by M.A. Del Rosario
Illustration by M.A. Del Rosario
Her mouth blew through the pipes of her diwdiw-as. The pan flute originally belonged to her mother, and before that, her ancestors. The music started at a violent pace at first, fast, like the savagery of storms. It was as if she were back in the mountains where the summit touched the clouds. She felt the mist dampen her face. The skies above grew dark. And then the music slowed in tempo, calm, peaceful, regaining composure and clarity. The sky above cleared.
She thought she had imagined this. Her audience were the stars that illuminated the reality of her surroundings: in the backyard of an old tenement building in a rundown area of Manila. Around her was the world– the real world, the poor world– with people walking and talking and thinking about how they would survive another day. Her music pierced reality. It stopped to listen and remember the old world and its simplicity, of a time fueled by imagination and discovery– a distant memory.
“Sing with me,” she whispered to the wind, and the wind responded with a light breeze that was a subtle whistle. It breathed with the melody of her music.
The night listened. A falling star brushed across the sky. The moment lingered forever.
The noise of the marketplace by the Quiapo church became a constant source of everyday chaos. Manila was filled with different folks who had many ideas and agendas. It attracted people from the far provinces and offered new beginnings. In this place of hawkers and madness stood Foran’s store, which was a basket of eggs that sat atop an old wooden crate.
She wiped the sweat from her forehead. It was hard to sell eggs on a Saturday even though there were a lot of people who flocked to church masses and shopped for vegetables on the sidewalk stalls. There were many things that you could buy in Quiapo, and eggs were one of them. Sometimes people bought her eggs, sometimes they did not, yet even though she fell short from selling, she was thankful. She was still alive and that she could make a meal of her unsold chicken eggs were part of the graces that went her way.
Foran came down the mountains when she was young. She was lured by the images she saw in the old magazines that they sold in a sari-sari store. She hitched a ride from her village to the city of Baguio, and there took a bus to the lowlands of Cubao. She was eighteen then, brimming with hope that her life would change once she settled in.
The reality of city life was far from what she thought, far from the idyllic stories that some of the tourists told whenever they would visit her village. She found work as a waitress in a restaurant, but when the owner tried to force himself on her one night, everything changed. She cut the old lecher with a knife, rushed out the door taking a small sum of cash. She reasoned it was just compensation for the actions of her former employer. She was never caught. Her conscience contradicted her though.
The incident crushed her, made her vulnerable, guarded. She wandered the streets and begged. She ate whatever she could get her hands on. And she cried very often. Later on she would hear that the old restaurant owner died of a heart attack sometime after she left; she spat, thought the death was well deserved.
At least in her village, she had something to eat and the land provided for them. Nowadays she had to scrape the bottom to stay alive. She found work as a cleaning lady for the local government hospital shortly after, but her salary was not enough for her meals and the tenement rent, so she sold eggs on the weekends. Her neighbor was a supplier for the local marketplace, and the old man was the closest thing to a fatherly figure that she had in the city. His name was Nestor, who was childless, and in turn treated Foran like his own.
On a Saturday, under the blistering heat, a gentleman wearing a buntal hat took refuge under Foran’s umbrella. She heard a noise inside her basket. She could have sworn the eggs she sold jiggled. But that moment had passed, and thought that maybe she was seeing things. It’s the heat, she thought. She looked up at the gentleman, saw an old face whose ancient eyes shone like deep pearls amid a sea of white. The hair on her nape prickled. She felt something from the old man– something powerful that made her feel small. She was afraid. But like the jiggling of the eggs, it passed, and she was calm once more. She asked, “Do you want something?”
“Yes,” the gentleman plainly answered. His voice was firm and commanding. “I am looking for the most beautiful music that I have heard last night. It is something that I have not heard for a very long time. It sounded like the heavens touching the mountains. Tell me, do you know what I speak of?”
“I’m sorry, apo, but I only have eggs,” she chuckled.
Apo. It meant grandfather in the tongues of the tribes in the Cordillera region of the Philippines. Apo. It was a word the old man had not heard in a long while.
