The food was alive, Nonoy was sure of it. The thin slices of meat were wriggling in the frothing red sauce, like souls flung in hell, gnashing their teeth in a lake of fire, condemned forever and ever.
The boy glanced at the other bowls and saw different dishes on them, but like the one nearest him, they all seemed to be breathing. One was even hissing, and another was emitting purple smoke.
If it were not for the aroma wafting from the food, Nonoy would have bolted away in fear. The smell made his mouth water. He had never known such a desire to fill his stomach, not even when El Niño hit the village and, for months, his family only had corn porridge and boiled cassava and heads of dried fish on the table.
He swallowed and asked Tuljik, “Which of these could I have?”
“Ye eat ’em all!” the prince of the encantos answered, his green eyes gleaming.
The human boy did not need a second invitation. He chomped on the banquet. Once put inside the mouth, the food stopped squirming.
The food did not seem to run out. The moment Nonoy took something from a serving dish, the content would swell up, like a lizard growing back a severed tail. Nonoy paused only from eating when he spotted a tall figure from the corner of his eye.
“My father,” Tuljik introduced the newcomer. “His Majesty, King Siqbal. He rules Within.” Then realizing the human boy might not understand, the little prince explained, “I mean our land. We encantos call our land Within, and we call yers Without.”
Nonoy stared at King Siqbal. Tuljik clearly took after him; they both had fair skin and blond hair and high-bridged noses. The ruler of the encantos had appeared beside the table without warning or flourish. Nonoy would have expected a gust of wind or a musical ding or perhaps a procession of seductive encantadas to signal the king’s arrival. But Siqbal came into view as though he had been there the whole time and Nonoy just chose to ignore his presence.
King Siqbal told Nonoy, “Eat to yer heart’s content, son.”
A warm feeling rose in the boy’s chest. Son. The ruler of encantos, the most powerful being in the entire Within, had called him son. His own father had never spoken to him this way.
“The food,” King Siqbal continued, “’tis for no one but ye. Do ye like it?”
Nonoy nodded vigorously and said, “Yes, Your Majesty.” Only, because his mouth was stuffed full, the words came out garbled, like the moan of the undead. The boy swallowed the food whole and nearly choked.
Instead of telling Nonoy to mind his manners, as Nonoy’s father would, the king only smiled, exposing his teeth.
Nonoy noticed that like Tuljik and the other encantos, the king’s teeth looked like that of a chainsaw, as though they were specially designed to devour raw flesh. The encantos, though, had faces so beautiful and meek, the boy could not associate them with anything violent.
“And, son,” the king said, increasing the elation Nonoy felt, “we have a most special food for ye.” As Siqbal’s smile grew wider, another golden bowl appeared on the table.
Nonoy at once recognized the bowl’s content. Rice. After partaking in the array of strange food, he did not expect the encantos would serve him something so commonplace. After a moment, however, he realized the rice was not as ordinary as he had thought.
“Black rice?” Nonoy asked the two encantos.
“Aye, son,” Siqbal answered. “Made by little elves, elves as gigantic as grains of sand.” He smiled and motioned as if cooking. “Three quarters milk, a quarter squid ink, pour ’em together. Boil for a moon, sing seven songs, and stir and stir and stir, till the paste becomes stretched, pointed spheres.”
“Ye have some,” Tuljik said, resting his hand on Nonoy’s back.
At the back of his mind, something was preventing Nonoy from reaching for the black rice, but he found himself starving again, as though he hadn’t had his fill only moments ago. As the aroma of black rice reached his nostrils, his stomach growled. His elbows and knees shook, drained of strength.
Black rice did not smell like milk and fresh grass, as white or red rice normally did. Instead it smelled like roasted meat, like the meat of a carabao or horse, but much more pungent, making Nonoy lightheaded. With the golden spoon he had been using, he scooped some rice and brought it to his mouth.
Siqbal and Tuljik smiled, nodding to Nonoy. Their gesture reminded the boy of his mother every time he showed her his perfect-score test paper or she found out that he had fetched water from the well and filled the clay jars.
