PodCastle 618: Odd and Ugly

Show Notes

Rated PG-13.


Odd and Ugly

By Vida Cruz

I.

You come to my tree at high noon in July, sweating, panting, young. So very, very young. I can’t help staring at you: it’s like watching a walking, talking circular window with square glass stuck through it. I knew you’d come someday, but I’m still so stunned to see you that I disbelieve my own eyes. The small sack in one hand and the clay jar at your hip tell me that you mean to stay, too.

“Are you the kapre from the stories? The one with the shell necklace?” you ask, your voice high and clear. You set your jar down and gather your long, sweat-dampened black hair over your shoulder, away from your nape, as you glance up from under your straw salakot. Your eyes are the color of tablea chocolate bubbling in a cup. I’m startled that I remember so human a sensation.

“That depends,” I say. I lower myself so you can see me, a thing moving and detached from the canopy of leaves above, although I’m of the same hues. Humanoid, but decidedly not human. I catch your gaze falling on my necklace: several cowrie shells strung together with black beads and woven thread, with a single shell hanging from the middle like a pendant. Your expression becomes momentarily unsettled; maybe you’re startled by my ugliness, just like all the other passersby whom I like to scare. Whatever it is, you shake it off, and the action comes from inside you: a slow resolve that hardens your features and makes you cling tighter to your small sack of belongings.

Your boldness is commendable, as always.

I ask you two questions that I already know the answers to: “Who is everyone? And who are you?”

“Everyone is the town, and I am Maria,” is your simple answer. I thrill to hear your name. “My tatay owes you a debt.”

I remember your father as a frightened young man, clutching a mango stolen from my tree, begging for forgiveness and blabbering about the cravings of his pregnant wife. It feels as if that happened only yesterday. “Ah, you’re that Maria. You’ve grown.”

You ignore that. “What’s your name?”

I laugh, long and low. “Oh, no. You haven’t earned that yet, ’neng. And you shouldn’t wander out here by yourself. The town’s tongues will wag about you meeting a lover.”

“Let them wag.”

“The Guardia Civil will say that you’re conspiring with revolutionaries.”

“I don’t care about that.”

“The friars will denounce you as a witch.”

It takes a while, but you give me a slow nod. I’m impressed, though I have no proof that you truly understand the implications of your declarations. You say, “I’m not afraid of them, señor. I’ve come to erase my tatay’s debt.”

Señor. I’ve been called many things in my long life, and most of them unpleasant — but never that. The irony tickles me.

I drop to the ground and straighten my back. You barely surpass my collarbones. But my height isn’t what gets your attention — you realize that I’m wearing nothing but a loincloth.

Your gaze snaps back to my face, though your cheeks are pink-tinged. I grin at your discomfort.

“Erase his debt with what? Another mango?” I know I’m being difficult, but what other way is there to be? This was never going to be an easy situation for either of us. “I’ve no use for money, and I have everything I need in my realm. Are you going to offer me yourself, ’neng?”

You pout. Your bushy eyebrows meet, and your lower lip sticks out, an arresting dash of pink in your sun-browned face.

You’re making quick mental calculations.

I’m fighting that part of me that has always adored you.

“Yes,” you say in an even tone, flooring me once again. You always were so quick to take up a challenge, as on the day your father first asked if you would like to learn to hack stalks of sugarcane with a bolo knife. I just marvel to see it up close.

And then you add: “I’m going to offer you my services, señor. As your housekeeper.”

I don’t fight the part of me that is also irritated by you.


II.

It doesn’t work that way, a human woman un-courted by a kapre shouldering her way into his tree. I’m supposed to chase you first. I’m supposed to leave small gifts around your house, and you must come to me willingly. I’m supposed to choose you — or so other kapre told me long ago, when I still attempted socializing with them. I’ve never actually courted human women before. But here you are, choosing me — or my home, at least — and I can never refuse someone passage when they wish to enter my home.

“I don’t have a house to keep!” I huff.

“Then I’ll be your tree-keeper. Or your realm-keeper,” you shoot airily over your shoulder as you make your way down my halls. “This is a good deal, you know? You don’t even have to give me wages or anything more than a place to stay! I only have to work off the debt!”

I grumble, “You’ll just mess everything up, ’neng.”

You don’t know your way around, and I’m not going to give you a tour — I didn’t formally agree to you being my housekeeper, after all — yet you seem unconcerned with becoming lost. I guess you’re that confident that you’ll get to know all the firefly orb-lit tunnels and caverns, all the gardens and groves that I’ve filled with collected human treasures — and all the various flora in between — the same way you know your own home.

Still, that doesn’t stop me from pulling you by the shoulder when my giant Venus flytrap’s jaws snap across the path ahead.

“Be careful, ’neng!” I say, and remember too late what I shouldn’t have said. On cue, the whispers begin.

Is that her?

Don’t be stupid, that is her!

Who?

You know — her!

She’s not very pretty, is she?

I thought she’d be prettier, too.

“I’m right here, you know!” you call out, and I can’t help but laugh from deep in my gut. First, because their discussion about you is honestly amusing and second, because I’m relieved you stopped them from saying anything more.

Nearby, the fire tree — delonix regia, who prefers to be called Delonix — whispers to me alone, That is her, isn’t it?

“It is.”

If Delonix were a person, she would nod. She is something like my second-in-command here, the queen of all the flora by some unspoken agreement. She is also my eyes and ears around my realm. How do you plan to go about this?

“Go?”

I assume you have a plan or you would’ve handed her the stone by now —

“Delonix,” I snap. “Not here.”

