By Ian Rosales Casocot
What is left of the small city is awful quiet: it is a wreck of forbidding silence, the streets appearing abandoned, the low buildings ominous in their hush. Along Alfonso Trese, its main strip, the emptiness howls, and Teresa swears you can hear the silence. Silence has an invisible ringing sound, like a tinnitus of the soul, and enough of it can make you go mad. And so you quickly learn to strain to catch any stray sound, enough of which can keep your sanity; the possibility of crickets, for example, or the possibility of tires burning rubber on distant asphalt streets. The worst are the phantom sounds, Teresa realizes, because they quicken your pulse, only to give you in the end a terrible nothingness deadlier than dashed hopes. But so far, in the past few days, there has been nothing; or nothing at least near this house along Alfonso Trese St., an apartment that squats atop a small downtown grocery store near the corner of Hibbard Avenue—a life-saving convenience, Teresa had quickly realized not too long ago. On rare moments when Teresa finds herself complaining, everyone else in the apartment with her shushes her in panicked whispers: “Paghilom! Paghilom!”—said in registers so low, it proved not impossible the descent close to silence that voices could go to: what comes out of their mouths aren’t words to Teresa’s ears, but fear-stained whiffs that sound like cat farts. Only Lola Dolores understands, and hugs Teresa or her sister tight when the silence becomes unbearable. “Don’t mind them,” lola says, wiping the perspiration on Teresa’s forehead with a handkerchief now pungent with old sweat. They know—hey, assume—that people like them have barricaded themselves in their apartments and houses all over the city. And like them are probably alternating troubled sleeping with a wakefulness attended to by listening with baited breaths for the occasional distant wails of strange siren sounds. They have no idea what the sirens are for, except that it comes around dusk-time, and not always every day. Now and then they’ll look out the slats of their barricaded windows to the street below, always in a vigil, always waiting for something. Teresa closes her eyes as she feels herself sinking into her lola’s embrace. This is the only safe place she knew, even her 14-year-old self knows that.
It has not always been like this, Teresa remembers. Earlier in the year, this was a place of so much surging life, as befits a city that hugs a shoreline, a city that sits in the middle of the churling navel of the Visayan depths, a city that embraces the skirmish of currents from Tañon Strait in the north and Sulu Sea in the south. Teresa remembers swiftly those frequent ferry rides going home to Dumaguete from Cebu where she’d find herself on the deck of M/V San Rodrigo, gripping the railings that separated her body and the sea, an excitement for the familiar taking hold of her when the sight of the small Oriental Negrense city came slowly to a looming focus, the boat nearing the dock, and she could spy the bustling life along the seaside boulevard. Was it only three months ago when she had last taken that trip with her father? Had she known it was going to be the last, she’d have breathed in every single detail of that trip across the sea, between the islands; would’ve taken note of the deceptive pristine late-afternoon blueness of the waters off Dumaguete, for example, the waves lapping the city’s shores from distant origins—from the aswang-infested western side of Cebu, the farther beaches of old Bohol, the cursed black magic sands of Siquijor. Teresa holds fast to this last memory of sea, a panacea to the disbelief of how quickly the world could change; it has become a spell that warded off the claustrophobia of the months trapped in the same space with the same faces. She looks around in the clawing darkness of their apartment’s sala—the shadows mitigated only by the flickering light of a single candle—and surveys the last of them: her distraught mother Trinidad, her exhausted younger sister Magda, her playing-to-be-courageous older brother Ramon, her lola, the middle-aged houseboy and cook, and the bachelor university professor living with them in a rented room. She misses her father, and allows herself briefly to wonder what has now become of him outside. He had not come back to the apartment more than two months ago, on a foolhardy excursion to find out exactly what was happening outside. “Don’t go, Noy,” Trinidad had implored—but father was resolute in his foolishness. “We need to know, and we need help,” he said. “And we can’t stay locked up here forever,” he continued. ”But there’s enough supplies we can get from the grocery store downstairs,” Trinidad protested. And he said, “It will run out soon, Trining.” Which was true. He told Ramon to keep the windows barricaded and the front door double-bolted after he left—then he walked down the steep flight of stairs that led to their door, opened it in a tentative way, nodded to his son, and disappeared into the daylight and the quiet streets. Where was he? Teresa thinks, a small anger building up inside her. But she forces the question to die in her head, and then steels herself from just that kind of emotional distraction. The streets outside have become a heavy, numbing stillness. One could tell, by the prickling of one’s skin, that something is not right out there.
They’re waiting for the bodies to appear. And they’re waiting, fearfully, if it is going to be their turn next.
The bodies come with the darkness that quickly descends after the last moments of daylight, when only a tiny fraction of the sun peeps from behind the Cuernos de Negros in the west. They manifest in the instance that the sun disappears scattering a rash of purple and pink across the skies, bathing everything in a shimmer that ushers in a creeping blackness. On normal days, before the Troubles began, no one would have noticed this change in light and the malefic descent into darkness, because the city itself would be aglow in electric incandescence, would be distracted by the homebound traffic, would be wrapped in the business of living. In the now pervading silence, the houses everywhere are barricaded and dark, save for the hints of candlelight flickering behind closed windows—the only signs left now to tell the curious that people are still alive, that people are merely hiding, that people know there is something terribly wrong stirring on their streets. Now in the aftermaths of sunsets, the streetlamps somehow still sputter to life, their halogen orange glow now casting a new eeriness that wasn’t there before. “Why do the streetlamps still turn on?” the university professor asked once, before being shushed by everyone else. But they knew the power grids were still in place: the refrigerator still hummed, though they don’t dare turn anything else on. Not the lights, especially. There was comfort in the shadows and in the dimness of candlelight: they warded off invitation, though they can’t tell exactly what that meant. And then, a few nights later, after the familiar siren sounded off from far away, they saw the first ones. Outside. On the street. Scattered here and there. Prone on the ground, looking dead. 20 at least in this part of Alfonso Trese—but they couldn’t see beyond the limits of their windows. The bodies all wore white—a puzzling detail. And the whiteness of their clothes belies traces of blood and smudges of dirt. Around their necks were signs made from cardboard, the letters on them spelling out, in careful print, one word: Bato. “Stone,” Ramon muttered, reading the puzzling detail and looking out through the slats of their barricaded windows that first night. “What the fuck does that mean? Stone?” In the orange cast of the streetlamps, the skin of these dead bodies looked pale and purple all at once, as though the corpses had been drained of blood. “This is stupid,” the university professor was saying, his voice very loud. “Why is this going on? Why aren’t we doing something? We can’t live here forever in fear!” “Shut up, shut up! Ang dami mong alam!” Trinidad shushed him angrily. But he would not shut up. “Don’t look,” Ramon hissed at his sisters who were scrambling to take a look. Later, their mother whimpered throughout the night, and sleep was uneasy for all of them. The houseboy kept watch, occasionally looking out the window slats, and occasionally checking whether the front door downstairs was dead-bolted and secure. In the first light of day, the bodies disappeared. No one had come to collect them; they disappeared as mysteriously as they had appeared. They didn’t appear again for several nights, and when they finally did, it was right after Teresa first heard the sound. Hyuk-hyuk. Like that. Hyuk-hyuk. A chuckle that came from the shadows and gave her goose bumps. Hyuk-hyuk. Later, she quickly noticed that the university professor was strangely absent among them and had not eaten his share of their meager supper. It was also she who first noticed that the bodies had come back. “Look,” she said from her perch beside the window, “down below. The bodies are back. And isn’t that the professor over there?” Ramon and the houseboy rushed to her side. It was indeed the professor, his body on the street curb, and even from the distance, Teresa could see very well that his eyes were open, were vacant in their terrible deadness. Magda burst into tears, and Lola Dolores was quick to pull both her grandchildren into her embrace. “No one goes out,” Ramon said in a flat voice. “Did the professor go out?” Lola Dolores asked. “I don’t freakin’ know,” Ramon replied. “But Mon, we need new supplies, we’ve run out of food,” Trinidad said. “I need to go downstairs, to the store, to get more canned goods.” Ramon hesitated, and then told his mother: “Soon, but not now, not tomorrow—but soon, and only in the daylight.” And above all these whispered back-and-forth, Teresa heard the chuckle one last time. Hyuk-hyuk.
