A Quest to Recapture the Spirits
by Jude Ortega
An earlier version of this story won first place in the Jimmy Y. Balacuit Literary Awards at the 20th Iligan National Writers Workshop (2013)
Nang Moray, the best-known albularia in half a dozen villages, woke up one day to find the spirits gone. She summoned them through her usual chants and rituals, but she did not receive any response. The spirits did not manifest to her in any way, not even in the form of a soft whisper in the wind or a faint shadow darting past the corner of her eye. They had left her without any warning, without leaving any trace for her to follow, as though they had not been her companions for nearly half a century, as though they had never existed. After several days of calling in vain for them, she set out to look for her friends.
The sixty-year-old albularia could think of a number of reasons why the spirits disappeared, but her biggest suspicion was that they had been drawn to another—maybe stronger, she hated to admit it—center of energy. For the past several months, Nang Moray had been hearing about a new healer in the capital town. The man, whether on purpose or by accident, must have lured the spirits away from Nang Moray’s abode. Nang Moray did not know exactly what to do with the other healer. She decided she should go to his place and observe first. She told herself that if she found out her suspicion was true, and the man took away the spirits with ill intentions, she wouldn’t let him get away with it.
Nang Moray lived in the town of Esperanza, and Isulan, the capital town of Sultan Kudarat, was just twenty minutes away. She rode a jeepney and alighted at the public market of Isulan. She was quite familiar with the place, so she had no trouble looking for the terminal of tricycles bound for Kawayan, the slightly remote village where she had heard her rival lived.
A man in his twenties approached Nang Moray. She assumed immediately that he was a driver, for his arms were covered with garish-red cooling sleeves designed with black dragons, a recent trend among tricycle and skaylab drivers. He asked Nang Moray, “Are you going to Kawayan, La?”
The albularia was not able to say anything and only managed to nod. She was usually loquacious and would respond to mundane questions with a lengthy answer. Her long experience in handling patients had taught her that making people comfortable with her was the first step in healing them. Words, however, failed her this moment because the young man had called her “Lola.” She was reminded of her age. Though she was well aware that half her hair had turned gray and her face was lined with wrinkles, she was not used to being referred to as a grandmother. Nang Moray had no grandchildren, for all her four children died when they were too young to marry, and her patients, who were mostly her age or younger, addressed her as “Nang” or “Nanay,” not “Lola” or “Iyay.”
The driver led Nang Moray to the back of the sidecar. The front was already filled. Seated in it were three persons, two in the main seat and one in the extra, narrow seat. As soon as Nang Moray was seated at the back, she heard the old man in front grunt in pain, leaning on the woman beside him. Nang Moray stared at the horizontal mirror attached near the ceiling of the vehicle, and she saw the reflection of the man and the woman. There was no doubt that they were father and daughter. Their noses, which looked like the base of a coconut frond, seemed to have sprouted from the same trunk.
The old man groaned louder. His daughter turned to the driver and asked, “Aren’t we going yet?”
“In a while,” the driver said. “Just two more passengers.”
“Ah, Diyos ko!” the father said, his hand grappling at the wall of the vehicle as though he was blind. The other hand was pressed against his belly. “I can no longer take this.”
Nang Moray, having seen countless patients in pain, could tell that the father was suffering from no ordinary affliction. He seemed to be a man who had grown old toiling under the sun and drinking gallons of tuba, and men like him usually kept their pain to themselves as long as they could help it. If they were crying like a child, especially in front of their own children, the pain must be equivalent to having three aching teeth.
“Diyos ko,” the father said again. “Hijo de puta!”
Nang Moray was alarmed. When men like him called out to heavens and cursed in the same breath, the pain was as severe as having ten aching teeth. She glanced around, looking for spirits. She wanted to help the old man. But as she had expected, there was no spirit hovering around. Spirits shied away from crowded, noisy places.
“How much is the fare?” the third passenger in front, a man in his forties, asked the driver.
“Twelve pesos per person,” the driver answered.
“We’ll pay for the empty seats,” the passenger said. Nang Moray realized he was a companion of the father and daughter.
“All right,” the driver said, hopping at the motorcycle at once, as though afraid the passenger would change his mind. “That’s an additional twenty-four pesos.”
“No problem,” the man said. “Just hurry up.” He was seated on the narrow seat in front of his companions, so he had to sit sideways. His body faced the door, his knees jutting out of the vehicle. Now that his neck was twisted toward the driver, Nang Moray was able to see his face better. He did not look like the father and daughter, but he looked three times more worried than the daughter was.
