Urban Phantoms

by Anne Abad

“…creation (which is physical) is suffused with the [spirit]…The movement of atoms, even in every stone and rock…is that of dance.” – Agnes Miclat-Cacayan, The Babaylan Symposium

Diffusing lucent pinions into wisps, the wind gently deposited Bayuhaue four strides away from Dakaue’s hut. It had been an arduous flight to the upper spheres of Kabunyan, the Sky World; nevertheless, Bayuhaue was relieved to be back in her region of birth, Luktag.

The thin, pure air smelled of stardust and kissed the skin like a lover. Not much had changed, she thought. There was relatively the same number of huts as when she departed a century ago. In the distance, undulating blades of grass that were as green as grasshoppers stood out against the backdrop of black space. Few clouds were strolling across the firmament, thin as mist, obscuring the stars a bit. Shimmering with delight, the stars winked at her from above, their celestial garments cascading as they waved their arms, beckoning her, let’s play! She could almost hear their gleeful voices that tinkled like silver chimes. But not today, not today. There was a lot of work to be done.

Bayuhaue pried her eyes away from her friends. Facing her mother’s hut, she checked if her hair was still folded in place, prodding the slacking parts of the atake, a string of white beads in her hair. Breathing deeply, she smoothed the elaborately-woven red, white, blue and black ampuyou around her waist, a gift she received from a priest while passing by a small barangay in Kiangan. She would remember to ask the rice gods to be kind to those people this year, as they had shown her kindness.

“My daughter, what are you doing outside?” The voice echoed from inside the windowless hut, calm and certain like the orchids budding in the mountains down below. Bayuhaue instantly knew that it was her mother, Dakaue. Overcome by a strong yearning, Bayuhaue’s heart drummed excitedly within her chest and she ran up the narra ladder, but her smile withered away before she could even don it when she found that it was not only her mother who was in their house.

“You have returned, Bayuhaue!” exclaimed Bagilat, becoming a newly-sprouted pilapil as he straightened his back. His short, black hair was as rugged as she remembered, when he first asked for her hand in marriage. When he stood up, she noticed how his legs had become more sinewy and toned, same with his earth-brown shoulders that had broadened and hardened from running around hither and thither—north, south, east, and west—hurling streaks of lightning across the heavens. Wearing his belt of round, polished shells, and, around his loins, an ornate wanno with black lizard patterns running across the front, he was one dashing figure to behold.

Hiding a frown, Bayuhaue crouched as she made her way to the mats, seating herself before the earth-and-stone fireplace. As one in a daze, Bagilat mirrored her movements until he, too, was seated, his raven eyes never leaving Bayuhaue’s face.

“Bagilat has been visiting every day since you departed. He asks when he may begin gathering firewood for us as is the custom before the wedding,” Dakaue explained, watching her now-scowling daughter.

Bayuhaue’s smooth, brown face twitched in a forced smile. “Ah, yes, the wedding. We might have to postpone. I will be here only today,” she lied, avoiding Bagilat’s intent gaze. Initially, she had planned to stay for one moon cycle, but now she changed her mind. She should have known that a century wouldn’t be enough to quell the fiery love he had confessed so ardently.

“So soon?” Bagilat’s face darkened like the rainclouds that carried his lightning streaks. “Lovely Bayuhaue, surely you must be tired from your wanderings on Puga. Stay the night, at the very least.”

“I prefer you call them quests, or missions, Bagilat,” she said coldly, studying a new effigy that had been carved into the king post. “Now that I have seen Dakaue, I may go back to Puga to awaken the Chosen before all is lost.”

“Apo baket, please ask her to stay,” pleaded the saddened Bagilat.

“My daughter, will you not abandon this fruitless endeavor?” Lines of worry appeared on Dakaue’s face. Her shriveled lips tautened, and Bayuhaue knew that she was pressing back the urge to reproach. “I can see it clearly even from this region of the sky… can you not? All is already lost.”

