Short Story by Elaine Elinson
The Sailor and the Babaylan
By Elaine Elinson
“Yo, Terry, come on, man, let’s hit the action. There’s someone waiting for you in the White Horse Disco with your name written right across her ass.” Roy’s Kentucky twang bellowed into the heavy, sweltering dusk cutting through the cacophony of jeepney horns, chicharron vendors and Two Live Crew on a boom box. He cupped his beefy hands and held them around Skeeter’s outstretched lighter and the Marlboro dangling from his lips.
“I don’t know, man, not tonight. You guys go ahead and I’ll catch you later,” Terry answered, torn by his need to be alone yet not quite ready to give up the familiar companionship of his bunk mates heading for a good time in the tawdry bars of Olongapo City.
“Terry, my man, we’ve only got two days on solid ground and we better enjoy it – even if it is in this stinkin’ hellhole. And speaking of stink,” he took his lit cigarette from his lips and pointed to the sewage-filled Olongapo River below, “watch your step on the bridge, or the rats are gonna grab you by your fuckin’ ankles if you don’t hurry up.”
Skeeter and the rest of Terry’s shipmates guffawed at the thought. Dressed in pressed blue jeans, Air Jordans and tie-dyed T-shirts they looked like the thousands of other sailors who swarmed across the river from Subic to the dusty streets of Olongapo. The ones who’d been here a few days wore carved wooden love beads around their necks, copper bracelets and baseball caps embroidered with “USS Missouri” on the front and “Wanna Fuck? “ on the back.
Across the bridge Terry saw the frenzy of neon lights. Every other doorway was a bar, flashing inviting names like Virgin City and Exotic Flowers. At each door lolled a crowd of young women wearing fluorescent satin short shorts with flower print bikini tops or U.S. Navy-issued white tank tops a few sizes too large.
Amps over the doorways blared “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” and “Yellow Submarine,” vying for paying customers from the visiting aircraft carrier.
“Not if they get you first,” Terry shouted back. “They’ll be feasting on so much blubber, they won’t be going hunting for weeks. I’m going to pass up the disco tonight, man – you go, have a good one.”
“We’ll miss you at the paaaaarty,” shouted Roy, grinding his pelvis while his shipmates hooted. “And I’m bringing premium stuff, not that rotgut they serve in the bars.” He pulled a hip bottle of Johnnie Walker from his back pocket and held it aloft. Skeeter and the others playfully jumped for it, woofing and whistling.
Terry had been to Olongapo before when the Missouri had come in for repair. He’d partied and gotten drunk, and paid too much to spend an hour with Belinda, the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen. He bought her a U.S. Navy T-shirt and a little heart on gold-colored chain that she wanted. She taught him how to say “I love you,” in her Ilongo dialect and made him promise he would write. That was more than a year ago. He didn’t think he could find her again.
Now his ship was back at Subic before heading to the Persian Gulf. Tonight he didn’t feel like partying. He stuck his hands in his jeans pockets and turned back toward the base. “We’ll bring you home a doggie bag,” Roy shouted after him. “That’s doggie as in B-i-t-c-h!”
Terry smiled at the bad joke and gave his friends a final wave. His sandy hair, cropped short to Navy regs, and his scrawny build made him look even younger than his twenty years. His jeans fell low on his narrow hips. His new Nikes were so white he looked like a kid on his first day of school.
The Marine at the gate gave him a weird look when he flashed his ID, wondering why this sailor was turning back inside the base just as the night life was lighting up the Olongapo strip. Terry didn’t care. He’d been a loner before he joined the Navy. As a mechanic in a Shell station in Modesto, he felt more at home under cars than at parties. Not until, totally bored and not knowing what else to do he joined the Navy, did he start hanging out with other guys, having real friends like Skeeter and Roy. He’d been assigned to work on the planes on the flight deck of the massive carrier that took them around the world. He liked his job okay and figured he’d stay in the four years, improve his mechanics skills, then move to LA and get a high paying job in the aircraft industry. He had no girl, so he didn’t mind shipping out, like some of his shipmates did. In fact, though he didn’t admit it to anyone, he’d lost his virginity to Belinda upstairs at the Frisco Lounge right here in Olongapo last year. She didn’t seem to mind his skinny arms or his pimples, which cleared up right afterwards. He thought about her sometimes. But he never wrote, he didn’t know what to say to her.
After the flashiness of Olongapo’s main drag, the base seemed sterile and dull. The admin buildings sat like empty white boxes on the broad expanse of green, clipped lawns. Water sprinklers twirled on the grass, dampening the sidewalks. No bustle, no crowds here, no vendors allowed inside. No Filipinos allowed without a base permit.
