Flourish

(part of the Proclivities series)

 

– He was nearly ran over by a beige Honda Civic with plate number LQR 805 rushing towards the direction of the Pilot Elementary School as he crossed the street from the city hall to the plaza – composure.

And he stabilized his stumble with his left foot forward, right foot forward, left food forward, clockwise quick spin once, right hand pressed to the chest palm faced down, head tilted towards the direction of the vehicle in glorious indignation, left hand raised upwards at an angle, elbows straight, his batik scarf billowing in the sudden flurry of movement – the bells on his left hand’s bracelet chimed, once and briskly, to punctuate the pose.

Vining towards Remarkability meant tendrilling and curlicueing to the sunlight of rhythm, symmetry, and deliberation, and Proserpino Flores-Villa must never be in the dark. One must blossom on the world’s tree as adornment, embellishment, ornament. There must be relief from all the flatness (specially here in Kidapawan, this godawful seat of insipidness), even if it were just a well timed pose or a stylized gesture.

Across the rotunda on the city gym’s side, an old lady saw him nearly get hit and striking the pose. Decorum, decorum – he looked at the lady in the eye and grinned in amused recognition of his own theatricality. The old lady giggled with him, and he waved her off with a smile as she went to the city hall.

Yes, Percy. Frill, filigree, and flourish to foreground one’s flowers from the wall, but never stray from the axis of inevitability. Carve against the grain, but carve on the same piece of wood, for there is a thin but definite line between Remarkability and being eccentric. To seem to try too hard would just be unflattering.

But he was still shaken by the near brush with death (that much at least was far from deliberate). The light gust of wind thankfully gave a good excuse for the scarf’s trembling.

As he was thus shaken, walking towards Thelmo his chauffeur and the car, his phone rang. He answered it while Thelmo opened the car’s door for him.

It was Lyka. She was in Makilala now, and in about half an hour she would be in Kidapawan – she was coming over to take photos of the performance. The reminder of the things he had left to do conveniently calmed him down. Thelmo looked with worry at him, and, as he approached the door, asked if he was okay. He told the old man the Civic’s plate number and told him to report it to the TMU later.

A Mitsubishi Tridon painted in rough moss green – the car looked like a small, old dragon, and as he held the door he looked like he was holding one of the spread out wings. Both hands on the door’s upper edges he looked back with left shoulder slightly inclined to a downward angle figura serpentinata towards the Municipio, and with a light shake of his left wrist to again chime the bells and punctuate the pose, he entered the car, sitting down left leg crossed over the right. The bells, his sitting, the closing of the door, and the timing of Thelmo’s closing his door all occurred in rhythmic succession. As the car began moving, he played music from the stereo attached to his mp3 player: Rameau’s ‘Forets Paisibles.’

Overland, he told Thelmo, and the car began going down City Hall Drive. As instructed, the driver had kept the car on while he was meeting with the mayor about the performance, so it was pleasantly cool with the air conditioning, and the light smell of his homemade Gardenia car perfume filed the vehicle. Though it had been drizzling all day, the early afternoon sky’s cloudy whiteness still proved to be glaring, so he lowered the reed blinds on his window, rendering the brightness into pleasant threads.

But the brush with death, now that Percy was calm enough to think about it, did make him realize a possibility he had never considered – for all his deliberate stylizations, he might die in the most awkward, the most unattractive, the most incongruous manner. To be hit by a tricycle perhaps, his tongue lolled out on the dusty ground, his limbs awkwardly splayed in disarray, his behind lifted in a post mortem crouch as the impact forces him to a kneel – oh the incongruity.

He must think of an appropriate way to die. Especially because this was a very risky performance! Oh how conceited he was, assuring the mayor of Kidapawan that there was nothing to worry about with it. He forgot to choreograph how to recover if he lost his balance up there and fell.

At that height, he thought, there was enough time to spin while falling, so maybe he can perform a somersault. But the fall would be so ugly!  He will probably have a tarpaulin prepared just in case. But falling would not be in line with the theme! But falling and dying would… yes, if he was going to fall it was more appropriate to die. But just falling was too ungraceful – it would be best to die while falling. And it would be more relevant to the theme! Well it would be, he thought bemused, if people get it. S’il sont sensible!

By the time they reached DXND he had already choreographed the scenario in his head: he needed the two balisongs manong Tamayo had forged for him, and if he falls, then two balisong dances midair, somersault, and he would stab himself in the back of his head where he would first lose all functions of the nervous system then where he would die instantly – he would die flying.

As usual he took off his transition glasses as he came down from the car. Lyka was still entering Kidapawan, so they had a while to wait. They parked the car under a mansanitas sapling just outside of the Overland Terminal – to while away the time he picked up some wild flowers growing nearby and tied them on the sapling’s branches by the pedicels.

A few people in the terminal had begun noticing him as he sat on a large boulder. Chin-length hair ornately wavy and obsidian black, skin pale as paper contrasting with a perpetual stubble that extended to his ears, and nose small but almost beak-like: he was always an imposing sight. But after two public performances here, one in Davao, and having landscaped the golden anniversary tree garden on the road island in front of the old Sabulao house along the highway, he was also something of a celebrity by now in Kidapawan – the city had few artists.

Vanity was perhaps the only vice Percy had (he was Catholic of course: though he doubted there was a God, the gilded Sunday mass held amidst perfumed smoke would be enough to make anyone feel greater possibilities. That, and Gerard Manley Hopkins). But he was sure he did not indulge in it too much, for the preoccupation with appearances caused more worry than pleasure. Man’s spirit will be flesh-bound when found at best

Eyes, eyes, eyes, and self awareness began creeping in and started vining up his feet to strangle his legs, constricting his stomach, tightening around his chest, and he began to have difficulty breathing as it wound around his neck and covered his mouth, chocking his nose with the stifling smell of the wilting chrysanthemums his mother always put in the living room when they had guests when she was still alive – fix your hair, your clothes are crumpled, you’re slouching

Composure. He breathed in deeply to drive away the unpleasant memories. There was neither poise nor pleasure in fretting, Percy. It was funny how he had learned to stave off that suffocating fear of being not enough by obsessing with what was more.

The van from Davao had arrived, and from the front seat Lyka came out, her wavy, brown hair tumbling like some chocolate waterfall in the air, sunglasses on and a valise on her shoulder. She was wearing short shorts and a periwinkle shirt with a white, knee-length cardigan.

She looked around gingerly. This was the first time she was back in Kidapawan in twelve years.

The city was changing. Even he, Percy, who had lived here all his life could see that. How pronounced must all the change be for her.

But when she saw him she grinned effusively. Percy found himself slightly surprised when, rather than standing and walking towards her with the deliberate stride he usually assumed when meeting someone (that is, adagio, chest out, left hand limply up against the chest and right up against the stomach), he found himself instead simply walking to her casually. But, like the vine tendriling from but strangely also towards an inevitable axis, the theatricality in him sprang forth from this easy confidence, and he welcomed her with much pomp back to Kidapawan, even making a faint scrape. She smiled in response and took his arm as he received her valise. She was more beautiful than when they last saw each other in Davao.

He gave the valise to Thelmo, to whom he introduced her – introductions, he always thought, are one of those rare necessities often dismissed as mere niceties. She went to the other side of the car, faced the nearby rubber grove, and took in the fresh Kidapawan air. He looked on with amusement.

Kasarap pa rin ng hangin sa Kidapawan!’

Swerte ka gani walang naga-acid diyan sa gomahan.’ And she giggled. ‘Pero hindi bitaw, timing lang na ganito ang weather pag-uwi mo. Kainit na ng Kidapawan these days.’

Hindi Perce, parang inevitable ‘to. You need the clouds sa performance mo tomorrow di ba?’

