Dying Rivers and Broken Hearts
by Gabriella Buba
Manila, Philippines, 1936
Maria-Lucia had failed.
In her hand, a freshly struck agimat burned. The copper amulet pressed with the image of the Virgin Mary was hot with the power the coven had gathered from the full moon. Golden light streamed between her clenched fingers.
All eyes were on her, as her first meeting as leader of the Mallari witches after the death of her husband came to a close. The full moon sank into the black waters of Manila bay.
Pasig, the sea-dragon of Manila Bay, had not come to renew her pact with the Mallari Witches, nor to accept Maria-Lucia as their new leader. The dragon went by many names. She was a bakunawa to the sailors from Cebu. In Manila she was a laho, the moon chaser.
“Is it because of me?” Maria silently asked her witch-heart Lucia, “Because I’m not truly a Mallari Witch — only married-in?”
Lucia, normally euphoric after soaking up moonlight and magic with her coven, was hesitant. “I don’t know. She’s come to our call before, why not now?”
Her mother-in-law raised her hands from her seat on the edge of the circle, which was on the balcony below.
“It’s not unprecedented for the bakunawa to decline to appear until a new coven leader has introduced themselves properly,” she reminded the three dozen assembled witches.
Some stood down in the courtyard of the home. Some, like Maria-Lucia, were up on the tiled roof. Maria-Lucia had no memory of such a story about the great sea-dragon. The laho was the coven’s patron saint from before the Mallari witches adopted the concept of saints from the Spaniards. Still, no one dared nay-say the eldest witch present, not even Maria-Lucia’s brother-in-law, the second-eldest Mallari son. He firmly believed he should’ve been named coven leader, rather than his eldest brother’s wife.
Maria-Lucia would’ve conceded the title, if it wouldn’t have meant being cast from the coven and homelessness for herself, her ten-year-old daughter, and her four-year-old son. But she’d had a son, and so her branch of the Mallari line would hold precedence as soon as her son’s witch-heart named itself. She’d promised his father she wouldn’t give away his birthright.
She swallowed down her own and Lucia’s terrified uncertainty. “Forgive me. I’ve been so caught up in the funeral preparations; I did not think to reintroduce myself to Pasig. I will remedy my oversight without delay, and she will heed our call on the next full moon.” Maria-Lucia hung the rejected agimat offering around her neck. It scalded her sternum, full as it was with so much power.
She urged the assembled witches back inside the Mallari home, helping the titas and cousins lay out food and drink on long tables. The smell of crisp pork skin from lechon stuffed with crab and lemongrass filled the kitchen. Heaps of fresh white rice and garlic shrimp sat in large bowls.
As her mother-in-law hobbled to her place at the head of the table, leaning on her coral-inlaid cane, Maria-Lucia rushed to help her sit. She knelt and pressed her mother-in-law’s hand to her brow in a respectful mano-po.
“Is it true, Lola, what you said after the ritual?” she asked.
Her mother-in-law folded back the black mourning veil that hung from the brim of Maria-Lucia’s pointed bamboo salakót hat, studded with copper agimat sigils. “As a matter of fact, it is not, but now you have thirty days to find Pasig before my second son decides to make my first roll in his grave. Hay Nako . . . such a shame to be widowed so young.”
She patted Maria-Lucia’s cheek, then turned to pour herself a cup of ginger tea, “Aray, these old joints aren’t made for the night air of coven rituals!”
“How long has the river been dying?” Maria-Lucia wondered, as she walked the banks that in her youth had been teeming with life. There should’ve been herons perched on the edges of boats hunting silver minnows, flocks of glossy brown Philippine ducks dabbling in the shallows, and dozens of Manilenyos bathing and washing laundry along the dozens of steps down to the water.
“As long as our laho has been waning,” Maria’s witch-heart Lucia answered. The voice in Maria’s head was a woman’s, grown old before her time with shared grief. To be a witch is to be one who was two. There were those who argued it made witches better able to understand the mystery of the Holy Trinity.
