Introduction: In the contemporary fantasy novel, Maganda’s Comb, Corrie Dimalanta, a FilAm dancer, wears Maganda’s comb, a wooden comb that can rewrite the Narrative of Reality. She unwittingly releases the spirit of an ancient Spanish slaver from the totem pole in which he is trapped. Malakas was sent to retrieve the comb, but before he can, the Spaniard, using Corrie’s boyfriend Gil, steals the comb and begins to reshape reality into a version he believes is his birthright. With the help of Scotty, a busker from the White Spot Clan, and Libby, the Owl Woman, as well as the mysterious JT, Corrie races to prevent Singat, the mountain spirit, from destroying the town of Jessup’s Cove to stop the Slaver’s chaos from changing history across North America.
Maganda’s Comb: Excerpt
Red-clad Igorot dancers danced to the beat of a Red Lodge drum large enough for twelve drummers to sit around comfortably. A wind came through the gathering and raised the flames of the bonfire high into the night sky, setting the trees on fire overhead. Burning heat pushed past her as Corrie found herself running naked through a forest, a dark shape pursuing her.
Sitting up with a gasp and her heart pounding from the dream, Corrie heard the wind brush branches against the window. She shuddered. Gil turned in his sleep with a soft snort. Across the room, she saw the red glow of Gil’s alarm clock read 1:03 AM. She wanted to wake him, but she knew that he would dismiss her dream and tell her to go back to sleep. Slipping out of bed quietly, she found her jeans and t-shirt, got dressed and went to the window to look outside.
There was no rain, but the wind-whipped leaves and pine needles against the window and apartment, making it sound as if it was raining. She didn’t like being up at that hour especially after her strange dream. She wanted to talk to Gil, tell him about her dream and ask about his comments about the old Filipino dances and the Red Cedar tribe. Glancing back at him, she knew he was asleep and wouldn’t want to wake up to talk about something he didn’t think was important.
Until her conversation with Josie at the festival, Corrie had never really asked herself why he often dismissed her thoughts and feelings that differed from his. It was just the shape their relationship had taken over the past year. But tonight, Corrie felt irritated that Gil didn’t seem to want to know more about her dancing and her day in general. She suddenly felt that she needed to go home to her own place and think for a while. Although she knew that walking on campus at that time of night wasn’t the brightest thing to do, the urge to leave his apartment was intense. Before she could change her mind again, she had shrugged on her coat, grabbed her backpack and slipped out the door into the wind.
Keeping her steps quick and her path back home as lighted as possible, Corrie made her way down the hill from the south side of campus back to the central area where her dormitory sat. The wind continued to press against her and she pulled hair up in a hasty bun. Digging in her bag, she found her grandmother’s worn wooden comb and pushed it into her hair to keep the bun in place. Half-way back to her dorm, she began to regret leaving Gil’s warm apartment, but she thought how foolish she would feel if he woke up when she returned.
Turning the corner past the Physics building and to the Fountain Courtyard, Corrie suddenly had the sensation that someone was following her. She resisted the urge to turn around, and quickened her steps, staying close to the pools of light made by the streetlamps that dotted the court. The wind rustled the trees and sent showers of leaves down on Corrie and still she felt as if she was being watched.
Finally, as she passed the media center and the empty stage, she glanced back in time to see a black shape swoop toward her. She shouted sharply and put her arm up to ward away the shape as it dove toward her then lifted soundlessly up to a nearby tree.
Corrie glanced up and realized that the shape was an owl.
“Don’t do that,” she whispered, glaring at the bird. For its part, the owl blinked placidly and watched as Corrie resumed her quick clip back to her dormitory.
Benson Hall was a two-story dorm that sat on the other side of the Administration building and Corrie decided to cut past the Carver’s Pavilion to reach her dorm room faster. The lawn looked deserted, the drums, drummers, and dancers all gone as Corrie had expected, but the pavilion was lit from within. She could see the dark shape of the totem pole outlined and a tall shadow moving beyond the canvas walls. Assuming Solomon, the carver, was awake too, she altered her tracks, walked up the path to the now closed doorway and pushed aside the flap. Perhaps talking to the carver would dispel the echoes of her dream and her misgivings about Gil.
“Hello, Solomon?” she said as she poked her head inside. “It’s me, Corrie. Can I come in?”
The carver turned with a smile. “Yes, of course,” he said gesturing for her to come closer. “You’re up late.”
“Couldn’t sleep,” she answered. “I’m just on my way home.”
He nodded and pointed to the pole with small carving tool. Corrie stepped closer and placed her hand gently on the wood. The pole seemed to vibrate at her touch.
“Couldn’t either,” Solomon said. “I was just about to shut things down for the night, when I realized what kind of mouth opening the tree spirit wanted me to make.” He gripped the tool in his right hand, braced himself against the wood with his other, and began scooping out shavings of cedar from the ‘O’ shaped opening she had seen him start earlier in the day. “It’s a special opening for truth-telling,” he explained, his voice high and fast with excitement. “On a mask, it would have a place for the dancer to rest his lips while he chanted a prophecy. I’m carving what look like lips right behind where the opening would be, to make it look—”
He broke off suddenly and gasped, his body lurching forward toward the pole.
