There was a knock on the door, and when Jose opened it he found himself face to face with the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She was surrounded by birds of all colors and sizes, all looking up at her with love. She was saying something to him, but he could only stare at her in incomprehension, wondering what in the world he had done for the heavens to bestow such a favor on him.
“You’re . . . ,” he began, but the words stuck in his throat. “You’re. Um. You’re—”
“Maria Sinukuan.” She smiled at him and went on. “Again, I am really sorry to intrude on you, Jose.”
She had said his name. Jose shut his eyes tightly and only opened them again after several moments of convincing himself that this was not real. It couldn’t be. To his surprise, the lady was still standing a few feet away from him, her long black hair blowing in the wind, her silvery-white dress sparkling in the light of the setting sun.
“N-no, my lady,” he stammered. He still could not imagine why Maria Sinukuan, the fairy goddess who took care of them and their land, would go all the way from her palace in Arayat just to visit him—a farmer with no connections and no reputation of any sort. “You’re not intruding, my Lady,” he said. “I was only surprised. Is there anything I could help you with? Can I get you a glass of water? Or maybe you need—”
“Well,” Lady Sinukuan said, “you could start by letting me in.”
“Oh, oh! Forgive me!” He stepped back from the doorway and ushered her inside. She paused and gestured to the birds around her, and they flew away. She followed him into his hut. He was so nervous that while scrambling for a chair for her, he stumbled on the bamboo staff resting in one corner of the room, falling flat on his face. “I’m fine, I’m fine,” he said as he got up. He placed the chair in front of her, and she sat on it as gracefully as if sitting on a throne.
He sat across from her on the only other chair in his hut. “You’re even more beautiful than the men in the village say.”
“Thank you.” She sounded as if it was the first time anyone ever told her she was beautiful. That was certainly impossible. The Lady Sinukuan had many suitors, men from his village and from the neighboring kingdoms.
He realized only then that she was carrying a large wooden box in one hand and moved to get it from her, mentally berating himself for not doing so earlier.
Her eyes flashed, making him freeze, terrified by her expression.
An eternity seemed to pass before the silence was broken. “It’s all right, Jose,” she said. He blinked, for when she spoke she was smiling again, no trace of anger left in her eyes. He wondered if he had just imagined the whole thing—but the Lady Sinukuan was known, aside from her beauty and power, for her temper. She could be merciless, especially when it came to the criminals she passed judgment on, and no one ever dared to cross her.
“You do not need to bother,” she went on. “But thank you.”
“If you insist, my Lady.” He let out the breath he didn’t know he was holding and decided to let the matter go without further remark. He was relieved not to touch the box, for there was an unpleasant smell coming from it; a rotting smell, which strangely filled him with fear and foreboding more than disgust.
“You have a lovely home,” she said as she looked around. “I had a hard time finding you, though, for not very many of the villagers seemed to know where you lived.”
“I don’t think they even know who I am, my Lady,” Jose said. When she looked rueful at that, he laughed. “I’m used to that. People kind of forget me easily. Sometimes that’s a good thing, because at least people leave me well enough alone.”
“Ah, yes. Sometimes I wish that myself, too.” Her gaze lingered on the garlands of garlic strewn over the windows and on the door, and remarked, “Your house is very well-protected.”
“Oh, that. I only put that in a few nights ago. Just—just to be safe.”
He nodded. “A few nights ago I saw one of those horrible creatures from the forest—a tikbalang.”
She raised an eyebrow at him.
“Yes, that!” He shivered. “I saw it there, right there! Over at the mound!” He pointed outside the window, to the spot in the yard at the back of his hut, where a mound of earth stood beneath the shadow of a mango tree filled with still-green fruits. “I’ll never forget its red, glowing eyes for as long as I live. I was so sure it was going to come straight at me and kill me—” He gulped. “But the next thing I knew, it was gone. Still, I was scared it might come back, so I made sure it wouldn’t come near the house if it did. I sprinkled some salt on the roof and all over the yard, and I put garlic on the windows and the door, just to be really safe. My hut is so far away from the village and no one will hear me scream for help. Not that any of them will care, but—”
“You live alone?” she said sharply.
She pursed her lips at that. She looked down at her chair, her eyebrows furrowed. He was touched by her concern. “It’s all right, really. I’m used to living on my own, since I’ve had to for all these years.”
He cleared his throat suddenly. He hesitated before speaking, but he knew he had to ask eventually. “My Lady, um…” His voice trailed off again, lost in shyness.
“You want to know why I came to see you.”
“Yes, my Lady.”
“It concerns something that you have lost.” She smiled slightly. “Or rather, something that was stolen from you.”
He looked up hastily at that, his heart pounding in his chest. “You don’t mean—”
“I talked to the head of your village and your employer—Kapitan Eusebio, wasn’t it? He said you complained of a theft before.”
