Thursday, 13 September 2012

A Short Story: Secret of the mangrove river (A scary adventure)

Copyright © 2011

THE BRIDGE could only take one vehicle at a time, so seeing a high-bed sand-and-gravel delivery truck slowly approaching from the other side and rolling towards us, I braked some 100 meters away from its approach. 

In the passenger seat, my mother side rolled down her window after I killed the engine and the air-con as well. 

After being away from this place for ages, mother said she wanted to feel in her face the silky touch of the familiar fishy scent of the breeze purring from the Mambulao Bay. I knew she had missed a great deal of this all her life after she and father finally settled in Pasig when all my siblings had finished schooling in the local high school in Parang, which happened to be just a spitting distance from my childhood home.

We arrived a few hours ago just before daybreak after an overnight drive from Pasig. But mother appeared to have recharged her self fully up as soon as the sun came up this morning. She said she was all right anyway as she snored her best during the nine-hour drive from our home in Manggahan, Pasig City. 

All throughout the trip, I just roosted in my nest in the front seat. It was my brother Samuel, the sixth child in the family who’s now in his mid-40s, who gunned the Honda Civic all the way from the city, he being used to long night-time drives, having done this a number of times in the past. I knew at this very moment he was snoring at home, next to Gelo, his 6-year-old son and his youngest, who insisted on tagging along in a journey meant for a quick break from the smog and stress of the city grind.

Built of heavy steel frames with thick concrete pavement, the bridge was just about six feet above the brackish water flowing in from Mambulao Bay and feeding into what was left of a patch of mangrove forest that grew abundantly on the fringes of our barrio called Parang some three kilometers away.

The bridge linked Parang to the poblacion of Jose Panganiban, a small fishing and gold town in Camarines Norte. It was here in this village where our family first settled some 63 years ago when it was just a coconut and cattle farm hacienda then owned by a wealthy landowner named Ramon Adea, the grandfather of former teen movie star Perla Adea. 

When our family migrated to this village in 1950 from nearby Paracale, then a booming gold mining town, there were only four children in the family – me, being the eldest, Helen, Susan and Arnel. At that time, the barrio was overwhelmed with bush and tall grasses. Crawling beneath the tall coconut trees, the whole place was besieged daily by a herd of noisy and smelly red cows and sheep wearing heavily soiled wool waiting to be shorn and rotund goats under the watchful eyes of an old hacienda caretaker.

Earlier that morning after breakfast of “sinangag”, “daing” and brewed home-made cocoa paste, mother asked me to drive her to the wet market by the bay some 10 minutes away; she wanted to catch up with the “banyeras” of fresh fish before they could be hauled off to Manila in ice-packed Styrofoam boxes by “viajeros”. 

Actually, she wanted to grab a tricycle and be off to the market but I warned her against it since she was already having a hard time climbing into the three-wheeled contraption, and getting off as well. At 83, mother had found this task of climbing even just one step on the stairs leading to the second floor of our home taxing her a lot. So a tricycle ride was out of the question this time.

After a few minutes had passed and still the gravel-and-sand truck was still stuck on the bridge, I flagged down a boy wheeling in a bicycle that just zig-zagged through the bridge’s walkway. I asked him what was taking the truck from coming off. 

“It won’t start” was what I heard him said. The truck, in turned out, was waiting for a push-start from whoever would care to help.

“Boboy, do you still remember this place …?” mother finally said after being lost in her own nostalgic musings for a while, amusing her self with the newly-built low-cost houses on a reclaimed area some 300 meters away from where we sat. 

The subdivision, apparently developed several years ago as shown by many of the houses with perimeter fences, was sitting on what used to be a wide mangrove forest that spread out up to as far as four kilometers towards a nearby mountainside in the southern fringes of our barrio. 

Flowing in from the bay was a brackish water river that sliced right in the middle of the ancient mangrove forest and snaking its way deep into the farthest end of the marshland – home to lush nipa palms, bakawan trees and an assortment of teeming wildlife from birds of all sizes to brackish fish, crustaceans and tiger shrimps. As a child, I was very familiar with the insides of this jungle; this was where my friends and I hunted birds on weekends with our slingshots.

In the early 1970s, when the town began to feel the pressure of growing population arising from uncontrolled migration of people from different parts of Bicol region, the municipal government encouraged some developers in the province to reclaim the mangrove area and convert it into a low-cost subdivision to what it was now. 

