The Maiden’s Song

by

The first time Pedro saw her, she was out in the fields gathering palay.

That was not truly the first time he saw her, of course. There were other days—other hot, humid days—when he had seen her, tending to the rice beds under an unforgiving sun. Why, just that morning he most probably had seen her, bending, gathering, shifting (bending, gathering, shifting) in the tedium of harvest, along with all the other dark-skinned women of the barrio.

But for reasons known only to the gods and destiny and love—oh, most certainly, love! —it was only on that day, at that hour, at that very minute, that Pedro really, truly saw her. And with the prophetic certainty that few men were blessed with (although which, mysteriously, seemed to be a common enough trait in Pedro’s family), Pedro knew his heart was no longer his.

Pedro was in love.

A period of courting ensued. As was the norm, the village elders kept a vigilant watch as Pedro submitted himself to the rigors of courtship. No one ever suspected that there would be anything less than a positive outcome for the efforts Pedro expended. It had long been the tradition that men wooed the women with the completion of various mundane tasks, the accumulation of which was considered a wondrous feat worthy of their intended’s lifelong affection. It was the way things were done in the barrio and no one, in the village’s remembered history, had found reason to challenge the convention.

But though Pedro had persevered for sixty long days—bringing water from the well every morning, chopping wood in the afternoon, singing old kundimans by her window at night—the maiden refused to accept his suit. It was not that the maiden was being coy, although this certainly was what everybody concluded, even her own embarrassed family. The truth of the matter was that the maiden herself did not know whether she did want to spend the rest of her life with Pedro. Unlike him, who, prior to one pivotal moment, had only seen her in conjunction with the rest of the scenery, she, on the other hand, had always seen him—singing to his carabao, ploughing the fields, muttering to the sun—and found him, simply put, unremarkable. But she knew what was expected of her, and, being practical in nature, compromised: she would wait it out, hoping against hope that either he did something marvelous, or he would grow tired with the over-extended courtship.

Another thirty days followed as Pedro attempted to find his way to the maiden’s heart through wood, and water, and saccharine love songs. By the ninety-first day, Pedro’s family voiced their own doubts about Pedro’s time-consuming quest. But Pedro refused to be dissuaded. His heart, once lost, could not be redeemed. It was the way of some men. Pedro had no space, no matter how small, to nurture affections for another woman. It was only a matter of time, he said, a matter of seconds, compounded into minutes, compounded into days, compounded into months, but still, just a matter of time before the maiden conceded her heart.

And so another thirty days passed, and then another, and another. From well to forest to window (well to forest to window), Pedro pursued the maiden with steadfast determination. Only on cold, stormy nights, when no one could hear him nor witness his tears, would he allow himself the privilege of venting out his frustrations. On those nights he would weep and shout and scream to the cold winds. Why, he would ask, why? And the gods would howl with him, as if they too regretted that he was destined to fall in love with such an impossible woman.

Eventually, the storms would end and Pedro would remember the challenge in her eyes, the cadence of her voice, the scent of sweat and earth and sampaguita that was uniquely hers. Then, tired and spent but still oh so in love, Pedro would return home, the frustrated, impatient, and almost overwhelmingly despondent beast within him once again calmed by the memories of his obsession. He’d wait forever, if he needed to, he would promise himself over and over again. Then, satisfied with his declaration of loyalty and love, Pedro would fall into a deep sleep, chasing a certain dark-skinned woman in his dreams.

Forever turned out to be one year.

By all accounts, the three hundred and sixty-sixth day was just like any ordinary day. The men went about their business with their carabaos, the women with the harvesting of palay. But similar to the seemingly ordinary day when Pedro’s entire life changed when his eyes settled upon one unsuspecting maiden, the three hundred and sixty-sixth day would also prove to be a defining moment for Pedro. And it all began when Pedro was overcome with a dangerous kind of delirium.

It was a delirium brought about by obsession, by a year of continuous servitude, and of course passion; an explosive, unbridled, savage passion that had been stoked with every glance, every sound, every movement the maiden had made, and had been pushed back again and again and again by the need of to retain a veneer of propriety. But who defined propriety? Pedro asked himself. Who? Did he not deserve recompense for all the effort he had exerted? Had he not been the perfect gentleman, the perfect suitor, this entire time? Was he not entitled to some reward for his devotion, unmatched in the barrio’s relatively long history?

