The antang was concluded, and Lele was betrothed to Dudim, the son of the lukes from the next Manobo hamlet. When Lele’s father broke the news to her, she nodded meekly, even forced herself to smile. But as soon as the old man was out of the hut, tears raced down her cheeks.
The girl glanced out the window and saw Saluding under a tree, staring back at her. His face was dark and his jaw was clenched. There was no longer any future for them.
The bamboo floor creaked and Lele recognized the familiar footsteps of her mother. The girl wiped her cheeks with her hands and Saluding walked away.
Lele’s mother must have caught the glances between her daughter and Saluding, but the woman acted as though she did not notice anything. “Come here, Lele,” she said. “Put this sudung on your hair. You have to look beautiful. Hurry, now.”
“I don’t want to go out of the house, Ina,” Lele said.
“Don’t embarrass your uncle, Lele. He is our lukes and he has arranged a good marriage for you. All he is asking you to do now is go to his hut and bid goodbye to your future husband and his father.”
“Ina, I don’t want to get married. I don’t like Dudim.”
“I don’t know what’s the matter with you young people nowadays. When your father asked for my hand, I did not utter a single word against it. Look, Lele, there’s nothing more you can ask for. Dudim is a good hunter and not much older than you. You are lucky. Think of the previous kenogon here who was married. Her husband was the same age as her father.”
“Dudim is ugly and bosses people around. He thinks he’s more powerful than his father.”
“He may not be the most dashing man in these parts, but Dudim’s not ugly, Lele. You know that. And, yes, he seems too proud at times, but it’s just his way of commanding respect. Being the son of the lukes, Dudim has a good chance of succeeding his father, and people should recognize his standing this early.”
“He’s ugly, Ina, and I just don’t like him.”
“Stop acting like a child, Lele. You’re already fourteen, a woman now. And a wife soon.”
Tears fell again from Lele’s eyes. “My heart does not beat for Dudim.”
“I will hear nothing of that, Lele. You will learn to love Dudim, just like I did your father.”
“I will love no one but—”
“Lele! What you want will never happen. The antang is done; the elders have decided. You will do well to embrace your fate.”
“Go ahead,” Lele told her younger sisters. They had just finished washing clothes in the stream.
One of the little girls said, “Ina told us not to go far from you.”
“I’ll follow you right away,” Lele said. “I just have to gather some snails for dinner.”
“Go home now, will you?” Lele said, her eyes staring sharply at her sisters. “There’s a busaw downstream that takes children away.”
The little girls reluctantly obeyed. As soon as they were out of sight, Lele crossed the stream and rushed to the mouth of a cave, where Saluding was waiting for her.
“Is that you, Lele?” Saluding asked.
“It’s me. Were you expecting someone else?”
“No. It’s just that you might be a busaw — a fegelilong to be exact.”
“If I were a fegelilong, you would be dead by now. A fegelilong will not take my place, Saluding, because we have not agreed to meet. I just saw you fishing earlier, and I thought you might be passing the time here in the cave’s mouth.”
Saluding’s spear was resting on a rock, beside the fish he had caught and strung together with a rattan loop. “I had no plans of fishing today,” he told Lele. “But when I saw you and your sisters on your way to the stream . . .”
“Oh, Saluding!” Lele held his hand. No other kenogon would be so daring as to touch a man first, but after Lele was engaged to Dudim against her will, she no longer cared much for tribal decorum.
“I thought you no longer want to see me,” Saluding said. “You seemed so happy when you found out Dudim wants to marry you.”
“Saluding! I was crying; you saw me. I don’t want to marry that oaf.”
“It’s difficult to believe that,” Saluding said. “You must be delighted with the sunggod. Four horses, three carabaos, half a dozen weapons, and several other valuable items. So far, no kenogon has received such a generous sunggod. Dudim is really crazy about you, and you must be falling for him too.”
“Please, Saluding. That’s not true. You’re the only one in my heart.”
Saluding’s eyes shone. He brought their entwined hands between their hearts. “Do you really love me, Lele? Do you love me as much as I love you?”
“Yes, Saluding. And no other.”
“Marry me, then.”
Lele froze. She slowly took her hands off Saluding’s. “Why ask me just now? My uncle and Dudim’s father have agreed. The antang could not be broken.”
“I have no intention of asking permission from your uncle, that wily lukes. He will never allow me to marry you because my family doesn’t have enough property to earn his respect. My father even owes him a huge sum. Besides, even if my family can afford the sunggod he is asking for you, he still wants you to be married to Dudim. He wants to get back what he has given when his son married Dudim’s sister.”
“So how are we going to be married?”
“Let’s run away.”
Lele was not able to speak. She shook her head.
Pain filled Saluding’s face. “You don’t want to go with me. You don’t really love me.”
“No, Saluding. You own my heart. It’s just that… we have nowhere to go. Dudim’s people and our own people will never forgive us. They will hunt us down, and I don’t want to think what they will do to us once we’re found.”
“You need not worry about that, Lele. We’ll go far away from here. I’ll take you to the plains.”
“The plains? How are we going to survive there? I don’t even know what it looks like. We don’t know anyone from there.”
“I know someone there. I have been there. I joined the lukes in several of his trips to the lowlands. I met a Visayan who would be willing to help us.”
“The Visayans cannot be trusted, Saluding. They’re out to take our land from us.”
“This man is different. It’s not land he wants.” Saluding took something from the pocket of his vest. “It’s this.”