“That is yet to be seen, mother.” Bayuhaue tucked her candle-hewn fingers into her palms. “Balyan of the Sama, catalonan of the Tagalog, mabalian of the Bagobo, baylan of the Manobo… whatever they call themselves, all over the lands they are awakening from their long sleep and are beginning to accept spirit guides once more.” Her face radiated the blaze of the stars as she spoke, and Bagilat seemed to fall deeper into his daze.

“And what songs will these abyans sing? What dances will they dance? They have made an enemy of the earth, of the forests and all that grows in them.”

Bayuhaue arose. “They will hear, Mother, and they will dance.”

Realizing that there was nothing she could say to dissuade her daughter, Dakaue hurriedly produced a pouch of betel nuts which she had been keeping in the folds of her tapis.

“Bring this with you then… to keep you strong,” she bade the younger. Reaching out, her copper bracelets clinked and clanked in sublime melody. As Bayuhaue took the pouch from the elder, she smiled inwardly, for this was the same scene as when she had first left. The music of her mother’s bracelets made her heart ache, and she suddenly wanted to break down in tears. Yes, she needed this, needed to be strong both for herself and for her Chosen. Her resolve was cast in stone, and she would leave now, return to Daniel whom she knew was waiting although he had sent her, his abyan, away so vehemently.

Thus, on the wings of the wind, Bayuhaue descended to Puga, the Earth World, once more.

*

Daniel got the refrigerator for a bargain 3,500 pesos. Two-door. Barely a scratch. Compressor coils fully intact. A bit old, though, at a full ten years. The back leaked, so he had someone affix a piece of water hose to channel the water to a plastic basin. Otherwise, it was still quite decent, better than his old one which defrosted with a mind of its own. This would do for business while Daniel couldn’t think of a job that would accept a deaf man. His companion Niño, a muscular, six-foot tall man with a semi-kalbo pate, was the one who told him about this prize of a ref. The family who owned it were said to be migrating to Canada, and they had to get rid of most of their belongings ASAP.

And that was over a month ago, before Daniel experienced the high fever that wrecked his hearing and gave him delusions. Niño said that it must have been caused by the foul stench that a thief had unleashed from the imburnal when he or she pilfered the cover of the manhole, which was right infront of Daniel’s house. The barangay captain had his men slap on boards of plywood to block the stench of human and animal excrements that had combined with noxious chemicals and putrid domestic refuse. However, the makeshift cover must have moldered from the rains, for the stench had returned with a vengeance.

He had been bedridden for two days, and without Niño’s help and the kanto-bought barbecue-with-rice that he brought with him whenever he visited, Daniel thought that he must surely have died from that ordeal. Paracetamol did him no good, and it was Niño who placed and replaced the dampened bimpo onto Daniel’s brow to appease the fever’s fury.

Come to think of it, he remembered little from that event, just that he saw her face. Like a genie, or more like a princess, her hair was tied up with garlands of white beads that framed her oval face and raven eyes. Bare from waist up, save for a layer of beads that swathed two gently sloping hills that were her breasts, her ruddy skin, brown as roasted castañas, seemed to be on fire. Bayuhaue—the spirit’s name. He knew, for she was familiar, and her name came to him in the same way that thoughts seem to just tiptoe into people’s awareness. Still, he became frightened, so much so that he had driven her away before she could finish speaking—death from the sky; death for those—and he had begun screaming, raving, thrashing, and neighing as one experiencing sapi. How frightened Niño must have been to see him like that, though he never made mention of it.

He hadn’t seen Bayuhaue since then. Sitting before the plastic dining table that had once doubled as his study desk, he stared vacantly at the newspaper headlines—“40 Dead in Anibungan flood, loggers blamed”; “Landfill collapses from rain: 30 families buried”; “Marikina still submerged, more than 200 missing!”—there was more, but he’d seen enough. The numbers just kept rising; the typhoon happened a week ago, lasting merely for two days. As if a powerful hand had tipped-over the sky’s basin, the downpour was so ruthless that he could have swum in space and still drowned. Niño could not have visited even if he wanted.

At least now it was over, he consoled himself. Years ago, he lost his parents in a flashflood that occurred while they were visiting relatives in Quezon. Their bodies were never found, so he assumed they were dead and he was all that was left of their family.

