Book Review of To Love As Aswang

Book Review of To Love As Aswang

On August 1, 2016, my review of To Love As Aswang appeared on the Halo-Halo Review.

To read that review, please click here.

To buy the book, please click here.

I adore this book. I am not saying this because I was asked to. To be honest, I asked to be a reviewer simply because I loved Diwata so much that I could not wait to read the next collection by Reyes.

By the by, I would like to announce that I am now taking book review requests. If there is a book you believe I or anyone should read, please provide a suggestion below. Thank you.

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The Summer of Crows

The Summer of Crows

A thought, brought on by the morning chorus as sung by a neighboring murder.

The summer heat crept into my window, driven by the calls of crows. In a large pine tree a family, a murder, trains new fledglings to feed and fly. I am reminded of a story I learned a long time ago, back when I learned that love and expense were tied into one word: Maganda.

As the story goes, when the world first began, there was no land, only the sea and the sky, and between them was a crow — Black as the space between stars. One day the crow grew tired of flying around. There was no land.

Thinking on the wind, she began to stir up the sea with her wings, until the sea threw its waters against the sky. The sky, in return, tossed thousands of islands into the sea to restrain it. Soon the sea could no longer raise. Instead the sea began to flow back and forth, making a tide that beat to the rhythm of the crow’s wings.

Then the sky spoke.

“Crow, go and land on one of the islands. Build a nest and leave the sea and I in peace!”

As my Nanay told it, from then on the crow lived happily ever after with the other birds on islands between the sea and the sky.

That must have been the first summer of crows.

Tabi Tabi Po

Tabi Tabi Po

My mother had many superstitions that I thought were, for lack of a better word, quirky…

“Don’t cut your nails at night or a relative will die,” she would say when I was first caught with nail clippers at night.

“Jump! Jump 10 times! You will grow taller,” she would say during New Years Eve.

“Stop leaving your bags on the floor! Do you want to be poor?!?” she would often scold.

Despite living in the US for over 30 years, Nanay kept these superstitions closer to her heart than Lola’s old rosary. Yet, none of these seemingly silly beliefs disturbed me more than Duwendes.

I was by the TV, watching one of my favorite childhood shows, Dave the Gnome, when my mother came to get me for dinner.

She clicked her tongue. “Ah, watching the duwende again, Lili?”

“Huh?” I said, still watching the cartoon.

“The cartoon, anak, the cartoon. That is a duwende, yeah? Oh, what do you call them here…”

“David is a gnome, po,” I said.

“nome? Yes, nome. He is white so he is a good duwende,” she said.

There was a commercial break so I turned to Nanay. She looked so matter-of-fact when she spoke, as if this was common knowlwede. As a child, I believed she and other adults understood more about what is real and what isn’t, so her words took me by surprise.

She is teasing me, I thought.

“Nanay gnomes aren’t real…”

“Shhh,” she put her hand over my mouth, “anak, no, duwendes are real! Don’t ever say that, they will be upset,” she let go of my mouth and made the sign of the cross before muttering, “Tabi tabi po.”

I didn’t argue about it then. As I got older I almost forgot about duwendes, until my mother and I moved to the East Bay. I was in 8th grade when we moved into the ranch-style fixer upper across the street from the local high school. The front yard looked manageable, if in deep need of some weeding and a lot of TLC, but the back yard … that yard was a small jungle. Nothing short of a wild fire could put a dent into the chest high grass and thorny black berry bushes.

I stared at the fenced in jungle from behind our living room’s glass doors and whistled.

“Nanay, you have to see this!”

She was in the kitchen, opening the last boxes. “What did you say, Lillian?”

I moved into the kitchen. “The yard, po. It looks like the last owners let it grow out of control. We’ll need a weed wacker…or a cement mixer.”

She stood up and wiped the sweat from her brow. Her gaze shifted from me to the yard and her eyes widen. Nanay walked passed and stared deeply into the yard, searching for movement. She quickly did the sign of the cross and closed the blinds.

“Don’t worried about the yard, Lil,” she said. She held my cheek in her right hand as she spoke. “I’ll take care of everything. Go unpack the boxes in your room.”

“Yes, Nanay,” I said.

As I turned to go, I hear Nanay whisper, “Tabi tabi po.”

My room had two windows: one facing the street and one facing the backyard. I kept both windows open while I unpacked, blinds drawn to let in the summer sun. After the first three boxes, I began to notice a strange sound coming from the boxes closes to the backyard window. It sounded like a tiny feet of a rat scurrying between the moving boxes. I called out to Nanay.

