Amina’s Friend

by Raymund P. Reyes

. Ingga was no ordinary friend. She appeared at the bedside of Amina’s mother on the day of Amina’s birth. Her mother died but Ingga never left, following Amina everywhere like a shadow. Only Amina could see Ingga, but her father knew that his daughter had an encanto. When Amina was a baby he would see his daughter pointing then giggling or shrieking in laughter at something that he couldn’t see. He didn’t even have to teach her how to speak. Amina learned to speak by herself.  The first word she uttered was “Ingga.”

When she turned three, Amina introduced her father to Ingga. He was not surprised. The family guarded an acacia tree in the backyard. The tree was a portal to the world of the encantos. Amina’s father was a guardian himself and had his own encanto twin as a child. So did Amina’s grandmother. One in every generation was chosen and the guardian could not leave that hut on the foot of Mount Danglay where in the backyard, the old acacia tree stood, its bark thick with age, and the gnarled roots rose from the earth like snakes stretching their backs upward.

            Amina described Ingga as a little girl wearing a red dress with a yellow sash tied to a bow at the back. She had long dark hair that reached up to her hips, no eyebrows and lashes framed green eyes, ears with pointed tips, and bare webbed feet. Amina did not find anything unusual to having Ingga as a friend. Growing up she thought every child had a special friend like Ingga. The encanto became her playmate and companion. Ingga taught the young girl stories and songs about birds and flowers, the names of the many plants that grew in the woods beyond the small clearing where their house stood, the animals that roamed there, and the uses of various herbs and their healing qualities. She told her about the golden land of the encantos where she promised she would take Amina on her twelfth birthday.  Amina couldn’t wait to turn twelve so she could actually visit Ingga’s world.

Amina and her father lived by themselves. Her father left her every morning to go to the marketplace in the barrio where he sat on a stool in front of a small table near the entrance arch and told fortunes. He did not worry about leaving Amina by herself. He knew his daughter was safe with her incanto. The gift for being a guardian was the ability of knowing the future of other people. He did not actually see visions of things to come like other seers; rather, they are whispered by the encanto. Her father—as well as her grandmother before him—had used this gift for a living. It didn’t earn much but it was enough. He had regulars. People came back because whatever her father told all came true.  

            When it was time for Amina to attend school, her father asked her to keep Ingga a secret. She was special, he said, and the other children would not understand. Some might even envy her and bully her for being different. Amina chose to become a quiet child, sitting at the back, and only replying when talked to. Her classmates learned to leave her alone but would seek her out when they needed someone to talk to.  Children, like most adults, prefer to talk more about themselves rather than listen. Amina was a good listener and her face held an expression of sincerity that attracted the confidence of others. In the beginning she got invited to every classmate’s birthday party after school but when she refused each invitation with the excuse that she lived far and she and that she and her father could not stay out late or they might get lost in the woods, they stopped asking. She decided early on that she wouldn’t need human friends. Ingga was enough for Amina. She walked to town with her father every school day, and walked back home with him in the afternoon. On weekends, both father and daughter stayed home. He tended to his vegetable garden while Ingga kept her company.

            Soon, it was Amina’s twelfth birthday. It was summer, three weeks after she finished grade school. When she woke up there were bloodstains in her sheets. She did not have to tell her father. Ingga had told her this was going to happen and what to do. Her father brought home a small round cake, made by the one baker who had a shop in the barrio market. He also bought her a red dress with a yellow sash—just like Ingga’s—for a present. After dinner, she told his father that she was finally going to visit the land of the encantos that night. Her father simply nodded and told her that he knew. He had been there too, he said, when he was twelve, a long time ago. He could barely remember everything he saw and asked her to tell him about her trip the next morning.  

            Later, when Amina’s father had gone to bed, Ingga led Amina outside, towards the acacia tree. The sky was starless, there was no moon, and the air was thick with the smell of evening flowers. The encanto asked her to lie down on the grass and rest her head on the trunk of the tree. Amina felt herself getting drowsy and lightheaded. She thought she was imagining herself rising from the ground, until she looked down, and saw her physical self left behind, asleep on the ground. She held up her hands to her face and was startled for she could see through them like they were gauze. She was only spirit now, floating beside Ingga, who took her hand, and pointed at the tree. Amina saw a door outlined on the bark, a light peeping through the edges. Ingga, still holding Amina’s hand, pulled the young girl with her and they stepped through the portal together.

