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Solferino’s Talisman

His father, Sol, was stronger than a bull. Arturo knew that because his father tried to raise him to be the strongest. When he was a boy of five, his father began training him in the art of arnis. With a pair of rattan sticks, they’d strike at the black rubber tires tied to the trunks of palm trees outside their house for hours on end. Then they’d rest under the mango grove nearby and drink fresh coconut milk and eat the soft white meat straight out of the husks. All the while, he’d hear his father talk about their family’s heritage—that their forefather was a warrior and a hero, the island’s founder—that Solferino Borinaga, after whom his father was named, was among the earliest practitioners of the ancient art of stick-fighting in the world. His father believed that arnis should be the country’s national martial art as it was the oldest and used by their heroes in fighting against the invaders from the seas.

Sadly, such history was forgotten by the Borinagas as the century passed, and it was a shame they’d never had one in their line becoming an arnis world champion. His father told the young Arturo he could be the first one. But instead of the getting interested with the art of stick fighting, Arturo was so weaved inside Solferino’s stories that he’d run to the harbors and dive deep into the sea; when he’d surfaced, he’d witness the old battles happening all around him. So he never refused a practice no matter how bad his blisters got, for they were the only times he’d hear stories about Solferino—his sons, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren—their whole line of ancestors who lived and died for the island.

Arturo discovered his love for stories early in life. A bent, old grade-school teacher, who was also his grandmother, hailing from the other end of the island, gave him a book. It was Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and the novella had spoken to the young Arturo. He felt a kinship more than blood with the young Manolin who wanted to help old Santiago, who to him was Solferino. Arturo realized he could be an author, like Hemingway, and chronicle the stories of Solferino and the Borinagas so that their history would be known and not forgotten, which is what his father feared most.

At twelve years old, Arturo told his father, who was a fisherman, farmer, and seller of copras, what he wanted to become, though he knew that no one in the island, so far as he had heard, was a writer or dreamed of being one. It occurred to him that his father might get mad, as he knew he wanted him to chase his failed dream. His father had given up competing in arnis, deciding that the gift just wasn’t in him, that he was only good but not good enough to be great, but he saw in Arturo not only the potential of being great, but also of being the greatest. Arturo awaited the lashing of tongues and beating of the sticks, but his father patted his head and told him to go write about their family history and heritage. By then, Arturo knew how much his parents loved him, so he wanted to be the best in what he does—that is, writing.

That same year, Arturo graduated grade school and was set to attend a private university in Cebu City where he had qualified for a scholarship. The day before he would leave his dear island for the big city, his father asked him if they could practice arnis together. While striking at the tires, his father stopped, turned to him, and spoke as if in litany:

“Arturo, you’re a man now, as you’ve truly decided what to become. As your father, this is my responsibility—drawing from generations back.” His father handed over to Arturo a folded red kerchief, which was faded, edges frayed.

Arturo unwrapped it, and a small talisman appeared—an old dark bronze necklace, triangular, an eye in the center, with words engraved in a language he didn’t know.

“That is one of Solferino’s talismans. It will protect you so long as you have strong faith in yourself and God. I’m going to teach you a set of Latin prayers, but you must not write them down and keep them to yourself. You must burn them in your memory. Never use the talisman for evil, however small. Whenever you feel it’s not working, just believe it will, and fear not, my only son. Always protect yourself. It’s different there in the city. With this talisman, we’ll always be there with you wherever you are.”

***

On a gray, cloudy Friday in September, Arturo Borinaga caught an early morning bus heading north to the port of Danao, where ferries, barges, and bangkas bound for the Camotes Islands were docked. His destination was Ponson, the farthest and smallest of the islands, whose sole municipality was Pilar. At the island’s northwestern tip was Lower Poblacion, where he was born and raised. He hadn’t been there for years.

“Your parents…,” his aunt Pan-ping had trailed off, crying from the office telephone yesterday late in the afternoon. She was his father’s cousin. “You must come home to Pilar, Artur. We don’t know what’s going to happen. They’re looking for you.” She said it was his uncle Felipo’s birthday—another cousin of his father’s—and all who had eaten the butete, or pufferfish, at the house got poisoned. “Epoy and Sol were drunk when they prepared the fish.”

