Now For One of Self’s: “The Lost Language”

This was published many years ago, in a magazine called Isotope.

Published in Utah and edited by a poet, Chris Cokinos.

It joined together two things: science writing and creative writing.

You would find, in the same issue, a play by a physicist, a nature essay, a poem by a mathematician. That sort of thing.

Self loved it.

Chris Cokinos, what are you doing now? Know that self considered Isotope a very noble experiment.

Here’s an excerpt from the story they published, which became the title of her third collection. It’s one of those hybrid things: part essay, part memoir, part myth, part short story.

The Lost Language

Filipinos once had an ancient written language. If I were to show you what the marks look like on a piece of paper, they would look like a series of waves. Or like Egyptian hieroglyphics. Like the eye of the Pharaoh I saw in my old high school history books.

The language was written on tree bark. Epics were probably written in this language, but I don’t know what they are. My ancestors are shadowy people. Shadows.

When I was a little girl, perhaps eight years old or so, my mother gave me a book of Philippine legends. The legends were mostly about beautiful maidens and enchanted animals. But the story I liked best was about Hari sa Bukid, which means King of the Mountain.

Hari is not a particularly kingly word to me. It begins with an explosion of breath, almost an exclamation. And the “ri” is soft, almost negligible. So that if you were to say this word out loud and quickly, it would sound like a Ha (pause)/ Ha(pause).

The legend, as far as I remember, went like this:

One day Hari called all his men together and said that he was going to a far-away land to visit friends. He commanded his people to be industrious and to plant the slopes of the mountain with tobacco, in case he was delayed on his return journey.

For years, the people faithfully fulfilled their vow to Hari and the slopes of the mountain were virtually flower gardens, full of beautifully cultivated tobacco plants. The tribe of Hari sa Bukid was happy and prosperous. Everyone tended his share of the land carefully. As more and more tobacco was produced, the fame of Hari sa Bukid’s tribe spread far and wide.

Eventually, however, the people grew lazy. They abandoned the care and cultivation of the fields. Their harvests diminished greatly and their business with other people was discredited because of the small quantity which they raised. Almost all the tobacco fields were abandoned.

With no tobacco providing them with income, the people were in dire need of the most basic goods and other necessities for the sustenance of their daily lives. One day, a strong earthquake shook the foundation of the earth. A volcano started spewing out fire and smoke. The people were frightened and ran in all directions towards the sea.

To their astonishment, Hari sa Bukid suddenly appeared. He was in a terrible rage. Looking down on his huddled tribe, he rebuked them. As he spoke, lightning flew from his nostrils. His voice sounded like a roar.

Hayop kayo! You are no better than animals, he shouted.

The people could find no words to defend themselves. Mutely, they cowered before their king. They knew they were guilty of the serious crimes of disobedience and laziness.

Whereupon Hari sa Bukid gathered the scanty tobacco left in the fields and departed. He carried the tobacco to the top of the mountain and with a terrific blow of his fist, bore a hole to the center of the earth. After he had entered the hole, the earth closed over him.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

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