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Table of Contents


By Sigrid Marianne Gayangos

This morning, Lola and I walked to the southern tip of the watershed where Mount Pulong Bato stood. We climbed over rocky terrain and steep slopes. We traced the dried remains of what were once springs and streams. What little water the Community had was collected in a basin, treated with chemicals in order to be potable, and later on rationed and distributed evenly to everyone. The water smelled bad and the fumes hurt my eyes. Lola sighed. She said that in the Forgotten Years, children used to gather at the base of Pulong Bato and race paper boats down one of the mountain’s many creeks. I asked her what paper boats were, and she smiled wickedly, before she taught me yet another word from the Forgotten Years. I was not to speak any of these words outside our home. She went on to tell me about the flock of black starlings that used to inhabit the watershed. Glossy plumage, red eyes, and high-pitched squeaks. Lola even taught me their local name, but I was not to say it to anybody else.

I asked Lola exactly when the birds had stopped appearing, but her mood had been quite mercurial lately, so she only gave a disgruntled reply and reminded me to make sure my mask was tied securely around my face. The pollutants are thicker than usual, Amihan, she said, stressing out each syllable of my name. My name was taken from the old tongue of the Forgotten Years. Amihan. It meant the northeast monsoon winds that indicated the beginning of Christmas season, back when Earth still had its regular cycle of seasons. When the weather started going haywire and seasons became unpredictable, words like Amihan lost their way out of everyday use. But Lola wanted something from the Forgotten Years to be passed down, and so she named her only daughter Amihan. When that daughter died during childbirth, I was given my mother’s name too.

I had survived fifteen full years—a rarity, I was always reminded—and next year I would finally be assigned a workforce unit to officially serve the Community. I wanted to be a storyteller like my mother, but there was simply no room for that kind of luxury in the time I lived in. So, instead, I hoped that I would be given a teaching task. That way, I would still have the chance to tell all the stories I knew of the Forgotten Years. When I told Lola about this, her eyes widened and she grabbed at my shoulders with so much force. You do not speak a word of the Forgotten Years outside, Amihan! Promise me you won’t. I could only nod at Lola, her hands so viciously cold. Outside, you speak the proper way, and you speak only when absolutely necessary. I nodded once more. Lola calmed down, and she let go of my shoulders. No one else knows the watershed grounds like you do. I bet they’ll put you up as a Ranger.

Of course, Lola was right; a few months before I turned sixteen, I started my training as a Ranger. I trained with Kat. Kat talked correctly. Kat used the right words. Minimal, precise, proper. It was difficult adjusting to it, when I grew up talking with Lola in the old way. My first day of training, Kat said I talked funny. I told her my whole body ached, that I could feel blisters forming around my ankles, that my knees hurt from too much crawling, that my limbs were sore from the introductory combat exercise, and that I was a fool for ever thinking that being a Ranger meant hours and hours of leisurely walks. Kat burst out laughing. She said she did not understand half of what I said. That’s not proper language! she exclaimed. And yet, she stood behind me and gave my shoulder some much-needed kneading. Kat said, First day is hardest. But Rangers protect the Community. What we do is good.

Protect from what, I asked, but Kat only shrugged. I pointed at the empty hardened soil and told Kat that, a long time ago, this ridge was once lined with Kapok trees, and that when people still had summer, the trees shed cottony leaves. You should talk properly, you know, she said. I decided then that I did not like Kat very much.

Yesterday, Lola did not eat. Not a single bite. She had been growing weaker and weaker each day, spending almost every hour sleeping instead. She hardly said a word either, and with Kat being the sole person to talk with, I was afraid I would end up speaking like the rest of them. Short, crisp sentences. Lola did not eat. She slept the whole day. Propping her up made her pant. She soiled the bed. I cleaned her up.

Everything that my Lola had told me, I ended up telling Kat. From the tales of the old days, until the global pandemic, the third and fourth world wars, up to the Great Flooding. A lot of these stories had been destroyed during the Great Flooding, and the elders had bigger tasks at hand than to make sure some stories remained. Years later, when things had begun to become manageable, it was decided that remembering the dark days was not helpful. But my Lola made sure the women in the family knew. This was how we remembered. My mother devoted her entire life to it, and her peers all had daughters with names from the Forgotten Years. Amihan, Alon, Uhay, Diwa. Monsoon Wind, Wave, Grain Stalk, Thought. I asked Kat if her name was short for something else. She shrugged and said to just call her Kat.

