Saturday, April 27, 2013

La Golondrina, the Grandest Kite, A Lesson on Short Story Writing - Folk Wisdom for Growing Up (Lagro-Laha Summer Workshop Lesson 13)


Dr Abe V Rotor

Living with Nature School on Blog
Paaralang Bayan sa Himpapawid (People's School on Air) with Ms Melly C Tenorio
738 DZRB AM 8 to 9 evening class, Monday to Friday.

Flying Kites in acrylic, AVR 2002

Kites have always fascinated me ever since I was a child.  And I found out that the most beautiful of them all is La Golondrina, the swallow.

Thanks to Manong Bansiong, nephew of Basang my auntie-yaya. He made the most beautiful and the biggest kite in town. Remote and small a town San Vicente is, we had the reputation in the neighboring towns for our best kites, pieces of furniture and wooden saints.

Manong Bansiong made different kites: sinang gola, agila, kayyang,  – in the likes of a bull, a bird with outstretched wings, or a maiden in colorful, flowing dress.  He had many other designs. His kites were known for their strength, stability, beauty, and agility. In competitions his kites always won. And we kids in our time regarded him our hero. That’s why he was the most popular person in town come kite flying season when the grains in the field turn golden in the sun and the cold wind from the north starts blowing.

It’s hard to wait when you anticipate something exciting. You wish it were  happening today. “It’s now burr…,” we would jokingly refer to the “ber” months, when the Siberian cold wind begins to be felt.  It is the north wind that flies our kites.  Kids that we were, insisted that kite flying starts as early in September.

But our folks would say rice harvest will not be good if kites are flown before the grains are full. They got angry at us for not heeding them.  Of course old folks are superstitious. But in college I learned that it’s not the kite that causes poor harvest; it is the early arrival of amihan.  Dry and cool wind affects the setting of grains, and prevents rain to fall.

“Can you make me a La Golondrina?” I found myself asking Manong Bansiong one afternoon.

Without being asked, I described my subject with the confidence of a story teller. The master of the art just nodded as if he knew everything, and he did not interrupt me. Real experts, like good teachers are like that; they give chance to amateurs to say their piece.  

La Golondrina has a slender streamlined body, and long pointed wings, which allow great maneuverability and endurance, as well as easy gliding. Her body shape allows efficient flight. Her wings have nine primary feathers each, while the tail has twelve feathers and may be deeply forked, somewhat indented. And with a sweeping hand I demonstrated how long the tail feathers are.  “Yes, the tail increases maneuverability, and serves as adornment.” Manong Bansiong added. 

As a child, I love to watch swallows in flight. And there is something special about them because I discovered their nesting ground in Caniao, a  watershed on the Western slopes of the Cordillera range that feed the wells and springs, fill the ponds and make the streams flow, and waterfalls tumble down  into the Banaoang River. I saw the birds comb the surface of the water for flying insects, or just for sheer fun gliding along this meandering river that flows like a huge serpent into the vast South China Sea. 

But Caniao had a more practical significance; it was the source of free flowing water from the faucet, even with the distance of some thirty kilometers way from the reservoir. So abundant was water that our gardens and backyards were always green throughout the year. Our wells never dried up.

Even in summer it was convenient to fetch water by hand or by a makeshift lever made of bamboo, we called babatwagan, to draw out water from the well.  In the rainy season, ground water overflows and merge with the stream and low lying fields, and sometimes, fish are lured into these wells and get trapped. That explains the presence of the  bulan-bulan fish, a local relative of the aruwana,  in some wells.  It is a fish that grows to nearly a meter long and makes the well its home until it dies some years later.   

Oh, what a beautiful sight when you look into the well at midday.  And at night when the moon is directly shining above you can see the moon and the fish together in the dark bottom of the well. This is how the fish got its name. And old folks said the water is kept clean and sweet by the bulan-bulan.  I learned later in college this is true because the fish feed on morsels and insects falling into the well.  It also checks the growth algae and plankton, thus maintaining a favorable level of dissolved oxygen.

If I were to ask Manong Bansiong another kite to make, surely it would be a bulan-bulan. I could imagine it swimming in the sky. And what a perfect pair with the quarter moon!      

But the swallow was my dream kite.

Swallows roost on big trees in Caniao and one particular bird came up close and posed to us picnickers. She seemed unafraid and even sang a beautiful melody. I was reminded of my first musical piece in violin, La Golondrina.  It’s a plaintive musical piece which if you close your eyes while playing it, the swallows come by flock, the bird presenting themselves singly or in groups circling, rising and falling seemingly defying gravity.  They split the rays of the sun into rainbow, their wings acting as a prism. I liked to hear their melodious calls, neither sonorous nor rough, which is just perfect on the higher octave on the violin.  And the cadence goes with long stroke of the bow.   

