On finding the right 'pen pal'

pen pal writing

Dear B-----,

I have always wanted to do this, to write letters to someone. In my youth, I had worked very briefly with Elisabeth on a fiction book project that is ideally a result of two people who move a plot by "instinctively" writing to each other. But after a few letters, with work and other matters in the way, it never transpired. What I had with Lis was special to me; it was inspired by a fantasy book I read a long time ago. The authors admitted in the introduction of the book that while they discussed the plot at certain points, the letters they exchanged with each other were mostly instinctive, if not random. What amazed me was how two people from different places could have the same and one mind on a plot in a time when communication platforms were limited. The story was okay. I already forgot the title. But the mode the story was presented, which was through letters between two fictional characters represented by the writers themselves, was truly unique and memorable. I wanted something like that, that genuine meeting of minds. But with who?

Because Mommy Delfina (God bless her soul) knew how I like writing letters, she had asked me to write to Uncle Ken’s niece, Heather, who is a few years younger than me. Mommy had even enclosed a picture of her in one of her letters to me. Heather was a lovely blonde. In the picture, her head was slightly bent to observe the flowers she was holding close to her freckled face, as the sunlight shone brightly on her hair. Until now, I could not forget that beautiful view of her. Of course, I was young and I was motivated to befriend a pretty girl and ask for her stories. Her handwriting was big and just as pretty as her. But her stories did not appeal to me, so I stopped. Was I unconsciously and unreasonably setting my expectations too high? Maybe I did not want to stop and that maybe my academics and love of studying got in the way. Maybe I did not give enough chances for our friendship to blossom. There were a lot of maybes, and I only got what I deserve, didn’t I? I had continued to write letters to Mommy Delfina and Uncle Ken (God bless his soul). The trips to the post office, I remember, had been exciting and the replies I got had been just as exciting. Uncle Ken had praised my writing and inside, I beamed with joy. He had shown his satisfaction by occasionally enclosing 1 or 5 or 10 dollars in Mommy Delfina’s letters. I had immediately given the money to my parents because the content of the letters had been more important to me. I wish now that I was more careful and kept those letters properly. I once did, in a box under my bed, but I do not know where they are now.

Did you know that I once advertised in a religious magazine for pen pals when I was in high school? I was around 13 or 14 years old. Then I got several replies from people of my own age, mostly from Manila. It turned out that it was a letter-writing project of their school. Yes, the people who replied to my ad all came from the same school. I felt a bit sad and somehow betrayed about it. So I stopped. One pen pal ran away from her home in Manila and dropped by my house with the intent to temporarily stay over. My parents were angry; they do not like strangers. So do I. I only exchanged a couple of letters with this person. Why and how she came to my home without informing me ahead alerted my paranoia radar. I did not show my face to her when she came. My parents did not welcome her. Where she went and how she moved on, I had no idea and I did not even bother to know. Was I too cruel?

So I stopped writing letters to pen pals. Looking back, after that incident of the pen pal coming over to Cebu, I think I briefly found pen pal writing unsafe. I simply wanted to write and hide behind the papers while communicating with another person, while trying to build that meeting of same literary minds and purpose. I was envious of my mother who had a longtime female pen pal from Greece long before she got married. She even had a sepia picture of her. She looked a little like Hila, a blogger (she’s a Hebrew) I looked up to (she does not know even when we communicated several times already) for her diligence and writing style.

Pen pals have taken different forms. You can communicate directly with another person online. But like how I always describe myself, I belong to the old school and the new school of thought at the same time, a bit traditional and a bit modern in preferences. I enjoy the convenience of online communication but I still long for the comforts of handwritten letters. I play Sims 4 but my hands often itch to make paper dolls. Facebook makes me dizzy but I’m writing this letter in Google Docs offline while waiting at the mercy of the Visayan Electric Co. I am that kind of person. You know that, B-----, and you have always commented on how confusing I can be. I think you can blame it on the year I was born; I’m stuck between millenials and an older generation.

Instagram became popular in our place during my working years at an NGO. It took me some time though to discover another form of pen pal writing. These pen pals are still writing letters to each other by hand but they are designing the letter envelopes with so much creativity that they are worth several Instagram photos at different angles. I wanted to join the bandwagon. Like you say, whatever interests me, “apil-apilon gyud ko.” But I could not find a pen pal even on Instagram because I’m limited by my own expectations again. I may be a risk taker but as I grew older, I became more conscious and extra careful of the people I associate with. I don’t have that drive of my youth anymore in my search for a pen pal who possesses literary prowess. Despite that, I’m still lured in by my desire to write anything, letters included, in any form, on any platform.

