Fiction / July 2018 (Issue 40: Writing the Philippines)


by Pearlsha Abubakar

It was still dark when I heard Inda Salma's quiet sobbing on the walkway outside our wooden hut planted in the waters of Tahib reef. It was so uncharacteristic of her to be this way. Normally, she'd already be puttering about the hut, sewing the frayed fishnets with bark twine, doing small repairs on the parao or boiling some cassava on the terracotta stove for breakfast.

I tried to get up from my mat on one side of the hut the way a normal person would but couldn't do it. The recognition lasted only a moment every day, but I never got used to it.

I wasn't normal. I've had no legs since I was eight summers old, and now I am eighteen summers old. I've had to concentrate more intensely than most people to get ordinary things done, like getting up every morning.

I quickly made the extra effort to move my upper body into a sitting position on the mat and called out: "Inda?"

The hut was very small, so Inda heard me right away. Quickly, she walked briskly back inside. Just like that, she was back as my no-frills aunt, all work, full of life. She pointed outside the window that faced the walkway. "Lubas!" she exclaimed.

I walked using my hands across the wooden floor towards the walkway. Indeed, what appeared to be a new island was visible from where we were. I sized it up with my hands. It could only be half a square kilometre long from end to end. Clumps of bushes were scattered across the surface. I spotted two leafless trees on each end. I'd lived all my life in the waters of Tahib, but I'd never seen that island before today. I consulted my Geekbit, the wristwatch that knew all the answers, to get the coordinates of the island. I pressed a button at the watch's edge and a thin stream of light came out and measured the island. The Geekbit LED display showed 500,267 square metres; 1.674 kilometres away.

"It's there," I said in Sama. I couldn't believe it.

Inda stood beside me. She was a slight but very strong woman with full lips and high cheekbones, like most of the women on the reef. She was already in her sixties, but her skin was a loamy kind of brown and slick with good health. There were a few lines on her face. She was a little vain and would apply thanakha cream on her face and arms to avoid sunburn while working under the sun. Only her hands betrayed her age, as they were rough and calloused. "Praise Tuan," she muttered solemnly in Sama.

We looked at the island. The sun had now come out a little and illuminated one side of it. A pink colour was visible. I figured it was probably made of pink coral, much like Tahib.

Inda bent over on the walkway to lower into the water a coconut shell tied to one of the house posts. With it, she scooped up some seawater and brought it to her lips. "Two hours at most," she said as she licked the salt from her lips. "We must leave now before it disappears again."

On the nearby reefs, I could see the others doing the same. Even from where I was, I could feel their excitement. There were forty families moored on the reef. On the eastern side of Tahib, there was another great reef called Bangas where twenty more families lived. Most lived like us, on stilted huts relying on support from the coral below, with a wooden parao parked out on the walkway. Some didn't bother to build any huts and lived inside their paraos instead.

Some of the women sang to the sea as they packed. Inda was busy packing essentials, but she was intently listening to the songs being carried by the sea wind. From Bangas, which was maybe half a kilometre out from Tahib, I could hear the distinct soprano voice of my cousin Salanda singing. All of us who moored in Tahib were relatives. We rarely married outsiders. We could marry a first cousin if we wished, as long as it was on our mother's side.

Salanda had really grown and was now very pretty at sixteen summers. I would marry her if she would have me, and I have felt her affections grow after I won most bets in Bangas over who could swim the fastest. Even without legs, I beat all my male cousins at swimming. I could swim from Tahib to Bangas in under ten minutes.

Inda listened intently to Salanda's song. At one point, she furrowed her eyebrows as she picked out an unfamiliar word. "Hegira?"

"When the Arabs left Mecca to migrate to Medina thousands of years ago when they were being persecuted for their new beliefs," I told Inda, remembering what Salanda had told me once about the Hegira. I also remembered my cousin's beautiful long hair, when it was not yet dried up by the sun. "Unicorn hair," I once told her, tousling it with my fingers. She had smiled coyly. I knew she liked me, too.

Many of us in Tahib had been tutored by people around the world when we were young. They would arrive in ships and row out on a small boat to get to us. For instance, Salanda had been tutored by a Turkish scholar named Emre and was an expert in Islamic history, while I was tutored by an American named Arlo, who also told me a lot of stories about unicorns and mythical creatures that he knew. Language wasn't a barrier; foreigners would talk to little robots called hovers that floated beside them. They were shiny metal artificial intelligence orbs that assisted their human owners in any way they were required: by giving directions, contacting people or translating foreign languages. Arlo was special though: he knew Sama.

