This, of course, is what comes of being overly friendly with strange mangoes. One day you’re a wide-eyed virgin, with nary a care in the world; the next, you find yourself most unexpectedly and all but inexplicably burdened in a manner that afflicts virgins only once every two thousand years or so, to the best of your understanding. It isn’t fair, but folk tales rarely are to young maidens—this is the first thing that you really ought to have known.
Once upon a time—we might as well put it that way, why not?—you are bathing, innocently enough, in the bend of the river closest to your home, when bobbing along with the current, out of apparent nowhere, comes the smoothest, ripest, most glowingly golden mango anyone has ever seen. Charmed, you try to catch hold of it, but it slyly eludes your grasp, slipping through your fingers like the very water you are immersed in, ducking and dodging and diving beneath the rippled-glass surface, until you can barely make it out as a hectic vividness against the clear green of the river, the clear brown of your skin.
Then it is nudging against you, tickling and taunting and teasing with its stem that very spot on your body that you yourself do not touch unless cleanliness demands it—or, it must be said, unless your own urges demand it—somehow harder, longer, and really quite a good deal more insolent than any other stem of any other mango in your admittedly limited experience. You hold still, unable or perhaps unwilling to move, speechless and trembling, and not from the cool of the waters. Soon your girl cousins are laughing, having noticed if not precisely understood what is going on, screamy titillated girl giggles. And really, who can help but laugh at the sight of your boy cousins, popping up like rabbits along the river bank, demanding to know, in their manliest tones, what is happening; while still ostentatiously keeping their backs turned to the forbidden sight of your collective cousinly nudity?
Yes, you are laughing too, breathless with amusement and breathless with more than that. Then the impudent mango floats up into your hands just as obligingly and ordinarily as any other fruit—although you have never actually encountered another frolicsome floating fruit before—and you tell the boys that yes, everyone is fine; no, there is nothing to worry about; maybe it was only a fish, but thank you for standing such solicitous guard. You tuck the mango between your breasts—well, you are naked, where else is there to put it except where it has already been, and you are certainly not ready to go through that again—and hurriedly get dressed, donning underclothes, skirt, blouse; wringing your hair as best you can before piling the drenched length of it atop your head for the walk home. Only now the mango looks peculiar under your blouse, as if you had suddenly sprouted a third, somewhat misshapen breast; so you wind it up in a twist of your skirt and decide to postpone its consumption until the brink of spoilage, preserving your fruit friend as a reminder of shared laughter and private pleasure.
By the next morning, the mango has precipitously gone to seed; and the equally precipitous bulge of your previously flat belly makes it difficult to imagine that you are anything other than abruptly pregnant. Probably you should have known better than to take the fruit home—both literally and figuratively—which makes this the second thing you ought to have known. But then, you are sixteen years old and rarely permitted to go anywhere unless accompanied by a gaggle of kith and kin, and no one ever talks to you about anything that means anything. You have, naturally, eavesdropped on some of your older cousins amid the usual giggling fits over whispered discussions of the sex act; but it has always seemed to involve someone’s longganisa entering someone else’s pugon—no one ever mentioned anything about fruit, you are certain of that—and how, then, can you be blamed for assuming that cooking was a necessary element of the process?
So what is there you could reasonably have been expected to know, really, except what everyone has always told you, which is that you are the loveliest girl in the village and any man would count himself lucky to have you?
You’ve certainly been had, you feel. No one believes your protestations that you have never been touched by the hand or the anything else of man, despite the corroborating testimony frantically proffered by Aguing and Dideng, who are the cousins closest to you and most loyal, which of course makes their staunch denial all the more dubious. “Good girls,” everyone tells them, “good girls, defending your cousin, now tell us the truth.”
You can hardly blame the neighbors, really; you hardly believe it yourself, and you, after all, are in the best position to know. A single stolen kiss from the boy next door scarcely counts, although at the time you burst into tears, convinced that his tongue was the longganisa and your mouth the pugon so furtively and fervently whispered of. He managed to persuade you otherwise and you were relieved, though apparently prematurely so, notwithstanding the fact that your present distress stems—and there’s that word again—from a separate matter.
Despite the general, dismaying, though not unsurprising atmosphere of disbelief, it is hard for even the most determined of pundits to gainsay the unorthodox rapidity of your gestation; and so no one argues very much, really, when you announce that you are departing on a quest to uncover the unknown father of your unborn child. Your parents, you suspect, are not-so-secretly relieved—in fact, even before your departure, the very same male cousins who were once tasked with safeguarding your purity have been redirected to the construction of a new shelter for the family carabao. The shifting valuation of commodities is not lost on you, but even you are forced to admit that everyone has a use for milk, which therefore gives worth to the carabao. Whereas mangoes, it has become clear, are not to all people’s taste.
