The Coming of the Anak-Araw
by Celestine Trinidad
[Art by Benjo Camay]
THE YOUNG GIRL WITH THE BABAYLAN WAS SMALL AND THIN, fragile as glass. If Sari had known then the trouble the child would bring, she might have ignored the summons of the chief priestess, but instead she smiled and said, “Come in.”
The Babaylan dragged the child inside. This disconcerted Sari, but she dared not comment. Instead, she placed a hand on the child’s shoulder. The girl, seemingly unfazed, raised imperious eyes to Sari, and tightened her grip on a long leather sack.
“What’s your name?” Sari asked after a few moments of awkward silence. The child pursed her lips in reply. “Don’t be shy,” Sari prodded her. “I’m here to help you.”
“It’s not that she does not want to speak,” the Babaylan said. “She can’t.”
Sari recoiled from the child. In all her days as a healer, she had encountered illnesses in many forms, but never this. One could not cast spells without a voice, and without spells, how was one to grow crops, catch fish, or talk to the gods and spirits? No one could truly live without a voice.
The Babaylan nodded, as if in agreement with Sari’s unspoken sentiment. The chief priestess looked weary–and old, much, much older than the last time Sari had seen her, which could not have been more than three years ago; her hair was now an immaculate white, without any trace of black or gray, a stark contrast to the dark green robes she wore. “We found her in one of the traders’ boats some days ago,” the old priestess said. “Half-drowned, almost starved to death. We think she came from one of the islands somewhere to the west.”
“But what happened to her?”
“We do not know,” the Babaylan said. “We fed her and nursed her back to health. We thought at first that she only refused to speak, but ….” She shivered, her voice dropping to a whisper. “We fear she is… unclean. Cursed. She was probably cast out from her kingdom.”
“But why bring her to me?” Sari said, her insides suddenly cold. “Could you not have done the purification rites yourselves?”
The Babaylan shook her head. “We tried. We tried everything,” she said. “We performed the ayo-ayo, tried to make a contract with the evil spirits to leave her. She still has not said a word.” The Babaylan wrung her hands. ”Even Bathala seems not to hear us. It has been happening far too often, these days…”
The old woman’s voice trailed off, her expression pensive. She shook herself suddenly, like someone awakening from a dream. “You are the only healer in the island, and we ask for your help, as a last recourse. If you fail—well, we shall have to send her away, lest her illness befall us all.”
Sari turned her gaze to her feet. She knew she should refuse. She should have done so the last time the Babaylan came to see her, asking her to heal one of the priestesses. Sari had accepted, confident in her spells and herbs as she followed the Babaylan down a secret route to the temple’s inner chambers —and in the end, all she had been able to do was watch as the life slowly left the young priestess’ eyes. For a long time, no one could forgive her for the miracle she could not give them.
She did not want that to happen again. She looked up to say no, and in the process met the child’s eyes.
“I will heal this child,” Sari found herself saying.
“Thank you,” the Babaylan said, “for lifting this burden from us.”
Before Sari had time to take back her words, the Babaylan was out of the door. The priestess’ robes flounced behind her as her parting words rang in Sari’s ears.
“May Bathala smile down upon you. If he is still watching.”
THE SPELL FAILED. Again.
Sari fought down her frustration; she had been awake long before the sun rose, and for most of the morning had been occupied preparing herbs for the chanting of the new spell she had composed the night before. The spell, meant to imbue a potion with magic, drew on the latent power the herbs contained, summoning the healer spirits to aid her–but as before, the power she was able to gather seemed weak, strangely diluted. She had kept on all morning, but now she had used up the last of her lagundi leaves, and the idea of having to end yet another morning’s endeavors with no progress to show was disheartening.
Just then there was a knock on the door, and when Sari saw who had come, she threw the door open, beaming.
“Laodnon!” she said. “Just the man I wanted to see.”
The young man looked up at her as he stood by the doorway, twisting his straw hat and satchel in his hands, a peculiar flush on his sun-browned cheeks. There was a small smile on his lips.
“You—you wanted to see me?” Laodnon said.
“You always have such perfect timing,” Sari said as she ushered him inside. “I think I need some more lagundi leaves. The potion I made for Maya still feels weak.”
