Monday, September 6, 2010

Misadventures with a Jellyfish

Misadventures with a Jellyfish

Finding oneself perennially the sharpest tool in the shed is definitely a blessing, a curse, or both depending on how you handle the fallout. Obviously, being aware that you are better than your peers, at least at certain chores, affords a modicum of a boost to the ego and delicious nourishment to the soul. On the other hand, it can easily lead to complacency, or worse, to hubristic exuberance which portends mischief and incidental misfortunes if not utter perdition of the soul with attendant physical demise.

So it was the case one Monday morning in 1951 towards the end of the dry harvest season when the quava or bayabas grooves were laden with delectable fruit ripe for the picking, nay, imploring to be harvested when their mouth watering fragrance being wafted by the morning breeze, enveloped the hills and dales that we had to traverse on the way to school. The way to school was through a network of well worn mountain paths intricately connectable by any combination of the ubiquitous carabao trails to define any number of route options which would allow the desired amount of shortcuts or detours depending on how much diversion we were willing and/or eager to make.

For those unfamiliar with the intricacies of the Philippine country side landscape, the difference between a mountain path and a carabao trail lies mainly in the amount of vegetative adornment, bordering on obstructions, which characterized the latter. Typically, a carabao trail evolved into a mountain path when all such obstructions were removed and the clearance was maintained by popular use of the passage way. Navigating through a carabao trail in the early hours of the day, before the morning dew had completely dried off, one was likely to emerge from the journey as I did, soaking wet from inadvertently mopping off the dew from the overhanging leaves and branches with the shirt on my back.

Having spent an inordinate period harvesting a generous haul of guava fruit on the way, we were late for school. Which, in and of itself, was not a big deal. Both my fourth grader brother, Mano Fito and I, a second grader, were consistently at the top of our respective classes. Being late for an hour or so should not have been a capital offense. Except that there was a school policy to assign extra cleaning duties at the end of the day as punishment for pupils who showed up tardily to any class session. To avoid such an ignominy we decided to skip the entire morning session. No punishment was meted out for being absent from any session since you did not disrupt any proceedings.

These events having taken place in the eastern coast of Mindanao, it was the time of the year when the prevalence of the seaward west wind was slowly but surely fading to be gradually but unmistakably replaced by the dominance of the landward east wind which a few weeks later would usher in the rather dreaded monsoon season. More importantly, this time of the year, due to the decreasing humidity in the air, the sea was seductively inviting even when the sun was barely 30 degrees above the horizon. Although we were not swimmers then, frolicking in chest deep surf water at ebb tide was one of the more riveting assignations we always treasured to indulge ourselves in.

Also notable during this changing of the prevailing winds, accompanying the uncharacteristically calm water conditions was an infestation in the coastal waters of the purple-striped jellyfish with shortish tentacles and head sizes ranging from half a golf ball to half a baseball. Most of them were the non-stinging kind and temptingly inviting to pluck off the water and throw at your peers, as most of the more rambunctious children used to indulge in for fun. (This was our tropical equivalent to the snowball fights ever so popular in colder climes.)

So instead of our morning classes, we adjourned to the sandbar barely a couple of kilometers away from the school house. There we could feast on our morning loot of guavas lavishly supplementing our provisions for lunch which consisted of camote
tubers, the Philippine version of sweet potatoes, steam-cooked the previous night. The sandbar was just the perfect place for the occasion. It was close enough to the school house for the bell announcing the end of morning classes to be clearly audible. It was conveniently hidden from the school house by the relatively sparse cluster of mangroves that protected the shoreline from the wrath of the sea during the monsoon season.

At its maximum exposure, that is, at the lowest point of ebb tide, the width of the sandbar was about the size of a three-lane highway, affording ample room for children's games. Its length was a remarkable replica of the beach front of my parents' property: around two hundred meters. It was separated from our property by a chest-deep lagoon with sandy bottom bordered by rocky promontories of extinct and eroded coral reefs bookending the sandbar itself. In my childish mind's I, it was an indisputable low-tide extension of my parents' property. Indeed, I claimed it to be so. Playing there felt exactly the same as playing in my own backyard.

The property itself was tended by a newly married older cousin who was raised by my parents as if he were our older brother. Inside it was a cottage for their living quarters with an attached fishing net barn which functioned as a partial shade for the trellis structure consisting of three parallel horizontal bamboo poles joined end to end which ran along the shoreline. This was the main facility to sun-dry the fishing net by spreading it out on the bamboo trellis while it was inspected for holes and other damages that needed mending. Dried and fixed, the net was neatly folded along its width and left hanging to the trellis under the shade, ready to be deployed on the next trip out to sea. My cousin, to us known as Ingko Mening, managed and operated the net-fishing enterprise, which entailed recruiting helping hands from the village for a share of the catch.

It was in this barn where we left our clothes and school paraphernalia hidden in a fishing basket on our way to the sandbar. True to the cliché, "time flies when you are having fun," I could not exactly remember what we did for fun at the sandbar before we heard the school bell announcing the end of morning classes. I could absolutely be certain that we did not have a jellyfish fight for the simple reason that we were raised to listen to the older siblings. I did not dare compete with my older siblings until I was in high school, when different rules of engagement governing extracurricular activities compelled me to compete with them, each of us as representatives of our respective class years.

