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We Belong

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Paperback
$8.99 US
5"W x 7"H x 0.51"D  
On sale Apr 26, 2022 | 208 Pages | 978-0-593-11222-9
| Grade 5 & Up
Reading Level: Lexile 830L | Fountas & Pinnell Y
An extraordinarily beautiful novel-in-verse, this important debut weaves a dramatic immigrant story together with Pilipino mythology to create something wholly new.

Stella and Luna know that their mama, Elsie, came from the Philippines when she was a child, but they don't know much else. So one night they ask her to tell them her story. As they get ready for bed, their mama spins two tales: that of her youth as a strong-willed middle child and immigrant; and that of the young life of Mayari, the mythical daughter of a god. Both are tales of sisterhood and motherhood, and of the difficult experience of trying to fit into a new culture, and having to fight for a home and acceptance. Glorious and layered, this is a portrait of family and strength for the ages.
Cookie Hiponia was born in the Philippines and immigrated to America when she was nine years old. As the mother of children born into two cultures, Cookie had spent years searching for books that reflect her family’s experience. When she couldn’t find such a book, she heeded Toni Morrison and wrote the book she wanted to read with her daughters. We Belong is that book, a semi-autobiographical middle grade novel-in-verse about the Pilipino American immigrant experience that weaves in Tagalog cosmic mythology. Cookie lives in Seattle with her family.
  View titles by Cookie Hiponia

Mama, tell us a story

For as long as I can remember,

children in my family have asked this

of every mother in my family.

 

“Mama, tell us a story.”

 

Tonight, as they do every night,

my children ask it of me.

 

Some mothers, daughters, and sisters

sew, paint, or cook their stories;

my mothers and I sing ours. 

 

Mama, tell us a story.

 

Sure, Stella, just a sec, okay? 

Luna. Hey Luna moonbeam, 

have you brushed your teeth?

 

I did, Mama. 

You always say cleanliness is next to godliness,

and my teeth are next to godliness.

 

Mmm. Minty godliness. 

Okay, no more comics. 

Lights down. Let’s get tucked in.

 

Aw! Just one more p—

 

Luna.

 

Fiiine.

 

Thank you. 

 

Mama, a story? Please?

 

First let’s make sure 

you have everything you need 

for your field trip tomorrow.

 

Daddy already signed 

the permission slip last week. 

I just need to bring a sack lunch.

 

Remember to put on plenty of sunscreen

and wear your hat the whole time.

 

Ugh, I hate sticky sunscreen! 

Won’t I just get super brown and look like you?

 

Absolutely not. You’re pale like Daddy, and

he gets freckles just going up the driveway for the mail.

Without sunscreen, you’ll get crispy like lechón! 

 

Maamaa! Don’t bite my arm! 

 

Then wear sunscreen!

 

Okay already! Now a story! 

 

Story! Story! Story! Story! Story!

 

All right, all right! Sheesh! 

What story do you want to hear, my hearts? 

 

Shall I tell you the one about 

the moon, the sun, and the star?

 

Or shall I tell you the one about 

the poet, her brother, and her sister?

 

No, Mama. Tell us your story.

 

Every story I tell you is my story, anak. 

 

Tonight, I will tell you

Mayari’s heavenly family story,

the story of outsiders 

who had to work four times harder

than everyone else to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.

 

It is very like my family’s story, our own mythology. 

 

So tonight, I will also tell you

my Aguila family story,

the story of immigrants

who had to work four times harder

than everyone else to dream the American dream.

 

When I hear Mayari’s story, it is like listening to my own,

like reading a story that anyone who looks like me 

knows by heart. Mayari and I share a name—

 

Wait. Mama, your name is Elsie, not Mayari.

 

Just as my story is not exactly like Mayari’s story,

my name is not exactly like Mayari’s name,

but we share our one true name: Buan.

 

I don’t get it. That’s your middle name, not your real name.

 

Oh, my heart, what’s real is not always what’s true.

Buan made it her life’s work to reflect light;

I think it must be my life’s work to reflect love.

 

You see, a great love is like a light

that shines through in loves that come after.

It is reflected in the great love

 

between me and my sister,

between the two of you,

between all sisters.

 

And my first story begins with that great love,

between Mayari and her sister, Tala.

 

I will tell you their story as Mayari would tell it, 

from the beginning of everything. 

Little Star

When my sister, Tala, was born, 

my heart found its other half.

“My baby,” I said, reaching for her hand 

and gently rocking her cradle.

 

“Could you sing my lullaby to her, sinag? Mayari?” 

asked my mother, who was cleaning after dinner. 

We were all drowsy, getting ready for bedtime.

I sang to my baby the lullaby that Nanay had been 

singing to me forever.

 

Kislap, kislap bituin

Ano bang ‘yong gawain

 

Sa ibabaw ng mundo

Parang hiyas na bato

 

Kislap, kislap bituin

Ano bang ‘yong gawain

 

Tala has been my dearest love for lifetimes. 

I have loved others, reached for other lights in the 

darkness, but none compare to my little star.  

 

Tala . . .TA-laaah

 

my sweetest

my brightest

 

my heart

my song

 

the bridge between our big brother and me,

between day and night, between light and dark. 

 

Between worlds

there twinkles a little star.

 

Tala . . .TA-laaah

A Simple Kind of Life

My days took shape around making Tala’s eyes sparkle,

making her wonder at the magic of stones and leaves.

