Talia's Curse, Part One


-Siargao, 1500s-

Chapter 1- Leave me Here

Do you feel it - the anger of the sea?

Look at it, rising in vengeful bursts: white, untamed, wild. Quick! Look! More is coming! It’s frothing at the mouth and its belly churns like there’s a sickness within it.

 The wind too is powerful. It’s lashing at the sea’s surface, provoking it into a hot temper. Watch it twist my dress, throw my hair back and bend the palm trees to its will.

 You’re afraid? I am, too. The lightning doesn’t help either. Is it just me, or does it look like it’s getting closer with every flash? Oh listen... here comes the thunder.

 It’s OK - you can go!

This is my fate, not yours.

Go on, go!

Leave me here!

And don’t look back.

Chapter 2- Apo

 What choice did I have?

 She understood her duty - her obligation.

We needed to maintain the alliance, and yet she refused.

And for what?

He was nothing, no-one.

And now she is gone.

No, it’s not my fault!

Who am I to disobey the Gods?

I did what I had to.

I know that, and yet I wonder:

Will I ever forgive myself? 

Chapter 3- Talia

 They say that his tribe is Malay -

That they travelled to our shores on their balangays.

Maybe his homeland is unsafe.

Maybe they needed a new beginning.

 

I try not to look but I can’t help it.

I cast my eyes to the ground.

How many seconds until I can glance his way again?

My stomach turns.

 

Another glimpse.

He is turned away from me now -

The light of the fire is dancing on his back.

I look away but then return to him far too soon!

Our eyes meet.

My heart stops.

And we hold each other’s gaze.

 

Chapter 4- A Blood Alliance

How did we meet? I remember it clearly. It was the night of the Sandugo celebrations- the official joining of our tribes. Before everyone arrived, my sisters and I helped mother set up the kamayan feast. You’re familiar with the kamayan, right? A long, communal table covered in banana leaves on which we place rice, fish and fruit. At the side, sizzling to a hot crisp, was the lechon. My stomach growled as I watched father carve it. In the middle of the camp, the fire crackled. My eyes followed its scarlet embers all the way to the sea. Some burnt out within seconds, whilst others melted into the red horizon.

Before the feast, we gathered on the beach- our tribe on one side, and his on the other. Father stepped forwards, as did their chief. He was younger than father, and more slender. Like old friends reuniting after several years apart, the two men smiled at each other, and father held out his hand. In it, there was a small dagger, which he used to cut his left arm. The cut was deep- deep enough to draw blood but not enough to cause real harm. Father then squeezed his blood into a cup of wine and passed it to Datu Ulan, who did the same. Then, both men drank from the cup, and thus the alliance was made. In that moment, we became a family, our tribe and theirs. Friends- allies-one. We cheered and the festivities began.

Where was I?

Oh yes: you want to know when I first noticed him, don’t you? It was later in the evening. Datu Ulan announced that his tribe had prepared a gift for us: a way of saying thank you for the feast. A rectangular spot was marked out on the sand, with a flaming torch placed in each corner. Six men ran out, carrying drums. They set them down and began to play. Everything else happened so fast: four girls emerged carrying two bamboo sticks. They knelt down, one at each end of the bamboo. The Datu appeared and, standing in the middle, he began to dance tinikling! My father, unable to contain his excitement, burst into laughter, and the people gathered in awe. He had learnt our dance! It was a simple yet powerful gesture, one which brought tears to my mother’s eyes. Eventually, when Datu Ulan tired, he stopped, bowed ceremoniously and walked towards father, who embraced him with open arms. I remember feeling my heart swell. Father had always wanted a brother.

Just when I thought the entertainment was finished, the drums began again, reawakening the crowd. That’s when he appeared. He walked out, barefoot on the sand. He wore an orange sarong- burnt orange- and it was tied at the hip with a heavy, golden belt, before falling down to his knees in soft folds. The fabric was plain, apart from the circular pattern which ran along the front crease of the garment. He had beautiful, tanned, skin, and his long, dark hair was tied up, save for a few strays that fell across his right cheek. The drums beat once more and, before moving between the bamboo, he looked out into the crowd. His eyes, so dark that they were almost black, stopped on me. And that was it. That was the moment that everything changed.

Chapter 5- Duty

 “No, father! I cannot. I will not.”

“You can and you will,” replied Apo, pacing towards his daughter. “You will do your duty.”

“Why me?” protested Talia, rising from her chair.

“Because he asked for you. It is a great honour to be requested by a Datu, and we shall not shame him with a refusal. Besides, the match will only strengthen our alliance.”

“But I don’t love him!” Talia exclaimed, her eyes brimming with tears.

“That’s no matter,” Apo said flatly. “Datu Ulan is a fine match. You will grow to love him over time.”

