In the hinterlands of Cotabato region, among the Manobo people, roams a spirit called fegelilong. It is one of the most feared and despised spirits, for it makes fun of the human heart and kills mostly young men.
The fegelilong preys on lovers. Whenever it hears them set a tryst, it will come to the agreed place and lurk around. If the woman fails to show up on time, the fegelilong will assume her likeness and appear before the man, who will be struck dead the moment he sees the doppelgänger. Young people who have found love for the first time, because of their propensity to meet in secret and ignore the counsel of older folk, are the most vulnerable to the viciousness of the fegelilong.
Or so according to the beliefs of the tribal people. Unbeknown to them, the fegelilong does not kill on purpose. Its concept of death is different from that of humans. In fact, all the spirit desires is to help its supposed victim. It wishes to soothe a man’s aching heart. It wants to atone for something it did a long, long time ago, when human beings had not yet arrived in Mindanao and spirits had dominion of the large island.
The fegelilong then was an enchanting spirit called Sinta. Her beauty was known even in the lands far beyond the seas, and many male spirits journeyed to the mountains of Cotabato to court her.
Sinta took pleasure in entertaining her suitors. She loved watching them show off their skills. One suitor was a wind rider; while hopping from one giant eagle to another, he lassoed a hundred wild horses and offered them to Sinta as pets. Another suitor was a bird hunter; while riding a stallion, he shot a thousand birds with just three arrows, and Sinta’s village had a feast of roast birds for a fortnight.
Alas, though Sinta’s countenance was that of a caring and fragile being, she had a dark and reckless heart. She had an arena made and pitted the aforementioned suitors against each other. The outcome of the match, and the staging of the match itself, disconcerted the land of spirits. Even the spirits of vilest reputation shook their heads and whispered about Sinta. Their voices travelled through time and dimensions, and until today, their whispers can be heard before landslides occur.
Sinta subjected her suitors to cruel challenges, and the male spirits, instead of losing their admiration for her, only became more determined to capture her heart. Sinta did not spurn any of the suitors and made each of them believe that she would choose him. The male spirits became bitter rivals, and the other female spirits were left without lovers. Sinta was causing the balance of nature to tilt precariously, and this alarmed Nemula, the supreme ruler of the spirits.
“Something must be done,” Nemula thought to himself. “Sinta needs someone who truly loves her, not only smitten with her outside appearance.”
Disguised as an ordinary spirit, the ruler went to the village of Sinta, where he found a young fellow named Gohum. Nemula sensed right away that Gohum loved Sinta. Upon further inquiries, Nemula learned that Gohum and Sinta grew up together and were the closest of friends. Gohum was a cheerful raconteur, and Sinta could listen to his stories for hours on end. However, despite his gift of gab, Gohum always found himself tongue-tied on one subject—his true feelings for Sinta. He felt inferior because he had witnessed the feats of the hunter spirits wooing her, and the best skill he had was only making solok, a small basket made of rattan.
Nemula decided to hasten matters between Gohum and Sinta. Because Gohum lacked confidence, Nemula extracted ferocity from a wild boar and blew it on the young man. The gift lasted long enough for Gohum to declare his undying love for Sinta. She was taken by surprise. She had never thought of Gohum as a future mate. Though she was fond of him because he made her laugh and she could talk to him about almost anything, she wanted a skilled huntsman for a husband. Gohum was not strong enough to uproot a tree with his bare hands or fast enough to outrun a deer. Not knowing how to react, Sinta neither welcomed nor rejected Gohum’s affection.
Gohum retreated to his cave as soon as the boar’s ferocity wore off. He was relieved that he had confessed his deepest secret, but he doubted if he could muster enough courage to speak about it again. Fortunately for him, the Fest of the Red Moon was coming. He could ask Sinta to marry him without actually using his voice in front of her.
