Secret Waters

Fiction by | March 15, 2020

I woke up to discover that the world has moved on. My family was gone and I was left behind with dust, dryness, and endless death. I have become the princess of a dead kingdom.

It was long since this planet has stopped moving, and that the sun stayed glued in its position in the sky. Its glare followed me like an accusing eye in the sky, shining down on me and these empty husks of trees in perpetual heat. The vistas were cracked and desolate like the skin of a dried insect in the arid dessert.

Days passed—or maybe eons or minutes—but I could not tell the difference. With the constant sun above, time was an illusion, like thought or memory. I have not slept since I woke up. I discovered I could no longer sleep. My dreams have fled me.

Mirages came and went with the heat. Running and stumbling, I would chase after them, but they would move away, teasing me with their promise of water. Eventually, I stopped running.

I discovered a puddle near a withered, gnarled tree. It was a dark silver circle—sparkling amidst the dryness of the land. I scooped some, the water clear and cool in my hand, then I drank it, savoring the liquid bliss. Suddenly I heard faint whispers coming from the waters’ dark surface. The whispers sound familiar to me as if I’ve heard them before? Is that my family? My mom promising me that they’ll see me soon? Wanting to hear more, I leaned closer, plunging my whole face into the water.

Beneath the water was a night sky—black with a scatter of flickering stars. Their lights beckoned me to come and I dived in, full body. I swam through its waters as if I was flying in the sky. I flipped and tumbled, weightless in my flight.

A school of winged fishes flew with me—glistering silver bodies glowing in the darkness. They guided me through the night and led me to my dreams. As I saw my dreams, it felt like coming home. My dreams held me like a lost lover.

I forgot the dry kingdom I had wandered on. I could not live on dry earth when my heart dreams to be with the stars. This is my home—the night, the stars, and the embrace of my lost dreams.

Ely Case Colao Jr. is a nurse from Davao City. He is heavily drawn to works of fantasy and horror by writers such as Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, and Lemony Snicket. He hopes to someday publish a novel. 

Downsizing (Part 2)

Fiction by | March 8, 2020

Jacques begged her to stay, for them to try harder, for a chance to make it up to her. He apologized, even offered to quit his job though Sally knew that it was more for his sake than hers. It would have been easier for him to avoid this coworker altogether than to wrestle with the urge to act on his feelings just so he could come home to his wife with a clear conscience (or at least as clear as the conscience of any who had fallen out of love for their spouse).

Her Nanay cried on the phone when she told her. But why? What did you do? She needed to know where her own daughter could have possibly fallen short in the wife-hood for which she had carefully prepared her. You have to give him a chance, Sally! Your luck runs out after a certain age. You can never find one as good as Jacques! Marriage is about commitment, not bailing out at the first signs of trouble. It’s about trusting. Compromising. Forgiving, her mother said.

Sally was not sure where falling-in-love-with-someone-else-but-not-acting-on-it and self-preservation fit in her mother’s creed of marriage.

I left him, ‘Nay! I packed my bags! Sally wanted to scream back at her but bit her tongue, afraid of upsetting her mother even more. I told you so, her mother said, never trust other women around your husband. He’s a catch! Any girl would take every chance they can get to snag a white man, her mother said between sobs.

Their next-door neighbor, whom Sally had only befriended on account of a shared fence, concluded that it had to be their childlessness. Did you try to send orayer petitions to the nuns over at Pink Sisters? They work miracles for those hoping for a child, she said as she watched Sally stuff her boxes and bags on the back of a rented truck. Men stay when there are kids, she said.

Her friends had been less merciful when they learned about their separation. You should have beaten the shit out of that bitch, they said. You can never trust any woman these days. And, you could at least have kicked Jacques in the balls, Sally. That would have shown him to keep it in his pants.
Oh, but he did. At least he said he did.

And whose fault was it, really, that her husband fell for someone else? Her barren ovaries? Her modest sexual preferences or her aversion to contour makeup and lingerie? And suppose she changed to fit these ideals, would it have been enough for Jacques to love her again? To make love to her without imagining another? For him to really want to kiss her without wishing it were someone else he was kissing instead?

For the better part of the last three months, she oscillated between feeling angry and sad, trying and failing to find anyone or anything at which to direct her emotions. She had refused to talk to Jacques, and he had started coming home less frequently, taking more out-of-town assignments. And when he did come home, they played a game of hide-and-never-seek, always in rooms where the other was not. Once, they laid in bed sobbing quietly together, grieving the death they could not prevent.

Finally, a month ago she made her intentions known: she was moving out and needed two weeks alone at home to prepare for her leave. They sent the dog away to one of their friends and Jacques rented a transient unit to give her all the time and space she needed.

In those two weeks, Sally avoided sleeping on their bed, preferring instead the discomfort of the ratty couch in the living room. The old sofa had been kept for sentimentality, a piece of the old apartment from before they got married. They had watched countless movies there together, shared take-out food when she was too lazy to cook and made love on it during the happier seasons of their lives.

Jacques had insisted she keep the house. It was hers legally, after all. But how could she? Jacques was everywhere and all over. The paint stains on the bathroom tiles when he painted the shelves. The squeaky door hinges he had never gotten to greasing. The dent on the wall from when he moved the ottoman to the bedroom. She wondered whether Jacques would feel the same about living in the house without her, felt a twinge in her heart at the possibility he would not.

When she was packing her things, she spent more than two hours just staring at their clothes in their shared closet. Throughout their marital woes, Jacques had meticulously kept it neat; he folded and hung everything as he had always done on happier days. He had always been proud of how great he was in the art of folding clothes, a skill he had mastered from working part-time in a clothing store while in college. Their trousers and shirts looked like they belonged to a store window.

