The vigorous lapping of the waves signalled the arrival of Omar first, even before his brother heard the familiar sound of the outrigger boat.
Perhaps it was the 6-hour bumpy van ride from downtown pueblo, followed by the stomach-churning two-hour banca ride until the easternmost coast of the Moro Gulf, but Omar swore there was that persistent low-pitch vibration that filled his ears with a whimper. Omar held his nose shut, and then blew into it. The whirring sound was still there. He yawned a couple of times—POP! Pressure finally equalized in his Eustachian tube. It had been years since he last visited his hometown, but one did not simply forget the lessons of one’s youth.
His brother, Abdel, was waiting for him by the docking site at the edge of a makeshift hut on bamboo stilts. What he lost in weight, he gained in the length of beard that now reached up to his chest. Whit his plain white robe and black skull cap, Omar thought Abdel looked like an Imam and felt suddenly uncomfortable in his sweat-drenched shirt and jeans.
Abdel extended his arms to welcome his little brother. “As salaam alaikum,” he said, and proceeded to engulf Omar in a tight embrace.
Omar was caught off-guard, but managed a meek “Wa alaikum saalam” in response. The words rolled out strangely in his tongue. He glanced at his phone that he had been clutching and realized, much to his dismay, that there was no signal on this island.
“Can you believe it? After decades of hiding, Tigburacao finally decided to resurface.” Abdel gestured to the island before them—their hut was the only establishment there, the sand pink-and-white and pristine, huge casts of crabs skittering around, and lush mangrove forests that seemed appealing and uninviting at once.
Omar looked around. The mainland coast was practically invisible here. Their hut, although glaringly basic, had solar panels rigged up on its roof. Inside, there were only a couple of mats rolled neatly and stacked against one side, a laptop on a table made from a century-old tree trunk, the tail of a ray fish hung by the window for protection. A smaller shack was set not too far from their hut, which Omar guessed was their outdoor toilet.
And then there was the sea itself, so vast and incredibly blue, that Omar thought it was Photoshopped. The sky was already a burst of pink and orange swirls when Omar arrived, as the great ball of fire made its descent. It was an overwhelming sight to behold.
“Do you hear that?” Omar asked Abdel, his attention suddenly drawn to the humming of a strange melody.
“It is the sama-sellang, they say,” Abdel replied. “They sing the ancient song of the sea-folks as they descend down to unknown depths. That way, the seafloor would grant them entrance to their homes.”
Omar shook his head at how his brother was always the first to believe such preposterous tales, until Abdel’s laughter finally broke through his deadpan countenance. “Boy, the look on your face! You hardly changed, Omar!”
As they entered their hut, Abdel began explaining about the camera set on a tripod outside and how they could monitor the view while inside their hut through the laptop. “But this is no rocket science, I’m sure you’re used to setups more elaborate than this,” Abdel added after his short lecture.
“How many times do I have to tell you? I’m no Scientist.”
It had always been a misconception at home that Omar’s degree in Applied Mathematics meant he was dabbling in Science as well. In exasperation, Omar admitted before that the most advanced equipment he had ever owned were a whiteboard with slider and some markers.
“I didn’t mean to put it that way,” Abdel said, unable to look at his brother in the eyes. “I will never understand what it is you do, Omar. But I hope you would tell me more about how you’re doing, you know? Ina had to learn about it from Bai Karim. You remember Bai Karim? The old professor?”
Omar remembered him alright, his father’s close friend and his first Math mentor, but the embarrassment that the news had reached Bai Karim rendered him speechless.
“And what did Bai Karim have to say?” Omar managed to ask.
“That it was only a matter of time before you find the correct solution to the Na… Na…”
“The Navier-Stokes equations,” Omar finished for his brother. “Unfortunately, Abdel, the media doesn’t look at it that way. All they care for are clickbait headlines: Filipino Mathematician’s Solution to Million-dollar Problem Proved Wrong! As if monetary prize is the best way to describe a problem as elegant as that.”
Abdel could only stare at his brother, unsure how to comfort him or if he ever did want comforting. Before he could come up with an empty response, Abdel’s phone alarm blasted.
“It’s time to pray. Go wash up and I’ll roll the mat.”
