Where's the Hidden Mickey? by Tala Roque
By Mila D. Aguilar
In the barrio of San Roque, a witch is reputed to have lived. Having mesmerized a native girl with the magic of her craft, she is said to have carted her away to her lair on top of the highest hill in San Roque.
Talia had arrived in the barrio distraught, but determined to overcome. The town—her relatives, her co-teachers, those she did not especially consider her friends but declared themselves to be so—had been too much for her, bearing down heavily on her single-blessedness. Even the principal—married, with children—had gotten into the fray, attempting to seduce her on the shallow challenge that she must prove her womanhood.
She was not about to. Growing up under her father’s tutelage, she had learned to be independent—rather too fiercely for the town’s tastes—and at thirty-three, she was still curious about the world. No, she was not about to give up her independence and thirst for knowledge; but yes, though she felt quite above the mediocrity of that little town, she was not a little affected by the pressures it had brought to bear upon her.
So she ended up in San Roque, choosing to farm an almost forgotten two-hectare lot left by her dead father, trying to cut links completely with her immediate past. It was this complete cutting of links that led to her first and last fateful encounter with San Roque’s kapitan del barangay.
Ka Tiago—as he was fondly called by his sakop—was not a man to suffer rejection. He had worked his way into the barrio people’s affections, in a manner of speaking, and now immensely enjoyed his absolute hold on them. If he had been more educated and operating in the city, he would have called himself an “organization man;” but since he was merely an elementary school graduate and barrio jefe, he prided himself in its local equivalent, that of being a pulitiko, like it ran in his blood and was his predestination. In truth, like any city organization man, he maintained his power over the people with a heavy dose of intrigue balanced by an ever so slight dash of charm.
When Talia showed up in his house to register her presence in the barangay, Kapitan Tiago’s first reaction was to be tickled no end. A small, stocky man with a power drive stronger than his character, it flattered him to acquire a subject with a college education, and a maestra no less. Her face attracted him immediately. What joy to have such a one pay homage to him after all these years of being worshipped by a bunch of big-toed grade-three numbskulls!
When Talia had made known her purpose and was properly seated on the bench in front of his rough-hewn table, Ka Tiago immediately dispatched his wife and youngest son to fetch some paper or other not a few mountain hills away, enough time for him to finish two big cigars. Dutifully the fat woman, an inch taller than he but a third-grader nonetheless, left two glasses and a pot full of native freshly brewed coffee, already milked and sweetened with condensada, on the table, in front of the maestra. Then off she lugged her runny-nosed son to fulfill her mission.
Presuming that he would make his catch, Ka Tiago lost no time in signing the maestra’s papers. But Talia sensed danger in the wife and son’s easy dispatch and made ready to leave with her signed papers, saying stiffly, “Salamat, kapitan, makaalis na po.” (“Thank you, kapitan, but I have to go.”)
The Kapitan’s cigar almost fell off his broad, dark mouth at the unfriendly response. Nevertheless, his charm quickly overtook his surprise.
He smiled. “O, huwag ka munang umalis, magkape ka muna. Alam mo, dito sa atin matagal bago makuha ang papeles na iyan. Maraming kung anu-anong rekisitos. Pero dahil sa ikaw ay edukada, hindi man lang ako nagdalawang-isip. Sa katotohanan, marami pa akong kailangang itanong sa iyo. Marami tayong kailangang pag-usapan. Kailangang mapatunayan ko na hindi ako nagkamali sa pagrerehistro sa iyo. Alam mo naman dito….” (“Come now, don’t go yet. Take some coffee. You know it takes a lot of time to get those papers here—plenty of requirements. But since you are educated, I did not even take a second thought. In truth, I still have quite few questions to ask you. We have much to talk about. After all, I have to prove that I did not make a mistake in giving you your registration papers. You know how it is….”)
So she stayed rooted to the bench, her back stiffening at each roundabout phrase, her eyes fixed on his ungainly nose and big mouth while he rambled on and on. How common this toad, she began thinking, how ugly like a frog. How like a frog he croaks. How like a high- pitched frog.
“How old are you?” he asked. “Thirty-three? And not yet married? With so many eligibles in town? I am forty and already blessed with a dozen children. It is good to be married; one is served. My wife—you just met her—serves me coffee whenever I want it. Ah, but she reached only grade three and you are edukada. What made you want to settle in this isolated barrio? Life in town is so much more exciting. Someday, I myself will settle in the town, maybe to become mayor, when I have bought enough land to stop farming. Now, I already have four tenants, but I still have to do some farming myself. But I will retire in the prime of life, move on to bigger things.”
What do I care about you, ugly man, she thought to herself, staring at his teeth reddened from chewing betel nut. All I want is a quiet and peaceful life.