“Death from the sky…” Daniel tried to verbalize Bayuhaue’s words but heard only thick, soupy blubbering coming from his lips.

Ting! Ting!…Ting! Ting!

Momentarily, he looked up. There seemed to be this high-pitched ringing in his ears. Then again, he’d been having that a lot these days, kept hearing it from morning until night, a long tooooooot or tiiiiiiing as from the television when a channel signs off. Sometimes it was so loud that he thought he would lose his mind altogether. Unable to afford a doctor with the day-to-day 200 pesos he earned selling ice water and ice-candy, he had decided to consult the next best thing—the internet—in order to look up the hearing loss he had acquired from his bout with the mysterious sickness. He’d learned to tap this knowledge-spring (as he liked to call it) in college, before his scholarship was terminated due to his excessive absences. For less than 10 pesos in the only internet shop in Pansol, he discovered that the relentless ringing was a totally normal thing for those suffering from deafness. Tinnitus, it was called, the sound that kept him in perpetual noise.

Ting! Ting!…Ting! Ting!

“Oyr, Daneeeyel!” Even though the speech sounded more like underwater gurgling, Daniel knew that the ringing wasn’t coming from his head this time but from the doorbell. Putting down the broadsheet, he jumped from his seat and peeped out the curtained windows. It was a surprise to see Niño in his maong and t-shirt, standing beside five scrawny, sando-clad children. Niño snatched one of the two laminated signs that were hanging from the gate and waved it at Daniel—

“Ice-candy, P 2.00”.

Opening the door, Daniel asked them what flavor they wanted. Immediately, the children sniggered, watching him with eyes that cut like glass, whispering among themselves, and he sensed that the way he formed the words in his mouth must have been weird since he could hardly hear himself. He felt a sharp twinge in his gut, a raw contraction, and was tempted to lock himself back into his tiny sanctuary, the one-storey house he had inherited from his parents. Then he saw Niño talking to the children heatedly, punctuating his rebuke with sharp flicks of his hands and stomps of his feet. He opened the gate to let himself in while the children stayed where they were, heads bowed low, chins touching their bony chests.

“Don’t mind them,” Niño said, making his deep voice loud enough so that Daniel heard fairly clearly. “Here, they want the mango-flavored ones.” He handed Daniel a 10-peso coin that had been warmed in his clutch, a warmth that seemed to assure Daniel that it would be all right. He would be normal again. The deafness would pass…

But it wasn’t just the deafness, Daniel wanted to say, if only he could without making a fool of himself. Their eyes did not meet. Perfunctorily, he gathered the pale-yellow tubes of the sugary delight from his prized freezer and nearly dropped them into Niño’s brawny arms. They would not talk, not today, not until he could speak normally again. As his friend was leaving with the children, Daniel stood statue-still between the doorjambs, a narrow sentinel lost on what to do next. Soon, they were gone, fleeting as phantasms. His face felt hot. How awkward and stupid he felt. Not a smile or hello. Niño did not deserve that.

When he decided to stop studying his slippered feet, he leaned against the doorframe and noticed the flat sheet of sky overhead. Ashen, like the sooty walls of his house. No sun in sight, yet it was midafternoon. There was a heaviness to the air, bearing down on his shoulders, compressing his heart and organs until it was hard to breathe… Death from the sky… Why did he have the feeling that it was not yet over, that the heavens were merely holding back?

Entranced by this oppressive sensation, he felt himself being led away from his house. Removing his slippers, he buoyed up his arms, sensing the atmosphere’s tendrils that splashed against his skin, the same feeling you get when alcohol evaporates from your skin. Tepid as Niño’s hands, the rough cement warmed Daniel’s bare feet as he went. He was on edge, though his steps were steady and focused. Passing by the patched-up manhole that continued to reek with that unimaginable odor, he made his way down the inclined strip of road, yet instead of the stench abating, it seemed to intensify, stirring in an absent wind, thickening the air and making it even more oppressive than it already was. He turned left, squeezing into a mossy alley so narrow that even his slender self had a difficult time. Then he stopped in his tracks, coming back to himself, all the time wishing that he hadn’t.

