The Boatman



(Note: This story is inspired by our recent trip to Palaui in Sta. Ana, Cagayan, and this photo of one of our boatmen. This shot was beautifully taken by my friend, JB.)

His eyes tell me he was more handsome in his younger years. They’re kind — probably too kind, even to himself, that he underestimates his own strength, and somewhere down the river, made the wrong choices. It could be a glint of regret I read in his eyes.

Don’t we all have something we regret in the choices we make? Regardless of whether it’s for the better or the worse, there will always be regret for the road not taken.

For him, it was a fork in the river. His mother’s voice was ringing in his ears, pleading for him to “stay, stay, for the family.” She clings to his ankle, and the tears won’t stop.

He looks her in the eye, and with nonchalance, just to hide the tears about to burst, replies, “why can’t you be happy for me, just for once, yena?”

And there, in her eyes, he sees the darkness that clouds over sanity.

When a mother clings too tightly to her offspring, she learns to convince herself that the offspring wants the same fate, too. She knows it in herself that everybody in Sta. Ana hold this water so dearly — that it is only the ocean, the rivers, and nothing else, that can give them life, and that to it, they will return.

She never thought that her son would want to ride the waves of uncertainty for a chance in Manila.

There is desperation in her voice. “There is nothing for you there! But you have a whole future ahead of you if you stay here! Your father wanted you to have his boat, and that wields endless opportunities. It’s the best boat in Sta. Ana, Ramon! And don’t you want to live your future with Liyan here? What does she think of this folly? There is only the two of us, anak. Dalawa na nga lang tayo, iiwan mo pa ako?

His eyes are kind, too kind, even to himself. Thirty years hence, he still remembers that day when he made a choice. During tranquil, early morning boat rides, like today, when total silence engulfs him and there is nothing but his mother’s voice ringing in his head, he regrets.

He stares at me like he wishes my life as his. He stares at the fork in front of us,  the river fork forged by mangroves, and he stares down the aft. He is shaken by his fellow boatman to consciousness when he asks him to help with anchoring our boat.

He shakes his head, and reaches out his hand to me. I reach back, and he guides me down the makeshift wooden steps. I jump onto the shore, curling my toes to grip the sand’s softness, trying to cling to water.

“This is a very beautiful place, Manong. You’re very lucky to be in paradise.”

He smiles at me, but in his eyes, I read desperation. “This is indeed, paradise. We couldn’t ask for better here in Sta. Ana. The water gives us life, and to it we shall return. But that is not my fate.”

“What do you mean?”

“I have plans.”

He did not say what they were, and I was not in the position to know. But I saw his eyes twinkle at the thought of those plans, and that time it was not regret, but hope.

He decides to ride the waves of uncertainty.


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