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The yule tree

From when she was a child, Marivic could see spirits.

A hairy creature, half-man and half horse and smoking a cigar, occupied the balite tree by the gate of their residential compound. Low hillocks in the garden, said by the gardener to be ant mounds, were occupied by tiny angry men from whom she early learned to ask leave whenever she passed them by. “Tabi-tabo po, nuno,” she would say, Excuse me, elder one. Once, she saw an unforgettable sight: seven beautiful biraddali with their silver wings sliding down a rainbow, scattering light-catching twinkles before they disappeared into the clouds.

But Marivic liked best the diwata that dwelt in trees. There was one in the neem behind the house and another in the ficus by the grotto. Her mother Mrs. Arboleda, a sophisticated Manileña, laughed and told her they were like the fairies in her storybooks, and that her visions were but birthings of her imagination. “Because you’re so creative, like me,” as she turned away in a swish of silk skirts and tinkle of bracelets.

Marivic’s father, a somber academic, was less dismissive but also inclined to believe that his daughter was more made of fickle fiction than prim-and-proper prose. After meeting her parents’ skepticism and failing to overcome it, Marivic kept her own counsel, making her parents believe she had outgrown her ‘fantasies.’

Unable to obtain support from her family, Marivic learned the lore of supernatural creatures from others in her household. The cook, who was from ghost-ridden Antique, had many stories to tell her, as did the gardener who hailed from Laguna, province of myth and mystics. When she was older, Marivic came to understand that her supernatural sight was a gift; though what it was for she did not understand.

She often sensed the diwata as presences hovering around trees but could not quite discern their appearance. Her gift of sight was not clear enough, save that she perceived an indwelling spirit attached to each tree, and that the spirit took the form of a young maiden.

Marivic’s studies into the nature of the spirits of land, sea, and air of the islands led her to a story by Jose Rizal, “Maria Makiling,” and a description therein of that deity:

“According to eyewitnesses she was a young girl, tall, well-shaped, with large black eyes, long and abundant hair. Her color was a clear and light brown, the kayumanggi-kaligatan, as the Tagalogs say; her hands and feet, small and exquisite; and the expression of her face, always grave and serious.

“She was a fantastic creature, half nymph, half sylph, born of the rays of the moon of the Philippines, in the mystery of its august forests and to the lullaby of the murmurs of the neighboring lake.”

For Marivic, this passage sufficed to grant her a picture of what the diwata of the ficus looked like, and this was the image she held in her mind, ever more, of the spirit she felt clasping the tree with her slim brown arms.

*  * *

The diwata in the ficus was aware that the young girl of the household could see her. Such as she was, the clear-sighted, were few. In general, they left the engkanto, the enchanted, undisturbed. The diwata was pleased that in summer the girl watered her parched tree and scattered offerings of gumamela at its base, and in the rainy season cut away the broken branches and encumbering vines.

Her life was linked to that of the tree’s, and she was grateful for the care lavished on the ficus, whose growth meant the continuance of her own existence. The seasons came and went; the tree and its diwata flourished in the green stillness of its crowning leaves and the cheerful chirping of the maya and bulbul that nested in its stout branches.

Kalípay, kalípay, sang the diwata. Happy, happy. Kasádya sang pangabúhî! Life is joyful!

  • • •

Marivic was sixteen when her mother decided to cut down the ficus.

“I was thinking of something totally creative to do for the holidays,” Mrs. Arboleda warbled as she glided around the living room. “A living tree as our Christmas tree! We don’t have pines so we’ll make do with whatever’s in the garden.”

“No!” cried Marivic, aghast. “If you cut the tree down, its diwata will die! We have a perfectly good artificial tree in the bodega.”

“You are too old for fairy tales, anak,” Mrs. Arboleda said. “Anyway, it’s too late for you to complain—the gardener and his helper have started the work.”

Outside, the sound of an axe biting into wood tore the garden’s peace.

  • • •

Each stroke of the axe was agony. The diwata felt each of the sharp, savage blows on her body, though no blood flowed as it would from a mortal body. The pain was the price she paid for being part of the tree; she and it cleaved to each other as one, never to be severed except at unspeakable cost.

She knew not death as mortals did. What their kind experienced was dissolution and a return of their essence to the moon and stars, to the nature that had begotten the creatures on both sides of the invisible veil of life; and she knew this fate was near.

The wood proving to be singularly tough, the men dragged a chainsaw from the toolshed. Revving the saw to life, they applied the cruel teeth of the whirring blade to the tree trunk, to make shorter work of cutting it. The diwata clung tighter to the tree, felt its bark rough under her fingers, the sap beneath the bark singing its pulsing, weakening, hymn of green vitality.

Kalúoy, kalulúoy, she sang. Pitiful, pitiful. Dakû nga kághà kag kasubô! Great grief and sorrow!

*  * *

The tree was finally cut down and its stump wrenched up, its roots rent with a groan from the muddy black soil. Feeling her life force ebbing away, the diwata resigned herself to her evil fate, but not without casting spells of vengeance on the two males who desecrated her tree.

Her power was not as those of the most puissant in the ranks of the vanadevata, the forest spirits of which she was one, but potent enough to inflict rheumatism on the crabbed toes of one, arthritis on the back of the other. Her fingers flicked, bolts of energy shot out, and, in surprise, one man put a hand to the small of his back as the other pulled the shoes off his feet and massaged them.

