He had spent most of his life by her, with her, and through her—and yet thirty years into such a life, a feeling of profound curiosity was nevertheless still with him at all times that he regarded her.
Who is she, what ails her, what does she want to say?
Ricardo was a man of little words, as was he a boy of similar disposition. He had grown up in a nondescript small fishing village in Bohol in the Pacific, no different from any other small fishing village in Bohol, except that his little town faced the east. This tiny luxury has been lending him the beauty of sunrises—which he so dearly loved—against the Bohol Sea for as long as he can remember.
He could not read nor could he write, and was thus an object of ridicule among the younger generations in his town that had been fortunate enough to benefit from the arrival of Christian missionaries twenty years past his prime of learning. He had, instead, been taught the ways of the world little by little, by a mute mother and a hunched, taciturn, but kindly fisherman of a father. He had no siblings, a peculiarity his family had suffered in such a fishing village where the women were thought to be doubly fertile from their fish diets, for his mother had died giving birth to his still-born sister when he was five.
He had no wife, nor did he heed the whispers of the elders urging him to marry, although they would never present their daughters to him from a rumored belief that his bloodline was cursed for the misfortunes his family suffered, or that he was the child of some encanto, some spirit, for the otherworldly look in his eyes, which were a peculiar shade of deep blue-grey despite his being of pure Indo-Malay descent. In spite of this, he was well-liked, for the wives and mothers of the village especially appreciated his lack of vices and clear record of not having indulged in drunken fights and other such brazen behavior common to the townsmen. He was a gentleman to all, quiet, almost brooding. He gave the appearance of being small despite his height due to his slumped posture, which he had developed in his habit of looking down the clear waters of Bohol Sea from his fishing boat.
On the subject of him being the child of an encanto, Ricardo himself saw no merit in the claim, nor did he have any use for it if it somehow held true. He had none of the special powers the villagers insisted he had, such as an alleged ability to catch more fish in proportion to the effort he put into his work. He merely attributed this to the fact that, since his father passed away years ago when he was out fishing in a storm, he had began to fish alone while the others continued to fish in pairs or groups. He merely enjoyed the hours he spent alone in the sea, in his inherited outrigger banca, called Esperanza, ‘hope’, the only thing of relative value in his otherwise poverty-stricken life.
It was this strange love that he had for the sea that led people to believe that he had gone mentally unstable over the years following his father’s death. It was common-speak throughout fishing villages that the sea took for itself a person once a year in return for her bountiful provisions, and it was this superstition that eased everyone else of the passing of Ricardo’s father. He, however, had remained oddly separate from the world following the death of his only living relative, and with his natural laconic tendency, he had aged this way in the eyes of everybody—a quiet fisherman who was, in the privacy of his heart, inexplicably infatuated with the sea that had taken his father and denied his mother of the fertile prosperity that had been granted to everyone else.
In his mind, Ricardo liked to talk to the sea, the great vastness of which never ceased to astound him, such that thoughts of her one day deciding to claim him like she did his father did not much frighten him as it seemed like an enticing way to go. He could not tell exactly what had enchanted him so; her bountiful corals swaying with the tides, the creatures that lurk in her bosom, her unpredictable temperament-it all seemed to give her such character as his mortal mind could not fathom. She puzzled him, she amazed him, and teased him. She made him feel, on particularly pensive days, both insignificant and purposeful. He wanted to know her, to master her somehow. In the moments before the sun would chase the moon from the horizon, he would contemplate her in all her beauty and majesty. He listened to her when she complained; he listened to her when she sang. He could have marveled at the night sky like everyone else did, a stretch of endless, poignant black powdered with the infinite secrets of the stars. But its cold indifference failed to tug at his mortal heartstrings, unlike the ocean’s tides that loved to tease him with her every sway, every evidence of her changing wills. He liked to believe, as well, that he had somehow forged a connection with her through his devotion and attention; never mind that his boundless fascination with her was probably by her own doing.
It was a particularly stormy dawn ten years ago when he was awoken by a strange dream, a dream so helplessly blurred at the edges that it resembled water when one tries desperately to contain it in the hands. There were no images to try to recapture, only words—vague words; a song, it may have been, or a call… Yes, it was a singing voice quiet enough to be a whisper or an echo, a sound resembling that of the inside of a sea shell. And yet as he tried to recall its message, it had only slipped further from his mind, with him sucked into the yawning beckon of consciousness every passing, crucial second.
Ricardo had never been one for words and it was just luckily so, for his heart had learned to attune to what the mind could not speak. He was convinced that he had dreamed of a message—one that was not, could not be tied down to instruction or a logical thought expressible in words, and whatever he was meant to do with this message was of paramount importance.
