by Keith Sicat
Illustration credits: Layout: Keith Sicat; Line Art: Ydunn Lopez; Colors: Jose Abantao, Jr.
Slender, spider-like fingers clutch at Ewa’s trembling womb. The musty odor of fright mingles with the salty aggression whirling about her, forcing her to take rapid sips of air. Scanning the snarling mouths of these women camouflaged beneath a layer of dried purple mud and chalky white warpaint, Ewa looks for any sign of her companion in this cavernous dome of leather hide, but he is nowhere to be found. It is only she in the sea of the savage faces of her captors.
The drumming in her chest muffles all the other sounds she tries to focus on. The tall one standing over her hides her eyes behind the spade-like skull of one of the endemic beasts of this world, her full lips and long, sinewy form suggests an other-worldly beauty. The bone mask covering her face resembles an infant version of the massive beast that attacked Ewa and her surviving crewmates after the crash many moons ago– this skyscraper-sized monster that emerged from the ground swallowing their ruined ship as it rose to the sky. The bulk of its body blended serpent and whale lined with an armored hide revealing pustules on its flanks that would inflate granting the beast flight, its thousand tendril-tongue working in unison to ensnare its prey before guiding it into the maw between its bifurcated mandible. It is this world’s version of a bakunawa, the mythological dragon that swallows the moon.
The masked figure lifts her long fingers and hisses at her acolytes. They silence their snarls and step back, acquiescing to the command. Ewa catches her breath as it dawns on her that this towering woman somehow knows she is with child. She covers her womb, her eyes locked on the jaguar-like movements of this tribe’s masked Babaylan. A sliver of metal tucked beneath layers of beads made of ancient transistors intertwined with circuits and rough leather at the priestess’s hip catches her eye; it is a triangular shield, similar to the one she wore on her old skinsuit as an Outerspace Filipino Worker.The shield that carried her most treasured memory, a recording of her singing a lullaby to the five-year-old boy she left behind –
Hear our songs from a distant star
My child, my child,
Your mother’s so far…
As her eyes adjust to the light within the black of this cavernous leather tent, Ewa sees many warriors wielding the gongs used to ward off the fearsome bakunawa that were chasing her and her partner just moments before their encounter. Glaring with suspicion, these warriors cut from the same cloth as Princess Urduja herself remain taut should she attempt to show aggression. Ewa realizes there is not a man in sight.
This was not the case with the first tribe they had faced, when she and the two other marooned survivors were enslaved by a violent mob of men ruled by a tyrannical warlord. Alerted of their presence due to the miles-long scar on the desert surface left by the crash, that barbaric group calling themselves the Bak’nawa came upon them. After the revelation of seeing humans on this alien world subsided, the ship’s anthropologist, Hector, clued into the telltale signs of their past. Triangulating between their vocabulary, social dynamics, and their appearance, he quickly surmised these are descendants of lost missions from centuries before, mysterious disappearances that would declare this section of space to be hazardous for exploration. But that information was all Ewa gleaned from him as she was separated from her colleagues, her shipmates forced to engage in bloody martial sport. Her ordeal would be no less severe.
The memories come in spurts. The flash of filthy fingertips. Dirty nails tugging at her flesh. The groan of the tyrant who claims her as his spoils. Then a sudden shift– gentle hands lathering her sweat-soiled body. Smooth fingers running oils in her hair. As her eyes mustered the bravery to open, she would discover a group of nubile females, some still girls, dressed in revealing finery tending her. It was the coterie of concubines preparing her to join their ranks. They had removed almost every sign of her former self, but she kicked and clawed to retain her suit’s shield that had been carelessly cast aside, her only possession that contained precious mementos of the past.
A concubine with understanding eyes motioned to Ewa that she would be allowed to keep the triangular shield as long as she let them finish their duties in cleaning and preparing her. For all the finery adorned on her person, the main accessory was a collar at the end of a chain bolted into the hut’s foundation. Growing up female in her hometown of Mega-Manila, she had already experienced her share of physical and emotional degradation. But this was to a degree that left her incapacitated for days. What she recalls from that first private encounter was the stench of sweat, mud, and brutality that enshrouded that megalomaniacal monster. That stench. And his horrible sexual appetites.
