Betamax for Starters

by Katya Oliva-Llego

“Would you like some coffee?” asked Garay, pouring a sachet of instant coffee mix into her mug.

“No thanks, Ga,” said Rudy, her older cousin, playing with the toaster latch. “How’s lola Mely?”

Garay poured hot water into her mug.

“She’s still breathing, but she’s getting tired of it. She said she can’t die until mama takes the stone from her, or someone does,” said Garay, setting her mug on the table. “Would you like to take it?”

“Me? No way! I’m so handsome. No way I will become an aswang,” said Rudy. “Why don’t you take it? You’re her favorite grandchild anyway.”

Garay bowed her head and clasped her hands together in deep thought.

“Besides, you already look like an aswang,” said Rudy, bolting out of the house through the kitchen door, laughing.

Garay took the tsinelas from her left foot, and aimed at the fleeing Rudy, but failed to hit him. It hit the wall instead. She got up, retrieved it, and looked outside through the half-open door. It was a bright day outside. Children were playing in the hot sun, getting sweaty, enjoying their summer vacation. Some adults were huddled in front of a sari-sari store, betting on Jueteng. They were all oblivious to the plight of her grandmother, a dying aswang. She closed the door. Inside their small concrete, unpainted house, it was cold and gloomy.

What Rudy meant, though, was true. Garay was ugly, not to the extreme of looking like an aswang, but almost. “You don’t need bangs, your eyebrows are your bangs,” the local hairstylist had told her. “Without your boobs, you could pass for a burly guy,” one of her neighbors had said. Garay, at twenty-two, had never even been out on a date. Not even the blind bachelor from the next barangay would date her.

Her grandmother, Mely, had been in her deathbed for almost a week. “I’m so tired. Ilya, somebody, anybody, please take the stone from me,” she said, begging her family.

Garay’s mother, Ilya, was the eldest child and was supposed to receive the stone according to tradition, but Ilya did not want to become a supernatural creature. When she was younger, a mob had come to their house bearing torches and long, pointed wooden sticks demanding that they turn in her grandmother, Juana, suspected in the disappearances of several small children in their area. They got out of that fiasco through the mediation of their barangay captain, and promised to move out of that place. Unfortunately, similar instances ensued in the other places that they moved to, until her grandmother expired.

Garay went up to her grandmother’s bedroom and peeked inside. It was also true that she was the favorite grandchild, probably because they looked so much alike. The rest of the family looked good, probably took after her grandfather, who some relatives had said was the most handsome man in his hometown. They said her grandmother had put some sort of a voodoo love spell on him, which was why he married her.

Her grandmother saw her and motioned for her to come inside.

“Garay, hija, I’m so tired. I don’t even know how long I’ve been lying here, waiting for death. Has it been a year? It feels like a very long time.” Her voice was deep and eerie.

Garay sat on the edge of the wooden bed and took her grandmother’s hand. If her grandmother were not moving or talking, she could pass for a corpse. Holding her hand felt like sticking her arm inside a freezer and squeezing frozen meat.

“Where is your mother?”

Lola, I-I don’t know eh.”

“I knew this would happen.”

Garay kept quiet, not sure of what else to tell her.

“Garay, please have pity,” said Mely, followed by a bout of cough.

Garay’s chest pounded hard. She wanted to run, suspicious of what was coming her way. She cannot be the receiver. She did not want to be the receiver. She did not know the details of being an aswang. She had never seen her grandmother turn into one, and her mother had never talked about it, except for her grim determination not to become one. She once saw a movie wherein an aswang turned into a big dog, then to a pig, then back to a dog, but her mother had since prohibited her from watching such films. She had the same amount of knowledge as the public about aswangs: that they are bad and scary. Sure, her grandmother was an overall nice person, when she was human. She did not know how her grandmother behaved an as aswang.

She was ready to drop her grandmother’s hand and run away like her mother, but after taking a good look at her, she felt that she could not bear to see one more day of her suffering.

Hija, take the stone from me, so I can finally go in peace,” Mely said, followed by another bout of cough. After her fit, she pushed something from her mouth with her tongue that she pursed between her lips. It was the dreaded stone. She had been coughing to regurgitate the stone out of her body.

