Friday, 8 September 2017

Lucio and Merlita: An Aswang Story

Introduction: As I watched the full moon rose tonight, I was inspired to write this piece about the interesting Philippine aswang. 

I hope you'll enjoy this, too. - ALD

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Lucio, squatting on the ground, is continuously caressing the dark feathers of his prized rooster. Man and bird are reunited at a backyard surrounded by santol and marang trees. As dusk has passed, their reunion is lit only by the burning cigarette pinched between Lucio’s chapped, dark lips, creating a silhouette of the two farm creatures. Their relationship only involves monologues from the human, although it is difficult to tell if the bird agrees with everything he says.

Lucio thinks his feathered warrior should be ready in two weeks to battle other roosters at the bulangan, or cockpit. Feeling the bird’s muscled legs and sharp claws, Lucio already imagines the bloody fight scenes amidst shouts from the bettors. His imaginings of blood only make him drool. The sight of it somehow always creates a craving, whether it’s daytime or nightfall. His interest in the bird suddenly ceases. He stands and leaves his rooster under his hut where it lodges. He is not worried about the bird getting away, nor is he worried about it being stolen.

Lucio and his wife, Merlita, work at the hacienda fields of the Montinolas. Just like the million other sugarcane workers in the Negros Island, the couple earns a living by planting and harvesting sugarcane, the chief crop of the island. That morning, they woke up just as the rooster crowed.  They had a restful sleep; last night was quiet and uneventful. They did not leave their kubo in the middle of the night.

But tonight is different. In the next hour, a full moon will rise over Mount Silay to the east and hover over the hacienda fields. Lucio and Merlita have been looking forward to this natural phenomenon. Natural to many, but to the couple, it will be more than just a moon.

Soon, the moon will illuminate the sugarcane fields, bathing all nocturnal creatures worshipping its ascent across the Visayan skies with its lunar light, Lucio and Merlita will join the others of their kind in celebrating their malevolent existence while covering themselves in unholy oil that they prepared in a mystical ceremony of diabolical incantations carried out in total darkness during the cuaresma.

Lucio and Merlita are aswang, creatures of the night whose kind has been talked about and feared in the countryside for generations. An aswang is notorious for feeding on human flesh, hunting its victim in the dead of the night while everyone is sleeping. The couple lives a secret life among plantation workers in a hacienda of clustered huts, carabaos, and gossipy neighbors.

The moment is near. The couple can no longer contain their excitement. They hasten to finish their cold dinner of fish and rice. As their hut, lit only by a lone, oil-lamp light, stands far from a crowded cluster of other homes, no neighbor will see them welcome the red moon. They will squat on a sturdy santol branch drenched in oil and recite their Hiligaynon incantations without any worry of any neighbor seeing or hearing them.

And it is time.

The childless couple gets up from their small table leaving the dirty plastic plates behind. She quickly splashes her hands with water stored in a bangâ and goes to get their special oil, the lana secretly hidden in her small aparador. In a bottle that used to contain liquor, the lana starts to produce bubbles, a sign that an aswang is in the midst.

Lucio is still wearing his work clothes of brown, sweaty camisa and dirtied pants, and Merlita is in her sleeveless, worn-out house dress, a daster, which made them look underdressed for the special occasion.

Lucio heads out to their backyard followed by his wife who now starts to rub herself with the oil, which she then shares with Lucio, and both start to drool and scratch. The moment of total darkness before the moonrise creates the itchy sensation in an aswang.

In the dark, the two skillfully climb the santol tree like lizards and settled on a big branch high up the tree facing east. As they squat on the branch, the two continue to deliriously scratch with their fingernails grazing through oil and pungent body odor. Scratching their heads and back, and even their genitalia, they rub against the branch and slowly lose their humanity.

The moon’s tip now peeps through the mountain, and minute by minute, its size slowly grows reflecting a pale red light. The eerie silence in the hacienda is now ruined by dogs howling with Lucio and Merlita joining the chorus growling like rabid dogs.

Their appearance changes. Their eyes turn red and their disheveled hair stands like the wavering sugarcane leaves before a harvest. Staring at the moon, they produce inhuman sounds and gape as their odorous saliva drips from their mouth drenching their clothes already wet from oil and smelly sweat.

The huge red moon climbs above the mountain. It is now the brightest spectacle in the night sky, imposing its presence over humans and other creatures, including the two squatting diabolical beings whose silhouette on the tree branch is a sight as rare as the red moon.

Lucio and Merlita, fully bathed in moonlight and oil, are now stronger with all their senses heightened. They can smell the fragrance of all the plants around them as well as the stench of a neighbor’s pigsty far away. This enables them to tell which hut shelters a newborn baby or a pregnant woman. The flesh of a young human is always another reason to hunt.

Suddenly, they smell smoke. Although their lone lamp at home is lit, this smell is strong and is mixed with the smell they hate the most, garlic!

And instead of reciting the incantations, Lucio screams in pain. A wet, sharp object pierces through his dirty shirt, slicing his side. It was a spear made from sharpened bamboo wet with water boiled with salt and garlic, and blessed with an oracíon. He loses his balance and grabs Merlita with him. Both fall down to the ground and unto the thick roots of the santol. 

The two realize they have unexpected company: a group of male humans carrying fire torches and determined to spoil their romantic moonlighting. Under the torches’ flickering lights, Lucio tries to get up from the ground still grimacing in pain. He fends off the second spear, while his wife gets her first. Their growling has turned into screams of pain as more salty water is doused on them.

Merlita crawls forward with her oily hands clawing the leafy ground screaming at the attackers, but before she is able to jump from her feet towards their attackers, she is silenced by another sharpened bamboo that skewers her through her foul mouth and down her throat like a fattened pig being roasted. Her growling and salivating stop but her body still writhes and squirms on the dirt like a headless snake.

With blood streaming from his side, Lucio tries to get up but instead gets a hack from an espading, a sharp cane knife he uses in the sugarcane fields. The weakened male aswang tries to protect himself from the blade with his crossed arms, but the burning pain from the aswang antidote of salt and garlic was too much, making him lose his strength, and as he rises to his feet, he gets bayonetted on the stomach by another wet bamboo spear.

The couple in the middle of a bloody retribution is no longer bathed in the red full moon’s light but in blood.

The couple has been notorious in the hacienda and in the neighboring villages. They have been known all these years as aswang, and are blamed for the mysterious deaths of children and pregnant women. On a few times, they have been recognized when they hunted at the neighboring village. Word got around, and without the notorious couple knowing, the hacienda people and their watchmen planned to finally catch the two. And this was a perfect time, the time when their attention was all on the rare red full moon.

No longer in command of their will and senses, the two helplessly accept the relentless hacking from the watchmen like a chicken being chopped in preparation for tinóla, a local chicken soup.

By now, the moon has finally reached the pinnacle of the night sky and is shining its light on the lifeless Lucio and Merlita through the thick santol leaves. Other than the moonlight and oil, the two are surrounded by their murderers and are covered in dirt, blood, and disdain.

The two never expected their end to be as brutal and quick as this. The whole hacienda will be talking about them even before the sun rises the next morning, and the fear of the aswang will hopefully disappear.  

And under their hut, Lucio’s rooster is no more. At dawn, it will crow to awaken a new master.

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