A story for kids.

The scent of the cave was a secret language only the two of them knew. Before he met her, he and his parents had moved around the world as they dug in one archaeological site after another. However frustrating that was, one thing he could never forget was the four months spent in Dewil Valley, a rice plain surrounded by massive limestone karst towers on the east coast of El Nido, Palawan.

They had set up camp near the foot of Biyaya Cave, the main cave to an uncharted cave system in the area. His parents belonged to a group of 30 archaeologists who were going to excavate, among other things, earthenwares, seashell jewelries, animal bones, and human remains, to learn about how people lived there thousands of years ago.

The day they arrived, he wandered around and found a trail in the dense rainforest where Biyaya Cave peaked out like a giant limestone fallen from the sky. The forest was riot of color and sounds, beating to the rhythm of metallic insects and bizarre birds. When he stopped to look, he found raindrops hanging at the end of every green leaf, each drop full of forest and light.

Just when he was heading back to camp, he saw her footsteps, a little smaller than his own, pressed on the soft earth. He followed them and ended up at the mouth of the cave. Looking in, he caught a sight of her dress in a distance as she disappeared around a bend, walking off without caution, without a lamp, as if she glowed with her own light in this sunless bowl of earth.

The dimly lit passage felt like exploring a large esophagus, leading to the cave's stomach. There in its high domed black womb he met, to his horror, a thousand pairs of bat eyes. He dashed towards a brighter area lit from from a navel opening in the ceiling, and saw her facing a wall. She was half-covered in the shadow, her brown hair falling over the whiteness of her kamiseta.

With a piece of charcoal in her hand, she had drawn pieces of her life in camp: spiral seashells, banaba flowers, fish-tailed birds, cashew apples, and an outline of the limestone tower. After that, she drew a stick figure of a girl facing the cave entrance, and then a stick figure of a boy with curly hair. There she turned around and looked at him intently, all knowing he had been following her all this time.

Their first few words were a disaster, an exchange of unfamiliar sounds, followed by grunts and sighs. It turned out that she spoke Cuyonon and he Ilocano, and neither of them could understand each other. During the long pause that followed, they stood there baffled and amused with each other, held together by the cave's deep silence and the fragrant smell of guano.

With a gentle stirring inside him, he picked up a charcoal, walked towards the wall, and started to draw a slice of his life in his hometown, Vigan. He sketched stick figures of his best friend and cousins, his collection of firetrucks and beetle-shaped kites, and his beloved wooden bicycle that his father made for him on his tenth birthday.

With a large wall of drawings from both of them, they went over their sketches with renewed interest and found out they understood some common Filipino words: bisikleta, insekto, and kweba. Despite these, the rest of their talks were still hard to understand. But they had their canvas, and that was all that mattered.

As days went by, the cave wall was filled with sketches of their shared memories: the sun setting behind mountains and other limestone towers, the large dugong that they encountered when they went out fishing, the small crabs they picked from the mangrove, and the red-crowned woodpecker they caught sight of in the forest, among other things.

In several weeks, five walls in the cave's womb turned into their secret vault of memories in Palawan, hand-drawn with care and relived daily like a picture book. In all the silences that they shared sketching, watching each other, and doing things together, the smell of guano stuck to him like a perfume that was invigorating as it was alluring. It wasn't until an archaeologist found out about their drawings and told their parents.

To put it shortly, they received a beating--or she did. Two lashes of a leather belt stung from the back of her legs. She took all the blame, saying she started it all. Their parents and most from their team of archaeologists couldn't believe their eyes of the massive scale that their sketches took.

Filling a total of eight walls, their drawings were elaborate as they were numerous. They called the two defilers of a "national cultural property", destroyers of a "cultural identity", and took their activity as a crime. They called it vandalism. And like outlaws, they were torn away from each other, and were banned from stepping inside their cave again.

When the fierce habagat winds and the rainy season were ending, the archaeologists had dug something groundbreaking: bones of a young woman who was defleshed, crushed, burned, and then placed in a small box. The artifact was 9,000 to 9,400 years old, the oldest cremation burial in Southeast Asia. In the meantime, the charcoal vandals were wiped off, with a few remaining smudges here and there. Not a word came out of their "child's play".

It's been fifty years since he has left Dewil Valley. When he tries to remember the sketches they made and the time they spent together, he is always met with an indescribable blankness in his heart. It is only when he closes his eyes that he sees her beauty amidst all these bits of obscure memories, she illumined with her own light, surrounded by the cave's darkness and deep silence, all smelling of batshit.

