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from the November 2019 issue

A Planned Brief Documentary on a Teenage Boy in a Badjao Village

In this poem by M. J. Cagumbay Tumamac, a free diver’s connection to the sea endures even as his tribal way of life disappears.

Listen to M. J. Cagumbay Tumamac read "A Planned Brief Documentary on a Teenage Boy in a Badjao Village."

also after Jade Mark Capiñanes from his essay “Abal”

We will start with the fact you are not impressed
by the depth of the Celebes Sea. Since birth,
you are tethered to the moon and sun exhorting you
to surface and sink. We will bring up the statistic
of fifty fathoms for a free-diving Sama such as yourself.
You will be shown to be within visual proximity
of the setting sun. (Your first entry: there is no exploring
the abyssal hiding place of moon and sun under the sea
and the difference between depth and breadth cannot be fathomed.)

The boat your father does not own will sound off and his voice
will cut through the din, “We are up against huge fishing vessels.”
Then he will come home with his catch—four pieces of tuna.
He will come upon you and your mother beset with the shriek
of nine children bawling for their chance to be breastfed.
We dramatize a memory: it is Christmas in the city
and you beg for alms with your mother and youngest sibling.
(Second entry: there is sorrow in the gaze of a child
that your mother always has to be pregnant.)

We pretend you are groping blindly for the coins pitched
by our companion who pretends to be captivated
by the charm of an old restaurant that once patronized you;
the view will conjure a sea of memories
that mollifies you, the man with gills, the fear
that you will not someday rise again. Like a fish
in an aquarium, you are a source of distress and distraction.
We will anticipate your breathing at the surface
applaud as you emerge holding the coin.

You will dive again to gather blessings
in the form of mamukuk, tayum, and others destined
to remind you of the bitterness of thirst.
We listen to a scholar: the city is also the sea
for your tribe—collecting only what is offered
underneath the capsized rock, after a knock on a car window.
(Your third entry: anguish corresponds to scarcity and saltiness—
cars speeding away and a slippery eel escaping from grasp.)
You surface with no food for today and tomorrow.

We review the documentary of a foreigner
breaching all the layers and corners of earth and sea
to measure the lungs’ ultimate breathing limit.
This is what he discovered in the depths of the sea:
through the dense crystal-clear blue waters, there is light
for the deep-swimming Santarawi whose hands were clasped.
(Fourth entry: no proof is needed
to reveal the full extent of sunburn on your body
and the bleaching of your hair into golden strands.)

You go around your town for proof
of the fact that houses are no longer built over the sea.
(Your last entry: you cannot say some of the names
of marine lifeforms in your forgotten language.)
You end up once again at the edge of land and sea,
not in awe of the vastness of your disappearing world.
We finish with how your diving disrupts
the flow of the waves. While you are underwater, we watch closely,
listen for your breath bubbling, breaking the water surface.

“A Planned Brief Documentary on a Teenage Boy in a Badjao Village” © 2019 M. J. Cagumbay Tumamac. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Kristine Ong Muslim. All rights reserved.

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