Isang Puta

Ni Prince Vincent M. Tolorio
Maikling Kuwento

Nakikita ko siya tuwing hatinggabi, nakasandal sa isang estante sa tabi ng daan, may nakasungalngal na sigarilyo sa labi. Siya si Elisa. Narinig ko lang ang kaniyang pangalan sa mga tumatawag sa kaniya. Maganda siya. Malaperlas sa ningning ang kaniyang mga binti, na kitang-kita dahil lagi siyang nakasuot ng pekpek shorts.

Nakita ko siya isang gabi na may kasamang lalake. Medyo matanda na ito at pangmayaman ang porma. Sinundan ko sila patungo sa isang lugar na puwedeng parausan nang ilang oras pero hindi masyadong mahal. Pumasok sila sa isang kuwarto. Narinig ko ang boses ni Elisa. “Ah, ah, ah. Sige pa. Ipasok mo pa. Bayuhin mo pa ako.” Paulit-ulit ko siyang narinig hanggang siya’y tumahimik. Pagkalipas ng ilang minuto, lumabas ang lalaki na may ngiting sa demonyo.

Napalitan ng pandidiri at pagkasuka ang pagkahumaling ko sa ganda ni Elisa. Hindi pala sa panlabas na kaanyuan nakikita ang ganda. Panakip lang ito sa katauhang marumi pa sa agos ng tubig sa squatter’s area.

Ilang linggo ring hindi ako dumaan sa kalyeng iyon. Siguro ayaw ko siyang makita, o nasasayangan lang talaga ako sa mukha at katauhan niya. Noong gabing para akong espiya sa isang pelikula, hindi ako makatulog pagkatapos. Palagi ko siyang naaalala. Ewan ko ba kung naaawa ako sa kaniya o nasasayangan sa ganda niya. Hindi niya ginamit ang ganda niya sa tamang paraan. Kaya hindi umuunlad ang bansang ito ay dahil sa mga taong gustong kumita nang mabilisan. Di bale nang ibenta pati kaluluwa at dignidad nila basta’t instant ang pagkayaman. Talagang iniisip ng tao ngayon ay pera ang nagpapaikot ng mundo. Ngunit ibahin ni’yo ako. Naghahanap ako ng tunay na ganda sa mundong ito. ’Yon bang gandang ipagmamalaki mo kahit kanino nang walang pag-aalinlangan dahil walang bahid ng kadumihan at kasamaan.

Tatlong linggo ang lumipas simula nang nahumaling ako sa maling babae. Pumunta ako sa palengke, nagbabakasakali na may mabiling bagong pantalon na gagamitin ko sa opisina. Pagkababa ko pa lang sa kotseng sinasakyan ko, agad na nahagip ko ang mukha ni Elisa, mukhang nagmamadali at parang may hinahanap. Agad ko naman siyang sinundan, at ito na naman ako, parang ulol na nagmamasid sa kaniya.

Bumili siya ng islaks at puting T-shirt at agad binayaran ito sa tindera. Sinundan ko siya hanggang makaabot siya sa kanilang bahay. Malapit lang pala sa palengke ang bahay niya, sa dulo ng squatter’s area. Ang liit nito at hindi lang siya ang nakatira.

Ilang sandali pa lang ako sa pagmamasid ay agad akong nakarinig ng mga kumalansing na mga bagay. “Putang ina kang bata ka! Di ba sabi ko, bumili ka ng pampulutan ko doon sa palengke? Ba’t mga damit ang binili mo? Letse ka talagang bata ka. Akin na. Akin na ang pera mo. Ako na ang bibili!” Lumabas sa bahay ang isang matabang lalake na lasing at may dala-dalang pera.

May mga babaeng nakikiusyoso sa nangyari sa bahay ni Elisa. Narinig ko ang usapan nila.

“Kawawa naman si Elisa. Napilitang gamitin ang ganda para mapakain ang pamilya.”

“Mukhang binilhan niya ng uniporme ang nag-aaral na kapatid.”

“Nagalit pa ang tatay. Inuuna ang bisyo. Walang kuwenta talaga.”

Nanlumo ako sa aking mga narinig. Agad kong pinagsisihan ang mga naisip ko dati. Parang hindi ko mapatawad ang aking sarili. Agad kong hinusgahan ang isang taong hindi ko alam kung bakit ginagawa ang mga bagay na kaniyang ginagawa.

Umuwi ako ng bahay nang nakayuko ang ulo. Hindi ko alam kung magagalit ako sa sarili ko o sa tatay ni Elisa na tamad at walang ginagawa para itama ang buhay ng kaniyang anak.

Natuklasan ko ang aking sarili sa tabi ng daan nang gabing iyon, lumalapit  kay Elisa. Hindi ako makahinga. Hindi ako tiyak sa gagawin. Nagpang-abot ang aming mga mata. Mga ilang sandali rin akong hindi makakilos. Tutok na tutok lang ako sa mapang-akit niyang mga mata.

Hinawakan niya ako sa kamay, at ngumiti siya sa akin, ’yong ngiting naglalandi. Para akong matigas na puno na kahit anong bagyo ang dumaan ay hindi maalis-alis sa kinatatayuan, at sa pagbalik ng aking wisyo, ang isa pa niyang kamay ay nasa harapan na ng aking pantalon, pumipisil nang dahan-dahan hanggang sa bumilis. Bumilis din ang tibok ng puso ko. Huminto siya at sinabing, “Ilan ba ang dalang pera mo diyan?” Siyempre, ako ’tong si gago na kinakabahan at hindi alam ang gagawin, kaya sinabi ko ang totoo. “Tatlong libo.”

Pumunta kami sa isang motel. Agad siyang naghubad sa aking harapan. Kitang-kita ko ang lahat sa kaniya. Ibinalik ko ang tingin sa mukha niya. “Ayoko,” bigla kong nasambit.

Nagulat siya. Nainsulto siya marahil dahil baka ako pa lang ang tumanggi sa matatayog niyang bundok. “Bakit mo ako tinitingnan na parang asong ulol kanina kung ayaw mo sa akin?” sabi niya.

Hindi ako makasagot.

“Para namang kalakihan eh mas malaki pa nga ang hinliliit ko sa titi mo,” dagdag niya.

Hindi ko pinansin ang galit niya. “Bat mo ginagawa ’to?” tanong ko.

Siya naman ang hindi makasagot.

“Maganda ka,” patuloy ko. “May potensiyal. Magkakapera ka kahit hindi itong paghuhubad ang gawin mo.”

Tinalikuran niya ako at nagbihis, at bago siya lumabas ng kuwarto, sinagot niya ako, “Bakit? Makukuha ko ba sa isang marangal na trabaho ang perang kinikita ko sa isang gabi lang? Ang mga maykaya lang ang may karapatang magkaroon ng marangal na trabaho. Hindi lahat nakakain sa sinasabi mo.”

Nanatili ako sa kuwartong iyon nang gabing iyon. Ginunita ko lahat ng nangyari at sinabi niya. Naaalala ko ang mukha niya. Kahit mahinahon ang kaniyang pagsasalita, may nasilayan akong luha sa tagiliran ng kaniyang mga mata. Nakatulog ako na ang mukha niya ang nakikita ko.

Makalipas ang ilang araw, pinuntahan ko si Elisa sa bahay niya. Gulat na galit ang reaksiyon niya. Nagtataka malamang siya kung bakit alam ko kung saan siya nakatira. Agad siyang umaktong pagsarhan ako ng pinto, ngunit hinarang ko ito at iniabot sa kaniya ang isang liham na matagal kong pinag-isipan at isinulat.

Umalis lang ako nang tinanggap niya ang liham. Hindi ko na hinintay na basahin niya. Hindi ko rin alam kung babasahin niya o hindi, ngunit hiling ko na basahin niya para hindi ako manatiling nagmamasid sa kaniya sa tabi ng daan tuwing gabi.

Manang Arsilinda

Ni Adrian Pete Pregonir
Maikling Kuwento

Maliit lamang sa simula ang pumpon ng mga taong nagtipon, ngunit nang tumaas ang sikat ng araw at kumalat sa bayan ng Sto. Niño ang balitang namatay ang isang kapitana dahil sa karumal-dumal na pagtaga, tila guguho ang isang bakuran sa dami ng mga taong nais makahagilap ng tsismis.

Nagkakagulo, nagsisiksikan, nagtutulakan, nagsisigawan, at ang bawat isa’y naghahangad na makalapit sa balkonahe ni Manang Arsilinda.

“Matuod bala, Nang?” tanong sa kaniya ng isang tanod na sumasawata sa nagkakagulong mga tao.

“Ginasukot niya ako sang diyes mil, kag ginbuno ko siya gilayon sa tuman niya nga pagpamilit!” tumatayong tuwid habang nangangatwiran si Manang Arsilinda. Mahigpit ang hawak niya sa isang pitaka. Tila umaapoy ang kaniyang mga titig sa mga taong nasa palibot. May bahid pa ng dugo’t putik ang suot niyang kupas na daster.

“Pirti!” anang tanod na humihingal. “Indi ako makapati sa nabuhat mo, Nang. Abi ko kon nakalampuwas kamo sang magsara ang Kapa. Indi gid ko ya makapati.”

Hindi na nagsalita si Manang Arsilinda. Hinahaplos na lamang niya ang kaniyang batok. Sa hindi kalayuan mula sa kinatatayuan niya ay papalapit ang mga pulis upang damputin siya. Ipinagtutulakan ng mga pulis ang mga tao dahil ibig nilang makita ang suspek. Sa mahabang oras na pakikipagtalastasan ng mainit na hangin sa kulumpon ng mga tao ay walang landong ang tumama sa kanila.

“Ngaa bawion niya sa akon ang diyes mil?” muling sabi ni Manang Arsilinda. “Ginluib ko bala siya? Abi ko kon maka-pay out dira na kami magtururunga sang blessing? Tapos siling niya ipadakop niya ko kon waay ako sing may mahatag? Tinonto!”

Pinilit siya ng mga pulis na sumama sa kanila sa presinto, ngunit nagunyapit sa balkonahe si Manang Arsilinda, at nagawa pa niyang hambalusin ng kamay si SPO2 Demavivas nang poposasan na sana siya.

“Sa kalinti!” bulyaw ng isang pamangkin ni Kapitana mula sa bayan ng Banga. “Waay mo tani ginbuno si Kapitana! Sin-o gali ang nangawat sang papeles sang basakan ni Kapitana kag ginbaligya sa balor nga mil kinyentos?”

Taas-noong nakatayo ang lalaki sa pagitan ng maraming tao. “Wala ka bala nahuya nga ang basakan nga ginbaligya mo amo ang lupa nga ginatanoman mo, kag si Kapitana amo ang imo agalon?” panunumbat nito kay Manang Arsilinda.

Mas naggigitgitan ang mga tao. Mas gumulo pa, at napakahirap pigilan ang sigawan na ikulong si Manang Arsilinda. Kaya biglang nagpaputok ng baril ang isang pulis. Ilan sa matatandang naroon ay nahimatay sa takot, ngunit nagpatuloy ang kaguluhan.

“Arsilinda, dapat ka prisohon!”

“Ginpatay mo ang bangka sang Kapa nga buwas-damlag naton!”

Nang hindi na nakayanan ng mga pulis ang mga pagsisiksikan at sigawan, bigla nilang hinablot si Manang Arsilinda upang ipasok sa sasakyan. Ngunit malakas siyang pumiglas at kinuha ang maliit na kutsilyo sa hawak na pitaka. Sumigaw siya, “Para sa hustisya, agod nga magbukas liwan, buhaton ko ini. Tatay Digong, pamatii kami!”

Lalong lumakas ang sigawan nang kaniyang tinaga ang sariling leeg.

Ginadili

Ni Hannah Adtoon Leceña
Sugilanon

Wala pa kasulod sa ilahang balay si Rosemarie apan gitampalong na kini sa amahan. Nagakalayo ang mga mata niini. “Di ba ana ko nga manguyab ka og maskin kinsa basta ayaw lang nang Muslim, Rosemarie? Gahi kaayo ka og uwo!” singhag niini sa iyaha.

“Tay, gihigugma ko si Rashid!” singhal usab sa dalaga nga gigunitan ang namuwang aping.

“Motubag pa gyud ka ay! Sulod diri!” Giguyod ni Raul ang iyahang anak nga baye sa sulod sa ilahang panimalay. Mura og baboy nga nagtiyabaw si Rosemarie, ug nagtabisay na intawon ang sip-on ug luha sa dalaga. Naa sa kusina ang iyahang inahan nga nagpreparar og panihapon, ug nahikurat kini sa nadungog nga nilagubo sa salas, ug nagdalidali kini og anhi.

“Raul! Tama na, Raul! Maluoy intawon ka sa imohang anak!” Mihilak si Pilang nga nidagan aron patindogon ang anak sa pagkakita nga moaksyon naman sab og patid ang bana.

“Asa ka man gud intawon gikan, Rosemarie, nga gabii na kaayo?” ang naingon sa inahan. “Di ba ana ko nga dili na maglaroylaroy! Kabalo nang alert kaayo karon!”

Wala makatubag si Rosemarie. Nagdugo ang ngabil niya. Apan wala pa gihapon nahuman og yawyaw ang iyahang amahan. Mas nikusog hinuon kini. “Daan na tika giingnang bayhana ka nga ayaw panguyab og Muslim, apan ambot unsa imong nakaon, nganong ginaunok-unok man gyud ko nimo!”

Nidanguyngoy lamang intawon si Rosemarie sa daplin. Dili gayod siya makasukol sa amahan. Aduna kini high blood. Nahadlok siya nga atakehon kini.

“Pwe! Aduna man untay anak nga seaman didto si kumpare, apan giunsa nimo, Rosemarie?” dungag sa iyahang amahan. “Diyos Santisima, Rosemarie! Kung wala pa lang kamo nakita sa atoang silingan didto sa basakan, dili kami makabalo ni mama mo sa imohang kabuang. Brayt ka man untang bataa ka, apan wala gyod nimo gigamit imong utok kay tungod uwagan kang dako!”

Gipapahawa na lamang sa iyahang inahan ang dalaga kay tingalig mahinaykan kini ni Raul.

