of the flame would sacrifice those who were considered as threats. This kept out intruders who may bring their unclean ways to the island, and kept unruly islanders from changing our way of life.”
When I finally came to the island’s shore, I saw in the distance the floating platform where my Mother’s ashes would be sent to the god. My Father was there to greet me. He looked drained.
“Has the ceremony started yet?” I asked.
“I was waiting for you, anak. Your mother would have wanted you to be the sisidlan.”
I remembered that the sisidlan was a loved one of the recently passed. He or she was given the task of throwing the ashes to Alumbati for the final act of cleansing.
“Oh, right. I think living in the city for 5 years has made me forget our ways.” I said.
“Let’s talk in the hut, anak. I have been busy with the renovations in the island that I have not asked about your life in Davao.” he replied.
Renovations? I figured my Father was able to convince my Mother to change, after all. As we walked, I noticed many of the huts in Andunay were already set in cement. My family’s hut was located further into the island. When we got there, I found out that in my absence, our “hut” had transformed into a larger domicile made out of cement blocks with metal railings, and strangely enough, multiple locks outside the door.
My Father opened a couple of bottles of lambanog. We drank it while I talked about my life in Davao and he talked about the changes in the island. He casually mentioned something about traders and islanders mysteriously vanishing. I noticed we both avoided talking about Mother. Soon, my Father was nodding off.
Slightly drunk, I decided to visit my childhood friend who I found out was now the lighter of the flame when my Mother passed on. Her hut was even further into the other side of the island, and faced the sea.
“Ayo! Shelly, are you there?”
“Cesar, I’m sorry about your Mother. But you can’t come in. I’m still preparing her body for the ritual tomorrow.” She said through a window.
“I was wondering how Mother died. I couldn’t ask Father.” I told her.
“Your Father said he was at the port, and came back to see your Mother on the floor of their hut, not breathing.” Shelly whispered cautiously. “But from what I’ve heard, your parents had a fierce argument, and that he locked her inside for 3 days.”
I was shocked.
Shelly continued in a softer voice, “I think your mother died trying to escape your Father.”
Drunk and enraged, I stormed back to my sleeping Father.
“How did Mother die? Did you lock her up here for 3 days?” I screamed as he woke up.
“She was threatening to kill the traders that sold the tools and gadgets. I had to lock her up! But I gave her food and water, anak. I don’t know why she suddenly stopped breathing.” Then he became defensive, “I may have disagreed with your Mother on many things, but I loved her too! Get out! I won’t have you accuse me like this!”
He then shoved me out the door shut, and banged it shut.
Becoming a little bit sober, I staggered back to Shelly’s hut. I told her I needed to talk.
“Please wait a bit. It’s a mess in here.”
I heard hurried movements from inside. I then noticed for the first time that Shelly’s home was closest to the floating platform where the ritual would take place. I also found heavy drag marks that lead to the back of the hut.
“Come in, just don’t mind the clutter.”
Shelly looked very different from the old childhood friend I remembered. To avoid gaping at her, I gestured to the Alumbati runes and relics scattered everywhere. “Father gave you my Mother’s possessions?”
Shelly nodded, and briskly removed a potted plant off the table. It was a Dead Plant: a herb my mother kept at home once, before Father burned them all.
My childhood friend poured tea into a cup. She offered it to me and gestured me to a chair. “Have some tsaa,” she said.
I took a sip as I sat down. “I want to see her body,” I looked toward the ceremonial room where I knew my Mother’s body was being prepared.
“It’s against tradition, especially since her body isn’t prepared yet.”
“I hate tradition!” I yelled, suddenly weary of the old ways, and the ceremonial fire, and Alumbati. I told Shelly so. I stood up but I could not feel my feet anymore. Then I fell unconscious.
When I woke up, dawn was just about to break. I found myself tied securely to the floating platform. A body wrapped in the ceremonial cloth was lying a few feet away.
“What’s the meaning of this?” I cried out when I saw Shelly standing nearby.
“I’m sorry, Cesar, but this is beyond me.”
“Anak.” a frightfully familiar voice said. It was my Mother! She was alive! “Do not blame her. She is only following my orders.”
I saw Shelly somberly pouring black oil on the wrapped body, and lighting it with a torch. There was an agonized moan, as if the person under the cloth was gagged. Then there was a lot of fruitless thrashing about, and that horrible stench of burning flesh.
“Remember the stories I told you when you were younger, of how we needed to burn bodies to cleanse the impurities from our land?” My Mother looked me in the eye. “These traders tainted our island with tools that Alumbati did not give us! Your father was poisoning our people. When he locked me up in the hut, I told Shelly to bring me the Dead Plant, which allowed me to stop breathing, long enough to fool him!”
She laughed somewhat hysterically. “Islanders have also been tainted, as you have been. I love you, anak, and that is why I am doing this. Alumbati will cleanse you, but I must give him your ashes first. Then perhaps, we can ask Alumbati to cleanse your Father too…” These were the last words I heard before Shelly poured the black oil on me.
Ram is studying B.S. Ed. in Ateneo de Davao University, and majoring in English.