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Maria only went to fetch some water. She meant no harm. Her mother was struggling in her labour; the baby was too large to part her small hips. She strained and sweated on her woven sleeping mat as the infant tried to struggle free; her long, blue-black hair plastered onto her forehead with water and salt.
Maria’s grandmother said, “Listen to me. There is a spring whose waters are good for easing the passage of the baby through the bone-cage. Follow the North path out of the barrio and go two miles past the largest mango tree. The forest-people live there, and there are ghosts, but they should not trouble you. The spring you’re seeking wells up between two large banyan trees that are always in flower. The spring itself is in a stone grotto, like the home of the Virgin. The water looks like gold. You will know it on sight.”
The old woman handed Maria a small, weathered Coke bottle with a twist of rag for a cork. Maria slipped it safe into the front pocket of her flower-print dress.
The old woman patted her shoulder, “Hurry, child.”
“Yes Nanai,” she said, and walked out the door.
Maria’s house stood at the very edge of the village, one more palm-hut roofed with corrugated slabs of iron that had turned brown in the acid rain that blew in from the city. Her family was not poor. They were not wealthy enough to afford electricity or cinderblock walls, but they had a lot of livestock, two outfits each, and they never went a day without food. Maria went to school, and did well there, even though she had to learn her lessons in English; a language foreign to her.
The deep, dark forest is the same everywhere on earth. Here, in Luzon, it loomed, black and impenetrable, just outside Maria’s door.
Maria hurried along the path her grandmother set her upon; the road seemed to glow with white dust, even beneath a canopy of green that closed out the sun and dropped the temperature a full ten degrees. She saw a few snakes, drinking in the warmth of the white chalky road, but they did not trouble her. She heard a few screams; a troop of monkeys, hardly worth noticing.
In a few minutes, Maria reached the large mango. It stood thirty feet tall and its branches were hung with huge globes of ripe red-gold fruit. A few had fallen to the earth and, since they were nearly perfect (and she couldn’t reach the better ones) she slipped one into her pocket with the empty glass bottle. The other fruit was larger, but it had a bruise near the stem, so she started eating it right away. She didn’t want the juice to seep into her school-dress; it had just been washed, if she stained it now she would attract flies for a week and have to live with the smell of spoilt fruit.
The pulp was soft and sweet between her sharp white teeth. The juice ran over her chin. She wiped herself clean with the back of her brown hand.
Past the large mango, the path devolved into a trail fit for children or wild pigs. It faltered to a thin white thread she followed with her feet. She sucked the oblong, string-trailing seed of her mango until the flavour was gone. Then she spat the stone onto the ground. When it hit the soil, she heard a loud cry, “Tik Tik!” The voice, if it was a voice, was loud. It echoed through the trees. She could not find the source of it.
Maria knew a lot of stories that she tried not to think about. She walked a little faster down the vanishing path.
She reached the banyan trees, the spring, about half an hour after she set out from her small house. The flavour of the mango was a memory in her mouth. The trees were larger than anything that she had ever seen. They were wider around than the church in her barrio, their trunks composed of many flesh-like grey stalks that joined like arches around dark hollows that were big enough to house four families. There were gaps in the trunk where hidden eyes could peer out at her, and the brown, fibrous roots hung down from the branches like human hair, trailing onto the earth.
She swallowed, screwing up her courage. Maria was afraid, but looking up, she saw that her grandmother had told her the truth. Among the tree’s green-black shiny, coin-sized leaves, flurries of miniscule white blossoms were blooming. She could see the fountain bubbling in its stone bowl between the twin, elephantine trunks.
The water really was gold!
The sight of it, the pure metallic smell (and the memory of her mother’s sweat-stained face) gave the girl courage. She ran to the lip of the spring and knelt on the sandy soil by the roots of the banyan that stood nearest the village. She took the bluish glass Coke-bottle from her pocket, pulled out the cork, and bent to plunge its mouth in water.
“Tik Tik! Tik Tik!” the echoing cry flew out at her from the black hollows of the banyan. Maria heard the solid clunk, the machine-like ratatat of horse-hooves on wood. She jumped up and screamed.