So the question remained: Who should I write to? Then I thought about you. Why not to you? You may not write me back as often as I shall write to you on this platform, you may not be fond of writing as I am, you may be more conscious about how to express your thoughts clearly on paper than I am, but you are the truest person I know. And I’ve already known you for nearly half of my lifetime. There are no more inhibitions between us, no tiptoeing around each other, no holding back of thoughts. And, for me, that will make the letter writing process even more special. I will write to you more, without setting expectations, without pressuring you to write back, but only for me to express myself...and to simply enjoy writing.

Nancy Cudis-Ucag
(Cebu, Aug. 27, 2018)

Source: Wikiart

Stories and Gratitude

essay gratitude life lessons

Surrounded by stories. That’s what I am. I wake up to blinking cursors on words of client stories waiting to be edited. I take breaks reading about the voyages of Doctor Dolittle (or whoever it is I fancy at the time). I listen to my mother perpetually telling true-to-life stories that, if documented, can without a doubt rival those New York best-sellers. Then I hear my sister tickled and flushed over her Korean soap operas. I talk to my fiancé and giggle like a teenage schoolgirl over his stories or jokes of the day. Then right before I roll back to sleep, I cry myself silly over Coca Cola advertisements on Youtube or FaithTap.com videos on dogs, babies and old people.

It’s a beautiful thing, this being surrounded by stories and breathing well to appreciate their existence as my personal life source. I know when this life source starts to drain when I stop living on the present story and worry too much on the next one, when I take long pauses on reading, when my overwrought psyche is clogging the flow of events and preventing the stories in my life from fully developing. I know when this happens because I will start wondering if my life is boring—working hard, reading less, more client meetings, lesser leisurely travels, more emails than talks.  

When that time happens, it’s a clear signal for me to fix my perspective and renew the balance by doing something about it and remembering one word: stories. As I am writing this, stories are going on around me, linked with my own story in one way or another, connected me to the bearers of these stories whom I get to meet in the next hour or in the future in some way or another. How I make my own story affects myself, my future and others. So I have to take care of my stories and the stories of others.

I look at my parents, for instance, and I feel overwhelmed at how my life story started when my father, in his quiet way, courted my mother and both decided to scrape their way to the church to get married. I take care of their stories by not being such a pain, by working hard, by studying hard, by not depending on them too much.

With my mother, there’s a story in everything—in the dress she wore for her wedding, in the picture frame she brought from the nearby warehouse, in the umbrella I won in a raffle and given to her, in every grocery trip, in every fiesta visit. Some of these stories are simple, some of them exaggerated. But with stories, I feel connected with my mother who got me through Caesarean birth. Of course, there’s only one thing left to do in order to take care of her stories: listen to them, in the same way she listened to her mother. Now she is the bearer of her and her mother’s stories, which form a mosaic of little stories that piece together the family pride and heritage.

I look at my sister and I smile at how she spiced up my life with all those hell-raising, door-banging and lip-pouting moments in our younger years and all those recent trips to coffee shops to debate about the worthiness of Korean music stars and argue about the competence of current fantasy movie celebrities.

Then I look at my fiancé and, every time, my heart swells at remembering the stories linked so we could eventually meet. In our case, things happened one story after the other. If he became a pilot just as he had planned, we would not have met. He would have a good job, hooked to a pretty girlfriend from Manila. But no, he stayed in Cebu where we met, where we have been staying together for the past nine years. I am proud and happy with every story that happened between us—from the first moment to our recent conversation not more than 10 minutes ago—which shows in the Save the Date card we started giving out to relatives and friends.

Surrounded with stories. That’s what I am. And stories I cannot live without, for, as writer Philip Pullman puts it, “after nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”

Nancy Cudis-Ucag

Source: Wikiart

Love, Unexpectedly - First Date

true love stories

Afternoon light broke through my room's unadorned jalousie windows. There was no need to turn on the bulb; it was bright enough as it was. I was rolling on my small bed, my mind in a riot of past, present, and future thoughts. I had been doing that a lot for a month now.

At 21, in 2005, just four months fresh from college graduation, I banged my head over what job I wanted to do. I just wanted to do something, anything, and earn from it. But deep inside, I knew it was a half-hearted decision. It already seemed like a privilege to acquire a job that was related to what I have studied for three years.

I sat up. My feet landed on a book. On the floor, books were scattered, like fancy clothes spread out for a look-over and selection. I smiled. I arranged and rearranged them in a pile and carried them to the wide wooden floor-to-ceiling shelf at the foot of my bed. My practical father, a resourceful maker of all things necessary for the house--from hangers made of wood and wire to ceilings that are plastered with aluminum insulation foil--built my shelf.

