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Hero

Hero

Artwork by Mary Grace Jocson

Hero kicked aside his bakya as he rushed barefoot out the door, down the wooden steps and onto the skinny dirt path in the coastal barrio.

“Magiting!” His mother brushed aside the window netting of their hut, calling out to her six-year-old boy.

Hero kept running, propelled by the sight of several neighbor children playing in the square. Except for the mugginess, it was the first dry period in weeks since the rain began, and mothers and lolas shooed the children away to let their homes breathe a while.

“Heer-O!” the boy’s mother tried again, drawing out the vowels of the American version of his name.

Hero stopped and turned around, beads of sweat forming on his upper lip and lining his crew cut. Only tepid sea breezes passed through the center of the village. Another storm was on its way. He fanned his stomach with his hand-me-down shirt, two sizes too big.

“Aiiee! Hero!” his mother repeated, swatting at mosquitos. “Why not ask your friends to play here while your father is away, huh?”

“But Mama!” The boy pointed at the noisy square.

“All right, then…” Mama sighed, watching the final sunray extinguish itself behind the mountain tops. “But stay in the moonlight…if you don’t want to face the mana.”

“Yes, Mama, don’t worry—I have my weapon.” Hero unleashed a short wooden sword, twisted in the belted rope that kept his pants in place. He raised it above his head, then grinned and ran off once again.

The whole village knew stories of the manananggal well enough to shorten the name. At an early age, children learned of the flying woman that splits at the waist, leaving her legs in the jungle while she searches for prey in the barrios.

Hero remembered, as a toddler, laughing when Mama and Papa stretched their hands into wing-shapes. He lunged at the dancing shadows in the lantern light.

“Ah, your name suits you—bravest boy on the island, unafraid of the mana!” his parents praised. Then in a whisper, “Always be good, and she’ll never come for you,” before snuffing out the light.

#

Before the village called its best men to lookout for invaders by way of the West Philippine Sea, Papa carved a sword from beech wood for Hero’s sixth birthday.

“Look Mama, I can fight monsters now!” Hero declared, making stabbing motions with the blunt, smooth-grained weapon.

“Aiiee! Papa, don’t encourage the boy!” Mama protested.

“Now, Mama, he’s not a baby anymore.” Papa sneaked a wink at Hero before speaking again to his wife. “How else will he learn?”

Now at home with their only child, Mama prioritized the hard lesson of being good over being brave. At bedtime, she described terrifying details of the mana—her sharp serrated teeth and pointed tongue, her cunning when stalking victims, her insatiable appetite for human flesh—always with the warning to “be good” as a pre-requisite for avoiding a meeting with the monster. Hero attached himself to his mother’s skirt, until he caught on that being good simply meant doing as you’re told. Don’t talk back to your elders. Say your prayers. Stay inside when it’s dark.

Mama tried her hardest to protect Hero from the night.

“Get away from the window—you’ll get wet!” she’d complain to distract him from stargazing.

Even waking up to use the outhouse was forbidden.

“You’re too small, you might fall in!” she’d claim, placing a bucket by his sleeping mat instead.

Then a break from the rain left Mama with no more excuses. Hero got restless and she gave in.

#

Hero stopped when he reached the barrio square, encircled by huts, except for where it bordered the jungle. The day’s blaring sun had restored the common area. Now, a dozen children chased fireflies under the full moon. From where he stood, it looked like they were trapping the stars.

“Hey, everyone!” Hero called out, waving his sword to steer them his way. One glance at the weapon drew them together with a collective understanding—best to know what to expect, should one be so unlucky to meet the flying monster.

“When she tears in half, blood sprays a mile across the ocean,” one child said.

“Don’t look her in the eyes! Their fire will melt your face,” another said.

Hero chimed in with the more gruesome distinctions, as he gripped the handle of his weapon. “The smell of her hanging guts will make you vomit,” was one. Or, “Her favorite food … is small children,” grabbing the closest kid by the shoulders to elicit shrieks then nervous laughter, winning the evening’s game of mana one-upmanship.

