Back in the early days, hidden behind the end of the third mountain so that they were able to hide their art, snugly hidden away from the roads built by the Colonizers, very far away from the lofty pyramids of Egypt, and the long roads of Rome, lie a little barrio who were quite content on their own. It was a barrio who learned the art of magic. They did not even call it magic yet at that time. They just recently learned that a certain old and ancient oak, when they took the branches and waved it, could move rocks, and water.
If your feet ever wander that way into those mountains, you will find yourself bewildered. Going through the thickets of that forest would have been fun, but the forest itself plays its own prank to hide itself from any intruder. For the people living in that village did not want to be discovered. Nor disturbed. It was the a small village. And the people there called it Katulog.
So it was that the village lived in peace, With no kings and crusaders to bother them (or prying politicians holding out paper for taxes). And just as so because this village was peculiar.
When they needed to lift something they would not use their hands. No. Not in the manner that we usually do. They waved a straight wooden wood usually crafted from an old enchanted tree. With strings on the core more enchanted than its bark. And with it, they can do great things. They can turn wood into stone. They can do Mighty things. Terrible things.
It was a peaceful village, but like all community, rift and discord will find its way through the smallest of things.
And this time, it was with a newborn baby. It might have been better for this baby if she was born normal just like the rest. Then the villagers would have been good.
But it was not to be. Because it seemed innate that people will loathe anything that is different and they don’t understand.
This girl who was more peculiar than usual. Everybody called her peculiar and mothers covered their children’s eyes when passing by. For it is better to put a thing to its superiority over us.
But deep in the crevice of their hearts we still do not know what they think. Because this girl had a gift. Just like the Diwata forest spirits in the heart of the forest, who laughed and skipped about in the shadows, she could heal all manner of wounds thrown to her. And she was a shapeshifter.
A shapeshifter. She could turn herself into a crow or a bat, or a dog or a cat.
When father was young, he went into the forest, past the vast swamp lake on the east side. Fell trees lay there.
Father came back with the most beautiful being with his hand. But it was not to be. The being he brought from the forest pass over the lake must not become the most beautiful. And so she must be put out of the way. It must be so that she was not one of them. So she would not to be counted as one of the fairest.
And so mother was not one of the Banwaanon Nymphs that lived in the forest swamps. Because only aswangs live there.
And when the mother is different, it must be so, that the child will be different too. The villagers knew because when she came out of this world, she was a child with no blemish. Had she been ugly she must have been forgiven. But not that ugly, because that also is a crime. She must simply be one of them.
But one thing happened that made the villagers hate her even more. One day an itak fell to her hands and made a deep cut. His father immediately tried to bring her to the healer. But whilst they were walking unbenowest to him, the wound was already closing, until not even a scar or trace was seen in her porcelain hands.
She was a different. Just like people outside were afraid of the villagers. Mother said that she was given that gift by the diwatas themselves. She was a precious little thing, and a precious little gift she were. She was called Diwa.
But the villagers held the names in power. Behind her back she was called an Aswang. Because Aswangs were shapeshifters, so all shapeshifters must be aswangs.
One particularly bothersome morning, Diwa chanced to walk to the back forest.
That Diwa should go to explore the forest was absolutely necessary. Nothing would deter her, be it that of the horrifying legends or the fact that the usual people would not. After all, she said to herself, she was not a usual, so she need not follow the usual ways.
She snapped at twigs and stepped on crunchy leaves. She went further until the sun no longer reached the floor and the twigs and leaves were no longer crunchy. Very soon, it had water when she stepped on it.
Then there was a lot of thickets. Leaves that seem were sturdier than walls she had to break into. So wide and thick that it had no mercy. When Diwa went forward there was no ending to its troubles, no matter how she cut it with her wooden oak branch. She was cut and pricked by her going, but she toiled forward.
