Retelling Magellan: Moonlight and Firelight

In April of 1521, 500 years ago, a port city in the central Philippines (before it was the Philippines) hosted its first Christian Europeans performing ritual baptisms, burials, and daily Masses. There were stories of Jesus, promises of healing miracles, and displays of military technology. Here’s an imagined native Visayan perspective on the the changes, based on real firsthand accounts by Europeans and on other historical data.

Macawile softly pulled his paddle along through the dark water. Moonlight and Firelight danced off the surface as his cousin sitting before him reached a torch out scanning for white squid below. Softly muttering something in the local Cebuano dialect, his cousin picked up a pronged bamboo spear from the boat and passed the torch to the young woman sitting in the front of the banka boat. She was the daughter of a local man who was friends with Macawile’s uncle. He hosted them in his seaside nipa house not far outside of Sugbo City, and it was him who had first told them about the Kristyanos who had recently begun setting up their own idols in the area — mainly a tall piece of wood with a shorter piece across it two-thirds of the way up. One was placed in the center of the town square, near the market where Batá had promised to buy Macawile his own kampilan sword. On their way into port, they had stared at three black ships with many sails sitting well out from shore. The same ones they’d seen at a distance leaving from Homonhon. Now, having rested a couple of days after the journey from Samar, their host had invited them out for some night-fishing for squid.

His cousin had been here with Batá enough times to know some of the local language, so Macawile let him do the talking with their guide. His uncle was in another banca boat with his friend and one other, and a third banca boat was also close by with a few more people. Though he could understand most of the dialect, he was embarrassed to try to pronounce things their way. But now he was left alone with their guide as his cousin took up his fishing spear and slipped into the water headfirst, diving as smoothly as possible to not disturb the water and scare away the sea creatures. The dive was impressively quiet, and after the banca rocked gently (steadied by the outriggers to either side), Macawile could hear his uncle’s voice a stone’s throw away, in the area of another torchlight. Macawile leaned over and looked down, trying to watch the hunt through the silvery moonlit water. Mostly he could see only pale shapes appearing and disappearing well beneath the surface, and among them he tried to follow the dark shadow of his cousin and a spear.

Soon, one long breath later and a couple meters away, one of the pale shapes popped out of the water on the end of the spear. And his cousin’s head popped up right after. When he was back on the boat, shaking the water out of his eyes and hair, Macawile was a little startled to notice the other young man holding a spear towards him, offering it.

“For me? I just know how to paddle and throw nets,” Macawile joked.

“You know how to poke a spear,” his cousin said, “and everybody knows how to swim! It’s a full moon so you can see everything down there, trust me! Some of these squid are big, too!”

Laying the paddle down in the boat, Macawile took the spear. “Like this?” he asked, as he dipped the spear head in the water and pretended to paddle.

“Hoy! You’ll scare them all away!” his cousin chided in a hushed voice. The local girl gave a quick laugh.

Stifling his own smile, Macawile took a few deep breaths as steadily as he could. He stared into the water. He took one more look at the shining moon, and one more breath of the warm night air.

Then his head was underwater, his face pushed through the cool shallow sea. Vague shapes of coral were below him and he kicked and pulled himself toward them with his bare legs and arms. Picking his head up, he saw the pale shapes level with him, now more blurry. He could tell the squid apart from the fish not just by their paleness but by their wild tentacle shapes and their movements. Looking upward, he saw them even more clearly, outlined against the sparking moonlight. An orange light from the torch reminded him where the boat was.

Macawile began swimming after the squid shaped ghosts in the water. He had to move slowly enough to conserve his breath, and not to startle the creatures, but quickly enough to even get to the ones that hadn’t noticed him. Every time he thrust his spear they seemed to dodge, he just seemed to miss. He wasn’t used to the weight of the water. Nor to the mechanics of thrusting a spear with nowhere to plant his feet. He had to come up for a breath.

When his head broke the surface he blinked the seawater out of his eyes until he could see the moon clearly again. He heard his cousin exchange a few words with their companion, but the splashing of his own head and arms, he could hardly even tell which dialect they were speaking, let alone what words they were saying. He thought he heard the word “sunog.”