And one of those impulses at bravado arrested him: ‘Well, kasali na din yun sa plano. Di ba sabi mo mahilig ka sa malamig?’

He looked at the time, leaving it to Thelmo to notice that a surprised but delighted smile passed between her blushing cheeks.

Both hands on the door’s upper edges, look back with left shoulder slightly inclined to a downward angle figura serpentinata towards the terminal, bells, he entered the car, sat down left leg crossed over the right, and his door closed before Thelmo’s.

To his surprise she sat beside him and closed her door at the exact same moment. They looked at each other. This time, his conviviality was not assumed, and she giggled with him.

What a strange woman she was, he thought. How unusually well she seemed to fit into his idiosyncratic flourishes.

Even when they met in Davao half a year ago, he found it strange how, with a delight on her face that showed on no one else among his audience in the Marco Polo, she was able to guess the concept behind performance that afternoon. He was wearing a light green Maranao style barong with a Thai khrui of black, gold, red and silver over it, intricately embroidered with okir. The back of the khrui extended into a very long, ribbon like train also adorned with large okir, the end of which tapered to two panolong-like corners. The khrui also had a large hood with scale-like patterns of gold.  A Thai Princess was visiting Davao, and a friend of his who worked at the embassy asked him to provide entertainment. Amidst a performance of an ensemble composed of a Thai khong wong lek with a kulintang on the hotel’s front garden, he jumped from the top floor of the Marco, spun midair to form spirals with the long train, and at a certain height he grabbed the other end of the train to form a simple parachute, and he landed elegantly on the ground, the wind putting the hood back on him. The princess and her party watched in astonishment as he approached them. Lyka was covering the event, and after taking so many pictures she approached him and, guessing correctly, asked if the title of the performance was ‘Mucalinda.’ He gave titles to his works and performances but rarely revealed them, so it was astounding that anyone could have guessed it. That she revealed she was also from Kidapawan while they had over dinner only seemed more unusual.

As she now looked out the window with the same wonder with which she first talked to him, deeply breathing in the car’s Gardenia perfume, he brushed the thought off. Gestalt, he just said to himself. Their entering the car together was nothing more than the etymologically accurate definition of a coincidence.

Saan tayo?’ she asked.

‘You haven’t eaten? Uwi muna tayo, then pagkahabwa mo ng gamit mo kain ka muna.’ In response she nodded.

‘Later magpunta ako sa gomahan sa Saguing. Pahinga ka na lang siguro muna tapos.’

Ay sama sana ako!’ There was child like excitement in the tone of her voice.

Sige, pwede din. Para mapasyal din kita sa Kidapawan.’ And she beamed at this.

The car passed by the roundabout structure on crossing Mangga as it entered the road to Magpet. Lyka looked at it with wonder. Percy winced.

May gusto ka sabihin ‘no?’ she said giggling as she noticed his expression.

‘It’s so incongruous. Nagtanim na lang sana sila ng mango tree diyan para natotoo na ang pangalan ng crossing.’ And she laughed at the disgust with which he said ‘incongruous.’ ‘Actually…’ she replied in agreement.

As they entered Estañol she asked what music was playing. He had played ‘Forets Paisibles’ again.

‘Rameau…’ she repeated his answer. It was obvious she intended to explore the composer later.

Asan ka gani nakatira dito noon?’

Ay sa Sandawa. But that was a lifetime ago. Katagal na namin naglipat sa Davao. High School pa ako – Montessori ako nag-elementary if you were wondering why you never knew me. Sorry talaga sa abala ha.’

Nong Thelmo, naabala daw tayo kay Lyka’

Ay sus ma’am, enjoy masyado kami sa bahay nagahanda para sa iyo,’ the driver answered, looking from the passenger’s mirror. ‘Magpaayos ng bahay ito si sir parang laging may bisita, at least ngayon talagang may bisita na.’

She giggled.

‘It’s a pleasure to have you uy.’ And that was true. He loved being flourished, but he loved it even more if people see the flourishing. ‘Just asked kay baka gusto mo magpasyal doon.’

And a feint cloud passed through her sunny smile.

Ay wag na. Parang ayaw ko. Wala na siguro ang bahay namin doon.’

He understood her, and his bravado took the opportunity again.

‘If you have no home here na, gawa lang ulit tayo ng bago mong mauwian. Tulungan kita.’

He looked at the time, again leaving it to Thelmo to notice her blushing as she looked down timidly.

They passed by the old Zaide house before the car entered into his own house’s garage, whose gates the maid Millicent had opened. Again Lyka giggled when the music ended exactly when the car had stopped.

Built by his grandfather, his house stood on top of a hill overlooking Estañol (although throughout the decades the hill itself was also considered part of the lawn). Since he took charge of it he also bought the lot on the northern foot of the hill to make a garage, which was roofed with clay tiles. Bordering the inclination and the garage was a wooden fence adorned with crockets, with a small gate arched overhead by the lush red roots of Millionaire’s Curtain vines. When one entered the gate, one stood at the bottom landing of a stone stairway embedded into the Bermuda covered slope. The steps, leading to the top mesa where the house and gardens were, were made of stones which he carefully selected from around the province – large flat boulders of tree agate, nephrite, serpentinite, marble, and slate. They were uncut but smooth (most of them came from rivers), and they glistened colourfully when the grass was watered.

They were flanked by two remarkable features on the top landing when they reached it (again, bells on his bracelet): to the left a single file cairn of thirty six flat stones stacked one on top of another in decreasing size upwards; while to the right three rubber trees neatly braided, bonsaied to the same height as the cairn. Before them was the wide mesa, which Percy had kept as a carefully manicured lawn. On the other side another cairn and braided tree, the top landing on another set of stone steps, and beyond that a neat row of Indian trees over the top of an ornately filigreed gate of black cast iron with gold and silver gilded spikes.

At the centre of the lawn was a three tiered fountain, detailed with gadroons and sculptures of scroll-tailed fish and arabesque-feathered birds, ornate in spite of the subdued shade of algae green stained by perhaps half a century in water – it dated back to his grandfather. The water in it had white water lilies and lotuses, and the lotus flower perfumed the air.  The slope leading to the road was a rainbow of flowers, blossoms of diverse colours lined in neat rows – beds of pink carnations, young thistles, a thick hedge of powdery blue hydrangea, some bushes of gardenia whose sweet fragrance blended well with the strong lotus scent, rather tall shrubs of Camelias heavy with deep crimson succulent, glossy blooms.  Many of these flowers had been his mother’s, but he had had to fix the layout when he took charge (she had no eye for horticultural symmetry). This slope, whose vivid colours could be seen down Estañol, rolled down to the roadside walls, which were on both sides covered by wall creepers. At the topmost row of flowers, just a few paces away from the fountain, was a bed of white peonies lined with mossy rocks. Lyka took out her camera and took photos of a particularly blooming one.

Again, Percy felt the impulse to be ceremonious – facing the house, he spun around to face her, extended his left hand towards the house, his right hand offered to  help her up, and his left foot scraped forward. Bells.

‘Welcome to my home.’

And Lyka stood up and beheld the house before her: tiled roof as old as the fountain and mottled with moss, the eaves corbelled with scrolls adorned with acanthus leaves, the front gable decorated at the roof corner with a large, ornate sculpture of an inverted rubber tree leaf made of bright green serpentinite, the walls made of unpolished grey granite contrasting with the shimmer of the glass windows framed with shiny black iron, the mahogany door, darkened like the roof tiles with age, adorned with millefleur bas reliefs, culminating into two scroll handles.

Percy put down his hands (again, bells), and Millicent and Raphael came out from the door to await their entry.

Ang katulong pala, si Millicent. And the gardener and cook, si Raphael.’ He said the names with pronounced theatricality, and Lyka could not help smile when she said hello to them.

