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CAS for Database

Cathleen Balid

Queens, NY, USA

The Mary Louis Academy



Inay told me that when you were born, your body was like the dagat. You were blue and sickly, frozen and exquisite, twisting and linear. Your skin was bitter salt, and when you shivered Inay prayed to the god of fishermen and the god of death. She asked them to bear her child like Ama bore the net, to bathe him in the effusive audacity swept by the sea.

Inay told me that I was born like a pearl. She told me that I was small and round, unlike you, and that I glistened like liquid condensing on a glass.

“I thought Ama was your pearl,” I said.

“Your Ama is an oyster,” Inay answered. Her fingers were warm and smelled like incense. “You are a pearl.” Then she pressed a comb against my dark hair, her lips pressed like veins, and softened my hair with the gentle pads of her fingers.

When you were younger, you prayed to Magnindan. You sat on the boardwalk and stripped the wood until you squeezed sticky smooth fish skin, until your palms steamed from hot water. With fat fingers you pulled a fish up and smiled with your crooked white teeth. You took pleasure in choking the fish with your fist. Your young legacy: innards, flat pink and slimy on the splintered wood. Eyes yellow like an empty lighthouse.

Ama told me that you were blessed by Magnindan. He watched you more than Inay did, from the corner of his eye, as his fingers wrinkled with dusted stones and fish blood.  He watched as you plunged your feet into the sea and offered a lick of your skin, as you stole six pesos from his dirty wallet and used your tongue to run over its sandy grooves. He watched as you punctured a hole in a shell, waited for the reverberations to sear your ears. As you ran with shoes bought from the sari-sari and long limbs like parentheses, your body curving into a ripple, your shout mended into the wet exhale of the sea.

Inay used to say that the karinga belonged to you. She said that the festival was an expansion of your linen into rows of color, your stained fingertips on fish scales. She laughed at your cheeks, fat and sated on crab flesh as red as her printed lips, and said, “Anak, you are fed by the sea.”

Inay’s words froze the festival in time. There was the old manong with a gumless mouth, his suffocated fish. Your eyes glittering, wet like a newborn baby, drawn to the sea life. The pearls gliding from Inay’s teeth, pressed onto the raw hide of my throat: “These are yours to keep,” Inay’s fingers against my skin, pale with the pearl’s shiny luster.

You observed, like Ama observed, as I played softly with pearls. You didn’t speak, as if in foreshadowing. Perhaps you knew that it was your fate; that the pearls, caught by Ama, would become your deadened eyes. That your love for the sea would force you to steal from it–that you would run, circular,  in the edges of its treasures.

But then, at the karinga, your veins popped blue like the sea. An explosion.

When you found your first pearl, Ama called you a man. Maybe it was because your body flowed into profit, your limbs restricted into dense periods, like the crystals found in damp caves. Maybe it was because you, body made from salt, were cursed to love from the sea but never taste it. And we were cursed to watch you.

Inay told me that you whistled to the wind, like a plea to the gods. That your hands often trembled among the ocean that you loved, as if unfamiliar, your face shaded like the slippery slope of the sand.

“I thought that he had given up on prayer,” I said.

Ama, the pearl-catcher, did not catch your blank face, but Inay did. “A prayer will always come from a blessing,” she told me gently, her fingers smooth across the nape of my neck. “And a pearl will always be a pearl.”

Inay fingered the pearls strung across my neck; in them I glimpsed the glitter of the sea, your youth merged in its wide hunger. You, astray, shivering.

I placed the pearls on your rugged palms, your straight back in reflection, and watched as your body dissolved into the dagat.

Note: This piece was previously published in Surging Tide, March 2023.


Alluring and mystical, "Dagat" will pull you in like a strong tide. The mysterious interplay between the speaker and subject, the whispering presence of Filipino deities, and the way Balid weaves nature into bodily identity make this piece a wonder to behold.


Cathleen Balid is a teen writer from Queens, New York. Her work has been recognized by the Adroit Prizes, Columbia College Chicago, Roanoke Review, and others.

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