Honestly, you weren’t supposed to be here yet. My intention was to let your father know someday in the distant future that I wanted my debt paid. He wasn’t supposed to send you here before that day — so what happened? But I put off asking you in order to introduce you to the flowers. I show you to them all — the spinning vine flowers, the luminescent flowers, the rotting corpse flowers, the toothed flowers, the flowers with faces. I rattle off their names like a carpenter hammers a nail in wood, and I’m impressed when you echo them with accuracy and grace.

“What amazing flowers you all are,” you say with a smile that comes from your entire being. You stroke the flowers who allow themselves to be stroked and bow to those who demand to be bowed to. “I look forward to working with you all from now on!”

I allow myself to think just for a fraction of a moment that maybe you can handle yourself around here, that maybe it will be nice to talk to someone who isn’t rooted to the ground or clouded in malodor. Then I push the thought down like a stone in mud.

I’m glad you’re here, but that doesn’t mean we can be easygoing with each other.


III.

In August, you discover very quickly that being a housekeeper in my tree is more like being a gardener. Those flowers don’t all get hungry at the same time, and not all for the same food. Some of them tend to go on and on about their myriad personal woes or else the tedious gossip of the plant kingdom. Day and night do not pass like they do in the world outside my tree, but I can say with certainty that feeding and talking to everyone is two days of work.

Yet you listen to them all as if your very life depends on it — and in some carnivorous cases, it truly does. You pass sufficient judgments on debates and arguments when called for. You don’t appear to be tiring out anytime soon; in fact, you move as if you already belong here, as if you’ve only just returned to your home. The only thing that gives away your humanity is that you decline the flowers’ and the trees’ offers of fruit and honey. The fact that you still climb out of my realm to gather your own food and water every now and then means that you don’t intend to stay forever. No one may eat anything in a kapre’s realm and expect to live in the wider world again.

I don’t tell you that women who end up in kapre trees are not meant to leave. I don’t tell you that it is completely within my power to bar your passage out. I don’t tell you that I’ve made an exception for you. If you already know all this, you’re not letting on.

Somehow, you’ve also found out — likely from Delonix — that I sleep in the acacia grove. Or maybe the smell was a giveaway, I don’t know — I’ve been told for years by various creatures that the ash from my cigars can be smelled from miles away. Between feeding and talking to the flowers, you’ve somehow made time to sweep the ash from the grass. While I’m grateful for the cleaner grove, you’ve also displaced and rearranged my cigar stash. In fact, you’ve done that for all the objects in the grove: shiny trinkets and love letters and parasols and all manner of things that people have lost in the forest outside over the years.

When I discover this, I draw myself up to my full height. I bare my teeth as I tower over you. You stand there scowling up at me, defiant like a lit lantern in darkness.

“I knew you’d mess everything up, ’neng!” I growl. “I can’t find anything!”

“Señor, if you just let me explain my categorization system, then you’ll be able to find everything,” is your none-too-gentle answer.

“I don’t want anything categorized! I want everything where they were before!”

“Well, I can’t put them back in the exact mess I found them in,” your tone has grown frosty with logic now. “That’s unreasonable.”

“Unreasonable?” I thunder. I know I’m being unreasonable. I’ve lived the way I liked, alone, for so long now. Someone else coming here and touching my things reminds me of a more distant time, when I couldn’t own anything. I know I’m reacting to those times, but it’s too late to stop being irritable. “What’s unreasonable is this arrangement! I’m going to pay your tatay a visit — ”

“No, no, don’t!” You are about to reach for me. I know it, you know it. But something holds you back; I’m willing to bet that it is my ugliness and quite possibly my glower. You lower your hands to your sides; they continue to twitch, so you ball them into fists. “Don’t do that, señor. I swore to my parents I’d work off tatay’s debt.”

Something about the way your head is bent, the way your fists uncurl and pluck at your checkered saya, the way your slippered feet dig into the ground where you stand makes me uncomfortable. What aren’t you telling me, I wonder? At last, I say, “All right. I won’t. But next time, you better let me know before you clean around here.”

You chuckle, a small sound. “The cleaning was as much for my benefit as yours.”

I feel the irritation rising in me again. “What do you mean?”

“I’m sleeping in the calachuchi grove next to yours,” you say. It is astonishing, now that we’ve moved on from the subject of your father, how unruffled you are — either with this statement of yours or the fact that faint clouds have begun billowing from my nostrils. “And I can smell your revolting cigars from there.”

“Then why didn’t you categorize the stuff there, ’neng?” I spit out “categorize” like a mouthful of santol pits.

“Oh, I already have,” you say that as if it’s something I already should have known, and I guess I should have. You always did appreciate order. “I just came in here to do something about the stench and accidentally moved some things. So I thought I’d do something nice for you and clean your grove.”

That knocks the wind out of me. I know you learned your thoughtfulness from your mother — I’ve seen you help her help your elderly neighbors carry bayongs brimming with fish and vegetables from the wet market to their houses. You’d make a fine wife for a human husband — and because I let my guard down just a little, the words spill from my mouth before I can censor them. I regret saying this up until the moment you lower your head.

“Anyone who’s heard of me already thinks I’m a troublesome woman,” your tone is subdued, just as when we discussed your father. It really doesn’t suit you. “I’m not afraid of the new high-and-mighty haciendero snatching up our lands, or the Guardia Civil, or the friars in their big churches. My neighbors say that makes me odd, even dangerous.”

Anger curls in the pit of my stomach. Oh, if that miserable town only knew. “Then no one in that town deserves you. Even a blind man can see that that makes you brave.”

You look up at me again. The big brown pools of your eyes are gleaming.

“Thank you, señor,” you say, your voice lowered to a breath. I can’t help watching your lips form over the words.

I turn away from the desire to kiss you — from you — for all the good it will do.


IV.

“Why do no other creatures visit you, señor?”

“Because I don’t want them to. And most aren’t as thick-faced as you, ’neng.”