Lele stepped back upon seeing the yellowish nugget between Saluding’s fingers. “Throw that away,” she said. “It’s owned by a busaw. Touching it will make you ill.”
“It’s a small risk compared to what this thing can do for us, Lele. I don’t know why, but Visayans buy this worthless piece of rock for a high price. They call it bulawan. I’ve gathered handfuls of this upstream. We will have enough money to live in the plains.”
Lele shook her head again. “It just won’t work.”
“I see. You don’t trust me. You would rather settle with Dudim than take a chance with me.”
“No, Saluding. I—”
“It’s all right, Lele. I understand. I won’t stop you if you want to marry Dudim. He will take you to his hamlet once he has given the sunggod, and there you will be able to forget me.”
“How can I ever do that? You’re the first thing in my mind when I wake up. I feel like I’m going crazy whenever I don’t see you for just a day.”
“You can learn to forget me, Lele. Perhaps it’s for the good of both of us if we part ways. When you’re gone, even if it will pain me so, I will also try to forget you. I will have to find my own wife and—”
Lele pressed her fingers on Saluding’s lips. “Stop that,” she whispered. “Stop saying that. Don’t drive me away . . . Take me with you.”
“I don’t want to force you, Lele.”
“Take me anywhere you want. There is nothing else my heart desires.”
“Tomorrow night, then. Bituen tulo will appear in the east. As soon as you see it in the sky, come into this cave. I will be waiting for you.”
Lele nodded and let Saluding kiss her fingers.
Choosing the appearance of the bituen tulo turned out to be a two-edged badung for Saluding and Lele. They had a fixed time to see each other, but slipping away from the hamlet was difficult because the older people were also waiting for the stars. Every year, when the bituen tulo showed up in the east, Manobos would clear and plant in the jungle the next day.
The lukes and some of the men decided to build a bonfire in the center of the hamlet. They smoked, chewed betel nut and talked about the coming big feast—Lele’s wedding. Some women and children joined in the impromptu gathering and Lele herself was invited to sit near her uncle. So when the constellation appeared early in the evening, Lele could not find a chance to excuse herself.
Saluding was also seated with the group, stealing glances at Lele.
As the night went deeper, the small crowd around the fire thinned out. The children stopped frolicking around, tired and sleepy, and their mothers carried them off inside the huts. The lukes, however, seemed unusually perky this night and had no plan of retiring soon. Lele panicked in her mind when she noticed that Saluding was no longer around. She mumbled her apologies and left the gathering.
She passed by the hut of Saluding’s family and observed. The place was quiet, and Saluding was nowhere in sight. He must have gone to the cave, she thought, and she should follow him this moment.
Lele, however, must first go back to her home to take her solok. She had packed a few of her belongings in the small rattan basket. When she reached the hut, she was surprised to find her mother sitting by the hearth, holding the solok.
“Where are you going?” her mother asked.
“To follow my heart, Ina.”
“Your heart will never have peace if you do this, Lele. You will bring disgrace and destruction to our community.”
“Dudim’s family has not yet given the sunggod. We haven’t taken anything from them yet.”
“It’s not only valuables that are at stake here. Your uncle has given his word to Dudim’s father. How will the other lukeses respect him if his niece, his own family, is the first to defy him? For Dudim, too, you are already his wife. If another man takes you away from him, he will consider it an affront to his honor.”
“That’s a polite way of putting things, Ina. Let the men talk in that manner. We are both women and we know there is no honor in my marriage. I am just an item for trade.”
“You are mistaken, Lele. The sunggod is not a payment. No material thing could be valuable enough to replace a daughter. The sunggod is just a gift, to soothe the bleeding hearts of the parents.”
“I am sorry, Ina. I’ve made up my mind. I love our family and the hamlet, but I’ll die if I have to live apart from Saluding. He’s waiting for me now.”
“The two of you agreed to meet somewhere?”
“Yes, and I’m running late.”
Lele’s mother dropped the solok. “Go to him fast.”
Lele smiled. “Thank you, Ina. I knew you would understand.”
“I don’t want you to elope with him. I just want you to save him.”
“What do you mean, Ina?”
“The fegelilong . . .”
Lele ran out of the house and toward the cave. The fegelilong was an evil spirit that tricked lovers who agreed to see each other in a certain place. If the woman didn’t come on time, the fegelilong would mimic the woman’s appearance and show itself to the man. The man would die the moment he saw the spirit.
When Lele reached the cave’s mouth, she found Saluding lying on the ground. She rushed to him. He had no wounds and his eyes were open, but the rest of his body no longer moved on its own.
Lele wailed, a vain effort to ease her heart. The burden was too heavy, because it wasn’t hers alone—it was also that of all the kenogons before her, young women whose lives had been decided in an antang.
antang – a formal negotiation between chieftains
badung – a long bladed weapon
bituen tolo – the constellation Orion
bulawan – gold
busaw – evil spirit
fegelilong – an evil spirit
ina – mother
kenogon – maiden
lukes – chieftain
solok – a small basket
sudung – a comblike ornament for the head
sunggod – bride-price
Jude Ortega was born and lives in Sultan Kudarat Province. This story is partly based on the traditional customs and beliefs of Cotabato Manobo as discussed in Violence and Christianization in Manoboland, a book written by Fr. Rafael Tianero, OMI, and published by Notre Dame University Press.