Her teeth looked human once. I'm sure of at least that much.
This girl, with her dusky, sun-kissed skin and dark, bouncing curls, is staring curiously into the edges of my mouth, rounding her chubby fingers into the hollows of my cheeks, pulling and pressing and drawing the ends of my lips up and down, side to side. Lets out a giggle at her own childish creation. There's enough light filtering through the windows of the nipa hut to play at the soft, untarnished curves of her features, and for a moment I can almost see a perfect reflection of her mother's dimpled, wide grin plastered over the youthful visage, as inquisitive and attentive as I had imagined it to be. Her mother is gazing back at me now with too bright eyes and the beginnings of hunger rolling off her small child's body in waves, the points of her own inhuman maw just barely developing under the cupid's bow -- and I am answering the little beast's gaze in turn, reciprocating the young girl's subconscious show of dominance with a presentation of a much larger, much more mature one. Evidently her mother is not one to take her daughter out among the other villagers. And the modest home, rundown and bare and nestled deep, deep within the far reaches of the mountain, had been difficult enough to find. But I'm here now. This girl, with blunted claws and budding wings, has become fixated on this strange intruder with features so like her own, sticky fingers ceasing their exploration for a moment, and I find myself able to speak again.
"Anak," I begin, throat slightly heavier than I had expected, "Saan naroon ang ina? Where is your mother?"
She startles somewhat at the strange trill of my voice, its melodic, birdsong quality nearly echoing off the walls of the small abode. Even with my masked appearance I had never been able to master the true nuances of human speech. The small child blinks once, twice, and I'm almost about to repeat the question when she finally quirks her lips to one side and raises her brows, wordless and poignant in her assessment of my presence. So she knew, but she wasn't willing to tell me. Amusement almost catches at the edges of my mouth at that, the familiar gesture -- forcing me to swallow most of it before the child could take it as a game. Liway had always been a cautious, observant woman; it is no wonder she had tried to raise her daughter to be the same. The child's immediate reaction to inspect my maw upon arrival, of course, stood as a bit of a contrast to that nature, but that hardly mattered when it had taken me at least four weeks to follow the cold trail so far from her village. Four long weeks of traipsing about in dirt roads and sleepy towns and wondering, always, if the woman I loved still loved me back after all these years, if she had already been taken by another man in my absence, if her child would ever know who her father was. What her father was. And I find myself wondering now if she had ever been taught the lessons her priestess mother had been led to believe, if her mother had told her tales of feathered, man-eating beasts just as the elders of the village had done to her child. Our child.
The thought rests strangely on my tongue. All these years, and I'd barely given any thought to the possibility that I could ever refer to this little beast as such. Our child, our daughter, the beloved bastard offspring of a priestess and the diwata of the mountain. Our tiny piece of the world, sitting right here with a petulant pout and a bright yellow sarong.
It occurs to me that this little thing should have a name.
The first and third Fridays of the month are always the worst days. Not because they're the days Mama expects me to be done with my books, because I'm not allowed to play in the stream by myself, or because I can't talk to any travelers wandering around outside -- no, that would be harebrained, as Mama would say -- but because they're the days Mama has to go walk all by herself to the marketplace the next village over to trade baskets of furs and skins she collects. It's a long walk, she tells me, one that I shouldn't have to do because I can't fit as well on her back anymore, and it would be much more fun if I just stayed inside and read until she returned in the evening. It isn't, of course. I'd much rather be skipping along beside her the whole way there, a basket under each arm, and yell back at the hawkers and traders, but it makes her happy when I agree. I'm a big girl, besides; I can take care of myself. The room was barely lit this morning when she kissed me on the forehead and told me to be good, her small, work-worn fingers smoothing my bird's nest of hair, and by the time I'd managed to come to completely, she was already gone.
I wonder, sometimes, what the outside world is like. The outside world is where Mama comes back with food she can actually eat, lamps she needs to see, and smaller things, like matches and handkerchiefs and parcels of spices. And she doesn't like her meat the way I do -- not with blood sticking to the roof of her mouth, not with the creature only barely breathing at first bite. She says it's impolite. In my few visits to the outside world I've counted at least seventeen things Mama has listed as inappropriate to do in polite company, which is everyone, about eight that she considers worthy of scolding, and up to exactly three that are most definitely, absolutely, unquestionably unacceptable. Showing myself without wrapping my wings in layers of cloth, for example, and letting my teeth make themselves known in front of anyone but myself or Mama.
I figure that touching and talking to this familiar and unfamiliar man would be among those things, but she isn't here at the moment.
He looks like me, almost. Skin as dark as mine, hair as feathery and black as mine, smile as toothy and piercing and wide as mine. Wings large enough to graze the wall behind him, claws overgrown and sharpened to a point, powerful, not quite human feet digging themselves into the floorboards. He's asking me what my name is in that odd warble of his now, tone bobbing up and down to the rhythm of some unknown song, and I can't help but stare at him for a moment before trying to answer.