You let go of the yellow-stained blanket you’ve been washing in the stream running through my realm, stand up, and give me a dainty curtsy. Your hair falls forward; you’ve taken to wearing calachuchi flowers in it lately. I don’t say so, but they and their sweet fragrance become you. “What a lovely compliment! Thank you, señor.”

I choke a laugh on my cigar. The embers fall on the branch where I lounge, then to the grass. The flowers nearest me call to each other, Look out! You’ll get burned! while the rest giggle and titter with — and not at — your sense of humor. Some of them say to me, She’s as thick-faced as you! They’ve gotten even bolder with your coming.

You return to the washing. “There’s something else I’ve been wondering about.”

“Ah, no end to the wondering with you, is there?”

You don’t answer back, but I could swear that there is a hint of a smile in the slight profile I can see from my vantage point.

“When I was little, my parents and neighbors used to tell me stories of the diwata of the mountain before she disappeared. Where is she now? Surely she visits you?”

The diwata of the mountain! The diwata of the mountain! The flowers chant in singsong.

I hush them. I don’t know what to say to you, though, and you can tell. You spin around to find me tapping more ash from the cigar.

“No, she does not,” I say at last.

You bite your lip.

“The diwata doesn’t visit anyone now, ’neng.”

“Isn’t that worrying?” you ask. You’re crumpling your saya in your hands again, as you always do when you’re anxious. “The elders say that she hasn’t been seen by anyone for hundreds of years! I thought maybe she kept to her kind or so, but if she doesn’t visit even you — ”

I support my weight with the branch and lean forward, my interest piqued. “Why are you so worried about her, ’neng? She was long before your time.”

“I — ” You stare at the grass now. You quiet down as you wrestle with some inner turmoil. “I guess I thought that she’d answer the pleas of her supplicants. I thought she’d protect us from the abuses of the Kastila. If not her people, then her lands.”

I lean back against the trunk. “’neng, if you’re under the impression that the diwata is all-powerful, then you’re mistaken. The friars came to her promising friendship. By the time their corruption came to light, they’d already turned most of the population to their god. She couldn’t drive out the Kastila without help, any more than you can.”

You sink to your knees. “So she’s abandoned us for good?”

“Hah! Never,” I take a puff from my cigar. “She can’t abandon you any more than she can abandon her mountain.”

“So where is she?”

I hesitate. “Diwata will be found when they want to be found.”

“But will she come back?”

I meet your gaze. Worry swims in it. How young you are, how naïve, how innocent.

“Someday. I’m sure of it.”


V.

As someone who never had anything, I wanted everything. And yet, how I was ever unsatisfied with spending long days and nights counting stars and fireflies and loving the diwata of the mountain the best way I knew how baffles even me. I wanted to be able to change into animal forms like she could. I wanted so badly to know what it was like to be not me, not in my own skin.

We fought about this a lot, but somehow, I won in the end. Slowly, the diwata began to teach me the secrets of how to change into a chicken, a dog, a goat, a boar, and so much more. Despite her reluctance with all this, she’d always laugh whenever I stopped the transformation halfway. I’d be sprouting feathers or four hoofed legs or a beak or tusks or a bushy tail.

Sometimes all at once. We liked going to the river and laughing at how ugly I looked every time I did this. Anyone else would’ve been frightened by my grotesque appearances, but not her. And still, she remembered to warn me that if I favored one form too long, that form becomes mine.

I think my newfound powers gave me a lengthened lifespan, for I noticed that people entering the forest brought more advanced weaponry and machinery with them and the natives wore more and more Hispanized clothing. Continually turning into different animals and learning how to move like them gave me their strength, as well.

I began some dangerous experiments soon enough. If I could stop the transformation halfway through the process, couldn’t I contain the transformation to just one or two parts of me? I made myself grow twice my height and shrink to a child’s size. I started hiding in trees and changing my skin to match the leaves and branches, the way I’d seen kapre from other forests do. My gauge for success was being spotted or not by passersby.

But the day came when my skin wouldn’t lose its arboreal colors, and I couldn’t return to my true height. I couldn’t change a thing about myself for a long time, and there was nothing even the diwata of the mountain could do about that. She had to start visiting me in my tree-ish hiding holes. Eventually, the power to transform returned to me, but I could never hold a new form for long. Even when I learned to change back into my human appearance, I could feel my old skin covering me like an ill-fitting suit. It was no longer who I was; I was stuck as an ugly tree giant, and it was all my fault.

The diwata claimed she didn’t care how I looked. I wished I could believe her. I truly hated what I’d become, and I allowed that hate to overpower her voice. My only defense, albeit a flimsy one, is how keeping up my human appearance whenever we were together took up the energy that should’ve gone to listening and understanding her words.

And then one day, I hid myself from the diwata, knowing that her finding me was no easy task, given that I wasn’t born on or around the mountain. I took up residence in a mango tree relatively near the town, knowing that she wouldn’t dare go near. The town was now the territory of another god, after all.

I heard a rumor many years later that the diwata had taken to wandering the forest as a human woman and calling out a name — mine. I’d missed the diwata ever since, but it was this news that finally tugged my guilt free of the mire of my self-absorption. I left my tree in search of her.

And when I finally found the diwata, it was the moment before the cliff rocks crumbled beneath her feet. Even that moment was too late.

I’ve been trying to atone for my stupidity ever since.


VI.

It’s early in October, and you are sifting through a pile of lacy mantillas in the santol grove when you find a book. You are so engrossed in your reading that you don’t notice I’ve just returned from an afternoon of intimidating humans who wish to sleep, eat, pray, or make love under my tree. I squat so that my shadow doesn’t fall over the pages like your hair does.

When the diwata and I first met many years ago, it was me in the grass, exhausted, hungry, bleeding, and her standing over me, fresh as sunshine. That night is now literally lifetimes ago, and seeing the way we are now, I ache for it.

