The Girl in the Shade

There was once a girl who had many names. She lived in a very old place called a village. Naturally, she would be affronted if someone suggested that she was as old. Truth be told, she had lived in this place for a long time. She was not the kind to measure time, however. It could be so tedious only the stone had the patience and the disposition for it. So anyone who wished to know of her age would have to be content with the fact that she had lived then and there for as long as she could remember.

Still, if she would look at the well yonder, that one that was so shiny and pretty a palm could not help but bend to peek in perpetual curiosity, she was sure she looked like a flower bud. She always giggled at this thought. She would tell the reflection, “Mmm, my name is Pik,” and she would be pleased because the girl looking back was fresh like the early summer with the faintest hint of rose in her cheek. And dare she say that she had the exuberance of the sun rising in the eastern crest?

She has heard of others like her with hair of lilac, purple, and violet; of gold, saffron, and corn. But she was content with hers. It was blue-black and it cascaded on her shoulders like a velvety night, a beautiful contrast to her skin that had the shade of a mother’s milk.

One very early morning found Pik still abed and such particular morning would have concluded that she was having a fitful sleep for she was pawing the air and twitching this way and that. This assumption was, however, mistaken for Pik was, in fact, having a grand time chasing a ball of twine in her dream. In it, she was ablaze, sauntering in old Iroy’s field gathering sun rays. Then she was suddenly sprinting, hot in pursuit of a bouncy, clever red twine. It nearly outfoxed her. She would have been saddled by an incredible consternation and a hint of tantrum the entire day had she not caught its tail, pounced on it and bask on its colored tangle with glee. Her constitution thus invigorated, Pik woke with palpable warmth and a firm promise to smile throughout the day.

Her bed was made of beaten straw and pineapple silk held together by pieces of warm hugs she stole during her periodic jaunts at the village. She reluctantly eased off of it for the morning was cold even though it was the end of what the village folk called Pebbiwarie, a month of some sort. Summer was already afoot, you see.

She issued a mighty yawn and noticed her little crystals half buried in the packed earth trembling tremulously. They were naturally unhappy as was expected. One was clearly indignant, with a glow to show for it, but she ignored them pointedly. She was tuning them with the earth’s warmth. She resisted placing them back to their favorite places on the shelf. She masked her regret because she did miss their songs.

Instead, she turned to a table near the window, which held a huge droplet of water. She thanked the waving taro leaf for depositing it there with the grace she could not help but envy. She put her face on the blob of liquid and it was so cool she declared it delicious. She stuck out her tongue and sipped some for herself and she purred in contentment. It was as good as its promise.

Pik changed into a clean shift and began counting in her mind the things that she would like to do for the day ahead. It took her a thousand and fifty-seven heartbeats to decide that she did not like an order to her tasks and would, hereafter, proceed one step at a time.

She daintily paused to collect her bearing because thinking such deep thoughts was a taxing exertion. Pik then sailed out, walking never on- but parallel with the village folk’s path. This particular path she chose for the day, which she greeted politely as a matter of course, began earnestly on an ancient stone promontory. The path then circled Mr. Jesse’s grove where his ducks took their usual respite when the sun bore on the world at noon, sending the most weathered organisms scampering to the safety of their homes.

It was here that she spied a shiny thing jutting out of the grass. It was a tin can with a sad brownish paper peeling off of it. Pik sat to contemplate it. In her mind, she pondered and asked questions beginning with Suppose, Mayhap, Should, Would, and Could. She did not notice a snail presiding over her ruminations with an increasing sense of impatience for the simple reason that Pik was blocking her way. Realizing that the girl will not be moving anytime soon, the long-suffering mollusk ambled on with a dramatic sigh, mounting the tin can, and successfully navigating the sharp edges of its upturned lid with certainty and confidence that already bordered on smugness.