It took Amina a while to adjust to the blinding brightness at the other side. Everything in Ingga’s world was of a different hue of yellow. A metallic golden sun shone on a cloudless sky that was the color of butter. They stood outside a forest of acacia trees, every tree identical to each other; but instead of green leaves, they had dark-golden leaves that were almost orange and beige trunks and branches. Every tree looked exactly like the one in their backyard, from the great trunk leaning slightly to the right, to the three giant roots protruding from the earth. Even the spaces between the trees were uniform, it was like being inside a roomful of mirrors.

The goldenrod-yellow ground was hard and flat like dried clay. Beyond the horizon a mountain the color of lemon encircled the woods, but around her Amina could not see anything that broke the monotony of trees and spaces. No rocks, rivers, grass, or dwellings in sight. A number of little girls that all looked similar to Ingga except for the color of their dresses were weaving through the trees, staring straight ahead as if absorbed in serious thoughts, hurrying to wherever they were going. While Ingga wore red, other encantos wore black, blue, orange, pink, violet, green and white. Their colorful clothing provided the contrast to the monochromatic surroundings.  There were only little girls, though. Amina wondered about this and asked whether there were boys in the world of the encantos. Ingga said that only male guardians were able to see male encantos.  No one paid any attention to Ingga or her human companion, not even a glance at their direction. They could not see her, Ingga told her. Amina looked down at her feet, felt her arms, and passed her hands through her skirt. She could touch flesh, felt her skin, bones, and the cloth of her dress, but she looked luminous white, even her clothes were almost invisible to her.

The place was quiet. No rustling of the leaves or whistling of the wind. Just a vacuum of silence. Even when Amina opened her mouth to speak, no sound came out, although she would hear herself talk in her mind and Ingga answering back in the same way.  

            Ingga did not let go of Amina’s hand as she led her through the forest. Amina asked her friend where she was taking her, but the encanto simply smiled in response.  They kept walking for almost an hour although Amina did not feel tired at all because she was moving weightless as air. Neither could she measure the distance their journey covered because the scenery did not change—always the same rows and rows of golden-leafed acacia trees. She thought the pattern of trees would never end but finally, they came to what could only be the edge of the forest since the huge wall of pale cream rock, the length of which ran as far as Amina’s eyes could see, both to her left and right, blocked their path. She stopped in her tracks, but Ingga beckoned for her to continue. Amina hesitated so Ingga went first. The encanto passed through the wall and disappeared into the other side. Amina put out her arm, to see if it would pass through the surface. She was amazed to see her right hand disappear through the wall. Her fear assuaged, she closed her eyes and plunged forward.

The other side of the wall was a dark cavern but for a light gleaming from a rock in the middle. The bright slab was rectangular and resembled a low table or an altar. On top was a huge pile of round fruits that looked liked berries but golden in color. Ingga took one berry from the pile and offered it to Amina. The girl asked her friend what the fruit was. It was the food of encantos, Ingga answered, and Amina was to eat it. The girl looked at it closely. It smelled like ripe apples, but only at first. When she pressed it closer to her nose, the smell changed to fragrant lemons, then ripe bananas, grapes, jackfruit, oranges, and other fruits Amina could not then identify because the smell kept changing fast, one after the other. She put one into her mouth. To her surprise, it didn’t taste like anything. She took another. When she bit into the fruit, it would melt in her tongue before turning into tasteless liquid, much like water. The absence of taste frustrated her but the delicious smell of the fruit only intensified the desire to satisfy the frustration. She ate greedily until Ingga gently pushed her away from the table and commanded her to stop. Amina looked at her friend dazed, as if she had forgotten where she was. Suddenly the whole place faded before her eyes and she fell to the ground unconscious.