When Nonoy’s saliva mixed with the grains of black rice, he felt the grains twitch, coming to life. If the other food looked alive and then lay still inside his mouth, the black rice turned out to be the opposite. It then came to him why he had been hesitant to taste the final dish. His father had once told him and his sister that black rice was the most essential food for encantos—they couldn’t live without it—and once they offered it to a human being and the human being ate it, he would transform into an encanto, forever lost to his human family.
“No,” Nonoy said. He tensed his throat so as not to swallow the rice, but the grains were not only alive—they had minds of their own. He now felt them crawling like maggots toward his throat.
He chewed, and he tasted blood. At first he thought he had bitten his tongue, but he instantly realized that it was the juice oozing out of black rice—the sticky fluid had the same taste as fresh human blood.
Nonoy gagged and coughed, and some of the grains flew out of his mouth.
“Eat the rice, son,” the king said. His eyes had narrowed to slits. “’Tis delicious.”
Even if the grains had been chewed, they continued moving, like severed earthworms. Nonoy coughed and spat again, to no avail. The grains stuck like leeches to his tongue and gums and palate.
Nonoy rose from the golden chair, one hand on his neck and the other reaching out for his friend. “T-Tuljik,” he said. “Help m-me!”
The little prince only stared at the human boy. His eyes sparkled in delight as Nonoy’s widened in horror. His mouth formed a grin as Nonoy’s let out a soundless scream.
The grains reached the back of Nonoy’s mouth and started to slide down his throat. Tears had been welling up in his eyes when a tiny voice rang out.
It was his younger sister, Dalen, the only person who called him Big Brother.
“Noooong!” the voice called out again, louder this time, producing echoes. “Where are you?”
The king and his son stared at each other, alarmed.
“Manong,” Dalen chastised Nonoy, “you went inside the cave again. Wait till Tatay finds out about this.”
“Are you going to tell on me?” Nonoy asked.
Dalen’s brows met as she put a finger on her cheek. She looked as though she was thinking hard over the matter. She was only five, but she often spoke and acted older than her age. Nonoy even felt sometimes Dalen was older than he, who was nine. She answered, “No, I’ll keep mum about this.”
“Good,” Nonoy said.
“On one condition.”
Nonoy stared at his sister.
She held on to his arm. “You tell me the truth,” she said.
They’d had this same conversation several times, and Nonoy knew what Dalen was talking about. Still he pretended innocence. “What truth?” he asked.
“About your secret friend,” Dalen said, lowering her voice, as if afraid someone would hear them even if they were in the middle of a forest.
“What secret friend?”
“You know, the one who is not like us.”
“The encanto?” Nonoy said. “I’ve told you, I know no encanto.” Tuljik had warned Nonoy not to tell anyone about their friendship because if he did, the prince would never show himself again to him.
“Then what are you doing inside the cave?” Dalen said, hands akimbo. “Why do you always go inside the cave?”
“I . . . I was just looking for . . . crabs. For our supper.”
“Crabs? Where are the crabs?”
Nonoy sighed. “You ask too many questions. Let’s just go home, okay?” He pulled Dalen’s hand.
“Manong,” Dalen pleaded, making him drag her weight. “Please! Please tell me about your friend. Is he kind? Is he a boy? I want an encanto friend too, a girl like me.”
“Why are you so hardheaded?” Nonoy said. “I have no encanto friend. None, none. Heard me?”
Dalen pouted, and pulled her hand off his brother’s grip. “All right,” she said. “I’ll just look for them myself.” She walked back toward the cave’s entrance and started shouting, “Hello, encantos! I want to be your friend!”
“Dalen, no!” Nonoy said in alarm. Tuljik might hear Dalen and think Nonoy had revealed their secret to her.
The girl ignored his brother. “Encantos!” she continued shouting. “Heeeey!”
“Stop it,” Nonoy shouted, shaking Dalen by the shoulders. “The encantos like good kids only. They won’t show themselves to you because you’re a bad kid!”
Dalen froze, and tears formed on the edges of her eyes.
