-Siargao, Present Day-
Chapter 1- Surf’s Up
“Last wave?” asked Mak.
“Last wave,” Ezra nodded.
Sitting upright on her board, Ezra inhaled and turned her gaze to the shore. The clouds, large and scattered, drifted languidly across the bay. Against the fading sky, they puffed out: as if whipped up like ice-cream, as soft as satin, and in brilliant shades of white. The island, so still yet so vivid, looked almost dream-like, and so she sat for a while, bobbing gently on the glassy waves, watching the bay turn from blue, to purple, to pink.
Just before the sun set, the two surfers rode their last waves to shore. It was high tide, and the rushing water folded and fell with purposeful elegance. On the sand, Ezra pulled off her rash vest and towel-dried her thick, dark hair. It fell around her face in damp curls and smelt just like the sea. In turn, Mak tousled his tresses with his fingers, before sweeping it up into a top knot.
Since her arrival in Siargao, Ezra and Mak had been fast friends. He’d shown her how to ride a moped (much to her Lola’s disapproval), taken her to the best surf spots, and introduced her to local cuisine. Ezra liked his zest for life and his silly sense of humour, whilst he liked her curiosity and sharp wit. It was no secret that Mak was admired by most of the girls on the island. Even her Lola seemed smitted. “Mak is short for makisig,” she’d said, the first time he came to tea.
Ezra couldn’t see what all of the fuss was about.
Bare-foot, they left the beach and followed the thin, meandering path through the coconut trees. The sand was soggy from the previous night’s rain, and the last few pockets of light shone through the scattered trunks. Out on the road, Ezra found her moped. She placed her board on the rack, swung her right leg over the seat and waved goodbye to Mak. Moments later, she was zipping along the road, the last rays of sun on her skin and the wind blowing in her nearly- dry hair.
Chapter 2- The Book
“Hello?” she called out, as she opened the door.
“Lola? Are you home?”
Ezra wiped her sandy feet on the mat and slipped on her chinellas. The smell of freshly cooked rice drifted towards her from the kitchen. She breathed it in and realized that she was starving.
On her fifteenth birthday, Ezra’s parents had bought her a flight to the Philippines. She smiled as she remembered meeting Lola for the first time. Her grandmother had opened the door and smiled a beaming smile. She was less than 5 feet tall, with dark skin and wispy white hair, and when she looked at Ezra, her eyes sparkled with the strength of a thousand stars. She was as tough as a general and yet as warm as a mug of hot chocolate on a winter’s day. In the weeks that followed, Ezra discovered that the creases on her Lola’s face were signs of the places she’d been, the people she’d met and the heartache she’d endured. In her, she’d found a kindred spirit and theirs was a bond that would remain unaltered by distance and time.
To Ezra’s surprise, she found the kitchen empty: the stove held an iron pot of Sinigang- still steaming- and the rice pan sat warmly by its side. There were no signs of Lola. Leaning on the bench, she peered out of the window.
Where was she?
Ezra came out of the kitchen and padded up the wooden stairs. She loved Lola's house. Enshrouded by trees and on a plot of its own, it stood quite apart from the other houses in the village. Built tall on wooden stilts, it was comprised of three tiers, each open-plan, spacious and complete with ceiling-to-floor windows. Wrapping around the first tier was a balcony- Ezra’s favourite part of the house. On an evening, she would sit outside on the duyan, reading or listening to music for hours.
“Lola, are you up there?” Ezra called as she ascended the stairs.
Sometimes, Ezra would come home to find Lola napping, but this was the first time she’d returned to an empty house. Carefully, Ezra pulled the mosquito net from the bedside drawer and began to drape it over the bed. She figured it was one less job for Lola to do when she got back from wherever she was. Then, she lit the citronella candles and opened the balcony doors. The cool night air drifted into the room, making the thin, white curtains ripple.
She was just about to close the bedside drawer when something caught her eye. There was a small, rectangular hole in the bottom, almost like a section of it had been cut out. Curious, she put her hand inside and pulled out the light, wooden tray. Beneath it, lay a book:
It was backed in old leather-
Its yellowing pages spilled out of the edges
And two metallic clasps held it shut.
Intrigued, she picked it up.
On the front cover,
She saw a hand-written title
Etched in thick, black ink.
“The Lost Secrets of Siargao,” she read aloud.
Just then, the wind blew and the balcony doors slammed shut.
Chapter 3- Frozen
“Hello?” came a sudden call from downstairs.
“Ezra, are you home?”
Ezra leapt back, dropping the book on the floor.
For a moment, she froze- lost in the rhythm of padding feet on stairs, and the sway of the duyan beyond the doors.