“Yes, I’m really glad to hear that, my Lady! I wasn’t sure if he took me seriously, you see, because Kapitan Eusebio just kind of dismissed me when I came to him.”
“He actually did forget what it was you lost,” she said, almost apologetically.
He groaned. “I thought as much. It’s always that way with me.” He shook his head. “As I said, no one really notices me. Well, except for you, my Lady, and I truly am grateful for the honor.”
“I am not the only one, apparently. You see, before I left Kapitan Eusebio’s house, a young woman came to speak to me. It was the Kapitan’s daughter, Catalina.”
Jose looked at her intently. He hoped he was not blushing.
“She said that you lost a ring.” The twinkling of her eyes as she spoke told him that she had, indeed, noticed his reaction to hearing the young woman’s name. “A very old, rusted ring, which is entirely plain except for a small engraving of a fish crowned with stars. It looks worthless, unless—”
She paused, and it was all he could do not to demand that she speak faster.
“You place it under water,” she said. “There it shines like the finest gold in the land. Strange letters become visible on it as well, which say that the ring belongs to the god and king of the sea, Lawodnon.”
“Oh, my Lady, my Lady!” Jose exclaimed. He would have taken her into his arms if he had dared. “You have found it! The very same ring I was looking for!” He sank down to the floor, feeling faint. “But how? How did you find it? And how did you know to return it to me? I only told Kapitan Eusebio that I had lost a ring, nothing more.”
“It’s actually a very long story.” Her eyes narrowed at him suddenly. “First, though, I need to know why you would ever have such a ring.”
“Oh.” His heart sank as he realized why she had behaved so strangely when he tried to get the box from her. The box probably contained the ring, and she did not want to give it to him because she, like everyone else, thought it was strange that a nobody like him could own such a rare, expensive thing; the ring of a god, no less.
“I am not suspicious of you or anything,” she said. Her expression softened. “I was just curious.”
“I am not a thief, my Lady. The ring has belonged to my family for ages. My mother only knew that it belonged to an ancestor of ours, a gift from some important person. None of us ever knew its true worth; I only heard about its history recently, in fact. She left the ring to me when she died, some years ago. I kept it as a memory of her, but many times I was tempted to throw it away. I mean, I thought it was worthless, because I couldn’t even sell it. It was just so old; no one could ever want it.
“I’m really glad I didn’t, though, my Lady. For just two days ago, a traveler came to the village.” He smiled to himself, thinking of the young collector who, for him, now represented all hope for his future. “I met him at Kapitan Eusebio’s house, who he was visiting. He was one of those rich, eccentric types—you know the type of young men who spend more money on trinkets than on their own clothes?” He remembered how the young man’s clothes were almost in tatters when he came to the village. At first, the people shooed him away, thinking him a beggar, but to everyone’s surprise he started giving out gold coins and spending extravagantly.
“Foolish, this man,” she said with a sigh.
“It’s all right to be foolish, my Lady. As long as we can benefit from them, eh?” She did not laugh. “He said he liked collecting objects from the kingdom of Lawodnon, since the god was said to be fond of giving away trinkets before to mortals who once aided him. The traveler described a ring which fit the description of my mother’s ring perfectly. I thought if I was right, here was my salvation at last. So I told the traveler that I might have that ring he was looking for and went to get the ring from my house.”
“But it was stolen?”
“Yes. It was nowhere to be found! I was certain I didn’t throw it away, and I took all my belongings with me when I moved here. I felt, no, I knew it was stolen.”
He clasped his hands, as if in prayer. “This is why I truly am grateful for your help. Now that it has been found, my Lady, I can finally go and find the traveler and sell him the ring. He told me he was staying in the nearby village of Dimaalon until the next week.” His vision blurred, his mind full of happy thoughts of lifelong dreams finally coming true. “I will no longer be poor, and maybe, just maybe . . .” He felt his face turn red again. “I can finally ask the lady I love to marry me.”
“Oh, I know who that would be,” she said, smiling. “I’m glad. I’m always happy to help my people.” She suddenly furrowed her eyebrows. “I’m afraid I don’t understand, though, why you were so sure the ring was stolen. Anyone in your position would have just looked for it again, since you did almost forget that you had such a ring. But you came to Kapitan Eusebio right away. Was it because you already suspected someone?”
“Actually, my Lady, I do.”
“No. This wasn’t the first time I’ve had something taken from me.”
“Someone from the village then?”
“No one from the village has ever entered my house. As I said, not a lot of people from the village notice me; much less do they try to be friends with me.” He looked out of the window and glared at the mound of earth outside. “I know he did it.”
“He?” She turned in her seat and looked out as well.
