Archive for January, 2013

Wonder Lagoon’s reed weave gates open up and my family is immediately in the water, but I need a rest. I open my laptop to start writing my tale. I see you’re online.

You: having a good time?

Me: yes of course
conquered a fear today
that’s usually good
Y: what fear?
M: scuba diving. I have asthma
they weren’t going to let me do it
Y: oooooo tell me about it
M: actually, that’s a whole story too

You remember that story. Now, voices beckon from outside. I am still a bit tired from the last experience, but a little water volleyball will be nice right now. I whip off my shirt and run to jump in only to realize that everyone in the pool is staring at me. They are all wearing their shirts. I think about it for a moment and then I realize: I’m not in the Philippines anymore. I’m far from the waves above the reef where tanned and shirtless is the dress code. Now there’s a pool of pale faces poking out of neck to ankle swimming armour wondering what in wonderland this half nude foreigner is doing.

Koon Hyeung cries out, “It’s okay!” but I’m not going to be the only one. I put my shirt back on, the animosity burns off instantly and everyone goes back to their water games. We all laugh and have a good time. After showers, it’s time for the next experience.

As dusk hits, we are bussed to a small shack by a river. We drop off our things, don lifejackets, and get a quick lesson in kayaking. The woman asks if anyone has done this before. I reply yes, remembering the days when my family’s friend Wendell would take us out on Lake Okanagan for tours around Rattlesnake Island. The tour manager then proposes that
I don’t need a guide, and I can go solo in a sea kayak. I am skirted up and we take off against the current under a darkening, star-filled sky.

The sea-kayak by comparison is much faster than the guide boats, but I am still responsible for powering myself, turning, obeying instructions quickly and keeping to whichever side of the river the guides request. My personal task is to dodge oncoming motorboat traffic and do my best not to collide with the river kayaks. I’m starting to wish I were relaxing in front of a strong-armed guide. I now see their trick. Get the guy who claims to have experience and you don’t need to send out a
guide. Hoisted upon my own ego yet again.

Nohyun and I question a guide and he is filled with information. He talks about the two combining phosphorescent chemicals in fireflies. He tells us they are poisonous to eat. I never planned on eating them, although I do come from the land of bon-dae-gee. We learn that they have an average lifespan of two weeks, and that they mate at night, using their lights to communicate with each other. He talks of the mangrove tree where they live, a tree that sends out a scent signaling to
fireflies that there is abundant food beneath the tree in the claylike mud. Periodically as we paddle, some fireflies come out to meet us. Strings of brightly coloured plastic netting float by, but I might be the only one here with the night vision to see them.

I’ve been showing off. I’ve been going much faster than I ought to. I’ve been doing as I was instructed and pushing rather than pulling the water with the oars. My arms are spared, but my back is beginning to ache something fierce. We are two kilometers away from the shack, two kilometers that I am not ready to paddle. I need a rest, but I don’t want to voice my pain. The guide next to me whispers: Now we’ll really see something. We’re going to the firefly city.

We edge around the elbow, and there it is. After ten or so Mangrove trees we had seen swarming with fireflies, here is the city: a tree fully lit, looking like festive holiday decorations. The tree is shorter than most, but it is swarming with tiny lights. We sit quietly, spellbound.

Our guide whispers to me a few things about the fireflies passing by my cheek. He tells me they are males, for the females stay within the mangrove trees. Eggs are deposited in the mud beneath the trees, sometimes underwater. Another guide remarks that obnoxious motorboats disturb their habitats. We watch a motorboat putt through, its engine loud and sputtering. He laments that some tours run a motorboat straight onto the mud and up to the trees, destroying countless firefly spawn. Maybe they don’t know about that, I tell him. Maybe they don’t want to listen, replies the guide.

The guide informs us dinner is almost ready and asks us if we want to leave now. Don’t give them the option, I whisper. Nohyun laughs, understanding that this group is too polite to make a decision. Back in the shack we eat coconut rice bound in reeds alongside chicken and squares of pork. For dessert we have a stupid man game where we eat ridiculously spicy peppers no bigger than a pushpin.

A handicraft catches my eye. Most of the things here are woven reed, but this item is a colourful little change purse stitched with brightly coloured stars. It is made of plastic, probably from those colouful plastic strands of river refuse I saw in the night water. The tour manager explains to me that it has been woven by the local women. The woman who made it comes over to our table, combat-prepared and ready to bargain. I just pay her the price she has asked and her look softens into a smile.

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I sit here stroking a stinky pale retriever trying to recount everything that’s happened. I’ve never been to this kind of place, a
resort with grass-roofed huts in orbit around a pool crossed by bridges, complete with a poolside bar. I’m not wealthy enough to know this kind of opulence. Someone must have made a mistake.

I have to hand it to Jina: she really knows how to plan a vacation. She’s a veteran traveler. She knows the ins and outs. She knows how to arrange a vacation with as much fun and Korean food as possible. She’s a responsible and caring  single mother in a network of awesome traveling friends with unlimited budgets. Still, she really knows how to save her won, and somehow I am a participant in this latest travel scheme.

Strange occurrences begin with a five am rise on Bohol Island. We’re thrown into the day with no breakfast or coffee. The bus takes us to a shack out in the rural Philippines wilderness, where we are far away from dirty blocks of crumbling cement buildings and clamourous street traffic. Here we are surrounded by banana trees and twenty year-old Filipinos who look no older than thirteen. We see smiling, skinny children running in the streets and laughing. Our driver must be my age, but he has the recklessness of a teenager, honking at every car and motorbike to pass them.

We pull in to a tiny residence and I hear my Korean family pondering why we are not at the beach. We make our way through the property, and discover that the sea is behind it. How did we miss that detail on the ride here?

