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The SEA is Ours
Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia
By Jaymee Goh, Joyce Chng
Rosarium PublishingCopyright © 2015 Rosarium Publishing
All rights reserved.
On the Consequence of Sound
... and then there is the legend of the Bakunawa, first of all the sky whales. The Tagalog songs tell of a majestic beast as black as night, with scales that shimmered in the dark like stars, so big it could swallow the very moon itself.
Most Tagalogs believe that when Bathala created the world, he made seven moons of the purest bathalani to hold up the sky. So captivated was the Bakunawa, it is said, that it rose up and consumed all of them but one.
Some legends, however, take this instead to be true: that there was always but one moon; that the Bakunawa, as a creature of the sky, was a wise messenger sent by Bathala himself; and that it brought down from the heavens a piece of the solitary moon, which we know today as the floating island of Mount Taal.
— Damiana Eugenio, "Philippine Folk Literature: The Legends," 1993
* * *
The butanding is a curious creature, especially for a little girl who knew nothing about life outside the Walls.
I thought it was just a kite dancing in the wind, floating languidly on the morning breeze.
I think now that it must have been just a small juvenile, perhaps no more than 300 varas in length, but it was far bigger than any kite or bird I had ever seen before.
The blue-gray skin on its catfish-like body glistened in the morning sun as it glided calmly about, its fins catching on the wind as it swam.
The lone calf had probably lost its way from its herd and somehow wandered into the skies above the city.
The people below didn't seem to care. Stray whales were not completely uncommon, Papa said, and they never bothered the city or its inhabitants.
It swooped low overhead, almost touching our rooftop.
Its eyes shone like polished black marble, set against a gaping toothless mouth that trailed long gossamer whiskers in its wake.
It floated effortlessly above me, just out of reach.
Then, from far off beyond the Mariquina mountains came a low droning sound, a booming thunder that rolled across the sky.
That was an adult call, Papa said. Its herd was looking for it.
The pup opened its mouth wide and bellowed in reply:
The note echoed through the air, the vibrations sending shimmering ripples across the rows of blue-white bathalani crystals along the creature's flanks. Each wave of sound lifted it higher into the air.
The young sky whale twisted upwards in a gentle spiral.
Kroooooeeeeeeeeoooooom! it answered back.
It shifted its fins, leveled out its flight, and headed home.
"What was that?" I asked.
"A choice," Papa said.
* * *
Intramuros! The old Manila. The original Manila. The Noble and Ever Loyal City ... To the early missionaries she was a new Rome, but to the early conquistadores she was a new Solomon's Temple, filled with life and love — but most of all, with sound and music.
— Nick Joaquin, "Manila, My Manila," 1990
* * *
To live in Intramuros was to live surrounded by music.
I remember fondly one cold summer morning under a clear blue sky many years ago, when I was just a little child back in the old Walled City. My father, holding my hand, took me to our balcony to greet the new day.
I was too small to look over the ledge, too scared to look down. So I just closed my eyes and listened — to the dawn hymns of the monks singing in their chapels high up in the rascacielos, the clacking of horses' hooves on the cobblestoned streets far below, the throaty cries of the Sangley streetvendors echoing from the alleys, the rhythmic thumping of mortars on pestles as the day's rice was being prepared.
All around us, Intramuros was alive with the sounds of ritual and habit: a strong, steady heartbeat that had remained unchanged for centuries.
It was the sound of home, of life within the Walls.
Suddenly, Papa shook my shoulder.
"Look there, Aria!"
My curiosity got the better of me. I opened my eyes to find him pointing into the distance, out across the bay.
The Nuestra Señora del Cielo was a sight to behold as it came in to port.
The royal galleon's masts, each thick around as the torsos of seven men, seemed to defy the very sky itself. Her massive wooden hull, made from the most ancient and darkest narra wood and inlaid with gold and mother of pearl, cast a long shadow over the houses and churches beneath it. The whole city, it seemed, fell into silent awe at the sight of the great ship flying in from the sea.
