Ryan is a con­sum­mate sto­ry­teller. When­ev­er he told sto­ries of the place he grew up in, it was as if I was there myself. He grew up in Min­danao, one of the three main islands of the Philip­pines, in a place where life was idyl­lic and time moved slow­ly. His bar­rio (a term for a local com­mu­ni­ty) is like a Fara­day cage—there was no inter­net, no mobile phone sig­nals, no cable tv. Peo­ple actu­al­ly talked, and get to know each oth­er the old fash­ioned way.

For fun, chil­dren still played the usu­al Fil­ipino games mil­len­ni­als nowa­days nev­er both­ered. Lovers go to the moon­lit-bathed rice fields and pro­fess love to each oth­er dur­ing balmy nights with scare­crows as wit­ness­es. Women indulge in gos­sip dur­ing sies­ta (mid-after­noon nap time). Smart­phones are nonex­is­tent. Life was good.

I met Ryan dur­ing my stint in a media com­pa­ny. He would tell me sto­ries dur­ing my smoke break when­ev­er I worked evenings. It was his way of enter­tain­ing me, when­ev­er he saw me super stressed and mur­der­ous. There was one sto­ry I couldn’t for­get as I’ve heard him retell it count­less times. He told me he encoun­tered an aswang.

An aswang is a mytho­log­i­cal char­ac­ter of Philip­pine ori­gin. Usu­al­ly women (but there are also men), they look nor­mal dur­ing day­time but turn into vicious human-eat­ing (babies are a favorite) crea­tures at night. They would anoint them­selves in some spe­cial oil and trans­form into a hideous crea­ture with long claws, sharp teeth, and mangy hair. They could also turn into ani­mals, usu­al­ly a large dog or a pig. Some say becom­ing an aswang is hered­i­tary. It is usu­al­ly passed down to rel­a­tives, or who­ev­er (usu­al­ly a close friend) accepts the curse. It can also be passed down to unwill­ing vic­tims. When an aswang is on her death bed, she would cough up a stone. A rel­a­tive has to accept it, oth­er­wise, the aswang won’t die. If accept­ed, the poor soul becomes the new aswang. Oth­er accounts say that one can be infect­ed and become an aswang. One of the rea­sons why my grand­moth­er used to admon­ish us not to eat any­thing giv­en by a stranger stemmed from tales of peo­ple becom­ing an aswang because they were infect­ed.

One such tale was a young man went to a fies­ta (fes­ti­val in hon­or of a patron saint) and ate some food offered by a cou­ple he met at that place. It turned out that the food served in that house was human meat. The cou­ple were aswangs. A few days lat­er, the man felt sick and vom­it­ed a whole blood­ied chick­en egg. Hor­ri­fied, his par­ents con­sult­ed an albu­laryo (folk heal­er). They were told their son was on his way to becom­ing an aswang. Had he not vom­it­ed that egg in time, it would hatch and it would be too late for him. The young man was my grand­fa­ther.

Ryan told me the encounter with the aswang hap­pened one night when he was on his way home from a local dance soiree in an adja­cent bar­rio. He had to pass by this road, that even with the full moon, was made par­tic­u­lar­ly dark by a patch of trees. He heard some soft foot­steps among dried leaves. He didn’t mind it at first. He thought it was just some drunk on his way home too. The foot­steps grew clos­er, but when­ev­er he turned around, there was no one. He quick­ened his steps and hid behind some shrubs. A few min­utes lat­er, a huge pig emerged. He felt sil­ly at his being scared by it. He decid­ed to come off from his hid­ing place, laughed at his ridicu­lous­ness, and con­tin­ued on his way home.

A few min­utes lat­er, he again felt like he was being fol­lowed. He could feel eyes on him, like he was being watched from the shad­ows. Fear start­ed to trick­le down at the base of his spine. Just when he was going to make a run for it, a soft voice stopped him. It was a young woman, look­ing lumi­nous under the moon­light. She said she was lost. Odd­ly though, he couldn’t make out her face, but he swore he looked beau­ti­ful with her long hair.

He made small talk to put the woman at ease (and prob­a­bly him­self too) when she asked that they stop for a bit to rest. He was wor­ried as it was get­ting real­ly late, and his par­ents were prob­a­bly wor­ried. Before he could voice his con­cerns, the woman start­ed con­vuls­ing, as if writhing in pain. Ryan became pan­icky! He has nev­er seen any­one in such state! “Miss, miss, what is hap­pen­ing? Are you in pain?” he asked. He didn’t know what to do. He wrung his hands help­less­ly in the air as he watched the woman shak­ing. And then her shak­ing stopped, as sud­den as it start­ed. He stooped down, want­i­ng to help her up. She looked up, and final­ly, he saw her face—bloodshot red eyes, and her curled mouth, bar­ing sharp teeth.

And then what hap­pened???” I asked. I real­ly hate it when­ev­er he gets to this part of the sto­ry. Usu­al­ly there is this preg­nant pause, with me bit­ing my nails with­out real­iz­ing it. He is so dra­mat­ic, so extra, it’s annoy­ing, I mut­tered under my breath as I rolled my eyes. He’s nev­er gonna tell me what hap­pened next.

My friend Ryan always stops the sto­ry at that most cru­cial part. He does this every night, by my bed side, just when I’m about to sleep, since he died on that fate­ful night.

Mercury Made Me Do It!

Lady in Red

Drunken Poetry — 1

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