Abdel checked his rusty compass so that they were facing the angle towards Mecca. The two brothers, two dots in the sapphire blanket right before them, raised their hands and fell to their knees. Omar managed a self-conscious reply, Allah Akbar, as his brother intoned the opening line. The roaring of the waves drowned their voices, but Abdel did not seem to mind. As Omar placed his head on the bamboo floor, he heard once more the strange melody that seemed to emanate from the deepest depths of the ocean.
Omar woke up to the unrelenting hissing of an impatient kettle. His brother was nowhere in sight, he realized, as he rubbed sleep from his eyes. It had been so long since his slumber was not invaded by snippets from that nightmare of a press conference—a room full of people, most of which had no clue what fluid flow was, let alone the Navier-Stokes equations that he had been working on; the incessant camera flashes; the follow up questions that had little to do with Math; and the hounding demand for when the correct solution would be finished.
“Omar! Quick, you have to see this!” A harried Abdel, dripping with sea water, called out to Omar from the shore.
Outside, the graying dawn still engulfed the whole of the island and the sky was speckled with dusts from the cold, distant stars. An Umboh, a floating hut, made its slow way towards the shore as two other houseboats tailed behind it. A melancholic tune echoed throughout, and even the waves changed its sound to a gentle swoosh.
“Look at the intricate structure of the Umboh,” Abdel pointed at the meticulous carving that adorned the piece of wood where a covered body was laid to rest. “That person must be a chief or something.”
The two maintained a respectful distance as the group of Badjaos finally made it to the sandy shore and into the mangrove forest. Although not an uncommon sight in the pueblo, it was the first time that the two witnessed the Badjaos practicing their age-old traditions. Back in downtown Zamboanga, they were regarded as street urchins who played music for some loose change.
The excitement of that morning’s sight did not change the two’s appetite for coffee. “Didn’t Tigburacao just resurface recently? How come those Badjaos seemed sure of entering the mangrove forest?” Omar asked after his first cup.
“My guess is that they weren’t really heading for Tigburacao. It just so happened that this was the first island they sighted, and they had to bury the dead the soonest possible.”
“I wonder where they came from before arriving here. Are there other islets beyond Tigburacao still within the waters of Zamboanga?”
“That we know of? Only a couple, according to marine surveillance, but both get swallowed by the sea at, say, past 5 pm.”
It was a gusty day, with the wind whipping through the bamboo stilts and howling all around them, that Omar and Abdel both decided it was best to stay indoors. The hum of the wind bored into Omar’s head, but Abdel seemed unfazed by it all. He monitored the image of the sea through the laptop, peacefully soaking in the varying shades of blue that the screen projected.
“Omar, Bai Karim told me a little about what it is you’re working on, you know. In terms I can understand, of course.”
“Really? And what did he say about it, pray tell.”
“Well, from what I understood, it is an incredibly tricky problem that bothered Mathematicians for years. Has something to do with modelling ocean currents and weather patterns, if I remember correctly.”
Omar nodded, keeping his face expressionless despite the mild surprise that people from back home were actually aware of his work. “It is precisely that… tricky. Years ago, a professor from Kazakhstan thought he had the answer to it as well, only to be proved later on by Terry Tao, from Los Angeles, that such approach wouldn’t work. The ocean isn’t exactly well-behaved, so the three-dimensional global regularity for the equations is very challenging.”
After a lengthy pause, Abdel said with absolute certainty, “If anyone understands the irregularities of the ocean, it is you.” He then stood up and motioned for the mats, “Prayer time, little brother.”
Wild waves banging on the shore, static from what seemed like a radio transistor, the whistling of brazen wind.
Omar felt beads of sweat roll down his temples. His lips were dry, and it took a huge amount of effort for him to straighten his numb legs. He had fallen asleep in the hammock made out of fishnets which they set just outside their hut. He judged by the sun’s position high up that it was close to midday, and confirmed this guess by checking the time on his phone.
Abdel stood at the shoreline, staring at the farthest reach of the water, his hand shielding his eyes from the blinding light. He sensed that his brother had already woken up and made his way back to Omar. “You were sound asleep! There was that loud one-note whistle and the sea was moving, like something was coming from underneath and the—”
“W-wait, what? Of course the sea is moving—they’re called waves!” Omar’s buzzing head made him impatient with his brother’s ramblings.