Maria-Lucia remembered steaming afternoons spent in the cool embrace of the river, young people daring each other to make offerings to catch a glimpse of the hundred-foot-long laho. Her fangs had been like batangas swords and her copper scales big as kalasang shields. On the Pasig’s banks the titas washed laundry and gossiped. She remembered her friend Ada-Caylao’s body slipping brown and otter-like through the water, swimming laps around her, always just out of reach. The sound of Ada-Caylao’s laughter urging Maria-Lucia to dare strong currents and even hungry laho if it meant staying at her side.
But that had been many years ago, when Maria-Lucia was a girl, not now when she was the leader of the most respected coven in Manila. Her unexpected knack for imbuing light into agimat charms had won her the interest of the eldest Mallari son. She’d made the choice to no longer toil among the servant women pounding laundry on the river steps.
Maria-Lucia had chosen to be comfortable, even if it meant constraining herself to being a proper Catholic wife. Ada-Caylao had chosen freedom; more than that, she’d chosen blood. That had been a dark current into which Maria-Lucia couldn’t follow.
Blood witches didn’t enjoy the same tolerance as coven witches in the eyes of the Church. Catholics had strong doctrines about the role of blood. It didn’t help that it’d been blood witches who took the blame for centuries of resistance to Spanish rule. Further, it was hard to forget what gave blood witches their power, when every few years one would go violently and spectacularly mad, requiring the efforts of a dozen or more coven witches to contain them.
“Let’s not ruminate on all our griefs today,” Lucia urged. “Have we not lost enough?”
“Heartbroken at seventeen, widowed by forty-three, but you’re the one who insisted we walk the river. You haven’t said how this will help find our lost laho,” Maria said, her words ruffling her black lace veil.
“Not lost, we don’t know that. Perhaps she was only too tired to answer our call. She was so slim the last full moon,” her witch-heart insisted.
“The laho is a sea-dragon, but she was born of the river. It is dying, and so she is dying. I don’t know what you expect to find,” Maria pointed out.
Her witch-heart did not answer.
Instead of the faint salt of the nearby bay, there was only the fecal-sweet scent of raw sewage and a metallic tang of chromium salts from the tannery not far up river. Not even dengue-bearing mosquitos could spawn in the poisoned water. Not that this was any comfort.
Her husband, Emilio-Langit, had passed two weeks ago. He’d been a kind man, a loving father, and a skilled witch, which was exactly what she’d said at his funeral. His beautifully carved and blessed saints’ statues were in half a dozen churches and neighborhood shrines all over the city. But he hadn’t survived his second brush with dengue fever.
She’d known he wouldn’t pull through when an owl had taken up residence in the courtyard mango tree on the third day after his fever spiked. He’d refused all attempts to get him to a hospital, insisting he would die at home, surrounded by family. He’d also insisted that she take on his mantle as coven leader. She’d won the coven vote the night of his funeral, under the watchful eye of a black butterfly perched on the brim of her salakót hat. She’d disbelieved the superstition about souls returning to visit the bereaved until that night, but even those who’d disagreed with him were too afraid to deny the final wishes of the dead witch while that black butterfly watched.
Soon Maria-Lucia reached Ayala Bridge and crossed to the Pasig River’s lone island. Following the silent bidding of her witch-heart, Maria-Lucia headed under the bridge where the center pylon rested on the Isla de Convalencia. In a niche stood a statue of St. Joseph, carved by her husband’s hand, guarding the island from flooding. All around the feet of the statue nurses from the hospital had left offerings and lit candles.
Around the saint’s neck hung one of her copper agimat talismans. Later, she would repeat the Latin prayers graven on the back of the agimat, renewing the saint’s power, but first, she girded up her wide tapis skirts and waded down the concrete steps into the water.
She dipped the agimat she’d struck last night, imbued with the light of the full moon, into the current. She reached with Lucia’s magic, envisioning their power as glittering sand spreading through the river towards the bay, searching for the laho.