Nonoy, too, was surprised with his behavior. “Len—”
Dalen brushed away Nonoy’s hand and said, “You’re lying. I’m not a bad kid and you’re not a good kid. The encantos show themselves to you—only to you—because you’re one of them. Look at your skin, at the way you look. You’re an encanto. You’re a child of an encanto!”
She ran away, toward their hut. Nonoy watched her disappear behind trees and thickets.
Nonoy felt like his chest was being crushed. He walked to the edge of the stream flowing from the cave. He leaned down and stared at the water. Tiny ripples blurred his reflection, but did not darken it. He could clearly see that his complexion was fair, a hundred shades lighter than that of Dalen and their parents. He was as pale as Tuljik and King Siqbal.
He didn’t feel like going home. Their parents would surely scold him if they found out he made Dalen cry. But more than that, he was sad because Dalen had never been this mad at him. She was the one who would defend him whenever other kids taunted him for his unusual appearance. She was the only kid left who did not see him as an outsider. Now she was one of them, finally making him feel that he would never belong, that he would never be normal.
He looked back at the cave, where Tuljik and King Siqbal and the black rice would be waiting for him.
Molong came inside the hut and found Bebeng in front of the sink, washing plates. “Where’s Dalen?” he asked his wife.
She glanced behind her. “Oh, you’re early,” she said. “Are you drunk?”
“I’m not,” he said. He opened the thermos bottle on the table and fixed himself a glass of coffee.
Bebeng turned back to the plates. “Your daughter must be in the coffee orchard. I told Nonoy and her to gather some dry twigs.”
“You shouldn’t have sent them there,” he said. “It’s near the cave. I could just chop wood instead.”
“You worry too much about your children. They’re not going inside the forest, they won’t dare disobey you. Have all the grains dried?”
“I resacked the corn early,” Molong said. “It looks like it’s going to rain.” He sat on a stool, one leg propped up, and slurped on his coffee.
Bebeng peeked out the window. “The rain won’t come today,” she said. “We both grew up here in the mountains, but you never get used to the weather. Dark clouds always loom by.”
“I just want to be sure,” Molong said. “The corn will dry in just a day or two. I don’t want a sudden drizzle putting to waste what I have labored on for months.”
She placed the last plate on the strainer and wiped her hands on her duster. “Do you think we won’t be short this time?”
That was the matter they had been dreading to discuss.
“Maybe not,” Molong said. “They say corn now fetch for more than ten pesos per kilo. I think with this cropping, we can really start saving so we can leave this place.”
“You’ve been saying that for years. Lest you forget, we owe the financer a huge amount. I don’t know why you keep on insisting we leave this village. We get by here.”
“I just want us to be in a safer place.”
“Those encantos again. Molong, we’re too old to believe in such things.”
“Let’s not talk about it, okay?” he said.
Bebeng sighed, her lips stretching to the sides. Molong decided it was more a smile than a smirk.
She sat beside him, and right away wrinkled her nose. “You smell of tuba. Just as I thought, you cleared up the drier early so you could have a drink. How can we save up if you keep on wasting our money on that evil liquid?”
“Look, it was just a gallon, and I was with the men who helped me with the corn.” Molong hugged his wife.
“Just a gallon? Tell that to—”
“Hey, ssshh. I have an idea, we’re alone here, right? Let’s make a boy.”
Bebeng flinched. “We already have a boy,” she said, giving his husband a pained look.
“I didn’t mean anything.”
“I know exactly what you meant.” She removed his hands from her. “How could you think—”
“Stop that, will you?” Molong said, clenching his jaw.
“No,” Bebeng said, standing up. “Let’s get this clear once and for all, Molong. I’m tired of your insinuations. Why don’t you say it directly to me? Ask me. Tell me your doubts. Ask me if Nonoy is really your son.”
Molong stood up too. “Is he?”
The words came out slow and almost inaudible, but for Bebeng, Molong might as well have shouted them in rage.
“How dare you!” she said. “Who else’s son could he be? Can’t you see that he’s like you in so many ways? You see nothing but the color of his skin. An encanto never slept with me, Molong. You are Nonoy’s father!”