We walk out into the water on a sand bar, probably a half kilometer of shallow water. We meet our guide, a Korean named Myung Su who has soaked in the Filipino lifestyle. His belly is tattooed. Like the locals he has a soft, round belly with perfectly tanned skin and tight upper body strength. He speaks little English, and less tagalog. I keep my eyes down and only answer crucial questions: Where are you from? How long have you been in Korea? How much Korean do you speak? Jokum. We’re about fifty meters out into the water when we board a small boat that ferries us to a larger boat. You might call this boat a catamaran, but it has a full hull and wooden balancing beams. We speed out to our destination: a coral reef.

As we approach the reef, a serious conversation is taking place. There are four wet suits and scuba tanks. Four travelers can go down, and the rest will snorkel. Who wants to go?

My hand shoots up immediately only to be met with the disapproving gaze of Nuna, who has already told the captain of my medical condition. I wasn’t thinking of the consequences when I casually brought up to Nuna months ago that I can’t scuba dive because of my asthma. She has remembered this. She cares about me much more than I deserve. She discusses it with the captain and mutually they agree that without a doctor’s note, I am unable to scuba dive, as I have been told by numerous doctors.

But the chance is right in front of me! It’s now or never! I squirm with disdain over the conspiracy between the captain and Nuna. I plead at first, mentioning that I am much better now. I haven’t had an attack in three years. Neither Nuna nor the captain know that three years ago, I was addicted to salbutamol and daily doses of discus, a wonderdrug cooked up by GlaxoSmithKlein. The drugs were my saving grace, but still I fell into heaves, unable to breathe during stressful situations or after overexertion. But something, or I should say someone, saved me.

She was a woman of great power who taught me the lessons of breathing steadily and deeply. Even now my companions marvel at the depth of breaths I can take. Since I have put her lessons into practice, I have been feeding from the sun and pulling in oxygen with prana. Who says I can’t scubadive? I can do it! Give me a chance!

After my desperate pleadings, the captain agrees that if I pass the tests, that is, if I can snorkel well, then maybe he will let me scubadive. He will keep close watch on me as I snorkel, and if he so much as sniffs a liability lawsuit, the game’s over, and we’ll pull anchor and head to the island. It’s showtime.

I drop into the water, overly aware of my every action. I need to swim calmly, and enjoy it. I need to be aware of obstacles, and above all, I MUST NOT PANIC. Every action must be done gracefully and deliberately. I dip into the water with my snorkel over my face and do my best to look calm, until I see something. It’s the first two scubadivers. As a snorkeler, I’m able to see the coral reef and the schools of colourful fish from a distance. But the first divers are actually interacting with the reef, swimming about, descending, ascending, and swimming among the fish. Here I am snorkeling, and all I can do is watch others at play. I feel the asthma breath sneaking up on me. I’m stressing. When asthma hits, the breath sounds like a million
voices of the damned souls of hell crying out for mercy. I start to panic, and the feeling of panic only worsens the obstruction in my lungs. I need to resurface. I need to come up for air, real air. I do it as calmly as I can. I emerge on the other side of the boat so the captain can’t see me. I will not miss this chance. I’m going to go. My mind is made up.

I come up onto the craft as Koon Hyeung in yelling my name. Ley-puh! Let’s go! Scuba dibing ka ja!. He’s on my side. Nuna casts disapproving glances. She’s protective. She knows what I’m thinking. She can tell I know there’s a chance I won’t make it. She can tell with a moment’s look in my eye that I overexerted myself and I am beginning to have an attack. I smile and convince everyone but Nuna that I am ready to go. She’s the only one who knows the truth; she knows I am lying. She knows that I might not make it. She’s weeping inside, but on the outside she knows that nothing will stop me, even if she’s the only one who can protect me now. But she also knows that she’s opposed by the captain, who has seen no sign of my illness, and Koon Hyeung, who is set on diving with his younger brother. There is nothing she can do without seeming hysterical. With a firm lip she lets it go and hopes for the best.

I pull on the tight wetsuit, managing as much Korean as I can with the captain. We are laughing together and he has no idea that I was only seconds away from an attack just minutes ago. I’m suited up. It’s time to go. Now or never. I slowly walk down the ladder with the suit sticking to my skin after rigorous instruction from my guide about hand signals. I’m wearing a mask of calm, doing everything I can not to betray my nervousness about what lies ahead. I picture the other two divers, who were able to see everything and interact with it. Coral. Clownfish. Schools swimming around their heads. I want it. I want it now.

I dip in and my guide grabs my suit. He looks me in the eyes as I dip in and struggle for my first few breaths. Something goes wrong.

As the bubbles ascend, I can’t take new breath in. This must be why someone with a breathing condition can’t do this. My guide keeps asking me in hand signals if I am okay. He’s ill-at-ease, wondering why I keep popping my head above the water’s surface. I’m stalling, and not giving him the response he’s looking for. Every time I go under, my own exhalation blocks me from taking a new breath. I get nervous. I keep coming up above surface. My guide is now frantically flashing the okay hand signal, unsure why I can’t submerge. I can’t understand why I just can’t breathe. Everything is fading. That’s it, I’m done.

In front of me appears a specter. It’s the pockmarked Sunsangnim vision from last night. I perceive her clearly now. She is death, coming for me. She marked me out last night, and now, here, in this breathless world, she is ready to reap her harvest. There she sits in my mind clearly, her hospital gown floating in the water. The words of the flying fish dart through my head: You’ll die if you try to go to the stars! Fish can’t fly!

Fish can’t fly. I can’t scuba dive. To hell with it.

