the ghosts of casandig
as soon as i saw him, his frail body carrying two pieces of luggage and having difficulty opening the gate, i knew he was dying. but nobody noticed that other than me.
it was a sweltering saturday morning, around eleven, and the sun was at its most unwelcoming mood. the entire household, with his mother at the control tower, was busy preparing lunch. you could smell dishes being cooked, vegetables, onions being chopped, garlic being sauteed, and hear his mother shouting orders to the maids who were bantering while doing their chores in the dirty kitchen. they were all sweating even if electric fans were on, but nobody seemed to mind.
it was a feast that his mother was preparing. not for him. not for his arrival. but for her husband's nth death anniversary. his mother will forever love his father, keep him alive in her memory, even if in the end, he was not a very good husband and father to their three children.
her mother cried and embraced him tightly as soon as she saw him entering the dirty kitchen, made of bamboos and other light materials, at the back of the main house. he too put her arms around her, feeling sad and melancholic after seeing how she had aged and shrank -- her short hair had all turned grey, her wiry body now stooped. she was fragile as a newly-born baby.
she kissed his son, his youngest, on both cheeks, wiping sweats on his forehead, while the maids watched, amused, their cooking, noisy chatter, suddenly put to a halt.
"why didn't you tell me you were coming home? why didn't you call? i could have asked roldan to pick you up at the airport."
"i wanted to surprise you."
she smiled, then burs into tears. she asked the maids to bring his luggage into his room upstairs. as though she wanted their prying eyes to focus elsewhere. as though she wanted this moment with her son all by herself. they obliged, stealing glances at his handsome face as they climbed the stairs. at his tall, skinny body covered with a black tight-fitting v-neck shirt and loose, worn out jeans. it was the first time that most of the maids saw him. he had not been home in nearly ten years.
"please don't cry," he said gently, stroking her hair. her face was buried in his chest. she was too small, too delicate that he was afraid to embrace her tightly fearing she might break in his arms.
"i am just happy to see you."
"me too," he said. then added. "but i am not crying mother."
as if noticing for the first time that they had been standing for a while, she pulled a dining chair and asked him to sit down, as though he was still a child. the table was already bursting with newly-cooked foods. they whetted his appetite, especially the grilled yellowfin tuna, still hot, stuffed with onions, garlics and tomatoes, and the fish bagoong with calamansi. he wanted to take a bite. dip the grilled flesh into the salty and sour bagoong sauce. the food of his youth.
"you are just in time for lunch," she said, putting plates on the table. "you are lucky, i cooked your favourite pork adobo and sinigang. you know what, this morning when i woke up, it was as if someone told me to cook your favourite dishes. it was probably your father, bless his soul (she made the sign of the cross while saying this), who whispered into my ear that you are coming home."
"mother..." was all he could say. the old familiar fear returning.
it was a happy reunion. mother and son could not stop talking, as though they were old lovers who finally saw each other after years of separation. she was delighted and cried again when he handed her a new pair of ear rings and bracelet much much later, when they were both inside the spacious living room and he had taken a quick shower in his old room, put his clothes inside the cabinet, his books on the shelf. though she admonished him lovingly for buying such expensive gifts. her, an old woman with nowhere to go and nowhere to wear them.
he said she could wear them to church. she laughed and told him she might be robbed.
in the days that followed, he began to settle down in his old room, in the old house built by his forefathers -- made solely of brick, stone and wood.
everyday he woke up at five in the morning, greeted by the sounds of fighting cocks and hens, and frogs, the smell of last night's rain on grass and leaves. he helped her in the garden, tending her orchids and roses. her mother was an early riser. they would have breakfast together -- their favourite -- eggs (sunny side up) and fried dried tawilis, fresh tomatoes picked from the garden mixed with salty fish bagoong, fried rice, and steaming hot chocolate.
he would accompany her to the wet market, loving its sticky floors. he enjoyed watching her haggle with the vendors, most of them were already her "suki", smelling and inspecting fish, meat and vegetables before buying them.
while there were many places in the province that reminded him of his childhood, the wet market occupied a special place in his heart. it was here when he felt free, alive, and himself. free from the restrictions at home imposed by his strict father. here he could get his clothes and shoes dirty without worrying that his father won't like it. his father had always been neat and tidy. he wanted the same for his children and his wife. here, he could touch the slippery fish; play with the big, round squash; smell the ripe bananas. he could converse with the vendors just like his mother as though he too was an adult. at home, his father forbade him from joining in their conversations, much less to be seen when there were visitors around. he had to stay hidden in his room.