Since the shelf was twice as tall as me, I had to balance one foot on a bed post and the other on a lower shelf before depositing the books below the topmost row. I landed back on the floor and stared at the shelves, seeking some sort of inspiration. The bookshelf contains paraphernalia collected over the years: notebooks, essay papers, and news clippings on the bottom shelf, floppy disks, cassette tapes, CDs, and crochet yarns on the second, figurines, trophies, and a big black radio on the third, books on the fourth, and a set of Britannica Encyclopedia and dictionaries on the very top of the shelf.

The comfort I sought in my period of unemployment didn't come. I went to my study table, which used to be a white drafting board bought when I was a freshman civil engineering student. Now, it was covered with thick Globe load cards pieced together like a big jigsaw puzzle. On the table, bright little holders stood full of ballpens and pencils. They were surrounded by figurines of the odd sort.

I sat down and gazed outside the window. My view used to be coconut and banana trees and a bright blue sky or a pitch black night. But a religious denomination bought my aunt's land beside ours and erected a small church out of wood. On some days, the change of the peaceful view was accompanied with sounds of crying babies and loud singers with their equally loud musical instruments. Today, it was eerily quiet. My cell phone beeped a message. It was an unregistered number.

"Hi. B----- ni, sa review center. Musta? (This is B----- from the review center. How are you?)," the message read.

Ah, yes. The big guy. He must be just as bored as I was to have the time to send me a text. I put away my phone and leaned my chin on the table, daydreaming about my future job. Would I one day be wearing a full business suit and amble confidently along the cold corporate corridors with an air of unquestionable authority or would I be helping my father in his beverage distribution business while blastingly rubbing shoulders with sari-sari store owners or would I be unemployed forever? Either way, I was frightened.

This kind of wobbly daydreaming marched on in the days that followed, only to be interrupted when doing chores, eating, sleeping, reading, or receiving text messages from B-----, which I didn't respond to simply because I didn't feel like doing so. Four days after B----- made his grand introduction, I received another text message from him, asking me what I was doing right now. This time, I sat down and decided to reply to the poor guy. "Reading," I wrote and sent. He asked what I was reading. I gave him the title of the classic book on the table. He asked if I was enjoying it. I did not reply. I wondered what I would tell him when we meet on Sunday.

When Sunday came, I trekked the all too familiar passageways leading to the review center. I sat on the same chair, surrounded by the same old and young faces and listening to the humdrum low voice of the same teacher. B----- was there, in his usual spot, two seats away. We didn't talk until the class was over. We reenacted the scene last week, walking side by side along the dim corridors. Our classmates passing by were staring at us and I could almost see the bubble of curious thoughts above their heads.

"Pwede ka nako hagdon og kaon sa gawas? (Can I invite you to eat somewhere?)" B----- asked me.

"Karon (Now)?" I was hesitant.

He nodded. "Bisan asa nimo gusto (Wherever you want)."

I could feel my face scrunch into a frown. B----- had so far not complained about nor made light my lackluster response to his messages. He was eager to communicate. In fact, he was too persistent for my taste. But this begged the question as to why he liked to talk to me in the first place. Was it simple interest? Was it the want of friendship? Was it malice? Was it playfulness?

We walked down the stairs, my head full of curiosities. I knew that I could only be satisfied if I talked to him directly. I culled my mind for busy open places close to my home and thought of a good place.

"Sige. Bo's Coffee ta sa BTC (Okay. Let's go to Bo's Coffee in BTC)," I said with finality. I was not open for negotiation.

B----- nodded in agreement, smiling. "Sige. Pero asa man na? Wala baya ko katuod (Okay. But where is that? I don't know the way)."

"Banilad Town Center. Unahan sa (Just beyond) Countrymall," I answered.

We reached D. Jakosalem Street and B----- waved a hand to the direction of his parked car. It was a bright yellow classic Toyota Corolla. He immediately told me it belonged to his father. I told him I bought my father's minivan and I parked it at the Cebu Metropolitan Cathedral.

"Mutuyok lang ko. Huwata lang ko sa cathedral (I'll just make a turn. Just wait for me at the cathedral)," he said.

I agreed and brisk walked my walk to P. Burgos Street. I waited for him to arrive. When he did, he said he would follow me to BTC. Now the thing about minivans was that they are sly little creatures. With a fast driver like me at the helm, I out of habit passed through cracks in between cars and drove at a relatively swift speed. I was not used to being followed. This was why I had to stop several times until I could see the bright yellow car B----- was driving pop up on my rear view mirror. I forgot to consider that his vehicle was old and lowered, a state that was unfriendly to uneven road surface and sudden distressing potholes.

