Yesterday's Magazette

14 – Universal Fear

Universal Fear

Art and Story by Richard Ong

A fierce electrical storm raged outside that evening. The house was plunged into darkness when the power went out. As I groped around to find the candle and a match, the only light in the kitchen was the occasional flash of lightning that lit up the rain-soaked window pane.

I remembered how much I hated the darkness when I was a child. Even as an adult, I refused to look directly at the window for fear that I might catch a glimpse of something outside in the garden and out of the shadows whenever the lightning flashed.

I finally found the candle and a matchbox. I struck a matchstick against the abrasive side of the box and watched in fascination at the tiny heat the glowed in my fingertips. The acrid smell of burning wood gave me a shiver and my hand shook at what I saw at the center of the flame.

I was once again a child of nine back at home in Manila. The world was so much bigger and full of mysteries when you were that young. I was about to have dinner when I heard heavy footsteps and shouting around the house. There was some confusion as people ran up and down the stairs.

I followed my sisters and went into my parents’ bedroom. I jumped onto the couch to look out of the steel-barred window. I squeezed myself between them to have a closer look and gasped. The bars felt warm to the touch and beads of sweat immediately formed on my forehead. I wiped the sting from my eyes and squinted against the bright orange glow of light in the middle of which once stood the modest two-story home of our neighbor, Mr. Matias. His house was engulfed in flames and I smelled burning wood as the fire snapped and greedily tried to reach out toward us. I instinctively backed away and slipped from the couch, hitting my head on the floor.

The next thing I knew, someone was pulling me on my feet and dragging me down the stairs by my hand. There was a lot of shouting around the house. We suddenly stopped and I looked up to see my nanny, Tita, talking to my mother. My mother told us to leave the house at once and go to my cousin Nino’s place several blocks down the street.

Tita nodded and pulled my hand as we ran out of the house and through the open gate of the driveway. I looked back and saw that my older brother and sisters were right behind us. In the distance, I heard the wailing sound of the fire trucks and silently prayed that our house would be spared from the fire.

I drank a third glass of water since arriving at my cousin Nino’s place and my throat still felt dry. My younger cousin didn’t have a clue on what was happening near our home, but was nonetheless glad of our visit. He showed me his latest toys, though I hadn’t said a word since we arrived.

Gentle Tita gripped my hands in hers to keep them from shaking. She rubbed my hands and gave them a massage till I finally relaxed. I heard my older siblings talking in the living room with my aunt, who was rocking my baby sister to sleep. Luckily, the youngest member of our family was already at my aunt’s place at the time this incident happened. I cleared my throat and asked, “Are we going to lose our house?”

Tita smiled and sat down beside us. “Of course not, my dear. The firemen are already putting out the fire and before you know it, you’ll be back home sleeping on your own bed.”

Nino frowned. “There is a fire? Where?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Tita said. “Nothing is going to happen to your house. The Lord will see to it. Well, we may be here for a while. Would you both like to me to tell a story?”

Nino and I were suddenly alert, for we always liked to hear Tita tell a story. We nodded our heads vigorously.

“Well then, where to begin?” Tita sat on the seat across from us at the small dining table. “I was just a little girl when my mother told me this story.”

“It was said that in the Visayan provinces, there existed a creature that resembled a beautiful and very dark woman. This creature was called a manananggal. Its hair was thick, long and dark as the night. Its claw-like fingers were twice as long as a person’s and the fingernails were as sharp as its teeth.

“On its back.” Tita stood up and hunched over in order to hook both thumbs behind her back. “On its back protruded a large pair of leathery wings like that of a bat. The manananggal flew into the night with its upper torso. The rest of the body from the waist down remained rooted to the ground while the creature hunted for food.”

Nino and I were both fascinated and terrified to learn that such a monster existed in the real world. Tita believed what her mother had told her and that was enough to convince us.

“Did you actually see a manananggal?” I asked, tightening my grip on the glass of water in my hand.

“Not I,” Tita said. “But when I lived in my village, all of the children were told to stay indoors after sunset. I would often look back over my shoulder during my long walk towards home from school whenever I heard the tell-tale flapping sound of wings above me. They looked like birds at a distance most of the time, but you could never be certain when it’s dark.”

“Did your mother see one?” Nino asked. His face was almost white with fear. I felt several goose bumps sprout at the back of my neck.

“Once, when she was a young woman,” Tita replied in a low whisper. “My mother was coming home from the market when she suddenly saw what looked like an enormous bat crawling in the middle of the road. The bat turned around and sniffed the air behind it. My mother was horrified when she realized that she was staring at the face of a very dark woman. The creature began to swiftly crawl towards her, dragging its upper torso with its clawed hands and wings. My mother knew what a manananggal looked like and she grabbed a handful of garlic from her shopping bag to throw them in the direction of the monster. The manananggal shrieked as the garlic hit its face. The creature turned around and flew away into the night.

“God bless her brave soul.” Tita finished her story and made the sign of the cross.

The three of us jumped when the phone rang. My parents called to say that the fire was almost gone.

Within a few hours, the danger was over and it was time to go home.

We all said our goodbyes to my aunt and her family and thanked them for their hospitality. My baby sister was already fast asleep and would remain till the next day in their care. Nino gave me a hug, but said nothing. His face was still pale from the memory of the story.

As I walked back home under a moonless night with Tita, I heard the flapping sound of wings above us and wondered whether these were birds at all. I squeezed the crucifix at the end of the gold chain around my neck and started to run.

Vol. 37 No. 3 – Yesterday’s Magazette – Fall – 2010

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