“No—no, I would know if it were only waves. It was a strange motion. Like something really huge was coming out of the water! Oh, I knew I should’ve woken you up!”
Omar surveyed the peaceful waters and could not help but roll his eyes in exasperation. The sun caught a shimmer on the metallic casing of his phone, displaying a no network coverage icon still. “There is nothing here, Abdel.”
Abdel looked at Omar pityingly, “Nothing in the waters? In the olden days, large fleets of mighty Sultans and the humblest of houseboats have sailed the seas for months on end. Without their phones! Out there, it was just them and Allah, and the journey made them a thousand fold wiser than us all!”
“This is nonsense! I should have known better than returned home for this.”
Abdel clucked his tongue, “I know you did not buy my sorry of a reason—survey the waters for research? It sounds stupid even to me. But you wanted to come home. There’s nothing wrong in admitting that.”
The wind hissed between the two of them: Omar, red and seething with rage and denial, and Abdel, calm with a stubborn smile plastered on his face. Omar stood his ground glumly, allowing heat to further soak his already drenched shirt in more sweat. From above, the sky was almost cloudless, save for the finger-like wisps that drifted aimlessly.
A few tense moments, until Abdel broke the icy silence with his hearty laughter, “Look at us! So foolish and full of ourselves! The outhouse—I just remembered now.”
“What about it?” Omar asked tentatively.
“Stand under the awning of the outhouse so that you’re facing the backend of our hut. You’ll get that elusive one signal bar there if you’re lucky. I’m guessing a few more minutes with you not checking on your emails and I’m good as dead meat. Go. Go there now.”
By the time Omar finished checking his email and halfheartedly browsing his Facebook for news of the outside world, he went back inside their hut, only to be welcomed by the scent of dark chocolate drink from cacao tablea. A warm cup was set on the table near the laptop, and Omar slurped his drink with abandon.
“So Apu still makes this stuff, eh?”
“Look who’s in a jolly good mood now,” Abdel teased. “I’m guessing you were lucky with the signal? But to answer your question, yes, Apu still makes the best tablea. She doubled the portions in the last package she sent when she learned you would be coming, too.”
There was no response for a moment, so Abdel turned his attention to the unchanging image of the sea on the laptop screen.
“I should’ve at least visited home before heading here. I could’ve spared a few hours at least.”
Abdel only gave a faint nod.
Omar turned to the window and added bitterly, “I’m sorry. I’m such a disappointment to you all.”
Abdel sighed. “You’re never that to us, Omar. We are mighty proud of you! Besides, between a college dropout and a—what are you again? A PhD holder?—who do you think is the main source of pride at home?”
Omar remained silent.
“You just need to reflect some more, little brother. Seek help in patience and prayers.”
“And then I just wait for the ideas to come in while meditating, I suppose?” Omar asked.
“Inshallah,” Abdel responded.
His family’s favorite conversation ender, especially when the topic begged for more inquiry. Omar sighed, yet he felt the tension ease from his shoulders. Without being prompted by his brother, he unrolled the prayer mats and rinsed himself with water. He checked Abdel’s rusty compass and made sure they were facing the right direction.
On the island of Tigburacao, days bled into each other, one fiery sunset after another. Omar had learned to predict the incoming weather just by the sound of the wind. Today, the calm was absolute and it cocooned him. He knew that it was to be a stormy night, and he braced himself for it.
Resting on the wooden plank, his hand toying with the rope that held their outrigger boat was Abdel. The past few days, Abdel took to staring into the sea in the afternoon heat, only to be followed by obsessively monitoring the laptop screen that displayed the same body of water in the wee hours when it was too cold to stay out. When Omar called out to him, his gaze lifted past the cobalt blue waters, where it turned into a blanket of blackness as it touched the horizon.
“Abdel, I’ll unroll the mats now. Get inside before it starts to rain.”
Omar fumbled for Abdel’s rusty compass, which had been in his possession for days now. On nights like this, when the thrumming of the sea sounded like helicopters hovering close, Omar knew better than to leave his brother alone in quiet contemplation, so he kept a watchful eye on Abdel as he swept the floor inside. Abdel always seemed detached in those moments, his thoughts sailing away to the vast deep sea.