I’m going to do this. I’m going to dive. I’m looking into my guide’s face, and he’s expecting a response. I meet his okay sign with an okay sign of my own. If I don’t make it, I don’t make it. If I slip and let go of the spark of life, it was a good ride. I’m not living without this experience. I break the surface. I expect to hear a crash, but there isn’t one. Just perfect, sterling silence. For a moment I float there, unable to breathe. But then new breath enters my lungs. The image of Sunsangnim has been replaced with the image of my breathing teacher. She’s there, giving me instruction about ballooning my diaphragm, to take
deep, calm, steady breaths. She takes me back three years to a cold November day on a beach in the interior of BC, Canada. She is telling me how to overcome my condition. She puts her hand under my belly.

Can you feel that? That’s where your breath should go. There is a central sun in the middle of the universe and a core in the middle of the earth. Bring the pranic energy from the central sun into the core, through your body, down your spine all the way to the root. Keep the energy in the core for as long as you can, and then release. Keep doing this and keep focused. Remember. Om.

I descend unafraid. I am free.

And what a feeling of freedom! Imagine floating weightlessly among columns of coral like canyon walls. The difference with these canyons is that they are covered with soft sealife of every colour and are civilized with many schools of fish so vibrant they look electric. I’m getting hand signals now to release the pressure. We are going further down. To release the pressure, I hold my nose and blow in. Even dropping the tiniest bit increases the pressure on your head. We’re not meant to be here. It’s as improbable for a human to go underwater as it is for a fish to be above water. Yet here I am.

The reef walls drop into infinity. From my vantage point I feel that there’s no limit, that it could drop straight down into the hole in the universe beyond which there are only thoughts and imagination. I switch off the nagging voice of science that tells me that isn’t true, and that there is a sea floor. The only truth now is my perception. Now I’m having fun as my guide gives me the okay to descend further. The walls silently rise beside me, and I am doing the moonwalk in this alien world, a dream in Dr. Seuss colour, stranger than anything he could picture or even dream up. It must have been a half hour that I was down there, but it was in my mind days of exploration amidst the stars and galaxies in this improbable world.

Koon Hyeung is there as well, playing. We are two alien beings, both explorers and children, interacting among these fields of wonder. I start to shiver in the cold, the first time I have been cold in the Philippines. Bit by bit, my guide helps me inflate and ascend. My ears crack. I resurface and take off my gear as I step onto the boat. A new kind of breathing has taken up residence in my body. It is the breathing of relaxation, flooding in with the wonder of doing something unknown and dangerous. I can’t keep the high down. I sit and let the fires of this colourful passion sweep over me. The Koreans are concerned as they see blood streaming down my face. The pressure has popped out my nasal walls, but I again turn off my scientific understanding and realize that this was a ritual drawn with blood, a small sacrifice for a cathartic adventure. Salamat, breathing teacher, for giving me the gift of the impossible. Namaste.

We boat out to Balicasa Island, where a feast of meat on skewers under grass-roofed huts awaits us. The meat sits alongside my new daily staple of mangoes and San Miguel. After we eat, I sit down on the beach and realize I am surrounded by small bits of the coral reef. I see small holes perforating some of them, and these look so much like beads that I start to think that I can make a beautiful necklace for someone special with them. I spend the next half hour collecting these natural beads, and our party is off to another island for a snack of fried bananas and sea urchin. There, the locals try desperately to sell me pearl necklaces. No, thank you.

What I have is more valuable.

We arrive at the warm shores of Bohol somewhat paralyzed from the fast ferry trip. There’s static at the pier when we realize that we can’t get to the Wonder Lagoon without a twenty thousand won taxi trip (about 700 Filipino pesos).

The Wonder Lagoon is Korean-owned. There’s ample Korean dining on the menu and little Filipino food. There is one of those pools you read about in the magazines featuring a swim-up bar adorned with dancing fluorescent lights under palm trees and Romanesque arches. Everything’s subtitled in Hangeul. I may as well still be in Korea. Even the TV blurts out Korean news. Right now, relates Nohyun, Rain is dating the most beautiful pop star in Korea, and sneaking out on his military duties. South Korea is aflame with judgment and scandal. Meanwhile few care about Park Su Min, who cut off his own ear to get out of the service. He isn’t Rain. Rain’s an international superstar who everyone in the world worships after he starred in a box office action hit. Ye gods. Buy the ticket, right?

My Korean family despises the adobo at dinner. I’m the only one who eats it. I chewed the flesh and whispered over the table to Nohyun, the only one in our group willing to understand why kimchi jiggae and kpop news is not what I envisioned for this trip. Dude, we gotta get out of here… let’s just sneak away. Of course Koon Hyeung was also channeling that vibe. We escaped stealthily and caught a bus to Alona Beach.

We’re dropped off in the midst of a typhoon of activity. All the foreigners are here. Levels: beautiful, wonderful levels! From Filipinos with rasta dreads encircling their sun-beaten chests selling blown glass trinkets, to overweight Americans hauling along dark skinned women who look to be ten years old (I’m sure they aren’t). It’s all there on the beach. At first I imagined just a regular beach: a place to take the kids for a nice swim, not unlike the infinite stretches of deserted sand you find even on the Canadian West Coast in the summer. I pictured some pristine white sandy beach with the occasional stray driftwood. The closer we got, in view of the the fire flaring up over tiny rotisserie chickens under huts, skeletal middle-aged men hocking snorkeling adventures, young men wearing off-white wife beaters with blue toques and gold-plated status dropping like albatrosses around their necks, the closer I came to the truth: we are not in Korea anymore.