“But I love Aetan and he loves me too. He wants to marry me and…”

Apo interrupted. “Aetan is not a chief. Yes, he is handsome, but he has no title, no land, nothing! He is a farmer, Talia. He cannot provide for you like the Datu can.”

Talia brought her hands to her face and sobbed. “That does not matter to me! None of that matters!”

“My dear Talia,” said Apo softly. “As the daughter of a chief, you don’t have the luxury of marrying for love. You must do your duty and marry Datu Ulan.”

Silenced by the sadness squeezing her heart, Talia made no reply. Somewhere inside, she knew that this was a fight she couldn’t win.

“The future of our tribe depends upon it,” Apo continued. “It’s what our people expect.”

No response.

“Come now, my girl. All will be well. Your mother has already begun the preparations for the wedding. You’ll be happy with Datu Ulan. The two of you will have a good life- you’ll see.”

Apo kissed her head, squeezed her hand and walked towards the door. “All will be well, my daughter,” he assured, offering a half-smile.

Apo left, and Talia surrendered to the grief swelling inside her. Defeated, she slumped to the floor and wept until she had no more tears to cry. From outside, Apo listened and clutched his chest. Hers was not the only heart that was breaking.

Chapter 6- Gone

 “She’s not here!” thundered the Datu, emerging from Talia’s hut.

Apo ran towards him. “What do you mean?” he asked, trying to fight the sick feeling rising in his belly.

“I mean she’s not here,” repeated Datu Ulan. His eyes were wide and lined with veins- like a bull before a fight. “You said she was just getting changed for the evening dance!” He bellowed.

“That’s what she told me,” Apo replied quietly.

One of the Datu’s guards approached. He took a moment to gather his breath and then, shuffling nervously, he said, “Sir, our men have looked everywhere: the beach, the camp, the forest. She’s gone.”

“Gone?” roared the Datu. “Where could she have gone?”

The guard glanced at Apo and then cast his eyes to the ground.

“What is it?” asked Apo reluctantly, already fearing the worst.

“We went to the farm,” stammered the guard.

“And?” pressed the Datu.

“And…Aetan is gone too. They say he left just before the ceremony, and…”

“And what,” the Datu barked, his breathing now short and laboured.

“And…his brothers say that he left to get Talia. I think they’ve…run away together.”

 

Chapter 7- Escape

 It was a valiant effort.

They very nearly escaped.

Nearly.

When the ceremony finished, Datu Ulan returned to his hut to celebrate with the male members of the tribe. As was tradition, he was to be branded with the tribal tattoo- an interlocking symbol which signified love, marriage and status. Fortified with rice wine to dilute the pain, the chief sat next to the fire, glaring at the hot iron rod which glowed amidst the flames. When it was ready, one of the men pulled it from the fire and held it before the Datu. In turn, Datu Ulan took one last swig from his cup and nodded. Gritting his teeth, he turned to the side and pushed his right shoulder forward. When the flaming rod was driven into his flesh, the Datu howled like a wolf under the moon, and the men cheered. And so, for the next two hours, they sat in the chief’s hut, exchanging stories and drinking wine, until the blood on the Datu’s arm had stopped dripping and until the pain was a little less raw.

 For Talia, the scene was entirely different. After the nuptials, she went back to her hut with her mother and sisters:  Her plan was to rest before the evening celebrations, at which she was to perform a dance. At least, that’s what she told them. Talia wasted no time. As soon as they left, she changed her clothes, tied back her hair and grabbed the pre-packed bag from under her bed. Slinging it over her shoulder, she opened the door and peered out, gingerly. Not too far ahead, she the men’s laughter erupted from the Datu’s hut, and out on the beach, a few children played. Looking left and right, she edged the door open just wide enough to squeeze out. Then, checking her surroundings once more, she ran out of the hut and darted into the waiting trees.

Chapter 8- Sunset

 

Aetan was there, as promised.

 The sun was setting. The evening sky, now a blend of orange and navy, began to descend over the palm trees. Like hands, they waved languidly in the breeze, almost welcoming the incoming night.

 “Come, we must go now!” said Aetan, pulling away from her embrace and taking Talia by the hand. “They’ll be looking for us soon.”

 And so, they ran. They looked only forwards, as they both knew there was no going back. For forty minutes, they ran in silence, driven by adrenaline- and fear. Then, suddenly, through the trees, Aetan caught the first glimpse of freedom.

 “Look!” he cried, breathlessly. “I can see the boat! We’re nearly there!”

On the previous night, Aetan had bought an old banka from a fisherman and left it on the other side of the island. Their plan was to take it to Surigao, then from there, board a balangay to the southern islands. Talia saw the boat and her heart quickened. It was so close! So close.

 Just then, there was a rustling in the trees:

Behind.

In front.

At either side.

Talia froze.