Garay stared at it, mesmerized by its beauty. It looked like one of those tanzanite gems sold on home TV shopping. It glowed from white, to blue, to purple, to pink, to red, then to white again.

Garay’s fear shortly subsided. The stone that was making her grandmother a supernatural creature actually looked like a nice piece of jewelry. She figured she could take it from her grandmother and sell it to a jeweler in Manila for lots of money, or, maybe just keep it as remembrance of her.

She lifted her hand to remove the stone from her grandmother’s lips, but she slapped her hand. She had a lot of strength for a dying woman. Garay furrowed her unibrow. Her grandmother pointed to her lips in reply to her confusion. “Oh,” Garay said. She did not want to do this, any of this, but she could not back out now. The stone was out, and her grandmother was ready. Garay drew in her breath, bent down, and then took the stone, brushing lips with her grandmother, feeling her coldness and sensing her damnation.

“Now, swallow the stone.”

Swallow? Garay shook her head, the stone firmly pressed between her lips.

Hija, you have to swallow it.”

Garay shook her head again. She did not want to swallow the stone.

“Stubborn child,” said her grandmother, pulling Garay closer to her then pushing the stone into Garay’s mouth.

Garay sat quietly for a while, with her eyes closed and her right hand on her throat, expecting to feel different, to turn into a dog or a pig like in the movies, or something, but nothing happened. The stone slid smoothly down her throat. No water required.

When she opened her eyes, her grandmother’s body had stiffened significantly and her skin had darkened to some degree.

“Ay, now, be a good aswang,” said her grandmother before exhaling her last breath.

#

“Ga, did you take the stone?” asked her mother, Ilya.

“N-no mama,” said Garay, shaking her head while folding her grandmother’s clothes for storage. They had buried her three days ago.

“Then I guess she took the stone to her grave like I’ve asked her. I knew if no one would receive the stone from her, then she’d have to pass away with it. Hay, thank God, no more aswang in the family. B-but I will miss mama very much,” said Ilya, caressing her mother’s knitted scarf.

#

Three months post swallow, Garay was still waiting for any changes to her body. She had also tried coughing to eject the stone, to no avail.

She tried asking her mother about aswangs, but Ilya rebuked her and made her swear never to talk about it again. She tried asking her uncle Ipit as well, but Rudy overheard her and started teasing her, so she dropped it. Besides the ability to shape shift into animals, the other thing that she knew about aswangs was that they eat fetuses and small children, with emphasis on the heart, the blood, and the liver. She cringed at the thought.

#

One evening during dinner at her Uncle Ipit’s house, Garay felt her tummy grumble. She was still hungry. She did not want to get more food because it was already embarrassing. “Slow down, Ga. The living relatives of that cow you’re devouring might come after you for sadistic consumption,” said Rudy.

The thing was, she ate the leftovers from lunch an hour before dinner and ate so much during dinner, but still felt hungry. Her body seemed to be craving for something, but she did not know what.

#

“Ga, hurry up, we’re going to be late,” Ilya said.

“I’m coming mama,” said Garay, closing her skirt with clothespins instead of the sewn in hook and eye. She had gained more than a few pounds within the last couple of months.

They were going to the church to witness the christening of the newborn child of their neighbor, Tricia.

#

Garay stopped at the church entry and dipped her fingers into the marble angel’s cup, brimming with holy water. She raised her dripping fingers to her forehead, below her chest, to her left shoulder, then to her right, ending the ritual with amen. The cold, blessed water felt good on her warm forehead.

It was festive inside the church with colorful, fragrant flowers all round the altar and with the choir singing, “All Hail”. Garay and Ilya hurried over to the seats reserved for Tricia’s family and guests.

After the baptism, Tricia handed her baby to Garay. It was the first time Garay had seen the baby, since she had been seated three rows down, behind seven pairs of godparents. She smiled upon seeing the child. The baby had pink lips and a cute, little nose. She took the baby in her arms, rocked her a bit, and sniffed her baby smell. Then her stomach grumbled. Garay held the baby tightly with her right hand, and raised her left wrist to see the time. It was 11:30 in the morning; almost time for lunch.

