Moondown and Fugue

by

“Tonight I die, Bulan.”

Two lovers were squatting at the edge of dusk. The halfling female spat a sullen look at her beautiful god and wrapped her wings around herself as he spoke.

“Why care for the taung-araw? This rite is your tradition.”

“Because they are my people.” Her eyes were bloodshot, hungry for the silkiness of human tongue and the lazy way it stewed in her mouth after it was severed. Sixty years as a huntress for the nanay-gali, yet the singularity of it all still consumed her. She was, after all, what the townsfolk called a manananggal, which literally means ‘one who removes,’ and she reveled in the tumultuous delectability of the hunt. Never mind the thrill of strangulation, or the gargling chromaticism of the screams. It was the feel of the meat against her teeth – bittersweet betel nut and yam pudding. But those were comparisons to a lost existence, and he made no hesitation to remind her.

“Your people? You speak of a stolen life, not of this one.”

Her earliest memories were of infancy, unlike most others who remembered nothing before they were three. Warm hands slid under the fullness of her belly, pulling her into the light of a wet evening. Then there was the gentle swaying – her first dance with the moon. The delicious rhythm drove her quite mad, and she thrashed about only to find the aching nipple on her lips as she passed out into the darkness.

She learned to walk in the summer that followed, but preferred to pass the time sitting in her room. Her stout stocky limbs dangled off the side of her little mattress, each squiggly toe moving about as if her feet were playing a sonata in the dim light. She had grown the most beautiful head of hair – the kind the manangs called the color of fish fat and squid ink – and she twirled it about in languid fashion as she stared out of her bedroom window. Even then the evening had seemed so taunting. The shadows of leaves paced hungrily under the macopa and the durian. Brown shapeless figures groped the grass blades as they raced to and fro around the tree trunks. She shut her lids tightly and breathed in the thin damp breeze. The dark was her heaven, and she could sit there entranced by the tender courting sounds for hours at a time.

At the age of five, she was headstrong and given to wandering. After her lessons, she would steal past the lansones to sit in a clearing where a veil of stars could pick out her gleaming eyes. It pleased her when the birds came in swooping low over the shifting canopy in idle, wide circles. They waddled on the branches for a bit, their aching wings clipped tightly to their sides before disappearing quietly behind the mangoes. She often thought about them, wondering whether the sun seared the wings off their shoulders, or if their young flew off never wanting to be found.

“Marta!” The scream would come piercing through her solitude, and then she knew it was time to head back. Her mother was furious when she ran up to the villa doors. “Did I not tell you how dangerous it is for a little girl to run alone past those trees at night? You deserve a good whip with your father’s tsinelas. Now, come inside for prayers.”

“Yes, Inay.” Her reply was strained but polite, and she sauntered in reluctantly, taking her place at the altar. The Black Virgin towered over her with arms outstretched in the hazy conflagration of shifting candlelight, and the chanting began. She gazed up into its marble eyes and prayed against hope that it would be over before her tiny knees turned purple.

“They fear us more than their statues, you know.” The moon god interrupted her reverie. “They flounder in the promise of darkness like bala fish thrown into a bangka. Why should you be sacrificed for their sake?”

“You cannot hope to understand, Bulan.” His words were a firmament that kept the waters from flooding the earth, and gave the winged serpents dominion over the rain, but now they scattered her thoughts, and her mind spiraled away. “I do this for no one.”

“Then what principle does this serve? You speak of your losses, my child. Who is to speak of mine?” Bulan was insistent, and he pressed down hard on the ground, snapping roots where they lay in their graves. The earth groaned with the weight, but her figure remained unmoving, and he recalled the night they had first met.

It was a few hours before daybreak when he caught her, a vision gaunt and lithe pressing steadily through the mist. Had she not been turned as a child, her beauty would have been hailed as ‘preciosa’ by the townspeople. Yet the sight of her now, a winged torso whose lower half seemed mercilessly torn off below the navel, easily threw the bravest of the farmers into a fit of panic as she flew over the rice fields. Her face was satiated – acute with the smear of fresh blood on her throat; and yet her chest seemed to pound with a strangeness that he not seen in her kind. It sat over her like an elusive, smoldering hollowness that, for all his power, he could not understand.