            When she came to, Amina found herself in bed. Her visit to the land of the encantos seemed like a dream, details fled from her memory as soon as she stood up and looked out the window across her bed. The curtains were open and she could see the sky beyond only beginning to brighten, the acacia standing still like a regular tree, melding perfectly with the other trees, shrubs, and grasses in the garden. She called Ingga’s name, but her friend did not answer back like usual. She called to her father, who ran readily to her side. She told him about the things she saw and asked him if they were real. He told her that they did happen, she hadn’t dreamed everything, and that she had to accept that Ingga had disappeared. It was the same for all guardians, he said. After one had gone to the land of the encantos and eaten of the golden fruit, the encanto leaves the guardian. Ingga will come back, he added, but only the encanto can tell when.  

             Amina felt alone the next few days. She had been used to having Ingga with her all the time. The house turned quiet without her friend. She tried to distract herself by starting a flower garden beside her father’s vegetables, but she could only do this in the morning when the sun was not so hot. She spent her afternoons talking to herself, imagining Ingga was in the room with her, and then, when the sun went down, she would stare out the window, waiting for her father to come home.

One evening, two weeks after Amina’s visit to the strange place inside the acacia tree, her father came back from the barrio carrying a letter with him. It was from Aunt Salud in Manila. She was the sister of Amina’s mother. Aunt Salud was inviting Amina to visit them. They just had a baby and they needed someone to stay home and take care of it while the couple went to work. Amina had never seen Aunt Salud. She never even knew they had relatives, her father never told stories about her mother’s family until now. He only saw Aunt Salud once, he said, before he brought her mother to Barrio Danglay. Aunt Salud was already married and living in Pampanga but she came to see her sister off in the bus station in Manila. Perhaps she had a feeling that it would be the last time she would see her sister. Aunt Salud was her mother’s last family, their parents having died years before. Her mother kept a constant correspondence with her sister until her death. Her father sent a telegram to tell Aunt Salud about her sister’s death and Amina’s birth, so she knew about Amina, but Aunt Salud wasn’t able to come for the funeral. Danglay was too far, the bus ride took almost two days from Manila, and the travel too expensive for her. Life had grown better for her, Aunt Salud wrote, and she now owned a small business, a chicken stall in a talipapa in Quezon City. She remembered her niece when she had her second daughter and needed a nanny. Their eldest was already married and out of the house so there was no one to take care of the baby.

Amina didn’t want to go but her father said she should. It would be good for her, he said. There was nothing left for her in the barrio. She could not even go back to school since the nearest high school was in the sitio two kilometres away.  Going away would take her mind away from her friend, her father advised, and that, like a rite of passage, all guardians had to go away from Danglay and only come back when their encanto asked them to return. The letter from Aunt Salud was no coincidence. Her father told her then how he, too, had to leave when he was young. He worked as a carpenter in the city for eight years. It was there where he met Amina’s mother, who worked as cashier in the gas station next to a construction site where he had been assigned by his contracting agency. Her mother asked him to share her umbrella one night while they were going home together after their shifts. That first meeting began his courtship. After they got married, he told her about her duty as guardian and how they had to go back to Danglay. It wasn’t hard to convince her. She loved him too much. When they were back in their hut on the foot of the mountain that was when he began telling fortunes in the marketplace in the barrio.  

            Amina stayed with her Aunt Salud in Manila for the next five years. She never went back even to visit Danglay. Her father prohibited her, too, even if she pleaded each year to be allowed a visit. On the first year she wrote him a letter each month telling about her life in the city and how she missed him, but he would only reply once a year on her birthday. Soon, even she stopped writing regularly, but she always got a short letter from her father for every birthday.

            Amina’s new life kept her busy. She took care of her niece so her days were filled with changing diapers, preparing milk, and keeping a constant eye on the baby. Aunt Salud and Uncle Benito were good to her and had learned to accept Amina as family. She barely saw them much on weekdays because they went to the market early where they tended their stall, and came home late. Alone in the house with the baby, she was entertained by the television, a luxury that only the rich people in Danglay could afford but which even the poor people in the city had in their living rooms. On Sundays, however, they took Amina with them to the park or the mall. They bought her new clothes and shoes sometimes. When her aunt took her to the salon, it was the first time for Amina to have someone else other than her father cut her hair. The days were full of distractions enough to make her forget Danglay, but at night, when everyone had gone to bed, in the quiet of her room, she missed Ingga and her father. She would close her eyes and imagine the day when she would see them both again. She would drift off to sleep consoled with an image in her mind of the happy reunion she envisioned would happen soon.

