The River Stone Heart Of Maria Dela Rosa
by Kate Aton-Osias
(A Fairy Tale)
MARIA DELA ROSA lost her heart on a hot, humid afternoon when a beautiful man stopped by the fields where she worked and asked for directions. She had never been easily flustered, despite her older sisters' natural inclination to twitter over boys visiting from neighboring farms. But with the man smiling at her just so, Maria found herself blushing and stammering as she struggled against the overwhelming desire to taste the stranger's lips. Maria would later blame her unusual behavior on the afternoon sun—its amber light falling at just the right angle emphasized the smoothness of the stranger's skin, revealed the subtle highlights of his hair, exaggerated the length of his fingers, hinted at a parade of promises in his eyes, and even imbued the tone of his voice with delicious mystery—all of which had Maria shivering in the heat of anticipation. But not even the most impressive collection of justifications, excuses and demurrals could alter the terrible reality: in spite of her meticulous precautions, her heart had vanished, condemning her to face the consequences of its loss.
Maria had been showered with warnings and admonitions concerning the safekeeping of her heart long before its tragic desertion. Her childhood had been saturated with horrific tales of losing one's heart that culminated in an especially long session that had taken place on her twenty-first birthday three weeks earlier, when her family had finally entrusted her with its custody. After that grand celebration, each member of her family had underscored the importance of that heady responsibility. A well cared-for heart, they said, would grace her with an immeasurable amount of happiness; a neglected heart would curse her with nothing but sorrow; while a misplaced, lost, or stolen heart would bring her and her family despair, disgrace and dishonor. Maria listened with earnest intensity before reciting the well rehearsed responses that her older sisters had taught her.
To her father, who had been obsessed with explaining how tikbalangs could take on the form of attractive men who would use trickery to take her heart, Maria had said 'I will take care, father, to keep my heart away from strangers'. To her mother, who had taken pains to describe how hearts were extremely fragile and as such, were susceptible to shattering with the slightest hint of negligence, Maria had said 'I will take care, mother, to keep my heart from breaking'. To her sisters, who repeated a popular jeremiad Maria had heard since childhood - that of somebody's cousin's sister's friend who had had her heart stolen, as a result of which had then been cursed to live the rest of her life as a barren, ugly and unloved spinster—Maria had said 'I will take care, sisters, to keep my heart away from thieves'. Thus Maria was deemed worthy and was finally allowed to hold her heart in her hands. As she tested its weight, Maria began to question its reputed importance. Unlike the hearts of her five older sisters, which resembled jagged gems refracting light into fiery prisms, hers had the semblance of an ordinary river stone, smooth surfaced and cool to the touch, unspectacular in its black-speckled grayness. Worse, her heart seemed incapable of speech, a talent that all the hearts of her kin possessed. Her father's heart, a large whinstone full of secret caverns and dark chasms, would sometimes divulge the secrets of his wild youth; her mother's heart, a crimson jewel that flared vibrant red on certain nights and dimmed a deep alizarin on others, would whisper a litany of promises made, broken and fulfilled; even her older sisters' hearts would sometimes carelessly articulate explicitly detailed carnal longings, much to the embarrassment of their unwitting audience. But despite all the inconvenience that heartspeech might have brought, Maria would still have given anything to hear something from her own heart. Instead it remained mercilessly silent and disappointingly ordinary, prompting her to suspect that it reveled in the taste of her dissatisfaction.
Despite all her misgivings, Maria expended considerable effort in protecting her heart from all potential dangers. She'd had the grayish black stone bound securely to her waist with layers of rope and resigned herself to enduring its wearisome presence at all times. But as Maria fought for words and coherence in the grip of her tantalizing moment of weakness on that hot, humid afternoon, her unremarkable heart silently slipped from its corded coils and quietly disappeared. It was only when Maria began to feel the first unfamiliar stirrings of emptiness that she realized what had transpired. And though she searched for her heart in all the fields she'd worked and all the paths she'd taken with single-minded thoroughness, she knew with desperate certainty that her heart had found its way into the stranger's custody and that she would soon have to embark on a quest to retrieve it.
MARIA HAD BEEN traveling for fourteen days, searching for a den of tikbalangs rumored to be hidden somewhere in the convoluted mesh of marshlands and fields east of her barrio, when she spied the young man seated on a large boulder. Her first reaction was one of relief—the robust health and general cleanliness of the young man suggested the presence of a nearby settlement, or at the very least, a source of food and water. After she'd left the last farm that had given her shelter over a week ago, she'd been sleeping outdoors and the experience had not been encouraging—the fierce rains that had battered her and the unrelenting heat that had baked her had accelerated the spoilage of her comestibles. More than once, she'd considered supplementing her dwindling supplies by hunting down some of the wild birds that plagued the plains she traveled through, but her father's balisong would always grow too heavy to wield with any sort of proficiency, and the opportunity would pass. The sight of the young man raised Maria's hopes that her journey would not suffer the unpleasant and anticlimactic end of starving to death in the uninhabited wilds, and her revitalized stride carried her swiftly toward him.