Corrie took a step toward him, hand outstretched. “Solomon?” she said, tentatively. “Are you okay?”
His body shuddered as the carving tool dropped from his hand. His eyes went wide and his face twisted in a grimace as if he was straining away from something. Outside the wind whipped the pavilion roof and billowed past the front opening. For a moment Corrie thought the man was having a heart attack, when a thick black shape began to ooze from the opening Solomon had made in the wood.
The shape bubbled up like a slow fountain, fell back on itself, and built up again from beneath. With each passing moment, the black shape rose closer and closer to the carver until it seemed as if it would touch the very tip of his chin. Slowly and painfully, Solomon moved his right hand up to his head and grasped a white feather tied to his hair.
Corrie wanted to scream and run, but she felt frozen to the spot, her limbs unmoving and her breath ragged with panic. She watched the carver yank the feather from his hair; for a moment it looked as if the white feather turned into a silver knife as Solomon made a slashing movement between him and the black shape. The knife cut through the top of the black shape, sending droplets of the sticky ooze across the surface of the totem pole. The black ooze seemed to retreat back into the opening, but then burst forth again in a great swell that formed into the shape of a man’s face, a man who screamed soundlessly.
The shape lunged toward Corrie. She tried to raise her arm to shield herself, but she could only moan, eyes wide in horror as the shape moved as if to engulf her entire body.
She heard Solomon yell as he moved toward the shape to block its path and shoved her aside. Corrie fell down roughly, her cheek hitting the soft grass and cedar shavings. She rolled onto her back and saw Solomon struggling with the black shape that looked, with each passing moment, more and more like a man. Corrie tried to scoot away, but her bones felt too heavy for her muscles to move.
Above her, the two men struggled hand-to-wrists, Solomon’s face flushed with anger and sweat. He murmured words in a language Corrie didn’t recognize, his eyes closed and his jaw clenched as he strained for every vowel. Solomon and the man pushed and strained against each other. At first it seemed as if Solomon was going to force the man to kneel, but then the man’s body formed completely. Where once stood a nearly formless, black shape, a man stood, dressed in black pants, high black leather boots and a dirty white tunic, and bent Solomon backwards. His long brown hair fell to his shoulders matted and damp, and a ragged beard and mustache covered his face.
He also murmured words in counterpoint to Solomon’s chant. Corrie recognized the language as Spanish, but she couldn’t make out the words.
The wind lifted the opening of the pavilion. On the gust, an owl swooped in and began to claw at the Spaniard’s hair. He roared a curse and pushed Solomon aside as he struggled to release himself from the owl’s grasp. The owl screeched loudly and flapped its wings trying to stay out of the Spaniard’s grasp. Solomon fell against the totem pole with a sickening crack, and then slumped down next to Corrie. The owl pulled on the Spaniard’s hair and clothing, pecking at his face, wings flapping furiously. It looked as if the owl would gain the advantage, but suddenly the Spaniard grabbed the owl’s wing and tore the bird away, flinging it across the pavilion. It hit a pole at the far end of the pavilion and collapsed to the ground. The shapeshifter turned toward Corrie once more hands outstretched.
~you are mine, now, little one~ a rasping voice echoed in Corrie’s mind. ~your sweetness is familiar~ The Spaniard strode toward her.
Corrie backed away until she bumped into Solomon’s prone form. Eyes locked on the approaching man, she blindly searched the ground for something to throw, until she felt the softness of a feather tip. She rolled to her right just as the shapeshifter lunged for her and took the feather in her hand. In an instant, the feather turned to hardened steel, the hilt of a knife in her hand, yet there was also blinding pain as she felt herself being picked up by her own hair. The Spaniard drew his face close to hers, and she nearly wretched from the smell of warm, rotting flesh.
~such a sweet little thing~ the voice boomed within her mind ~what’s this in your hair?--~
With one swift move, Corrie gathered her remaining strength, pushed her legs down to set her feet solidly on the ground, and swung the knife into the shapeshifter’s body with a twist of her torso. A blaze of lightning filled the pavilion, blinding her, and the Spaniard screamed in agony. Corrie felt herself drop and a wind rushed past as a heaviness dropped her into unconsciousness.
Rebecca Mabanglo-Mayor’s non-fiction, poetry, and short fiction have appeared in print and online in several journals and anthologies including Katipunan Literary Magazine, Growing Up Filipino II: More Stories for Young Adults, Kuwento: Small Things, and Beyond Lumpia, Pansit, and Seven Manangs Wild: An Anthology. Her poetry chapbook Pause Mid-Flight was released in 2010. She is also a contributor and co-editor of True Stories: The Narrative Project Vol. I and II, and her poetry and essays were collected in Dancing Between Bamboo Poles, released in 2019. She has been performing as a storyteller since 2006 and specializes in stories based on Filipino folktales and Filipino-American history.
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