When the children went back to bug-chasing, Hero looked for a new game. In his pocket was a little green ball made from coconut leaves. During the rains, Mama taught him how to weave long strips into a rounded square. It didn’t turn out quite that way, with one corner left untucked, but he was pleased.

Hero looked around the moonlit square for his best friend until he spotted the gray wool cap that rested atop Berto’s head. Even in oppressive heat, Berto wore the hat, a gift from his big brother, who’d left for the naval base in Manila. Hero ran toward where Berto stood along the square’s periphery, the tree line of the jungle just beyond it.

“Hey, look what I made!” Hero pulled his new toy from his pocket. “Catch!” he warned, then threw the little green ball.

“Wh—?” Berto was looking down at his own baggy pockets, the bill of his cap shrouding his forehead. When he looked up, the lopsided blur flew past and the neighbor kids laughed.

“Hero, wait!” Berto yelled back as the ball landed near the trees.

“You were supposed to catch it!” Hero watched the dark green undergrowth swallow his small treasure. He ran to where the moonshine teetered at the square’s edge, stopping abruptly, as if catching himself at the side of a cliff, and whined, “Oh, now it’s lost!”

The giant palm trees blocked the light of the night sky; even the fireflies favored the open air over the thick brush. He’d have stepped forward, but he promised Mama. Instead, he stretched his neck past the moonlight, holding tight for a moment. When a warm breeze snarled through the trees, he settled back on his heels.

“C’mon, let’s go!” Berto motioned with one hand. “We can play sungka at my house,” he added, flinging his arm over Hero’s shoulder.

As Berto steered his friend toward the huts, Hero stiffened his body and looked back at the darkness. He felt a tickling at his toes and looked down to find his ball.

“You came back!” Hero rejoiced, scooping the toy and cradling it in his palm.

“Huh?” Berto widened his eyes at the ball’s return, then turned his attention toward the jungle. He jumped. “Hey, look!”

The leaves began to glow. I stuck my head in the darkness. Now, the mana is coming for me! Hero panicked and reached for his sword.

Then one of the children shouted, “Torches!”

The men were back from the mountains. The children ceased their star-trapping and lined up near the jungle’s border, waiting for the light to get bigger. They all exchanged glances and bobbed their heads to seek familiar faces illuminated by torchlight, but there was no one. Yet something moved in the distance.

“There!” Berto pointed to a stunted palm tree at the tree line.

Hero narrowed his eyes to make out a small animal, its head drooping. Somehow, the light had dimmed, but he nodded to Berto when he saw a dog’s floppy ears and feet. The boys could hear it whimper and pant; it was scared, maybe even hurt.

“It’s just a pup!” Berto squeaked.

From the glee in Berto’s voice, Hero knew his friend had already decided to take the dog home.

“Berto…stay where you are,” Hero warned, his eyes searching for the source of the faint light.

“Hey, something’s wrong with it,” Berto diagnosed.

Hero reached for his friend, who was no longer at his side.

“Berto…don’t go in there!” he called out to the brush, shaking his head as he watched his friend step deliberately toward the animal, away from the cover of the moon.

“It needs my help!” Berto shouted over his shoulder.

In the dim light, Hero could see Berto move closer. The dog mirrored the boy’s steps, filling the space between them.

“Hey, pup, what’s wrong?” Hero heard Berto ask in a high voice. “Come, now…” Berto coaxed, flexing his knobby knees.

Hero kept his eyes on the strangely lit animal that shuffled forward with its head down. Just a few feet in front of it, Berto offered his palm. The dog sniffed the air, then started to raise its head. Berto dropped his hand, bending his head back as the light grew.

Hero wanted to yell for Berto to come back but choked when he saw the dog’s face: flickering orange marbles where eyes should have been, its body drenched in amber hue. The dog stretched its mouth, biting its canines over its lower lip. It drooled and snarled as its face swelled, bulging dark veins underneath its fur throbbing as though they might burst. Then, its body began to shift. Hind legs elongated and stiffened, and its hips arched above the length of its back. As its forequarters heightened, its spine curled between its shoulders. No longer a dog, the beast pushed out its chest and stood on its back feet, towering over the boy, its eyes burning.