“Nanay! I think we have rats,” I said as I moved to the window. I didn’t have our broom on hand, but I wasn’t looking to scare the poor thing. I just wanted to confirm if it was a rat or a mouse. As I lifted one box off of another, the scurrying sound got louder. The bottom box was labeled MISC, and contained my childhood collection of rocks, feathers, sand in small bottles, and tiny things I gathered from our trips back home to the Philippines.

How did a rodent get into our boxes so quick? We had just moved in today…

The box labeled MISC suddenly shook violently. I fell on my backside, and scooted back as fast as I could. “NANAY!” I screamed.

She was at my door before I finished screaming. In her right hand she was clucking Lola’s rosary and in her left hand she held a broom.

“Behind me, Lil!” she said.

I scampered to my feet, keeping one eye on the shaking box.

Nanay held the rosary out towards the box and began advances forward, as if the rosary was a shield.

“Tabi tabi po. Tabi tabi po. Bari-bari apo ma ka ilabas kami apo,” Nanay said, with each step. She turned her head and nodded to me. I began to chat with her, “tabi tabi po.”

The box shoot violently with each utterance.

“Tabi tabi po, tabi tabi po,” we said in unison. I creeped up close to Nanay as she reached down and touched the box lightly with the broom.

The shaking stopped. Nanay bent down, still whispering, “Tabi tabi po.” Setting the broom to her side, she knelt down and began examining the box. There were no holes or chew marks to be seen, and the tape had not been disturbed. She took her long nails and began removing the table from the outside of the box.

As she opened it, the smell of Manila Bay wafted into the room accompanied by the sound of children laughing and older, familiar voices, speaking in Tagalog. For a moment, I was back in Lola’s house, gobbling up Halo-Halo, as my mother and my aunts gossiped about this and that. I didn’t notice the tears in my eyes until Nanay spoke.

“Lil, come, look.”

Inside the box was a small replica of our families old house in the province. Everything was there, from Lolo’s old broken down car to the old swing hanging off the porch. I gasped and fell to my knees by Nanay. She hug my shoulders and I could see tears cascading down her cheeks.

On far wall of the box, written with my collection of feathers and sand was “Maligayang pagbabalik,” Welcome Home.

Underneath The Old Mango Tree

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On my family’s old farm, there grew an old mango tree. Papa said it was the oldest in the whole barrio. After the monsoons passed, as the sun roasted our thatched roof, and the  rats began sniffing around our fields, golden mangoes would appear in between the leaves of that old tree.

There were four of us kids back then, Kuya Richie, Ate Charity, Baby Papito, and me. After doing our chores, we’d run as fast as we could, from every corner of the farm, to meet at the tree. Ate Charity would wait with Papito in her arms as Richie and I climbed up and grabbed as many mangoes as we could carry. Each one was bright yellow like the sun and bigger than the palms of our hands. Once we found one as big as Baby Papito. We gathered our bounty in our shirts and slide down the tree to share it underneath the wide deep green leaves.

However, Nanay was always worried we’d spoil our dinner,  so we only ate one each before coming in to wash and help with dinner. For some reason, she was always uneasy about us going by the tree. She knew the mangoes were large, fresh, and juicy. But even the allure of the golden fruit could not shake her nerves.

“Raul! Richie! Charity! I told you not to sit underneath that tree!” said our mother as we came in one day.

I placed my share of mangoes onto the table. “But, Nanay, it’s nice and cool down there. And we were only there for a little bit.”

She went up to my head and pinched my ear. “I know how long you were there. I was watching. Now go wash your hands and stay away from that tree!”

We never paid her much mind until the day before Tito Mario left for America.

Tito Mario was Nanay’s big brother and he had landed a construction contract in the United States. To send him off the whole family gathered on our farm, the same farm we had for several generations. Lola came all the way from Manilla to be back home and to send her eldest son off.

Kuya Richie, Ate Charity, and I were the only kids in the family, at the time. Baby Papito was being passed around like a little saint from one aunt to another. So, as the grown-ups were gathered inside preparing the dinner and gossiping about this and that, we three planned to sneak out to the mango tree. Just when we were tip-toeing our way through the house, dodging between legs of aunts, uncles, and cousins, I felt a tight bony hand grab my arm.

“Where are you going, anak?” said Lola.

I turned around.

“Just outside, po,” I said. I tried to free myself from her hands.

“Why not stay and visit, anak? We haven’t seen you since Chirstimas,” she said.

“I’ll come back, po, I promise, I just want to grab some mangoes for Tito Mar,” I said, freeing myself at last.

“From where, Raul? That tree. It is too dark to go near that wicked thing!” she said, almost shouting, “Anak, come back!”

By then I was already outside. Richie was looking at me, annoyed.

“What kept you,” he said.

“Lola…” I replied.

He clicked his tongue before motioning me towards the tree.

