“I made your favorite,” Lola announced brightly, bustling about the kitchen. “Sinigang na hipon.” Kit trailed her around the room, surreptitiously peeking into cabinets and shelves as she passed. There was still hardly anything in there: some of the digestive crackers her father had favored, a half-eaten jar of Lily’s peanut butter, odds and ends. The gate guards reported that no one had entered or exited the house, much less the premises.
“Where did you get fresh shrimp?” Kit asked.
The old lady beamed as she set a place at the kitchen counter. “Don’t worry your pretty little head, anak. Just eat! You need more meat on your hips if you and Ramon are going to have children.”
“We’re not planning to have kids right away,” Kit said, and promptly bit her tongue. Somehow she kept chatting with the woman as if everything were perfectly normal, when she had really come to set things straight. “So... my father must have talked to you about me a lot, then?”
“Oh, yes, all the time,” Lola Basyang answered. “’Marikit is getting high marks in school’, ‘Marikit has a new young man’, ‘Marikit was promoted at work’. He was always very proud.”
“Really? I didn’t think he approved of me working in the magazine business,” Kit said, trying to subtly catch the woman in a misstep.
“Well, of course, he would have preferred you to continue the family tradition,” Lola Basyang agreed, inexplicably herding Kit to a seat at the kitchen counter.
“What family tradition? My grandparents ran a restaurant chain--you think this house was built with money from anthropology? It’s not exactly a money-making line of work.”
“And why do you think people flocked to their first restaurant?” the woman asked. “To hear your Lolo’s stories. He knew them from the old days, the old ways.” She had managed to maneuver Kit into one of the seats facing the counter, and was now scooping rice from a bowl onto Kit’s plate. “From me,” Lola continued, with an air of satisfaction.
“Wait, you’re trying to tell me you’ve been with the family since Lolo was young?” Kit asked, sure that she had stumbled onto a winning argument at last. “That’s impossible. I lived in this house for, what, twenty, twenty-one years? And I never laid eyes on you until last week.”
“That’s because you weren’t ready to see me then,” the old woman told her serenely. “It is often unpleasant for people to see things they are not meant to see. I know something about this.”
“What are you talking about?” Kit started to say, but the woman talked right over her.
“Once,” said Lola Basyang, “a man named Magbangal told his wife, ‘My wife, tomorrow I am going to clear our field. I do not want you to come with me--you must stay here at home.’ The next morning he took his ten axes, his bolos, his sharpening stone, and a bamboo tube full of water, and set off for the field alone.”“That’s a depressing story,” Kit commented, her spoon stilled halfway back to her plate. “in the European version--it’s called East of the Sun, West of the Moon--the girl goes after her man and wins him back. I think that’s much more positive.”
“When he reached their field, he cut some wood and made the wood into a bench. He sat down on the bench and told his bolos, ‘You bolos must be sharpened on the stone.’ At once the bolos rose up in the air and began to sharpen themselves on the sharpening stone that he had brought with him.”
“When the bolos were sharp enough to slice a whisper, Magbangal said to his axes, ‘You axes must also be sharpened.’ The ten axes rose up as well and began to sharpen themselves on the stone. When all the sharpening was complete, Magbangal told his implements, ‘Now you bolos must cut the grass, and you axes must cut the trees.’ The axes and bolos set to work swiftly and obediently.”
“At home, Magbangal’s wife was surprised to hear the sound of many trees falling at a very rapid pace. ‘My husband must have found many people to help him,’ she said to herself. ‘I will go and see.’ She had not forgotten what her husband had said to her, so she hid behind a tree near their field--and was surprised to see Magbangal fast asleep on a wooden bench! She was even more surprised to see all the bolos and axes working steadily away with no one to wield them.”
“Suddenly, one of the bolos swung away from the grass and chopped off her husband’s arm. Magbangal immediately jumped up and said, ‘I think someone must be looking at me, for my arm is cut off. If you are watching me, my wife, please show yourself now.’”
“Trembling, Magbangal’s wife stepped out from behind her tree, but she found that her husband was more sorrowful than angry. ‘Now I must go away,’ he told her. ‘It is better for me to return to the sky; and you, my wife, will have to go to the water and become a fish.’”
“So Magbangal’s poor wife was turned into a fish, while her husband went back to the sky and became the constellation known as the dipper, which the Bukidnon call Magbangal. His bolos became the constellation called Malala; his axes, the ten stars known as Ta-on; and his cut-off arm, the constellation Balokau. To this day, the farmers of Bukidnon plot their field work by the positions of these stars, so that they know when to plant, when to harvest, and when to clear the fields.”
“This is this story, not that story. And stories are not meant to always be positive,” the old woman said, with a touch of asperity. “They are meant to be true.”
“And so this is, what,” Kit pressed on, “your way of lecturing me that I should be obedient to my husband?”
“If you take meaning from a tale, it is because that is the meaning that you choose to see,” Lola Basyang pointed out. “Your father believed it meant that truth can be unpleasant, but is best for all in the long run.”
Rolling her eyes, Kit lowered her spoon for another bite of sinigang, only to find that she had consumed the entire dish.
“You ate sinigang and listened to a story?!” Ramon asked unbelievingly, as they lay in bed that night. “Kitten, we agreed that you would go set her straight.”
“I know,” Kit said, trying to sound sorrier than she actually felt, “and I will, okay? It’s not like we’re moving into the house tomorrow.”
“But the carpenters will be starting work,” Ramon pointed out. “We’re getting married in less than seven weeks, Kitten. It’d be nice to have somewhere to live after the honeymoon.”
“Don’t call me Kitten, I’m not your pet,” Kit said absently. “I’ll work on it, okay? Once I’ve figured out how to get Myra to publish the story.”
“The Magbalang story, of course.”
“Kitten,” Ramon said, in that patronizing tone of his. He’s just concerned about me, Kit reminded herself. “You are aware that you work at a women’s lifestyle magazine, right?”
“So?” Kit retorted. “We publish fiction. Why shouldn’t a Filipino lifestyle magazine feature Filipino stories? I just have to make it accessible for our readers, that’s all.”
“Well, you need to fool your editor,” Ramon pronounced. “I do it all the time at work--you have to convince people that what you want is what they wanted in the first place.”
“I don’t want her to do it because I’ve fooled her,” Kit said, annoyed. “I want her to do it because it’s something that should be done.”
“Whatever,” said Ramon, and went back to reading his Asiaweek.
Kit stared at him. He was just trying to be helpful, she told herself. If she stared long enough, she thought, she might be able to see a ghost of the man she had once fallen in love with.