Sunday Lifestyle

Puzzle sleuthing

- John Patrick F. Solano -


MANILA, Philippines - John Patrick F. Solano, 20, is a BS Applied Mathematics student at Polytechnic University of the Philippines. He was associate editor for his high school paper. “Writing defines me. I have a penchant for mind-boggling games like chess, Scrabble and Sudoku. In fact, I was the three-time defending champion in chess in our school when I was in high school and the NCR champion in the Philippine Sudoku Super Challenge for two consecutive years now in college.”

Puzzle sleuthing” means learning to use clues (e.g. letters formed in an incomplete word for crossword puzzle) to fathom how to complete a puzzle with speed and accuracy. It is a term I coined in my make-believe lexicon which is very similar to word sleuthing (a technique used in figuring out the spelling of unfamiliar words). I love using this detective work for it has helped me a lot of times.

As I go on a trip down my memory lane, I can vividly remember how my curiosity in solving puzzles like crossword and Sudoku puzzles, to name a few, has grown into an uncontrollable addiction. I crave it, live with it, and even dream of it! Each puzzle and I have created an unusual but integral bond where we seem to throb the same heartbeat of emotions and breathe the same air of success in its completion. It is as if I could hear its melodious rhythm, murmuring to me what letters to place in every white squares of a crossword puzzle, whispering to me what numbers to fill in every grid of a Sudoku puzzle…

When some people are under stress, they seek comfort food; I, on the other hand, seek puzzles to solve, which I call my “comfort activity.” Simply put, solving puzzles is in my system.

As puzzling as these puzzles I solve is David Almond’s Skellig. Written in lyrical prose, this children’s book is an adventure, a mystery and a family story. The story revolves around Michael, whose family has just moved into a new house. He and his parents worry about his premature baby sister who has a dysfunctional heart and needs to be hospitalized. He steps into the dilapidated garage and finds an arthritic man (or a strange kind of beast?); never does he know that this encounter would change his life forever.

He brings him aspirin, his favorite Chinese foods (menu order numbers 27 and 53) and brown ale. He notices that the man has growths in his shoulder blades and recalls a story that shoulder blades are the vestiges of angel wings. He later confides in his new friend Mina, an adventurous, knowledgeable, high-spirited girl, about the man in the garage. Before the garage is demolished, the two move the man into an abandoned house Mina inherited. Here, Michael and Mina discover that the man is not old, as the author is trying to impose and inculcate in the readers’ imagination; rather, he is young and handsome. Also, he unbelievably has wings, which are what Michael has noticed in their first few encounters. The man finally introduces himself as “Skellig” to the two children.

Then a turning point comes in Michael’s life when his baby sister’s condition worsens and she needs to undergo heart surgery. His mother stays in the hospital and dream about (truth is, she sees) Skellig holding the baby up in the air. The baby then survives the operation. Skellig bids farewell to Michael and Mina, thanking them for giving his life back again. In the end, they name the baby “Joy.”

Adventure stories always have a place in my heart for they pique my excitement. Characters in this genre work hard to overcome obstacles in their way. This exhilarates readers and this is the one defining quality I saw in the book: Michael and Mina working hard to help Skellig get his life back and the baby surviving the surgery with Skellig’s magical help. But the most admirable quality Almond stresses in the story is Skellig’s life’s shift from hopeless — almost lifeless — to a vibrant, optimistic one. The view into his character at the beginning invites dislike; at the end, it focuses on his positive outlook in life, which he once hurled in the pitch-black pit of resentment.

A columnist once wrote that the only books that truly impact your life are those books that you read at the right time. At the time I was reading Skellig, I had a dear friend who died of cancer. When I learned of her tragic death, I remained stationary in stages of denial and what ifs. The book kept me company during those dark times and lifted me up, as if I were also flying in mid-air. Turning each page of the book was like interlocking pieces of me in a jigsaw puzzle of realization. Piece by piece, I was able to relate to the story and found myself with a myriad of reasons to move on. The story taught me how to cope with sadness and disbelief overwhelming my sentience, just as Michael’s family did, having discovered the baby’s condition. It dawned on me that we should relish all the moments we have with our loved ones before the Reaper’s scythe takes away their life in a slash.

One might now ask, who or (more appropriately) what is Skellig? Is he a man, a bird, or an angel? Like a moribund flower under the scorching heat of the sun, my hope in finding who Skellig really is withered when it is not clarified till the end of the story. I admit I was quite disappointed, but it stirred excitement as well. As some puzzles wouldn’t want to be solved, Skellig’s true identity just can’t be unraveled (maybe for now) and is left as a mystery, a missing puzzle piece. The search is now on so if you’ll excuse me, I’ll have to find that missing puzzle piece through puzzle sleuthing and make sure that I’ll be the first one to unveil the mask of this mysterious but interesting puzzle.











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