But she said nothing.
Not getting a response, he blathered on—now sitting on the stool across the table, now walking about the cement floor.
“I have worked in town myself. In fact, I was able to save enough to buy a piece of land—this very land my house is standing on. I will never forget the town. You know, when I lived there, I had a girlfriend studying to be a maestra, like you. She was also tall and thin. She had long hair, like you. Edukada, intelektwal. Graceful. Long neck. Just like you. But I had to go back to my barrio, because I knew in my heart that this was where I should start serving my people,” he sighed, striking his breast with his rough palm, his head bent appropriately. And sighing again, he continued wistfully, “She wouldn’t go with me. She did not understand my cause in life. We were compatible in everything except my cause. And so I had to leave her.”
Talia could not have cared less about this man’s romantic past. However, his unravelling of comparisons made her hair stand on end, not so much out of fear as out of absolute contempt. Slowly, almost imperceptibly at every “like you,” “parang ikaw,” her head had reared. By the end of the story her stiffening neck had stretched its full length. When, after a short pause, the kapitan added another “Talagang parang ikaw,” “Just like you,” she was already angry, her lips thinned to a hard straight line, her nostrils flared and expelling hot air.
Sitting now, the kapitan reached for his coffee, drawing his stool closer to the table, his dark hairy arms sliding nearer, his body leaning towards her.
“It is good you came. Now I can talk to somebody at my own level. My wife, you know, I didn’t love her at first, but she has served me well. But I cannot talk to her at my own level. I only learned to love her through the years. One gets used to it after a while. After all she has given me so many robust children, all alive. But my girlfriend was something else, really something else.”
Talia leaned her tensed back on the windowsill, moving her hands away from the tabletop to the bench, ready to go. The Kapitan went on. “Ikaw naman, magkwento ka naman tungkol sa iyong sarili. Ako na lang ang nagkukwento. Paano ka naman napadpad sa lugar na ito e napakalayo sa sibilisasyon?” (“Now what about you? Tell me about yourself. I’m the only one talking here! How’d you come to a place like this, so far away from civilization?”)
That was it. A very private person to begin with, she loathed the idea of explaining to a total stranger—and what was more, a totally ugly stranger—her lifetime angst. Without a word she stood up, taking her papers from the table. At the table corner near the door she stopped, her head turned sideways to him, her body poised to get out, her fingers firmly on the papers. With full contempt she looked down at the man and said curtly, “Sa akin na ‘yon. Salamat sa rehistro. Aalis na ako.” (That’s my business. Thank you for the papers. I am leaving.”)
The kapitan’s left hand was holding his cigar, his right hand on his glass of coffee. He looked up at her and noticed for the first time her fiery eyes. He was so surprised that she had left before the insult dawned on him.
The construction of her nipa hut on top of the highest hill in the barrio on her father’s land took little time. She had hired a fast and efficient carpenter from her town to put it up. That was the way she wanted it: as little contact as possible with the barrio people, so she could have her peace and quiet.
When the war-vintage truck that bought her things came, the barrio people and their children milled around it, curious and happy about the only new inhabitant in their barangay. The women marveled, almost with fright, at the antique bed, table, chairs and baul with their baroque designs. They had never seen anything like them before. But aside from the basic furniture and implements necessary to conduct daily life, what occupied most of the truck were tattered boxes soggy with the rain.
Talia immediately regretted that she could bring only two haulers from her town, the driver included. The truck could not reach the top of the hill anymore, and it was quite a trek to the house. When the baul’s turn came, she had the two haulers bring it. But it was so heavy, and the way so steep, that two more barrio men had to come to their aid. Talia watched them helplessly as they trudged up the hill.
She was watching thus, her back to the truck, when she saw the other men and boys already bringing a box each up the hill. She opened her mouth and poised to wave them down but failed to utter a word.
A woman who had been standing by silently noticed her predicament. She went up the hill and started directing the barrio men on the proper handling of the wet tattered boxes. Talia saw the lithe, skirted form running up and down the hill, and began to breathe easily. She had counted the boxes winding their way up; now only one was left.
She turned towards the truck to find it. Nothing! She felt the blood surge into her head and looked around. The children were in a commotion. Several boys were fighting over the privilege of bringing the box.
“Huwag! Huwag!” (“Don’t! Don’t!”) She cried frantically, her eyes all fired up. But before she could come near them, a heavy thud arrested her movement.
It had fallen, the box had fallen apart! Gloomily, she ran to the scattered papers, her beloved father’s precious papers. There lay his unfinished calculations, his handwritten poems, his scientific articles. And there, in one corner farthest from her, lay his only novel.
The children stood at bay, frightened by their deed. They had never seen so much paper before. The scribblings looked strange and formidable. They had never been taught such in school. But finally their eyes all focused on the big book with its colorful cover.