Terry walked past the admin buildings, the barracks and the officers’ housing with their swimming pools and swing sets on the lawns. He walked down to the edge of the base toward the water. The GIs had been warned not to go to the beach at night. During the day, the sandy cove on Subic Bay was filled with sailors, pale from their long weeks at sea, paler still in contrast to the toffee bodies of their companions in skimpy bright-colored bikinis. Bruce Springsteen and rap music blared from boom boxes, coolers overflowed with San Miguel beer. Guys played volleyball and smoked dope right out in the open.
But at night, the beach was off-limits, and guarded by sentries. Every time a new ship pulled in, the base commander flooded the barracks with memos warning that rebels from the New Peoples Army had been known to kill GIs on sight, just to get their running shoes or IDs. Terry had never heard of this actually happening, though he did remember the case of a GI who went out hunting and ended up being arrested for killing a young Filipino kid whom he mistook for a wild boar in the darkness. Terry couldn’t remember what happened to that GI, just that he got shipped home right away before he could go on trial in the Philippines.
“If I’m going to get shot up by Saddam Hussein in the Gulf next week, I may as well take my chances with the NPA here,” Terry thought, heading down the palm-lined path to the water.
Night fell quickly night. Though the air was still warm and heavy, the graying dusk had turned to blackness. Behind him Terry saw uniform rows of white lights in the barracks windows, like milk cartons on an assembly line. Beyond the base, he caught flashes of green, red and yellow neon blinking into the night.
As Terry reached the water’s edge, the dark hills seem to close like curtain behind him, cutting off the lights of the base and the strip beyond. The moon shone white and full, capturing a corner of the sky. The stars were brighter than he’d ever seen, their reflections created undulating constellations in the dark waters of the Bay.
The beach was deserted. A slight breeze, only a puff of air, rustled the palm fronds. As he strode along the shore, a crescendo of croaking and chirping rose around him. The beach was full of toads and crickets and other night animals, reclaiming their territory from the raucous daytime visitors.
He felt a huge presence looming over his left shoulder. He looked up, cautiously. It was a mountain, a singular peak, rising up solitary out of the earth. That must be Mt. Natib, he thought, a guerrilla stronghold for the NPA, he’d been told. But could I really have walked that far? It’s miles down the coast from the base.
He reached a cove where the beach was completely black, deep velvet like the sky and the sea. The bright moon made the silicate sand sparkle like gems. Terry felt wrapped in a great, soft gentle world of blackness – black sand, black sky, black looming mountain, silhouetted in darkness. Shallow waves lapping the shore punctuated the rhythmic chirping.
Suddenly, a tongue of orange flame whipped into the dark air in front of him, rolling in a spiral through the night and then disappeared.
“What the fuck?” Terry shouted out loud. “What the hell fuck was that?” He clenched with fear. It must have been some kind of NPA rocket launcher. Instinctively, he dove into the black sand. “Holy Jesus, I’ve got to get out of here,” he murmured into the earth, his lips covered with black sand. “But where the hell am I going to go?”
He lifted his head and cautiously looked around. He could not distinguish the beach from the water, the sky from the edge of the mountain. It was all blackness, with the moon, like a silent, all-seeing eye, focusing down on him, Mt. Natib rose ominously behind him. “That’s probably where those goddam NPA rockets are coming from,” Terry thought and – ridiculously – crawled a few yards in the opposite direction.
Disoriented by the all-encompassing darkness, he listened for the sound of the water. Keeping the bay on his left, he started inching back the way he came.
There was no more fire or sound. Maybe it was just target practice, or some antsy guerrillas shooting off ammo at the full moon for fun. Encouraged, he hoisted himself up on his knees. When nothing happened, he stood up. The front of his jeans and his palms were covered with wet sand. They sparkled in the moonlight.
But as soon as he took a step, another ball of fire spun out in front of him. “Holy God, I am going to die. I am definitely going to die,” his voice croaked, like the amphibian chorus around him. He fell to his knees in the sand, burying his head under his arms.
“Pssssst, hey, you! Terry!”
“Oh, Jesus Christ, they know my name. Jesus, they must know I’m from Subic too.” He ran his hand over his chest to make sure he wasn’t wearing a shirt with his name stenciled on it. “Oh hell, the one last country where there’s communists and I’m in it. Why didn’t I go with Roy and Skeeter – I’d just be drunk and broke now, not about to die.”
“Hey, Terry, over here —“
He looked into the darkness and not a foot away from him was the most fantastic creature he’d ever seen. A thin androgynous body shimmered with thousand of drops of water. Black lines marked muscles, bones, sinews down to its feet and toes. Its head was covered with a flowing crown of jet-black feathers – arcing over two feet high and cascading down its brown back.
