"first story" was originally published in the print journal NEW AMERICAN
Photo credit by Peter Dressel.
Barbara Jane Reyes
Excerpts from Diwata
noong unang panahon there once lived a strange deity who was only strange because few strove to know her. ¡bárbara! ¡extraña! taunted her eldest brother, who was lightning, kidlat. her own light was confined to a glass vial. she knew stars an ascension of pearls hung by higante on the highest tree boughs. when he danced, earth descended beneath his feet. there below, a vain woman, earthbound, bereft. she knew tongues of many men, those who brought boats and steel, those who brought silks and jade, those who brought the cross.
but this story lacks proper symmetry.
a woman's hands make fine threads dance. with needles of carabao horn, of bamboo, she embroiders names into silk serpent ulap scale luna fire lihim gem azul eye liwanag river mariposa light bituin when she weaves these words into the fabric of sky, agimat against forgetting. with ink and thread she draws her own hands pero siempre estas manos desaparecen; she weaves enkanto contra palabras vaporosas, poemas contra vacía alma. and when her face begins to resemble the porcelain virgin's face, for this firelight causes much to appear, still she sings: o diwata, ang inyong mga salita ay aming diwa! o diwata, ang aming mga salita ay pag-aalay sa inyo!
some say kulog, child of the earth calls to kidlat, child of the sky world because they are twins, split in two by their spirit father. as the mortal woman ascended with her lover, the path through clouds to sun burned. her flesh also burned. the child below the villagers wished to keep, so that the spirit father would always return to them.
yes, he cleaved his son in two. and from these halves, the one skybound grew a new self just as the butiki who's lost his tail. the one below would have perished had not the spirit father descended and breathed his breath into the lifeless half body. this one, how his voice booms when his twin brother streaks across all kalangitan.
and their sister, the strange diwata whose light remains contained. witness she is, and weaver. if she would only speak, then she would tell you these stories i give you, i swear they are the truth. before this time, langit was high as a tent. children poked clouds with bamboo sticks. some could jump high enough to touch it with their fingertips. when headhunters danced around the bonfire, keeping vigil, their blades pierced the skins of the gods.
...oo nga, hija, we were headhunters once, our tribe...
there, the battlefield between kagubatan and tabing-ilog, littered with headless bodies. the heads they took to their own village for they believed kaluluwa resided there. beyond the distant lowlands, a god whose winged head bathala buried with the remains of the serpent who ruled the clouds. the orphan spirit, whose body bathala set afire. this is how bathala invited his enemy's soul to be his spirit guardian.
some also say, this was how the first coconut tree came to grow.
once a diwata stole fire. he brought it to the riverbanks where the earthdiver shivered, unclothed. this, her fate for peering through the hole in the clouds while her father hunted the usa and barako. she had grown tired of animal bones scattered, a house of musk and taut skins. how she'd wince as her father's sharpened teeth pierced prey's liver.
there is no secret in fire, diwata told her years later, after they had wed, after the oceanfloor's black mud bubbled to the surface, birthing islands. others say the maya taunted sky, that ocean revealed its hidden contents in epic warfare. but the earthdiver remembers it this way: mighty lawin dropped her upon the back of the eldest pawikan. masqueraded as dove, lawin cooed, paloma, dalagang paloma! amorcita paloma, minamahal kita! he took her there, he gave her child. she fled deep into the glowing darkness of salt caves, where the virgin draped in sky wept silver tears. she taught young village girls to guard its entrance and wail. o diwata, kaawaan mo ako! but he pursued, captured her. dalaga, dadagitin kita! a tent of skins and tools carved of animal bones, these were her dowry.
he took me, from my hole in the clouds. he took me, gripped between his talons. i feared that if i tried to escape, i would fall into the deepest, the bluest ocean. i knew for sure i would drown, for i had lived my entire life in my father's realm and had never before touched water. when mighty lawin came with his sugared words, i leaned farther over the edge than i should have. but so pretty, his words. upon the shellmound of kind pawikan, there, lawin took me and took me, and pawikan could do nothing. i knew my brothers too would do nothing. there, i was torn.
my child, your father's eyes. my child, one day you will fly.
In the beginning, a man of dust and fire became bone, and viscera, and flesh. The deity of the wind blessed his lips and he came to take his first breath. Within this strange vessel, I opened my eyes, and within this, your darkness, I learned to weave song. Do you remember me fluttering inside your chest, tickled by the cool air newly filling your lungs. Do you remember exhaling song on this first day.
On the second day, the unseen hand from above cleaved you in two, exacting penance for our joy as you awakened from the deepest, most delicious dreaming. On the second day, my love, I was torn from the haven of your blood, the cradle of your flesh and tendons. A smarting wound strewn across our garden's sweet grasses, I lay raw and aching. On this second day, my hands and feet learned the relentlessness of cold.
On the third day, I found river, and plunged the wisp of my body into its current. As I learned to breathe without you, as I mimicked the river's lullaby, you appeared upon its banks, your body so fissured, your eyes the ravaged jewels of an umber earth. There were no words for the sorrow bolting through me then, as I watched your hands touch the scarring place where I began. On this third day, my mirror, we learned lamentation, and shadow.
On the fourth day, I sang a dirge, and the river was my harmony. From afar, you watched me, as the unseen hand from above offered you reparations for your brokenness. More than anything, I thirsted to embrace you in our ocean, for its saltwater to heal us both. But my mirror, the memory of your darkness welled up inside me every time I drew near. On this fourth day, I learned to weep. On this fourth day, the scars hardened over your heart.
On the fifth day, I dreamed a conflagration, the birth of suns and thunder. I dreamed this garden, reduced to ash. I dreamed that from loss, we began again, a we that knew only of being whole, of sharing heart, and breath, and salt. A feast of we, luminous as the secret of fruit and seed. A we impervious to cleaving, to fracture. On this fifth day, I opened my eyes and I came to know of hope.
On the sixth day, I came to you, and told you of this dream. I touched your scars. You whispered a prayer. I gave you my secrets. You gave me your words. I asked for your breath. You gave me your seed. And as our bodies folded into each other, we dreamed the same honeyed light. Upon awakening, you named me for the morning. But on this sixth day, the unseen hand from above wrested you from me, cleaved us in two once again, and weighted the heaviest sorrow upon me. Never once did he show himself.
On the seventh day, my love, I surrendered.
siya ay nakatayo sa balikat ng bundok
she stands upon the mountain's shoulders
langit ay kulay ng ginto at dugo
sky's the color of gold and blood
sumisigaw siya ¡mira! ¡el sol!
see how the sun weeps
tingnan mo! umiiyak ang araw!
how this mountainslope burns
nag-aapoy siya rin
sky's the color of black pearls
iyan lagi ang sa aking panaginip
this have i prophesized
ang mukha ng araw ay umiiyak
and what are these glyphs
some human machinery
símbólo, enkantada, o gayuma
maker of souls and tongues
anong pisi o balat ng ahas
what twine or serpent skin binds
silangan at kanluran
pearl of the orient
esta punto del embarco
ang mga anak mo ay nakakalat
your children have scattered
cielo el color de perlas negras
do not forget that they have names
may sariling pangalan ang aming diwata
we bring her tobacco when she calls shrill bird trill carried upon air as though her voice were a body's warm ribcage we could wrap our arms around tight. we drop our weaving, we leave the fields. elders once brought her tobacco rolled and bound with abaca; now we bring marlboro blue label cartons. once palm wine fresh in glass jars; now spanish brandy, ginebra san miguel, calamansi and camote in baskets, salted fish bundles hung from huts' rafters. now she is old but this firelight glows upon the face of a woman whose skin is sunned and taut; in her wide eyes we see sharp lawin gaze, in her eyes we see sky. her dancing wristbones so delicate as if fine fingers have known no field nor farmwork.
she has taken a blade to her own hair once hung heavy to her waistline, now falling in her eyes in jagged tresses, now exposing earlobes and neckline, her rough woven white blouse, its polished bone clasp undone, exposing one shoulder. she is young in the night's firelight though we dare not call her maiden. our mothers say she snares others' husbands, our grandmothers whisper her father a bird of prey, our fathers lament she is the one they could not marry for she would not have them. she scoffed at offerings from the hunt, from the river, whose warm humid nights filled with serenade. raising one index finger to her lips in a shhh she confesses she has many times swooned to the verses of lovers under slivers of moon, ribbons of stars arranged into hunter and bow. smoke curls from her lips, her eyes are faraway gazing, the diwata has arrived.
and then she is the star maiden. and now she is the first woman, baring her breasts to feed a poisoned land. and he is the first man, father of black soil, bamboo blossom windstorm pestilence stone and confession. and she opens her body, the place from which all word grows. and he enters. and he enters. and he enters.
the whites of his eyes when he discovers she is a wolf who is a woman who is the prism in his throat. the immediacy. this wanting.
and from the wind's whirls we would call her silken breath, she brings a feast of word. tree branches bend, she pulls them to her. and then she is a window, a vessel, a fork in the road, a fragrance lifting from tangerine skin. the rustle of a single page, the stillness of ocean before a typhoon. and then she is the fire, around which we all gather. and ever is she lover and beloved.
the whites of his eyes when he discovers she is a shark who is a woman who is his gravity. the immediacy. this wanting.
a poet, yes. a conjurer of words, some have said. a trickster, i have also heard. for i am keeper of words. i birth them and care for them, and when these words grow strong, a bridge. just like that, a bridge. those who come to listen to my stories, they fall into waking dream, hovering between the very earth upon which they stand, and the place where the spirits dwell.
story, yes, for that is what poets make, story into song. we interpret what the birds say, what the spirits of the wind speak. they step into my dreams. they come to me in firelight, when i bathe in the river, and when i bed my lovers. they tell me things no human voice has spoken. secrets hidden in mountain caves. steel and blackened stone, the noise of machines. but the birds, yes, the birds, they tell me the sky.
