In the southeast Pacific Ocean, there is a country whose history is written with the blood of tribe kings and the battlecries of revolutionaries. The Philippines, Pearl of the Orient Seas, is a nation of more than 7,000 islands, each made up of stories and secrets that would evoke childlike wonder in any listener.
If you travel to the north you’ll find magnificent mountain terraces hand carved by skillful tribes, to the south you’ll see traces of flourishing ancient cities that traded with foreign lands. But this story doesn’t unfold in northern mountains enveloped in mist or in southern kingdoms with gilded thrones. Instead it happens on a palm-fringed island surrounded by waters the color of precious emeralds.
As a country bordered on all sides by deep waters and vast oceans, it comes as no surprise that mermaids figure prominently in Philippine folklore. These mythical creatures are known as sirenas or bantay tubig, guardians of the water, strange sea folk blessed with otherworldly beauty and fishtails with sharp scales that glimmer like moonlight on a calm sea.
This particular tale follows a sirena with flowing midnight-colored hair and smooth caramel skin. Her great beauty was rivalled only by her gift in playing the ukelele, a four-stringed instrument like a small guitar. The sirena often basked on the white shores of the island and serenaded the island folk with her ukelele music.
The island is known for its hot summers during which the children go out on the seashore to play. One late afternoon, just as the sun was slipping into the horizon, the sirena noticed a group of children huddled together by the shore. They were laughing and using wooden sticks to poke at something. As the sirena drew near, she realized it was a sea turtle hiding in its shell, terrified by the children.
Horrified by what she saw, the mermaid cried out for the children to stop. Her fury sent them running away in fear. Holding the turtle in her hand, the sirena saw that it was badly hurt. She took it upon herself to heal the gentle creature but she could only do it in her kingdom deep in the sea.
The mermaid’s absence left the island lonely and silent. There was no longer ukelele music to lull babies to sleep, no strumming to rouse fisherfolk early for a day out in the sea. For many nights the village people wondered what had happened to their seaborn friend. The children who harmed the turtle were ridden with guilt, they knew their mischief must have somehow caused the sirena’s disappearance.
The Turtle’s Heirloom
Almost a month passed before the turtle’s wounds finally healed. He was strong enough to swim and so the sirena guided him back to his home, a quiet lagoon where the land meets the sea. Before leaving, the sirena received a curious present from her turtle friend. It was a huge gem, hardy like tree bark but smooth like a crystal.
The turtle explained it was a treasured family heirloom and he wanted her to keep it as a token for her kindness. Overjoyed with the wonderful treasure, the sirena thanked her newfound friend.
Music and Magic
The sirena was gifted in the art of magic and with a few enchanted words, she combined the beautiful gem with her ukelele. She could not wait to play music once again to the island folk whom she missed dearly.
The listless island awakened one morning to a sound that was familiar and new at the same time. It was soft like the caresses of a sea breeze and joyful like the rollicking laughter of a child. They knew at once that the sirena must have returned. It was a truly wonderful day, the beginning of many years filled with magical music, the kind that can only come from a turtulele.
Turtuleles are delicately crafted using fiberglass (not turtle shells!) which make them surprisingly lightweight and waterproof while producing the delightful tropical sound everyone loves.