As she mentioned the child’s name, Maya appeared. The young girl went to Laodnon and embraced him warmly.
Sari smiled, still amazed at the change she had seen in her charge over the past few weeks. The girl had started out cold and aloof, always sitting in one corner of the hut, clutching her leather sack to her heart. All that changed when Sari found her trying to reach for a wet and bedraggled maya bird seeking refuge from the rain under their window sill. Moved to pity, Sari had chanted a drying spell for the maya, and helped care for it; when they released the bird back into the wild, the child smiled at her. It had been sunshine breaking through the storm.
Since then, Sari had felt a growing fondness for the child. As there was no way to discover the girl’s name, Sari decided to name her after the bird she seemed to love so much. Maya had seemed pleased.
“Oh. Leaves,” Laodnon said. “I see.” Sari wondered why he suddenly looked disappointed. “I can get some for you later. And I brought the ulasiman that you asked for.”
Maya sat back down on her chair, took a long metallic cylinder tipped with charcoal from her sack, and spread on the table some sheets Sari used for drying herbs. Art was the child’s passion, albeit one Sari had no interest in—she knew that Maya’s sack contained sheets of old drawings, but Sari had never seen them. It was enough for her to know that when Maya began to scribble on a sheet with the cylinder, eyebrows furrowed, the child was lost in her own world.
“Thank you,” Sari said to Laodnon. “Manong Sinaya can finally stop pestering me. Could you get me some luya too?” When he nodded, she added, “I’m glad your garden is still flourishing, Laodnon! You don’t seem to be experiencing any difficulty with spells.”
Laodnon looked away. “I can manage.”
“Maybe we can try making a new spell together?” Sari asked. “You can call on the plant spirits, while I deal with the healer spirits. Our mothers used to do that all the time, when they needed a more powerful spell.”
“I—I’ll see when I can spare the time. I take it the last spell you were working on still failed?”
“No… well, yes,” Sari said ruefully. “But it’s not just a cure for Maya, it’s—everything.” She swallowed. “I’m glad I can still depend on you. As always.”
Laodnon flushed. He coughed and when he spoke again, his voice was grave. “You are not the only one having difficulty on the island.”
“Then you noticed it too,” Sari said. “Maybe Bathala really has forgotten us.”
Laodnon shook his head. “I don’t know, Sari. But a lot of the people have started to think that way. Even the priestesses.” He looked out the window, westward. “But there is still hope, they say. Not from Bathala, but beings far more powerful.”
Sari turned to him, her cooking forgotten. “It’s not like you to speak blasphemy, Laodnon.”
“No, no,” he said hastily. “I was merely repeating what I heard from Manong Sinaya.”
Sari snorted with ill-disguised scorn. “He’s a storyteller,” she said. “Those were probably just lies spun from his salt-addled mind. He’d say anything for gold.”
“He charged nothing for these tales,” Laodnon said in a suddenly quiet voice. “He spoke of meeting these new gods. The anak-araw, he called them, for they had hair the color of the sun, and skin so white they seemed to shine.” He looked at her, bafflement in his eyes. “They healed thousands of people, he said, of diseases that the healers had no spells for, even those which prayers to Bathala could not cure. They made stars fall from the sky with a single song, made crops grow again, despite the drought. They replaced the old, failing spells with new magic. Powerful magic.”
“I don’t believe it,” Sari declared, but she heard the trace of doubt in her voice. Then her gaze fell on the child. “Maya? What’s wrong?”
Sari’s charge was on the floor, her arms around her shoulders. She was shivering, despite the warmth of the day, an expression of pure fright on her face.
Sari chanted a warming spell, which made Maya stop shaking. The girl’s expression, however, remained lost, haunted. “Poor child,” she whispered to no one in particular. “I must find a cure. What can she do without a voice?”
“You can—” Laodnon interjected, but then he stopped. ” All will be well, Sari, I’m sure.”
Sari nodded—but what she wanted to say was that no, all would not be well, the new spell would fail, like everything else she had tried. Like everything else was failing.