Determined to save his friend, Hero drew his sword and leaned forward to lunge into the brush, when his knees locked. Frozen in place he commanded, Berto, run! though barely a squeak escaped his hollow throat. He could see his friend pivot toward the moonlight, but in the dark patches neglected by the sun, Berto slipped. His wool cap flew from his head and landed near the beast. Berto regained his balance and glanced at his beloved cap, sacrificing it to the night. He screamed and peeled across the square through the gathering of terrified children, knocking several aside. Jolted, the children followed suit, racing for the dirt path to their homes. All of them fled, except Hero.

“Mama!” the boy squeaked, darting his eyes around the empty square. Alone, he blinked away tears, contemplating his sword, then raised it and grasped the handle with both hands. The little green ball dropped from his palm and rolled once more toward the brush, stopping near the beast’s claws. Its fiery eyes flashed as it stooped forward, redirecting its glare. Hero watched as its frothy saliva dripped to the ground, coating his coconut leaf ball. He winced at every bark and growl, but his legs were numb, immovable.

The beast vaulted forward, tromping on the cap, but not the ball—the beast’s claws propelling it back onto the square, where it skipped past Hero, forcing him from his stupor. As he turned to flee, he felt the beast’s hot breath and the spray of spittle against his neck, followed by the sound of jaws snapping and catching the collar of his shirt. Always neglecting the buttons, Hero, weapon still in hand, slipped from his sleeves to escape being pierced by fangs.

Then, “Tik! Tik!” A loud screeching noise drew the beast’s attention to the sky. A large bird-like figure swooped down, eclipsing the moon.

Hero sucked in his breath, eyeing the dirt path, when he felt a tug under his arms.

“Huh?!” He jerked his head right and left, expecting the firm hands of his mother coming to his rescue. Something bone-hard supported him instead, pulling him across the square, away from the beast’s reach. Hero swung a shaky sword as his feet hovered inches from the ground, his body somehow gliding toward the huts. Behind and above him, he saw only night.

He looked back at the brush, now yards away. The beast crouched there, its face afire, flames radiating from its sockets, yowling as if in pain. The jungle swelled and darkness surrounded the beast, whose fiery light swiftly faded to black. Then, it was gone, swept back into the trees.

Hero stared out at the emptiness and wondered where the beast had come from, though he’d heard stories of wild dogs that roamed the jungle. Papa said he once saw one pacing along the tree line behind the church. “More like a black leopard than a dog,” he described. Hero knew what he encountered was not that—perhaps a wild animal at first, but then a nightmare.

Hero felt another tug, this time pulling him up.

“Ohhh!” he cried, spinning his head in the darkness and kicking his bare feet, toes pointed toward the ground, as his body drifted higher. He shut his eyes, then opened them when something scraped the arches of his feet. Hero found himself gliding above the nipa grass roofs of the huts, surrounded by night sky. He pointed to his own rooftop and then at the stars—millions dotting the sky beyond the village and above the sea. Well within reach, he strained to touch them, the way he reached for shadows when he was younger.

Hero felt his body shift direction, back toward the square. On the way, he waved to the quiet rooftops beneath him, then extended his arms. He let the fast air chill his bare chest, until he felt himself lightly descend, his feet landing flat on the ground.

The air continued to swoosh steadily behind him, chasing away the humidity the way Mama swept the big anahaw fan up and down the length of his body when the heat became too much. The jungle was at a distance, and Hero felt safe in the shelter of the full moon and amongst the star-like flicker of insects. He stood perfectly still with his head down, his sword-wielding hand relaxed at his side.

A mosquito pricked his ear—even the cool breeze couldn’t keep them away—but rather than a bug, he nipped a fuzzy black feather between his fingers. Hero let go and watched it skip through the air. Then, he turned to meet his rescuer.

Hovering above him was a creature with wings. Hero stared open-mouthed at what could only be the manananggal. Instead of leather from the stories he’d heard, her wings were feathered, glistening in the moonlight, as they fanned the heavy air.

Knees wobbling and legs tingling, Hero raised his sword once more. He took a step, then halted. Except for the beating of her wings, the mana didn’t move.

