Anna Cabe’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.
“Foolish talk,” growled the king. “Did you just say that your father gave birth to a child? It’s the most impossible thing I’ve ever heard!”
“Your Majesty,” Marcela replied, maintaining her calm, “If you as you now admit it is impossible for a man to give birth to a child, it must equally be ridiculous to milk a bull.”
Realizing then it was Marcela herself at the river, the king could not help but marvel at her intelligence. — from “The Legend of Marcela, the Intelligent Maiden”
Marcela, the Intelligent Maiden, in capital letters. Unlike the saccharine Cinderella (so-called for passively sleeping in ashes), the insipid Snow White (named for her complexion; also knocked out cold), the drowsy Sleeping Beauty (dubbed for, well, taking a long nap), here was a fair maiden who outwitted a king and thus gained her prince. Here was a pretty face without a yawning gap behind it.
Best of all, she had my brown eyes and skin, my black hair. She was someone that I didn’t know I hungered for, surrounded as I was by softly blonde Disney princesses, until I was well into elementary school and discovered Filipino folklore for the first time.
Imagine this: I cracked open 101 Popular Local Myths and Legends, giggled at the unusual twists of English, and read about Why the Pineapple Has a Thousand Eyes, Why Filipinos Have Flat Noses, Why There Are Butterflies.
“The Legend of Marcela” caught my eye, because it had a simple name attached to it, not like “The Legend of Mariang Makiling,” which was about a goddess who, naturally, had a tragic romance with a mortal king. “Marcela” sounded like a real person, perhaps one who wasn’t going to die.
Marcela begins the story already famous for her wits, and the king soon hears of her and decides to test her. Like all folktales, everything comes in threes.
1.) The king sends her a small bird and tells her to prepare twelve dishes from it. She had been embroidering before the messengers came and holds up her needle.
“Tell His Royal Highness that if he can make twelve spoons out of this needle, then, I too can prepare twelve menus out of that bird,” she says.
2.) The king sends her a sheep and tells her to sell it and return to him both the money and the sheep. She immediately sells the wool to a merchant and returns both the profit and the shaven animal to His Majesty.
3.) The king tells her that she must get a cup of bull’s milk to him so that he can be cured of an illness. Later that day, he also orders that the river be closed so that he could bathe. Marcela has her father slaughter a pig and spread the blood over some bedding. She goes to the river, and while the king yells at her for trespassing, not knowing whom she is, she informs him that her father had given birth the night before and that she needed to wash the bloodied sheets. When the king berates her for her foolishness (after all, men can’t give birth), she reminds him that bulls, too, can’t give milk.
The king, realizing her identity, is impressed with her wisdom and promptly introduces her to his son, whom she marries.
Once I finished this story, I wanted to name a daughter of mine Marcela. My mother laughed and told me the name was old-fashioned.
I dwelt in fairy tales as a girl. “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Little Red Riding Hood,” of course, but also more obscure ones: “Seven Ravens.” “Donkeyskin.” “East of the Sun and West of the Moon.” I wanted magic, the way it made everything work out in the end — the gown, the castle, the prince, the reunited family. The Happily Ever After.
But there was something disquieting about the golden-haired princesses and rosy-lipped servant girls of the stories, how they were elevated for obedience and sweetness and punished for naughtiness and temper. That being good was the requirement for Happily Ever After and that, worse, you were Good or Bad, never anything in-between.
I was neither golden-haired nor rosy-lipped.
“Ay nako, brush your hair,” said Grandma when I would come down for breakfast. “Like a bird’s nest.”
If a fairy-tale girl was ever dirt-covered, her hair woven with twigs, her beauty still shone through so that a passing prince still felt Love at First Sight. Either way, she wasn’t dirty for long.
I did not learn to love cleanliness until late in life, and we still have an uneasy relationship. As a child, I picked my nose, made firepits in the Mississippi dust out of pebbles and sticks, and lived in a mass of paper, books, and markers. Now, I can never quite get to that last pile of unorganized paperwork.
“Anna, Asian women make the best wives,” said my mother. I don’t remember why she decided to tell me this, but I do remember thinking that I would never be much of a housekeeper, would prefer to verbally spar with a boy than to simper, would never be Kim from the musical Miss Saigon, pining for years for a man who leaves her behind in Vietnam and marries another woman before committing suicide so that he will be forced to take their son with him to America.
Come to think of it, what did my mother mean by “best wives?” Did she mean skill at “feminine” tasks, like cake-decorating or embroidering pillowcases? That seems to be the most likely, since she has the same answer every time I or my brothers or sister asks who “wears the pants” in the family.
“You know your Daddy is head of the family,” she would say.
But who paid the bills? Who did we look to when we needed to do a shoebox project or needed to arrange lessons for piano or driving? Who, decisively, dealt with authority figures asking ridiculous questions, like the king who tells Marcela to make twelve — twelve — dishes from a small bird?
Dad always said, “Ask Mommy.”
One common element I notice with the obscure European fairy tales I love — “Seven Ravens,” “Donkeyskin,” and “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” — is that it is the girl who makes the journey, the one who is an active protagonist of the story. The girl in “Seven Ravens” saves her brothers from an enchantment which had turned them into ravens; in “Donkeyskin,” the princess fends off the romantic advances of her father (yes, her father) and escapes, eventually marrying a king. In “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” though, not only is the girl the heroine, she is the one who botches things up and has to rescue the prince she inadvertently condemns to marrying a troll. She makes a mistake.
She has to go on the quest. She has to find her prince. She has to earn her happy ending.
“She’s a bitch who needs to get a life, a boyfriend. . .”
“If she got a boyfriend, maybe she wouldn’t be so uptight. . .”
“I can get you a boyfriend.”
This last little incident was in middle school, our fear of cooties scarcely a year or two in the past. The girl looked at me intently. I, probably in a t-shirt and shorts, tilted my thick-glassed face down and muttered, “I don’t want one.”
“Just so you can have one,” she said. “You don’t have to do anything.”
“No thanks,” I said.
The obvious retort that springs to mind now is “Why does a twelve-year-old need a boyfriend, even just for show?” Especially just for show.
I did not date in middle school or high school, despite the apparent belief among certain sets of girls that a boyfriend would materially improve my pitiful existence.
Despite my 4.4 high school GPA.
Despite being editor-in-chief of the school newspaper.
Despite being captain of the Knowledge Bowl team.
Certainly, I dwelt, not always happily, on the outskirts of social respectability and wasn’t exactly against the abstraction of a “boyfriend.” Boys even occasionally looked at me. It’s just that Real Life High School Boys were so. . .unprincely.
“Will you be my Valentine?” said one specimen, holding out a generic Oreo. He had stolen it from a guy two minutes ago. I had seen him do it.
“No,” I replied.
I was not kind to them. I saw them, even the ones I liked, as the enemy, for reasons I can, even now, barely explain. Was it because I secretly resented being saddled with the stereotype of “Nerdy Girl?” Was it because I burned when I saw girls, who didn’t have my motormouth, my temper, my stubbornness, effortlessly date when I could not? Was it because, even more secretly, I was terrified that the whispers were right, that I was too uptight, too bitchy, too wrong for anyone to find me attractive?
Perhaps it would have been better if, say, during a Knowledge Bowl match, the boys had applauded me when I hammered their scores into the ground, went up to me and told me, sincerely, without condescension, that I was great. Usually, that wasn’t the case, and I could hear the crap-beaten-by-a-girl dripping from their mouth.
Marcela was lucky, in that respect. To some men, “outwitting” does equal “love.” In the case of the king, though, “outwitting” meant “love” for his son. Not so much for himself.
One of the male Knowledge Bowl teammates liked to regale the team with a story about a rather strapping former member who once flirted with a shy, sheltered, churchly girl on a rival team during a match, whether to help out the team or to mess with her for the fun of it, I never learned.
“. . .And she was, like, ‘Ooh, boy!’” he said, imitating a wide, starstruck, hungry look.
I weakly snickered with the rest of the (mostly male) team, but while I shook my head at her naiveté then, I realize now that there was a hair separating me from her, my X factor being a modicum of attractiveness and a thin veneer of know-it-all “sophistication.”
We were both non-fairy-tale heroines, neither Cinderellas nor Snow Whites nor Rapunzels. We had to make do with ordinary looks, clumsy manners, and an unnatural capacity for rote memorization.