“Kawayan’s not very far,” the driver said. “We’ll be there in fifteen minutes.” The tricycle winded its way out of the public market. For some reason, the sick old man stopped whimpering.
When the tricycle moved off the highway and started to run on unpaved road, the driver told the family, “You’re going to Doc Sonny, eh? Don’t worry, he’s really good.” He spoke aloud, so Nang Moray could hear his voice over the hum of the engine. “I’ve brought so many patients to his house, and almost all of them later claimed they were healed.”
The daughter nodded. “So we heard,” she said in an equally loud voice. “The doctors in the provincial hospital seem unable to cure Tatay, so we decided to take him to Doc Sonny.”
At first the conversation confused Nang Moray, but almost immediately she figured out that “Doc Sonny” was a faith healer—the faith healer she was looking for. The family and she had the same destination. She wondered why her rival was called a doctor. She strained her ear forward so as not to miss a word in the conversation. She didn’t have to exert much effort, though. Unlike some people her age, she was still sharp of hearing.
The tricycle ran over a bumpy spot, jolting up the passengers a few inches from the seat. “Puta!” the sick man shouted. “Diyos ko, puta!”
Nang Moray peeked out the tricycle, hoping to see spirits in the less bustling surroundings. The spirits didn’t have to be her friends. She knew how to ask for a favor from spirits that she had only met for the first time. Her eyes surveyed the rice fields flanking the road, and her heart leaped when she saw wisps of smoke gliding around a tree. To her dismay, however, the spirits were pale-colored and shrieked at one another. They were young—she guessed they came into existence after the Second World War—and oblivious to human pain.
“Hold on, Tay,” the third passenger in front said, his eyes on the verge of tears. He tried to rub the sick man’s arm, but with surprising vigor, the sick man brushed off the hand.
“Just let him be, Pang,” the woman told the man. Nang Moray realized he was her husband.
The man did not seem to take offense with what his father-in-law did, but he turned to the side and looked out the vehicle. He reminded Nang Moray of Mando, her late husband. Mando had a thoughtfulness that bordered on cowardice. Every time she gave birth to their children, he would cry as he held her hand, while she only gritted her teeth and grunted in a low voice. Whenever one of the children got sick, he would be unable to sleep at night, kissing the kid every now and then and telling him or her to fight, until Nang Moray would be annoyed and tell him to leave the kid to rest. In his last days, however, Mando showed extraordinary courage. Tiny worms slowly ate him alive from the legs up. Every morning, while he still had strength in his arms, he would silently drag himself near the hearth, pick the wriggling creatures one by one, and toss them into the fire.
The tricycle driver said to no one in particular, “I’m sorry. I’ll drive more carefully. Iyoy is suffering from what, by the way? Kidney stones?”
“No,” the woman answered. “The ultrasound showed his kidneys are all right. No stones. The doctor said he’s got prostate cancer instead.”
“Prostate? Where is that?” the driver said. Nang Moray, too, had no idea what kind of cancer it was.
“It’s a common disease of men nowadays,” the woman said.
The driver looked uneasy, and the woman seemed to relish this. She explained further, “The prostate is found somewhere in the groin of men. It’s a kind of sex organ, and women don’t have it. The ultrasound showed my father’s prostate has grade four enlargement.”
“Grade four?” the driver said. “It sounds like your father’s prostate is going to school. I thought cancers are classified by stages.”
The woman said, “The grade has something to do with how the cells look, while the stage has something to do with how the cancer has spread. My father’s cancer is in stage two, meaning it’s still confined in his prostate. Stages three and four mean the cancer has spread to other organs.”
“You explain well.”
The woman beamed. “Oh, I was able to go to college for a few semesters.” To show more of her skill, she added, “As to the grades of prostate cancer, grade one means all the cells still look normal and grade five means all the cells no longer look normal.”
“I see,” the driver said. “With Doc Sonny, though, it does not matter at all in what stage or grade your cancer is. A month ago, he got a female patient with stage three breast cancer. She was already so thin and weak. Now I heard she already sweeps her yard. Doc Sonny can cure you as long as you believe.”
“We believe in him,” the woman said. “He has also cured someone from our town. We’d rather resort to Doc Sonny’s care than stay in a hospital. The provincial has no specialist who can operate on Tatay. When we went to the private clinic of a specialist, we were told we must prepare seventy thousand pesos. My god, where would we get such an amount!”