Inda and I didn't have much to pack, just a few malongs and shirts and some food items she'd put inside a large pink cloth secured with a knot. I'd put my things inside a small waterproof backpack Arlo had given me.

I took one last look at the place where I'd grown up. The hut was five by five metres, its roof made of plaited coconut fronds and posts of old molave. On one side of the hut were the books that Arlo had given me. I brought one book that he himself had written, about the ways and means of the Sama people. Auntie later disassembled a small post and brought it to our parao, to make into some kind of safety rudder in case we didn't make it to Lubas (even though it was only a short distance away), or turn into firewood, or shave for twine.

"Pawik!" she called out.

I tossed my backpack over to her on the boat and threw myself into the water.

We got on the boat at almost the same time as the others rode their own boats along Tahib reef, about forty families in all. I recorded that day in my journal. It was March 4, 2067.


Every day since my cousin Isma disappeared on the main island of Kandungan seven days ago, Inda Salma had ridden on her parao for hours on end looking for the island of Lubas. It was ironic that Inda couldn't locate it for a long time, only to discover that it was so close that we could actually see it from our hut in Tahib.

Isma, who like me, was also eighteen summers old, had gone to Kandungan, about a ten-minute ride away, to sell the seaweed they'd harvested to the mainlander Tarik. According to his younger brother Byutuk who was always with him, Isma had complained loudly about something Tarik said. He might have raised his voice a little to express his frustration as Isma often did. But anyone would have been irritated by Tarik; the man was brusque, spoke harshly and condescendingly. He was the son of one of the councilors in Kandungan and pushed his weight around whenever he could. Tarik was such trouble that the other families who also farmed seaweed avoided dealing with him.

One day, when Isma had gone ashore to harvest cassava inland, Byutuk, who had remained on the boat, saw some armed men drag him off, and he was never seen again. Byutuk quickly rowed back to Tahib as one of the men tried to shoot at him from the shore. Inda said he was trembling when Byutuk told her the story.

We've had an uneasy peace with the mainlanders, but this was the first time in many years they'd actually done harm to our people again. That night, there was a lot of singing from Isma's hut as Byutuk related what had happened, and his song was carried by the sea to the other huts and houseboats moored in the nearby reefs.

After Isma disappeared, Byutuk, Tom-Tom, Sara and Agil left their hut in the water and rode their parao out onto the open sea the very next day without even saying goodbye.

"Ah, orang sungit," Inda had hissed when she learnt that Isma's whole family had gone. The sungit is the spirit of a termite-like creature that lived in rotten wood and couldn't derive any satisfaction from anything even after it had sucked it dry. "They are getting restless again. We too must leave."

"Isma might return. We should wait for him."

My aunt gave me a sad look and shook her head.

"He might still be alive," I refused to believe what she believed.

"Isma is no longer here with us."

Inda knew. She said she had tasted Isma's blood in the water. She could divine many things just by looking at the sea or bringing seawater to her lips. Inda was special that way.

But I was considered more special than most, more so now that I could swim. Everyone respected me, even though my condition was caused by a great disrespect. When I was eight summers old, I disobeyed Inda and stepped ashore on the mainland with a few of my cousins, wanting to explore on our own. I ended up stepping on an old landmine that our elders believe had been deliberately left there to keep us away. My calves and shinbones were ripped apart by the blast.

Nobody went to jail, but I went to the town hospital. The staff were mainlanders, but one nurse was kind to me and drugged me right away, so I wouldn't feel any more pain. I was asleep when my legs were amputated.

Inda didn't waste time crying over wasted seaweed. "Your legs are gone, accept it," she told me. "Now, Tuan will give you something else to replace what was taken."

Tuan was our god. It was a god from inside the body and materialised onto the outside world what was inside all of us. "Your outer body was changed," she told me when I lost my legs. "We must balance the inner body and the outer body again." I was young. I remembered her words, but didn't quite understand them.

About two months after the incident, Inda sat me on her parao, and we'd rowed out onto the open sea. We'd stopped in the middle of the ocean, about fifteen minutes out.

It was still too soon after the incident. I was still healing. I sent a thought down to my legs to make them move. I could feel something there. In our belief, the world inside became the world outside.