// 02 Oct 2017

This Side of Paradise

Like a little package from the sky, you are ribboned onto a paraglider, with half a kilometer of space before you hit the earth's surface. Up here, your view is dominated by a pair of legs, attached to a pair of shoes, blocking a faraway scenery of a tropical island, ringed with white sand and then the cobalt blue sea. For all you know you are a child in an incredibly high chair, your feet dangling in mid-air.

Of course, you don't fly alone. Behind you is Matte, an Ati pilot with kinky hair and skin as black as earth. When you turn your head around, all you can see are the white of his eyes and the white squares of his teeth. Matte doesn't smile, no. He grins, his lips stretching as wide as his face. "Boracay is different from this side up, yes?" he says. His English is sensible, butchered with the thick accent of Inati.

As the wind picks up at 25 km per hour, your tandem glider hovers over a kilometer of deep blue sea, separating Boracay Island from the larger island of Panay. Pumpboats ferry tourists across that strait below. Scattered around are tiny fishing boats shaped like rice grains. Matte snaps a finger at the islets on this strait, saying, "Those are Laurel Islands. The collective name of Crystal Cove Island and Crocodile Island. One is a stone-age park, the other a dive site." The islets look like jagged rocks hurled by a giant into the sea. "Have you tried diving here?" says Matte. You say, "No." "You know the movie Nemo? Lots of Nemo fish here, and sea snakes and sea urchins. Delicious!"

As you enter Boracay's territory, two cream-white beaches are fringed with coconut trees and flecked with more pumpboats. "Those are the jetty ports of Cagban and Tambisaan," he says. "Tambisaan is where we unload cargoes of vegetables and fish and shrimps and crabs from all over the Visayan Islands." Straight ahead, Boracay covers a little over a thousand hectares of land, shaped like a dog bone. Both ends are wide, hilly, and green. The island slopes down to a flat narrow center. Brown huts and low-lying houses with iron roofs pepper along the roads.

Matte points at a road thick with passenger motorcycles and tricycles. "That's the main road," he says. The main road loops around the island like a go-cart racetrack, interconnecting the island's three barangays. "Below is Barangay Manoc-Manoc," he says. "That's Barangay Balabag in the center, and Barangay Yapak up north." From the center of the island, either end is just 3.5 kilometers long and a fifteen-minute tricycle ride away.

Your pilot tugs a riser line and you drift across the commercial center of the island. Vegetation thins out down this neck. Coconut trees and tropical palms are pushed out to both sides of the island. "This here is D'Mall," Matte says. Moving under your feet are matchboxes of different sizes and colors, making up most of the 200 establishments, restaurants, bars, hotels, and resorts. A number of them have little blue puddles of water--swimming pools--with tiny people sunning beside them. Meanwhile, greenish murky water makes up the mangrove swamps at the east. "That's the Dead Forest," he says. "Salt water leaked from the sea and killed the trees." The swamps come together to a channel whose mouth opens into the Sibuyan Sea.

As you float over this neck of the island, you see the infamous four-kilometer stretch of talcum powder-white sand at the west. "Look, White Beach!" Matte pipes, but you know that already. The beach is sprinkled with ant-like humans, and dotted with shops, restaurants, and bars facing the Sulu Sea. Farther out, motorboats tug along, through an invisible string, tiny multicolored umbrellas--parasails--up in the air.

"Back when Boracay was our ancestral land," Matte says, "my grandmother used to tell me that a pirate ship heavy with gold and gems would dock over there." Through the thick sound of wind Matte says, "Girls as beautiful as Anne Curtis would step down from the ship and sing melodies that made fishermen crazy." Today, there is no pirate ship on the beach. The myth of the pirate ship died when the island became popular in the 70's. Instead of ships, White Beach is now littered with triangular sails puffy with the wind. "We call them 'paraw'," your guide says. "They're native to the Visayan Islands."

Opposite White Beach, on the other side of the island, lies a 2.5-kilometer strip of coarser white sand. "That's Bulabog," Matte says, "otherwise called 'the back beach'." While this side is often grim with seaweeds and docked with fishing boats, Bulabog is popular to itinerant adrenaline junkies, the seasonal kiteboarders and windsurfers. White Beach and Bulabog Beach are just two of the 14 beaches on the island. Clockwise from White Beach, Matte names the rest of the beaches: Diniwid, Balinghai, Punta Bunga, Bunyugan, Puka, Ilig-iligan, Lapus-lapus, Lugutan, Tulubhan, Tambisaan, Manoc-Manoc, and Cagban Beach.

