3,000 Words

The Manila Times predicted March 30th would be a scorcher, the hottest day so far this year. The aswang called it a perfect opportunity to hunt and went to pack the cargo van.

As a rule, she never took us to the same site twice and always drove along the back roads and forgotten streets to every destination. It kept us unseen, she said, and put a bold stroke outline on any car that might follow. She was always fastidious about these things. That was why she had lasted so long when all the rest of her kind had faded into folklore and rural superstition.

This time we traveled to Alabang Town Center. It was about fifty kilometers south and a two-hour drive by the route we took. We staked out a seat in the Corte De Las Palmas and waited for shoppers to pour in, acting like a mother and daughter kicking up our feet. By noon teenagers crammed inside, still celebrating their newfound summer freedom, their laughter and reckless chatter filling the air like blood spilled in shark-infested waters.

Had they known the kind of eyes that watched them, they would have fled the mall and gone straight home, to huddle in their closets and wait for us to move on. But they never knew, never left, and I was forced to relive the same nightmare over and over again.

Pumili,” the aswang said.

“I can’t. I can’t choose.” Practiced words she’d heard me say a dozen times before.

“Do not act like you have forgotten our deal,” she said, a rare moment when she didn’t speak Tagalog. “Choose someone, or I will choose you.”

I did. Like the coward I am, of course I did.

§

She said her name was Maria, a frail thing with long black hair and thick-rim glasses, not much more than buto’t balat. She trusted me like all the others and followed me out to the parking lot, to hear these “great new American pop bands” and pick out a brand new CD for free. The aswang said it was because I had a soothing voice and a kind face that calmed all fears and doubts. I didn’t see how that could be true. Nothing inside me felt kind or calm anymore, but the evidence spoke for itself. Thirteen times already; a hunter’s dozen.

Maria turned fourteen a few months back, among the youngest we had taken. She went to Doña Teodora Alonzo High, had a best friend named Sol, a boyfriend named Angel, and said she always hoped to be an actress someday. I never knew why the aswang wanted to hear these things before she brought them back to the house. Down into the shadows and reek of her lair, where she shed her human skin and used knives or claws to cut those young things of beauty apart. I can only guess she liked it that way. The knowing. The connection. It made the doing all the sweeter.

The last few minutes before we arrived at the aswang’s home, I comforted Maria with lies tinged with truth. Close your eyes. There’s no need to be afraid. It will all be over soon.

And then the aswang led her away.

I waited on the front stoop, overlooking the serenity of our street. Tightly packed houses painted in shades of green and red and blue lined both sides, each with a thin strip of front lawn. Small decorative trees were the predominant plant, like weeping snow fountains, flowering quince, or dwarf coconuts—anything that colored up the yards and let the sun shine bright and free.

In times like this, I imagined running down that street to freedom and never looking back. One moment here, the next gone, and all the way across over four hundred kilometers to my parents’ house in Gattaran. But I never did. I could only guess what they’d think of me if they ever learned the things I’d done. Or what the aswang would do to my family when she came to fetch me.

And she would fetch me; this I knew without a shadow of a doubt. The stink of evil had become a part of me and her nose could find it anywhere. No dark was black enough, no walls thick enough, no depth low enough to ever hide me now.

§

A cigarette dangled from the aswang’s mouth as she crouched between a stack of banana stalks and a pile of dry talahib grass. Windows locked, curtains closed, doors bolted, her sweat and filth suffused the living room with the rancid stink of a butcher’s dumpster. But she didn’t seem to notice. Her focus remained on her project, deft fingers moving the carving knife across the stalks with mechanical precision. A twist here to carve eyes, a nose and ears. A sweep there to put a part within its lips, to form the long curve of a neck and breasts and waist. A quick series of jerks and hacks to shape the arms and legs and everything in between.

She tied the parts together with the grass, moistened by her viscous spit into flexible strings. She bit off the frayed edges above the knots—without relinquishing her cigarette—and then gazed over her creation. A simple thing of humanoid proportions. A rudimentary doll the size of a girl.

She turned to me and smiled. “Imitasyon,” she said, eyes gleaming.

Her mouth filled with regurgitated blood and I turned away. The last thing I heard when leaving the room was Maria’s voice, as clear and soft as it was the hours before she’d died: “Parang may sakit ako.” (“I feel sick.”) It would be the last thing her family ever heard her say, before the replica “passed away” and they buried it in her stead. The way the aswang had always concealed the savagery of her crimes.

