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Karibang (a short fiction in a Ranaū-Iranūn setting)

By Nasser Sharief

The “Lumber” lakebed we have today down Raya Madaya in Marawi is no longer the watering hole I used to know in the 60s. Back then the lake teemed with fish-cages, tall stalks of bayumbong, and giant boulders on which young kids enthroned themselves to daydream and while away the hours whenever they could escape school. Nowadays, the place is a haven for drug peddlers and seedy people and if you pass by the dilapidated houses, there you could more than feel than see a dozen pair of eyes following you through the slits in the walls.

Back then, I and the other children used to bathe in the lake. And as was our wont, we laze in the sun the whole day until our hide roast brown. With head propped up on our knees looking detached from our neck, we sat naked among the boulders from where the cool water was within easy dive. There, we exchanged stories we heard from the elders while bored lizards, hugging the moist underside of the stones, licked moss. There, our eyes would follow the hyacinths to the depths, spanning a green carpet to the horizon beyond like you could just simply walk your way to nirvana.

Lanao -- the outburst of an ancient, angry volcano -- is awash with fantastic tales of magic and the unknown to fuel a child’s imagination. But the son of an ustadj was not supposed to believe these heretic tales. Still, with the odd contours of the landscapes and the richness of the environment, I couldn’t help but be teased by the eerie magic around me. On a good day, with just the right angles of shadows, you could make out the range of mountains and hills on the horizon bumped like blankets about the knees and breasts of a recumbent high-born princess. The Disney-addled students of the Mindanao State University dubbed her Sleeping Beauty, forgetting she was once called Rianōn by the betel-nut chewing folks of the lake. An aunt once told me that when you’re by the lakeshore, if you just close your eyes hard enough and tune out the natural sounds around you and have patience, you’ll be rewarded by a gentle humming of a song by a siren.

I was already thirteen turning on fourteen when I was beginning to be convinced that there really were no giants and witches after all but just the lake and the stalks, and the stupid fishermen’s dugout canoes trolling for some school of fish to dynamite.

But karibang or water nymphs…

I had just bolted up into the surface of the water from a high dive, a helmet of hyacinths crowning my head like a commando in camouflage, when I heard an ultra-silky voice.

“Someone please retrieve my bar of soap?”

Shrugging off the hairy roots of the hyacinths, newly spawned shrimps bumping off my shoulders and flicking back into the water, I wiped globules of water off my eyes and squinted in the direction of the owner of the voice.

It was a young woman.

She was seated on a low stone that barely cleared the green water. She was peering into the water, her long eyelashes almost touching the waterline. In the wavy reflection I couldn’t make out her face, cupped in both hands to blot out the harsh light. A long, rich, jet-black hair fanned her bare back as she bent low, her unseen legs folded under. She wasn’t so much as wearing anything but a malong-sari (a tubular clothing the Ranaū-Iranūn can’t do without). It was knotted around the hem atop her left shoulder to keep from slipping off. Gentle waves kept nudging the down-half of the malong puddled around her. But the cloth, sticky-wet as it was, was hard put to hide her shapely body.

Treading in the water to keep my head above the surface, the ripple dissolved her reflection, and it was exchanged with a view of her oval face when she lifted her head up to look at me.

It was her eyes that handcuffed me swifter than a police arrest. You could dive into it and be happily gone forever from your parents.

Could she be what the elders kept warning about when they tried to dissuade us kids to stay away from those eerie bayumbongs just at the drop of the Batara Rice Mill? Is this one a mermaid herself? I have to see her up close, I decided, if it kills me.

Not without any trepidation, I swam to her.

“Which way it went, lady?” I asked as I approached, treading the water, ready to bolt away any second just in case. We were alone that very afternoon. All around us was dead-quiet like we could have been the only people left in the world. Wisps of cloud smeared the sky but they were so still it could have been a sketching by a bad artist. The last of the bathers were gone and I could not hear any drumming of paddles by the laundry women.

Our eyes caught and she smiled at me coyly. She pointed to her left, tentative. “Over there…I suppose…”

Her slender tapering fingers had no nail polish. Now I could see she wasn’t wearing any ornament on her body that to do so would be superfluous. Her snail-shaped cochlea didn’t need any earing to stand out. She had no belly-button I could discern through the gauze of her malong. I was trying to establish her connection to the settled world. I supposed that the laundry she had washed should have been proof enough she wasn’t a karibang.

My body dipped like a duck, and then I was gone in the opaque liquid. A minute later, I resurfaced in triumphant glee, soap in hand.

“My…my…thank you!” She clapped her hands.

“What’s your name lad?” she asked as I handed her the bar.

“Alik!” I answered. “Lik is what my friends call me to save breath when dogs give us a chase.” I spat water. “You’re new in here, eh.”

“Right, Alik. We just settled on our new house along the corner of the cobblestones and the main road.”

I pulled myself up on her stone. “That’s across us!” I said.

“Really? Wonderful. Wonderful because you’re going to help me carry my laundry up the stone stairs.” She looked at me straight and smiled. “Old folks say that if you have to help someone, then you help her through and through. You helped me get back my soap, you might as well carry my load.”

“Yeah, you’re right!” I said, enthusiastic. “Like the alphabet. When you say A, you have to say B. And then C.”

“And so forth,” she said. And we both laughed.

