Where I was 7, I acquired a small handmade booklet of Filipino myths and legends bound with a stapler. It felt like a secret passed from palm to palm. In the book were stories how the first humans sprung out of bamboo, how the pineapple was a once a lazy girl, why the Filipino is brown, stories about the gods and goddesses that the people believed in before the Spanish came.
And hungry for more. I asked my mom what stories her nannies used to tell her when she was a child. “Oh you know, about princesses and princes,” she answered as if it wasn’t interesting at all. And it wasn’t to her, but it was to me, with my imagination overflowing and in need of more. I left disappointed. While the Cinderellas and Sleeping Beauties, knights and kings, were the stories that made up my childhood, I already knew there were more, and those stories were supposed to belong to someone like me, not just the golden haired and fair skinned.
My dad supplied just a dribble more. He told us about the aswang (vampires) with their long tongues that would stick down through the nipa hut roof and drink your blood, and the dwende (dwarves) who would cause trouble in your homes, how you always had to beg pardon when passing a certain tree so that you don’t anger the spirits. I wanted more, but the stories stopped there. They weren’t as much stories as warnings.
When I was older, I was hungry still, I gravitated to the library shelves of world mythologies. I devoured them all. I could come back from the library with an armful of Irish myths, but all I had of my own remained that slim little booklet.
When I was 14, on a trip to the Philippines, the katulong (house helper) at my uncle’s house killed a beautiful orange lizard and I was upset. “It brings the lightning,” he explained to us. I heard my aunties whisper that whatever business opened in the corner store kept failing because of multo (ghosts). These things were a matter of fact, not just superstition.
When I was older yet, I learned stories peripherally through dance. Dances acting out planting the fields and praying to the gods for blessing, or hunting magical birds, and lovers turned into volcanoes. But these were tiny things, scraps of stories sanitized and stylized for consumption, reproduced from vague bits of information, that were felt rather than known. But it was a small glimpse of something more, that left me with questions. Stories with holes like sieves. Context lost.
From my friends I learned ghost stories that kept me up at night. We shivered at stories of the white lady, and the footsteps heard in empty rooms, dwende shaking beds and causing trouble in our homes. I never thought of these as folktales, because to us they weren’t stories, just life.
A few months ago, I found another book of folktales, just twice as fat as my palm sized booklet, and barely half as tall. It was entirely a different thing. This was a book of folktales written after Spanish colonization had taken hold. Instead of magic, there were miracles. Instead of selfish girls turned into plants, pious old women saved their villages. Local spirits became engkanto (fairies). Goddesses turned into lonely women who wandered the mountains.
I think about how much was lost and what echoes are left behind. What does it do to you when your ancestors stories are stripped away and all you’re left with are monsters?
P.S. If you haven’t read this, I highly recommend it: After a Revolution “We are tinder. Stories are the spark.”