We parked at BTC, near Bo's Coffee. The place was quite busy but there were a couple of empty tables and chairs. We opted to sit inside, near the door with the glass wall beside us. He asked what I wanted. I told him the name of a cold drink. He went to order at the cashier. When he came back and sat across me, he was being friendly and he seemed naturally gregarious, which was a relief.

I found tissues on the table, which I played with by tearing them into tiny little pieces. I did this while listening to the man across me talk, while I interjected and shared some of my experiences, and even after our drinks came. B----- ordered for himself a cup of cappuccino, which I found interesting because it was a hot afternoon. On second thought, I was not well-versed on the subject of coffee drinking because I was not a coffee drinker. Perhaps B----- was simply a coffee lover, I wondered.

Our conversation covered so many topics and I was fascinated by them. B-----, who I learned was five years older than me at 26, talked a good deal about himself, about how he was raised with strict upbringing under the watchful eye of his father, a retired lieutenant colonel, how close he was to his mother, how he managed to finish his degree related to aircraft maintenance, how he started flying school, how he liked playing pranks on his one and only elder sister, and how big his circle of friends was.

I told him that, in contrast, I had a big family, including relatives, who were living in Mandaue City, Balamban, and Manila. I shared about my father who owned a modest store for the past 22 years with my mother's support, about my sister, seven years younger than I was, who was still in high school. I spoke of my interests in reading, writing, making crafts, studying, and driving. I told him that my close friends were only few and that I was raised with tremendous support of my education.

Sometimes, there were stiff pauses in our discourse, then B----- would crack a joke to make me feel comfortable. Most of the time, he would talk nonstop and I would find myself nodding, smiling, frowning, or laughing. Other times, I would look down on the torn tissues I messed up with as I share and stumble on my stories.

We spent nearly five hours talking. For some reason, we didn't head out to another place for dinner. We ordered sandwiches and pastries and another round of drinks and stayed where we were, drying our throats out. Then I decided it was time to go home. It was nearly 10 p.m. and I, an early sleeper, was already getting dozy. We left the cafe and B----- walked me to my car. He said he would keep in touch. I smiled and nodded. He saw me pull out of the parking lot and I headed home, which was just about five minutes away on a Sunday on the fast lane.



"Love, Unexpectedly is my attempt to make a creative non-fiction series on the milestones of my relationship with my boyfriend-turn-husband, B-----, after convincing him to cooperate in the writing of our love story. After all, what better story is there than the one that you have lived through?" ~Nancy Cudis-Ucag

PART 2: Love, Unexpectedly: First Date

Source: Wikiart

Love, Unexpectedly - First Meeting

I looked up at the steep staircase, small and dimly lighted. Behind me was the rush Sunday activity of vendors eager to call on the churchgoers leaving the Basilica Minore del Sto. Niño de Cebu just across from where I was standing.

I climbed up the stairs and walked the familiar hallway. Obscure lighting from the high ceiling failed to flood every corner of the corridor. The indistinct paint was coming off the old walls. The floor was unswept, with unbundled trash and a couple of cockroaches just off the corner at the top of the stairs. I immediately turned my eyes to the direction I was going, lest I would feel a bile of disgust coming out of my throat.

I entered the office of the review center I enrolled in. It was a bright contrast to the hallway. Almost everything was white—the sofa, table, chairs, and walls—like a comfortable clinic for adults. The air conditioning was working well, a balm to my heat-cloaked skin. I found a corner as I listened to my classmates talking with the teacher, as we all waited for the time to reach one. Most of my classmates were old, more than 35 years old, many of them vying for permanent positions in the government. To them, failing the civil service examination was not an option.

When it was time for the class, we moved to another room, a classroom, passing another section of the dark hallway. The classroom was not what I expected it to be: some windows were broken, the poorly maintained armchairs were scattered across the floor, the blackboard already turned yellowish green, and the wall paint was peeling off badly. The entire area was fit for an emotional video documentary. It was my third time in the room so I wasn't surprised at the sight anymore.

When we entered, some of our other classmates were already there. The old ones sat in front near the teacher. The front rows throbbed with desperation. I found my usual spot at the back near the window in front of two noisy black-dressed punks. The younger ones, with their lightheartedness and devil-may-care attitude, filled the back rows.