When she propped herself up, I was so relieved she had no fish tail after all. She helped put the laundry atop my head, and said, “Alik, my name is Dyansarum. Quite a mouthful, huh. But even if there’s no dog chasing us out, just call me Dyan.” And we went home giggling.

Midway along the hurdle, she took her laundry off my head. She thanked me profusely and said we’ll be seeing each other around. I watched as she made her way through the tall blades of grasses until she was lost in the denseness.

That evening as I took my place on the reed mat as the family retired, I couldn’t sleep for a long time. Our neighbor, Babo Zsolica, was belting out in singsong mode an episode of her kirim which I ended up listening to until I dozed off. I was still seeing Dyan’s breathtaking face in my dream, her pert nose, her wide eyes, her full lips, raven tresses, and the impression her body made behind the gauze of the wet malong. I began to doubt as I pondered that, that afternoon, I had just met a girl named Dyan. Perhaps, I had met a water nymph. Perhaps the house down the lake was enchanted because for a long time it went unoccupied. I couldn’t wait for morning to come.

The following day, I had confirmed from everyone that there was no new occupant in the big house by the lake. It had been abandoned for a long time, I was told. My mother felt her palm on my forehead and declared I was running a fever. My father said I should be taken to Dr. Villacorta or Pacaldo for checkup, but mother stayed his wallet. A good rest would do the trick she said. So I didn’t go to school that day.

I bided my time and when nobody was looking, I sneaked out of the house to investigate things for myself.

I made a brisk walk of it. Halfway through the stone stairs where Dyan left off into the grasses, I followed to where I thought she disappeared from my sight into the old house.

Tall blades of grasses cut at my wrists until it opened up into a clearing. Before me was a big old house, the old folks called torogan. On the corners of the house were beams of okir with niaga motifs. The intricate curlicues on the cornice must have been the work of several craftsmen, and it must have taken months even years to perfect the ornaments. The floors were sagging though. The stairs were missing some spokes. Termites built holes in the wood.

I went up climbing, wary lest the the upper landing couldn't carry my weight. The double-door was a bas-relief ironwood of a rare variety. They were ajar as if in invitation. I pushed the right door and it creaked open as though somebody was in pain. I slid in and entered the house. There were gauze curtains draping the windows, lilting in the downdraft. They were moth-eaten. I touched one and it crumpled into dust. I looked around me. Everything was wrapped in cobwebs. My eyes were drawn to a big chest. And this was a big test.

I wiped a hand along the top of the chest to get rid of the dust. Two niaga clashed head on served as the design. I opened it and I was startled by the white-bone skulls inside grinning at me. I let go of the top cover and dust thumped out. My hearts skipped in its rib-cage, and I had to calm down for a few minutes before I could took reign of myself again.

There was nothing in the house. Not even the laundry. Nobody seemed to have been in the house, though I could hear the whistle of the wind in the rafters. I went around and didn't find a soul. Just a few geckoes rounding up the posts.

But a set footprints walked toward the back of the house. I followed it as it is being erased by the wind. I followed to the backstairs and into the tall pampas grass. I ended up in the part of the lake where I'd never been before.

A voice was calling me. I was not sure because the wind rose and It was mingling with the sound of the wind. I followed the voice up to the depths. And I lost consciousness.

I woke up in the hospital. An IV bottle was running a tube into my wrist. When I could talk sensibly, I was told that it was a fisherman who found me. They had to pump water off my stomach. They even joked that a gourami was lodged in my throat and they had to extricate it along with the weeds.

When I got well, I was forbidden to go to the lake. I had to attain several sessions with an old quack who let me wear a triangular packet with an eye drawn on it. He said to my parents that I had met a karibang. It was surely a jinn, my father told me. She'll come back if I don’t watch out.

When I graduated from high school I went off with some friends as stowaway in a boat bound for Manila.

It was thirty years later when I was back in Marawi.

I went to the lakeshore. Nobody was restraining me. Everyone had forgotten that episode in my life. I could hardly recall its detail. My parents were not around anymore, and I wasn't about to entertain the silly idea that somehow Dyansarum would be there after all these years.

I went home for the sheer nostalgia of it all.

I had a hard time groping my way through the incline. A lot has changed and for the worse. I hardly know anybody around. Strangers stared at me with unfriendly eyes. The old house was long gone, perhaps used as firewood and I couldn’t be sure where it had once stood. Now I was beginning to doubt if the lake was still there even. It was there alright though the waterline had receded. The stones were long gone in masonry. The fishing nets were no longer there as there were no more fish to catch. The once clear sands were now littered with bottles and garbage and cans and plastics glinting in the sun.

It was the same afternoon. Sleeping Beauty was still there, still majestic in her airy indifference. I stood by the lake. A wind ruffled my collar. The sun was setting.

I closed my eyes as my late aunt had once told me when I was kid. I waited for the siren song to come. I waited and waited. And who am I fooling?

I was startled by a sound.

Damn, it was just the strident ringing of my mobile phone.

I brought up the phone. It could be an urgent call from my office at Manila. But there was no number or name registering on the screen. Weird. I put it on my ear.

"Hello, who's this?" I said.

"Hello, Alik. Do you still remember me?"

It was a silky voice I've heard before. The same ageless voice I've heard long ago.

"Dyan, Dyan. Is that you?"

"Yes it's me. But you can call me Dyansarum as no dog is chasing you, right?"


(Can any reader suggest how I should end this? Or do we just stop here for mystery?)

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