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from the November 2019 issue

Erlina’s Sugilanon

In a group of tales by Tito Valiente drawing on a Filipino storytelling tradition, a supernatural beast seduces a young woman.

Editor’s Note: A Sugilanon is a form of story told orally. The power of the Sugilanon or tale depends on the skill and charisma of the narrator as he weaves the details of the story.

Erlina's Sugilanon Begins

Erlina was the all-around maid in my maternal grandmother's home. We did not have a wet nurse because by the time she arrived in that house, we were all little boys of three, six, and eight. Erlina, however, took care of us three with her stories that, as I look back now, involved huge pudenda and massive genitalia from giants of yore. Even Erlina's dwarfs were strange, little men. Vindictive, they were color coded: The yellow ones could be cajoled; the red ones accepted negotiation; the blue and black ones, because they lived underground and beneath the riverbeds and wet caves, always had judgments that were final. Anyone who incurred their ire was kidnapped and brought to their kingdom and their mind never returned. This, according to Erlina, explained the many mad men and women on the island of Ticao. 

Erlina had what you may call a suite of stories. These involved the Onglo, a half-man, half-horse being. The Onglo was really a man with a mane for hair but he stood upright and had strong legs that looked like those of a horse. Instead of toes, he had hooves. His face had elongated features and his eyes were sharp and keen for day and night. The Onglo could stare straight into the sun and, thus, at daytime, no one could hide from him. At night, he did not need the moon or the stars. Erlina, in fact, said the Onglo derived his strength from the light of the stars. 

Something needs to be mentioned about Erlina’s cousin, Viring. When there was a dance at the town plaza, Viring would go to San Fernando. We knew when there was a dance because Erlina would whip out a dress. We never knew where she got the textiles, but they were of the kind that had the colors of orchards and meadows. By sheer design, Erlina would see to it that bulbs of flowers would cluster around the bodice. Trees and wild leaves would form the hemline. At the sleeves, Erlina reserved roots that seemed to agonize over their growth. 

Viring carried her own dress, already finished by the time she arrived in the house. Where Erlina opted for bright, bright dresses, Viring preferred brown and dark forests. Her blouse would be light brown and her skirt brown also but darkened by rows and rows of leafless trees and gray and amber roots that were turned up, reaching out for the sky and not submerged in the ground. 

Both Erlina and Viring had narrow waists that magazines then referred to as wasplike. Wasplike! I think Erlina and Viring were really wasps transformed by the Onglo into fine, obedient, industrious women who worked for some households in order to evangelize little boys with their tales of the Onglo.


The Power of the Onglo

Why is the Onglo so powerful? We were huddled around Erlina, who was then getting ready to cook a kolo, or breadfruit. Erlina told us the Onglo could just run and hop and fly up a kolo tree and then gather its fruits without disturbing a family of banog or hawk living up there. He was that powerful.

Erlina said, like any normal person, she did not know where the Onglo got his power. Actually, the night Erlina first saw an Onglo was the night the creature was regenerating his power. It was early morning, at about two, when they all woke up to catch the sight of a comet on the eastern horizon of the sky. All of her brothers and sisters were looking out of the window, their heads covered by a blanket, for the morning was chilly. But Erlina was Lola Abing's favorite grandchild and the old woman encouraged Erlina to go back to where the old well was. A lonesome Atimoya tree, a favorite haunt of black dwarfs, hovered over the well. 

Lola Abing advised Erlina to walk slowly and avoid stepping on dead twigs and rotten kolo leaves because they made loud crackling noises. Lola Abing warned Erlina though that what she would see would be scary not because the vision would strike terror in Erlina's young heart but because she might fall under the spell of the Onglo.

So Erlina was there in her chemise, her waist even narrower than the wasp's. Half-crouching and half-crawling, Erlina reached the edge of the Atimoya tree. She knew so because she had stepped on a fallen fruit of the tree and her toes felt like she had stepped on dung. 