She scanned the length of their closet, avoiding the white box that laid at the bottom-left corner. In it was the white dress she had had made especially for their city-hall wedding and the restaurant-reception that followed. There were many happy tears that day, every single one in attendance overcome with joy that they had finally tied the knot. More than that, there was an air of relief – from her friends who thought they had taken too long, and especially from her mother who could now breathe easy knowing that her daughter no longer had to sell herself short by living with a man without the security of marriage; that though it was a “bargain wedding”, it was still a wedding nonetheless. Even the Mayor, an old friend of the family’s, expressed relief when he ordered Jacques to finally kiss his bride.

She took just a few pairs of jeans, some shirts, and all of her work clothes, and stuffed them in her duffel bags, leaving the souvenir shirts and winter jackets untouched. And yet, even without most of her things, the closet looked like it always had. As if everything that belonged to her was never part of it to begin with.

With her clothes already picked, Sally moved to the spare bedroom which they had turned into an office, intending to fill the cardboard box she had marked BOOKS.

Their tables stood next to each other, his tainted with overlapping wet rings and scratches, hers neat and organized with its color-coded folders and pens arranged in cups. They had shared many quiet nights here: engrossed in their respective paperwork or filling each other in on the things they had missed while they were apart, looking every bit content in each other’s presence. It was the image of picture-perfect coexistence. She wondered whether there had been signs of decay in there somewhere, micro-ruptures and subatomic holes that she should have seen.

She turned her attention to the two shelves lining the walls, both bursting with the books they had acquired together over the years. Some of the layers sagged under the weight of their contents.
It was impossible to know whose books are whose; everything was labeled Mathieu. Some had SAM for Sally Annabel Mathieu, but most were simply labeled by their shared last name; she and Jacques both had a penchant for desecrating books with their names and dogears. She ran her fingers on the spines of their paperback collection, feeling the creases from being read and reread.

Out from the corner of her eye peeked a hardbound book, its jacket missing, tucked under Jacques’ copy of a Madeleine Albright memoir.

Sally immediately recognized the book and grabbed it. It was a used copy of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ she had bought at someone’s going away garage sale years and years ago. Before she had met Jacques. Before she became Sally Mathieu. And there on the first page, just under the neat longhand of its original owner, she recognized her own handwriting: Sally Anabel Gomez.

She bought the unillustrated, unabridged copy though she had read the Ladybug illustrated edition countless times as a kid. It was the only book from her old collection at home that she brought over when she moved in with Jacques.

That time seemed so long ago now. When Sally was just Sally, when she did not have to consider Jacques’ opinion on the particularities of things bought and discarded. When her name was just her own.

She took the book and packed it with her clothes, the labeled box left empty in the middle of the room.

The unbearable noontime heat snapped her out of her reverie, forcing her to stand up and turn the air conditioner on. She scanned the length of the apartment, arms akimbo, and decided that she had to start somewhere.

So, she grabbed a piece of rag from the package that laid on the sink, filled a basin with soapy water and proceeded to wipe the closet, gray from years of neglect and desolation. Clearly this part had been overlooked by the landlord who had promised to prepare the unit for her arrival. The water turned the color of mud as she wiped the shelves, dust bunnies dissolving into gunk and mush and sediments floating in the basin. Several rags and a couple of swipes later and out emerged a clean pale-yellow shade, inching closer to what she imagined was its original off-white paint. Better. Much better, she thought, smiling contentedly at her work.

A staccato of raps on the door broke the lull of the errand. When she opened, an official-looking man in grey polo-barong and black trousers greeted her.

“Mrs. Sally Mathieu?”

The identification card pinned on his lapel said he was from the embassy. Jacques’ lawyers. This must be the divorce papers.

Sally took the manila envelope from the messenger and tucked it under her left arm with one hand, and the man’s clipboard and pen with the other. On the dotted line under the label Received By, she signed, Sally Anabel M… then scratched the M with a single line, writing instead the familiar strokes of a name she had not used in years.

Sally Annabel Gomez.



Hannah Rae Villarba was born and raised in Digos City. She currently works from her home office in Davao City


Downsizing (Part 1)

Fiction by | March 1, 2020

The last ten years had come to this, with her crammed on the old sofa in a box of an “apartment,” her body aching in various points from having slept in odd positions and where the springs poked through the couch’s thinning faux leather cover. This dying piece of furniture and a couple of carton boxes plus two duffel bags were all that was left of her marriage to Jacques.

Ten years had come to this. Just this. Sally could have kept everything they’d acquired together. Jacques would not have put up a fight. She could have taken the imitation bone china that she dearly loved, bought four Christmases ago on a visit to Strasbourg. Or the luggage set they had bargained for less than a hundred Euros in a street market in Venice the summer after their wedding. Authentic leather. Better than Louis Vuitton, really, the seller had said, his accent thick like the many cups of ciocolatta calda they had shared on that trip. She could even have taken Levin, their overweight beagle mix who, she now realized, would not have fit in this new space anyway.

Sally stretched her arms, careful not to knock over the stack of boxes that stood precariously overhead; her eyes, sticky and sore from oversleeping, adjusted with difficulty to the harsh midday sun that seeped in through the only two windows of the apartment in one of the many obscure little alleyways snaking through Uyanguren.