Nisulod sa iyahang lawak si Rosemarie ug nihilak pag-ayo. Dungog kaayo niya hangtod sa sulod ang gipanulti sa iyahang amahan.

“Unsa na lamang ang iingon sa atoang mga higala ug silingan, Pilang! Unsaon na lang kon mabuntis nang imong anak! Dili gyod ko makadawat og apo nga Muslim!”

“Tama na na, Raul,” miingon ang tiguwang baye. “Kabawo na man ka sa mga batan-on karon, uyab karon, magbulag ugma. Tingali sabton sa nato imohang anak karon.”

Gisampongan ni Rosemarie ang iyahang dalunggan, ug iyahang nahunahunaan ang mga kaagi nila ni Rashid sa nilabay nga tulo ka tuig.

Klasmeyt niya si Rashid sukad elementary, apan nagkasuod lamang sila sugod kadtong nitungha siya sa Mindanao State University sa General Santos City, kay tungod kababayan niya kini ug pareho kini niya og kurso. Nahibal-an sab niya nga buotan ang ulitawo, tungod usab siguro kay anak kini sa usa ka imam ug, labaw sa tanan, kining tawhana adunay kahadlok sa Ginoo. Kabalo siya nga wala na gyod siyay makita nga laki nga susama ka mapailobon ni Rashid. Wala nagatuo si Rosemarie nga ang Kristiyano para lang sa Kristiyano ug ang Muslim para lang sa Muslim.

Permente dungan mouli si Rashid ug si Rosemarie sa ilaha sa Kiamba. Tapad sila sa van, apan mohunong sa palengke si Rashid ug sa eskwelahan si Rosemarie aron dili mahalata sa mga tawo nga nagkuyog sila. Usahay dili malikayan nga mohapit sila sa balay ni Rashid, ug gidawat man siya sa maayong kabubut-on sa mga ginikanan sa lalaki. Kabalo na siya sa una pa lamang nga dili gusto sa iyahang amahan nga maminyo siya og Muslim kay tungod lagi ginatuohan sa iyahang mga kaapohan nga mga Muslim ang gahaling og kagubot sa ilahang baryo. Apan sa nakita ni Rosemarie kang Rashid ug sa pamilya niini, dili kini tinuod.

“Rosemarie, anak, mosugot kami ni mama mo nga moeskwela ka sa syudad, kay dili namo gusto nga makulong ka dinhi sa atoa ug makapangasawa og mananggotay,” komedya sa iyahang amahan sa iyaha kadtong high school pa siya.

Nakatawa ang dalaga. “Papang uy, bata pa tawon kaayo ko alang ana,” tubag niya.

Apan katong nakaila niya pag-ayo si Rashid, nabag-o ang tanan niyang panlantaw sa kinabuhi. Sa pagkatinuod ana, siya ang una nakapansin sa lalaki kay tungod sa kamaayo niini moabi-abi. Si Rosemarie man sab usa ka opisyales sa ilahang organisasyon, ug nakita ni Rashid ang kaanyag sa dalaga.

“Rashid, ayaw sa intawon mo pagdalidali ni Marie ha!” komedya ni Norojil, usa nila ka higala.

“Inday Rosemarie, pagbantay intawon ha,” gipahimangnoan siya sa higala nga si Susan. “Kabalo na baya ka karon nga kung mabuntis ang baye ipakasal dayon.”

“O lage, day, uy, pero ayaw ko isumbong kang papa ha?” hangyo sa dalaga.

Nagpadayon gihapon ang maayo nga relasyon sa duha bisan pa og daghan ang babag sa ilaha isip manag-uyab.

Nagapuyo sa Boys’ Dorm si Rashid, ug sa Girls’ Annex Dorm si Rosemarie. Nagadungan sila og kaon matag udto ug gabii. Ginahatod usab ni Rashid ang babae sa dormitoryo inig kagabii na kay nabalaka kini sa trato.

Sa paghunahuna sa mga kaagi nilang duha, mas nisamot kabug-at ang kasingkasing ni Rosemarie. Ang kaul-ol ug kasakit nibati na sa iyahang tibuok lawas, dili lamang sa iyahang aping nga natamparosan.

Tinuod gayod diay nga walay aso nga makumkom.

Tinuod nga nagkita si Rashid ug Rosemarie sa basakan niadtong gabhiona. Mas nidaghan ang bituon sa kawanangan. Mura og nahimuot ang mga kini sa panagtagbo nilahang duha. Walay kasudlan ang kalipay sa dalaga niadtong taknaa. Nagkantakanta pa siya pauli sa ilaha, apan pag-abot sa ilahang tugkaran, nahikurat siya sa kakusog sa sagpa nga iyahang nahiagoman gikan sa amahan. Kompyansa ra kaayo sila ni Rashid.

Nanuktok ang inahan ni Marie, apan wala kini niya panumbalinga. Iyahang hunahuna naglatagaw gihapon, anaa lang gihapon sa hinigugma, ug mas nikusog ang iyang pagbakho sa pagkahunahuna sa ulahi nga pakig-istorya niya sa trato.

“Sid, nagmabdos ko,” ingon niya. “Itaban na intawon ko. Mamahawa na kita dinhi!”

“Dili ko musugot nga magtaban kita, Marie,” tubag ni Rashid. “Ugma atubangon nato ang imohang amahan.” Gihalukan ni Rashid ang agtang sa dalaga.

“Rosemarie, unsa ba!” singgit ni Pilang sa gawas sa lawak ni Rosemarie. “Abrihi ang purtahan kay ang imong amahan!”

Nahikurat si Rosemarie ug nibalik sa husto nga panimuot. Giabrihan niya ang purtahan, ug nahikaplagan niya ang inahan nga mura og nagsalimuang.

“Imohang amahan intawon!” ingon ni Pilang. “Niadto sa balay ni Rashid, gidala iyahang pistola!”

Nagdalidali og guwa si Rosemarie sa ilahang panimalay. Wala na niya masul-ob ang iyahang tsinelas, maong nagkalapok ang iyahang tiil. Nikaratil siya og dagan, apan wala pa man siya makaliko sa kurbada paingon sa basakan, aduna siyay nadungog nga usa ka buto.

Mas mikusog pa ang iyahang dagan paingon sa dalan sa balay nilang Rashid.

“Rashid! Rashid!” singgit niya samtang naglingilingi sa iyahang palibot.

Gitapion niya ang iyahang kamot sa iyahang dughan, ug gigunitan niya ang iyahang tiyan.

Sa wala madugay, nakakita siya og anino nga naghinagudlos paingon niya.

“Pagdali, dalhon ta siya sa ospital.”

Si Rashid kadto, gibaba ang iyahang amahan.

Bihag

Ni Norsalim S. Haron
Maikling Kuwento

Buhay ba ang kapalit ng mga luha ko? Ito ang katanungan sa aking isipan habang nasa bingit ng kamatayan.

Sakay ako ng rumaragasang Bajaj, napapagitnaan ng dalawang di kilalang lalaki, patungo sa posible kong katapusan. Sa gano’ng kalagayan ay naglakbay ang aking isipan sa nakaraan.

Isang larawan ang aking nakita: Naghahalikan.

Nagsimula ang lahat sa isang mapusok na halik. Nakipagkita ako sa aking ka-chat sa unang pagkakataon, at noong araw mismo, tinukso ako ng demonyong bumulong sa aking tenga. Halikan ko raw ang aking ka-chat. Sumunod naman ang aking katawan. Pikit-mata, inilapit ko nang dahan-dahan ang aking labi at idinampi sa kaniyang labi. Naramdaman ko ang init ng kaniyang hininga, at  ninamnam naming pareho ang tamis ng aming unang halik.

Nalikha ang aming pagsinta. Subalit di nagtagal ay naghiwalay din kami dahil humadlang ang aking ina. Marami siyang ibinigay na paliwanag, na pawang hindi malinaw, ngunit sinunod ko ang kaniyang kagustuhan.

Makalipas ang dalawang buwan, nakatanggap ako ng text mula sa dati kong kasintahan. Nais niyang magkita kami bago siya umalis papuntang Manila. Nag-a-apply raw siya bilang kasambahay sa Saudi. Binanggit din niya na may isang anghel na bumibisita sa kaniyang panaginip, at ang sanggol na iyon ay bunga ng aming pagmamahalan na palihim niyang pinagkaitang huminga. Noong oras na iyon mismo ay pinuntahan ko siya sa Cotabato Plaza.

Habang naglalakad at nag-uusap kami sa tabi ng highway, napansin kong tila meron siyang hinahanap na hindi niya mahagilap. Nauna ako sa kaniya nang mga dalawang hakbang, at nang lingunin ko siya, nagulat na lamang ako nang may lalaking naka-jacket na itim at nakasuot ng helmet ang umakbay sa akin at pasimple akong sinakal ng kaniyang braso. Naramdaman ko ring may kung anong matulis na bagay siyang inuumang sa aking tagiliran, at bumulong siya na huwag daw akong maingay kung gusto ko pang mabuhay.

Hindi ko kailanman naisip na ang madalas kong mapanood sa mga pelikulang aksyon ay mararanasan ko sa totoong buhay—ang makidnap.

Sapilitan niya akong pinasakay sa isang motorsiklo, sa likuran ng drayber na nakasuot din ng jacket at helmet. Umupo siya sa aking likuran, at agad humarurot ang motorsiklo. Tantiya ko’y walumpung kilometro kada oras ang bilis ng takbo nito, papunta sa landas ng kapahamakan.

Tinitigan ko nang mabuti ang bawat kantong nadaraanan namin, wari ba’y kinukunan ko ng litrato. Pinilit kong isaulo ang daan, nagpabaling-baling upang makahanap ng palatandaan kung nasaan na kami. Ngunit walang katangi-tangi sa mga tindahan at bahay na nadaanan namin. Napayuko na lang ako, sumuko sa laban.

Bakit ba humantong ang lahat sa ganito? Akala ko ba tadhana na ang bahala sa aming dalawa, pero bakit pati si Kamatayan nakikialam pa? Bakit? Napakaraming tanong sa aking isipan.

Narating namin ang isang lumang bahay sa tabi ng ilog, malapit sa tulay. Hinila ako ng dalawang lalaki papasok ng bahay. Paghakbang ko sa pintuan, labis akong nagtaka dahil masayang mukha ng may edad na mag-asawa ang sumalubong sa akin.

Kinuha ng dalawang lalaking dumukot sa akin ang mga gamit ko—cellphone, pitaka, pati mga barya. Dinala nila ako sa ikalawang palapag, at nakita ko roon ang aking dating kasintahan, nakaupo sa sahig, tila naghihintay sa aking pagdating. Hindi siya makatingin sa akin nang diretso. Hindi ko alam kung nahihiya ba siya o natatakot. Nawala ang takot ko dahil nandoon siya at mukhang alam niya ang nangyayari. Napagtanto kong mga magulang niya ang mag-asawang nasa ibaba.

Pagkatapos naming maghapunan, kinausap ako ng ina ng dati kong kasintahan. Napansin ko sa lalim ng kaniyang ngiti na parang kilala na niya ako kahit iyon pa lang ang una naming paghaharap, at sinabi nga niya na magpinsan sila ng aking ina. Kaya pala, naisip ko. Sumagi rin sa isip ko ang labis na pagtutol ni ina noon sa pag-iibigan namin ng mahal ko. Ito marahil ang dahilan. Magkamag-anak kami.

Sa loob ng anim na araw ay naging bihag ako, nagmistulang isang ibong nasa loob ng hawlang ako mismo ang gumawa.

Madalas akong nakatayo sa may bintana, nagmamasid sa kapaligiran at naghahanap ng paraan upang makatakas. Pinanonood ko ang luntiang palayan na sumasayaw sa himig ng kalikasan. Umaawit ang mga palaka, nagsasagawa ng isang ritwal upang umulan, at kahit walang ulap sa langit ay pumapatak ang ulan mula sa aking mga mata.

Lumapit sa akin ang ama ng dati kong kasintahan at inabot sa akin ang isang cellphone. Ang sabi niya, tawagan ko raw ang aking mga magulang at sabihing inuwian ko ang kaniyang anak, kaya sa lalong madaling panahon ay kailangan naming makawing. Hindi naman ako makatanggi dahil hawak nila ang aking buhay.

Maayos naman ang pagtrato sa akin ng pamilya, ngunit napansin kong kakatwa ang kanilang pagkain. May lasang hinahanap ng dila ko, at sa pag-oobserba ko sa kanilang kusina, napagtanto kong hindi sila gumagamit ng bawang, ngunit hindi ko sila tinanong bakit.

Nang dumating ang Sabado ng gabi, bago kami natulog ay nag-usap kami ng aking mapapangasawa kung ano ang gagawin pagkatapos ng kawing. Ang dami niyang gustong gawin. Ganito, ganiyan, tapos doon, dito, at kung ano-ano pa. Samantalang ako, nakatitig lang sa kaniya. Hindi ko alam, pero kapag gabi, lalong lumiliwanag ang ganda niya. Hindi naman siya gaanong maputi, pero kapag niyayakap siya ng dilim ay parang nagliliwanag ang balat niya. Pakiramdam ko tuloy ay isang diwata ang aking kaharap. Ibang-iba siya sa umaga, lalo na sa tanghali—mukha siyang manang.

Kabilugan ng buwan nang gabing iyon, malamig ang haplos ng hangin. Nasa kalagitnaan ako ng panaginip nang bigla na lamang makarinig ng sigaw mula sa ibaba ng bahay. Agad kong pinuntahan ang ingay, at natulala ako sa aking nasaksihan. Mistula akong nanonood ng telebisyon. Nakita ko ang mapapangasawa ko na nakahiga, tirik ang mata, magulo ang buhok, umuungol, nagwawala, sumisigaw nang malakas, at ibig kumawala sa pagkahawak ng kaniyang mga kapamilya na para bang gusto niyang lumipad.