SARI WAS AWAKENED by a commotion outside her hut. When she was finally able to blink the slumber away from her eyes, she realized Maya was staring out the window. The child pointed into the darkness. Sari joined her and saw a whole crowd of the villagers hurrying in the direction of the temple. She called out to them, but everyone ignored her, save one.
“Sari!” She turned and saw Laodnon, excitement evident on his face. “Come to the temple, quick!”
“What is going on?” Sari said.
“Gods,” Laodnon said. “Here on the island.” Sari and Maya exchanged glances as he went on, “The anak-araw. I heard they’re performing miracles right now—”
Maya shot out of the house like an arrow. Sari cried out and followed, with Laodnon at her heels.
When they reached the temple, they found that they had lost Maya entirely in the sea of people. The crowd milled in front of the entrance to the large underground cave that served as the island’s temple. Laodnon took Sari’s arm, and together they pushed their way through the crowd. Right at the moment they reached the front, there was a strange whistling noise, then a sound that seemed like a thousand voices shrieking… And the moon was engulfed in complete, utter darkness.
There was a moment of stunned silence; then, before anyone could react, an explosion of lights and stars came raining down upon the heads of the assembled, and the anak-araw were revealed.
Sari gasped and stared at the beings now before her, engulfed in light. There were two of them, and they towered over all the people; the smaller was a full foot taller than Laodnon—who was one of the tallest men in the village—dressed in brown robes resembling those the priestesses wore; the taller one stood a little way back, an assortment of swords and axes hanging from his belt, of a kind that Sari had never seen before. He had a stern expression on his face, and Sari soon discovered why.
It was at the feet of the armed anak-araw that they found Maya. She was staring up at him and he stared back at her. The anak-araw’s expression turned mildly curious, but Maya’s eyes were wide in horror. Before Sari and Laodnon could retrieve the child, a collective shout broke the awestruck silence, and a swell of people pushed past them to reach the anak-araw. Sari lost sight of Maya, then of Laodnon… but she had a clear view of the towering visitors.
The one in brown robes grasped a farmers’ leg, which had been wounded in an accident a few weeks before. The robed stranger tore open the bandages that concealed the farmer’s wound, and before the eyes of all, the still-open wound grew tissue and skin, then closed, the skin unbroken, whole. The farmer jumped up in the air and shouted, “I am healed, praise Bathala!”
“No,” the anak-araw said. “Not Bathala.” He spoke their language well, although haltingly.
“Yes,” his armed companion said, his voice deep and gruff. “Not your god. The Father healed you.” He gestured at his robed companion. “He can do what your god cannot.”
Sari laid a hand on her mouth; she didn’t even remember when it had dropped open. Even when her magic had been at its peak, to heal such a wound would have required a complicated spell and a long period of bargaining with the healing spirits, but the anak-araw had accomplished it in mere seconds—without speaking, without saying a single word…
Sari scoured the crowd for any sign of the child, to no avail. It was only when she’d returned home in frustration that she found her charge, sitting with Laodnon by the door to her hut. When Maya raised her face to look at Sari; her eyes were red-rimmed.
Sari cradled her in her arms. “Were you hurt? I’m sorry the villagers treated you so rudely. But I shall take you to the anak-araw. They can help, where I have failed—”
The girl shook her head vehemently.
“No, you do not need to fear them,” Sari assured her. “I’ve seen what they can do. If they can’t get you to speak again,” her eyes shone with hope, “maybe they can teach you how to cast spells, even without a voice.”
Maya clutched at her in reply.
“I will be with you the whole time,” Sari said. “I will not leave you.”
The child only held on to her tighter, as violent shivers rocked her frame.
EACH DAY, BEFORE THE BREAK OF DAWN, a large crowd gathered before the temple entrance, the priestesses enforcing a semblance of order and herding the crowd into a line so the Father could see them one by one.
The sick came for cures and they were healed. Farmers sought relief for their dying crops, and the Father gave them a strange powder that made their plants grow. To the fishermen he gave a liquid that made all the fish float to the surface, ready for catching, and to the breeders he gave grains that fattened their pigs and cows. The old rituals, so faithfully kept by the priestesses and the villagers, were soon forgotten; some even burned the wooden images of the diwata and Bathala; the island’s carvers replaced them with statues of the anak-araw, the Father and his Guard.