It was my job to keep Tala happy 

while my family worked 

 

and I was so good at it, her whole face shone 

when she smiled.

She sang before she talked; danced before she walked.

We grew in those fields together, 

sun-kissed and content.

 

Every morning at dawn, 

our family would go out to the fields:

Tatay carrying his bolo over his shoulder,

Nanay carrying Tala liwanag, our starshine,

Kuya Apolaki, our eldest, carrying our lunch basket.

 

All I carried were the flowers I picked, 

the stones and feathers I gathered,

the songs in my heart,

all of it for Tala.

 

Kuya would lay out our banig 

under the shade of a langka tree.

Nanay would place Tala on it, 

smile at her and kiss her head.

Tatay would ruffle my hair and 

tickle Tala until she giggled,

then the three of them would walk off 

into the rows of crops nearby.

 

I taught Tala the name of 

every plant around our little house

the way Nanay taught me and Kuya. 

 

Nanay sang the world to life for us, 

starting with a song describing our bahay kubo

our palm hut—surrounded by Earth’s bounty.

 

Bahay kubo, kahit munti

ang halaman doon ay sari-sari

 

Singkamas at talong, sigarilyas at mani

Sitaw, bataw, patani

 

Kundol, patola, upo’t kalabasa

At saka meron pang labanos mustasa

 

Sibuyas, kamatis, bawang at luya

Sa paligid-ligid nito’y panay na linga

 

When the sun was highest in the sky,

Tatay, Nanay, and Kuya would come back to our banig

with fresh fruit to go with our lunch.

 

Nanay would take Tala onto her lap 

to snuggle and nurse.

Tatay would lay out our meal leftovers 

wrapped in banana leaves.

 

Kuya and I would eat our lunch quickly 

so we could play.

 

Sometimes we would stay close to the banig,

pick up branches and play-fight, 

pretending to be warriors.

Tatay would laugh and show us 

how to hold our sticks properly.

Tala would stop nursing and clap in delight.

 

Sometimes we would go to where Tatay set up the traps

to catch tikling birds so they wouldn’t eat our crops.

We would imitate how the birds dodged the bamboo 

sticks, stepping in, out, through, like graceful dancers.

 

Much too soon, we would stop what we were doing

to rest our bodies while the sun did its hardest work.

Tala would already be asleep in Tatay’s arms.

Nanay would call me and Kuya back to the banig.

 

We would race to reach her and throw our arms around 

her waist. She’d plant a kiss atop each of our heads and say, 

 

“Amoy araw kayo.

“You smell like the sun,”

 

like sweat and dirt,

like laughter and childhood.

 

When the sun started its climb back down to earth,

I would look across the horizon, over the fields, and see

Tatay, Nanay, and Kuya walking toward us

with the vegetables we would cook for dinner.

 

Tala would ask for someone new to pick her up,

her chubby fingers reaching toward the purpling sky 

while I gathered our things to put into the basket

so Kuya could roll up the banig to carry it home.  

 

We walked back to our bahay kubo, 

retracing the morning’s steps,

stopping by the river to wash off the day’s toil,

splash away the lingering heat on our skin, 

get fresh water,

maybe catch a fish or two if we got lucky.

 

Our evening meal, like lunch, was often 

just vegetables and rice, 

flavored with what little meat or fish 

we could get that day,

but Nanay made everything taste like food for the gods.

Tatay would rub his belly and exclaim, “Sarap!”

 

After dinner, Nanay and I cleaned up 

while Tala swung in her duyan.

Tatay and Kuya rolled out the banig and spread out 

cotton blankets on top, making a comfortable place 

for us to sleep, side by side, in our one-room hut.

 

Nanay would take Tala out of her cradle 

so she could nurse for bedtime.

 

Then Nanay would sing us all to sleep, 

as she did every night. 

 

It was a small life, but it was our life.

We found magical beauty in the ordinary.

 

And we were happy. 

 

But as in all faerie tales, we would learn

all magic comes with a price.

Sunrise, Sunset

The days of our life were long, 

but the years would be short.

 

Our mother’s years—how could we know?—

were getting shorter and shorter. 

 

One long day, Nanay could not get out of bed.

She was counting out her last breaths,

like she used to sort stones from grains of rice . . .  

 

In the suffocating silence, our mother called out, “Bathala!” 

 

“She must be dying,” said Kuya, tears at his eyes. 

“She calls for God.”

 

“She calls for me,” Tatay said. “I am Bathala.”

He knelt by her side and took her hand in his. 

 

On that long day, our parents told us 

who we truly were, what life we had lived.

 

“You are the children of Heaven,” Tatay said, 

“but you are also the children of Earth

 

“made of starlight, laughter, sweat, and dirt;

made of the love between two people 

from different worlds.”

 

It was sunset on the last day of that life.

There was time for nothing else but truth.

 

“I am your father,” Tatay said, “but also

the father of all. I am Bathala Maykapal.

 

“People call my name when they need to feel safe, 

when they feel lost.

 

“When I fell in love with your mother, 

I decided to live on Earth,

 

to live a human life of ordinary magic 

not found in Heaven.”

 

Nanay may have sung the world to life for us, but

Tatay had created the world for her to sing about.

 

“And it was your mother’s song,” Tatay continued,

“that drew me to the river on the day we met . . .”