In the wake of the snail’s self-possession, Pik snatched a sudden burst of inspiration. She touched the tin and was pleased to find it cold but harmless. It started to bristle with potential. She traced the sticky trail left by the snail only to recoil for the sharp edge bit her finger. She gasped when she saw a small bead of blood welling on a fingertip. She was heartbroken because of the pain and a little, too, for the inspiration who fled without a glance back. She, therefore, left the tin to its own devices. She did gain some vague sense of foreboding, which she promptly slipped into her little bag.

The incident, however, did not dampen her spirit for long because the abrupt drop to the land ahead revealed a sea of fat rice stalks, pregnant with grain. The fields were not yet golden at this time but she could smell the teeming grass about to bloom. Pik could picture in her mind the music, dancing, joy, and most importantly the prayers that will come with the harvest.

Framing the fields were the hills that filled her heart with fondness. Its color was so green she decided to taste it and saved some for later. She closed her eyes with pleasure and the air bubbled only to fizzle after she tasted something off.  If she angled her head ever so slightly, her nose caught the breeze and it carried a faintly burnt texture of something that Pik could not quite put a finger on. It was like something coming undone. She scanned the hills and finally found a wisp of smoke on one of its slopes. It was too faint and far to merit her attention, so she moved on.

Now, the fields before her were broken by a long, winding stream and this was where she was headed and she quivered like a bow in anticipation.

In the stream, there were so many things. There were the lotus flowers who were so full of themselves but she tolerated them because, in bloom, they were, indeed, perfect as rain. There were fishes, too, and clams and everything in between. There were shrimps that sometimes attract those very graceful flock of birds Pik had a passing acquaintance with. And, of course, there was the water itself, which flowed in varying states of emotions. Her most favorite was that part held back by the huge boulders placed there by the farmers. There was an unmistakable resoluteness in the way it dived in one confident splash. She could not fault it for thinking that it was a waterfall. The sound of it even made her heart skip a bit. Later in the afternoon, she knew she would be drawn to the lower tributary where the water mellowed; gliding ever so slowly that looking at it could calm one’s tired soul.

Momentarily, she played with the fishes, never mind that they could only muster a limited array of facial expressions. It was certainly disconcerting to guess if they were pleased, annoyed, or playful if they only had one blank stare to show for each. The shrimps were often twitchy so she left them to their own affairs. The clams, she gave a wide berth and this she also did in the case of the frogs with their often confused and sometimes offensive opinions.

True, she would have been bored with the fishes if not for the fact that they knew every nook and cranny of the waters and they excelled in those gossip bubbles that kept her entertained for hours on end. Today, they amused her for the most part except for some disturbing news about a malady that has afflicted a family of mirapina that frequented the shallow spot beneath the smith’s workshop.

No wonder gray Sela did not show up, which was a pity because Pik brought her two tiny cups. They could have lounged around in their favorite spot and enjoyed some fine ginger brew.

A throng of algae sighed a collective hello but Pik only waved back perfunctorily. Her eyes were hunting the muddy depths for the shy eels. Like the snakes, they harbored their little secrets, hooding their eyes just so. It is for this reason that they came off a little snobbish to strangers. They were so few, however, that she actively sought them out to give them a cheer whenever she could. They had an appetite for a few vermin that kept the water clean. A sad thought came to her mind but she filed it away in her bag, which I forgot was made of tanned dragonfly hide.

Pik closed her eyes and searched for the hum in the wind. She then asked it to dive into the water where it made a series of faint tingling ripples. Her mind rode it as far as the wooden stake that marked Mr. Asyo’s side of the stream. Unfortunately, she found nothing. The eels, it seemed, were gone, which was strange because they lived along this bank.

After a while, Pik found herself troubled, and rightly so because the eels had been investigating the unusual growth of the water lilies, which were now covering an area near the bridge, extending its shadows wider and deeper. Those living under it were already muttering about the lack of sun and she had, indeed, noted a paleness to the Tabagwans, which had a number of frogs pointing and cackling. It would have been amusing for they have been dark for as long as she could remember. But the aberration made them listless, with their wits scattered about. It was not a good thing for their absent-mindedness made them stumble into the walkways, hurting everyone – including themselves – in the process.