All those levels! I want all of them! But no. Reality speaking. I may not go and sit in the sand for hours and listen to Marley and Bradley while this glass blower paws at his taut animal hide to attract the consumers. I may not learn more tagalog with the cute chubby woman selling sweet chili crab for her Korean boss while sipping San Miguel. I’m with Koon Hyeung and Nohyun, and I must be here, on this level, just this time. We’re here for a couple of days. Maybe I’ll get the chance later.

But I should give these guys more credit. We sit and are served by the cute chubby woman and learn a little tagalog, some of which is Spanish-sounding (stop…making…fun…of…me!) and we smoke menthols, drink San Miguel and laugh loudly into the night. Something magical happens: I completely stop speaking in English. It’s only Korean from there on in. My companions don’t even notice. Might be the drink. Might be the company. Might be the fact that I’m getting out of myself, and I’m finally getting it.

There’s a lull in the conversation. The lull comes when I look over to my left. There’s this woman standing there as a poi dancer behind her lights up their haloes with liquid light. I pay no attention to the poi. It’s the woman who’s coveting my regard. My eyes do not make out her shape well. All I can see is that she is quite rudely staring in our direction.

Cloaked in the mist of the quickly-gathering fog, she looks like a zombie. Pock-marked face, dark, dark skin, shadowy, deep-set eyes. She looks sick, frail, close to death. It looks like she’s wearing a hospital gown. She’s just standing there, maybe fifty meters away. If her eyes weren’t so darkened out, I would swear she was staring at me. She just stands, silently, staring. I can’t help but think it’s her, my old friend, Sunsangnim. Last I saw her she was wearing a hood for Trayvon Martin. She was healthy at that time, and just getting over a hard time. Of course it can’t be her. Ah, my delusions! I had this terrible feeling in my heart as she broke gaze with me and turned to the left, exposing her emaciated frame and scoliotic curve. I still couldn’t see her face, but I wish I could. I want to prove this wrong, that I could really be looking at this skeleton from my cupboard,
this ghost from my past, just staring at me, alone, on the beach. I don’t want to think about it.

I’ve had too much soju. Too much mekju. Too much imagination. I assure myself that it’s just a local staring at the white foreign guy laughing and talking loudly in bad Korean. Now she’s gone. I trace with my eyes the ways she could have fled. She left instantly, as though she vapourized.

Tell me, is it possible to imagine something as real as this, while still somewhat lucid, and find a realistic explanation? Or do things like this really happen to us all the time? Do we explain our delusions away with justifications in our zealous pursuit not to know uncomfortable things?

Are the spirits among us?

Cebu, Philippines

Posted: January 16, 2013 in stories, travel

“It doesn’t matter what kind of camera you have. The important part is the angle you use.”
-Unknown

Not everyone sees life as being a series of stories. Some travel and write and it sounds like this: I went and saw this farm and it was really cool and chilled out with this guy and he was like all tattooed and like there was this chick with a red shirt who kept on saying crazy things and and and….

And I love it, that’s perfect, that doesn’t have to change. It’s a sort of chaotic unordered mess of pretty lights and colours punctuated by periods of the mundane. I’ll bet it’s hard for folks to reach this state while sober. This is why I think partying becomes addictive. Partying is “doing something.” Not partying is “not doing something.” The day after partying is “recovering from doing something.” When you “do something,” life starts, and when it’s done, life momentarily ends.

If however, you’ve broken that line in your mind, when everything becomes a story or series of stories, everything is doing something. Sometimes we write the story. I don’t mean rewriting the story, that is, remembering it in a way that comforts us. I mean that sometimes we pull the strings, affect. Sometimes someone else is writing it. And for those gaps, those moments where no one can be said to be writing it, I think there’s still a writer.

A story never starts, though. We are continually in media res. But we must start somewhere, so this story starts with me, hungover and underslept…

You: made it safe?!
Me: yes
Me: Got in at 4 am. Instead of sleep, we end up drinking too much soju and eating cup ramien until 5:30 and finally hit the hay.
Me: Nuna wanted to stay in the shopping mall, which looked just like a US mall
Me: Koon Hyung and I said nevermind this and hit the streets
You: the thing to do
Me: yesssss
Me: we had mangoes of course
You: YAY!!!!!!!
Me: and one awesome thing
Me: but I don’t know if I can type it to you
Me: I think I’ll have to tell you in person
You: ok but write it down somewhere so you don’t forget  ^_^
Me: I shall.. ok back to the streets

So what was that awesome thing?

It takes a little explaining. I’m in Cebu with Jina, Nohyun, Nuna, Koon Hyung and three little darlings, Myungji, Jiyun and Hiyun. Nohyun is a year older than me, and the rest are about ten years older than me. Myungji is Jina’s daughter, the youngest, and Jiyun and Hiyun are five and six. We all woke up together, had breakfast and decided to look around the area. We were caught by a mall. I was not expecting to see this side of Philippines. It looked just like a Canadian mall.

I abandoned the party in a corner where there were getting fantastic deals on swimming shorts and ran into Koon Hyung and
Nohyun. I told them we should hit it, but Nohyun got this look in his eyes and said more or less, but I want to shop!

I look at Koon Hyung. Here’s the weird thing about me and my older brother. We speak some of each other’s language, but not enough for a rolling conversation or to be clear about what we want from each other. But we seem to want exactly the same things at the same time. I just can’t explain it. Always he pats my back and tells me he wants to have deep conversations with me. It’s odd. He should have a deeper connection with Nohyun. But no matter how many Korean respect things Nohyun does, I always end up the one who connects with Koon Hyung for the important stuff. We’ll spend long periods of time with strong silence punctuated by snippets of dialogue in either language.

So he’s right into splitting, and we do just that. We get out onto the muddy road as the wind is dancing around and droplets of rain sporadically spit onto our faces. I suggest we eat mangoes and he tells me Nuna has all his money. But I insist, and at some point and I buy us a couple of perfectly ripe mangoes, which we open easily and let dribble down our chins and over our fingers. We learn our first word of cebuano tagalog. Salamat: thank you.