She rocked the baby again and sniffed her, and her stomach grumbled even more.

“You’re so pretty,” she said to the baby. “So pretty you make me hungry.”

Garay tried to ignore her hunger. In half an hour more, they would be going to lunch. The parents and the godparents just had to wrap things up. Her stomach grumbled again. She suddenly had a weird thought: if the baby smelled good, she probably tasted good, too. No, that was crazy. She shook her head and fought hard to keep such thoughts out of her mind. She did not want to eat the baby, of course, not. She was just delirious from hunger. She sniffed the baby once more, and her mouth started to water. She rocked the baby in her arms, swallowing like mad to keep saliva from running down her lips.

“My turn with the baby,” said Ilya, taking the baby from her. Garay fought, holding the baby tighter and stepping away from Ilya.

“What’s wrong with you, Ga?” asked Ilya. “Give me the child. I want to hold her, too.”

Garay looked at her mother and felt a little embarrassed. She loosened her hold and allowed her mother to take the child. She swallowed another gulp of saliva, and felt a prickly sensation that started from her foot, up her torso, to her arms. She closed her eyes, breathing deeply, trying to maintain her sanity. She then opened her eyes and looked up. A large crucifix loomed. She looked to her left, and the image of the Our Lady of Perpetual Help was looking at her. She looked to her right, and the statue of Saint Joseph was looking at her. She felt sick. Garay ran out of the church, with the choir in the background singing, “This is The Day”.

Bright sunshine and moderate traffic noise greeted her outside. She breathed in the warm, polluted air, and felt better. She shielded her eyes as she scanned the vicinity outside the church: candle vendors, sampaguita vendors, rosary vendors, palm readers, and street food carts.

“Uy Ga! Want some Betamax?” It was her Uncle Ipit, waving his left hand at her and holding a stick of grilled chicken blood cubes, shaped like Betamax tapes, in his right hand.

“Uncle, oh, yes, I am so hungry,” said Garay, running towards the food cart, and then grabbing the stick of Betamax that Ipit was about to bite into.

“T-that was mine, Ga,” said Ipit.

Garay paid no attention to him. She finished the stick of Betamax in record time.

“You want some more?” asked Ipit.

“Yes, yes, give me some more. I’m so hungry,” said Garay.

“Ga, maybe you should see a doctor. You’re always hungry. You probably have worms in your tummy,” said Ipit, exchanging money and goods with the street food vendor.

“Mmm… good… mmm,” Garay said in between chewing.

Ipit stroked Garay’s hair, worried about her condition. She smiled at him, grilled chicken blood stuck between her front teeth.

#

“Garay, what happened to you?” said Ilya upon seeing her outside the church.

“Eh, mama, I got hungry,” said Garay.

“Hungry? Ay sus! There was going to be a luncheon after the christening. Why didn’t you just wait?”

“Ma, I was really hungry. Uncle Ipit bought me Betamax.”

“Okay. Ipit, what are you doing here? Do you want to come with us to the luncheon? It’s for Tricia’s child.”

“No thanks, Ilya. I’m good,” Ipit said, biting into his last piece of Betamax.

#

At the reception, Tricia went from table to table with the baby for pictures with the guests. Garay was worried that she would salivate again at the sight of the child, but to her relief, she experienced no such thing. I was just pure hunger that brought out the earlier incident at the church, and nothing more.

#

For several days after the christening, Garay’s appetite returned to normal. She did not have any unusual hunger or cravings, but it did not last.

Late one night, Garay woke up feeling as if her stomach was churning the rest of her organs because of extreme hunger. She dressed up and went outside to look for food, knowing there was no more food in the kitchen to eat.

