“Are you scared for your fertilization?” Malumanay, Halimuyak’s grandmother, asked.
Halimuyak’s knife slammed on the chopping board. She gripped the potato, swallowed the lump in her throat, and wiped the sweat on her forehead.
“A bit.” Halimuyak stared at Malumanay then resumed cutting the potato.
“Stop that, Daughter,” Sampagita said. “Cut the potato silently. You’ll disturb the whole village, and you’ll destroy either the knife or the chopping board.”
“Don’t be too hard on her,” Malumanay told Sampagita. “You should understand that it will be her first fertilization. You showed more fear on the eve of her conception.”
“I’m not scared at all,” Halimuyak interrupted. Malumanay and Sampagita turned their heads toward her. The soon-to-be mother bowed her head and sank in her chair.
“All first-time mothers are scared.” Malumanay resumed slicing the boar’s meat into cubes. “Fear is a prerequisite to courage, no need denying it.”
“I don’t know if I can take the pain, the risk.” Halimuyak’s lips quivered.
“There will be pain, Granddaughter, and half of your life will be ready for the grave during labour.”
“A small risk to endure for a precious daughter,” Sampagita smiled at Halimuyak while she kneaded the cassava flour into balls.
The talk ended, Halimuyak gaining no sense of encouragement from her mother or grandmother.
“You go to bed now,” Malumanay told Halimuyak after dinner. “Your mother and I will clean the dishes. You will have a big tomorrow. We will wake you before sunrise, so you can greet the birth of the day.”
Halimuyak retreated to her room. She went inside her mosquito net and lay awake until Malumanay and Sampagita went to their respective beds.
Sleep evaded her. Fear and excitement filled her heart just when she thought sleep had succeeded keeping her eyes shut. All through the night, her eyes saw every detail in her room illuminated by moonlight. The birds’ song told her that dawn approached.
“Did you sleep well?” Sampagita asked while she raised Halimuyak’s mosquito net.
“No, Mother, I couldn’t sleep.”
“That is to be expected,” Malumanay said. “I remember when your mother was chosen to conceive. She did not sleep for three days straight. Don’t worry. After today, your own body will force you to rest. Now hurry. Your mother will bathe you in the sacred waterfall, and I will join the elders’ vigil around the Fertility Tree.”
Halimuyak saw some of her friends at the sacred waterfall, first-time conceivers like her. She also saw repeaters, the blessed women chosen to conceive another daughter. Each woman must conceive at least one, but two or three daughters were a sign of high favour from Punong Ina, the holiest and highest mother. Halimuyak always prayed with Sampagita for a sister, but Punong Ina gave the blessed opportunity to Halimuyak.
The chosen women bathed naked under the sacred waterfall and swam across the pool back to their companions. Sampagita wrapped Halimuyak in the bear’s fur, a remnant of the animal Halimuyak had hunted and sacrificed as a chosen woman. Buffalo hide, alligator leather, serpent skin, lion fur, and eagle’s feather wrapped the other women. Sampagita kissed Halimuyak on the lips and urged her on with the other chosen women.
Halimuyak approached Malumanay at the foot of the Fertility Tree’s hill. She took off the bear fur and gave it to her grandmother.
The chosen women walked up the hill. Halimuyak felt the grass prickling her soles, the sunlight rubbing her skin, and the wind pulling out the sweat from her pores.
She stretched her open hands towards the Fertility Tree’s bark. The two women beside her had already touched the tree, and the sap covered their hands. Halimuyak took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and pushed her hands forward. The impact of her hand on the bark sent a drop of sap flying to her face. She ignored the sting of the sap as it flowed down her cheeks.
When she felt the sap cover her hand, she opened her eyes. The brown sap turned as clear as water as the warmth penetrated her hand. Heat accumulated in her palm and at her fingertips and flowed through her arm. It swirled in her chest before it dropped to her uterus where she felt it grow in size and energy.
Halimuyak was still savouring the sensation, the growing warmth filling her tummy, when a tap on her shoulder startled her. She pulled back her hand and turned around. Malumanay smiled at her with arms opened for a hug. Halimuyak fell in the embrace of her grandmother.
“That is all to conceiving a daughter, dear child,” Malumanay said. “The real test of womanhood is yet to come. After that, you must fulfill the responsibilities of motherhood. No need to get excited, though. You have a month to accomplish the former and a lifetime to fulfill the latter.”