A squadron of smaller, sliver-shaped escort ships flew in tight formation ahead of it, their linen sails billowing at full mast, white as clouds. Each escort glinted with its own complement of brass lantaka cannons extended in ceremonial salute.
The Navigators of the entire retinue, sight unseen, played at a steady tempo as they guided their ships on course. I will always remember the music of their viols descending from the air, a cascade of notes that swelled and receded in wave after grand wave of sonorous rapture, announcing the arrival of the royal galleon.
It was then that I knew I would become a Navigator.
One day, I shyly asked my father if I could learn to fly.
He was seated as usual at the head of the dining table, reading the day's issue of La Vanguardia. Mother had prepared him his usual cup of tsokolate with a side of buttered pan de sal.
I casually took my place beside him and reached over to the pile of hot, leaf-wrapped suman on the center serving tray.
I paused for a moment, wondering if it was a good time to disturb him.
"Papa, I want to be a Royal Navigator just like you!" I said in my tiny voice.
Papa burst into a hearty laugh. "And what made you think that, hija? A Navigator's life is hard work," he said, crossing his arms.
He spoke with authority on the matter as a First Order Initiate of the Cofradia de los Hermanos Alados, the Confraternity of the Winged Brotherhood — his emblem of office, a winged fist, proudly displayed on a pin that he always wore on his collar.
"Es que si ... gosto co pong matotong lomipad," I stammered, hiding my face behind my hands.
He looked me sternly in the eye.
"And what would you do then, if you learned to fly, eh?"
"Gosto co pong homoli nang butanding," I giggled.
Papa shook his head.
"There is much more to being a Navigator than catching sky whales, my child."
He pointed out the window, across the cityscape, to the sky lanes filled with all manner of pedestrian craft. They flew in strict formation above the city, guided by their conductors.
A flock of carefree pigeons swooped and dashed about around them.
"Everything," he said, "has a price. One day you will learn what that means."
I giggled at the sight of the birds flitting about.
My father sighed and patted me on the head.
"Pero tiñgnan natin," he said. "We shall see."
* * *
Long ago, even before Intramuros existed, the inhabitants of Maynilad discovered the peculiar properties of gravidium ore — how it responded to sound, how vibrations of certain frequencies enabled it to Levitate and move about in the air. It was, then as now, thought to be a sacred link to the Almighty. Hence it was called bathalani, "God's Lodestone."
— Antonio de Morga, "History of the Philippine Islands," 1868
* * *
On the eve of my seventh birthday, my father presented me with a small, carved wooden box, no bigger than my two cupped hands. He undid a small brass fastener and produced what seemed to me a simple sliver of carved bamboo and a blue-gray crystal mounted on a silver chain.
"These are the most basic tools of Levitation. Anyone who wishes to be a Navigator must first learn to be proficient in their use," Papa said.
The kubing felt light in my hand, almost fragile. My father showed me how to place it to my mouth, to tap on its lamella to produce a single drone note.
"The hard part," he said, "is feeling the stone.
"No two are exactly alike, and you must learn to shape your notes properly to make it resonate.
"Go ahead," he said. "Try it."
I placed the kubing to my lips as he had shown me, and flicked it against my open mouth.
The bathalani pendant sat quietly in its case, unmoving.
"Do not be afraid. Now arch your lips slightly, yes, and curve your tongue down. Yes, right. Like that."
I thought I saw the ore tremble ever so slightly.
"Expand your mouth more. Lower your tone."
The stone began to shudder.
"Good. Now feel the vibration build up inside you. Ride it, lend it your strength."
"Yes. Excellent. Dame mas!"
BWOOOMBWOOOMBWOOOMBWOOOMBWOOOM BWOOOMBWOOOM ...
The stone danced, as on the edge of an invisible wave on an unseen shore.
"Watch its movement closely. Find its resonating point."
What happened next was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life: the pendant raised itself magically up into the air, Levitating as if on a chain.