“Don’t worry about the fire, ok, Terry? That was just to catch your attention.”
The creature spat out another ball of fire that puffed into tiny orange flames as it laughed. “I want to show you some real magic.”
Terry shivered in the warm night. “Someone must have slipped me a mickey, he thought. Damn that Roy. But how do I get out of here?” The shriveled sparkling figure was running in circles around him.
“Yeeeeee,” it shrieked. “Terry, Terry, Terry, Terreeeeeee. I am the babaylan and I live here in the shadow of Mt. Natib. I have found your dungan and I am going to offer you a chance to have it back. You can have it back, Terry, back, back, back, back, back, back, back.” The shrill promise echoed off the sea, whooshed through palms and shattered into a thousand shards on the stars. It showered down in sparks all over the black expanse of beach.
Terry covered his head again, hit by enemy fire. “It’s a SCUD,” he thought, “it’s that chemical warfare, it’s Saddam’s poison gas.” But the sparks fell on him lightly, like a gentle rain. His skin was glowing with them, but there was no burning.
“Oh, please, God, help me,” he yelled, but there was no sound from his throat.
“Terreeeeeee,” the babaylan sang. “Listen to me. Listen to the voice of the mountain, of the fire. I will not hurt you. You will have your soul back. Listen to me, look at me, here it is…”
The babaylan wove its arms in the air and spun around. As it danced, its fingers reached up into the sky, gathering stars and out into the dark sea, splashing foam.
Terry felt a lightness in his chest and a tingling all over his skin. He was drawn to the voice of the babaylan. He shivered.
“You are cold, Terry,” said the creature, and it spit out two balls of fire that rolled along the beach, circled Terry, and planted themselves like campfires on either side of him. “Let’s sit by the fire and talk.”
Terry, drawn like a magnet to the warmth and flicker, sat on his haunches between the bonfires.
“Your soul, Terry, your soul. Reach for it. It is in the sky, it is hiding on Mt. Natib. It is your dungan – your double – which you have lost. You came here to find it and it will be yours again.”
Terry’s feet felt heavy. His Nikes were waterlogged and pressing in on his skin. The rubber weighed down on his toes, compressed his arches. They were closing in on him. “Take off your shoes, Terry, take them off and dance!”
Terry undid the laces and pulled off the heavy shoes. The babaylan grabbed them and flung them into the sea. Terry felt the fine sand between his toes, warm and sweet.
When he stood up his jeans were dripping wet and covered with sand. He undid the buttons of his Levis and slid out of them. The babaylan dragged the jeans along the sand, made a hole like a hermit crab, and buried them. Terry’s USS Missouri t-shirt melted into the night and he felt the heat of the bonfire on his bare chest. The flames licked his skin like warm petals, and his tense muscles relaxed and floated. He was naked and pink like a newborn, but the chill that had grabbed his limbs and shook him was gone. He was wrapped in a tender blanket of soft night air.
A burst of flame circled him, and he looked up, eager to see the now familiar figure of the leaping babaylan. But the sparkling creature was gone. In its place he saw Belinda.
“Hello, Terry, I hope you remember me.” She looked at him with liquid brown eyes, outlined with thick black mascara and lavender eye shadow. Her full lips were still painted in a deep purple lipstick and her permed black hair was piled high and fastened with a big purple plastic bow. She wore magenta short shorts, plastic sandals, and the U.S. Navy T-shirt Terry had given her.
“Be – Belinda?” Terry stuttered. His voice soft and high like a baby.
“Yes, Terry, it’s me. I thought you had forgotten me. You didn’t ever write to me or come to find me when you came back to Olongapo.”
“Only because I, I… I’m sorry, Belinda, I’m so sorry.”
“Terry,” she said, kneeling down beside him. “Do you remember you told me you loved me? I heard that before from many sailors but I thought you meant it. I need to tell you who you love, Terry, so you know.
“When you met me I was 17-years-old and I had been working as a bar girl for three years already. I had come all the way from Iloilo, and left my family behind because, when the typhoon ruined the rice harvest, my father could not feed us all.
“My father paid a ferry captain to take my sister Norma and me to Olongapo because his cousin said there was plenty of work in the restaurants here. We came with only a few dresses, a bag of rice cakes and sweet corn and a few pesos. As soon as we got off the bus, one man offered us a job as waitresses. He said his name was Tito Andy and he took us downtown in a taxi and fed us a delicious meal with pork and fried milkfish. He said we were going to start working there the next day. We felt so lucky and couldn’t wait to write our father.