When you finally let out a short laugh, that’s when I ask you what’s so funny.

You jump. The book falls to the grass. “How long have you been there?”

“Long enough,” I say. “So what’s so funny?”

You pick up the book and flip to the page you were last reading. There is a drawing at the top of the page of a boy bending over a crab. The rest of the page is a block of squiggly, flourished text.

I frown at it, vaguely remembering it from when I first flipped through the pages. This book was left on a boulder down the path from my tree a few years back.

“You think a boy and a crab are funny?”

You giggle. “It’s just so stupid! A lazy boy buys a crab from the market and then tells it to go back to his house so that he can take a nap!”

“Huh? That really is stupid.”

You’re growing more and more confused, and I begin to realize my mistake. “Haven’t you read this before?”

When I don’t answer, you can only say, “Oh.”

A week later, I am walking past your grove when you sprint out and nearly collide with my back. I turn around; you wave a book frantically in my face. “Let me teach you how to read, señor!”

My mouth twists to one side. I’m doubtful. “Why would I need to learn to read?”

“How can you not? You’ve got so many books in here!” You gesture at the calachuchi trees. “I found five in there, alone! Many of them are religious, but not all! It’d be a waste!”

I tell you a half-truth. “I just like looking at the pictures, ’neng.”

You whack my arm with the book you’re holding. I flinch, but do nothing. You seem to be getting comfortable with me, at least. “Not all books have pictures — definitely not all the books you’ve collected. Señor, I think you’d enjoy them more if you could read them!”

Your passion amuses me, impresses me, even, but I really don’t want to do this. “’neng, I have better things to do with my time.”

Your eyebrows almost disappear into your hairline. “Like what?”

I turn away with a smirk. “Smoke.”

That night, you’re not in your grove. You’re not in any of the tunnels or caverns we frequent. You’re not even outside my tree. My hand creeps up to the pendant of my cowrie shell necklace. The power within the pendant allows me to see anyone I wish no matter when it is or where they are. But when you were born, I swore that I would use it to check in on you only once a year, on your birthday, for the last twenty years.

This is how I know that you have good parents, as they always strive to teach you something new on your birthday — like when your father taught you to plow your fields with the family carabao when you turned three and when your mother taught you to prune and water flowers to sell at the market when you turned four. During the years when there was a little money saved up, they bought you something new, like slippers with embroidered roses when you turned fifteen or perhaps something novel and tasty, like that large jar of ube jam when you turned sixteen. On your last birthday, earlier this year, your parents gave you a new baro and a checkered saya — the same ones you were wearing when you came to me. You embraced them, happier than I’ve ever seen you. I thought then that if you’re that happy, then I should be happy, too.

I have so far kept my promise, but I’m frazzled enough about your disappearance to break it just this once. Luckily, Delonix whacks my shoulder before I do.

Calm down, she says. She fell asleep in the bamboo grove south of here.

I’m ready to run there the moment I receive the explanation. “What’s Maria doing there?”

She’s been gathering all the books she can find in the groves.

“What for?”

Isn’t it obvious? She’s building a place just for books. She’s determined to teach you to read.

I find you in the grove Delonix described. You are lying on your side in such a way that I deduce you fell asleep sitting down and then toppled. A book pillows your cheek and a line of drool runs down the same cheek. Your fingers are squeezed in between the pages of another book while two firefly orbs float above you. A third orb reveals that more books are scattered around you in piles half my height. Have I really picked up that many books from the forest? Why are humans forever losing books in there?

I lift you. You’re heavier than I expected, but not all that much trouble to carry. In your grove, I cover you in a worn, time-stained blanket and put a thin pillow under your head, its fluff all but gone. How have I let you sleep in such conditions?

The next night, I sneak into town disguised as a stray dog because I don’t want to have to expend precious energy fighting people who see me as a monster. In my true form, I steal a whole four-poster bed from some rich young mestiza while she’s out visiting her lover. I take some of her dresses and shoes for good measure, too, so that you don’t wear out the clothes you arrived in. It’s not easy, avoiding the Guardia Civil’s night patrol with heavy furniture in tow, but I manage it with a few more disguises. I hide the bed and the clothes in the forest and return to the town, long enough to watch the mestiza enter her house just a little after dawn and scream for the Guardia Civil from her bedroom window.

I let you think that the bed is just one more abandoned thing I picked up in the forest, partially because I have fun teasing you that rats have made their home in there. I even threw in two weeks’ worth of fruits from the trees beyond my tree. You’re grateful anyway, though you point out that I could’ve given you this bed and those clothes when you first began living here.

Over the next few days, you alter the dresses to fit you, and they fit you well, indeed. When the fruits I got you run out, you still go out and gather your food from the outside world. Yet you look more well-fed and well-rested somehow. Funny how much difference a good bed makes.

When you show me the bamboo-turned-book grove and ask me if you could teach me how to read, I don’t refuse you.


VII.

You ask me after one of our reading lessons in November why I collect so much junk. I’m taken aback; I’ve never said my reasons aloud before. The flowers aren’t interested — they complain that the junk takes up space meant for themselves — and Delonix doesn’t question me about it.

I begin by pointing at a clock here, digging out a handkerchief there. The words come out in a trickle at first, and then like a river released from a rocky spring. I explain that all these things have stories, whether I witnessed them or not: that a mud-caked set of letters were left by a young woman in the hollow of my tree, where they went undiscovered by her lover for years; that a golden funeral mask was part of the loot some thief buried in a clay pot at the roots of my tree; that a noose was left behind when I scared away several Guardia Civil who were going to execute a poor farmer suspected of sedition and insurrection. And that was just a sampling of the objects I found on and around my tree. I’ve found countless other things in my jaunts around the forest and the mountain it surrounds, things I invent the stories for: pipes, picnic baskets, slippers with broken straps, salakots, rifles, swords, jewelry, coins, bouquets long since dried out, blankets, rosaries, furniture, food. Sometimes I find these bloody, sometimes muddy, sometimes torn, sometimes whole and new.

