Excerpt from a novella
He wished she were wearing the white gown he had brought. How lucky he was, in fact, that Lumela’s family did not ask for a dowry for her. Lumela had asked them not to demand a set of gongs or horses as bridal gifts from Andrew. It was enough for her parents that Andrew agreed that the wedding be done in the traditional T’boli way before their church wedding.
The women were waiting outside the house of Lumela. She was in the house’s central space, covered with a red hand-woven blanket. There were no voices from the women, except the beating of agong.
Andrew wondered what his bride looked like as he climbed the ladder. His sister removed the blanket that covered Lumela and gave her a kiss. Andrew saw his bride, sitting on the mat surrounded with cushions. She was wearing a dark blue long-sleeved blouse, embroidered with a cross-stitched geometric pattern of human and frog figures rendered in white, red, and yellow with a zigzag band. Her skirt was black linen with horizontal stripes of gold threads, showing only her toes. The bronze metal belt, tinkling each time she moved, emphasized the shape of her waist. Her hair was neatly fixed, tied round at the back of her head to carry the wooden comb decorated with beads flowing down to her shoulders. She smiled every time she looked at him, which made Andrew think of their first meeting at the exhibit gallery when the provincial tourism officer officially opened the exhibit to the public.
He was looking at the intricate weave of a piece of fiber cloth hanging on the center wall of the small cubicle. Its color and design radiant as the light stroked it—highlighting it, more than anything else in the exhibit area. His camera flashed, focusing on what he called a “shining masterpiece.” He read the caption, “Tnalak” as if asking himself a question. “Yes, you read it right, sir. Tnalak.” The woman who was standing beside him confirmed it, “The art of T’boli women from Lake Sebu” she added, speaking in awkward Tagalog. Andrew later learned that she was Lumela, the weaver of the native cloth.
After a short courtship and his three trips from Manila to visit her, she was now about to live with him as his wife. Andrew sat on the empty cushion next to Lumela, but he was very careful not to touch her, as Lumela had instructed him before the ceremony. The guests started to gather around them, but still not talking to each other. He did not expect that it would be this strange — no touching, no talking until the ceremonies end.
They went down for the feast. The gongs were still playing. Andrew wanted to hold his wife and kiss her, but it was not allowed yet. They sat in the center table. Lumela’s father and the Datu sprinkled water on both of them, then initiated the meeting of their knees, their first touch as a married couple. Lumela’s oldest sister put a plate in front of them. The two of them then ate in a single plate. As they took their first bite, the guests around them applauded as a sign of approval of their marriage.
The church wedding followed the next day as both parties had agreed.
He could not wait for the night to come–the first night that they would be sleeping together in one bed. His girls in Manila were easy to put under the spell of his lustful kisses, but Lumela was different. No matter how many times he had attempted to put her in his trap, Lumela was very careful. Not yet. Unless they were married. And Andrew loved her for that. But to his surprise, even on their wedding night, Lumela would not allow him to do it.
“I’m sorry” she struggled to explain, “I’m sorry if I failed to tell you about this, even at the start. It’s forbidden because my work is sacred. Not now, Andrew.”
She kept on saying sorry, feeling guilty for failing the expectations of her husband. She couldn’t believe that she had dreamed of the patterns again. And before their wedding day, she had even prayed to Dwata that she would not dream, even for just three months or so. She prayed that Fu Dalu would not give her the patterns. But now the pictures in her dreams were haunting her.
When she first refused, Andrew understood her. Maybe she was just tired because of their preparation for their wedding. Two weddings are not easy, he comforted himself.
The second time that she refused, he still understood her. Maybe she was just not in the mood. But the third time that she refused, Andrew was puzzled by the reasons his wife gave him.
“At first you said it’s because of the dream, then the lines, and now sacred and forbidden?” Andrew asked, frowning. “What is forbidden?”
“To make love with you,” she answered softly as if ashamed of the reason she gave.
“And who the hell told you that? What’s wrong with it? We’re married.”
“Oh, come on. Don’t be silly. Your mother is already dead. We are married. What makes it sinful?”
“It’s a rule, Andrew. Or else…I’m sorry”
“What else will you surprise me with, Ela?”
She did not answer him anymore. Instead, she looked at his eyes, hugged him and when he refused to respond, she sobbed, tears ran down her high cheek bones.
There was a long silence between them. The cold wind blew, touching their half-naked bodies. Andrew had been waiting for months to do it again, but not with his girls, this time with his wife. But still it did not happen. He put on his shirt and sweater and went out.
The evening breeze fanned him as he opened the door and walked to the balcony where he could think. It was so silent. The chirping of crickets filled his ears. He sat in the rattan chair and observed the mango tree in front of their house. It was still, stiff in the coldness of midnight. He could count the fireflies on his fingers, unlike the other nights. They must have been cold, too. Each night became colder and colder, he observed.
Early that morning, before the dawn broke, Andrew left their house and went to the lake. He did not bother to wake up Lumela. He sat in his banca and slowly rowed towards the middle of the lake. It was always refreshing to stay there and watch the sun after his restless night. Each stroke he made disturbed the calm water.
The lake was still and the blow of wind was just enough to relax his mind. The houses at the edge of the lake were lighted one by one. Men came one after the other, rowing their bancas towards the cages, to feed their tilapia.
Much like their first date, he thought. Together, they had spent the hours waiting for the rising sun, like the water lilies, from the cold night, unfolding their petals as if to greet the sun. He had given her the picture of the Tnalak, with a note at the back: “You’re one of a kind. There is no one else who can do it, except you”. She told him some stories about the myth of the lake and stories her great grandmothers—all weavers—who were gifted by nature and dedicated to their missions. She told him the awards she had received because of her art. “Then I went back here and planted root crops in our kaingin after all of that,” she concluded with sigh. She explained some rituals in weaving. But she did not tell him why it was sacred and why it demanded sacrifices. She only said there are lots of mysteries behind that fabric she made. All of these he included in his diary, about Lumela — her work, and the art, which interested him most.
The sun struck his face like the warmth of her kisses, as it slowly rose from the green mountains. The birds were flying in vertical formation in the clear sky; ducks were starting to survey the edges of the lake together with their ducklings. Floating. Small and big tilapia were kissing the surface of water, they seemed to be talking to each other while gracefully wiggling their tails, greeting good morning. Andrew stayed there until his eyes got tired of looking.
Lumela’s favorite cat was stroking Lumela’s foot to wake her. To her own surprise, she kicked it like a rag and it hit the wall and landed on the wooden floor. Only then did Lumela notice that her husband was not in bed with her.
She opened the window and saw the bancas floating towards the edges of the lake. The children of their neighbor were approaching bringing with them the Tilapia strung together by a strand of abaca to sell in the barrio.
“Ti…la..pia…!” the boy shouted. “Ate, tilapia?” he asked as he saw Lumela at the window.
“No, Noy. We still have some here,“ she shouted back.
She looked at the lake once again and saw how beautiful it was. But a number of cages were growing every month; there were already six floating cottages where their guests and tourists were staying if they wanted to experience actual fishing. The resorts were making money out of it. Sooner or later, she worried, the water in this lake will be seen no more.
Andrew came back just when she had already prepared the table. They almost finished the breakfast without talking until Andrew broke the silence.
“I waited for the breaking of dawn at the lake”
“I know,” she answered, looking only at her plate.
“This morning was different.”
“You could have woken me up.”
“It was cold.”
“I could have joined you there.”
“This rice is so dry.”
“I’m still learning to use the rice cooker you bought.”
“Eggs would have been better fried.”
Neither dared to talk about what had happened the night before. Perhaps, they might have tired of it already.