§

In the basement, while we were cleaning up the smears and sputum left over, the aswang turned to me. She said that since I started helping, everything ran smoother and she didn’t have to work or plan as hard anymore. She said the old days were long behind her now. No more painful transformations or wallowing as a pig or feral dog in the dusty streets, to hide in plain sight. No more cornering the unsuspecting in the darkest hours of the night, with the threat of angry farmers not far off. The Philippines had become a more civilized country and I was the final piece to her assimilation.

I had seen her old journals stacked in her closet and I knew what she meant. The chapters she wrote chronicling her sins ranged back through more decades than I could ever dare imagine. Though impossible to tell her age, I wouldn’t have been surprised to gaze through her skin and find the blood of ancient Spanish explorers still coursing through her veins.

The whole time she spoke, I remained silent, chewing on my tongue so that I could suck the metallic taste of pain. It was the only good distraction I had left. After she threw a red-soaked cloth into a black plastic trash bag, she paused and licked her lips. No doubt still imagining the doing. Then she carried on, rambling like a lonely farmer talking to her goat. As if I were as much a dumb and helpless animal.

Better than when she cared. Better than when she’d dragged me into the shadows of this basement. As I lay helpless on her table, she’d spent hours making a thousand tiny cuts, telling me that if I cried she would remove a toe or finger. Or if I screamed, she would reveal herself, shed her skin and eat me for her dinner.

She lied, though. I cried and screamed plenty and she never tried to hurt me worse. Guess she knew she would use me. Guess she could sense my complacency even then. I hated pain and would do anything to stop it. But, Banal na Diyos, the things I’ve done.

§

I called the several months between the doing the “reprieve.” It was a joke, of sorts, because even when we weren’t hunting I never felt a moment’s peace and nothing close to rest. The aswang gave me free rein of the house. She kept all the doors and cupboards unlocked, made no space sacred, not even her basement lair. I think she hoped I’d take a bigger interest in the hunt and that, one day, I might even be a real daughter to her.

Even monsters can dream.

Instead, I slipped on my tsinelas and sat on the front stoop, hoping someone would recognize my face from a news broadcast or a paper and call the police. But all I ever got were friendly neighbors. A “Kumusta ka” here, a nod there, or a smile and a wave.

I tried not to think about the girl I used to be, but in those quiet moments it became impossible to forget. I used to be happy once and smiled often. But never so much as the day I moved from Gattaran to Manila for college, an opportunity made possible through years of saving and sacrifice by my parents and elder siblings. I vowed to make them proud of me, to represent the family in a way that honored them all. The memory of that vow struck me like a fistful of bitter irony and always led to the jumble of memories from when I was imprisoned.

Walking down Victoria alone, after a late study session at the Manila City Library. The white van that pulled up to the roadside. The eyes that seemed to glimmer like a beacon in the moonlight, unnatural things that struck me with confusion. All that darkness swirling, drawing me in, smothering my sight and breath as she dragged me into the cargo space. And later, in her basement, when I almost saw her true face. A hint of it sliding beneath the mask of skin she wore.

Right then was when I realized: she wasn’t a woman or even human, but an aswang through and through. A monster birthed by nightmares in some swallowed time, surviving on pain and sorrow, on flesh and blood and innocence. And now I was the servant of her right hand. So what did that make me?

§

The aswang’s hunger had begun to grow insatiable. Usually she waited as much as half a year between each hunt, but after only a month she was preparing for another “guest.” This time we took her white cargo van through the streets of Quezon City and stopped in front of an elementary school after classes had ended. The children were out in droves, capering down the sidewalks with parents, with friends, but sometimes alone.

“What are we doing here?” I asked.

She grinned and her tongue traced the thin line of her upper lip. I tried pretending we were on a detour—some back road to throw off detection—and let the question drop. But I could feel the aswang’s mood shifting, her cravings stirring up inside her. Her pupils narrowed and her fingers locked around invisible blades, simulating the doing, practicing on each young body that passed us by.

We started following alongside a little girl wearing a purple pony backpack. Her head flopped from side to side in rhythm to a tune only she could hear.

“No. We can’t do this. It’s too much!” I said.

While we’d taken young girls before they’d always been those old enough to have tasted right and wrong and, maybe, chosen the latter more often. That was how I justified it; no one who’d had a chance to live a little could remain truly faultless. But this girl? Her innocence shined brighter than the daylight, a puppy chasing its own tail.

Tulungan mo ako, o magdurusa ka,” (“Help me, or you will suffer”), the aswang said, spoken with the same flippant tone one might use to tease a child.