The body of a little girl. Lifeless. Bloated. Rotting. The flood had washed away her face, and the stench from the manhole had masked her very existence.

You were correct, Daniel. The sky is not yet finished. The voice flew right into the threshold of his mind, bypassing his deafened ears.

“You led me to her…” Daniel swallowed, wheeling away from the corpse. “Bayuhaue? How did you know?”

Unchanged from the first time he saw her, the fiery-skinned goddess held him with her raven eyes. Not I, my Chosen. Your spirit has awakened. You heard the dirge of the wind, and I merely pointed you to the right direction.

“But…the sky…it isn’t finished yet?” His must have squeaked in apprehension.

Following the laws of the earth, father Bayuhibe has decided to open the sky’s sluice gates to its full extent. Her gaze shifted from his face and settled onto the little girl behind him. There will be more of her, and you will be needed to find them.

“Needed!” Terror seized him. “This… this is God’s judgment?” He no longer minded how his words might have sounded.

Judgment comes from humans. God has done its part.

His face contorting into a grotesque expression, he restrained himself from jumping at her, “Tell your father to stop! It is too much, too many have—”

There is nothing you can do about the sky! Worry about the death that comes from the ground! That, perhaps…

But he had dug his willowy fingers into her shoulders and begun to shake her. “Enough! Please don’t do this!”

“Daniel! Daniel! It’s all right, we’re here!”

“Niño?” All of a sudden, it was no longer Bayuhaue before him. Daniel blinked furiously, realizing that there were tears in his eyes. With his brow wrinkled like that, Niño looked extremely worried. When did he get here? The other folks from the barangay were behind him, peering furtively into the narrow alley, their lips rustling in inaudible whispers. When Daniel pried his fingers from Niño’s well-built shoulders, he noticed that he was clasping something in his right hand—a woven pouch, with blue and white stripes and a pattern of little people running…

Be strong, Daniel… he heard Bayuhaue in his mind. She was still around… listen to the ground…

No one saw Daniel slipping the pouch into his shorts pocket.

*

Before Daniel found the dead girl, Niño said that the villagers saw him humming to himself and prancing down the street. That was when they heard him suddenly shouting and yelling from the alley, so they sought Niño’s help at once. Lea was the girl’s name. Her parents had been searching for her since the typhoon, all the time suspecting that she had been caught in the flood when a wall at the lower areas burst due to the accumulation of water. She was given a proper burial, but shortly after that, the clouds darkened abnormally quickly, as though someone was charring them with flamethrowers.

Worse than last week’s downpour, the deluge came down on them in one harrowing blow. PAG-ASA never saw it coming. There was no low pressure area. No inter-tropical convergence zone. And no letup for an entire seventy-two hours. With an inundation that powerful, half of the Katipunan area was transformed into a lake. Communications was down, and with it most of the television channels. Thanks to Niño who always listened to the radio, Daniel found out that already-waterlogged Marikina had been wiped off the map, the same with Manila that reporters now dubbed as the ‘Atlantis of the Philippines’. The elevated parts of Pansol, including Daniel’s house, had been spared from the catastrophe.

But now that the turbid waters had ebbed a little, Daniel decided to take it upon himself to look for those who might have suffered Lea’s fate. Still not wearing any slippers, he stood beside the barren mango tree that grew at the perimeter of the barangay’s only basketball court. It was barely light, and Pansol was still in a stupor, both from grief of loss and the exhaustion of trying to get their homes and lives back together. In his palm, he held a betel nut chew that he had extracted from the woven pouch that Bayuhaue had granted him a few days back. Without giving it much thought, he popped it into his mouth, grinding the dark-red nut, tasting the lime and the sappy leaves. He’d read that heroes did this in the ancient epics to—how should he say this?—power-up, perhaps like Son Goku becoming a Super Saiyan. In any case, he was doubtful of what help it could give. He just let himself take comfort in the assumption that it could, at the very least, cause the placebo effect on him.