Kaganda naman ng mga pangalan nila,’ she said as the servants entered, Millicent bringing the valise.

‘Actually, only I call them their full names. “Miliat “Paeng” talaga yan sila, pero “Mili” sounded far too stereotypical, and “Paeng” makes me sound bungi, so I use their full names.’

But Lyka had barely time to react when she was awed by the elaborate décor on the vestibule wall: a large butterfly pattern brocaded into white silk, framed by t’nalak into which the silk seemed to weave in seamlessly.

‘You made this?’ she said, amazed.

‘I call it “Chaos Dream Metamorphosis.”’ Why he told her the piece’s title he had no idea. She smiled at him with an impressed look, and he led her into the house.

The living hall was a large space that reached to the ceiling, which was laced with beams that wove together intricately (his renovation, his grandfather’s ceiling only featured beams laid out plainly), culminating to the centre in a kagome lattice to frame a large glass chandelier. The floor was terrazzoed with deep azure pebbles on a powder blue base, but it was largely carpeted with white at the centre, and at the very centre of the carpet was a round table of bone white wood, on which he would often display his latest sculpture or work (this time, it was a glass cylinder lightly clouded with milky blue, a butterfly of red and black stones framed by silver trapped inside, and vines made of silver crisscrossing to form cage-like lattices embedded around the cylinder surface). The ground floor was framed with cushioned seats, interrupted by doors that lead to the other rooms in the house and the staircase up to the second storey to the right from the entrance.

To the farthest left, across the staircase, was a very high conical dais, its top platform reaching the second storey. This top was reached by the stairway that winded around it. On top of this dais were an ornately carved chair and a small table, on which a Macbook was opened. The walls on the ground and the balusters of the staircase and the second floor balustrades were as blue as the floor, while the walls of the second floor, the curtains, and the stair and balustrade railings were white, giving the house interior a cool shade.

He indicated to Lyka that her room will be the nearest door to the left. Still delighted by the sights in the house she excused herself to freshen up for a while.

Alone in the hall he called in Millicent, and the maid entered. She was bringing an apple, and as he received it he asked if the lunch was ready. ‘Kelp’ for the salad and ‘Beach Puddle’ for the fish, he told her, and the maid nodded.

Uyab nimo sir?’ the young maid asked timidly.

Ay na’g pangutana,’ he said, annoyed. His mother’s prudishness had rubbed on him, so he abhorred tasteless inquisitiveness. The maid excused herself and left, sighing, to execute his instructions.

Bells, and he paced towards the dais. He walked up the spiral stairs adagietto, spun once on reaching the top, bit the apple, put it in front of the Macbook on the table aligned to the apple logo (just below where he stickered the words ‘Toil and Trouble’), sat down on the chair and crossed his legs, left over right. Bells.

On the Macbook he began researching about the brain, looking for which parts would cause instant death when stabbed. The medulla oblongata would seem to do the trick. But to be sure he decided he should also stab his heart to do the trick.

His Facebook was also open (if he did not need it to publicize his work, he would never have made one). On his timeline, a classmate back in Kabacan posted a selfie with her boyfriend.  He rolled his eyes and turned off the Macbook. For the greater good, he thought, one ought to refrain from taking selfies if one is not good looking.

Lyka came out, dressed in more comfortable clothes, and her hair was tied in a pony tail. Still visibly delighted, she looked up to him.

Kaganda ng pwesto mo diyan!’

‘I call it my perch.’

He stood up and looked at the chandelier – no, he won’t hit it.

Atras ka muna ng konti sandali.’ He said, taking of his scarf. Curious, Lyka stepped back without asking.

He jumped from the dais and performed a somersault mid-air, the scarf in his hand forming an elegant spiral, and he landed gently on the floor on his feet. Lyka was stunned.

‘No, this time I wasn’t showing off. Kailangan ko yun ipractice.’ He said as he approached her.

‘In any case I’m impressed!’ she answered, laughing. He felt a strange, wrenching feeling in his stomach on hearing this.

Just then Thelmo entered. He came to say that he had reported the Civic to the TMU already. After Percy explained to Lyka what happened to him earlier, the chauffeur then added that, to his surprise, the TMU said the Civic had been in an accident just now – it nearly collided with a truck while overtaking somewhere in Amas, and it ended up crashing against a tree. The driver died, but nobody else was hurt.

On hearing this, Percy could almost taste the guilty tang of karma, and he could not help but utter – ‘bayabas.’

Millicent came in to tell them the food was ready, and he remembered that he had to sharpen the balisongs. He excused himself for a while, instructing the servants to lead Lyka to the dining room and Millicent to get his apple. They thus led her to the dining room, Thelmo having to explain to her that ‘bayabas’ in English sounded like the Cebuano word for comeuppance.

When Percy joined Lyka in the dining room she was eating while marvelling at the dishes: a glazed green plate that look exactly like a piece of kelp for the pako salad, and a shallow bowl made with many pebbles cobbled together over glaze for the tilapia in basil butter.

‘The plate for the pako is called “kelp,” tapos yang sa tilapia kay “beach puddle.”’

‘Sea themed dishes para sa fresh water ingredients. Contrasts!’

As he sat down with her he felt like having his afternoon tea. He told Millicent to brew him some Earl Grey and to give him bread with butter and Nutella.

He held the teapot handle with the left hand and spun it seven times with pauses between spins, then he pressed down the pot’s lid, poured tea on the cup, and stretched the pot upwards before quickly bringing the spout down again, all without spilling a drop: for a brief moment the tea gushed down solidly like a steaming strip of copper. The moment he put down the pot, bells.

Bakit mo ginaikot ang pot?’ She never ran out of wonder.

‘Seven times, para masteep siya enough. It also mixes the tea a bit sa loob.’

‘And you stretch it out because?’

Para maglamig siya konti – I don’t want to burn my tongue.’ And he sipped some tea. Lyka giggled. ‘I’m learning from you.’

Kaganda..!’ she remarked as Raphael brought in a very flashy flower arrangement: a woven bamboo vase that contained a large traveller’s palm leaf, which served as a backdrop to a bundle of papyrus reed clusters trimmed to balls, with a fireball lily placed inconspicuously among them. There were also red fox tails and fresh bougainvillea shoots, and the rim of the vase was lined with a thin bundle of Millionaire’s Curtain roots flowing down the floor.

‘I call it “Kabugangan Sunrise,”’ he said nonchalantly, biting a Nutella and buttered bread. ‘See the sunlight spilling in the roots.’

Lyka giggled. ‘Kataw-anan na title.’

And he nearly choked on his tea at the remark. Everybody always thought he was always being profound with his pieces and performances, even when he was joking, and much as he hated being the fodder of much obscurant snobbery he could not do anything, one does not impose interpretation. Lyka was the first to show she genuinely understood, and that she enjoyed understanding. What was this girl!

When she had finished eating, she suddenly asked if he can be interviewed. Percy was pulled out of his reverie.

Doon tayo sa labas para mahangin.’ And he instructed Millicent to bring his tea to the garden as Lyka excused herself to get her laptop.

They sat on the garden set under the Acacia tree just behind the house, on upholstered chairs of varnished rattan on a large stone dais mossy with age embedded on the Bermuda. Lyka was typing on her laptop, which was on the glass table, while Percy was buttering some bread. The sparse afternoon light drizzled down on them like the dried leaves.

‘Well first off, Proserpino Flores-Villa ‘no?’ she started, giggling. ‘Pangalan pa lang bongga na.’

‘My best inheritance, really.’

Dagdagan mo kung kulang ha: you are a performance artist, you dance, you paint, you make glasswork, you carve, you landscape, you do interior design, you do flower arrangements,’

‘I also cook.’