Sari found herself with less and less work. In truth this did not bother her, for it left her with more time to attempt to see the Father herself. But each day her efforts proved futile—by the time the anak-araw went to rest, she would still be a long way from the front of the line.
It did not help that Maya was so reluctant to go; Sari lost time just trying to coax the child up each morning. Maya seemed more interested in staying in the house and drawing than in a cure for her condition. She shrank away whenever she saw any of the statues of the Father.
Just when Sari was beginning to despair, she finally had her chance. She was just about to go to the end of the line when someone called to her from near the front.
It was Laodnon. “You can take my place,” he said.
“But what did you need to talk to the anak-araw for? Can that wait?”
“I didn’t really need to see them,” he said.
“But then why did you—”
Laodnon left without another glance back at her.
“I swear,” she said incredulously, “I shall never understand that man.”
By mid-morning they were finally at the temple entrance, yet Maya still refused to move when they were called. Annoyed, Sari pulled the girl along with her, and they entered into the dark, damp chill of the temple.
At the entrance to the inner chamber stood the Guard, with the same implacable expression. Maya tried to run again, but Sari held on firmly to her wrist.
A stone statue of the robed anak-araw, a gift from one of the villagers, was placed on a rock that jutted out of one corner of the room. The Father himself sat in the middle, waiting patiently for those who sought him.
“How can I help you, hija?” the anak-araw said, as Sari pulled Maya down with her to sit before him. Sari did not recognize the last word the Father used, but it was spoken tenderly, and her heart warmed towards him.
“She cannot speak, my Lord,” Sari said. “Please help her.”
The Father placed his hands over Maya’s throat and started to rub it. “Yes, I see. Beautiful, this child. So beautiful—”
And then Maya screamed.
It was a silent, voiceless scream, and though Sari could hear nothing, the child’s expression was one of sheer terror—and, strangely, fury. Before Sari could move from her seat, Maya bit the Father’s hand.
He roared, yelling words in his own language, which was musical even in his rage. The Guard ran into the chamber and strode towards Maya. He leapt at her, but missed as she evaded his hands, and he slammed instead into the rock upon which the Father’s statue stood. The stone figure tottered for a moment… then fell on the head of the Guard.
There was a flash of crimson, which flowed down from the huge anak-araw’s head, and then came the whirling greens of the priestesses’ robes—
“What has the child done?”
“It was a mistake to bring her to the healer. The Babaylan should never have taken her in—”
This woke Sari from her stupor. She turned and saw Maya standing a few feet away from them, her head held high, almost regal, with no trace of regret on her features. Sari snapped.
“How could you?” she said. “They were our last hope. Your last hope!”
The child looked at her, her defiant expression melting into one of distress. She pointed to the Guard, but the Father, after waving away the priestesses, had taken the huge anak-araw into another room.
“I treated you like my own child,” she cried. “I tried to help you, when no one else wanted to!” She choked down a sob. “Maybe they were right to think of sending you away.”
Maya looked as if she had been slapped, her eyes swimming in tears. She moved as if to clutch at Sari, —but then the Father returned, and extended an accusing finger in her direction. Maya suddenly fell to the ground, limp, and then the priestesses took her, sweeping her from Sari’s sight.
THE SUN WAS JUST SETTING when Sari found herself walking towards Laodnon’s hut. She found him at his garden, cutting gumamela flowers for the temple. Laodnon dropped his knife when he saw her. He moved towards her, took her hand, and then dropped it again, looking away.
“I went to see her,” she said without introduction, her voice edged with desperation. “But the priestesses refused to let me in.”
It had been the same story since Maya had been taken, days ago. The girl was still in the temple, locked in one of the chambers, and Sari still didn’t know what they meant to do to the child. Thankfully, the Guard suffered no permanent harm; perhaps the Father would spare Maya.
“I’m sorry.” Laodnon looked thoroughly miserable.
“I should have never said those things.” Sari sank to the ground, unable to keep back her tears any longer. “She may have been difficult, yes, but I cannot bear to think of what they will do to her!”
After that, words failed her and she wept. Laodnon sat beside her in silence.