I was quiet, listening to my rowmates making fun of the series and sequences the female teacher was trying so hard to explain; her throat's veins were probably popping out from the exertion. The teacher was sitting on the desk, her dyed graceless hair fell on her shoulders, her pencil skirt raised, her upper body leaned forward, one hand grasped the edge of the table while the other held a thick stack of paper. She was showing that overly generous smile. And now, the jokes and insults from the back rows were directed at her, how pretty she was, how sexy she was, how good she was. I rolled my eyes. She kept on smiling, like a fool.

About 30 minutes into the three-hour review, a slender man walked in. He was in loose jeans and shirt. He was wearing slippers, his long hair a mess. Looking sleepy, he took his usual spot behind me, a few chairs away to my right. I sat up and pretended not to notice. After some time, I twisted my body and poured my head on my notebook, half-listening to the teacher. From afar, I would have looked like an earnest student. But my position allowed me to steal glances at the man at my back.

Sitting alone, he was looking at his notebook, too, his face almost hidden by his long hair. He looked like Philip, the drummer in my cousin Jayson's band. I had a crush on Philip when I was in high school. It was fleeting, it was inevitable. He regularly came to Jayson's house beside mine for band practice. Since I played my cousin's Nintendo often, shooting ducks or feeding my Pacman, I saw Philip a couple of times and I liked him somehow.

The stranger behind me in the classroom, whose name I did not even learn, looked so focused on his notebook to be bothered by a 21-year-old girl's covert attention. Sighing, I returned my concentration to the teacher who was still a poor subject of selfish comedy.
The lessons eventually moved to reading comprehension, my favorite. I could tell some of my classmates were not readers; they were slow in reading a huge text block and equally slow in selecting the correct answer from the multiple choices given. I was pleased with myself when I answered correctly, silently from my seat. I finished quickly so I had more time to observe my surroundings.

The two boys right behind me began arguing over a particular paragraph and before I know it, I turned a bit and made a general comment about the correct answer, to which they were awed. Then we started talking random things about the lesson until one of them volunteered to say they were both graduates of the University of the Philippines (UP) and asked about mine. I said I finished my studies at St. Theresa's College, which puzzled them because for them, why would a Theresian need a review for the civil service examination?

I never thought about it that way. I just knew that after my three-month stint at the Mandaue City Government, I needed a mental boost. I was about to reply that I could say the same of them, they being UP graduates. But someone from behind the two of them, a man with short hair and a big smile, interrupted our conversation. "Bai, dili in-ana pag-diskarte. Inanion o (That is not how you make a move. This is how you do it)," he said, extending his hand between them and thrusting over his Sony Ericsson to my hand. "Miss, pwede mangayo sa imong name ug phone number (May I ask for your name and phone number)?"

Suddenly, I found myself holding his phone and all I could think of was that it was an entrapment. I felt my cheeks burning with embarrassment, my hands quivering with uneasiness, my head going numb with confusion, my mouth giving out a forced smile. I forgot about my messy drummer-like crush and the two boys at my back. My mind went blank yet I could see my classmates' eyes on me and hear how they go, "Oh, ah!" followed by laughter.

I wanted the unexpected awkward moment to be over. But the man went on to say his name was R----- something. It was a long name, that much I could process. I could call him B-----, he said. My instinct told me to return the phone without my name and number in it but I was too polite to follow my guts. So I said my name and keyed in my number, already half-planning of changing my number when I get home to deliberately cut off communication. Upon returning his phone, he smiled the satisfied smile of a cat who had his big fill of milk.

Everything in the classroom went back to normal, like nothing momentous just happened. I sighed with relief and withdrew into my silent corner of the room. When the class was over, I immediately walked out. Before I could even breathe in a gust of fresh air to ease my tense muscles, B----- was already walking beside me, asking about me, where I was going, where I lived. He said he was from Lahug. I answered crisply, "Mandaue."

Having fully recovered from the awkwardness he caused earlier, I could see him properly now. He was tall with a medium build. His short hair was neatly combed, his face clean and shaved, his eyes gentle, though dark-rimmed. His nose was big and he showed off a good set of teeth when he smiled. He was neatly dressed: black shirt with a big colored print I could not make out, jeans, and closed shoes. He looked decent.

He walked with me along the hallway and down the stairs. We reached the corner of the old building and I waved my stiff goodbye. "Ari ko agi (I go this way)," I said, pointing to the direction of the Cebu Metropolitan Cathedral where I parked my father's beat-up minivan. He enthusiastically bid me farewell and walked the opposite way, to the Basilica.