“Indeed, hospitals will suck you dry,” the driver said. “While Doc Sonny, he does not ask for any amount. Donation only. Oh, here we are.”
The tricycle stopped in front of a house, which was identical to most houses in the outskirts of Isulan. The lower half was made of hollow blocks, and the upper part was covered with weaved African palm. A scooter was parked in the front yard. “You’re lucky,” the driver said. “Doc Sonny doesn’t have so many patients today. Sometimes, the yard is full of vehicles, some of them four-wheeled.”
The family paid the driver and stepped out of the tricycle. The old man cried in pain again as his companions assisted him. He paused after almost every step.
“Do you want me to carry you, Tay?” the son-in-law asked.
“Puta,” the sick man said. “Don’t touch me.”
The daughter said, “Please stop cursing, Tay,” which only made the sick man utter more expletives.
The driver, who was watching the family, giggled soundlessly. “Poor man,” he said.
Nang Moray couldn’t determine if he was referring to the sick man or the son-in-law. Nonetheless, she told the driver, “Cursing helps him bear the pain.” She alighted from the tricycle and handed her fare.
“You’re just here, too?” the driver said.
“Yes,” Nang Moray said. She had given the driver a twenty-peso bill, and the young man was taking his time counting her change.
“You’re going to consult Doc Sonny?”
“No,” she said. But realizing the driver might ask more questions, she lied, “I mean, yes. I’m having trouble with my back.” She stretched out her open palm toward the driver to signify that she was waiting for her change.
The driver counted faster, handed her the coins, and told her, “You came to the right place. Doc Sonny offers hassle-free treatment. He’s not your usual albulario. He doesn’t perform rituals or ask you to offer something to spirits.”
Nang Moray wasn’t able to say anything until the tricycle left. When she turned to the family, she saw them disappear into the doorway. She followed them to the house.
A woman about forty years old had welcomed the visitors to the living room. “Is this the patient?” she asked, touching the grumpy old man at the back.
The couple nodded.
“Doc Sonny is inside the clinic, treating someone,” the woman said, pointing behind the heavy curtains that covered what should normally be a dining area. “But he will attend to you in a short while. For the meantime, here.” She fumbled at the pocket of her duster and took out a ballpoint pen and a tiny piece of paper. She gave them to the sick man’s daughter. “Please write the full name of the patient.” With emphasis, she added, “Include the full middle name.”
Without any question, the daughter did as she was told.
“I am Doc Sonny’s assistant, by the way,” the woman introduced herself. “You may call me Nurse Lydia.”
Nang Moray’s eyes inspected Lydia. Her shoulder-length hair looked as though she had not used a comb since she woke up that morning, and her floral duster had faded from being washed so many times. Detergent had obliterated the printed stems that connected the pale flowers and light-green leaves. She did not in any way resemble a nurse, just as the house did not in any way resemble a clinic or hospital.
The curtains parted, and a young couple came out. The woman was pregnant.
“Oh,” Lydia said. “The checkup is done.”
Checkup! Nang Moray thought in indignation. That term is for real doctors only.
The young couple bade Lydia goodbye and went out of the door. The curtains parted again, and a smiling young man peeked out. He had a deep dimple on both cheeks.
“That’s Doc Sonny,” Nurse Lydia said. “My son.”
Nang Moray stared at her rival in surprise. He seemed to be just eighteen or nineteen.
“Good mor—” The young man was not able to finish his greeting when his eyes met Nang Moray’s. She knew that he sensed something peculiar about her. “W-who’s the patient?” the young man asked.
“My father,” the daughter of the sick man said, standing up from the long bamboo seat.
Doc Sonny avoided Nang Moray’s eyes and told the others, “Please take the patient here.” He disappeared again behind the curtains.
Lydia assisted the family. Nang Moray watched as the old man was slowly guided to the other side of the curtains. Outside the house, she heard an engine come to life and then fade away. The pregnant woman and her husband must have left, riding the motorcycle that had been parked in the yard.
Lydia came out of “the clinic” and asked Nang Moray, “Are you not with them?”
“No,” Nang Moray said.
“I’m sorry,” Lydia said, sitting beside the older woman. “I think you have to wait for a while. It looks like the man’s condition is serious. Write your name first.” She gave Nang Moray another piece of paper and the pen that was used by the sick man’s daughter.