and what of the sky, sighs the wind, for if not for me, you could not know her touch.
often, she speaks of the one-eyed cat, natty-haired, gangly and gigantic. it visits her and corners her there, between the tomato patches and the rickety fence. it springs from the dirt and into the lemon trees' boughs. it stares with its one milky eye, and yowls like no creature she has ever known. a cyclone, she imagines, but even more menacing.
as its wailing body finally disappears with the wind, news arrives of a loved one's departing soul. an elder succumbing to illness, an accident in the fields, one's flesh sliced and broken by so many rusted blades. invading armies' torches and gasoline. the harvest, an offering to the war gods. young women, roped and gagged. many times, it happens like this. from fruit trees' branches or curled about her ankles, the cat stares through her with its milky eye. its other eye, half scab, half absence, stares at her too. then the unavoidable tragedy.
your death shall involve fire, she weeps to her robust grandfather, and without speaking, he places around her neck his silver amulet saint michael sashed in crimson and sword glinting. the following day, uniformed men with torches.
tugging at his shirt and forcing words between sobs and frantic breaths, she knows her father will not hear. unfaithed by street corner whores, and nursing the cheapest gin, he still suspects his own father's spirit will make visitation upon him in the night. a wisp of old man floating at the foot of the bed, blessing the blisters of his feet with touch. call it talisman if you must. though sadly, our elders' ways have come to pass. no, child, this is certainly no talisman. it has protected me from no village foe nor invading army. here, the blind old man tapped this marking into my left arm and breastbone. he used his tapping stick and his sharpened irons. these are leaves and grass blades. these are sunbursts of flower petals, the flitting eyes of mothwings, of cicadas. this here, the soothsayer and her seeing stones. the glass eye with which she viewed the heavens. above her mountain village, the stars arranged into hunter and bow, arrow aimed at mighty lawin.
this is not thunder. no, only men are marked with thunder. he marked my flesh with the swirls of our village stream. here, on my right shoulder. what i see is no stream, but a blade which women conceal beneath their skirts. even today, we do this. though it is not proper, the elders say, for women to be marked for war.
it is no secret. women did indeed fight alongside the men once. few talk about it these days. the black robed and hooded ones who carried more curses than prayer, so feared armed women, they branded it savage and sinful women who tucked skirts between their legs, wielded knives and tilling tools, then returned home to nurse their babies after washing clean their bloodied hands.
no, child, these are no talismans upon my flesh. the blind old man wished to give me markings in the patterns of my father's fields, for he walked my father's lands, from new growth's edges to the greenest center. every sunrise in wordless prayer. many years, he did this, never once opening his eyes. but by the time i grew old enough to marry, all his fields my father lost to the fire, and to the papers of the wealthy, not of this land but of grey cities far away from here.
he marked my flesh with the swirls of our village stream, though its cool, sweet water, its bubbling no longer gives us music. it has long since been fenced and dammed, but by whom, no one who ever shows himself. its music we have all of us forgotten. and the flowering trees that once dipped its branches into the water to drink have all withered. there is no sense in my very body carrying a reminder of all that is lost to us, for no healer of scars, and no magical markings could save any of it. this is no stream, no. it is the curve of a warrior blade.
this is how my flesh was marked with the ash of burnt coconut husk and sugarcane, so that i could marry. but all the young men had neither land nor wealth, and invading armies came from farther than the seas. with bayonets and bullets, they claimed they worshipped one who was descended from the very sun itself. though they harbored no love for things of this earth.
when my grandfather's father was still a young man, an army with skin white as ghosts came to our forest. but our men took their heads with ease. running dogs, whimpering, they were. cowards. and even the lowlanders, some marked with the talismans of their own elders, some who had grown their hair down to their waistlines, hid in our forests with rifles and the sharpest knives. they fought those white ghosts for many years, until those white ghosts numbered so few, they boarded their steamships and they fled.
but these sun worshippers, they were cruel. they used the young women as whores, slid loaded pistols between their legs, gave them sores and fevers which none of our medicines could cure. the sun worshippers also took heads, but left these to rot where they fell. no hunters were these, but mercenaries, beasts. this is why the sun wept a sky the color of black pearls. this is why he weeps still.
he took me, from the river's edge, where i washed clothes for the missionary's daughter. he took me, gripped between his fists. i feared that if i tried to escape, i would fall, pierced by the sharpest bayonet. i knew for sure i would bleed, for i had lived my entire life in my father's house and had never before touched man. when the soldier came with his vulgar words, i leaned farther over the edge than i should have. but so venomous, his words. upon the banks of the river for which my father was named, there, the soldier took me and took me, and the river could do nothing. i knew my brothers too could do nothing. there, i was torn.
my child, your father's eyes. my child, one day you will curse his name.
Barbara Jane Reyes was born in Manila, Philippines and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. She received her MFA at San Francisco State University, and is the author of Gravities of Center (Arkipelago, 2003) and Poeta en San Francisco (Tinfish, 2005), for which she received the James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets. She lives and works in Oakland, CA. Her author website is barbarajanereyes.com.