It was the strangest book they had ever seen. Dominated by various shades of green and brown with streaks of red, it seemed to represent a formidable forest, the trees all gnarled and dark and massive, their leaves huge and knotted. Drops of blood flowed irregularly on the cavernous trunks. At the top, seeming to grow out of the forest, sprung, like the rays of the sun, three short words. None of the children had learned to read English, and the barrio men and women who were left near the truck could hardly read. So no one in the barrio ever knew that the three words were, simply, The Great Faith.
Before Talia could finish picking up the papers, one boy naughtily snatched the book and ran to his parents with it. Talia’s eyes flashed with anger. “Ibalik mo ’yan!” (“Give that back to me!”) she shouted. But he would not, and she could only manage to grit her teeth.
It was the lithe woman, again, who came to the rescue. Hearing Talia’s cries, she sped down the hill, in time to grab the boy by his mud-spattered shirt. She took the book from him and, with great care, dusted it.
Then she walked over to Talia; holding the book gingerly with her two hands, she gave it to her without a word.
Talia looked into her eyes thoughtfully. They were big, soulful eyes, eyes that looked and saw. The woman smiled. Her lips were small and soft looking, untainted by sorrow. Her smile was the smile of one who understood.
Talia and Lisa became fast friends.
Lisa came up the hill, at first, to help put the house in order. She wanted to be hospitable to this strange woman who had immediately upon arrival pushed the barrio folk to a distance. At the same time the strangeness itself attracted her, mystified her, drew her daily to the house on top of the hill.
For she herself was not an ordinary barrio woman. Taller than the rest of them, her features more those of a town lass, she stood out in their midst like a sore thumb. Almost thirty, she had not yet married in a place where most girls have two children by the time they reach the age of sixteen. In a barrio where even the kapitan had finished only grade six, she had by some fortuitous circumstance been sent to the town high school. And unconscious as she was of it, she was the barrio’s most intelligent person.
Lisa learned quite a few things about the proper arrangement of furniture from Talia. To make the most of space and give an illusion of spaciousness even in cramped quarters, Talia had explained that you must keep most furniture by the wall. So she, Lisa, lined up the living room chairs by one wall, making the room look stiff and formidable. “No, no, not like that,” Talia threw up her hands in exasperation. “And, besides, there are exceptions.”
Lisa laughed heartily. She had a laugh that rang, a laugh full of innocence and joy, like the small tingling shells that gaily signal the opening of a door to the fresh winds of May.
Talia’s sad eyes lit up. She could not help but laugh too. The shells had tingled their way to her skin, bringing with them fresh winds to permeate her being.
Next came the planting of the fruits and vegetables. Talia had learned the basics of planting from teaching in high school, and had read the rest from books. But Lisa knew planting by heart, having grown up in the barrio. So, using the special seeds Talia had bought from the agriculture bureau in her town, they planted fruits and vegetables all around the house. Lisa corrected Talia’s book knowledge. Talia explained to Lisa the scientific bases of her own practice.
Talia felt immeasurably satisfied in teaching and relearning at the same time. Things she had seemed to know so well before gained an entirely new perspective, were sometimes even overturned by the supremacy of this barrio woman’s indisputable experience. Not having been brought up with much pride, much less false pride, Talia bowed effortlessly to Lisa, who had come to help her.
But the explanations bedazzled Lisa no end. She had never before thought that learning could go beyond high school, and though she had had before Talia’s arrival an indefinable thirst for knowledge, and had racked her brains trying to cull something from the sun, and the rain and the trees, without getting anywhere, she had never before so much as abated her thirst. The barrio people had the most befuddling reasons for doing or not doing certain things, such as not sweeping at night so as not to lose God’s grace, or not leaving the table before the single women had finished eating, lest they never get married, or planting this or that fruit or vegetable in such a way, so that nuno sa punso, who lived in an anthill nearby (which must never be stepped on, so as not to anger its occupant), would not come to eat them. Talia had a scientific or ethical explanation for all these.
So now here was a spring that thoroughly quenched her dry throat, a spring from which she could choose to wet her tongue or palate, or gargle or gulp down its splendor and freshness.
Talia did not miss out on this awakening. It showed all over. Lisa’s big soulful eyes would grow even bigger, engulfing Talia’s words and bringing them deep, deep down into her own consciousness. Her small, soft mouth would open ever so slightly in gentle amazement, her comely upturned nose wrinkling in awe. She would rub her stubby hands, strong and sensitive at the same time, against her skirt, asking for more knowledge, more explanations, more answers about life and the world.