We walk past an inner city farm which we encounter again on the way back. Here skinny dogs and goats race around, nibbling scraps of mushy melon skins littered around the farm. We walk past to a point where we can see through a tiny hole in a concrete divider a big family at rest. Obscuring the vision somewhat is smoke coming from a giant coal pit. Farmers ride their bicycles back and forth on the property. The smell of the smoke is deep and rich; it smells like the colour black, or darkest brown. The big Filipino mama catches my eye. She looks healthy and vivacious. She lifts up her hand and beckons me to come in. I am mesmerized. Of course I will come in, past the rotting fruit peels and scurrying goats. Of course I will sit with your family. I hesitate and she motions again, come, come in, foreigner. Koon Hyung sees what is happening. He breaks the trance. Ka ja! He calls, and he is pulling me out as I notice that without thinking I have walked through the entrance and into the field, and now I am being looked at nonchalantly by goats, skinny dogs, chickens and farmers. Ka ja! I shake my head and walk with him, looking back once. The look back. The thing people do when they want to think once more about that person or experience. It’s a tell.

We come back to our little on-the-cheap hotel called San Francisco Inn. Oh, how I love on-the-cheaping. I get the feeling there would be no inner city farms minutes away from a five-star. We wait as the bus driver gets antsy because the rest of our party is still shopping. They’re half an hour late for the bus because they were busy waiting in line to bring back burgers for lunch. I realize that we have been in two totally different Philippines.

We bus to the ferry terminal where we learn that due to big waves, the 2pm sail will be cancelled. Nohyun is looking very nervous, sort of shaky the way he gets when something isn’t going the way he thought it would. I take his arm and look him deeply in the eye to try and dispel his anxiety, hoping he will understand my message.

“Nohyun, listen. There’s nothing we can do. Someone else is writing this story. Maybe we need to wait for a reason.”

In trying to trigger something in him, I trigger something in myself. There must be a reason. While I am changing the tickets, I ask the teller, who looks like she’s twelve (all the girls in the office do) if there’s anything fun around here. “Fort San Pedro,” she replies.

I tell our group we can either wait in this dark, sweaty room worrying about the boat, or we can go to a fortress. There isn’t another sailing for an hour and half, so after much deliberation, we reach a decision. We walk about five minutes and discover this groovy old fortress used during the time of the Spanish Occupation in Cebu. It’s beautiful now, decorated with flowers and adorned with freshly-painted signs in the old script labeling different rooms with different functions. One of these rooms has been converted into a very small exhibit area with four glass cases, with all but one empty. There we learn about the vestidor, a white vest worn by Hipolito Labra, a Katipunero who served from 1913-1967, the longest term during Cebu’s
opposition to the Spaniards. He believed the vest made him invulnerable to attacks. Considering how long he hung in there, maybe he was onto something.

We return with ten minutes to board. I sit with Koon Hyung on the rear deck of the ferry and we enjoy silence punctuated with small conversations in either language. He points out at the water and says: Flying fish! Flying fish! I look out and sure enough, there they are, these brilliantly- coloured fish jumping as far out of the white stream of the boat as they possibly can and dropping back in. Every time he sees one, he just yells, flying fish!

flying fish 5

Posted: January 16, 2013 in philosophy wars, stories
Tags: ,

“It’s okay to eat fish, ‘cause they don’t have any feelings.”
-Kurt Cobain

I am not dead.

I guess I was just dreaming all this. There was no Pastor Pike or greedy fins pulling me to the zenith. There was no talk of an almighty cod or finners. Mind you, I have one heck of a headache. What happened last night? And why am I on someone else’s couch?

I’m in a sparsely decorated home, but there is no light shining through. It feels like a woman’s abode, although little thought has been put into décor. The door before me begins to open. I can make out the face…

“Justine?”

“Shhh. Keep your voice down.”

“I had this weird dream, there was no work that day and— oh, I should get ready!”

The now familiar feeling of her fin covering my mouth revisits me. “I said, keep it down! They’re looking for you!”

“They?”

“The townsfish. You’re the enemy of the lake.”

I mumble something, restricted by Justine’s fin. She uncovers my mouth and touches her lips. “Shhh!”

“I said, we live in the sea.”

“It’s an expression. Your outburst last night nearly cost you your life.”

“So it wasn’t a dream. Why is everyfish after me?”

“Obviously you don’t understand how fear works. You’ve been labeled a shovel-worshipper. That means you may as well be the shovel. Every time fish look at you they will see their heads being bashed in. You gave the pastor that power by not minding your words. Now you’re here. You may as well get comfortable.”

I settled into the rock couch and Justine drew a breath, sinking back towards the door to grab a food pebble for me. “Oh, I understand fear. You were afraid, and so was Jacob, to speak in my defense! What kind of friends are you?”

Justine let a momentary look of rage grip her face and pass. She tossed me the pebble, but I felt too indignant to eat it. As I pouted, she eyed me condescendingly. “Friends who are smart enough to know how to help you. If either of us had said anything, we would be in the same hot water you were in. I wouldn’t have been able to help you escape, and all three of us would be on the hook. A real friend must still make good choices. I’m glad you’re alive. You should be glad for that, too.”

I thought about what she said and realized that she was right. If anything, I had been a bad friend to them. I was so lost in thinking I could stand for truth that I forgot about my friends, and what consequences might face them if they felt compelled to defend me publicly. I ate the pebble, visibly shamed.

Justine continued. “You’re going to have to learn a few things. I think I’ll have to start from ground zero for you. First rule: Know nothing.”