She gave her new home a sweeping look, examining the water stains on the ceiling and the imprints of dried up adhesives on the wall, feeling alien and gigantic in this tiny space. It is no wider than the full length of Jacques’ arm span; in its entirety it amounted to just a little over the size of their conjugal bedroom. Not that the house she had shared with her almost ex-husband was big – it was a humble two-bedroom bungalow in Ulas that they had moved into right after their wedding. It’s just that this room was small. The couch would have to go if she ever wanted a bed.

On one corner was a plain, industrial-looking aluminum sink with two floating cupboards above and two underneath, and next to it the door leading to the toilet and bath so small there was no point buying a shower curtain. On the other end of the apartment was a small built-in cabinet with a few layers of shelves on one side and a narrow space for hangers on the other; at the bottom a lone, boxy drawer with a missing handle. The closet left barely enough space for the door to open fully.

And on what little space she had left on the floor was her assortment of odds and ends, boxed and bagged remnants of her recently ended marriage. It had been days since she moved in. Her luggage was still strewn on the floor in various stages of disarray; next to it the heap of her used clothes, exposing the haphazard abandon with which they were tossed. There were a million things to be done – the cupboards were empty, the closet dirty, and she did not have a working internet connection. She needed to get some pans, maybe find a bed and some real pillows to replace the neck pillow she’d been using, buy a refrigerator that would fit, change her digital passwords and get her own bank account – things that a couple of years ago had excited her so as a young girl fresh out of college. She had felt like a true adult for the very first time then, going through the aisles of the home needs section of the old NCCC not far from where she now lived, carefully calculating and stretching what her first job’s salary could get for her first apartment. Doing these things filled her with dread now, imagining what people must think of a nearly middle-aged woman buying cutlery and tableware for one and the smallest rice cooker on sale, filling a house that was not even a house. She dreaded it so that she had settled only for whatever the supermarket offered her by way of home trappings, leaving the rest for when she had gathered enough confidence or need, whichever came first.

He had insisted that there was never an affair; that he never even touched her beyond polite handshakes and friendly hugs. This, even when they had spent many out-of-town trips to the South, and late nights together at work. He had described her only as a friend, a new colleague at the firm where he worked as a consultant for an international NGO. Yet, no matter how generic and harmless his descriptions of her were, there was no denying the twinkle in his eyes when he spoke of her, betraying the smile that his mouth had managed to conceal.

And then there was the silence and his inability to look her in the eye when Sally had finally summoned enough courage to ask him if he loved this woman. That was all she needed to see.

You should have tried harder to keep him, she was told. Should have been more adventurous in bed. That’s what white men love. As if coital acrobatics were all that was needed to secure a marriage’s success.

Maybe you’d let yourself go – foreigners get bored with plain wives, they said. You should have shown him you’re fun and liberated, wore more revealing clothes. It’s always the losyang ones who get jilted. And yet in the same breath they also said, but did you cook him great meals? The way to a man’s heart, you know. They choose Pinays because we are traditional and domesticated.
“Like submissive lap dogs?” she had wanted to ask.

Did you fight for him, tell him you’d love him better if he picked you? Did you even give him a chance to choose? He would surely have picked you, he is too decent not to!

And yet, they also said, Sally, you’re so lucky you can actually divorce him. Getting annulled in this country is its own circle of hell.

“Lucky. Yes, I must be lucky,” she thought.

Did you try therapy? They pried some more.

They did. They spent thousands of pesos on couples’ therapy sessions. Sex heals, the therapist had said. Try it when you’re ready. She was just short of telling Sally to fuck her husband back to loyalty.

Still, they tried. She and Jacques had spent one long evening in the middle of those tumultuous months, lying side by side in bed, hands just close enough to feel the other person, before Jacques made a move on her. He touched her, his long, bony fingers gently sliding along her forearm. Up and down. Up and down.

And then they kissed, first in small reluctant pecks on the shoulder, the neck, then on the mouth, like two teenagers exploring the act for the very first time in their lives, seeking and calculating before succumbing to ones of more animal greed, of tongue against tongue and skin and hair.

Then Jacques stopped and sobbed. His body shook as he clung on to Sally, his fingers gripping her bare clavicle. Sally laid there under Jacques’ clutch, half-naked and motionless, fat tears rolling down her face in full recognition of this finality.

To be continued…


Hannah Rae Villarba was born and raised in Digos City. She currently works from her home office in Davao City.


Fiction by | February 16, 2020

Saba kaayo ang bata sa dihang adunay nituktok sa among tindahan. Gibutang nako ang gahilak nga bata sa kuna dayon gisuong among tindahan. Nangutana ko unsay iya. Ingon ang nangayo, “Bai, imong anak nang batang gahilak? Puyde ako na na? Akong kaunon.”

Gilili nakog maayo ang nangayo. Aswang man diay ni. “Uy!” Nakuratan kunuhay ko. “Na! Sorry kaayo. Ika-tulo na gyud ka ba nga nihapit dires amo. Sorry kaayo gyud. Di gyud puydi.”

“Si Marcos man ko.” Ingon to nako. “Imong bana man tong natagak sa baybay tung niageng gabii, dili ba? Ako tong nipunit niya.”

“Ahw! Diay ba! Ali. Sulod sa.” Nisuong kog balik pasulod sa among gamayng sala. Hapit pa ko matakilpo kay natamakan nako akong malong nga nios-os. Giablehan nako ang mubong gate nga kahoy. “Ali. Kape?”

“Sige. Palihog. Salamat.” Nidayon ang aswang. Gihubo iyang itom nga sapatos. Nisulod nga nagmedyas. Ningsuong kay tangkad man ang aswang para sa sakto ra namong pultahan. Nilingkod sa sala unya gilingi ang kuna kung asa tua akong anak. “Wa pa ni bulan?”

