Strength in Fragility 

Anansi wove man

from stardust spun

spider thread

an empty egg sack

waiting for

countless suns

to fill it.

Steel breaks

where Anansi pulls

taunt against gravity

yet each fragile

shimmering thread

remains

holding

solar clusters

as they pulsate

underneath

your brown skin.

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.

The Thin Man and His Rice

Once upon a time there was a thin man who lived on a farm with his twelve brothers and elderly parents. His parents were in their twilight years and knew that they were not long for this earth.

As per tradition, the couple gathered their offspring together around their large bamboo bed. Starting with their youngest son, the family’s patriarch gave out their inheritance.

The 13th son received his father’s staff and his mother’s shawl. The 12th son received his father’s youngest carabao and his mother’s cat. The 11th son received his father’s books and his mother’s lamps. The 10th son received his father’s pots and pans and his mother’s silverware.

This continued until the first born, the thin man. By then, nothing was left to give except for “the farm and your mother’s rice seeds,” said the patriarch.

“You will stay on the farm alone and live here as we did. Grow and prosper as I have, my son. May this land give you 20 healthy sons and a beautiful wife as it has given me.”

The thin man did not speak, but instead raised his father’s hand to his forward.

“Go now, my sons, and rest,” said the mother.

The next day, both elders passed away. The funeral was arranged and within one week, both farmer and wife lay in the ancient cemetery on the hill overlooking the village.

Following the funeral, each of the 12 brothers left with their inheritance and with one word of advice for their oldest brother:

“Give and receive as Father and Mother did. Give up on your bad habit.”

The bad habit in question was his stingy nature. The thin man was not generous to himself or others, hence his thin form and emaciated chest. Despite his family’s prosperity,  he never ate more than was necessary. Now, without his brothers they feared he would never eat.

However, he thanked them for their concern and, as the last brother left, he let out a sigh.

“Finally,” he thought, “No one to nag at me.”

Just as the elders wished, each son prospered in his chosen field of interests and the farm flourish. However, despite producing the most rice out of any farmer on the island, the thin man grew thinner and thinner.

With each visit from his brothers, the thin man wasted away, until he was just skin and bones. Yet, despite his brothers worries and fear, he looked happier than ever. The thin man rejoiced in how productive his farm had become and he prided himself on his own frugality.

The farm continued to produce bumper crop after bumper crop, which in turn attracted local mice. Fat black mice began to raid the thin man’s storage and swam in his rice paddies. Enraged, the thin man began to set traps for the mice and scanned his field with a scythe, hunting for more. He cooked the pests outside his house on a fire, hoping the smell of roasted meat would scare others away.

Three moons have passed before his 13th brother came to visit. As the brother walked through the fields of rice, he noticed the decaying remains of mice scattered here and there in cages or decapitated by traps. By the time he reached the thin man, the 13th brother had vomited his breakfast. The smell of mice feces and rotted meat was too much for the young man.

“Kuya,” he said, opening his family’s door, “KUYA! What has happened to the farm?”

“Huh,” said the thin man as he turned to his brother, “Mice, Raul, mice! They have come to take my treasure. So I had to do away with them. Look.”

He held by a bundle of dead mice in his bony hands. The thin man had tied ten mice by their tails with hemp rope.

“I will scare them off with this for sure,” said the thin man.

“Kuya,” Raul said, “No, STOP! The mice are not the problem, Kuya.” Raul held his brother’s arm. “You have too much rice here. I passed a dozen or so mountains of harvested rice just sitting there. Sell the rice and be done with the mice, Kuya, please!”

The thin man stroked his chin while studying the dirt caked on his foot. He click his tongue twice. “You have a point, Raul. I will go to market tomorrow and sell as much as I can carry with the old carabao.”

“Yes, yes!” said Raul, “And I will help you.”

The next day, as promised, the thin man and his brother left for the market with a mountain of rice piled high onto the family’s old cart. At the sight of the rice, many villagers cheered. Their farms had not been as prosperous as the thin man’s and they grew hungry and thin with each passing day. Families by the dozen began flocking towards the cart and shouting, “SELL, SELL, SELL, GIVE, GIVE, GIVE!”

