Isa

by

Daughter, our islands are disappearing.  Once, there were two:   two proud pieces of rock rearing high above the waves.  Our islands had always existed: they were the two arms of Laon, who slumbered in the caldera beneath us.  Around us were rings of hard and soft corals, and in the cave-like spaces of these corals lived an abundance of animals:  snakes and eels and starfish and seahorses and clams.  Surrounded by such abundance, we seldom knew hunger, or sickness. 

You and your sisters were born on these islands; until today, no one had ever left. But you don’t care anymore; your eyes look only to the silver bird that will bear you far away. Remember, your island is Isa.  Isa, the first, the mother of all. 

Remember your mother, Raymunda, she who was the only person brave enough to swim underneath the blue water we call Pangarap, the only one to see the bowl of the volcano Laon that lies deep beneath the water, the volcano that birthed us all. Remember the names of the fishes and birds.  Remember the beings of the sea, the beings of the air.  Remember how you fell asleep each night, listening to your mother’s crooning and to the sound of the waves.

Five families lived on Isa.  At first, there was a way to walk on the ground between the houses.  But gradually the water rose and that was when we began to use the rope bridges. We wondered, occasionally, about other beings, the ones we guessed must inhabit the world.  The world that was so far away we couldn’t smell or taste it. 

Because we couldn’t imagine that other world,  we decided to think only about things we could smell or taste or hear ourselves.  Smells like what was cooking in each other’s houses.  Tastes like the opaque, soft, peppery insides of mollusks and snails, or the juice we sucked from the bones of fish.

We knew how to pray. Every year, the storms came.  We shut our windows and waited. 

During one storm, the one we called Insiang, the house at the opposite end of Isa was swept away.  That was the house of Ligaya and her five sisters.  When the wind died down and we opened our windows, we didn’t recognize the world.  And gradually we realized it was because a house was missing.  Far away, we saw a pointed shape, bobbing on the waves. 

A few of the men took out boats and rowed to the wreckage.  When they reached it, they saw Ligaya’s body, floating on its back, her face already purple and swollen.  They knew her because of the scar above her right eyebrow; we all remembered the day, 10 years earlier, when she had been clambering over the slippery rocks and fell.  Hers was the only body to be recovered.

Your mother said it was Urdo’s fault.  He should have built a stronger house, one that could withstand the lash of wind and waves.  He was the father; he should have known.  In a house with six women, the men grow weak, your mother said.

Your mother’s voice grew rough and hard, and you and your sisters stopped listening to her.  One day we discovered that she had shouted herself out of her body.  She was sitting at the kitchen table, as always, but we could tell it was merely the shape of her that remained.  Her soul had escaped to somewhere far beyond our reach. 

Naturally, we looked high and low: under the eaves of all the houses, in the storage rooms and even in the caves beneath the rocks.  But her soul was truly gone.  Behind your mother’s eyes now was a still darkness, and her skin became soft and papery.

Once we caught you jabbing at her forearm with the serrated edge of a clam shell.  Tears were running down your face.  Insistently you called out to her, demanded a response.  That was when I took your mother’s form and put her in the wooden box that I had kept in readiness all these years. 

Once she was in it, it floated gently on the waves.  I pushed it as hard as I could, and the current bore it away.  You remained watching the sea for hours.

The other island, just over the horizon, was called Dalawa.  It was almost exactly the same size as ours, but for whatever reason the families on Dalawa had many more children:  there were ten houses clinging to their rock.

One day the people on Dalawa sent word.  They said that either Pangarap was rising, or their island was sinking, they couldn’t tell which.  They had started building a wall out of coral.  They hoped it would protect them.

One day, we realized it had been almost a year since we had had any visitors from the other island.  The men took out the boats.  They sailed for many days.  They kept telling one another, It must be only a little farther, only a little farther.  On the third day, it dawned on them what must have happened. This terrible knowledge seized them with panic.  They set the boats straight for home and from far away we could hear their shouts, like the shouts of madmen.  Get ready, they shouted.  Prepare!

We realized that we had seen it happening but in our fear had refused to believe it.  Pangarap was indeed rising. 

As children we had felt the water lapping at our toes.  Now, it washed around our ankles.  And strange things were being borne in by the tides: strange glinting things that broke if one pressed too hard; and pieces of clothing that might have belonged to a woman, so delicate was the stitching on the waists and hems. 