“Pasig!” she called, the echoes of her own voice returning in shivery reverberations. The river was so empty — no fish, no crabs, the clam beds buried under toxic sludge.
She was about to give up, already planning her speech to her brother-in-law beseeching him to adopt her son, when a small copper-scaled head no bigger than a carp broke the surface of the scummy water, bumping her knees.
“Dios mio, Pasig, what happened?”
The laho had been twice the size of a dugong when Maria-Lucia had seen her last. She offered the agimat to the shrunken creature who used two long prehensile tendrils around her mouth to pull the glowing disk in past razor-sharp fangs. The huge orange pearl at the center of her brow pulsed with light. Her frilled mane flared and the sinuous length of her body expanded, looping around Maria-Lucia’s knees, till she was almost six feet long.
Maria-Lucia touched the glowing pearl, and knew that Pasig was dying. Even if Maria-Lucia managed to feed her every shred of light she could pull from the moon until it went dark in the sky, Pasig would die because her river was poisoning her.
“You can’t stay in the river. Let me build a new home for your keystone.”
Pasig’s pearl pulsed with light and the laho spoke directly into her head, “You May Try, Mallari Witch. But you will fail. Magic, even moonlight, alone cannot sustain me.”
Maria-Lucia tried everything she’d ever been taught about keystone transference, and everything Emilio-Langit had done to imbue his saints’ statues with power. She carved wood statues and struck a dozen agimat as the moon waned and began to wax again. Finally, when she had only ten days before the next coven meeting and Pasig was reduced once more to an over-large carp, she had to admit she’d failed. Pasig was dying. Soon Pasig would fade from the world, and Maria-Lucia would lose her position as coven leader. Her brother-in-law would throw her and her children from the family home.
She admitted this kneeling at the little altar her husband had installed at the foot of the bed, saying her morning Hail Marys.
Pasig was tied by more than power, more than name, and more than spirit to her river. Pasig was tied by blood, generations upon generations of blood, and Maria-Lucia could not sever that tie. Not without killing the laho outright.
She needed a miracle.
The little rosewood statuette of Mother Mary on the altar, which her husband had carved and presented to her on their wedding day, split, exposing a hollow center filled with . . . were those human teeth? Alongside the rolls of scripture Emilio-Langit had sealed inside the saint statue was a rather fresh pair of molars, torn root and all immured inside like mummified saint’s fingers shut up in a holy reliquary.
“What we need is a blood witch,” Lucia said.
Maria sputtered with outrage at the near-blasphemous suggestion and exclaimed, “These need to be interred with his body in the cemetery, before someone with ill intentions takes advantage.”
“Emilio-Langit wouldn’t have left us his teeth if he didn’t want them used,” Lucia pointed out.
“There isn’t a blood witch on the entire island of Luzon who wouldn’t kill me on sight. I am the wife of . . . I am the leader of the Mallari Coven.”
“Ada-Caylao wouldn’t care who we are now. She loved us, and she loves Pasig.”
“She chose blood. It’s been almost thirty years. If she hasn’t gone blood-mad I can only hope she killed herself early in some dark ritual, without taking too many people with her.”
“She loved us,” Lucia repeated stubbornly. “Pasig could tell us how to find her.”
Two nights later, alone in a small double-outrigger canoe, having convinced her mother-in-law to stay with the children, Maria-Lucia followed the dim glow of Pasig’s pearl into the mangrove swamp north of the city.
In the prow of the boat, she’d lashed down her husband’s final uncompleted saint’s statue. She’d finished the work on the base with the motif of Mary standing on the serpent from the garden. In the place of the serpent’s eye she’d set a glowing copper agimat sigil that she’d charged on the night of the waning gibbous moon.
Floating baskets full of semi-mummified things hung among the tangled roots protruding from the water on either side of the craft. They emanated a subconscious directive. Turn back. Turn back.
If Pasig weren’t leading her forward, she might have obeyed the keep-away magic.
