Part 2 of 2
Read part one here
In the next weeks, my mornings are filled with wedding preparations: running to and from the barong-makers' with measurements from the groom's party; rushing glasses of ice water to the Ma'ams from America who whine and argue over flower arrangements; and pushing through the tiangge to check on the arrhae's progress and on the green-eyed jeweler's son. I spend the late afternoons with Rodante, sneaking out on the pretext of errands and meeting him on the walk-up roof above jeweler's alley to share cigarettes and snacks. We talk about our families and homes, far, far from Manila. He is from Capiz, a province south of mine. Once, I ask him about family gods.
"We have one, I think," he says. "Though I've never really believed in gods."
Unusual, I think, in this country full of Catholics and witches. "Not even in spirits?" I ask, tapping our shared cigarette against my finger and watching the ash flit down onto the concrete, away from the cigarette's glowing, orange tip.
"No, though my dad said he saw a kapre once. This was back when he was looking for a place to build our home." Rodante runs his fingers through my hair, and I lean into his touch. "The kapre was up in a tree, watching him wander through a banana grove. He warned my dad that the grove was sacred, and that if he chopped down any of the trees there, the kapre would curse him."
"So, did he? The kapre, I mean."
Rodante laughs and shrugs. "Who knows? If my dad really saw him, maybe he did. He ended up building our house in the banana grove anyway." He takes the cigarette from me and draws in a deep breath, exhaling a thin trail of smoke. "Maybe that's why my leg's the way it is."
"Does it hurt?" I ask, turning to look at his leg. On the way, he catches my chin and kisses me. His mouth is bitter with tobacco and sweet from the lychees we'd been eating earlier. Long strands of his hair brush against my bare shoulders, cool and fluid over my sticky skin.
I want to kiss him until we both melt in the summer heat, dissolving into each other in a tangle of limbs and beating hearts. But I've learned from my sister and from the Ma'ams' cold hostility. In our meetings, I never let him touch me for too long, always breaking away from his kisses before the embers under my skin grow to a full-fanned flame. Unlike Silvia, I have no rich Sir to marry; I cannot afford to have a baby and risk being sent away.
But his breath is like sweet spice, and I have never kissed a boy before, especially not one who is so like me. I have yet to ask him if he also hears the strange hum in his skull when we meet, if the dark circles beneath his bright green eyes are products of the same night terrors I've had all my life. His mouth moves against me, and I can feel his hands around my waist, sliding up the hem of my shirt.
"I should go," I mumble, pushing him away. My face burns, and I've dropped the cigarette. I stamp it out, avoiding eye contact.
"Okay." Rodante doesn't sound disappointed; rather, his tone is shy. "I'm sorry if . . . I'm sorry about pushing you too hard, if you aren't ready yet."
I blush, for shame. I know I am not ready as he means it, but I do enjoy his kisses. "Will you walk me home?"
"I'm sorry. My mother doesn't like me going out after sunset. It's hard for me to get around, and she's afraid I'll be taken advantage of with this leg." He must see my face fall, because he reaches into his pocket and produces a small, black pouch. "But I have something for you, Tín. Here, open it."
Our fingers touch as he hands it to me, and I open it to find a small, glass-faced locket on a golden chain. I gasp. It's worth more money than I've ever had, far too expensive for someone like me. "No, Rod, I can't—"
He kisses my cheek gently, almost chastely. "Please, Tín? Let me help you put it on."
Rodante limps behind me and draws the chain over my head. The links are so fine that they slide over my skin like a thread of woven silk. After he closes the clasp, he brushes my hair away from the necklace. "I hope you like it."
"I do." The setting sun catches in the glass, illuminating the small, white flower trapped inside. "It's beautiful," I murmur. "But are you sure it's okay to give this to me?"
"I designed it." He smiles, the corners of his mouth crooked. "It's almost like you're keeping a piece of me wherever you go. Hopefully it'll keep you safer than I can."
I kiss him once more before I leave, pressing our lips together and then darting away for fear that if I stay any longer, I will never be able to leave.
Back home in the maids' quarters, the other girls gather round to admire the necklace and tease me about my new suitor. "Be careful," says Vicky, mussing my hair. "You'll be the next to be married at this rate!"
