If not for the Mama-oh’s quick actions, you would have grown up without a mother. With a bamboo tube, and a woven blanket, she captured your mother’s spirit just as it was leaving her body, and so your mother was restored to life.
Your father came to see you when he was told all was well.
He looked at you, and he looked at your mother, then he took you in his arms and he gave you your name.
“We will call her Bugan,” he said.
“A wise choice,” the Mama-oh replied. “The Sky Goddess will be pleased.”
There was a Canyao. A carabao was killed, two pigs were offered up, and rice wine flowed freely.
The Mumbaki came, as did the elder warriors, and they sang of Bugan the sky goddess who descended to earth to marry the warrior Kinggawan. They sang of how the lovers lost each other and how Kinggawan seeks his Bugan to this day. When the Mumbaki poured the wine over your head you did not cry.
It was a good sign, the village people said. But no one could explain why. It just was so.
After this, there was more dancing and feasting, but your mother took you away to the quiet of her hut where she stared into your face and tried to read your future while you suckled at her breast.
“Bugan,” your classmates call you. “Bugan, Bugan Najawitan. Did you know Bugan means moon? Oh yes, Bugan. Smartpants. Come outside,goddess of the sky. Lookattasky. Lookattamoon. Ilokattamun.”
You used to be so proud of your name, but when you shared this with your playmates they laughed and teased you.
They say look at the sky, look at the moon; they say they will open you.
There are girls in your class who are already opened. They are much older than you and they sit under the pine trees, waiting for the big boys to come out of school. You’ve passed them on your way home, your cheeks burning when the boys throw snide comments your way.
“Bugan,” they say. “Come, let us look at the moon.”
And they laugh.
You don’t want to look and see how their hands carelessly touch the full breasts of these older girls. You don’t want to look at Lucia who is only a year older than you. She has breasts like melons. She never gets good grades in class, but the boys are always chasing after her. You don’t even bother to ask how many times Lucia has been opened.
Opened. The word terrifies you. You don’t want to sit under the trees while everyone looks on.
For everyone sits there, including Elsa who calls herself Kinggawan. Elsa with her big voice and her tall self, with her wide shoulders, her square hands, and her mouth that never seems to be still.
“Ading,” she calls you. “Little Bugan come to me, my goddess.”
It is an endearment and yet the way she says it frightens you.
When the boys hear her call you, they shut up and turn back to the girls who giggle and hold their hands in front of their mouths.
Elsa sits with the girls and with the boys, but Elsa is not like everyone else. She is strong enough to beat up the boys. She is bold enough to frighten the girls. As far as you know, no one has opened her.
“Where is your father, Kinggawan dear,” the girls ask her. “Where is your mother?”
“You all have the brains of an avocado,” Elsa says.“ How many times must I repeat, I have no father, I have no mother. I tell you this for sure, if anyone fathered me it was Apo Dios himself. I tell you this for certain, I was born on the same birthday as Christ the child.”
She looks at you with her dark eyes and you believe every word she says. You are so busy looking that your feet slip on the hard-packed soil. Before you can cry out, she is beside you.
“I’ve got you,” she says.
Her arm is around you, holding you up. She leans in close and then her lips are on yours. The air around you fills with hoots and yowls and jeers. Just as suddenly as it begins, it ends. You spit, you curse, you call her a bad name, but she just stands there with laughter in her eyes, and in the end you turn and run away.
Run, run, as fast as you can, but you can’t keep that moment from chasing after you.
No amount of scrubbing rids you of the taste of her lips. You scrub and scrub and scrub until your lips feel raw and blistered.
“What’s wrong with you?” Your mother asks.
“Nothing,” you reply. How do you tell your mother that you have been kissed? Do you say, I almost fell down and Kinggawan kissed me? How to explain what you felt when her lips touched yours–it was as if she took your breath from your body before giving it back to you again. She gave you a secret with that kiss, and while you don’t understand it, you are convinced that if Elsa kisses you again, you will die and go to hell.
In the years between your birth and today, so much has changed in these mountains. There are still festivals, there are still celebrations, but where there used to be only mountain paths, there are broad roads leading up and around, slicing out and away towards abroad and the cities beyond.
Lucia took that road a year ago. She travelled it in the company of a man with skin so pale he looked like a ghost. A few months later she came back with a belly huge with child. Her hair was cut very short, and her fingernails were long and sharp looking. Every time she laughed, she put her hand on the arm of her ghostly husband.
No one may open Lucia again. Forever and forever she remains closed except to this ghost to whom she is bound.
One day, after the birth of her child, you saw her staring out the window of her big new house. When you waved to her she did not wave back.
A few days after that, her body was found in the river.
If you had known, you might had done more than wave.
There is movement in the valley now. Going to the city, the young boys call it. Going abroad, the young girls say. They pack up their bags, they strap up their baskets, they sell their fields, they talk of adventure and freedom and a new life. Bigger, better. Those are the words they use.
“Are you going too?” they ask each other.
Restlessness creeps through your veins. Everyone is leaving, but the mountains hold you here. You cannot imagine living far from the scent of this brown earth. You would die of loneliness, missing the squish of clay between your toes, and the sweet taste of green rice on your tongue.
“Let others go, my Ading,” Elsa says. “Here you will be safe until Kinggawan returns.”