“Pulo ka adlaw.” Tubag nako. Nahimong kusog kaayo ang kiling-kiling sa kutsarita sa tasa. “Ginapanid-an na mi nimo?” pangutana nako samtang gakaraw.

“Wa man sad. Karong semanaha ra man ko nibalik dires Tibungco. Sa una, sige gyud ko dire, katong wa pa kaayoy mga balay. Wa pa nang hospital dira. Labayanan pa nag lawas nang Bustamante. Karon, lahi na kaayog nawng.”

“Dire mo tig pangayog bata sa unaha?” Gidunol nako ang init pang kape.

“Katong sa unaha pa gyud. Apan katong naa nay eskuylahan dire, wa na kaayo. Basta naa man guy maestra—“

“Ah! Tunong? Mu-kuan man tog mga aswang, dili ba?” Nihinay akong tingog sa mga ulahing mga pulong kay murag lain man to isulti: mupatay man tog mga aswang, dili ba?

“O! Kabalo lage ka? Di man nuon tanang maestra. O maestro. Depende ra.” Nihigop ang aswang sa kape. “Kabalo lage ka ana?”

“Kabalo-kabalo lang pod gamay. Tingala man gud ko ba labaw na tong kaisa kay naay nibisita nga maestro dira sa silingan, nikilat ra mag kalit, bisan way uwan, unya sayo pa sa hapon.” Murag wa na naminaw nako ang aswang. Tua iyang mata sa kuna. “Uy, kanang sorry kaayo ha.”

“Puyde ko muduol niya?”

Nisugot ko. Kaming duha nagtan-aw sa batang gadidi sa bibiron.

Nawng ra sa bata ang gibilin nako nga wa nabalot og panapton. Nagpitok-pitok na ang mata sa bata.

“Pareha mog nawng.” Ingon sa aswang.

Nakatawa ko gamay kay nakahinumdom kos pasiaw nga di daw lage anak sa akong bana ang bata kay wa gyuy paila sa iyang dagway. Naundang akong ngisi kay naay niayo. “O. Kadali lang.” Nilingi ko usab sa aswang. “Uy, unsa gane tong ngalan nimo? Mark?”


“Marcos. Tama. Kadali lang ha.”

Nipalit og Tanduay tong palahubog nga kainom sa akong bana tong isang gabii. Nahubog gyud to akong bana maong nahulog siya sa baybay. Maayo na lang tua sa lawod akong bana karon. Naa pa to dire, nag-inom na ni sila.

“Hoy! May ra gyud kag inom ba! Gipasagdan ra nimo akong bana tong isang gabii! Nahulog hinuon siyas baybay!”

“Ikaw daw gukdog iro nga hastang dakua unya hastang puwaha pa gyuds mata, di ba ka mudagan! Imong bana man sad, inom-inom, dali ra diay malipong!”

“Akong bana pa gyud imong basulon. Ikay nidani niya!”

“I-regards ra kong Masood. Ingna ni-eksibisyon daw siyas baybay. Ingna “na-sud” siyas buslot.” Nikatawa rang amaw.

“Ambot nimo. Ayaw nag daniha akong bana! Di na ka kautang ron.”

Pagbalik nakog suong sa sala, tua na sa may pultahan si Marcos, nagsuot na sa iyang sapatos. Karon lang ko kamatikod nga nindot ang tabas sa iyang gray nga slacks.

“O? Mulakaw na ka? Manihapon sa ta.”

Nakatawa ang aswang sa akong ingon. Dayon hinay-hinayng nawala sa iyang aping ang ngisi. “Salamat. Salamat sa pagpadayon nako.”

“Salamat pod kay gipunit nimo akong bana. Imo pa gyud gihatod dire. Ikaw tong naghatod niya, dili ba?”

“O. Ako to. Katuod pa man siya. Naglisod ra siyag lakaw.”

Nabalaka man nuon ko kung asa karon makakaon ang aswang. “Unya, asa man ka karon? Pasensya gyud kaayo. Naa may manok dire pero sobra man nis kanduli.”

Nahuman nag suot sa sapatos ang aswang. “Nag-kanduli diay mo.” Nilili ang aswang balik sa sulod sa balay. “Nag-ubad dire?” Nagpundo iyang mata sa akong malong, murag wa na siya naghulat sa akong tubag. Human nabantayan sa aswang ang mubong palmera sa iyang kilid. “Daliday. Mao diay humot. Nag-ubad gyud diay.”

“O. Maayo lage kay humot ang daliday!” Nalipay ko sa dihang nakahinumdom kos kahumot sa bulak tong pag-ubad. “Aron makabalay sad mig dako oy.” Abi nakog nawala na ang humot pero nasimhutan pa gyud diay sa aswang.

Giplastar sa aswang ang kuwelyo sa iyang dark blue nga long sleeve. “Okay ra bitaw. Salamat. Di man sad ko ingon nga mamatay nas kagutom.” Nipahiyom gamay ang aswang. “Busog man ko ba. Lahi ra gyud akong bation inig makasimhot kog bata. Kanang maghalo bitaw ang baho sa pulbos ug dugo. Lami mukitkit sa bus-ok nga bukton. Unya ang tam-is-tam-is nga lasa sa liog kung asa nitulo ang gatas nga bag-ohay rang gididi. Kalami bitaw unta oy.”

“Sorry gyud, ha?”

“Ay seg sorry oy.” Nagngising nigawas sa among gamayng gate ang bisita unya ning lili dayon sa tindahan. “Bitaw. Salamat. Adto sa ko.”