Once, the sea brought a man.  He was naked, and his sex was swollen to an extreme size.  For hours we gathered round, studying the form of this strange being.  We saw the scars on his shoulders, and the gaping wound on his right thigh.  His earlobes were rimmed with silver studs, and his fingernails were long and curved and reminded us of talons.  We could not tell whether he was old or young, but he seemed to have died in some fierce confrontation.  His open mouth was twisted in a grimace.  We anointed his body with oils and then sent him back to his home.

Perhaps it was a year or two later that the man we called Kawayan came.  He stepped out from the belly of a huge silver bird that landed in the water and floated there, as if waiting, only a few steps from the rocks.  How we shrieked when we saw the bird loom over the horizon.  Impossible to describe our fear at the deafening noise it made, or the enormity of its wings, which seemed to block out half the sky. 

For agonizing minutes, we watched and waited.  Finally, a hole opened in its side and from the darkness within a man emerged.

He was only the first. He told us – in a language that sounded much like our own, but with a harsher, staccato inflection – that there were other islands like ours, scattered all across Pangarap.  Most were so far away that it had taken many men’s lifetimes to create birds large enough to reach them.  And the news made us happy and afraid at the same time, and for many many nights we did not know sleep.  Happiness was replaced by apprehension.  Premonitions crowded our dreams.

Each of us now felt a new host of ever-changing sensations.  Some described it as a tickling of the arms.  Some called it a restlessness of the feet.  Those of us afflicted could not lie down. As soon as we lay on our mats, we felt compelled to get up again, no matter how exhausted we were. Our dreams, too, seemed to have deserted us.

We heard voices, which mingled with our fears. There was a new feeling now, a feeling we didn’t yet know how to name.  There was a name for the time before the arrival of the silver birds, and there was the present time.  Our memories, which had heretofore been distinct, exact, which used to contain all the knowledge of the world, now yielded nothing, only a frightening whiteness. Our actions became imprecise, unfocused.  We forgot things as simple as the names of our own children.  What was now the past was lost to us forever.

The men who came in the silver birds had a favorite word:  “Explain.”  They wrote down our words and hid their thoughts from us.  Soon, several of us fell prey to a strange sickness.  The first victim was Vina, who was only 15.  She was forever staring at the silver bird men, and at one in particular whose hair was burnished and light, the color of the sun. 

We had lived with each other so long that any emotional disturbance suffered by one of us infected the whole.  Everyone in the four remaining houses on Isa had heard the quickening of Vina’s breath at each approach of the light-haired stranger.  Each of us knew what caused her heart to begin its strange staccato melody.

The sickness affected the sight.  One day we heard Vina’s mother utter a terrifying scream.  When we came running, we learned that, only a short time earlier, Vina’s mother had found Vina naked and sobbing on the floor next to her bed.  Her eyes had developed milky cataracts in place of the pupils which had been brown only yesterday. 

Vina’s mother had fallen backwards, clutching her heart.  Her father lay on the floor, prostrated by his grief.  Now the two elders were inconsolable, both of them wailing with grief.

Someone suggested throwing a net to prevent Vina’s soul from escaping, as your mother’s had.  And so Vina lived from that day on underneath a weaving of hemp.  Everyday the milky whiteness of her eyes became more terrifying, and her sobs became more heartrending.

I saw the way you looked at Vina, and I knew that you had made up your mind to leave.

Take care.  Keep this amulet around your neck at all times.   If you return to us with love, your voice will be high and pure.  If you return to us with hatred and repugnance, your voice will be like those of all the other children whose souls were stolen by the men in the silver birds.

Love us, always.  Tell yourself everyday, upon first waking, who you are and where you come from.  You are our daughter, our life.

Marianne Villanueva is a short story writer from the Philippines. Her stories have appeared in The Threepenny Review, The Chattahoochee Review, Sou’wester, ZYZZYVA, Juked, The White Whale Review, the Santa Fe Writers Project, and Cafe Irreal. Work is forthcoming in 2010 from Hotel Amerika: The TransGenre Issue and Necessary Fiction. She has had two collections of short fiction published in the Philippines: Ginseng and Other Tales From Manila and The Lost Language.