It took over the last 30 years to fill up the new community with houses and other physical developments owing to the costly home-lots that shaped up after the reclamation. Only those who had gone overseas as OFWs or those who hit high-grade gold in the nearby gold panning quarry were able to acquire a piece of the property on which they built their modest homes. 

From then on, each owner was to his own – building in the styles that could be supported by what they had stashed in the local bank. When money ran out for the simple reason that the owners were unable to get rehired overseas, the house improvement also stopped, leaving tangles of rusting reinforcement steel bars protruding skywards and sideward with the other ends buried in cement-covered hollow blocks that had now begun to gather moss and disintegrate under the elements. Looking at it in one big picture, the whole place was a mess.

“Of course, I can’t forget this place,” I told mother. 

In fact, when I was younger there was a huge saw mill yard that sat next to the mangrove river where the logs were impounded after being dislodged from the hauling trucks. And the bridge during those days was just made of giant and sturdy bamboo planks that allowed two piles of pedestrians from either side to cross at the same time without much discomfort. The bamboo bridge was built tall because during those days the banks on both sides were high but not high enough for the river at high tide not to lap against the underside of the walking plank.

There were only very few vehicles in town, and those that had to go to Parang took the long route by going around the edge of the town were a rough and dusty road was the only link for vehicles to get into my barrio. 

On the other edge of the premises of my lumber yard of old, the mangrove began to spread into a dark forest of bakawan trees, one that was very familiar to me and a lot more. 

Still looking at the brownish water that was beginning to ebb, mother told me something about my brother Samuel, who, at nine years old, had become a truant, giving her a lot of headaches with his teachers. In fact, she used to chase him out of this river and belt him up to her heart’s desire as soon as she had cornered him at home. 

Then she burst into her trademark sunny laughter the way she used to whenever something funny crossed her mind. 

She recalled that one time she had to scheme with Mang Felis, a town policeman who was her good friend, to scare Samuel off so he won’t return to the river anymore with his school mates who had a penchant for skipping classes for a nice swim and a wild plunge into the water right from the bamboo bridge – whether it was high tide or low. 

Scared of being admonished again by a policeman, coupled with a threat of overnight stay in the town jail for missing classes, my younger brother promised not to see the river again. Well, that was his own scheme just to escape mother’s wrath and the policeman’s jail threat.

Mother was still reminiscing from the olden days about the mangrove and the river and the time when she and her neighbors gathered “tulya” (clams) burrowed in the bay’s sand at low tide. But this time I could barely hear the rest of what she was trying to retrieve from her astute memory because at that precise moment I was plunged deep into my own thoughts about this river that had become a crucial part of my young restless life.

To be more precise, this river almost snuffed my young life; something that until now when I’m nearing 64, mom had never got wind of as yet, and not even one of my siblings.

It was a little secret from childhood that I have never had the fortitude or strength to tell my parents, a secret I held here in my heart and soul all those years. 

How do you think they would have reacted if I told them that I very nearly drowned? In addition, while staging a convincing display of pseudo-swimming in a mangrove river with my school friends one cloudy afternoon. 

After that event had passed into history, I was sure my dear mother would annihilate me for the infraction liked she used to do on my truant brother Samuel, and doubly so my father, for my being so splendidly guileless and impulsive. My infraction was that of going swimming without even knowing how to swim. That is not the lone reason why I should really be hanged.

At the precise moment of my near-tragic drowning, I was supposed to be in classroom, putting some sense into my head and not off somewhere else, playing hooky, dawdling, or placing my life at risk in a river. My mother had repeatedly warned me in the past that I should never cut classes, or else. We all know what mothers imply with the words, “Or else.” No exclamations required. The words delivered in a whisper were loud enough.

Our writing teacher did not show up in our two o'clock class, and so boys being boys, we took the opportunity to seek adventure, away from the grind of the classroom. Three of my classmates agreed that we would best spend our time free of the confines of study, and thus allow nature to teach and entertain us in the absence of a teacher. The deal was set.

Jose Panganiban Elementary School is perched on a mountain slope, overlooking the bay a kilometer away. At the foot of that balding mountain lies my hometown, Mambulao (Jose Panganiban), which sprawls lazily by the bay. You could clearly see that the seashore was accessible in ten minutes on foot. 