Human nako makita nga nawala na ang bisita sa dalan, nakahinumdom ko sa akong anak sa kuna.

Gikuha nako akong selpon ug gipiktyuran si Ayshah. Sayang. Nakalimot kog picture sa aswang.


Frank lives in Davao and teaches in a school in Tibungco.


Fiction by | January 12, 2020

“Naa lage tsunami!” segun ni Boboy samtang nakig-estorya kang Jokjok nga toa nagbarog sa tunga sa dalan paingun sa bukid sa Kansan. Gidala niini ang iyahang tarak-tarak ug usa ka galon sa ketsap nga gisudlan og tubig.

“Boy! Dali na! Pagdali!” singhag sa inahan nga si Maricel nga nagkabaguod intawun sa mga kabtangan niini. Gibaba niini ang usa kadako nga bag ug sako nga sa tan-aw ni Jokjok mga sanina ang sulod. Naa sab ang manghod ni Boboy nga si Bebang nga toa mikulapyot sa hawak sa iyahang inahan. Mitan-aw kini niya. Unya niukok. Tingalig naulaw.

Pagduol ni Boboy sa iyahang inahan, gikusi dayun siya niini sa dalunggan.

“Agay! Agay Mang!” agulo sa iyahang kadula.

Hasta si Jokjok nahiiktin og apil. Morag nabati sab niya ang kasakit sa tiyabaw sa higala. Maayo nalang naabot ang papa ni Boboy.

“Husto na Maricel” nadungog niya nga ingun ni Angkol niya Balong unya gisung-ay niini si Bebang dayon gitapik niini ang ulo ni Boboy. Mingisi sab kini niya.

“Di pa mo manghawa Jok?” pangutana niini.

Hilaw ang ngisi ni Jokjok unya nitalikod ug nagdagan-dagan pauli sa ilahang balay.

Bag o lang milinog sa ilahang lugar. Kusog kaayo. Nahagbong ang ilahang family picture nga gibutang sa usa kaframe ibabaw sa ilahang dibayder, nabungkag kini, ilahang TV nga surplas hapit sab madani maayo na lang maoy una gigakos ni Jokjok tong miuyog ang yuta niadtong gabhiuna. Karon kay naglinog na pod.

Nakita ni Jokjok sa balita nga nangatumpag ang bilding sa ubang eskuylahan, nangaliki sab ang yuta sa kadalanan. Nakaingon siya nga maayo na lang nipa ilahang balay, kon ugaling matumpagan sila, dili man gihapon sila madat-ugan. Pero nabalaka siya sa giasoy sa higala nga si Boboy.

Naa daw Tsunami. Tsunami, dagkong balod, mas dako pa sa balay, sa punuan sa lubi, dako pa sa bangka, dako sa katanan! Tapos mulunop, malumos ang tanang tawo. Nahadlok si Jokjok tungod kay dili siya kabalo molangoy. Dugay na pod wala sa ilang balay ang iyahang papa, tuas Basilan kay sundalo man kini. Pero ingon sa mga tawo naa na daw kini uban nga pamilya maong dili na ni mobalik sa ilaha. Tua na daw ni sa tinuod niya nga asawa ug anak.

Pasulod pa lamang si Jokjok sa ilahang tugkaran misiyagit siya sa kusog.

“Mang! Mang!” tawag niini sa iyahang inahan nga si Lorna nga tua nagpalo-palo sa mga nilabhan sa may bomba.

“Asa man ka gikan?” gisigahan siyag mata niini.

“Mang, ninghawa na ra ba silang Boboy, nga atong silingan god, sila Angkol Balong kay naa daw tsunami” sugilon ni Jokjok sa inahan.

Morag niulbo si Lorna sa pagkadungog sa giasuy sa iyahang anak. Daghan pa siyag gihuna-huna dugangan pa gyod sa nagpabadlong nga anak.

“Saba diha! Maayo pag tabangan ko nimu manghayhay dinhi unya,” matod pa niini.

“Mang ba!” segun ni Jokjok nga nagkisi-kisi, dili madrowing ang nawung niini.

Nangwaswas na iyahang mama Lorna ug toa gihapon siya nagyampungad sa kilid sa bomba, naghulat sa iyahang inahan. Mora na kinig bata nga nagbisgo kay wala mapalitan og dulaan.

“Mang ba, naa lage daw tsunami!” ngaab niini.

“Di gani ka mohilum diha run, katilaw ka”, singhag sa babaye, mas nikusog pa ang pagpalopalo niini.

“Asa diay si Papang god diay!” singka ni Jokjok sa inahan.

Wala na makapugong ang mama ni Jokjok, gikuha niini ang palo-palo og aksyunan na untag bunal ang anak. Apan nadungog niini nga naghinagudlos si Iyo Dandoy paadto sa ilaha.

“Lorna! Lorna! Pamutos na kay ang dagat niatras daw ingon ni Sidong nga taga-baybay! Pastilan!” segun niini sa iyahang inahan.

Nabuhian ni Lorna ang palo-palo.

“Diyos ko. Tsu-tsunami! Si Ernan toas lawud!” segun sa iyahang inahan nga nagkara-kara og sulod sa ilahang balay. Hapit pa kini mapandol sa bangkito nga gilingkuran niini. Gibiyaan niini ang iyahang nilabhan.

Wala maka-ik si Jokjok.

Gilumsan sa kahilom ang palibot apan ang kasingkasing ni Jokjok napusga sa dagko kaayong mga balod, mas dako pa sa tsunami, mas dako pa sa balay, sa punuan sa lubi, mas dako pa sa dako nga bangka, dako ug bug-at sa katanan.

Taud-taod, gikuha niya ang nilabhan sa iyahang inahan, gipug-an kini niyag tubig unya gihayhay.

Hannah Adtoon Leceña is a high school teacher and spoken word artist from Kiamba, Sarangani. She was a fellow for fiction at the 2018 Davao Writers Workshop and at the 3rd Bathalad–Sugbo Creative Writing Workshop (2019).

Dead Rats

Fiction | January 5, 2020

The body of a boy washed up on the riverbank behind the San Agustin Chapel one Sunday morning. The stench pulled everyone off the pews right before the Holy Communion. Father Amado had to drink the sacramental wine first before he left the altar to look for the source. The mass was cancelled afterward. It was the third body found in Babag in the past six months—and the youngest.

The police arrived not long after. With them, Elena’s husband Mario who’s also an officer, still in his Sunday’s best, cordoned the scene and took care of the body. Elena didn’t want to look, but she had to chase Elijah when he followed his father. She flinched at what she thought was curiosity in the eyes of her ten-year-old son.

They found the boy entangled in mangrove roots, shrimps and small fishes feeding on his bloated body. He seemed to be not much older than Elijah. The body was barely a body now. It was more like a piece of bread left in the water for too long. The smell was the worst; like a rotting animal, but louder and more forceful. Elena felt it seeping into her skin, invading her insides and swirling it around until it reached her throat. Before she could vomit, she grabbed her son and they walked away, pushing through the gathering onlookers.

Dinner was quiet save for Elijah’s usual mealtime anecdotes. Elena cooked sinigang na baboy sa bayabas¸ which was her husband’s favorite, but he barely touched it. She understood, like she always did. They were shaken up by the events of that morning. Only Elijah seemed fine.

“Who was it, Pa?” Elijah asked.

“Eli!” Elena didn’t mean to yell, but she did, and she felt a tiny ache in her chest. “We’re eating.”

Mario stayed silent, his eyes fixed on the clump of rice on his plate growing colder.

Elena had heard earlier from the neighbors that the body had not been claimed yet. The authorities had been working towards at least identifying the boy, but he had been in the water too long. Any evidence or proof of identity was drowned in the river by now.

“I’m going to the station,” Mario finally said.

“Stay home for now, Pa” Elena said. “You can go tomorrow.”

“They’ll need me there.”

“It can wait,” she said.

Mario stood up before she could protest. He brought his unfinished meal to the sink. On his way, the fork slipped off his plate and clattered when it hit the floor.

“Sorry,” he said.

“It’s fine,” she said. “Don’t worry about it.”

Mario left. Elena stayed at the dinner table, looking at Elijah sipping the sinigang broth from a cup. She didn’t know why but losing the argument made her feel embarrassed in front of her son.

“How’s school, nak?” she said.

“Okay,” he said as he licked the spoon clean. “I need a new notebook, ma.”

“What? Why? What happened to the ones you had?”

“I lost them,” he said.

Elena knew this wasn’t true. After years of raising his son, of course she could tell when he lied.

“I’ll go out and buy one for you tomorrow.”

Elijah nodded.

“If you need anything, or feel like you want to tell me anything, I’m here. Understood?”

Elijah kept still.

Mario came home around three a.m. He smelled of Tanduay and cigarette smoke. Elena had just gone to bed then, but she pretended to be asleep. In the next room, Elijah had just dozed off after waking up from a nightmare.

Mario slung himself onto the bed and his weight caused Elena’s body to shift towards him. She half-expected him to wake her up, but he didn’t.
He kept moving, trying to find a comfortable position.

“What’s wrong?” she said with a fake a sleepy voice.

“Do you smell that?” he said.

“The Tanduay or the cigarettes?”

“Don’t joke with me,” he said. He rose and sat on the edge of the bed. She followed him and draped an arm over his shoulders.

“I’m serious. What do you mean? You should go change.”

“Like—like a dead rat, or something.”

“I don’t smell anything. You’re just tired. Let’s go to sleep.”

Mario wasn’t one to do housework, but the next morning, Elena found him cleaning in the kitchen. The smell he mentioned must have really bothered him. She asked if he found the rat, but he said nothing. Either he couldn’t hear her over the sound of the brush against the tin sink or he chose not to say anything. He spent the first half of the day scrubbing every corner and crevice of the house; under the sink, the back of the rusty refrigerator, and even the plyboard ceiling that had dark, round ribbons caused by rainwater. Elena didn’t smell anything, but since the incident, her husband has been out of sorts, so she didn’t bother to argue.

The local government of the barangay organized a cleanup drive for the Babag River the week after the boy had been discovered. Having nothing else to do on a weekend, Elena joined the drive. She didn’t want to bring Elijah, so she left him at her mother’s house just across theirs.

Mario left even earlier. He’d been out of the house a lot since the incident. He worked hard. The Butuan City police force was lucky to have him, Elena thought.

Every house in Babag is near a body of water; a river, a large swamp, or even an atabay. It is where the kids would always play. Some even fished for food occasionally. As such, the dead bodies were a problem in more ways than the fact that they were dead. A few days after the boy’s body had turned up, some kids who bathed in the river got sick.

“Bugoy’s diarrhea only ended last night,” Manang Cora said as they ran their nets through the water and dumped whatever they caught on the embankment. Cora’s son Bugoy was one of Elena’s students in Babag Elementary where Elijah also went.