Ay tama,’ she laughed. ‘You cook very well, actually.’

‘I also do textiles and make decorative knots.’

Talaga, knots? Ako din!’ and she took out her phone. On it was a keychain of a panchang butterfly knot, made out of pink satin cord.

Maganda pagkagawa,’ he said, looking at it with surprise.

Patingin din ng iyo!’ And he did not notice her blush at what she said as he took out a pen from his pocket: there was a pineapple knot, with a lopped chain knot around, on the pen.

Ano ito na chain?’ she said, scrutinizing it.

Imbento ko, doesn’t seem to be a known knot. I call it “millipede chain.” I came up with it nung high school ako, pangtali ng ballpen sa sling ng ID.’

Kacute!’

‘And you seem to like butterflies,’ he said, observing the butterfly stickers on the phone.

Ay oo,’ she said, straightening up. ‘From Chuangzi to Chaos theory.’ There was a hint of smugness in her tone. Even the vestibule décor she understood!

‘You also do pottery?’

Ay hindi,’ he answered, focusing on the interview again, ‘not entirely. Akin ang concept, gipagawa ko lang sa friend ko na potter in Magpet. If I have any medium, it’s concept really.’

‘I see. Pero you don’t compose music?’

‘I’m trying to learn na din. Kahirap niya, actually. And I’m also beginning to explore architecture and metalworking. Pero yun lang ata so far.’

Ikaw na ang polymath!’

‘Can’t sing though. My love for singing is unrequited. Oy wag mo ako tanungin ng mga pang-beauty contest na questions ha. Yang mga ‘what is your greatest inspiration,’ kay na.’

‘What is your inspiration as an artist?’

‘It’s been a great interview,’ and he feigned standing up.

Oy joke lang’ she said, laughing.  And he beckoned him to sit back down.

Pero bitaw. What drives you as an artist?’

Percy fell silent in thought, and a breeze blew. He took a deep breath, chimed his bells, and he began thinking aloud.

Parang, there are dots in the world waiting to be connected, beats waiting to be timed to choreographed movement. Yan ang pursuit of beauty… are symmetry and rhythm inherent in the world, or are they just species of randomness we choose to call attention to? Ewan, I’ve always thought agnostic ako – with Catholic trappings hahapero ang alam ko lang, the pursuit of beauty is the human thing to do. The world is an empty canvass, we are human because we try to fill it. Artist lang ako kay I do it consciously. Excessively.’

Eyes, eyes, eyes – self awareness had began to creep in, but it only reached his feet, so he just hid coyly behind his teacup, calm enough to take a sip but too distracted by the suffocating sense of the world’s gaze to notice that Lyka was looking at him with an almost hungry wonder. A light confetti of dried acacia leaves rained down on them.

‘There’s… there’s this inner drive to be more. Alam mo yun?’ he continued, regaining his confidence when he realized what he was saying was not being too self-referential. ‘Yang maka-addict na drive to fill in the void, to just –’ he twirled his hands. ‘To just fill in the emptiness with beauty. It’s weird really, you want to fill in the void, but at the same time you’re empty before everything you make – pag nagaperform ako, or nagagawa ng work, mawala ako, it’s just the work and all its flourishes. It feels peaceful, but it’s an addictive kind of peace.’

‘And since when have you known this feeling?’ there was a soft, understanding smile on her face.

Ay bata pa ako. Galing ‘to sa dad ko, I can distinctly remember. Grabe ka-theatrical na tao yun si dad – everything he did was a performance. Naalala ko, nung I was about five or six, nagkuha siya ng tansan ng litro, gilagyan niya ng candle wax, then he put it on a fire he lit out of twigs – it was here, sa paanan ng acacia. Tapos habang nagakulo na ang wax, he took some water from the fountain, gipatakan niya ng tubig ang wax, and bang! A huge fire erupted. I was dazzled. More, I thought, more. And the fire he started in me never died since then.’

‘So your dad was your first influence.’

‘Definitely. And my most primitive.’

Sino pa ang iba mong influences? Theoretically I mean.’

Ay kadami. One of the earliest siguro, specially sa performances ko, may dalawang Kabuki actors.’

‘Kabuki?’ she asked, bemused.

‘Yes, two actors in particular: Nakamura Kanzaburo XVIII and Ichikawa Ennosuke III. Nung bata pa ako we went on vacation sa Japan ng about three months – I was six or seven. May tita ako sa Kyoto. Dad took me to the Minami-za several times, and I saw them there. God they were good. Kanzaburo was dancing this female role, tapos bigla siya naging demon. Si Ennosuke naman he was playing this fox magically disguised as a samurai, tapos ang ending he floats in the air with strings. Kaprecise at rigid ng galaw nila, pero grabe ka-alive pa rin. Kaya noon pa lang I never saw a conflict between form and vivre, between stylized action and authenticity. Ano yung sabi ni Wilde? To be natural is simply a pose.’

‘You read Wilde too!’

‘Of course I do,’ he said, again hiding behind his cup to stave off the creeping self awareness. ‘He’s another big influence. Tapos ito ding isang anime director, I don’t know kung kilala mo. Kunihiko Ikuhara? I’ll give you some of his works kung gusto mo. God I’d like to be an animator, pero I know si Ikuhara pa lang enough na for the whole medium. Sa visual arts siguro, heavily influenced ako ng Baroque at Art Nouveau – Rigaud, Emille Galle, Pugin, Beardsley. I’m Cotabato Rococo?’ and they both laughed.

‘So you aim for the fabulous?’

‘Yes. But I also make sure it’s inevitable, it’s appropriate. Influence din si Sen no Rikyu.’

‘Grabe ka well versed mo!’

‘And yet I think I’m inevitable – Kidapawan has been educating its children for generations, it’s about time makaproduce sila ng artistic expression.’

And Lyka smiled at him in what seemed like quiet awe. He looked away from her in consciousness.

‘Perce, do you put meaning in your art?’

‘Oh yes, but it’s always just an excuse to make something fabulous,’ he jumped on the opportunity to divert attention from him. ‘Symbolism? Meaning should be fluid, ang solid lang dapat, ang beauty. Am I making sense..?’ Lyka nodded, amused. ‘“All art is useless.” Dagdagan ko lang na it is precisely that uselessness that makes it art. Beauty is moreness, not mustness. Hindi ka man magsabi na flowers are useless: they’re pretty and fragrant, isn’t that enough?’

‘Well, tama…’ and Lyka too seemed to be thinking aloud, ‘but… “colours, though fragrant, will only scatter away. Who in this world is unchanging?”’

As he sipped his tea Percy was amazed at her. Iroha: by God this girl was something. She was going well with his Earl Grey.

‘Well yes, tama, nothing lasts. “And yet, and yet…”’ Lyka laughed. ‘Nobody is deluded here. We all climb up the hill pointlessly lifting our own boulders, we might as well stud it with emeralds. Knowing that emeralds are as useless as life is part of appreciating them.’

‘But that emerald studded boulder would only be a copy of what it really is.’ She answered teasingly

‘Hm..’ and he fell silent with a smile. ‘Well, we might as well be Wayang Kulit.’ And she laughed. ‘Though the waterfall has ceased its flowing long ago…’

Lagi ka talagang may ma-quote na Japanese poem ‘no..!’ and she looked at him intently, again making awareness vine up to his chest and stifle his breathing. Eyes, eyes, eyes. To evade her gaze he looked at the time. He could see from where he sat that Thelmo was making his way up from the garage.

He stood up. ‘What say you ipatuloy natin ‘to on our way sa gomahan?’

‘Sounds good!’ And Thelmo arrived to tell them the car was ready.

