The plane I rode last Friday took me back twenty two years. To a mystical time, to a mystical town, to a mystical old woman with snow-white hair and eyes that told you she knew all your heartbreaks. I was five years old again. It was one of those summers spent at Guimbal, Iloilo, sitting in a bamboo papag and watching children play, aching to join them. They spoke in a language — no, a melody — I could not understand, and thus created a world I could not enter. Gently, the old woman I called Lola Mama brought me back to the house. It was where she raised my Lolo and where my mother and her siblings spent their summers. With a fancy tortoise shell comb, she combed my hair and talked while she untangled my tangles. She spoke with the same melody, the same intonation as the children, but with her, I felt no alienation. I listened to her stories.
It was the beginning of many afternoons spent like that. She combing my hair and whispering in melodious Ilonggo; I, listening. Some of them were magical — like that time she explained the tiny grooves made on one side of the wall. Little elves, she cooed in my ear. Dwende. No, not ghosts, she was quick to clarify, but creatures of the netherworld, residing in the limbo of shadow and light. Some stories were scary — like the one of the shape-shifting aswang who preyed on children. One day, the story goes, a group of village drinkers shot the pig with a gun and wounded its leg. The next day, a woman with blazing angry eyes passed by their rowdy group. She had a nasty gash on her leg. Some stories were about the family — how my great-great grandfather tied his carabao every morning outside the schoolroom and from the window listened to the maestra teach Math and Spanish, how she met her husband as a sixteen-year-old wisp of a girl praying the pasyon, how she washed her long hair with gugo and coconut milk so that it gleamed under the sun. And best of all, she told stories about me and what I would be when I grew up, while I listened wide-eyed and bungi, with stubby fingers on fat cheeks. “Intelligent child, like her mother,” she would coo, combing my hair. Sometimes, she would joke: “Skin so brown, how long did you plant rice in the bukid today?” But always reminding me in soft murmurs, “Guapa gid, guapa…“.
That same summer I was invited to join the Santacruzan, as an angel who would hold Reyna Emperatriz’s train. How happy that made me! I felt my five-year-old heart pound with excitement and anticipation. My mother bought me a white gown and made me wings made of crepe paper. “No, no, no”, Lola Mama intoned, and withdrew to her room. The day before the Santacruzan, she came out of the room again, with wings made of real feathers. Snow-white, like the color of her hair.
After the procession, I told Lola Mama that one day I will be Reyna Emperatriz. Yes, she whispered. Come back, and I will make you a gown. Of feathers?, I asked. Of feathers and sequins and sunlight and moonbeams, she promised.
Eleven years later, I was sixteen and being called back to Guimbal. They needed someone for the sagala. Reyna Emperatriz. But I would have none of it. I was old and smug and self-important and on my way to The Best University in The Philippines to begin my Bright and Shining Future and had no time to get into a poufy and tacky gold and silver gown, trailed from behind by a fawning and perspiring bungi “angel” in wings made of feathers plucked out of a feather duster.
They told me you did sew the gown.
I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m back now. I love you. Goodbye.
* * *
On the plane ride home, I sat beside a man whose fingernail on his left hand was so long its length was twice that of his thumb’s. I looked away, and imagined his finger tracing a crimson river on the terrain of his lover’s skin. Or leaving a ribbon of blood on his child’s cheek. Then I realized that even if that were true, he would only be doing literally what the rest of us do metaphorically to those we love.