Snapping out of her daze, Ezra rushed towards the balcony.
She bolted the doors,
Adjusted the curtains,
Scooped up the book.
Putting the text back where she found it, she replaced the wooden tray and slid the drawer closed. She whipped around just in time to see Lola entering the room.
“There you are, anak!” said Lola, almost out of breath.
“Hi Lola,” replied Ezra trying to steady her words.
“What are you doing up here?” her grandmother asked.
“Oh, just putting up the mosquito net and lighting the candles. Where have you been?” she asked, changing the subject.
“It’s a long story!” said Lola, wearily. “You run down and put the kettle on, and I’ll tell you all about it.”
Downstairs, Ezra exhaled, and for a moment, she relaxed. Although it wasn’t long before her thoughts returned to the book.
Chapter 4- Distraction
For the days and nights that followed, Ezra found herself distracted. Every act, from washing the dishes to surfing, felt empty. No matter what she was doing or who she was with, her mind wandered back to the book.
The Lost Secrets of Siargao.
The title turned in her head.
What was inside it?
What secrets did it hold?
Why was it hidden in Lola’s drawer?
One day, at breakfast, she nearly asked Lola about it. Ultimately, she decided against it on the basis that Lola might think she’d been snooping. Thus, unable to come clean or clear her thoughts, Ezra resolved to retrieve the book at the next available opportunity.
The only question was when?
Chapter 5- The Plan
“That’s why you’ve been so preoccupied?” Mak asked. “You’ve been thinking about a book?!” he teased, rolling his eyes sarcastically.
Ezra shook her head and gave him a light shove.
“Not just any book,” she protested. “Look, you don’t understand. The cover and the clasps and pages- there was something haunting about it. Like it wasn’t meant to be found.”
“It’s official,” Mak proclaimed. “You’re a nerd.”
“It’s OK if you don’t get it,” she replied. “I know you haven’t learnt to read yet, so why would you be interested in books?”
“Hey, I’m not just a pretty face, you know! I was top of my class last year. I’m gonna go far in life, just you wait and see!”
“I have no doubt about it,” replied Ezra, nodding her head. “I bet you’re even intelligent enough to decipher an ancient text…”
“You’re really fixed on that, aren’t you?”
“Well, you know, the heart wants what it wants!”
“Ok,” sighed Mak. “What’s the plan? Are you planning to sneak into your Lola’s room at the dead of night and take it out of the drawer whilst she’s sleeping? I’d pay good money to see that!”
Ezra punched his arm.
“Obviously not! She’d have a heart attack if she woke up and I was standing there!”
“So what then?”
“She’s going to the market with Mr T on Saturday, so I’ll pop in whilst she’s gone and...borrow the book.”
“Mr T?” questioned Mak.
“Yeah, Mr Tawingan. He’s the only one in our barangay with a car. He’s a cool dude, so I call him Mr T.”
“You crack me up, Ez.”
“So are you in or what? Ezra persisted.
Mak paused for barely a moment and said:
“What time should I come over on Saturday?”
Chapter 6- Saturday
Ezra ran to the window.
“Lola,” she shouted. “Mr T’s here!”
“I’m going to tell him you call him that,” Lola replied, with a sly smile. She paced towards her granddaughter. “Enjoy your day, my love.” Before stepping through the door, she turned and said, “Is that handsome boy coming around today?”
“Goodbye, Lola!” returned Ezra, ignoring the comment.
Lola smiled, shuffled out and closed the door behind her.
When Ezra could no longer see Mr T’s car, she raced upstairs. She’d planned to wait for Mak, but decided she couldn’t. In any case, he thought the whole thing was silly and so probably wouldn’t care.
She burst into Lola’s room -
Opened the draw
Pulled up the tray
Grasped the book.
Perching on Lola's bed, she examined it.
Her eyes traveled first to the clasps. They were made of dark, heavy steel, beginning at the spine and fastening together at the text block. On each one, there were markings. The first showed an intricate engraving of a moon, cast upon a sea of clouds. On the other, there were symbols that Ezra didn’t recognise. Gently, she ran her fingers over the characters. Unlike the moon, they weren’t engraved, but were drawn onto the metal and were as smooth as silk. Ezra turned the book over.
How to open the clasps?
Futily, she tried to pull them apart, but their vice-like grip held good. Maybe there was a button somewhere?
Or did it need a key? Ezra looked again. No button and no key hole. She brought the book closer to her face. Perhaps it was the light, but in that moment, the characters on the clasp seemed to move. Instinctively, she ran her fingers over them once more. This time, there was a soft clicking sound and the clasps sprung open.
