“Here it is!” said Sira to no one in particular as she stared into the ocean. Sira was on a small outrigger which she had built with her father, a delicate looking thing made of bamboo and hardwood with a solitary sail arrayed in her tribe’s colors. She furls the sail, tucking it behind its bamboo mast.
The first few rays of the sun were already breaking through – bathing the world in light. She breathed in the sea air, filling her nose with the rich smell of the saltwater.
Sira had sailed across the sea at the dead of the night, to a place she had found by accident on one of her previous trips. The color of the sea changed from the slate gray of the deep to the bright turquoise of shallow waters. It was a large island that somehow had ended up a few meters short of breaking the surface. She put one foot on top of the gunwale of her boat and she braced herself as she stood up, the soft sea breeze whipping her sun lightened hair. She wore a baro, a dark red robe with black thread zigzagging through the cloth and it contrasted with the azure sky. It was given to Sira by her father, part bribe, part reward for letting one of her brothers actually win at a swimming contest against her.
The thought of her father stabs at her heart, but she shrugs it off. Her father would be worried by now, but her father always worried.
Besides, nothing would stop her from winning her bet with Kusog, her best friend. Sira had told him that she would find a pearl as big as his eye. If she did, she would win Kusog’s new spear which Kusog’s father had brought back from a trading journey in one of the big northern islands. The spear was made of kamagong, black sturdy wood that shone when polished just right. It was beautiful and she wanted it.
It was not as if Kusog wanted it. Kusog was a bayot, a man with a woman’s soul. Bayot are supposed to have mystical powers, their dual nature giving them the ability to commune with nature. Kusog was meant to join the babaylan, become a priestess, intermediaries to Bathala and his family of gods.
This meant nothing much to Sira, as she and her family came from a different faith. She worshipped Allah, the one God, and they faced west every day at dusk and dawn to bow and pray. In their island, the two faiths stood side by side, at peace. What is important to Sira, despite their differences in worship, was that Kusog was her friend, and friends made bets with each other to take away their prized possessions.
She casts off her dress, leaving her wearing only a loincloth. The sunlight reveals her body, ritually tattooed with beautiful triangular designs that follow the curves her body. For a moment, she revels in the sea breeze, the wind invigorating her. She grabs a knife, an ordinary blade made of bronze, which she puts in between her teeth. She inhales deeply through her nose and dives headfirst into the crystalline waters. She swam, gliding effortlessly in the calm waters. She had always been a great swimmer, even when she was younger.
It was pre-ordained. Her father, in a fit of impulsiveness, had named her Sira, which in their language meant fish. She certainly did not look like a fish – she was a striking beauty just like her mother and not a few bravos have asked her father for her bride price – but her fish like nature manifested in the way she swam. She could outswim any of the boys from her island and she could give most men fits in diving games.
She was always at home in the sea. She knew its wonders and its dangers. She knew to avoid the beautiful but deadly lion fish, because they were the guardians of the water folk and they were armed with spears that would kill with a touch
She was always careful not to swim too far down. One time, a young man from her village had swum too deep into the ocean and although he had surfaced again, he was screaming in pain and vomiting. The babaylan said he was touched by an evil spirit living in the depths of the sea. The young man did not live through the night.
And here she was, in the middle of the ocean, swimming. She ducks her head beneath the waves and dives down into the shallows. Sira swam without effort, her legs propelling her into the nooks and crannies of the sea.
Here the reef was already going to sleep, the sun a signal for them to hide their beautiful plumage. She had always marveled at these strange underwater things. They were as hard as stones, yet she knew that there was something alive in there. Here, the sea seemed to breathe – the different grasses moving with the currents; the hundred thousand different colors of the fish swimming.
There! She spies a large oyster the size of her palm attached to the reef. She takes the knife and chips away at the base of the oyster, prying it away from its hold on the stone. She tugs at the mollusk, the rough surface of the shell digging into her finger. The oyster is freed after a few seconds, and she swims upward, bringing her prize along.
Without getting out the water, she jars open the shell with her knife only to find the slimy mollusk inside and no pearl to be found. Disappointed, she takes a lungful of air and dives once again into the sea.