Arturo listened to his aunt sobbing and promised he’d sail there tomorrow. He was leaning heavily on the desk and must have seemed about to fall, for his officemates asked him if he was all right. He said yes, put his head down, and went to the HR office. He was working as a journalist at a local daily, lucky enough to land the job, him being a college dropout.

Now his parents, along with some relatives, were feverish, delirious, faint to the bone, dried out from vomiting. His aunt had also told him that they couldn’t bring them to Ormoc, in Leyte, where the hospital was, for fear they wouldn’t survive the trip. His parents seemed to have it worse than the others, and the clinic in Lower Poblacion, the only one in Pilar, already had their hands full in taking care of the poisoned children.

Arturo reached Danao by nine o’clock. From the window seat, he was gazing at the coastline and saw how dark the skies and seas looked together. From afar, he could make out the vessels docked in their slips taking in passengers. He got down the bus and walked down the port. It was a long line before the booth, and he had to stand in line awhile to pay for the terminal fee. After that, he quickly got out and found a carinderia along the busy roadside. He forced himself to eat lunch as he needed to fill his stomach, for at least five hours at sea lay between him and Pilar. He still couldn’t believe his parents were lying weak and helpless in their home, especially his sixty-year-old father, who used to be the strongest man in his eyes, though they were nowhere as close as they had been when he was a child. He brought out a red cloth from his pocket that encased the talisman his father had given him over a decade ago.

“This talisman is a lie,” Arturo said as he mulled over how he arrived in Cebu a hopeful boy with dreams and came out a miserable man. It never really protected him from anything no matter how much he prayed. At school, he was pushed around because of his dark, leathery skin and short stature, being an islander and a son of the sea. He was also called a faggot because he didn’t drink and smoke and join the boys’ fraternity. One day, his patience snapped, and he beat up five classmates with his fists, but when he got outside the school later, five more students, whom he didn’t know, ganged up on him in the streets, and he came home with wounds, bruises, and swollen fists. He had to come up with the best of lies to his cousins, with whom he was living in a boarding house along F. Ramos Street downtown. His only refuge was walking around the streets near Fuente Osmeña until evening, sitting in the stone benches around the great water fountain, and visiting bookstores in the malls and reading the books he couldn’t afford yet. He was always looking for any novel set in the seas and once pulled Moby Dick by Melville from the shelves. After reading no more than ten pages, he found the book impossible to understand, let alone finish. He pushed the book back to the shelves and sighed.

Since he avoided the school bullies all the time, or anyone for that matter, they seem to have stopped seeing him as if he had never existed. Arturo never had any friends as he made it a point never to talk to anyone. Everyone, even his teachers and cousins, thought he was queer, as all he wanted was to be alone, read, and write. In college, he couldn’t take it anymore, so he dropped out of school and looked for a job so he could buy books and save for a typewriter or even a computer and hole up in a small room and write. That way, he could also drop out of everyone’s sight and do what he wanted.

During his long walks, his thoughts turned to how better his life would have been had he stayed in the Pilar and let his father train him. The mean, bustling life of the city was never meant for him. But he knew he’d never be happy staying in the island all his life, then asked himself whether he was happy being someplace else. What he knew for sure was that he wanted to write, but he now realized that writing was the hardest way of earning a living, or living itself, so he’d just finish this one book and be done with his life.

Over the years, his parents had noticed his face getting gloomier each time he came back to Pilar, on summers, fiestas, Christmases, and New Years, but he’d say nothing was the matter. When his parents brought up the matter of his schooling, he’d tell them to shut up. His father, disrespected by his only child, hit Arturo in the face—“So that’s what you learned living in Cebu!”—but there was a deep, hard rage in Arturo’s eyes that he didn’t even flinch or let out a sound as he took his father’s heavy, calloused fist. Strength and fury snaked through Arturo’s arms, and he punched his father in kind. They fell into a brawl, and that was it. His uncles had to separate them. Arturo never returned to his hometown after that.

Now he was miserable beyond comparison knowing that his parents might die. If that happens, he’d have no home to return to and he’d have no one to show the book he was going to finish. He’d never have a chance to talk with them again, to say sorry and thank you for everything. Worse, he’d be truly alone. While he hated his father, he couldn’t forget the thousand times when they were practicing whole afternoons, beating up the worn-out rubber tires, resting and talking long hours under the shade of the huge mango trees. The years felt out of reach now, but somehow, he could still see his father smoking a rolled dried tobacco and passing it to him and laughing at him if he burst out coughing.