The creatures that were her predecessors were mindless predators, ripping flesh off those who strayed into the barren fields and carrying it back to the waters of the ilog where her mistresses waited in congregation. At the sight of their meal, the nanay-gali would open their jaws wide, snapping like grotesque hatchlings in a nest as the bleeding manna dropped steadily from the heavens. The halfling then flew off to her lair, squealing with the rapture of the kill on her palate. Her kind never stole further into the night, especially not in the way this one did – lost to the processes of what seemed to be a conscience.

He had shown himself to her the following evening in a form that seemed almost human. A warm brilliance pulsed from his skin as he moved towards her amidst pockets of dead grass and makahiya that bowed in his presence. In the distance, the santelmo filtered lightly over the tips of the mountains in muted synergy with his radiance. She paused in mid-air as he approached, studying his glowing figure with eyes that showed neither concern nor trepidation, but a sense of wondrous disbelief – the consequence of which was his surprise.

“You stare as if you know me,” he said.

“But I do,” she replied, for she realized that she always had. “You are the moon.”

In time, their meetings turned to ritual. Each evening, she looked up as the great orb changed its face slowly from full circle to darkness, and then she knew he had cloaked himself to descend to the earth. At times he would assume the form of a great eagle as they flew over the jagged shoulders of the Apo, or a fine young lobo as they grazed the desiccated palayan fields. The night he took her to the graveyard, however, he looked like a man.

She found him sitting on a panchon then, whistling in the place where the people of the barrios buried their dead. The half-light was unruly, and it bit through the indifferent chill as the moon god rose like a specter in the dim.

Bulan eyed her as she approached, allowing the silence to fondle her before he motioned to the ground. “Look here,” he said.

A dirty stone protruded at an odd angle out of the caking mud as if it had been knocked out of place by a large animal. A naked infant with wings was carved onto its surface. She recognized the figure from her childhood prayer books as one of the anghelitas that hovered over the Black Virgin as the holy mother ascended into the heavens. It knelt with its hands clasped tightly to its chest and its head cocked to the side, and it stared unwaveringly at something that had been chiseled into the rock:

MARTA Post Tenebras Lux

The halfling turned away. She wanted to scream. The fissures on her lips began to drip thick, turbid spit, and the rows of vaults, tombs, and stony images yielded to arousal. Marble eyes turned opaque stares in her direction; crosses shifted in the twilight.

“Do you not recognize it?”

She brushed him off. “How did you find this?” Her hysteria was escalating, rising to the sound of a thousand questions that drove her to deafness. Then there was silence, and a lingering nothingness that shrieked and screeched in her ear.

“You had a name.” He floated tenuously over the dirty gravestone as he moved beside her. She had called him by name the first day they met, but till this moment had kept hers from him. “Why have you never chosen to tell me?”

No answer hung there to meet the moon god’s question – only an empty space where her thoughts seemed to jostle with each other – a sanctuary where he could not reach her.

But the times when the moon god might have stretched out to bridge the beyond had well passed. Now he was sitting beside her in the place that was theirs, and no matter how hard he fought, the void continued to edge insidiously between them, engorged with the anguish of memories he was denied. It seemed to captivate her, holding her reverent despite the slew of dizzy anguish creeping through her entrails; and yet the hour of the ritual was drawing dangerously close. Bulan hurried to address her.

“You are a fool to do this, child.”

His words roused her. “I am no child!” How could he have thought so little of her all this time? She was his companion. Had he not come to think so as well?

“You and the taung-araw. You are no different from the impregnable jackfruit. You grow ripe with each thrust of the immodest winds, distending with a mass you cannot hope to carry.” He drummed his annoyance on his chin. “But the crippled god Lupa pulls on you, and one day you find yourself plummeting towards the filth, racing towards an inevitable splat with your own shadow.”

“These words change nothing. I am to leave this world tonight.”