Full of Grace

On the day he met the love of his life—

“Nineteen short years ago today,” Tatay recalled,

smiling weakly at Nanay, his dying beloved—

 

Bathala Maykapal, Great Creator God,

was walking around the world of his creation 

disguised as a humble water buffalo bull.

I.

Bathala the kalabaw was splashing, 

happy in a mud puddle, when he heard singing.

It was soft and sad, but hopeful. 

 

He ambled toward the sweet song

and discovered a maiden in the river, 

surrounded by the inky darkness of her hair. 

 

She was as lovely as her voice,

so lovely that upon seeing her, 

Bathala the bull gasped, a sound so human 

 

that the maiden looked up, startled, afraid,

and froze at the sight of the carabao,

a gentle beast, but a beast nonetheless. 

 

Bathala felt shame and guilt

for disturbing her peaceful bath,

for making her afraid of him, of what he might do.

 

Bathala the bull turned around, 

walked back into the forest,

and disappeared into thin air, leaving Earth.

 

The following day, he returned, 

this time in his human form, 

to seek the maiden at the river. 

 

Bathala the bull must have really scared her, for

she did not return to the river that day, nor the next.

Bathala the man returned every day, hopeful, humbled.

 

On the seventh day, his heart soared when he saw her 

walking toward the river with other women from the 

village, carrying full baskets of clothing to be washed.

 

“K-kumusta?” he greeted her quietly 

once he had caught up to her. 

She turned her head in his direction and nodded silently.

“Mabigat ba ’yan?” he asked, hoping 

she’d agree it was heavy.

 

In answer, she handed him the basket 

and smiled, cheeks pink, 

which emboldened Bathala 

enough to ask her name.

“Dalisay,” she replied, 

tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.

 

Dalisay . . .DA-lee-sigh

 

Dalisay. Pure. Perfect.

It was the most beautiful sound he’d ever heard.

“Dalisay,” he said softly. It was almost like praying.

II.

The days of their life together were long, 

full of ordinary beauty and a love that kept growing, 

even after so many years.

 

Theirs was a great love built of a thousand tiny touches.

 

One of my earliest memories, out in the fields:

Tatay dipped his cup into the bucket of fresh water 

and offered it to Nanay first, making her smile.

 

Nanay touched Tatay’s cheek, making him smile back.

 

Nanay took the cup from him and took a small sip,

then turned the cup a half-turn and offered it back

to Tatay, who drank without taking his eyes off 

his beloved.

 

A smile shared. A moment. It was like watching 

a red hibiscus bloom.

 

As they both began to look older, 

Nanay would pluck the gray hairs out of Tatay’s ears

and trim his bushy eyebrows, teasing him,

“What sorcery, gray hair! 

Makes you look older but more handsome.”

 

Did she allow his sorcery, his deception? 

Did she know then that he was God? 

 

On the long day of our mother’s death, 

our father brought his beloved a bowl of chicken broth

and held it gently to her lips so she could take a small sip.

 

A drop of blood escaped from Nanay’s mouth, 

a bloom of red death.

 

Tatay wiped her mouth with a clean rag, 

cradling her head.

All day long he had insisted on staying at her side 

and caring for her, leaving us, their children, 

to fetch, cook, clean, worry.

 

Outside, night was drawing the curtains closed 

so we could say goodbye. 

The Long Goodbye

“Dalisay,” Tatay said softly, “mahal ko,

it is time for me to take you home.”

 

“I am already home,” Nanay said, 

smiling weakly at Tatay, her beloved.

“You must take them. Take your children.”

 

Kuya Apolaki, Tala, and I were no longer children,

but we did not know how to be anywhere 

other than where we were, touching Earth,

singing of what we saw and had in our mother’s world.

 

Nanay asked for us to gather around her, then,

and she gently laid a hand on each of our cheeks in turn, 

 

tracing her fingers over our faces like she used to do 

to calm us when we were babies, 

now for the last time. 

 

“Your hair has really grown out,” Nanay said to me, 

smiling as she brushed my long hair away from my eyes, 

tucking the strands behind my ear, lovingly, deliberately. 

 

Her eyes were clear for the first time in weeks; 

her gaze burned. 

She called me her “beam of light” so I would heed her.

“Listen well, Mayari sinag. Watch over them. 

All of them.” 

 

“Nanay,” I whispered, “huwag po. 

Please don’t send us away.”

I clutched her hand to my face, desperate to hold on,

and she tried to pull it away, gently first, then firmly.

 

“Tama na!” she rasped. A sputtering cough, 

a red bloom.

“Your father will look after you now; 

he will give you a home.

You must go. 

Take your rightful place at his side.”

 

I shook my head and begged her for more time. 

Weeping, desperate, I snatched at her hand again. 

“Nanay! Please!” 

She snatched her hand back and slapped my face. 

“I said ‘Enough!’

 

“That will sting long after I am dead,” she spat out, 

the last bit of fire in her body sparking in her eyes. 

Then those embers went cold, and she turned her back. 

 

“Leave me.”

Mama, why are you so quiet? 

Mama. Are you okay?

 

I’m okay, Luna. I just . . . I just remembered . . . something . . . 

 

How could she send her kids away like that? 

You said she sang to them and loved them.

 

So how could she hurt Mayari and order her to leave?

Mayari must have thought, “You’re not my mother.”

 

Only bad mothers hurt their kids. 