“I swear to God, if we die and leave Lola with two kids to raise, Emilio-Langit will never forgive us!” Maria griped at her witch-heart, not daring to raise her voice to be heard over the squawking, croaking, burbling things crash-crackling through the thick mangroves on either side of the choked waterway. Something large bumped the underside of the craft and Maria-Lucia bit down on a scream.
“We haven’t had a proper adventure in too long. You’ve gone coward on me,” Lucia observed, too calm and eager for Maria’s liking.
She was going to die in a swamp, to stay leader of a coven she didn’t even want, because her brother-in-law was an old-fashioned idiot who’d failed to have any sons of his own. She was too old for this kind of foolishness.
“If we die, we die trying to save the laho of Manila Bay,” Lucia reminded her.
There was a faint buzzing from above. She tracked the sound to a string of faint, eerie, blue lights.
Were they stars? Glow worms? One alit on the statue.
Oh. Lovely. Faintly glowing, blood-sucking parasitic cuckoo bees were lighting her way through the swamp. While Ada-Caylao didn’t want to be bothered by the faint of heart, she did want some people to make it to her doorstep. What was a blood witch without a constant trickle of those too foolish or too desperate to seek the aid of coven witches in the light of day?
“Hungry,” Lucia answered.
“A coven witch visiting a mangbabarang blood witch; my coven would disown me if they knew,” Maria said acidly.
“We are the perfect customers, and we have proper payment,” Lucia countered, thinking of the thumb-sized golden pearl in the pouch around her neck, clicking together with Emilio-Langit’s molars.
The narrow waterway between grasping mangrove roots opened into a wide pool that reflected glowing bees and stars in a hazy pattern. A floating bamboo dock jutted from the edge and Maria-Lucia guided her craft alongside, tying off her boat before she climbed out.
Using a woven rattan carry basket she hoisted the statue onto her back. Then she reached a hand into the water and allowed Pasig to slither up her arm and drape around her shoulders. Maria-Lucia had eaten bigger eels.
She didn’t think it was wise to take Pasig away from the water, but she hoped the laho’s presence would make Ada-Caylao hesitate before striking her dead.
The dock led to a rickety raised pathway through a narrow tunnel deeper into the mangrove. The glow of Pasig’s pearl grew so faint Maria-Lucia’s primary guide was the buzz and blue glow of the things that looked like bees. After all, bees were not nocturnal, not even parasitic bloodsucking ones. As she went deeper, she passed dolls made of dried banana leaf and smelling of fish bones. They dangled from the mangrove branches that clawed overhead, blotting out the light of the stars and the waxing crescent moon hanging in the sky like a leering grin. She had to duck to avoid their prickling touch on her hat, but she felt their bodies knocking against the statue on her back with far too much heft for dolls made of only dried leaves. Pasig gave a rumbling growl against her neck as one of the horrible dolls ran greedy fingers over the laho’s tightly flattened neck frill.
Finally, Maria-Lucia stumbled forward into a clearing where sat a small nipa hut up on stilts that wouldn’t have been out of place anywhere along the outskirts of Manila. There was a poultry coop, a pig pen, and a garden overflowing with all manner of witch’s herbs. The door to the hut creaked open and the line of glowing bees disappeared inside.
Maria-Lucia mounted the steps to the front porch. Not quite daring to cross the threshold she pulled aside the cloth sacking at her hip, letting moonlight leak from her trusty bolo knife, casting a golden glow over the faded bamboo hut. None of the light penetrated the darkness, which had the thick, fluid quality of coagulated blood where it lingered inside the doorway.
“Ale,” she called in. “I am come to speak to the witch.”
From the dense darkness strode Ada-Caylao, looking as young and vibrant as she had the day she’d chosen blood magic as a girl of seventeen, the day she’d met with Maria-Lucia on the river bank and begged her to come away with her. She was swathed in an indigo tapis with a shawl that seemed to be woven of blue starlight. From under a cloth headwrap, her hair spilled down thick as oil. In the golden glow, her lips were still full and plush, her skin dark as polished coconut husk.