But the world outside of me had changed. My legs were gone, but the connection to my insides was still there, and that was the one I was feeling now.

I was clumsy and frustrated that I wasn't moving even though I was willing my legs to move with all my might. I was confused and angry and also strangely excited about what Tuan would replace my legs with.

"Now close your eyes," said Inda, putting the paddle away.

I closed my eyes.

I felt a strong hand on my shoulder and then, the shock of cold water enveloping me. Auntie had pushed me overboard!

I flailed my arms, confused about what was going on. Why was Inda trying to kill me? I willed my legs to paddle and keep me afloat, and in my mind, they moved. In my mind, I was swimming like all the other kids in Tahib, effortlessly, like the very schools of fish that surrounded our waters during the summer tide. But how come I was sinking to the bottom of the ocean instead? My still-unhealed stumps were like cowries weighing me down.

I surfaced momentarily, pushing against the water with my arms, screaming at Inda to help me, but the swells washed over me and I went underwater again. After a few minutes of hopeless flailing as I inhaled water, I stopped moving and felt an indescribable peace come over me.

I don't know how long I was underwater, but I remember wanting to stay inside that sensation of peace, perhaps to experience the ancient memory of the womb, of me awash in the familiar feeling of my mother, who I'd never known as she'd died soon after giving birth to me. I didn't know I even had those feelings. My curiosity wanted more. I wanted to remain there.

But my journey to my mother's womb ended abruptly as strong hands fished me out and heaved me onto the parao. I stared at the smiling face of Auntie, who declared the moment I opened my eyes: "Tuan has blessed you today!"

After that day, I started longing for the peace I'd felt and spent much of my time underwater, first just putting my head in the water as I sat on the boat. Then holding on to the boat as I moved my imaginary legs. Then finally, letting go of the boat. I did this for several hours a day for many years. I'd since developed a strong upper body to compensate for my missing limbs, and my whole chest region and back had expanded even though my head remained as small as it was. Soon, I became the fastest swimmer in all of Tahib. Friends called me Pawik because they thought I looked like a great turtle.

Inda had foreseen the renewed violence between us and the mainlanders after the incident with Isma and wanted to move away for good. That was when she first told me about Lubas.

I remember the day she first mentioned the disappearing island. She'd brought out four circular objects the size of marbles, all iridescent blue. I was mesmerised by the colour. Upon closer inspection, one could see swirls of brown and grey on their beautiful shiny surfaces.

"Byutuk, Tom-tom, Sara, Agil," she said as she set the objects down one by one on my palm. They were as light as styrofoam. "They're in Lubas now."

"Are they dead?" I asked.

"No!" Inda said, exasperated. "This is proof that they made it to Lubas."

"How?" I asked. "Are they inside?"

Inda ignored me as she puttered about the hut to prepare some lunch.

I looked at the blue objects in my palm and then at Inda—a slight but strong woman, my dead mother's sister, my last remaining immediate relative—and felt nothing but deep affection. When Inda had come by Isma's hut after the family had gone, she saw four of these objects stuck on the fishing net they'd left hanging on a post.

I returned the objects to her. "Lubas must be full of our missing relatives by now."

"Yes," Inda had said. "We will join them there soon."

The international community could save us, I thought. I had my Geekbit watch and could call Arlo for help. Arlo was the American who'd taught me English, our connector to the outside world. He had given me the watch. There were also the Japanese who'd taught us to farm seaweed in exchange for our freediving techniques. Only the mainlanders found us too primitive and scorned us. We didn't have a sewage system, and sometimes our feces would wash up on their beaches. We took only what we needed from the world. We didn't participate in their society of rules and excess, which made the mainlanders scorn us even more. And now they were making life much more difficult for us, as they'd started trawl-fishing the waters of the West Philippine Sea. Our catches were getting smaller and farther in between.

The world inside us, its eighty percent water, was the bigger world,. To us, it was the world that made better sense. A freer world, softly liquid, no friction of any kind. We simply materialised what was inside us onto the outer world. And again, in the same way that the mine took away my legs, the world outside was being changed irrevocably yet again.

I was about to speak into my Geekbit to tell Arlo about the incident with Isma and Tarik when Inda stopped me. "Pawik, we Sama are free. If we ask for help, we will never be free."

"We'll die."

"As everything does, eventually," Inda said in her language again, the language of riddles and mysteries. Oh, my Inda. She never told me anything straightforward.