So it was that Lisa came to spend more and more time in the house up the highest hill. They began to scour Talia’s built-in bookshelves, the latter guiding her through until she was able to jump from the easiest reading matter to the more difficult. They read about anything and everything under the sun, in bed, on the sala set, by the dining table in front of their meals. Often they would keep the Coleman lamps burning late into the night, reading until their eyelids fell with sleep, or suddenly rocking the silence with laughter about some funny passage which one had read and shared with the other.
It was Talia’s idea to spend the night out under the sky one evening when the moon was full and so many stars dotted the hemisphere that they almost crowded out each other. She wanted to know more about this woman, how she could exist in this barrio, how she managed to spring up seemingly out of nowhere. She herself felt a welling in her breast, a welling that had started in her abdomen and wanted to be disgorged thoroughly, cleansing, purifying, whatever it had to leave behind.
“Have you ever slept out under the night sky?” Talia asked, rather timidly, afraid to be rejected. “It is best to sleep on the beach, but there’s no beach here. There you could hear the waves smashing on the sand. But here maybe it’s better, because with the silence I think you can even hear the stars. I’ve never tried it myself, yet, in a place like this.”
And she looked into Lisa’s eyes, expectantly and with trepidation.
Though Lisa was born in the barrio, she had never slept under the night sky. On hot summer nights she had slept on the nipa-covered bamboo porch with her banig, as was the custom in the barrio, to cool off but not to listen to the stars. The idea of listening to the stars, and with her new found friend, excited her.
“Sige, dalhin natin ang banig at unan at kumot pero magkatol tayo, dahil malamok,” (“Okay, let’s bring the mat and the pillow and blanket, but we’d better light a katol, too, for the mosquitoes,”) Lisa responded immediately, her eyes shining with enthusiasm.
As in their first encounter, Talia’s bated breath resumed its regular rhythm upon this demonstration of utter spontaneity.
Lying under the night sky, between pointing out the big dipper, the small dipper—or ang supot ni Hudas to Lisa—and looking for Sirius and the north star, each asked the other questions about her past.
Talia learned that Lisa was an adopted child, taken in by a childless couple under, and despite, mysterious circumstances.
Almost thirty years before, Lisa’s future adoptive father was walking by the highway several hills from the barrio, on his way to rent out his labor to another farm, when a bus stopped some meters away from him. A tall and comely young woman got off the bus. She was holding a box. When the bus had roared away, she put down her box and walked to the other side of the road. The man passed by the box and seemed to hear the cry of a baby. But not thinking that anything extraordinary was happening, he went his way.
He had walked quite a few puffs of his cigarette when a bus going the other way sped by, and seemed to stop. Casually he turned around, expecting the young woman to go up to the bus with her box. She did, but he spied the box still lying on the dewy grass on the other side of the road. He ran after the bus, trying to flag it down, waving wildly, shouting with all his might. But the bus engine must have been too noisy, because it sped right off.
The man then ran to the box in an effort to find an address that was not there; instead, he discovered a baby cradled in a comfortable swathe of baby clothes.
Since the man and his wife were childless after twenty years of marriage, they decided to adopt that baby.
“And how did you find out you were adopted?” Talia asked.
“Everyone in the barrio knows.”
“I wonder how it feels to be adopted?”
“Nothing. They are my parents as far as I’m concerned.”
“Do you love them?”
“Very much. They could feel for me. My mother has always said if I feel that it is time to go, I should go. They won’t stop me, because they know I am not meant for the barrio. No one knows that I go to town secretly; only they know. They sacrificed much just to send me to the town high school. They wanted to send me to college, but they couldn’t afford it. My father himself had worked in town trying to finish high school, but he got married early to his barrio sweetheart, my mother.
“But why do you go to town secretly?”
“Because I am always looking for something. I don’t know what. I have to do it secretly because here a dalaga is bad if she goes alone. And I can’t always come with other people; not too many travel here because of the difficulty. There is a forest path, much shorter, right at the back of this house, but the others won’t take it. They say there are creatures there — aswang and tikbalang.”
And then Lisa whispered furtively, “Wala naman e. Doon ako dumadaan.” (“There aren’t any such things. I’ve been through that forest path many times.”)
Talia laughed. How light she felt with Lisa! “May plano ka bang umalis dito?” (Do you have any plans of leaving this place?”) she asked.
“Oo! Gusto kong tumira sa malaking siyudad.” (“Yes, I’d like to live in the big city,”) Lisa answered without a second thought, her eyes lighting up. “Sasamahan mo ako?” (“Will you come with me?”)
And their eyes, afloat on their new understanding, met.
“What about you,” Lisa asked, “Did you not come here to stay?”
Talia came back to herself, her agonies. “No,” she answered. “Just for some peace and quiet, just for a while. I would like to write. Then there are some experiments my father was working on when he was alive.”