Both hands on the car door’s upper edges, look back with left shoulder slightly inclined to a downward angle figura serpentinata towards the road, bells, he entered the car, sat down left leg crossed over the right, and his door closed before Thelmo’s. Again Lyka’s timing was remarkably in sync to his movements, and again they giggled when they found themselves so well coordinated. The car had been parked outside, and when it left Millicent closed the gate.

Kidapawan was most restless in the early afternoon, its streets bustling with tricycles, its air thick with dust and smoke.

‘Some fog…’ Percy found himself murmuring as he looked out the window.

Lagi, kaabog na ng Kidapawan,’ though she was still looking out the window eagerly. ‘Kataas na ng Madonna!’

Mabuti na lang may fog pa minsan pag ganitong madalas mag-ulan.’

‘You haven’t explained your performance pa ba!’ she faced him. ‘Kailangan may fog?’

‘Oh you’ll have to see,’ he said, giggling. ‘Basta bukas, if you’re taking a picture, make sure it looks like the sea – you’re very crucial here. Hindi ka lang nagacover, you’re part of the performance.’

‘The sea!’ she said, laughing. ‘We’re on the other side of Mt Apo from the sea!’

Ay basta,’ he concluded enigmatically. Lyka smiled with curiosity.

Hala, ano ito na tree?’ she exclaimed as they approached the Nuangan bridge. ‘Hindi ko napansin kanina pagdating ko!’

On the island in front of BPI and the old Sabulao houses was a very tall Molave tree, its multi level canopy carefully topiaried. The island was covered in Bermuda and adorned with large, mossy boulders, and on one end of it, facing the direction of Cotabato, was a single file cairn of fifty stones, while on the other side, towards Davao, was a braided tree made from bonsais of rubber, rambutan, and pine. Percy told Thelmo to stop by it.

‘Let me guess,’ said Lyka as she took a photo of the braided tree. ‘Ikaw nag landscape nito.’

‘At naghanap nitong tree,’ he answered, rubbing the tree’s bark. ‘The Golden Jubilee tree. This was wild you know, galing sa Mt Apo.’

Kaganda ng pagkagupit.’

Karikomi. This tree is exactly fifty years old, gipa-ring date namin.’

Grabe ang attention to detail!’

They returned to the car and began setting off again, deciding to go to the plaza on their way back. Percy played music on the stereo.

Hala ano ito na piece?’

Marche pour la Ceremonie des Turcs, Jean-Baptiste Lully. Mahilig ka sa Baroque music.’

‘Baroque music pala ito! Mahilig ako sa classical, but I never knew the distinctions. I like these ones na bombastic tapos intricate.’

‘Yup, Baroque lagi. Bach?’

‘My favourite!’

‘Baroque nga,’ and he laughed. ‘Baroque is the height of art, I think. And Art Nouveau, Art Nouveau was like a New Baroque, really.’

‘Come to think of it..! Speaking of art Perce, pano ka nagaisip ng gawing work or performance?’

‘Well, I have twenty seven motifs – patterns, colour combinations, o stereotyped movements ba – that define my personal style. Mag-isip ako ng theme, then I make a concept out of it, then use the motifs on it. Yung performance ko sa Davao halimbawa, the theme was to show the cultural similarities between Mindanao and Indochina, at ang pinaka-visible na examples are the Naga in Maranao art at ang presence ng gong ensembles in both cultures. My main motif for it was the spiral – spiral ang pag-ikot ko pababa, and the kulintang was laid out in a spiral centred on the Thai khong wong lek. From that, dagdagan ko lang ng details – ‘Mucalinda’ sounds a bit like ‘Mindanao,’ so emphasize the cobra image with a hood. Ganun.’

Pero bakit ka-daredevil ng performances mo?’

Ay, it’s the drive to show off, really. I always want to do more, to amaze people more. Kung simpleng dance lang yun, boring, but because it was that dangerous, kahit hindi engaged na tao na nagadaan lang, may response. Art should take people’s breaths away.’

‘Gosh you’re quotable,’ giggled Lyka. ‘Sige ito: what is your ultimate aim as an artist?’

‘Well…’ he fell silent in thought for a while. ‘Siguro, there’s this one holy grail for all proper artists. The Gesamtkunstwerk.’

Ano yun?’

‘Wagner’s total artwork, something na maka-appeal sa lahat ng senses. A friend sa Boys nung high school ako shared it to me, and I dreamt of accomplishing it for years. Ngayon alam ko na na mahirap siya, but it’s still a big influence: it’s very important for me to make a work as total as possible.’

‘You never think of something like articulating Kidapawan’s identity? What effect does your hometown have on your work?’

Ayoko na magcomment kay baka makaoffend lang ako.’

She giggled. ‘Hala, bakit man din?’

He looked up ahead. They were nearing the NFA warehouse.

Ayan o, tingnan mo.’

He pointed to his window, which faced the left of the car, and Lyka looked: she frowned on seeing the ruins of the Kiram mansion.

Hala hindi ko ‘to napansin kanina.’

‘It was the most beautiful building in Kidapawan,’ he said grimly. ‘Probably the only extant example of Maranao-Stick fusion architecture. Kidapawan didn’t care much for that. Pero I won’t deny na Kidapawan’s identity plays its role on my work – to answer your question, I don’t articulate it, I live it. As migrants, mga dayo ang mga Kidapawanon in their own home, they’re constantly decorating their world to fill in the void where nativeness should be, creating something new, even at the expense of what’s already there.’

‘Kidapawanon…’

Ayan o, example. Ayoko ng “Kidapaweño” kay wala man tayong Spanish history dito. But in the process ginabaliwala ko ang tradition of using “Kidapaweño.” Kidapawan identity is all about self creation. And in my case, fabulous self creation.’

‘Baroque ka nga!’ And she laughed.

Oy, iba baya ibig sabihin ng “barok” ha. I think I’m pretty eloquent thank you.’

‘Kidapawan is lucky to have you, you know.’

‘I don’t think Kidapawan agrees.’ He retorted. ‘Walang nagabili ng stuff ko dito. But bitaw, I hope I keep it entertained…’

The Villa rubber plantation was inside baranggay Saguing, away from the highway. At a certain point Thelmo turned right and entered an un-cemented road. Immediately the scenery changed to dense woods, then to groves of rambutan, lanzones, and rubber.

At the edge of one rubber grove Thelmo blew the car’s horn thrice slowly, and they reached cemented road. To their left, where the cement began was also where a long lane of banana trees lining the road started.

‘We’re here. Si dad nagpatanim nitong banana trees – bakit daw walang puno ng saging sa Saguing.’

‘Dad mo nga,’ she answered, laughing. ‘Pero kalawak pala!’

‘Three generations of Villas worked hard para palawakin siya bit by bit. Pati si mom noon, nagabili din ng lote para mapalawak ito. This is bigger kesa dun sa gomahan na na-inherit niya sa Paco.’

And they reached an opening in the banana row – the entrance to a beaten path that cut through a neat rubber grove, flanked on both sides by two tall Traveller’s palms.

Ikaw na nagtanim nitong Traveller’s palm ‘no?’

‘You know my style na ha. We have to outdo our predecessors of course.’

The path made a curve to the left, and they reached a clearing with a small but charming house by a pond. There was also a garden set nearby.

Ten men, including two teenage boys, were lined up facing each other a few paces away from the garden set. They all had at least shoulder length hair, some were bearded, and they all had tapping knives in their hands. The car stopped, Percy’s door falling exactly between their two rows.

Dito ka labas,’ he told Lyka.

And as he stepped down from the car the men put their tapping knives abreast in a military fashion. He stood upright, chiming his bells. Just then, Lyka came down and closed the door.

He gave them a nod, and they put their knives down.