"Love, Unexpectedly” is my attempt to make a creative non-fiction series on the milestones of my relationship with my boyfriend-turn-husband, B-----, after convincing him to cooperate in the writing of our love story. After all, what better story is there than the one that you have lived through?" ~Nancy Cudis-Ucag

(This true love story written by Nancy Cudis-Ucag was first published on collectedthemes.wordpress.com on June 5, 2018.)

Source: Wikiart

The Filipino Cinderella

cinderella variants farytale

Cinderella is not really a personal favorite fairytale, what with Cinderella being physically and emotionally persecuted, bad sisters basking in the joy of making other people miserable, and the prince, er, not exactly an admirable character. I understand they are part of the fairytale formula, but that does not mean I have to like it. Still, the way her story has survived and adapted in different media is proof of how memorable Cinderella truly is.

Cinderella is a folktale that shows triumph of good over evil. It tells the story of a woman who was forced into unfortunate circumstances but nature cooperates with her wishes for a better life. There are so many variants of the story, such that even the Philippines is included in the Wikipedia list and Aarne-Thompson-Uther Folktale Type 510A and Related Stories of Persecuted Heroines list of these variants. Regardless of how many variants there are, the name Cinderella has become the archetypal name.

Her story is said to have been published first by Charles Perrault in Histoires ou contest du temps passé (1697), and later by Brothers Grimm in Grimms’ Fairy Tales.

Perrault’s story is what is commonly adapted. From my point of view, it is more likeable and less realistic. All the affable elements we want our young children to know are present, including a charming Cinderella, treated as a servant; a pair of not-so-evil-after-all sisters; the fascinating ball gowns; rodents-turned-servants; the fairy godmother; some cozy magic with a curfew; a rich prince who gets so (stupidly) tongue-tied at the sight of Cinderella’s beauty that he forgets to ask for her name; and the thrilling slipper test.

However, have you read Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s version of Cinderella? It has more blood in it than the dainty animated version by Walt Disney, such that the sisters are abnormally cruel even to themselves to the extent that they are eager to cut of their toes and their heels in order to fit in the shoe that is made of gold, not glass. Even the birds, supposedly gentle, are like vultures in the old text, pecking out the eyes of the wicked sisters, rendering them blind for the rest of their lives. In my mind, it was like watching an account of the Game of Thrones series, downplayed but nevertheless gory.

Interestingly, Cinderella’s story is so popular that even Filipinos have their own versions. They manifest how creative the Filipino imagination is and reflect our collective attempt at self-expression. I found four Filipino Cinderellas—two in an old book and two online:

Maria and the Golden Slipper. This is found in Dean S. Fansler’s Filipino Popular Tales. His source is Dolores Zafra, a Tagalog from Pagsanjan, Laguna, who learned about the story as a little girl. It contains the usual facets of Perrault’s version, with Maria as Cinderella, except for the presence of the fairy godmother. In this story, the spirit of Maria’s mother is reincarnated in the body of a crab that is cooked, eaten, and shell planted to grow into a gift-giving talking tree.

When night came, Rosa and Damiana went to the ball, and Juana retired for the night as soon as her daughters were gone. When Maria saw that her aunt was sleeping, she went into the garden and asked the tree for what she wanted. The tree changed her clothes into very beautiful ones, and furnished her with a fine coach drawn by four fine horses, and a pair of golden slippers.

Abadeha, the Philippine Cinderella. This is adapted by Myrna J. de la Paz. While it contains the Cinderella formula, the landscape upon where the personalities move about is so characteristic of the Philippines. There is the river by which a lot of women’s tasks are done (washing, fetching water, and the like); there is the mention of a stingray to be used as a punishment whip; there are spirits roaming around and ancestors to be prayed to; there is respect for animals, including chickens, and trees; and there’s a chieftain who orders his son to use the drum to announce something.

And Abadeha ran out to her coop where she found the dead chicken’s feet. Clutching them, she ran to the river, and again, the spirit appeared. She told her to plant the feet on her mother’s grave and pray to her ancestors, and the girl did just so. The rainy season came and went, and the girl went back to check the grave site. What a surprise she had! The chicken feet that she had planted had grown into an enchanted tree flowering with all sorts of treasures, such as rings, bracelets, necklaces, earrings, pearls, diamonds, and golden dresses.

Mariang Isda. This is a Visayan story I found in Stories and Legends from Filipino Folklore by Sister Maria Delia Coronel, ICM. Her source is Lita Troyal from Matalom, Leyte, as narrated by Ardelia Calderon. Unlike the first two versions, this one tells of how sad Maria is at home in the company of her father and stepmother. Living along the coast, she saved and befriended a talking fish. The folks think her mad. This is how she got the nickname, Mariang Isda (isda is Tagalog for fish).

