“The gods are parched. They need to feed.” His dark eyes wander over her face.
Claire whimpers. She can feel the edge of the dagger brushing the side of her neck – blade awfully cold against her damp skin.
She chokes at the ball of sob curling up in her throat.
Tendrils of icy sweats trickle down her chin.
Down to her jowls…
And resting, finally, at the throbbing hollow in the middle.
And her gut --- churning bitter bile that rises to her chest.
And then the native holds the dagger up in the air. In a bat of an eyelash, she can feel a suave whoosh of the wind kissing her neck. She shuts her eyes and bawls like a banshee. Birds nesting above the tree canopies scatter at the eerie shriek.
I only touched the most beautiful tree in the world and I’m paying my life for it.
Her eyes agape and mouth on the floor, Claire drags her feet towards the tree. It’s a rainbow eucalyptus! She has heard of it before but never expected it to be this majestic up close in person. Dropping her backpack on the carpet of grass, she combs her eyes to this tall tree right in front of her in awe. It really is a rainbow tree – shedding its bark off in bright greens and yellows, and then pale blues, reds, oranges, and purples. She thought it can only grow in the southern islands of the country and not in the Cordilleras.
“Look at you.” Claire strokes its trunk and it feels surprisingly smooth under her touch. Up close, she can see a myriad of pale hues beginning to peel off to sport a multitude of a more vivid spectrum.
She fumbles through her jeans pocket for her phone. She won’t miss any chance to take photos of it. She might never see one again in this lifetime. Realizing her other hand is still touching the tree, she tries to pull it back. Surprisingly, she can’t remove her hand from it no matter how hard she tries! Her chest begins to rise and fall. Pulling herself together, Claire tugs her hand lightly at first, wondering to herself.
How did my hand get stuck to it? Sticky sap drips, maybe? Or is this tree poisonous somehow that it did something to my nervous system?
Something doesn’t add up. She begins to panic. The more she yanks to let go of her hand, the more she can feel the tingling sensation rising from the tip of her fingers up to her knuckle, and then to her wrist. Chest heaving, she lifts her foot and kicks the tree as hard as she can to pull herself back. But when she violently tugs at her hand once more, she can’t move it up to her elbow.
“What sorcery is this?” She gasps.
“The gods are parched. They need to feed.” She jerks at the sound of his voice. Glad to be in the presence of another human being after three hours, she spins to greet him.
But the person is holding a dagger up in the air. Before she could utter a word, he strikes.
She screams. And waits...
Am I dead?
She doesn’t feel anything. Nothing at all except the wobbling of her knees and the heaving of her chest.
Claire opens her eyes to see the native holding a green lifeless snake in his hands! It probably camouflaged on the tree!
“It’s my dagger or this snake’s fangs on your throat.” He chuckles, showing a set of red teeth and gums decayed probably from years of chewing betel nut.
She gasps. “I t-thought…” She throws up on the rocks. All of a sudden, she can move away from the tree!
“You thought I’d kill you?” He snorts and spits red on a spittoon. “We are natives but we are no savages. You watch too many movies in the lowlands.” He tilts his head on one side and looks at her. “Forgive my humor. It keeps falling flat and off lately. My name is Langsaw. I believe we started off on the wrong foot. Let me make up for that.” He takes something out from his handcrafted palm knapsack and shoves a pouch of ground leaves to her nostrils. “That’ll make you feel better.”
Still feeling nauseous down to her knees, she sits on her heels and checks him out closely. Langsaw is barefoot, naked from waist to his bronzed chest – with only a loom-woven G-string to cover his loin and ripping tattoos on his muscular limbs and arms. A boar tooth necklace hangs loosely on his neck and a band of feathers adorned on his head.
“I- I don’t know what happened. I only touched the tree but I couldn’t move my hand away from it. Like I pulled a muscle or something.”
“Sumba.” He snaps.
“S-sumba? Do you mean pixie dwellers?”
Langsaw chuckles. “Our Ina Ginabway can whisper to a tree to turn an intruder immovable for hours. Like a spell.” He carefully skims the tree. “From the looks of it, you didn’t only touch Ayo but peel her patches off from her bark. Typical lowlander. You couldn’t keep your hands off anything for one moment of your life.” He clucks his tongue in disapproval.
Ayo? So the rainbow tree got a name!
She swallows hard the lump in her throat. “I- I was just fascinated.”
“Of course, you were.” Langsaw looks up. “It will be dark soon. You can’t trek the woods in the night. Come along to the village. You will leave in the morning.”
“What is it that you, lowlanders say of us? Ah – beggars sitting atop mountains of gold.”
Masayo, a member of the council of elders, is probing and studying her closely while gingerly chewing on his momma enfolded in a leaf of the betel piper vine, nut chunks handsomely dabbed with lime juice. Deep creases form between his cheek and temple as a strong set of jaws grind side-to-side. She sits among them in a bonfire they call Dap-ayan. On her plate is a pile of salted pork slabs they call etag and smoked president’s fish which are a staple of the upland communities. The latter is the most expensive freshwater fish in the country. She has never tasted one until tonight.
A young lady in a vibrant ethnic garment pours coconut wine to her bamboo goblet. She murmurs her thanks and the lady smiles back.
Masayo waves his hand. “Some of you say we have tails. You mock at our sinewy form and native tongue.” All the other men and women around the bonfire grin at his remark. “We are the proud Tingguians of the Cordilleras. While you so have openly embraced the mestizo ways, we have remained faithful to the things that connect us to the past. Raw. Unadulterated.”
Two young men appear carrying a wild pig tied to a pole.
Humming fills the air as Masayo slowly stands…
Foretelling using a singsong tone…
Chanting their prayers to the cool wind.
Another elder, Bingguan, approaches the pig. He cuts the hog expertly like the knife is an extension of his hand. He pulls out its heart and liver and shakes his head.
“The gods are angry.” Bingguan exclaims.
The chanting stops. The villagers look at her.
“You heard him.” Masayo turns to her. “Our gods are angry. Tell me, lowlander. Who is your God?”
Claire fondles her food. “I’m a Catholic…” She can’t say anything more.
“Then I’ll tell you. You cut a tree and carve it into your idols. And then you starve. Who wouldn’t? You cut your food source and you expect kneeling before it will appease your hunger? And then you poison streams and rivers and buy distilled water instead. Fools. The gods infused themselves to the ground we walk on. You stub their heart when you mine for gold. You suffocate them with your wastes. But with wrath and vengeance, they come in many forms – floods, quakes, plagues. Cleansing all lands.”
Masayo pauses for breath and goes on. “Here, if you cut a tree then plant ten more. Anyone caught soiling our waters will pay it with their life. Many mining companies have come here to exploit our mountains. They talk big with empty promises. But the gods didn’t allow it. And they never will. So tell me, lowlander, why have you come to us?”
Claire blinks her tears away. Tomorrow, she would quit work. I never found them, she’d tell her boss. No rainbow tree. No lost village. She can’t destroy these beautiful people. She can’t destroy their dwellings.
No. I never found them.
Claire blinks her tears away. “I was lost in the woods. And you found me.”
Masayo smiles. “Well then, you will be named Ayo, after the earth goddess.”
A strange feeling sweeps over her. It’s a beautiful emotion.
Gongs start to play. Men and women in flimsy clothing, unmindful of the cold, gather around the fire. They flap their hands outward the night sky and stomp their feet side to side in catchy rhythm. She throws her hands up and joins the circle.