We stared at each other then. Her eyes shone like empty glass in the wedge of light streaming through the windows. For the first time in years, I thought I saw beyond the flesh disguise she wore, to her true self hiding underneath. My fear rooted deep and I choked as if my tongue had swelled to twice its normal size. Still trembling, I slid the side door open without another word.

§

Her name was Rosalinda. She trusted me when I said her mother had been in an accident and we needed to get to the hospital right away. She didn’t notice how I dug names and details out of her with clever comments and leading questions, to amplify the lie. Just hopped right in to the darkness.

She was six. She loved ponies and candy and wanted to be a superhero when she grew up. A superhero. Not even old enough to dream reality yet. The last things I said to her were those comforting lies tinged with truth. Close your eyes. No need to be afraid. It’ll all be over soon.

And then the aswang led her away.

I thought about her answers to my questions while seated on the front stoop, the memory of her sobbing like hot pokers jabbing into my gut. I wished and prayed that real superheroes did exist. That they’d somehow hear her pleas, that they’d swoop down from the skies above and save her, and then stop the aswang and me for good. But I knew the truth only too well. No one would come; no one would ever know what happened. Heroes didn’t exist in this world, only monsters.

After the session ended, the aswang drove off in her van. No doubt to collect more banana stalks and talahib grass for the replica. As the front door closed behind her, “Ito na ang huli” (“I will make this one last”) dribbled from her mouth like a promise and a curse.

When the rumble of the van’s engine sunk into the distance, I ventured down to the basement to see what remained of Rosalinda. So I could mourn her the same way I’d mourned all the others, with hollow apologies to their corpses and tearful regrets that changed not an ounce of what they’d suffered. But after descending the earthen steps, I found her still alive and lying on the table. Blindfolded and afraid, she squealed from the pain of a thousand tiny cuts the aswang had made.

Like I had, several years before.

My pity bled through every white scar left streaked across my body and I wondered how much more I could put up with. Three dozen? Fifty? A hundred girls? I was no better than any of them and so much worse in every way. And Rosalinda—not even a decade stretched behind her. Why should they all die just so I could live? It wasn’t fair, wasn’t right.

I rushed to the table and removed Rosalinda’s bonds and blindfold. When she saw me, she didn’t scream like she should have done. She hugged me tight, wept into my arms and asked me when I was taking her to her mommy like I’d promised. She hadn’t understood what had transpired. She hadn’t realized my part in all of this. The pain dredged up by her confusion hurt me worse than any wound the aswang had ever given me.

I hurried up the steps while carrying Rosalinda in my arms, whispering comfort in her ear. Only this time with conviction, with feeling, because it was no longer a lie.

“Keep your eyes closed. There’s no need to be afraid. You’re safe now.”

I set her down on the porch, went back inside for a moment to scribble down a note, and stuffed it in her hands.

“Find an adult, you understand? Tell them to call the police. Give them this paper, it will explain everything. Now go!”

She nodded and stumbled down the street. To refuge. To escape. To a life of freedom that I would never know and could never again deserve.

§

Once the aswang learned what I had done, the bargain we made all those years ago would be voided.

“Be my lingkod and I will never hurt you again,” she’d said. “But if you ever betray me, makikita mo, I will put you back on that table and nothing in hell or earth will compare to the torment you will suffer by my hand.”

I believed her then. I believed her now. But emptiness had spread inside me beyond anything life could ever fill again. No matter what she might do, it would never match the years of suffering that had already passed.

Back in the basement lair, I planned my last stand, planned to end the aswang like I should have done the moment she loosened my binds. Her knives were fanned out in ordered rows upon the tabletop, exactly where she’d left them. Tools she used because claws could never be so perfect and precise.

I picked up the one with a slender ivory hilt. Its serpentine blade had never been cleaned and was still caked with the blood of every victim. If this were the one that killed her, I wouldn’t mind so much if I died too. The elegance of it justified the cost and I deserved death for my place in all of this.

But maybe if I was lucky, I’d end up with all the other girls and finally get a chance to apologize for real, to let them know I only did what I did because of fear. And who knows? Maybe they’d even forgive me. We’d hug and cry, laugh and talk, and go do whatever true friends do in Paradise—that place beyond the sky, where monsters can never find us and never hurt us ever again.

And I’d finally be happy. Because I’d finally be free.

 

Originally published in Penumbra Magazine (2013)

Samuel Marzioli is an Italian-Filipino writer of mostly dark fiction. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in various publications, including The Best of Apex Magazine (2016), Shock Totem, Intergalactic Medicine Show, and the Third Spectral Book of Horror Stories (2016). You can find more information about his current projects at his website, marzioli.blogspot.com.

1 Comment

  1. Captivating story!! It is so well written and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

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