Raul quickly found an open spot in the marketplace and spread out a large blanket.

“How much should charge the people,” he asked the thin man.

The thin man’s eyes glimmered as he looked at the mountain of rice.

“No less than 9000 pesos, Raul,” said the thin man, still staring at the mountain.

“9000 pesos!” Raul laughed, “No, Kuya, I meant per pound? Cup?”

“9000 pesos per cup,” the thin man said, not looking at his brother.

“Kuya,” Raul touched his shoulder, “No one here has that kind of money. 10 pesos is pushing it but 9000 is impossible.”

The thin man looked at his brother, “9000, and that is all, Raul.”

Both brothers sat down and turned family by family away. Before the day was half way done, the crowd became agitated as news of the price of rice spread. Eventually, the village elder were called and brought to the thin man and Raul.

The elder approached the thin man.

“Is it true that you are charging 9000 pesos for a cup of rice?” said the elder.

“Yes, po,” said the thin man.

“Anak,” the elder said, “As you can see the village is poor. Every farm but yours has failed this harvest. I know you and your family. Your parents taught you and your brothers to be generous.”

“Yes, but if I give for free now, what will I get in return later? How can I use you are not hording your money somewhere else, po?” said the thin man, “I will not be tricked out of my wealth.”

“If you will not give freely to the village that fed you, then will you sell at a lower price?” said the elder.

“9000 is as low as I will go,” said the thin man.

The two men stared at each other for a while. The sun extracted a thick bead of sweat from the elder’s brow.

“So be it,” the elder turned to the crowd, “live this man to his fate.”

The crowd dispersed and left the two brothers alone.

Raul and the thin man walked silently to the farm. Raul did not look at his brother. Instead, he packed his things and left without a word. The thin man took no notice.

“Fools,” he thought, “It is about supply and demand, the higher the demand the greater the price for the supply.” He click his tongue.

As he started a fire in his stove, he heard a large thud coming from the barn, where he stored his rice seed.

“Mice.”

He took up his scythe and walked into the barn. The thin man flicked on the lights. The old carabao was eating his hay. The tools still hung on the walls. The bags of rice seed seemed undisturbed. There was only one thing amiss; a small trail of uncooked white rice lead behind the larger bags of seed.

The thin man crept to the seed bag and looked behind it to find a cowering small boy.

“They grow vermin larger than I remember,” said the thin man.

“Please, po,” said the boy, “I only wanted a handful of rice for my sister and I.”

“A vermin and a thief, huh,” said the thin man, “May God have mercy on your soul.”

With that the thin man swung his scythe, missing the boy and striking a bag of seed. The boy darted between the thin man’s legs and ran out of the barn, screaming. It had begun to rain outside and the boy’s feet slipped in a puddle.

The barn door swung open as the thin man screamed after the boy, “Come back here, thief!”

The boy ran behind of the dozen mountains of rice scattered around the field.

“Come out little mouse,” said the thin man, as he stalked around each rice pile.

The boy’s nose began to itch and he was about to sneeze when a hand covered his mouth.

It was Raul. He had come back after he heard a scream. Raul placed his finger to his mouth and motioned the boy to stay.

He came out from behind the rice and faced his brother. “Kuya, what is the meaning of this?”

“Ah! Raul! Good. Have you seen a little thief? He stole some rice from me.”

“Kuya, he is just a boy. What is one bit of rice to you?” The boy came out and hung onto Raul.

“YOU!” shouted the thin man. He raised his scythe to cut down the boy and Raul. Raul ducked and shielded the boy with his body as the earth began to shake.

The earthquake collapsed a mountain of rice onto the thin man and drowned his cries underneath the roar of moving earth.

As the quake subsided, the rain stopped. Raul dug into the rice for the thin man.

He found him, dead, suffocated by rice.

After the funeral, the remaining thirteen brothers decided Raul should keep the farm. Under him, the farm and village prospered. As for the young boy, Raul adopted him and his sister and they lived happily ever after.

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.