The treacherous questions plagued Pedro as he led his carabao through the mud from one end of the field to another. Perhaps it was the scorching sun, or the hypnotic movement of man and beast against the mud, or perhaps there was no reason at all other than that Pedro had finally lost his patience. But a plan was formulated in Pedro’s mind. It was a crazy plan, a plan that would never even have occurred to Pedro just a year before. It was also a simple plan, so simple that it couldn’t possibly work. Or could it? And if it did—oh, if it did! Pedro shivered underneath the glaring heat.

With delicious possibilities roiling in his head, Pedro continued on with his day. Just as the sun was about to set, he made his way to the maiden’s house, carrying the wood he had chopped for her family. After the usual chitchat, Pedro set about to serenading his beloved. But this time, instead of singing to her about lovers and beauty and eternity, he began to hum an old song, so old that it had lost all its words to time.

It was part of Pedro’s inheritance from his grandfather. Ancient by the time Pedro came along, the then-patriarch of Pedro’s family had doted on his only grandson. From a young age, Pedro was taught the way of fields, of animals, and of ageless strings of notes and harmonies that held the power of the barrio’s secret history. Pedro never quite believed his grandfather’s claims of the ancient melodies’ magical properties, but he had conceded that the songs had, at various times, proven useful in calling rains when there were droughts, warding off locusts, and finding errant chickens.

The particular song that Pedro hummed that evening was a haunting melody he had often used to calm animals during bouts of illness. As he sang, Pedro thought of the first time he had seen her, the first time he had heard her voice, the first time she had spoken his name; and everything that he felt began to drip and trickle and ooze until finally, the dam broke, and the entirety of all his repressed emotions flooded into a crescendo that was pure, and feral, and truthful.

The entire barrio succumbed to sleep.

Trembling, Pedro walked into the maiden’s house, up the stairs, into her room, and ever so tenderly picked his beloved up from her bed. In complete silence—for not even the crickets were awake to witness the abduction—Pedro took the maiden out of the barrio, up the mountains, and into a forgotten cave.

Then, bathed in the light of a single candle, Pedro waited.

The actual plan that Pedro had dreamed of earlier that afternoon involved a little more than just watching the maiden in her slumber. But the weight of propriety kept Pedro from indulging in even the least wicked of his fantasies. Never mind, of course, that he had held her far longer than was necessary before putting her down. Never mind that earlier that afternoon he had challenged the very definition of propriety. And never mind as well the fact that by abducting the maiden and taking her way from the barrio’s prying and protective eyes, he had made a travesty of what was considered proper between two young, unmarried individuals. The gods had not granted Pedro sufficient mental acuity to analyze introspective contradictions. And even if it did occur to him, he was too close to her, too distracted by a flood of inappropriate thoughts to question his own irrationality. All he knew was that it was wrong, somewhat indecent (but not horribly so) for him to do anything but look.

Oh, but how he looked!

Pedro drank in the sight of her: the way her hair cascaded to her ears, to her shoulders, to the tips of her breasts; the way she breathed, evenly like soft rainfall; the way she would moisten her lips with her tongue, the contrast of her dark lashes against her cheeks, the elegance of her bare toes curled up against the soles of her feet. It seemed that every inch of her was made to tantalize him. And with every breath, every moment that passed that he was in her presence, a sliver of his control slipped.

He was shuddering when the maiden awoke a few short hours after her abduction.

The maiden did not know exactly what had occurred. But the maiden was known for her intelligence and in the few moments it took for her to sit up and brush the hair from her face with her hands, she was able to safely conclude three things: 1) she was no longer in her home; 2) she was in a cold cave; 3) she had most probably been taken there by Pedro.

After getting a good look at Pedro, she dismissed the possibility that she had been rescued by him from some form of beast or monster. He was her abductor, of that she was fairly certain. But though it did surprise her to find that he had it in him to take her from her home, she was still confident that he would not do anything that would harm her. She also felt (correctly, as she would soon find out), that though it seemed she was in a precarious position, being obviously less physically capable then her captor, that she nevertheless held some sort of power that, should she decide to wield it, could bring Pedro to his knees.

And so it was that she, calmly and without a hint of fear or trepidation, asked Pedro to bring her back home.

“No!” Pedro’s eyes glazed as he begged. “Please, please, let me try.”