Mambulao Bay as viewed from the peak of our school mountain appears edged by a horseshoe ridge, and outward from the bottom curb of the shoe, is a river-like waterway that snakes two to three kilometers deep into a thick mangrove nearby. The river is about twenty meters wide at low tide, waist deep, while it could swell to about fifty meters wide at high tide, and become three meters deep. Enough water to drown a small boy.

The river separates the town from Parang, then regarded as a “sitio” during those days. A meter-wide footbridge of sturdy bamboo structure stood at the mouth of the river, linking the town to Parang. By this bridge at the mouth of the river under an overcast sky, we took our plunge.

We peeled off our Boy Scout uniforms by the bank of the river, exchanging lively chatter as our excitement grew. Our agriculture teacher and scoutmaster, Mr Israel, would not have approved of our adventure. In his absence, we lay our uniforms on the sand, quickly burying them under books, notebooks, and the native baskets we were weaving for our practical arts subject for Grade 4 studies. 

"Boboy," my good friend Piding remarked, "don't go deep in the water. Just stay close to land, because it's going to be high tide soon." Piding knew I could not swim. His eyes noted the slow-moving current which was now pulling together all sort of floating debris, yellowed leaves, empty cans, scraps of paper that gathered on both edges of the river, languidly drifting towards the mangrove area. 

Our two adventuresome friends, Felix and Juan, were already cavorting in the deeper part of the water among the posts of the bamboo bridge. Piding gave me a broad grin, then quickly plunged into the brackish water, back first, with a loud splash that sent him willingly towards Felix and Juan.

During that particular week, high tide would come at about 3pm, and so I noticed that the sea began filling in the alcoves, nooks, and shallows of the great mangrove swamp. Some fifty meters away, the river bends slightly, while both sides of the river are thick with mangrove trees and nipa palms, hiding the rising waters beyond the bend. Grayish clouds hung low over the seashore area, laden with moisture. Rain had not been a subject or concern earlier in the day.

I began convincing myself, "Those guys are really enjoying themselves”. My bravado began to override my senses. I quickly walked to a coconut tree trunk lying by the bank, left there by the swollen river during a heavy rain a week before. The treetop had lodged in the sand up the riverbank, while the root-base was half-submerged in the water. I balanced myself by spreading my arms wide, while I tiptoed on top of the trunk towards its base and quickly sat down.

 I watched with envy as the water around my friends was splashed wildly. They screamed with joy in all abandon of decorum as they bobbed up and down the water, apparently playing hide-and-seek under the bridge about twenty-meters away from my position.

After a time, boredom set in. My instant decision was to plunge into the river. My desire to join them seemed overwhelming. I tossed my body awkwardly into the unknown with a noisy splash. I did not have inkling about how one dives or swims. I just knew I wanted some of that fun. It seemed catching, irresistible, and nothing could have convinced me otherwise.

When my head surfaced above the water, I found myself in mid-river. That is exactly the moment when trouble began. My first reaction was panic as a knowing precedence for those about to drown took over my thoughts. My feet were not touching anything harder than tide water. I probed for sand with one foot in desperation, trying to ascertain the depth of the water, which instantly alerted me of my folly. I felt no bottom.

I kicked furiously, trying to hold myself up above the level of the water. I violently pumped both arms as a black terror overwhelmed me. I began taking water into my lungs, and choked on the salty water as I gasped for air. I could only manage to raise my head slightly above the water, while gravity pulled me down again. 

I could hear the churning motions caused by my moving arms and feet, seemingly deafening as they flailed next to my head. The gargling of my mouth was muted as I screamed for help every time my mouth came out of the water. It tasted salty, deadly, and I knew by this time that I had water in my lungs. I was drowning. 

Desperately, I again attempted to keep my chin up, searching the horizon as I surfaced, my hands waving frantically towards the bridge to catch my friends' attention. I began to feel the currents increase, felt it slowly carrying me away. I was already exhausted, my lungs bursting, what with the amount of water that entered my stomach and lungs. I held on for dear life, trying to press my lips together firmly, so I would not take on more water. My nose and my forehead were already hurting fiercely.

Then silence. Suddenly I stopped fighting. I do not know how long I had remained motionless as I drifted with the current. I could sense I was still floating with only a part of my head showing above the water. My time to react was quickly ending. I had to act. With a second desperate effort, I struggled to surface again to see how far I had been swept away from the bridge. I again screamed for help. My vision blurred each time I bobbed the surface. I caught a silhouette moving from one end of the bridge to the other. I tried to scream again and took in more water. 