Only a bad mother would do what Dalisay did.

Right, Mama? Mama?

 

Mama, why aren’t you saying anything? 

 

Sometimes even good people, good mothers,

do things they never thought they could do

because they’re worried, because they’re scared.

 

Sometimes even good people, good mothers,

get so scared, they forget who they’re supposed to be.

Why I Was So Quiet

I couldn’t tell Stella and Luna why.

Best I could do was remember.

For me then, for all of us now.

 

They say having a child 

is like having your heart 

walk around outside your body. 

 

They also say 

your heart is a muscle 

the size of your fist.

 

I am four years old 

when my mother teaches me this, 

when she shows me that her heart 

is not only the size but also 

the shape of a fist.

 

And her heart beats outside her body.

 

I shouldn’t have 

walked home from preschool 

with a new friend 

instead of waiting for Kuya Nes. 

 

I shouldn’t have 

gone over to my friend’s house, 

just across the street, to play 

with her dolls from Hong Kong.

 

I shouldn’t have 

made excuses for 

my stupidity

my ignorance

my forgetfulness.

 

My heart beats with a rhythm of regret.

 

Shouldn’t have. 

Thump thump.

Shouldn’t have. 

Thump thump. 

Shouldn’t have.

 

But she can’t hear the beating of my heart. 

She is preparing me for the beating of my life. 

She once sang me lullabies; now she hisses my name. 

 

Elsaleta.How could you do this to me?”

 

My mother orders me to strip off my uniform.

My heart beats faster, louder.

I feel it will burst through my thin kamiseta. 

 

So sorry. 

Thump thump. 

So confused.

Thump thump.

So scared.

 

My mother wraps her fist with my father’s leather belt

like she is Muhammad Ali before the Thrilla in Manila. 

 

Snap!I claw the floor, and I am thankful 

it’s not the brass belt buckle striking my flesh.

 

Snap!I keep crawling, but her reach is long, 

aided by my father’s complicit leather silence. 

 

Snap!I finally manage to crawl into a corner 

and put my arms over my head. 

 

She throws aside the belt 

and makes her hand

into the shape of a heart.

 

Her fists beat 

my arms, 

my shoulders, 

my exposed legs.

 

Then she drags me from my corner 

and beats on my back, like it is a drum.

 

I hear someone sobbing.

Maybe it is me. 

 

When it is over, my mother has to go lie down. 

 

My grandmother comes downstairs from her apartment, 

wraps a towel around me without looking at my face. 

It is a yellow towel dotted with tiny baby-blue flowers.

 

Lola Lusing silently 

dries my sweat, 

wipes my blood, 

tends my wounds. 

 

The next time I see my mother, 

I don’t recognize the darkness in her eyes. 

 

Gone is the woman I called Mommy, 

who sang the world to life for me,

whose heart was not shaped like a fist. 

 

This woman who woke from her nap

is all sharp edges, 

hard to wrap my arms around. 

 

I do anyway, even as I think, 

“You are not my mother.” 

 

My mother would have 

been just as worried and angry, 

but she could not have done this to me. 

 

My mother would have 

chosen to teach me 

how to protect myself from harm 

instead of teaching me 

I had to protect myself from her. 

 

My mother would have 

sounded more convincing 

when she said “I am sorry.” 

 

I search for my mother, still. Not 

the mother of my birth, but 

the mother of my heart, 

the mother of my longing-to-belong heart,

the mother who would make me feel safe enough 

to be in the world. 

 

I search for her in the story of Dalisay, 

mother of three demigods,

who drove her child Mayari away 

as any mother would have

if she thought she could save her daughter 

from death and human pain.

 

I search for her in every mother in books 

and TV and movies and games.

 

I’m disappointed to find the same mother, 

who doesn’t make me feel safe, 

who doesn’t make me feel accepted, 

who doesn’t make me feel I belong.

★ "Sometimes raw and traumatic, other times hopeful and inspiring, Elsie’s bedtime story rings true, encapsulating the heart of Pilipino culture. A beautiful and poignant tale of immigration fused with Tagalog myth." —Kirkus, starred review

★ "Deeply poignant . . . Infusing the heart of Pinoy culture into a moving, accessible bedtime narrative, this “story of outsiders” will resonate with anyone who has felt estranged in the place they call home." —Publishers Weekly, starred review

"Deceptively gentle verse novel punctuated with rounded, friendly illustrations . . . This book packs a lot into spacious, spare lines, and it would work well in conversations about family, immigration, Pilipino history, and world mythology." —BCCB

"Showcases not only the very tight bonds of Filipino families but also their perseverance . . . The book’s strength lies in Everman's ability to weave a plot that incorporates Filipino mythology with a personal immigration story." —Booklist

"Everman’s poetry is indeed music to the ear, replete with rich language and vivid imagery . . . This book should find a place in libraries committed to providing diverse books for all students so they can know they belong." —School Library Connection

“Simply beautiful. The kind of book that holds you close and won’t let go.” —Erin Entrada Kelly, winner of the Newbery Medal for Hello, Universe
 
“Written in poignant and at times ethereal free verse, We Belong is at once beautiful and sad, comforting and disturbing, and as tender and fierce as the love with which it is told.” —Marilyn Hilton, winner of the APALA Award for Full Cicada Moon
 
"A beautiful, intertwined story of searching for a home away from home, told as two tales. Heart-wrenching, engaging, and full of hope." —K. S. Villoso, author of The Wolf of Oren-Yaro

About

An extraordinarily beautiful novel-in-verse, this important debut weaves a dramatic immigrant story together with Pilipino mythology to create something wholly new.