Behind the curtains, Doc Sonny said, “Teodoro Ogatis Flaminiano.”
“He’s reading the patient’s name,” Nurse Lydia explained to Nang Moray. “He can diagnose the patient’s illness from the name alone.”
“He doesn’t consult spirits?”
“He does. He has a number of guides.”
Nang Moray stared around the house. She could not see or feel the presence of any spirit.
Doc Sonny was speaking to the patient. “Tatay Teo, I can tell from your name that there’s something wrong in your abdomen.”
“That’s true, Doc,” Nong Teo’s daughter said. “He’s got—”
“Kidney trouble,” Doc Sonny said.
There was silence.
“Am I right?” Doc Sonny said.
“Actually, Doc,” Nong Teo’s daughter said with hesitation, “we’ve brought Tatay to a hospital, and the ultrasound showed his kidneys are fine. No stones or any abnormality. His prostate is enlarged instead.”
“Ah yes,” Doc Sonny said. “Of course. The prostate and kidneys are connected. All problems in the abdomen really start from the kidneys. Oftentimes, the affliction goes down and causes the legs to swell. In your father’s case, the swelling did not descend farther and stayed in the groin.”
It occurred to Nang Moray that the boy was a quack. There was no spirit around, so he had no guide whatsoever. He was swindling his patients.
Doc Sonny said, “Your father’s prostate is in grade four.”
“Oh, Doc Sonny,” Nong Teo’s daughter said. “That’s what also the doctor—I mean, the previous doctor—told us.”
Nang Moray was confused. She wondered how the boy knew about the exact grade of the prostate, how he was able to determine the patient’s ailment without the aid of spirits.
Doc Sonny continued, “It’s grade four leading to stage one.”
“So it’s not cancer yet?” the daughter asked.
“It’s not. But your father must be healed the soonest possible time.”
“Oh, thank you so much, Doc Sonny. We were so worried that Tatay’s got cancer. You give us hope.”
It struck Nang Moray that the woman believed the boy more than in the doctor in the private hospital. The boy had a different and crude explanation for the stages and grades of prostate cancer, but the woman took his word for truth. Nang Moray could not blame the woman. Doctors did not know everything. They did not believe that evil spirits had something to do with illnesses, but Nang Moray, having a third eye and herself capable of curing diseases, knew better. As to the boy, however, she could not decide yet if he truly had a healing power or he was just a good trickster.
Nang Moray told Lydia, “I can’t feel the spirits.”
“Of course, you can’t,” Lydia said. “They only show themselves to Doc Sonny.”
Nang Moray held her tongue. Nobody in the place knew that she was a healer herself.
Lydia explained, “Sonny used to be a nursing student, but he had to stop because I could no longer send him to school. Last year, he was stricken by a serious illness. He died of it. But he came back to life after maybe half an hour. Spirits then started to come to him and help him heal other people.”
Nang Moray nodded. So that explains it, she thought. The boy had some knowledge about medicine, and that was what he had been using to determine the illnesses of his patients. He was not truly capable of communicating with spirits. The story about him dying and then coming back to life was most likely something he and Lydia had spun. It was an all too common story among purported healers. In Nang Moray’s case, she gained the trust and friendship of the spirits painstakingly. She started, at the age of ten, as an apprentice of a babaylan, the younger sister of her maternal grandmother. She found it difficult to believe that spirits would liaise with a human being in so abrupt a manner as what happened to the boy. She saw a glimmer of hope. The boy had not taken away her friends, and she still had a chance to find them.
Inside “the clinic,” the daughter of the sick man asked, “So what do we need to do now, Doc? How are you going to cure my father?”
“First, your father must use a catheter again,” Doc Sonny answered. “He must be able to urinate. When you went to the hospital, the doctor had your father wear a catheter, right?”
“How did you know, Doc? Oh, I’m sorry for asking. I know, spirits are guiding you. You’re right. They made my father wear a catheter in the hospital. After a week, Tatay felt better, so we went home. Then last night, Tatay felt pain again in his abdomen. We decided to come here instead of going to the hospital, for the doctor might insist Tatay should undergo an operation. We can’t afford the seventy thousand the hospital is asking from us.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll perform the operation. You don’t have to spend so much money with me, and I won’t open up or even just touch your father’s abdomen.”
“Really, Doc? I’m so happy to hear that.”
“Yes, but first, I’m afraid you have to go back to the hospital. Have a nurse put a catheter on your father and then come back here tomorrow for the operation.”
