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

The Last of the Sama-sellang

by Sigrid Marianne Gayangos

For more than a week, I had waited for the weather to clear, so I could make the two-hour banca ride across the Basilan Strait, past the two Santa Cruz islands and through the narrow passage surrounded by enormous mangroves with thick, gnarled roots. Our tiny banca carved a course between shrubs with wraith-like silhouettes, their seemingly impregnable tangle of interlocking branches discouraged even the most daring wanderer.

A turn onto the path revealed Mr. Tsai's house on bamboo stilts, with the descending blood-red sun as the imposing backdrop across miles of undisturbed waters. Previously, day after stormy day had passed, accompanied by a turbulent sea that spewed violent waves. But today, everything was still.

The guide switched off the engine of the motorboat, and for some time, the puttering sound lingered as if endless upon the air. As the last crackle repelled into the distance, I suddenly noticed the mingled scent of decay and salt that overwhelmed the islet before us. I cursed under my breath, dreading that perhaps we had arrived a day too late.

I was standing at the foot of Mr. Tsai's house, where a number of oysters of varying sizes had already encroached on the present site. Without a moment's hesitation, I headed up the flimsy makeshift stairs and went in. The smell of rot was stronger there. I was welcomed by a spartan but meticulously arranged living space, in the middle of which was an outdoor inflatable pool for kids filled with what seemed like briny water. Cluster flies, huge ones with blue and yellow sheen on the thorax, hovered around the room.

Inside the pool was a creature that looked like a human-whale chimera gone wrong: its eyes sunken into dark holes; a tear on its face, which could only be the mouth, revealed many sharp, fang-like teeth; its skin (or was it scale?) was blue-gray all over, all six feet of it, with patches of pink and green. Next to the pool, Mr. Tsai knelt and caressed the head of the wheezing creature.

"This … this is the sama-sellang?" I asked.

Mr. Tsai gestured for me to approach, "Sorry to disappoint. What were you expecting?"

"No, not disappointed. I'm just surprised, is all."

Mr. Tsai continued to fuss over the creature, as if momentarily forgetting that I was standing there.

So I cleared my throat and added, "I've read so many things about them, especially on the underground trade of their gem-like scales. I was expecting something more colourful, I suppose."

"If you had come a week earlier, then you would've seen some of its famed scales. This one fetched its owner a hundred-thousand deal from a Malaysian trader—and that's already from the dull, sickly mound they managed to collect from its last shed."

"But the scales should grow back like fingernails, right?"

"Normally, yes. But this one has been repeatedly scaled. I'm afraid it's beyond recovery. You see these?" Mr. Tsai asked, pointing at the areas that were a ripe shade of pink with green ooze dripping out, "These are burns from the blade. It takes at least five weeks for them to grow back their scales. Ah, but human greed knows no waiting time. They scraped and scraped and scraped."

As I crouched before the ailing creature, I realised how incredibly enormous it was, with my two hands barely enough to cover a side of its face. It was still the stuff of folktales—the ancient sea dwellers who tamed waves and sunk ships, who whispered to and ordered winds according to their whims, who were as old as the southern islands and seas themselves. Yet now, here was one of them, stretched out in a rainbow-coloured plastic pool with mouth half open. Its body limp; its breathing weak and laboured.

"Will it live? My motorboat is still outside. We can take it to the city vet," I offered.

"It won't last long." The old, scrawny man held the sama-sellang's limb-like pectoral fins. He gestured again for me to come closer. Mr. Tsai, I then noticed, was dressed formally for a sunny day on a deserted islet. He wore a neat cotton shirt, dark pants with an elegant sash of red and gold around the waist and a matching turban. His hair was oiled and neatly combed, parted in the middle.

I knelt beside him and found myself unable to resist the urge to lay my hand on the sama-sellang's heaving chest. It did not recoil at my touch. I was struck by the warmth of its body. This was neither plastic caricature nor just the object of many songs and legends. This was a living creature, the last of its kind, its hot mass continued to pulse under my palm, struggling to persist despite the cruelty that it had endured. 

"I am so sorry," I whispered.

"There was nothing you could do," Mr. Tsai said as he continued to caress the creature. Its sallow skin seemed to glimmer where the old man's hand had traced a path, and for a moment, I thought I caught a glimpse of a fraction of its previous radiance. It was magnificent, still. Even lying prostrate, it seemed ready to levitate any time, leave the rickety hut and descend back to the deep where it truly belonged. 

"Will you report this to the city council?"

The old man shook his head, "It belongs to the ocean. We are not worthy of their purity."

A shudder ran through the sama-sellang's belly and it whimpered.

"Shhh … rest now," Mr. Tsai murmured.

I found my hand suddenly reaching out for the vial of amber liquid that we seemed to have forgotten in my belt bag. It was supposed to help the creature sleep easy.

As if sensing my unease, the sama-sellang's eyes popped in a wide accusing stare, and its tongue rolled from its mouth. Flies that gathered around us had doubled in number, as if sensing an unusual feast was before them. With its last remaining strength, the sama-sellang pushed closer to the old man.

"Take it easy, rest now," Mr. Tsai repeated, getting into the briny pool himself, as he leant closer and clasped the dying creature's hands.

Outside, the cicadas sang and the wind whistled. The waves joined in a mournful ebbing and flowing. The sama-sellang's breath grew fitful. Its mouth rattled; its leg-like lower fins clattered in one electric spasm. I continued to rub its back and give it whatever little comfort I could provide. There was not much I could do except wait.

Mr. Tsai leant his forehead against the sama-sellang's. The creature's eyes peeled open for the last time and sought his face. Their bodies had merged into one: one forehead to another, hands and fins, sallow skin and intricate patterns on the old man's sash.

The sama-sellang let out a final sound, a growl that was at once pitiful and terrifying. It reverberated around the tiny house, and as the echo died away, so did the beating under my hand. And then, darkness descended unannounced.

Mr. Tsai continued to hold the creature in his embrace. I rose as quietly as I could and headed to the makeshift stairs that faced the quiet sea.


Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2018
ISSN 1999-5032
All poems, stories and other contributions copyright to their respective authors unless otherwise noted.