Sunbeams began to pour in, still dim and dozy. The street felt like ice to Daniel’s skin, and he shivered involuntarily. But it was not from the chill. He shivered because the ground did. Troubled, he waited. There it was again! Though very faint, the bowels of the earth seemed to be ticking and even crawling. It made his hairs stand on end. It was difficult to be sure since it was only a flutter that he felt, but now he was really afraid. He put more betel chews into his mouth. When he cast about, he realized that he had actually left his spot under the mango tree and walked across the basketball court. There were scrawny, sando-clad children and a few women in flowery dusters giving him confused stares. This had been happening a lot, him moving around, actually prancing around without him realizing it.

Unexpectedly, the atmosphere’s tendrils splashed against his skin again, making him jolt into hyperawareness. Daniel’s heart and mind raced, for the tendrils were much, much more numerous this time. Closing his eyes and pocketing Bayuhaue’s pouch, he heard her tranquil voice—you are needed…

Tears seared his face as they dribbled down his cheeks without his control. He gave up his hands and feet to the rhythm of the wind, and when he opened his eyes again, he saw that the people of Pansol had begun to crowd around him. A spectacle, was that what he was to them? The children, his main ice-candy customers who always laughed and patronized him, gazed at him differently. The others, too, were unusually intent.

Daniel gestured with a willowy hand, beckoning them. Like sheep, the barangay folk followed, an uneasy procession. No one spoke, or if any did, their voices were hushed. He led them to the ruined entrance of Pansol, to tight edges, hidden clefts on the cracked walls, where faceless bodies had been sprawled together by the currents. Like spears, screams ripped apart the morning’s veil of silence. Daniel heard only the ghost of that sound, but he could very well imagine it in his mind. To the church, the Maria Della Strada, they went next. He pointed his fingers at the creek without looking at what it was he was trying to show, for he already knew. More heartrending screams.

Daniel went on with this the entire day, going where he could, where the gray depths of the opaque floodwaters appeared not too perilous for him and those who trailed behind him like shadows. By the time he was back, the sun was half-mast and he was completely spent. He had been traveling barefoot the whole time, yet his soles didn’t have any blisters or cuts. As he was trudging back to his house, the ground crawled under his feet again, a lot more palpable than before. What more, there was that oppressive sensation as when he found Lea, a force that pressed down on him from all sides. He began to sweat profusely. When he checked Bayuhaue’s pouch, there were only three betel chews left. How many had he consumed?

When he was in front of his house, he noted that someone had removed the makeshift cover of the manhole again. A shirtless man with a swollen crocodile belly was lumbering towards him, embracing a large black garbage bag in his podgy arms. Without even giving Daniel a passing glance, the shirtless man dumped his trash straight into the manhole. The ground bucked at that, causing Daniel to topple over. But the shirtless man never felt anything. He just lumbered back the way he came.

“Hoy! What did you just do?!” Daniel flared up, his speech an incoherent babble, at least to his ears. Now the ground’s trembling wouldn’t stop. Clambering on all fours towards the opening of the imburnal, he examined its gloomy depths and was assailed by waves of cadaver-breath fumes. Although light was poor, he managed to make out the sheen of mound upon mound of plastic bags. Apparently, the barangay folk had decided to make this into the local dumpsite while the garbage men couldn’t come to pick up the trash.

Retching and coughing, he rolled away from the hole and saw another villager, a stocky woman, approaching with her own rubbish stash. At once, Daniel was on his feet. He hastened to her, flailing his hands frantically.

The mere sight of him caused the stocky woman to recoil. Short of running away, she barked at him, “Tangina! You get out of my way, salot ka!” Crab-like, she scuttled sideways to evade him, then it came to her that she was a lot bigger than he, so she shoved him away like a ram. But Daniel would not relent, no, he could not. Bayuhaue’s words were reverberating in his mind, compelling him to act—listen to the ground… death… from the ground… listen! Listen!

Shrieking, he whipped the smelly trash bag right out of the stocky woman’s arms. It bounced once, twice, until its contents—empty cup noodles, banana peels, and bloody napkins among others—were scattered all over the street.

Without warning, two hands gripped his shoulders firmly and started to haul him away towards his house. “Daniel, please you have to stop! You’re not like this!” At once, he knew that it was Niño. The streetlamps had come to life, painting everything in orange, brown, and black hues.

“The ground… shaking! …Have to bolt it shut!” Eyes wild, Daniel was breathless and could do nothing more than writhe like a worm and scour Niño’s face with his fingernails, all the while hating the other for dragging him away like this.

“We can help you, Daniel. Just calm down!” Niño had pinned him to the ground. The other villagers rushed to help him restrain Daniel, and soon so many hot, oniony, sweat-covered body parts were bearing down on him that his eyes seemed to be the only things he could move.

Herb-scented palms that were as rough as tree barks fleetingly settled on Daniel’s eyes, then lifted. Looking down on him was the harsh, heavily-creased face of the barangay albularyo, his hook nose pointing at Daniel like a verdict. The albularyo hoisted himself up with much difficulty, and Daniel spotted a rosary, a glimmering medallion, and a bunch of feathers in the old man’s tree-bark hands. Now that he was on the ground, Daniel felt that he could connect with it more fully. The trembling was a portent, and a very urgent one at that. “Let me go! Let me go!” Writhing again, he cried out desperately. Oh, if only they would listen to him!

Upon inserting the shafts of chicken feathers between Daniel’s toes, the albularyo commenced coarsely chanting into his patient’s ear a strange and lengthy orasyon, “Crux sancti Pater Benedicti, crux sacra sit mihili lux, non draco sit mihi dux, vade retro satana nun quam suade mihi vana, sunt mala quae libas ipse venana bibas, eius in obito nuestro preasentia muniamur, pax aja xax…”

Exhausted, Daniel stopped screaming and became limp. Closing his eyes slowly, he spoke to her, Bayuhaue, please forgive me… Yet she did not appear. There were only the anxious Niño, the albularyo who was now wiping Daniel’s forehead with oil, and the obstinate villagers.

As you said, I listened to the ground, but these people wouldn’t heed me… The land was quaking so hard that it was practically pummeling his back like fists. It was coming. Any time now.

“You, evil spirit!” the albularyo boomed, brandishing his rosary and saintly medallion. “Tell me your name! Why have you possessed this man, and why have you brought us these misfortunes? Speak now before I punish you!”

In answer, a piercing bat-like shriek issued from the manhole. Even Daniel heard it. “Screech! Screech! Screech!” The albularyo froze, and the villagers let go of the patient. With bated breath, they gaped at the manhole when the first of the rats emerged. Its fleshy claws clasped the edge of the street tentatively before it revealed its large, rodent head. Its long, wiry-whiskered snout sniffed the ground as it gaped back at the villagers with vicious, nocturnal eyes. When it was out at last, everyone saw that there were raw, hairless patches on its sodden body. That thing was as big as a street dog, and its squirming tail was a scourge that reached up to a meter in length.

Like an oil slick that caught fire from the streetlamps, more of the giant rats surfaced from the darkness of the hole that they had made into their abode. Ten, twenty? No, there were hundreds of them at once, a great army that had been fattened by the city’s excreta, a hairy plague that poured out of that single hole, skittering and scattering into every possible direction. Forgetting everything else, the villagers took to their heels, screaming even more stridently than the rodents. Niño was urging his friend to rise and flee, but Daniel had closed his eyes and refused to open them again. Unable to hold out any longer, Niño gave up and was soon gone.

“Screech! Screech! Screech!” Within minutes, Pansol was completely overrun. The rodent horde went on a rampage, shrieking and making weird sucking noises, gnawing at doors and walls until they were reduced to sawdust, devouring every morsel of both the edible and inedible in the kitchens, invading rooms, cars, jeepneys, and tricycles alike. Their time had come, and they would certainly make the most of it. Yet none of this was enough. These creatures were famished. They needed meat, so they hunted down the dogs, the cats, the mice, and most especially…

…the humans.

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