She thought about her father. He was not a great scientist, she told Lisa. He was more of a writer, but he was interested in everything. So he experimented and read much about science. But most of all he wrote. “He was a good man, unlike any I have ever known. He was a teacher by profession, but he and my mother were thrifty to a fault, so he was able to acquire enough to assure his children some financial stability. I was the last child, born ten years after my elder sister. I practically grew up alone. Perhaps that is why I learned to write.”
“Your father must have been like you,” Lisa said.
“I was molded in his image,” she answered. “Even my mother molded me in his image. They brought me up not to think of my gender. I was always a person. It was easier when I was young; nobody demanded the subservience of a woman from me. Besides, in my college years I was in Manila, where no one minds anyone. But as I grew older everyone started to ask, why aren’t you married yet? Your intelligence is going to waste. Why do you argue so much? You’re a woman. Be feminine. Don’t think. Don’t hanker after so much knowledge. Just be a woman and take care of your man. Let him do the hankering. I couldn’t take it.”
As she spoke, Talia’s eyes wandered farther and farther into the distance, into the space between the stars.
“I have always dreamed of a nether world where all is true and just and beautiful. I think that is why I became a writer, why I would rather be holed up on top of a hill, observing people, not talking to them. I am looking for something myself—a heaven, or maybe just a haven. Maybe I will end up writing satire,” she laughed to herself.
Talia paused, her eyes still reaching for the space between the stars, her voice becoming even more distant.
“I don’t think many people understand me. I must be too complicated. In fact, I have never found anyone who could understand me.”
She turned to Lisa, who was looking at her sympathetically but, somehow, vacantly. It is too much for her, Talia thought. It is not yet time. Someday she will see, but not now, it is too soon. Besides I am still too mixed up myself.
Feeling satisfied enough with having unburdened herself, she changed the subject, and told her friend about the principal, and the other men, all of a kind.
“Akala ko iba na rito. Mas masahol pa yata. Yung kapitan na ‘yan….” (“I thought it would be different here. Maybe it’s even worse. That kapitan….”)
Lisa laughed. “Kahit sa akin nagtangka na rin ‘yan. Pero hindi siya makaabante. Pinakamatanda na kasi ang Itay at tinitingala rito. Habang buhay ang Itay, wala siyang magagawa. Kaya kinukuha na lang sa tingin. At saka, ang ginagawa ko na lang, umiiwas.” (“He’s tried that with me too, but he couldn’t make base one. That’s because my father is the oldest man here and respected by all. While my father lives, his hands are bound. He could only stand and stare. Besides, all I do is avoid him.”)
Then pausing to think, she continued, “Pero tama ka. Ganyan nga rito. Kailangang magpailalim ka. Hindi lang nila ako magalaw, dahil para bang naiiba ako sa kanila.” (“But you are right. That’s the way it is here: a woman has to be submissive. They just can’t touch me, because I don’t seem to be one of them.”)
Their eyes met again: Talia’s looking exasperated; Lisa’s all wonder at the new discovery. But they were both smiling now.
“Ang supot ni Hudas, tingnan mo, kumikinang, o!” (“Look, Judas’ money bag is twinkling! “) Lisa laughed, pointing up at the sky. She looked back at Talia and laughed again. “Pero alam mo, kung naiiba ako, mas naiiba ka yata. Nagtataka ang lahat sa ‘yo, kahit babae at bata.” (“But, you know, if I am different, you are even more so.”)
“Iba ka kasi. Hindi ka nakikisalamuha. Hindi ka nagbabahay-bahay. Hindi ka matsismis, tulad ng ibang babae.” (“Because you are different. You don’t mix. You don’t socialize. You don’t engage in gossip like other women.”) She looked at Talia carefully, afraid to hurt her.
But Talia’s reply was philosophical. “Wala akong magagawa. Iba ang pakay ko sa buhay.” (“I can’t do anything about that. I have a different purpose in life.”)
“Oo nga,” (“Of course,”) she replied approvingly, stroking Talia’s arm. “Maiba ako, ano yung nasa baul?” (“By the way, what is in your trunk?”)
“Chemicals and vials for experiments, a laboratory set, a slide projector and slides from my college days, sensitive equipment in general,” Talia answered. It took some time to explain to Lisa what these were for, but Lisa showed she understood, even if she may not have imagined their full use.
“But why do you ask?” Talia wondered aloud. Lisa had a difficult time explaining the curiosity, because it was not her own.
“You see, the people in the barrio, they have no secrets from each other. They’ve never seen such things. Even your furniture looks strange to them. Your father’s book, they think it’s something about…. They think you’re different. They have their suspicions. They think you’re—you know — another kind of creature.”
“What?” Talia pressed. “What do they think I am?” She looked searchingly into Lisa’s big eyes.