She knew.

Chapter 9- Spears

 “What’s wrong?” asked Aetan, looking back at her. “Talia, come on! We have to keep going!”

 But it was already too late.

 Before she could respond, the Datu’s men emerged from the trees. Within seconds, Aetan and Talia were surrounded by spears. They were animals in a trap. Stepping in front of Talia, Aetan reached for his bow, placed an arrow in the middle and drew back the string. Steading his breath, he aimed it at one of the youngest men in the tribe and called out, “Stay back- all of you- or I will let go.”

It was then that the men parted, and the Datu and Apo stepped forward. Datu Ulan’s eyes, burning like flames, bore into Aetan, whilst Apo could look nowhere but the ground.

“Dad,” shrieked Talia, clutching Aetan. “Please don’t do this. All we want is to be together.” She was sobbing now, unable to contain her panic.

“You are my wife!” bellowed the Datu. “You have shamed yourself, your father and your people. And you…” he spat, still glaring at Aetan, “You are a worthless dog.”

Aetan didn’t flinch. Instead, he stood as still as a statue, his eyes fixed and his arrow ready. “If any of you come near me, I will fire,” he stated, flatly. “Do you really want to lose this man, and maybe another?”

The Datu paused for a second and then said flatly, “No. None of my men shall die by your treacherous hand! Put the arrow down, boy, and I will spare the girl.”

“No!” Talia screamed, her arms fastening around Aetan’s body. “He’s lying. Don’t do it, my love!”

“Ha!” roared the Datu. “If you listen to her, then you are more foolish than I thought! You must know that this is an impossible situation. Whether you put down your arrow or not, you will die. You know that, don’t you? So why not save the girl? Why not do the right thing?”

Talia moved in front of Aetan and looked into his eyes. She brought both hands to his face and said, “My love, no! Please don’t do this. You cannot!”

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, his eyes filled with infinite sorrow. Then, he put his hands over hers, kissed her one last time and dropped his bow to the ground.

 

Chapter 10- Enough

 In seconds, Aetan was dragged away.

The men who took him stopped about a meter away from Talia, and she watched as one man pushed him to the ground.

Looking away didn’t help.

Talia heard every blow, every knock, every slam.

She heard the cracking of his bones and the splattering of his blood.

She heard his laboured breaths and his rasping cough.

She heard his body break and fall.

Unable to take it anymore, she ran at the Datu, beating her arms against his chest.

 

“Enough! Please stop this!” she implored.

The Datu looked at her, his eyes black with fury.

She stepped back, clasping her hands together. “Please,” she cried. “I’m begging you!”

 

The Datu raised his arm and hit Talia straight across the face. Propelled by the blow, she wheeled around, and staggered backwards. Her eyes caught the Datu’s, and she saw on his face the same shocked expression that was plastered on hers. Appalled by his own act of violence, the Datu turned and walked away.

Standing in front of his men, Apo fought the urge to go to his daughter.

With every tear she shed, his throat constricted, and with every sob she let out, his chest ached.

His legs shook as he resisted the impulse to advance- to gather her in his arms- to apologise. Yet, he did not move. Not one inch.

Instead, he stood, his mind resolute and his feet rooted to the ground.

Eventually, when he could bare it no longer, he nodded to one of his men and said, “Take her home.”

Talia wailed as she was plucked from the ground.

“Dad,” she managed. “Aetan! Help him, please!”

But Apo dared not look at her, and nor did he respond.

Instead, he faced the guard and said, “One more thing…”

“Yes, sir?”

“When you get to camp, call for the shaman. Tell him to wait for me outside my hut.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Go,” commanded Apo, still averting his gaze.

As Talia was hauled away, she saw the Datu approach Aetan.

Coolly, her husband raised his hand and said, “Enough. Pick him up. Bring him back to camp.”

Two men propped him up. They supported his upper body, whilst his bruised and battered legs dangled to the ground.

“Aetan,” she whispered, willing him to look up.

But his head remained bowed and, as the men dragged him forwards, it lolled from side-to-side like a rag doll.

 

Chapter 11- Let the Gods Decide

 By the time Apo and his men returned, the people were gathered outside the camp. The fire, along with the torches on the beach, were blazing wildly. When Apo saw their crimson flames, he pictured the celebrations that should have been: Talia dancing in her evening dress- the people cheering- and a feast to end all feasts. He shook his head. How had it come to this?

 Just ahead, he saw the guards pause outside of his hut. The Shaman was waiting and, at his raised hand, they released Talia, who rushed into the Shaman’s arms. It was no secret that they had a special bond. Like a doting grandfather, the Shaman had spent countless hours sharing his stories and knowledge with Talia. It was he who’d helped her to understand the beliefs of their tribe: the connection with nature, with the spirits and of course, with the Gods. It was he who’d told her stories of Matanda Mundo (the old world) and of the unearthly creatures who dwell there. He’d taught her which plants make medicine, which bark best fuels the fire, and how to read the tides. For as long as she’d known him, there hadn’t been a problem that he couldn’t solve. And yet, as her arms squeezed tighter around him, she knew that this time, there was nothing he could do to help.