Tears fell from his eyes as he looked at the talisman. This may not have worked for me, but it has worked for my father. When this gets back into his hands, he’d be fine, and he’d cure mother as well. He should never have given me this in the first place; what he had thought was in me wasn’t there after all.

Arturo boarded the Rolyn Mar, a one-decker motorized bangka he’d often sailed in when he was younger, though not the last one he had taken when he visited Pilar years ago. Its wooden hull and outriggers were painted red, orange, and white. The rows of plank seats were blue. The tarpaulins were all white. Such colors were too festive for his mood. He sat near the stern, at the edge of the row, so only one person could sit beside him. In this case, it was a short, dark-skinned man who certainly lived by the sea all his life, and as such, one could not tell his age. The man smiled at him, and Arturo returned it with a nod. Arturo was not surprised to find the Rolyn Mar full of passengers, luggage, and cargo. Trips to the Camotes Islands had always been like that since passengers were bound for two other ports, Poro and San Francisco. By the time the bangka would head to Pilar, there’d be less than half of the passengers left. He looked out to the sea and the sky to his left. A gray brightness was pouring from the sky, spilling into the sea and filling it as if it were an immense bowl. Mild swells were crashing against the hull, and the bangka was rocking like a cradle. He had sailed like this many times, but the wind this time felt unusual. Arturo felt it was playing with the bangka; it didn’t sound strong when it whipped the flags and the tarpaulin, but he could hear the wind whistling from somewhere far.

It was noon, but the sun already seemed tired and asleep. The crew finally pulled in the ropes, gangplanks, and the anchor. The motor grumbled, and the pungent smell of burning fuel rose amid the salty air. The Rolyn Mar turned its bow and began crossing the graying sea. Arturo yawned, stood, and walked to the stern, where he gazed at the port of Danao shrinking out of sight in the distance. Thick clouds with the look of hard rain hovered over its mountains. Then there was only the sky, the sea, the horizon, and the fleeting foam the boat’s propeller left behind in its wake.

After he was issued with his ticket, Arturo thought of sleeping the next long hours to make them pass like a dream; then when he’d wake up, he’d be in Pilar. But the fit of sleepiness in him had passed. He was awake enough, so he pulled out from his bag a torn copy of The Old Man and the Sea and began reading it over the noise of the motor, waves, winds, and chatter. Arturo contemplated its tale again: if only the young Manolin went with Old  Santiago, they would have caught the great marlin easily; also, if only Old Santiago cut a couple of chunks off the marlin and fed the sharks, the sharks would have left him, and he could sail home with the prized parts… 

Then he noticed the crew pulling down the tarps on both sides of the Rolyn Mar, and that made it a bit dark for him to read.

“It’s an unos ahead,” the dark-skinned passenger beside him spoke and roused Arturo from his book. The roughness of his voice, particular to those who smoked rolled tobacco all their lives, gave away his age. His father sounded like that after a lifetime of smoking. But Arturo never liked to smoke; it made him cough, dizzy, and vomit. However, he drank like a fish, as did his father, but he drank like a lone fish in a bowl. Arturo nodded at the old man and observed his surroundings: they were in the middle of the wide swelling sea. They began to talk and learned they were both headed to Pilar. The old man also bore the last name of Borinaga but never mentioned his first name. He knew Arturo’s father well, saying they grew up together, though he lived in Barrio San Juan, about ten kilometers southwest from Lower Poblacion. He told Arturo his father would be all right.