“Why know nothing? By knowing about the boats, I know more than most. If I become ignorant, I will be just like the other fish.”

“I never told you that you should be ignorant. What you have found out is knowledge that will not be accepted. You can know it, but you must not speak of it, even if you are powerful enough to do something about it. Keep it in your heart and act according to your knowledge without speaking about it. It is unmentionable. An unmentionable carrot, if you will.”

“An unmentionable carrot?”

“Yes. An unmentionable carrot is something so perverse or frightening for more than one fish to know that it can’t be spoken of, but nonetheless, it remains a fact. In this case, two fish know that the boat is fishing us out of the water. The reason it is unmentionable is not just the threat of embarrassment. It’s worse. The consequence of this knowledge is death.”

“So I should pretend not to know about the boat?”

Justine breathed out a tired sigh and launched into a full explanation. “No, but to keep yourself safe, you should admit that you truly do not know the full situation. You know about the boat, according to what you saw. Within your mind you are perfectly aware that you have seen what you have seen. Regardless of what you think about the boat, you must only know what your eyes have perceived, and nothing more. You can be free to change your mind whenever new evidence presents itself. This keeps you from filling in details to make your perception understandable to you. What if you can’t completely comprehend the situation from all angles? I’ll tell you. Another fish will use an angle you have not considered and hook you with it. If you have not considered that angle, and how to respond to it, it is too easy for another fish to completely refute your entire claim. That’s what happened with Pastor Pike. He saw the flaw in your argument. Most fish don’t know about the boat, or flying, or stars. You don’t even really know about those things—not really. Pastor Pike used the schools’ ignorance, and yours, to make the claim that you’re deluded—and worse—dangerous.” Justine’s muscles deflated, and her energy subsided. “Now I’m tired, and I need to sleep. I hope you do the same. Rest awhile, try to think of better waters, and whatever you do, don’t leave this house. I’ll try to figure out a way to clear your name, and we’ll work on how you can know about the dangers of life while still participating in it. Good night.”

Justine left and I began thinking. I thought myself into a spiraling dive and concluded that to truly understand what she had told me I would have to make another visit to the stars. If I ran into anyfish, I would have the chance to prove to Justine that I could put into action this dual life, of knowing about the dangers, but still maintaining an acceptable façade. I waited until I knew she was fast asleep, which wouldn’t take long in her tired state. I rushed out the door and swam up through the schools, doing my best to remain unnoticed. There were guards on watch at the edge of the schools, but they hadn’t spied me. I took the chance and gathered as much momentum as I could. Now the guards could see me, and they raced towards me, but I was too quick for them. I came closer and closer to the surface, the full prism of the light from those magnificent stars beaming down into the water. Three, two, one, break!

In these past few days, I had forgotten how good this felt, to be free of sounds and voices. The cool feel of the air surrounded me as I broke, and the new breath entered my gills. I breathed in the glistening diamond stars, as they radiated around me. Music entered my earholes, an icy polyphony of crystalline dissonance. Ccrrriiickkk-crak-ssssssich-sakkkkk. Metal thud. Rock thud. Glisten click like ice smashing on the sea floor. Build, drop—steadyyyyyy. Then the message hit: Freedom comes at a cost.

“What cost?” I scream and wispy bubbles of vapour vibrate my gills. In a reply to my query, eyes appear, and a shadowy face.

You must sacrifice that which you love most.

“Society? The schools? My job? My life? Gladly! I will do it!”

No, that’s too easy.

“What then? What is harder to sacrifice than these?”

Much, MUCH harder to sacrifice is this…

“What? What is it?”

You might not be apt. This is the greatest sacrifice.

“Anything!”

The eyes are getting clearer and more penetrating. They are green and grey marble reaching into the depths of my likeness. They are gripping my insides. The pain of anticipation is cleansing me dry. I flap and reach, looking for something to hold onto, but there is nothing. The tangible is now completely dissolved and I am only a vessel for this approaching word.

Release.

Sacrifice release?” With this I am sent screaming down towards the water. There wait the guards who quickly swim me away from the surface, away from the stars, and directly to the zenith. No one is here to see my demise. Justine, you are sleeping. Jacob, you are dreaming. The principal, the pastor, and the whole network comprising this rotted, infested clump of scaly bodies— all are unaware that a hook is descending. The lights of the boat, sad replacement of the stars’ scintillating luminescence, get nearer as this painful prick drags me upward, out of water, onto wood, and the last thing I am aware of before the lights go out is a shovel quickly descending to end my life.

I am not dead.

I am staring into those eyes, but nothing tangible separates us but a word.

Release.

“This is what I must sacrifice?”

To be free.

“Am I still alive?”

You are always alive in me.

“What is next?”

What do you want?

“Let me be human. Let me be as those who are free from the schools, the conformity, the ceaseless chasing after pebbles of food, the meaninglessness of existence, and the threat of the hook.”

I can make you human, but the rest I cannot promise.

I am falling into a new pool. I feel safe and comfortable. Now I am breaking through the surface. I am screaming. I am crying. I am calmed by the pat of a fin, no, a hand. I am growing. I am learning. I am falling and getting up. I’m looking for Justine so I can tell her about everything I have learned. I am sacrificing the one thing I love most.

Release.

I swam back, trying to occupy my mind with something else. No boats. No hooks. No stars. No conspiracies. I wanted to forget what Justine had told me because I wasn’t sure if I was ready for what she had suggested. How could I live in these schools, knowing that we are all hunted, knowing that we could go to better waters, and whoever tries to help us ends up grilled? If I were to accept this, I would have to lead a double life: an inner life that is fully aware that my comfort comes at the cost of my freedom, and an outer life still completing the daily tasks demanded of me. Would it be better to live ignorantly, not feeling the need to bear this burden of knowledge? Or better to rebel completely and pay the price? Either option would be a release from this incredible responsibility. Is freedom not the release from responsibilities, to be as carefree as Jacob? Isn’t he the enlightened one?

