“All of history–and all stories–eventually collide.
That is how the Great Laon creates new worlds.”
—From an old script written on bamboo, found in Ilog, Negros Island
In the old days, when the last of the encantosand diwatas had yet to abandon our everyday realm–banished first by an invasion of Spanish cafres and duendes, and then by the sheer forgetfulness of a people too fascinated by the pomp and gilded guilt of Christian ritual–there lived a girl named Epefania. She was rather plain-looking but she was capable of the most romantic dreams.
Such was the occupation of her fabled life. There are many versions (some would say chapters) of her tale which incredibly spans centuries, all of them differing greatly in detail and circumstances, but all sharing the same tendency to dramatize her embroidered stories of love found, and eventually, love lost.
In one ancient story, she was the young woman who chided away the sun and the moon and the stars toward the quiet safety of faraway firmaments, where they were not deafened by her endless tales of woe and heartbreak. The world then was a place of mist: the clouds hung low to the ground, and the sun, moon, and stars were all within easy reach–their heat scorching the earth that, in most days, people took to caves and underground crevices to hide from the deathly oppression of the heavenly bodies. Epefania, who had only her heartbreaks to talk about, eventually ran out of willing ears to share her romantic commiserations: in the end, she only had the sun, moon, and stars to turn to for company–until they, too, flew away from her tales, to the dark reaches above, where they found the quiet humming of the cosmos a more suitable residence.
In another story, she was an obscure village nuisance whom most ancient storytellers believed to be an insignificant twit serving no gravity to the epic narrative she figured in; they subsequently purged her name from their regular accounting of the tale, and replaced with the passable mythology of a father-figure. But the earliest surviving strands of the same story spoke of Epefania as the woman whose suffocating love finally drove the Manobo hero Baybayan away into adventure around the world, seven times, where he prospered in his long journey by singing old stories from his ancient land to the peoples of Bharat, the Middle Kingdom of Ch’in, Oyashima, Ur, Egypt, Nubia, Hellas, Vinland, and Mesoamerica. In his travels, Baybayan sang of Lam-ang who was swallowed by the giant fish berkahan, which became the Hebrew story of Jonah and the whale. He sang of the kidnapping of the sea maiden Humitau by Lord Aponi-to-lau, a depraved act which unleashed the wrath of the sea god Tau-mari-u who proceeded to let loose a great deluge on all the land, which also became the story of Noah and the Great Flood. He sang of the virgin birthing of gigantic heroes, which became the Babylonian story of Semiramis and her son Nimrod.
Back in the rugged mountains of Bukidnon, Epefania sang of her love for Baybayan, until she became like the dusk and disappeared into a mango tree.
Somebody once pointed it out to me that if you think hard about these early stories, a young woman and her unwanted heartbreak stories thus created a livable universe out of heavenly chaos; and also spurred the creation of world literature by sending adrift, and armed with old stories, an unwilling participant in her dreams for romance. Heartbreak, it can be said, is the precursor to creation.
In this particular story, which I first heard in Negros as a latter-day sugilanon from tipsy men made loquacious by tuba (a drink for sturdy men) and eager to share their gift of drunken hyperbole, Epefania falls in love with the handsomest boy in town–and almost destroyed the universe.
When the sugilanon begins, she was growing up in Old Tolong, a town in the southern end of the island of Buglas (which would latter be renamed Negros by the conquistadores). The house she lived in was at the very heart of the small town. It was a modest, wooden box on stilts, though it had germelina planks cobbled together in haphazard fashion to make a singular staircase that rose from the powdery dust of the ground to a small landing on one side of the house. Inside the house, everything else was spartan, and rotting: the small bedrooms–partitions, really, separated from each other by cloth–had the musty air of old wood and termites, and the kitchen sink beside the apog–the table of hardened ash that was the repository of all their cooking–threatened to give way from the years of concentrated and constant wetness.
Epefania was born in this house many years earlier to Bebang, who never once screamed, or changed expression, when she delivered the child one night without the usual aid of the mananambal, and with only the nervous ministration of Old Woman Intan, Epefania’s maternal grandmother. Old Woman Intan had hurriedly readied swaddling clothes, a jar of hot water, and a kuling, a cutting instrument with diabolic metal swirls used in the ritual of cutting a newborn’s umbilical cord.
It was also here, some years later, that Bebang, had been “spirited away”–according to the storytellers–by the encanto who lived in the big mango tree which shadowed the old house. Bebang had been a beautiful woman, chinky-eyed and fair, with long, dark, sinuous hair. She had gone to feed the chickens one late afternoon, and though it was a breezeless day, the tree had swooned and stooped towards the young woman. And then she was gone, leaving only her bakya on the ground.
Old Woman Intan was bereft. She cursed all encantosfor their romantic whimsies, and stared with sad eyes at the young Epefania who stood mute before her, absorbing the strange turning of the days. Intan was already a widow in the waning years of life, and Bebang was her only daughter. She looked at Epefania, and thought, What happens to you when I am gone? Who can take care of you?
Some storytellers insist that this point in the narrative marked the first time magic touched Epefania–and one particular version tells of the young girl feeling something surging and growing at the back of her head. Was it an echo? Was it a whisper? Then she realized she was hearing her grandmother’s thoughts. She turned to the old woman, and with a firmness that belied her young years (because it didn’t seem fitting for one so young), said: “I can take care of myself, grandmother. And if need be, there will always be love to watch over me.”