But after much toil, she finally reached a clearing. In her gaze she found a tree. It was old and big and ancient and there were ivy creeping up everywhere. It was a thick tree made of many smaller ones just like a rope that form itself into an intricate curtain once it fell gracefully to the ground. And tall too. But when she gazed up as far as her eyes could look, hidden beneath its height and folds, lay a simple little cottage.
It was so modest you could not easily spot it with the leaves and branches.
Of course she was a curious little soul. For what was the point, she says, of going inside the forest for adventures if one don’t have enough courage to discover something new. That, she argued, was the whole point of going inside the forest in the first place.
So she went near the tree, slowly, among the shadows and vast cover that it could offer, she was creeping on its walls but anyone would hardly notice anything with all the thick brown vines and big leaves. Up the hut there were no ladders. There was no doors. And no invitation. So high above her head that she could not climb it. But she would not let a house defeat her. So she made the vines stouter. Enough to bear her size. But the vines shrunk and withered instead. She gathered up her the wind with her two arms to swish it big. And all the twigs and fallen branches moved to make a ladder. But as soon as the twigs touched the tree bark it also withered.
“It’s no use, you see,” a voice said.
Diwa looked up to see a little boy on the top of the window.
She put her hands to her hips as a sign of challenge. “Why ever not?”
“See those vines?” he pointed at her failed attempts. “Everything I touch withers.”
“It is not you. It is just the spell on the tower,” said Diwa.
He smiled at her weakly.
“Well, see here, You look like a fine boy,” Diwa addressed him again. “How would it be if you come play with me?”
He looked hopeful for a moment, then his face fell. “You will never be able to reach it up here. This is a tall tower.”
“I surely can. If you let me.”
“There is no door.”
“There surely is, if you show me.”
Unconsciously, he took a closer step towards the window. “Why would I let you?”
“Because we are friends.”
“But you do not even know my name.”
“Tell it to me quickly, then!” she demanded.
He fell silent for a couple of minutes. Diwa ever impatient already tapped her foot to the ground. But she did not leave.
“My name is Nagirim,” he finally said. “Alright,” said Nagirim. “The only thing you can climb into in order to reach up is my hair. I will grow it long so you can climb up.”
And so Diwa climbed up.
What is your name? asks Nagirim.
Father and mother always do puff their chests and raise their chin when they introduced her. And they puff out their chests and raise their chin too. So she did the same. My name, loud and clear she says, is Diwa. I am the daughter of a forest Nymph and my father is a carpenter from the other side of the village. What about you? What is this place?” she asks him.
“This is my cottage. I live here. It was built for me,” to house a dangerous beast. He slouched and kept his head down and was timid. But when he looked up, he noticed more things from his companion. What are you wearing?, he asks.
It is very obvious. I’m wearing a red cape. There’s this festival in the village. This night aling Pepang would pluck from her trees the sweetest Lansones you ever ate. There is no other better Lansones than if you had searched the whole world! And if you were privileged enough to pop one into your mouth, it would just melt.
There is a big campfire where people dance around and get warm. If you could but just see the festival. Your heart would burst.
And suddenly, Nagirim had the desire to see something warm and blazing.
You could come! Diwa’s voice rang like joyful bells around the room.
But Nagirim stopped the ringing. I am sorry Diwa, I can’t go, says the boy.
“I… I can’t tell you,” for Nagirim knew that if his new friend knew his secret, she would never come back again.
She looked around her. Well then, she says stubbornly. She stomped her feet and slumped in a corner. I will stay here too.
Go back to the Village. You are going to miss the festival, pleaded Nagirim.
“What’s wrong with being here?”
He gestured to his room. “There’s nothing here worth feasting your eyes upon.”
Diwa looked at the whole room that was bare, but she looked at Nagirim, then she could not wipe the smile off her face. “You are not telling the truth.”
I am telling the truth, he says.
Then, says Diwa, pushing her chest out and her head up. Tell the truth now. Do you want me to stay here or not?