Lola had fifty-four full years in the Forgotten Years. Then the pandemic and wars came and she had lost count of how old she really was. Her family was lost, save for me. The old days were lost. The cities and towering buildings all gone. We first sought refuge in the forest and found Community 1. We stayed there for a while, until armed looters came and we had no choice but to leave. Community 1 had no walls. Then we traveled east of the peninsula, but the entire coast was ripe with toxic fumes and it was impossible to breathe there. A few kilometers up, we found Community 2. Community 2 welcomed us, but only for a couple of days. They took pity on the old woman and me, a wee child, but they made it clear that they could not take in new people anymore. A toddler was just too much, and an old woman had really nothing to contribute. Lola accepted what Community 2 could offer, but she made sure that the two days we spent there would count. She walked around and mentally took note of how the community functioned—from greenhouses and filtration to vertical farms and skill centers—and no one really minded a weary old woman looking around. By the time we reached Community 3, our present home, Lola was armed with precious new knowledge about how to run things, and her farming skills, passed down for generations. Community 3 simply could not drive us away. Here, we built what we learned from Community 2, and improved upon it. Here, we had walls. Here, we had food and water. Here, we acquired the new language, the proper language.

In the skill center, the only thing we learned about the Forgotten Years was that the old language was bad. Incorrect language led to confusion, to rage, to violence. Speaking in the old tongue meant courting chaos. So many unnecessary wars happened this way, we were told. The new language was better. It was accurate and proper. It left no room for confusion. We followed, of course. But within the four walls of our tiny home, Lola made sure that I knew everything about the Forgotten Years and that I could speak the old tongue. When we had our final test to be official Rangers, we swore to abide by the Community Rules: Follow as ordered. Contribute work. Talk only when needed. Use proper language. Take only what is needed.

Today at work, Kat said something surprising. I miss your improper language, Amihan. She said this nonchalantly, binoculars glued to her eyes, as she surveyed the Community Limits for any sign of life. Miss was a concept of the Forgotten Years. Rarely was it used in the proper language, and it flustered me a bit to hear Kat utter this word. What parts of her memory were made of the old tongue, that my sudden silence made her ache for it? I wondered what else she knew about the old tongue. I wondered if people would ever find their way back to it. I was afraid I was beginning to lose mine. With Lola growing more and more unresponsive each day, meaningful conversations had been a rarity for me. I found I had no words to respond to Kat’s admission. I could only fulfill our day’s tasks as Rangers, nothing more. I filed the report for our findings in the watershed grounds: EMPTY. There was nothing left to say.

I had a dream about the Forgotten Years. In that dream, I was ten full years. Kat and I were ten full years, and we were on a gigantic paper boat, snaking our way down a river bend. The river had water. Lots of water. The current was strong. At one point, the river turned into a vast sea. I could taste the salty sweetness of the air. It was unlike the sea that I had known all my life: a venomous phantom clawing on the last few islands that still refused to go down. There were no pollutants and we did not have to wear masks. There were even fish and other sea creatures I did not know the names of, jumping in and out of its waters. In my dream, I dipped a toe into the sea. The water felt warm and inviting. I stood on the stern of our paper boat, positioning myself for a dive. I hesitated, but only for a brief moment. I took the plunge. The last image I saw was Kat’s face, both awed and horrified. I let the water engulf me. As the sea pulled me down, I realized I had never felt more free. I was weightless, captivated by the unknown world below.

I told Kat about the dream. I told her how it made me feel: the smallness, the absolute freedom, the serenity. I said, In that dream, the water was no poison. It felt like an embrace. Kat’s face crumpled. She said something about drowning. I didn’t really listen to what else she had to say. I felt a hot swelling inside of me that wanted to explode. I felt tears threatening to fall from my eyes. I knew that whenever I was sad, my thoughts became impure. Kat touched my hand gingerly. Let’s recite the Community Rules. Her voice was soft. She was not angry, but her touch was persistent. We said the rules together. Follow as ordered. Contribute work. Talk only when needed. Use proper language. Take only what is needed. I took a deep breath. Kat stood. She opened her water jug and brought the lid up to my lips. Drink up, she said. I wanted to tell Kat about everything I was feeling inside. The confusion, the fear, the anger. My Lola was getting weaker and weaker each day. Without her, I would be without family. Utterly and completely alone. My thoughts had grown bigger and more terrifying each day. I had nothing but improper thoughts. There were no words for these thoughts in the correct language.