The day Lubas finally appeared, Inda had felt much sorrow, as it confirmed what she'd already known. Isma was indeed gone. That was why she was sobbing outside that day. The island wouldn't have appeared for any other reason. If I'd died after the blast when I was eight summers old, she said Lubas would also have materialised. But Inda was also happy that the island had appeared. The emergence of Lubas had given her mixed emotions.

And now, the boat was gliding to a stop on the island. The sand had turned a shade darker, so that the island looked like it was drenched in blood. The waters all around the island were deep. Only the uneven shape of the submerged bottom of the island, a massive pink coral, was what you could glimpse in the depths.

Inda stepped out of her parao, not bothering to moor. After unloading her things and the log post, she let the parao drift away. I'd walked out of the boat on my hands, scuttling like a crab across the sand. The other children who were already there before us ran to me and started to imitate me. I was strong, so I could scuttle fast. They screamed and giggled in delight as I gave chase.

"Sssh!" an elder's voice sounded like splashing water. The children stopped playing with me and sat on the beach.

The trees I'd seen from afar were covered in coral. Upon closer inspection, I realised they weren't trees at all, but coral that looked like trees.

Little boats started to arrive one by one, their sails rice sacks sewn together. Men, women and children stepped off the boats, their coffee-coloured skin moist with sea and sweat, their hair long and bleached naturally by long hours swimming under the sun. They walked very carefully, as though on glass. The men wore green bahag and not much else, while the women wore colourful malongs secured on one shoulder by a knot. The young children were mostly naked, while the older children wore clothes in the same style as their elders'.

Inda Salma sat beside me and untied the large red cloth she'd packed our food in. Fruits, glutinous rice wrapped in banana leaves and shiny circular objects of various colours came tumbling out, proof that our other missing relatives were alive, she insisted.

I checked my backpack. My goggles were missing.

"Inda, have you seen my goggles? They were hanging on the post by the walkway."

I gritted my teeth in frustration. I loved to look at the corals and fishes and life under the water. Without them, I was going to be handicapped, yet again.

"May I borrow yours?" I asked Inda.

"If you do, what will I use?"

"Your magical powers?" I smiled.

Inda tried to pinch me on the waist, but I avoided her fingers just in time.

Salanda's family then came. My mother's brother Pa Rohaini and his wife Inda Khali walked past me, and I bowed to show respect. Inda Salma embraced his brother and gave Inda Khali a kiss. Meanwhile, Salanda walked past me and smiled. She was about to take my hand, so we could explore the island, but her mother gave her a stern look. They all continued to walk further inland.

Most of the people were going past us to walk further inland. Pa Rohaini said something to Salanda and my beautiful cousin started to sing. Her eyes were closed as she sung in a flowery version of Sama that I barely understood. I guess it was just my imagination, but the waves appeared to grow bigger with each word. People stopped walking and paid attention.

"What is she singing about?" I asked Inda.

"She's just asking the others to stay closer to the shore, where we are, so that we're evenly distributed across the island."

"Why in a different language?"

"Lubas doesn't understand modern Sama," Inda said as she ate her cassava.

Just then, I noticed a familiar boat coming ashore. It was also handmade like ours, but of fiberglass than wood. A blonde, long-haired person got off the boat and started walking towards me. It was my American tutor, Arlo.

"Inda, it's Arlo!" I exclaimed.

"Keep your voice down!" she hissed. I kept quiet. Auntie seemed both scared and exasperated at once.

Arlo was in his mid-sixties, but he was as a limber as a thirty-year old. He smiled, greeted Auntie, who merely smirked, then sat beside me. Wordlessly, Auntie handed him a cassava, which he ate with relish. "Thank you," he said, as he listened to Salanda singing and was transfixed.

"How did you know?" I whispered.

Arlo seemed clueless.

"Why are you here?"

Arlo scratched his head. "I was doing some writing on Pangutad," he said, referring to the coral cemetery about twenty minutes out, "when I saw the boats going this way. So I followed them. Then I saw your boat."

"No stay here," Inda whispered to him in halting English. "Go back Pangutad."

Arlo smiled and lovingly looked at my aunt. "Your English is getting better, my love."

"Go back Pangutad, leave me," Inda said for emphasis.

"You're breaking my heart again, Salma my love," Arlo crooned, this time in Sama. "The wind keeps bringing me back to your shore. What am I to do?"