Ada-Caylao leaned in, so close Maria-Lucia could smell her sampaguita hair oil, and beneath that . . . the rusty tang of dried blood.
She should run.
Those lips were so close, and it had been so long since she’d felt their softness.
A sharp sting on her cheek interrupted the press of their lips. Hers were raw from constant picking. Ada-Caylao’s were soft, tasting faintly of coconut oil.
Reeling back, she half-fell down the steps, landing hard on her rear. The illusion shattered.
Ada-Caylao licked the blood from her nails. She planted a long-fingered hand on her hip, peering down at Maria-Lucia with a familiar smirk. “Look what my helpers guided home at last. You know, I expected you sooner after I’d heard the Mallari coven leader was dead.”
Maria-Lucia gaped at her first love. Blood trickled down her cheek. “You . . . I could be here to kill you!”
Freed from Ada-Caylao’s spell she could see her friend’s hair was streaked gray, like hers, and fine lines had gathered around her eyes and mouth. They’d grown old.
“All by yourself? And not even on a full moon? I think not.” Ada-Caylao’s grin was just a little too glib, her eyes a little too wide. She walked down the steps, her movements smooth. Maria-Lucia scrambled to her feet.
It wasn’t Ada in charge of that body. Caylao was speaking now, and witch-hearts weren’t supposed to control the physical body. Maria-Lucia was too late. Her Ada had already gone quite mad.
She unsheathed the bolo knife at her hip, crescents of inlaid mother-of-pearl glowing with captured moonlight. “I will if I have to.”
“A knife, a knife is what you bring me after all these years?” Caylao crooned.
She spun in a circle, her starlight-studded shawl swinging out around her thin frame, and Maria-Lucia would have given anything to drop the knife and kiss her one more time.
“Ada-Caylao, the Pasig River is dying, and it’s killing our laho. Her tie to the Mallari Coven isn’t enough to save her, but I think, together, we can.”
Caylao stopped spinning. She threw her head back and laughed and laughed. She flung her arms out. The night noises of the mangrove went silent in fear. “You come to me to save your laho, when you have the aid of a whole coven at your back, and all their magic at your disposal?”
“She’s Manila’s laho, and we shall all be the poorer if she fades, like the anito.”
“Like the blood witches are fading?” Caylao asked, with a cruel smile. “But then, we have the Church and their faithful Mallari coven to thank for that, don’t we?”
“Blood witches go mad. You know that. Everyone knows that. You start with fish and crabs, then dogs and pigs, soon you need horses and carabao to satiate the hunger. Before long it’s children and old folks and anyone who insults you under a full moon. Someone has to step in and make it stop, before they rise up and kill every witch out of fear.”
Caylao’s smile faded. “Ada was so sure you’d come with us that day by the Pasig. She said it wouldn’t matter we’d gone blood, that you’d still love us. I told her coven witches always let you down.”
Deep inside Lucia squirmed with discomfort. “She is a hunger that will never cease. Like a fouled wound or a poisoned well. She’s sick and the blood sings so sweetly to her she won’t stop, though she knows there will be no coming back from this soon.”
“Lucia says you’re still in there, Ada, she says you’re not fully gone yet. Please, Ada, I need your help. Pasig needs your help. I still love you and I always have, though you went where I could not follow.”
The silence stretched.
Caylao’s mad eyes blinked once, twice. When she opened them the third time it was Ada looking out, lost and rather confused to be the one in charge of her body.
She stumbled, the unearthly smoothness gone from her movements. “Hay Nako, I was gone too long this time . . . I slaughtered that chicken at noon.”
Maria-Lucia sheathed her bolo and wrapped Ada-Caylao up in her arms. She smelled of sampaguita and salt, blood and chicken feathers. “I was so afraid I’d never see you again.”