He straightened himself and tipped his hat. “My apologies, young lady, but my ears led me straight to you. It seems as though it has failed me for the first time. I may, however, be of service and waste not this moment of your precious time.”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a golden piece of rock.
“Three eggs, please.”
Foran gave him a puzzled look as she realized that he was about to trade with gold, which was a rarity in modern society, and a practice that had long been abandoned since the creation of money.
“My apologies, apo, but I cannot take your gold.”
“And why is that, young one?”
“Well, first of all, that is too much for three eggs. Secondly, I don’t know where to exchange that. Don’t you have twenty pesos?”
He smiled, placed the gold piece near the stack of eggs, and walked away.
“Apo!” Foran called with a look of confusion. She picked up the gold nugget, but when she looked back, the old man was gone. Her eyes went back to the nugget. It felt like it throbbed in her hand. Surprised at this, she quickly placed the nugget in her pocket and tried not to think about it.
Her mind shifted back to the old gentleman. She, again, felt small, like the world did not mean anything to her, and that the old man was the most important thing that ever was. The world spun around her. Her hands trembled. She felt it–an ancient power– and all the things about the old world that her elders talked about suddenly became relevant. She was not a religious woman, yet she did not take for granted the existence of a higher power, and that there were spirits and other such demons that haunted the dark places of the world.
She pulled the nugget from her pocket, threw it away, and started to cry.
The sound of the diwdiw-as lingered in the air. It started slow, expressing a feeling of sadness and guilt, until such that the tempo sped in pace, and it lit up like shooting stars in the sky. Then the happy moments came with melodies overflowing with emotions, suggested love and joy, laughter, and excitement.
The melody became infectious. Soon a crowd drew just outside the patched walls of corroding galvanized sheets. They listened with their eyes closed. They heard the language and understood. The pan-flute of the Cordilleras brought about the smell of rice fields and mountains. The people who flocked outside saw different worlds in their minds. Visions of magical worlds came to them. Their tired minds riddled with the worries of everyday living were refreshed with sweet longings. Within worlds they traveled, explored, and they flew past lands of enchantment, of make-believe and awe. They felt a calm and profound moment of peace.
Within the crowd, the old man stood. He heard the music beyond the makeshift walls. He tilted his head and stared at the stars that glittered above. He remembered the bygone years when he roamed with the wild beasts that inherited the land when the fear of gods was still in the hearts of humankind. This brought about honor, pride, and above all, respect within the ranks of humans. It was fear that kept them in place. The images were vivid, of a time of great power, to a place where he came down from his father’s home in the heavens and taught the Bontoc tribe how it was to live. That was a long time ago, during ancient days of magic and glory. But in the present, he was forgotten and his deeds written in obscurity. In this lifetime, he was nothing more but a lonely island amid an ocean of forgotten things.
He remembered his wife Cayapon, who was once named Fucan, but the name of his sons he no longer recalled. It had been a long while since he had seen them. He knew they lived long lives, and yet, through it all, he was not able to find his descendants. In recent years, he became bitter, cold, and somewhat spiteful towards the rest of humankind and what they had become, how the lessons of the ages were lost through revisions and agendas. He had lost power over the people that once prayed to him, and over time, he became as jaded as humans were. He became a mere mention in the books of myths that focused on the more popular gods.
Yet the music of the diwdiw-as stripped away the anger and the taint of miserable frustration. He managed a smile and waited for the music to end.
At first there was silence. Then the darkness and quiet overwhelmed the senses with a loud roar. Then countless stars exploded within the void behind her shut eyes, and voices erupted from the dark emptiness that called out her name.
Slowly reality pulled her from the dark until the loud sounds of the marketplace returned. She blinked several times and covered her ears. Her teeth gnashed against each other. There was the pain. There was nausea. But the moment passed and Foran exhaled a sigh of relief.
She was sure that it was not the midday sun that burned down the city at a heat of forty-two degrees. She was certain that it was not the fact that she still had fifty eggs in her basket, the same number as she had yesterday that bothered her. No, these were mundane things, incomparable to the unease that lingered after she met the old stranger yesterday. This turned to alarm when, at that moment, she saw shining on the ground the very same gold nugget she threw away yesterday.