“The nuno.” An image of the ancient dwarf that inhabited the mound came to his mind’s eye with a sudden rush of hatred: the nuno’s revolting faded yellow straw hat, his beady eyes, and the power he held over Jose despite his size.
She tilted her head to one side, looking thoughtful. “I see. They really are known to be mischievous creatures, and they do have this tendency to—er—borrow things from mortals quite often.” She pointed at the mound. “I suppose that that’s his punso?”
“Yes, my Lady. When I moved into my hut, I didn’t know a nuno lived nearby, and I only knew it when my things started disappearing. Not only did he take things from my house without asking me, he even demanded that I give him more. He would even curse me if I did not follow his wishes.”
He buried his head in his hands. “He took so many things from me. A day after I moved here I noticed that two of the clay pots I used for cooking were missing. I thought I only misplaced them so I did not give it any further thought. But after that, so many other things started disappearing. First, my sleeping mat, then the best camisa I owned, then the pearl necklace that I had saved up for just to give to Señorita Catalina for her birthday—
“Then the vile creature actually dared to come see us one day! He said that he wanted a basket full of rice laid at his mound the next morning. I barely had enough to feed myself as it was, so I refused to give him anything. The next day, I woke up with terrible rashes all over my body and a high fever. I did not get well until I finally gave him what he wanted.
“It went on for so long, my Lady,” he said, choking back a sob. “Risking another curse, I confronted him about my things one day, but he only said that he would pay them back once his debt to a friend—would anyone even want to call him a friend?—of his was paid. As if I believed the bloody bastard! For on that very same day that I came to speak to him, he took the box in which I had kept the little money that I had been able to save up! It was too much, my Lady, too much! I was driven to despair, and I thought I was going to be in his power forever.”
He sat back down on the floor and let out a long, deep breath. When he was finally calm, he said, “I’m glad that justice has been served, then.” He looked up at her. “How did you get the ring, my Lady? Did you come to see the nuno and told him to return it? And were you able to get my other things too?”
“No,” she said. “My obtaining the ring has nothing to do with the nuno.”
“What? Do you mean I was mistaken?”
“Probably not with the other things that were taken from you. But this ring, no.”
“I—,” he said, bewildered. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
“I was given the ring by a suitor of mine.” A faint trace of disgust appeared on her lips. “Juan.”
“Oh! The traveler mentioned him. He said you seemed to be favoring him out of all your suitors thus far and would probably be betrothed to him soon—”
“What?” she exclaimed. Jose backed away again, for the expression of shock and anger on her face was terrible to behold. “The traveler told you that?”
“I—I am only repeating what I heard, my Lady!” he said hastily. “I’m sorry if it was meant to be a secret and—and—but most of the women in the village were really happy that you were finally getting married, but most of the men were heartbroken and—”
“It’s not meant to be a secret,” she hissed, “because it’s not true! Juan will never, ever be my betrothed. When I see that traveler, I’ll—I’ll—”
“It was just a rumor, my Lady. He meant no harm, I’m sure! And don’t worry, I’ll make sure to tell all the villagers that he was wrong!”
“He is a suitor, nothing more!”
“Yes, my Lady,” he said meekly.
She nodded and now looked mollified. “This suitor of mine came to my palace yesterday. He gave me this ring, saying he found it. I highly doubted that because I knew his character—one of the many reasons why I would never want to marry him—and my first thought was that he had stolen it. So I looked into the matter further.”
“Then he stole it? But why? I don’t think I’ve ever met him before, so he can’t possibly know I have Lawodnon’s ring. And I didn’t even know until recently.”
“No. Apparently he was speaking the truth. He really did find it.”
“What? But where, my Lady?”
“Right outside this hut.”
He blinked as he stared up at her, incredulous.
“Would you like to see the ring now, then? It’s right here, in this box. I decided to bring the ring exactly the way he found it.”
“Exactly the way he found it?” He looked at the box, more bewildered by the minute. “What do you mean, my Lady?” Something strange was going on here, although he could not put his finger on it. He swallowed, his fear of the box multiplied a hundredfold.
“You’ll see.” Was it just him, or was the smile on the Lady Sinukuan’s lips menacing? “Open it.”
“Ah—are you sure it’s all right?”
“Would there any be reason for it not to be?”
He was sure there had to be a good reason for it somewhere, but he could not put his thoughts into words. Maybe he was only being silly. Throwing all caution to the wind, he opened the box.
Celestine Trinidad is a newly licensed physician and a writer in her spare time. Her work has been published in print and online venues such as Philippine Genre Stories, Philippine Speculative Fiction IV, Philippines Free Press, and Usok. Much to her surprise, she won a Palanca Award for her short story for children “The Storyteller and the Giant” in 2008. “Under a Mound of Earth” is her third story featuring Maria and Juan, and she hopes to write more.
The above image of Mount Arayat in Pampanga is from here.