Lisa’s eyes softened. She could hardly look at Talia, so afraid was she to see the hurt. She lay on her back and looked at the full moon, now high up in the sky.
“They think you’re a witch,” Lisa said, her voice trailing off.
The silence seemed an insuperable barrier. Then Talia broke into a loud laugh, and Lisa could look at her again.
“They burn witches at the stake, don’t they?” Talia asked softly, thoughtful again, looking into the soulful eyes for succor. “What do you think?” she finally managed to ask timidly, after a long pause.
Lisa looked back into the dark sad eyes of her friend. She put her hand on the other’s cheek, let it lay there softly, and whispered with the greatest tenderness, “As long as you’re with me you need never worry.” And then she kissed Talia, beside the hand she had lain on her cheek, the kiss glancing the side of Talia’s lips.
And so that night they lay, the two women, in peaceful sleep, holding on to each other’s hands, the light of the full moon shining high above them.
When Ka Tiago had heard all the salacious details of the arrival of the maestra, he immediately felt the beginning of his triumph. Having digested the insult hurled at him, he had vowed revenge—but a revenge without confrontation, like the man without character that he was.
The barrio residents came to him one by one, confused at what they had seen. “What is she?” they asked. “How did she get here?”
And he answered in a righteous tone, “Well, you know, we live in a democracy, and everyone is innocent until proven guilty. Everyone has the right of domicile. The title to her land was genuine, and all her papers were in order, so of course, I had no choice but to approve her registration. But nothing is permanent. Everything changes. After all, the registration is only for a year. And if there is cause, we can expel her or even jail her.”
He conveniently failed to mention, of course, that she was a maestra, for that fact alone would have been enough to reverse the people’s observations. Instead he made haste to add, “Pero ano nga ba ang nakita ninyo?” (“But what was it you saw?”)
And each told his story.
One noticed that she flailed her arms in a way he had never seen before, because, it seems, she did not want anyone to see the contents of her boxes.
“Flailed her arms—like a bat?” the kapitan asked, with perfect timing, in the proper conspiratorial tone.
“Yes, yes, like a bat! Even her eyes were all afire like a bat’s,” the resident answered, the image now indelibly printed in his mind.
Another told of the giant book with the horrid creature on the cover, which his nephew had seen and related to his mother, the storyteller’s sister-in-law. The strange scribblings nearly jumped off the yellowed pages, he added.
“You don’t think—witchcraft. You mean books and papers on witchcraft?” the kapitan asked, seemingly with hesitation.
“Witchcraft—oh no! Yes! It couldn’t be anything but witchcraft!” exclaimed the interlocutor.
A third described the awesome furniture with the mysterious designs, a description he had picked up from the wife of his cousin, who had heard it from her neighbor.
“The same designs as the books and papers on witchcraft?” the kapitan suggested, moving his cigar as if he were drawing the carvings in the air, in front of the man’s eyes.
“Yes, they must have been! Of course they were!” the man gasped, dizzy from following the cigar’s circled route.
One of the men who had carried the baul related its awesome weight. “As heavy as lead,” he said.
“What? There was a dead person inside?” the kapitan asked, sending a wave of recognition into the man’s eyes. “Are you sure it was only one dead person? Not many chopped to size?”
And the reporter shuddered at what, in his mind, already was.
After each visit, the kapitan sat back on his rough wooden wall in self-satisfaction, one foot at a level with his ass on the bedroom bamboo floor, one hand on his knee holding a lighted cigar stub, the other leg hanging down freely over the cement of the combined sala-dining room-kitchen. He was right in pretending to be busy at the farm upon the maestra’s arrival. Not having been an eyewitness to the event, he now merely served to crystallize the people’s opinions. Moreover, the people came to him; and he took great care to talk to each one separately, simply suggesting conclusions to what each reported. He would continue to stay away, and let his men and the other barrio folk do the spying and the work of avenging his ego for him.
So they came everyday—sometimes twice a day, for weeks.
The very first reports after the incident were of the increasing frequency of Lisa’s visits to the “witch.” It had become an established fact, after each talk with the kapitan, that Talia was a witch. Those who were present at her arrival recalled, in hindsight, how Talia and Lisa’s eyes had locked while Lisa was handing the book to the witch and how that look must have been the beginning of a hypnotic trance that kept Lisa coming back daily to the house on the highest hill for longer and longer hours, until she even slept there nights. Others reported unholy laughter in the dead of night, laughter that rocked the trees near their homes. Still others saw light as bright as the sun issuing from the hill, so bright it could be seen mountains away till the wee hours of the morning. All this occurred on the nights that Lisa stayed with the witch.