You hang on to my every word, rapt, hands clasped on your lap. Sooner or later, you’ll ask about my necklace, and when you do, I surprise myself with the ease with which I tell the story.

“It was my mother’s. It was the only thing she got to bring out of her homeland.”

You are sitting on your ankles when you hear this. You redistribute your weight, straighten your back. “You mean, you didn’t always live in this tree?”

“No. And I wasn’t always a kapre, either,” I say. I imagine my smile is bitter. “I wasn’t even born in this land.”

“Where were you born?”

Portuguesa. España’s rival nation. I was lucky to be brought up by my mother, but I was eventually sold from Lusitano to Lusitano, from Portuguesa to Brasil and back — and then finally to a conquistador de Castile headed for the Filipinas. Not long after we landed here, he made me help build the walls of Intramuros in Manila. And that’s when I ran from him.”

“I see.”

“Do you, now?” I squat to your level on the grass. “Kapre. Tree giant. Cafre. African slave. Kafir. One who does not believe in Allah. The meaning changes depending on who says it and where it’s said. I am all three things, ’neng.”

“And how did you end up like this?”

I feel my smile grow wider. “I asked for this.”

Your round eyes go rounder. “You…?”

“And I don’t regret it. Or at least, I don’t regret it now. Before, I owned nothing. Now, I own more than I’ll ever need. There is nothing to return to in my former life.”

Your gaze doesn’t waver from mine. “What do you regret, then, señor?”

I almost topple backward. “What?”

“Everyone has something they regret. You were human once; I don’t think you’re an exception to that.”

Images of a ground abruptly tapering into sky, a wisp of hair, a flash of white hem, and outstretched fingers race through my mind, suddenly free from the prison I’d locked them in. You reach up to touch my cheek. The gesture is so sudden, so very much like the way you used to do in the past.

“I’m sorry,” you say. Your eyes brim with pity. “It’s just, you looked like you were about to cry.”

The breath I take is sharp. Your touch, the memories — it’s all too much. I stand up, which knocks your hand out of the way. I excuse myself to smoke outside my tree. I know the excuse is a poor one and that I’ve never cared where I smoked before now, and that I just came back from a trip outside. But you looked so confused and so sorry, when it’s I who should be begging you for forgiveness. I can’t stand here a moment longer.

Why are you here? I’m not ready. I don’t know if I’ll ever be.


VIII.

I avoid you with an astounding single-mindedness for the next few days. I’m always smoking outside now; whenever you climb out to get your food and water, I conceal myself even higher up the branches of my tree.

However, that doesn’t mean I don’t watch you. To your credit, you don’t try to get my attention. You don’t even force me to take up reading lessons again. You simply go about your day in mechanical fashion: you wash old clothes and polish the rust off old metal, you water the flowers and listen to their problems, you eat and drink, but you’re not really focused on whatever task you have at hand. Twice, tears slide from your eyes. You wipe these away with vehemence. Was this really my doing?

No, you idiot, not everything is about you, Delonix snaps when I ask her. Maria misses her parents.

Ah. Why hadn’t I thought of that before? You must feel deeply alone here, despite the company you keep. I’ve certainly been no help.

I make a decision then and there. I find you in the calachuchi grove, folding handkerchiefs.

“Maria!” I call.

You lift your head, your mouth slightly open. You rise to your feet as if you will totter and fall if you don’t move with a deliberate slowness. “What did you call me?”

For some reason, I want to run away. I press my toes into the dirt, however, and grit my teeth as if my soul will escape through my mouth. “Your name. Maria.”

“That’s the first time I’ve heard you say it.” You sound like you’re floating.

Abashed, I soldier on and enter the grove. “I want to give you something. Hold out your hand.”

Your eyebrows furrow in suspicion, but you do as I say. I unclasp my necklace and drop it on your palm. Your suspicion is gone, replaced by confusion.

“This necklace is magic,” I explain. You look at me, blank and yet wondering. “If you think about the person or people you most want to see while wearing it, it will show you exactly where they are and what they’re doing.”

It’s a good thing you don’t ask me whom I’ve been seeing with it.

You go very still. Even your breathing is subtle. Your gaze probes me from head to toe, as if you’ll find some dark motives writ on my body. I shift my weight from foot to foot. I’m about to leave when you finally say, “Thank you.” The necklace circles your neck, your hands lost in your thick hair while you struggle with the clasps. Soon, you add, “I’m sorry, señor. Will you help me put this on?”

I want to help you and don’t at the same time. Yet you’ve never specifically requested my help before, and the truth is, despite how much I duck and hide and run, I want to give you everything you want. I grunt my assent, and you give me the necklace. I move to stand behind you. You’re so small that I have to bend my knees to level my gaze with the clasp. You part your silken hair and smooth the waves over your shoulders, allowing the scent of coconut milk and calachuchi to waft in my direction. You used to smell like that, long ago. It fills me with a longing that accidentally comes out in a sigh.

“Señor, is there any reason you’re tickling my neck?” you ask.

I almost drop the necklace. I can’t read your tone, and I have no idea what expression you’re making. I fight the urge to turn you around.

“I’m sorry,” I grunt as I slide the necklace around your neck once again. It’s confounding, how much easier it is to put this necklace on myself instead of someone else — or maybe it’s just you. I’m trying so hard to focus on the clasp instead of the places where I used to kiss you. I’m trying so hard not to touch your skin, but the clasp is ridiculously small and my fingers ridiculously large. Unavoidably, they brush against your smooth nape. Mercifully, you say nothing.