the market was unlike the ones found in shopping malls in the city. for one, it was open air and no air conditioner. here it was crowded, way too crowded that it was hard to pass by, noisy with the language of the trade, smelly (a mixture of sweat, body odour, and stench of fish, both fresh and dried), the floor was sticky and literally wet from the water that vendors used to sprinkle on the fish that they were selling to keep them fresh. there were flies everywhere. he missed this place -- the chaos, the cacophony of sound and the conversations in the waray dialect.
he was home.
at home, he was surprised that the faucets and shower in his old room, and the adjoining guest rooms were still working despite years of being unused. though he learned from one of the maids that sometimes his two older sisters and their families -- three children each -- went home for a quick vacation during christmas. the walls and ceiling were newly painted and the cabinets varnished.
but most of the time, i noticed that he was always alone. reading inside his room or in the terrace. he brought a lot of books. a week after he arrived, boxes containing books, magazines, dvds were delivered in the house. his only treasure in his previous life. i noticed that he lived simply, like a monk in the monastery. he did not even own a cellphone nor a laptop.
he read even late at night when he could not sleep. sometimes he would walk around the neighbourhood, without talking to anyone, a book on his hand. just a nod, a wave, a smile to faces he once knew, childhood friends now wrinkled and saddled with families and children.
on his ninth night, i made my presence felt. it was a windy evening, as though there was a storm. leaves and branches rustled, as though playing with the wind. the trees that surrounded the house -- caimito, coconut, a hundred year-old balete, bamboo -- were unable to sleep as well. keeping him company. there was a bit of a moon, but it was not enough to brighten up the dark night.
the neighbourhood was quiet, everyone was asleep. the howling of dogs from a distance occasionally breaking the witch's spell.
as usual, he was alone in the terrace drinking beer, a book in his lap, wearing only short pants. nothing else. i knew he always slept naked, and roamed the house even in the morning shirtless, to the delight of the maids. i looked at the book -- gabriel garcia marquez' "one hundred years of solitude." it was his favourite book, i had seen him reading it a few times when he was in high school, in this same spot. at night, late at night. always at night.
before i sat down on the chair next to him, i intentionally brushed his leg. the book fell on the wooden floor, shiny, and still smelling of floor wax. he looked around, but of course there was no one else. unless he could see me. i could feel no fear coming from him. he was used to these strange things, unexplained noises and smells inside this old house, more than a hundred years old, late at night.
"if you think you can scare me, you are wrong," he said, bending down and picking up his book. then he resumed reading, with a light coming from the desk lamp that he brought out of his room.
that was the signal that i had been waiting for. i made myself visible to him.
"welcome home," i said, trying my best to sound modern and casual so as not to scare him. i was also dressed in today's fashion -- jeans and shirt.
he was startled, but forgot to shout. he remained seated and looked at me. he did not say a word, but i could tell i frightened him. i wanted to laugh.
"don't be afraid," i said. "i meant no harm. as they say, i come in peace."
he drank his beer. when he finished it, he finally talked. but he was still quivering.
"who are you?"
"that's a good question," i said, smiling. "i don't know who i am. so you can call me whatever you want and i won't mind at all."
"are you for real?"
"as real as you are."
he shook his head. stared at the dark sky for a while. then back at me.
"i am still here. you are not imagining me."
"are you a ghost?"
i laughed, this time a bit louder. "you are too old to believe in ghosts." it was true. he was in his late thirty's. thirty eight to be exact. i knew this because i was there when he was born. it was a stormy night in august, and the whole neighbourhood was flooded. luckily, there was a nurse who lived right next to their house, who, despite the flood and the rain, hurriedly went with his father to deliver him.
before i could say more, he stood up.
"you want a beer? i am getting another one." i was surprised at how calm he looked and sounded. clearly, he was no longer scared of me.
i shook my head. i never liked the taste of beer. the wicked headache in the morning.
"suit yourself." then he disappeared, and i heard his soft footsteps going down the wooden stairs.
a few minutes later, he was back with several bottles of beer and ice cubes on the bucket. two glasses. he offered one for me, but i refused.
"sorry," i said. "i have stopped drinking."
he opened a bottle, poured the content on the glass. he put some ice cubes on it.
"so tell me. if you are not a ghost, then what are you? a spirit from another world? and why don't you have a name?"
just then a wind blew, turning the pages of his book, quietly settled at the table next to the bottles of beer. he didn't bother with it. his attention was all mine.
"honestly, i have no idea."
"how long have you been here?"
"are you my relative? my great grandfather?"