“Sunog means fire,” he thought as he took another deep breath and dived below again, “at least in our language. But probably in theirs too.”

He pursued a few more squid. The next time he looked upward he thought he saw more orange glitters on the surface than before. But soon there was another flash of tentacles not far from him. He pushed his spear out, adjusting his body for the water and the weightlessness. And he speared it! He pushed back up to the surface triumphant!

When he broke the surface again, this time he saw the shadowed outlines of the other two in the banca boat, turned away from him and silhouetted against an orange light on the horizon. Sunog.

He swam back and clambered aboard. They hardly noticed him. Looking around, Macawile spotted the other two boats, and everybody else was already looking at the fire too. Without even taking the fish off it, he set the spear down in the boat and swapped it for the paddle again, to move their boat closer to Uncle’s boat.

“Batá,” Macawile called when he was close, “where is that?”

“Bulaya,” the girl answered, before Uncle could.

“His sister lives there,” Uncle added. “Her aunt.”

Macawile stared at the fire. He knew that Cebu island was back the way they’d come, and if he’d kept his bearings right, then the fire must have been across the channel on Mactan island. For one moment, he thought he could see a boat outlined against the fire. He noticed he could smell it now, the ashes. When he looked up at the moon, he could see a few black specks floating by in the air. Soon, he also began to notice other boats passing by. Only a few came close enough to be spotted by the torchlight; most didn’t have their own torches. But by moonlight and the light of wildfire, Macawile could see boats traveling in every direction; some just crossing the strait towards Cebu, others going down the channel in either direction. Some were small bancas like their own, and others larger boracays. Some were paddling by, and some were sailing. Every boat was packed full with passengers. Shadows of people in all sizes; each boat seemed to carry a whole family.

The family friend in the other banca boat with Uncle started yelling out and waving his torch at the passing boats. “Dalisay!” None of the boats were slowing down. Soon he was adding, “Quilong-Quilong!” to his chant. “Dalisay! Quilong-Quilong!” The girl was calling it out too occasionally. And Macawile realized it was the names of the girl’s aunt and uncle.

Finally another voice responded to the calls. It carried over the water clearly but not loudly, a steady voice. A pair of eyes glittering back torchlight came through the darkness at the surface of the water. A sharp yellow snout led ahead of it and a long body trailed behind. Macawile saw the family of people sitting behind the face and realized it was only the painted face of a banca boat. The father at the prow of the boat, came into the torchlight with a child in his lap and a paddle in his hands. The shadow of a younger man was in the back of the boat with another paddle, just beyond the torchlight behind a few other shapes.

Quilong-Quilong addressed his brother-in-law, “Good evening,” he said plainly, “can we come for a visit?”

“What happened? Dalisay! Are you alright? Are you there?” the man said all at once.

“I’m here, manghud, we’re all safe,” the woman’s voice said from one of the shadows.

“The Kristyanos came to Bulaya. Someone offended them, I didn’t see who started it. They wanted us to throw out and burn all our house spirits. We saved what we could.”

Macawile noticed the child in the man’s lap was holding a carved wooden statue. No one said anything to Quilong-Quilong’s brief story, but Macawile could feel the tension, anger, and confusion in the whole fishing party. But everyone in the new boat only seemed tired. Their host seemed to notice this too.

“Let’s go,” he said, in a tone with a strange mix of resignation and purpose. “ Did you eat tonight? Do you have enough space?” he added, again piling on the questions, before he turned his boat away.

In a moment, Macawile was handling the paddle to keep the boat steady as the new boat approached prow-to-prow and Quilong-Quilong handed the child off to the young woman with Macawile and his cousin. The woman hugged the child tight and rubbed their head, offering comfort and maybe seeking it. Macawile realized he’d that now he’d have even less floor-space to sleep on tonight.

I aspire to write well-informed historical fiction that shines light on less-recognized perspectives of familiar events. Mixed Fil-Am Tisoy He/They/Siya🇵🇭🇺🇸