Halimuyak limped down the hill with her arms around Malumanay’s shoulders. The other women were on their way home when the two reached the hill’s foot. Sampagita waited for them with the bear fur in her arms. She carried Halimuyak back home. Each house celebrated the day with a feast. Malumanay had to force Halimuyak to eat.
After the family feast, Halimuyak went to bed. The bear fur kept her and her developing daughter warm through the night and for the nights to come until the next full moon.
Halimuyak’s scream twisted and ripped her throat. She took deep gasps. The other women who were also giving birth released deafening screams of their own. A symphony and barrage of wails scared the birds from their nests. The loudest scream during birth would gain the favour of Punong Ina.
Giving birth surpassed all the trials and rituals Halimuyak had to face as a member of the tribe. After the birth, she would fully realize what pain meant.
The baby crowned just after sunrise. Halimuyak endured her daughter’s entrance to the world until late in the afternoon. The baby’s cry soothed Halimuyak’s spirit, but she could hear gasps, disgust, and screams in the background.
Halimuyak tried to get up by leaning on her left arm. Malumanay and the two midwives who assisted her were whispering when Halimuyak attempted a glimpse at her baby. She saw her grandmother holding her daughter wrapped in her bear fur.
“My daughter,” Halimuyak said while sitting up. She used both hands to steady herself. Sampagita caught Halimuyak when her daughter’s strength failed. Halimuyak sat in Sampagita’s embrace and felt splashes of her mother’s tears.
“My daughter, where is my daughter?” Halimuyak stiffened and trembled when Malumanay stood up and walked to the door. “Stop! Where are you taking my daughter?”
Malumanay stopped. She looked over her shoulder. “She is not your daughter. You bore a son.”
“Why do we do this?” Halimuyak became numb after crying the whole night. They had allowed her to breastfeed the child during the night and before the disposal ceremony. The baby boy slept in her arms.
“Because the child is not a woman, not of Punong Ina’s image,” Sampagita said while she brushed Halimuyak’s hair. “We trade the life Punong Ina has wrongfully given.”
Baby boys appeared at least once in every generation; the damned generation had three. When a woman first bore a baby boy, the women of that generation wondered why there was no pathway of birth between his legs. Although they prayed for guidance, Punong Ina remained silent about the child’s fate. They decided to keep the child alive, give it an orifice through a special surgery or ritual if possible.
An unforeseen drought hit the whole area the day after the baby boy’s birth. The year’s expected harvest wilted. Animals and women started suffocating in the heat. The Fertility Tree almost died of thirst. All the elders held a vigil for three straight nights. Despite the lack of sleep, three of the elders received a vision from Punong Ina. The disposal of the baby boys began that way.
The elders chanted a prayer on the boat and basket that would carry away the baby boy. When they finished the ritual dance, Malumanay looked at the boy. Halimuyak tightened her embrace around the child. She stared ahead unblinking. The elders called her and her baby forward. Sampagita placed the bear fur on Halimuyak’s shoulders.
“Place the baby in the basket with the bear fur,” Malumanay said. “You will not need any clothes. Are you prepared for the journey?”
“I am prepared to sacrifice my daughter,” Halimuyak replied.
“Your son, Granddaughter, your son.”
Halimuyak took her place at the stern while the basket lay at the centre. She took the paddle and rowed downstream, towards the sea.
Mangroves lined the side of the river. Fishes peering above the water’s surface, birds nesting upon the branches of the mangroves, and animals drinking at the banks took notice of the boat, baby, and woman. The morning sun blessed the sleeping baby. The sea breeze brought the scent of salt.
Halimuyak stared ahead when the line of mangroves ended and the river gave way to the sea. Every morning, as the tide receded, an islet appeared. She dreaded the sight of the empty island.
The baby woke when Halimuyak pulled the boat on the black shore of the islet. The bear fur served as their shield from the sun’s increasing heat. She fed the baby with her breast milk. The mother and son connection touched her heart. Her soul shed tears for her baby boy.
Halimuyak only had time until the high tide, when the sea would turn the islet into her son’s watery grave. The sun had hidden behind the accumulating nimbus clouds when Halimuyak woke up from her nap. Her son slept with her nipple still in his mouth. She noticed the sea had submerged half of the islet.
An approaching storm agitated the waves, hastening the rise of the sea. Lightning flashed from the horizon followed by a murmur of thunder that startled the baby boy in his sleep. Halimuyak wrapped her baby in the bear fur and placed him inside the basket. The goodbye kiss she gave him tasted bitter, for sacrificing her son to the sea sent a pain to her spirit greater than the physical pain she felt while giving birth.