“We’ll do that, Doc. Thank you. But could you do something right now to ease my father’s pain?”
“Yes, I’ll give your father first aid.”
Nurse Lydia stood up and told Nang Moray, “Please excuse me. Doc Sonny needs my assistance. Don’t worry, the first aid normally doesn’t take much time. It will be over in a minute.”
Nang Moray nodded, and when Nurse Lydia had gone behind the curtains, she stood up too. She had to leave now. She no longer had any business in the house. When she reached the doorway, however, a cry of pain stopped her in her tracks.
“Don’t touch me!” the sick man shouted behind the curtains.
“Tay,” the daughter said, “you have to get up. We have to go back to the hospital.”
“It hurts,” the father said. “God, it hurts!” He then uttered a string of expletives.
As the sick man cursed, Nang Moray heard thuds and creaks and saw the curtains shake. The man must be pounding with his fist the bamboo bed he was lying on. The daughter wailed in distress, asking his father to stop and imploring Doc Sonny to do something. The others behind the curtains were also talking in panicked voices. Forgetting where she was and why she was there, driven by a desire to help, Nang Moray rushed to “the clinic.” She gasped when she parted the curtains.
Dark haze was swirling around the sick man, and the other human beings, including Doc Sonny, seemed unaware of the malevolent presence. The boy, muttering something useless, was pointing his two outstretched fingers at the sick man’s exposed abdomen. “Let me do it,” Nang Moray said, brushing aside the boy’s hand. She heard protests, but she blocked out everything else in her senses.
She might be unable to summon good spirits, but driving away evil spirits was another thing. She took out the tiny bottle that was always slung around her neck and hidden under her blouse. She then pulled open the cap, poured a drop of coconut oil from inside the bottle to the tip of her index and middle fingers, and with the oil made a sign of the cross on the sick man’s abdomen. While making the sign, she repeatedly uttered a phrase from the Latin version of Our Father. The haze gave out a shriek and, in the form of a horned serpent, darted out of the door at the back of the house. The sick man whimpered and, still conscious, collapsed on the bed.
The other people in the room stared at Nang Moray in bewilderment.
“It’s gone,” Nang Moray said. “The bad spirit has left.”
“It’s true,” the sick man said. “The pain has stopped. Am I healed now?”
“No,” Nang Moray said. “Bad spirits feed on the illness of a human being. They will come again. For them to go away completely, your physical malaise must be eradicated first.”
“Who are you?” Lydia butted in.
Nang Moray was reminded that she was in the house of other people. “I-I’m sorry,” she stammered. “I shouldn’t be here.”
The boy touched Nang Moray on the arm. “You’re a healer,” he said.
Nang Moray pulled away. She turned to the family who had been with her in the tricycle. “Go to the doctor,” she said. “Or to another healer.” She then rushed out of the room.
The boy followed her. “Iyay, please,” he said. “I want to know you.”
Still walking fast and without looking back, she told him, “Stop fooling people!”
“I’m not fooling people. I’m really a healer. I have guides.”
Nang Moray stopped walking. “I don’t see them.”
“They’re not here right now. They left when you arrived.”
“What a convenient excuse.”
“I’m telling the truth. I still have so much to learn. I sometimes don’t know why spirits behave in a certain way. Maybe you can help me.”
Nang Moray continued walking.
“Let me leave!”
When Nang Moray reached the road, there was no tricycle in sight, so she kept on walking, not minding the dust and the heat of the sun. The boy had stopped bothering her, but even if she didn’t look back, she knew that he was watching her walk away. The silence told her so.
After a few minutes, a tricycle stopped beside Nang Moray. “To the market?” the driver asked. Without answering, Nang Moray stepped into the vehicle, and as soon as she was seated, the driver asked her again. “Is your checkup over?”
It was the same tricycle that she had ridden earlier. “Yes,” she told the driver. “The checkup was quick.”
The tricycle sped up. The driver said, “I went back to Doc Sonny’s house to wait for your fellow passengers earlier, but Doc Sonny said they’re staying there for a while. He told me to go after you instead. Thanks to him, at least I have one passenger on the way back to the market.”
Nang Moray nodded. She was in no mood to talk to the driver, or to anyone for that matter, but he was quite garrulous. He asked, “How did it go? The checkup.”
She lied. “Doc Sonny just gave me a bottle of coconut oil. He instructed me to apply it on my back every night.”