Her eyes stared in amazement, no one even bothered to pick it up. Then Foran realized that the old man was there, in front of her all along. She sat with mouth agape, and her sweat ran down heavily.
“What do you want with me?” asked Foran, who finally found the courage to speak.
The old man stared at her. Again, she felt the old man’s power. She looked around and saw that everything around her had stopped moving. She heard a cracking sound like shells breaking open. She saw her chicken eggs hatch. Her eyes opened wide in disbelief. Foran looked at the old stranger who now seemed to be bigger, like a giant, against the small backdrop that was the city of Manila.
“It was you.” The old man cried, who began to cover the sky. “The most I do not like is if someone lies to me. Tell me, Foran of the Bontoc, did you lie to me?”
Foran, who froze beneath the frightful image, could only utter one word that slipped through her mouth in a whisper, “No…”
The world swirled and spun in great speed of colors, and the sight of the city was no more. From these colors came the images of mountain peaks and trees, of pathways that led into thickets, and the sound of nature soothed the senses. Foran, who still sat on her wooden stool, looked down to the newly hatched chicks jumping down from her basket and racing across the grassy fields, chirping in delight.
The sound of running water came from her right. She turned and saw a mighty river rush through the land and into the peaks beyond. She witnessed fish jump high into the air and dive down into the water. She remembered the place. It was the Chico River that was a tributary of the longer Cagayan River that cuts through the valley. Memories came rushing back, of the times when she played by the banks with her friends, throwing stones and catching fish. She remembered her father, an expert fisherman and hunter who died of tuberculosis shortly after she left the village. She remembered her mother, who tried to persuade her to stay and who was devastated when she left. The last she heard was that her mother had left the village as well and went to live with her aunts in the city of Baguio.
She wept upon seeing the place where she grew up, but that joy returned to fear at what brought her there. She looked up to the sky to see the old man’s face take the place of the sun.
“You have lied to me, Foran Á-ew. It was you who played the most magnificent of music from a diwdiw-as and that you have left your village, turned your back on your heritage. That displeases me the most. What say you?”
Foran, being mortal and small, felt cowed by the presence of the being in front of her. Yet, Foran, being free-spirited who learned a long time ago that she could only depend on herself, felt a sudden rage as this old man – this man – berated her, scolded her for something she did not understand, and her anger rose and overcame her fear.
“Listen, you!” She started with a finger pointed, “I don’t know who you are or why you are even mad at me but as far as I’m concerned, you, sir, are rude and I will speak my mind about it! I will not be undermined by some stranger that I have just met, not by old men who know nothing but to abuse girls like me! Putanginamo!”
The old man drew half a smile and said, “A Bontoc, through and through. Tell me, do you know who I am, little one?”
“Little one?” asked an angry Foran. “I’m no little one! I am a woman, you old man! And no one looks down on me!”
“I am Lumawig! Humble yourself before the God of the Igorot, little Foran! I have had enough of your defiance!”
Foran felt the power of the god, felt small again like a child, and she did as Lumawig commanded.
“Your music has drawn me here.”
Reality returned to normal. The smog-infested city filled with the sounds of roaring jeepneys and loud-mouth vendors irritated Lumawig. His face grimaced at every high-pitched squeal and muffler belch. This was not a part of nature. This was something man-made, and not one of it was an offering made for him. He missed the ancient days of a simple life when mortals were honest, kind, and brave, and when the land provided that was the only thing needed to survive, when the gods, in all their glory, were revered and honored.
The city sickened him. This modern world that ignored the calls of the preservation of life and nature sickened him. Lumawig had not been in the lowlands for eons, and much had changed ever since. Now that he has fully returned to the world of humans, he saw the state that most of them were in. He saw dilapidated houses and buildings aging with much regret. He saw people sleeping in boxes by the roadside with little regard for safety. He saw children play without care as vehicles roared across the streets. He saw spirits of death linger amongst the living. They waited for souls as souls were abundant, and life was trivial in the sad part of town that tried to survive from day to day.
Indeed it had been a long time– too long, he thought– and now humankind was plunging into a life that neglected coexistence and empathy.