Now I see Justine in a new light. I’ve seen that she cares more deeply than I would have ever imagined. She seemed as carefree as Jacob, until I found out that she knows, knows about it all. Yet she takes this burden, for what? How can she know about the boat, but still swim so happily? Could I ever have the strength to do that?

I am approaching the edge of the schools and every fish is asleep, dreaming about impossible things, or not dreaming at all. I twist around currents and arrive at my little stone house. I float down to my igneous sofa, awaiting another day of work.

The next day, however, only one of my students is lingering around the school. I find out from her that there is no school or work today. The students were excited until they learned that instead of work, there will be a big meeting of all the schools. Attendance is mandatory. I am also told that this meeting will be held on a weekly basis and that anyone who doesn’t attend will face consequences. I didn’t need to ask what those consequences might be.

I swam with the student to the center of schools and we awaited the arrival of Principal Flatfish. He swam in with a gentlefish we knew as John Pike, but Principal Flatfish introduced him as Pastor Pike. Pastor Pike greeted us all and thanked us for making time for the meeting of schools. He started by telling us that it had come to his attention that some of us were feeling a little fearful about hooks lately, and that we should endeavor to be calm and remain productive. He told us that in times of woe, when we are missing our hooked friends and families, that it is easy to let our souls sink, which Jerry Sole in the back of the crowd agreed was quite true. Pastor Pike told us about a concept that would resonate with our souls. Jerry Sole pricked up his earholes, thinking this advice was meant specifically for him.

Pastor Pike told us then about a concept called solevation. With solevation, we need never worry about hooks again. Now it was more than just Jerry who was intent on listening. Death by hook was not just an act of nature, claimed the pastor, as we had previously been taught. Amongst the fish present, I was probably the most excited by this solevation idea. Whatever solevation was, it seemed now that the schools were willing to admit they were wrong, and finally we would know the truth. Was I responsible for this change of heart? Maybe Justine was wrong. Maybe what we all needed was a wake-up call, someone to tell the truth and accept the consequences. I was changing fish society and I didn’t even need to be a principal to do it.

Solevation, said Pastor Pike, came from understanding the truth. Once we could see the truth, we would enjoy an afterlife of swimming wherever we wanted to, for the rest of eternity. It was even better than I imagined. I wasn’t making things up. Not only would we not be punished for knowing the truth, we would receive great otherworldly treasures for it. I swam up close to the pastor, a wide grin on my face, ready to bask in the illumination of what I knew was true and right. The pastor gazed into the eager gleam of my left eye (which was all he could see with his right eye) and confidently continued.

“The fish who are hooked,” explained the pastor, “are not chosen arbitrarily. They are hooked because they are finners.”

This confused me, because until then I had thought the boat had been hooking fish indiscriminately. I asked what a finner is. The pastor told us that a finner is a fish like Jody. Always complaining. Always ruffling folks’ gills with her prickly temperament. Nods from the crowd affirmed that Jody in fact was a finner, for more than a few of the fish there had been hurt by her insensitive words. Jody’s family, who were still grieving, kept silent when they saw how many other fish agreed that she deserved her death.

The pastor’s lure was not enough for me to bite, however, and I asked how it was that the boat knew which fish were finners. He answered that it was not a boat. He told us that what I had called a boat was in fact the Almighty Cod, and he could spot finners because he knew everything. I disagreed and said that it was not a cod, but a boat. He asked me where I got this knowledge, and I replied that I had seen it when I went to where fish can fly to the stars.

Fly to the stars? You are clearly delusional. Fish can’t fly,” the pastor pointed out. “Your whole theory makes no sense. Flying fish? Does anyone here believe a fish can fly?” No one in the audience, not even Jacob and Justine, would comply that fish could fly. The idea seemed ridiculous in this context, but I had proof. Well, my own proof, anyways.

“I can show you. If you will come with me to the stars, I will show you the boat, and how a fish can fly.”

“Delusional! Who could believe you? Here I stand, speaking the truth, and you interject with lies! From now on, no fish will be allowed to visit the surface and stare at the stars. Has anyone even seen these stars?” Again, not even Jacob or Justine would speak up in my defense. “No. Because you are mistaken. What you have seen is the shovel!”

Pastor Pike now held the audience. In proving my statements ridiculous, he was free to assert anything. He told us that the shovel is the last thing a fish sees before its head is bashed in. He told me that what I saw was the shovel, and if I persist in going to see it, or persuade others to do the same, I would be endangering everyfish on account of my shovel-worship. What he was saying was untrue. I needed to tell the fish the truth.

“No, it’s the people on the boat that have the shovel! The shovel is just a tool of this almighty cod you keep talking about!”

“You dare speak of the just and knowledgeable Cod this way? Do you want to deceive everyfish with your delusional talk and blatant shovel-worshipping? I hate to do this, folks. You’ve grown up with this young fish. He has taught your children. For a while you loved him. Now he has gone crazy and become a shovel-worshipper, and he will endanger us all. He is no longer with the fish, he is against us. His soul has been replaced with the soul of the shovel.” Not surprisingly, it was Jerry Sole who began the murmurs of dissent. A shovel worshipper among us? He must be stopped before we all get our heads bashed in! There was clamour and confusion. A fin grabbed mine and off I flew backwards, surely towards the zenith, or whatever other grisly fate awaited me for my impassioned outburst against the pastor.