Stella and Luna know that their mama, Elsie, came from the Philippines when she was a child, but they don't know much else. So one night they ask her to tell them her story. As they get ready for bed, their mama spins two tales: that of her youth as a strong-willed middle child and immigrant; and that of the young life of Mayari, the mythical daughter of a god. Both are tales of sisterhood and motherhood, and of the difficult experience of trying to fit into a new culture, and having to fight for a home and acceptance. Glorious and layered, this is a portrait of family and strength for the ages.

Author

Cookie Hiponia was born in the Philippines and immigrated to America when she was nine years old. As the mother of children born into two cultures, Cookie had spent years searching for books that reflect her family’s experience. When she couldn’t find such a book, she heeded Toni Morrison and wrote the book she wanted to read with her daughters. We Belong is that book, a semi-autobiographical middle grade novel-in-verse about the Pilipino American immigrant experience that weaves in Tagalog cosmic mythology. Cookie lives in Seattle with her family.
  View titles by Cookie Hiponia

Excerpt

Mama, tell us a story

For as long as I can remember,

children in my family have asked this

of every mother in my family.

 

“Mama, tell us a story.”

 

Tonight, as they do every night,

my children ask it of me.

 

Some mothers, daughters, and sisters

sew, paint, or cook their stories;

my mothers and I sing ours. 

 

Mama, tell us a story.

 

Sure, Stella, just a sec, okay? 

Luna. Hey Luna moonbeam, 

have you brushed your teeth?

 

I did, Mama. 

You always say cleanliness is next to godliness,

and my teeth are next to godliness.

 

Mmm. Minty godliness. 

Okay, no more comics. 

Lights down. Let’s get tucked in.

 

Aw! Just one more p—

 

Luna.

 

Fiiine.

 

Thank you. 

 

Mama, a story? Please?

 

First let’s make sure 

you have everything you need 

for your field trip tomorrow.

 

Daddy already signed 

the permission slip last week. 

I just need to bring a sack lunch.

 

Remember to put on plenty of sunscreen

and wear your hat the whole time.

 

Ugh, I hate sticky sunscreen! 

Won’t I just get super brown and look like you?

 

Absolutely not. You’re pale like Daddy, and

he gets freckles just going up the driveway for the mail.

Without sunscreen, you’ll get crispy like lechón! 

 

Maamaa! Don’t bite my arm! 

 

Then wear sunscreen!

 

Okay already! Now a story! 

 

Story! Story! Story! Story! Story!

 

All right, all right! Sheesh! 

What story do you want to hear, my hearts? 

 

Shall I tell you the one about 

the moon, the sun, and the star?

 

Or shall I tell you the one about 

the poet, her brother, and her sister?

 

No, Mama. Tell us your story.

 

Every story I tell you is my story, anak. 

 

Tonight, I will tell you

Mayari’s heavenly family story,

the story of outsiders 

who had to work four times harder

than everyone else to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.

 

It is very like my family’s story, our own mythology. 

 

So tonight, I will also tell you

my Aguila family story,

the story of immigrants

who had to work four times harder

than everyone else to dream the American dream.

 

When I hear Mayari’s story, it is like listening to my own,

like reading a story that anyone who looks like me 

knows by heart. Mayari and I share a name—

 

Wait. Mama, your name is Elsie, not Mayari.

 

Just as my story is not exactly like Mayari’s story,

my name is not exactly like Mayari’s name,

but we share our one true name: Buan.

 

I don’t get it. That’s your middle name, not your real name.

 

Oh, my heart, what’s real is not always what’s true.

Buan made it her life’s work to reflect light;

I think it must be my life’s work to reflect love.

 

You see, a great love is like a light

that shines through in loves that come after.

It is reflected in the great love

 

between me and my sister,

between the two of you,

between all sisters.

 

And my first story begins with that great love,

between Mayari and her sister, Tala.

 

I will tell you their story as Mayari would tell it, 

from the beginning of everything. 

Little Star

When my sister, Tala, was born, 

my heart found its other half.

“My baby,” I said, reaching for her hand 

and gently rocking her cradle.

 

“Could you sing my lullaby to her, sinag? Mayari?” 

asked my mother, who was cleaning after dinner. 

We were all drowsy, getting ready for bedtime.

I sang to my baby the lullaby that Nanay had been 

singing to me forever.

 

Kislap, kislap bituin

Ano bang ‘yong gawain

 

Sa ibabaw ng mundo

Parang hiyas na bato

 

Kislap, kislap bituin

Ano bang ‘yong gawain

 

Tala has been my dearest love for lifetimes. 

I have loved others, reached for other lights in the 

darkness, but none compare to my little star.  

 

Tala . . .TA-laaah

 

my sweetest

my brightest

 

my heart

my song

 

the bridge between our big brother and me,

between day and night, between light and dark. 

 

Between worlds

there twinkles a little star.

 

Tala . . .TA-laaah

A Simple Kind of Life

My days took shape around making Tala’s eyes sparkle,

making her wonder at the magic of stones and leaves.

It was my job to keep Tala happy 

while my family worked 

 

and I was so good at it, her whole face shone 

when she smiled.