“But that very first night he locked my sister and me in a basement room and he raped us, over and over, many times. The next day, I couldn’t walk and I was sick and my insides were on fire and bursting. My sister had a fever. Tito Andy took our clothes and we were naked except for a dirty sheet so we couldn’t dare leave.
“That night he came back, only this time with three big American sailors and they were drunk and laughing at us and tied us to the bed. Soon they were on top of us and covering our mouths with their hairy hands to keep us from screaming. One sailor pissed on my sister and she fainted. They didn’t care – they even climbed on her when she was unconscious.
“After they left, I was crying and crying and trying to clean my sister. Tito Andy said that we now owed him fifty pesos for the room and there were no more waitress jobs for tramps like us so we’d have to work in the bars, for him.
“The next day he brought us new clothes, shorts and high-heeled sandals and he ordered us to put them on. I obeyed him, and I dressed my sister because she was too weak. When Tito Andy came to bring us upstairs to the bar, he got angry because my sister was still in bed. He pulled her off the bed and slapped and punched her till she fell to the floor. I ran to help her and he kicked me away so hard and ordered me to go up to the bar. I didn’t want to leave her, but I was so afraid I ran up to the bar. That’s where I learned to dance with the GIs and get them to buy me drinks and take me upstairs to the little rooms.”
Terry stared at Belinda, her words stinging in his ears. He tried to imagine this tiny, gorgeous girl fighting for her life against a brutal pimp and three drunken GIs. “No, Belinda, no – I’m, I’m sorry.”
He wanted her to stop talking, but she did not stop. Her clear, dark eyes looked into him as she went on with her story. She seemed to float a few inches off the sand. “When they let me go back to the room, my sister was gone. Tito Andy said she ran away, but I knew she was too weak to move, much less to leave the bar. It was too far to take the ferry back home.
“That was almost three years ago. I’ve been all over the city to look for her. I asked all the other girls. No one knew of her. I never saw her again.
“But I will find her. Will you help me, Terry? If you love me, you will help me.”
Before he could answer Belinda was consumed by a ball of fire that spiraled up into the air and burst into a glare in the black sky. Embers fell to the shore and turned to black ash that scattered across the sand and were gone.
“Belinda, Belinda,” Terry cried, his hands clawing the air, reaching for any little bit of her. But the ashes only crumbled to powder and made charcoal smudges on his palms.
“Terreeeee!” He heard a shriek. “Do you want to help Belinda find her sister, you can, you will, you doooooo.” The babaylan whirled its feathery hat as it jumped out of the blackness to the sandy ground.
“I do, I do, but I don’t know how,” Terry answered, his cheeks streaked with tears. He covered his face with his hands and left damp ashen handprints across his brow.
“You dooooo, you doooo,” echoed the babaylan, its voice deep and hollow like the distant sound of huge bell. Then a deep bellow rolled up out of the sea. It knocked Terry down into the sand.
When he looked up he saw the USS Missouri rising out of the black sea and careening toward his sandy nesting place on the shore.
“Stop it, help, stop it,” he cried as the clanging ship came barreling down on him. All of its missile launchers seemed to be aiming at the spot where he crouched, rows and rows of F1 fighter planes – the very ones whose engines he kept running –poised to take off in his direction. With a deafening roar, forty-thousand tons of metal were clanging against each other. He held his hands over his ears and trembled.
Then he clasped his hands in prayer front of his face, a final plea to anyone who might be on the bow and could stop the ship and its planes and bombs from crushing him into the sand.
Through the deafening roar, he heard “Terry, Terry, run from the ship, it will slaughter you. I’m heeeeere, over heeeere.” Terry wheeled around to the shrill, saving voice and saw the babaylan dancing on the top of Mt. Natib, its black feathers a glistening whirl in the moonlight.
It spit out a flame that shot down the mountain, along the beach, lighting a path clearly as a runway. With the aircraft carrier barreling toward him, Terry grabbed his chance and flew up the fiery path.
In a moment he found himself safely wrapped in the scrawny arms of the babaylan high above the dark water of Subic Bay. His naked body, streaked with charcoal and sparkling with sand, was whole and safe.
“Hey, Roy,” Skeeter said to his bunkmate as the Missouri headed for the Indian Ocean and on to the Persian Gulf. “Do you really think Terry was captured by the guerrillas?”
“Damn fool,” Roy muttered, “why’d he have to go off by himself like some asshole when he shoulda been down the strip partying with us?
“Still, I think it’s a cold fuckin’ deed of the Navy to ship out before we found his body. I mean, they could’ve waited one fuckin’ day. There might have been some message or something – now we may never know what happened to our guy.” He stabbed his cigarette into the overflowing ashtray, grinding the glowing embers of tobacco into a pile of spent ashes.