The moment the clasp is fixed in place, you spin around, and I back away half a step. Your eyes are downcast as you pull your hair behind your shoulders.

“Thank you,” you say. Then you lift your head, and there is this look you have that I can’t read — rather, that I don’t dare read. If I read it, I feel as if hope will seep into me, and I already know that that will be too painful to bear.

I gesture at the shell pendant. “Go on. Try it.”

Your fingers wrap around the cowrie shell. You don’t need to close your eyes, but you do. Nothing happens for a moment, and then all of a sudden, you are squinching your closed eyes and grinding your teeth. Your cheeks are wet with tears. If you pull on the shell anymore, you will give yourself burn marks.

“Tatay! Nanay!” you cry. So much anguish is packed in those two words.

As your legs buckle beneath you, I grab your shoulders. In my hands, they seem so thin and fragile. As gently as I can, I shake you. “Maria, Maria! What’s wrong?”

Your eyes open. More pearlescent tears fall. You grasp my wrists with what feels like all your strength. “Please, señor. You’ve been so kind to me — I shouldn’t ask you for more, but grant me this one request, and I’ll never ask for anything again,” you say, and I hate that you feel you have to beg me for anything. “Please let me go to my parents.”

I’d planned to tell you everything, actually. I’d planned to tell you that you’d died once, and who you’d been before you died. I planned to tell you that your soul had flown to the nearest vessel — your parents had been making love some ways down the mountain — but that I’d kept a piece of it, safe, for the day when you’re ready to hear all this. I’d planned to tell you that some months later, your father stole a mango from my tree and that I’d asked him to send you to me, someday in the distant future, in return. I’d planned to tell you that I couldn’t even make plans to tell you any of this since you first arrived, because I am a coward. Because I’ve been too afraid of what you’d say. Too afraid that you wouldn’t forgive me.

Instead, I’m paralyzed by the outpouring of your emotions and the fear that you’ll never come back if I let you go. Yet I cannot be selfish any longer — we’re here in the first place because of me. I won’t stop you while you pack or as you exit the passage leading to the outside world.

I slide my arms down in such a way that your grip on my wrists is dislodged. Your hands all but disappear in mine. Even your calluses are baby-soft compared to mine. Our gazes meet over my fingertips and their cracked nails. Tears give your eyes a glassy sheen; hope lights up your expression despite that. If only I could make it so that you’d never shed a tear again.

I say, “Take all the time you need.”


IX.

After you leave, I prepare to follow you. I’d always intended to follow you, to make sure that you reach your destination unharassed by drunken townspeople, lecherous friars, or suspicious Guardia Civil patrolmen. You’d reach your house, embrace your parents, and never know I was there.

As I stride up the passageway leading out of my tree, I walk past one of Delonix’s trees and pat the trunk. “Take care of everything while I’m gone.”

Aray! How would you like it if I whacked you square across the behind?

I scowl, but keep walking. “You seem crankier than usual.”

I’m a little sore. I gave Maria one of my saplings.

“What for?”

She said she was going to use them to mark her parents’ grave.

That stops me mid-stride. “What?”

You didn’t know? Delonix’s tone tilts subtly toward pitying. It takes much effort to refrain from kicking her. Maria was branded a seditionist and a revolutionary for spitting in the face of the haciendero who tried to claim her town’s farmlands. It’s likely that her parents were executed by the Guardia Civil for hiding her, or for failing to tell them where she went.

I drag my hands through my hair in frustration and admiration. Why didn’t you tell me? I voice that question aloud, too.

She didn’t know they were dead until she was shown that vision. And even then, she didn’t tell you the truth because she didn’t want you following her and getting hurt on her account.

“Of course I’d follow her!” I bellow. I could punch Delonix, but she’d make me pay for it later. “I — ”

You what? Delonix’s tone is colder than the December chill. Whatever you feel for her, she certainly doesn’t believe it if she knows it! Do you know nothing about women after all this time? They need to hear you say things before they can believe them!


X.

My earlier fear of your never coming back, stirred by Delonix’s words, has me in its grip and lends urgency to every step. I cross the forest in the shape of a monkey swinging through the trees, and then a lone stallion galloping into the farmlands surrounding the town. Once in town, I become a dog and change course for the cemetery on a wooded hill to the north.

There are no guardsmen posted by the cemetery gate, which immediately arouses my sense of foreboding. No one accosts me while I change into my old human form and amble through the gate as though I belong there.

I soon learn why. In the corner of the cemetery reserved for unmarked graves, a dozen or so Guardia Civil, armed with rifles, have you backed against one of the angel-topped columns that break up the cemetery’s wrought-iron fence at intervals. You are the lone person dressed in black among a bunch of dark-blue uniforms. Your hands are raised above your head; further above your head is a single firefly orb, which they will no doubt use against you as evidence of witchcraft. At your feet lie a black lace mantilla and a spade. A fire tree sapling is planted in a mound of freshly turned grave dirt not too far away. Clumps of dirt still lie in the surrounding grass.

I change into a snake and slither to the back of the group.

A tall, blond-bearded man is talking. The orb-light reveals a sharp profile with a nose that could cut and piercing blue eyes. His body shifts a little, showcasing three medals pinned just above where his heart would be. He is likely the Capitan of the Guardia Civil.

“Binibining delos Reyes, long have we been searching for you,” he declares in heavily-accented Tagalog.

“You must not have been searching very hard, Capitan,” you say with your characteristic boldness. “I’ve been close by all these months.”

“You don’t seem to grasp the severity of your situation, binibini,” The Capitan’s expression is neutral as he speaks, but when his gaze drags over your person, it transforms into disbelief, and then outrage. “That’s Señorita Alonsa Chavez’s dress! So you are the thief! For certain you stole her bed, too!”