Although it was quite late, Garay found a couple of eateries that were still open, catering to call center employees who got off at unusual hours. They were serving typical dishes like adobo, sinigang, and mechado, but she did not want the typical. She ventured on, hoping there were other eateries that would serve something else, but instead, she found herself in front of Tricia’s house. Her lips slowly formed a smile. She sniffed the air and began to salivate. It was like that bizarre day at church all over again. A prickly sensation traveled from her foot up her body. This time, she did not fight it. She felt her senses heightening, especially her sight, her hearing, and her smell. She sniffed the air once more, and her hunger grew to a delirious degree. All she could think of was the baby. She could feel the taste of the infant in her mouth — her warm blood, her beating heart, and her juicy liver. Adrenalin shot through her system, and she felt physical power she had never felt before. She finally knew what she had been craving for, what she needed, what she wanted. Her whole body tingled with anticipation. She was ready and willing to risk everything to get her meal, and was about to, when a huge, black dog with glowing red eyes appeared out of nowhere and stopped her in her tracks.

“Stupid, stray dog,” said Garay.

She stamped on her feet hoping to scare the dog, but it did not budge. She did not want to waste time with the dog. It was her mealtime. Garay ran to the front door with the agility of an Olympic sprinter, intending to break it down, but the dog outran her to it, growling. She wondered why the dog seemed adamant in keeping her away, and then she figured it was probably Tricia’s dog. She was an intruder, so it had to keep her away. Well, not for long. She reached for the dog’s neck, hoping to strangle it to death, but her hands slipped as the dog turned its head. Her nails dug in and ran across the dog’s neck, but she was not able to grasp it. She attacked once more, hoping she would be able to grasp its neck this time, but the same thing happened. Even with injuries, the dog was not backing away. It was not fighting back, either.

It also seemed to have grown in size, to as big as she was, but even that did not matter; she had to get rid of it. There was no other way. She was about to lunge toward the dog with all her weight, when she heard footsteps approaching. The dog, too, seemed to have noticed the sound, and ran away. Despite the power and the fury she had, she still worried about somebody seeing her. Utilizing all four limbs, she ran away from the scene so quickly that the house was far behind her in a matter of seconds.

#

Bad news broke out the following morning: Tricia’s baby was missing. She had just disappeared from her crib. There were no signs of forced entry, and nobody had heard anything throughout the night.

“Rudy dropped by earlier,” Ilya said, “and informed me that your Uncle Ipit was mugged last night. He said he didn’t see who mugged him. I’m going to check on him later, after I visit Tricia. Hay naku! What’s the world coming to.”

“It’s probably nothing serious, but I’ll go see him now, mama,” said Garay.

“Wait, Ga, don’t you want to have breakfast first?” asked Ilya.

“No, thanks mama. I’m still full.”

#

The sky was downcast, but Garay barely noticed. She felt bright and she felt good. She skipped and whistled her way to her uncle’s house. She felt a kind of satisfaction that she had never felt before. She was not even worried about her uncle. It was probably just a little bruise. She tried not to think much about Tricia’s missing baby, either.

Rudy was smoking at the gate when Garay arrived.

“Ga, papa’s been waiting for you,” he said. “He’s at the backyard. Go straight there.”

“Okay,” she said.

“And Ga, don’t eat all our food.”

Garay just smiled at him. Any other time, she would have kicked him or thrown something at him, but right now, she was in a good mood. A damn, good mood.

#

“Uncle, what happened to you?” said Garay, now feeling guilty for dismissing his condition earlier.

Ipit had several deep scratches running from his neck up to his left chin, and lighter ones on the right side.

“Don’t worry about me. I’m fine. Where were you last night?” he asked.

“I was at home. Have you seen a doctor?” she said.

“I don’t need to see a doctor. So, you were home the whole night? Just home,” said Ipit.

“Yes, yes. I was home. I was home last night,” she said, nodding her head and swallowing hard.

“You didn’t go out? You just stayed home?”

“Out? I-I’m not sure,” she said, rubbing her right palm on her nape.

“You’re not sure? You’re not sure if you went out or not?” said Ipit, pulling Garay inside the house through the back door, and then slamming the door behind them.

Garay started shaking.

“Ga, for the love of everything that is holy, tell me the truth. Did you go out last night?”

“Yes,” said Garay, breaking down in tears. “I went out. I was hungry,” she said in between sobs, “I went out to get food.”

“And where did you get food?”

“The eatery for the truck drivers at the next barangay,” she said. “I ordered liver steak. It was really good.”