“That’s weird. Doc Sonny does not usually give anything to his patients. My wife and I go to him regularly. He just points at the afflicted part of the body, chants some inaudible prayer, and then gives us a list of food that we shouldn’t eat.”
Nang Moray opted not to comment. She pretended to be busy looking at the view beside the road.
“Doc Sonny is a good healer.” The driver kept on talking. “But sometimes my wife and I feel we really need medicine. For that, we go to Nong Ontit in Bagumbayan. He doesn’t want to be called ‘doctor,’ but he acts more like a doctor than Doc Sonny. He checks your eyes and mouth and gives out prescriptions.”
“He knows the name of tablets?”
“Yes. Tablets, capsules, syrups. And not just paracetamol or mefenamic acid, mind you. Even the ones that are hard to spell.”
“Isn’t that dangerous?”
“No. Aside from having a guide, if you know what I mean, Nong Ontit is quite familiar with medicines. He used to work in a pharmacy. Similar to Doc Sonny. He was a nursing student before he died and came back to life. Don’t you find it interesting? There’s a new trend among healers now, especially the popular ones. They know some science. They’re more like doctors than albularios. I think gone are the days of smelly ointments and chicken offerings.” The driver chuckled.
“But there are still a lot of good old-fashioned albularios,” Nang Moray said, trying not to raise her voice. “Have you heard of Nang Moray?”
“I know her. My mother used to go to her. But I don’t. I hope you’re not her friend or relative”—the driver chuckled again—“but I trust Doc Sonny and Nong Ontit more. Nang Moray is a has-been. Only old people and those who live in the boondocks continue to trust her methods. Why, have you been her patient?”
“N-no,” Nang Moray said. “I just heard of her.”
When she reached her home, Nang Moray once again called the spirits, but none of them appeared. She sat near the window and stared at her yard. There had been days when it was crowded with vehicles, some of them even four-wheeled, but now it was empty, and she thought with dread that it would be so from then on.
For most of the day the following weeks, Nang Moray spent her time gazing out the window, reminiscing about her heydays as an albularia, wishing for her spirit friends to reappear gliding toward her. She swore to herself that if they did come back, she would take them without any question. She would work with them again as though they had never left.
She had to refuse her visitors who came to be healed, and their number was dwindling. When one day she sensed a person standing in her yard, she did not bother to even look at him. She remained leaning on the window, her forearms resting on the sill, her chin resting on her forearms. She had no enthusiasm to greet someone she would only send away in a while. The person, for his part, remained standing in silence, as though patiently waiting for her to finish her waking dream.
When Nang Moray eventually stared at the stranger, her jaw dropped. It was Doc Sonny. She was not surprised to find out that it was he. She was surprised that he looked so young—younger than she remembered him to be—even if his face was serious and his youthful dimples were not shown.
She opened the door, and he greeted her, “Good morning, Nang Moray.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, “but I cannot entertain visitors today.”
“I am not alone,” he said. She frowned, not understanding what he meant, and he explained, “I was telling the truth. They went away when you were coming to my house, and they came back when you left.”
She found his statements still too cryptic, but before she could clarify further what he had said, the wind blew and the spirits that she had been looking for appeared. So the spirits had indeed gone to the boy.
The spirits did not come close to her or go inside the house through the door or windows, but they encircled the humble structure, as though inspecting a property that they had abandoned but still considered their own.
“Come in,” Nang Moray told Doc Sonny, and as soon as the visitor was seated, she said, “Are you giving them back to me?”
“But, Nang Moray,” Doc Sonny said, “I cannot give back what I have not taken away. The spirits came to me of their own accord.”
She had a feeling that he was telling the truth, but her heart was filled with rancor for him. “I do not believe you,” she said. “You did something to lure the spirits to your house. In any case, you can let them go. They will come back to me.”
“They won’t go back to you. They won’t go anywhere else.”
“So why are you here?”
“There are so many things I still don’t understand. I need someone who will teach me. I need your help, Nang Moray.”
Nang Moray was struck speechless. She had not entertained the possibility that the other healer would come to her to be her apprentice. When she found her voice, it was quivering and full of spite. “So you’re not only keen on stealing the spirits. You want me lose my place among healers. You want me to lose everything.”
“I am not going to replace you, Nang. I am only asking you to share your knowledge with me, not to transfer it to me.”
“All the same. Without the spirits, I can’t heal serious illnesses. I’m reduced to a manughilot, someone who kneads aching muscles. Have you thought of that?”
