A Manananggal Replies to a Child
Marble floor oiled by moonlight.
The town’s Storyteller gathered you
around a kandila every night –
he claimed I crashed onto his roof –
pierced it with my sword-sharp tongue
that descended to a somnolent abdomen.
He pulled out an invisible machete,
candlelight pulsing on his raised wrist.
He swung, and bragged how it cut me –
my chopped tongue flicking,
a headless snake that whips
my scabbed face.
Since then, you’ve hung bundles
of garlic above the doorway,
kept a packet of rock salt,
and screamed at the sky,
Makasariling manananggal –
my tongue, a patalim of selfish desires.
But the streets
are unfolding their secrets –
black wings stretch.
My stomach smoulders,
each tendon tears, muscles
seethe like sulphur.
The air ruptures at each wing-slap
while my lower half hides
in the rust of a vulcanising shop.
To be whole is to cut myself in half.
To rebuild is to leave
all that I love.
A flap of my skin drips
blood onto the village’s alleys,
onto the plaza where children sleep,
bellies on cement benches
as their siblings rummage for the rejects
of the day in plastic bins.
My blood steeps
a taong grasa, reddens
her grime-black cheeks
as she squats on a footpath
and nibbles her own world
in a cigarette butt.
My blood rattles and fills
the can of a man slumped at an eskinita.
His left eye rotting with a clump of flies.
In a city cremated by its residual light,
would you not wish to leave your body?
Child, would you not take flight?
Aren’t women more beautiful
when they callous into beasts?
Aren’t mothers more lamentable
when they don’t die but leave? –
to glide over newer cities where rooftops,
in their kamacite-glint, make you believe
in houses with windows that flicker
in the glow of new lampara,
where a banquet table blisters
with ube cakes and cherry gelatins,
and every bed has sheets
calescent as skin.
My child, didn’t the Storyteller
warn you that one day you could be
the one scavenging
for thrown-away meat,
your father the man
with an empty can at his feet?
No machete, no salt,
no thumb tracing pearl rosaries,
no garlic dangling at the threshold
can deter me. In the jungle of my ribcage,
a heart flares, about to shred
the night into songs.
Let the town enumerate my faults,
and hunt down my lower half. My intestines
pulverise in the shine of thrown salt
and I risk not finding my way back.
In another life, I’m just another mother,
praying we could make it through daybreak –
my fingertips dipped in banal na tubig
in a colossal clam held by a sculpted angel.
My collarbone sparkles with a bead
necklace from you, my child.
For now, my blood floods the cities
that pass through me. My shoulder blades
protrude through my skin
and fracture into an expanse
of bat-like wings.
One day you’ll see a flock of severed women
swarm around me, swirling and churning
with a fury of typhoons –
hear the riot of our wings
and learn, my child – all mothers are manananggal
meshing the sky that is always the colour of shredded flesh.
Romalyn Ante grew up in the Philippines and moved to the UK when she was 16 years old. She is a winner of the Poetry London Clore Prize, joint-winner of the Manchester Writing Competition and the Creative Future Literary Award. She is a Jerwood/Arvon mentee and most recently, selected for the Poetry Schools’ Primers. Her debut pamphlet, Rice & Rain, won the Saboteur Award for Best Poetry Pamphlet. and her first collection, Antiemetic for Homesickness, is published in 2020 by Chatto & Windus.