At twilight on the day of the Offering, as Maya lifted her saltwater-soaked feet onto the boat, when it seemed like she would not turn and take another look, I repeated in my mind the words she whispered to me on the night before.
Even the constellations are not eternal.
They say she was born near midnight, at a clearing out in the woods before her mother could return to the village. When she came out she was feared dead because she was not crying, but when the mother looked at the child, she saw its eyes bright and dazed and fixed at the sky, its hand reaching out for the stars.
She would spend almost every night of her life observing the heavens. Outside of their hut, while weaving mats out of palm leaves whenever moonlight permitted it, she would just look up and gaze, allowing a meek smile every time she sees a bulalakaw. She would sometimes be seen at the fringes of village gatherings. She would not talk with anyone; as the elders recited the epics, she would watch the sky, as if she could see the old heroes’ adventures among the stars.
Two months ago, misfortune struck our community. Life left the sea, our source of living. The fishermen would set out at dawn and return at dusk without so much as a single, wriggling alumahan caught in their nets.
The elders met and decided that a sacrifice for the appeasement of the deities of the sea was needed. In keeping with ancient tradition, a maiden would have to set out alone on a small boat into the open sea, for the gods to do with as they please. And if they shall be merciful, the waves would bring her back, although all the people in the community knew in their hearts that the alay never returns.
The elders made marks on dried pieces of bark to represent each of the village’s daughters. They filled a painted basket with the pieces, which they rolled and shook, and afterwards the eldest among them drew a piece. When the name was announced, I could hear the wave of relief wash over the mothers; save for one, whose head was bowed down, and whose tears dripped without sound. I looked at Maya, but her face was blank.
On the night before she was to set out, I saw her as she were on any other night. Thank the heavens, the mothers were saying, that it was not my daughter, almost as if every daughter was spared. Maya was staring at the moon, a slender silver crescent then. Before she goes, I thought I would like to know what is it with the heavens that fascinated her, and I ventured to sit at the edge of the bench with her.
Do they not bore you, the stars, I asked. She was startled a little by my presence, but she spoke back, and it was the first time I heard her voice. No, they are changing. They are moving. She stared at me for a moment, then returned her gaze to the moon. It was strange, but I only felt gratitude in her expression. They may look like they are permanent, but the stars are born and die just like us. They may seem like they are fixed in their places, but they are merely sailing without sails. I feel so small when I think of that.
How do you know, I said, perplexed, but she simply answered, I can see. It will take many lifetimes, but the sky will someday be a different image. Even the constellations are not eternal.
On the day of the Offering, after she was washed and dressed in rough white cloth, she climbed onto the boat, and set out while the villagers watched from the shore. As she labored with the oars under the dying glow of the sun, I looked at her serene expression and felt that, maybe, perhaps, the gods will be kind with her, and that one day the waves will bring her back.