Matte pulls the control lines and your glider swings over to the quiet northern hills of the island. Your eyes take in the cool shades of green: the lush vegetation of shrubs, wild vines, and trees. Your pilot pulls another handle, and you swerve to the northeast, almost kissing the highest point of the island. "It's a small zoo and a view deck," Matte says. "At 100 meters, Mt. Luho is really just a hill, not a mountain." After Mt. Luho are pretty manicured hills that comprise a 180-hectare 18 hole par 72 championship golf course.

As you near the northern end of Boracay, there lies the provincial idyll. Nipa huts peek out from the sprawling forest, whose ground reeks heavily of guano. Bat caves hide beneath a thick tangle of vines and trees at the northeastern part of the island. "The caves are the roosting ground of three species of bats in Boracay," he says. "The one that looks like a flying vampire dog, the endangered Golden-Crowned Flying Fox, is endemic to the Philippines." Later he adds, "Best meat on the island, this flying fox."

You reach the northernmost tip of island, where dreamy shores glimmer at you with a melancholic goodbye. "We are at the end of the trip!" the pilot says. "This is where we land, on Puka Beach." Waves roll on the beach and slam against limestone walls. As Matte tugs the brake lines and your glider swoops towards land, you hear the waves, you hear the water crashing, you hear the spray. Landing here, you hear the pulse of the island. Before you know it, you and Matte are running on the beach, the glider wing falling behind you like a giant jellyfish.

"You will fly again, yes?" Matte says. As he stuffs the deflated glider into a backpack, it strikes you how short he is. He could be under five feet. You remove your helmet and emergency parachute and say, "If you give me a discount maybe I will fly again." "Why don't you buy one of our gliders? It's used but cheap. Very sturdy!" "Oh I don't know if I can operate that in Sweden," you say. "I don't even know if I can operate it by myself!" "It's easy," Matte says. "I can teach you in three hours." "I'll think about it," you say. "If you leave me your address maybe I'll come visit you tomorrow." "About that," Matte says, zipping the backpack. "I don't have one. I rent a small room in an old red boat. Everything in this place has been sold to outsiders." "Tell me where it is anyway," you say. "I would like to visit an old red boat."

Instead, he hands you his calling card, with three mobile numbers, each under a different phone carrier. "I don't have a house. But I have three phones." He grins. All you see are the white of his eyes and the white squares of his teeth. "Text me," he says, "I'll teach you to fly. If you're tired of the beach, you can have Boracay sky." "Oh, I will, I will," you say. You tuck the card into your back pocket. "I would like to have a piece of this Boracay sky."

Later in the hotel shower, you catch yourself singing 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds', humming and whistling along lines that escape your memory.

// 06 Oct 2014

Black Hole in My Bellybutton

Finger exercise, born from a fourteen-year-old boy who dared me to write a short story with that title.

One morning, I woke up and found my bellybutton transformed into a black hole. For months I had felt the black hole inside my belly and thought I was just imagining it. It was a black hole of no return: everything that I tasted, sniffed, heard, read, watched, felt, all of them were vacuumed into a chasm. I felt nothing. Inside my skin there was nobody. I was empty.

It came as a relief that my intuition was right. There was nothing wrong with feeling empty; I was empty and continuously emptying. I'd always wake up with a hunger to consume, to swallow my meals whole, drink liquids and poisons in gulps, listen to music in blasts and orchestras, sniff every scent until drugged, read books in astronomic speeds, watch street and movie scenes until my eyes expire, masturbate myself nutty. The urge to consume gnawed at my very being. I was insatiable.

That morning, I found myself shirtless in bed. What was I wearing the previous night? It was a red shirt with a tribal art of a Tausug at the back. I woke with the cold from a downpour--the wet season had begun in the Philippines--and felt my belly instead of my shirt. When the downpour subsided, there remained a whooshing sound. In the beginning I thought it was the wind howling outside. Everywhere I took to hearing it, from the windows, the doors, the drain, the toilet, every hole in the house, I leaned my ear over and found the sound constant. It was everywhere. Even in the mop room, the doorless and windowless claustrophobia of the mop room, the sound was there. I bent over only to find out that the sound was coming from my belly. The sound was coming from my bellybutton.