The moon turned red once every thousands of nights only. For the spirits, it was the most romantic occasion to propose marriage. Custom dictated that if a male spirit wished to marry a female spirit, he should first send her a message regarding his intention. He should also indicate in the letter his engagement gift for the female spirit. The female spirit, in turn, should respond with a letter indicating where the male spirit could wait for her and hand her the present. If she arrived in the place and accepted the item before the sun came out, it meant her answer was yes.
In his letter, Gohum promised Sinta the finest solok in entire Mindanao. He would weave the basket using a stem from the mother rattan. This meant that Gohum had to trek seven mountains and charm crocodiles so that they would reveal to him where the magical plant could be found. Sinta replied that Gohum could wait for her at the waterfall where they often talked and where he professed his love.
Gohum, however, was not the only one who wrote Sinta. She received at least seven hundred letters. In her replies, she informed most of the senders to wait for her at a nearby lake, a place where she intended not to visit during the fest. Less than a dozen of the admirers, in addition to Gohum, were told to wait in a location other than the lake. The select few had a greater chance of receiving her acceptance, but she had not made up her mind. She told herself that she would just decide whom to marry on the night of the fest. She would choose whoever had the perfect gift.
When the Fest of the Red Moon came, the first place Sinta went to was a hill. Waiting for her was a fire catcher. He promised her an evening dress made of fallen stars. She cried in awe when she saw the dress. If she accepted it and put it on, everyone in Mindanao would be able to see her even from afar, and her beauty would be even more well-known. Sinta thought no gift could be more expensive, but there was something in the luminous gown that was not to her liking, something she could not determine exactly. She walked away without a word, leaving the fire catcher with drooped shoulders.
On her way down the hill, Sinta caught a glimpse of the lake. The surface of the water was teeming with animals, filling the air with bleats and whinnies and roars. She pitied their masters. The clueless spirits would be waiting for nothing, and they would go through the humiliation in front of many other spirits. But she told herself she was not to blame if the creatures they pledged failed to rouse her interest.
Sinta proceeded to a forest, where a jungle explorer would give her a rose taken from the edge of the world. She sighed in delight when she saw the flower. Its gigantic petals were bloodred and sparkling. What’s more, they were not just petals; they were lips from which a lyrical song came forth, praising Sinta for “thy timeless beauty, thy unequalled grace.” Sinta thought no gift could be sweeter, but she was looking for something more, something she had no idea of. She shook her head and left, and the crestfallen explorer fell to his knees and crushed the rose.
Sinta’s heart leaped with excitement when she reached the second hill and third suitor for the night. The suitor’s letter had been mysterious. He was reputed to be the most powerful conjurer in Mindanao, but all he promised Sinta was a simple ring. She knew, though, that he was devising a big surprise for her. He was more than capable of sweeping her off her feet. True enough, the suitor gave Sinta a most ingenious gift. As soon as she appeared, he raised the golden ring up in the air, and it pulled the moon like a magnet. The moon shrunk as it came closer to earth. It was reduced to the size of a pearl and rested atop the ring. Sinta had finally found the perfect gift.
The earth had become dim, and the spirits had broken into a wild noise, demanding that the moon be returned to its place. Sinta didn’t care if the others were clamoring. She wanted the moon for herself. She could not, however, bring herself to wear the ring, knowing that doing so meant spending eternity with the conjurer. She cried her apologies and fled from the hill. The suitor brought the moon back to the heavens and decided to live in it until his grief was over. Apparently, he never recovered from the rejection, because he was never seen on earth again.
Similar situations occurred with Sinta’s other suitors, until the only ones she hadn’t met were those in the lake and Gohum. Sinta had already seen so many soloks Gohum had weaved, so his gift barely stirred her curiosity. She decided to pass by the lake before going to the waterfall. By this time, half of the night had passed.
The gifts of the spirits in the lake only disappointed Sinta, but she stayed on because she began to enjoy watching the hapless suitors’ reactions. Some rode off in silence on the beasts they had brought, others wept aloud and tore their robes, and others still dove in the lake and drowned themselves. The ritual took Sinta’s time, and before she knew it, morning had broken. She remembered Gohum.
