The Grotto

By Angelie Tumaghap Martzke, Michigan.

Iloilo Province in Panay, Philippines.

“My dad said he saw something in here yesterday,” Reeza said. “Amelia, when did you get here? Do you have insects in America? Ants? Worms? Caterpillars?”

 “I got here a few days ago. Yeah, we have bugs.” I replied, trembling. “Do you like them?”

 “Yeah, they’re cute. You might see a few in here today.”

Do I really want to go in there with all these slimy, creepy bugs? Yuck, I thought. But she seems nice and I’m finally meeting someone my age.

We were standing as tall as the grotto, a small cavern of rocks my grandparents gathered years ago from the Panay Gulf beach across the street. It was a house for various statues of animals carved by a local artist from the village. A frog, a turtle and a carabao stood strong, stationary, and well-preserved from the scorching Philippine sun. Reeza gently placed her left hand on the arch to peer inside. I did the same with my right hand, feeling secure touching the coarse, solid entrance.

“It smells in here. It’s been rainy this June.” Reeza pointed to the cracked ceiling as she carefully knelt in between the statues. “How long are you going to be here with your grandpa?”

“It’s cooler in here. I’ll be here until Sunday. Then to my aunts’ for school,” I replied, ducking my head in and kneeling on the prickly, pebbly ground. I gently wiped the sweat pouring off my forehead now that we were away from the morning sun. I wondered when I’ll stop sweating and get used to the heat like everyone else here.

We surveyed the black, grainy floor. My right hand unknowingly grabbed something furry and squishy on the grotto wall.

I let out a piercing yelp.

“What is it?”

“It was just moss. Sorry,” I said.

We returned to exploring the darkness. Then a deep, rumbling call echoed inside.

“Have you been to the beach?” Reeza asked. “Let’s go there tomorrow morning and see if the fishermen caught some sharks. I want a picture with it.”

Yuck, I thought. Sharks seem slimy.

Tookoo! Tookoo!* Big, bulging eyes glowed towards me.

“Eeeek!” I screamed and we hurriedly stepped back.

A gecko the size of my arm scampered out of the cavern, climbing up and blending in with the banana trees behind the grotto.

“He’s harmless,” Reeza replied. “He’s usually inside a house. He sleeps during the day and is up at night looking for bugs to eat.”

“What was he doing here?”

“Maybe cooling off,” Reeza said. “Do you guys have geckos where you come from?”

“None in Michigan.”

“We’re used to them. They’re everywhere here.”

House Geckos? Shark fishing? Bugs everywhere? Will I fit in?

We stooped back into the grotto. My gaping mouth caught the salty sweat running down my forehead. I swallowed and breathed deeply, relieving the cottonball feeling stuck in my throat. Reeza waved me in.

“I can’t. Bugs creep me out and I’m scared of geckos, sharks and whatever else is here,” I said, lowering my head towards my flip-flops. “Maybe I should just go home now.”

“Oh!” Reeza gasped, her finger pointing at me.

A gust of wind whistled and relieved us from this tropical heat. I slowly eyed the right side of my face without moving a muscle in my body. Something was dangling, gently caressing the side of my cheek.

“Run!”

We squealed, bumping into one another on the way out. We bolted out of the grotto and leapt across the front yard. My heart was pounding, my legs were wobbling forward, one after the other. Somehow, we managed to reach the driveway. We collapsed on the cement, panting, and clutching our heavy chests.

“Look!” I yelled, pointing to her back.

Reeza shrieked and pranced in a circle, her hands waving up in the air. She’s a girl on fire. As I peeled the snakeskin off from her shirt, she slumped down and brushed her body with her hands.

“Thank you,” Reeza said, panting.

We examined this leathery object.

“It’s actually soft.”

“So pale and long.”

“My teacher last year brought snakeskin to school. She told us that snakes molt or shed their skin in one piece. They do this when they’re growing,” I said.

“I didn’t know that,” Reeza replied, tilting her head. “Snakeskins don’t scare you, but geckos and little bugs do?”

“I guess not,” I said, giggling. “I’m just not used to the ones you have here. Not yet anyway. Snakeskin is one thing, but a real snake is…”

“Gross.”

“Jinx.”

We sat, laughing and crying with the snakeskin in between us.

I wonder what else we have in common, I thought.

“Do you like soccer?”

Playing Soccer in Pototan, Iloilo Province, the Philippines.

“I love soccer!” Reeza said, beaming. “Let me get my ball and see if anyone else wants to play. I’ll be right back.”

  • Author’s Note: Tookoo! Tookoo! is the sound that a lizard makes.

Photos and story by Angelie Tumaghap Martzke, Michigan. She adds: “I was born in the Philippines and grew up part of my childhood there in my grandfather’s house... This story, set in the Iloilo Province, is inspired by my actual experiences there. Since I was 9-years old, I have gone back every two to three years and continue to speak my language of Kinaray-a. My background is in Social Work, receiving my Master’s degree in Social Work from Columbia University in 2008. I have worked with teens and adults providing individual, family and/or group therapy.”

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