One bright morning, the barrio people were astonished to find Maria gone. His father and stepmother inquired from all the people vainly for Maria was not around. People say the sea god had transformed her into a mermaid. Others believed the mysterious fish had taken Maria with her, never to come back to her cruel world. Until now, where Mariang Isda is, nobody knows.

Perigrina. This is another Visayan story in the same book by Sister Coronel. Her source is Ernestina Dalugdog from Calape, Mantataog, Bohol, as narrated by Tonette Solatan. It has a unique combination of all the three tales above as well as the elements of Perrault’s version. It tells of Perigrina’s stress in the company of an evil stepmother and two stepsisters. Periang (her nickname) befriends a fish who sacrifices itself as food for her stepfamily in order to help Perigrina. The fish bones are planted and grow into an enchanted tree that blossoms gems and lovely gowns.

Anzat her stepmother found out and grabbed the fruits Periang had gathered but she was instantly turned into a stone statue. Upon seeing this, Pukay and Kikay were alarmed and they lay flat on the ground and kissed the hem of Perigrina’s skirt, promising her that they would never be jealous and unkind to her again. Perigrina forgave them. Anzat regained her old self but they all learned a lesson to be kind and good always.

What other old variants of Cinderella have you read or heard? Share with me and I would be glad to read them.

Nancy Cudis-Ucag

Espeleta - Estrella Alfon’s Tips On How To Care For Your Neighbors

Filipina writers in English

How long is the street you are living in? Do you know your neighbors, greet them beyond a passing wave of the hand and a simple hello, or do you prefer to know them behind the blinds, looking on people throwing their trash or passing by your front lawn, which can awkwardly put you at the risk of being called the weirdo next door?

In Cebu, and in the rest of the Philippines, many streets are thriving, living macroorganisms. This is best illustrated by Filipino writer Estrella Alfon in her short story, Espeleta, who describes with nostalgia the Espelita Street in Cebu City:

You could walk its whole length to where it ends by stopping humbly at the very gate of the San Nicolas churchyard; you could walk that whole unwinding length, as I say, and experience no shortness of breath, no dampness of perspiration (3).

How would you describe your street? There are many short streets in Cebu City, each with a name after a political leader or a person with significance in history. One of them is Ballesteros Street in Barangay Tinago, Cebu City. One end connects to Lopez Jaena Street where I used to work and the other to A. Bonifacio Street where I would wait to hail a taxi just around the corner, in front of a rusty bakeshop interspersed with an equally rusty musty old house. Because it is very short, I could cover the street in just about 40 to 50 steps while, when going home, enjoying the front view of the well-conserved Casa Gorordo Museum to my left side and old houses to my right.

It is Alfon who gently points out that no matter how short a street can be, it can still hold a certain history that is precious to somebody. This history is often freckled with memories of people who can make you smile because of the fond associations you make about them. When you talk about these people and their stories, listeners would likely think what a wide street you live in. Because, for me, stories expand the mind and with it, the geographical elements that surround them.

Even at far distance, you at the river, the people at the churchyard gate, you could, if your eyes were good, be able to tell who were coming toward you. You could watch a red dress, a mincing gait, and say, That would be Daring, who watched her grandmother’s store. Or else a lanky boy perhaps, outstriding all the others, his arms swinging at this sides, and you would say, That would be Boy, the Lopez’s youngest. So you see how short the street is.

And yet how big it must seem. For I keep telling stories about it, and the people who live on it, or who once lived on it (3).

Because Alfon had lived in Espelita Street, the place is meaningful and memorable to her, so this short story, the way it is written, is almost autobiographical. Maybe it did happen. She paints the characters vividly, like they are restless members of a musical chorus, each with a voice that is either greater or lower in pitch than the next person.

It seemed fated to contain so many queer people, persons whose lives, because of the peculiar familiarity the smallness of such a street breeds among its inhabitants, somehow never were secret enough (4).

Espeleta follows the consequences of the arrival of Andika, an “ugly Filipina”, her old husband on the verge of blindness, Mr. Crow, and their two children, Elmo and Edith, both outcasts even in a friendly playground of hyperactive Cebuano children. When Alfon describes Andika, she provides a picture of a Filipino who was ugly inside out, a surprise even to herself. She tries to make some excuse for Andika but her attempt fails.

[But] we had seen ugly women before Andika. Sometimes they spoke softly, and you forgot brutishness of feature in the lulling tones of voice, or else they held gentle light in their eyes, a seeming apology for giving you sight of such ugliness, and in such humility you found beauty, too.