“But, Nang, the spirits have decided. I can’t make them go back to you. Perhaps you can do something to make them go back to you. I won’t prevent that from happening. But as long as they want to be with me, I’ll accept them. I’ll take care of them.”
“Hah! You don’t know what you are talking about. Keeping spirits in your stead takes more than lighting an incense or guarding a tree for them. You have to give your life.”
“I’m willing to spend the rest of my life healing other people if this is what God wants me to do.”
“I’m not being metaphorical. The woman who taught me to be an albularia was killed by evil spirits, and she was a babaylan. She was a powerful healer. She knew the ancient arts of healing. But she was still defeated. The good spirits were not able to save her. The same thing might happen to you.”
“It didn’t happen to you. Clearly you’re no ordinary albularia. You’re also a babaylan. And if evil spirits were not able to defeat you and you share with me your knowledge, then I will be spared from meeting a tragic end.”
Nang Moray shook her head. “I am not a babaylan. I am not worthy of such a name. Though I am still alive, my fate was worse than that of my master. The evil spirits killed my husband and our four very young children! Now be stubborn and sacrifice your mother’s life.”
Doc Sonny grew pale. For the first time since he talked to her, Nang Moray saw him waver. “S-surely, there’s a way,” he said. “These thing need not happen.”
Nang Moray didn’t know if her heart was touched with pity for the young man or she wanted to scare him more into giving up. She decided to give him an explanation, to let him in on some babaylans’ secrets. “Healers will always be vulnerable,” she started. “That’s because there are different kinds of spirits, and a healer must know all of them well. When I was in your house, the spirit I drove away from there came into existence during the Spanish occupation. It was something that can defeated by Catholic rituals and Latin prayers. You can’t see those kinds of spirits—”
“I saw it when it was fleeing,” Doc Sonny interrupted. “It looked like a huge snake and had horns.”
“All right. But your third eye isn’t strong enough yet to see it while it was still coming, and you don’t know the rituals against it.”
With his silence, Doc Sonny admitted that Nang Moray was right. She continued, “I’m not saying that I will, but I can teach you those rituals. I know how to defeat, or at least drive away, spirits that came into existence as far back as seven or eight hundred years ago. The problem is that, as far as I know, no one can teach you to fight ancient spirits. They no longer abound and not many of them are malevolent, but our lack of knowledge makes us healers and our family and patients defenseless against them.” Nang Moray thought that with her last statement, she sounded as though she was recognizing Doc Sonny as a legitimate healer, as someone who belonged to the age-old family of babaylans. She didn’t want the young man to have such an impression, so she added, “You don’t have to feel responsible for the spirits. If you don’t want to keep them and they deem me no longer fit to take care of them, they can look for another person. For every generation, there are always a few people who are born with a third eye.”
“But . . . Maybe in other parts of the country, there are babaylans there who know how to fight ancient spirits.”
“I’m afraid the knowledge has been completely lost. I went to Panay and Negros once to look for such a person, but I didn’t find any.”
Long silence followed. When Doc Sonny opened his mouth, he said, “Thank you, Nang Moray, for talking to me. I think I need some time to think over matters.”
Nang Moray nodded.
She led him to the door. From several directions, the spirits floated and formed a cluster in the front yard, waiting for their new friend. When Doc Sonny was about to turn away, Nang Moray was suddenly gripped with fear that he would not come back. It dawned on her that there was something greater at stake, something greater than her pride. “Perhaps,” she said aloud, and waited for him to face her. When he did, she continued, “Perhaps the babaylans themselves were to blame. At some point in history, maybe one generation refused or failed to pass on their knowledge to the next.”
Doc Sonny smiled. With his dimples, he looked so young and sweet and even guileless. She could no longer understand why she had considered him a threat. “And perhaps,” he said, “one generation was unwilling to learn from their predecessors or did not brave the danger that came with the calling.”
“You know where to find me when you’re ready.”
Doc Sonny nodded. She watched him walk away, the spirits gliding around him, stirring the wind and causing the leaves to rustle. Now she knew: he was not her rival; he was her successor. He was not the other healer; he was the new healer. She did not call the spirits to come back to her. She whispered instead, “Guide him. Give him the courage that he needs, just like what you did to me when you found me.” She then bid them goodbye.More stories like this by topic: Authors of color, Filipino/a authors, Philippines, Southeast Asian speculative fiction