Still shirtless, I groped for the bottom of that hole. There was none. My finger disappeared inside it. I consulted a mirror, and there before my eyes was a pitch-black hole, a speck of the universe that had always mystified me. Pretty soon, I was amused of putting things at the rim of my buttonhole. I watched in astonishment how paperclips lined up, as if by magnets, and disappeared inside. I lost all my pens and pencils to my bellybutton. Now my car keys disappeared too, and so did my house keys, my wallet, my IDs and ATMs and credit cards. Now I no longer had a spoon to eat with, a remote control to turn on the TV with, a zippo to light my cigarettes with, and shoes to walk on. It was incredible at first, and then I was furious. Everything that I possessed, eventually, my bellybutton sucked them all like spaghetti.

Cold and confused, I staggered outside, naked as the sun was naked on my skin. Everybody gawked at me. I tried to hail a cab but every driver wouldn't stop and just passed me by. So I did the remaining thing I was capable of doing. I ran. The soles of my feet hurt in the asphalt. I ran on the pedestrian lane when there was a pedestrian lane. I ran on the grass when there was grass. I ran on dirt when there was dirt. I ran along the road when there was nothing else to run on. People stared, hooted, honked, cursed. They called me names, they cursed my mother, my father, my past, my future, my imagined life inside and outside my skin. I reached the hospital in about an hour. My feet hurt, but were not bruised. I looked like I emerged from the rain, covered in sweat and pollution stains, my heart a shamanistic pulse inside my chest.

In the emergency room, I was a spectacle. Everybody's head turned to me and stared and laughed. There was a commotion. "I need to see a doctor," I told the very first nurse that walked by. "What seems to be the problem?" she said. "Seems?" I said. "Isn't it enough that I am naked in front of all these people without a choice?" She took a step back, almost frightened. Everyone was watching, anticipating the next words. "But why are you naked?" she said. "Is there any problem?" "Yes," I said, "I'm sorry I startled you. But it seems that I have a hole in my bellybutton." The noise in the room intensified. The nursed glanced at my bellybutton, at my face, and then at my bellybutton. "I'll just call a doctor," she said, bewildered, seemingly not knowing what to do.

Behind white curtains an ER doctor examined me. He was a large-eyed and large-lipped young man, chinless and double-chinned. "The nurse told me you have a hole in your bellybutton?" he began. "It isn't just any hole, doctor," I said. "It's a black hole that sucks things in." The doctor bent over and peered at my bellybutton. "Why don't I get you something to wear?" he said, disappeared, and came back with a hospital gown. I crawled into it. The doctor continued with a series of questions whose answers were already narrated above. Curious questions he had: "How do you feel?" "What's left of you?" "Why do you think it's [the black hole] there?" At the end of the examination, he was about to poke his finger into my bellybutton when I yelled, "Don't! Don't do it, doc. You will disappear and won't be able to come back!" The doctor referred me to a psychologist on the fourth floor.

"You might think I'm nuts," I told the psychologist before she had the chance to say anything, "but my bellybutton is a black hole." She smiled calmly and told me to take a seat. For the second time, I narrated the events that led to my running naked to the hospital. She chuckled and listened with rapt attention. "That's one hell of a story!" she said. "I thought so too," I said. She let me remove my hospital gown and lie on a couch. She bent over and looked into the black eye of my belly. "Looks fine to me," she said. I was confused. "Don't touch it, okay?" I said. She took a pen out from her breast pocket and poked my bellybutton. Before I knew it, the pen was gone and so was she. Sucked in like spaghetti. God, what have I done? I thought. Did I kill her? I felt like I had an incredible power to undo everything that God created.

I put the white gown back on and ran out the hospital building. I had no money, no possessions, no place to go. It was exhilarating to have nothing and yet be alive. Does my house still exist? I thought. It was a twenty-minute jeepney ride away, on the hilly outskirts of Davao City. I missed my house and the comforts of consumption. Then the hunger came back to me. I was starving. I went to the nearest possible place to eat, a buy-one-take-one burger joint. I ordered two cheesy mushroom burgers, two chili hotdogs with pickle relish, two chicken sandwiches, two large french fries, and a bottle of coke to wash them all down. "That will be P196," the attendant said, who secretly eyed me during the entire wolfing down ordeal. I flashed my naked belly at him and said, "Touch my bellybutton and see if my stomach is hard enough. If it's not, I'll eat some more." He poked it with a finger, and then he was gone. Sucked in like spaghetti like the psychiatrist several minutes before. I stepped inside the burger stand and raided the fridge. I could've fried myself in the tropical heat while cooking dozens of burgers and fries and kikiam and fishballs and squidballs and chickenballs. After the heavy meal, I closed down the stall and slept on the cramped floor. It was a sleep that gave me visions of marvelous futures. I didn't want to wake up.