"Muy bien! You've done it, hija!"
Distracted, I lost control over the stone. It fell with a loud clatter onto the floor.
"That was good," my father said as he bent over to pick up the pendant.
"But you will need a lot more practice."
* * *
The kubing, or jaw harp, is an ancient musical instrument used in times of love and war, to woo and to slight, to court and to spurn. It is a simple yet elegant instrument whose sonorous qualities aptly lend themselves to the control of gravidium. Not surprisingly, it is the earliest known instrument that the ancients used for flight.
Similar instruments have been documented in other parts of Asia, suggesting that its invention may even predate the discovery and widespread use of bathalani for Levitation.
Despite the eventual development of the sturdier and more accurate Stroh viol and other instruments specifically for the purpose of Levitation, such is the simplicity and straightforward nature of the kubing that popular interest in the instrument has not waned in the intervening centuries.
— Dr. Jose Maceda, "Gongs & Bamboo: A Panorama of Philippine Musical Instruments," 1998
* * *
When I was old enough, my father gave me his heirloom Amati viol, an immaculate instrument with a lustrous dark brown varnish on fully aged wood. Its voice was like gold and it played like mercury, with rich deep registers that smoothly gave way to crystal treble tones.
It was perfect.
And so began my initial instruction in the finer points of Levitation.
I was taught how to strap the instrument to my shoulder, to accustom myself to the feel of it under my chin. Then came the finer intimacies of the fingerboard and the rigors of bow control.
Days turned into weeks into months. Solfegges followed scales followed arpeggios, and all over again. I learned to play etudes and caprices, practicing every day for hours on end with a set of bathalani geodes.
Papa would have me Levitate the stones in formation again and again.
My fingers ached all the time from the relentless drills.
"Mas rapido!" he would shout. "You're going too slow!"
One time, my fingers hurt so much that I cried.
"How can you expect to fly if you cannot even manage your own fingers?" Papa scolded me.
But he bent down and took my tiny hands in his and rubbed my palms.
He wiped a tear from my cheek.
"Start over," he ordered, and left me alone to practice.
* * *
During the latter half of the eighteenth century there culminated the long struggle for colonial empire between European states which we have been following. In the zealous movement for defense in support of the Spanish Crown that ensued, there rose to power the Cofradia de los Hermanos Alados, which bore as its motto the personal vow of its Navigators: "Totus tuus, Musica: Alis volas propria" — I am yours, O Music: You fly on your own wings.
— David P. Barrows, PhD, "A History of the Philippines," 1905
* * *
When I was deemed ready, I was taught to Levitate a cargo skiff. It was of a very humble make, with a low and somewhat flattened hull, meant as a light cargo pallet for shipping bulk items from one level of the city to another. A series of copper sound tubes extended out from the pilot's seat to the sides, where rows of gravidium pellets were bound tightly to the wooden frame with strong hemp rope.
As I watched, Papa placed his own viol under his chin and turned to face the skiff's sound cone.
"Watch closely," he said, and proceeded to play at a legato tempo. Slower than usual, so I could keep up.
He played a standard ascension arpeggio — a series of harmonic notes meant to Levitate a ship in a smooth, sloping upward trajectory.
The skiff's system of tubes carried the music to the crystals, which trembled and glowed at the sound.
The skiff rose up and away, just as intended. When he had reached roof height, he reversed the succession of notes, bringing the pallet gently back down.
"Now, you try it."
I took my place at the front of the skiff and strapped my feet into the pilot's harnesses. Papa stood just behind me on the cargo pallet, holding onto the side rails, closely watching my every move.
I made sure that my viol was strapped in and firmly wedged under my chin.
I pressed my fingers tentatively onto the fingerboard, trying my best to produce a steady liftoff scale.
"You're doing well, Aria. Just remember what I taught you. Steady notes, steady notes," Papa whispered into my ear.
It is always a scary feeling when you draw your bow across the strings and see yourself rising up into the air for the first time.
It is even scarier when you realize that the only thing keeping you from falling is the sound of your instrument.
My hands started to shake.
The craft listed suddenly to one side, almost throwing us off balance. I fought the urge to look back to see if Papa was alright.
"Careful! Be confident of your skills. Do not hesitate," he commanded me firmly.
I took a deep breath and played on, as calmly as I could, one note at a time.
The craft righted itself and floated steadily higher.
Through it all, I kept my gaze fixed forward. I had always been afraid of heights.
"No, no! You have to look down, Aria! Fight your fear. You need to know your craft's altitude so you can make adjustments."
He was right, of course. But I felt dizzy looking down at the floor.
"Don't worry, that's right. That's good. Now move forward."
I adjusted my stance and bowing as I had been taught.
I took a deep breath and steadied my hands. Thankfully, the skiff obeyed my notes.
At last, my father placed his hand gently on my shoulder, signaling me to descend.
The skiff touched the ground with a soft thud.
Papa helped me out of the harness.
"To fly," he said, "You must learn to surrender yourself to the music."
He touched a finger to my forehead.
"Trust the music. As long as you hear it in your head, you'll be fine."
* * *
It should come as no surprise that, despite their colonial trappings, the numerous lay aviation movements — of which the Cofradia was the most notable and widespread — were firmly rooted in the native spirituality of the peasants to whom the awe-inspiring butanding were but a commonplace miracle since before Hispanic times.
Fundamental to this spirituality was the concept of sacrifice, a virtue that the friars themselves fostered and propagated in ostensible emulation of Christ.
— Reynaldo Ileto, "Pasyon and Revolution," 1979
* * *
I was sixteen when I finally earned my wings.
"There is nothing more I can teach you," Papa said. "All that is left is for you to undergo your biñag, the rite of passage that we all must undertake before initiation into the Cofradia.
"But you need to be ready."
He sat down beside me and held my hand.
"There is a reason, you see, why so few are accepted into our ranks. Understand that, if I guide you on this path, you may not like what you discover. And there is no turning back, for both of us. Are you prepared for that?"
I did not hesitate. I nodded my assent.
"Very well, then. Tomorrow we travel to Mount Taal."
* * *
Little is known about the Philippine "sky whales" (Clarias volantis) or butanding, as they are called in the common tongue, other than that they are unique among the fauna of the world as they are the only animal yet discovered to have successfully made the developmental leap from an aquatic to an almost purely airborne lifecycle.
We also know that the creatures owe this singular existence to their heavy consumption of gravidium, which they scrape off the mountainside as a rodent would nibble on tree bark.
It is no wonder then that the butanding's habitat is severely limited almost exclusively to the island of Luzon, where the only known stores of naturally-occurring gravidium were a closely guarded secret of the Spanish government.
— John Foreman, FRGS, "The Philippine Islands," 1905
Excerpted from The SEA is Ours by Jaymee Goh, Joyce Chng. Copyright © 2015 Rosarium Publishing. Excerpted by permission of Rosarium Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Timothy Dimacali On the Consequence of Sound Illustration by Shelley Low,
Marilag Angway Chasing Volcanoes Illustration by Pear Nuallak,
L. L. Hill Ordained Illustration by Pear Nuallak,
Alessa Hinlo The Last Aswang Illustration by Trung Le,
Nghi Vo Life Under Glass Illustration by Kim Miranda,
Paolo Chikiamco Between Severed Souls Illustration by Borg Sinaban,
Kate Osias The Unmaking of the Cuadro Amoroso Illustration by Trung Le,
Olivia Ho Working Woman Illustration by Stephani Soejono,
Robert Liow Spider Here Illustration by Pear Nuallak,
z.m. quynh The Chamber of Souls Illustration by Borg Sinaban,
Ivanna Mendels Petrified Illustration by Wina Oktavia,
Pear Nuallak The Insects and Women Sing Together Illustration by Kim Miranda,
About the Authors,
About the Editors,