The Sea of Fires
The sky offered no comfort, no compass to point me to my destination.
I grew up in a small town in Samar bereft of technology; then, our days started before sunrise and ended at six in the afternoon, just barely after the sunset. Aside from the light of the moon, there was only a makeshift kerosene lamp made of old glass and rags that could provide additional lighting. Else, you are out of luck. You either stumble in the dark, or sleep, like most did.
I wasn’t like most of those people. I had always been a prodigious, yet problematic child, so to speak; I don’t sleep when I am told, and as such I would sneak out some nights to play at the nearby river. There was something about the cool, salty breeze and the balmy air that always drew me to its shore. Nearby, you can hear the symphony of cicadas or frogs, whichever was in season, and I used to just sit near the pier, watching the ebb of the tides come and go.
I sometimes go alone on these nightly sojourns, but most of the time, my best friend Intoy would come with me. We just live across each other’s nipa huts, and I remember how we would giggle at first, feeling like we were the world’s smartest criminals for outwitting our then already sleeping parents. We would do all sorts of things: we would swim, throw shells at the water and see which one threw the farthest; we would forage fallen coconuts or gaway, a root crop, at the opposite shore. Mostly though, we just talk. In retrospect, Intoy and I were probably more mature than most at the age of nine. Especially him, whose words I have always thought contained a thousand lifetimes in them.
I remembered the night when something felt different, however. I snuck out as usual; it was a particularly warm summer, but though the stars were out in the cloudless sky, it was a new moon and there was no light. I walked carefully, making sure not to trip against a random tree root, and made my way towards the pier. I saw that Intoy was already there. I greeted him but he didn’t answer.
“Are you okay, Intoy?” I asked again. He looked like he had gone swimming before me, as his clothes were wet, his air dripping saltwater. The draft downwind smelt strongly of the sea.
“I can’t play with you anymore, Alpring.” He said so softly that it could have easily been the breeze talking.
“Why not? Are you moving?”
Intoy’s lips curved into a wry smile. “Yes. I am going away.”
“Oh. Can I come visit?” He shook his head.
“I’m going very far away. I don’t think you can visit. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner. But I just came here to say goodbye.” Even if he didn’t say it, I already knew in my heart for some reason that it was true.
Suddenly, a flurry of glowing lights appeared across the bushes near the shore. There must have been hundreds of them as they approached us. With their combined fires, I could see Intoy’s clammy skin, looking sad and pale.
“You know, my mother said that alitaptap are spirits of the dead that come down to earth.”
“You believe that?” He turned to me and smiled.
“I do. And I know you do, too.” I didn’t know then what he meant, but he was the wise one. I nodded in accordance.
The waves became more vicious and the tide was rising. I told Intoy to go home with me but he stayed at the pier. Reluctantly, I left him by his lonesome. Little did I know then that that would be the last time I would ever see him.
I was woken the next day by the sound of adults’ chatter. I heard my mother and father talking in hushed tones. “His body was found at the river’s shore. He had drowned the previous night.” It was Intoy. I couldn’t believe it. I wouldn’t believe it. After all, how could he have drowned when I just saw him last night?
Nobody believed me when I told them I talked to Intoy. All they told me was they thought he snuck out of their house to take a night swim but didn’t know that the high tide and winds would make the waves vicious. It was an accident. But Intoy was the best swimmer in the town! Surely he could not have drowned. Our friends and some adults thought so too, and rumors of sea monsters that lurk beneath the river, grabbing swimmer’s legs and pulling them to their watery demise, persisted until it was no longer fashionable to talk about. I thought it was disrespectful even then, but in retrospect, I couldn’t blame people in mourning for coming up with ridiculous theories to process the grief of losing one of their own.
I continued my sojourn a month after Intoy’s death, this time alone. The pier looked empty without him. The wind was colder and the waters looked more foreboding. I gathered all the air my childish lungs could handle. “Intoy!” I shouted at the sea that took him away. There was no response. I removed my tattered shirt, two full sizes bigger than me, and lept to the water.
I didn’t know where I was going, but I swam, one arm after the other, my feet kicking up something fierce, my lungs screaming for oxygen. Suddenly, the waves smacked me back a few meters farther away from the inland into the open sea; the riptides curled at my feet like invisible ropes. I opened my eyes to look for the shore, but everything was dark; for all I know, I could be swimming to my death. The sky offered no comfort, no compass to point me to my destination.
Until I saw them. The tiny balls of light above me, hundreds of them swirling as if leading me to some unknown direction. I don’t even know why fireflies would hover near the sea, but I swam towards them. Somehow, I knew they would keep me safe. Just as my arms and legs started to cramp, I touched solid ground, my body convulsing in a mixture of pure joyous gratitude and profound sadness. It was him. It could only be him. He saved me.
It has been twenty years since I had my own near-death experience, and I truly believe that those fireflies are souls, leading Intoy to the spirit world. So whenever I see them, I close my eyes and say a quick prayer. Someday, they will come for me, too. And then, maybe I will see Intoy again. I can finally thank him for his life, and mine.