Halimuyak placed the basket at the centre of the islet. Time held the fate of her son. The sea rose. The grasp of its waves clawed closer and closer at her baby. She had stepped inside the boat and was prepared to row back to her tribe when she noticed a speck drifting across the surface of the sea. It grew in size until she saw the image of a boat and a man rowing toward the islet. She hopped out of the boat, her steps breaking the water’s surface and sending up splashes. She lifted the basket before a wave took her baby to his death. The islet lay inches below the sea’s surface once more.
Halimuyak kept the boat anchored. She and her baby boy waited for the boat and the man.
“Praise Amang Kalupaan, for a woman waits here,” the man said.
“The islet is gone,” Halimuyak replied.
“Yes, but you are still here. And I see that the baby is still alive.”
“I saved him when I saw your boat approaching. Would you consider a trade?”
“Yes, no matter how unfair it seems.”
“Unfair? I gave birth to a healthy son. He’ll be a worthy man.” Tears fell from Halimuyak’s eyes. Her voice trembled, and she held her son in a protective embrace.
“I know. I just find it unfair that one boy would replace two girls.” The man took two babies from the big basket lying in his boat.
“Yes, the Living Soil gave me one root crop, but I found two children in it. My happiness would have been complete if my tribe did not dictate that I trade them.”
“So you are going to trade both instead of leaving one here to die?”
“I am still their father. I watched over their crop day and night making sure no predator or mischief of fairies and nature would prevent them from seeing the world outside. We water the living with our own blood, and I can assure you that I feel it in my veins that these children are of my blood.” The man looked down at the babies he carried in each arm. Halimuyak saw in his face despair and longing for his daughters, emotions she thought only mothers could show upon losing their child.
“They will need to get used to a woman’s milk,” the man continued. “We harvest milk from animals, but I think its taste differs much from what comes out of your body.”
The man glanced at Halimuyak’s breast. She felt the need to hide her nipples.
“Forgive my curiosity. So, should we trade?”
“Will this violate the equal trade of the treaty? Will you demand something more in the future if we pursue this?” Halimuyak prolonged the discussion to give her and the man more time to embrace their own children.
“No. I hope an extra child will not mean an extra burden for you.”
“There is an approaching storm, and our tribe will be looking for us soon.” The man kissed the forehead of his two daughters. Both baby girls acknowledged the kiss with a smile while they slept.
Halimuyak sang a farewell lullaby to her son. They traded. Even with two babies in her arms, Halimuyak still felt jealous of the man who was cradling her own.
“Take good care of him,” Halimuyak said.
“I will take good care of him as if he were my own son, a gift from the Living Soil, a servant of Amang Kalupaan. I only ask the mother in you to treat my daughters well.”
“They are my daughters now, and they will grow as beautiful and as gracious as I am now with the blessing of Punong Ina.”
“Then I am at peace with their future.”
Halimuyak and the man rowed back to their own islands, to their own tribes without any added word. Halimuyak stopped the urge to look back. She looked at her two new daughters and began to dream of the future she would build with them. At the boundary of the river and the sea, Malumanay and Sampagita waited for her.
“We saw the approaching storm,” Sampagita said. “The tide had also risen, and we felt troubled because you hadn’t returned. Did a man trade a baby with you?”
“Yes, he brought twins.”
“He killed one, I suppose,” Malumanay said.
“No, he gave both.”
Halimuyak angled the boat towards her mother and grandmother so they could see her daughters.
“This is a good omen from Punong Ina.” Malumanay raised her head and hands in praise of the goddess. “A plentiful harvest awaits us despite this coming storm. Our future is blessed.”
Halimuyak looked at the smiles of her new sleeping angels and saw the blessed future. She looked across the sea and murmured a prayer to the men’s god to give the same blessing to her son.
Story copyright © 2014 by Recle Etino Vibal
Artwork copyright © 2014 by Luke Spooner
Recle Etino Vibal (born in the Pispis, Maasin, Iloilo, Philippines) spent his childhood and currently lives in Mayondon, Los Baños, Laguna, Philippines. A son of an Ilongga and a Bikolano, he is proudly Filipino. He balances reading, writing, and living, a daily juggling act on a high-tension wire a hundred metres above the ground.
Carrion House a.k.a. Luke Spooner currently lives and works in the South of England. Having recently graduated from the University of Portsmouth with a first-class degree, he is now a full-time illustrator for just about any project that piques his interest. Despite regular forays into children’s books and fairy tales, his true love lies in anything macabre, melancholy, or dark in nature and essence.