“Yes, Capitan, because I am big and strong enough for such a task.”

The Capitan wavers for a moment, then clears his throat. “Maria Esperanza Gabriela delos Reyes y Dagdag, you are hereby under arrest for sedition against the crown of España — ”

“Such a weighty charge for someone who merely spat in the face of a petty haciendero stealing a poor town’s lands — ”

“ — theft, resisting arrest — ”

The Capitan’s speech bores me, so I don’t let him finish. I change into a man, grab a rock bigger than my palm, and ram it against the back of a guardsman’s helmeted head. It makes a dent in the man’s helmet and he crumples like a fallen doll.

The metallic clanking draws the attention — and the rifles — of rest of the patrol. As the guardsman falls, I snatch his weapon and hit his neighbor in the gut with the rifle butt. He goes down faster than a bag of rice.

“El cafre!” the Capitan shouts. “Bring him down, alive!”

I yell, “Maria! Run!

I change into a cricket as I pounce for the nearest guardsman. He pats and pulls his uniform all over, and three of his comrades crowd round to help him. But I have already dived for the ground, changing into a snake as I do. I wrap myself around a pair of booted feet outside the circle of commotion and pull.

The guardsman topples, taking everyone with him. His rifle accidentally fires, but the bullet hits the angel statue. I become a monkey and launch myself at another guardsman’s neck and use it to swing around and grab his rifle. The moment my simian fingers close over it, I am a man again, rolling on the ground. I swing the rifle at his legs and shoot another in the knee.

And that’s when a bullet finally gets me in the shoulder. I drop the rifle and clutch the wound. It’s been a while since I smelled my own blood; I’m surprised the scent is still metallic, still human.

“No!” you scream.

I raise my head. A guardsman has your hands behind your back. Meanwhile, the Capitan and the rest of the patrol surrounds me, guns pointed, even most of those I tripped up. Eight men, in all.

The Capitan examines me while the business end of his rifle is pointed between my eyes.

“El esclavo, el monstruo, el demonio!” the Capitan spits. To you, he says, “Binibining delos Reyes, you will also be charged with assisting a runaway slave and witchcraft.”

“He is a free man! Let him go!” you cry, to my surprise. Of all the things you could’ve said. It warms me to hear it, and my courage swells.

“I think not,” the Capitan smoothly answers. “A demonio such as this is neither free nor a man. Who shall pay the largest sum for this wretched creature, I wonder? The friars? The militia? Perhaps even the Gobernador-General himself? I can only imagine what they would do with such hell spawn as this, however — ”

I grin at the Capitan. “If I may dispute something you said earlier, Capitan, given how much Señorita Chavez spends in your bed, she needed neither her own bed nor her dresses.”

It is a stab in the dark, but it works. He goes red, as do you. Another shot hits its target, this time my thigh. I grunt, which turns into a groan as the Capitan plants his booted foot on the wound and presses down. The night I ran away from my former master is repeating itself.

The Capitan leans forward and looks down his long nose at me. “I won’t kill you, but I need not sell you in one piece!” he says.

Someone else groans, and we all turn toward the source. The guardsman holding you is a writhing ball on the ground, one hand on his foot and the other on his groin. As the Capitan turns his rifle on you, to my infinite surprise, you tug the necklace off so hard that it snaps — and smash the pendant against the column behind you.

The cemetery is flooded with light.

When it recedes, some guardsmen are on the ground while the others stagger between graves like drunkards. All are shouting and clutching their faces.

“My eyes, my eyes!”

“I can’t see!”

Dios mio! Help! Help!”

And in the midst of it all, you stand there radiant in white, flowers in your hair, power crackling at your fingertips, the orb haloing your head. Awe and pride bloom within me, a natural reaction every time I see you. Some things just don’t change.

While they stumble about, you remove the bullets and close the wounds of the men who’ve been shot because you don’t believe in unnecessary death no matter your form. Then you stand up and flex your fingers.

The ground trembles as the sapling grows into a sturdy tree before my very eyes. Branches as wide as a man and pliable as vines, with each movement creaking like ships and cracking like thunder, knock out the remaining guards with solid conks to their heads. They wrap themselves around the limp bodies and pin them to the wrought-iron fence, the Capitan last of all. What I’d give to see their faces once they awaken.

Yet my own vision is swimming, clouding, blackening. The last thing I see is you turning to me, running, kneeling at my side.

As my eyes close, I swear I hear you call out my name.


XI.

I wake with a start in my own grove, no longer bleeding or in pain. I can’t be blamed for thinking that everything that happened in the cemetery was a dream, or that I’d died. But neither situation is true. There is a slight pucker of a scar on my shoulder and its twin is on my thigh, both a lighter green than my skin. They twinge slightly when I stretch and when I walk, and I know they will be there no matter what form I take. My mind is on you, however.

Once I step out of the grove, Delonix says, Finally. I thought another day and night would pass with you unconscious.

He’s awake! He’s awake! Hundreds of flowers rustle and echo.

“Where is Maria?” I ask at large. Again, hundreds of voices make themselves heard, all with wildly different answers. But one voice speaks above them all.

“I’m here,” you say.

Stray giggles and whispers punctuate the sort-of hush that falls over the flora. I spin in the direction of your voice and drop to one knee, my heart pounding in my throat. I want to catch you in my arms and kiss you and dance all at once — but your face is blank, and what’s more, it will take three long strides to get to you. Why are you standing so far away? Are you angry with me?

You close the distance between us by two strides. “Why do you kneel? Stand up.”

“You are the diwata of the mountain,” I say, as if that will explain it.

“Is that all I am to you?” There is something in your question that makes me look up, wondering, hopeful. You hold your hand out as I do; my cowrie shell necklace, undamaged and completely whole, dangles from your fingers as you say, “This is yours.”