A few moments later, she breaks the surface again, this time carrying two shells. She opens both again, but her efforts are rewarded with unformed nacre – adolescent pearls that unfortunately were worthless. At this rate, I won’t find anything before midday. She did not want to stay out too long in the sun, when its fierce rays can burn. The last time she was burned, she spent a week bathing in coconut milk just to soothe her burnt skin.
She dives again and again. Bringing up two or three shells at time. Sometimes she found pearls, but none of them fit her requirements. One was too small, the other too soft. She needed a pearl the size of an eye and she would get it.
One more time. She dives again, the waters around her getting warmer from the rays of the sun. She swims to the end of the reef, a bit farther than she was used to doing. There the reef gave way to a sheer drop, the hundred thousand schools of fish gathering to find food before going to sleep for the day, only to come out again at night.
And then she sees something out of the corner of her eye. It was moving languidly through the water, its dark blue dorsal side indistinguishable from above, but with its big white belly underwater, she could see it quite clearly now.
Shark! It was the biggest shark she ever saw, a fish bigger than her own boat. And it was moving towards her. She swims, fear and panic driving her into a frenzied, headlong rush to safety. She had gotten a few meters away when she noticed something curious. The shark was not following her. She paused, treading water to keep her head afloat. It’s not following me. It’s one of those big sharks that the elders say are too old or too big to hunt meat, so they just open their mouth and wait for the food to come in.
An urge to touch the shark overcomes Sira and she swims towards the behemoth. She touches the rough skin of the shark which the creature barely notices. By Allah, this thing is huge. And it’s letting me touch it. She becomes enamored with the rough skin of the giant, marveling at the beautiful dark blue skin dotted with white.
She holds on to one of the fins, letting the fish drag her along the sea. Her sense of wonder keeps her swimming with shark, letting go every so often to get a big gulp of air before swimming back down to swim with the shark again. This sense of freedom, of kinship with such a large creature, animates her soul.
She plays this game for her newfound shark friend for the better part of the day, nearly forgetting the original reason why she went so far out to sea in the first place before she notices that the shark has brought her to a different part of the reef, one that she has not seen before.
And by pure circumstance, the shark’s tail had moved some sand around, revealing a gigantic clam, stuck in a jagged outcrop of coral. The clam was dead, its once blue lips now the color of sandy death.
She releases her grip from the shark and swims towards the clam and peers inside. In the middle, was a beautiful pearl, bigger than her eye and as black as night. She jams her knife into the small opening, and her lithe fingers dart in, struggling to get the pearl. The tips of her fingers brush against the pearl and she gathers it into the palm of her palm. She rushes towards the surface and breathes in a lungful of air before she takes a look at the pearl.
Allah be praised. Pearls were rare but black pearls were rarer still. And it was a beautiful pearl, perfectly round and it had rainbows playing on its surface when held up towards the sun. She pops the pearl in her mouth and after a quick search over the horizon she manages to see the outline of her boat. She swims towards her boat, using long powerful strokes to carry her over the water into her boat.
She hoists herself up, out of the water and into her boat, the sun now directly in her eyes. “Wahaaaaaaa!” she whoops, kicking her feet and waving her arms in excitement. She could imagine Kusog’s face when he gave that spear to her. However, in her heart of hearts, she knew that Kusog wanted her to have his spear, all of this a pretense, a play at a transaction, so she felt justified at taking away such a beautiful object.
She lays like that, naked to the sun, and slept, happiness marking her face.
The sun was already midway down when Sira wakes up. The sun had left painful red marks all over her body. She struggled to move, her skin painful to the touch.
“Aya! This is so painful. What did I do to deserve this?” Sira asks herself. She gingerly puts on her baro, careful not to scrape to close to the raw skin. She takes a look at the pearl again, marveling at its beauty. “Wahaa! This is why!” she cries triumphantly. She takes a small bag, puts the pearl inside and then places the bag on a thong on her neck.
She checks her sail’s riggings, and after testing the wind, she unfurls it, catching a strong easterly wind that launches her boat forward. She pitches her sail to and fro, riding the wind like a beast of burden. Her boat crests waves with ease, slicing through the churn and froth like a knife.
Sira was trying to make time. She was trying to beat the nightfall. If she didn’t come home, they would be sending out search parties for her and that would be very embarrassing, new black spear be damned.
