To the weaver, from the woman who slew Bakunawa
by M Sereno
Begin with the red arterial
clotting balisong in sparrowflight spatter.
Black beside it, yes: take the Maynila night that sheltered my flight, its tender dark, the way it unfolded
dama de noche's soft core to awaken fists full of heat, wet stench of perfume, alleyways gorged
on scavenging tiktik as neon-gleam cars feasted, electric, on the torn edges of a scream. On promises
swallowed by Tondo's eaten children, to surface lamp-red on grit-stamped brow: bata pa man
ay may pagasa. O kaya: habang may buhay– O kaibigang taga-habi, everything is devouring
and being devoured, oh listen, what did they tell you of lanzones, Linggit, inang buwaya;
Do you not hear, will you whisper it into your loom's chambered shell, into sharded hatinggabi?
The rhyme is a chant echoing dust mote to sickle moon sliver, to clouds eaten by monuments
bordering streets like teeth: sheet-metal roofs gnawed to scraps along the Pasig's rotting mouth,
granite mansions gleaming canines in tranquil satisfaction. Lips sun-stitched around cut tongues
how beautifully we wear conquerors' chains, this draped garrote noose we unsee into lightness.
Black and red and we say it is not blood, though we bury our ninuno's gore under our wrists. But now
I will wrap your weaving around me and the pulse will beat in my throat anew – this red,
this black thrumming across exile's ocean. To deal death is to give up memory, but taga-habi,
to cut blood's thread is to save. A traditional pattern so far: we call it life, because
we have not yet been used up. Another day, a grave opening like a crimson flower.
Prick it until it bleeds stars.
Tell me light cannot be devoured.
Here are scales of sawa and bayawak,
to signify unbreaking.
Salamangkera, they call you: weave me taut. I fray, day by day. Thread in the gold
they gouged out of the bellies of mountains, pulled from mines' tongueless mouths,
the earth's throat. O this land I cannot touch, will never touch again. What little
I can thieve back for you I will. Here is metal so soft your thumbs mark it. Press your ear to its pitted skin-
do you hear? Forests dreaming emerald and sun. Nightmares grating stolen names, and yet:
Tulog pa rin si Apo. For this is comfort, refusing to wake to graves. So while spirits sleep
grind dye's pigment fine: here too are bird-snap bones, remnants of fingers
forfeited to storm-throat cracks of sky. The same leaf gilding massacre's borders
in maps glinting with plunder and discovery. How our conquerors mapped our skies,
our bodies, consecrating us with tongue-knot names. Oo. Itong ginto. Itong libingan.
See, it will make your threads weapons, shining daggers stabbing outward with all the splendor
we've dug from ruins: ash-flaked jewels, smashed saints' crowns. Take it back. Take it all.
This is the rare ore lodged in the heart I cut open to survive. This the color of the unnumbered pawns
in empire's game of chess. This the scepter I dream: a queen ruling the kingdom of my body,
brown archipelago of limbs, marked skin, scars. Why is gold pure, because it is veined?
Hammer me these wires, kaibigan; pierce them through the bloodstream of the weft. Spear birdsong
through infant cloth the way nails stud Quiapo's crosses. Whiplash, rising like a hymn, bee-hum
swarming through novenas of the faithful. I have forgotten the words to echo. But the crowds,
the sweat gilding our skin, that fatally gleaming day, we the city's bodies, moving. What did he look like,
that precious Nazarene? That ebony, those riverborn pearls, that bright-stitched cloth–
Babaylan would have known crucifixion, you say.
And yet surpassed it. Hung wide, athirst, I stare up at the sky
to dream the dreams for your weaving. Ngunit ako lamang
ang panaginip dito. Ano ang hahanapin pa?
Taga-habi, kaisa-isa: let us return to the pattern. Run yellow down in streaks,
choose its vengeful child, kaibigan. Silaw: sunlight bruising flood-swallowed streets,
villages storm-wrecked, the wet glisten of next year's famine. How well your magic knows
these brittle skeletons, cages for voices: a woman's madness wailing, wailing, calling: Crispin,
Basilio. That crowd of flowers watching through bright eyes as she crashed to splinters
before the church. The blood echoing their faces, vivid as the poisoned langka
they planted in my body, mangga they ripped out oozing sweetness from my heart.
Syllables of stories slip away from us like stones as skin-stripped hands feed us monsters.
Yellow is for aswangs' claws, the eyes of mambabarang. For Ilang, sprouting towards sacrifice again,
her arms reaching out to become branches heavy with blossom and supplication. For
oil-slick shells in sunset's mirrors: I am shattered, an insect under foot, and am offered
only yellow ribbons to bind my wounds. Lumiliyab ang aking bayan: oo, pa rin.
Ngunit anong silaw ang magniningning mula sa putik? Anong dilaw ang sisilaw
sa kawalan? A serpent swallowed the moon once, heaven's lastborn egg,
and when I killed him his jaws flung the moon back into the night and it was yellow, yellow.
Spotted lanzones, robbed of its poison. Tell me the exchange was worth it. We pay the price for survival
and go on, despite ourselves. Oh call me down by the names no tongue here will pronounce. Call me
singing notes no throat can surrender. How I once held them, closer than lovers: sandata, pansangga.
Yet my hands have lost the grasp of summer's hammers, the pregnant swell of storm–
o for song, for magic, o what magic could return this music–
Is this how aswang are born? So much hunger,
and we have hunted our gods into the abyss. Surely there must be more.
Yesterday dusk was falling: against that plummet, trees' hands raised dark to the sky.
Empty. Ubos na: sinaid, sinimot. Wala nang maibibigay pa.
