Wednesday, 6 September 2017

"Marya-pe" (A Short Story)

Introduction: Since I was a kid, I have been fascinated by aswang (Philippine witches) stories. So, I decided to write one of my own (and definitely a few more in the future). At night, during the past weeks, when everyone else is asleep, I wrote, on installment, this short story about life in the Philippine countryside, throwing in some aswang angle and a few other things.

I hope you'll enjoy reading this. - ALD

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“Maar-yaaa-peh! Maar-yaaa-peh!”

Marya-pe could almost hear her mother scream her name. She was expected at home hours ago. By now, she imagined, instead of cold rice and tinóla waiting for her, a plateful of Hiligaynon curses was.  Marya-pe had defied her mother many times before, and these occasions helped her memorize the litany of angry words that flowed from her mother’s mouth, words that flowed faster than the water from the pump shared by the neighborhood during the dry season in Hacienda Lagrimas.

Marya-pe would have wanted a pair of wings so she could fly and get home faster. But having wings was unlikely, unless she was an aswang, a mythical creature that could transform itself into any animal, and she thought the one with big bat-like wings would be a practical choice considering her current predicament.

From her childhood stories, the aswang could be anything it wanted to be, especially during a full moon, but sadly, Marya-pe knew she could not transmogrify, so she simply accepted her present physical form: a passenger squeezed between two others in a passenger jeepney that was slowly navigating the dark highway between Malihaw and Palmana, a highway that cut through haciendas whose sugarcane plantations were now perfect for a sweet harvest. Her small sling bag cut across her purple blouse still had smudges of flour and her ma-ong jeans had blotches of cheap margarine, and on her lap was a white plastic bag containing a half-dozen monay bread, her mother’s favorite, which was the offering she prepared to appease the inevitable maternal wrath.

While she could no longer smell the cheap scent she sprayed on earlier, the male passenger in a grey shirt to her right, who was grasping the cold overhead railing of their transport with both hands, was sharing an obnoxious smell emanating from somewhere in his anatomy. Marya-pe, the immediate recipient of his stinky largesse, was already being punished even before she arrived home. She would sometimes cover her nose with her red handkerchief refusing to surrender her olfactory sense to her neighbor’s intrusive body odor.

The passenger to her left, however, seemed overdressed for a public transport passenger. An older woman in her 50’s was dressed like she came from a wedding, wearing flat, shiny black shoes, dark-blue trousers and a collar-less, red blouse with extended sleeves accented with gold buttons that still glittered under the dim jeepney lights. Her big hair swayed with the wind, but her face was bereft of any expression redeemed only by her bright-red lipstick which came to life every time the lights of an incoming vehicle flooded the faces of the weary passengers. And basing on the space occupied by her overdressed neighbor’s wide behind, Marya-pe thought she might as well have paid for one-and-a-half passengers.

The eldest in her family, Marya-pe worked at the small bakery along Rizal Street in Malihaw, a small city in the northern part of the Negros Island whose economy revolved around sugar, usurious financing, and small-town gambling. All day long, her company at the bakery, other than her fellow daily-waged workers, were the showbiz gossip and smuggled Chinese flour, and an occasional flirtation from the boys working at the carínderia next door. As her work usually finished at six in the evening, her mother, and not the father, was the one always watching the clock, and when she missed arriving home within an hour, her mother would spew upon Marya-pe her diabolical sermon even the Devil himself would be embarrassed to deliver. Her father, tired from working in the sugarcane field all day, was the tolerant one. He believed that, so long as he was able to provide for the family’s meals every week, his wife could take over the disciplinary functions of parenthood for both of them.

As the jeepney was slowly navigating the dark and curvy national highway, Marya-pe and her fellow passengers faithfully complied with the laws of physics, obediently moving with the motions of the vehicle also forcing her right hand to tightly squeeze the cold overhead handrail while her left secured the plastic bag containing the bread whose appearance was said to have been fashioned after the female genitalia.