But Andika. Over protruding teeth, she pursed tight lips. Out of mean little eyes she looked her cold scorn of women who were certainly prettier than she but who couldn’t claim the good fortune that was hers. Skin that looked as though it never had surcease from the sun’s drying rays. Hair pulled right, knotted, futile adornment, adding merely to the ludicrousness of the small head. Head that she held proudly, oh but proudly (4–5).

This shows the warmth and humanity of not just the writer but also the characters who struggle to keep their minds, hearts and souls intact and together despite the daily struggles with self, with other people and with their environment. Like many Filipinos, they are kind and caring neighbors, too kind and caring for their own good. Alfon admits it herself.

We all meddled in each other’s lives. No one could say that we shouldn’t have. That we should have let each other alone. Or else that time Manong Akoy unsheathed his ancient bolo from its embossed leather scabbard, he would really have killed Meding, his granddaughter, who had foolishly, before his disapproving rheumy eyes, flaunted the fact that she was in love. Or else that time Pawang gave birth to the twins, she would really have let them starve, the way she refused to hold them to her breasts.

You see how it could not be done. How we had to interfere in each other’s others. So we knew about each other, and what we did not know we could always of course piece together until, revealed or hidden, each closet’s skeleton was ours to rattle, each one’s dirty linen the others to wash. And we had no deep petulances. We might today be sharpening our tongues in sharp anger at each other, but tomorrow we’d be borrowing each other’s salt (4).

Can you do this? Is your neighborhood still doing this? The way several subdivisions are sprouting up and many houses there are shutting their doors and windows to strangers, hardly giving a chance for acquaintance, this has become a rare occurrence, especially in the urban areas. I can imagine this happening in M.L. Quezon Street in Mandaue City where I used to live before I married. This street used to be so narrow that only one slow car can pass it one way. As a child, I had my pictures taken on the middle of the road without fear of being crushed under four strong wheels. Now, the street has grown to four lanes where, regardless of the hour, even at night, tricycles, cars and trucks whoosh at alarmingly high speed. No one would dare cross the street until all four lanes are clear, let alone take a picture while posing on the middle of it.

Despite the distance between our house and our neighbors across the road, my mother, like one of those caring neighbors in Alfon’s short story, always knows who is new in the area, who went to the doctor to check on his cholesterol, who gave birth, and even who eloped. She gives unsolicited advice, sometimes argue, but always goes back with a friendly no-grudges smile to neighbor’s stores to buy saba or pork barbecue then leisurely walks back home, alert for incoming familiar figures, and always stops for a five-minute talk that already tackles the other person’s activities in the past three days.

My mother is like Alfon who shared the feelings and responses of the community. This is why when Andika in her story wants nothing to do with her neighbors, the rest of the community feels sad, rejected, useless, and helpless. All they can do is wonder, speculate and connect what is going on in Andika’s house based on what they can see and hear from the outside, such as Mr. Crow’s walking hours, his growing blindness, the children’s attitude towards other people their age and Andika’s unusual male caller.

But the months pass. And since there seemed nothing we could, with any grace, do except leave her alone, we left Andika strictly alone. Let Mr. Crow get roaring drunk. Or let Andika whip Elmo to a frazzle if she wished. Things like those also grow stale if you have them too often (9).


But even Andika’s caller we also learned to ignore. We were in fact quite up to the point where we said we would not give Andika the satisfaction of our showing interest (10).


If Andika had been one of us, the neighbors would have trooped in. Iya Andia, who was the oldest of the women on the street, would have led them, would have delivered the sermon to Andika, and laid down the law to her. And with stick and stone and word would quickly have driven either Andika’s caller, or both of them — Andika and caller — away. Andika could go and get herself damned — we wouldn’t interfere (11).

And so when Andika and her family leave Espeleta Street many months later, I could feel the collective regret of the caring neighbors over what could have been and would could be.

They left Espeleta after a short while. Andika and Mr. Crow and the children. And the servant, of course. We did not know whether we were sorry or glad about their going. But we wished sometimes they could have stayed. We wanted to watch the children grow. However, even after they had gone, sometimes Mr. Crow would walk down Espeleta street getting out of a rig with Elmo, starting at the slope of Forbes Bridge and following the street to the gate of the churchyard (14).

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Reference: Alfon, Estrella D. “Espeleta.” The Stories of Estrella D. Alfon. Ed. Lina Espina Moore. Quezon City: Giraffe Books, 1994. 3–14. Print.

(This essay by Nancy Cudis-Ucag was first published on her Medium account on April 17, 2016.)