By M. Sereno
21 December 2015
May isang ibong maganda
ang pangalan ay Adarna,
cun marinig mong magcantá
ang saquít mo'i, guiguinhaua.
—from Ibong Adarna, author unknown
Princess, they say: find her in the garden of bone,
feeding hearts to the soil. Say: she belongs to the dark.
The dark has her. Yes. I am here. Come closer.
I have strung you a ladder of branches to climb
to the teeth of the moon. Come up and I shall sing to you:
chirruping paniki, kuliglig, salagubang beating greeting
in notes of chitin, dark gold. Press soles flat onto granite spine,
rock-choked chest. Climb grasping, clenched fists bleeding
sharp kalamansi onto the rocks of my garden, these bodies
laid open to the bone. The tao with their hearts exposed—
what is left to you but to become stone? Flesh now food
for my dream-eyed waling-waling, violet mouths open
on galaxies of alitaptap. I will not tell you, princess,
do not be afraid. Be afraid, and swallow your fear.
For you I will siphon a new song from my throat
in copper and wet limestone. Come to me closed,
moon-bright. Open to talons gleaming with blood drawn
from entrails massed, sampaguita's sweet swell. Put out
your tongue—heto, katotohanan. Oo, mapait. Bakit ka narito?
Ano ang hinahanap mo?
Halika. Climb higher, though gravity calls
like your own mother. Monsters shall beckon—
you must resist. Push fingers hard into salt, grip kampilan
in silver-sweating palm, panting sulfur: your land's char.
Yet look at you. Spine a drawn bow aimed at my chest,
salvation burning its ember on your brow. Would you
redeem stone corpses for flesh, surrender my garden
to tao's hands, tie me to you, a feathered talisman of life?
What is the weight of Adarna's meat on your kingdom's scales?
Anak ng tao, consuming only delays being consumed:
hunger comes for us all, its smile the blazing sun. As men did,
burning in need to possess glory, body, what was
not theirs to claim. See: they stand here still.
Sit with me, princess. Not dawn yet, sawa coiling forests
deep and green around our feet, and still so much to feast on.
I will trade their lives for your close arms, the bright spears
lancing from your eyes. It is not true what they say
about the dark: you know how shadows protect,
shielding flesh uneaten from the teeth of men. So it is
even with monsters. I was born in flame. Out of sun's blood,
a fierce womb burnished gold from when araw meant
radiance and not a father's killing blow. Birthed to hiwaga,
rhythm, burning—and you would have my music, take me back
to warble life into a ruler's limbs, cage me to carol enchantment
over your lands. Suck me dry of all the fruits of song
as one tears meat from bone, inhaling its marrow.
Tao, prinsesa, daughter of dry soil: conquer the thighs
of the earth, surmount the black cheeks of smoke-crowned
volcanoes. But seek not my voice. Grasp not this song.
It will cut off your fingers, shatter your bones:
sharper than slicing through sinew, this storm-sound,
tempest in halimaw's throat, all the fury of sigwa, unos,
bagyo—then the silences of bundok shouldering upward,
their mineral strength. Lindol at alon:
lulunurin ka, lalamunin. Aawit ako at guguho
ang iyong mundo. Turn back, child of ruin.
Princess, this is what they will not say:
song is blood.
Hear now of my mothers. Crouching in my ribcage
of brittle branches, the wind's fingers sign of the women
who sang before the white armies came. Who would say:
halika, halika. Kumain ka na ba? Oh smoke, crackle of fire!
Floating above, clear music, the hum as fingers peeled
eggs into shining wholeness, stripping chicken bones
down to the last small frailty, sifting through rice for root,
stone, soil. Women who buried secret coin in wrinkles,
palms: pain to keep awake. Ways to keep on living
until your back bristles with sharpened spears, and
your veins map everything you endured as bargain for
another breath. To yield, spine bowing to brutal force,
or to die. To resist in each silent stitching
of isip—salita—gawa—all yours. To hide old names
under tongue's fury, dark slivers in your wrists.
To hold on to brown skin: to shed blood for it.
Babae is only another name for a strength
that does not shatter, just as eating is the throat-pulse
of love. We endure our desire: I was burnt up by it,
branded by what I wanted long before
it was lawful for me to know want. Princess, yes—
even with monsters. The tongue your mother lost,
did she swallow it to feed her hunger, or to forfeit
a crimson choking? Bakit ka narito? Sino
ang hinahanap mo? To enter my garden
you have dared rivers' flood-gorged bellies,
buwaya's jaws, swimming on and waiting
for the chance to break the surface, gulp in air.
Only to redeem warriors bulging with a hollow
possession. Is this your desire? It is the tao's way
to trade one life for another, lesser body for greater,
though we know the scales are false. Here, a wound
on your arm; here a deeper one: remembering how
you suffocated in want, how you hid your teeth sinking
into deep sweetness, your nails opening mouths
to redden flesh. Why are you here? Who do you seek?
Not the men drunk on empire lapping at your seas,
nor the false radiance of swords to spite fear. Nor
the choice: to become dry bone. To be swallowed
by it. The truth bitter on your tongue, princess,
and gore rimming your lips indelible.
There is a song that must be sung
to show that it is no punishment
that we survive.
See: the sky lightens, gilds the brows of these
my stone hunters. What gift shall I grant you?
I cannot spare you. None of us are spared.
So my sisters went, the night-tressed aswang.
So my mothers. So now I.
Put out your hand. Halika. We are still here.
Our voices rise meticulous into the air, halimaw
babae gamit ari-arian, like fragrance from crushed
sampaguita. Who taught you not to sing? Do you hear
stone, cracking? Look, the trees awake, reaching
for the infant sun, clawing at its pale yellow egg
before it births immensity. The air thickening
with silver-wreathed planets and unstained stone,
while the dark surrenders to clouds banked in misty gold.
Doom licks at my chin. Princess, you have wars to win,
spellbound men to save, a homecoming weighted
with shattered rock and triumph over monstrous Adarna.
In the distance I can smell the hot reek
of the tao's cages, scorched grass, ashes.
No one will spare us. But know this, anak:
you can swallow drought and bone—not
be consumed in it. Princess, a song
cannot do all things. A song
is a blade is a blossom is
a swallowed sun.
I do not desire to die. Yet
if we must die,
we go into death
Kumain ka na ba? Halika, halika.
Lift your head. Kiss my mouth.
I'll open you up: