Everyone in the barrio of Pook just knew when Tatay was home: the old house, otherwise dark and gloomy would then be ablaze with the bright glow from the bututoy that seemed to be lit up only whenever he was at home. In the middle of the long expanse of the farm, the house whose dark wood more often than not absorb light than reflect it, becomes almost a beacon with the bright light from the kerosene lamps which only my father seem to be able to coax.
My two older sisters, at that time the only children of what would eventually be a large brood, always looked forward to having my father at home and would always come running to meet him halfway as soon as they see him walking towards the house amidst the tall cogon grass swaying in the breeze. And not just for the treats he would bring home with him, and which they would inevitably expect: sweets from wherever his last journey was, little paper dolls from Manila or even last minute purchases of cookies like tiping or kalihim sweet buns from Pinagkurusan, much closer to the town of Ilat if he was running out of time. It didn’t really matter what it was, but what it meant: that he would be home for an extended period of time to play with, cajole or discipline them when necessary, but most of all, to take care of them and my mother who was more often than not unwell and not always able to provide for the constant demands of life in the parang, or farming hamlet with two very young daughters.
The bright light emitting from those kerosene lamps would have also lifted much of the constant fear that come with living in such a remote and isolated place steeped in superstition and tales of the dark side, especially without the comforting presence of a protective father to allay those fears. But then again, perhaps even that would not have made a difference. Not when my mother would go into her trances and fits, often in short durations or sometimes lasting for days. These were the most difficult times, when she’d lie awake for several days, blabbering incoherently about nothing that makes sense whatsoever, or at times endlessly reciting prayers she had learned from many ages ago.
It was during these periods that my sisters will be sent off by my grandfather to stay with my mother’s younger sister until the whole thing passes and life returned to a semblance of normalcy. And yet even this is no guarantee of any reprieve for the two young girls. For it seems that my aunt is the root cause of all these strange affairs, or so everyone believes. Even after the second world war, when everything everywhere else in the world seemed to have rushed headlong towards modernity and change, this little farming hamlet known as Pook na Mabuhangin, Pook as the locals call it, remained isolated and very much inaccessible especially in the rainy season, when the only road leading to and away from it gets mired in a slippery coating of brown mud, especially in the agbang sections: three small hills that rise up and abruptly dip a good fifteen feet deep into the ground.
In the early 1950s, Pook was still a place where people ascribed the unexplainable to the forces of the dark side: the tikbalang or kapre, an huge and hairy half-horse half-human that sits atop a tree at night smoking an oversized cigar, waiting to pounce on unsuspecting victims and scare them out of their wits, or the tiny beings that live under the earth, the duwende who can and do play tricks on hapless humans and toy with them physically and psychologically.
Well of course it didn’t help that my aunt was a very beautiful young woman, and that my mother was not hard on the eyes either, contrary to what she would always later claim. They were, especially after their own mother’s early death, always inseparable; you never found one without the other, usually in the company of their cousin Leon who was close to their age. It was a small world they lived in, made even smaller by the remoteness of the village. Social visits to families and friends (and oftentimes these are one and the same people) were made on foot, tiptoeing along the dikes that border the rice paddies in the rainy months or the long tall shrubs of kamoteng kahoy, a root crop usually planted in the summer.
It was during one of these outings that these two young women, still in their twenties, were spotted by the little people whose king took a liking to and started visiting my aunt, intent on courting her.
An ordinary, run-of-the-mill middle of the afternoon, when most daily chores had been done and one is almost nodding off in the tropical heat after a full lunch, can sudden take a turn by the surprise arrival of the duwende king and his minions. My aunt could be mending clothes, or giving the batalan, the bathing area with bamboo floor and walls a good weekly scrubbing when she would all of a sudden drop whatever it was she was doing, turn to my sister and exclaim, “They’re here! They’re coming!” and run into the house and open every door and window. Perplexed and scared by all of these, my sister would ask what’s happening, to which my aunt would reply, “Don’t you see them? Why, there they all are, climbing in through the open windows and doors!”. It is at this point that she would inevitably go into a trance, giggling wildly as if she was being tickled, or else cry out in pain screaming, “Stop! Stop!”.
To this day my oldest sister would swear witness to the strange goings-on that transpired: how my aunt would start manifesting spots on her arms and legs, similar to pinch marks, but only tinier. This would go on until my aunt falls into a heap, physically spent and exhausted by this bizarre event, and the duwendes, unseen to anyone but my aunt, would seem to leave just as quickly as they came.My mother, being her sister’s constant companion, was not spared from all these, and that’s how they explain her own episodes of losing consciousness and retreating into her trances. Further complicating this was the fact that one of their older brothers was a fundamentalist church minister convinced that his sisters were possessed by evil spirits. More often than not when either sister would go into their trance-like episodes, he would tie them up onto a tree trunk and try to beat the devil out of them with a strap, until my father could not stand it any longer and would beg him to stop. It must have been an extremely traumatizing experience to witness, and soon as he was able, my father uprooted his very young family and headed for a larger town in search of an answer, and perhaps a cure, for my mother’s illness. It will be a long, painful struggle for her, as I had personally witnessed growing up, and questions constantly came up even right up to her dying days. But at this point in her life that is still many, many years ahead and there are many more family stories yet to be told.
© August 2007