Betel leaves

by Carielyn Tunion-Lam

The woman who lived at the crossroads could tell people’s fortunes by chewing betel leaves and reading the saliva-coated pulp she spat back into their palms. It was a reworking of an ancient ritual, a skill passed on from the foremothers of her hometown, renowned healers in the mountains to the north. ‘The world gets smaller, ineng, she would say. We adapt to carry on the old ways.’ 

When I passed her house one day, she beckoned me from the swinging chair which hung from the gnarled balete tree in her yard. Halika na, ineng. She took a handful of leaves from a silk satchel around her waist and popped them in her mouth. Her thick lips wrinkled as her jaws worked, masticating, before spitting the bits out in my hand.

She smiled, her eyes soft and lined with intricate folds as she read the strange topography. When they come for me, she told me, you will not let them forget

That night, I fell asleep to the sound of tinkling bells, silvery in a haze of sleep. I wondered if I was dreaming and woke the next morning feeling nauseous. Sitting up in bed, I vomited whole betel leaves and couldn’t stop until their glossy heart shapes covered my room in a soft, green veil. I ran to the woman’s home and found the old tree fallen in the weeping garden. I knocked on the door, but no one answered. A neighbour came over to tell me the news: the woman had died in the night. 

Stress, diba, the neighbour speculated. The woman had lost her ongoing battle to keep her home from encroaching council developers. Pero it’s good timing, in a way. Kasi she was squatting na lang, technically. Her house was due for demolition that day.

A crew of men came. They sawed and hacked and bulldozed, smashing through walls, tearing down its bones, discarding the innards and flesh. I watched from across the street as they chopped the body of the balete and fed its bits through a woodchipper. I didn’t realise I was crying until dragonflies landed on my cheeks, feasting on my tears. 

Later that day I returned to my room and scooped up every last betel leaf. I stashed them in various jars and cans and small pouches around my home.

Since then, I have heard tinkling bells in my dreams, and people’s fortunes reveal themselves to me in the rogue island shapes of chewed up betel leaves.

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