Planet Magazine No. 3 - Fantasy & Legends
Merbabe

The Bell, The Bridge, and The Binalatongan River Maiden

by Romeo Esparrago

In the country of the Philippines lies the kingdom of Pangasinan, so named because
of the riches borne forth from the Asin (salt) that comes from its earth. There is a town
named San Carlos in that land. This town was built in the 18th Century, rising alongside
and across the San Juan River from the older village named Binalatongan.

During that period, Spaniards still ruled the land and a rebellion was taking place. The
freedom fighters were in retreat. The Spaniards were better armed, better organized,
better led, and more numerous in their number of soldiers. They were fast approaching
Binalatongan.

In a church of that village, there existed what was then the largest bell of the country, the
Bell of Binalatongan, wrought of iron, laced with copper and gold flakes, and etched with
strange, unknown markings. It was prized by the entire community and admired by all
who came to visit.

It was said that this bell originally had been taken from an Aztec or Mayan temple from the
newly conquered America and had been transported by the annual galleon’s voyage across
the Pacific. Legend also had it that the Bell was originally a sacrificial altar, and when the
Conquistadors brought it to the Philippines they turned it upside down and changed its
purpose to that of a church bell. Villagers whispered that it still retained its magical
powers.

In the village church where this bell resided lived a young maiden named
Mangatarem. Her task was to care for the Bell.

At the height of the rebel retreat, Mangatarem sensed that the Spaniards were beginning to
close in on the village. Mangatarem began to ring the Bell, warning of their coming.

The community decided to burn down Binalatongan to slow the Spaniards and prevent the
remaining rebel forces from entrapment and destruction.

As the villagers began to abandon their homes and set fire to the buildings, Mangatarem
could not bear to leave her beloved Bell. The order was given to save it and a large cadre of
rebel soldiers came and brought the bell down. They tied it onto the biggest, most sturdy
cart they could find and gathered the town’s three strongest karabao (water buffalo) to pull
it.

The burdened cart was the last to approach the bridge that spanned the San Juan River,
with the karabao pulling, the contingent of freedom fighters and Mangatarem pushing. All
strained to get the bell across. Binalatongan blazed behind them. Cannon balls began to
land from the Spaniards, some bursting in the air above them, others exploding within the
conflagration, a few splashing in the river.

It has been argued that a cannon ball struck the bridge, but many believe the bridge
collapsed because of the enormous weight put upon it. One of the karabao had already
crossed, but two of the animals, the Bell, Mangatarem, and the soldiers fell into the river
as the bridge crashed into the roiling waters below.

All the beasts and the men were able to swim to the river bank and reach San Carlos. The
Bell sank into the dark depths of the San Juan River. Mangatarem was never found. The
Spaniards arrived and saw only the mounds and ashes of ruined Binalatongan and no bridge
to cross the river.

Eventually, the Spaniards were able to move forward and occupy San Carlos. The
rebellion, as with many that followed, was crushed.

* * *

Since then, many have tried to recover the Bell of Binalatongan. Spaniards,
Americans, and Japanese during their respective periods of occupation, as well as Filipinos
and other visitors to Pangasinan, have sought unsuccessfully to get their hands on the Bell.
But a strange story has arisen from the numerous failed attempts.

It is said that whenever the Bell is pulled from its watery grave, something would grasp it
and pull it back: a pale figure, purported to have the face and upper figure of Mangatarem
but to have the lower shape of a fish.

The place where the village Binalatongan once stood is now overgrown with weeds and
vegetation. No marker identifies its location. The deep river still cuts its course through
there. Within its folds, the San Juan River retains its hold on the Bell of Binalatongan and
on its guardian, the mermaid named Mangatarem.   
 

Story and illustrations copyright © 1994 Romeo Esparrago

(Editor's Note: This story has appeared in AOL's Fiction libraries.)

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