Then suddenly, I thought I heard a faint voice of someone shouting, "Hey! Look, somebody's drowning over there! Somebody's drowning over there! Look!"

It seemed an eternity before I felt my body being pulled out of the water and dragged across the sand. I felt ill. I could hear snatches of hysterical, confused voices all around me. Someone turned me over so that I was lying on my stomach. Then a heavy, painful pressing began on my back that seemed to go on and on, until I vomited salt water and whatever I had in my stomach at that moment. Somebody was frantically instructing that I should be lying on my back. 

I moaned with indifference to their decisions, feeling nausea, and pain all over my body. My nose was especially sore. Somebody was still on top of me, pressing down violently on my back as I continued to expel water. My small body was at its limit. I passed out. When I opened my eyes, I could faintly recognize the five or more people, including my three buddies, hovering over me.

Somebody said that I was just lucky enough to be seen from the bridge. I had drifted for more than 100 meters while struggling, and I was about to pass the river bend when one of my rescuers noticed me. I had reached the point of no return. After the bend, there was no chance that I could have been seen by anyone as both banks were overwhelmed by wide-leafed nipa palms and various mangrove vegetations.

When I fully recovered, my conspirators asked me if I wanted to go home. I said no. That thought frightened me as much as my drowning in the river could ever bring about. We dressed in silence, and then walked back to school to catch up with our 3pm subject, which was English 4. 

We were still silent and shocked by the terror that we, especially I, just encountered. While walking to the school, I felt extremely weak. My body trembled; my legs wobbled. Along the way, I kept on spitting, because my mouth felt it had the entire Mambulao Bay in it. Other fears began to override my illness and fatigue.

Just before we entered our classroom, I asked my buddies to shut their mouths about the whole incident. We all agreed that it would be the end of us if we tattled. Later, in class, despite my best efforts, I could not hold my head upright. I could not follow what my English teacher was bubbling about. I felt terribly sick, which encouraged me to lay my head on the top of my desk.

 I must have gone to the window a thousand times to spit the salty saliva that had kept on collecting inside my mouth. It was at this point that my teacher came to me and asked what was going on. 

She looked me straight in the eyes, as she used to do whenever she gave an erring pupil a heavy dressing down. No words of rebuke came forth; she was horrified instead, seeing how bloodshot my eyes remained. Instinctively, she felt my forehead.

"My goodness , ... You look terrible ...You're burning up... Did you expose yourself to the rain?"

I just shook my head and said nothing. My teacher was silent for a moment as she decided on her course of action. 

Then she said, "Okay, Alfredo, you may go home now. Take good care." A bit of relief passed across my mind. And I knew my three buddies were jumping inside their heads. Mothers always know best, yet fear was my co-pilot. My illness left me no choice but to face whatever might come my way. 

When I arrived early, my mother was surprised to see me. As I reached her cheek for a kiss, she felt the heat radiating from my face.

"You're burning! Have you been playing in the rain again?" Mother asked.

“I just caught it when we were playing during the break period,” I lied.

She did not ask more and gave me medicine, instructing me to stay in bed. I must have been quite ill, for I quickly crawled into bed, taking only a bowl of rice porridge. I immediately plunged into a deep slumber. 

THE SUN was high, which meant my father had already left for work in the mines when I awakened that next morning. Mother later told me she sent a note to my teacher-adviser, Mrs Ogad, telling her I could not attend classes due to illness. Mother then told me that my fever had subsided. She did not say anything about how my father reacted. 

“All you need to do is rest, and get plenty of it,” she said with authority. Her decisions agreed with me entirely. I was certainly willing to lie about my ill-omened escapade for a time. My small body had been taxed.

I began to mend, and as with all small lads, boredom and the need for companions found me sitting by the window, watching kids playing marbles. My mind wandered back to the beach; I thought of the many basnigs, those huge and pointed diesel engine-powered fishing boats that plowed across the bay, burdened with fish. Equally huge bamboo balancing poles extended outward on both sides for stability. These great ships would normally come to our beach in the morning during summer, heavily laden with their catch. 

Summer was just a month away, and school would soon be over. All I could imagine was how my three friends, Piding, Felix, and Juan would dive enthusiastically into the water to meet the fast-approaching fishing boats in the deep of the water. They would climb aboard quickly, snatching fresh fish that had been strewn across the deck. With fish in hand, they would jump back into the water while the crew would chase them to recover the fish. 