Molong averted his gaze. “You don’t know encantos,” he said.
“And you do?” Bebeng asked in a sarcastic tone.
“I do. They’re evil. More evil than you can ever imagine. They can easily trick human beings. They ruined my family, they took away my little brother. Now they’re out to ruin our family.”
“What’s ruining our family is your suspicions, your doubts about my fidelity. Didn’t you listen to what Nonoy’s teacher told us? A person like our child is called an albino. He has some condition, some disease. His skin can’t produce color or something. It’s not because he has a white-skinned man for a father. It has nothing to do with encantos, Molong.”
Molong kept silent, but still looked defiant.
Bebeng went on. “Your brother must have died of an illness—not taken away by anyone or anything. Our village is far from the hospital, Molong. It’s not rare for babies here to die of malaria or malnutrition or simple diarrhea.”
Still Molong did not answer back. Just when Bebeng thought he had seen reason, he again said, “You don’t know encantos.”
Bebeng’s jaw dropped. She turned away from Molong and went up inside the room. The hut only had one room, raised waist-high from the ground. With Bebeng’s heavy footsteps, the two-rung ladder shuddered and the bamboo slats creaked. She dropped on the mat.
Outside the room, Molong listened to his wife’s muffled sobs. He left his coffee on the table and leaned on the hut’s threshold, a thousand things on his mind. He was about to light a cigarette when he saw Nonoy outside the hut, his ears pressed against the wall. “What are you doing there?” Molong asked.
“T-tay!” the boy answered with a start.
Molong suspected Nonoy had been eavesdropping. On impulse he thought of confronting him, but then realized he had more explaining to do than the kid. “Come inside,” he said. “It’s going to be dark soon.”
Bebeng peeked out of the room, wiping her cheeks dry. She asked Nonoy, “Have you seen your sister?”
The kid looked surprised. “Is she not here?”
“I sent her to look for you.”
“You said you sent the two of them together,” Molong said.
Bebeng ignored Molong. “Hasn’t she found you?” she asked Nonoy.
“Yes,” Nonoy answered, “in the cave—”
“What!” Molong said.
“B-but she went ahead of me,” Nonoy explained to the adults. “I thought she was going straight home.”
Molong cursed. “Haven’t I told you never to—” He cut himself off, and walked fast toward the forest.
It had been about sixteen years since Molong had last gone to the cave, but he could still remember the path clearly. It was even easier to tread now. The woods had receded and were now confined along the stream that flowed out of the cave.
When the cave’s mouth came into view, he stopped. Only then did he realize he was trembling. With fear. The past was coming back to him. He was again a young boy, calling out for the encantos, pleading for them to return his little brother.
Molong heard the rustling of feet behind him, and the sound pulled him back to the present. He turned and saw Bebeng and Nonoy, panting.
“Stay here,” he told them. “No matter what happens, don’t go near the cave.”
“Molong—” Bebeng protested, but her husband had left them again, calling for Dalen.
At once Molong saw his daughter, lying on her back near the cave. He kneeled down beside the body and held it. He tried to rouse her, cooing, “Dalen . . . Len . . .”
The little girl remained still. Molong felt something wet and sticky behind her head, and when he looked at his palm, he saw blood. “Oh God, oh God,” he cried.
He put the body down, stood up, and shouted, “You encantos, show yourselves to me! Bring back my daughter. Siqbal! Siqbal! Face me. Spare my family.”
Bothered by Molong’s shouts, Bebeng rushed toward the cave. Nonoy followed suit. She wailed when she saw her daughter.
Molong continued shouting. “I know this is not my daughter! You replaced her body. This is just a banana trunk. Bring back my daughter to me, Siqbal!”
Nonoy stared at his father with amazement. He knew the king’s name. How?
“Molong, stop it!” Bebeng said. “Dalen is alive.”
Molong looked back.
“She has a pulse,” Bebeng explained. Her fingers were on Dalen’s wrist.
Molong crouched down beside Dalen and felt for the pulse himself. “Oh God, thank you,” he whispered. “The encantos must have returned her.”