“Maria-Lucia, why do you have the laho around your neck? I think she’s debating about eating my eye.”
Maria-Lucia hadn’t been sure what she was getting into. She’d never seen a blood witch work. But Ada-Caylao accepted the golden pearl in payment and listened closely while Maria-Lucia explained all she’d tried to do to sever Pasig’s energy from the dying river and transfer it to the statue to no avail.
Ada-Caylao moved and, as she always had, Maria-Lucia followed. Ada-Caylao gathered three green flower spikes from a dragon-tail plant tangling with a rosary-bead vine in the corner of her garden. The beautiful, deadly poisonous, red-and-black seeds rattled in their husks as she cut the flower spikes. She set them, oozing sap, into Maria-Lucia’s hands.
Against the strident warnings of her witch-heart, Maria followed Ada-Caylao into the nipa hut. The layer of darkness at the door enveloped her like cool water. She drew her bolo for light. A broad charcoal circle had been marked into the bamboo floor. Ada-Caylao took the Mother Mary statue and set it in the sand-lined hearth at the center. Pasig stayed curled stubbornly around Maria-Lucia’s neck.
Ada-Caylao tapped the copper agimat she’d set as the serpent’s eye. “You’re close but not quite there.”
Maria-Lucia watched Ada-Caylao putter around the cluttered interior.
“I’ve been saving this melon-headed whale blood for something important. She beached herself in the mangrove during the last full moon.” A large jar sealed with red wax was set beside the hearth.
“Don’t let Pasig eat those flower spikes. We’ll need them.”
Maria-Lucia jerked the flower spikes away from the laho’s questing tendrils, switching them to her other hand, clenching her fingers against the stickiness of the sap painting her palms.
“Come, join me in the circle.” Ada-Caylao donned a bone charm stained with the dark brown of old blood in the groves.
Maria-Lucia shivered all over at the sweet nothings the bertud amulet whispered.
“Ada . . . ” she said uncertainly.
“Don’t bolt on me now. We haven’t even started,” Ada-Caylao chided, a familiar reckless gleam returning to her eyes.
“This was a bad idea,” Lucia whispered.
But Maria blocked out her witch-heart’s fear. She’d come too far. She had a dying laho and her children to think of. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“Oh, good.” Ada-Caylao took her hand and dragged her into the circle. They knelt down on either side of the hearth and at last Pasig, dull from being so long out of water, consented to slither down and curl around the base of the statue.
Ada-Caylao broke the wax seal on the ceramic jar, filling the space with the scent of rust, salt, and strong spirits. She poured the dark fluid, kept from coagulating by alcohol, into two shallow dishes in front of and behind the statue.
Maria-Lucia drew the moon-infused bolo knife, laying it before her. She reached into the pouch at her neck and balanced her husband’s teeth on the flat of the blade.
“Now what kind of good upstanding coven witch has dead man’s — ”
Maria-Lucia batted Ada-Caylao’s hand away. “They are Emilio-Langit’s. He wanted me to have them.”
“Not any dead man’s teeth — you bring me the teeth of the eldest Mallari son. Oh, Maria-Lucia, you would have made an excellent blood witch.” Ada-Caylao seized both her hands, so that the statue of Mother Mary was encircled between their arms. The stickiness of plant sap sealed their fingers together.
She dipped their joined hands into the whale blood. Every hair on Maria-Lucia’s arms stood on end as she felt the blood seep into Ada-Caylao’s skin like rain drops into fertile soil. The bone amulet around Ada-Caylao’s neck began to glow with an eerie blue-white light.
It took every ounce of her self-control to keep her own witch-heart from drinking deep of the offered blood. Lucia, her joyful light-filled partner, howled for it, flinging herself against the reins of Maria’s control.
“A taste, just a taste? It sings so sweetly, surely you hear it? It is only a whale, one beached whale. She was already as good as dead!” Lucia begged.