“Yet yours will not be the only death on your hands. Without you, your mistresses will not survive.” The halfling was a scavenger for the nanay-gali, and he knew that the old women would starve in her absence. But his words only seemed to strengthen her resolve.

“Do they not deserve to die for what they have done?”

“I speak of this because I fear…”

“You fear my loss!” She had cut him off, and a lull fell upon the night.

Mist began to swirl in the moon god’s eyes. The brittle twines of the Kapalaran, the spinners of fate, had led him to this one moment, and he found himself helpless and without a reply. Clouds edged by at a funeral’s pace, leaving meadows of grey cotton wisps in the turtle-colored sky.

“We are a cursed people, Bulan! Cursed by forces beyond our control. Have you forgotten this as well?” The halfling remembered his story with unparalleled clarity…

She prodded him often in the past, asking what sort of fabric he made the moonshine out of, or how the great mountains came to exist. In turn, he acquainted her with the tales of the land he had known: of how the Higante dominated the plains before the early god Bathala threw them into the steaming furnaces of the Mayon, the remainder of them taking to the forests as the pipe-smoking Kapre giants. He told her of the Tikbalang, the first race of men-horses, and how they trudged to their deaths in the boiling mud springs of the north. He bragged of his relationship with the maiden, Makiling, and how, after she partook of the forbidden fruit, he preserved her naked figure in living rock where he would lay next to her at the end of his days.

They liked to wander through the kawayan as they talked, bending the green as they roused the lizards with their banter; and although he refused to show it, her questions amused him thoroughly. In fact, their conversations had gone on for so long that he had learned to anticipate when she would next begin to press him.

That one evening she had asked about the nanay-gali, however, had taken him by surprise. He stood without answering at first, his thoughts welling up like a smoky haze as they spread over the vastness that was his. Then, he drew himself together, collecting the fragments into a tiny pool at the center of his soul as he began to speak:

“The nanay-gali were born in the days before this land was broken into pieces. The old women lived in privilege for centuries by the river where the waters offered up fish to their baskets and carried their dead off into the sea. They were, however, like all who belong to the taung-araw, a discontent people.”

The halfling grew pale. His words awakened a deep, vicarious hurt inside of her. She wanted to open her mouth, but resisted the urge instead.

“Much like you once were,” he said, as if he understood what she meant to ask. “They sat in the daytime watching the manaul or the adarna soar into the clouds, wondering why they could not be one with the gods the way these creatures were. In time, their seamstresses took to fashioning wings out of the nipa, yet the fabrications only took them several feet off the ground despite the most potent of levitation spells.”

“One day, the youngest of them discovered something huge caught in the fish traps at the deep end of the river. The creature was incredibly long and stout. Its body was covered by large velvet scales that danced all the way from its forelegs to its back where they crept onto an enormous set of leathery wings. The serpent lashed about, attempting to shake itself from a tangle of weeds and catgut that had snagged the antlers on its moldy skull. The find intrigued the young virgin, and she ran proudly back into the village to tell her elders.”

“News of the discovery spread quickly, and the women ran to the banks barefoot, stepping through carabao dung and shouting at the prospect of having caught a water dragon in the river. They grabbed hastily at the net and heaved the beast out onto the moist loam. The creature was young, and could barely have been a century old, but they took to it with bolos, splashing its purple blood onto the riverbank as they butchered the beast in an attempt to sever its wings.”

“They cackled when they had finished, dumping the remains into the water and hoisting the tent-like appendages over their shoulders as they scampered back into their houses. There the seamstresses gathered, spreading the young girl who had found the dragon on her back. They lit red candles and crouched low as they began to sew the wings onto her flesh, holding down the screaming girl as they did. When they were done, they pushed her into the sunlight, hissing for her to fly.”

Bulan shifted his weight and clasped his hands tightly. He wanted desperately to stop, as if the silence would somehow offer a means of rescuing her, but her eyes betrayed her insistence, and he continued on. “The girl obeyed, flapping her wings even as the blood trickled down her spine, but the wings only took her as high as the apex of the guava before she fell back onto the nearest hut. Furious at their failure, the women dragged the girl out into the swine pens, cussing at her for being so fat.”