The gods rose and fell all because humans had stopped their reverence. It was the inevitable destiny of the gods– their twilight – the gods were no longer needed. Yet he was there, walking on the streets of this world and pitying mankind. He could leave at any time, but the music he heard was something that even the universe had not heard for a very long time.
Lumawig turned his gaze to his companion, that woman who had left her heritage in exchange for a hard life, and wondered. His heart sank all the more when he saw where Foran lived. It was an old building, condemned, and it felt like more ghosts lived in it than people. He met residents who eyed him from head to feet. Some scratched their heads while others snickered and spat. He heard their whispers. Their eyes were on the pockets of his trousers where they thought his money was. He shook his head and was about to get angry, but then realized that they were poor. He set aside his anger. He thought he could help, but these were not Bontocs – not his people – and maybe they can ask their gods for sustenance.
“What’s going on?” asked Foran as she turned to regard the commotion at the entrance. She saw tenants and the loiterers outside, as they fought to get a hand of the gold nuggets that suddenly fell from somewhere.
“Ginto! Ginto!” They screamed. Some bit the nuggets and found them to be real. The others made dashes for someone else’s gold. But soon they all quieted down, surprisingly, as peace overcame them, each content with the gold nugget that they had, they all departed.
“It was you, wasn’t it?” Foran demanded of the god.
“I cannot make enough. That is not my purview. But at least I have made some of them happy. Where is your dwelling place?”
“Up there. We have to take the stairs.”
Up the flight they went with Lumawig examining every corner of the old building.
“Is this place not condemned? Surely it will give way upon a mighty earthquake!”
“Stop that!” said Foran with a wave of her hand. “We have not seen the Big One yet, and I don’t want to experience it at all.”
“Big One?” asked Lumawig with a brow cocked.
“They call it the Big One, a powerful earthquake that will bring Manila to the ground. That’s what they say.”
“That is not what you all have to worry about,” Lumawig said in a whisper. “Something worse is coming.”
“What was that?”
“Nothing,” said the old god as they reached the topmost floor. “Is this your home?”
“Yes,” Foran answered, quite embarrassed. “It’s not much, but at least I have a roof over my head.”
They entered, and Lumawig was quick to scrutinize. He saw a small place where no walls divided the kitchen and the bedroom, except for the toilet that also served as the laundry area. The building walls were covered with paint that slowly cracked. A lone window protected by rusted iron grills remained ajar and faced a depressed area with tires that rested atop flimsy, corrugated roofs that prevented it from being blown by strong winds. Children played on the streets lined with tricycles and pedicabs. Laundry danced to the passing breeze as they were left to dry on makeshift clotheslines by windows and rooftops.
Lumawig took a step back from the window and made one last look at the room. “Your father’s house was better than this.”
“Yeah, well at least I won’t hear them tell me that I’m a lousy Bontoc!” Foran snapped.
“Maybe you are,” retorted Lumawig. “Is this your dream, to live in a pigsty like this?”
“Well, not all of us are fortunate like you, god of whatever you are supposed to be a god of!”
An earthquake suddenly erupted. Foran quickly ducked underneath her small dining table. She saw Lumawig grow again, but this time it was not like she was in a dream. The whole room grew as well. She tried to scream but found that she had no voice. She realized that she was the one becoming small. Then she heard the god’s powerful voice, and her bones began to tremble.
“Do not mock me ever again, child! This is the last warning you will get. I am the son of Kabunian, the Sky God, and I have been patient with you. Look at yourself and what you have done. You have left your heritage, your home, for a life like this, living from day to day, unable to dream, all because you wanted to become like these folks – the city dwellers – and yet you do not understand that for you to become like them, you have to work the hardest, for life in the city is cruel to dreamers like you.
“Your life in the mountains had been bountiful as compared to your poor one here. You have failed to realize that up there, the land provides for you. Down here, you are on your own.
“And what angers me is that you have abandoned your mother and your father to whom you owe a lot. What has happened to children these days? Why have you left who you really are? Why are you so blinded by what this modern way of life brings?
“Tell me, child, are you truly happy?”