Chapter 7- The Sketch
The pages of the book were unlike any Ezra had seen before.
On them, a sea of symbols swam: arches, dashes, flicks and strokes, each one a story and a tiny piece of art. Like dancers on a stage, they glided across the paper in captivating swirls. Completely hooked, Ezra’s eyes sailed from one character to another, the flame inside her igniting.
But when she turned the next page, she stopped still.
On the paper was a sketch - a sketch of a girl. She was standing at the top of a cliff with her arms outstretched to the sky. Her long, thick hair blew back in the wind and her tattered clothes appeared to move like the ocean waves.
As her eyes studied the sketch, they fell down towards the edge of the page. Four symbols, curved and distinct, stared back at her.
What did they say?
Chapter 8 - Symbols and Swirls
“Ezra? Ez- hello!!” repeated Mak, stepping into the room.
Ezra turned, her eyes on Mak but her mind fixed on the sketch. “I- I didn’t hear you come in,” she said.
“Well, it’s nice to see you too!” replied Mak, with a coy smile. “So this is it, is it? The book of secrets?”
“Yes,” Ezra answered, feeling suddenly protective of her prize.
“Let me see it then,” he insisted, sitting right next to her.
Ezra didn’t know why, but before passing him to the book, she turned the page.
“It’s all symbols and swirls,”she explained, shrugging her shoulders.
“They look like hieroglyphics,” Mak said, unable to conceal his interest.
“Right? I don’t suppose you recognise any of them, do you?”
Mak laughed. “I think this book is a little older than I am, Ez! We didn’t learn this in school.”
Ezra’s eyes dimmed.
“But,” he offered, “we could take it to the library. Joseph, the librarian, is at least a hundred. He’s bound to have seen it before!”
Ezra smiled. “He is ancient!”
“But you’ll have to wait until Monday,” added Mak. “Old man Jo doesn’t do weekends.”
“Oh and Ez?”
“You could also ask your Lola.”
Chapter 9- The Looking Glass
Later that evening, a few hours after Lola’s return, Ezra brought out the book.
“Lola,” she nudged. “What’s this?”
Her grandmother leaned forward, squinting her eyes. “Where did you find that?”
“I saw it in your bedside drawer. I was looking for the mosquito net and it was underneath,” Ezra replied, suddenly feeling exposed.
“That’s…very…old.” Lola managed. “My mother, your great-grandmother, bought it at the book shop before it closed down. It’s a pharmacy now,” she added, wistfully.
“Who’s this?” Ezra inquired, opening the pages to the sketch.
Lola’s eyes darkened. “That’s Talia. The people of Siargao know her tale very well.”
“What happened to her?”
“It’s a long story,” said Lola “And it’s getting late…”
“Please, Lola! I don’t know what any of the symbols mean and the picture is haunting me! What did she do?”
“What makes you think she did something?” Lola asked.
“I don’t know really. Just a feeling. The way she’s standing- it’s almost like she’s protesting or even proclaiming.”
Lola shook her head. “You’re as dramatic as your mother!” she said.
“Does that mean you’ll tell me?” Ezra pressed, coyly.
“Yes. But only the short version. It’s nearly midnight and I’m old, you know!”
“Ok,” agreed Ezra, smiling.
“So,” began Lola, “Talia’s story dates back to the 1500s- back to a time when the island of Siargao was ruled by the Buko Tribe. The Buko Tribe,” Lola explained, “were the first recorded tribe on our island.”
“How do you know about them? About the tribe?” Ezra asked.
“Many years later, when the Spanish came, they wrote stories about the early Filipinos. The Buko Tribe are mentioned in lots of those stories.”
“Do you have any of them? The stories?”
“No, not here. But there’s a church in General Luna- the oldest one on the island. They have a section where they store the ancient texts. They’re encased in glass to protect the pages, but you can go and look at them.”
“Anyway, back to Talia. Talia was the youngest daughter of Apo, the chief of the Buko tribe. She was sixteen, I think. Around your age. Back then, people used to migrate to the Philippines from neighboring countries. They’d arrive in their boats from Malaysia, Indonesia and so on, looking for somewhere to settle.”
“What happened when they came?”
“Sometimes, the settlers were hostile and wars over land would spark. Other times, the settlers and the indigenous tribes formed an alliance- a pact to join forces, protect each other and share resources. During Apo’s reign, a tribe from Malaysia arrived in Siargao. They were led by Datu Ulan.”
“Did they start a war?”
“No. Datu Ulan came in peace. He didn’t want bloodshed, only a new life for his people. And so, he and Apo made an alliance. As part of the terms, Datu Ulan and his tribe were granted safe passage, welcomed onto the island and could share the bounties of the land.