My sister, now swollen with the child growing inside her, doesn't seem jealous of all the attention I'm getting. Instead, she watches beatifically, the entire room gently lit with her presence. Lacing my fingers with hers, I cannot remember a time in the recent past when I have been happier. The hole in my heart torn by Nanay's death seems smaller with each passing moment and each beat of my sister's pulse against mine.
I wake to the Calderone house on fire. Even in the maids' quarters, the air crackles with flames, searing my skin and catching at my blanket like groping fingers. I shout and try to beat the flames on my bed out, but it's a lost cause. No one else is in sight. Snatching the only intact blanket from Jene's bed, I wrap it tightly around me and barrel toward the exit, hoping and praying to God, to the dead god, to whoever is listening. The flames snarl as I crash through the doorway, hitting the dirt so hard I forget how to breathe. The roof caves in behind me.
The maids and Ma'ams are clustered together on the sidewalk, the closest I've ever seen them in my year and a half of service to the Calderones. Ma'am Loretta hunches over the asphalt, a blanket over her shoulders, rocking silently back and forth as her childhood home burns.
Over it all is the sound of my sister screaming. But she is nowhere to be seen. Neither is Sir Carlos, her fiancé.
"Where's Silvia?" I shout, recovering enough to draw in a raspy breath. No one seems to hear me at first, but then I see Vicky point at the house. She's still inside, I realize with horror. My pregnant sister, trapped inside a burning, collapsing house.
The dissonant hum in my head is so strong I almost can't find the strength to walk. But I fight through it, just as I fight through the splintering doorway and follow Silvia's screams through the once-great halls. I find her on the floor of Sir Carlos's bathroom, crumpled on the floor like a dark-winged bird, lying in a growing pool of blood. Sir Carlos is wrestling with her, and for a moment, I believe he is trying to kill her. Then I hear him shouting, "Stop! Silvia, stop! Please!" and see the panicked tears streaming down his face. My sister is trying to tear her hair out, gripping great fists of it and banging her head against the tile. Sir Carlos catches sight of me and cries, "Help me get her out! Please!"
I rush to her side, and she almost swings her skull into me. I grab her head, whispering assurances into her ear through her moans and screams, and help Sir Carlos hoist her to her feet. That's when I realize that her nightgown is soaked in blood from the waist down, and she's sobbing, over and over, "My baby, my baby, my baby."
Outside the house, my sister collapses in the grass by the gate, Sir Carlos weeping at her side.
You little fool, snarls the dead god. It crouches on my chest, its spidery limbs stabbing down on either side of my face as I lie in a state of bangungot, paralyzed and helpless. Black flames blaze in its empty eye sockets. That fire was no accident, and that was not a normal miscarriage. A rogue aswang is preying on you.
"An aswang?" I ask, bewildered. "Like nanay and me?"
Worse. The dead god presses a hand to my forehead, and an image of a hideous, bat-winged creature silhouettes itself against my mind. I picture it dragging its legless torso toward the house, pulling itself up to the window of the maids' quarters, unfurling its proboscis-like tongue . . . I wrench my head away as the dead god says, A manananggal, judging from the wounds on your sister. They only grow like that deep in the jungles of Capiz.
"Someone targeted her?" I would cover my face if I could, the dead god's visage is so terrible, but I am frozen, the breath crushed out of me by the god's unforgiving weight. "But why? She's just—"
She is a Reyes girl, from my line. I am not the only god in the region. And Manila is an amalgamation of many peoples from many regions. For the first time, the dead god sounds contemptuous. Perhaps you fancy yourself special, Christina Maria Reyes. But there are plenty of other witch-families that would love to stamp you—and me, with you—out completely, and they are much more powerful than an uninitiated girl-child and a stray god without a disciple. It breathes its fetid odor into my face. Maybe I have been too lax on you and have not emphasized the danger your family is in. The danger that you brought into this house!
"What are you talking about?"
It snaps the necklace from my neck. Even more than the pain of the breaking chain is the stab of pain through my heart, the fear and betrayal. That necklace is mine and mine alone, the only thing that really belongs to me.
The god holds the locket before my face, the broken chain tangled in its fingers. Haven't you figured it out yet, little girl?
The dead god hurls the locket against the wall, where it shatters. Suddenly I am looking into a familiar pair of tired green eyes and Rodante's voice floods my head:
The kapre was up in a tree, watching him wander through a banana grove. He warned my dad that the grove was sacred, and that if he chopped down any of the trees there, the kapre would curse him.
An echo of the dead god's voice from many nights ago: I will show you the secret banana groves where your mother hid her legs, deep in dreamland and Bicol's jungles.
I'm sorry, says Rodante's shadow, up on the rooftop. My mouth burns with the remembered taste of tobacco and overripe fruit. My mother doesn't like me going out after sunset.
I will teach you to wing about the night, unhampered by human concerns, whispers the dead god. How rare is that?
An image of Rodante limping away that first day in the jewelry shop, the scars on his skin now aflame with power: Maybe that's why my leg's the way it is.
By the time the dead god releases its grip, there are tears streaming down my face. I collapse, gasping for air, the remnants of the bangungot's paralysis leaking from me.
Think about it, the dead god says coldly. It vanishes, leaving me to face the rest of the night terrors on my own.
"The wedding is still on?" demands Ma'am Chitti. "Are you serious, Mama?"
Ma'am Loretta doesn't even look at her. Her gaze is trained on her son, Sir Carlos, who sits next to my sister on the couch. Their hands are entwined, and he's stroking her arm. My sister is pale, dazed; they've put her on Ma'am Margarita's Valium to dull the shock of losing the baby.
The entire family has taken refuge at Ma'am Loretta's brother's house, a few streets down from the old Calderone home. It's also much smaller than Ma'am Loretta's house, and the close quarters mean that tensions are higher than ever. I stand along the wall with the rest of the maids, watching the Ma'ams battle and bicker. The shelves of saints, as many here as in Ma'am Loretta's former room, stare down at us with dead, wooden eyes.
"Carlos." The man startles at his mother's voice. "Do you still want to marry Silvia?"
He nods silently, clutching my sister close to him. The two of them are still shaking, trembling together like a pair of rabbits.
"But there's no baby!" protests Ma'am Margarita. "What's the use of a marriage—"
Ma'am Loretta slaps her across the face. The sound echoes across the room, followed by shocked silence.
Tears begin to leak from my sister's dull eyes. Silvia wanted this baby more than anything, I realize. She wanted it because it was his, because she loves him. And because he loves her. And Ma'am Loretta knows that.
Ma'am Loretta snaps her fingers and looks straight at me. "Tín, come here." I detach myself from the wall, ignoring the American Ma'ams. "Make sure you retrieve the arrhae tomorrow, as planned. We must have it for a proper Calderone wedding."
"Yes, Ma'am Loretta," I murmur, bobbing my head and excusing myself from the room. As the matriarch's daughters begin to scream at each other, I slip into Ma'am Margarita's room for just a moment. Glancing over my shoulder, I steal one of her Valium from the bottle atop her nightstand, hiding it in my blouse pocket. A dark, ugly rage burns in my heart. If things are to go as I've planned, I'll need all the sleep I can get tonight.
"I'm sorry," I tell the dead god as soon as it appears in my dreams that night. "I want to make this right." I glance down. "Between us, and for my sister."
The dead god sighs, the whistle of wind through bone. I'm sorry, too. It was unfair of me to blame you completely. The manananggal tricked you. There was no way you could have known.
"It was still my fault," I mumble. "It's my fault her baby's dead."
Smooth, paint-tipped fingers touch my face. Do not say that, the dead god tells me sternly. You did not call the manananggal on purpose. The fault lies not with you, but with it. Besides, there's a reason your ancestors made a pact with me. Neither of us alone can protect your family, but together we have a fighting chance.
I grip the dead god's wrist. "I know. That's why I want to make a pact with you and receive your boon." I breathe in the dead god's scent, sampaguitas and rot and ash. It is not so different from the scent that once lingered on Ma'am Loretta's altar of saints. "I want a new child. For my sister."
The dead god stills. If I do that, the child will be mine, it says finally. She will bear my mark and be your heir. And once the mark is passed, I cannot choose another heir until the death of the next designated.
The dead god's voice sounds almost gentle. If you pledge Silvia's daughter to me, your own children will never fly free through the night air. They will never feel the dread and thrill of the transformation, nor see the sacred groves of your mother's line.
I think of my sister, screaming and bleeding on the bathroom floor, tearing her hair out and battering her hands on the burning tile. Sir Carlos' determination to marry her even without the child, the fierce, protective way he cradled her on the couch days after the accident, the gentleness of his fingers as he stroked her hair. Her radiant face, only weeks before, as the dressmaker measured her for her wedding gown. They would surely be able to love such a child as one marked by the dead god. Who could provide better for a daughter like that? Like me?
"My sister wishes for a child," I say quietly. "I will pledge myself to you if you give her a daughter to replace the one she lost. You may mark her, but she must be healthy. And you must bless their household, too."
This I can do. The dead god presses a cold, stinging kiss to my forehead and begins to shrink, paint flecks and sampaguita wreaths dropping to the ground around our feet. Soon it is a tiny black chick, small enough to fit in my hand. As I scoop it up in my palms and bring it to my face, it whispers to me, We will look after them together. I promise.
I blink tears away. "Thank you, po," I whisper back. The black chick pecks at my lips, and I open my mouth to swallow the dead god whole.
With the weight of a god in my stomach and a pouch of a cremated saint's ashes in my purse, the latter scavenged from the ruins of the Calderone house, I chase the hum in my head through dreamland.
It won't be long now, says the dead god. My right arm burns with power. We fly together toward Capiz, a single, many-winged shadow passing over the water. I can smell my brother's curse already.
"The kapre is your brother?" I ask it. "Is he also a god?"
It laughs in reply, the black ruff of feathers around our neck rippling in sea breeze. Aren't we all.
The dead god is with me always now, as I am with it. The night is our passage, and dreams a current to human reality. Soon, we reach the end of the sea and the verdant shores of the central isles south of Manila. The hum in my head is so intense that my teeth hurt. We're close.
Together, the dead god and I land our body in a forest of banana trees, the leaves muttering overhead in the wind. A figure unfolds from a nearby trunk, limbed like a man but over eight feet tall and the color of pitch. When he sees us, however, he merely watches us, pointing a long finger toward a clump of trees to the left.
We bow to the kapre and trek in the direction he indicated, our bones rattling with each step. The dead god whispers, "Makikiraan, po," as we pass through, and I see the kapre incline his head before vanishing back into the trees.
Too soon, we find what we've been looking for.
"Let me do this myself," I tell the dead god. It obliges, pulling back and leaving me with full control over our shared body. I sift through my purse for the bag of ash and step up to the manananggal's severed waist and legs, which stand on their own, concealed in the shadows of the banana grove, like a small tree growing in the shade of its elders. But I know these legs, the right one twisted and roped in scars.
Popping the corner of the plastic bag open, I drizzle the ash carefully over the manananggal's lower half, coating the raw meat and exposed bone in white, powdered saints. Once the bag is empty, I step back and we hide in the trees, waiting.
The sun is a sliver of orange, just cresting the horizon, when the rest of the manananggal returns. Its leathery wings flog the air as it maneuvers itself down toward its standing lower half, its long, black hair flapping around it.
But the moment its torso touches the ash, the manananggal screams and tumbles to the ground, its legs crumbling to dust around it. As the manananggal gapes and drags its hands through the remains of its ruined legs, the dead god and I step forward as one.
I wave my right hand, and the dead god's feathers and beak recede to reveal my face.
"Tín?" gasps Rodante. "What are you doing—"
"How dare you." I flick my right hand, and black feathers slice down through his arms. Power hums in me, intoxicating, dreadful. He screams again. "How dare you use me to hurt my family. How dare you touch my sister. How dare you use me at all!"
"Tín, stop!" he begs, crawling toward me. "I didn't know she was your sister. Please, Tín, I love you!"
I slash through his wings until the dead god pulls our body away, saying, Enough.
The dead god may be old, but it is wrong this time. It will never be enough.
Together, the dead god and I watch silently as Rodante claws his way around the grove, desperately chasing the waning shade, until the sun rises fully, dousing the land in light. As the sunlight floods the banana trees, what remains of Rodante dissolves into fine, white dust.
We need to go, the dead god reminds me gently. Your living body will need to wake up soon, and we must be back. But it is so hard to move, staring down at what used to be the boy I thought I loved. So full of fire and power just moments ago, and now I can barely feel at all.
Something golden glitters in the dirt among Rodante's ashes. I dig it out, revealing a wreath of thirteen coins, linked together like a crown.
Suddenly exhausted, I loop the Calderone arrhae around our neck, one more string nestled against the sampaguitas. The screaming in my head has died down to a gentle roar, a sad, ancient ache in my bones. With the weight of Spanish and Filipino gold pressing against our shared heart, the dead god flies us back over the brilliant, fiery sea.