The tone of her voice, the child’s aunt testified, could raise the dead. Her shrills echoed through the two-story ancestral house, no matter which part of it she came from, ordering the house help to get sopas with mahu or apply floor wax on its red floors.
There was only one part of the day the great-grandmother seemed human to the child. They would meet each other coming from and going to the communal bath, Amah’s (for she was Amah to everyone) gray hair loosened from its normal bun that it stuck in wet, curly wisps at her back. She was childlike then. Her teeth showed in an accidental smile.
After that, she became an unreachable matriarch for the rest of the day. Her affections were hidden in lectures and profanities.
So when the aunt told her that Amah only had one strategy to teach too-sheltered pubescents how to swim: toss them into the deep blue to fend for themselves, the child believed them.
It’s important to set the setting in this story in order to see the incredulity in her aunts’ threats.
The child spent her vacations in the small, then municipality, of Guihulngan, four hours away from Dumaguete. It was a small dot on the map then, a rest stop from when you traveled from Negros Oriental’s capital to San Carlos City.
It might have been a small, sleepy town like the rest of the small, sleepy towns that came before and after it. But it just so happened to be the background of her summer misadventures, three months of sealed, dry landscape from March to May every year until fifth grade.
Guihulngan was a fishing village with most of its establishments – the mercados, parks and government offices just alongside the sea. And like the rolls and heaves of its waves, people there talked in soft, lyrical Bisaya as if reserving their voices for better future use.
In its entire history, an aunt again testified, its waters have never taken a life. Only immaterial things like, say, a warning bell. That is the etymology of its strange name. Moro thieves supposedly stole the bell that alerted the town of their coming. And when the bell became too heavy for their boat to haul, they dropped it off in the middle of Tañon Strait. The spot has since then been known as Guihulngan for ang gihulugan.
There is a more morose version to its origin, of how it was actually the corpses of men, women and children that were decapitated and dumped in its waters. But the child had yet to learn about this, and even when she finally did, she, like the rest of the townsmen, held on to the more redemptive version. The over sized landmark shaped into a bell near its Freedom Park affirmed so.
The sea, despite her great-grandmother’s drastic approach to swimming, was always nurturing. It provided a steady supply of kinsan to mercados, small shells for easy picking and recreation to abate the young ones as they struggle between wanting to leave or protecting the place from visiting tenderfoots whose love for small towns was as fleeting as summer.
Then, vacations weren’t meant to be “productive”. No guitar lessons or basketball camps to distract from the necessary banality of Guihulngan’s lethargic world. The parents hied off their children to provinces to strip off their self-entitlement.
So, the child, like the rest of the aunts and nieces, was employed in the family’s general merchandise store to manually count fishing hooks, screws, bicycle handles, carbon paper, bio-data templates, typewriter’s ink, Johnson’s baby colognes, White Flowers and Chin Chan Sus.
But even such meticulous labor was static. Stress was laughable because as transactions go, there was always another day in a seamless number of days that stretched far too long.
Whatever highlight the summer had was self-induced. A haircut became a whole day affair. A visit to the park was a chance to see the town heartthrobs, the Ace Movers and Major Breakers, practicing their dance moves onstage. A television show, whether it was Sang Linggo na Po Sila or Eat Bulaga, made it a must to come home for lunch.
If lucky, the carnival would come along, and usually at the trail end of her stay, the disco at the park that ended with the crowning of Miss Guihulngan or Miss Gayhulngan.
This lack of external stimulus allowed for more intrinsic entertainment. The child analyzed the happenings and conversations of the day several times over before she slept, the portrait of her great-grandfather staring from across her bedside as if chastising her diverse and divergent thoughts.
A people pleaser, she held on to tidbits of information about personalities and events, stealing others’ opinions so that, when chance allowed it, she could parrot them as an adult would.
She overused her tapes of the Spice Girls, Code Red and Alanis Morisette and borrowed Harlequin books, wondering whether, like in the songs and novels, love, whatever that was, was always as tumultuous. She ripped off ideas from novels or vicariously lived through her aunts’ flirtations.
From these, she began to invent stories in her head more about its supposed symptoms – the sleepless nights, sweaty palms and irrationality – afraid that she might have missed them, that it happened even before she knew. Love was, at that time, something that always happened to someone else.
Perhaps, the child thought, the productivity of her vacations were in their non-productivity. To do nothing was a sign of progress for, as sleepy towns go, any change was unnecessary. Change was a symptom of a problem, an external force out of their control. Even if its people changed, the town certainly didn’t, or shouldn’t.
The lure of small, sleepy towns was to find it year after year still on a standstill, even as everything else inside her was already migrating.
That might be sentimental deception though. A decade later, Guihulngan became the biggest municipality in Negros Oriental. It had, the child, now adult thought, far too many pharmacies and bakeries in its poblacion with pot-pots, tricycles and motorcycles veering in all directions. It fought for its cityhood for several years despite Senator Pimentel’s restraint of the “mad rush of municipalities to transform into cities”. It gained the title, then lost it again from 2000 to 2010. And then in the middle of 2011, finally earned its big dot on the map.
In 2012 though, an external force, a 6.9 magnitude earthquake eradicated this stature from its grasp again. The epicenter was two towns away, but its impact was directed towards Guihulngan. Asphalt roads beside the boulevard cracked open, trapping ankles and arms trying to escape. The ground tilted houses, swallowed houses even, including a family enjoying an early lunch together.
In fear of a storm surge, those near the sea fled to the cemetery in the highlands and camped there for over a week in the middle of graves and bone chambers. And even after the initial scare, they continued to sleep on empty grounds outside of their houses for fear of the equally-strong aftershocks.
This disturbance also turned into their first shot at fame. GMA and ABS-CBN correspondents visited hospitals, interviewing annoyed medical staff or dazed patients, too busy covering cracked skulls to enjoy the attention.
Despite this, Guihulngan only had ten casualties from the overall 70 declared deaths in Negros Oriental. A small number for a gargantuan loss, mostly their hold to let circumstances remain as they were. In a small town where changes are first repressed before accepted, any shift is felt triple fold.
In the ten years that the child hasn’t been back following the death of her great-grandmother (if only her own voice could bring her back), Guihulngan’s population has exploded to 93,000.
There is now an LBC, a Rose Pharmacy and a Toyota car dealership beside the aging Mom-and-Pop shops. None of the faces were familiar anymore other than the aunts and their now gray hairs. Childhood friends have since left. Once-friendly neighborhood stores now hang “Walay Utang” signs on their windows.
The earthquake too has left in its wake a slew of unlivable, tilted houses that were converted to temporary storages. The pension house beside their ancestral home, the tricycles’ landmark to where the Amah’s house was, was toppled down, its owner left underneath all the rubble.
And yet even after these years, it’s easy to fall back into the lyrical intonations of its dialect, that familiar twang at the end of every sentence. The roads with signages to Plaridel or Larena still ply off a platitude of “Do you remembers”, even if the child is walking the roads more with her mind than her soles.
Like the friendlier version of Guihulngan’s etymology perhaps, she’d like to think that her great-grandmother never tossed her out into the sea to fend for herself. Their swimming sessions were afternoons of play with pots of saging hilaw and ginamos to last them until their lips paled, their palms wrinkled, and their bodies surrendered to the waves.
Whichever held true were by now hazy and unreliable. Memories, she realized, were never flashy. They were acquired in the quiet, insignificant fragments between her then and now.
The child feels a certain indebtedness for overlooked niches like these, and those that overlook them.
She knows with surety now that the places never gone to for fear that nothing ever happens is, at its very core, where everything happens.