“What did Apo get?”
“Datu Ulan’s people were skilled in many things: weaving, farming, fighting. He brought iron smiths and tradesmen, too. For Apo, it was a great opportunity to strengthen his community.”
“OK…but how does Talia fit into all of this?”
“As part of the terms of the alliance, the Datu asked for Talia’s hand in marriage, and Apo accepted.”
“Without asking Talia?”
“Yes. That’s how it was in those days.”
“So, what happened?”
“Talia was in love with someone else- a farmer named Aetan. On the night of her wedding to the Datu, she and Aetan ran away.
“But they didn’t escape, did they?”
“No,” Lola replied, shaking her head. “They were captured a few miles from the beach and were brought home.”
“What happened to her?”
“According to folklore, Talia had angered the Gods, and so she was given to them as a human sacrifice.”
“That explains the picture,” said Ezra, glancing back at the book.
“Yes. She was left at the top of a cliff to await Bakunawa.”
“The moon god?”
“Yes! I’m impressed!” answered Lola.
“Mum told me stories about him when I was little. She used to say that he would gobble me up if I didn’t tidy my room!”
“And what about the boy- Aetan?” said Ezra. “Was he given to the Gods, too?”
“No-one knows what happened to him. I assume he met his end, probably at the hands of Datu Ulan, but nothing has been written about it. Only Talia.”
Ezra fell silent, lost in thought.
“But, I think that’s enough for tonight,” yawned Lola, rising from her chair. “Up to bed with you! We can continue this another time.”
Ezra checked the time on her phone, stood up and kissed her grandmother on the cheek.
“Sleep well Lola!” she said, her bare feet padding up the stairs.
That night, Ezra dreamt of the Buko tribe.
In her dreams, she saw Apo, and watched through the looking glass as he collapsed on the ground, beating his palms against the dry sand. Even in sleep, Ezra could feel the waves of Apo’s grief washing towards her. Just before waking, she found herself at the top of a cliff and, standing a few metres in front of her, was a girl. The tireless wind blew her hair aside, and the untamed ocean seethed and churned in violent waves.
What happened next chilled her blood.
As the last flash of lightning illuminated the heavens, the girl turned to face Ezra. Her face was drained of colour and her eyes were as black as coal. “Ezra.” She whispered. “I knew you’d come.”
Chapter 10- Guiwan
Monday couldn’t come soon enough.
The library didn’t open until 9am, but Ezra found herself bolt awake by 5. In fact, she wasn’t really sure she’d slept at all. Rolling to her side, she grabbed her phone and searched the tide times.
6am- high tide. Perfect.
She opened her messages.
The darkness was just lifting when Ezra left the house. Just ahead, the first rays of sun seeped through the clouds. It blent with the stars and brushed the tops of the trees with light. By the time she arrived at Guiwan, the skyline was flushed with colour- like a rose in full bloom.
Ezra spotted Mak’s bike and parked right next to it. Looking down the path, she saw him sitting by the shore. His hair was pulled up into a messy bun, and he was wearing his usual board shorts- neon orange and dotted with black palm trees. He turned as she approached.
“Morning,” Ezra returned.
“Couldn’t sleep again, huh?”
“Nothing that a two-hour surf won’t fix. You ready?”
Mak was right. As soon as she was in the water, Ezra felt renewed. The sea - fresh and clean- washed away her thoughts.
There was no book
No vivid dreams
Just her and the waves.
Afterwards, on the beach, Mak smiled and put his hand on her shoulder. “Feel better?”
“Much,” she answered.
“Good.” He glanced at his watch. “8am. Still an hour before the library opens. Let’s get some breakfast then head into town.”
They were heading towards their bikes when Ezra spotted him- a boy, about their age, strolling down the path. He was tall, over 6ft, with fair skin and a white-blonde undercut. It was gelled upwards, revealing two fades which ran like race tracks from ear to ear. There was an ease in his step, and an air of confidence surrounded him.
Ezra leaned in towards Mak. “Have you seen him before?” she whispered.
“I don’t think so. Looks like a tourist. Probably on a surfing holiday.”
He was getting closer. The path through the trees was narrow, so narrow that when he glided past, his board almost brushed her arm. She glanced up just enough to catch his eyes- bright blue and sparkling. Just as quickly, she looked away and he soon disappeared between the trees.
“Yeah, definitely on holiday,” repeated Mak. “I doubt he’ll be around for long.”
Ezra smiled, trying to seem indifferent.
After hopping onto her bike,
Before turning on the engine,
She looked back towards the bay.
For the first time in weeks, she forgot about the book.
Chapter 11- The Library
Ezra loved the local library.