Hours before, the same hands handled baking pans and sugary ensaimáda leftovers that she pinched into small edible pieces during her break.  The Chinese owner of the bakery would sometimes allow them to bring home some unsold bread instead of surrendering these to fungi. He would convince his workers that the unsold inventory he was giving away was de minimis benefits of sorts, although during the lunar new year and Christmas holidays, he would allow them to bring home the more expensive pan americáno.

Marya-pe and her family lived in a cluster of huts in the middle of Hacienda Lagrimás, the inroads to which were illuminated by torch and tricycle headlights, and on a few cloudless nights during the month, by the moon as well. Since the day she found a job, her mother explicitly told her to go home right after her work every day at Chan’s Bakery, her workplace, but the idea of not joining her former high school classmates, some of whom dropped out of school for reasons that included poverty and teenage pregnancy, at a gathering on a Friday night where boys, drinking and flirting were the main attractions, made her feel left out. She thought, after a day of baking, it was time for some flirting.

Marya-pe’s mother reminded her many times why she had to be home early at night: her mother’s young sister was found lifeless with signs of physical abuse and sexual violation in a middle of a sugarcane plantation a generation ago. The night before, Maryape’s aunt told her parents she would be going to her friend’s birthday party in Sagay, a town that was two hours away and was coming home late.  Her absence at home that night was ignored as the family thought she was spending the night at her friend’s house like she always did.  But after the tragic news descended upon Hacienda Lagrimas the next morning, the crying and wailing did not set with the sun that day.

And amidst the noise provided by the jeepney’s decade-old engine, Marya-pe’s quiet supplications had now turned into resignation.  It would be better, she thought, to beg the saints’ intercession that the pain from her mother’s pinching or curses, whichever greeted her first, would be less painful than the previous occasion.  

Her stop, a junction everyone called Cuaycong, named after the family that owned the hacienda next to it, was a few minutes away. She would be getting off and meander through the dark dirt road and into their village a kilometer away. Even on a moonless sky, she knew the turns and corners of the narrow path that accommodated cargo trucks, carabaos, and sugarcane workers during the busy days of planting and harvesting.

The driver, wearing a tired pair of baggy eyes and white hair, commandeered the vehicle like a true master of the national highway. He was alert though to slow down and stop whenever his passengers wanted to get off. His conductor, who served as his steward collecting fare and announcing the stops, stood by the exit of the jeepney clinging on the upright steel bars that made him look like a coachman in a carriage with no horse.

The transport, upon arriving at Cuaycong, slowed down and stopped, and Marya-pe got off alone. There were no more tricycles for hire at the stop as it was late.  She had to walk home, and as dim stars on the cloudless the sky could not provide illumination, she took out her small pen light from her sling bag to help her see the dirt path between two plantations of tall sugarcane plants, an uneven path decorated by pebbles, stones, and carabao dung. And she traced her path, the cool night breezes blew against sharp sugarcane leaves as they swayed to the dictates of the Amihan winds from the northeast. Her neighborhood was still far away, and other than the sound of the wind caressing the leaves, nocturnal insects, and the staccato cadence of her dusty shoes against dirt and stones, her mother’s voice was already ringing in her head.

Aside from sugarcane, the area’s uneven terrain was lined with shrubbery and a few kapok trees whose silk-cotton was turned into pillows by productive housewives of the hacienda. But doing domestic chores was farthest from Marya-pe’s mind as she marked her route by the tall kapok trees she just passed.

And just when she was nearing another tree, she thought she heard another set of footsteps behind her, steps that seemed heavier.

She turned around and loudly asked, “Sin-o ’nâ?!”

She wondered out loud who else was there. She trained her penlight towards the darkness behind her to survey any presence, human or otherwise.  She wasn’t scared; she had passed this way a thousand times since she was a child.  Her playmates used to jump out of the sugarcane furrows to scare her. Back then, they only played during the day as they were too scared to venture out after dark because of the aswang stories.