Foran started to cry. Lumawig’s words struck her where it hurt. The earthquake stopped. She was on her knees when she lifted her eyes upon a god who reverted back to normal size. “What do you want from me?”
The old man knelt and met her gaze. “Let me hear your wonderful music again.”
She started to play. When she played, she was master, she was storyteller, and the entire world listened to Foran Á-ew, mistress of the diwdiw-as.
The small, one-room residence felt bigger at each passing note, and each breath taken became magic that let loose soothing melodies that could calm a furious heart. Her eyes closed from the world around her. She didn’t need to see. She needed to listen and feel. Her room became a stage, and the space around her became the amphitheater.
She did not see them come in. They wore many colors of the many tribes. They were not just the spirit of the Bontoc people, but Kalinga and Ifugao and Tinguian, Gaddang and Ibaloy, and Isnag and Kankana-ey. They brought their spears and shields, their tattoos, and their headdresses. They were the rich and the poor, the old and the young, the wise mumbaki and noble kadangyan, and there in the front seats were the mambunong, the elder-priests who hailed Lumawig with courteous bows before taking a seat.
They were all there to watch, to listen, and eventually, to remember. They came from far away, called forth by their god, in a time when society had lost its way and many of the olden ways forever lost. Lumawig saw it all and could do nothing because modern times belonged to modern peoples, yet modern peoples tend to forget the past that led them to where they were. These were not his people, though, these lowlanders, but Foran was. Though lost and misguided, he had hoped that the young musician would remember her roots and return to her homeland.
Doubt suddenly interfered with her music. The sounds of the panpipes became erratic. She knew this. She recognized her falter. The very same fear that she had when she first rode that bus from the city of Baguio to Cubao. The same fear when she ran away from her lecherous employer with nowhere else to go. The fear that she would eventually get caught by the authorities and spend the rest of her days in prison. She remembered her mother and her father. She recalled why she left– the glitter of city stories primarily, but it was also the nightly quarrels between her parents, the accusations of her father’s womanizing, and the fact that they were poor. They were no different from any other family that lived in either highland or lowland.
Yet, she was loved by the tribe. Indeed, as a family, they were poor, living from day to day with what her father caught from the river and what her mother cooked. But with the tribe, they were rich, and nobles could not bear her family starving. But her father was a proud one, and he smoked too much.
Then again she remembered her tribe. The Bontoc was one family, and though her mother persuaded her not to leave, she left. She decided she wanted to be alone because the tribe suffocated her. She thought she made the right choice. She cried as she realized she was wrong.
Don’t give up.
The voice that called was familiar, sad and distant, yet it was a voice she knew so well. She opened her eyes, and her world brightened. From within the crowd that gathered, one stood out amongst the rest, and her father, young and handsome, smiled and told her to continue.
You can do this.
Her father smiled. His hands motioned towards her. Tears fell like long droplets of rain in a summer filled with drought. She blew on her pipes, and the melody filled the emptiness that she thought would destroy her.
Sweet music, pleasure me still, in this twilight of our lives, bring me back to yesteryear. And yesteryear came.
She saw the world as wild as it was in the first of the ages. There, beyond the mountains, were the lands of the Sky Gods, and she saw Kabunian till the land and plant seeds that would grow into fine trees. In the skies loomed dark clouds, and the roar of a mighty boar shook the earth beneath her feet. Lightning flashed, and thunder echoed! Kidul, the god of thunder, greeted her music with his own. From the seas beyond the mountains came the howl of the tides. Limat, the god of the sea, sent his waves to beat upon the rocky shoreline, and the sound became of magnificent drumming.
Soon it became a feast. Cañao, the ceremony of the mountain people, was enacted. The spirit-folk came with their pigs and their chickens, and instead of offerings made to them, they made offerings to her, to the musician of the diwdiw-as that gave them the gift of remembering who they were and the life they left long ago. They offered their thanks to the music that she played. Even the gods were humbled by the sound of Foran’s performance. The subtle yet powerful melody of the pipes brought them back to a time of reverence and appreciation.