“I’m sorry,” she said after her tears were spent. “This is really embarrassing. I mean, I haven’t cried in front of you since we were twelve—”
“Thirteen, actually,” Laodnon said, smiling tightly. “It’s all right. Keep crying if you need to. I’ll be here.” A moment later, he said, “Maya must know you didn’t really mean what you said. She’s perceptive that way.”
“I still wish I could say sorry.” She wiped her tears and stood up. “I need to go back and—” She blinked suddenly and looked around her, surprised. Sari had never been to Laodnon’s garden before—it had always been he who came to her—but as she recovered herself, she was struck by the variety and vigor of the crops that surrounded her. “Your garden truly is something, Laodnon. How do you manage, when all magic is failing? You must have used such powerful spells, or somehow won the spirits’ favor…”
Laodnon remained silent, so Sari extended her senses to ascertain the source of the garden’s beauty and found… nothing.
She stopped, baffled. “I can feel no magic here.”
Laodnon looked down at the ground. “Because there is none.”
“What—what do you mean?”
“I was afraid you’d notice sooner or later,” he said. “The truth is, I never could get the spirits to listen to me. I’ve had to manage without spellcasting of any sort.”
“Then you do everything,” Sari said, incredulously, “by hand?”
“I always have.” His expression was a strange mixture of shame and pride. “I tend to the plants myself. I—I treat them like people, which makes it easier. I give them the best care I can, and—”
“But how do you know what they need, without the spirits to aid you?” Sari said. “I mean, plants can’t speak to you, can they?”
Laodnon spread his arms. “I look at them, and I see.” He smiled at her. “Some things do not need to be spoken. You’d be surprised at what we can do on our own.”
Sari stared at him, a shiver running through her, his words bringing on a realization, an epiphany.
She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek, making him turn beet-red.
“Laodnon,” she said, “Can I count on you, one more time?”
A LARGE CROWD WAS ALREADY GATHERED when Sari arrived at the temple, a long leather sack clutched tightly in her hands. She slipped past the supplicants and down the route the Babaylan had shown her, what seemed like a lifetime ago. Sari found the Father speaking to the Babaylan within the central chamber, the armed anak-araw nowhere in sight. No one noticed her, not until she whipped a knife from her skirts, steeled herself, and stabbed the Father’s right hand.
Things seemed to happen at once: the Father cried for help, the priestesses rushed to his aid, the first of the waiting villagers ran into the chamber. Sari, however, remained focused on her target. The Babaylan shouted orders to bind Sari, but before they could do so, she threw a pouch of bawang powder at the Father’s injury, to keep the blood from clotting. The anak-araw placed his left hand over his injury and summoned his power, but for all the light that his magic emitted it was too little, too late: blood flowed freely from his wound, dying the floor a bright scarlet, before quickly fading to black.
“Look, all of you,” Sari screamed at her people. “Look, damn it!
All of them turned, except the Babaylan. “He bleeds,” Sari said. “Does a god bleed? Can a god’s miracles be defeated by my herbs? He is no less human than we are!” She opened the sack and brought out Maya’s drawings, held them out for all to see. “This too shall be our fate! Open your eyes!”
On the sheet were drawings of a people not unlike Sari’s own. Their clothes, their skin, all were familiar… save for a small group of strange, glowing figures, distinguished by the lack of color in their hair and faces. It was evident from the murmurs of the crowd, as descriptions of the sketches passed verbally through those assembled, that the identity of the strange figures was as obvious to them as it had been for Sari. But it was not the portrayal of the anak-araw that spread like a forest fire through the people… it was the images of what they were doing.
There were drawings of the anak-araw driving the people to slavery, like cattle, forcing them to work while the strangers merely sat and watched, eating the food produced by the captives; pictures of the anak-araw burning and murdering the gods and diwatas; the likeness of the Father, being crowned by a Babaylan, his hand around her neck.
“It is already happening,” Sari said. “Maya saw it, knew it first hand. This is why our magic is failing. Maybe our gods have not abandoned us—not willingly. Maybe this time, it is the gods who need us.”
In the uneasy silence, she turned on the Father. “Who are you really? What do you want?”