The tree, with its many dark doors, stood between her body and the path. Another tree, as alive, as ominous, stood to her left. She would not dare jump into the sacred water; she had nowhere to run.
“Tik Tik! Tik Tik!” the cry continued, growing ever louder. Something hard scraped across wood. Maria saw white sparks flickering across her field of vision. Her mouth tasted like she’d been sucking copper pesos. Breathing hard, she closed her eyes and brought the calm face of her Nanai swimming to the surface of her thoughts.
Suddenly, the tumult stopped. It halted like the cry of a chicken, decapitated with one sharp stroke of her grandmother’s knife. She heard the sound of water, bubbling up into the basin it carved itself in stone. She felt the pound of blood in her temples and clear warm air on her face.
Maria took a deep breath and smelled only green earth and her own stinking fear-sweat.
She opened her eyes.
The trunk of the banyan opened to black three feet from her face. The hole in the trunk gaped like a window. A face stared out of it. A creature was staring at her. It had the long chestnut-furred face of a horse, equine ears high up on its head. They swivelled in confusion. Maria gasped, covering her mouth with the hand that did not hold the bottle.
The creature startled, cried out “Tik Tik!” in its oddly humanoid voice. Maria thought that it was speaking a language, one she could not understand. The thing plastered its ears flat to its skull. Its teeth were yellow and very sharp. It leaned out of the hole, revealing a long, man-like neck frilled with a mane made of sharp, poisonous-looking spikes.
Maria forced herself to stand very still. She was hardly breathing. When she had been quiet for a while, the creature drew back. It still stared out at her, but its ears rose up again and the whites of its eyes shrank until she could see only its black, equine pupil.
Maria thought very hard.
She remembered the unbruised mango weighing down her pocket. Moving very slowly, very cautiously, keeping her eyes open and on the face of the Tikbalang (she paused whenever she saw the velvet ears fall back) she reached into her pocket with her empty hand and brought the fragrant fruit out into the open.
Maria watched the Tikbalang’s soft-haired nostrils flex as the creature snuffled at the mango. She held it out, waiting until its horsey ears flicked forward with interest.
It said, “Tik Tik?”
Then, Maria smiled. She said, very softly, “I need the water for my mother. She’s very sick with her next child.”
The creature was leaning out of the hole in the tree, snuffing the air between them.
Maria continued, “Do you like mangos? I will give this one to you if you’ll let me have some water.”
As soon as the words were out of her mouth, the Tikbalang reached out of its hole (its arms were very long, too long for its head) and plucked the fruit from her hands with jointed fingers that looked like they had been skilfully carved from black hooves. Maria felt their texture against her palms for a moment as it scooped up the fruit. They were very hard, and razor sharp. Later, she found a thin red trail running down the centre of her palm, a mark from where the claws had grazed her, usurping her fate-line. It never healed.
As soon as the Tikbalang had hold of the fruit, it shunted its body back into its home, retreating like a spider into its hole. When it was gone, the woods seemed suddenly darker, and eerily quiet. Maria filled her bottle quickly. The water was golden in the stone bowl, and stayed golden when it was decanted into the worn glass bottle. She stuck the cloth plug in and ran for home, carrying her treasure in her hands. While she was running, it continued to glow.
Maria made it to the village very quickly. Even so, she was just in time. The baby was rushing fast to earth and her mother was pale. Her lips were parched and her black eyes were as glazed as the eyes of a market-fish at the end of the day. Maria handed the bottle to her grandmother who poured a few drops into her daughter’s gaping wound of a mouth. Her labour eased instantly. The baby was born a few minutes later, a boy, healthy and strong. Maria’s mother held him to her milk-rich breast.
After the excitement had passed, Maria took the mostly-full bottle down from the shelf that held her family’s special-things; the icon, the Bible. She sipped a little water. It tasted like mango and metal, sweet coins dissolving in her mouth. As the liquid touched her tongue, Maria heard the cry of “Tik Tik!” echoing in her ears. Maria smiled when she heard it. She would never run out of stories.