Then finally, the tanod sent by Ka Tiago to spy on the two came to say that he had seen them sleeping on the grass under the full moon, that the witch had planted a death kiss on the lips of the poor girl, and that he had left them in an even deadlier embrace and scurried off, lest they turn without warning into tikbalang.
These reports, especially the last, stung the kapitan to the quick and fueled his ire. It had been bad enough that Talia had deflated his ego, the witch. Now she would even best him in the purely male game of winning a woman he had sought to woo. She was a witch indeed, he managed to convince himself. Otherwise, how could any woman be the better of a man?
If the kapitan had been braver, he would immediately have laid siege to the house on top of the hill upon hearing of this insult of insults to his manhood. But he happened to be a coward, intrigue his only special capacity. So, he chose to wait out his revenge.
The only step the kapitan took now was to warn the barrio folk not to tell Lisa’s adoptive parents about their suspicions until the evidence of witchcraft was beyond doubt—on the pretext that they might, without meaning to, send the old folks to their graves against God’s will. But in truth, the kapitan wanted to prevent the old folks from hearing of the intrigue and therefore foiling it. Instead he advised them to win back Lisa in any way they could by diverting her to more godly pursuits. Why not invite her to the fiesta in town, he suggested to one. Or involve her in the cleanliness drive, he told another. Talk to her, make friends with her, he urged a third. Warn her about what she’s getting into.
And so it was that Lisa came to know what the people thought about her friend. Divert her, however, they could not. The months passed by, and the fruits and vegetables grew bigger than any the barrio had seen. And there lay added evidence of witchcraft—for who had ever seen squash as large as huts and papayas big enough to fill one table?
But Lisa started to stay on the hill for days and nights on end, barely going home to her parents.
The kapitan’s fated stroke of luck, however, did come one stormy night.
Talia and Lisa had been to see the latter’s parents and had just finished eating supper. The man commended his adopted daughter for having chosen such a fine friend. Suddenly, Lisa seemed to hear, through the storm, the muffled cries of their neighbor from another hill a short distance away. She knew it was one month before Daling’s time. She’d been left alone by her husband, who’d gone to town to buy their sari-sari store supplies. Daling had two children with her, and one of the cries seemed to be that of the elder child.
Lisa told the party of her suspicions and immediately pulled Talia to the rescue. The old man advised that they go straight to the place, for the komadrona was in the other barrio, waiting on another patient. But the walk was slippery and the mud knee-deep. So, when they reached the house, Daling was already unconscious on the floor, the baby out and motionless, its umbilical cord unremoved.
“Kalalabas lang ba?” (“Has it just come out?”) Talia immediately asked the elder child. But he was one of the children who’d been present at her arrival and had heard all the horror stories. He paled upon seeing Talia and remained mute and plastered to the wall throughout.
They could do nothing but revive the poor woman. Talia cut the umbilical cord and cleaned up the baby and the mess.
When Daling came to and saw Lisa, she was relieved. Lisa told her gently that her baby had died, having been born in the most dangerous month, as Talia had explained while cleaning up. But Daling espied Talia from the corner of her eyes and became hysterical. Soon her two children joined the hysteria.
Afraid to cause more harm to the family, Talia and Lisa left hurriedly.
The next day, talk of the witch’s latest deed was rife in the barrio. She had sucked the blood of the baby, it was said, and that was why it died. She would have sucked the blood of the pregnant woman too, if the woman had not by some good fortune regained her consciousness and shouted her lungs out. And Lisa was there; she must have sucked some blood already. Now, she too was a witch!
When Daling’s husband got off the bus from town, he was immediately met by the rumormongers—about a dozen in all. Inflamed, he proceeded without much ado to the kapitan’s house, trailed by the rumormongers. “It’s time we did something,” he demanded, backed up by a chorus. “They have already taken a life. It is time we took theirs.”
The kapitan raised his hands to silence them. “Okay, okay, if you are with me, I am with you. Let us plan this thing very, very carefully. Let us be sure we get them.” At that he stuck out his fist and made a back-handed jab.
The small crowd cheered. The kapitan was their hero.
The old man finally heard about the rumors from the hysterical Daling. He tried to explain to her that he had talked to Talia over dinner, rather lengthily, and that he thought she was a fine woman, chaste and pure of mind.
But it was too late. She remained unconvinced and merely stammered that the witches deserved to be killed by the barrio people. Yes, even now, the latter were with the kapitan planning the witches’ demise. The couple should never have adopted that baby. Maybe she was, in truth, a witch’s daughter just waiting for another witch to take her.
The old man lost no time running to the house on top of the highest hill. “Umalis na kayo,” (“You have to get out here,”) he advised. “Kilala ko ang mga taong baryo. Hindi na sila mapakikiusapan. Kung sana sinabi ninyo sa akin ito nang mas maaga, hindi na ito nangyari. Kung sana may nagsabi sa akin….” (“I know these people. They cannot be prevailed upon. If you had only told me earlier, this would not have happened. If someone had only told me….”)