The days pass in mournful boredom—but Ramon is adamant that no one goes out. Once every few days, he tells the houseboy to steal quickly into the downstairs grocery store, to get food, to get medicine, to get a fresh tank of LPG. The taps still work, miraculously—and Trinidad calls it a blessing. But just in case, he knows there are more than a dozen 12-liter bottles of mineral water in the store. “Thank God, nobody’s looting anyone,” Trinidad says. “But that’s just it—I haven’t seen anyone alive on the streets,” Ramon says. “What’s happening to everyone else? At least we’re lucky, we have a grocery store downstairs. Most people don’t have such easy access to supplies.” And he thinks of the probabilities: people starving in their barricaded apartments, people dying alone in their hunger, people cannibalizing the dead. He shivers. In her boredom, Teresa tries to remember the first days of the Troubles, and finds difficulty in the recollection: just that things began in the vaguest ways, and she has no clear memory of events escalating in the cause-and-effect variety. What it was, was a feeling of dread quickly descending that last day of June, and then, in her grappling about for the day, quickly found out it wasn’t just her feeling it. There was a dead restlessness to everyone. On her way to school that last day, her heart pounding hard for no reason, she passed by several people who were in tears, a devastation to their eyes that spelled panic. Some stores didn’t open at all; and the usual snarling traffic of tricycles and cars was light; on one street corner, she saw a traffic officer slumped without care, his cap on the sidewalk beside him getting trampled on by people who seemed to be rushing about like rats in a maze. At school, she found many of her classmates and some of the teachers absent; her science teacher—the loquacious Mrs. Romero—had an absent look on her face, and they spent the rest of the period in the glum pursuit of drawing the useless abstraction they could see under their microscopes. And all she ever wanted to do the rest of that morning at school was to go home—quickly. She didn’t know why, and it felt useless to ask. Nobody said anything. It was an epidemic not just of quiet panic, but also of silence. And when she found herself finally home after lunch, a plan brewing in her head not to show up for the afternoon classes, she found everyone else in the apartment gripped in a tension that crackled. When her father finally said, “Let’s barricade the windows and lock the front door,” she accepted that pronouncement with a strange and full understanding of why. Ramon and the university professor and the houseboy were quick to help, never questioning once the strange feel of emergency, never doubting the rightness of the sounds of hammer pounding on nail and wood. In the aftermath of that rush, they huddled in the stillness of their living room, and listened to the sounds of a city quieting down, slowly, through the day and then through the night—the last tricycle beep, the last car horn, the last pounding of shoes on pavements, the last buzz of life in a city quickly becoming silence. By that first midnight, the silence had grown malevolent. Their father stood watch by the windows, forbidding anyone else to spy outside. What he did not tell them was this: that in the glow of the halogen streetlamps and in the sheer quiet of the streets, he had first seen the figure. It was a man. Or seemed like a man. It looked burly and unreal and cartoonish, like a mascot would be. But what was it? It was dressed in the garb of a police officer. But it could not possibly be a man, or at least a real man. Because it had a bulbous head that looked like it was made of felt. And that bulbous head was bald. And the bald head had a face. Big buttons for eyes. A protrusion for a nose. A thick curved drawn line for a smile. And it was a wide, cheeky smile on a felt face. A terrible wideness to it that sent shivers down the father’s spine. And the bald smiling figure made of felt was walking down the middle of the road, slowly, stopping once in a while to take stock of every closed windows of every building. It walked, it stopped, it stared. It walked, it stopped, it stared. “It’s the buang yawa,” Lola Dolores whispered by his side; he had not noticed that the old woman, his mother, had sidled up to him, and had seen the mysterious figure as well. “Don’t tell the others what you saw,” he told Lola Dolores. “You don’t talk of these things,” she told her son. “To talk about the buang yawa is to invite the buang yawa to your house.” When they looked out again, the figure had turned the corner, but they could hear an unmistakable chuckle coming from it, though it was low. Hyuk-hyuk, they heard it say. Hyuk-hyuk. And Lola Dolores began to cry.