Tila sinasapian siya ng kung anong masamang espiritu o diyablo. Pabaling-baling siya sa mga dingding at bintana, waring naghahanap ng madadaanan. Hindi naman magkamayaw ang kaniyang ina sa pagdikdik ng bawang at saka hinalo ito sa asin at sinaboy sa kaniyang katawan. Kapag natatamaan ang kaniyang balat, agad itong namamaga na para bang napaso. Lalong lumakas ang sigaw niya, na para siyang hinahagupit.

Hinawakan ng kaniyang ama ang kaniyang ulo at pilit binugahan ng hininga sa ilong. Bigla siyang tumigil sa pagwawala. Niluwagan nila ang pagkakahawak sa kaniya. Nahiga siya sa sahig nang nakadipa.

Ngunit bigla siyang bumangon at tumakbo patungo sa pintuan. Hinawakan agad ng kaniyang ama ang kaniyang beywang upang di makawala, at tuluyan nila siyang iginapos gamit ang isang lubid. Inihiga siya nila sa sahig at muling hinipan sa ilong.

Tulala pa rin ako sa nangyayari. Ibig kong humingi ng saklolo. Nakasindi pa ang ilaw ng mga kapitbahay, at naaaninag ko ang kanilang mga anino. Ngunit ang nakapagtataka, kahit tagos sa dingding ang sigaw ng mapapangasawa ko, tila wala silang naririnig. Walang ibig sumaklolo, o baka hindi na kakaiba sa kanila ang nangyayari.

Lumipas ang gabing iyon na maraming tanong sa aking utak.

Kinaumagahan, nagtanong ako sa lalaking magiging biyenan ko tungkol sa nangyari. Ang sabi niya, normal lang daw iyon. Gano’n lang daw talaga kapag may naaamoy siya at ang kaniyang mga anak na bagong dugo. Nalunok ko ang aking dila sa aking narinig.

Alam ko na ang totoong dahilan bakit labis ang pagtutol ni Ina sa pag-iibigan namin ng aking kasintahan. Hindi ito dahil magpinsan sila ng ina nito. Ito ay dahil kilala niya ang ama nito. Ayaw ni Inang makapag-asawa ako ng may lahing m’ning.

Linggo ng hapon nang dumating ang aking pamilya kasama ang isang ustadz. Nagdala sila ng maraming pagkain at isang titulo ng lupa, ang magiging mahr namin. Gusto nilang maganap ang kawing sa araw na iyon mismo upang makabalik na ako sa amin. Isang linggo na kasi akong absent at baka ma-drop na ako sa unibersidad na aking pinag-aaralan.

Subalit tumutol ang ama ng aking mapapangasawa. Ang nais niya ay pitong araw pa simula sa araw na iyo gaganapin ang kawing. Tingin ko ay dahil ayaw nitong palabasin sa kuwarto ang anak, na puno pa rin ng mga sugat at pasa dahil sa nangyari nang nakaraang gabi. Ayaw nitong magtanong ang aking pamilya at tuluyang makompirma ang matagal nang hinala ng mga tao tungkol sa kanila.

Isinama ako ng aking pamilya pauwi sa amin, ngunit hindi na kami bumalik. Hindi nagkasundo ang aking pamilya at ang pamilya ng aking mapapangasawa. Walang naganap na kawing.

Mula noon, kinatatakutan ko ang gabi.

Scars under Her Feet

By Angelo Serrano
Fiction

Sara woke up to someone gently shaking her. “Ma?” she groaned. A finger gently pressed against her lips followed by a shh sound. “Come on,” Mama whispered, and Sara was still too sleepy to protest. She wrapped a brown jacket around Sara and then very quietly led her out of the house. She carried a backpack with their clothes and led Sara into a car waiting outside. The sky was still dark, and it was drizzling. The clock on the car radio said 12:32 AM in red light, and Sara couldn’t see who was driving.

They drove away without Sara being able to kiss Papa goodbye. She was hypnotized asleep by the passing streetlamps, and then she woke up to the voices of Mama and the driver after a few hours. She didn’t understand what it was about, but she knew it was important. She knew in the way that children instinctively knew things. Mama and the driver shushed themselves when they noticed she was awake.

She stretched on the back seat, yawned, wiped her eye boogers away, and then squinted at the sunlight. She looked outside, and she wasn’t familiar with what she saw. There were no big buildings or traffic lights or other cars on the road. No crowds of people on the sidewalk, nor a sidewalk.

There were rice paddies on both sides of the road, with water that perfectly reflected the sky and plants above it. She had ever only seen them on TV or in pictures. There were farmers bent over with straw hats and worn-out clothes. They all stared at the car when it drove past. Sara realized that the woman driving the car was her aunt. The one that she only met every Christmas.

“Where are we going?” Sara asked.

Her aunt and Mama exchanged looks. “We’re staying with your Tita Mitchel for a while,” Mama explained.

“But I have school tomorrow.”

“Yes, but . . . don’t you want to spend time with me?” Tita Mitchel teased.

Sara made an audible hmm, and then she realized this meant she didn’t need to attend classes and bring back homework. “I do,” she gladly declared. They drove past a carriage being pulled by a carabao. “Isn’t Papa coming with us?”

“No, sweetie,” Mama said. “We can’t be with him for a while.”

Sara became a bit sad. She liked having Papa around. He always brought home double Dutch ice cream when she asked and often bought her the toys she wanted. Sometimes, he’d let her eat one too many cookies, and all she had to do was to make sure not to tell Mama about Papa’s visitors. Oh well, she thought to herself, even though deep down, she knew something was wrong.

They reached Tita Mitchel’s house, and it was surrounded by plenty of healthy trees. There were browned leaves all over, and the white paint of the house was beginning to chip away, revealing the aged wood underneath. An orange-and-white cat watched them from the very top of the house. Sara waved at it when they got out of the car, but it just looked away and yawned. When they reached the terrace, an old man greeted them. He carried a bolo, had completely white hair, and wore dusty work clothes.

“This is Totoy, he’s the grounds man,” Tita Mitchel explained. Totoy smiled at them, shook Mama’s hand, and patted Sara’s head. “He’s mute,” Tita whispered. Sara had never met a mute before.

They walked into the house. Mama and Tita Mitchel disappeared into one of the rooms and then carried bedsheets and pillows from room to room. Sara thought the house smelled old, but observed everything with deep curiosity. There were years-old photos on the walls, paintings of farm fields, and cross-stitched mountains. She regarded the decorations the same way she had regarded the exhibits when they visited a museum once. She knew they had history, but she just wasn’t aware of what that history was.

One frame had an old picture of a young woman holding hands with a boy who was about the same age as she was. Sara recognized the girl to be a much younger Tita Mitchel, before her hair became slightly gray and her face began to wrinkle.

“Mama.”

“Yes, sweetie?” Mama stood next to Sara and smiled fondly at the old photos.

“This is Tita Mitch, right?”

“Yes, it is.”

Sara felt clever, and then pointed at the boy. “Who is this?”

“Oh . . .” Mama pressed her lips together. “That’s Miguel. Your cousin.”

“He is? I’ve never met him before.”

“He’s . . . not with us anymore.” Mama bent down and spoke softly. “Let’s . . . make it a rule to not talk about him here, okay? Tita Mitchel isn’t comfortable talking about him.” She poked Sara’s small nose.

Sara nodded slowly. Part of her knew that Mama meant Miguel was dead, but she also didn’t really know what that meant yet. Still, it was rule, so she decided to never mind it.

It was a simple home, not too crowded nor too spacious. The floors were wooden and shiny, so the footsteps could be heard all over the house. Mama brought Sara to her room, and she thought that it wasn’t anything too grand nor too ugly. It was, for the most part, neat. There was only a bed and a nightstand and a closet, but neat. She almost took a step into the room, but felt something watching her. She turned to the room’s window and, in the way that people did, knew there was someone there. She also knew that if she told Mama or Tita, they’d only tell her that it was just her imagination.

So instead, she walked back to the living room and sat in the couch to watch cartoons on the TV, because what else would she do in the afternoon? When it turned on, Eat Bulaga blasted through the house. It was a bit grainy, and a single line of distortion moved from the bottom to the top repeatedly. She turned the volume down before flipping through the channels, of which there were only four.

“Don’t you have Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon?” she complained.

Tita pouted and seemed to be thinking to herself for a moment. Sara could tell that she was the kind of adult that only really watched the evening news on TV, and Sara wasn’t really expecting a helpful answer from her anymore. “Only on Saturday mornings,” Tita said. Sara slouched in the couch.

“Sorry, we don’t have cable TV here.”

“So what do you do for fun?”

“Well, there are always tons of books around the house,” Tita suggested. She took one from under the coffee table, blew away the dust, and then handed it to Sara. “Try this one.”

The cover showed a boy in an orange shirt, standing in the wavy sea, staring at a city while lightning struck from the gloomy clouds. Sara sighed disappointedly, and Tita Mitchel smiled as an apology. Sara couldn’t imagine how anyone could live without the colorful entertainment brought by Spongebob Squarepants, but she also realized she didn’t have a choice. She opened the book, and began reading.

Her eyes glided through the pages easily enough while her mind painted the teacher turning into a fanged and flying demon in her head and as the characters were attacked by a minotaur. She kept rereading the dialogue, trying out different voices for the characters. She was proud of the wise and hoarse voice she chose for the bearded centaur.

She kept at the book, and the sun slowly set outside. Sara didn’t notice the sun flood the house with yellow light nor the sun bleach the sky from orange to red. She didn’t notice the house lights turn on and the outside become dark. She only snapped out of the book when Mama called her for dinner. Only then did she hear the crickets outside. She stood from the couch she’d been on for the past few hours, and she realized that her butt and back were sore from sitting. Sara was already at the part of the book where the heroes traveled to meet Medusa, and for a moment, she was convinced she was with them.

She walked to the table, and the alluring smell of roasted pork caught her immediate attention. It was just the right brownness with only a few burned spots, and it looked perfectly juicy as well. There was a small bowl that had smelly vinegar, onion bits, and red and green pepper slices in it. The rice was still steaming warm, and there was a bottle of coke. Sara sat next to Mama, where a plate already had a cup of rice and sliced up pieces of pork. Across them sat Tita Mitchel and Totoy, who were scooping up the rice and taking large slices of meat for themselves.

“So how’s the house, Sara?” Tita asked.

She fed herself a mouthful before answering. The meat was so tender and savory that she thought that it was better than most of the restaurants back in the city.

“Mmm . . . fine,” she answered, only meaning the living and dining room.

“Are you okay with not having cartoons for a while?” Mama asked.

“Yes. Tita gave me an interesting book.”

Tita and Mama smiled at each other. “Wow,” Mama said, in the way that mothers enthusiastically spoke to their kids. “That’s good to hear.”

After dinner, Sara went back to her book, but was soon interrupted by Mama telling her to take a warm bath. She changed into her pajamas, and then Mama carried her into bed and tucked her in. Her bedroom had only an empty cabinet and a nightstand beside the bed and was on the second floor of the house.

“Can’t I keep reading?” Sara asked.

“Tomorrow. Okay, sweetie?” Mama kissed her forehead and said good night before she turned off the lights, and then she closed Sara’s door.

Sara closed her eyes, still picturing the events of the book in her mind. She soon fell asleep, thanks to the cool evening breeze from her window. After a few hours, she woke up to the sound of giggling. She groggily opened her eyes, only to find three insects above her.

She was about to swat them when she realized that they weren’t insects. She cupped her hands over her mouth and gasped. They looked like they were pieces of silk formed into small girls, with slightly too big heads and petals that bloomed to seem like dresses. Their skin was the soft green of seedlings, and they floated effortlessly on the breeze, occasionally flapping their wings to readjust themselves. One of them had a curly, red dress and wings. Another was blue and flowing. And the last was white and smooth. Their eyes were like little black droplets of ink, and only then did Sara realize that they were staring right at her, no longer giggling.

“She’s awake,” worried the red one. “She’s awake,” repeated the blue one. “Can she see us?” asked the white one. “Can she hear us?” asked the red one. “I think she can,” answered the blue one. Their voices were small and almost squeaky.

“I can,” Sara answered. She watched them intimately with wide eyes.

The three fairies gasped. “We’re in trouble,” said White, “She’s going to kill us,” Red agreed. “We have to put her to sleep,” Blue declared. The fairies started flying in circles, chanting something in a language that Sara didn’t speak nor know about but could understand. She knew they were casting a spell to make her fall asleep, and she knew she wouldn’t remember them afterward.

“Wait!” Sara interrupted, raising her hands at them.

The fairies stopped chanting and just floated above her, their heads tilted to the side. “Yes?” they asked in unison.

Sara thought of something to say. “Er . . . why would you be in trouble if I woke up?”

“Because we were told to only check on you,” White said. “But not to disturb you,” Red added. “Only to check, and not to disturb,” confirmed Blue.

“But why? Who told you to do that?”

Red and Blue and White exchanged looks, as if they all had something in their mouths.

“Well? Won’t you tell me?” Sara pushed.

The fairies flailed in the air, as if holding in their breath for too long. Finally, White became the first to open her mouth. “Salaya,” she said. “She ordered us to do so,” added Red. “But only to check, and not to disturb,” repeated Blue, who had become too bothered. They exchanged looks, as if they blamed one another for speaking.

Sara thought to herself for a while. What kind of young girl would not take this chance of adventure with fairies? She certainly wants excitement. She would want to be a hero on a grand adventure, just like in the fairy tales and books. “Take me to her,” she announced.

Red and Blue and White smiled at each other and then turned to Sara and nodded happily. “Come on,” they said in unison. They flew out of her window, and Sara watched them go. The moonlight was enough for her to see properly outside. The moon itself seemed much larger than usual, and the sky was littered with stars. She never saw a night sky like this before, and no one from the light-polluted city ever could. She got out of bed and slowly opened her bedroom door. The house was quiet and almost completely dark. At the very first step she took out of her room the floor board creaked.

She stood perfectly still, waiting for anyone to come out and check on her. She was glad that no one did. The next step that she took didn’t reach the floor. Instead, she saw the fairies flying in circles around her feet, and she began to float. She didn’t understand, but she had to keep herself from shouting from the fear of suddenly falling down. Slowly, she took hesitant steps on thin air, giggling to herself as quietly as she could. Soon, she found herself floating down from her bedroom window and onto the dirt below. She was still in pajamas and was walking barefoot, but she didn’t care. Now wasn’t the time to care.

Sara followed the fairies through the tall trees. The treetops blocked out most of the moonlight, but the little beams that made it through helped her enough to keep track of where the fairies went. She almost tripped on tree roots, and the soles of her feet got scratches from sharp rocks a number of times already, but she pushed through as much as she could.

Music from a flute resonated through the trees. But it wasn’t like the ones they were taught to play in elementary school, nor the ones they played on TV. This one had a much more natural sound. Sara stood still for a moment to listen as clearly as she could. The music was peaceful and calming and alluring. It was beautiful in all the ways that the sound of rivers and rustling leaves were beautiful. Sara had lost sight of the fairies, but she could follow the music on her own. As she slowly did, she began to notice more and more peculiar plants. There were violet blooms that almost seemed to glow in the dark, vines around the trees that Sara could have sworn were moving, and plenty of plants with flowers that looked like pitchers.

She reached a clearing. Soft and glistening grass grew all over the ground, and there was a large dark stone in the middle. Balancing on top of the stone was a tall woman. She was turned away from where Sara stood. Her wavy hair reached all the way down to her ankles and was perfectly shiny. She was wearing a simple white dress and a flower crown made of mirabilis blooms. The three fairies swayed to the music around her.

Sara’s jaw dropped and was wide-eyed. She took careful steps forward, and she could feel the soft grass soothing her feet. It didn’t take long for all the pain from her cuts to fade away. When she checked her soles, there were only small scars. She smiled, fascinated in the way children would be whenever a magician pulled a dove from thin air, except this was leagues different. There was no secret to be unveiled, no tricks. It was truthful and real magic. She took another step forward and found that the tall woman was now facing her. She was still playing her flute and had smooth chocolate-colored skin. Sara thought that the wooden flute was taller than she was, and she was correct. The tall woman’s fingers danced on the holes of the flute with her eyes closed. The moonlight shined perfectly on her, as if the moon itself wanted listen to her play.

Then, when the music stopped, the woman slowly opened her eyes. They were large and seemed to have the entire night sky in them. She was beautiful. The flute had now never existed, and she stepped down from the stone to approach Sara, smiling sweetly.

“Hello,” she said. “I’m Salaya. Glad to see you could join us.”

Sara was at a loss for words.

“Don’t worry,” Salaya reassured her with a smile. “I won’t eat you. Though I am surprised you’re here so soon.” She looked slyly at the fairies. Red hid behind Blue, and they both hid behind White. White only wanted to hide behind something as well, but couldn’t.

“No, please,” Sara said. “It’s not their fault. I wanted to see you.”

Salaya looked back at Sara, and the fairies sighed in relief. “Oh? And why is that?”

“Well . . .” Sara thought of a good answer, and decided to simply be honest. “I wanted to go on an adventure.”

Salaya smiled a wide smile. “Oh! How you remind me of when I was young!” She picked up Sara, swung her around, and then placed her on a cushioned chair that, to Sara’s surprise, had always been there.

Sara felt proud of what Salaya told her. She didn’t understand when the chair got there, or when the table arrived, but she didn’t complain either. Salaya sat opposite her. A covered platter was on the table.

“What would you like to eat?” Salaya asked. Her hand was already on the cover’s handle, ready to lift it up.

Sara wondered what she should have. She already had dinner, so of course dessert is the next best thing. “Double Dutch ice cream.”

Salaya lifted the cover, revealing two ornate glass bowls of double Dutch, each with a cherry on top that Sara didn’t care for. Sara smiled in the way that only incredibly happy children could smile, and took one bowl for herself. Salaya took the other.

When Sara was about to eat her first spoonful, she heard the fairies yelp behind her. She turned to look at them, “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Uh . . .” Red looked past Sara, at Salaya, who looked at them irritably in a way that said come on, say something. “We were . . . just worried,” interrupted Blue. “That maybe your teeth might go rotten,” continued White. “From too much sweet stuff,” explained Red.

“Nonsense,” Salaya declared. “Your teeth will remain the little pearly whites that they are, I swear it.” Sara, who was completely convinced by Salaya’s words, enjoyed her first spoon, and quickly moved on to the second. The fairies exchanged worried looks.

Salaya enjoyed the treat herself. It was her first time having ice cream. Her first time eating in a few years. Not that she needed to. The ice cream was perfectly sweet, with just enough chocolate and just enough nuts and marshmallows. It wasn’t too stiff nor too soft.

“So,” Sara said, with some ice cream still around her lips, “why did you want to see me?”

“We’ll discuss that later. For now, I simply want you to enjoy this evening.”

The fairies gave a sigh of relief.

Sara wondered but didn’t complain. She simply enjoyed her treat, and she began talking about the many places she’d visited and movies she’d seen, boys that Sara thought were cute in her class, and girls that pulled on her hair and called her names.

“You should show those girls that they can’t treat you like that.”

“I already told Papa about them, and he said he talked to the teacher, but nothing happened.”

“What’s this girl’s name? Her full name.”

“Patricia Chuy.”

Salaya looked up at the sky. She squinted, tilted her head, looked around, and then looked back at Sara disappointedly, who had no idea what she was doing. “I’m sorry, I can’t find her. All the lights of the city block away the stars.”

“It’s fine,” Sara said. She ate another spoon of ice cream. “Mama said I shouldn’t mind people like her.”

“Taking the moral high ground, I like it,” Salaya admitted.

Sara didn’t know what that meant, but felt proud of herself. “Now would you tell me why I’m here?”

“Not yet. You’re here for an important reason, and I hope you’d simply believe me when I say so, all right?” Salaya smiled in a way that Sara knew wasn’t genuine. “You wouldn’t want to be a bad guest to me, would you?”

Sara shook her head in the way that worried kids did whenever they thought they were about to get into trouble.

Next, it was Salaya’s turn to tell stories. She told Sara how the universe came to be, and who named the animals and the plants and who placed the moon in the sky, and who the Sun was. She told Sara why there were plenty of gods and goddesses of the same things, why different people spoke different tongues, and why they believed in different things. Sara, of course, didn’t understand plenty of these. Sometimes, she would suggest the version she vaguely remembered from TV, from a book, or the version her Mama told her, but Salaya corrected her and she just followed along. She did, however, feel wiser than she did if she had not heard these stories.

Sara tried and failed to stifle a yawn. Salaya smiled, took the bowl from her, and picked her up. She carried Sara out of the clearing and into the woods. Sara, despite only having met this woman now, felt safe. Maybe it was the ice cream. Now Sara was almost half asleep, lulled by the sound of Salaya’s feet walking on the forest floor.

She felt Salaya turn to the fairies. “I still need to punish one of you, but that can wait.” They failed to contain another yelp when they heard her, and Salaya brought her finger to her lips. “Shush, she’s sleeping.”

The following morning, sunlight from her bedroom window shined on Sara’s face. She stretched on her bed, and she couldn’t remember how she got there, but she could remember the night before. She remembered the ice cream. She remembered the beautiful music, the red and blue and white fairies, and the tall Salaya with eyes like the night sky. For the briefest moment, she doubted it all. Maybe it was all a dream. She checked her feet, glad to know that her little scars were still there. Mama knocked on her door. “Breakfast.”

Sara sat at the table, excited to tell everyone what happened. She could smell the warm coffee, which she knew she wasn’t allowed to have; she instead had a mug of warm milk waiting for her. The plate in front of her had warm rice and a fried egg with a still runny center.

“And she had this really long flute that played really great music, and—” Sara stopped herself. “Mama, are you listening?”

“Of course, I am,” Mama answered after taking a sip of coffee. “You were telling us about your dream.”

“It wasn’t a dream,” Sara insisted.

“Sara, finish your breakfast. Your food is getting cold.”

Tita Mitchel had finished eating and was already in her office dress. She kissed Sara’s forehead and hugged Mama before leaving for work. “Tell me more about your dream later, all right, Sara?” Mama also finished, and brought her plate to the sink.

Sara continued eating without an appetite. “It wasn’t a dream,” she mumbled to herself. Her food really did grow cold. She felt lonely for a moment, and then she noticed that Totoy was looking at her, expectant. His hand motioned for her to continue her story. She became excited, and she moved on to the double Dutch ice cream.

Sara spent most of her day continuing her book. Occasionally, while in the middle of a sentence, she’d daydream about going back to meet Salaya. She wondered how she’d reach the clearing again. Maybe the fairies would pick her up again? Or maybe she’d need to find it herself. But she didn’t remember the way.

She’d definitely bring her slippers, next time.

That evening, she only ate a small part of her dinner, saying she wasn’t hungry. After she had brushed her teeth and gotten into pajamas and was tucked into bed, she only pretended to sleep. She believed that the fairies would visit her again, and she wanted to jump right out of bed the moment they did. Her slippers were already set under the window. Now she just waited, occasionally peeking. Of course, having closed eyes, pretending to sleep or otherwise, would eventually bring anyone to sleep.

The next time she opened her eyes, it was because of two flowers tickling her face. One was red, the other was blue. She sat up, and the fairies only floated in front of her.

“You’re back!” She jumped right out of bed and wore her slippers. “I knew I wasn’t dreaming.”

She noticed a small figure on her nightstand. It was a white mouse, standing on its hind legs, examining her and the fairies. Sara tilted her head at it, and it did the same. She thought it was cute.

“Let’s go,” Red said. “Yes, yes,” confirmed Blue. They floated in silence for a moment, and Sara wondered. “Where’s the white fairy?”

Red and Blue exchanged looks. “She’s busy,” Red said. “Helping Salaya,” confirmed Blue. They waited for someone to add to their statements, and Sara stood puzzled. The fairies flew out of the window. “We must go,” said Red. “Salaya is waiting,” continued Blue.

Sara walked to the window then leapt out. The fairies swirled below her, and she floated gently onto the ground. She couldn’t help but giggle, and then she followed the fairies into the trees. The moon was just as bright as it was the previous night, and the mouse watched them from the window.

Sara lost sight of the fairies at some point, but she knew where she was now. There were violet blooms that almost seemed to glow in the dark, vines around the trees that Sara could have sworn were moving, and plenty of plants with flowers that looked like pitchers. She followed the music of Salaya’s flute and stood at the very edge of the clearing.

She took off her slippers to feel the soothing grass and walked closer to the stone where Salaya was standing. The fairies swayed to the music, and the moon came closer to listen to Salaya play. When she finished playing, she turned to Sara, and the flute never existed.

“Welcome back,” Salaya greeted. She stepped down from the stone, and brought her chest to her knees to level with Sara. She noticed that Salaya was wearing a bracelet now, made of black fibers and was decorated with small white flowers.

“Where’s the white fairy?” she asked.

Salaya looked surprised. “She’s doing important work, right now.”

“Is she all right?”

“Of course,” Salaya picked her up and sat her on a cushioned chair. There was another covered dish in front of them. “She did volunteer for it, after all.”

“Well . . . as long as she’s doing fine.” Sara tapped the table. “What will we have tonight?”

“What is it that you want?”

Sara thought for a moment. Her mind wandered to the food that she knew she wouldn’t find in Tita Mitchel’s house. “Those hotdogs with melty cheese inside them.”

Salaya looked confused, and then she lifted the cover to reveal a plate of still steaming, perfectly red hotdogs. Sara’s mouth began to water when the scent reached her nose. Along each side of the bowl was an ornate fork. The two of them took one for themselves, and when Sara took her first cheesy bite, she danced a little on her seat and couldn’t help but be cheery. Salaya inspected the hotdog, sniffing and wiggling it for a moment. She wasn’t entirely familiar with this, but still decided to give it a try.

When she took her first bite, she had to keep herself from vomiting. Her tongue could taste it all. The many pieces of cartilage and viscera and meats that had been shredded and minced and crushed together to become an oblong atrocity. She put down her fork and simply watched in confusion as Sara enjoyed herself. She’s much more resilient than I imagined, Salaya thought to herself.

“You shti’ didn’t te’ me shomefing.” Sara chewed her mouthful and then swallowed. “Why did you want to see me?”

“Ah, that.” Salaya shifted on her seat and crossed her legs and leaned in closer. “You see, there is something I must ask of you.”

“What is it?” Sara forked her second hotdog and bit into it.

“Well, it is something that only you could accomplish,” Salaya began. “You are, after all, stubbornly courageous with a good heart.”

Sara took another bite, but was listening closely to Salaya. She felt flattered, but also wondered. She chewed and swallowed and then spoke. “How do you know that I’m courageous and all that?”

Salaya smiled. “You left the safety of your home and ran through the dark forest all for adventure, correct? That takes courage.” Sara thought about it, and realized Salaya had a point. “And you refuse to step down to your bully’s level. That means you have a good heart.”

Sara finished her second hotdog and put down her fork.

“What do you need me to do?” she asked, excited. It was like receiving a quest.

“I want you to slay a monster for me.”

Sara blinked a few times and tilted her head. “A monster?”

“Yes, a monster. One with a long and slithering body, a wide mouth, and killer claws.”

Sara remembered her book. She remembered the heroes facing a monster with plenty of heads. It had vicious teeth, scaly skin, and also breathed fire.

“Does the monster breathe fire?” She wasn’t entirely sure about the answer she wanted to receive.

“No, not this one. This one carries ancient magic, the likes of which—”

“I’ll do it!” Sara declared. This is my chance, she thought. A quest! Images of heroes fighting lions and dragons and giants flickered through her head. She remembered these from the books and shows and myths, and she was excited to be a part of it all.

Salaya looked at her with wide eyes and failed to hold back her smile. The fairies were thrown aback as well. She picked Sara up from her chair and swung her around, sometimes tossing her into the air and catching her again.

“Oh! I knew I was correct in choosing you.” Salaya kissed her forehead before setting her down. “On your knees, Sara.”

Sara realized something. “Why can’t you kill the monster? Don’t you have magic as well?”

Salaya laughed, thinking that Sara was joking, as the rules should have been known by everyone. When she looked at Sara’s genuinely puzzled face again, she remembered Sara was still just a child. Her expression soured, and she sighed.