I struggled against the fin clamping on my hand and turned to strike against it. Before I knew it, I was knocked out cold. What beautiful dreams followed in my captivity, dreams distorted by visions of head crunching shovels!
A final thought grilled my mind before I lost consciousness completely and could feel no more. I have died telling the truth. Now, am I free?

I swam back as quickly as I could to the mass. Many fish had been awoken by Jody’s screams. Policefish were assessing the damage. They were muttering about an act of nature, which was commonly accepted as the only reason anyone died around here. I screamed towards the huddled clump of scaly bodies.

“No! It was not an act of nature! I’ve seen what’s really happening! Listen, please.”

The fish, many of whom recognized me from my charity program earlier that day decided to turn their attention to my plea.

“I didn’t tell any of you this, but I went up to see the stars last night. Then I went again tonight. What I saw there, I can barely describe. They’re sending us food! They’re hooking us!”

Constable Catfish interrupted. “What is that fish bubbling about?”

“Let me explain! We’re being used as food! Don’t take what they send you!” Before I could reveal who it was that was hooking us, I felt a fin reach around my head and cover my mouth. I tried to fight it, but I couldn’t. The fin just held more tightly. A voice I recognized called out from behind me. “Sorry, Constable Catfish. He’s my friend. He hasn’t been getting much sleep lately. I’ll take him home.”

The constable sighed. “Thanks, ma’am,” I knew the voice behind me perhaps better than my own. “Oh, and if you please, make sure he gets some rest.” It was Justine. We had been friends for a while. We loved having conversations about the most interesting things. She always had the best sense of humour, and she loved to sing.

“Yes, sir,” she responded politely.

We made our way to my pebble shack in silence. Just as we reached the door, she turned around and looked me deeply in the eye. “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll never mention that again.”

“No, Justine, you don’t understand. They’re killing us.” Again, Justine’s fin wrapped around my mouth, as her other fin touched her delicate lips to indicate that I should be more candid. “Shhhh. C’mon, let’s go inside. We need to talk.”

I opened my door, embarrassed about the clutter everywhere. A few provocative issues of Muskellunge were lying on my stone coffee table. I quickly batted them under the table and sat nonchalantly on the igneous rock sofa. I instantly launched into my argument.

“Why won’t you let me warn you? Terrible things are happening.”

“Look, I know all about it.”

“There’s no way. You know about the food?”

“Yes, and the giant thing up there. It’s called a boat. In it are giant creatures that take us out of the water when they want to.”

“If you know about it, why don’t you try to stop it?”

“I am trying. But you can’t just run around yelling at people. You wanna know what’ll happen? You’ll be put out at the zenith.”

“The zenith?” The zenith is the prime spot for hooks. No one goes there anymore, but it is rumoured that long ago, fish were taken to the zenith as a punishment. I had taught the lesson a hundred times. There were once rebellious fish, and their minds were set against the schools. All they wanted was destruction and anarchy. They kept talking about a boat, and how we needed to relocate. For this, they were sent to the zenith, where they were quickly fished out. I could still recall the sounds of my students’ voices in unison responding to my question: And what should we do to avoid being sent to the zenith? Never rebel! Stay in school!

“So you’re just echoing the lessons, then! You’re the same as all the other fish!”

Justine crinkled her eyes. “No, I’m smart. And I’m right. If you want to make change, you don’t do it by flapping around and stirring up a tidal pool. Think about it. If you rebel and get put at the zenith, what have you done? You’ve only served as an example. You’ve reinforced the idea in the minds of other fish that rebellion means death.”

“Then what do you suggest?”

“Do what I do. I sleep with one eye open, looking for hooks. I’m passing the tests, and hitting the marks. I’m keeping low while rising up. Once I rise to the level of principal, I’ll be able to make changes and steer us into better waters. Until then, I do what I can to get by. And I suggest you do the same. Do this charity thing everyone’s talking about. Be beyond reproach. But when it comes to it, don’t forget what you saw.”

The tension eased, and soon we were talking about neutral things again. Making jokes. I loved to see her laugh again, and I couldn’t help but smile. Then I suggested something.

“Can I show you something? Follow me.”

“I promised the constable I’d put you in bed.”

“Aw, c’mon. Just one little thing.”

“Oh, fine.”

I brought Justine to the edge of the schools and led her out quickly, fin in fin. She was pleading not to leave, but I pressed on. I really wanted to show her the stars. Once she saw them, she’d know what I knew: that there was something beyond this world.

Finally, we reached the surface. “Aren’t they beautiful?”

“Yes, I love them. This isn’t the first time I’ve been here. Jacob brought me here.”

“Really? Did you go into them together?”

“I’m not going to tell you what I did with Jacob.”

“No, of course not. Sorry.” There was silence for a moment, and I turned to her. The starlight radiated in her eyes as she stared out beyond the surface. I broke the silence abruptly, and judging by her response, my timing was terrible. “Will you go with me?”

Justine looked at me with soft, sad eyes. “I’m sorry, I can’t. It’s a special experience, going to the stars together. It really means something. It really meant something to me before, and I—” I hung onto her words, hoping she might change her mind. “Look. We’re really good friends. I don’t want to jeopardize what we have, because what we have is truly special. Once you’ve gone to the stars with someone, it’s never the same again. You can never look at each other the same way. And after, if you swim away from each other, you know you’ll never be friends again. I’m too close to you to want to take that risk. I hope you understand.” Justine began to head back toward the schools. I started to follow, and then I stopped myself. As she went off, I mouthed, “I understand.”

                Of course I understood. What does it matter? There are plenty of fish in the sea. But what other fish would ever want to take the risk of flying past the surface? She was the only one I could imagine really understanding all this. I got a feeling in my gills that we would look out at the stars together again one day.