Ada-Caylao began to pray the Rosary of the Tears of Blood. Maria-Lucia repeated the words, a prayer to Mother Mary, who was said to cry tears of blood at the foot of the cross.
“Crucified Jesus, prostrate at Thy feet, we offer Thee the tears of blood of Her . . .”
Blood, fresh and red, began trickling from the eyes of the wooden statue, and the laho began to sing a strange tolling dirge, a lament for the death of her river. Lucia had never wanted anything in all their years together as much as she wanted Maria to lean forward and taste that bright arterial flow.
Maria gritted her teeth together, closed her eyes to the sight, and bound her witch-heart into the very depths of her soul. “No. We are a coven witch, and we do not heed the songs of blood, no matter how sweet.”
Ada-Caylao leered at her over the little statue. “I promise it tastes as good as Lucia thinks it will.”
“I am here to save Pasig. Not give up the life I have chosen.”
Ada-Caylao’s cheeks were flushed, her eyes bright. She let go of Maria-Lucia’s hands; both bowls were empty, spotlessly clean. “As you like.”
Ada-Caylao gathered up three drops of blood from the statue’s eyes. She painted one onto the center of her tongue, one onto the pulsing pearl set into Pasig’s brow, and one she smeared onto Maria-Lucia’s forehead.
Blood mixed with the sweat clinging to her brow and ran down her nose, trickling to hang at the edge of her lips, trembling with her breaths. Maria sealed her mouth shut even as Lucia rattled her confines, begging her to lick her lips and quench their desperate hunger. Maria pressed her lips together, feeling the droplet seep along their seam, and glared at Ada-Caylao.
“I know you want a taste,” Ada-Caylao whispered, as softly and lovingly as she’d once called Maria-Lucia “Mahal” — “Love” — in the shade of the banana grove where they’d sheltered from a sudden cloudburst, and laughing and shrieking had stripped off their dripping clothes . . . and . . .
Maria-Lucia did not soften her mouth as she had that steaming afternoon.
With a disappointed sigh, Ada-Caylao continued her prayer. More blood ran down the statue, dripping onto Pasig, staining her copper scales a bright scarlet. When one droplet touched the copper agimat embedded at the foot of the statue, Maria-Lucia knew what she had to do. She scooped up her husband’s teeth and pressed them into the copper agimat, which went soft and liquid at her touch. It bubbled like salt poured into a boiling pot. Hot copper splashed, coating her fingertips, and she scooped up more, lathering it over Pasig’s head. She rubbed molten copper like coconut oil over the frills of her mane and along her sinuous length. Ada-Caylao produced a sharp, wicked dagger and cut open the backs of her forearms. Shallow slices along a ladder of old scars, she mixed blood with the crushed flower spikes, adding blood and sticky sap to the strange mixture Maria-Lucia was massaging into the dying bakunawa.
“It’s time,” Ada-Caylao said.
Maria lifted her bolo, feeling the trapped moonlight of the blade burn away the blood clinging to her hands and lining the seam of her mouth. She used the tip to pry the glowing, pulsing pearl from Pasig’s brow. The laho’s body went limp, only the still-glowing pearl in her hand letting her know she hadn’t murdered the sea-dragon yet. It was huge, orange and round as a calamansi in her bloody, copper-covered hands.
She could take it. If she did, her brother-in-law would never dare challenge her for the coven leadership. The Mallari Coven would have all the power they could ask for and they wouldn’t have to ask Pasig. They would own the keystone to her soul.
She’d pressed even her own witch-heart into silence, and there was no one to deny her, not even the light of her own soul.
Ada-Caylao’s eyes gleamed dark as blood across the hearth, and Maria-Lucia clenched the pearl tight in her hand, its light streaming between her fingers. The heart of the Laho of Manila Bay burned her palm.
Then she bent and pressed the pearl into the eye of the snake at the foot of the statue. Unlike all the dozens of other times she’d tried, everything slid into place. The energy of the world shifted. Mary’s statue blinked open her bleeding eyes and smiled. The limp carcass of the dead laho in the ashes at her feet vanished with a sound of copper centavo coins spilling across pavement.