Kat and I barely talked the following days. We completed our duties together, walking around the watershed grounds, patrolling the Community Limits, turning in reports from the field. But all these we did in silence, letting out a sentence or two only when necessary. At least on my end. Over the past months that we had been working together, Kat must have gotten used to the seemingly endless stream of stories from me. And now that I was managing grief with my refusal to talk, she took it upon herself to fill the long hours with words. Amihan, look, a stray feather! She looked at me with raw excitement in her eyes, already doing the detective work of figuring out where the found object came from. I followed suit and focused on the task at hand. Kat talked about native birds from the past in rapid-fire speed, but I could not share her excitement. It all seemed like endless droning to me.

The other night, there had been a mishap from the farming unit, which caused a delay in the harvest. As a result, food would be rationed for a week. The Community leaders called for a town-hall meeting. We all needed to know what had gone wrong. We all needed to know which one of the five rules had been broken. Everyone attended except for my Lola. Everyone gave me a solemn nod that night. It was meant to express their sympathies, but it only made me feel like standing on the stern of the flimsy paper boat from my dream. I wanted to jump into the warm comfort of my imagined sea. I knew thoughts like this were improper, and improper thoughts led to errors. Errors led to imbalances, and imbalances led to bigger problems for the entire community. But these days, there was no escape from these improper thoughts. They kept on coming, and so I decided to shut off. This way, the thoughts stayed in my head, and never had a chance to leak out. Kat sat two rows in front of me. She turned my way before we headed back to our home units. She gave me a smile, a very small smile.

Lola died in her sleep last night. I did not even feel her leave.

Lola was a true daughter of the Earth, and had inherited a wealth of agricultural techniques from her parents and ancestors. For most her life, they lived in desolate rural poverty, but they never lacked for food. They had little money, but everything else they needed, they got from the abundance that nature gifted them. She lived through the age of big cities and concrete dreams, when farming folks like them had zero support from the government. Lola had told me so many stories about encounters with mining corporations and housing developers, along with their private armies, who never seemed to tire of converting farmlands and rural areas into cash cows. They never cared that these lands were sacred and had served communities for many generations. But when the pandemic hit and the global economy crashed, everyone turned to the rural folks they had always ignored and abused. My Lola made sure that all her children had the ancient wisdom of their people, but were also schooled in the ways of the city folks. My mother, the storyteller, made sure that their stories, their history, would survive and be known.

I never got to meet my mother, but I knew she died giving birth to me. Hemorrhaged to death on the roadside, I later learned, and no hospital could take her in since they were all overwhelmed by the pandemic. I remembered my Lolo and father, though I was also too young when the virus got them. I remembered the coughing, the wheezing, and the burning touch of their skin. I remembered being shouted out of the room where they remained bed-bound. I was four full years then. I coughed and got hot, but I healed. For a brief moment, Lola and I celebrated. But then it was just the two of us, and the wars came, and the Great Flooding, then it was just one difficult moment after another from there.

I remembered asking Lola once, Why do people die? She never really answered my question, but she said that everything that lived must eventually die. That was how things were. I pressed on: So why do things live in the first place? And Lola told me the very first birth, the very beginning of this universe. How it all happened more than 14 billion years ago, when the whole universe was just a bubble smaller than a pinhead. Then it got so hot and so dense, it suddenly exploded. Then there were clouds and stars and star clusters. Stars broke apart and some of the hot pieces formed planets. On Earth, water flowed and life formed. Fishes swam, plants breathed in and out, birds soared in the sky. Everything came from stardust. Then the first humans opened their eyes. We opened our eyes, then our minds, and the first hands toiled over the soil. We built cities, and destroyed them. We looked up at the sky, studied the stars, and asked how it all began.

When my Lola told me this story, I felt small and forever reaching and floating. Just like in my dream, when I was being swallowed by the water. The story cradled me in its arms, a comforting embrace that soothed me while acknowledging the fact that we were nothing but debris in the ever-expanding wasteland of the cosmos. In the skill center, we were told that Earth was 4.5 billion years old. That it was the third rock from the sun, and that over 70 percent of the planet’s surface was covered in water. But I did not get that feeling from when Lola told me how everything first unfurled. The old language had better words for how it all started. In the old language, stars were jewels scattered in the velvety darkness, and we were wanderers carrying a defiant torchlight. The old language had a way of telling stories we did not have the words for now. My Lola always told me to remember, but to remember with caution.