 The Datu approached.

“Shaman,” he bellowed. “Step away from the girl.”

Slowly, the Shaman detached himself from Talia’s embrace. She looked up at him, and he down to her. No words were exchanged. Instead, her eyes spoke of an apology for the shame she has caused her tribe, and for the hurt he would endure in watching her demise. In turn, his eyes soothed her soul, for there was no judgment nor anger within them. There was only regret- regret that he had failed in his duty to protect her.

 “Shaman,” said Apo, advancing. “We seek your advice.”

There was a huddle now: tribesmen, women, guards and the Datu. Everyone hushed as Aetan was brought forward- his bloodied head was still caught in a drunken loll, and his tattered feet scored lines in the sand. Exhausted, the guards freed him from their grasp and watched as his crumpled body slumped to the ground. Wearily, Aetan lifted his head and his eyes found Talia. When she saw him, her knees buckled. The guards caught her and pulled her into the middle of the huddle. The two of them remained there, center-stage.

 Clearing his throat, Apo addressed the Shaman.

“Shaman, you are the eldest and wisest member of our tribe. As such, I come to you now for guidance, for I know not which path to take. As you know, my daughter, Talia, was wed this morning. She made her vows in front of her people, and more importantly, in front of the Gods. Yet, on the eve of her wedding, she has chosen to be with another man. This,” he said, pointing to Aetan, “is he.” There was a gasp amongst the crowds. Solemnly, the Shaman nodded and Apo continued.

 “I come to you now to ask one question: what punishment befits their crimes? The Datu, shamed by their betrayal, insists that death is the only answer. Whilst I am inclined to agree, for I bare his shame too, I am reminded that our tribe has never once spilt the blood of its own people. In the past, we have always found another way.”

 “What other way?” spat the Datu, stepping in front of the Shaman. “Exile? Banishment? Can’t you see, that’s what they want! To be away from here, together. To escape their responsibilities! No, I cannot allow it.” The Datu whipped around now and pointed at Aetan. “This mortal has laughed in the face of the Gods, and so he must die by my sword!”

 “Datu, please,” interrupted Apo. His palms were sweating now, and every breath felt like a struggle. “I share your pain and your anger. Do not think that I stand here in their defense. I do not and will not condone their actions. I state simply that civil bloodshed is not something we should take lightly. Our emotions, however powerful now, will subside with time. Death, on the other hand, is permanent, as will be our regret should we make the wrong choice.”

 Silence. And so, Apo continued. “Shaman,” he pleaded, “what is the right path?”

 The Shaman’s face turned ashen, like a heavy cloud had swept over him, and then lingered.

“Tell me,” pressed Apo, as he watched the colour drain from his friend’s face.

“I fear that I have already been shown the path,” the healer managed. “It came to me in a dream not more than one month ago.”

Apo’s face fell. “The Bakunawa?” he choked.

The Shaman nodded. “I had not made the connection- until now.”

“How can we be sure?”

“I will ask the Gods,” replied the Shaman, with a tiny flicker of hope still lighting the darkness swelling his chest.

 Slowly, the healer bent down and scooped up a handful of sand. Pressing his palms together, he closed his eyes and began whispering inaudibly. With his eyes still closed, he lifted his hands to his face, opened his palms and blew the sand into the air. In wonder, the people watched as the beige grains transformed into a starry mist: it hovered in front of the Shaman and swirled like a galaxy on a star-soaked night. When it began to clear, an image remained. Wispy and faint, it looked almost like a mirage. Standing close by, Apo, the Datu and the Shaman could see it clearly:

 It was Talia.

Standing on the edge of a cliff.

Overlooking the untamed ocean.

Her arms were outstretched and the bracing wind whipped around the bay.

Above her,

The Bakunawa hovered:

Menacing- Godly- Smiling.

Everything else was black.

 Within seconds, the image faded into nothing and the people, silenced by awe, stood completely still. Apo broke the quiet and found himself asking a question to which he already knew the answer.

 “What does it mean?”

 The Shaman could not meet his eyes.

“It means we have angered the Gods and so the Bakunawa will visit us to deliver our punishment.”

The people gasped, and the Shaman continued:

 “No pots, nor pans, nor raucous noises shall rid us of this beast. He will swallow our moon, blacken our land and darken our lives forever, unless…” his voice trailed off.

“Unless what?” asserted the Datu, a little trace of triumph in his voice.

“Unless we surrender the girl.”

 

 

 


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