By Junelie Anthony Velonta | March 28, 2021
“The Habagat is being kind to us.”
I did not reply. He often talked like that, voicing his thoughts for everyone to hear, but not really wanting to converse. There was no need for us to talk, really. Maybe he’s just doing it to help pass the time. If anything, the only conversation we needed to have was with the metronomic beats of our bugsay, piercing the mirror surface of the sea, moving our two-man sakayan forward.
“We should do this as much as we can while there’s still no wind, no storms. The Habagat brings strong storms.”
It was the work of the mountain spirits that the Habagat died down along the conjoined mountains of Negros that day. Underneath the shadows of the mountains, with the incantations and rituals of those atop them, the Tañon remains calm. At least, that’s how he explained it to me when I was younger. Of all our family, he was the only one who did not outgrow his beliefs of the spirits of nature, of the gods hiding inside the trees and under the sea.
All of our family are fisher folk. Many of the men are divers, tigpamana hunting for the lone, exotic fish, feeding not on bait but on the rocks and sand. But all of them, equipped with modern diver’s goggles and rubber flippers, can’t compare to him—my distant uncle, diving barefoot and with no eye-protection. Hardly anyone knew him, except that he was as many times removed from the family tree as the number of people that don’t talk to him. So, it was a genuine surprise that, during the barangay fiesta five years ago, he approached my father and asked for permission to train me.
We stopped rowing and let the grip of the sea slow down the sakayan. As the path that we passed returned to its inactive calm, he took off his long-sleeved shirt and khaki pants. The sakayan became still as he finished folding his clothes.
“You should master this. I’m getting old. Someone needs to replace me.”
Breathing in long and deep, then exhaling a slow, silent, and controlled nasal breath, he began his preparations for his dive. He flexed and stretched his arms, back, and feet as he inhaled and exhaled again, slower and slower each time. When he began to sweat, he turned his seated body to the sea. In his lap, he set his pana and loaded a bolt into it.
Perhaps the only thing we knew about him was that he used to live with his family, a wife and a son. Like him, we hardly knew of them. One day, however, chismis from our relatives working in the markets reached us. They told us that they saw his wife and son, carrying bags, boarding a bus bound for the city. We haven’t seen them since.
“After I dive, follow.”
He inched his face close to the surface, bowing as if in prayer to the southern horizon, where the Habagat blows from. With a deep breath, deeper than before, he submerged his face to the surface. The sakayan bobbed while he was motionless—his left hand gripping the outrigger, his pana he held in his right. Without announcement, he rose up and exhaled. Inhaling half a breath, he dived.
I removed my clothes and mimicked his preparation. When I began to sweat, I turned my body to southern horizon and slowly inched my face to the mirror surface of the sea. As the mellow sunlight warmed my back, I remembered that he taught me two incantations before a dive. I didn’t remember them anymore.
Nevertheless, with a deep breath, I submerged my face in the water. The rocks and corals underneath revealed themselves to me as my eyes braced the sting of the sea. I remained still. When the stillness tempered the tension in my body, I emerged and exhaled. With half a breath, I dived.
In a drunken talk with our relatives, I’ve heard tales about my distant uncle’s pagpamana feats. They told me of how he holds his breath for five minutes and that he walks underwater instead of swimming. He was so fast and efficient that, in the time that most of our family’s tigpamana take to reach the seabed, he has already caught his catch and started to row home. It sounded like hogwash. And I actively thought of it as hogwash, until I saw him dive.
The seawater, calm and unmoving on the surface, rushed by every inch of my skin as I swam deeper. Not a lot of people knew it, but it’s the half breath that lets the body sink. A full lung of air would have fought the feet as they paddled towards the sands. It must have been eight dupa when I reversed my body to stand. When my feet felt the roughness of the stones, buffered by the saltwater between them, I began to walk, scanning the ground for movement and faint glitters.
After two dozen steps, I stopped. Before me was a fish swimming from rock to rock, nibbling at a few. I aimed my pana at it, steadied my arms, and tracked its movement. The fish turned to another rock and as it was about to stop, my finger squeezed the trigger and the bolt was launched, disturbing the water surrounding it. In less than a blink, the bolt pierced the fish right behind its gills.
The fish tried to swim away, but it was its struggle to survive that slowly killed it. It can’t really carry the weight of its own self and the bolt. As it tried to move quicker, in an attempt to swim farther from me, the more exhausted it became. I swam to where the fish stopped, barely alive. Using the bolt piercing its body, I grabbed the fish. It tried to fight back a last time, but its movement was weak and slow, until it finally stopped swaying its tail and its body limped.
He told me once, during one of his one-sided talks, that city life doesn’t suit him. Something about the sea calls to him, and that it is the only thing he has known. Like his father, and his grandfather, and their fathers before them, he was taught and trained most his life how to dive and use the pana. That was all he knew, and he was firm in saying that he can’t learn something new. I asked him once why it was me that he trained. He did not answer.
Using the shadow of the sakayan to guide the paddling of my feet, I swam back up to the surface. I emerged between the outrigger and the hull of the sakayan, disturbing the mirror calmness of the surface, sending ripples that died upon hitting the hull of the sakayan, with some escaping into the open sea until they vanished from my sight. Still holding my breath, I saw that nobody manned the sakayan.
Finally, I exhaled. “He’s not here.”