As she neared the young man, Maria slowed her pace. While no means as beautiful as the damnable tikbalang (as her father had repeatedly called the being who'd stolen her heart), the young man had a look about him as he stared up into the sunset colored sky—a look of willful innocence and wide-eyed wonder—that stirred echoes of attraction in Maria. After concluding, despite her limited experience in such matters, that the young man must also be a tikbalang (of markedly less experience and ability), Maria nonetheless approached him, reminding herself that she had nothing to lose that hadn't already been lost and had everything to gain: food, water, and perhaps some clearer directions to the tikbalang den.
With her traitorous, agitated emotions on a short leash, Maria stopped just within speaking distance of the young man. She cleared her mind, stilled her hands, and respectfully called out, 'Good evening, Kuya.'
The young man did not respond.
Thinking that the difference in altitude may have hampered his hearing, Maria raised her voice and repeated her greeting.
The young man still did not respond.
Feeling annoyed and more than just a little frustrated, Maria stepped closer to the boulder, forcing her to crane her neck just to keep him in view. With her hands on her waist, she shouted in a tone that was anything but polite, 'Good evening, Kuya,' to which the young man finally replied, 'Look!', pointing to the heavens.
Surprised by his sudden command, Maria shifted her gaze and caught a glimpse of white light streaking across the darkening sky before it disappeared beyond the horizon.
'Sometimes they come early,' the young man said, speaking as if they had been engaged in conversation all this time. 'Did you make a wish?'
Forsaking annoyance in lieu of curiosity, Maria admitted she hadn't and, with the bluntness of a woman baked and battered by mercurial weather, wearied by the rigors of weeks of travel, and frustrated by the vague and often contradictory directions she'd received, she asked him what he meant.
The young man (who said his name was Litoy) explained, somewhat patronizingly, that when a star dies and falls from the sky, it grants a boon to one of the witnesses of its death. Almost as an afterthought, Litoy invited her to join him. Maria hesitated only for the briefest of moments and then succumbed to the temptation. Just the thought of her heart coming back to her filled her with such glorious, unbridled joy, that she temporarily forgot her hunger and her fear as she clambered up the boulder with shameless enthusiasm.
Maria repeatedly wished for a hasty reunion with the silent river stone that had once nestled against the curve of her waist, hoping each time to be the fortunate beneficiary of a star's demise, despite being worried at one point that, with the number that were falling, soon none would be left to light up the sky (Litoy had laughed and explained in his annoyingly terse manner that just as stars perished, stars were also born, unseen by mortal eyes.). Since Litoy did little to fill the silence between the pivotal celestial events, Maria found herself explaining what had happened to her, why she had set out on a quest, and what misadventures had bedeviled her in the wilderness—not because Litoy seemed at all interested, but because it felt good to talk and engage in the exercise of putting words to thoughts.
The next day, Litoy proved to her that he had listened to at least a part of her story by taking her to a nearby spring, and then, to a small forest just beyond the point where Maria had first seen him. There he helped her tame her father's balisong, taught her to craft traps from loose branches and vines, instructed her in the art of deciphering the sounds of the forest. Just before sunset, he hurried back to the boulder, saying, in the curt manner she had come to associate with him, that he did not want to miss seeing starfall.
It seemed perfectly natural for Maria to follow him back to the boulder; just as it seemed perfectly natural for her to spend the evening with him—revealing more and more of herself, expressing in greater detail her shame at bringing dishonor to her family, articulating her cowardly apprehensiveness at leaving all she'd known, and confessing the blinding desperation that crept up in moments of solitude when she realized how impossible it was for her to reclaim all that she had lost; and it also seemed perfectly natural for Litoy to continue teaching her the ways of the wild in the days that followed and how she could protect herself from its denizens: from the agile diwatas, argumentative duwendes and mischievous kapres.
By the eighth night, Maria began to dip into her reservoir of childhood tales to fill the interstices of their wish-making rituals. By the twentieth night, she had exhausted all her stories and had begun to inquire about Litoy's past, inferring what she could from his amiably curt responses. By the thirtieth night, the growing silences that appeared to bring Litoy comfort aggravated her simmering impatience. By the thirty-fifth night, Maria made her decision to bid farewell to the young man and his unresponsive stars. She explained her frustration with the dying celestials that refused to heed her numerous pleas, to which Litoy responded in his thin words and quiet manner, 'Mine did. For a while.'