The maiden knew, even perhaps better than Pedro, what he was really asking for with his plea. She even knew how he intended to convince her to concede her affections, having put two and two together with the abduction and the intensity of his expression (though it must be said that Pedro, after having conveniently forgotten how he had indulged himself with thoughts of her in his imagination, was not entirely certain how he could accomplish the seemingly impossible feat of having the maiden concede anything, much less her affections). In truth, she had always been curious about the act of lovemaking. It was the subject of many a conversation between her and her more experienced sisters, and she had it on their authority that it was worth all the words, and more, that they had devoted to describing it.

“Please, let me try,” Pedro repeated, as he reached out a hand to her, his entire being teetering on the brink of desolation, and yet—and yet, and yet—even he could sense that there was a glimmer of hope; a glimmer of hope that grew brighter with each passing moment that the maiden hesitated.

“Let me try,” Pedro said one last time, as he finally gave in to the temptation and let his hand fall on top of her knee. “Please.”

Perhaps it was the allure of the shadows; or perhaps it was the lingering influence of Pedro’s compelling song; or perhaps it was something as mundane as the maiden’s own curiosity. Pedro was not about to question whatever mercy the gods granted him. All he knew was that no dream, or fantasy, or delusion could compare to the ferocity of emotion he felt when the maiden took the candle and blew out the light.

In the dark, they made love.

It was tentative, slow, and excruciatingly gentle. Within the universe of their embrace, Pedro and the maiden explored an old language of heated flesh and surrendered moans. It was a language that countenanced no shame embedded by the realities of convention. Instead, it created small spaces and secret places where the vagaries of promise, curiosity, friendship, devotion, fervor (for love, for experience, for something undefined yet precious) could converge, thrive, and entangle into a rhapsody of intimate, unspoken words. And, in one beautiful moment, the language broke the barriers of the heavens, so that the stars collided, the gods wept, and the fates were awed into silence in the euphoric aftermath.

Afterwards, Pedro did not sleep. Instead, he indulged himself in what was proving to be a favorite pastime of his: watching the maiden. And when she awoke, he found himself smiling at her tenderly.

“Love me,” Pedro said as he brushed an errant strand of hair from her face.

But the maiden simply looked away.

“Love me,” Pedro said more urgently, a hint of despair creeping into his voice.

The maiden did not answer.

“Love me,” Pedro whispered, no longer smiling.

And in the ensuing silence, Pedro was graced with crystal-like clarity: the maiden could never love him. He could spend an eternity carrying water, chopping wood, singing songs and still, she would never love him. It was a painful and unchangeable truth. The realization made Pedro’s eyes water, as an unbearable sadness began to settle on him like an encroaching darkness.

The maiden herself could not look at Pedro. It was an undeniable fact that she had never felt such ecstasy as she had that evening. But just as some men were granted the certainty of prophets, some women were granted irrefutable epiphanies. And it was this epiphany that she had been graced with at the peak of passionate rapture: that though her body and her mind had surrendered, her obstinate, impossible heart would not.

Oh, how the maiden wished she had the words to soften the blow of an unfair truth. But she had none and all she could do was turn away.

But this tale does not end with such sadness, for in the end, Pedro proved himself a better man by taking the truth and her silence and his battered heart without complaint. And then, as a reward from the fates that had cruelly destined him to such insurmountable love for a woman who could not return it, he was bestowed a song.

It was a song unlike any that his grandfather had taught him—a wordless melody that survivors of lost battles would have found achingly familiar. It was his song, and their song, but more importantly, it was the maiden’s song; a melody that encompassed all that could not be said, all that was too painful to be spoken and the sad acceptance of all that could not be changed.

Pedro continued to sing as he led the maiden out of the cave, down the mountains, and into the barrio, his voice once again entrancing the denizens of forest and village into a deep melancholic slumber. He was still singing when he finally returned the maiden to her house, the first rays of the sun peeking out over the horizon.

“I’m sorry,” the maiden said, not knowing what else she could say.

Pedro smiled, sadly but sincerely.

“I know,” Pedro said.

And as she turned away from him, Pedro felt himself crumble slowly, then fade, underneath the soft gaze of dawn.

Kate Aton-Osias is an auditor who believes that love, hope, and good chocolate can save the world. She has earned a Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Award for Literature and a citation in the international Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. Her stories have been published in Serendipity, Philippine Speculative Fiction, The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories, and soon, Bewildering Stories and A Time for Dragons. She’s a proud founding member of the LitCritters writing and literary discussion group, and is happily swimming in the structured chaos of being wife to fellow writer Alex Osias and mother to their newborn son Hector.