“It is a rule, Sara. I, and those like me, can’t bring any harm to the monster and those like him.”

“Mmm . . . that sounds like an unfair rule.” Sara thought that Salaya just wasn’t fond of doing work and preferred giving orders, like her homeroom teacher that always asked her to ask for chalk from the other class. That’s fine, she thought to herself. She felt proud about being chosen.

Salaya’s eyebrow twitched, and she took a deep breath. “Now, on your knees.”

Sara did as she was told. She thought she’d receive a blessing, a magical weapon and enchanted armor, and words of inspiration. She was excited in the same way she would be excited during the final seconds before she tore open her birthday gifts.

Salaya whispered to the ground beneath them in a language that Sara did not speak nor know about but could understand. The same language the fairies spoke when they tried to put her to sleep.

It was the first language, the first words exchanged by the first creatures. No one born during the last few thousand years spoke it anymore, and no one remembered it enough to speak it again. But everyone and everything understood when they heard. They knew what the words meant and heard it through ears they didn’t know they have.

The soil below Sara gave way to vines with dark leaves and an even darker stem. They crawled up her thighs, and she realized just how unnaturally cold they felt. She shuddered but resisted flinching. Be courageous, she thought to herself. Once the vines had reached her waist, they reached for her left hand. They tightened around her arm, and she gave a nervous smile to Salaya, who wasn’t whispering anymore. Instead, she looked down at Sara with her night-sky eyes.

“Sara Zambata.”

“Yes?” The vines got even tighter and began to hurt her.

“Be strong, for you are the only one who can defeat this monster.” Then, Salaya told her, in the first language, that she would receive a weapon, one that would slay any living creature, and all she had to do was get close enough to touch its skin.

At once, the vines detached themselves from the ground. Sara felt the skin of her palm tear open as the vines forced their way inside. The entire length of her arm ached and deformed as the vines wriggled inside of her. She couldn’t help but shout. Her right hand gripped her wrist, and she fell on her side to squirm on the grass. The sobbing and shrieking of a little girl became the only sound in the whole clearing.

She looked up at Salaya with tears in her eyes. She almost asked for it to stop, but couldn’t get her voice to say so. Something kept her from saying no to Salaya’s quest. The fairies turned around, unable to help her.

“Be careful,” Salaya said. “It could only be used once on the first creature you touch. Don’t waste it.” Salaya knelt down beside her and gently touched her cheek. “I’ll wait for your return, my champion, with the monster’s tongue as your token of victory.”

Sara woke up on her bed with cold sweat soaking her shirt. She quickly sat up and examined her left hand, and it felt perfectly fine. She took a deep breath, lay back down, and felt conflicted.

On one hand, she felt proud to be named a champion on a quest. On the other, she doesn’t understand why she would still want to help Salaya after what she went through last night. Maybe it was the hotdogs.

Mama opened her door and peeked inside. “Sweetie? Are you awake?” Mama found Sara pale and exhausted.

“I am.”

Mama entered the room and offered a hand to help Sara sit up. Sara almost reached for Mama’s hand with her left hand, but she remembered Salaya’s words and jerked her hand away and sat up by herself. Mama had a worried expression as she sat beside her.

“Bad dreams?” Mama asked as she embraced her. Sara nodded. Mama tried to stroke her cheek, but Sara flinched away. Mama smiled a worried smile in the way only mothers could. “Well, you’re with me now, safe and sound.”

Sara smiled back as warmly as she could. They left her room for breakfast, and Sara held on to Mama with her right hand. She felt better here, safer and warmer. But she also knew that she needed to finish her quest and help Salaya. Not only because she had said so, but because she felt that it would be the only way for her to no longer have to meet the tall woman again. A white mouse watched them leave the room while its nose twitched.

After breakfast, Sara just sprawled back onto her bed, looking at the ceiling. She didn’t feel like reading. She thought it was unfair how easily the heroes received their quest from gods or wizards and how confidently they accepted it. They received armor and swords as blessings with epic names, yet she received a nameless weapon that invaded her arm. Then Sara remembered she didn’t even know how to find the monster nor receive any words of guidance from Salaya aside from instructions. It wasn’t how she imagined being a hero would be like, and she wanted to back out.

She looked outside her window. It was sunny, and the trees swayed with the wind. She knew the monster was there. That’s where monsters always were, deep in forests where only lost people would find them, before they’d get eaten. She didn’t really think about why the monster needed slaying, because monsters always needed slaying.

The white mouse scurried to her window, looked at Sara, and looked at the trees. Then she remembered the cat from when they first got here. She thought the mouse was rather clever and stupidly brave to have survived the cat and still stuck around, scurrying around in broad daylight.

“I’m just as brave as you,” she told the mouse. “Salaya said so . . . That’s why she chose me, and blessed—” She looked at her left hand “Gave me this.”

The mouse tilted its head at her and looked outside again. Sara sighed to herself and made up her mind. Besides, little girls always pushed through in the stories she’d read. They always found a prince or became a queen after defeating an evil witch. That’s a rule that always seemed to have been followed.

That afternoon, while Mama was napping, Sara snuck out of the house, stole one of Totoy’s leather work gloves to wear on her left hand, and ran into the trees. She wandered aimlessly for an hour, stepping on crumbled leaves without realizing she’d mostly been going in circles. She listened to the chirping birds and swatted away bugs. She looked for clues on how to find the monster, maybe footprints or claw marks on the trees. Nothing.

She sat under a tree, sweating and dirty. Her chin rested on her right palm, and she pouted. She wasn’t any closer to finding the monster, but she has already been away for what felt like hours. She was glad the sun was still pretty high in the sky.

“I’ll start heading home when the sky turns orange,” she told herself. She didn’t have anyone to guide her back home if it became dark.

She found a beetle crawling beside her. It had a shiny black shell with tiny bits of fur. Two horns were set vertically on its head, the bottom one much longer than the top. She became excited because she only ever saw these on TV or in books about insects.

Her gloved left hand picked it up, and she inspected it with curious eyes. “A rhinoceros beetle,” she declared confidently. It flailed between her fingers before she set it down again on a dried leaf. It lifted up its shell, and its wings buzzed away.

It was Sara’s first time in a place with so many trees. She wasn’t even allowed to wander on her own back in the city. Once her mind wandered away from finding the monster, she began to appreciate her time here. She looked up at the leaves so far up above her, and down at the creepy-crawlies under the layers of rotten leaves and dead wood. Some bugs were pretty and colorful; others were brown and grey and dull but still fascinating. She watched a caterpillar munch away at a leaf, and wondered what it would be like as a butterfly.

She made sure to always keep an eye out for birds that weren’t just the regular brown sparrows she saw everywhere. A lizard with a green head and brown body made her shiver. She couldn’t climb the trees because she didn’t know how, but she made sure to appreciate the shrubs of flowers.

Then, as she kept walking, it took her a few minutes to find out that the trees seemed completely different from before. They were impossibly tall and had woody vines growing on them. They were wide and twisted with roots that flared out as far as the leaves did. She was surrounded by these trees, and she couldn’t find where they stopped growing or which path she took to get here. It was quiet, with no chirping or buzzing. Just silent trees that whispered to one another when they rustled.

Sara kept walking until she found a tree incredibly larger than those around it. She suspected that it was multiple trees that grew into each other. Small bright red lizards scurried along its trunk and branches, and Sara was wary about getting closer.

After wandering around the tree, she found an opening into the tree that sloped downward. It was just her size. Sara soon understood that if there ever was a monster, it would be down there. She hesitantly peeked inside. As far as she could see, it was completely dark.

Sara took deep breaths, and she began walking down the tunnel with her hand trailing along the damp walls. It felt mossy and wooden, until it began feeling like cold stone. The drip-drop of water echoed irregularly from somewhere in the cave. As she walked deeper down, Sara could feel the walls slowly becoming warmer.

Her eyes caught a small lizard crawling above her. It glowed red and radiated a peculiar warmth. It had oil-drop eyes that looked right at Sara before disregarding her again and scurrying up the tunnel. She eyed it with the same fascination she had with the fairies. She knew she was getting close.

The farther down she went, the more glowing lizards she found, until they illuminated and warmed the whole tunnel. It was the perfectly comfortable warmth she could have slept in.

At the very bottom of the steps was a wide cave with passageways leading toward every direction. Some could fit through; others were far too small or unnervingly large. Glowing lizards crawled throughout the whole cave, entering and leaving the tunnels.

“It’ll take forever to go through each one,” Sara complained. She wondered about just going back up. But a voice bellowed from somewhere deeper in the cave. It was ancient and deep and powerful and spoke a language that Sara did not speak but could understand.

My arms morphed

into wings. Gray

feathers ruffled through

Sara jerked herself through one of the passages, in the direction she believed the voice was coming from. Her footsteps echoed throughout the whole cave, receiving the glowing lizard’s very brief attention.

the breeze of polluted air,

as I dreamed

She soon found that the tunnel branched into two directions.

of a new day. Caged

She turned left after the voice. And in the way that poems did, the rhythm slowly embedded itself into her mind so that she could roughly begin to think about the next few lines.

in a mortal coil, I longed to be

where the sun resides—

The voice stopped, and so did Sara. The tunnel split itself into three paths. She waited for the voice to continue.

a place of warmth, eternal

She ran into the right tunnel.

mornings and no nights.

I soared high

The path split into five more parts.

above the clouds, glided

Sara ran through the middle path and found the end of the tunnel, which was completely dark. She looked behind her, and she realized that the glowing lizards were watching her, but they didn’t follow her into the cave. She heard the voice again. It came from something beside her.

with the wind, and went toward—

 “The blazing sun, abandoning”

By the time Sara realized she spoke out loud, the voice beside her already stopped. She grew nervous. It knew she was here. All she could have thought to do was continue what she began.

“a vessel below the ground.”

The voice spoke a single forgotten word, and the entire cave became illuminated by what looked like a supercluster of twinkling stars above, shining white but radiating reds and blues and purples and greens. The ceiling went on forever in darkness, with clouds stained in colors that the surrounding stars glowed. Sara marveled at the night sky that existed inside a cave. She smiled a confused but awestruck smile, the kind that made people seem like crying and laughing at the same time. Then she found a figure stuck along the cave walls.

It had opal scales that shined various colors under the starlight. Its neck and body was long and slithery and much larger than any other adult’s Sara had ever seen. It had two pairs of limbs along its body, with sharp claws that matched.

The figure was like an obsidian statue along the walls, except it was breathing and moving very slowly. It was longer than any bus Sara had ever seen and was wide enough to have swallowed a goat whole. Without moving its mouth, it spoke. “Tell me your name, little one.”

Sara took a step back, afraid and curious at the same time. She looked at its round ebony head, with snake eyes that stared back at her. Its forked tongue flicked for a second and was gone the next. This must be it, Sara thought to herself. She was convinced this was the monster that Salaya wanted her to slay. And it really was one; it was massive and reptilian and could kill her in an instant. Yet it fascinated her the same way that old pictures did, mixed with the sensation of being so close to a massive beast.

“You tell me who you are first.” Sara took off her glove and cautiously stepped forward.

“It does not matter, my name. It’s not something someone so young must worry about.” The monster’s upper half crawled down from the walls and slithered closer to Sara.

Sara thought of a name to give the monster. “Annabeth,” she said. A character from her book.

“Do not lie, little one.”

Sara grew pale. “That’s unfair.” Sara did her best to convince her legs not to run away. “I wouldn’t know what to call you if you didn’t tell me.”

“You have a point.” Sara felt its warm breath that smelled like the first rain. “Then you are free to refer to me as ‘the monster,’ for that is the name you’d be most comfortable with.”

Sara looked at the monster curiously and took another cautious step forward.

“Now tell me, little one. What is yours?”

She held back her tongue for a second. “Sara,” she admitted.

Something in her left hand twitched. She knew she had to, but couldn’t get herself to do so. I can’t be afraid, she thought to herself. I’m so close already. She also had never truly wrapped her head around the “slaying” aspect of her quest. She understood that she had to fight, but she couldn’t fully consider ending a life. She wouldn’t even have a duel with the monster. It would just be her touching his scales, and it would be over. So quickly and unromantically, without mercy.

“A lovely name, that one.” The monster’s head moved to her side and then behind her, his body following suit. “Aren’t you afraid of me?”

“No, I’m not.”

“There isn’t any need to hide it. Everyone becomes afraid of me once they enter my cave. Most run away. A select few stay long enough for us to have a chat.”

Sara was already shaking, but she stood her ground. She didn’t want to disappoint Salaya, who had called her courageous.

“Why did you come here, Sara?”

“I . . .” She scrambled for some sort of reason. “I was lost and j-just found your tree, and then I—”

“No one finds this place without reason, Sara.” The monster’s head was in front of her again as its neck and body surrounded her, not in the way snakes constricted their prey, but it felt like it. Cold sweat dripped from Sara’s brow, and she pushed her arms closer to herself. Something in her left hand twitched again. “Do not even think about lying to me once more. Why are you here?”

“I’m here to slay you, monster.” She looked at him in his massive eyes. She had to do it. She didn’t know why she was so convinced, but she had to. “Salaya sent me.”

The monster’s tongue flicked again. His eyes showed that he was disappointed, but not surprised. He turned away from her and slithered back onto the walls. As his body went past Sara, she noticed that he had a few scales that had fallen off, and some were no longer shiny. One limb was simply being dragged along.

“I am old, Sara. I have been old for the past twelve centuries. I would say that I am too old to bother with fighting you, and the rules disallow such an act, as well. If it is truly what you want, then so be it.”

Sara remembered Salaya’s words. That they are bound by rules not to harm each other.

“Why does she want you gone?”

“Because I refuse to let her change.” His head turned to her, and he flicked his tongue. “She and I, we’re both creatures of the first light. She wants to become an ancient of happy wishes and blossoming flowers and pleasant music.”

“Isn’t she already?” Sara was confused, and not only because she couldn’t truly understand what the monster said about what they both were. “She already is all that. She gave me ice cream, and she’s beautiful, and she plays beautiful music, and—”

“All a façade.” Sara grew silent. She didn’t, or simply refused to, understand the monster. “All so that she could lure children, like you, closer to her, so that they may eat from her table.”