Despite his unexpected response, Maria believed that just as her heart was with the tikbalang she was seeking, Litoy's heart had always been with the stars that plummeted from the heavens each night. So she left, unwilling to stay with someone as empty as she.
On her first few nights away from Litoy, her dreams were filled with the corpses of dead stars.
MARIA WAS ENJOYING a rare reprieve from the rigors of her journey by soaking in the surprisingly warm eddies of a gently flowing mountain river. With childish abandon, she let the heat of the river's sun-kissed waters melt days of soreness from her aching calves. The past week had been a punishing one, but here, in the heart of the wild forest, she felt reasonably confident of her safety, having already earned entry into the mountainous environs by challenging each of the mountain's thirteen diwatas to duels of wit and blade, secured unmolested passage by triumphing over the duwendes in a marathon of riddles, and liberated a generous supply of rations from thieving kapres by winning against them in a nerve-racking game of dice. She knew that her hard-won rest was temporary and that she would have to recover her strength for the next inevitable encounter. Unlike the plains, the forest was overpopulated with all manner of strange beings. Maria would have long abandoned the creature infested path had it not been for the den of tikbalangs reputed to reside on the perilous mountain slopes.
Too soon, she heard the soft, rhythmic crunch of brittle branches and dried leaves, signaling the end of her brief respite. Maria gauged the number of steps it would take her to get her balisong as she slowly turned to see a man standing by the shade of a large tree, staring unabashedly at her.
'You look beautiful,' the man said, his gaze tracing a path from her eyes, to her lips, to her bare shoulders, and below. Belatedly realizing how terribly inadequate the water was in protecting her modesty, Maria crossed her arms over her chest to regain some sense of propriety.
'In my barrio, men don't watch maidens when they're bathing,' she said.
'We're not in your barrio now, are we?' The man laughed at Maria's indignation. 'But I shall not embarrass you further. Come have dinner with me, my cave is just beyond these trees.' Then he left.
Maria listened until his footsteps faded before she stepped out onto the banks of the river. Once clothed, she briefly considered finding another path—the man was arrogant yet attractive, a combination far more treacherous than the paltry magics and petty charms of the beings she had already encountered. But even as she listed all the reasons against accepting his invitation—his unfathomable intentions, his annoying self-assurance, his presumptuous manner—she knew that she would trace his steps back to his cave. Perhaps, Maria thought reasonably, he might know the location of the tikbalang den.
Maria found the cave in a clearing just a few meters from the river. The man (who said his name was Manuel) was roasting wild boar over a fire and when he saw her, he gestured for her to sit beside him. Maria took only a brief pause and a deep breath before acceding to his request.
To Maria's surprise, the rest of the dinner went smoothly. Maria found Manuel entertaining, and, in spite of her misgivings, she could not help but enjoy the witty exchanges and the quick ripostes that served to remind her, not unpleasantly, about her conversations with her sisters and the much narrower world they had known. By the end of the dinner, Maria had recounted her adventurous journey, including comedic episodes that, at the time had seemed far less amusing. Manuel had responded with stories of his own—tales of impossible structures, exotic races, and mad cultures in far-off lands that took Maria's mind out of her own concerns and brought her into a realm so wondrous, so foreign, she could hardly believe they were real.
After the last of the boar had been eaten, Manuel leaned against the side of the cave, a magnificent predator bathed in shadows and firelight.
'I like you,' he began, 'You're not like the people from the siudad.'
Maria felt the balisong on her waist grow warm, and instinctively, her hand moved to its handle.
'Here is my offer: stay with me. With each night that you stay, I'll teach you a secret to help you with your journey. In fact, I will give you two for free now. The first—tikbalangs do not exist.'
It sounded so ridiculous that Maria laughed.
'And the second—I'll stop if you tell me to stop.' Manuel leaned over took the hand that was clutching the balisong tightly and trailed kisses on her palm, flicking his tongue on the sensitive skin between her fingers and Maria forgot what she had been laughing about. 'Will you stay, fair maiden?' he breathed.
Maria opened her lips to reply and found herself consumed by a kiss that was both marvelous and harsh in its intensity, as he explored, tasted and conquered the secret caverns of her mouth. With the last ounce of her will, Maria pulled back and looked at him and it would be this image of Manuel that Maria would take to her deathbed—his body inches away from her, his outline limned in fire, his face obscured by shadows and mystery. And she whispered, 'Yes', allowing herself to be initiated into the deliciously forbidden world of sensation and bare flesh and raw need, of impossible intimacy and breathless yearning that built up the tempo of delirious pleasure until it exploded, expanded and encompassed her entire being with almost unbearable rapture.