"i am single. i never married. never had children."
"my great great uncle then?"
"what does it matter?"
"i need to know. curious."
"you have always been curious."
"how long have you known me?"
"you are full of questions."
"just answer me please?"
"since you were born. i have been in this house since it was built a hundred years ago."
"really? how come?"
"i was a friend of your great grandfather. the one who built this. we were together in the military. we worked in the engineering unit, building roads and bridges during the war."
"wow! you are not filipino, are you?"
"i am an american. we were assigned in this province in 1900s can you believe that? then i befriended your great grandfather..."
"yes, doroy, that was how we call him. he looked just like you. he was very handsome."
"really? i never saw his pictures. only his wife, apoy nitang, and my grandfather, their only child."
"believe me. there were so many girls who were after him. but his heart already belonged to nenita, your great grandmother. they got married just before the japanese invasion. i was the best man."
"then they had one child and six grandchildren. one of them was my father. apoy doroy was killed in a campaign sortie."
"so you know the story then?"
"of course. what i am interested at is your story. how come you are here and my apoy doroy is not. how did you become a ghost and haunted our house? why here?"
now i want a drink. i need a cigarette.
"it's getting late," i said. pretending to be sleepy. "perhaps some other time?" i stood up. suddenly spent.
"you are a ghost! you don't go to sleep."
"not me. you."
"i am not sleepy. how can i sleep after what you've told me."
"i am tired."
"ghosts don't get tired."
"i told you i am not a ghost."
"ok. whatever you are. but can you please tell me more? can you please answer my questions?"
i took a deep breath and sat down again.
"sorry. but i love ghost stories. stories about creatures of the dark. like vampires."
"like lestat. louis. claudia."
"how did you know that."
"because i have read your books. remember when you were in college? you had those books in your room. anne rice. interview with the vampire. the vampire lestat. queen of the damned. the whole series."
"you can still read even if you are just a spirit?"
"of course. i can still function quite well. i even watched your dvds sometimes. in your room. i loved the movie version of interview with the vampire, by the way. very faithful to the book. the second one, queen of the damned, was so bad i wanted to vomit."
"that's because it was anne rice who wrote the screenplay for interview...wait, let's not talk about that. we can critic those movies some other time. for now, let's talk about you."
i could not help but laugh. at the absurdity of the situation. of the way he acted as though he was a child eager to hear ghost stories from his grandfather. but he was still a child.
"ok," i said, reaching for a bottle of beer. "one question, one answer. and promise me you won't fall asleep."
before doroy and nenita got married, he decided to look for a place where he could build a home for his future family. he chose this lot because it was near the sea. nenita loved the sea. close to the military camp, the municipal hall where nenita's father was the mayor, the church, the school run by priests where your grandfather went.
we hired workers to clear this up. it was all tall cogons and coconut trees. there was even a swamp somewhere here and rumour has it that it was full of crocodiles. of course that was not the case. we helped clear this up. every day, when we were not busy at the camp, we would come here. help the workers. once it was all cleared up, doroy started building the house.
just like the fashion in those days, he wanted a two-storey house. the ground floor was all cement and bricks. the upper floor all wood-- banuyo, narra. old ones. tough ones. heavy ones. sourced from the far away forests in wright samar. before the house was built, we would stay here at night. we built a tent and drink tuba, talk, sometimes about ghosts, until we fell asleep.
doroy was full of dreams. big dreams. he wanted to study law and be a politician just like his future father in-law. but he was more ambitious. he wanted no less than the senate.
once the house was finished, they got married. he was twenty-five, she was twenty-four. the whole province was invited. the governor, mayors, the entire camp were here. we feasted on pork, chicken, beef, wild boar, even a deer. we drunk all sorts of spirits -- tuba, whiskey, gin, wine, some shipped from manila. there was merry making for a week. three days before and two days after the wedding.
they lived here. after the war, your farther asked me to stay with them. since i had no family and i had learned to love the place, i decided to stay. i never went back to america. with the money i earned from the military, doroy and i engaged in the buy and sell business. timbre, almaciga, rattan, abaca. we shipped them to manila. then from manila, we would bring home clothes, shoes, groceries, anything that we could sell here.
we prospered. but i did not move out of this house even after they had a child, your grandfather.
at this point, he stopped me to ask why.
i considered this question. i was torn between telling him or not. when he noticed my reluctance, he reminded me that i promised to tell him everything.