No, do not give me blue. In exile I subsist on desert nights, pale dust: I can no longer see–
the sea, dagat, alon, isang buong daigdig! In sleep my hair unfurls masses of nets
too blade-gouged for scales, drawing in only shipwrecks, yesterday's refuse,
bloated bodies, ravaged blossoms of blood. I once crammed the sun into my mouth
in my hunger, my parched fury. What would that be but unweaving? We return to the sea, we all,
our corpses sinking to soothe Amanikable's rage, and the currents carry these daily masks away
in rotting testament to the trench of forgetting. Have we not had our fill of storm, drowning while on land?
The world is water, its weight cobalt death crushing our bones drop by steady drop. In the right light
the drowned shine the truest blue. The clouds will eat inangbayan. As the serpent ate the moon,
plunging us all into that star-stolen night. So draw the threads tight, taga-habi. Knot as garrotes kill.
Remember, oh, they did that to our people. Years after wading through salt to shore, steel
to steel: how they anointed us with hoods erasing the sky, mirrors, the last taste of sea.
We do not tell the story, no longer swim its oath-stained tides. Only walk quiet graves
in bronze-shod feet. For rain promises nothing, except to wash away departure. Pain.
After leaving– oh, here I have buried my hands and they do not sprout the blood-fed leaves
of home. Here fruits are caged, fish headless and shorn of their scales, and my eyes thirst
for that brightness that says: yes, you lived. How do you ignite when only cold
resides in your veins? What color will the sky burn after a warrior has eaten its sun?
Do not give me blue. I will no longer know it. Yet how I long for the sea, for its salt on my tongue,
though it may extinguish me, and I cannot unswallow the sun.
What they took from me, what I would give back – oh these weapons
unsheathing, throat bared. Belly ripe for opening. Birth, slicing us all open,
spilling us out into the grief-edged patterns our grandmothers first wove:
o taga-habi, this radiance will split open our graves. Weave on.
Here, now: the colorless thread. Here the knots to finish the weaving. Kaibigan–
if I did not carry this howling loss in my belly I would not speak. I have set my spear aside,
yet still you clutch your loom to your knees, though its frame keens with the song of cutting,
shudders in the heartbeats of crucified inangbayan, invasion driven deeper than foundations
into her earth. How can you still hold it? How can hands carry the weight of three hundred years
–no, more– fingers remembering warp and weft of war, scorched crimson of massacre,
yellowing famine, and like usok and palay, death death death blooming from Maynila's black heart.
We find our graves as soon as we are born, in traitorous tongue and dreams so enslaved
no recompense can unshackle them. Here we are, after gods: I was woven. He unraveled me.
They did, again and again, raising sea-strung empires out of my skulls. Fields ash-sown,
cities helmed in capiz, moonstruck silver. I was vermilion and umber, greener than serpents,
and oh, my sheen was the sheen of fire! Pure as the burning that birthed the earth,
a spear aimed at the heart of all monsters, and now there is only starvation, drowning,
stories of salvation never meant for us, of inherited names: indio, ladrones, carrion, fodder
for kanluran's crowns. We of wound-dark tongue, fingers, heart: the unshining side of the world.
Still will you speak of color? Will you tell me: heto ang ginto at pilak, umuusbong sa paglubog
ng araw. Will you lift your eye to the horizon skyscraper-stabbed before you, its back rippling smoke,
bruise-purple, glinting the gold we have lost? And the light, the light, the light! Will you return
these colors to me? To us, kapatid! Will I look into the eye of the sun again, and not be unmade?
We do not kill gods lightly. My penance, Bakunawa's curse: despite centuries of bone, I live.
We will lose our beloved dead. Tahan na, tahan. We have already lost them.
Weep them into your weaving, knot their spirits unsleeping into the cloth.
Oh all the women I have loved, how we sang together, shattered each other,
and in the end were broken. She who slays the world-eating serpent is only gifted with more slaying,
bounty upon bounty of death, and never freedom. Who would ask for kalayaan, having torn out
her insides for its fire? I have unlearned heat, but I cannot unlearn how morning gleams
over each ray of thread: the color of desire, which is the last and final strength. To want more,
knowing its weight, and yet to go on. We had names for such power. Katatagan. Tapang. Pag-asa.
Tuloy pa rin ang laban. Time has washed so much of it away: the sightless years, the choices
of spear and spine, and now I am only stripped bone. I wanted tapestry, not as a banner
but to cover my nakedness. So let weaving be my archipelago's liberation. Cover me in futures
spun from the defiance that pierces the rubble of dying cities to cry out: narito kami. Oo, pa rin.
After regime, after empire, I will know flesh again, tag-init, alab ng dugo, something more than rain.
Here, take the last of my true fingers, what remains of my art. I have paid my price for survival,
like other kapatid: to swallow brightness as a bayonet through my throat, as cannon shot,
as bullet through desaparecido and Moro, as buntot-pagi through killing wings, and if I can no longer
see goddesses outlined in starry cloud against the sky, at least grant me this: the cloth
wrapping around my scars, for my heart will count it thread by thread. I will wake into hatinggabi
fingers speaking the weaving's speech. Be my skin, hinabing panaginip. Tell me I will live again,
held close by flesh, swallowing water. Say I will swim in the sea. Will say once again, pag-asa,
my throat full, my mouth open to catch the air, under the sun, under the blood-freed moon.
M Sereno is a queer Filipina artist and writer who works in ink, watercolor, poetry, and sometimes prose. Her poems have appeared in Strange Horizons, Stone Telling, Goblin Fruit, Uncanny, and Interfictions. She lives in regional Australia with her partner and two ridiculous Pomeranians. Find her online at @likhain (Twitter) and likhain.net.
Photography: adapted from Lanzones (Lansium domesticum) fruits from the Philippines, by Obsidian Soul.