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A Thousand Beginnings and Endings by Ellen Oh (1)

Do not trust the fruit of Maria Makiling.

If you find your pockets full of thorny fruit, throw it out the window. Do not taste it. Do not stroke the rind and wonder at the impossible pink of its color . . . not meat pink or tongue pink, but that delicate rose of dawn pushing herself from the arms of night. It is not a color of this world.

Fill your pockets with salt. Turn your shirt inside out. Tell Maria you have taken nothing.

But when you walk away, say a prayer.

For it is not her fault.

The Mountain couldn’t help but stare.

She had been staring since the moon was nothing but a knob of unripe fruit, and she had been leaning out over her palace since the sky was still the raw and wounded red of a newborn.

Mortals were not beautiful in the sense that their features were pleasing, although some of them had pleasing features, of course. But in truth, they were beautiful because you could only glimpse them. They were beautiful for their fragility, disappearing as fast as a bloom of ice beneath sunlight. And made more beautiful by the fact that they were always changing.

“Dayang,” said her father, peering down from his clouds. “Be careful not to lean out so far that your heart falls out.”

The Mountain merely laughed.

Her heart was safe.

It was an ill-fated thing to claim that a heart is safe. Hearts are rebellious. The moment they feel trapped, they will strain against their bindings.

And it was so with the Mountain.

Few visited her, for few could climb the sides of the Mountain. In this way, the Mountain diwata discovered loneliness. It was the feeling of negative space, the sudden cold of a column of sunlight moving slowly elsewhere. The diwata wondered what it would be like to be held by the same set of arms each day and night. The Mountain shed lovers like seasons. It was the diwatas’ way, just as fruit could not help but fall, and rain could not help but slide.

One day, the diwata went near the bottom of her slope and bathed in a small pool there. When she finished, she let her black hair dry on a sun-warmed rock. Her eyes closed.

She waved her hands lazily, sleepily. Beneath her palms, a cluster of anemones unfurled from the ground and nuzzled her fingers. A face rose to mind: a human boy with sloe eyes who had wandered up the Mountain a few days past. He had not seen her, which had not surprised her. But what had surprised her was the flare of disappointment in her heart. She wanted to be seen.

A quiet snap broke her thoughts.

A different silence chased the stillness. It was not the silence of emptiness, but intention. It felt like a living thing.

Someone had meant to stop.

The Mountain jolted upright.

There, standing in the clearing of the woods, was a young mortal man. He wore a beautiful hunting cloak and held a knife, but when he saw her, he dropped it. He sank to his knees, flinging out his arms.

“Goddess, I beg your forgiveness,” said the young man.

The Mountain held back a snort. It was not kind to laugh in the face of faith. Yet she was still young, too, and had not learned how to mask her features. Around her, the wind crinkled the leaves.

The young man looked up from his prostration.

“I am no goddess,” said the Mountain.

His eyebrows curved into a question. “Are you not the spirit of the Mountain?”

“I am.”

But she thought of her mother, her sisters—the ones who spent their time painting stars onto the sky, swelling rivers, and dreaming of new beings. Not like her, whose duty was to tend and not create. Not that the Mountain minded. She got to be close to something that was just a distant dream to the others. She got to be near humans.

The man stood. The Mountain stared. His eyes were not yet crimped by too much sun. His hair was raven lustrous and his muscles lean and sleek. Her heart, though still firmly behind her bones, leaned out curiously.

“Then forgive my presumption,” he said. “I couldn’t help but think that the most beautiful woman I had ever seen would naturally be a goddess.”

She pushed herself off the rock and walked toward him. His eyes widened, wonder tilting his brows and parting his lips. A thrill ran through the Mountain. She laced frost in her hair like a bejeweled net to gather the black strands and expose the steep drop of her neck. Her dress shone sheer and iridescent, crafted of a thousand beetle wings and shells polished to the point of translucence. When she touched him, he shuddered. She wanted to put her lips at his neck’s pulse point, to sip lightly at all the things that made him human.

“I would have you,” she said simply.

The man’s eyes widened. And the Mountain, though she could neither bend nor break, felt her landscape ripple beneath that gaze. He was the first human to see her. It was one thing to crouch unseen and stay separate. It was quite another to stand beheld.

She reached for him, and he reached back.

The Mountain had loved and been loved by many. But none had been human.

It was different. His blood ran hot beneath his skin. There was urgency here . . . and the Mountain wondered distractedly whether it might scorch her.

Immortals have no urgency. There was never any rush. All lovemaking was slow as poured honey.

This was not.

And the Mountain rather liked it.

“What is your name?” she asked, when they lay still on a bed of anemones.

“Bulan,” he said.

Language was not yet pleated into symbols. She could not trace his name upon his chest. Instead, she sounded out the name against his wrist, beneath his ear, upon his neck.

