Poetry / July 2018 (Issue 40: Writing the Philippines)

Self Portrait, Reconstructed with Heirloom Beads

by Luisa A. Igloria

Cold in the threaded mist of early morning,
in the mountains more than thirty years ago: a trip
made with a former lover ostensibly to photograph

the locals so I could render them afterwards
in pencil portrait sketches. We rented a room
with an adjacent toilet and bath: tall

metal drum of water; a ladle and small plastic pail.
Of course the underlying presumption had everything to do
with sex, so he was irritated when the first night

did not yield what he'd expected. Downstairs, in the morning,
waiting to walk down the path to a local cafeteria, I held
myself very still then slowly stretched an arm out, clump

of torn daffodils in my fingers offered to deer that had come
in the night to forage in the yard beside the inn. They moved
closer, the doe more skittish than her fawn—

their fear eventually overcome by some measure
of adaptation to jean-clad tourists there in droves
to hike the trails and visit citrus groves, climb

hand over hand down ropes to peer into the water-slicked
innards of underground caves. And I was so young then,
not yet familiar with the currents of my own desires—

Rough, untested edges of a self that knew only
it wanted to live somewhere else yet tried to hide
how terrified it was of its own clumsiness

and worldly ignorance. After breakfast,
when the proprietor asked if we'd like to see
her hidden trove of heirloom beads,

we followed her upstairs to her living
quarters, where she lifted from a chest
padlocked jewel cases and shook

strand after strand of strung carnelians,
smoky agates, beads cloud-milky, yellow
as the yolks of eggs or black-striped reds

that smelled as dusky as the earth. Handed down
from ancestors, they held the worth of cattle
or rooms of metal-worked jars—dowries

she might have saved for children instead of sold
to antique shops, had they not wanted to go
somewhere else too, away from there,

to reinvent themselves as engineers or doctors
after university. I wanted to sketch them, lay
bands of brilliant color beside each other

and beside the bleached starkness of coiled
snake bone, another ornament the locals
traditionally wore in their hair. As I took

photographs, our host asked if I might like
to pose for a picture in the manner of native women
in the old days: plaited hair, wrap skirt; nothing

except beads around my neck, massed
artfully and arranged upon my breasts. I knew
about the portraits of Masferré, those girls

with regal foreheads and nubile breasts
balancing tiers of clay pots on their dark heads,
rippled tattoos visible at the edges of brass

bracelets and boar's tooth amulets. And yet,
I am a bit ashamed to admit in recollection,
I refused— concerned about modesty,

blushing at the thought of being peeled back
to only this layer of skin. If I knew then what I
know now, which is of course to say I realize

a self is so much more than the sum of molting
skins, more than an idea of remainders after
what one thinks has been given and spent

or taken away—I might have said yes; I might
have proof the future held forgiving shapes—seed
after seed to perforate at the center of each stone.
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