When Maria-Lucia lifted her hand from the pearl, the statue was wood alone once more. Only the pearl’s gentle glow gave any sign of what she’d done. The tension in the air dissipated like humidity in a sea breeze.
She grabbed a section of her skirt and scrubbed at the seam of her lips before she dared to open her mouth, asking, “What now?”
Ada-Caylao regarded her through narrowed eyes, apparently dissatisfied with the outcome of their ritual. “Now we pray and see if she will answer.”
Together they said three Hail Marys and, in a burst of fire heralded by metallic chimes, a laho formed all of bright gleaming copper appeared, hovering above the statue in the hearth.
Pasig’s huge ornamented head set with the glowing orange pearl pulsed, and her great fanged mouth opened. “The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. See I am born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable. And you shall be my people, and I will be your god.”
Ada-Caylao began to laugh. “She speaks! And she speaks scripture. What could be more fitting for a laho reborn as Mary, Mother of God.”
Maria-Lucia sat down hard, not quite able to believe they’d done it. What had they done?
“You can’t ever tell them what you did, that you came to me,” Ada-Caylao said.
Ada-Caylao held out a hand to help her rise. “Stay the night with me. In the morning you will return to your children, and set Pasig in a place of honor for all the Mallari Coven to bring their offerings. They will never forget you, the witch who saved the Laho of Manila.”
That was DYING RIVERS AND BROKEN HEARTS by GABRIELLA BUBA, and if you enjoyed that, I’d recommend keeping an eye on her website at gabriellabuba.com or her social media, @gabriellabuba on both Twitter and Instagram, for when more stories are forthcoming–because this story, remarkably, was her debut when first published.
Gabriella had this to say on her story: The style of witchcraft in Dying Rivers and Broken Hearts is a fantasy creation of my own based on Tagalog myths about a person having two souls, one belonging to the body and one to the soul/heart, heavily drawing on the way folk magic and Catholicism blend together in Filipino culture. It is largely inspired by stories my grandmother would share about leaving offerings at neighborhood saint shrines as a girl in the Philippines.
Thank you, Gabriella, for the story and the thoughts. This was the perfect story for our indigenous magic theme, blending native culture with colonial influences and, in doing so, reclaiming those imposed beliefs and taking full ownership on Maria-Lucia’s terms. Colonialism is a stain on the world, and has always found it in its best interests to stamp out local beliefs and culture to impose new social norms it can understand, and thus control. For the coloniser’s culture to be appropriated and incorporated like this is to steal away some of its power and take back some of that control. It was fascinating to see the two main characters respond differently to that colonialism, too–Maria-Lucia integrating with it, Ada-Caylao going deeper into her magic and deeper into her country. It’s telling that, ultimately, it required both of them to save the river; it took unity to reclaim their culture, but a unity that still respected their divergent paths and identities.
About the Author
Gabriella Buba is a Filipino-American chemical engineer who likes to keep explosive pyrophoric materials safely contained in pressure vessels or between the covers of her books. She writes the stories of bold, brown, bi women, like her.
About the Narrator
Vida Cruz-Borja is a Filipina fantasy and science fiction writer, editor, artist, and conrunner. Her short fiction and essays have been published or are forthcoming from F&SF, Fantasy Magazine, Strange Horizons, PodCastle, Expanded Horizons, and various anthologies. She won the 2022 IGNYTE Award for Best Creative Nonfiction for “We are the Mountain: A Look at the Inactive Protagonist.” She is the author of two illustrated fantasy short story collections: Beyond the Line of Trees (2019) and Song of the Mango and Other New Myths (2022).
About the Artist
Cindy Fan (she/her) is an illustrator and night owl who specializes in bringing stories to life in a dreamy and thoughtful manner for print and digital media. When she’s not drawing she loves walking slowly and aimlessly admiring the textures around her. Her work can be found at www.cind.ca