May paramilitary history ang mga tapper namin,’ he explained to her. ‘Mainit dito ang NPA at ang mga muslim noon. Gikuntsabo sila ni dad to serve as the local defence force of sorts ng sitio. Kahit papaano hindi naano itong area. The men are rather proud of their past.’

Pero bakit din long hair sila?’ She was taking pictures as the men obliged her request to put their blades abreast again.

‘When dad got killed nung Martial Law, nagsabot sila lahat dito to keep their hair long to remember him – long hair si dad noon.’

‘He was popular!’ They began walking towards the house.

Ay oo, only son at rich boy yun, pero he loved being with the tappers and the labourers – when asked, they tell people this place is called Rigodon Farm, after him. They like me man din siguro, pero wala akong challenge kay dad. I can’t blame my mom kung bakit niya yun nagustuhan – handsome, reckless, pero good hearted yun. A bit too good hearted – ayun, naging aktibista, nagsali-sali sa mga rally sa Davao.’ He stopped walking suddenly. ‘Nung nabalitaan namin na he died, I remember walang reaction si mom, and I resented her for that for many years…’

He closed his eyes: yes, his mother had to be strong for him. And yet even now he still couldn’t forgive her.

‘I hope naging okay kayo when she died…’

Ay na, never.’ He took the opportunity to be light. ‘I understood na she had to be strong and all, pero I never understood why kailangan niya maging ganun ka-dull. Ugh, I can still remember her floral dusters.’ And she gave a reassured laugh at this.

When they reached the house, an old man, also long haired but more smartly dressed than the tappers, greeted them.

Si Manong Sunday,’ said Percy. ‘Head tapper dito. Nong, tagai ‘mi ni Lyka og tablea kon naa pa.’

The old man greeted Lyka politely and excused himself to execute his instructions.

Bakit Sunday?’ Lyka asked bemusedly as Percy led her to the garden set.

Ay “Domingo” ang totoong pangalan, pero bata pa ako “Sunday” na ang tawag ko sa kanya. Gigaya na lang din ng ibang tapper. He likes it man din daw, sosyal daw kay English.’

Lyka giggled, then, noticing the lotuses and lilies in the pond, took her camera and began taking pictures.

‘These koi are huge!’ she exclaimed as some large koi surfaced.

Ay nakuha ko nung namatay si tito Adolfo, they’re over seventy years old. Ay Guillermo,’ he called out to one of the tappers tapping a nearby tree. The tapper approached affectionately.

‘Perce?’

Tabangi ko sa bangka.’

Aw, taympa, tiwason sa nako ni.’ And he went back to tapping the tree.

Ug mangayo sad kog trellis.’ Percy said as the man returned to him after a short while. They headed towards the back of the house.

Ay kadaghan ra diha.’

Asan kayo?’ Lyka noticed them and followed. There was a shed behind the house, and when Guillermo opened its wooden door inside was a spacious storage room with farm implements here and there. But at the centre of the shed was what looked like a wooden boat. It had a broad floor with a removable cover inside, and it had holes, each covered with a steel mesh, on both sides. The outside of the hull was intricately carved with patterns of waves in okir and clouds in the Chinese ruyi motif. Lyka gasped in wonder at it.

‘You made it?’ ‘Guillermo shaped it from the wood, pero oo, I carved the details. It’s Balsa wood.’ He lifted it. ‘So it’s very light.’

Kaganda! For the pond?’

From one corner of the shed he took a long strip of pale wood inside, adorned with what looked like Sanskrit characters.

Para sa performance bukas.’

She laughed. ‘Curious na talaga ako!’

He showed the strip to her. ‘I’m guessing alam mo ano ito?’

‘A sotoba?’ And she smiled in delighted bewilderment when he only looked enigmatically at him as he put the strip of wood in the boat.

He beckoned Guillermo to help him carry the boat. Together they brought it to the back of the car. Guillermo returned to tapping after, and the two of them sat on the garden set.

As Lyka was showing Percy the pictures, manong Sunday came with two mugs of tablea.

‘This is good! Salamat nong!’ The old man smiled fondly at her and excused himself.

‘Home made yan, gawa ng apo niya, galing sa puno nila ng cacao.’

Masarap masanay dito..!’ And as she sat back with a satisfied breath, Percy felt a shiver down his spine. He felt like he was at the verge of experiencing something overwhelming.

At the foyer of the house manong Sunday perked up when he heard what Lyka had said, and his curiosity was satiated when Thelmo approached him to give him details.

A distinct citrus smell suddenly filled the air.

Ano yung amoy lime?’

‘Ah yes,’ there was a hint of both relief and pride in Percy’s voice. ‘Bagong acid ng goma na na-develop namin. Tito Fernando Jimenez has a tapper sa gomahan nila sa Paco, si Jess Landim, who studies and now does research on rubber plantation technology. I worked with Jess to come up with an acid na hindi mabaho.’

‘You work with smells too!’

Ay nakalimutan ko, oo.’ He laughed. ‘I also try to make perfumes and aromatics. Pero may halo din yang agricultural research.’

‘You do research too?’

‘Agricultural lang – agri grad baya talaga ako sa USM Kabacan.’ He was beginning to grow self conscious again, hiding behind his mug. ‘And a bit of anthropological research here and there para sa mga performance o work – kaya kami nagkakila ni tito Adolfo.’

Akala ko talaga arts related ang gikuha mo.’

‘If you have to study art, you can’t do it. And if you can do it, you don’t need to study it. Besides, hindi magpayag si mom noon, mas kailangan ko ma-learn how to manage the farms more.’

‘Well in any case, you’ve been happy and successful.’

‘Yes,’ he said absentmindedly, ‘pero ewan, I don’t know if I’m really happy…’

Bakit naman?’

Ewan, parang there’s something wrong…’ And the two of them fell silent in thought.

Of course something would be wrong, all of this was him living in opposition: all these flourishes he had carved, gilded, and brocaded unto himself and his world he had done so in rebellion against the world’s oppressive plainness. Against his mother. She would have objected to all this useless pageantry he had set up in the estate, to all these embellishments he put in the interior design and in the landscaping of the house and the farms – to all this eccentricity. And it was precisely in defiance to her objections that he now thus flourished – he had flourished in mere negation. And here he was talking of heeding the drive for more.

But there was something else, something he could not quite remember.

After finishing their tablea they stood up, and he told manong Sunday that they ought to be leaving. On hearing this, the old man summoned the tappers nearby, and they fell in line as he and Guillermo entered the house.

In a short while the old man and the tapper came out again, bringing sooty cans with steel wires tied on the rim as handles, and they gave each tapper one of these. On receiving their cans the tappers again formed two rows facing each other by the car, and manong Sunday, who was also holding what looked like a bundle of dirty strings of rubber, approached them. He dropped bits of the rubber into each can, and smoke began exuding from them.

‘Trellis ng goma,’ Percy explained, showing Lyka a sample. ‘Ginagamit ito pangpabaga ng uling. Pangpausok din siya.’

Bakit sila nagapausok? I like the smell!’

Palinapausukan tayo to drive away evil spirits from the woodlands. Pamahiin, gi-choreograph ko lang para maganda.’

The two tappers closest to them swung their cans towards each other’s direction, then the two beside them did the same, and the two beside them, until it reached the car – soon they had woven a thick blanket of smoke under the rubber canopies.

Percy guided Lyka through the smoke, and they stood by the car to watch it dissipate.

Just as they were about to enter the car, a mini truck arrived. Percy waited to see who it was.

The car stopped, and from the driver’s seat a handsome man, his features boyish with a hint of mischief, came down. He was wearing a v-neck shirt, cargo shorts, and sandals.

Percy froze at the sight of him. He could only mutter his name.

‘Kit…’

‘Perce!’ grinned the man excitedly. ‘Nandito ka pala! Magkuha lang sana ako ng seedling. Kumusta ka na man uy!’ He approached them and put his arm around Percy’s shoulder.