Lola was right, it was dark outside, but the light from the house help guide us to the tree. Before that night, we had never dared go out to the mango tree after sunset. Nanay would never have it. But she was too busy to stop us and we were hungry for sun-ripened mangoes — not the bitter store bought ones Tita Margie brought.

When we reached the base of the tree, I noticed mango pits scattered around the ground. I picked one up. It had no meat on it — it was clean all around. I tossed it to Richie and Charity.

“Maybe a wild pig got to the fallen fruit,” said Charity.

“Pigs don’t leave pits this clean,” I said.

“Whatever, let’s just get some fruit and go,” said Richie.

He was already half way up the tree when I started my climb. Once my shirt was half way filled, I heard Charity gasp.

“Ate?” I said. “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” she replied, “I think. I felt something grab my ankle. Please hurry!”

“You’re just imagining it.” said Richie. He winked at me. “Girls, right?”

I giggled and continued harvesting the mangoes.

In minutes we were down on the ground and filling up the crates Ate Charity had brought with her.

“Let’s get inside fast.” said Charity.

Richie and I nodded. We each picked up a crate and started to head back to the house. But, there was a whole in my crate. Mangoes started falling out of it with each step I took. I only noticed because Richie turned around to gloat about how faster he was at climbing the tree than me.

“Hey, slow bro, you are trailing mangoes. Go pick them up!” he said.

I looked behind me. Sure enough, there was a trail of golden fruit right behind me. I sighed, found the hole in the crate, used my shirt to fill it in, and and started picking up each mango.

Charity and Richie were already inside by the time I picked up the last one. I was angry that they left me behind so I kicked the tree and sat down.

“Fine. I’ll just eat this crate all by myself.” I thought.

I began eating the mangoes underneath the tree, taking angry, bitter bites out of the sweet fruit. I three the pit to the ground and tried to reach for another when I realized I could not get up. My shorts were caught on something.

“Just got caught in the roots,” I thought. So, I pulled harder.

However, the harder I pulled, the more stuck I felt. I looked for the root, thinking I could tear it off of me. It was too dark for me to see, so I looked with both hands, near the ground. With my face close to the ground, and my hands to my right side, I found what I thought to be a root.

But roots shouldn’t feel like bony fingers.

I shook that thought away and pulled. The root felt as cold as ice. Pulling it felt as futile as pulling an ox with one hand. But I kept trying, pulling with as much might as I could muster.

That was when I heard a voice, “Mango…”

I stifled a scream. The voice had come directly below me. I don’t know if I was driven by curiosity or by madness but I started digging at the ground directly in front of me, between my legs.
“Mango…” the voice said. I could hear it better with each passing handful of dirt.

Then, I felt my finger nails scrap against something hard and smooth, like porcelain. The light from the house faced me and as a brushed more dirt of the cold surface, I could just make out the outline of an eye socket.

“Mango…” the voice said. As it spoke, a black eye appeared and glared at me from the darkness.

After that, all I remembered was the scream that came out of my mouth of its own accord and the darkness that followed. I woke up surrounded by Nanay, Lola, and a few of my aunts. I tried to speak, but they hushed me and told me to get more rest.

It wasn’t until after I started going to Uni that I remembered that night. Nanay had become more strict about when we could go near the old tree. Papa had placed more soil on top of the ground, around the tree, making a small hill around it. And Lola became more somber.

She was staying at my parents house, her house really, when I came to visit my senior year of Uni. We visited and talked about old days and the future. I had mentioned the mangoes in passing, and how I would brag about how lucky I was for being raised on a farm to my classmates when Lola looked at me with sad eyes.

“No, anak,” she said. “We are not lucky to have the tree. It is our burden.”

I looked at her. The confusion must have been apparent on my face because she then continued. I will make it brief, for the history of my family’s land is long and tied tightly to the history of our island nation. During WWII, Japanese soldiers took control of the town next to our small village. It was only a matter of time before they came to our barrio. The men were already off fighting for our country elsewhere. Only the women were left and our farm stood between the village property and the Japanese soldiers. So my great grandmother and her sisters came up with a plan. They would lure each soldier to the farm, with promises of sweet mango and much more, and murder them. Their plan worked.

The whole unit of soldiers were led to the farm and each drank poisoned mango juice from the hands of my great grandmother. Their bodies were buried underneath a mango tree, as a final sign of victory.

“As the monsoons came and went, more soil would be swept into the rivers and off the bones of those soldiers. That is why your mother and I never wanted you children near that tree.” she said. “Well, one reason, any way.”

She got up, and patted me on the back.

I went outside, shocked, and sat on the steps leading to the yard with the tree. As I sat there, pondering over what Lola just said, I swear I could hear a faint voice whisper,

“Mangoes…”