She sang before she talked; danced before she walked.

We grew in those fields together, 

sun-kissed and content.

 

Every morning at dawn, 

our family would go out to the fields:

Tatay carrying his bolo over his shoulder,

Nanay carrying Tala liwanag, our starshine,

Kuya Apolaki, our eldest, carrying our lunch basket.

 

All I carried were the flowers I picked, 

the stones and feathers I gathered,

the songs in my heart,

all of it for Tala.

 

Kuya would lay out our banig 

under the shade of a langka tree.

Nanay would place Tala on it, 

smile at her and kiss her head.

Tatay would ruffle my hair and 

tickle Tala until she giggled,

then the three of them would walk off 

into the rows of crops nearby.

 

I taught Tala the name of 

every plant around our little house

the way Nanay taught me and Kuya. 

 

Nanay sang the world to life for us, 

starting with a song describing our bahay kubo

our palm hut—surrounded by Earth’s bounty.

 

Bahay kubo, kahit munti

ang halaman doon ay sari-sari

 

Singkamas at talong, sigarilyas at mani

Sitaw, bataw, patani

 

Kundol, patola, upo’t kalabasa

At saka meron pang labanos mustasa

 

Sibuyas, kamatis, bawang at luya

Sa paligid-ligid nito’y panay na linga

 

When the sun was highest in the sky,

Tatay, Nanay, and Kuya would come back to our banig

with fresh fruit to go with our lunch.

 

Nanay would take Tala onto her lap 

to snuggle and nurse.

Tatay would lay out our meal leftovers 

wrapped in banana leaves.

 

Kuya and I would eat our lunch quickly 

so we could play.

 

Sometimes we would stay close to the banig,

pick up branches and play-fight, 

pretending to be warriors.

Tatay would laugh and show us 

how to hold our sticks properly.

Tala would stop nursing and clap in delight.

 

Sometimes we would go to where Tatay set up the traps

to catch tikling birds so they wouldn’t eat our crops.

We would imitate how the birds dodged the bamboo 

sticks, stepping in, out, through, like graceful dancers.

 

Much too soon, we would stop what we were doing

to rest our bodies while the sun did its hardest work.

Tala would already be asleep in Tatay’s arms.

Nanay would call me and Kuya back to the banig.

 

We would race to reach her and throw our arms around 

her waist. She’d plant a kiss atop each of our heads and say, 

 

“Amoy araw kayo.

“You smell like the sun,”

 

like sweat and dirt,

like laughter and childhood.

 

When the sun started its climb back down to earth,

I would look across the horizon, over the fields, and see

Tatay, Nanay, and Kuya walking toward us

with the vegetables we would cook for dinner.

 

Tala would ask for someone new to pick her up,

her chubby fingers reaching toward the purpling sky 

while I gathered our things to put into the basket

so Kuya could roll up the banig to carry it home.  

 

We walked back to our bahay kubo, 

retracing the morning’s steps,

stopping by the river to wash off the day’s toil,

splash away the lingering heat on our skin, 

get fresh water,

maybe catch a fish or two if we got lucky.

 

Our evening meal, like lunch, was often 

just vegetables and rice, 

flavored with what little meat or fish 

we could get that day,

but Nanay made everything taste like food for the gods.

Tatay would rub his belly and exclaim, “Sarap!”

 

After dinner, Nanay and I cleaned up 

while Tala swung in her duyan.

Tatay and Kuya rolled out the banig and spread out 

cotton blankets on top, making a comfortable place 

for us to sleep, side by side, in our one-room hut.

 

Nanay would take Tala out of her cradle 

so she could nurse for bedtime.

 

Then Nanay would sing us all to sleep, 

as she did every night. 

 

It was a small life, but it was our life.

We found magical beauty in the ordinary.

 

And we were happy. 

 

But as in all faerie tales, we would learn

all magic comes with a price.

Sunrise, Sunset

The days of our life were long, 

but the years would be short.

 

Our mother’s years—how could we know?—

were getting shorter and shorter. 

 

One long day, Nanay could not get out of bed.

She was counting out her last breaths,

like she used to sort stones from grains of rice . . .  

 

In the suffocating silence, our mother called out, “Bathala!” 

 

“She must be dying,” said Kuya, tears at his eyes. 

“She calls for God.”

 

“She calls for me,” Tatay said. “I am Bathala.”

He knelt by her side and took her hand in his. 

 

On that long day, our parents told us 

who we truly were, what life we had lived.

 

“You are the children of Heaven,” Tatay said, 

“but you are also the children of Earth

 

“made of starlight, laughter, sweat, and dirt;

made of the love between two people 

from different worlds.”

 

It was sunset on the last day of that life.

There was time for nothing else but truth.

 

“I am your father,” Tatay said, “but also

the father of all. I am Bathala Maykapal.

 

“People call my name when they need to feel safe, 

when they feel lost.

 

“When I fell in love with your mother, 

I decided to live on Earth,

 

to live a human life of ordinary magic 

not found in Heaven.”

 

Nanay may have sung the world to life for us, but

Tatay had created the world for her to sing about.

 

“And it was your mother’s song,” Tatay continued,

“that drew me to the river on the day we met . . .”

Full of Grace

On the day he met the love of his life—

“Nineteen short years ago today,” Tatay recalled,

smiling weakly at Nanay, his dying beloved—

 

Bathala Maykapal, Great Creator God,

was walking around the world of his creation 

disguised as a humble water buffalo bull.