On the seventh night, Maria finally heeded the prickling of guilt and with her gathered will, asked Manuel about the den she had been searching for, to which Manuel laughingly repeated his assertion that tikbalangs and their ilk did not exist, before proceeding to impart to her the secret language of pirates. On the eighteenth night, Maria once again forced herself out of the passion-induced stupor and asked Manuel if he'd seen a beautiful man with mysterious eyes, slender fingers and captivating lips passing through, to which Manuel smiled and said he did not, before continuing his tales of tree dwellers, their treetop cities and their forty-three rites of passage. On the twenty-fifth night, Maria allowed herself one last attempt to gain answers relating to her quest, and asked Manuel if he saw a river stone being carried by some person or creature, to which Manuel solemnly replied it was nearly impossible to differentiate one river stone from another, before resuming his description of the various hidden paths and secret roads used by bandits and rebels. On the thirty-first night, Maria decided to surrender herself completely to Manuel's embrace, forsaking everything that had once been important to her—reclaiming her honor, redeeming herself, returning home—for all that he offered, for the emotions he evoked.
On the forty-fifth evening, Manuel confessed the secret that he loved her with a depth that moved mountains, split heavens and parted seas. Maria, regrettably, could not return the sentiment. She repeated the story of her lost heart which had rendered her incapable of love but Manuel only responded with quiet rage, filling their moments that evening not with provocative caresses or engaging discussions, but with uncomfortable silence that served to emphasize his displeasure. Later that night, his lovemaking was brutal, almost cruel, an expression of passion that had no room for affection and tenderness.
On the fifty-third night, Manuel woke her in the middle of her dreamless sleep. Still struggling for lucidity, Maria saw him standing by the mouth of the cave, looking so unbelievably alone in the moonlight. Just before she could reach him, he spoke.
'There was a writer who passed through here, headed for the siudad. He claimed to have a gift for finding pretty gems and unusual stones. He showed them to me, before he left.' Manuel closed his eyes. 'There was a smooth, gray stone in his collection.'
Maria took a step back, surprised by the bitter taste of betrayal. Painful words found their way to her lips; words that asked 'why?' and more importantly, 'why now?'; words that demanded her to give in to an ebullition of accusations. But Maria could not bring herself to say them. Instead, she turned around, packed her belongings and walked past Manuel, past the river, out of the mountain. As she left, Maria thought she heard something crack then shatter over the crunch of dead leaves being crushed beneath her feet.
IT HAD TAKEN her four weeks to get to the siudad. In those same four weeks, she had bargained with bare chested pirates, shared salt with olive skinned tree dwellers, caroused with impassioned rebels and scholarly thieves. But now, standing at the entrance of the city plaza, Maria found herself so overwhelmed by the clash of colors, the clamor of voices and the whirlwind of motion, that it suddenly felt more impossible to find her tikbalang in the small city crammed with people than in the uninhabited wilds.
Summoning her last reserves of determination, Maria flung herself into the tangle of filthy beggars, odorous livestock and sweat-sheened merchants, hoping to find some clue to her quarry's whereabouts.
Late afternoon found her in the marketplace of the siudad, where she walked past wonders—a plethora of strange bottles of various widths and sizes, extravagantly decorated boxes that played tinkling sonatas, a collection of flamboyantly plumed birds crooning haunting melodies inside white cages—the names of which were trumpeted by enthusiastic merchants. She steadfastly ignored all the marvels on sale, intent at carefully piecing together the leads she teased from peddlers and passers-by. Just as her fifth break from her rigorous pursuit threatened to extend into a long despairing surrender, incredibly, miraculously, impossibly, she caught sight of the beautiful stranger she'd been looking for seated on a horse, stopping every so often to ask questions from the people milling around the stalls. In his hand he held a stone that glinted in the warm afternoon sun each time he held it up to his ear. In that same moment when Maria felt the shiver of excited recognition, he ceased his conversation, straightened in his saddle, and swept the crowd around him with his gaze.
She was about to yell for his attention when a strong hand gripped her arm and spun her around to face a ruddy cheeked man rocking unsteadily on his heels. Behind him, five swarthy men stood mere handspans away, ready to do the bidding of the drunkard inching ever closer to her.
'Senorita, I hear you've been searching for a man. How fortunate that you have found me at last,' he said, his breath reeking of sweet wines and expensive cigars.