Though many suitors were still queued up, Sinta ran away from the lake. Gohum was nowhere in sight when she reached the waterfall. He had gone somewhere else. She closed her eyes, linked her mind to the elements, and tried to detect his whereabouts. She could no longer feel his presence, his energy. She tried several times more, but her search still yielded no result. It only meant Gohum had given up his existence. Because Sinta did not come to see him while the moon was red, his heart was broken beyond cure. He released his life-force until he was reduced to nothing.
Sinta noticed something on the water, floating like a lost boat. A solok. Judging by its design, she had no doubt Gohum made it. She came nearer the basket and inspected it closely. Just as she had expected, it was plain; the stem from the mother rattan barely made a difference. Though it must be the finest solok Gohum had weaved, it was still not exquisite enough in Sinta’s eyes.
Sinta, however, could not leave the gift on the water. It reminded her of the conversations she had with Gohum, conversations that would never happen again. She felt hollow inside. She felt as though something had been taken away from her. Her heart! It was gone. She had lost it. Gohum had taken it with him to nothingness.
She picked up the solok. It was not the perfect gift for the Fest of the Red Moon, but it was made by the perfect spirit, the one she should spend her life with. The realization, however, came too late. Gohum was gone, forever lost to her. For the first time in her existence, Sinta found herself crying.
Sinta went to Nemula and begged him to bring back Gohum, but Nemula only shook his head with deep sorrow. Gohum had gone to a realm beyond anyone’s reach.
Grief-stricken, Sinta stopped communicating with other spirits. She pined for nothing but Gohum’s voice. She wandered the mountains aimlessly, neither speaking nor hearing, carrying with her all the time Gohum’s solok. Her suitors lost interest in her and pursued other female spirits.
Time went by, and human beings started to come in droves to Mindanao. Their ways wreaked havoc on the habitation of spirits, decimating them to near extinction. The only ones left were Nemula and the most vicious kinds. Insensitive to anything, Sinta survived too, but by this time she had lost her beauty. She had been reduced to a wisp of thin air.
One day, Sinta heard Gohum’s voice. She followed the sound, and it led her to a cove, where she found a piteous creature. It was not Gohum, it was a man.
“Why are you crying?” asked Sinta. The man, however, could neither hear nor see her. He only wept louder. Sinta left him, but even when she had gone far away, she could still hear him, the anguish in his voice rousing her memories of the past.
Sinta returned to the man, and she realized that the cry she was hearing was that of his bleeding heart. She focused on the heart, until she began to understand what it was aching for.
She decided to fulfill the man’s desire. She gathered the strength that she needed and transformed herself into the woman who should have met him. Upon seeing Sinta, his face was filled with mirth. Before he could utter a word, however, he dropped to the ground, stiff and still.
Sinta stared at the man in alarm, but she was relieved when his heart left the body and came to her. She held the heart close to her bosom and then laid it inside the solok, where it would stay in peace and happiness for time without end.
The effort of transforming into a human being exhausted Sinta, so she went to the densest part of a jungle and slept there to replenish her energy.
A few full moons later, she was awakened when she heard Gohum’s voice again. She went to investigate and saw another man with a bleeding heart. As what happened before, Sinta was able to wipe away his pain by appearing as the woman he wanted to see.
Sinta was given a new lease of life. Seeing the content hearts inside the solok assuaged her guilt over what happened to Gohum. She took it as a mission to take care of brokenhearted men. She reckoned that when the solok was full, her sin would be forgiven and her own heart would return. To this day, Sinta’s solok is not yet half-filled, and she remains roaming in the mountains of Cotabato.
fegelilong – an evil spirit in Manobo folklore
solok – Manobo term for a small rattan basket
About the Author
Jude Ortega is twenty-seven years old and lives in Sultan Kudarat, a province in Mindanao in the Philippines. His works have appeared in Philippines Free Press, Philippines Graphic, Sunstar Davao, and Philippine Daily Inquirer.
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