I.

Bathala the kalabaw was splashing, 

happy in a mud puddle, when he heard singing.

It was soft and sad, but hopeful. 

 

He ambled toward the sweet song

and discovered a maiden in the river, 

surrounded by the inky darkness of her hair. 

 

She was as lovely as her voice,

so lovely that upon seeing her, 

Bathala the bull gasped, a sound so human 

 

that the maiden looked up, startled, afraid,

and froze at the sight of the carabao,

a gentle beast, but a beast nonetheless. 

 

Bathala felt shame and guilt

for disturbing her peaceful bath,

for making her afraid of him, of what he might do.

 

Bathala the bull turned around, 

walked back into the forest,

and disappeared into thin air, leaving Earth.

 

The following day, he returned, 

this time in his human form, 

to seek the maiden at the river. 

 

Bathala the bull must have really scared her, for

she did not return to the river that day, nor the next.

Bathala the man returned every day, hopeful, humbled.

 

On the seventh day, his heart soared when he saw her 

walking toward the river with other women from the 

village, carrying full baskets of clothing to be washed.

 

“K-kumusta?” he greeted her quietly 

once he had caught up to her. 

She turned her head in his direction and nodded silently.

“Mabigat ba ’yan?” he asked, hoping 

she’d agree it was heavy.

 

In answer, she handed him the basket 

and smiled, cheeks pink, 

which emboldened Bathala 

enough to ask her name.

“Dalisay,” she replied, 

tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.

 

Dalisay . . .DA-lee-sigh

 

Dalisay. Pure. Perfect.

It was the most beautiful sound he’d ever heard.

“Dalisay,” he said softly. It was almost like praying.

II.

The days of their life together were long, 

full of ordinary beauty and a love that kept growing, 

even after so many years.

 

Theirs was a great love built of a thousand tiny touches.

 

One of my earliest memories, out in the fields:

Tatay dipped his cup into the bucket of fresh water 

and offered it to Nanay first, making her smile.

 

Nanay touched Tatay’s cheek, making him smile back.

 

Nanay took the cup from him and took a small sip,

then turned the cup a half-turn and offered it back

to Tatay, who drank without taking his eyes off 

his beloved.

 

A smile shared. A moment. It was like watching 

a red hibiscus bloom.

 

As they both began to look older, 

Nanay would pluck the gray hairs out of Tatay’s ears

and trim his bushy eyebrows, teasing him,

“What sorcery, gray hair! 

Makes you look older but more handsome.”

 

Did she allow his sorcery, his deception? 

Did she know then that he was God? 

 

On the long day of our mother’s death, 

our father brought his beloved a bowl of chicken broth

and held it gently to her lips so she could take a small sip.

 

A drop of blood escaped from Nanay’s mouth, 

a bloom of red death.

 

Tatay wiped her mouth with a clean rag, 

cradling her head.

All day long he had insisted on staying at her side 

and caring for her, leaving us, their children, 

to fetch, cook, clean, worry.

 

Outside, night was drawing the curtains closed 

so we could say goodbye. 

The Long Goodbye

“Dalisay,” Tatay said softly, “mahal ko,

it is time for me to take you home.”

 

“I am already home,” Nanay said, 

smiling weakly at Tatay, her beloved.

“You must take them. Take your children.”

 

Kuya Apolaki, Tala, and I were no longer children,

but we did not know how to be anywhere 

other than where we were, touching Earth,

singing of what we saw and had in our mother’s world.

 

Nanay asked for us to gather around her, then,

and she gently laid a hand on each of our cheeks in turn, 

 

tracing her fingers over our faces like she used to do 

to calm us when we were babies, 

now for the last time. 

 

“Your hair has really grown out,” Nanay said to me, 

smiling as she brushed my long hair away from my eyes, 

tucking the strands behind my ear, lovingly, deliberately. 

 

Her eyes were clear for the first time in weeks; 

her gaze burned. 

She called me her “beam of light” so I would heed her.

“Listen well, Mayari sinag. Watch over them. 

All of them.” 

 

“Nanay,” I whispered, “huwag po. 

Please don’t send us away.”

I clutched her hand to my face, desperate to hold on,

and she tried to pull it away, gently first, then firmly.

 

“Tama na!” she rasped. A sputtering cough, 

a red bloom.

“Your father will look after you now; 

he will give you a home.

You must go. 

Take your rightful place at his side.”

 

I shook my head and begged her for more time. 

Weeping, desperate, I snatched at her hand again. 

“Nanay! Please!” 

She snatched her hand back and slapped my face. 

“I said ‘Enough!’

 

“That will sting long after I am dead,” she spat out, 

the last bit of fire in her body sparking in her eyes. 

Then those embers went cold, and she turned her back. 

 

“Leave me.”

Mama, why are you so quiet? 

Mama. Are you okay?

 

I’m okay, Luna. I just . . . I just remembered . . . something . . . 

 

How could she send her kids away like that? 

You said she sang to them and loved them.

 

So how could she hurt Mayari and order her to leave?

Mayari must have thought, “You’re not my mother.”

 

Only bad mothers hurt their kids. 

Only a bad mother would do what Dalisay did.

Right, Mama? Mama?

 

Mama, why aren’t you saying anything? 