why, i continued. because i was secretly in love with nenita. i could not bear to be away from her. but even if we lived together in one roof, i never told them about my feelings. not a single soul. all they knew was that i treated them both like family, like a brother and a sister. and to some extent that was true. i would never do anything to harm them, to destroy them, to spoil their happiness, which was now complete with the arrival of their only son.
when nenita's father died from an illness, your great grandfather decided to run as mayor of this town. by this time, he was prosperous. he owned two stores selling everything from groceries, to clothes, to hardware. because of this, he also created a number of enemies. friends who were jealous and envious of what he had become. true, his family was also well-off, but not as rich as he was now.
one night, when he was in a drinking spree with his supporters in a faraway barrio, he was shot by an unknown assailant. it was just a week before the election.
after he was buried, i asked around if anybody knew who killed him. revenge became an obsession. i was consumed by it. by hate. by the need to avenge his death. i roamed around towns, looking for his killer. i announced to everyone, everywhere i went, that i would give a reward to whoever could capture him. or gave information about his whereabouts. months after, he was captured and i killed him myself. inside the prison. with my bare hands.
after his death, your great grandmother became sickly. the loss of her husband was too much for her. she died a year after he passed away. when she died, i committed suicide using a pistol. inside your room. that used to be my room, by the way.
maybe that was the reason why i was still here. that i could not move somewhere else, to either heaven or hell or the purgatory because i took my own life.
it was almost dawn when he called it a night. he was drunk too. since he could hardly walk, i took him to his room and laid him down in bed. covered him with a blanket. closed the windows. opened the ceiling fan so the mosquitoes won't bother him.
when i was all alone, i wept. a wave of sadness overwhelmed me and i could not help but cry it out. i missed my ghosts. i longed for their faces, for their presence, for their love -- doroy and nenita. every night i called upon them. where are you? why haven't you taken me with you?
the following night, he was at the terrace quite early. right after dinner. but i showed up late. i waited until everyone was asleep. on week nights, his mother and the maids usually slept around eleven in the evening because they watched those sappy soap operas. as soon as i showed up, the first thing he asked was why didn't i tell nenita how i felt towards her after her husband died.
this time i no longer hesitated. i have become used to his questions, to his interruptions.
because i knew that for her, there was only one man in this world. your great grandfather. you know, i met her first. in a public dance. in those days, days before the fiesta, there would be a public dance in the plaza. everyone would be there, including the most beautiful ladies in this town, and even in far away barrrios. men like us had to buy tickets so we could dance with the ladies. it was sort of a fund-raising. the money would be used to pay the priest who would say the mass during the fiesta, the beautification of the town, food for the band that would play during a parade.
once we were dancing, doroy arrived. very handsome in barong tagalog. his thick, black hair was held together by pomade. it looked oily and greasy. but that was the fashion in those times. as soon as nenita saw him, she excused herself, and i let her go, and went right up to him and asked him to dance. she forgot all about me, who first engaged her in a small talk while i was gathering up the courage to ask her to dance. it was only later, when they were already married that doroy and i learned that nenita had a crush on him long before they met that evening.
nenita, your great grandmother, was a brave woman. she was not afraid to break conventions. never cared about what others would say about her. even during those days, when society frowned on women who approached and talked to men, especially in public, nenita dared to break the rules. she was ahead of her time. maybe that was the influence of those books that she read. or maybe that was just how she was. she never went to college by the way. but she was learned. she read a lot. her father would not let her study and live in the city. at that time, schools here did not offer college courses. children of the rich had to go to cebu or manila to study further after high school.
the courtship did not last long. if i remember it right, after just two months, nenita had said yes to doroy. ah those were fun days. we would go to her house at night, sang love songs, folk songs in front of the window downstairs. you see, most houses then were built elevated from the ground, even the smaller ones called bahay kubo. bungalows were unheard of. then after a few songs, his father would go downstairs and invite us upstairs, where a merienda was waiting for us -- rice cakes, suman sa lihiya or latik in your dialect. warm salabat. brewed coffee.
the dates were different from today. we usually went on a group, either in the river banks, in the farm, or in the town plaza. there were no shopping malls then. no motels.
going back to your question why i did not tell anyone about my feelings for nenita, even after doroy died, because i wanted to cherish our friendship. things would surely change between us if i tell her that i loved her. that i wanted her to be my wife. i'd rather suffer in silence near her, than be miserable away from her. that way, i could protect her as well from people who wanted to destroy her.
when she died, i was miserable. it was the end for me. there was no way i could live without her. i was buried next to them. at the back of this house. but later on, we were transferred to the family lot in the cemetery. this was after i began haunting this place. you see, i did not want to scare anyone, but sometimes, especially in the early years, i was clumsy. i did not know how to make my self completely invisible, walking and reading without creating any sound.