The following day, I was awoken by a loud rap on the door. My eyelids flew open. It took me a split second to figure out where I was. I opened the door. It was a uniformed young girl with a sun visor and a bright purplish pink lipstick. By the casting of the shadows, it was probably noon. "Where is Naldo?" she demanded. "Who are you?" she said. Behind her were three brown boxes that had pictures of buns of bread. "I'm David," I said. "I'm afraid your friend is inside my belly." "You ate him?" she said. "No," I said. "He was sucked into my bellybutton." She laughed hysterically. She had one missing tooth at the back of her mouth. When her laughter died down, she slowly stepped away, eyeing my hospital gown. "Don't go," I said and then whispered, "Naldo is hiding behind the fridge." She tiptoed inside, towards the back of the humming machine, and frowned. When she looked at me I was already naked. I lunged at her and embraced her to my belly. She yelped and thrashed in my arms and was gone. Now I had three boxes of bread that could last me three nights and three days. My miserable existence continued as such. The only difference was that before, I only consumed things. Now I also consumed people. What difference does it make? I thought. People are made of things, aren't they?

Two weeks in, I began to stink. Inside my filthy hospital gown, my body reeked as far as I could be heard. I headed to Bankerohan River one late afternoon to wash myself and my dirty clothes, and maybe steal something to wear from someone's clothesline. The river was wide and brown from the silt that was washed down from the mountains. Farther off, its mouth disgorged its brown water into the blue ocean. I took my clothes off and jumped in the river. I was rubbing my skin with a smooth black stone when I noticed the water receding. The moment it reached my waist, the water surface was spiraling into a vortex before my eyes. My bellybutton was feeding on the brown river and its fish and garbage, a maelstrom that began to pull in the blue waters of the ocean. Frantically, I swam to the riverbank, crawled back into my soiled clothes, and ran away to anywhere, away from the river.

In one of my aimless prowls in the city, I heard the news from a TV in a Muslim eatery. The news spoke of persons missing tracelessly in Davao. The toll now hiked up to 62, mostly from small-time restaurants, cafeterias, dingy bars, convenience stores, and poverty-stricken households. Families disappeared overnight, and so did several of their belongings. Is this a mass exodus to the unknown? Is there an alien spaceship hovering in the sky? Is this God's way of punishing us? We'll be back for more after this commercial break. "Hey you," a busgirl said to me. "Get away from here." "Can you give me food?" I said. Slowly, her eyes began to glow with horror. She too disappeared that night.

In the weeks that followed, I grew restless and weary. Restaurants and eateries began to close down, and so did my sources of food. I became more creative, stealing nicer clothes from laundry shops, and raiding pawnshops and jewelry stores. People began to be alarmed of the escalating disappearances, which now raked up to 312. Residents started to ransack grocery stores, shut themselves in their homes, and waited for the evening news. "What is the sense to all this kidnapping spree?" one commentator said in a midnight TV discussion. "Whatever group is behind this, it made a mistake of taking those two Europeans." The news rippled in a shock wave around the globe, of the missing hundreds of Filipinos and of the missing two white men. Embassies published red alert warnings against traveling to Mindanao. Philippine soil gained the reputation of creeping with discord, violence, mass murders, and unbridled corruption. God, what have I done? I thought. Not only do I consume people. I alter the destinies of nations.

Nausea fell over me. I began to get sick in the stomach. Clutching my belly, I teetered my way to Bankerohan River, where moonshine glimmered in the blackness of the water surface. There I disgorged torrents of water, fish, garbage, more garbage and things, and then hundreds of bodies. The water whooshed, spiraling outward in a maelstrom as it had once been sucked in. Surprised by their sudden gushing out of my belly, my victims flailed and screamed and tried to keep afloat among the discarded things that bobbed on the water surface. Some managed to swim to the riverbank, while some drifted helplessly to the bottom of the water. In the midst of it all I waited for the survivors to pounce on me, to flog me with smooth black stones and reduce me to pulp. Instead, they walked off in glimmering wet clothes, leaving drips of water towards the many places where I had once found them and consumed them. Without waiting for them to find me, I jumped in the river, almost expecting the water to recede. It didn't. I swam on my back and closed my eyes, trying to wipe away memories of my bellybutton and the black hole from my life. When I opened my eyes, there was the view of the night sky, the full moon shining perfectly round and perfectly bright. I still had no money, no possession, no place to go. But I was alive, and that made all the difference.

// 15 Jun 2014

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