Erlina looked up; the comet appeared to have swung low, its tail touching the crown of the Atimoya tree. The leaves of the tree sparkled; silver flames shot up and brushed past the comet's tail. A figure moved below this incandescence. Erlina looked away from the bright skies and saw the strong head of the Onglo. His head was turned up, his mouth was open. He was drinking the silver and the diamond from the comet's tail, his throat gurgling. Erlina marveled at that throat that was like the trunk of a tree. The Onglo’s chest was heaving as he swallowed some more. He was drinking infinity with a tongue that was lapping up the light that shone in his throat. 

The Onglo's legs were spread apart. He was horse below and something dark and turgid was swinging back and forth. Erlina, all of fourteen, felt a sensation in her thighs as she cupped her tiny breasts. The Onglo was the handsomest boy Erlina ever saw. She fell in love. 


The Onglo Sees Erlina

Lola Abing, for all her wisdom, was not wise. It was not wise to spy on an Onglo getting power from the stars or comets. Gabunan, a man who transforms himself into a witch once a year. The onglo was gabunan when it came to power-sourcing.

Lola Abing was also smart. Avoid the scandalous kolo leaves because they make loud noises. The light of the comet was dimming as the Kagbubuwas—the Star-that-is-of-the-morning-becomingwas getting stronger.

The sheen on the face of the Onglo was vanishing and his face started to come forth. Aquiline nose, eyes that were shimmering gray and deep, lips that were thin on top and full on bottom, orange and pink combined to shape the mouth that, Erlina thought, was eternally hungry. As the comet moved away from the Atimoya tree, the Onglo bristled and shook his long silver hair. His legs quivered as if he was defecating. The Onglo was flailing his arms and the hair from the hands was falling and swirling. Erlina got so scared she turned around, panicked. The dry kolo leaves crackled. The Onglo turned his head. He saw the young girl, the lovely girl that was Erlina. He knew that was his girl.


Erlina is Enchanted by the Onglo

Erlina had fallen under the spell of the Onglo. Lola Abing, an Aswang, had no power over the Onglo. The Onglo was the opposite of the Aswang: the Onglo became more beautiful when he was angry and worked his enchantment; the Aswang turned uglier as it summoned its power. 

Welts and rashes covered the face, breasts, and arms of Erlina. Nanay Gurang saw tiny specks of silver hairs on the face, especially on the lips and breasts and arms of Erlina.

Nanay Gurang was the only healer who could approach the tricks of the Onglo. Nanay Gurang had lustrous white hair that reached her ankles. When she swung it around and around to make braids, Nanay Gurang was a mighty mare with the longest mane.

Nanay Gurang was now swinging her white mane back and forth. She was whipping Erlina, the hair making more welts and rashes on the face, breasts, and arms of Erlina.

Out in the woods, just behind the Atimoya tree, in a forest forever unseen by mortals, the Onglo was writhing, suppressing the screams coming from within, welts appearing on his orange and pink lips, the rashes surfacing from below the skin of his arms and chest. All throughout his agony, the Onglo had his mouth open as sap from an old tree fell into his mouth. As more sap fell into his gaping mouth, the cheeks of the Onglo turned white, then golden. He did not have wings, but Erlina, in her account, mentioned how the Onglo resembled the big angel on the ceiling of the old church. That angel came when Lolo Doroy, the last sacristan mayor of Ticao, rang the bell for the dying priest who was, as my grandmother Emilia recalled, as handsome as all encantos of Mount Diwata put together. 

That afternoon, as the Onglo marveled at the power of Nanay Gurang, he cried for the first time. He remembered his mother, whose mane was like the hair of Nanay Gurang.

Tired of the mortal world, Nanay Gurang stopped turning her head. She started cursing the surroundings.

On the other side of the world, the Onglo wept. He knew he was in love.


The Love of the Onglo

Erlina was truly a funny woman. Her sense of humor was so charming, she could get away with those difficult words in her stories. Those were words that should not be uttered in front of young boys and girls. 

Here is one story.

The Onglo once fell in love with a mortal woman. Her name was Maria. This woman never saw the Onglo under the stars. When the Onglo appeared to her, he was ugly as an ordinary horse. Maria avoided the Onglo, who, nonetheless, persisted.