You’re both Maria the diwata of the mountain and Maria the human woman. Everything and nothing has changed. I feel as if magic lingers where your fingers brush mine when I take the necklace from you and put it on. To distract myself, I ask you, “How long have you known that the white stone was in the necklace?”

Your dark eyes bore into mine. I feel a little faint, but hold my ground. “Only when you gave it to me, and I had that vision.”

“It seemed like you never really wanted it.”

“I admit that I would’ve wanted to know about my parents sooner. But some part of me also didn’t want to know. Besides, you’re grumpy but kind. You didn’t treat me like a servant or a slave. I’d have been an idiot to leave such good conditions.”

Is that the only reason you didn’t leave, though? I’m disappointed, but I try not to show it. “And how long have you known about what the stone can do?”

“A week or two? Although small, strange things have been happening to me all my life: I could grow crops quicker, soothe the farm animals better, and any injuries healed unusually fast. What Delonix didn’t hint, I pieced together.”

You told her?” I raise my voice so that Delonix would know I was speaking to her.

She said hint. I only hinted. Besides, you weren’t going to hint or reveal a thing, Delonix said.

Not a thing! Not a thing! So secretive for no reason! The flowers whisper-scream.

“Good point,” I concede.

“My turn to ask questions,” you say. “Why didn’t you just tell me about any of this?”

For the first time since we started talking, I look away, down at my own huge, gnarled toes. I clench my fists. “I…I couldn’t. You weren’t ready to hear it, at first. And when you were…I still wasn’t ready to say it. I was afraid you’d never forgive me. I’m a fool and a coward, Maria.”

You say nothing for a long while, which makes me think that you are angry with me. I won’t blame you if you leave and never come back. Instead, your bare feet pad into view; I’m surprised when I feel your soft palms on either side of my face. I lift my gaze, startled by your nearness.

“Hmph. Well, you could’ve avoided getting shot if you’d just stayed home. I would’ve smashed the necklace anyway and handled the Guardia Civil by myself.” For the first time since we started talking, you smile, and it lights up your eyes. Perhaps you even feel the rapid beating of my heart; every part of my body certainly does.

“I don’t doubt that you would have,” I say. In spite of myself, my lips spread into a grin.

“Sweet talker,” Your hand trails down my face, down my neck, to the scar on my shoulder, causing a shudder to travel down my spine. You’re wearing a small frown, however, as you examine the pale scar. “I had every intention of telling you about my parents once I returned from marking their grave,” you say as you trace its grooves. “But I didn’t plan beyond that. The risk of me getting caught was too great.”

A single tear tumbles down your cheek. I think your parents would’ve been proud — as proud as I am, if not prouder — if they could see you now, and I say so. I catch another tear on the tip of my finger. You wipe the rest with the back of your hand.

“You weren’t meant to follow me,” you continue, resting your fist over the scar. “I didn’t want you getting hurt. It was like the night we met all over again.”

“How is it that you still don’t understand?” I press my hand over yours, flattening it against my chest. If you hadn’t felt my heartbeat before, you most certainly do now. “I would have followed you either way.”

It’s your turn to gaze down at my feet now. I rest my forehead atop your head and inhale its sweet coconut-and-calachuchi smell. My other hand circles your waist and pulls you closer.

I hear the flowers holding their breath. Some are squealing as quietly as they can. I’m too lost in these moments with you to care.

“Do you prefer me looking like a human?” I ask.

Your gaze meets mine. Our noses, our lips, are suddenly much closer. “Ezequiel, you idiot,” you say, your tears streaming, and although your voice is a touch irritated, I am thrilled to hear it saying my name, at last. “I prefer you. I’ve told you that countless times in different ways!”

I laugh, and as I do, I change into my human form and stop the transformation halfway. Greenish hues play against the black skin, and my hands and feet are of differing sizes. You giggle. Nothing’s changed, and it’s more than I deserve.

As I change back, I blurt, “Maria. I’m sorry — about everything.”

Your eyes fall on my lips. Your fingers are already trailing over them. “I already forgave you a long time ago.”

I take your chin and kiss you so softly, our lips barely touch at all. This is not the kiss I was hoping for on our first meeting in such a long time, but it is appropriate, given your mix of emotions.

But then you throw your arms around my neck and kiss me harder, longer. My disappointment melts away, as does time. You taste like rain after a long drought and sunshine and salt tears.

I missed you.

I realize that the flowers are cheering when we part.

Finally, you two!

Well, it’s about time!

I almost wilted from the suspense!

You take my hand and tug on it, gesturing down the path. Cheerfully, you say, “Come on, Ezequiel, those farmers could use a little nudge.”

I know what you’re thinking. “Toward the fires of revolution?”

“And then some.”

Always jumping in to help others. It’s one of the things I love about you. But it’s been so long, and just this once I’d like to be the only one on your mind. I tug your hand in the direction of my grove; you let yourself fall back into my arms, giving me the opportunity to plant three slow kisses down your neck.

“Couldn’t the fires of revolution wait until morning?”

You spin around and take my mouth in yours. “All right,” you say in lowered tones after we part. Lightly, you tap the tip of my nose. “But only until morning.”

About the Author

Vida Cruz

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Vida Cruz is a Filipina born, bred, and based in the Philippines. Her first short story collection Beyond the Line of Trees, which collects her take on Filipino myths and fairy tales in one illustrated volume, came out in August 2019. A Clarion graduate and Tiptree fellow, her work has been featured in Expanded Horizons, as well as various anthologies in the Philippines and abroad.

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About the Narrator

Don Pizarro

Don Pizarro photo

Don is a writer whose work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Crossed Genres, Lakeside Circus, and other places online and in print. He is also a graduate of the 2016 Viable Paradise Writing Workshop. You can find him online at donfoolery.com and on Twitter as @DonP.

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