And Nagirim’s face was pained because he did not know what he wanted. But after a while, he spoke. “I have decided what I want. I want you to see the festival. I want you to see the warm and blazing fire and I want you to dance. I want you to eat all the green mangoes and the sweet lansones, that you say so much about.”
But I want you to see the lights too, says Diwa. Come with me, she holds out her hands to him. I’ll make you believe it. Risk you the night? It is still young. I will show you new and great things.
“There is one condition.” says Remus. “I must not be seen.”
He took her hand, and they ran through the thickets, past the twigs and the branches. The cold air whipped his face and his hair flew reckless behind him. Even through the dim light, Nagirim could smell green and growing things. As his knees caught the new sensations of running, it kept running faster. For the first time in the night, Diwa saw him smile. It was beautiful.
They sneaked back into the village, and Diwa showed him the dragon-wagons. He had a large sumbrero so his face was not seen. They ate green mangos and sweet potatoes as much as they could carry. Nagirim thought that it was good.
When Nagirim finally saw the campfire near the beach, It was already blazing stoutly brightening up the people who danced around it. Everyone was circling around it in an elaborate dance. Hold hands, Step-run to the left, move forward. The ladies glide to the right, find different partners. Clap-clap twirl. Nagirim took the little pleasure of watching them with his eyes. It was such a wonderful thing to behold.
“Come on!” said Diwa, grabbing his hand. Then he found himself in the middle of it. Diwa glided, and he followed suit. Then he found himself being brave and firm in accepting her movements.
Step-step-glide, step-step, clap, then twirl so that he could barely keep up with her feet.
In the confines of his home, he never knew such pleasure existed.
Sky gloomed black. The sun sunk back splashing the sky as red as blood. The moon was no exception. It was as red as a cherry.
A little boy playing in the backyard was suddenly called in a sharp voice. “Pepeng! Come inside!”
Pepeng was loathe to come inside. Tatay was being too hard again. But when he looked upwards towards the moon. His own eyes widened in fear. The moon was gone!
“The bakunawa has eaten the moon again!” It had already been twice this month.
“Yes father!” gathering his trinkets and toys in his camisole shirt, he ran inside the house as fast as his short legs could carry him.
Night without the moon means trouble. Fell spirits will rise above the ground without the light.
And their most formidable enemy will arise from its hiding. The Tikbalang horse demon. It will roam the forest tonight, hungry for something to kill. The Animals become restless. They could forsee their own doom.
“Protect our chickens, before the sun goes down upon us!” Pepeng watched as his older brothers reeled the chickens breathless heave after heave to each other in order to bring it to the shelter of their home.
“-A very huge creature in the forest. A demon. It had claws like a bird and it walked like a man, but it had the face of a horse. And its eyes were big. Big red eyes with slit pupils!”
“We will not believe you again, Pepeng,” laughed everyone. It was almost sun dusk, and for the children of the village, it meant that work was done and it was time. All the children would gather in the sandy part of the center of everyone’s houses, and there will be no end to anything they may want to play. But today, they were still whispering among themselves about the Bakunawa who ate the moon yesterday.
And such were their manner when they saw two people pass among their midst. One was a pretty girl, and behind him, a boy with a big sumbrero.
“I haven’t seen him before,” said one kid behind them.
He is not a son of anybody in the village. Let’s go and follow them.
And so they went and asked Diwa about the strange boy. The boys did draw near, but there was no one else beside Diwa. The boy was gone.
“Nagirim does not exist,” said Diwa when they asked her. “It was myself pretending to be somebody else so I could have a friend.”
Then the children laughed. “Silly Diwa, now has gone mad! It’s all because of the Nymphs enchantment from the nearby land!” then they left her feeling satisfied with themselves.
When they were gone, Nagirim came out. The light had gone out from his eyes. Had Diwa willed it, it would have been the last time she will see Nagirim’s face.
They walked ahead among the rocky paths where less and less village huts were amiss. They went back to the tree tower.
But unaware to both of them was that a boy had followed them from behind.