On the way to the Honasan, Atong stopped by the pantalan to see his friends. They lined both sides of the stone pier. The pantalan was completed a few years ago, bringing commerce and tourism to the once sleepy town of Hinundayan. It became a pastime among the boys of the town to pass the time at the pier watching visitors arrive and cargo being loaded and unloaded.
“Have you asked your ‘girlfriend’ yet to go to the baile with you?” Jerry slapped palms with Atong as he approached.
“No, not yet,” said Atong.
“You should just ask. I’d go with you if you asked me.” Jerry bent over, guffawing.
“I don’t know if I can.”
“Some have asked her out but they’ve all been turned down. Sylvia’s a tough one.”
“I plan to give her a present, something fancy to convince her to go with me.”
“I doubt you’ll find in this town something to impress her. She’s richer than all of us here combined even with you included.”
“I can hope, can’t I?”
“Yes, you can but I don’t see how you’ll convince that girl to go with you to the baile.”
“I’ll find a way.”
“You better find it fast because the baile’s next week.”
Atong glanced southward in the direction of the Honasan. With the low tide, it had risen above the water. Maybe I’ll find something there to impress Sylvia, he thought.
Jerry followed Atong’s glance and remarked: “Only thing you’ll find there is a mermaid drowning you underwater. Aling Rita’s 5-year-old daughter almost drowned there last week after she said there was a beautiful woman inviting her to dive in.”
Atong smiled, his eyes wistful. “I already feel like I’m being drowned by Sylvia’s beauty. You can’t drown a drowned man any further.”
Jerry laughed. “You should say that to Sylvia. I’ll try that on Maria.”
Atong said goodbye to Jerry. “Give your ‘girlfriend’ my regards. I have to go.” He ran down the slope at the foot of the pantalan leading to the southern part of the beach. The shoreline formed a small bay with the pantalan in the middle.
Honasan was the Visayan word for low tide. It was also the name of the coral reef at the southern end of the beach. Fully submerged for most of the day, the coral reef surfaced during low tide, which usually arrived in the late afternoon. Most of the reef remained underwater, a lush floral valley, while rocky mountains formed by fossilized coral rose from the water.
The low tide created a rocky path from the shore to the Honasan. Atong carefully made his way to the reef. The rubber soles of his tsinelas protected him from the dead coral mounds stabbing at his feet with sharp fingers.
The Honasan was 40 to 50 feet from the shore. It covered an area the size of a basketball court. Visiting the Honasan and admiring the coral blooms beneath the water used to be the pastime of the children of the town before the pantalan was built.
Atong went to the farthest mound at the edge of the Honasan. He squatted on the edge and peered into the depths of the coral reef. A mound of brain-like coral was half-submerged a few feet from him. Its grooved pattern reminded Atong of the ox brain his father considered a delicacy. The brain coral disappeared into the rocks a few feet down. Thickets of stag horns and elk horns guarded the deeper reaches where boulders covered with golden-brown starlet corallites and clumps of stubby neon-blue fingers flourished. Scattered between the coral and moss-covered rocks on the seafloor, seagrass swayed their arms to the rhythm of the sea.
The strands of seagrass resembled a woman’s long hair, reminding Atong of the mermaid who lived in the Honasan. According to the elders of the town, a mermaid lived in the coral reef, guarding a valuable treasure. She drowned anyone who invaded her territory and tried to take her prized possession. A number of children had drowned in the Honasan over the years due to the strong undercurrents passing through the reef.
If there is indeed a mermaid in the Honasan, I will wrest its treasure from its fingers, Atong thought.
Sylvia arrived with her father after the pantalan had been finished. Their family owned a fleet of passenger ships ferrying people from island to island. Her father opened a branch office of Zaragosa Lines in Hinundayan. With her looks and her family’s wealth, she easily made friends with the girls in Atong’s school. According to their common friends, Sylvia always complained that there was no reason for her to stay in Hinundayan.