It all started with a sudden pattering of rain against the tarpaulins, a coolness in the wind, and a darkening all around. The bangka hit a huge wave and tilted sideways, nearly overturning. It was the first of many waves, and most of the passengers quickly began putting on their life vests and were screaming and crying. Arturo felt water coming in from the between the gaps of the plank flooring, and he saw the outriggers submerged into the sea. The bangka rose and fell with the waves, struggling to steer forward. Beside him, the tarpaulins grew taut against the claws of wind and lashed by sheets of rain. The crew were shouting at the passengers to stay where they are to keep the balance of the bangka. They assured everyone that they’ll be all right; they’d had way worse; they were just passing through rough waters. Though the waves rested a bit, the rain poured hard, and Arturo knew that the worst was yet to come. He had never been at sea like this. He looked at the old dark man, who was telling the family beside him that it’ll be alright. Then he looked at Arturo, and there was a knowing between them, which he only felt when he and his father talked. He reminded him of his father, and Arturo began to cry because he might never see his family again, and if he never got to Pilar, his parents might not make it. He felt himself breaking apart and cursed himself over those years he had wasted in anger and regret now that he was perhaps in his last moments. How useless those feelings were in the face of death!

The old man patted his head, and again there was something about the old man’s eyes that was reassuring, though the waves had returned and gotten worse, and the sea and rain flooded into the bangka. “Fear not, Arturo,” said the old man. The words struck something in him as if those words came from his father. Arturo pulled the talisman out of his pocket and showed it to the old man, who then showed him his, which he was wearing under his shirt. He asked the old man to put the talisman over his head in ceremony. But the old man declined, saying it was his, and no one else should touch it. Then Arturo put it on and clasped it in his hand as he closed his eyes and began to whisper the Latin prayers he had never quite forgotten. He held on to the talisman the way Santiago in the novel held the rope that held the marlin.

The sea was seething, the storm likewise, that they seemed one and the same. All Arturo could hear was noise. When he opened his eyes, the old man beside him was gone. But Arturo didn’t wonder anymore, and he tied the red bandana around his head. He sat still and willed himself to be as steady as steel, and his heart began to beat calmly amid the tosses of the sea. He looked on the path straight ahead of him, though nothing loomed there but the darkness of the sky. He felt the blood of his father, the blood of Solferino, the blood of the warriors who defended his people against the cold-blooded Moro pirates, pulsing in his veins. He called to mind the stories he had heard when he was a child and what he wanted to write about when he grew up: Kapitan Perong Pak-an, his forefather’s moniker, standing atop a high cliff, watching over the Moros, and having himself launched off a catapult made of bamboo poles, then landing on one of the Moro sailboats, single-handedly killing all the Moros, and driving them back to the sea. Stories of his ancestors fearless in the faces of death lived in him, and he now heard his ancestors calling for him to join them. These stories would die if both him and his father were gone, but he wouldn’t let that be. He must live, it was his duty to endure and live on. But even if he felt no hope in surviving, he also felt no fear in dying. He went on whispering a few Latin prayers in tongues, the talisman clasped in his hand. As if making up his mind—I am Arturo Borinaga, in the line of Solferino Borinaga, the founder of Pilar—his hand let go.

He stood out from his seat, the talisman hanging from his neck, the red bandana wrapped around his head, and spoke to all passengers as if they were his people, his voice rising over the roar of the tempest:

“There are two powers stronger than this storm or any storm, and those are fear and faith. Only one can save us.”

He felt power in his words. He told them that the Rolyn Mar had already brought home thousands of people amid storms, and this time was no different. “I ask everyone to pray alongside me as we go through this tempest together. Let us pray together as one and without cease what the Lord has taught us.”

The screaming halted, as everyone fell silent and looked up at Arturo in either disbelief or faith, and all that could be heard was violence of the sea and its indifference to everything in it. But slowly came the divine words until nearly all the passengers joined in and prayed in unison; while a few remained sobbing, all of them held hands together.

Amahan namo, anaa ka sa mga langit… Ipagdaygon namo ingon ngalan…umabot kanamo ang imong gingharian…

The sea and the sky kept on with their tumult, but that only made everyone pray louder against the forces of nature. He closed his eyes and pressed the talisman to his chest, his heart gently throbbing against it. He whispered prayers of his own, imploring God and Solferino that they survive this tempest.

The bow rose high, creating a mountain of a wave, and faced the darkened sky. Arturo felt himself getting swept off his feet. Everyone but Arturo wailed like ghosts. Then his eyes, nose, and mouth stung with salt when the Rolyn Mar plunged into the cold, raging sea.


This literary piece is part of Katitikan Issue 3: (Re) Imaginations.

By Nicolo Nasol

Nicolo Nasol, born and raised in Cebu City, currently working as a freelance writer and editor.

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