Maria’s head spun, her father coughed, and both were convinced they must pry open the windows to invite the breeze. Maria’s new room needed the Sunday afternoon scent tangled in the boughs of twin mango trees fighting for sun and completely obscuring any view from the windows.
The small room had acquired the habit of becoming indispensible for disappearing or appearing whenever necessary. It served first as Mam’s home office. Long before that, when Maria’s paternal grandparents owned the house, the room had been decorated as a second sala –slim saloon doors swinging on hinges, heavy couches carved from driftwood, plates of kakanin or sticky sweet rice desserts on the floor – where her father and his brothers spent long afternoons feigning sleep. Now, during one of the hottest tropical summers the Abante family had ever experienced, their eldest daughter Maria claimed it for her tenth birthday.
Two weeks before, Maria’s father taught her the word ‘decade’ over breakfast, when Maria’s mother revealed her birthday wish. There was a look that passed between father and daughter. Hers was simple defiance, fierce and innocent, but her father shot her a glance filled with pride and the tremulous anxiety of being left behind. He looked upon Maria’s glassy face boiling under his stare. She stabbed her omelet and nibbled her toast spread with cheese. More than the inevitable recognition of his daughter’s selfhood, it was the physical separation and the fact of her wanting to tear herself away that punched a hole into his gut. It was nothing he could recognize because how can his baby want her own room? Then he stared at his sons fighting over the jam jar. Straining to regain his nonchalance as a detached father, head of the family, bastion of logic, and supreme judge, Maria’s father nodded and allowed himself a small smile. Isang dekada na nga pala, her father said. