(Scare them to death)

hiding boy 2 - Patayin sa sindak

I don’t know about you, but I had a terrifying childhood.

The moon hung low and large in the dark sky, pockmarked by wisps of gray clouds that, at closer inspection, looked like claw marks across its surface. At it, a dog howled, releasing spirits dead and demonic, as folklore would have it, or sounding the omen of death or misfortune. But that wasn’t as scary as a few nights later.

Gone was the moon. And rain poured, drowning the dog’s howl in the tumult, but not the sound of a baby crying. Rain fell all night long. Through it all, the baby kept crying, its cries getting louder and louder as the night marched into morning. As the sun rose and the windows of the village houses hesitantly opened up to the gathering light, it was revealed that an unwanted infant was thrown into the river, where it remained unaware of its ghastly fate.

Wait! That wasn’t my childhood. It was an old black-and-white film I used to watch on afternoon TV.  I don’t remember which one it was, but there were so many really scary Filipino movies back then.

My mother used to say that when I was in her womb, the family took a vacation in a place called San Pascual up north in the Mountain Province. They would stay in a nipa hut raised from the ground by stilts. It was as rustic as rustic could get and the closest neighbor was maybe half a mountain away. One night, as my mother was about to sleep on what we would call a banig, a mat handwoven from dried leaves, she heard a strange sound, the flapping of the wings of what sounded like a very large bird. She heard the thud it made as it landed on the roof, and the thud was immediately followed by a rustling of the reeds of which the roof was made. She made the sign of the cross, held a prayer book in each of her hands, wore a rosary around her neck, and mumbled “The Apostles’ Creed” until she fell asleep. That was how she survived the night.

I’m almost sure she made some of it up because as a kid I spent a portion of a summer in that nipa hut in the middle of nowhere and I doubt they would send a kid like me to such a place if they even half suspected it was the lair of a manananggal, half woman, half man-eating bird-like monster, whose upper body would detach from its waist as it flew off to hunt for prey. Others called it tiktik.

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The manananggal, illustration by Brian Valeza

But I found San Pascual to be just as my mother described it. It was for all intents and purposes a house in the woods. For a bathroom, it had an outhouse, which literally was only a hole in the ground. There was no running water. We had to fetch water from a stream that flowed down from the top of the mountain. There was no electricity, either, so no fridge. But we kept our drinking water in an earthen jar that kept it cool and we drank it from white enamel cups rimmed in blue that, as I told my hosts, looked like mini orinola or chamber pots. Speaking of the lack of electricity, if at night you had to go… Well better pray you never have to, not in a place like that.

But in the daytime, ah, San Pascual was paradise, my own Little House on the Prairie adventure. We had the entire half a mountain to ourselves, of which a part had been carved into rice terraces. There were carabaos and horses. There were fruit trees of every kind, mangoes, kaimito, coconut, bananas… At the foot of the mountain, there was a small, narrow river, in which we would swim and catch shrimps.

One day I got ill. I was throwing up all over the place. I had a terrible stomachache. And my skin was inflamed, swollen in parts. They said that a river nymph or a mountain spirit took a liking to me. There was no doctor or clinic, but there was an albularyo, some kind of an herb doctor, who came over from the other side of the mountain, and she prayed over me and she would chew a combination of herbs, spit them out in her hand, and wipe them on my skin, on my tummy, on my forehead while mumbling an Ilokano prayer. The next morning I was well enough to climb the trees and chase the carabaos, as if I wasn’t near death the night before.

Growing up, I took it for granted that a kapre could dwell in a tree as mighty as the balete that towered over our makeshift house in a desolate part of Nueva Ecija, where I would stay every summer while my mother took care of the cafeteria during the construction of Pantabangan Dam sometime in the 1970s. This too was paradise, my little Swiss Family Robinson spot in real life, with a placid lake in front of our house and forests around us.

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Kapre or the tree giant, illustration by totmoartsstudio2

No experience was more terrifying than when my mother put me in my own room in my big, six-bedroom childhood home. I spent the night with a wooden rosary almost strangling me while I waited for the spirits of the house to descend upon me. I didn’t make it through that first night. All my senses alert, I had jumped out of bed, running to my mother’s bed, no sooner than when I heard the first strange sound, even as, running as if in circles down the hallway to my parents’ bedroom, I realized that all I heard was the chirping of a house lizard. It took another week or two before my mother was able to evict me from her bed.

Even when I was older, I didn’t find it hard to believe that the mirage I’d see in the corner of my eyes as I passed through a dark hallway could be a white lady. I believed in the tikbalang as much as I believed in the praying mantis. No difference, except that the former, the werehorse, could kill me. I’d never be caught dead passing through a forested area, far from civilization, without whispering “Tabi tabi po (excuse me)” for fear of the curse of the nuno sa punso, the dwarf-like spirit on the mound. And I still think that where I see nothing, such as in the shadows, dwells what seems so inexplicable that we find it more convenient to dismiss it, locking it in a box we label as myths or superstition or even kathang-isip, works of the imagination.

nuno sa punso or old man on the mound - Patayin sa sindak
Nuno (old man in English) is a dwarf-like nature spirit or anito in Philippine mythology

Ah, but even nature is such a mystery. Here on earth there are creatures that defy our basic understanding of what is logical. I doubt if we had gone deep enough into the very core of this planet, or covered every square inch of its surface. As for outer space, the vastness alone is unknown, maybe unknowable, stretching into distances that, at this point, science and all, Google and all (that knows everything), Voyager 1 having only reached the edges of our solar system since it was launched in 1977, appears impossible to approximate.

I really love the myths and monsters of the Philippines. But you also have many terrific writers there who can do a better job at telling those stories than I can.

Neil Gaiman

So yes I’m happy to have grown up in a place where the unknown took the form of mythical beasts and fantastical creatures. They keep me open to the universe of possibilities that make life on earth, brief as it is, limited, often mundane, so exciting and exhilarating or even blood-curdling at times.

At the very least, I have the blessing of enjoying my horror books and movies—and my zombies.

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