The bodies all wore white—a puzzling detail. And the whiteness of their clothes belies traces of blood and smudges of dirt. Around their necks were signs made from cardboard, the letters on them spelling out, in careful print, one word: Bato. “Stone,” Ramon muttered, reading the puzzling detail and looking out through the slats of their barricaded windows that first night. “What the fuck does that mean? Stone?”
Hyuk-hyuk, the sound reverberates in Teresa’s head. She does not know where it comes from. But it repeats with a measure of malice in her head. It is a sound she never wants to hear again, but it comes to her unbidden, and she forces herself, her mind, to wrench away from it—but it comes anyway. It comes to her. When she thinks least of it, when she prepares to sleep, and most terrible of all, when she finds herself in one of her lola’s hugs—that one last refuge tainted now. And when her grandmother looks at her, Teresa feels like she knows, because there are tears in the old woman’s eyes. But she keeps to her hugs anyway, determined to drown out the memory of that terrible chuckle with the more palpable and magical protection of skin against familiar skin.
There is no want to measure time—although the clocks in the city still run, and the days and nights come and go marking off for those still inclined the faithful hours, days, weeks, months. Time had become futility, or a gruesome reminder of the lingering evil no one understood. How long has it been since they barricaded themselves in? When she asks Ramon, her brother has become dismissive, and there is a quick curtness in his voice that seems, in retrospect, quite alien for Teresa. She takes it, for a while, as a manifestation of his grating boredom, of a murderous tiredness from the stultifying familiarity of their living room and the faces of the people around him. And yet Ramon does not complain of anything, not anymore. He has begun muttering instead that the silence is good, that the stillness gripping the city is perhaps a gift. “A gift from what?” Teresa bristles when she first hears it. It is her mother who answers for Ramon: “Perhaps the world has become so evil, defiled by so much sin, and we deserve all these, and we need to stomp the evil out…” Magda finishes for her: “Like the bodies….” The houseboy only nods. “What do you mean we deserve all these?” Teresa hisses, and Magda glares at her. Lola Dolores does not say anything. She does not dare tell any of them about the buang yawa that she had seen that first night. Could not. And in her quiet despair, she longs once more for her missing son, and longs for him to come quickly back before the family begins to lose what is left of their sanity. When the siren sounds off again a few nights later, Ramon does not even rush to the windows to keep watch, like he used to. He merely stands in attention, a blank look on his face, and Magda does the same. Trinidad, too, and the houseboy. Lola Dolores cries into her handkerchief, and goes quickly to her bedroom. Teresa rushes to the windows, and sees the bodies slowly come to light, each one somehow emerging from the tiniest hint of evening shadow to become a compelling fullness of a corpse. There are more of them now. And when the siren fades away, she hears the undertow of that terrible chuckle from a far distance. Hyuk-hyuk. She tears away from the windows, and for some reason starts pummeling her brother with her small arms, and then just as quickly runs to her room to hide under the relative comfort and refuge of her bed. In the morning, when she wakes up, she finds her mother preparing the usual breakfast of a small glass of Tang Orange Juice and two pieces of Skyflakes, something Lola Dolores has kept as duty. “Where’s lola?” Teresa asks. “Your Lola Dolores is still asleep,” her mother says. Teresa finishes quickly, ignoring the rumbling of her stomach: she has gotten used to the hunger, and to the meager sating of that hunger with Skyflakes, or something else like it. Ramon is still asleep, and so is Magda. She cannot find the houseboy. She gives up looking for everyone, and takes a book from the shelf in the living room—reading was her solitary comfort now—and steals away to her secret nook in her father’s room, and begins to while away the day with a novel that, in ordinary time, would have been totally inappropriate for her. Now, no one minds—and she lets her mind drift with the words, and with that comes the fantasy of escape, and then her eyes start