Rebuilt two years ago, after a typhoon hit the island, the new building sat behind the main road and, like Lola’s house, was on a plot of its own. Unlike libraries in England, this one had no door, but instead welcomed readers with an open archway which was at least 10 feet high and outlined with hanging vines. As she and Mak traipsed up the steps, the neighbouring trees waved them in.
Leaving their flip-flops outside, they wiped their feet on the mat and stepped onto the polished wood. It shone like a mirror- a perfect compliment to the fresh white walls, wicker chairs and soft, spa-like music. Strolling straight past the reception desk, Ezra and Mak turned left into the main part of the library: a large open room with bookshelves on the walls, bean bags on the floor, and fans whirring from the ceiling. Right at the far end, past the new releases and Filipino favourites, was old man Jo.
As usual, he was sat behind the desk:
His grey hair sticking out in tufts
His small shoulders hunched
And his oversized glasses balancing on the tip of his nose.
“Good morning, Jo,” greeted Mak warmly.
The librarian neither moved nor looked up. Ezra and Mak glanced at each other.
“Good morning, Jo,” Mak repeated, this time tapping him on the shoulder. “Is your hearing aid on?”
Jo, a little startled, sat up. “Oh hello,” he shouted. “I’ll just put my hearing aid on!”
Mak and Ezra smiled.
“That’s better,” he said, adjusting the plastic semi-circle behind his ear. “What can I do for you young folk?”
Ezra reached into her bag and pulled out the book. Unravelling the scarf she’d wrapped around it, she handed it to Jo, who brought it right to his nose. The book looked heavy in his frail hands, and when he leaned his crumpled shoulders further towards the counter, Ezra expected him to topple over.
He put down the book
Adjusted his glasses
Straightened his back.
“Where did you get this?”
“It belongs to my Lola.” she replied. “Her mother bought it at an old bookstore.”
The old man cleared his throat, then, almost exactly like Ezra had done, he turned the book in his hands and studied the clasps. Clumsily, his skeletal fingers fumbled over the metal. They pulled, prized and twisted, but to no avail.
“Here,” offered Ezra. “Let me. I think there’s a knack to it.”
She touched the clasps and they sprung open. The pages, as if waiting to be set free, pushed the cover apart and fanned out like a peacock’s feathers. Old man Jo turned to the first page, and then the second, and then the third- his hands steady and his eyes hungry. Ezra and Mak watched intently, waiting for him to speak.
“It’s written in Baybayin,” he said finally.
“What’s that?” asked Mak.
“It was how the Filipinos wrote in pre-colonial times. These symbols,” he said, turning the pages towards Mak, “were their letters, before the Spanish brought Latin alphabet to our shores.”
“”Baybay,” muttered Mak. “I think that means to spell in Tagalog.”
“Correct,” replied Jo. “When the Spanish came, they influenced our language and changed our writing system, but not overnight. In some parts of the Philippines, Baybayin was used right up until the late 19th century.”
Can you translate it?” Ezra questioned. “Do you know what it says?”
“I can try, but I’m more than a little out of practise. It may take me some time!”
“That’s Ok,” Mak chimed in. “How about, when you have time, you look at the first couple of pages and then we’ll come back in a few days?”
“Sounds good to me.”
And so they left, Ezra’s step already a little lighter and her mind filled with questions about what their next visit would bring.
That evening, Ezra dreamt not of Talia or of the Buko tribe. Instead, her mind was filled with symbols- floating, golden, alight. They looped and dipped in scrolls, like codes in a video game. Eventually, the letters settled and began to move in a circular motion. Faster and faster, they spun around their circuit- the blaze from each symbol blurring to form one spinning light. As their movements began to slow, a shape formed.
What was it?
Suddenly, she was back on the cliff and in front of her, just shy of the edge, was a man. He was around her height with tanned, wrinkled skin and long, coarse hair. His body was draped in red woven cloth, which was tied on his right shoulder and fell down to his knees. The same material was wrapped around his head in a band, and from it, a black feather protruded. Despite the blustering wind, the man stood completely unmoved- his hair unaltered, his robe static, and his feather frozen in time.
Abruptly, he turned and his tired eyes fell on Ezra.
She felt her breath catch.
Without a word, he extended his arm and opened his hand.
From it, the golden loop hovered. It was still spinning.
Enticed, she moved closer, and watched as its light began to dim.
It dropped into the man’s palm and when she leaned in, she saw it was a bracelet: dark- small- plain.
Ezra looked up and the man nodded, as if giving permission.
She reached out and plucked the bracelet from his hand.
A jolt of energy passed through her body and her eyes shot open.