“Then they took their bolos again, this time to dismember her lower half so that she would be light enough to rise even higher. When finally she did, the women cried out in triumph, wailing at the chance to take like gods into the skies.”

His tone grew strained, and he hesitated, for he knew what followed would be a death song. “I had come of age in that time. The god Bathala took favor on me and fastened my light against the night sky. I was tasked to watch over his darkness, and I gazed over the world with the judgment of my youth.”

“It was through such power that I had observed the carnage of the nanay-gali. I looked down on the butchery with angry eyes, for the winged serpents were loyal creatures that served me and my brothers. We rallied together, Arauw and Lupa at my side, and upturned the river in our rage. The waters dashed the women against each other, throwing their skirts over their faces and splashing mud between their heavy thighs.”

“We cursed them that night.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “For the thievery of flight, they were transformed into thieves of the flesh – condemned to prey off the taung-araw for their sustenance for the rest of what became inhuman lives.”

The halfling grew limp, her body surrendering to violent shivers in the cold air.

“The virgin herself could not be saved, even as the stolen dragon wings remained beating on her back. She was, after all, a spawn of the nanay-gali, and she stayed bound to the women by a force even the gods could not break, scavenging flesh for the old women until her own body gave way, at which point she transferred the beast’s essence to a new vessel. The cycle remains unbroken to this day.” His words trailed off into an abrupt grumbling as a monsoon crept determinedly above them; but the moon god’s story had already driven the halfling to delirium, and she took off in flight, leaving him in the charged clatter of the tempest.

She was climbing just below the clouds in a matter of seconds. Bulan’s words echoing in her head…a force even the gods could not break. Rain began to fall on her face in large corpulent drops as the downpour swathed her bare breasts. The great mountain, Apo, stretched out dangerously before her. Its broad cliffs fell gracefully to its sides in dangerously clever, wide curves. Large deciduous growths projected from its torso like tiny bristles quivering in the storm, threatening to skewer her should she veer close. She told herself she was free – free as the incessant flapping that drove her past the perilous slopes. If she thought long and hard enough, she might have convinced herself it was true. But all that remained in her head was a compulsion – a compulsion steadily nursed from the day of her turning.

She was to enroll in a proper school the day after they took her. Her afternoons with the venerably toothless town prayle and his monotonous account of The Annunciation, and Maria, the Birhen, were mercifully over, and she was down on her knees playing with ants in the yard. The red insects were tiny but ravenous, and they tore at each other like horned war beetles on the broken twigs she held up in the air. She imagined thick poison dripping from their prickly legs as they played out the silent duel. Dusk was swaggering around her figure by the time her mother found her.

“It is getting dark, anak. You must come inside. Must I remind you everyday? The enkantos will have you for dinner, aba! There is a full moon tonight.”

But the full moon was something she could not quite resist. Should she obey, she would submit to her father’s scolding, a bowl of mongo leaves, and the tireless novenas that snaked at the pace of the kohol through her mothers’ hands. Prayers rose up from the villa doors like warnings on the fog, and at that moment, she decided she would remain a child no longer.

“Leave me alone, Inay!” Tears streamed down her soiled features in stout, gem-like globs. She pulled up her skirt and began to run, bounding away as fast as her precocious little grown-up feet could take her, even as Inay’s pleading voice faded into the rustling of leaves. When her breath finally gave way, she realized she was exhausted, and she curled down on the cogon and fell asleep.

When she awoke, she was in the air, drifting swiftly past the stars with a desperation exceeded only by her fear. At first, she thought she was dreaming, the way she dreamt of the tall payasos of the town fiestas, or of swimming in basins of dark green sago; but then she looked up to find herself in the shadow of a mangled body, and horrible black wings, and she screamed. The creature seemed almost human, but frightfully cut in half. Black locks swept past squalid features – a crooked nose stump cradled squarely between intense black eyes, and thin dusky lips that arched down in a violent pout. Brutish arms held her sternly against the rushing breeze, and no matter how she squirmed, she could not wrench herself.