As days passed and with some strength regained, she readied herself for another one of his inevitable visits. She primed herself. At the point he was most susceptible to a supple body, she kicked, scratched, and pulled– but his physical strength soon overwhelmed her. Angered by her defiance, he went straight for her shield, taking a blunt weapon and pulverizing it before her. It was clear from her tortured expression, each pounding strike at the object pierced her heart. Gloating over her defeat, he kicked the shield’s crushed remnants at her face. A murderous red was all she could see.
The warlord had made two errors– the first, destroying the object that tied her to her firstborn. The second, sporting the Security Officer’s weapon as a trophy on his ceremonial sash. During a festivity of blood sport where their warlord basked in the pomp, she saw her opportunity. The weapon on his sash glinted in the firelight as he remained distracted with his officiating duties. As the combatants in the village coliseum took turns shedding blood and breaking body parts, she lunged towards the chieftain and triggered the weapon. She savored the moment– that look of shame in the warlord’s eyes as he knew his life was about to end at the hands of his latest conquest.
But her act of vengeance exacted its own pound of flesh, her hand maimed in the resulting explosion from the malfunctioning weapon, and her compatriot Security Officer died during the escape. The irony of her comrade’s death wasn’t lost on her. Before the crash, they were at odds: she inspiring a mutiny while he was protecting the oppressive Captain. A former military man that played the pawn until the military would no longer have him, he was Security Officer Andres on their starship, guarding his master’s interests until they were gone, shifting his allegiance to his surviving crewmates.
His last stand was at a natural bridge in the forest, where a centuries-old tree had fallen across a ravine. Wielding a spear from a felled warrior, he stood between an angry horde and a concubine who took a chance at freedom. She who had ensured that Ewa kept her shield when the others attempted to strip it from her, an act forever indebting her to this girl. Instead of fleeing across the bridge, the concubine held her ground by his side, choosing to battle her tormentors as a last act of defiance.
The moments Andres and the nameless concubine gave her are why Ewa still breathed. She whispered a prayer to her fellow war bride and shed tears over her comrade’s sacrifice, his body never to be under the familiar constellations of his birth world again.
Ewa’s cauterized hand cradles her womb as she searches the Babaylan’s masked face. The calcified cranium of the headdress hides the priestess’ eyes and yet the pregnant woman senses she must see me. The Babaylan’s long, bony fingers shoo away the acolytes–they are hesitant to leave their leader with this off-worlder, but they follow the command.
Alone, Ewa finally sees the masked woman’s stature. It is rare for her to feel small with her own proportions more akin to a flamingo with her long legs and slender neck, yet she is dwarfed in comparison. The mantis-like figure recedes into the shadows. Ewa can see native runes on various surfaces: strips of plant fiber, leather, wood, and stone. There are rolled scrolls of bamboo-like reeds covered in alien symbols, totems made from ancient artifacts of science equipment that have taken on a spiritual dimension, artworks woven into fabric or sculpted from clay and metals.
The Babaylan strikes two rocks together, the friction triggers the triboluminescent ore to glow a pale purple. Ewa knows these rocks. As the geologist on their starship, it was her job to source this energy-rich ore. This world has it in abundance. This selfsame ore helped cauterize her hand. She motions from the glowing ore to Ewa’s scars, the telltale signs of the energy that bonded her broken flesh is clear to those who can read the literature of veins and arteries.
The priestess takes a stylus and begins marking the soil between them. First a triangle, then a circle within. Inside the circle, a fetus-like shape is sketched, then the looming figure points the stylus at Ewa’s womb. The off-worlder nods. Without having a shared tongue, they have found a common language.
Banshee-like chanting cuts through the night air as the warrior women encircle their quarry – it is Ewa’s companion, Hector. His fresh-face has been grizzled by the slings and arrows of life on this world since their crash. His cropped hair has grown into the shaggy locks that frame his delicate eyes.