Omar cleared up the desk where the laptop remained plugged. As he lifted the laptop, he noticed a strange motion on the screen—a shadow of a hill, gradually mounting up into a tower, only to fall into shallow holes, exposing what seemed like bodies of land. Swollen waves poised to reveal the secrets from below, yet ready to crash over anyone who came near. There was that deafening sound of a one-note whistle, and then ferocious waves came out lashing from all directions.
“Abdel! Abdel! You’ve got to see this!”
Omar sprang up from his position, just in time to catch Abdel who was already boarding their boat. Without much thought, he joined his brother and the two set out on their tiny boat, threading their way among great waves.
The sea whipped at them and they were drenched through and through. Their lungs ached for hungry gulps of air, but the waves were unforgiving. Around them were shades of blue and black, and cascading water from a nightmare that seemed to only increase in intensity. Omar couldn’t help but wonder, that in the random lashing of the water, there could be patterns that his limited perception was too slow to realize. As his mind drifted off to fanciful ideas, the hysterical whistling grew louder in strength and volume, pulling his mind into utter blankness. So this is how I die, Omar thought, only to be unceremoniously dragged by his brother back to reality.
“Omar!” Abdel grabbed him by the shirt and hauled. Amidst spits of seawater, Abdel managed to cough out his brother’s name and pointed at the spot in the ocean where the stars burst out their collective radiance.
Where the starlight cut through the void, creatures that seemed like a cross between man and fish walked through the now calm water, their footsteps in the form of ripples. Their faces were fluid and ever changing, and instead of skin they had scales the color of bright emeralds. A melody unheard of enveloped their small group, and as they descended into the unknown depths of the ocean, they turned their gaze up to the crescent moon.
“They’re beautiful,” Abdel whispered.
Omar rose to a diving position, but his brother stilled him and whispered into his ears, “It’s time to head back.”
The thunderous engine of a motorboat could be heard for minutes, and not long after, a worried Bai Karim appeared in their hut.
“Abdel and Omar—good to see you have all your limbs in place!” The old professor engulfed the two in a bear hug. He grinned from ear to ear when he turned to Omar, and he clasped the young boy’s hand, salaam.
“We were worried sick. We tried to contact you, Abdel, but all the networks were jammed last night. And the coast guard refused to let any vessel leave the mainland so early in the afternoon.”
“Nothing to worry about, Professor,” Omar gave a hesitant glance toward his brother, but Abdel seemed intent on the tobacco cigarette that the Professor had brought with him. “It was a rather peaceful evening here.”
Abdel laughed from the doorway, “Too peaceful, I think Omar couldn’t wait and head back to the University.”
“Ahh… about that, are you still pursuing that research, Omar?” The Professor asked.
Omar nodded. “But maybe after some more careful meditation,” he added sheepishly.
“Ask guidance from Allah all you want, but let me warn you that excessive meditation on your part can turn you into this hermit here.” The Professor gave Abdel a pointed look, but all three burst out laughing.
“That’s not so bad, actually,” Omar replied. “But I’m afraid I don’t have the facial hair for it. My flight back to Manila won’t be until three days. I’d like to spend my last few days at home, with Ama, Ina and Apu. Will you come with me, Abdel?”
“For a day, but I have to come back here.”
The old professor nodded his understanding, “You two are bound to do amazing feats, Inshallah.”
The two brothers exchanged looks. Outside, the rhythmic pulse of the sea softly doused the sandy shores. There was a humming that was almost hypnotic, and the whole island of Tigburacao seemed threaded with fine gold.
“Inshallah,” Omar and Abdel answered in unison.
Note: An earlier version of this story is included in the anthology “MAXIMUM VOLUME: Best New Philippine Fiction 3”, edited by Dean Francis Alfar and Sarge Lacuesta, set for publishing next year.
Sigrid Gayangos hails from Zamboanga City. Her stories often feature the seafaring people of Mindanao. She was a fellow for fiction during the 2nd Amelia Lapeña Bonifacio Writers Workshop by the UP Institute of Creative Writing. When not busy with her writing, she spends her time coaching a bunch of mathletes.