“The next barangay? Oh, poor girl,” said Ipit, pulling Garay close to hug her. “So you didn’t eat Tricia’s baby?”

He released Garay from his hug and looked her straight in the eyes.

Garay felt the room spin. She clutched Ipit’s arm to keep her from collapsing.

“How d-did… I didn’t, but how did you,” managed Garay.

“Ga, I was there too,”

“What? Where? When?”

“In front of Tricia’s house, the same time you were there.”

“You mean, you mean, you were the–”

“Yes.”

“And you ate Tricia’s–”

“No, I did not. Didn’t you?” said Ipit.

The back door opened.

“I didn’t,” said Garay.

Rudy stepped in.

“If you didn’t, and I didn’t, then,” Ipit looked at Rudy.

“Don’t look at me like that, papa. You would have eaten the child too, if I didn’t beat you to it,” said Rudy with a smirk on his face.

“No, Rudy, I wouldn’t have,” said Ipit, straightening up to his full height.

Garay raised her unibrow. She looked at Rudy, then at Ipit, then back at Rudy.

“Oh c’mon, papa. I’ve been following you for several nights and you were always ending up at Tricia’s house. You were going to strike.”

“How could you accuse me of such a thing?” said Ipit. “I’ve been advocating our consumption of substitutes precisely to avoid such troubles.”

“Then what were you doing there?”

“Waiting for Garay!” exclaimed Ipit.

Garay slumped to the floor.

“I’ve been going there not because I wanted to strike, but because of Garay. I had a feeling she was going to strike, and I wanted to stop her,” he continued.

“What? Oh shit!” said Rudy, running his hands through his hair, head bowed. “You mean Garay is also, oh shit, I’m so sorry, papa.” Rudy walked towards Garay and helped her get off the floor and onto a monobloc chair. Ipit pulled out another chair and sat on it. Rudy lit a cigarette.

“Uncle, how did you know that I’ve become, you know,” said Garay, weak and shaking.

“I had a hunch when you started eating so much, but I wasn’t sure. Then the day you ran out of that church from the christening hungry and salivating, I became even more suspicious,” said Ipit.

“Then why didn’t you just talk to me?” asked Garay.

“Well, I wasn’t sure that you’d become one,” Ipit replied.

“All this time I’ve been searching for clues, for answers, and I felt so alone,” said Garay, tears running down her cheeks again.

“Ga, I’m so sorry. I wasn’t sure and I didn’t want to worry you needlessly.”

Garay buried her face in the palm of her hands and sobbed. Ipit signaled for Rudy to get her a glass of water, which he did. She accepted the drink and started to calm down.

“So, what now?” asked Garay.

“Well, we have to get you on a diet. A diet of substitutes,” said Ipit.

“Substitutes?”

“Yes, substitutes for the real thing. That meal you had at the eatery last night–”

“The liver steak?”

“Yes, that’s a substitute, and the Betamax we had at the church, as well. You can use the liver, the heart or the blood of any animal, cook it however you want it,” said Ipit.

“So you and Rudy are also aswangs. Where did you get your stones?”

“We got our stones from Auntie Zeny and Auntie Sonia when we visited them about ten years ago. They were old, sick, and they had no kids,” said Ipit.

“What about Tricia’s baby? What do we do about that?”

“We do nothing,” said Ipit. “What can be done?”

There was a long and awkward silence.

“I’m so sorry about that, papa,” said Rudy, “I really thought you wanted it for yourself.”

“I know.”

“Uncle, I-I’m sorry about the scratches,” said Garay. “I didn’t mean to. I didn’t know it was you.”

“Whoa, whoa. You did that to him?” asked Rudy with eyes wide open.

“She turned into a very big cat and scratched me,” said Ipit.

“Really? I did? So, that’s why,” said Garay, looking at her hands and understanding better the events of the previous night.

They remained quiet for a while. Each one buried in his or her own thoughts.

“So Garay, do you want to stay here for lunch?” asked Ipit finally. “I’m making a substitute: dinuguan.”

Garay smiled and remembered her grandmother’s last words to her about being a good aswang. Maybe this was what she meant.

Dinuguan. Sounds good,” she said.

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