What is Gained in the Telling.

I submitted this piece to the Iligan National Writer’s Workshop–they responded positively and I should have been on a plane today, setting off to learn at the feet of writers whose words give meaning and voice to the regions of the Philippines. Unfortunately, the road couldn’t lead to Iligan as I am scheduled for a visa interview tomorrow.

My heart’s a bit broken over this. Writing means a lot to me and this week would have been a great opportunity to improve my craft. But anyway, there will be other opportunities.


What is Gained in the Telling.

Ti nalaka ti pannakasapulna, nalaka met ti pannakapukawna.
What is easily acquired is easily lost.

The language poured into me without even a sieve between us.

My grandmother, tugging at my arms, would lead me through the maze of the Baguio Public Market. We would go from dark, dingy alleys to the bright luminescence of the butcher’s strip, globes of incandescent lamps hanging over chunks of meat. I watched the sweat trickle down from their faces. Their eyes glimmered in recognition of my grandmother, who at five feet tall maintained her poise and lady-like demeanor. She would smile knowingly at them triggering a collective gesture of meat sorting. They knew which cuts she would need to make her month-lasting adobo, a dish my sisters and I loved and feared at the same time. How long could meat really last—vinegar or no? At some point in my childhood, when I was still young enough to allow fantasy to take over reason, I courted the possibility that my grandmother had employed magic in her kitchen. We were by no means affluent yet we never ran out of food. The refrigerator was always bursting at the seams, jars of jam and butter struggling to keep the door ajar.

Back at the market, the smell of day-butchered pig wafted in the air. I was too young to be self-conscious but old enough to know how embarrassed my grandmother would be if I spat or vomited on account of it. There would be none of that. If you are old enough to go to the market, an accomplice of the Lady of the House, then the nonsense of nausea is dealt with in silence. I swallowed to keep from throwing up and made a nary a sound for fear of breakfast sputtering out along with my words.

So, I learned to listen. The Iloko words my grandmother used to conduct her business didn’t easily arrest me, at first. These were exigencies of living in Benguet. English could not be the sole currency in this economy of words because a lot of those who spoke it were no longer the tillers of the land. The missionaries had come to preach the Good Word and under their tutelage, the local Kankana-ey and vernacular Iloko, were submerged in a bigger pool of language, English defining the perimeter and slowly moving into the heart of the people’s being. It was faith after all that the Catholics preached—faith to conquer, to banish the savage. There was some salvation being preached here but my grandmother knew that nothing, not even God, could save a farmer from the lowlands where nothing of value grew. Their English might have rooted itself deeply in their expression but it could not beat the indigenous wisdom of knowing the planting season like someone who had lived it.

Life within the language is also worth noting. I knew the words only passively and I struggled to forget them. Gentle as my grandmother might have been in her use of the language to acquire goods, my mother was not so. She said so few things in that tongue but her words captured me, locked me in submission. I knew the dragon in her when she said her piece in Iloko.

“Agtalna kan.”

Roughly translated, the phrase commands the listener to have peace—but when voiced by an angry mother to quell my own childish rebelliousness, I knew I could not have any. I carried the weight of her words on my shoulders for as long as I could remember. I gained no interest in learning to say things in the language that oppressed me as a child. I feared that inhabiting it might render me oppressive, too. Who would want to pass that on? The fear, the anxiety, the secret bond between mother and child that wounds, that breaks.

She stopped using that tongue in my adolescence. Perhaps she thought I had outgrown the need to be told off. Naturally, I hadn’t but it relieved me to not be reprimanded in public, in this language or another.

When my grandmother died, I was all of eighteen. Only now made aware of the value of a regional language, of a vocabulary that colored my growing years. When she was cremated, I worried that the words burned with her. I was saddened to see the language carried over to the grave.

At least I thought this was the end.

Lately, I have been visiting the mountains in search of butchers who might know my kind of meat from others. They are few and far between but once they slice the meat, partitioning the animal and designating which of its parts I must claim, I surprise them with conversation. They are baffled at first, watching someone with fair skin speak a tongue so seemingly foreign but also lived in, accent and all. I am invited for gin in their homes. The spirits leap out of glasses in homage to those that have gone before us.

In between drinks they tell elaborate tales in Iloko and I am astonished by my comprehension. I have never heard some of these words before but they speak to a side of me I have never really attempted to know.

What is easily acquired is easily lost.



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