Unimpressed by his offensive leer and liquor-bought bravado, Maria calmly assessed the man before her—his unstable stance, his faltering stride, his smooth shaking hands were somehow at odds with the appearance and demeanor of his five battle-scarred minions, who cautiously surrounded her.
Outside of the siudad, Maria would not have hesitated to dispatch the drunkard and his men with twelve parrying slashes and six sungkiti cuts from the business end of her balisong. However, remembering Manuel's warning about the siudad's preferential treatment of the ruling elite, which this man clearly belonged to, and its general dislike of outright slaughter in the city streets, no matter how justified, Maria found herself at a loss.
'Maria, what are you doing out so late in the afternoon?' The question came from the tikbalang Maria had spied just a few moments earlier. He had dismounted and now, with cane in hand and a relaxed smile, was walking casually toward her direction.
'Ernesto! I see you have found my Maria!' the tikbalang continued as he swiftly felled the two men on Maria's left with a single sweep of his cane.
'You must allow me to invite you and your wife sometime, to express my gratitude,' he said, still smiling. Then, in a breathtaking flurry of jabs, counterstrikes, feints, strokes, and thrusts the tikbalang dispatched the remaining men with his whirling malacca, leaving them in a tangled heap. Maria found herself impressed, despite her mild annoyance at the tikbalang's presumptuous familiarity.
'Now go home, Ernesto,' said the tikbalang, a quiet authority eclipsing his waning nonchalance as he dislodged the drunk's hold on Maria with a flick of his wrist.
The drunk named Ernesto rubbed his bruised fingers, then shuffled away hastily from Maria, gushing excuses and apologies.
Maria was deciding whether to thank the tikbalang (which seemed inappropriate considering all she had been through because of him), berate him for his interference (since she was certain she would have found a way to handle it herself) or ask him who his teacher was (even she had to concede that the bloodless and efficient means he had used was far more effective than the brutal and violent methods she knew), when the subject of her turbulent thoughts handed something to her. It was a small, gray stone, cracked in certain places, gleaming crystal in others.
'I believe this is yours,' he said as he handed Maria her heart.
Maria was aware that the tikbalang (who said his name was Jose) was saying something long and important involving an apology and an explanation. But she couldn't make herself listen. Instead, her focus was on the river stone in her hands. It felt undeniably hers, and yet it looked curiously unfamiliar; aside from the sprinkling of gleaming stars, there were crevices and cracks, tiny hills and valleys that adorned its previously smooth landscape. But it was hers. And while she was glad that she was finally complete, Maria felt stirrings of disappointment at the rather sedate and polite way her confrontation with her heart's captor was going. Her quest was over, and this was her ending.
And then, Jose said something that caught her attention.
'It spoke of you and your adventures so often, I feel as if I know you.'
Moving as if time had slowed down to a crawl, Maria lifted the stone to her ear, as she had so many times in the past, and listened, bracing herself for the disappointing silence. But then she heard it: her heart's distinctive voice, rhapsodizing, grieving, proclaiming her victories and her losses. It spoke of unheard arguments and lonely quests, of barren plains and cold stars, of forested mountains and crushed brittle leaves. And in that astonishing flash of clarity, Maria realized that all this time she had been the force that had mapped the secret paths of her desire, the complex twists of her happiness, the well worn roads of her pain on her river stone heart.
'Where are you going?' Jose asked.
Maria looked back, surprised that she had begun walking away, so intent was she in listening to the stories her heart wanted to tell. From the small distance, she saw Jose bathed in faded sunlight, standing in a way that reminded her of the first time she caught sight of him in the glare of the afternoon sun several months ago. He was still beautiful—there was no denying that—and his eyes still held the same parade of promises that had captivated her so completely. And yet, she was no longer as enraptured as she once was, and she thought, that just as her heart had changed, so had she.
'I'm going—' Maria started to answer and then stopped. She knew she wanted to go back to her family, but whether that place could still be considered her home, she didn't know. 'I'm going to visit my family. And then—somewhere.'
Jose stared for a moment, his gaze lingering on her with unabashed admiration, and Maria felt the familiar twinges of flustered embarrassment. And then he spoke. 'Would you mind if I accompanied you? My own quest will take me through past your barrio again, it appears.'
Maria smiled, recognizing the beginning of another story.
Story Copyright © 2007 by Kate Aton-Osias. All rights reserved.
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About the author
Kate is an underpaid, overworked auditor in the Philippines who considers writing a cheaper means of retaining her sanity rather than the more expensive alternative of using retail therapy (not that she doesn't indulge herself, from time to time). She likes collecting shoes, stamps and personalized rejection letters from editors. Two of her stories have been published in the Philippines.