In the days that followed the odd dream, Ricardo had sensed a longing he could not explain. This led him to lengthened stays in his outrigger, in the middle of the Bohol Sea, long after his haul for the day had been completed. The silence that followed his turning off the engine seemed to strengthen the sensation, that odd sense of a vague purpose, that of being called. For the next few moments all would be still enough that he could hear gulls in the distance, the spray of seawater splashing on the shores of nearby islets, and the thrumming of his own heart seeming to match this cacophony. He had not sat in his boat to stare at the endless horizon so much as he had sat there at the edge of the boat to stare at the water, its shifting lines suggesting a phantom of a dream, a picture painted in music, not in colors. He would sit there doing nothing, not thinking of anything in particular, basking in a kind of surreal experience that was not merely hearing, but not entirely listening, either.
And then, in one of those days in the sea, a strange clunking sound had disturbed his empty peace. A glass bottle about the size of a 1-Liter Coke was rhythmically bumping onto the side of his boat. Ricardo had seen that it had something inside it so he gathered it, if only for curiosity’s sake. It had been corked, with foggy blotches that Ricardo had guessed meant it was an old bottle, and from the outside he could see it had a piece of paper with writing on it and a few metallic things inside. After the struggle of unscrewing it, he had learned that the metallic objects were three old gold coins in a fashion that looked unfamiliar to him. And as he could not read, he would have to wait to get back into town to offer the thick, yellowed paper to the town priest so it could be decoded. Smiling to himself, Ricardo tucked the glass bottle safely amid the throng of fish in his boat, thinking that the sea had favored him with her attention once again.
To this day, his ancient outrigger was filled with such curious objects, inklings of the secrets of his beloved ocean, he liked to think. He had a collection of the most unlikely things, from an old, anemone-filled boot, a tin sheet with an engraving of the name of the ship it used to be a part of, a hermit crab that had used an empty sardine can for its shell, among others. He loved such secrets, felt right at home with the temporal things that had been claimed by and refashioned by the waters into something old, wistful, and lonely, like himself.
When he broke away from his empty-reverie to find himself beholding the entire ocean at large, his pulse quickened and a cold sweat had materialized at his nape. At once he seemed to be acutely aware of how tiny he was, and it was frightening unlike anything he’d ever learned to fear. That morning, he had awoken from another of those weirdly vision-less and wordless-less but purposeful dreams, which, sometime between ten years ago and now, he had learned to react to with idleness to the sea. But today was different, as if today the sea had decided to give him a sense of who she was, who she could truly be, and it was more terrible to behold than to treat with awe.
Ricardo was seized out of his momentary indecision as to whether he should head back for the shore or wait for the paralyzing fear to pass when his silent boat shifted a little. As he turned to inspect the disturbance, he was greeted with dolphins gliding his way. He had not heard their sonorous squeaks as they approached, so taken was he by his insignificance in the face of the great waters. But he was glad for them now, as they seemed to sense his discomfort and came to ease his spirit.
He had always liked these dolphins. One of his father’s favorite stories to tell him was how these dolphins had saved his father’s life when he was a child. A strong undercurrent had pulled him under when he went out for a dive once, when, struggling for limited breath and the patch of sea away from the whirlpool that was holding him down, a group of dolphins had whisked him away from the invisible trap.
“They really did it on purpose,” his father would insist. “They understood that I was in trouble, and they came to help.” His father had since then rewarded all dolphins he would come across in his fishing trips by throwing out a few pieces of his catch back into the ocean when the dolphins came close enough to see.
Honoring this custom, Ricardo took a fish at random and threw it to the nearest dolphin. It was then that he heard another sound, distinct from the clicks and child-like squeaks of the dolphins that had come to be his friends. It was a deep and bellowing sound, like the horn of a big ship but not quite, a sound that vibrated on a frequency far different from what any human ear was accustomed to. It gave the impression that it was not exactly nearby (as there was nothing in sight for miles), although due to its volume could as well have been twenty feet from him. It sent chills over his body—something about the sound was suspiciously unnatural, or supernatural—and Ricardo stumbled quickly back into the center of his outrigger in order to ground himself as he searched for the source of the sound.
For the next few moments, all was eerily silent, the gulls and dolphins nowhere to be found, the sound of the waves seemingly washed out by the terrible silence. And then there it went again—the horn-like call, one after the other, lasting for about three seconds each, and again, until the waters seemed to vibrate and shake his tiny Esperanza with it. Ricardo’s mind was racing with possible logical explanations and further pressing questions, because his heart could not shake off the feeling that this was something beyond normal. His body shook with fear and anticipation, his sweaty hand gripping the edges of his boat as if his insignificant, quiet life depended on it. In the part of his heart and mind that liked to beckon his beloved ocean to share with him her secrets, though, Ricardo fervently wished whatever it was to be anything but normal. Could this be her greatest secret? A sea monster? A sirena? A portal in the water opening up to a different world? Her own civilization?