“Susmaryosep, you’d think that after what happened, the kids would stop playing in the river,” Olivia said, bent over to pick up plastic wrappers, carefully avoiding the water itself.

“I’m lucky my Elijah is fine,” I said.

“Oh, by the way, Ma’am,” Manang Cora said and took out a worn-out notebook from the tote bag she carried. “I think this is Elijah’s. I found it inside my son’s bag. I guess he must’ve borrowed it.”

Elena took the notebook. She flipped through it and on one page was ANAK HONG KILER in sharp black strokes. Son of a killer. Elena looked to Manang Cora, but they were now talking about the boy that washed up. She folded the notebook and shoved it in her pocket.

“I heard that the boy was shot,” Olivia said. “A service will be held today at the chapel since not one family member or even a friend has turned up.”

“So young,” Manang Cora said.

“Was he even an adik? At that age?” Olivia asked.

“Well the Squad has a quota to reach,” Manang Cora said. “Some say even the police have quotas, too.”

“The boys are getting younger, too,” said Olivia. “We’re lucky your husband is such a good police officer, Ma’am.”

Elena nodded. She felt searing stares from the people around them. She looked around, hoping to catch someone’s glare. She was ready to fight.

“Jing-jing’s son already left for Cebu to hide,” Manang Cora said.

Elena arrived home to Mario playing with Elijah in their room. They’d been wrestling, like always, and in the twisting and flailing of body parts, knocked things off the bed. She didn’t mind. It was the first time she’d seen her husband this jovial in a few days.

Mario, with his hairy arms, lifted his son up in the air and Elijah, laughing in between gasps of air, squirmed to go back down. She had then only realized how large of a man her husband was, and how much Elijah dwarfed next to him. It looked like Mario could swallow her son whole.

She clutched the folded notebook in her pocket.

“I’m attending the funeral,” she said.

“Why? You don’t have to,” Mario said and let Elijah down.

“Can we come, Pa?” Elijah asked.

“Someone has to. Can you imagine how sad that is? For a child to be alone in death.”

“Have fun, then,” Mario said and stepped out of the room.

“Don’t you want to come?” she said.

“No, thank you,” Mario said.

“What are you so happy about? Yesterday you were—you were different. Now that the boy is finally getting buried, you’re suddenly laughing again.”

“What are you getting at?” Mario said and left the room.

“What’s going on, Ma?” Elijah asked.

“Nothing, nak. Do you want to come with me? We can go buy you a new notebook after the mass.”

The service was held in the San Agustin Chapel. It was paid for by the LGU, so the preparation was at a bare minimum. The flowers had been recycled from a kasalan ng bayan the day before, and the candles from the pista. As expected, the casket which was made of plywood was closed. A public viewing wasn’t needed.

Elena brought Elijah with her. As soon as the prayers started, which always bored him, he ran off with his friends to play outside the chapel. Elena didn’t want to let go, but those days he’d started to learn how to slip off of her hands.

It was a short service. Not one of the fifteen-odd people in the chapel spoke, save for Father Amado with his perfunctory homily. “God speaks in the silence of the heart,” he said.

Everything was obligatory, detached. There’s not much anyone could say for a body without a name. Elena stood up as soon as the service was finished. She stopped in her tracks when Father Amado called to her.

“What is it, Father?” she said.

“Are you okay?” he said. “I’ve been hearing—things, and I just wanted to know if you and Mario are okay.”

“What kind of things?”

“Being an officer of the law in these times can be—challenging.”

“What are you talking about, Father?” She felt her voice sound more accusing, but she didn’t care.

“Just, if you want to talk, you know where—”

A commotion had started outside the chapel. As soon as Elena heard, she dashed with a singular thought: my Elijah.

“Your father is a killer!” Manang Cora’s son, Bugoy, said. Elijah was on the ground, blood sprawling on his left temple. Bugoy and two other boys teased and laughed at Elijah. “He killed the boy! He’s a bad, bad cop! He’s a killer!”

Elijah yelped and stood to fight back, but they pushed him again. Seeing her son like that, something visceral and savage and inevitable swelled inside Elena’s gut and she erupted at Bugoy. A quick, echoing slap. He fell on the church tiles. No one touches her Elijah. No one.

They left the stunned crowd and rushed home.

At the house, Mario greeted them at the door. He stepped back, startled by the sight of Elijah. He extended his large, calloused hand to help, but Elena pulled her son behind her and they walked past him. She took Elijah to the bathroom and locked the door behind. Elijah sat on the brim of the toilet bowl. Gently, Elena dabbed a clean, wet labakara on his wound.

Mario knocked on the bathroom door begging to come in. Over his knocking, Elena could hear the distant hum of a rushing river. In the air hung a faint smell of a rotting carcass of a long-dead rat.

Ivan Khenard Acero is studying Bachelor of Arts in English – Creative Writing at the University of the Philippines Mindanao. He was a fellow for fiction at the 2016 Davao Writers Workshop and the 2nd Amelia Lapeña-Bonifacio Writers Workshop by the UP Institute of Creative Writing. He hails from Butuan City, but currently resides in Davao.