There was something about the Sama language that warmed my aunt's heart and disarmed her. She then stood up, offering her hand and silently motioned for Arlo to take her hand. Without another word, he took her hand and got up as Inda led him back to his boat. There, they talked to each other for almost an hour, away from me. I got the feeling that Auntie moved him away from me, so she could tell him things she was too embarrassed to let me hear.

A few moments later, Inda gave him a kiss and then pushed him off to his boat. Arlo then looked at me and Inda very sadly. Without another word, he went back to his boat and sailed away.


The sun was setting. We all sat quietly. There were about a hundred families by the end of the day, all crammed on the island. I'd fallen asleep and woken up to the vision of more people streaming onto Lubas at the last minute.

Suddenly from afar, a siren sounded. It was a familiar sound, from the town hall in Kandungan.

Pa Rohaini took out a battered pair of binoculars. He saw activity on the island, uniformed men getting on a boat. They were military, and they were armed.

He quietly put his binoculars down. "Tarik is with them," he said.

A shudder of fear ran through the crowd.

"Where do we go?" one of the men asked.

"Nowhere," Inda cut in. "We stay here."

From afar, we heard the whizzing of a helicopter flying overhead, coming closer and closer. The people on the island were getting agitated, but they dared not scream.

We heard the sinister drone of a motorboat approaching the island.

Pa Rohaini, got down on his knees and kissed the ground. He moved his hands across the pink sand.

The other elders did the same.

Auntie then said to me: "Close your eyes. "

"Close your eyes!"

The helicopter was now just a few hundred metres above the island. One of the men eased himself out onto the landing skid to get a good view of us. He then aimed his gun at us and started shooting.

Without another word, Inda pushed me with a strength that surprised me. I heard a great explosion. I fell down on my back. Immediately, I felt a shock of water envelope me.

I was moving, but I wasn't doing anything but lying there on the sand … which had turned dark as it became wet with water.

All around me, the world trembled. A loud rumbling was heard, and the ocean swelled and sent a wave nearly ten feet high that almost toppled the offending motorboat as it moved towards us at great speed.

The island was now submerged an inch or two in the ocean and was moving.

The man in the helicopter continued to shoot at us.

I could hear the motorboat moving closer and closer.

I flipped myself over, so I could get off the island, dive into the depths and swim alongside it as it moved. Without my goggles, it was painful to keep my eyes open underwater. I would open them for a while, then close them again. There was nothing to see but rock and coral and a cloudiness in the water, as small bits of rock and coral were caught in the wake of the island moving across the water like a big ship.

I swam deeper, staying close to the great moving mass of coral. The others were doing the same, swimming alongside the island as bullets entered the water. Some hit flesh and blood spurted out.

I swam even deeper to avoid the bullets. Like most Sama, I could stay under water for a long time. I went deeper and deeper. Twenty feet, thirty feet, forty feet. I swam for my life, closed my eyes.

I felt something warm burst in my ears, and then a low, steady noise that grew softer and softer.

I opened my eyes and looked around, then closed them again. Nothing but dark water. I looked up and saw bullets hitting the water.

I would open then close my eyes to make sure Lubas was still in sight.

I saw Inda swimming towards me. She was wearing her goggles. And swimming beside her was—Arlo? The hair was just as blonde as Auntie's, and he was wearing a Geekbit. It had to be Arlo.

The water stung my eyes and I closed them again for a long time. When I opened them again, I was stupefied by what I saw next.

An ancient face with a great pair of iridescent blue eyes like marbles stared at me. Suddenly, the memory was very strong, as if I was seven years old again, mucking around with Byutuk and Isma at Tahib on a lazy morning, competing over who could hold his breath the longest in the water. Isma often outdid us all. He was the first among the cousins to lose his eardrums to the depths, and so tended to speak much more loudly than most of us.

The memory subsided, and I saw the great pair of eyes blink.

The face was all overgrown with coral. Great plumes of water spouted out of its nostrils, which were as big as the entrance of a cave.

It was a turtle.


A few minutes later, I noticed that the rumbling sound had ceased. There were no more bullets entering the water. Lubas, the great turtle, had stopped. It blinked again and retracted its head back into its coral shell.

I swam slowly back to the surface. Ten feet below the surface, I hovered for a few more minutes, so that I didn't get the bends. I saw others do the same.

After reaching the surface, I saw a blinding white light and heard people singing in Sama. We'd finally arrived.


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