‘Buyer si sir Kit sa atong seedlings, Perce,’ explained manong Sunday. ‘Singkwenta kabuok gihapon sir Kit?’

Saysenta ta karon nong!’ answered Kit. ‘Napalit namo ‘tong yuta ni Ang.’

And to Percy the memories became the smoke he inhaled, stifling him from speaking – a ten year old Lia, beautiful beyond words, asking him if he knew George Bizet, and he had no idea… him as a fifteen year old, hiding behind the school chapel with the handkerchief Kit had dropped after they chatted about porn, worshipping the adolescent sweat on it… Lia, sitting under one of the old cypresses in front of the NDKC high school principal’s office, Kit, ripe with puberty, nervous beside him as he tried to muster the courage to tell her he loved her and would she please be his girlfriend, and she answering Kit that yes, she had liked him since elementary, and he in his childhood outraged at the thoughts of wanting to see her naked now suddenly retreating to these same thoughts to avoid facing the reality that Kit was now kissing her – and again he felt that intense, overwhelming feeling in his chest he felt that day as he witnessed them come together, his heart a flower bud slowly unfurling inside him, petals stretching out so much he felt his chest would burst –

Lyka touched his elbow, and immediately he calmed down.

Si-si Lyka pala,’ he used the pretext of the introduction to get a hold of himself. ‘Lyka Alcantara, photographer at columnist sa isang magazine sa Davao. Lyka, this is Kit, Christopher Pascual,’ he hesitated for a bit, ‘kababata ko.’

Lyka and Kit exchanged greetings.

‘I hope you get to know Makilala too,’ he said. ‘Wala masyadong mapuntahan dito, but we have great waterfalls. Perce, you should bring Lyka over some time, ginahanap ka ni Lia ba. Drop by din sa amin for lunch or dinner be.’

Si Lia?’ stuttered Percy. ‘Subukan ko. No…no kids yet?’ Of all the topics for small talk he could think of!

Ay wala pa,’ Kit answered. ‘We want to enjoy each other muna before that – as if hindi kami since high school bago kinasal no?’ and he laughed.

‘Kit, mauna na muna kami ha.’

Ay sige, sige. Hope to see you around Perce…!’

On the car on the way home Percy was silent in thought – finally he remembered what else was wrong – he had brought his childhood friends Lia, the beauty of his boyhood, and Kit, the ripeness of his adolescence, together, knowing that they would be perfect. And indeed they had been, many years later they were still happy together. But perhaps the result had been too overwhelming for him, its aesthetic impact too intense that it hurt, and he was still smarting from it – he couldn’t even dare attend their wedding a year ago. He believed they were by far his greatest work, the closest he had come to a Gesamtkunstwerk, but even he could not entirely bare the intensity of their union’s effect. Perhaps that possibility cast a shadow on his happiness? Perhaps possibilities beyond him still scared him?

‘You okay, Perce?’ there was a hint of worry in Lyka’s voice.

Pulled out of his reverie, Percy assured her he was okay – life had thought him that nothing good came out of dwelling on things too much. He told Thelmo to stop by the plaza, to her delight.

‘I don’t know…’ she said as she looked at the city hall. ‘Mas gusto ko yung munisipyo noon. This one looks… plastic.’

He laughed, ‘I couldn’t put it better.’

At asan na yung island dito na may garden at may statwa ni Rizal!’

‘Blind curve daw.’

‘In lieu of flowers, a dirt hole.’ She took a picture. ‘Sige daw, caption it.’ She showed the camera to him.

‘Practicality,’ he answered, and she laughed before they entered the plaza to take photos. He looked up to the sky – the clouds were beginning to thin, just as planned.

Bells, and he paced towards the dais. He walked up the spiral stairs adagietto, spun once on reaching the top, bit the apple, put it in front of the Macbook aligned to the apple logo, sat down on the chair and crossed his legs, left over right. Bells.

The Macbook was opened to a live stream meteorological imaging of Mt Apo a friend working for PAGASA had set up for him. Just as estimated its highest peak will be clear of clouds by tomorrow morning, but much of it will still be cloudy. He also had Facebook open: there was a PM from Richard, one of the Makilala based musicians who would be playing the accompaniment tomorrow. He was just confirming the performance. Yes, he answered, call time was five thirty in the morning.

Then there was a friend request: Emilia Marasigan-Pascual. The sight of the name stung him, but not wanting to be rude he confirmed the friend request. Against his instincts – when did he stop listening to his instincts? – he dared look at her wall.

Lia was more beautiful than he had ever known her, her hair longer now, her cheekbones more prominent, her lips fuller, her jaw more womanly, and in her full body photos her figure more voluptuous. There were also pictures of Kit, and now that he had the composure to look at him, he too was better looking than ever. In their photos together they look extremely happy with each other, and in one photo they were kissing – he could not bear it, he turned his Macbook off.

He heaved the heaviest sigh he had ever heaved. No, he had not just been overwhelmed by the intensity of the effect of bringing Kit and Lia together. He wanted them, each at some point. And they ended up together. He had been stinging – and he was still stinging – from the hole in him he had had to carve out in order to bring them together. Refusal, refusal, refusal – his mother’s gaze, the call to consummate his humanity: he had refused all, including himself, and in the void left by the chunk of his uprooted being he had flourished – oh, he had done nothing but flourish.

From where he sat he could see the glass piece on the table down below, the butterfly trapped in glass, caged in a lattice of silver vines. He was not thinking of any theme when he made this piece, but now the fluidity of its symbolism stung him – strange it was when one’s creative work came back to haunt you. For he too was trapped in glass – in evading the eyes of the world he hid in this chamber of gilded mirrors, bathing in the blinding reflected lights, content with the poses he struck and with his own caged, accustomed sight. But mirrors beget eyes, a myriad eyes, and now these eyes stared at him, and they were worse than the world’s eyes, for they were his own eyes, now liberated with realization. He was hollow before his own gaze.

But he cannot let his façade fall apart, or he would have nothing else left – he had become nothing but appearances. If he was to suffer he must suffer quietly. Besides, he had the performance tomorrow, and he had to entertain a guest.

Lyka came out of her room, wearing a loose periwinkle shirt and short shorts.

Anong dinner?’ she asked him as he came down the stairs with the apple.

He donned a host’s convivial mask.

‘Specialties ng family,’ he answered, smiling. ‘Morcon, recipe from my father’s side, and some Kinilnit, galing naman sa mom ko…’

He woke up limply the next day but performed his morning levée with the usual pomp and circumstance: the Erhu piece ‘Horse Racing’ set on alarm at four thirty on his phone, two hours earlier than usual (though he had barely had any sleep). Rising from the pillow to a sit, he slipped his feet down the floor, careful not to upset the duvet, and he sat facing the bathroom. He stood up, stepped his left foot while thrusting his left shoulder forward, stepped his right foot forward while stretching his right arm up, spun once counter clockwise, and stumped his left foot lightly (his punctuation when he did not have his bells on) before stretching out contrapposto. Then he entered the bathroom to take a bath: a dipper of cold water to wake him up before he showered in hot water. By the time he came out he had already dressed, his hair blow-dried, and the smell of Bergamot soap filled the air conditioned room. He turned off the aircon and pressed the buzzer to call Millicent in, and while he wore his earrings, his bracelet of bells, and his other accessories, the maid would fold the sheets in a complex lotus dumpling fold. By the time he went off to have breakfast, she was getting the folded sleeping clothes in the bathroom to have them washed.

Hollow theatre yes, but routine was difficult to break.