Accompanied, therefore, only by Dideng and Aguing, you set off, following the river along its meandering path upstream. Your triumvirate is armed with one sharp bolo, one stout stick, and your own sharp tongue and stout wits, which you hope will suffice since not one of the three of you knows how to wield either of the first two anyway. Fortunately, it seems that bandits, beasts, and all other living hazards of the wild—which is not all that wild, being mostly composed of field, sparse forest, and riverbank—are leery of women impregnated by supernatural means, for you are left unmolested, or at least no more so than you have already been.
When you are slightly more pregnant than you were—it is difficult to estimate, since the actual passage of time and the tumescence of your belly steadfastly refuse to coordinate—you come upon a mango tree some distance from but within sight of the river, with a young boy several years younger than you diligently loosening the soil about its roots. You are mortified at the very notion that this spratling might be the father of your child, and are perfectly prepared to give up, turn tail, and go back the way you came, except that Aguing has already hailed the little fellow with a wave of her stick, so that there is nothing to be done except to try and discern what you came to learn.
“Is this your mango tree?” you ask, critically eyeing the boy’s scrawny frame and filthy fingernails. This, of course, is highly unjust and judgmental of you, given that you live among farmlands and farming is a good and noble occupation for an honest man; so why not, for an honest boy? But you are some—days? Weeks? Months?—pregnant, after all, and might therefore be forgiven a modicum of irrationality.
“Oh, no,” says the boy, “this tree belongs to the wealthy widow in the valley below. I tend it for her, and she lets me keep any fruit in excess of what she needs.”
“And might you have dropped some of this excess into the river,” you say, “where the offending fruit might have floated downstream, severely inconveniencing, not to mention impregnating, any innocent young maidens hapless enough to have encountered it?” You have been rehearsing several versions of this little speech in your mind for some time, though of course you had anticipated delivering it to someone more able to appreciate your exquisite sarcasm.
“What? What!?” yelps the boy, nearly severing his toes when he drops his trowel—well, who would not be shocked, after all, following an oratory like that? “No,” he says, shaking his head with mildly alarming vigor. “No, no! Can mangoes do that?! No!”
You decide that either he is telling the truth or you really, really want to believe he is telling the truth, which amounts to very much the same thing, since you do not especially relish the notion of bearing a child with the inherited ability to say “no” four times in four sentences. You make the requisite polite murmurs—attempting to alleviate the acute embarrassment on both your parts—and retreat to the riverbank for a hasty conference with your cousinly co-conspirators.
You offer the option of retreat, but only Aguing is interested, footsore and perhaps a little heartsick to learn that finding answers is not always a simple matter of asking questions. Dideng, for her part, insists that she is both able and more than willing to continue. You suspect that this is partially because Dideng is plainly tired of being called a liar—by implication or otherwise—all the livelong day; and while you are far from persuaded that insult is a fate worse than, say, being devoured by wild animals or molested by ill-mannered produce, you can certainly empathize.
So you continue onward as Aguing sets off on the return journey, taking with her your assurances to your parents and the village at large that you and Dideng remain well—along with, interestingly enough, the young boy, who claims that the mango tree will keep for the time being, while he sees your cousin safely home. You suspect that there is somewhat more being cultivated, so to speak, in that arrangement than either lad or young lady is currently willing to admit; and perhaps not too long ago you might have felt qualified to comment on other people’s choices, but now you choose to keep your own counsel.
With Dideng, then, you press on. The river is narrow and swift here, unlike the gentle expanse you are accustomed to at home—somewhat daunting, but much more exciting. If you had bathed here instead of there, it occurs to you, the miscreant mango might have swept on by before you even had a chance to notice it. Of course, you would never have come here if you had not bathed there; and probably there is some kind of lesson in that, but you are too preoccupied at present to pay heed to it.
The next mango tree you come to—fortunately or unfortunately, they are not terribly common in these parts—sports a young man scaling its trunk, with a rough-woven sack tethered rather cunningly across his shirtless back. Thankfully, he is very much a man and not a boy—already you have noted that it is quite a well-developed back that you happen to be addressing, as you inquire as to the ownership of the mango tree he is presently ascending.
“May I inquire who is inquiring?” he asks in turn, dropping agilely from the tree with seemingly fearless aplomb. “More to the point, why is such a fair flower of young maidenhood wandering the wilderness on her own, asking curious questions?”
“I’m not on my own,” you point out, gesturing back toward the riverbank at your waiting companion. “And I’m no longer precisely maidenly, as I’m sure the evidence of your eyes can tell you; and as for my curious question, I don’t recall you answering it. Do you own this mango tree, sir?”
“Maybe,” he says, cocking his head to examine you more thoroughly. “If you count using it regularly to store my earnings, then I suppose I do own it, inasmuch as anyone does. This is unclaimed land.”
“Earnings,” you say, “or thievings?” You manage to catch his downward-traveling eyes with your most challenging gaze.