I stalked to have a good look at the singer as one would like to get close to the characters on stage, but on sensing my closeness, she took off into the sky and soared like a kite in the wind. How swift, how graceful and agile she flew as if she commanded the wind, and not the other way around.  

I compared La Golondrina with the kites I have seen in our place. There is the dragon that looks fierce and moves stealthily before striking.  There is the eagle that is too common to most of us kids; we used to figure on one side of the dollar and Philippine peso. A castle kite is not supposed to move around and should remain fixed in the sky; a sudden gust of wind can cause it fall like a castle under siege. A lady kite finds dancing difficult in strong wind, and would easily fall down when the wind momentarily stops.  A clown kite cannot make tricks, and change its expressions as a real clown does.      

But my La Golondrina is versatile; she could soar up and down like a jet plane with the least effort, then turns sideways, repeating the same as if she were performing on a stage.  But how could one look beautiful while struggling vainly for freedom. But I would say she was just courting the viewer to train his sight to a place only she could tell – somewhere too far and too high. 

Actually La Golondrina is a difficult design of a kite to make. But Manong Basiong was a real expert. He won’t back out at any kind of kite especially if it were intended for a contest. And he always wanted his kites to win.

“When will the contest be?” He asked me in our dialect.

With that statement and a kindly smile I knew Manong Bansiong would make my La Golondrina.

“Yehay!” I could not help keep it a secret and soon everyone in town came to know of my secret and began anticipating the big event.

The day of the contest came. There were many kites from our town and nearby towns. Vigan, the capital of the province had the most entries and the biggest kites at that. As we expected these kites resembling airplanes, eagles and dragons, were huge and colorful at that, and soon they were dominating the sky. But my confidence did not sag. I looked at Manong Bansiong. He nodded with confidence.

Our turn came. La Golondrina appeared unique. She was not really very big. All eyes were on her now. I asked my brother Eugene to help me carry her across the field while Manong Bansiong loosened  the string.

“Farther … some more,” he signaled. “Stop.” He held the string, paused, looked around, and whistled a few notes. It is a technique in kite flying. Release the kite at the moment a strong breeze comes. We waited for the precious wind.

Then it came. It was a gust of wind that came all the way from the North. It is the wind of amihan, the season we harvest our rice crop, when farmers build haystacks (mandala) that look like giant mushrooms dotting the landscape. Mandala and kite with golden fields at the background makes a favorite subject in painting landscapes.  Rural landscape is the favorite subject of our own national artist, Fernando Amorsolo, whose masterpieces of rustic scenes could rival those of impressionist Vincent van Gogh, classical Rembrandt and Corot, and the romantic Millet. Many local stages or entablado have backdrops of such rural scenes. And many zarzuelas were presented during town fiestas with this background.  Kite flying was also a season to catch dalag, hito, ar-aro trapped in receding ponds and basins of ricefields where we played kites. And we had slingshots to target maya birds that are pest to standing crops and to the mandala.

“Steady now,” Manong Bansiong shouted, and Eugene and I raised La Golondrina and held it there. We held our breath, and waited for the signal.  “Now!”

La Golondrina took off strong and determined.  She soared above our heads, above the nearby trees, above the church steeple. Our town mates, gang mates and classmates rallied. They followed her ascent, and clapped, coaching her to the top of their voices. “Up, up. Go up some more! More! More!” She mingled with the other kites, bowing here and there, sometimes flying close to the dragon or eagle, or to the airplane kite bowing in some kind of greeting.

Manong Bansiong let the string glide on his hand, making a crispy whistling sound as our kite continued to rise. The wind favored her flight.  Now it was higher than any other kite. It appeared the smallest of them, and one won’t be able to recognize her if he did not see her first on the ground. Beyond the horizon, stood like a wall the blue-green Cordillera range, the home of this beautiful bird.  I could estimate the direction where Caniao possibly lay.  It was right straight to where the wind was blowing.

La Golondrina hovered steadily like a duchess in the blue sky. I wondered at how she looked at us down below. I just imagined we were also just specks on the ground, and if my T-shirt were not red, she would not be able to distinguish me from the spectators.

Then the unexpected happened. The string broke! La Golondrina was adrift.

She was flying free, and there was not indication she was coming down. Instead, she went farther up, riding on the updraft that joined the wind blowing from the sea to the mountains. Everyone fell silent. All eyes were focused on her, winking from glare. Soon it was but a dot in the sky. La Golondrina was lost.

Manong Bansiong rolled the remaining string back into its string cage. “She didn’t get much string.” He muttered.

My first impulse was to run to where she would most likely land. “No,” he said, catching me on the shoulder.  I was left alone.  All the kids had joined the chase.

I remained dumbfounded, agape at the wide, wide sky. Time stood still. There was a deafening silence. Nothing seemed to move. Not even the other kites in the sky. 

