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On Love and Liberty | The Ancestral Spirit Calls Me

Photo by: Claudee Khiarra R. Directo

Graphics by: Albert Dylan D. David

The Ancestral Spirit Calls Me

By: Kandhalvi M. Asaali

As the birds were settling, the sky was dusking, and the dark was shrouding; the night crickets started their nightly ritual chants. Struggling to find my way back home, I found myself being drawn into the deeper part of the woods. 

I was wandering in the mystifying jungle when a dim misty figure appeared 5 metres away from me. I tried to close the distance to get a glimpse of its face, but every step I took forward, every step it took backward. Later did I notice, I became like a lost traveller following a will-o’-the-wisp, wishing that it would lead him to the mainland. Then I realised that the spirit-y figure intentionally wanted me to trail behind, so I kept my pursuit for about 30 minutes until we reached a white tomb surrounded by wailing pilgrims. I tried to get a closer look of what they were doing and saw something that would forever haunt me in my dreams. 

What I saw was extremely morbid for the 10-year old me. I witnessed how the pilgrims were praying to the tomb, desperate for forgiveness, while writhing in pain from the vine lashes inflicted by creepily laughing monkeys. Blood was streaming endlessly and tainting the soil red, and the mortified young me immediately hid behind a large tree, quivering. I tried to look for that apparition that I’ve been following around but to no avail, as if it just disappeared into thin air. All of a sudden, I heard a choir of ominous screeches of trees being chainsawed by loggers with deformed faces – somewhat resembling the cannibalistic antagonists of the movie ‘Wrong Turn’. I climbed the large tree as the blood stream continued to increase in current and volume. Plastics and rubbish were seen flowing along the stream as the wailing pilgrims were drowning in them. Deluged with hopelessness and distress, I bawled like a child lost by his mother in a park. 

I felt so suffocated from all the eerie events happening at once. All I could think at that moment was that I wish all of this was just a dream and that I would already wake up from this ghastly nightmare. Later on, I felt so exhausted…so traumatised. As my eyelids were starting to slowly droop, ready to surrender my consciousness, a bright phantasm of an almost seven-foot tall man bedizened in resplendent, white thawb sprang out from the large tree that I clung on to. I thought, “At last. The malikul mawt is here to end my misery. I can finally close my eyes and be at peace.” Yes, I was at that stage that I’d rather my soul be extracted by the soul reaper than dwell longer in that nightmare. However, instead of extracting my soul, the man with a blurred face touched my chest with his chilly hands and breathed the word, “Istayqadh” – meaning, “Wake up”.

"Shhh…shhh. It’s okay. It’s just a bad dream,” hushed my mother as I woke up screaming from the nightmare. Realising that it was all just a dream, I felt so relieved, yet still scarred with the lingering vivid memories of it. Seconds later, I found myself crying my eyes out while in my mother’s warm embrace. My mum sang my favourite lullaby, hoping it will calm me down. Mothers always have this power to provide peace of mind whenever we’re in trouble. So her singing somehow assuage my fears and soothed my trembling heart. Still, the blurred face of that man wearing a bright, white thawb remained haunting my thoughts for the rest of the day.

After that day, the nightmare became just a passing one-time horrifying dream. I was afraid that the man in my dream would visit me again in my sleep. But fortunately, he didn’t. The only souvenirs I got from that nightmare were the vivid memories of the wailing pilgrims, the laughing monkeys, the river of blood and rubbish, the screeching trees, the horrifying loggers, and that man in white garment.

Despite all of that, I ended up forgetting about the dream after a few months. Nothing bizarre occurred to me from then on – not until two years later when my school organised a trip to Bud Bongao, a renowned mountain nature park in our province. 

Growing up in the island of Bongao, Tawi-Tawi, I always loved listening to the native folktales about Bud Bongao, which never failed to include the stories of the mountain’s guardians. My apu’ always told me that Bud Bongao is a very sacred mountain. It is resided and guarded by the spirit of one of the forefathers of Tawi-Tawi and the monkeys, otherwise known as the “original sentinels of Bud Bongao”. She also told me that the mountain is a revered pilgrimage site for the locals who steadfastly trek in droves, braving the slippery rocks and the snarls of undergrowth just to pray on one of the Tampats of Bud Bongao.