“To help you,” the anak-araw said. He closed his eyes and this time, his wound healed, but it still had a visible scar. The Father opened his arms wide, encircling them all—and to Sari, trapping them within. She wondered why she had never noticed the glint of malice in his eyes.
So did everyone else around her, it seemed. They began to whisper among themselves, shrinking from the Father. Sari alone held her ground, her eyes meeting his, defying him. Soon, however, Sari was joined by another.
The Babaylan did not speak. She only stood silently, breathing heavily, her expression unreadable.
“Leave,” she whispered at length, and to everyone’s surprise, she was speaking to the Father.
“What power have you over us?” the Father said. “We will not leave. What can you do, without your gods?”
“Bathala will preserve us,” the Babaylan said, raising her arms heavenward. The other priestesses started to chant, their hands linked. Sari could feel the power, but it was weak, weaker than even her own spells; after all, their power drew on their faith, something the people no longer had much of.
The Father laughed, then pointed at the Babaylan. For a second Sari was afraid that the priestess would drop, as Maya had, but the Babaylan stood firm—until the Guard pushed Sari aside and grabbed the old woman by the throat, fury rolling off the large anak-araw in waves, palpable and destructive. Without effort he threw the Babaylan to the ground, then raised his sword.
“No!” Sari screamed. The other priestesses flung their magic at the Guard, but the anak-araw merely laughed, and pinned the Babaylan with one armored foot. Desperately, Sari readied a protective spell, calling on her own powers, her own faith… and she knew that it would not be enough.
“Sari!” Laodnon burst through the crowd, Maya clinging to his arm, her eyes wide and frightened; then her gaze met Sari’s, and where the healer had expected to see anger and blame, all Sari found was relief…
Sari opened herself to Maya, to Laodnon, to the two people who believed in her more than she had ever believed in her gods. She said one final word, and directed the spell at the Babaylan, just as the Guard brought his sword crashing down and—
—the deadly blade bounced off the old woman’s chest as if she were made of steel. The Father and his Guard turned as one toward Sari, fear reflected in their eyes.
“Leave,” Sari said. “Leave, now.”
MAYA STOOD at the water’s edge, the waves lapping at her feet, still working on the drawing she’d started the night of her rescue. It had been three days since then, and three days since the Babaylan declared that Maya was to stay on the island, despite her condition.
Sari could have asked for no better outcome, yet she still could not shake off the fear that had awoken within her.
“You’re still worried,” Laodnon said quietly. They were sitting on the beach, their hands clasped.
“I think they will be back,” Sari said. “More of them next time.” She rested her head on his shoulder. “They were false gods, but their magic was real.”
“So is ours,” he said.
Sari watched as Maya rolled up her drawing, and placed it in a clay pot. Then to Sari’s surprise, the child threw the pot into the sea.
Sari looked at Maya. “I thought those were precious to you?”
The child nodded, but made no move to retrieve her clay messenger, now bobbing up and down, rolling in the waves. Sari looked at the small, fragile thing, then whispered a spell that would keep it afloat, and a prayer to Bathala for protection, for salvation. She wondered if her own message would reach the heavens, and if there would be anyone there to hear if it did.
There was nothing else they could do now; all that was left was to wait in vigilant silence, and, in hope.
Babaylan: a term identifying an indigenous Filipino religious leader, who functions as a healer, a shaman, a seer and a community “miracle-worker” (or a combination of any of those). Although the role and function of a babaylan is open to both sexes, most babaylans from the pre-hispanic era were female.
Lagundi: a common medicine shrub in the Philippines, and grows wild in many places like Mt. Banahaw. The use of Lagundi for medicinal purposes has a long history in the Philippines as a medicinal plant for treatment in cases of colds, flu, pharyngitis, and asthma. Today, pharmaceutical companies sell it in tablet form at drug stores.
(Source: Mt. Banahaw Tropical Herbs Website)
Ulasiman: Known in Tagalog as “ulasiman-kalat” and in Visayan as daniri, some areas in the Philippines have a tradition of using the plant as a cure for any kind of inflammation.
Luya: Ginger root. Used as an ingredient in a drink that is imbibed to fight off infections, both natural and supernatural.
(Source: Wiktionary [Tagalog])
Hija: A Spanish word meaning “daughter” or “female child”.