“You are not my master,” you say.
She laughs and spreads her arms wide.
“No,” she says. “But you will always be my little goddess.”
You don’t know what to say to that. You look at her and wonder who this Elsa really is and how come she doesn’t fear what the elders will do if they discover this secret thing between you and her.
“Where are you going?” you ask.
“I am going to see Apo Dios,” she says. “I will take the long road and find my way to the Skyworld and when I get there, I will shake my fist in his face and claim my birthright. If I succeed, I will come back and take you with me to the moon.”
Elsa is going. She is following this restless tide. A part of you is happy.
Go, you think. Leave me finally in peace.
When the bus arrives, you hear her call your name.
“Bugan,” she calls.“Bugan.”
There is such loneliness in her voice, but you are afraid. If you go out to her, she will kiss you and everyone will see. So you hide in the chapel, and you don’t come out until you can no longer hear even an echo of the bus’s motor.
“Elsa was looking for you,” your mother says. “Didn’t you hear her calling?”
You don’t reply to this rebuke. You never told your mother about Elsa and if you did, she wouldn’t understand.
In the old tales, Kinggawan is a warrior. He is a god, he is a man. He is the one you are waiting for.
Better for Elsa to be gone. Better if you see her never again.
Your hands grow rough from gathering rice stalks and binding them up. How many bundles have you harvested today? Twenty? Thirty? Fifty?
Already, the sun is high in the sky. The air resonates with the voices and the songs of women.
“Et et du-u-u-u,” they sing. “Hi Bugan Najawita-a-an.”
After all this time, you still don’t know what those words mean or even if the chant ever meant anything at all. The harvest moves at a steady pace. Before long, there are neat stacks of rice piled up everywhere.
The fields grow empty, the shadows lengthen, the men come in with their long yokes, and the rice bundles are loaded onto their shoulders.
Their movements are like a dance. Nimble and quick, they make their way through the rice paddies back down to the village where pestle and mortar await. First comes the pounding, then comes the winnowing, then comes the feast.
It is a full moon, and no matter that the village priest preaches against it, there will be Canyao. Perhaps tonight, the goddess of the sky will come down. Perhaps tonight, one of the gods will take a bride.
You will wear your colored skirt, and you will dance with the others around the fire. Maybe you will meet someone. Maybe you will smile. Maybe you will accept it when he throws his blanket around your shoulder. Maybe you will finally agree to be opened.
Tong-a-lit. Hear the gongs call. It is a summons to the dance.
Tong-a-lit. Come and sing and dance and leap.
Tong-a-lit. We will sing of Bugan and Kinggawan. We will sing of Maknongan and the gift of rice. We will sing of the love between a woman and a god. We will sing of love, we will sing of sorrow, we will sing, we will dance. We will tong-a-liti-tong-a-lit.
Your feet move in time to the gongs. You see pride in your mother’s eyes, you see pride in your father’s glance. Life is a weaving waiting to be done. You don’t dare to look up. You keep your eyes on the ground, as modest maidens should.
The gongs resume their rhythm and you dance. Slow and stately, shy as maidens are supposed to be. You move your hands against the air.
Around the campfire there are strangers. Men so pale they look like ghosts. You see the elders bending their foreheads to these visitors. Since Lucia’s man has settled in the village, there are more like these men. They come with their loud voices and their exuberant laughter. They fill the streets with their width and make the girls laugh at the funny way they speak your language.
Their tongues twist the sounds, and makes the words sound foreign. They too are looking for a maiden to open. They too want to be part of this dance.
“Beautiful mountains,” they say. “Beautiful girls.”
They drink rice wine and exchange lewd gestures.
They smell very badly, but they are generous and free with their coins. You thank the gods that your father has no need to sell you off to one of these. Other girls are not so lucky.
Your feet shuffle along and you turn your face away from the ghosts. Let them look. There is only one Kinggawan, and if he should come today, you will follow him wherever he goes. Even up to the abode of Apo Dios himself.
The air is heavy with the scent of rice. Sweet, sweet smell of harvest. Sweet, sweet scent of wood and fire. You want to go out into the darkness. You want to run up and down through the fields.
Here you are dancing around the firelight. Here you are waiting for a blanket. Here you are waiting for someone to come and whisper your name.
You are drunk with waiting. Full of stars and the memory of a kiss.
You wish you had found the courage to jump out of hiding long ago. You wish you had been old enough to understand because if you had, you would have answered her call. If she summoned you now, you know what you would say.
Kinggawan, you would say. You are Kinggawan. I knew you from the start.
It´s not too late. You can step out of the circle, you can step out of the dance. You can take to the road and hope to find her.
But already someone is whispering your name. Already, someone is standing beside you. Someone is throwing a blanket around your shoulders and leading you away. Someone whose face is so familiar, someone whose voice makes your heart thunder, someone whose lips take your breath away only to give it back to you again.
“Look at the moon, Ading,” she says. “If you say yes, I will take you there and back again.”
There is tenderness in her gaze and you are not afraid.
Some word meanings:
Mumbaki is the Ifugao word for shaman
Mama-oh is a female healer
Ading is an affectionate word for a younger person
Canyao refers to a celebration or ritual where the ancestral spirits are invoked. Usually involves sacrifice, chanting, and dancing accompanied by gongs.