Hero heeded the villagers’ warning to avoid her eyes, but their glow illuminated her other features—a pointed tongue that dangled like a tree snake several inches from her mouth and long dark hair that flowed to one side, each strand waving like seaweed in the damp air. Hero’s eyes followed the path of rose-violet veins from the base of the mana’s neck down to her long arms, which ended with slender fingers and pili nut-sized claws.

Hero gasped to look at the mana’s severed waist; from it her insides hung. Still gripping his sword, he raised his free hand to pinch his nose, but there was only the scent of metal and earth. He set his hand upon his cheek instead, observing the exposed bone and fleshy tube-like shapes swaying in the breeze, like the wooden chimes above his doorstep. Below that, the mana was free of appendages, nothing anchoring her to the ground.

The mana remained steady, as Hero raised his chin, cupping his hand halfway over his brow, allowing his eyes to find hers. There they were, large and oval, with dark slits at the center, from which golden rays emanated. He thought of black-eyed peas and yellow yolks, and stared directly into them. Though their intensity rivaled the full glow of the moon, his eyeballs stayed intact.

The mana swept her light across the empty square, then softened its brilliance looking down at the boy, rumpling her face as if she had forgotten something. She sucked in her breath, causing her tongue and her midriff organs to retract, then pulled back her wings, which vibrated with sustained flittering to keep her torso afloat. The cool air continued in rapid puffs. She lifted one arm and held out her hand. Sheltered within the curve of her talons was a small green mass.

“My ball!” he squealed.

The mana uncurled her fingers.

As Hero reached up to reclaim his treasure, he let his weapon-wielding hand drop and the sword slip from his grasp. It bounced on its rounded tip, then settled in the damp dirt. He plucked the ball from the mana’s hand and hugged it to his chest, caring little about the saliva strings that still clung to it, as he smoothed its tattered edges from the night’s terror.

The mana shook back her hair and grinned, narrowing her yellow eyes and blinking as if to mimic the flickering stars. A hundred fireflies flew to her side.

“Whoa…” Hero exhaled, eyelids stretched open at the abundance of light where there should have been shadow. His insides fluttered, as if fireflies swarmed his belly rather than the night air. He placed his hand across his middle to calm the feeling. Instead, it surged through his heart and up his throat, until he could taste it, warm light pushing the corners of his mouth into a shining grin.

Hero laughed and leaned in, extending his hand, the ragged ball resting in his palm.

He watched the mana tilt her head and squint at the object. She held up one hand, curving the point of her index finger like a question mark. The needle of her tongue slid across a sharp row of teeth and slipped between her lips.

“Oh! But this belongs to you, isn’t that so?” the mana asked, her speech an entangled birdsong and serpent’s hiss resonating in the open square. “It followed you from the jungle, so I assumed it to be yours.”

Hero gasped, faltering as he listened to the creature speak. While he had heard much about the mana’s appearance, no one had ever given testimony to her voice.

“Yes…I…I mean, it is…” Hero nodded. “You can play with it, if you’d like.”

The mana lengthened her slender arm and gently pinched the ball between her talons, flicking it high in the air before catching it. She balanced the ball upon the arch of her wing where it glimmered in her light—like a tiny replica of the moon, its flaws rounded out by the powdery barbs of her black feathers.

“Ah!” Hero marveled, wiggling his fingertips. They tingled with the desire to reach for his glimmering ball, but he dared not disturb it. Instead, he basked in its glow, a singular globe suspended in its own peculiar orbit. He cocked his head, staring intently at the winged woman, wondering how his parents and all the other villagers could see only the mana’s darkness, when the moon rested over her shoulder.

“Does it hurt?” the boy asked.

“You mean this?” She pointed to her severed torso. “No, not at all. In fact, it’s the best feeling I know—to be free from the weight of it all. But, it’s only for a little while. My legs are always waiting when I return.” She nodded toward the jungle. “When my two halves meet, I can walk and run and bend again, just like you. Though…flying is much more fun. Don’t you agree?”

Hero vigorously nodded, nose pointed at the stars. He softened his face again.

“But, I mean, does it hurt in here,” placing his hand upon his heart. “The way people say you’re a…a…monster?”