            It was the height of summer, a week after Amina turned seventeen. She was tossing in bed, unable to sleep because of the heat, when she heard a familiar voice calling her name repeatedly in the darkness. It was Ingga! She had almost forgotten but when she heard the sweet whispering voice she knew it belonged to her old friend. She stood up and followed the sound. It wafted in from the window. Amina pulled back the curtains covering the large open window and looked out, but she only saw the empty street, the dark houses of the neighbours across, and a cat staring back at her from one of the porches. Yet the breeze carried the sound of someone calling her name. She called back Ingga’s name, hoping the encanto would appear in response, but she didn’t. Then, just as Amina pulled the curtains close, she felt something stroke her nape. She turned but saw no one. She heard it again, Ingga calling her name softly, but this time the sound did not come from outside, but in her mind. You are going back to Danglay, the voice echoed before the room went still again.  

            The next day, her aunt received a telegram from her father asking Amina to go back home. Her aunt did not want her to go. Wait until the end of summer and they found another girl to replace her, she pleaded. Aunt Salud also knew of her father’s work.  She was religious and had taught Amina to go to church every Sunday, a habit that Amina’s father did not instil in her. Aunt Salud believed that Amina’s father was engaged in evil magic. Amina had not told her about Ingga and the encantos but Aunt Salud believed that if Amina went back to Danglay, she would become an instrument of the devil as her father was. But Amina was insistent. She wanted to go back home. With great reluctance, Aunt Salud allowed Amina to leave, but asked her to come back anytime she felt like it. She would even pay for her bus fare, she said.

            Amina’s father was glad to see her back. Amina did not write back to tell him when she was arriving. She wanted to surprise him. However, her father had been waiting by the bus stop when she arrived. His encanto had told him the exact time of her arrival, he said.

 The reunion between father and daughter did not last long. After a week, her father suddenly got sick. He was not feverish or showed other symptoms of illness but complained that he felt weak and couldn’t get up from bed. It was a sickness that no doctor would heal, he told his worried daughter. He was being called by Alon, his encanto. It was time for him to join them. He confessed that this was the reason why he had asked Amina to come back to Danglay. Now that Amina was back, he was free to go and she would take his place as guardian. Amina wondered if they could stall for time, but her father said that the decision wasn’t theirs to make. She asked him if she could refuse to accept the responsibility of being guardian, but he shook his head. It would not be right, he said. The family had guarded the portal for three generations. Amina could not disappoint him those who came before her: her grandmother, and her great-grandmother, the first guardian in the family. He assured her that only his earthly body would die. His spirit, meanwhile, was moving on to another world.

Her father stayed ill only for three days. Amina stayed by his side until he breathed his last. She buried him herself in the yard beside her mother. She planted a sapling of a tamarind tree by the head of her father’s grave. She thought it would provide shade when it was all grown and she could sit down under the tree when she wanted to visit her parents.  

The following night, while she was getting ready to bed, Amina looked out the window, in the direction of the acacia tree, and saw a young boy sitting cross-legged by the roots, staring at her. Light emanated from him, the glow illuminating the garden around him. While she looked in wonder, the boy smiled at her. She recognized him from the dimple on his right chin and the mole on the left cheek, although he had grown pointed ears now and his feet webbed. The boy was her father. He had become an encanto. The boy just sat there, looking and smiling at her. Then, the light surrounding him dimmed. He waved a hand at her until he eventually disappeared while she kept watching. When her father disappeared, she felt a chill by her nape and heard her name being called. It was Ingga. She was back. Amina called her friend and asked her to show herself, but Ingga said she would not see her anymore because she was past childhood, but she would hear her. Amina was now the guardian of the portal. She would not be alone, Ingga said, and many things are yet to happen.   

            The next day, Amina awoke early, long before the sky began to lighten with sunrise. She had breakfast, put on her sandals and a thick shawl to ward off the morning chill, and began the long walk through the woods and into the marketplace in the barrio. There, she found her father’s stool and low table by the entrance arch, as they always had been. She dusted the stool and sat waiting. She was to become the new fortune teller of Danglay. When an elderly woman came to sit on the other stool opposite her, Amina felt a sudden rush of wind brush her cheeks and heard Ingga speaking in her head.

Take her hand, Ingga instructed her.

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