Resigned to have to repair our frolicking ways for another day, we prepared to head back to shore when I noticed my upper torso all smudged up with a gooey paste of seaweed and sand. I could have washed off the dirt at the lagoon through which we had to wade on the way to shore. But it offered me with an excuse to take one last fling at the then returning tide with its more invigorating water compared to the lukewarm lagoon. I implored Mano Fito to wait for me as I waded into neck-deep water on the seaward side of the sandbar to wash off the offending substance.

All of a sudden I felt all of the following sensations overcame my entire being at exactly the same time: something dangerous and wicked grabbed my entire body; I walked into an excruciating pain the likes of which I had not known or experienced before; I was thrown into a boiling concoction of vinegar and chili sauce; I was paralyzed and could not even shout for help. To Mano Fito's credit, he managed to fish me out of the water and dragged me onto the gradually diminishing sandbar surface. Only then did we recognize what I managed to fling myself into.

My entire body from the neck down was covered with the tentacles of the poisonous 'transparent' jellyfish. Father was one of the more skillful harvesters of such jellyfish in the village. On various occasions we had enjoyed the edible body part of this kind of jellyfish as an exotic delectable victual. Even the tentacles which stuck to my skin were stingingly itchy to the touch. My brother had to scrub them off me with seaweeds and sand to avoid having to touch them himself and get hurt in the process. The cleanup finishing touches was accomplished in the lagoon that we had to wade through to get back to shore, a trek of about half a kilometer.

By the time we got back to the cottage, I was all of being tired, dizzy, remorseful, angry, and afraid. The overriding emotion was that of fear. In my father's house, skipping classes was a capital offense, unless it was for helping out in the farm, which as a rule was discouraged because school age children were supposed to be in school. By sheer coincidence, Ingko Mening and his family, who kept custody of the cottage, were engaged in another part of town for a rice threshing operation in the property of his in-laws. This reason for their absence was learned later. With the exuberance of youth on our side, we were very sure that after resting a while I would be just fine.

We decided to keep the jellyfish incident a secret. Just in case the cottage custodians came back unexpectedly, we decided that I should rest in the barn, at the spot where we had earlier hidden our clothes and school stuff. I could not even recall what Mano Fito was supposed to do meanwhile. I must have passed out because the next thing I became aware of, it was the middle of the night I was sitting on my father's shoulders with a rather high fever and he was bearing a kerosene torch to illuminate our way home.

The following morning huge purple welts appeared at whichever body parts that came in contact with the jellyfish tentacles. Since we were frolicking in our birthday attires, everybody knew that I was extremely lucky that my genitals were spared. Because of the fat welts, I did not get the traditional lashing with a leather belt or a rattan switch, my father's standard punishment regimen for any serious infraction against the familial code of conduct and rules of behavior.

I continued to be feverish for three or four days but got well enough to be deployable to help gather up the harvested coconuts before the unmedicated welts disappeared or had any realistic prospects of disappearing. For a seven-year old boy I was on the smaller side of normal, bordering on being tiny. My head was barely above the top of the fern underbrush in the coconut grove that we harvested. Moreover, being molested by a swarm of mosquitoes was par for the course in the coconut grove. They seemed to have a particular avarice for the jellyfish welts all over my body.

Then there were the occasional tiny terrestrial leeches which never failed to give you a memorable greeting in the dumper spots of the coconut grove. As a small boy hardly able to emerge above the underbrush, I was exceptionally vulnerable to these conniving creatures. So I slapped and scratched my way through the underbrush. At the end of the day, I was reduced to a miserable bundle of pain and suffering suffocating in my nearly skinless carcass, ready to explode in guilt, remorse, anger, and frustration.

Anger because in my little boy's mind, all this agony was far too excessive a rebuke for taking that one last fling into the oncoming tide in search of a brief moment of invigorating succor from the late morning sun. Little did I know that my misfortune of defeat at the "feet" of the jellyfish with whom I did not even have the satisfaction of a visual confrontation had hardly just begun. I would eventually end up unable to walk for the better portion of two months and almost lost the entire school year by default resulting from the episode.

(Next: Fallout from the Blind Encounter with a Jellyfish)



  1. Mr. Asumen,
    You have the rare ability to bring to life, your childhood adventures with precision and detail, in a powerful and pleasant language. I enjoyed reading your story very much. Thanks!

  2. Ziba,
    Thank you very kindly for your charitable and generous comments. You had just given me the license to write the sequel of the narrative detailing how injury deteriorated and what we had to do to bring me back to my normal taciturn self.

    As they used to say of old, "be careful what you ask for, you might get it."

    Long live and prosper,

  3. One question has persistently haunted my reveries: what sort of punishment did my brother, Mano Fito get from father as a fallout of the jellyfish piasco? I'm very eager and curious to find out.

    I spent three full years with Mano Fito in high school, far away from home. Throughout that period he was a loving and caring older brother and took care of me very well, under the circumstances. It's amazingly extraordinary that we never even thought of disucssing my misfortunes with the jellyfish.