“What are you saying? She has been alive the whole time. Encantos have nothing to do with this.”
Molong decided not to argue. He tried again to rouse his daughter, softly calling her name.
As if she had been merely asleep, Dalen’s eyes opened, and she whispered, “Tay . . .”
At that instant, a luminous tall figure appeared at the cave’s mouth. The face looked familiar to Molong, yet it was somehow different. “Siqbal?”
The king of the encantos smiled, showing his razor-shaped teeth. “How are ye, old friend?”
Nonoy also saw the king of the encantos, but he wasn’t able to react, too overwhelmed by everything that’s happening, and his father did not notice that the boy also had a third eye.
Nonoy looked at his father, who was furious. He was reciting some unintelligible words while staring hard at King Siqbal.
The king’s face contorted as if he was in pain. “Stop it!” he said. “Ye’ll regret it.”
“Stay away from my family!” Molong said, and recited louder the foreign words. The encanto fell to his knees, his hand clutching his chest.
“I shan’t leave yer family alone,” King Siqbal groaned. “Stop I shan’t . . . till I’ve taken one of ye.” Then he disappeared.
Molong did not stop reciting the words until moments later, as though he was making sure the encanto would not come back.
Bebeng and Dalen had noticed what Molong did, but they were staring blankly at the cave, clueless of what had happened.
“We must bring Dalen to the center,” Bebeng said.
Molong nodded and carried his daughter.
Nonoy walked behind his family. King Siqbal’s threat repeatedly echoed in his mind. In his fear his spindly legs trembled, his every step a struggle.
“Her name is Ana,” Dalen said. Nonoy and their parents were sitting around her, listening to her story of how she encountered her encanto friend.
“God no,” Bebeng said, shaking her head, while Molong remained quiet, his brows furrowed.
Dalen was propped on the bed with several pillows. She had been brought earlier to the health center, and the back of her head had been stitched and covered with gauze. It was now nighttime, and the family was back in the hut.
“I met her in the cave several months ago,” Dalen continued her story. “We often play in the stream, catching crabs, and she promised me she’d bring me to their kingdom soon.”
Nonoy knew his sister was just making up stories. Under the pale glow of the kerosene lamp, he had been trying to catch her eyes, but she would not meet his gaze.
“You should stop seeing her,” Molong told Dalen. “And never go with her when she invites you to their kingdom.”
“But, Tay,” Dalen protested, “my friend is kind. She won’t harm me.”
Bebeng said, “Just obey your father, okay? Look what happened to you. You’ve already been hurt.”
“It wasn’t Ana’s fault,” Dalen said. “It was me who wanted to go inside the cave, and then I slipped on a stone.”
“Even so,” Molong said. “Never trust encantos. They will eventually lure you to be one of them. They will make you eat black rice, and if you give in, you won’t be able to come back home. The rice will erase your memory. You will no longer remember us.”
“Why would my friend take me?” Dalen asked. “Why do encantos take kids?”
“No one knows for sure,” Molong answered. “They say encantos are lonely creatures. They need the company of human beings to be happy.”
“But, Molong,” Bebeng said, “those are just stories, right? What if Dalen’s friend really has good intentions? Some say encantos give people wealth.”
Molong sighed. He remained quiet for a while, mulling over something. Then he said, “I think it’s time I told you what happened to my family, why we left this village a long time ago.”
They all waited for him to speak again. “When I was a kid,” Molong started, “I also had an encanto friend.” The rest of the family gasped, almost in unison. Molong continued, “I met him in the cave, and he would bring me to their kingdom, where there were plenty of food and toys. He warned me not to tell other kids about him because if I did, he said I’d never see him again. One day, he served me black rice. He said the encantos would give my family a gold bar if I ate it. I refused. I didn’t want to leave my family. He let me go. But every time we met again, he would try to convince me to eat the rice, and I found it more and more difficult to refuse. One day, in their kingdom, I felt I had no choice but to utter the prayer that could hurt encantos.”