Breakfast was composed of toast, with runny scrambled eggs, pickle relish, bacon , ham, butter, Nutella, strawberry jam, and a blend of black Ceylon and Keemun tea with milk and sugar –the plates and cups were laid out in fan-like rows, with his and Lyka’s plates as the base of each fan.

She had a pleasant smile when she entered the dining room.

‘Had a good sleep?’

Kabango ng katsubong sa may window!’ she said sitting down. ‘And ka-comforting pala matulog sa four poster na bed.’

Gitanim yang flowers at gilagay yang bed for any visitor, so I’m glad you like them.’ he answered. He looked at the small grandfather clock across the dining room, ‘Alis tayo in two hours. Coffee or tea?’

Ano iyo?’

‘Tea.’

Ako din!’ And Raphael poured her some milked tea.

The sight of her smiling as she bit her buttered toast somehow comforted him. It was a cold morning, and her presence made him feel a bit warmer.

After breakfast they went back to their rooms to change, he into his costume, which he wore inside slacks and a coat with a scarf over it. The two balisongs were in the inner pocket of the coat. Lyka was ready too, with only a camera and a notebook in her sling bag. She was wearing a green bolero over a long sleeved white shirt and short shorts.

The Kidapawan morning air was cold but clear when they stepped out. The sky was still cloudy, but it was beginning to show patches of mauve. Mt. Apo was still shrouded in cloud, but a tiny speck showed that the peak was beginning to emerge.

Sayang, walang fog,’ said Lyka as she stood beside him. ‘Katagal ko na gud hindi nakakita ng fog.’

Gusto mo makakita?’

‘I’d love to sana.’

Be, give me your glasses.’

She gave her glasses to him in amused curiosity. He fogged them with his breath and gave them back to her. Laughing, she took them and put them on.

‘Wow, fog talaga!’ She took a deep breath, breathing in the morning air and his breath that lingered in her glasses, and she looked at him, smiling.

And on seeing the utter bliss in her eyes, he finally realized that she was in love with him.

Her eyes have been saying it since she arrived in Kidapawan – no, since they first had dinner in Davao – but only now, now that he was seeking distractions from the realization of his own hollowness, did he see it. This girl was fascinated by him, all of him, and hers was a gaze he had never known before. It was not suffocating, but it made his chest feel like bursting. Timidly he looked down, blushing.

Again, the car was already parked outside the gate. Raphael was already at the back, keeping hold of the boat. Thelmo opened their doors.

This time, he noticed that she deliberately timed her entrance into the car, and as she smiled at him he could only return a hesitant grin.

Was he just imagining it? Was this just his need projecting attraction in her amusement? And even if it was true, would it be right to simply accept it just to fill in his void? Wouldn’t that be unfair to her? He would be reducing her to his audience, and she deserved better than that. But if it weren’t true, how conceited it was of him to even dare speculate –

Composure. He chimed his bells, as if to exorcise away the thoughts.

‘Nervous?’ Lyka teased. ‘Ano ba kasi ang performance mo!’

Ay you’ll see,’ he had resolved to think nothing of it.

They reach the road island by five thirty. The road was completely empty save for a few joggers warming up at the Metrophone office. But on the island, there were already three men, tubao on each of their heads, sitting on the stones. One was holding a goat skin drum, another a kudlong, and another a flute. These men stood up when he came down the car.

Percy introduced them to Lyka: Richard, Rex, and George, musicians based in Makilala.

With a nod, Percy had Raphael take down the boat from the car – it was light enough for him to carry alone.

Then Raphael took a very long rope from the back of the car, and with it he began climbing the tree. On reaching the top canopy he lowered one end of the rope, Percy got it, he tied it to the boat, and Raphael began pulling the rope up – soon the boat had reached the top. Meanwhile, Thelmo had started some embers on some wooden charcoal in one of those handled sooty cans, and he gave it to Percy. ‘Nasa bangka na ang trellis.’ He said.

After positioning the boat on the canopy, Raphael lowered the rope again, and Percy tied the can to it – before long it too had reached the top, and Raphael put it inside the boat before slowly descending.

Percy took off his shoes, coat and slacks – his costume was a woven T’boli blazer that showed the chest, and shorts of the same pattern. He took off his glasses and put it in his coat just as he got the two balisongs and a tubao inside. He tucked the balisongs in his shorts, and looked for somewhere to put his coat and slacks.

Lyka offered to take it with a bright smile. Hesitantly, he gave it to her.

He took some rope, much shorter than Raphael’s, and as Raphael reached the ground, he positioned himself in front of the tree, the rope around its trunk.

He nodded to the musicians, chimed his bells, and simultaneously with the music beginning he began to climb up. Every shift he made up was punctuated by the bells, which in turned coordinated rhythmically with the ethnic music. There were hardly any vehicles on the road, so the music reverberated and began attracting attention. Lyka had begun taking photos, but as he climbed up she decided to take a video.

On reaching the top canopy he climbed into the boat, raised his right hand, looked down, and chimed his bells to punctuate a pose just as the music stopped.

The view was breathtaking. The highway winded through an endless sea of green, and Mt Apo was shrouded in dense mist but for the highest of its three peaks, which was now peeking out.

Ceremoniously he dropped some trellis on the embers in the can and quickly covered the floor of the boat with the piece of plywood – soon thick smoke began pouring out from the holes on the hull, enshrouding the whole canopy. The boat looked like it was floating on smoke, and from a certain perspective below – the vantage point from where Lyka now stood – it looked like it extended to the mists, making the peak an island in a sea of smoke and cloud.

Death is the opposite of desire, he once heard, but as he sat up there, seething with fear and longing, the two could not be more indistinguishable. She was very small from the height, but by God did he find her incredibly beautiful right now. And the guilt at knowing how unfair, how needy this desire was – it was just as overwhelming as the fear that the boat might tip over and he might fall.

But he must be distracted by neither. He took out the sotoba, chimed his bells to strike another pose, and began rowing larghetto with the sotoba as the oar while the music played again. By now a small crowd, which included the mayor, had gathered below. He struck a final pose, with both hands grasping the oar, chest out, chin up looking down below with defiant fear – bells. The crowd applauded, and he could see Lyka’s camera flashing to get a picture.

And from up there, he could see Lyka looking at him, a delighted grin on her face, mouthing to him the very title he had thought of giving this performance:

Memento mori’

The ephemerality of smoke and fog, the threat of falling to his death, the illusion of the island among clouds, the T’boli boat coffins and tree burials, the sotoba, and the Japanese word for forest – by God, she understood him, every bit of him.

And he realized that no, she was not the only one in wonder, he too had been enthralled by her since they first met, by how well she could tolerate, understand, appreciate all his idiosyncratic flourishes. He was not hollow before her, and she was everything to him. She was no filler to fill in his void, she was what was more –

And he saw that he must vine towards Remarkability, towards more, even if it meant breaking his image reflected on his cage of gilded mirrors, even if it meant completely abandoning all the flourishes with which he had defined himself. To simply follow an inevitable axis, to simply be proper, was what will keep him empty. He must take the risk.

He stood up on the boat, waved his hands, and shouted with all his voice:

Lyka. I love you. Love me. Let’s build a home out of this city. I love you Lyka. I love you.

And his dread at being completely mistaken melted away like the mist before the sun as Lyka smiled, tears in her eyes, as she shouted amidst the crowd’s at once bemused and worried bustle – yes, I love you to Percy, let’s be more together. Decorate my life. I love you.

And what was death compared to this life!

Out of uncontrollable delight he found himself jumping up and down on the boat, and before he knew it he had lost balance – the crowd screamed in horror as he fell to his back down the canopy, and in his fall his right foot got stuck on a branch, his other limbs in awkward angles, his hair and clothes in disarray, his mouth and nostrils covered with leaves, and he dangled there, awkward, undignified, alive, laughing, and gloriously in love.

 

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