Vandal

A story for kids.

The smell 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. There, 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 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 along.

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, the red-crowned woodpecker they caught sight of in the forest, and the fireflies that glowed in glass jars at night, 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 clean, 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.

// Oct 2017

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