He is hanging by his wrists, a twisted version of the Vetruvian Man. The warriors claw off his worn skinsuit to reveal his slim body– in perfect health save for the makeshift leg brace that has helped keep him mobile since the crash.
Moments ago, he and Ewa were bolting away from a bakunawa that they had inadvertently disturbed, their immediate fear overriding the warning signs of entering dangerous territory; the horrific sight of cadavers of Bak’nawa warriors had been strung about the trees. These were swallowed with lightning speed by the tendrilled tongues of the dragons but not enough to satiate its agitation. It was only the sudden ringing of gongs that stayed the creature, and when he and Ewa saw who was making the din, they were already upon them. Ewa was wrenched away, carried by the current of feral women as he was overwhelmed by a tsunami of blows from the blunt end of their weapons. But perhaps it only seemed like moments, as those strikes to his head made time muddy.
Now, he is in the middle of their village, strung up on arches with his ankles and hands pulled at length turning him into an ‘x’.
The Babaylan emerges from the foreboding dome tent at the far end of the village, rhythmically striking a mortar into a pestle. The acolytes quickly surround the priestess, placing more herb-like substances to grind as she elegantly advances. The chants and gongs match her rhythm.
With a hiss, warriors pull Hector’s head back while another cascades a clay pot’s worth of water onto him. The priestess takes the mashed contents of the pestle into the palm of her hand, and in a final flourish forces this into Hector’s gasping mouth. The acolytes ignite the remaining paste in the mortar, smothering him in smoke. As he looks up at the stars, the alien constellations streak across the sky, and he begins to perceive time over eons rather than seconds.
As his eyes glaze over, the warriors heave their guttural, animalistic chant. Their prayers were answered in the form of his engorgement. As the constellations cross their alien sky, the warrior women take their turns with him. The lustful groans of the acolytes restraining her drowned out Ewa’s screams.
Hector wakes at the sight of Ewa’s large belly. He is an emaciated shell of himself. Placing his hand on her stomach, he attempts to push away his melancholy with a smile. He apologizes – he has failed to find a way to get off this horrid rock, their forthcoming child doomed to a savage existence.
Ewa caresses his head, sharing the burden of their failure. For all her advanced knowledge, she has not been able to find a way to signal for help. The universe has given her a second chance with this child.
Her firstborn must believe she abandoned him. In his advanced age, he must be cursing the stars. If only she could tell him he is not alone, that she is always with him in thought and prayer. He even has this new sibling half a universe away. She has dreamt of hearing her firstborn’s voice once more, but each day makes that dream edge closer to fantasy.
An acolyte calls her with a click of the tongue. Ewa rises and leaves Hector in their tiny hut as she walks to meet the Babaylan. As she walks through the village, most of the women sport their own baby bumps. A generation of Hector’s offspring, hers among them.
Inside the dome, she looks upon the ceremonial blade the Babaylan reveals to her. The blade cuts into the soil she kneels on, a wavy line heading towards a bulbous embryonic shape that is now outside of the triangle. The Babaylan slashes the single waving line – the umbilical cord. The blade hovers over the next shape – the fetus. The blade then points to the gender of the infant, and cuts.
Ewa cannot fathom this brutal ritual and what it portends– particularly from a tribe clearly descending from her own. If these tribes are descendants from lost missions like hers through the ages, how could they be so divergent? The gulf between them is not just of time and knowledge, but belief.
Like the Spartans who sacrificed the weak babies, Hector says. Only this time, it’s the males they dispose of. It is these moments of horrid revelation that make Ewa focus with laser-like acuity. She failed her firstborn, she refuses to fail her second.
Making a silent vow to the child she is carrying, Ewa advances the timeline of her plan. A number of sacred artifacts in the Babaylan’s tent are ancient technology. Using them in conjunction with the triboluminescent ore for power, she can send a pulsing beacon into space.
The couple look at the pieces she has been able to slowly smuggle out from the dome tent, but the equipment is beyond repair, they will be lucky to get a single pulse out of it. She resolves to try despite Hector’s protests. Once you trigger it, they’ll know! Her single mindedness overrules his warning.