The day for our school trip finally arrived, and I was met at the mountain’s entrance by a gruff, grizzled guardian. It fixed me with a steely gaze of its red-ablaze pair of eyes, as if gauging my character and the impurities in my intentions of visiting the mountain. Hypnotised by those ruby eyes, I stared back to the long-tailed macaque. As it bared its yellow teeth with a giggle, I got struck with a subconscious memory of the laughing monkeys from my dream. My body began trembling and sweat started rolling down my forehead. Thankfully, I was dismissed from the state of agony when our tour guide yelled through his megaphone to catch our attention for a roll call. 

Finally, we started our trek. Clambering up Bud Bongao in herds, we came across some indigenous settlers of the mountain doing a clean-up drive. As we passed along them, I was appalled by the amount of plastic wraps and cellophanes being disposed of. I thought that these rubbish must have been litter residues of the prior visitors. As we ventured further into the deeper, higher part of the mountain, we encountered a group of pilgrims led by an Imam; praying before a white Tampat while lying prostrate. The scene felt like a déjà vu and gave me a chill down through my spine. I tried to ignore it and just moved along the spine of the mountain. There I was met by an enormous thousand-year old Molave tree. However, the large tree looked so clearly familiar, as if I had seen it before. Paying no attention to what my mind seems to hark back to, I took a little rest under the tree and basked myself to the fresh breeze of air, the earthly aroma of trees and rocks, and the calming chirps and whirrs of birds and insects. I thought, “Ah! Nothing could really beat the therapeutic nature of a forest.” Bud Bongao is indeed a treasure trove of terrestrial biodiversity, cloaking its secrets in moist verdure and mist. But my tranquil savouring of nature’s beauty was perturbed by a visceral, penetrating sound of chainsaws. The sharp, piercing noises brought back vivid memories of that nightmare from two years ago. The trauma that I’d been trying to bury just suddenly relapsed and took a toll on my sanity. I hyperventilated from the shocking recollections, when out of nowhere a babu’ appeared in front of me and soothed my anguished mind and heart. As I finally regained equanimity, the babu’ placed a placid touch on my chest, then whispered, “The ancestral spirit calls you.” 

The day had then passed in a soporific haze and all students had now descended the mountain. Surprisingly, I was no longer bothered by the memories of that nightmare – perhaps, thanks to that mystifying old lady. 

Aboard the school bus on our way back to the campus, I rested my head on the side window, trying to wrap my head around the whole trip incident. I felt like the gammer’s words meant something disturbingly important. I tried to catch one last look at Bud Bongao as it gradually started to shrink, then wondered, “What do you mean the ancestral spirit calls me? What does this ancestral spirit need from me?

While lost in deep contemplation, I fortuitously remembered the story of my apu’ about the ancestral spirits guarding Bud Bongao. I then realised that, perhaps, the glowing man in my dream, donned in white thawb, was the ancestral spirit that the babu’ was referring to. That enigmatic misty wight that I followed might be the ancestral spirit showing me the crisis happening in Bud Bongao. The monkeys’ vine lashing of the pilgrims might signify the anger of nature and its guardians at the humans’ environmental apathy. The drowning of the pilgrims in their own blood and rubbish could betoken the sufferings of the humans from the natural mishaps they have caused. The screeching of trees while being chainsawed could personify the pleas of nature for liberty from the endless deforestation done by humans.

I do not know if meeting our ancestral spirit and being called in a dream make me any special, but one thing I know for sure is that I’ve got an important responsibility to uphold. Ever since then, a fire in me was finally kindled – a burning passion of an environmental warrior who is fervent to protect and conserve Mother Nature. I have realised that we Filipinos were actually once nature worshippers. Before the arrival of the Spaniards, the native inhabitants of the Philippines had lived in harmony with nature as pagans. But as the colonial eras transpired, nature was viewed as nothing more than a resource to be exploited for the lowest price possible. The state of the environment in our country had been greatly strained by the Spanish and American colonisations. Filipinos were deprived of their own lands, with colonisers depleting the lush natural resources and leaving the Filipinos with soil-degraded, deforested, eroded lands. What we all know is that Filipinos had been fighting for autonomy from subjugators for the past centuries. But what we do not know is that nature has also been seeking freedom and independence against the incessant environmental oppression by human beings.

A month after the realisation, I started joining environmental youth organisations in Tawi-Tawi. I then engaged in many environmental activities, from tree and mangrove planting and wildlife preservation to coastal clean-up and coral reef restoration. Years later, I took the initiative to spearhead my own environmental community project. Now, I am an active environmental advocate and journalist who continues to let the unheard pleas of nature be heard.

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