“Maybe,” he says again. “As for my question, I don’t recall you answering it. Why are you so interested in this tree?”
“Because the tree may have produced a fruit that floated downstream and produced a child upon an unsuspecting and hapless young maiden,” you say. This is hardly the way you practiced your accusatory speech, but you find yourself distressingly flustered by his appraising smile—in the very situation where you had fully and righteously expected to be doing the flustering. “Are you the person responsible?” you ask, folding your arms in an attempt to regain an aura of stern dignity.
“Maybe,” he says for the third time, still smiling that irritatingly unfazed smile. “Would you like me to be?”
You have known the man for mere moments, but already it is clear to you that if he were the guilty party, he would either deny it glibly or crow with pride over his accomplishment—not attempt to evade the issue with his apparently customary flirtatious ambiguity. “Certainly not,” you therefore say; and fix him with your most withering glare before turning and marching back to the riverbank, to rejoin your twittering fool of a cousin, whose giggling is quite spoiling your pointed departure.
The man laughs, too; and his laughter follows you down the riverbank for longer, even, than he does. The sound of it is troublingly intimate and nearly tangible—soft as fur gliding over muscle, velvet sheathing sharp horns, something entirely animal and untamed.
You are besieged by morning sickness for the rest of the journey, which is more than ordinarily irksome since you appear to be rather close to term, yet you know perfectly well that morning sickness is only expected to be a burden for the first few months. You, uniquely, must toil simultaneously with the weight of your belly outside and the roiling revolt of your insides, which is hardly fair—but we’ve discussed that. Regardless, you blame the mango, the thief, the boy, the weather, your cousins both present and absent, and the state of womanhood in general; and so it is no doubt with relief for all parties concerned that you happen upon a third mango tree, with an old man harvesting fruit upon a ladder amid the topmost leafy branches.
“Is this your mango tree?” you demand. He is an extremely old man indeed, and certainly deserving of more respect; but by this point you have decided to detest mankind impartially, so you scarcely care. “It is possibly the source of a mango fruit that floated downstream and impregnated an innocent young woman, namely myself, who has been quite discomfited by the whole matter.”
“Spirits be praised, yes!” the old man exclaims, scurrying down the ladder with rather startling alacrity. “At last my beloved son has found himself a bride!”
And so—amid a tumult of hastily joyous introductions as you and Dideng are whisked pell-mell through prosperous fields to an even more prosperous farm hold—you at last learn the story behind your story. Curiously, despite your initial infuriated intentions, you find yourself assuring the doting father that no, you didn’t truly mind; yes, you understand that the lad is shy; maybe, you suppose it could be construed as an indication of ingenuity to devise such a novel way to discover and woo such a lovely young maiden as yourself.
Before your wits have mustered sufficient equilibrium to catch up with your traitorous tongue, you find yourself ensconced in a luxurious bedroom, bedecked in feminine frills and obviously arranged in anticipation of your arrival. Your back is supported by a plethora of pillows; your feet have been washed, massaged, and are now propped up on still more pillows; your recently-filled belly is quiet, for a wonder, and there is a cup of ginger tea by your bedside. And you are comfortable, for the first time in far too long to bear considering.
Dideng is no longer with you. You would like to turn to her for support in recalling your aggrieved agenda, but she has virtually disappeared—into the arms, you suspect, of a particularly arresting farm hand who seemed to be favoring her with a vacuous though attractive smile. You feel a vague sense of abandonment over this; but you understand that, for one of you at least, your journey has come to its desired conclusion.
You wish you knew what you desired. You thought you did; you thought it would be here. You thought it would be him.
The lad is sweet—exactly your age by day, month, and year—and not unhandsome, with dreamy eyes and fine fingers clearly not often turned to tilling the soil. In fact, he is obviously intelligent: in the spaces among his stammering apologies and explanations you can plainly detect an agile mind fully capable, indeed, of creating unorthodox solutions to problems such as adoring parents yearning for a grandchild from their treasured only offspring. He does not seem to quite belong, this sweet, smart, soft lad—not in this farm, not in this countryside, not in your life.
No one has actually asked you if you want to get married—the asking of questions, it seems, has become your province exclusively—but clearly it is all yours for the taking: the wealth, the healthy sheen of respectability, the proverbial happily-ever-after. Perversely, you find your treacherous thoughts—you cannot fail to note how consistently you continue to betray yourself—circling instead about the rogue by the river; his hardened hands and appraising eyes; what he might or might not do with a woman still laden with a forthcoming child, but unencumbered, at least, by cousinly chaperones.
You should be aware that this is folly, of course—there is no safety by the river, no stability, not even a guarantee of welcome—and this would be the third thing that you really ought to know. But you have managed to learn some other things over the past months: that truths do not necessarily come in threes; that value is subjective; that respectability is not the same as self-respect; and that happy endings may happen wherever you choose to find them. Or make them.
Or do without, in favor of seeing where else your story might go.