In the story, Epefania was only ten when the encanto had taken her mother. It was her first taste of what abandonment felt like–like bitter gourd left to rot in the hot sun. It unleashed in her a craving for affection so great that it turned her eyes a deeper black, and full of concentrated want. Epefania needed to grasp and hoard whatever caught her fancy. To let go of anything would leave her tasting abandonment yet again.
The small family of the old woman and the young girl managed to survive. They kept mostly to themselves making and selling baye-baye, a local cake delicacy made of sticky rice and coconut pounded to a textured firmness which tasted like honeydew. Their baye-baye was popular in Old Tolong, and kept them from becoming beggars. The secret of Intan’s baye-baye, according to some storytellers, was the dollop of tuba added to the mix before grinding rice and coconut into a paste.
It was part of Epefania’s daily chores to buy the tumbler of oil to light the lamps in their old, dilapidated house in the poblacion. At the end of each day, Old Woman Intan would sit in her wobbly chair beside the open window, the view of nearby banana stalks obscuring the slowly setting sun. And when she felt that the afternoon sun had from the way the shadows fell on the banana leaves, she would call Epefania to her side, hand her three silver coins, and say, “Paning, here are three silver fronds. Hurry up before Tiyay closes, or else we will not have light tonight.” And Epefania would walk to Tiyay’s tiny shop around the next bend, not too far away from the old house.
And during one such errand, something happened that was to change her life forever.
Night always came quickly in Old Tolong, like iron drawn by a magnet. Some storytellers said that the town contained a mysterious force that pulled in everything: the cool air from the top of Cuernos de Negros that eased the unbearable humidity of the endless summers; the friendly winds that kept at bay the threat of the torrential monsoons called the walo-walo(rains that lasted eight days or double that); the puffy clouds that shielded the town from the sheer weight of the sun which threatened to shrivel the food crops to rotting yellow, and the soil to patches of hard cracked earth; and the moon that kept the waves in check, and prevented them from eating up in bits and pieces the town’s sandy beach. The endless exertions of these friendly elements, of course, rendered the town quite habitable.
One day, Epefania went on her regular errand to Tiyay’s store. But the middle-aged woman was not there. In fact, the store was closed. And guarding the door to Tiyay’s small house was a youth of breathtaking beauty: a tall young man with taut muscles that rippled with every movement of his lean frame. His face, while manly and angular, was not harsh or rough; and his skin, though exquisitely tanned, was not coarsened by too much sun, like the boys Epefania knew. There was an innocence to him that struck the young girl with a power that she could not name. It was a force that bordered on the carnal. And for the first time she sensed a tingling in her armpits, in her breasts, in the delta between her legs. She did not realize that, at fifteen, she was ripe as a seasoned mango, ready to be plucked.
For a moment, Epefania could not speak. When she dared to open her mouth, her own voice sounded disembodied. “I need to buy oil from Tiyay,” she mumbled.
“Nanay Tiyay is not here,” the young man said. “She has gone to the next town to consult the rooster that people say can foretell the future.”
“But it is almost night-time, and I need my oil,” she insisted.
“What is your name?”
She was surprised by the question, and suddenly felt shy. “My name? My name is Epefania.”
When he did not say anything else, she thought to ask him something, to gain time while she took in the whole sight of him. “Who are you? I have never seen you around here before.”
“I am Tiyay’s son. I’ve been away for a while, on a journey through the seven kingdoms of the world. People call me Bangbangin.”
“That’s a strange name for a boy.”
“No more strange than Epefania,” he smiled.
She felt her face turning beet red. “I still need my oil,” she said finally. “My grandmother has given me three silver coins so I may fill this small flask. Look, here they are,” and she opened her palms.
The boy hesitated, but when he looked at Epefania’s eyes, he was startled by the deep, unfathomable want in them, and knew it could not be refused. “My… my mother…,” he stammered, “will be sure to reprimand me–but all right, I’ll open her store. Just this once. I certainly do not want you or your grandmother to pass the night in the cloak of darkness.”
“Daghang salamat,” she said, thanking him, and offered him her flask.
Epefania gazed mutely at the young man while he opened the store. She took in the tallness of him, the beads of sweat around his nape, the tension of the muscles in the small of his back. When Bangbangin took the flask from her hands, he could not tell that they were trembling. But when his flesh touched hers, the very air that surrounded them quivered.
The people of Old Tolong would mark that night as the first and only time they would see a (sudden) manifestation of northern lights in the darkening tropical skies: the alien aurora borealis snaked through the night clouds in translucent green and red, and wavered briefly through the atmosphere above the town, descending soon into the trees near Tiyay’s house, disappearing just as quickly as it had appeared.
But neither Bangbangin nor Epefania noticed anything out of the ordinary. He simply filled the flask with a generous helping of oil, and she took it back, offering the boy the three coins, which he in turn refused. Then she hurried down the road back to her house. Before she disappeared in the shadows of the next bend, she looked back at the boy, and knew that her heart wanted him.
Of course, some townspeople took the strange quivering light in the sky as a thing of immense beauty, and went out of their houses to marvel and gaze. Others took it as an omen for coming disaster. Sometimes it pays to be a pessimist. For the light did presage disaster.