The banks of the river crept slowly toward them, growing larger and larger until she found herself shoved into its raging waters by her captor. The surge was indomitable, and her hair caught hastily in the murky current as she gagged on the froth. Through the tangle she stared up at the halfing holding her little head under the water’s surface in fierce baptism.

All around them sat the old women, singing and wailing with an anticipation just as fierce, waiting for the ritual to reach its conclusion – the death of a matron and the birth of a new savior. She could hear the chanting from beneath the surface like a dull and gentle caress. The cacophony numbed her, stroking her veins even as the silt poured steadily into her chest.

Then she felt it, much like an enormous roar that erupted within her womb. The beast wrenched itself from the halfling above the water, the draconic concentrate filtering downward toward her until it punctured her navel. It climbed into her loins at first, severing her lower torso as it did. The amputation fell lifelessly toward the river bottom, and she stared wide-eyed at her legs as the fish swarmed around them, nipping at the frayed flesh.

The essence then squirmed upward, clawing frantically toward her arching back, raking decidedly at her skin till she felt a bursting from her spine – two grotesque wings twisting to the rhythm of the moonlight like beans sprouting ferociously in the midday sun. They fought against the torrent, pushing, straining, and finally tenting into enormous new appendages. Do not worry. It was whispering in her ear. The old vessel must pass away, but I have taken you as my own. You are reborn, little one. You are blessed. The winged animal grew calm as it settled in the curve of her flesh, and she woke to the perching of a new duality. Half woman. Half creature. She thrashed about as the water boiled up around her, and her life rippled away in dark muddy circles.

The memory of the pain tugged at the halfling’s senses, and soon the horror of her visions began to fade. She was back on the hill now. Back with the moon god. Back where she realized she could no longer keep the beast at bay. The brute was relentless, its dragon limbs extending large expansive outlines that loomed over her in the twilight, goading out her own shadow until what marked the ground was all fury and all menace. The creature wailed in her bosom, pleading for the new vessel she would provide it with. This is your birthright. Find a child, it begged. Her innocence shall replenish you, and you shall conceive, immaculate. Its thirst was a ravenous gluttony that stretched out over generations without deceleration; the winged serpent – a voracious, living vigor that would not be quenched. She gave the moon god her last look as her sorrow sank into her breasts. “My mind cannot be changed, Bulan.” The words poured out like a requiem. “It is time.”

Bulan rose up, struggling hard against the sudden breaking in his throat. His luminescence was virile, and it bathed her with the color of maize as he took her features in. In his lifetime he had seen young kapitans sold off to war, barrios razed to the ground, and women traded into slavery. He had taken the niños in their sleep and watched their fathers mourn in the moonlight. There would be no bargains. “Do as you wish,” he said. He was alone now, as he realized he had always been, and the night recaptured him in its embrace.

Already the old women were gathering at the river, their long toenails tilling furrows through the angry mud. Trees lashed at them, slapping long processes of bramble against their backs and shins. Even the winds huffed at their dirty hair and threw mire into their faces. The entire forest seemed to rise up in a great bawling, spitting out skeletons and the empty nests of the kalapati. But the nanay-gali trudged forward, their voices rising up in an unassailable reverberation against the holocaust.

She could hear them, beckoning for her to come as they always did. Their voices ebbed through her in ruddy waves, calling her forth to anoint their savior, stirring the creature within her as it rocked in its amnion.

The great orb itself was molten and high in the heavens, soaking her purple and green in the escalating breeze. It climbed higher as she watched, gaining a distance that wiped away all understanding and all familiarity. She steeled herself and bore down on her being as she realized what she had to do.

She called on the beast, and it took her into the air.

The old women looked up in alarm. She was coming, speeding towards them with an alacrity that tainted the winds. They understood. The halfling’s betrayal loitered over them like a fetid stench, and they snorted loudly, throwing their heads back as they stomped on the earth. They began to guffaw in unison, lifting up a sordid protest for the child she was not carrying.

The beast itself grew perturbed, and the creature grunted wildly. It laced her bile with putrid urine and blew smoke into her windpipe. Unseen talons punctured innards. Veiled nares sprouted daggers of fire. The halfling choked in the icy darkness, but hurried against the winds despite these tortures. She was close now, and her entire body began to vibrate, as if in resonance to the orchestrated malady. The river sped towards her in a frightening blur as her senses gave way, and she caught herself mumbling strange utterances.

To you do we send up our sighs… O banished children of Eve…

The words were foreign, and she stammered them out in the swirling confusion. The creature fought within her like a demented child, but she cursed it, and it drove her forward. Night pressed inward in colors of crimson and lurching teal, and soon she found herself at the banks of the ilog.

Weeping in this valley of tears…

She paused at first, gazing on her mistresses as they tottered forward, hemming her in with their shrieks. Proptosed eyes burned through her with a mangled ogling. They were squealing for her sins, squealing as the incessant throbbing barked through her temples.

And after this our exile…

She looked down at the torrent, and plunged into its waters.

The fluid was cold and familiar as it surged into her gaping mouth. It engaged her as she gagged, and for a moment, she forgot she was not drinking blood. She was drunk, intoxicated by the waxing of her approaching death. Below the surface, she could hear the old women offering up their incantations in a mad, driving tempo. The churning of the current grew to a great fullness in her ear and yet she could still hear herself, a tinctured sanctity above the deluge.

That we may be made worthy of the promises…

Her spirit escaped in a shimmering sliver that streamed outward from the tips of her eyelids, and the beast snarled horribly in the distillation. Its velvet dragon wings crumpled against their weight as the tumorous scaffolding capitulated. But the ceremony held no audience. The halfling was absent, unreachable, attending to a new voice the flavor of bittersweet betel nut and yam pudding in her ear…

Marta, what do you have there?”

It’s just drawings, mama!” She covered them in haste, sweeping her long black hair quickly over the pages. Her tiny head landed with a plop on the floor.

Looking down, she could see that same head, pale and lifeless as it swayed under the water. Her limp carcass bobbed to a steady ictus as the huge wings that adorned it caught broken in the current.

Please, anak, mama just wants to see. Now move over and have some suman.” Marta propped herself up on her elbows, and with a clumsy flip she turned herself over on her back.

There you go!” Her mother could see Marta’s scribblings – bright silver and brown crayon wax of what looked like a little figure gliding through a sea of dark circular strokes.

She was back in the air, soaring upward against the chaos. The nanay-gali wailed in the moonlight. They crouched low over the water, eyes dripping films of fat salty tears onto the surface. The serpent itself seemed to flail about in a garish spectacle as it returned to the seminal undertow. It cried out in the black, bleeding burble as it reared its head and receded into the foam.

You know what she is, Inay.” Marta teased.

I know,” her mother said with a warm smile as she looked down at the small piece of paper. “Why is she flying in the dark?”

So no one can see her.” Marta paused, as if what she was going to say was an enormity she could not give up. “She likes to hide.”

She found herself ascending quickly into the heavens, climbing just below the clouds as she always did. The barrio loomed steadily into view beyond the forest. Hints of activity emerged from the dark. Farmers yawned in the moonlight. Vendors collected their trays of roasted beans.

But who is she hiding from?”

Marta’s lips curled up in a smile. “You, Inay!” She fell down on the cold narra in fits of laughter. Her mother snorted mischievously as she grabbed Marta’s sides. “Stop tickling, mama, please! Stop!”

Their laughter fell apart as Inay drew Marta into her arms. She began to hum. It was a slow sad song of warning – of bamboo breaking, and children falling from coco trees.

The lullaby echoed in her ears as she took to the air pristine. She was flying faster now, faster than wings, or thoughts, or forgotten beasts could carry her. Her memories flayed away like coconut husks as she sped amidst circles as black as fish fat and squid ink, straight into the outstretched arms of the moon.