Atong scanned the seafloor and saw something glimmer from beneath a rock. Only sunken gold or treasure could do that, he thought.
The clear waters of the Honasan showed a descent of about 8 to 10 feet to the seafloor. Silver-colored fish darted between the brightly-colored coral. Atong had no tools, not even a knife, but he decided to risk it. He would risk anything to win Sylvia’s affection.
After taking several deep breaths, Atong dove into the water. Cold fingers wrapped around his body as he descended to the seafloor. The glow emanated from beneath a flat rock. When he reached the rock, Atong grunted, expelling bubbles of air, and lifted it aside.
His eyes widened. An eye-shaped seashell as long as his arm fixed its golden pupil, luminous and unblinking, at him. It was a golden cowrie, a rare seashell.
Sylvia won’t refuse me now, he thought, cradling the precious seashell in his arm.
As Atong ascended to the water’s surface, the colors of the coral reef were invisible to his eyes. All he saw were the lights of the baile darting around like dragonflies as he danced with Sylvia. He saw no mermaid’s face contorted in anger, only his beloved’s porcelain cheeks and her ruby lips puckering for a kiss. He opened his mouth to kiss her as he surfaced.
While swallowing mouthfuls of air, Atong savored the salt of the sea on his tongue as if it were the sweetest sugar in the entire world.
Atoy waited for Old Gardo to finish inspecting the seashells he had brought him. While waiting, he trained his eyes on a poster tacked to a wall. Several feet in height, the poster showed drawings of different kinds of seashells and listed their corresponding names. Atoy recognized the golden cowrie among the drawings.
A similar photo was displayed on the altar of their house. The photo used to be the actual seashell but it had been stolen when Atoy’s family escaped to the mountains during the war.
Atoy scanned the rest of the entries. The two drawings beside the coral seashell intrigued him. Other seashells only had one drawing beside their entry.
The left photo for the coral shell was labeled “Anterior (Front).” It showed a mostly white shell with occasional brown bands and flecked with dark spots. Atoy found the surface of the shell rough and unremarkable. He wondered what gave the shell its value.
Before he moved on to the second drawing, the old shopkeeper interrupted him.
“This shell make you curious, yes?” Old Gardo asked him. His mouth was lined with betel-stained teeth.
“This shell unique. Prized in Cebu, neighbor island of Leyte. Coral shell also called Cebu shell. What make it valuable this…”
Old Gardo pressed a grimy finger on the second photograph. It was labelled “Posterior (Back).” Atoy noticed the shopkeeper’s finger resting beneath the aperture that housed the sea snail. The interiors of the sea snail’s house were stained with a rich purple color flowing inward from the outer and inner lips. The lips were smeared halfway in purple lipstick, reminding Atoy of a drawing of a Kabuki actress his mother once showed him.
“Purple, color of royalty. Purple lips, woman’s lips. I kiss when I see them lips.” Old Gardo grinned. “Kiss of death for sea snail.”
He bent over in laughter. As he laughed, the folds of flesh on his neck and torso quivered like jelly.
“What if I find some of these? Will you give me a good price?” Atoy asked the shopkeeper.
“Of course. I always give you good price.”
Atoy raised an eyebrow.
“Tell you what. Find them coral shells and I teach you how make them shine. More money for you, yes?”
Atoy nodded. He had always wondered how Old Gardo made the seashells shine when he fashioned them into necklaces or decorations. Though starved of saltwater, his seashells looked like they retained the luster of the sea.
“Maybe if you want, I teach you my trade, yes?”
Atoy shook his head. “Thanks but I don’t need a job. I’ll soon be part of the family business anyway.”
Old Gardo sighed. “Poor me, no sons to take over when I gone. You my best diver. Good eye for seashell. Shop should go to someone like you.”
“I should be going. I have to go back to the Honasan.”
“Always in a hurry, you kids. Here.” Old Gardo pressed several oil-stained coins into Atoy’s hands.
Atoy counted his payment. His eyes widened.