Sara remembered the fairies yelping on her first night with Salaya, when she was just about to eat her first spoon of double Dutch. “What happens when I eat from her table?”

“As her guest, she must offer you food. As your host, you must fulfill a boon. Those are the rules.”

“Another rule,” Sara muttered to herself. Now she understood why it was so difficult for her to say no to Salaya. “Why couldn’t you just let her change? It sounds like she just wants to be better.”

“If you refuse, then she is granted the chance to harm you in any way she pleases.” The cave fell silent for a moment. Sara remembered the weapon entering her, and she wondered what else Salaya could have done to her. “The last child she sent to me—”

“Last child?”

“Yes. You aren’t the first she gave this quest to, and you wouldn’t be the last unless you succeed. They usually run away in fear, but sometimes, they learn the truth first before turning on her.”

Sara felt a pang in her heart. She thought she was the only one that Salaya had chosen. Hearing that she was just one among many victims, she began to despise Salaya. She suffered to receive the weapon, thinking it was just for her. She wondered if she wasn’t really courageous and kindhearted and was simply tricked into thinking so.

“What did she do to the last one?”

“She turned him into a mouse. Others, she turned into flowers or insects or birds. The ones she was particularly fond of became her floral fairies. And if you return to her without my tongue, she’ll turn you into something else as well.”

Sara’s eyed widened. She felt her heart pounding in her chest.

“What should I do then?” She grew frustrated. “All these stupid rules. I don’t even know about any of them, but I have to follow them?” Her breathing became rushed and irregular. She only wanted adventure. She only wanted to experience a thrill like those in storybooks and fantasy novels. She was supposed to find a castle with a prince or fight an evil witch. This was all so complicated and difficult, and she was caught right in the middle of it all.

“To break the rules, you must understand them.”

Sara looked at the monster expectantly. After the monster whispered something into the ground, a little plant began to grow on the dirt below them. It was a low plant with round leaves. Then, as it continued to grow, small red strawberries grew wonderfully ripe and plump.

“It may be a bit late for me to offer food to my guest, but please, take one.”

Sara remembered the rules, and thought that the monster had some sort of clever plan so that she wouldn’t have to use the weapon on him anymore. So she plucked a strawberry and chomped it down. It was very juicy, but it was rather tart. It wasn’t better than the ones at the grocery store. For a moment, she remembered Salaya’s food to be better, but then again, they were supposed to be perfectly delicious.

“Now hold out your right hand with the palm facing upward.”

Sara refused, afraid that the monster would hurt her like Salaya.

“I am not the woman, Sara. I won’t hurt you.”

She reluctantly followed, and then the monster whispered something to the night sky. A star flew down and buzzed onto Sara’s open palm. It glowed brightly and radiated a purple hue but was no larger than a cookie. She felt very tiny feet tickle her palm, and she was surprised at how light it felt, as it was barely even there.

“What do you want me to do?”

“Simply meet with Salaya once again. This time, with this littler one. And give her one of those little orange lizards as well. Be careful, they’re very hot.”

“Why? What are they?”

“Elementals, Sara. You’ll understand out soon enough.”

“Okay, but . . . What about . . .” Sara waved her left hand at the monster. The star took off again and simply buzzed around them.

The monster considered his words for a moment, but then chose to be blunt. “She will know if I have died or not. You will still have to slay me.”

Her heart sank down to her stomach. She thought she wouldn’t need to anymore. She looked at her left hand and then at the monster, expecting him to take it back. “No,” she told him. “I won’t use this on you.”

It wasn’t right. The monster didn’t struggle or fight back like the Hydra or the Jabberwock. He didn’t curse children or destroy castles. He just waited in the cave, reciting poems under the stars. She wouldn’t have felt like a hero for defeating the monster. She’d just be like Patricia Chuy, who once shouted at and killed a spider just because it was on her table.

“Sara, I am no longer supposed to be in this world. My prime was a millennia ago. I am simply waiting for my time, and I need not wait longer if you would simply give me this chance.”

“If you wanted to die already, why didn’t you just let all the other children do it?”

“They would have taken my tongue to her.”

“How do you know I won’t?”

“For I know that you are kind.”

Sara remembered Salaya the same thing. She thought that the monster was just using her again. “How do you know?! We’ve only met each other now!”

“Because even as you learned that Salaya has tricked you into doing something wrong, you had not wondered about using her own weapon against her.”

Sara stood silent for a moment. “You don’t have to die here.” She hid her left hand behind her. “I’ll bring the star and the lizard to Salaya, and then we could leave this cave and find you a better one.”

“That sounds splendid.” Its tongue flicked. “But I simply don’t belong anymore, Sara.” The monster’s head approached Sara, and she could feel his warm breath again.

Sara shook her head, and tears began streaming down her cheek. She was quiet but persistent in the way only children could get when things didn’t go their way. Despite that, the vines in her left hand twitched to touch the monster.

“Do not think of it as slaying me, little one. Think of it as mercy.”

Sara looked at the monster as she sobbed. “I’m ready when you are,” he told her. Slowly and hesitantly, her left hand reached to touch the monster’s snout. She felt the skin of her palm burst open as the dark and cold vines sprouted out and surrounded the monster. She could feel them leaving her arm, and her right hand gripped her wrist. She did her best not to make a peep. It wasn’t nearly as painful as when it had entered her, but it did still hurt.

The monster simply allowed the vines to engulf him, leaving only its head. He pressed his snout farther into Sara’s palm. “Thank you, Sara Zambata. You have fulfilled your first quest. Now fulfill your next.” Sara jerked her head up and down.

“I will,” she declared. She had accepted her next quest.

The blazing sun, abandoning

a vessel below the ground.

The monster’s eyes closed. The vines suddenly tightened, and she could no longer feel his warm breath. She felt sad in a way that she hadn’t felt before. It was a silent sadness that was heavy and unpleasant on the chest. She wiped away her tears and simply stood there. She didn’t know why, but it felt right to stand in silence just for a while.

The star flew and buzzed around Sara as she walked toward the tunnel. She reached for one of the glowing lizards with her right hand, but quickly jerked away. It was like touching still-hot charcoal. With her gloved hand, she picked up the lizard, and it curled peacefully on her palm. Her hand could still feel the warmth through the glove. Sara looked back at the creature in the cave, took a deep breath, and then headed out.

It was already nighttime when she had left the tunnels and got out of the tree. “Mama would be worried sick by now,” she muttered to herself. She just kept walking in the direction she believed to be her way back home. She couldn’t tell when, but all the large and twisted and silent trees just disappeared behind her, and she was surrounded by the same trees that she was familiar with. The star buzzed above her, and the lizard slept on her palm.

After a few minutes of walking, she heard small and almost squeaky voices.

“Sara,” shouted Red. “Sara,” repeated Blue. She turned to them, and they floated right up to her. When the star buzzed past them, Sara caught a glimpse of two girls, both about her age. They wore dresses that matched their colors and floated in the air.

“Is Salaya looking for me?”

“She is,” confirmed Red. “She really wants to see you,” added Blue. The star buzzed past again, and Sara noticed that they had patches of skin all over that had become cracked and woody, like tree bark. Their eyes were still bright and cheerful, but they were too shiny and seemed too unnatural.

Sara took a step back, and she remembered that she had not taken the monster’s tongue, but she was quickly able to think of something.

“Take me to her then.”

The fairies gave an enthusiastic nod, and they floated away. Sara ran after them. Once they disappeared and Sara could hear the music from Salaya’s flute, she stood completely still. Her heart was pounding, and her hands were trembling, which the glowing lizard didn’t like. She looked at it for a moment, and it looked back at her.

“You should probably stay here for now.” She took off the glove while turning it inside out so that the lizard was inside, and she placed it into her pocket. “And you need to turn off for a while.”

The star gave an unhappy buzz.

“She might suspect something if she finds out I brought anything else but the tongue.”

It gave a low buzz and landed on Sara’s palm. She felt the star’s tiny legs dance frantically before the light died down. A small purple beetle rested on her palm. Her mind went through a moment of brief confusion, and then immediate acceptance that stars are just glowing bugs. She wondered where to keep it for a moment.

Sara brought her hand to her shoulder. “Hide in my hair,” she told the beetle, and it simply crawled into her messy mop. She felt it crawl around for a few seconds before it settled. After a deep breath, Sara followed the music, which had seemed much louder than the previous nights. Listening to it now, after what she’d learned, she felt like a mouse being lured by the Pied Piper.

“When I call for you, do what you’re supposed to do, okay?”

There was a short buzz of agreement.

There were violet blooms that almost seemed to glow in the dark, vines around the trees that Sara could have sworn were moving, and plenty of plants with flowers that looked like pitchers. Once she reached the clearing, she paused for a few moments before approaching Salaya, who was playing cheerfully on her dark stone. The fairies floated beside her.

The moon was still listening to her play, but it was now only half.

Once the music stopped playing, Salaya turned to her visitor with a very excited smile across her face, as if she were about to receive a supposedly surprise present but somehow found out.

“Do you have it, Sara?”

“I do.” She took out the balled-up glove from her pocket and held it tightly.

Salaya jumped from the stone. Her dress flowed gently around her, and she landed right in front of Sara gently, as if a breeze cushioned her feet. She bent down and presented her open palm to Sara.

“Well, let me have it.” She smiled such an obviously fake smile that Sara felt a bit insulted.

“Why? I thought it was my token?”

Sara could tell Salaya was simply holding back her frustration. “I need it child, more than you would think.” She moved her shaking hand closer to Sara’s. “Now be a good girl and let me have it.”

Sara took a deep breath. “I need you to grant me a wish first, as your champion.”

Her eyebrow twitched. Salaya sighed an annoyed sigh and stood properly with her hand on her hip. “What is it?”

“I want to have all three of your fairies.”

Salaya chuckled. “So he told you what I’d do if you came back empty-handed?”

“Yes.”

“And yet you still followed through.” She grinned. “You’re good at choosing sides.”

“Will I have them or not?”

“Ooh, such persistence. I like it.” Salaya turned to the two fairies. “Go with her then.” Red and Blue cautiously floated beside Sara.

“Where’s the white one?”

Salaya rolled her eyes, and then she unlatched her bracelet. She dropped it, but before it reached the ground, the white flowers bloomed into a white fairy that rushed to embrace Red and Blue, as if she’d been a bracelet for years.

“I have no use for them anymore,” Salaya remarked. She presented her open palm again, and her fingers motioned to have the tongue. “Now give it to me.”

Sara dropped the glove on her palm, and took a step back.

“Yes!” Salaya held the glove by her fingertips, and she felt something squishy and long inside. She then raised it up against the dark half of the moon. “After all this time,” she shouted at the night sky. “I have your power!” She laughed a satisfied and disturbingly witch-like laugh. “With this, I’ll finally be able to—oh, you’re still here.”

“Yes. I just . . . The fairies.”

Salaya smirked. “Just because I gave them to you doesn’t mean I’ll change them back.”

Sara frowned. “The monster was right. You really are ugly and rotten and all the bad stuff he said about you.”

“You little—”

Salaya raised her hand and was about to hit Sara, but she called out “Star!” before she was struck.

The purple beetle quickly buzzed from her hair and flew up. When it had everyone’s attention, it flashed very briefly but so brightly that it burned away the veil of magic that Salaya had so carefully woven over the whole clearing. Everything looked the way it truly was now.

When Sara could see properly again, she found that the fairies were now the ghostly children like they were earlier. The ground was completely barren, littered with what looked like rotten pieces of cloth and chunks of wood. The table and chairs that they had eaten on were now just splintery pieces of wood that were nailed together, and the covered platter was rusty and bent all over.

“You sneaky little twerp,” growled a voice.

The voice was loud and ancient and irritated. It sounded like countless other voices speaking in unison, and when it finished talking, feint groans from somewhere deep echoed.

“So you and the old goon had a plan, eh?”

Sara turned to face Salaya, but she didn’t find her. Instead, there was an old woman that stood crooked but was as tall as a house. Her skin was gray and wrinkled and scratched. Her eyes were jaundiced with deformed pupils. She was completely covered in rotting sheets of cloth in such a manner that only her face could be seen.

Sara turned away and ran away as fast as she could, the ghostly children floating behind her. A dark vine crawled out from under Salaya’s sheets of cloth and shot itself toward Sara. It caught her by the leg and dragged her back. Sara scratched at the dirt and flailed and struggled, to no avail.

“Help me!” she shouted.

The three children rushed after her, with White taking the lead. The three of them grabbed her hand and did their best to pull, which didn’t even slow her down.

“What’s next then? What did he tell you to do after? Don’t tell me that was it.” Salaya laughed a wretched laugh. “You can’t escape, Sara. I’ve never lost a child before.”

When Sara was close, limbs made of rotten and splintery wood protruded from the cloth. One of them smacked the fairies away, while the rest lifted Sara up.

Sara was brought face to face with Salaya’s excited and contorted smile. She was less than an arm’s length from the large and wrinkly face.

“Did you want to see me like this?” Salaya asked. “Do you see why I need that tongue? To truthfully beautiful as—”

Sara punched her yellow eye, and the massive woman flinched. She growled with only one eye open.

“I’ve never eaten a child before, although I’ve always been curious. But first, an appetizer.” Salaya tore the glove open with wooden limbs, and she was surprised to find a small bright red lizard plop out and scurried its way into Salaya’s sheets.

Like an adult approached by a cockroach, Salaya began to panic when the lizard reached her. The limbs dropped Sara, and they flailed uncontrollably while the old woman began coughing up smoke. The fairies cushioned her fall so that she landed on her feet, and then they ran toward the edge of the clearing. As she ran, Sara could hear Salaya shouting in countless voices, and when she turned, she found Salaya looking at her as well.

“Help me,” Salaya groaned. Small embers began to ignite all over her rotten sheets, which soon grew to slowly engulf her in a large flame and black smoke. Sara could feel the heat of the fire despite her distance, and she could smell the polluted odor.