But the men were not done with the ficus. In spite of the fresh aches they suffered, they raised the remains of the tree and inserted its cut end into a glazed terracotta planter filled with soil, which they watered generously. The diwata, astonished at this strange development, sensed the tree revive somewhat. It was still dying, but now the process would be a lengthy, drawn-out one, unnatural.

*  * *

The tree in the pot was taken into the living room. Marivic watched as her mother, putting up both thumbs and forefingers into L’s, looked into her makeshift viewfinder to find the best position for the tree. “I want it to have pride of place,” Mrs. Arboleda said. “Right there in the corner, thank you,” she told the men, who lowered the massive planteronto the marble floor and departed.

Out came the boxes of ornaments collected by the family through the years. They sparkled, twinkled in Mrs. Arboleda’s hands: hand-blown glass spheres from Czechoslovakia, fine ceramics shaped like reindeer and other holiday motifs from Germany, intricately folded paper baubles from Japan.

She fastened them here and there on the tree, twining artificial fir garlands and fairy lights on the branches, until the tree glowed jeweled and golden in the light of her satisfaction. “Really, I could not have had a better idea for our holiday decorations!” Mrs. Arboleda congratulated herself. “The tree looks so fresh and vibrant!”

She set Marivic to arranging the brightly wrapped and beribboned presents under the tree, and walked off to the kitchen to discuss the Noche Buena dishes with the cook.

*  * *

Marivic was distressed to see the desecrated tree in their living room, more so to sense the diwata hunkered miserably by the pot, displaced from her usual perch on the branches by masses of gaudy tinsel and adornments.

“I regret this happened,” she whispered. “If you can hear me, diwata, please accept my apologies in behalf of my family. If I can make amends, I will.” She laid a large green coconut at the foot of the tree, where it looked inappropriate and out of place, but it was one of the fruits Rizal mentioned that were offered to the engkanto.

Andam ka! Beware! the diwata said. I am most angry. Akig gid ko ya kaayo. Your ilk has destroyed my tree, which is the flesh of my body and the life blood of my existence. For what reason did you undertake this?

I am sorry, said Marivic, tearing up. This was the first time she had ever spoken with an engkanto, whom she usually saw, not heard. My mother used your tree to observe a cultural tradition called Yule. It is also a religious holiday we call Christmas, to laud the birth of the son of the Supreme Being we worship.

I die for your god?

No, said Marivic, ashamed. For my mother’s desire.

At first the diwata was disposed to be unforgiving, as anyone would be whose demise was imminent and caused by nothing more significant than ignorance and vanity. Her first impulse was to yield to petulance and, notwithstanding the coconut, blight the girl’s miky complexion or exact some other punishment.

Yet she could not blame the young girl. It was not her hand that wielded the axe. And there few enough such as her whose eyes pierced the screen that shielded creatures of supernatural nature from the gaze of humans, and whose demeanors were conciliatory and respectful.

It is as Bathala wills, the diwata said. When the Kachila came to our islands, our rich mountains and fertile valleys, it was the black-robed ones among them who brought word of a new god. This one at times was as a babe carried in his mother’s arms, other times a young man slain by his enemies on a crossed tree, as I recall the story. Is it as I say?

It is, said Marivic.

Is he venerated by many?

Yes, by billions all over the world, and an entire civilization was built in his honor.

And the old religion of these islands…?

…Is remembered by few, and practiced by none I know. And those such as I who can see your kind, are afraid rather than worshipful of you, whom they consider born of evil at worst, and superstition at best.

The new god has won the world, then, said the diwata. My strength now wanes as the moon from which I sprung. After your celebration of the birth of the Sacrificed One, take what remains of my tree and preserve it, after the fashion of your kind. Keep it by you to avert the misfortune that your mother’s act of desecration may bring upon your household.

Thank you, Marivic whispered. I will honor your memory.

Paálam kag padáyon! Farewell and go forth! The diwata’s voice faltered, and fell silent.

*  * *

Mrs. Arboleda was at first irked at Marivic’s insistence on keeping the dead trunk and branches of the tree that she used, quite successfully, as a Christmas tree. It was a hit among her amigas, who called her “unusually creative as usual!” and paid her more lavish compliments.

Basking in her interior-decorating triumph, she acquiesced to her daughter’s plea. Marivic had been looking quite depressed lately, dear child; so Mrs. Arboleda was inclined to let her have her way in this, and take her interest as a sign that Marivic had inherited her creativity.

Marivic took the ficus log and branches to a woodworking artist, who cut the hard wood into circles, laid them in a pleasing design on a plank so as to cover it, and poured clear resin into the cracks and crannies and on the surface. He attached sturdy iron legs to the bottom. The result was a handsome table that Marivic used, ever after, as her writing desk.

And all that she wrote on it was published, staged, performed, studied to much acclaim. She never saw any engkantos again, but she did not forget the diwata; and whenever the rays of the full moon fell on the table, she swore she could see motes of silvery light trace and dance their way up the moonbeams, as she heard a soft murmur: Kalípay sa kalibútan!Joy to the world!

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