“This is too much.” He glanced at the shopkeeper.
“I add extra. Maybe you reconsider.” Old Gardo whistled a hopeful tune.
“Thanks but don’t expect me to,” Atoy said as he walked out of the shop. He unzipped the coin purse at his waist and placed the coins inside.
Atoy retrieved his bike outside the shop. It was propped up against a bench beneath a sign that said “Seashells and Souvenirs.” He held the handlebars and the seat while he disengaged the bike rest beneath the wheel with his foot. He hopped on the bike, gripped the handlebars and started pedalling furiously. By this time, it would already be low tide and other children would be at the Honasan.
It couldn’t be helped, Atoy thought. The seashells he had buried in his backyard a few days ago were ready this morning. He had unearthed the shells and found red ants swarming over them. After dousing the shells in water to drive away the ants, he inspected them one by one and found that the shells had been emptied of the soft black flesh that had once been their occupants. All that was left was to rinse the shells and go to Old Gardo’s shop to sell them.
Atoy would have polished them if he knew the proper method. He once tried covering them with lacquer and varnish but the coating was always too thick or uneven.
In his head, Atoy played with accepting the shopkeeper’s offer as he neared the Hinundayan beach.
He made a sharp right at the last intersection before the road merged with the driveway leading to the pantalan. The Honasan was at the southern end of the beach with the pantalan in the middle of the shoreline. Atoy was good at prying its secrets from the Honasan’s fingers, better than the other boys in the town. He spent most of the day swimming and diving at the beach since he did not attend high school like children his age.
His parents manned the local branch of Zaragosa Lines, a shipping company. His father, the son of a judge, had married into his mother’s rich family after he presented her with a golden cowrie, a rare shell. His mother always insisted that she married him for his diligence and hard work. Behind her back, Atoy’s father always told him that the golden cowrie cast a spell on her and made her his forever.
His mother’s family insisted that Atoy stop schooling after graduating from elementary. They said he wouldn’t need higher education because he would inherit his parents’ business.
Atoy enjoyed being an out-of-school youth. His once-fair skin was now bronze and his once-black hair had turned light brown with bleach blond streaks. The only indicators of his mestizo heritage were his sharp nose and his flat and curved earlobes even though he wore no earrings to weigh down and stretch the skin. “Little Kachila,” his mother once called Atoy with pride. She preferred to call him by his real name “Antonio” instead of the nickname his friends called him. “Antonio sounds more dignified and carries the family legacy,” his mother said. She pointed out that he inherited her Spanish features inherited after all.
If only I could keep the Honasan to myself and give it to my children as their inheritance someday, he mused as the peaks of the coral reef came into view.
Even from that distance, he could see children swarming the coral mounds like ants devouring the insides of the seashells they took from the Honasan’s fingers.
I better hurry, Atoy thought. His bike turned a corner and slowed to a stop at a sandy slope. He got off his bike while retaining his grip on the handlebars. He pushed the bike up the slope and rested its frame against a coconut tree.
Beyond the crest of the slope, the sand gently rolled downward until it reached a bank littered by crushed seashells. Beyond the bank of seashells rose a stony path to the coral reef that was the Honasan. In Atoy’s mind, the mounds of fossilized coral resembled tombs. He sometimes felt like a grave robber but he valued the money he got from selling seashells, money he earned and not what his parents gave him.
As he ran down the shore toward the Honasan, Atoy retrieved his goggles from a plastic sack by his chest. The sack was tethered to his body by a nylon rope slung around one shoulder and under the opposite armpit.
The other boys perched on the coral mounds turned their heads toward him as he approached. Some shared whispers among them.
Atoy passed all of the children and made his way to the end of the Honasan, the distance farthest from the shore. It was on a solitary mound resembling a skull whose top bobbed above and below the waterline. Beyond the skull-shaped rock, the undercurrent was so strong it threatened to drag you through the coral reef. None of the other children dared venture this far. Some who did almost drowned.
Squatting at the edge of the rocky islet, Atoy lowered his goggles over his eyes. He took several deep breaths, holding the last, before he plunged into the water.
Atoy followed the undercurrent as he descended to the seafloor. He swam to a clump of clubbed finger coral and checked underneath. Nothing was there except for a surprised group of finger-sized silver fish. He moved to a nearby ivory bush surrounded by sea grass. At the base of the ivory coral, he found a handful of brown pheasants, thumb-sized shells with a round bottom spiralling into a sharp apex. Atoy tucked them into his sack. He moved to a nearby row of sea plumes, colorful coral that resembled fossilized trees. He took a second to admire their arms seemingly reaching for the sunlight filtering into the water like light passing through stained glass. He searched around the base of their trunks, hoping to find seashells seeking cover in their shadow. Atoy noticed a clump of bubble coral at the edge of the sea plumes. Their pulsating blue sacs reminded Atoy that he had to surface soon. He checked behind the bubble coral and found a family of coral snails, five in all, resting on a flat rock.
Atoy got excited. He grabbed the largest shell but it clung to the rock like a barnacle. Without a knife, he had to improvise. He slid his fingers slid beneath the shell until they touched the snail’s soft flesh tethering it to the rock. The snail retreated into its shell, allowing Atoy to pry the shell loose and place it inside the sack by his chest. The other coral shells beckoned but he had to surface for air. Atoy hurried upward, his face red from holding his breath.
As he broke the water’s surface, Atoy sucked in large mouthfuls of air. He steadied his breathing, knowing that he had to dive down once again.
“Did you find something down there?”
Atoy noticed Bak-Bak, one of his rivals, squatting on the precipice of the skull-shaped islet. Atoy lowered the sack on his chest below the waterline.
He shook his head. “I was just looking around.”
‘You did, didn’t you?”
His rival’s face popped into a smile like heated palay bursting into pinipig. Bak-Bak lowered his goggles over his eyes and prepared to dive over the ledge.
Atoy thought about cutting a deal with his rival but decided against it. Only he knew the location of the rest of the coral shells. It was a race he would easily win.
Bak-Bak plunged into the water. Atoy swallowed a large mouthful of air and dove back down.
As he descended to the seafloor, Atoy could taste the rich sweetness of the chocolates he would buy after he sold the coral shells.
Intoy found his father staring at the bottom of a glass filled halfway with blood-red liquid. Father has been drinking the entire day again, he thought.
Seeing his son enter the house, Intoy’s father thrust his glass at him.
“Iñigo, my son, bring me more tuba.”
Intoy glanced at the empty clear jug by his father’s feet. “Sorry, father, but we can’t afford any more tuba. Mother told me that you should ask your relatives to send us money.”
Intoy’s father slammed the glass down on the table, sending droplets of tuba flying about. Some droplets landed on the coral seashell his father wore around his neck. Its purple lips became flecked with blood.
“Those impaktos won’t send us money. Greedy bastards.”
He raised the glass to his lips and filled his mouth with tuba. He swallowed some of the alcohol but retained some of it in his mouth. Intoy could hear the tuba sloshing inside his father’s mouth before he spat it back into his glass.
Intoy went to his father’s side and took away the glass before he could take another drink. His father was too drunk to complain.
After he poured the tuba down the sink, Intoy got a towel and returned to his father. He wiped the beads of alcohol scattered on the table in case his father got the idea of licking the tabletop when he woke up.
“Father, Mother asked me to check on you before I went to the Honasan.”
Eyes flaring open, Intoy’s father lurched forward from his chair.
“Yes, go there, my son. Find seashells and sell them. Buy some tuba, won’t…”
Intoy’s father fell back to his chair and started snoring.
At the sight of his father fast asleep, Intoy sighed in relief. He walked to the front door. While walking, Intoy glanced at the family altar facing the front door of their house. A framed picture of a golden cowrie stood beside statues of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Sto. Nino, and Mother Mary. His grandfather had cut out the photo from a book. It substituted for the actual seashell that had been lost during the war.
Intoy headed for the beach on foot. The sun was already staining the faraway treetops when he reached the pantalan.
Since the time of Intoy’s grandfather, the pantalan was a hotbed of commerce and tourism. A super typhoon several years ago reduced the pantalan to ruins. With the stone pier gone, ships no longer docked in Hinundayan. Since then, the only visitors to the area were crabs scurrying across the rocks and children jumping off ledges that had survived the storm.
The departure of the ships hit Intoy’s family harder than the others. With the pantalan gone, his parents were told to close the branch office in Hinundayan and move to Malitbog, the family’s ancestral hometown. Before they could move, Intoy’s father went into a deep depression and started drinking heavily. He burned up their family’s savings.
Intoy and his mother were lucky that the previous owner of their shop left its ownership in their care before he passed away. Despite being gifted with their own shop, their business struggled. Demand for seashell-related fare had slowed after the destruction of the pantalan. In addition, they had to source their supplies of seashells from other towns because of what happened to the Honasan.
He looked toward the edge of the ruined pantalan. The sound of waves crashing against its rocks reminded Intoy of his task. He had to hurry to the Honasan before the tide returned.
Intoy walked to the Honasan, passing children playing along the shore. He carefully made his way to the rocky islet at the edge of the coral reef
Squatting from a rocky precipice, Intoy peered into the water. Beneath his perch, a growth of brain-like coral bobbed above and below the surface. Bleached white, the coral had turned to stone. Intoy’s eyes descended farther down the coral walls until they reached the seafloor. Tin cans and other metal trash littered the underwater valley. Pieces of dead coral were scattered about. Clumps of coral attached to the reef walls resembled gravestones. There was no fish or live coral to be found anywhere.
Intoy’s heart sank. He had hoped to find seashells in the Honasan to give to Marina, the girl he wanted to invite to the baile. She said she wanted a seashell plucked fresh from the sea.
He decided to try one last search before giving up for good. Intoy moved along the perimeter of his rocky islet, scanning the underwater landscape beyond his feet.
A glimmer of gold caught his eye. The soft light was trapped beneath a flat rock a few feet from the base of the coral mound. Intoy had not brought any diving tools with him. He couldn’t even afford goggles. Despite this, Intoy decided the risk was worth it.
After taking several deep breaths, Intoy climbed down from the side of the rocky islet. He descended to the base of the coral mound where the glowing object was nearby. Intoy swam a few feet to the flat rock trapping his prize like a clam guarding a pearl of great worth. Sliding both hands beneath the rock, he pried it free and threw it aside. Sand swirled from the seafloor, swallowing the soft glow from his prize. Not waiting for the sand to settle, Intoy thrust his hands into the swirling cloud. Slow dancing with Marina at the baile filled his thoughts. When his hands emerged, they clutched a tin can colored a dull gold. From its tattered label, Intoy could make out the words “Golden Sardines.”
Intoy tossed the sardine can, his face hot with failure. He raised his eyes toward the surface. The undercurrent suddenly surged, slamming his body against the coral reef. Pain whipped through his body. He screamed in agony, expelling the air from his lungs. As water rushed down his windpipe, Intoy desperately clawed at the surface. Something held the back of his collar, holding him close. He tried to turn around but he couldn’t see that his shirt had snagged on the fingers of the coral mound he had slammed into.
As he thrashed beneath the surface, Intoy’s lungs filled with water and his eyes filled with the color of blood. His consciousness fading, Intoy saw a dark silhouette swimming toward him. It was a mermaid wearing the face of his beloved Marina. She had come to save him, Intoy thought before he blacked out.
The mermaid swam to Intoy and embraced him. She drew him close and kissed him deeply on the mouth with half-stained purple lips.
Intoy rose to the surface, a mermaid’s delight lingering on his lips. He believed it to be the sweetest taste in the entire world.