But it was too late, and all he could do was entrust his dear adopted daughter to the hand of God.
“Harinawa’y pagpalain kayo ng Diyos, saan man kayo magpunta,” (“May God bless you, wherever you go.”) he said as he blessed the two women on his way out.
The news of having been blamed for the death of Daling’s baby hurt Talia to the core. Hot tears streamed down her cheeks as Lisa held her head to her breast. But there was no time to be hurt; the danger was too close.
“It has come,” Lisa told her gently, stroking her hair. “Now we have to leave.”
“But my father’s legacy! I cannot leave it behind!” she cried. “It is precious to me!”
Lisa stopped to think. Talia was right. But how could they leave safely with all that baggage? Maybe Talia could let go of most of the readings, except for the novel and her father’s papers. The kitchen things and even the clothes were surely dispensable. But what about the big bulky furniture? And the baul?
“Are the contents of the baul precious to you?” Lisa asked.
“I could buy them again in the city, after some saving up,” Talia answered.
“Then all we need is a few days to hold them off. If only we had something to hold them off,” Lisa thought aloud, her eyes fixed on an indeterminate distance. “If we had a carabao and a cart, we could easily drag those things through the forest. The way there is not so steep. It’s not so hard to pass through the forest, you know. Even easier than climbing this hill. They don’t know that. And right after the forest is an abandoned logging road where the truck could wait.”
“Hold them off?” Talia asked, drying her cheeks now, her reason assuming control. “The only way to hold them off is to scare them off.”
Almost simultaneously they turned to each other, a glint of recognition flashing between them as their eyes met.
“Of course!” Talia laughed. “What better way to scare them off! Now is the best time to put my knowledge of chemistry to a test. Open the baul. Let me get the key.”
And so it was, that while Talia and Lisa ran through the forest and sped to town to arrange for the carabao and the truck and the haulers, the barrio folk thought that the two witches were still in the house on top of the highest hill.
Attempting to attack the hut that night, the barrio men and some brave women, armed with sticks and stones, were suddenly assaulted by sparks that flew and fire that blew, in all directions, such that they could not so much as get near the top of the hill. If they had been a little more observant, they would have noticed that one of their own had tripped on a thin wire strung through the front perimeter, at mid-base.
Talia and Lisa came back the next day with the haulers and other equipment to find that their contraption had worked. Smiling and giggling like little girls, they packed up, mixing, stringing together still another contraption. At nightfall they started to set out on their journey. It was already morning when they finished hauling the last of the furniture to the truck on the abandoned logging road. Finally seated in the truck, they ordered the driver to speed off in the direction of the highway.
The kapitan and the barrio folk had not attacked that night. They were feverishly repairing their weapons. This time they aimed not to fail.
They launched their last attack the night after. Not far from the base of the hill, they were met by the same crackle and whoosh of sparks and fire.
But they were prepared. Undaunted, the hardiest men continued their advance, and at the appropriate distance, just above mid-base, lit torches and strung them to sturdy bows, and aimed. Fire flew to the nipa roof, setting it aflame.
Quickly the whole party ran up the hill. But hardly had they reached the top, flames almost on the walls of the hut now, when another horrid thing happened. On the tree a short distance from the hut glowed a terrible image, the very same the children had described to be on the giant book, without the inscriptions. It seemed to float in the air, rippling with the wind. Shortly sparks and fire flew again, issuing from the mysterious vegetable patch. Heavy mist flowed from the ground, thickest where there were mud puddles.
The barrio folk stood in awe, spears and bolos in hand, not daring to go any nearer. The kapitan slithered away to a distance, inconspicuously. Meanwhile, the fire they had thrown started to engulf the house, lending the floating image an even more frightening orange hue, as of flames eating up a whole forest.
And then the hut suddenly blew apart. Everyone scampered for cover.
When the kapitan let go of his head and emerged from the bush where he had run for cover, it was all over. Nothing was left of the hut. He strode up the hill like a conqueror, his mouth still biting a cigar, his thick lips stretched to their broadest width. From the top of the hill he surveyed what he thought was his triumph.
Nothing was left of the evil witches, he reported later at the munisipyo. “The only things that remained were broken shards of burnt glass, still hot with the fire we had thrown, and wire and tattered pieces of white cloth, all used by the witches for their blood-curdling activities. We have burned them to a crisp.”
AND SO IT WAS bruited about in the barrio of San Roque that two witches had sipped the blood of a newborn infant, and this was more than the kapitan and the people of San Roque could stand, so that the kapitan, who had been good enough to leave them be for a good long while, burned the two witches to an unrecognizable crisp.