Someday, we had to accept that men are not Prince Charmings but deeply flawed non-princes.
Someday, we had to accept that we were human.
According to Riita Vaartti:
The Spaniards of the 1500s were horrified by the revolting liberty and too high social status of the woman, mujer indigena, in the [Philippine] islands […]Women could own property and rule the people, act as leaders of rites and ceremonies of the society, and divorce their husbands. Women wrote poems on banana leaves and sang the tribe’s songs — that was considered as women’s work and is still regarded as such among indigenous peoples.
Thus was the fertile soil from which a Marcela can sprout.
The lingering effects of Roman Catholicism and Spanish colonial machismo as well as the fainting, saintly Maria Clara of national hero Jose Rizal’s novels could be blamed for the watering down of Filipina matriarchal culture, forcing tough-skinned woman to modestly claim their men really led the family.
Or have Filipina women really been completely neutered? After all, the Philippines has had two female presidents, Corazon Aquino and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
The comparatively liberal United States? Zero.
Perhaps that accounts for the confusion of my childhood, the power of my female relatives who ruled the roost and yet their constant refrain, “Boys don’t like it if you do _____________,” whenever I talked just a little too loudly or disagreed too vehemently.
Even though they often did the same things.
“Bah, your Grandpa should have listened to me,” said my grandmother gleefully, when one of his investments tanked, of which she had warned him repeatedly. Then: “Ay nako, act like a lady. You’re talking back/Your panty’s showing/ You need to make your bed.”
I was expected to be, simultaneously, well-educated and independent, on the way to becoming a doctor or lawyer (like my mother and grandmother), and well-mannered and virtuous, wary of parties, drugs, and boys.
The inconsistencies galled me, a budding feminist frothing at the mouth with the purity of my ideals. Why tell me not to get married before I finish college and can provide for myself and then say your husband is the head of the household? Why tell me to be quiet when you never are? Why tell me to reconcile all these contradictions?
Surely, that would be impossible.
And yet, only now and only in fits and starts, can I acknowledge that tormented knot is my heritage, that all of it, all the paradoxes about Womanhood and Power and Being Filipina, all that long, torturous, communal and personal history, are mine.
My mother and aunts and grandmothers and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Corazon Aquino and Maria Clara and yes, Marcela passed this cursed gift (or gifted curse?) to me. They, their struggles, their compromises, their victories, their defeats, belong to me, exist in me.
Perhaps untying this knot is impossible, but I owe it to them — to myself — to try.
When I ponder the appeal of Marcela, the most obvious answer for her two-dimensional charisma is her intelligence, her ability to upstage a king and get a prince for her troubles. Digging deeper, though, I find another reason for Marcela’s magnetism: She is, somewhat, approachable.
She is in no way a fully realized character. Like most heroes of folk and fairy tales, she has no recognizable flaws. She is an archetype. She is beautiful, kind, brave, and of course, wise. Yet, when one examines her victories, there is nothing about them that is unworkable for an average commonsensical person. She doesn’t apply utilitarian philosophy to the question of the minuscule bird or biomedical engineering to that of the woolly sheep. The questions, on the surface, are impossible, but Marcela merely sits for a minute and thinks up sensible answers.
Marcela is neither a princess nor a goddess. She isn’t even a servant girl who gaily and patiently endures degrading conditions with nary a thought of rebellion or despair.
She is human.
And because she is human, there is something attainable about her fame, her Happy Ending. She is Intelligent with a capital “I,” but she doesn’t have a dozen degrees in esoteric subjects. She is Brave, but she risks ordinary dangers for her confidence (as the only threat the king offers her is to discharge her father from work in the palace — still alarming but not the cannibalism, say, of “Jack and the Beanstalk”). She is Beautiful, but that isn’t dwelled upon.
Marcela offers hope for many a clever girl, a hope that, for once, isn’t totally impossible. Most of us are capable of being like Marcela. We cannot aspire to marry a real prince (most of us, anyway), but that wasn’t even the point of the story. The point was that Marcela faced down a king and his impossible demands. She earned, without magic or beauty or even exquisite goodness, her Happy Ending.
She milked that damn bull.