03 Mayo 2012

Maria and the Manananggal

She knew the windows were open to invite any wayward summer breeze but the sharp, scraping noise she heard in her half-sleep could not have come from her door or any other door in their house. It was a regular, rhythmic tapping, almost knocking to get in, but it was coming from above her, from outside and Maria felt a cool breeze on her legs, on the sweaty nape of her neck, and on her arms and face. She also heard, in the intervals between the tapping, a dull beating as of large wings straining somewhere close by. All this, Maria felt, were part of her dream and she regarded them with wariness and a little annoyance because, at ten years old, she was still afraid of 3am, the witching hour, and the monsters that crawled out to feast. When the girl opened her eyes, she lay still, barely breathing, to listen to the noise. It was still there. She had turned towards the wall, facing black shadow, so her eyes adjusted slowly to the dimness.

Maria stretched a little, turning over in the process, yawning. There was a fine breeze tonight, and sweet, carrying the baby scent from next door where a young infant had recently take residence. Their neighbor Ate Sita had come home from the hospital two weeks before. To keep her child cool, she had thrown open all their windows, too so Maria often saw her during the early evenings, rocking little Tonyo to sleep. Their houses cramped together along a short street, more than the baby's cries carried over on each sporadic breath of wind and Maria had grown as familiar with the baby as its mother.

The little girl inhaled, the sweet dust tickling her nose and she finally opened her eyes, blinking, to see a face more than half-hidden in thick shadow, staring down at her with large, yellow eyes. A manananggal! Maria would have screamed if the monster hadn't wrapped its long, rough tongue around her head, gagging and almost choking her.

It was a man -- or half a man, she couldn't see his legs -- struggling to keep from falling as he bobbed up and down, grasping her window grills. From where she crouched on her bed, unable to run or call for help, she saw that one of his wings bent at an odd angle. He kept it unmoving, still, in the air.

"Wag ka matakot." The Manananggal said. "Hindi ako kumakain ng bata!" Even with his tongue occupied, he seemed perfectly capable of speaking properly.

The Manananggal was pale and tired, Maria could see that from the way he slumped, resting on the narrow window ledge, beads of sweat dotted his high forehead. From the warm, yellow glow of the street lamp below, she could see he had grown pale from his effort to hang on to the grill.

Maria shook her head and sat down, obedient. It was the first time she saw a Manananggal and, since she had no previous experience with them, she knew only to trust him. After all, he was hurt, and he wouldn't eat her. The little girl figured there was nothing to fear.

"You're hurt." She said, when he uncoiled his dexterous tongue and allowed her to speak. "I can help."

The Manananggal looked at her, dubious. It was apparent he didn't want to trust her but, as he was stranded on her ledge, he had no choice.

"O sige. Na-sprain yata yung isang pakpak." He explained. "Kaya ko sigurong ayusin pero pagod na pagod na ako."

Maria pulled him towards the far end of the windows, a fire escape that had been shut with a heavy lock. The girl fished the keys from a box on her dresser and stood back to let the Manananggal crawl through. He fell with a crash on her bed, the springs noisy underneath the unfamiliar weight. The girl walked around him as he lay, panting, on her sheets. She brought him the glass of water her mother kept by her bedside, in case she needed a drink in the middle of the night. The Mananggal drank it in one swallow. He flopped onto his belly and tugged at his wings, grimacing.

"Sumabit yata sa puno ng mangga niyo. Hindi ko kasi nakita." 

"San ka galing?" Maria asked, running a hand down his uninjured left wing. It felt like softest leather, supple and strong, but stretched taut and thin across fine, hollow bones. She thought he was like a bird, a giant bird of prey. The Manananggal didn't answer, choosing instead to concentrate on his wing. He had an ugly look as he gingerly felt two, fine fingers along the wing, checking for breaks. Finally, he took a deep breath and, releasing it slowly, the Manananggal stretched and soothed the muscles along his back, easing the tension.

"Okay lang yata ako, mahapdi pa rin. May sugat at malaking pasa sa likod." He said as Maria blinked at him, chinky-eyed, her face round and soft, reflecting the silver moon. The girl crawled up beside him and was asleep before the Mananaggal could crawl into a proper hiding place.

In the morning, when her mother came to wake her up, she will find her daughter, Maria, dusty from crawling underneath the bed.

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