“And yours?” he asked, propping himself on his elbow.

He looked at her, and the Mountain tried to think of what his eyes looked like. They were dark. Shining. Like the black glass left over when a volcano spends its fury.

“You may call me Dayang.”

Princess.

Bulan smiled. “A fitting name.”

The village worried for Bulan. When he did not return from his hunting expedition by nightfall, search parties combed the forest. At the bottom of Mount Makiling, they found him. He was grinning, arms laden with fruits and vegetables.

“I must have lost track of time,” he said.

The villagers were too relieved to notice how he grinned wistfully, turning his head over his shoulder, as if he had forgotten something precious on the mountainside.

From that day on, Bulan spent less and less time in the village. He did not allow anyone to join him on his expeditions through Mount Makiling. “Too dangerous,” he said. But there was a possessive edge to his voice.

Every night, Bulan would return with the creamiest nuts, berries that heaved with juice, fruits that dreamed of flying and not falling, and so arched their green necks to the sun to become all the sweeter for their dreaming. The villagers, though grateful, could not help but wonder where Bulan spent so much of his time. The Mountain was all that separated them from other villages—villages whose chiefs might have wondered over the riches on the other side of the mist, or seafaring queens who might have speculated on the plumpness of the fish just around the Mountain’s curves. Bulan’s village might know peace, but it had not forgotten wariness. Though a few young men had tried to follow Bulan into the Mountain, a blanket of fog and mist always curtained him from sight. As if the Mountain was keeping him all to itself.

But Bulan did not just receive.

He gave, too.

He brought the Mountain a feather so white it rivaled pearls and threaded it through her hair. He brought a perfectly spiraled shell with a sea’s stolen reverie floating in its echo.

“I feel rather like an infant,” said Bulan one day, laughing. “I bring you useless, shiny things, for what else could I give someone like you?”

By now, some months had passed. The Mountain enjoyed his company. Not just the touch of his hands and his skin against hers, but his conversation. His dreams. He was no longer merely something that intrigued. He was no longer a thing to her at all. When he left, her heart strained hard against her chest, as if it might chase after him. And when he returned, her smile sent a tremor through the world. More and more, she found herself searching for the jewel-bright line of his hunting cloak among the leaves. She looked for him when he wasn’t there, and reached for him when he was, and in that way the Mountain found herself part of a rhythm that she had, for once, created. It seemed like an act of the gods. To love.

So when he asked what he might give her, her answer fell bluntly from her lips:

“Your heart.”

Her answer was met with silence. Bulan watched her, weighing something secret behind his eyes, and said nothing. He kissed her lightly.

“I will be back.”

The Mountain stared after him. She thought he might not return, but the next day, he stood before her. A delicate feather strung round with beads hung from his hand. Folded under his arm was a rough-spun linen dress and a small bundle. He looked as if he had not slept.

When she approached, he prostrated himself once more upon the ground.

“Dayang,” he said. “You always had my heart. But I would give you more than that, if you would permit me. I would offer my hand in marriage, my hearth and home, my humble bed and humbler roof.”

It had not occurred to the Mountain that Bulan might want things, too. And to realize that he returned her affections sparked a great deal of joy in the Mountain.

She wore the dress for Bulan, even though the thread sliced at her skin and the wooden sandals pinched her toes and the pearl comb tugged her scalp. She tried her best to fit in the clothes. And when he pronounced her maganda—“beautiful,” a meaningless word made golden by the alchemy of his lips—she smiled. She wore his promise around her neck.

That night, when they made love, she leaned over him. Her hair brushed against his face. The tip of her feather necklace trailed his chest.

She leaned so far her heart fell out.

And she didn’t even notice.

When Bulan gathered her to him, he noticed something in his hand. A gem no larger than his thumbnail.

“Dayang,” he said.

It still meant “princess,” but it no longer seemed formal. It had no heft, only the worn softness of familiarity.

“What is this?” he asked. “Is it yours?”

The Mountain looked at it for a long while.

Beings like her do not need hearts. They live without them with ease. A heart is important only to those who want to leave the place that tethers their souls and gives them form. And the Mountain, staring into the openness of Bulan’s face, had no desire to leave.

“It is my heart,” she said. She folded his fingers over the gem. “You will be my husband, and so your heart is mine. And I shall be your wife, and so my heart is yours. Guard it well.”

The Mountain and Bulan decided that she would come down from the peak during the springtime festival. Then they could be married, and he could live with her in the secret forests high above the village, for she could not leave her home.

But Bulan wanted something special for his wedding. He wanted everyone to recognize how beautiful and kind his wife was, how blessed he was by her presence. He wanted their celebrations to be grand enough for a dayang.

The Mountain traced the lines of unrest pulling at his mouth.

“What troubles you, my love?” she asked.

Bulan blushed.