“Oh, boy, that's really lots of fun,” I would express to myself, breaking the boredom of confinement.

As I sat and contemplated the scene, something was missing. I played the scene over in my head. In an instant, I made one big calculated decision in my young life. Before summer comes, I really must be able, and this is a must: I would learn how to swim! Pidling, Felix, and Juan had there work cut out for them if I was to help them snatch fish from the deck of one of those great ships, like pirates of old. 

THE ROUGH and grinding sputtering of the exhaust pipe of the gravel-and-sand truck that had been finally revived after getting a push-start from the ‘istambays” on the other side of the bridge and was now gliding past our car trailed by a cloud of thick black diesel fumes plucked me back from the swirl of my drifting consciousness.

Then gunning the engine again but without actually moving the car as we had to wait for the long line of tricycles and vehicles tailing behind the gravel-and-sand truck to clear the bridge, I looked at my mom straight in her eyes and without preamble, I told her: “Nanay, alam ba ninyo na muntik na akong malunod diyan sa ilog na ’yan noong Grade 4 ako …? Buti na lang, may nakakita sa akin, kaya ako nasagip ng mga kasama ko …” (Nanay, did you know that I almost drowned in that river when I was in Grade 4 …? … good somebody saw me that’s why I was rescued …”

Mildly shocked, Mom stared at me, assessing the expression in my face, and then she said without hint of conviction in her voice just like she used to do when dealing with me in my youth concerning serious matters: “Ikaw pa …? Kung hindi ko pa alam na layas ka ring katulad ni Samuel at kung saan-saan ka nakakarating noong maliit ka pa … ’yan talaga ang mapapala mo …”. 

Then she burst into her childlike giggle, as she recalled again how my little brother pleaded for his life before Mang Pelis the cop not to throw him into the municipal jail after he was caught the second time cavorting with his three classmates in the water among the posts under the bridge one balmy afternoon, a time when he should be in the classroom putting some sense into his coconut.

“O, tapos … anong nangayari sa’yo nang malunod ka …?” mother asked, now seemed interested in my little revelation.

“Wala, ’Nay … hindi ko na ho matandaan … ang tagal na noon, anuh…?”


During the 50s this portion of the sea-river where these houses sit nowadays was part of a lumber yard where sawmill dust was dumped and immediately next to it was a thick mangrove forest that spread farther into the backyard of barrio Parang. Picture taken from the present bridge connecting Parang to the poblacion. – Photo by the author.

The beach at baranggay Parang, Jose Panganiban, CamNorte, the Philippines, still clean when this picture was snapped in 2007. This was where a huge fleet of “basnig” (giant motorized outrigger boats) docked in early mornings during summer time in the 60s to unload abundant catch for hauling to Manila. The school where the writer completed his elementary years is still located on mountainside just below the three cell site towers. Right: The Mambulao Bay which feeds brackish water into the mangrove swamp located to the right of the picture and where the bridge described in the story used to stand. The mangrove area was reclaimed during the 70s for a housing project. – Photos by ARNEL P HERNANDEZ, Yukosuka, Japan (2007).

THIS is the Mambulao Bay which feeds brackish water into the mangrove river whose mouth is located on the other end of the beach where a one-way concrete bridge now stands, replacing the two-meter wide bamboo bridge described in the story. The elementary school where the author attended school is located just below the three cell cite towers (Globe, Smart and Sun) erected atop the mountain. The author’s ancestral house in Barrio Parang (right of the picture) is still there, about 500m from the beach. – Photo by ARNEL P HERNANDEZ, Yokosuka, Japan.

The poblacion-Parang bridge described in the story. -- Photo by the author.

Mrs Elvira P Hernandez, 85, author’s mother, when she was in Parang last month for a brief vacation. – From family Facebook album

Author's brother Samuel, who just turned 50, is a Telecom Engineer and Senior IT at PLDT- Mandaluyong. - From family Facebook allbum.

The Secret of the Mangrove River is an expanded version of the original story titled A Little Secret, which originally appeared in the text book Anthology of Philippine Literature in English for first year English students at the Philippine School of Business Administration (PSBA)-Quezon City. The anthology was compiled and edited by Prof Ofelia Bugarin and Prof Anita Uy-Hernandez, who has since moved to the Ateneo University in Quezon City for a teaching engagement and to pursue her PhD.

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