Once all the cloth had been burnt out, Sara could only distinguish Salaya’s wooden frame in the fire. She was no longer coughing or shouting or groaning. Only the fire just kept crackling. Occasionally, a wooden slab would fall over, tiny embers flying. It was now just a massive bonfire. Sara just stood quietly for a moment. She felt like she needed to. Then she turned around and left the clearing for good.

“Please take me home,” she told the fairies.

The fairies led her back. Police sirens flashed red and blue in front of the house, and as soon as a policeman spotted her, he told everyone else and then spoke into his radio.

Mama and Tita Mitchel rushed to embrace Sara immediately. They both had been crying, and were both crying again. Sara didn’t realize how cold she felt until Mama held her as tightly as a mother ever could. “I was worried sick,” she said. “Where were you?”

Sara didn’t know what to say or where to begin. In trying to find her words, she simply began tearing up and sobbing as well. It was all over.

As she was brought into the house, the fairies stayed with the trees. Their eyes were once again like the eyes of children, and the bark on their skin began to peel off. They were themselves again, but their bodies had long since vanished. They’re simply ghosts, roaming and guiding children back to their home, as an apology for all the children they’d brought to Salaya.

Years went on, and the memories of Salaya and the monster and the fairies became simple dreams to Sara, a fantasy she would sometimes revisit when she would become too bored in class or dream about writing her own book, if only she could find the time. Mama never had to tell her what happened between them and Papa. She was able to figure it out on her own, in the way that teenagers figured these things out on their own.

She had a pet rat once, too. Maybe pet was too strong a word. It was more a visitor that she would sometimes share her food with. It had a white coat, and Sara often worried that, when it hadn’t visited in a long time, maybe a cat had gotten to it. She would always be overjoyed to see it again.

Sara hadn’t been to the woods on her own in a long time. Her left arm still ached sometimes.

Ang Pagkatuyo ng Lupa at Puso

Ni Mubarak Tahir
Maikling Kuwento

Unti-unti kong pinagmasdan ang sakahan. Nalungkot ako sa aking nakita. Sa kabila no’n ay nagpatuloy ako sa pagtalunton ng pilapil ng sakahan ni A’mâ habang hila-hila ko ang tali ng aming kalabaw na si Masbod. Nang mapadaan ako sa isang batis, napansin kong unti-unti nang nabibiyak ang tuyong putik nito. Ang mga damo, kangkong, at iba pang pananim ay unti-unti na ring nalalanta. Napailing ako at napabuntonghininga. Nagpatuloy ako sa paglalakad hanggang narating ko ang isang malaking puno na unti-unti na ring nalalagas ang mga dahon. Sa lilim ng puno ay iniwan ko si Masbod na paikot-ikot na naghahanap ng mga damong makakain niya. Bahagya kong niluwangan at hinabaan ang tali niya nang marating niya ang ilang damo na papalanta na rin.

Iniwan ko si Masbod at tinungo ko ang sakahan ni A’mâ. Ang dating malaginto at luntiang palayan ay napalitan ng tuyong lupain. Wala na rin ang mga lawin sa sakahan upang manghuli ng mga dagambukid. Ang mga susô sa gilid ng pilapil ay pawang bahay na lamang ang makikita. Nang marating ko ang bakanteng sakahan, pinagmasdan ko ito. Napaupo ako sa tuyong pilapil. Napatingala ako at napaluha na lamang. Bumigat ang aking pakiramdam na hindi ko maipaliwanag. Naalala ko si A’ma.

* * *

Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar!

Isang malakas na boses ang gumising sa akin. Tinig iyon ni A’ma na hudyat para magsambayang sa umaga. Inaantok at mabigat man ang buong katawan, pinilit kong bumangon, kung hindi ay isang tábô ng malamig na tubig ang tatanggapin ko mula kay A’ma. Umupo muna ako.

Alhamdulillahi ahyana ba’da ma amatana wa ilayhin nushur, bulong ko sa sarili, isang pasasalamat sa Allah para sa panibagong umaga.

Dahan-dahan kong itinali sa beywang ko ang inaul na malong upang hindi mabasa sa pag-aabdas. Gamit ang lumang bao ng niyog, sinalok ko ang tubig na mula sa lumang banga. Nang ilublob ko ang kanang kamay ko sa bao ay naramdaman ko ang lamig ng tubig. Bigla akong nahimasmasan sa pagkakaantok. Pagkatapos kong hugasan ang dalawa kong kamay ay kumuha ako ulit ng tubig. Nilanghap ko ang amoy ng tubig. Amoy malinis at preskong tubig ng balon. Nagmumog ako nang tatlong beses. Panghuli kong hinugasan ang dalawa kong paa. Nang makabalik ako sa kama kong gawa sa kawayan ay agad kong hinanap ang sajadah upang magsambayang ng sub’h.

Mababanaag na ang sikat ng araw. Dumungaw ako sa bintana, at bumungad sa akin ang silahis ng araw. Napatingala ako habang nakapikit. Marahang huminga. Pumasok sa ilong ko patungong lalamunan ang malamig na simoy ng hangin kasama ng mabangong simoy ng gintong palay na nagmumula sa sakahan.

Wata mama, ikëta ka i kabaw a, paalala ni A’ma na noo’y naglilinis ng kaniyang mga kagamitan sa pagsasaka gaya ng araro.

Uway, sagot ko.

Pumanaog ako, at pagbaba ko ay napuno ng amoy ng sibuyas at bawang na ginigisa sa lanâ a tidtô ang buong bahay. Hinanap ko si I’nâ. Abala siya sa pagsi-sinakô ng malamig na kanin.

I’nâ, masu masarap ang niluluto mo, paglalambing ko.

Napangiti si I’nâ.

Pamagayas ka den san, Wata. Sundin mo na ang utos ni A’mâ mo, ani I’nâ. Makadtanay, pag-uwi mo handa na ang tilagaran natin, dugtong pa niya.

Nagmadali akong lumabas upang dalhin sa bakanteng sakahan si Masbod upang makapanginain ito sa mayayabong na damo. Sumakay ako kay Masbod na hawak-hawak ang kaniyang tali.

Hing! Hing! Pamagayas ka, sabi ko habang ikinikiskis ko ang mga paa sa tagiliran ni Masbod upang magmadali ito. Dali na, Masbod! Uuwi pa ako para mag-almusal.

Gustuhin ko mang latiguhin si Masbod dahil sa inis sa kaniya, mas pinili kong pabayaan ito habang sumasabsab ito ng masasaganang damo sa gilid ng daan.

Nang maitali ko na ang tali ni Masbod sa isang puno, kumaripas ako ng takbo pauwi. Ilang metro na lamang ay mararating ko na ang aming bahay. Mas lalo akong nagmadali nang maamoy ko ang pinipritong tamban ni I’nâ. Halos matisod ako sa pilapil.

N’ya ako den! nakangisi kong bungad kina I’nâ at A’mâ.

Hindi pa man ako nakakaupo ay bigla akong sinita ni A’mâ. Nginan, Wata? Hindi ka ba marunong magsalam kapag papasok sa walay?

Napalunok na lamang ako at tinabihan si A’mâ. A’mâ, gusto mo gawan kita ng kape a netib? paglalambing ko sa kaniya.

Napansin kong nakatingin sa akin si I’nâ at nakangiti. Alam na alam niya kung papaano ko hulihin ang kiliti ni A’mâ.

Uway, ’wag masyadong matamis a, sagot ni A’mâ. Mas masarap pa rin ang kape a netib na medyo mapait.

Sa isang tasa na yari sa lata ay ibinuhos ko ang mainit na tubig na nasa takure na nasa abuhan. Sa isang lumang garapon, kumuha ako ng isang kutsara ng netib na kape. Nilagyan ko rin ng kalahating kutsara ng pulang asukal at saka hinalo. Binalot ng bango ng kape ang buong banggerahan. Ganito ang tamang pagtitimpla ng kape ni A’mâ. Mangiti-ngiti kong inihatid at inilagay sa kaniyang harap ang umuusok na kape. Nakita kong ngumiti siya nang masamyo ang bango ng kape. Sa wakas, napasaya ko siya sa pinakasimpleng paraan.

Nang matapos mag-almusal, kinuha ni A’mâ ang kaniyang lumang salakot na nakasabit sa dingding ng bahay. Naghanda siya upang tingnan ang kaniyang sakahan. Nalalapit na rin ang anihan.

Wata, ihanda mo ang kubong at ’yong inihanda ni I’nâ mo na nilëpët na babaon natin, utos ni A’mâ habang nirorolyo niya ang kaniyang tabako.

Mabilis kong hinanap ang kubòng. Inilagay ko na rin sa lumang supot ang nilëpët na gawa ni I’nâ.

Dinaanan namin ni A’mâ si Masbod na nagtatampisaw sa batis. Sumakay kaming dalawa kay Masbod patungong sakahan.

Wata, kapët ka, sabi ni A’mâ nang may pag-aalala.

Mahigpit akong kumapit sa beywang ni A’mâ. Nakaramdam ako ng kapanatagan at kaligtasan. Napangiti ako. Minsan pa’y inilapat ko ang aking mukha sa likod niya. Naamoy ko ang katandaan niya. Hindi amoy ng pawis kundi amoy ng sakripisyo at pagsisikap. Pagsasaka na ang kinamulatang trabaho ni A’mâ. Ito rin ang ikinabubuhay namin. Parang gulong ang pagsasaka—minsan masagana at kung minsan naman ay hindi sinisuwerte. Gayon pa man, nagpapatuloy si A’mâ. Hindi siya nagpadaig sa hamon ng buhay ng magsasaka gaya ng mga sakuna dulot ng bagyo. Kaya ganoon na lamang ang hanga ko sa kaniya.

Narating namin ang sakahan. Nadatnan din namin si Bapa Dima na nagbubungkal ng pilapil upang dumaloy ang tubig patungo sa kabilang palayan na dahan-dahan nang nawawalan ng tubig.

Kanakan den pala ang wata mo Kagi Tasil, ani ni Bapa Dima kay A’mâ.

Benal ba nagbibinata na, kaya sinasanay ko na sa mga gawain dito sa sakahan. Mabilis ang panahon ngayon. Di natin alam kung kailan natin iiwan ’tong sinasaka natin, paliwanag ni A’mâ habang nakatanaw sa kaniyang malawak na sakahan.

Nang marinig ko ang mga sinabi niya ay nakaramdam ako ng pagkalungkot sa mga oras na iyon. Hindi ko maipaliwanag, ngunit biglang sumikip ang dibdib ko. Gusto kong hawakan nang mahigpit ang mga kamay ni A’mâ.

Damangiyas ka mambu, Kagi. Huwag ka nga magbiro ng ganiyan. Syempre matagal pa ’yon, sa lakas mong ’yan, nakangiting sabi ni Bapa Dima.

Sa mga sinabi ni Bapa Dima ay nagkaroon ako ng lakas ng loob kahit papaano. Sa kabila noon ay hindi ko maiwasang hindi itago sa isipan ko ang mga binitawang salita ni A’mâ.

Iniwan namin si Bapa Dima sa kaniyang gawain. Pinuntahan at inikot namin ni A’mâ ang kaniyang sinasakang palayan. Tila inilatag na ginto ang mga butil ng palay. Ilang araw na lamang marahil ay aanihin na ito. Hinahawakan at pinagmamasdan ni A’mâ ang mga butil na aming nadaraanan. Napapangiti siya dahil masagana ang kaniyang sinasaka, hindi tulad noong nagdaang taon na hindi umabot sa tatlong sako ng palay ang kaniyang naaani dahil sa matinding insekto na sumalanta sa palayan.

Nagulat ako nang bigla akong akbayan ni A’mâ. Wata, tadëmi ka. Kahit anong yaman mo sa mundo, kung hindi ka kusang magsisikap ay mawawalan ito ng saysay. Kaya ikaw, habang bata ka pa, magsimula ka nang abutin ang mga pangarap mo. Pahalagahan mo ang bawat oras dahil ang bawat segundo, kapag dumaan, hindi mo na ito maibabalik pa, malumanay na sabi ni A’mâ habang nakatanaw sa malayo. Maliban sa pagsasaka, gusto kong makapagtapos ka ng pag-aaral mo. Mas magiging masaya kami ni I’nâ mo kung may makikita kaming nakasabit na diploma at hindi lamang mga salakot sa dingding ng bahay natin, dugtong pa niya habang nakatingin sa akin nang nakangiti.

Hindi ko alam kung papaano ko sasagutin si A’mâ. Nawalan ng lakas ang aking dila upang sabihin kung ano ang nararamdaman ko habang binibitawan niya ang mga salitang ’yon. Napakabigat. Napaiwas ako ng tingin. Huminga nang malalim at pilit na itinago sa kaniya ang pagpatak ng aking mga luha. Ayaw kong makita niya kung gaano ako kahina. Gusto kong malaman niya na nagiging matatag at malakas lamang ako kapag nandiyan siya. Inalis niya ang pagkakalapat ng kaniyang kamay sa aking balikat. Agad ko itong sinalo at mahigpit na hinawakan. Ayaw kong bumitaw sa mga kamay niya. Ilang saglit pa ay bumitaw siya sa aking mga kamay at humakbang. Hindi ko alam, ngunit nakaramdam ako ng pangungulila sa kaniya habang pinagmamasdan siyang humahakbang palayo sa akin.

* * *

Pauwi na ako. Katatapos lamang ng aking klase. Bago pa man tuluyang magdapit-hapon ay sinisikap kong makadaan sa sakahan upang tingnan ang kalagayan ng palayan ni A’mâ. Maayos naman ang palayan, kaya agad din akong umalis. Sakay ng biniling bisikleta ni A’ma, mabilis akong pumadyak lalo’t natatanaw ko na ang aming bahay, na tanging liwanag lamang ng lampara ang bumubuhay.

Habang nasa harap ako ng hagdan, bigla akong napatingala. Nakarinig ako ng mahihinang pag-iyak. Napansin ko rin ang iilang tsinelas na nasa kinatatayuan ko. Umakyat ako. Bumungad sa akin ang isang puting tela na dahan-dahang ginugupit nina Babo Taya at Babo Samira. Nakaramdam ako ng kabang hindi maipaliwanag. Sa isang silid ay nakita ko sina Bapa Dima at ilan pang tao. Hindi malinaw sa akin kung bakit wala silang imik at nakatalikod silang lahat.