At that moment, something broke out of the surface of the water. It was cylindrical in shape, and vertical. Ricardo stared at it from over thirty feet away, in an awkward suspension-of-disbelief, not knowing what he was expecting nor if he was fearing or anticipating it. He watched as the cylindrical figure rose further—about the size of a man now, and then easily ten feet—the figure getting thicker at the base as it rose. He followed it with his blue-grey eyes glazed with awe and terror, until its tip perfectly blocked the sun so he could properly gaze at it.
The thing made the sound once again, infinitely louder this time, and water sprayed from the top of it. It was unlike anything he’d ever seen or heard before, he was sure—and now it moved!—onwards and towards him and he didn’t know if he should be starting his engine to turn back to shore… he didn’t think he could have even if he had wanted to.
It was a creature, he realized; it was making a call, a song of some sort, it had a language, it was terrible and beautiful and Ricardo’s chest was swelling from the magnificence of it.
It’s her—the sea, its greatest secret—she had revealed it!, his mind somehow managed to exclaim amid that horrible moment of complete and wordless, gripping awe. It called out again, and this time the sound didn’t seem frightening or threatening, it was beautiful! ..And mournful and lonely besides, it wrenched his heart into dispositions he had never suspected were possible.
What beauty! Ricardo longed to shout, but all he could manage was wordless, formless breathless hoots and cheers, like an overjoyed sabong fan upon learning his bet had won a fight and won it good, and he would weep if it didn’t mean having to close his eyes for a second…
He shouted at it some more, and he didn’t know if he was beckoning it or praising it, he didn’t really care. The creature seemed to answer him in its deep voice, to call him, to sing to him (he didn’t actually know) and this made Ricardo’s heart constrict in a most unnatural way. It was painful, incredibly so—like daggers to his heart—and he doubled over in pain to clutch at it as if it would do any good, but his mind, his heart, his soul, all of him was still reeling from the immense joy of having known his beloved’s lost secret, at long last…
It must have been him doubling over that caused him to fall into the water, he couldn’t remember. Somehow he had managed to fall off his outrigger, but the wetness that surrounded him felt almost a comfortable distraction from his constricting heart and slowly emptying lungs. But none of these matters consumed him as much as the awe, the love, the completeness, the explosion and culmination of all things wonderful in his soul, his heart drumming in a most frantic way and sending electricity to the very tips of his fingers and toes, and even if he managed to try, his limited human means would never be able to recount such a feeling to anyone, not in any other fishing village, or any part of the world…
The ocean appeared triply astounding to him at that moment, and Ricardo was hard-pressed to decide at the very moment which he loved better—the ocean, or its greatest secret… the monster, no, the giant steward of the seas, the waves, the dolphins, the corals, the fish… everything that resided in her tremendous bosom was a universe in and of itself, and he wanted nothing more than to be part of it; part of that harmony and beauty and simplicity and complexity all at once, and he belonged there more than he belonged to the world he had been living in for thirty years. Her maelstroms finally seemed to him a manifestation of a power which she only displayed in retribution for crimes done to her. But he realized that the ocean was a just lover; the only men she took were those who deserved it: like his father, and soon, like him.
When Ricardo’s vision started to blacken at the edges, all he could think about was that surely, he was born for this moment. Why else would he have been born with eyes the same color as the boundless depths, if not so he could always see her in everything? And now that he was here, with her ancient and secret steward calling, the awfully beautiful creature of power… was there reason to stay behind?
When he started to sink, he could only anticipate what awaited him in the deepest, most secret of his ocean’s floors. He didn’t resist her, he didn’t leave. He had not wanted to.
On the seventh day of the search for Ricardo, the town awoke to commotion near the shore. An outrigger banca with a painted Esperanza on its sides was calmly perched near the edge of the beach, as if returning home. It had in it Ricardo’s full set of clothes, down to his tattered slippers. It had also in it a weathered glass bottle and three ancient Spanish coins in it, as well as a piece of parchment. The village priest had simply translated its content as saying, “She has with her a timeless friend who sleeps in all history, forgotten in the briefness of our lives. The men who hear her call are welcomed home by him, to share in the memory of all the world,” which none of the villagers nor the village scholars could decipher. Then there was the matter of the curious pair of pearls at the bottom of the bottle. They were bluish-grey, and seemed almost liquid, and all who gazed at them felt traces of a deep and somber loneliness, and maybe littleness. But as of its inexplicability, none of them could speak of the feeling outside the privacy of their hearts, and their awe of the sea thus strengthened in consequence.