There was something in the Onglo's manner of wooing that was odd. Every time he caught Maria, he would tickle the woman till she begged him to stop. As Erlina put it, Maria could not bear this love anymore. She came up with many counterstrategies. The Onglo would come during late afternoons. Maria decided that she would cover herself, her face and extremities, with salong, sap from the rubber tree. She had a dress the color of the trunk of an old tree. Standing with her back to the tree, Maria disappeared. 

But the Onglo did not come at three in the afternoon. The Onglo did not come at four. The Onglo was nowhere near the house of Maria. 

It was already early evening when the Onglo appeared with a small torch with him. Maria was already very tired at this point. The Onglo came near Maria's house but he could not see Maria. For hours, the Onglo shouted the name of Maria. The Onglo was nearly giving up. He leaned against the trunk of the tree where Maria was. The Onglo was falling asleep but he tried to raise the torch up until the heat started to melt the salong on the face and arms of Maria. The young woman screamed and the Onglo stood up in haste, laughed, and started tickling Maria. The tickling, according to Erlina, hurt, because the Onglo, if you remember, was a horse first. Fierce and unrelenting, the Onglo never knew how to be gentle.

Maria came up with more devices to escape the Onglo. One day, after a long bout of tickling, Maria was really exhausted and almost dying. She thought, this time, of burying herself in the sand. I am certain, Maria convinced herself, that the Onglo will never find me.

That afternoon, at three, the Onglo came bellowing Maria’s name. He was asking Maria to join him for fishing in the river. There was no response from Maria, who was buried under the sand, her tiny nostrils flaring but barely seen. The Onglo kept shouting: Maria, Maria. Where are you?

The Onglo was enraged. He was pacing back and forth with the hook of his fishing device raking the sand. Then, ay, the Onglo heard that faint voice. The hook of his fishing line had hit Maria’s flaring nostrils. The Onglo jumped with joy, dug Maria from her early grave, and started tickling her.

Why tickle? I thought the Onglo loved Maria. 

To this question, which we never failed to ask, Erlina responded that Maria would merely scream with laughter, her eyes turning into two tiny distant stars, her stomach quivering like the big stomach of the giants in her story. 


The Death of the Onglo

The Onglo did not die on us. Erlina, however, stopped telling us about him. "Did Maria die, Erlina?" This time, the question did not make her shriek with laughter. She just looked into the distance, at our own kolo tree, where green and yellow parrots resided. The banog had left the town and settled far, far from the people

Erlina began talking of ugly fairies called the Buringkantada and the Kapre and the Tambaloslos. We found these stories boring because they were told by other women too. Erlina was special and the Onglo was special.

"Can the Onglo die?" Once more, the question did not touch Erlina the way other questions from us did. 

One day, Erlina was not in the kitchen anymore. There was a new helper, Yangga, a young woman who laughed always and made us laugh as well.

Some people say Erlina got married to this bad man who beat her and made her sad. Then one day, Erlina's husband beat her more badly because he saw welts and rashes on her lips. The man accused Erlina of being unfaithful. 

When the husband, who was a drunkard, fell asleep one late afternoon, Erlina escaped to Poro, near the farm of Lolo Doroy. She was last seen ferrying a raft across Lagang, where the sea met the river that cut across the island of Ticao. She has not been seen since then.

When the moon is full, people talk of a woman dressed in the color of rich farms and meadows with flowers yet unnamed, with kolo leaves at the hem of her skirt. The brave ones call her Erlina and the brave ones affirm that the woman looks over her shoulder and laughs. The woman is not alone. Standing at the edge of the raft, the green water of the river lapping at his hooves, a man has his face turned toward the sky as bits of moonbeams enter his open mouth. He is the handsomest of them all, eyes clear as the sea, lips orange and pink, and hands with specks of stars. When the two realize that they’ve drawn a crowd, some say the man stomps his horse legs and the raft slides and then glides into the dark river, and vanishes. 


Those who believe the story of Erlina, the brave fishermen especially, they swim after the raft and, the braver ones say, are able to gather bits of moonbeams and use them for luck in love, for love that never ends, for love that grows stronger when the moon is bright and full.

© Tito Valiente. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.

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