She passes near the big island, home of another tribe, and their mortal enemy. The people on the big island always sought tribute from them, raiding their smaller island constantly, but her people fought back. Her people usually repulsed the big islander’s advances, but they were not always successful. One raid had taken the life of her mother.
But there was something strange on the big island. There near the big island was a large war party. Different boats were floating up and down the waves, festooned in myriad colors denoting their home villages. And not one of them had her island’s red and black. It was going to be a raid and it looked they were going to attack her village.
“Ali’s beard, what are those?” she whispers.
At the head of the flotilla of ships where four of the biggest ships she had ever seen. Sira had never seen so much wood. They had wait strange white sails, each with a symbol, two red sticks arranged perpendicular to one another. The sight makes her frightened. I must warn father!
She pulls on her sails again, this time trying to catch more wind for more speed. She knew that the enemy war party had already seen her because they were now moving in her direction.
“Ha! You won’t catch me, you pigs!” she shouts at her pursuers. She was right. Her boat was small but her expert piloting and her tribe’s expertise at making boats meant she would outrace any of the enemy on the open sees.
A peal of thunder came from the direction of the four large ships. Smoke and fire erupted from one of them. Then there was a large splash about paces from where she was. Sira’s eyes went wide. Demons! Devil’s magic!
KERACK! KERACK! KERACK! More thunder, then more splashes, some near and some far, and around her the sea was agitated, as if a giant hand was slapping the water.
KERACK! One the things making the splashes hit too close, overturning her small boat. Sira was pitched into the sea. Underneath, she could finally see the things the demons were throwing at her – stones bigger than her head. She saw about a half dozen more enter into the sea before one of them hits her boat, obliterating it. Sira lets out a silent scream underwater, seeing a part of her soul ripped apart.
Sira’s baro, now waterlogged, was dragging her done. She strips off, releasing herself from its weight and she swims away. She tries to hold on a bit longer under water and she stays there, hiding in fear from the wrath of the demons. When her lungs began to burn, she knew she had to surface. She swims upward back into the light.
At the surface, she looks at the direction of the demon ships. The smoke was just beginning to clear. At the horizon, the rival tribe’s boats had stopped going after her. It seemed to that they though her dead and with her being just a small dot in the ocean, no one could actually see her. A few moments later, what was once a hornet’s nest of activity, petered off and the boats gathered back near the shore of the big island.
There in the middle of the ocean, Sira watched all of this. She knew they were going to her home and with that demon magic, she knew they stood no chance. She cried, not knowing what to do. She cried, helpless. She cried, until the sun had gone down into its watery home. The stars started appearing one by one until the sky was blanketed with their light and the chill night air started to descend on the sea.
She prayed, mouthing the words to herself. Allah, help me. Send me your angels. I need strength. Allah guide me. Please help me go to my family.
Sira closes her eyes, then opened them again, this time resolute. She starts swimming, using the long powerful strokes that had given her so much notoriety. At first she moved with haste, then upon realizing that she still had a long way to go and she needed to conserve her energy, she adopted a slower pace, one that she hopes would take her all the way home.
Beneath the night sky, she swam – each stroke filled with purpose, willing herself forward. Occasionally, she would rest, her breath frosting in the colder air of the open sea. Then she would swim again, guided by the stars and by the intimate knowledge of the sea that was given to her and her ancestors. On an on she went, plodding through the night, still swimming, hoping against hope that she makes it home.
Soon, Sira could feel some of her muscles beginning to burn. She was a great swimmer, but the human body had its limits, even for a girl who was named fish. The slow creep of tiredness was entering her bones, and this time, doubt began to enter her mind. She pauses again, her fears amplified by the loneliness of the sea.
I won’t be able to make it home will I?
Sira disabuses herself of that notion. She shakes her head, grim determination on her face. Then she sees something.
Lights. Lights coming from below the sea. As there were the stars in the sky, the whole sea also began to mirror the night sky. Water spirits. Djinni in the open ocean! The whole sea was filling up with the beautiful creatures, diaphanous and glowing, with long vines trailing beneath them.
Then Sira spies a familiar face – a gigantic shark, the same one she saw before. She swims towards the lumbering giant at the sea, laughing as she approached the creature. Somehow, she knew her prayers were answered. “Thank you!” she says to the shark and silently, to her God above.
