02 Enero 2012

Sebastiana's Secret

The moon cracked the clouds, wounding the horizon, as a pale yellow halo appeared. His Lola used to say the band of light was an omen, harbinger of witches, elementals, or incurable illness. Great. Sam pulled his curtains shut. Three pages more, and then you can sleep. Rubbing his eyes with his knuckles until he saw stars, he pulled his notebook, a wad of stapled pages, and a highlighter toward him. Concentrate, he thought, tracing the words: 
He has given Rubio's father, Rufino, absolute freedom from the old pledge made by their ancestor . . .
From two flights below, the wailing crept up wide steps, down a hallway and, without knocking, burst into his room like a headache. 

Lola Sebastiana's death and wake attracted relatives who reappeared to stare at his grandmother's remains and eat the food his mother prepared. He suspected they wanted a private gloat at having evaded death thus far, themselves. He wouldn't blame them but Sam wanted them gone. As far as he was concerned, they were strangers to his Lola Sebastiana's death, if not her life. He met former college classmates from Class '63, former office mates, some former students. Former. None of them had been there the last few weeks as his grandmother slowly slipped away. Grateful as he was, he knew they gossiped in whispers during the service.

Sa huli, nasiraan yata ng bait. Bago mamatay, nakakakita na raw. Kinakausap pa.


Yung Ate niya. Si Lola Fe, na nauna pa. Humihingi raw ng tawad sa kung anu-ano. 

His Lola's death was not an event to attend, his Lola was no pastime, and her remains were not on display to be gawked at. Tomorrow, they would bury his grandmother and say goodbye to the relatives who crawled out of the woodwork.  

After two days of instant coffee and bowls of cold pancit, he retreated to his room to get some work done. At least, that's what he intended, until he realized his head throbbed. He succeeded neither in drowning out nor ignoring the noise. 

Downstairs, the mourners were outdoing themselves tonight. He heard 'Nay Ban from two streets up, her voice thin and high like a siren. There, Tita Luz, Sam's mother's sister from abroad come home two months ago. She brought with her a hacking cough, the parting gift of too many winters. The ice in her throat clanged when she laughed. The one whose voice gave the choral real soul belonged to Tita Fely whose large tits and equally enormous mouth earned her the nickname 'Nang Darna. She screamed her mourning like a savage hunting game, or a certain, fictional superhuman woman lifting a fuel tanker over her head. 

Sam cradled his head in clammy hands. His stomach churned, the taste of bile and phlegm thick on his tongue. Now more than ever, the mourners and young cousins had come, openly staring at Lola Sebastiana's corpse, most to convince themselves they were related to no aswang, no witch or changeling.  

Stories about Lola Sebastiana as a still born baby with cold skin an inhuman blue had been repeated and exaggerated beyond the simple truth that she had been born too late. Long labor deprived the infant Sebastiana so much oxygen, her skin turned blue. All her long, slow  childhood, cousins bullied her into admitting she was a witch and, sometimes, a changeling. Otherwise, how could she have survived her infancy? They returned now, cowed by her death. Sam didn't believe the stories. When Sam met her, Lola Sebastiana was an old woman. For Sam, she had never been a child, a mother, or a friend. In his mind, it was the old woman in a wheel chair, too weak to feed or clean herself, that had suffered taunts and bullying.  

Kape ka, Sam?  Tita Luz had wheezed a few hours ago, when he entered the kitchen crowded by younger cousins. 

Hindi na 'po, Tita. Salamat

Tita Luz smiled, the ice in her throat chill on his cheek when she hoisted herself precariously atop her own blunted toes to snatch a kiss. 

Kay bait bait. Teka, may gagawin ka ba? Tita Luz sat him down in a corner, well away from the six year olds. Ngayong wala na rin ang Lola mo, kailangang may magsabi sa'yo. Tita Luz had surprisingly dark eyes. Two rheumy points of flame focused on Sam. 

Aswang yung Lola mo

Sam sat stunned, too offended to react at once. 

Alam mo naman 'yun, 'di ba? Maraming takot na takot dati, noong bata pa 'yan. Marami siyang kaibigang biglang nakukunan. Tita Luz crossed herself. Pati yun si Lola Fe mo, biniktima rin noong pina-bless nila yung bahay at wala siyang makain! 

A cold wind continued to disturb the curtains. Next door, their neighbors shuttered their windows against their noise. When he moved the curtain back, he looked instinctively for Lala's silhouette against the pearl white curtains she never bothered to change. Lala's house was narrow but long and, lucky for Sam, Lala's windows were large and wide. From where he stood, he saw most of her neat bedroom. Unlike Sam, Lala was used to waking up early despite her late nights and by the time Sam jerked out of his coma, Lala would have left for work. A small knot of disappointment tightened in Sam's belly as he looked at the dark window closed to him.  

She can't be asleep. Ang aga-aga pa. 

Probably his only friend in the neighborhood, Lala was five years his senior and prone to bouts of insomnia. They stayed up and talked when it got too quiet. Once, they threw annoying objects littering their rooms at cats mating somewhere in the narrow lot that separated their house. An old Christmas-elf-sheltering-Snow-globe must lie half-buried somewhere underneath the grass. 

Sam whistled. 

Though Lala didn't appear, he kept curtain drawn, and hoped for the best. They hadn't talked in two weeks. The realization came unbidden but Sam shook his head, hoping to dislodge the thought. She'll be there tomorrow, he countered. Like an invitation at defiance, he pushed the windows open. 

When the wailing stopped, he guessed the guests were dining and he turned back to his desk, the littered papers, the half-constructed essays. Wherever she was, his grandmother heard the mourners abuse their voices and, he prayed, she must have moved farther away like he would. Outside his window, something large dove from above and Sam gagged, clutching his throat, overpowered by a cloying sweetness poisoning the air. Eyes watering, he fell to his knees, groping back to his door when he heard a swooping noise and felt the powerful tug of wings pounding the air.  He hurtled towards the gaping window and the pounding noise. What was that

Gulping mouthfuls of air, Sam's belly grew heavy and distended and he tumbled backwards.  His window ledge streamed out from under him; lifted bodily off the floor, he flew out the window. The grassy lawn loomed large and swallowed him whole. Sam lay comatose on the grass, the shadow of large bat-like wings reflected in his eyes.  

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