Marya-pe continued on tightly clutching the monay bread with her left hand, increasing her pace as her right hand steadied the beam of light from her small electric torch. She reached a curve and had to turn right. The curve was marked by the tallest kapok tree said to provide the most silk-cotton and was a haunted spot for those who believe that a kapré could sometimes be seen sitting on one of its branches .

There was no time to entertain kapré or aswang stories now, Marya-pe thought, as the scariest being must now be waiting for her at their home with an inevitable outburst sharper than any aswang bite. But as she skipped through dirt and stones, she once again heard footsteps that seemed to mirror hers. The faster she went, so did the other pair.

This time, Marya-pe realized she was not alone! And not in the company of an aswang or a kapré!  She knew she could probably outwrestle an aswang as she had been on a few catfights at school before. Or even outsmart a kapré depending whether it was seen as white or black. But remembering what happened to her aunt, Marya-pe knew that humans with evil intentions were scarier than witches or ghosts.   

Believing that those steps might not be a friendly pair, she quickly upped her pace and screamed “Ta-baaaang! Ta-baaang!”.

A small creek was ahead. This was where she used to play and bathe with her friends when their innocence did not yet understand public nudity.

She hastily crossed and did not care if her shoes or the bottoms of her maong pants got wet in the ankle-deep, cold waters. And on reaching the other side, she continued sprinting over dirt and stones, and just let go of the monay bread, spilling them behind her.  She hoped the bread she kneaded and baked earlier that day would distract whoever was following her. Marya-pe only had a few pesos with her, and she thought if valuables were what her follower was after, the monay was her most precious possession at the moment.  She continued to run as fast as she could on the stony path, still holding her penlight and not looking back mindful that a stumble could easily close the distance between her and whatever danger she thought was behind her.

This time, Marya-pe’s fear was no longer about her mother’s anger, but the peril she was in. And as screamed one last time for her mother, ironically the person she feared and wanted to avoid that night, Marya-pe fell to the ground after she felt a heavy, solid object hit the back of her head. She was still panting as she lay on the dirt, face down, and was slowly losing her faculties as moments passed.  Her penlight was nowhere as she lost gripped when she fell. Both hands were now trembling as her fingers clawed the dusty ground.  Lying still, she heard dogs bark from afar, her right cheek, bruised from the fall, pressed on the dirt road.

And as she heard footsteps closing in, she lay numb from the impact, but she felt the Amihan breeze caress her face and her hair once more, just like her mother did when she was an obedient child.  

While the stars on the cloudless sky dimmed, Marya-pe lost consciousness.

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“Maar-yaaa-peh! Maar-yaa-peh!”

It was still early, just before sundown, but Marya-pe’s mother was screaming her name by their doorstep.

Her daughter was finally home, but not in purple blouse that had smudges of flour and ma-ong jeans with blotches of margarine. She was in a white dress that she wore at her high school graduation. And a tricycle did not bring her home, an auto fúnebre did.  She was no longer squeezed in between passengers; she was lying in peace in an off-white coffin.

That morning, a young vaquéro on a carabao found scattered bread covered with ants on the road, but did not bother to get off to investigate the unusualness of his sighting.  But by mid-morning, shocked sugarcane workers walking through the fields near the creek discovered her lifeless body inside the sugarcane plantation.

Once again, the crying and wailing did not set with the sun that day. And among the whispers of the mourners, the story of the tragedy that happened years ago at the hacienda repeated itself. And to the same family.

That night, the whole neighborhood gathered at Marya-pe’s home. She was placed in their small living room, and outside, under a borrowed tarpaulin serving as a makeshift roof, were relatives, neighbors, and gambling tables. Instant coffee and hot ginger ale were served with pan de sal and kinihad donated by Marya-pe’s boss.

Sadly, no monay bread. 

And by her coffin:

“Maria Fe G. Crisostomo
Born:  October 3, 1996
Died: March 21, 2015"

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