She starts swimming with the shark again, mimicking her adventures from earlier in the day.
Sira would hold on to the shark just below the surface, and when it was time to breathe, she would go up, take a lungful of air and then submerge to her shark. The pace was slower, but she knew that that with this pace, she could reach her home. There guided by the glow of the water spirits, she knew she was not alone in the ocean. This goes for uncounted hands of time, Sira oblivious to the world, her desire to go home fueling her. The underwater lights soon disappear and she was alone again with her shark friend.
Then, just as abruptly as her shark arrived, her friend stops, and with a languid turn, moves in the opposite direction. Sira surfaces again, shouting at her friend. “Where are you going? Don’t leave me here! Please come back, I need to go home,” she cries. She keeps on shouting and shouting.
But the shark just goes on and until it too disappears. Desperation and fear overwhelm Sira. She was now alone in the sea. Tired, broken and suddenly realizing that has not eaten or drunk eaten yet today, she knew she was going to die in the sea.
Sira floats on her back, and with the darkness overwhelming her, let’s her body sink below the surface of the ocean. The sea would claim the air in her lungs, and she would die.
Sira does not here a loud splash near her and powerful arms reach for her before she succumbs. Her first impulse was to struggle and to be afraid, but she recognized the arms now cradling her and now hoisting her onto a large boat filled with men. Her father had come looking for her and now has found her.
“Sira! Sira!” her father says, his voice tinged with fear. “Wake up! Don’t leave me, daughter.”
Disoriented and spitting out water, Sira musters the last of her energy. She had to warn them.
“Bapak, you found me,” cries Sira. “You have to – you have to g-go! D-Demons. Demons from the b-big island, they are going to attack.”
Her father looks at her in bewilderment, not understanding, his eyes filled with shock and emotion. Sira gasps. The effort had taken its toll upon her.
Then the world goes black.
Sira wakes, her eyes slowly fluttering open. She sees the beautiful face of her friend, Kusog looking at her. Kusog was wearing his priestess attire, his long lustrous hair framing his worried eyes. He was stroking Sira’s hair.
Sira realizing where she was, fully awakens with and sits bolt upright, startling Kusog. Sira grabs Kusog’s arm. “Kusog! Kusog! You have to warn the village, the demons are coming!”
Kusog screams in a high pitched voice. “AYIEEE!” he cries. Then he dashes off outside the hut, screaming “She’s awake! She’s awake!”
Kusog walks back in. “SIRA! I THOUGHT I HAD LOST YOU!” still screaming in his high pitched voice. Tears were brimming in his eyes.
“Kusog! There are demons coming! You must warn everyone!” Sira cries again.
Kusog shushes her, then begins telling the story. How her father, the chieftain, gathered all of their warriors and prepared them for war. The demons came, in their suits of iron, and their thunder and the fire, and her father defeated them. The enemy tribes just watched from a distance, and seeing the demons beaten back, the other tribes just went home. Her father, the greatest warrior Sira has ever known, had defeated the greatest raid in the history of the corner of their island. This was two days ago, and Sira had been unconscious for that long, near the cusp of death, but the babaylan and Kusog had been taking care of her, keeping the thread of her life from snapping.
It takes a few moments for everything to register, then Sira shouts a long victorious war whoop. Kusog, surprised at first, joins her. Then Sira notices the large black pearl, set into a comb in Kusog’s hair. She points it out to Kusog.
Kusog scolds her then. “You silly, silly girl. I didn’t know you were going to go all the way out of the ocean just to find me a pearl. Oh wait, I should have known. I should have known better.” Kusog was about to say something more, when they hear big bounding steps from outside of the hut.
Her father ducks inside, and wraps Sira in a big embrace.
“My daughter, my daughter, my daughter,” he repeats over and over again. Sira hugs her father back, tears streaming down both of their faces.
“Bapak, you are a hero!” Sira says after letting go of her embrace. “You defeated the demons!”
“No, you are a hero, my daughter,” her father replies. “Without your warning, we would have been doomed. Your name will be remembered for eternity.”
“That’s silly, father. You can’t have a hero with a name that means fish.”
Her father looks at her, then smiles. “We’ll see about that.”
Ang Huling Hugotero