“Ah, Dayang, how I wish I could give you a grand celebration. Something that you deserve. But I do not have the means.”

The Mountain knew Bulan would never accept gold from her, but she wanted him to be happy, and so . . .

She tricked him.

“Take this,” she said, holding out her hand. “It is a different kind of gold, but it will soothe your troubles when you are away from my side.”

Bulan smiled, touched by the gesture. It was nothing more than a handful of ginger root, but it would taste good in stew, and it would spice his mind when he chewed the root. He kissed the Mountain fondly.

“Starting tomorrow, I will never leave your side,” he whispered, tying his bright cloak around him.

His eyes brimmed with hope, and the Mountain’s gaze answered his. Love was a heady thing, and perhaps if the Mountain was wiser, not so fresh in her affections, she might have been more cautious.

For, you see, a Mountain is a solitary thing. It owns only a crescent of land, the part of itself that arches eagerly to meet the sky. It may look at the beings that dance near its skirts, but it sees only the pattern of their shapes. It does not see, for instance, the slant of their gaze when one among them is continually blessed with catches of fish that look like plump jewels, or always empties pockets full of fruit, or always smiles as if he is better than all the other villagers.

When Bulan took his leave of his Mountain, he did not secure the ends of the pouch of ginger. And even as it grew heavier in his pocket, he did not pay it any mind, for soon he was to be married. If he had looked, he would have noticed that it was no longer ginger.

But gold.

Two men from the village waited for him.

At first, they were satisfied. Bulan was not in league with anyone, as they had first suspected. His hands were empty, which was unusual. Perhaps there was no reason to be jealous. Perhaps he truly was foraging and—as can happen—had found nothing this time. But then they saw the glint of gold in his back pocket.

“Bulan!” they called.

He stopped.

“Where did you get that gold?”

“What gold?” he replied, confused.

One of the men walked up to him, face twisted in a sneer. He ripped the bag of ginger from Bulan, emptying it on the ground. Right before their eyes, the remaining ginger changed to gold.

“How?” asked one.

“Who gave this to you?” demanded another.

Bulan began to panic. The Mountain was his bride. He had to protect her from the greed of humans.

“No one!” he said. “No one gave me anything.”

One of the men lit a torch. The other drew a short dagger.

“We will make you tell us.”

Bulan looked at the moon-gleam on the metal. He knew they were right. They would make him tell.

But not if he took the chance from them first.

“Forgive me, Dayang,” he said, reaching for the other man’s knife. “I would rather give my life than force you to yield yourself.”

Afterward, the men stripped him of his beautiful cloak. They shook it, hoping that golden coins would fly loose.

They did not notice the small jewel heart thumping silently into the dirt.

They might have left the clothes with the body, but the night was cold, and the cloak was beautiful.

And so. And so.

The Mountain wore her wedding dress.

There were flowers in her hair. Pearls around her wrists and ankles. The mist threaded through the trees, and clouds of fireflies hovered softly, so that her world was nothing but sparkling lights and gauzy dreams.

The sun broke upon her face, and the Mountain could not help but think that the sun had never felt so soft and honey-warm as it did now, when it shone with the radiance of a hope teetering on being realized, the kind of decadent hope that’s about to be snapped between the teeth and devoured whole.

She waited.

She had made a throne of anemones for Bulan and a crown of blossoms where drowsy bees still slept in the folded palm of a flower. He would be amused, she thought, smiling to herself.

A day passed.

Then two. Then three.

They clotted together, a knot that wouldn’t choke itself down.

The Mountain ventured near the slope facing the town. There, she saw Bulan, in the bright orange cloak that he always wore when he made his way to her. The villagers were dancing for their spring festival. Bulan’s back was to her, but the Mountain still saw the tawny arms of another woman around his neck.

The Mountain had never been spurned. Her heartbreak was a thing of distance. Like the pressure of a knife before the pain hits. Black, numbing seconds where a hope—that perhaps there will be no pain—flutters just long enough to carve a wound far worse than any knife.

She turned her back. Her tears conjured thunderstorms and swelled rivers. How cruel that he had stolen her heart. Locked her to this place.

On that day, she made a promise: “I will never let another human steal what is mine.”

Perhaps, if the Mountain had taken two more steps, she would have seen it. Her heart glinting dully. Covered in dirt. It had fallen far away from Bulan’s body, right at the line where the Mountain’s skirts met the human village. Perhaps, if the Mountain had waited two more moments, she would have seen the man’s face and realized he was not Bulan. Perhaps, if the Mountain had not uttered another oath, things might be different:

“I will find my heart, and no one shall steal from me again.”

Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

All splinters of a tale.

That is why you must not laugh when you see a beautiful woman scrabbling at things in the dirt or reaching for high branches.

That is why you must turn your clothes inside out.

That is why you must empty your pockets of fruit.

For the Mountain does not like you to take things that do not belong to you.

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