Assalamu alaykom! Babo, ano’ng nangyari? tanong ko.

Napalingon sina Babo Taya, at nagkatitigan sila ng kaniyang kasama. Hindi sila makakibo. Tanging malungkot na mga titig ang kanilang tugon sa akin. Pumasok ako sa silid. Nakita ko sa isang sulok si I’nâ, humahagulgol nang patago. Agad ko siyang nilapitan at hinawakan ang magkabilang balikat. Naramdaman ko ang bigat. I’nâ? Nginan? Ano’ng nangyari?

Isang mahigpit na yakap ang itinugon ni I’nâ sa akin habang humagulgol siya. Hindi ko maintindihan ang lahat ng nangyayari. Naguluhan ako.

Minunot dën sa limo no Allah si A’mâ nëngka, mahinang sabi ni I’nâ. Kaninang tanghali, pagkatapos niyang magsambayang ng dhuh’r, bigla siyang inatake ng hayblad habang nananabako, dagdag ni I’nâ na hirap na rin sa paghinga.

Hindi ako nakapagsalita. Nanghina ako sa narinig ko. Agad kong pinuntahan ang nahihimlay na bangkay ni A’mâ. Pinagmasdan ko ang kaniyang mukha. Ngayon ko lang nakita ang maaliwalas at masaya niyang mukha. Napahagulgol na lamang ako habang yakap-yakap siya. Gusto kong sumigaw upang mailabas ang sakit na nararamdaman ko, ngunit hindi ko magawa dahil isa itong kasalanan sa Allah, kaya nauunawaan ko kung bakit walang imik ang lahat sa loob ng bahay.

Nang mapaliguan si A’mâ, muli ko siyang hinagkan at niyakap sa huling pagkakataon. Nang balutin na siya ng puting tela ay wala akong nagawa kundi maupo sa tarangkahan at di namamalayan ang pagdaloy ng aking mga luha. Dumating na ang araw na kinatatakutan ko. Ganitong-ganito ang naramdaman ko nang bitawan ni A’mâ ang aking kamay habang humahakbang siya papalayo sa akin sa sakahan. Wala na si A’mâ na nagpapalakas sa akin.

* * *

Ilang araw na lamang ay anihan na sa aming lugar. Halos lahat ay naghahanda na ng kani-kanilang kagamitan sa pag-aani. Si Bapa Dima ay nagpakanduli pa para sa masaganang ani bilang pasasalamat isang araw bago ang anihan. Hindi namin magawa ni I’nâ na magsaya sa mga panahong yaon lalo’t hindi pa umaabot ang ikaapatnapu’t araw ng pagkamatay ni A’mâ. Ngunit sinikap ko pa rin paghandaan ang pagdating ng araw ng anihan.

Madilim pa man ay nakarinig na ako ng pagragasa ng mga karosa at yapak ng mga kalabaw. Maagang pumunta sa kani-kanilang sakahan ang mga magsasaka. Kaya bumangon na lang din ako upang makapagsambayang at makapaghanda. Nang papunta ako sa banggerahan upang mag-abdas, nakita ko si I’nâ na naghahanda ng tilagaran. Hindi na siya kasinsigla noong nabubuhay pa si A’mâ. Mula nang mawala si A’mâ ay wala nang lamang kape na netib ang garapon namin. Hindi na rin siya naghahanda ng linëpët. Maraming nagbago nang maiwan kami.

Kinuha ko ang salakot na dating si A’mâ ang gumagamit. Isinakay ko na rin kay Masbod ang kagamitan sa pag-aani. Nang paalis na ako sa bahay, napansin kong may paparating sa may di kalayuan. Tumatakbo. Nang malapit na ay bumungad si Bapa Dima sa akin na hinihingal. Kamar! Kamar! Nasayang lahat, sabi nito na halos mapaluhod.

Bapa? Ano’ng ibig ni’yong sabihin? tanong ko sa kaniya.

Inatake ng mga insekto ang palayan natin! Halos wala nang natira para anihin, sagot niya.

Mabilis kong nilatigo ng tali si Masbod, at kumaripas ito ng takbo. Hindi ako makapaniwala sa ibinalita sa akin ni Bapa Dima. Habang mabilis na tumatakbo si Masbod ay naisip ko si A’mâ.

Di mapakay! Hindi maaaring masira lamang ang huling pananim ni A’mâ, bulong ko sa sarili.

Narating ko ang palayan. Nababalot ng pagkadismaya at lungkot ang kapaligiran ng mga magsasaka. Amoy na amoy ko rin ang mga insektong nanalasa sa palayan. Pinuntahan ko ang palayan ni A’mâ. Ang mga gintong butil ng palay ay nabalot ng maiitim na insekto. Naninilaw na rin ang mga berdeng dahon ng mga palay. Napaluhod na lamang ako sa aking nakita.

Ampon, A’mâ ko! Hindi ko naisalba ang inyong palayan, tanging nasabi ko habang pinagmasdan ang buong palayan.

Bago pa man magtanghali ay nagsiuwiang dismayado ang halos lahat ng magsasaka maliban kay Bapa Dima na nakatulalang nakaharap sa kaniyang palayan na maluha-luha. Bumaba ako sa pagkakasakay kay Masbod.

Matagal-tagal na naman bago tayo makakabangon nito, malungkot niyang sabi. Hindi na ’to bago sa amin. Sabi nga ni Kagi Tasil, pagsubok lamang ito sa ating mga magsasaka. Ang susuko sa hamon ay laging talo. Ang kaibahan lamang ngayon ay wala na akong karamay sa mga ganitong panahon.

Nilapitan ko si Bapa Dima. Hinawakan ko ang kaniyang balikat.

Bapa, simula ngayon ako na ang makakaramay ninyo dito sa sakahan. Ipagpapatuloy ko ang nasimulan ni A’ma habang nag-aaral, malakas na loob kong sabi kay Bapa Dima.

* * *

Bumalik lamang ang ulirat ko nang makaramdam ako ng pagpatak ng tubig sa tuyo kong balat. Napatingala ako. Isa-isang pumapatak ang ulan.

Masbod! Masbod! Bagulan! Bagulan, Masbod! masaya kong sigaw habang tumatakbo patungo kay Masbod.

Labis-labis ang saya ko sa araw na iyon. Matagal na rin naming hinihintay ang pagbagsak ng malakas na ulan sa aming sakahan. Ang mga tuyong lupain at pananim ay muling makakatikim ng tubig. Magkakaroon na rin kaming mga magsasaka ng bagong pagkakataon upang magsimulang magtanim. Ang naghihingalong mga sakahan ay muling mabubuhay, tulad ng mga puso naming tuyo na dahan-dahang mababasa ng paghilom.

Lanahan

Ni Alvin Larida

(Ang una nga bersyon sang sugilanon nga ini nangin finalist sa isa ka short story contest nga ginhiwat sang writers’ organization sa South Cotabato sang 2019 T’nalak Festival.)

Gapalamalhas nga nagatiyabaw si Emilda bitbit ang duha ka bulan nga lapsag samtang ginalagas siya sang wasay sang iya bana, nga nagabaga ang mata sa kaakig. “Malooy ka, Lando,” hambal ni Emilda. “Indi pag-umida ang aton anak!”

Sang maabot siya sang iya bana, hinali siya sini gingan-it kag ginhan-usan sang wasay ang iya tuo nga kamot. Nagsulumpit ang dugo. Nagligid ang bata kag napaligoan sang dugo sang iya iloy. Nakahapa si Emilda sa kangotngot nga iya naagum. Diri nakatiempo si Lando sang han-us sang wasay sa likod sang asawa sini.

Wala na gid nakapalagyo si Emilda. Wala nag-untat sa pagbunal si Lando sa likod kag ulo sang asawa. Nagasagol ang dugo kag balhas ni Lando sa tion nga ibakol niya ang wasay sa mabaskog kag nagalagamak nga tul-an. Naumpawan lang siya sang maghibi ang lapsag. Sa kahadlok, nagdalagan siya palayo sa gintaboan sang krimen.

Sa indi madugay, nanawag si Pasing, iloy ni Lando, sa diutay nga puloy-an sang pamilya. Nagtalamos sang laway kag luha ang mal-am sang makita niya nga nagapaligo sa dugo kag may dalagko nga pilas ang iya umagad. “Emilda, sin-o ang nagbuhat sini sa imo?” matagsing nga tiyabaw sang mal-am, kag nagsungaw ang pagpanangis sa iya baba.

Ginkuha ni Pasing ang lapsag nga nagahibi kag nagalutik sa dugo sang iya iloy. May nabatian siya nga nagakumod sa puno sang paho sa bangi sang dalapugan. “Ano ayhan ato?” Nagsulod siya sa banggirahan kag nagsid-ing sa siklat sang dalapugan. Nakasiyagit siya sa iya nakita. “Lando!”

Nagakudog kag nagapaligo sa dugo si Lando samtang may bitbit nga wasay. “Nay, malooy ka,” hambal sini kay Pasing. “Indi ko hungod nga patyon ang akon asawa. Palangga ko si Emilda, Nay!”

Nagpalapit si Lando sa iloy. “Nay, batona ini.” Gindaho sini ang lanahan nga may nakapiod nga libreta. “Patya na lang ko, Nay. Indi na ko kasarang.”

Nagdalagan palayo si Pasing sang tuman ka paspas samtang bitbit ang lapsag. “Tabang! Tabang! Tabang!”

Nagkurog liwat si Lando kag nagbaga ang mata. Ginsunod niya si Pasing. Nagdalagan siya kag ginpungkoy ini sang wasay. Naigo sang pakol sang wasay ang likod sang mal-am, kag nadasma ini, parehas sang natabo kay Emilda kagaina, pero wala sini nabuy-an o naipit ang lapsag.

Ginpulot ni Lando ang wasay kag ginhan-us ini sa iloy, apan bag-o ini magtupa, naunahan ini sang sunod-sunod nga lupok sang pusil. Natumba si Lando.

“Ne Pasing, dalagan na!” singgit ni Mandoy, manghod ni Pasing.

Nagbangon si Pasing nga ginasipit gihapon ang lapsag kag nagdalagan nga wala balibalikid. Nanago siya sa idalom sang punoan sang saging. Nagwawaw ang lapsag, kag nakabati liwat si Pasing sang duwa ka lupok.

Sa ginahigdaan ni Lando, nagtulo ang luha sini kag naghambal, “Human na ang lanahan.”

Ginhunos ni Pasing ang lampin sang bata para ikudong sa iya ulo. Nakibot siya sang makapkapan niya ang lanahan kag libreta nga ginduhol sa iya ni Lando. “Ginoo ko, ano ining gindaho sa akon ni Lando?” Nagakudog nga naglakat siya pakadto sa iya puluy-an.

Pagligad sang pipila ka minutos, nagpalapit si Mandoy sa balay ni Pasing, bitbit ang wasay nga gingamit ni Lando. “Ne Pasing, si Mandoy ini,” tugda ni Mandoy nga nagahapohapo. “Palihog abrihi ang puertahan!” Gin-abrihan man dayon sang mal-am ang puertahan, kag namangkot ini kung kumusta na ang kahimtangan ni Lando kag ni Emilda. “Wala na sila, Ne!” nagamihamiha nga tugda ni Lando.

Nagtiyabaw si Pasing. Daw indi siya makakuha sang hangin sa iya pagwawaw. “Mandoy, buligi ako. Ngaa may lanahan kag libreta si Lando nga gindaho sa akon? Diin ini ginkuha sang imo hinablos?”

Diri nagluhod na si Mandoy sa atubang sang iya magulang. “Patawara ako, Ne. Ako ang nagkumbinsi kay Lando nga magtuon sang nasambit nga lanahan. Wala ako kabalo nga mali gali ang paggamit niya sa sagrado nga palangadion.”

“Kasan-o ini natabo? Ngaa?”

“Sang nagligad semana, nagpalapit si Lando sa akon. Luyag niya daw mahibaloan ang sekreto nga ginatago ni Emilda sa iya.”

“Ha? Sekreto? Galibog ang ulo ko, Mandoy.”

“Namuno sa akon ni Lando, Ne, nga pirmi kuno gab-i mag-uli si Emilda, kag may ginalikom ini sa iya. Gani, gintagaan ko siya sang lanahan—atong akon bulong sang una.”

“Ginoo ko, kabuot sang akon nga agot. Wala man gani ini kamuno sang problema niya sa akon. Ngaa gintago niya ang kasubo kag problema?”

Diri ginpalapitan ni Mandoy ang nagatangso nga magulang. Gin-uloulohan niya ini kag ginpainom sang tubig.

Sang maramasmasan, ginhambal ni Pasing, “Kinahanglan naton mahimos si Lando kag si Emilda, Mandoy.”

“Oo, Ne. Mahalin ako dayon para magtawag sang salakyan para madala sila sa morge.”

Nagtangdo na lamang si Pasing sa tuman ka kasubo. Naglakat dayon sang madasig si Mandoy.

Bitbit ang lapsag, ginbalikan ni Pasing ang patay nga lawas sang iya anak kag umagad. Ginbutang niya sa duyan ang lapsag. Ginpuno niya dayon sang tubig ang isa ka palanggana kag ginsawsaw diri ang isa ka tuwalya. Una niya ginpalapitan si Lando. Gintrapohan niya ang mga dugo nga nagmala na sa guya kag lawas sini.

Ginplastar niya si Lando malapit sa patay nga lawas ni Emilda. Ginlimpyohan niya man si Emilda. Gintrapohan niya ang ulo kag likod sini nga may nakaliswi pa nga mga tul-an. Padayon gihapon sa pagtulo ang iya luha. Naurongan siya sang makita niya nga sul-ob ni Emilda ang tsinelas ni Mandoy.

Natingala siya kung paano nakaabot ang bitas nga tsinelas sang iya manghod sa tiil sang iya umagad. Nasugpon niya sa iya hunahuna ang mga panghitabo. Nagsiyagit siya sang tuman kabaskog. “Mga sapat kamo!” Nagdungan sa iya tingog ang urangol sang mga ido.