“Santos de Sampaguitas” (Parts 1 & 2), by Alyssa Wong
Reviewed by Louis West
In “Santos de Sampaguitas,” by Alyssa Wong, Christina Maria Reyes is a young girl from the provinces of the Philippines. She and her older sister, Silvia, work as maids for the Calderones, wealthy Americans living in Manila. Silvia is pregnant by Sir Carlos, the son of the Calderones, and his family of devout Catholics is reluctantly preparing for the wedding. One night Maria’s dreams are interrupted by the dead god who says she is his heir since her mother is now dead. His mark is upon her withered arm, just like her mother and grandmother before her. But Maria protests that she isn’t ready.
The Calderones’ matriarch asks Maria to run a special task for her: to take the family’s arrhae—13 coins representing Jesus and the 12 apostles that have been passed from generation to generation as a wedding gift—to the jewelers to get the coins redipped in gold. At the jewelers she meets Rodante, the son of the owner, whose right leg is a tangled mass of scars. They talk about Rodante’s family gods and an attraction is born. The dead god returns again that night to Maria to convince her to take up the mantle as his heir. Again she refuses and the dead god leaves, displeased.
Rodante and Maria meet secretly. He gives her a gift of an expensive glass-faced necklace on a golden chain that he designed himself. Maria is overwhelmed but accepts. That night Maria wakes to the smoke of the Calderones’ home on fire. She escapes but her very pregnant sister does not. She rushes back in to see Sir Carlos struggling to get a distraught Silvia out, the blood of her unborn baby all around her. The dead god is furious, telling Maria that neither the fire nor the miscarriage was an accident. He says a rogue aswang, a member of another witch-family serving a different old god, is preying upon her and her family, and that the pendant she’s wearing is how she and her sister were targeted. Now Maria is left with an enormous decision: only together can she and the dead god protect her family. Apart, the dead god and her family will be destroyed.
Silvia wanted her baby more than anything because it was Carlos’, because she loves him, because he loves her. That is enough for the Calderones’ matriarch to decide that the wedding is to go on. It’s also enough for Maria to decide on her terms to agree to become the dead god’s heir, terms that include life and death, justice and vengeance, and the end of her childhood.
This exceptional tale is set in the streets of Manila and immersed in the ages-old conflicts of the poor rural peasant versus the wealthy city class, plus Catholicism versus worship of the old gods. Maria is a plucky girl who, in spite of her withered right arm and hand, constantly adjusts how and what she does to accomplish whatever anyone else can do. For example, to open the pouch containing the arrhae, she pins the edge of the pouch with her right elbow and uses her left hand to pull the drawstring free. She tries not to let her disability define her even though it does identify her to the dead god as his.
Santos de Sampaguitas, holy Jasmine, also known as the “Maid of Honor,” is used to adorn carvings of the saints and is worn by the dead god as a mark of his presence. Sampaguitas is an evergreen vine or shrub with a sweet, heady scent that’s the national flower of the Phillipines. In this tale this flower also denotes Maria’s consecration to the dead god because her covenant sets her apart as sacred. Story definitely recommended.