La Golondrina was swallowed up by clouds heading for the mountains, as it often does in October, momentarily becoming part of its top like a veil or a blanket. During amihan the cloud is high, a characteristic of stratus clouds  because of the cool and dry wind that carries it.  It is the wind on which migrating birds from the North ride on as they go down South.  It is in summer when they return. But for birds of La Golondrina’s kind, it is time to go home to nest and to rear their young. Here new flocks are built, old flocks grow in size, or flocks simply merged.

With that thought, I said, “She’s going home.”

Manong Bansiong nodded in submission to the fate of his master craft. He was sad; I could see his eyes moist.  Eugene had just come back panting, brushing away weeds and dusts, nurturing some scratches and cuts. He had given up the chase together with our gang mates, and those who knew something about kite flying. Everyone talked about how they crossed the fields, climbed over fences, forge streams and even climbed trees to get better view of the route of the lost kite.

But no one knew where exactly had La Golondrina landed. We soon forgot all about the contest as we sadly prepared to go home. The plaza was empty now. It was already dark.

That night I dreamt I found La Golondrina in Caniao, hanging on a dead branch where I once saw her as a bird. She was all in tatters now.  But she was still as restless as the wind, the wind that made her alive in the sky.  How different she was from the once beautiful and dainty kite La Golondrina. But at least she had reached home at last, so I thought.

I found the spring had dried up. The stream had shrunk into a rivulet, painfully skirting the rocks and levees downstream. The stones were no longer living, because they were no longer green with algae and moss. There were no more rock pools on which a Narcissus would look at all day.  There was no Pierian Spring anymore, and the Sylphids were no longer around.  

Nor was the mountain green, and blue in the distance. The view below spread out clear and empty, orphaned from the watershed.  There were now farms and huts over the landscape from which smoke rose to meet the setting sun. 

I waited for the beautiful song I once heard.  There was none. In the  stillness of the coming dusk, the sweep of the wind on the cogon grass made   an eerie sound.

Manong Bansiong did not make kites anymore since then. He died when I was in Manila studying.  A simple cross was all that marked his grave, and weeds were growing around it.  I plucked one that had a beautiful flower.  If he were still alive I would ask him, “Can you make a weed flower kite?”

I plucked the petals one by one, reliving the memory of a great kite maker.

Times changed. Kites are now an endangered art. Kids are more interested with other playthings. They have remote controlled toys and other electronic gadgets. They would rather stay indoors and watch TV and play Computer games for hours into the wee hours. The young generation appears to be more serious in their studies than we were then. They seldom go out to the fields. Rivers and forests are full of danger. No, their parents won’t allow them to go to these places. And where have the forests and rivers gone in the first place? 

Many children moved with their parents to the city, and more and more children are born there. Forget flying kites.  Not even in open spaces; it is too dangerous.

It consoles me to see a kite flying around, whether it is made of simple T-frame or plastic. Or one made in China. How different are kites today from the kites we had before.

When I reached the age Manong Bansiong was as kite maker, I also found joy in making kites for children. I am not as good as my mentor though. One time Leo Carlo, my youngest son, was taking part in a kite flying competition at the University of Santo Tomas.  He asked, “Can you help me make a kite, papa?”

I felt young all of a sudden.  The child in me I realized is alive. I recalled The Little Prince novel of Antoine de Saint Exupery’.  I was lost in the desert and I found a little prince – the child in me, innocent, idealistic, fearless and true to the world. He made me survive the ordeals in the desert of life.

So, Leo Carlo and I -  were me and Manang Bansiong then – fifty years ago. 

Oh, how time flies, we say, and it seems it was only yesterday.   
               
I helped my son re-create La Golondrina. The craft is still fresh in my mind and I was able to trace it easily step by step in making a replica of a lost thing.  When you have lost a thing you really love, it’s not easy to forget it.  And to forget it would lose the essence of that love itself.  It is memory that bridges love, a mentor with his pupil, like the great Greek philosophers.  The kite made a bridge for Leo Carlo, my son and me, his generation and mine.   

Leo Carlo carried his kite proudly among other kites, many of them – the dragon, the dancing lady, the castle, the airplane – and dashed across the football field with Marlo, his brother assisting him. And I, at the other end, held the string. We waited for the old friendly wind.

 Kite flying winning team led by Leo Carlo (right) UST 2006


Then it came, it came all the way from the North, and La Golondrina rode on it proud and dainty, resurrecting through time and space, flew above our heads, above the trees, above the grandstand, above the chapel and the tall buildings, and up into the blue sky.

I saw Caniao at the back of my mind, its water full and flowing.  Below is the meandering Banaoang River reaching out to the sea, and in the distance lies the blue green Cordillera.  There is a familiar tree, on its branch sat a beautiful bird. ~



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