Choosing the highest point near the village at a small outcropping on the mountain, Ewa has taken care to plant the various objects along the path. The red planet in the sky is full, illuminating the evening as the wind blows a monsoon chill. Sneaking towards the highest point, she sets up the ancient equipment powered by the ore and angles it towards her home galaxy. The machine hums, its first sign of life in millennia. In the hut, Hector’s fear manifests into prayer.
Ewa activates the beacon– a purple bolt of energy is loosed upon the sky! The tribe women see this immediately, shout their battle cries as they scramble to the point armed with their weapons and their gongs. The machine sputters a last gasp before the light dissipates. Ewa whispers an invocation to her firstborn as tears stream down her cheeks.
A fearsome harmony of roars cuts through her sorrow–two endemic dragons have erupted from their subterranean burrows from the lands in the distance, flying towards the point! As these beasts approach, she accepts that these monsters that she saw immediately upon landing in this alien world could also be the last she sees in this life, their spade-like heads slicing through the air.
But the dragons hesitate as the wall of sound emanates from the tribe women that have congregated around Ewa. The beasts halt their advance, stayed by the indignant vibrations from the gongs. The Babaylan arrives, striking the large ores in her hand as the energy crackles about. Tentacles of lightning form a triangle, wrapping around her and Ewa and the creatures that now hover calmly over the outcropping. Mesmerizing chants weave with the percussion. The dragons expel a mist from beneath their armored hide that envelopes everyone at the outcropping.
The mantis silhouette stands over Ewa, positioning a stone above the scientist’s head, then places her thumb upon the pregnant woman’s brow– Ewa’s eyes dilate. From a cluster of celestial forms, Ewa’s body emerges, made up of stars, her bare body floating in the cosmos. She looks to her abdomen and sees she is not carrying her child inside her. Instead the child floats before her with a galaxy swirling about her baby like a nest. All she can hear is this infant’s heartbeat echoing through the universe.
Another cluster of stars begins to emerge from the black, this time taking the pure form of the Babaylan. Sans any of her accoutrements, her slender body and wild hair is the vision Goddesses are born from. The form traverses the eons towards Ewa and glares at the infant. It is a boy.
Her gaze pierces Ewa’s thoughts. The mother refuses to agree to their ruthless ritual practice and shields her baby, understanding full well that her gesture may have just condemned them all to death.
But the Babaylan shifts her aggressive stance, the tilt of her head revealing her curiosity. She slowly reaches out to touch Ewa’s forehead and then focuses her gaze, her knitted brows tense with concentration. The galaxy behind Ewa reconfigures in the form of her first son, his face morphing from the toddler she remembers the day she left for space on her mission and his current state with 75 hard years of concern carving deep fissures on his brows. Evidence of the decades of faith that his mother still draws breath, where every fiber of his being remained sensitive for a sign to activate a myriad of potential solutions to a multitude of challenges. All his forms of past, present, and future, existing at once–Ewa’s emotions pour out as she sees her firstborn’s celestial form.
The priestess raises her hands, creating a triangle that she peers through. Ewa pleads silently, the priestess understands. With a command that echoes through time and space, the Babaylan propels Ewa’s consciousness to surge across the eons reaching her firstborn son. Astonished to be in such close proximity to her son’s soul, words escape her. Instead, she hums a familiar melody, the lullaby that used to soothe him—
Hear our songs from a distant star
My child, my child,
Your mother’s so far…
With a countenance composed of constellations, the immediate recognition of her voice is evident on his cosmic face. It is an expression only the flood of time and memory can spark– a supernova of tears. Hearing her song across the vastness of space, the son knows what he must do.
About the Author: Keith Sicat is an independent filmmaker and creator of the comic book “OFW: Outerspace Filipino Workers”. His films have screened internationally, including venues such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC. Notable works include award-winners “Rigodon”, “Woman of the Ruins”, and “Alimuom”. Also working in animation, he was the script consult for the first 3D CG animated feature in the Philippines “RPG: Metanoia” and helped develop the first Japanese-Filipino anime co-production “Barangay 143” with TV Asahi that is on NETFLIX. “EWA AND THE SONG FROM A DISTANT STAR” is his first published short story.