Molong looked at Dalen and said, “Your grandfather, who is an albulario, taught me the prayer. He said it’s ‘Our Father’ in Latin. I didn’t tell Tatay about my friend, but after the black rice was offered to me, I started asking him for information about encantos—what they could do, what they are afraid of, everything he knew about them.”
“The prayer, Molong,” Bebeng asked, “is that what you were uttering in the cave this afternoon?”
Molong nodded. “Yes. I saw my old friend again. At first I didn’t recognize him, because like me, he is a grown-up now.”
Nonoy realized the friend his father had was King Siqbal, but he didn’t say his thoughts aloud. He decided that later, when his father had finished telling them his story, he would tell his.
Bebeng asked her husband, “Was he killed?”
“The encanto?” Molong said. “No. The prayer can only make encantos stay away from you. It’s not powerful enough to kill them.”
“God. What if he follows us here?”
“He can’t. Encantos can’t go out of the forest. They get their energy from the cave. But still, we’re in danger, Dalen especially.”
“What do you mean?”
“Encantos never take no for an answer,” Molong said. “They won’t—or can’t—force you to eat black rice, but they will do everything to lure you. I think they put magic on the rice. I’d feel so hungry every time I smelled it. After I uttered the prayer in front of my friend, he stopped seeing me. But they never completely let me go. They visited me in my dreams every night, scaring me almost out of my wits, and boils started growing all over my body.
“I had to tell my father about them, and he drove the encantos away from me. I was healed. But one day, our youngest suddenly became ill. Tatay did everything to save him, but my brother succumbed to whatever it was that was trying to take over his body.”
Bebeng held Molong’s hand. He continued, “Tatay said it was the doing of the encantos. They would never leave us in peace. The only way for us to stop them was to go far away, where their power could not reach us. And so our family left this village, not intending to return.
“When I came back here, it was only for a short visit. But then”—he stared at his wife—“I met you.”
Molong and Bebeng exchanged glances, for a moment lost in the memory of their sweeter years. The fight earlier was now completely forgotten.
“Tay,” Dalen said, “is it true that encantos befriend good kids only?”
“Yes,” Molong answered.
For the first time in the night, Dalen looked straight at Nonoy. It lasted for no more than a second, but it was long enough for Nonoy to see her hatred.
“The encantos want good kids,” Molong continued. “But not only that. The kid must have a third eye.”
“Third eye?” Dalen asked.
Molong explained, “It’s the ability to see those that are unlike us—aswangs, elves, encantos. Usually the third eye is passed on from a parent to a child. I inherited mine from my father, and it seems you, my daughter, inherited mine.”
Nonoy realized he could not tell his family about Tuljik. Their parents would find out Dalen was lying. Or they would not believe him and accuse him that he was the one who was lying.
Dalen asked, “So the kids without a third eye, they can never see encantos?”
“They can,” Molong answered. “But only for a moment. When an encanto is around, you can share your ability with an ordinary kid. You need only to put your hand over the other kid’s eyes. When the encanto disappears, though, the lent third eye will also disappear.”
Dalen once again looked at Nonoy, and Nonoy could not tell what she was thinking.
Their father must have caught their glances, for he told Dalen, “But don’t even think of sharing your ability with other kids. We don’t want a bigger trouble.”
“No, Tay,” Dalen answered. “I don’t want Manong to see Ana. She might get mad and take him away, like what happened to your little brother.”
“Molong,” Bebeng said, “what should we do now?”
“We shouldn’t stay here,” Molong answered. “The encanto who was my friend threatened me this afternoon. He wants to take one of us. We should leave the soonest possible time.”
“How can we do that?” Bebeng asked.
“We’ll have enough money from the crop. We’ll move to the plains. Nanay and Tatay are there. We can stay with them while we have not yet settled on our own . . . Those encantos are truly evil. Just as I suspected, Siqbal has never forgotten my rejection of his offer. He has just been here all along, grabbing every chance to get back at me.” He gave Nonoy a meaningful look.
Bebeng said, “We’re not going into this again, Molong.”
Molong looked at his wife. “There’s another thing you need to know.”
“The third eye,” Molong cut Bebeng off. “Only the firstborn inherits it.”