Mga Naiwang Balangkas Hinggil sa Pag-ibig

Fiction by | December 22, 2019

Isang pangkaraniwang gabi, ilang taon ang lilipas, hihiga siya sa kama at saka haharap sa puting dingding na kinulayan ng alikabok at dumi ng insekto, at pagkatapos, dahan-dahan niyang yayakapin ng mahigpit na mahigpit ang unan, pagdidikitin ang kaliwa at kanang paa, at saka bubuntung-hininga. Alam niya sa sariling hindi ito ang huling beses na mararamdaman niya ang pag-iisa, marahil bukas, sa susunod na araw, sa susunod na linggo, sa susunod na taon, at hanggang sa susunod pang limang taon, hihiga ulit siya sa kama, haharap sa puting dingding, yayakapin ang unan, pagdidikitin ang kaliwa at kanang paa, bubuntung-hininga, at saka mararamdaman ulit ang paglukob ng pag-iisa at kalungkutan. Ilang saglit pa, ibabaling niya ang tingin sa kisame, at pagkatapos, bahagyang babalik sa naunang direksyon nang pagharap sa dingding, muli niyang ipipikit ang mga mata, itatago ang lahat, ang lahat-lahat sa dilim: mukha, pagnanasa, at katawan.

20 Nobyembre 2019

Salit-salitan ang sigaw ng mga demonstrador sa Central Park sa Hong Kong nang bumaba sila sa sinasakyang taxi upang hanapin ang kinontratang tour guide na maglilibot sa kanila sa mga attractions sa lugar. Sa hindi kalayuan sa estasyon ng MTR, nasulyapan niya ang isang lalaking tila pamilyar at hindi pamilyar sa kanya. Nasa 5’6” ang taas, kayumanggi ang kulay, may pagka-singkit ang mga mata, at katamtaman ang pangangatawan. May pagkakatulad ang hitsura ng lalaking demonstrador kay T— kahit na halos dalawang taon na silang hindi nagkikita matapos tuldukan ang hindi malamang ugnayan. Mag-boyfriend, magkarelasyon, mag-uyab, mentor-mentee relationship, bestfriends, friends with benefits, o mga tao na pinagbuklod ng pangungulila at pagkatapos ay nagkapalagayan ng loob na humantong sa tila direktang ugnayan ng kani-kanilang mga pagnanasa at pagkatapos ay maaari nang magpanggap bilang mga estrangherong walang panunugutan sa isa’t isa.

Dati niyang estudyante si T— sa isang GE subject kung saan propesyonal naman ang kanilang relasyon. Kung tutuusi’y nagsimula naman talaga silang mag-usap at lumabas-labas pagkatapos ng semestre kung kailan nawala na sa kanila ang bagahe nang pagkikita araw-araw bilang teacher at estudyante. Tahimik lamang si T— ngunit sumusundot-sundot ang pagkapilyo sa tuwing silang dalawa na lamang ang magkasama.

“Nasaan ka?”
“Nasa puso mo!”
“Magkikita ba tayo mamaya?”
“Kung kakantahan mo ‘ko ng ‘Photograph’ ni Ed Sheeran.”

Natutuwa siya dahil tinuturuan siya ni T— ng mga bagay na hindi masyadong pamilyar sa kanya tulad ng “slr” bilang “sorry late reply” at ng “huehuehue” at iba-iba pang emoji at memes na patok na patok sa Generation Z. Hindi lamang siya sigurado kung natutuwa rin si T— sa tuwing pipilitin niya itong manood ng mga pelikula ni Lino Brocka tulad ng Insiang, Bayan Ko: Kapit sa Patalim, at Orapronobis. Sa tuwina’y nahuhuli na lamang niyang humihikab si T— at tila walang gana na tinatapos na lamang ang pinapanood. Kung minsan, pakiramdam niya’y napipilitan lang din si T— na makinig kay Alanis Morisette dahil hindi raw nito masakyan ang angst. Kung sa bagay, lumabas ang album ni Alanis na Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie sa taon kung kailan pa lamang siya isinilang.

Continue reading Mga Naiwang Balangkas Hinggil sa Pag-ibig

The Chicken Traps

Fiction by | December 1, 2019

Arriving at the creek, Dina stopped to rest her aching feet from an hour of walk. She was dejected after an unsuccessful attempt to find work in a farm near the highway. For months now, she was unable to get any work so that she and her two children can have money to return to her parent’s place in Zamboanga.

It was already mid-morning and she hadn’t had her breakfast yet. She put on the ground the cloth bag she was carrying. It was a bit heavy with the five leches of rice that Nang Lorna, the bisayan who lived near the health center in the highway gave her upon knowing that she hadn’t had rice for some time now. She thought about her two children she left in the house with only roasted eggplant for breakfast.

She bent down to pick up her slippers, raised her skirt and steps into the cool murky creek. She quivered as the cold water rose to her naked thighs. Looking around and seeing no one, she raised her skirt more.

She looked toward the big river to her right where the creek empties its cold water and saw a log, surely washed out from the heavy rain the previous night, slowly floating downstream. She turned her head back. The image of her husband on that same river came back every time she saw big objects floating. It also rained hard that same night. It was more than a year ago. They found his body floating on the river bend where the water almost stood still. There was one gunshot wound on his chest. She heard people talking behind her about what really happened that rainy night, but she believes her husband was only setting traps for wild chicken across the river.

She was only twenty-nine years old. Her long black and shiny hair made her look a little shorter and smaller than she really was. Her face still carried that youthful look since she came to Ado’s place from Zamboanga ten years ago.
Life was supposed to be better here than in the congested streets of Zamboanga or the shorelines of her father’s place in Bolong where the smell of dried fish permanently infused in the air. Here, her hair always smelled of fresh coconut milk every time she returned from the spring to wash clothes and to take a bath.

Andun koliwag ug nyugan nyu?” Ado would always tease her in his native Subanon dialect as the sweet smell of fresh coconut milk filled the air. He was asking how big her coconut plantation was.

Continue reading The Chicken Traps