The mana scrunched her eyes, making her light spotty, like sunbeams breaking through an overcast sky. She rested the side of one of her talons in the cleft of her chin.

“Oh, now, that’s none of your worry,” she said, slapping the thought away with the wave of her claw. “But, you don’t think I’m a monster. Do you?”

“No, never!” Hero shook his head. “Not even a bit,” he added, his lips slightly pouting to convey his seriousness.

“And I was worried you’d be afraid of me,” she said. “But I should have known better, the way you escaped the beast. You must be the bravest boy on the island!”

Hero’s smile beamed.

The mana floated farther down until she hovered just a foot above the boy’s face, like a big sister or a doting lola. Then she pulled a feather from her wing to tickle the boy’s cheek. Hero giggled and drew in close as the mana bowed. He snatched the feather, standing on his tiptoes to reach her gleaming face. The feather stroked the contour of her cheek and brushed the fold of her chin, catching, for a moment, on the point of her swaying tongue.

Hero then turned the fine feather on himself, tickling his cheeks and ears and neck with it, like a hundred little kisses. This elicited such glee from the mana that she had to cover her mouth to contain it. But Hero could not, tossing his head back in delight. Then she let go too, joy whistling through her keen teeth. Their laughter echoed through the barrio.

When the mana ruffled her feathers, the coconut leaf ball rolled out of the moonlight, down the bone of her wing and onto one side of her hand. She flipped up her thumb to balance the frayed ball on its talon. The ball staggered along the angle of the slender hook, mimicking the anxious climb of a hungry caterpillar, then landed in her palm. Hero clapped his hands, and the mana repeated her trick as their laughter continued, until thunder cracked in the distance.

The mana fell silent. There was a heavy thud—a dark, dreadful sound, like that of the butcher’s stall at the market. The mana’s smile dropped. Her eyes went dim and there was only the moon. Her hands fumbled, the weight of their talons like anchors. Her wings fanned out then folded, pulling the creature face-down to the ground.

“Magiting! Come!”

The boy stared forward, recognizing his mother standing on the other side of the mana’s splayed feathers. He looked down—the creature’s wavy hair curled near his feet—seeing something had hooked the flesh between her wings. It was a bolo knife—curved black steel set in a carved carabao horn—the one Mama used to hack sugar cane. His mother’s fingers, white knuckled, gripped the handle. She pulled out the knife from the creature and slid it under her apron strings.

“Mama!” Hero cried, pointing at the manananggal whose body began to crack and crumble. He felt himself being lifted once again, this time by human arms, thick and clumsy, his mother hoisting him above her shoulder as she turned back toward the skinny path. Hero faced where the mana had lain. He held out his arm and grabbed at the air. Her feathered wings—like a cloak over her torso—turned to dust.

Hero’s mother sped through the square and toward the hut past the end of the path, her hands pasted to her child’s back. When she reached the front steps, she tossed the bloody knife, then loosened her grip on Hero, cradling him before carrying him inside where she laid him upon his sleeping mat.

“Did she hurt you, boy?” she asked, holding his face in her hands.

“No, Ma…ma…she didn’t…she’s not…” Hero pleaded between sobs, as Mama

turned his body this way and that, checking his neck, limbs and stomach for wounds. Finding nothing, she patted the boy’s brow with a wet cloth and wiped away his tears.

“Tsut, tsut. You’re home now,” she whispered and laid beside him, fanning him into slumber. “No more monsters.”

Deep in the night, Hero awoke to lightning flashes followed by rumbling. He carefully rolled from his mother’s arms and searched his pockets. His ball—it had gone missing again. Maybe this time for good. He pulled out the feather, shiny and black, then crept to the big window and pushed back the mosquito net. Looking out onto the square, he could see what remained of the mana: a pile of black ashes, damp and heavy. No breeze to lift the particles in the air.

Hero’s eyes welled. He blinked to keep the barrio square in sight. In the middle of the heap, something glossy shone in the moonlight, not yet eclipsed by dark clouds. He thought he could see the rough edge of a coconut leaf sticking out. When the rain came, Hero held up the feather and swept it against his cheek, brushing his tears aside. Then he laid his head on the windowsill to look up at the sky.

 

 

 

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