then he asked if i knew right away that i was dead. that i was just a spirit.
the day that i died, i told him, i woke up inside my room. it was late at night. i thought i only dreamed it that i killed myself. but when i went out into the living room, i saw my dead body inside a coffin. then a few days later, i was buried. i stayed hidden in the bedroom. at night, when everyone was asleep, i would go out. i would go down in the garden, in the tombs of doroy and nenita hoping that their spirits would also be there. that we could be reunited even in death. but they never came.
as years passed, i learned to be clever. learned some tricks. how to walk without being felt. without having someone's hair stood up. i was even able to hide myself from the psychics, people with the third eye who could talk with spirits and ghosts. there were so many of them during those days. they could talk to the dead. summon them from beyond. but i never found the need to talk to them. i was afraid i would be banished from this house if i ever communicated with them.
i witnessed so many things in this house. learned so many secrets.
i thought that was the end of it. end of my story. end of his curiosity. but i was wrong. he had more questions. the one that startled me was why did his father hate him.
i was quiet for a while. i hesitated. i wasn't sure if he could handle the truth. if he was strong enough to take it. when he noticed that i was hesitant, the more he became curious. the more he bugged and begged me for an answer. i am dying anyway, he said. so i want to know the truth before i die. you at least owe me that one.
this i agreed. so i told him his story.
your father was not really your father, i began my story. it was a cold, rainy night. even the dogs had gone to sleep. it was past midnight and he had finished five bottles of beer. but i could tell he was not drunk yet. sleep was still elusive. again, i was surprised that he was not bothered at all, that he was not shocked when i began telling him the story. i knew that he did not know, nor heard anything about who his real parents were. about the circumstance surrounding his birth.
it was pedring, your uncle pedring who was your real father, i continued.
your mother had a short affair with him when he lived with them in this house after his wife left him for another man. i could not really blame your mother. pedring, who was five years younger than your father, was so different from his older brother. he was kind, nice, gentle. very religious. just like your mother, he liked movies, books, poetry. they had a lot of things in common. but the trait that they share most was that they were both gentle souls. they could never hurt a fly. i had to admit that i too fell in love with your mother -- her long hair, dusky skin, elegant manner, cultured, modern, but never vulgar. she never smoked nor drink. never followed fashion.
when your father was away, and he was away often because he was a military officer, it was pedring who stayed with her and your two older sisters, then aged eleven and ten. it happened only once. one night, your mother heard him crying. so she went out and found him at the shed at back of the house, where he usually slept. drunk. he was miserable. he was longing for his wife, and was asking your mother what was wrong with him. why did she leave him. your mother soothed him. embraced him and let him cry on her shoulders. then it happened.
the next morning, he left and never came back. three months later, he was killed in a car accident. your mother, by this time, was already carrying you in her womb. the gentle reminder of her sin. but instead of aborting, of keeping what she and her bother in law did, she told your father everything. your mother, a very religious woman, confessed to him. but she assured him that she loved only your father. that what happened between her and his brother was an accident. she let him have her out of pity. your father understood this. he forgave her, but he never forgave you.
i stopped when i heard him crying. i embraced him and let him cry on my chest. i comforted him. told him to quiet down because her mother might hear him in her room downstairs.
"i am sorry i have to be the one to tell you, john."
"it's alright. i have long suspected it. that i was not his son. the only question i had was, who was my real father. how did i learn about it? you see, one night, when i was about fourteen, i heard my parents arguing. he was drunk. he was angry at her for something i could no longer remember. then the topic shifted towards me. he was mad at her for encouraging my effeminate ways. he blamed her for my being gay. then my mother blurted out that what did he care. he was not the father of her son. this made my father even angrier. i heard more noises. of plates being smashed on the floor. mother was just quiet. i was too scared to get out of my room. at that time, i was the only one left here. my two sisters were already in married. even the maids refused to intervene, though i was sure they were awakened by the commotion."
i remembered that night.
pablo, his mother's husband who was not his father, came home late. around ten in the evening. drunk. as usual. he was angry at her because she did not open the gate to let his car in. how could she when she was not feeling well. the two maids were already asleep. so he was forced to get out of his car and opened the gate himself. but he was drunk, so i fell so many times and tried so many times before he was able to open the gate. he left the car outside and hurried inside the house, shouting, banging the door, trying to wake up the whole neighbourhood.
(unfinished, seven thirty three pm, december twenty-seven)