The stars exploded in the night sky. It was a feast, with the main attraction in the middle of the ceremony, playing the sweet and powerful music of yesteryear when gods and men lived with nature.
Hear the beat of the gangsa!
Hear the drumming of the libbit and solibao!
Hear the kulitong and the pateteg!
Sway with the symphony of the Cordillera!
He looked back upon his children and smiled. Here in the sky that seemed eternal, in his heaven that overlooked the world, he was lord and father and caretaker. He was Kabunian, and only a handful was left who truly knew and worshiped him.
He remembered the olden days when mankind respected the land and magic flowed freely. He remembered well his deeds, and the heroes, with the other gods who looked upon him with praise. He inspired them all! He remembered their pains and deaths, and he recalled his own cries as he mourned for them. He remembered the ages waned when the beasts of old, born of lore, slowly disappeared and the world suddenly changed.
Yet, not even all the power in the world could stop change, and time was the master of change. He missed his sons. He missed his wife. He missed Cayapon, who he left because he had to go back to the heavens and fulfill his duties. Somewhere in his heart, though, he wished he had not done so and remained with her forever. But such things could never be, for not even gods had the power to change one’s destiny. They were gone forever, and all he could do was remember.
Kabunian wept. Such was the way of time. Such was the power that not even gods could stop and change the days, and reverence for him dwindled to a handful. But he was still Kabunian, father of all, and his name still had power. The mountains thundered in his wake. There was the Igorot, his children, who looked up to him even though time had changed most of them. The music pulled him back. The music invigorated him.
Even though his wife and his sons were no longer in the world of the living, he had found his great descendant, and she had magic more potent than the likes of any god has ever seen. She could bring back the olden times and make every god remember who they were. She could call forth the ancestor spirits and make them remember, make them dance and sway and sing like they had done so when they lived. Her music had the power to bring all of the tribes together. She brought joy amid a time of uncertainty.
Foran was Bontoc, and he was proud that she now remembered.
Foran listened to her own music. She listened to her voice. Then there was silence. The gangsa stopped. So did the libbit and solibao, the kulitong and the pateteg, too. The ancestor spirits stood motionless. The gods grew silent. All that was heard was the sound of the diwdiw-as and the sound of one heart beating.
Foran saw with eyes opened the life she could have had, the mistakes that she had made. She saw the heritage of her people, the people of the mountains who molded values with their surroundings– a rich culture clouded by modern sensibilities. She realized that she should have explained to this world who her people were, and what they meant to the mountains of the Cordilleras. She should have made the world listen instead of listening to the world.
The diwdiw-as fell to the floor as tears rolled down her face. She felt a warm embrace. It was something that she had not felt for a long time. “I’m sorry, Ama.”
Her father smiled before he disappeared into the mist. The cañao was finished, the ritual complete. One by one, the ancestor spirits walked away into the shadows. The gods bowed and left her alone. The orange tinge of the early dawn took prominence over the dark blue of yesternight. She awakened from the dreamlike trance to see many figures slowly disappear before her blurry sight. All was gone except for one.
“You have done well, Foran Á-ew of the Bontoc. You are my descendant after all, and I am glad that I have found you. I am satisfied now. The magic of gods flows through you. Use it well and wisely, for your music will influence the rest of the world. Go back to your home– to your people– and tell our stories through your music.”
Foran felt the voice of Lumawig from within. For the first time since they met, she was humbled, and she knew now how to respect that she quite eloquently bowed.
Slowly Lumawig turned from Foran and melted into the white mist that ate up their world. With renewed vigor, she nodded. She straightened herself in the middle of her shoddy tenement room, held her diwdiw-as like it was her heart, and she whispered to herself, “Ina, I’m coming home.”
She wiped the tears from her face and smiled.
About the Author: M. A. Del Rosario is a dreamer and a storyteller. He is also a published author of short stories and graphic novels both locally and in the U.S. He likes to make up and draw his stories. He is an advocate of reading. He tells people to go to libraries and bookshops. He lives with his family in a quiet subdivision where fireflies still exist and where cats question the existence of men. Sometimes he talks to gods lost at sea. He still believes that magic is real. You can visit him at www.paperdrawing.com.