 

Sometimes even good people, good mothers,

do things they never thought they could do

because they’re worried, because they’re scared.

 

Sometimes even good people, good mothers,

get so scared, they forget who they’re supposed to be.

Why I Was So Quiet

I couldn’t tell Stella and Luna why.

Best I could do was remember.

For me then, for all of us now.

 

They say having a child 

is like having your heart 

walk around outside your body. 

 

They also say 

your heart is a muscle 

the size of your fist.

 

I am four years old 

when my mother teaches me this, 

when she shows me that her heart 

is not only the size but also 

the shape of a fist.

 

And her heart beats outside her body.

 

I shouldn’t have 

walked home from preschool 

with a new friend 

instead of waiting for Kuya Nes. 

 

I shouldn’t have 

gone over to my friend’s house, 

just across the street, to play 

with her dolls from Hong Kong.

 

I shouldn’t have 

made excuses for 

my stupidity

my ignorance

my forgetfulness.

 

My heart beats with a rhythm of regret.

 

Shouldn’t have. 

Thump thump.

Shouldn’t have. 

Thump thump. 

Shouldn’t have.

 

But she can’t hear the beating of my heart. 

She is preparing me for the beating of my life. 

She once sang me lullabies; now she hisses my name. 

 

Elsaleta.How could you do this to me?”

 

My mother orders me to strip off my uniform.

My heart beats faster, louder.

I feel it will burst through my thin kamiseta. 

 

So sorry. 

Thump thump. 

So confused.

Thump thump.

So scared.

 

My mother wraps her fist with my father’s leather belt

like she is Muhammad Ali before the Thrilla in Manila. 

 

Snap!I claw the floor, and I am thankful 

it’s not the brass belt buckle striking my flesh.

 

Snap!I keep crawling, but her reach is long, 

aided by my father’s complicit leather silence. 

 

Snap!I finally manage to crawl into a corner 

and put my arms over my head. 

 

She throws aside the belt 

and makes her hand

into the shape of a heart.

 

Her fists beat 

my arms, 

my shoulders, 

my exposed legs.

 

Then she drags me from my corner 

and beats on my back, like it is a drum.

 

I hear someone sobbing.

Maybe it is me. 

 

When it is over, my mother has to go lie down. 

 

My grandmother comes downstairs from her apartment, 

wraps a towel around me without looking at my face. 

It is a yellow towel dotted with tiny baby-blue flowers.

 

Lola Lusing silently 

dries my sweat, 

wipes my blood, 

tends my wounds. 

 

The next time I see my mother, 

I don’t recognize the darkness in her eyes. 

 

Gone is the woman I called Mommy, 

who sang the world to life for me,

whose heart was not shaped like a fist. 

 

This woman who woke from her nap

is all sharp edges, 

hard to wrap my arms around. 

 

I do anyway, even as I think, 

“You are not my mother.” 

 

My mother would have 

been just as worried and angry, 

but she could not have done this to me. 

 

My mother would have 

chosen to teach me 

how to protect myself from harm 

instead of teaching me 

I had to protect myself from her. 

 

My mother would have 

sounded more convincing 

when she said “I am sorry.” 

 

I search for my mother, still. Not 

the mother of my birth, but 

the mother of my heart, 

the mother of my longing-to-belong heart,

the mother who would make me feel safe enough 

to be in the world. 

 

I search for her in the story of Dalisay, 

mother of three demigods,

who drove her child Mayari away 

as any mother would have

if she thought she could save her daughter 

from death and human pain.

 

I search for her in every mother in books 

and TV and movies and games.

 

I’m disappointed to find the same mother, 

who doesn’t make me feel safe, 

who doesn’t make me feel accepted, 

who doesn’t make me feel I belong.

Praise

★ "Sometimes raw and traumatic, other times hopeful and inspiring, Elsie’s bedtime story rings true, encapsulating the heart of Pilipino culture. A beautiful and poignant tale of immigration fused with Tagalog myth." —Kirkus, starred review

★ "Deeply poignant . . . Infusing the heart of Pinoy culture into a moving, accessible bedtime narrative, this “story of outsiders” will resonate with anyone who has felt estranged in the place they call home." —Publishers Weekly, starred review

"Deceptively gentle verse novel punctuated with rounded, friendly illustrations . . . This book packs a lot into spacious, spare lines, and it would work well in conversations about family, immigration, Pilipino history, and world mythology." —BCCB

"Showcases not only the very tight bonds of Filipino families but also their perseverance . . . The book’s strength lies in Everman's ability to weave a plot that incorporates Filipino mythology with a personal immigration story." —Booklist

"Everman’s poetry is indeed music to the ear, replete with rich language and vivid imagery . . . This book should find a place in libraries committed to providing diverse books for all students so they can know they belong." —School Library Connection

“Simply beautiful. The kind of book that holds you close and won’t let go.” —Erin Entrada Kelly, winner of the Newbery Medal for Hello, Universe
 
“Written in poignant and at times ethereal free verse, We Belong is at once beautiful and sad, comforting and disturbing, and as tender and fierce as the love with which it is told.” —Marilyn Hilton, winner of the APALA Award for Full Cicada Moon
 
"A beautiful, intertwined story of searching for a home away from home, told as two tales. Heart-wrenching, engaging, and full of hope." —K. S. Villoso, author of The Wolf of Oren-Yaro

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