Lola had always wanted to give her body to the birds through an air burial. But because of the virus that not so long ago ravaged most of the population, her body was cremated immediately after her death. At the burning ceremony, the Community folks gathered to honor my Lola. They said, Nanay Dalisay lived through the Forgotten Years. Nanay had helped build Community 3 to be good and strong. In our Community, we had food, we had water, and we were safe. They promised to always remember Nanay Dalisay. I gave a short speech. I said, Lola told me a lot of things, and from her I learned and I understood. I promise to remember everything my Lola told me. One of the Community leaders approached me and told me how I was brave, and how I talked correctly. I nodded my thanks. Inside, I wanted to crumple.

After the service, I walked to the southern tip of the watershed. Kat was there, waiting for me. I approached her and she held me in an embrace. There was only silence between us. The whole world shrunk to that small space between my nose and the hollow of her shoulder. In a way, I began to understand why the Community insisted on only having proper thoughts and using proper words. When there was just so much hurt and so much heaviness, perhaps it was their way of shutting it all down. It was their way of survival. Kat held me tighter. Being held in her embrace like that, I realized how I had known Kat by feel alone. The warmth, the peaceful isolation I felt in her embrace, the way her feet planted firmly on the ground as if to keep us both from floating away. Taking a deep whiff of her hair, I knew her distinct woody, smoky scent. I could replay her voice in my mind by memory. Even though my senses might one day fail me, I could hold on to the certainty that there were many ways that I knew Kat.

I wished for a day when we did not have to shut down anything. I wished for a day when we had all the words for all the improper thoughts, and just let everything out. When that day finally came, I would ask Kat if she would be my partner. But I would give her a little test first. I would ask her the name of the black starlings that used to nest in the trees with cottony leaves. I had told her the name once, but I was not sure if she took note of it. Or if she made sure to remember. We would then go around telling everyone about the Forgotten Years, and the beautiful story of how everything unfurled. Of course, we would also tell them about the ugly side of it all: the wars, the disasters, the greed. We would not shy away from telling all these. We would use the improper language, but perhaps, by then, it would no longer be considered improper. We would evolve and adapt, as humans are wont to do. The remembering and the telling would be our way of living, not just surviving.

Katha. Kat whispered the word into my ear. I recognized it immediately. It was a word from the old tongue, and it meant a product of one’s imagination. A creation, a story, an innovation. I did not understand why she would utter a word from the old tongue at that time, but she looked me squarely in the eye and repeated it again. Her eyes glistened with untold truths. Katha. My real name is Katha, she said. I was stunned. She stepped back and extended her hand as if meeting me for the first time. Hello, Amihan. My name is Katha. She smiled. There were a lot of questions running in my head, but I reached out and shook her hand anyway. There would be time for answers, but for now we had this: our names from the old, forgotten tongue.

Mount Pulong Bato, where we stood, was once a volcano. After so many years, the lava had turned solid; the huge monolith had once been a lava dome. From this intrusion of igneous rock, a great landmass had formed thousands of feet above ground, now leaning in majestic repose. For thousands of years, its steep slope had been a sanctuary for wildlife, the woods even known to be filled with friendly spirits. Now, it was home to the few survivors of this ever-sinking island. So much had changed, yet above the mountain’s peak, the sun aloft in the pink sky remained golden as an egg yolk, making its slow way down. After a while, darkness engulfed the whole area. I imagined that perhaps before, in the Forgotten Years, the place would be filled by a sonorous chorus of crickets at this time of day.

Then came a most unexpected sound, a chorus of high-pitched squeaky chirps that was so unlike the musical crickets in my mind. A dark flock of starlings flew overhead, slowing down ever so briefly, as if looking for a place to roost. Katha squeezed my hand in excitement. And even before the word came out of my mouth, she exclaimed it first. Galansiyang! There they were, with the conspicuous red eyes and the unabashed chirping, announcing their return. The sky had turned so much darker, and the stars were out in their millions. There was another call from the flock of birds—a long, low, quavering cry that made me shiver. We stood there, Katha and I, aware of our nebulous future, thinking of the many tomorrows that we would soon create.