Thus, Pik decided to hunt for the eels and hoped their inquiry yielded something productive. She found a trail offered by freshly disturbed ferns. It was so faint, she judged it was light as an afterthought. It was, however, wet with a hint of lemony presence that suggested fear bordering on desperation. The trail led Pik to a flower so yellow even a bee would find it too forward for its own good. It directed her to the glen close to the village. Unfortunately, things went a bit downhill from there. This place held myriads of things that tickled Pik’s senses, sending her chasing a series of digressions. A smell, for instance, got her dashing about a marshy patch. But it promptly dissipated by the time she caught up to it.

Pik also allowed herself time to briefly admire the labor of a young man weeding his field. She knew that he was up so early like her so she left two boiled bananas, with a generous helping of encouragement and mirth. She would have left a slab of roasted meat on a fine plate and candied pili tower but the boiled fruit was all the man could think about with his rumbling stomach. She was not such a busybody to stop and ask or simply impose her own ideas as if she knew better.

Later on, there was also an abrupt sound, a cross between a clap and an ale so sharp, that got her startled out of her skin. She had to coax herself back with fluffy reassurances that would put even the clouds to shame. This affair, however, had the calming effect that brought Pik back to her task. Fortunately, the eel’s trail was now easy to pick up with its thickening gray shade. It finally led Pik to a groove, which alongside an ancient balete tree, sheltered a well, which was older than her.              

So here’s the thing. A well is sacred because it is a gift, the earth’s offering of itself. There were several types of wells, really. There were the dumb wells, which did not do anything except be pretty and lay languid like a gleaming sheet. This could only serve as an excellent-looking glass like the one Pik kept for herself. There were those that nourished one’s sense of well-being and the place she lived had three, one near the stream and a twin well at the edge of the village.

There were wells, however, that were so deep it could carry a tale, a message, and even a wish. This well she was headed to was of this kind. There she could ask the earth all the little things in her mind and the few big ones also. It occurred to her that the eels probably went there to ask for advice, too.

As she alighted from the floating dandelion seed – since at this point she was already tired from all her dashing about – she was surprised to find a farmer, resting on the well’s edge. She was further taken aback when he stripped to his waist and began washing his dirty arms and face directly on the well’s mouth. He did not bother with the dipper, which to its credit has dropped all subtlety and has been madly shaking its handle trying to catch the man’s attention.

The man, heedless of the world around him, got up upon completing his ablutions. He then dropped to a squat and turned his attention to a net that held coiled luminous things. There were movements that were so very small it reminded Pik of flickers of desperate whispers. With heart beating fast, she squinted and her suspicion was confirmed.

There in that despicable bundle, five dying eels were stuffed, strung together by their gills. She could tell that one immediately died because it was pierced directly through its eyes. She could tell that the others were clutching for dear life but could only manage periodic twitches more from pain than conscious protests.

Pik was so shocked she barely registered the movement of the man raising a gleaming bolo. It struck the eels repeatedly, cutting them into several pieces. Each sickening crunch was like a thorn driven deep into her soul.

Pik heard the eels’ heartbeats and saw their life forces ebb through her tears. She saw figments of their happiness, curiosity, and wisdom evaporating, then carried off by the wind.

It is true that no one could begrudge man an eel for his table. But to take everything was beyond what Pik’s mind could comprehend. The five eels, including the little hatchling that would emerge from Sila’s womb at the end of the season were all the stream would ever have.

The man shouldered his sow, tucked his bloody net in an anahaw leaf, and left all his discarded things behind, free to be carried by the agitated water, now flowing back to the well.

He left with no word for the world’s troubles. Not a whiff of thanks for the things he has taken.

Thus, Pik opened her bag, for that was all she could do. It held many things but her hands immediately found a set of substances that were attuned to the heat of her fury. She took out a bit of malice, a pinch of the malady, and uttered a spell to galvanize them. The air briefly shimmered into a dark swarm, and she directed it towards the despicable creature and it caught up to him in no time. When he gets home, Pik thought with satisfaction, his face would have swollen twice its size and it would serve him right.