to flutter to drowsiness. Teresa sleeps. She does not wake for lunch, or for early supper—and when finally wakes, it is because the sirens have sounded again, and they jolt her to a panicked waking. When she comes to the living room, the others are already there. Magda and the houseboy and her mother are standing in worshipful attention, which frightens Teresa. She finds her brother by the window, peeking out and smiling. “Where is lola? Where is lola?!” Teresa finds herself wailing, her sudden tears a surprise even for her. But Magda and her mother and the houseboy don’t even reply. She jerks Ramon’s arm, and he turns to her, smiling still. Teresa shivers at the sight of her brother’s smile. “There she is,” Ramon says, pointing outside with his lips. “And look,” he continues, “I see father coming, walking down the street towards us.” A jolt of something electric shoots through Teresa—a terrible sense of joy, a dam of carefully buried hope suddenly bursting forth in her—and she finds herself running downstairs to the front door. It was dead-bolted—and then Teresa screams excitedly to her brother: “Ramon! Let me out! Father is outside with lola! Let me out!” Ramon and the others appear on top of the stairs. They smile at her, and then Ramon says softly, “Of course.” Ramon walks slowly down the staircase, and when he reaches her, he fondles her little face and runs his hand through his sister’s hair, mussing it with what seems like affection. “Bring them in,” Ramon whispers to her. “Tell them we can’t wait for them to come home.” Ramon opens the lock, and the door creaks open—and Teresa’s first taste of the outside was a crispness in the air that reminds her of December days. She steps out, and quickly looks around her, surveying the scene in a panic, looking in haste for her father and her lola. In the steely shadows, the bodies slowly start to appear. There are more of them this time around. Their number stretches out before her sight, dotting the streets like an epidemic of corpses. But there is no sign of her father. But in the very pavement before her, her grandmother rolls to sight, a number now among the ghostly dead. Teresa starts to scream, and in response the air around her is suddenly thick and pungent, and it whispers back in a chuckle. Hyuk-hyuk.
Why is this happening? Teresa thinks in a panic as she hears the bolt of the front door locking her out. Why is this happening? she thinks, disbelieving at the same time that she could summon, even in distress, such useless questions. “Ramon!” she knocks urgently, her face against the door, and knowing that what comes out of her throat is not a voice but a whimper laced in naked fear. Everywhere around her, as dusk settles further into darkest evening, the air turns malefic. And the bodies have begun to reek of the foulest rot. She is now banging her hands on the front door. “Open up, please… Let me in!” she tells her brother. But no one answers, the door remains closed, and she can imagine her family rigid in their huddle inside, refusing to listen. Her eyes suddenly sting and she feels her hot tears streaming down her face. She turns back to face the street, and sees more shadowed figures materializing into sight. The bodies, she thinks. The bodies! Somewhere near her, the sound of dry leaves crackling suddenly turns into the slithering sureness of someone—or something—coming near her from all directions, a yet unseen presence that registers to her now as a malevolence crawling to her on its hands and knees. The air thickens and crackles, and a sudden lightning briefly reveals a purple sky, and it frightens her. And now Teresa sees it. It’s a figure of a man. Or seemed to be a man. A man with a huge head, like a mascot. Even from afar, Teresa knew it was grinning at her, its lips—made of dark felt—stretched across it broad face like the most malevolent of smiles. It stands far away, beneath a halogen streetlamp, cast in killing orange. Its police uniform look silly and frightful at the same time. Its bald felt head absorbs all the orange of the halogen lamplight. And then Teresa sees it crouching low. It starts crawling towards her. Teresa can hear its chuckle as it draws slowly near. Hyuk-hyuk, it says. And try as she might to scream, her throat stays frozen, and all she can feel is cold terror washing over her, her warm piss snaking down her shaking legs. Hyuk-hyuk, it says as it comes nearer and nearer. Hyuk-hyuk.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR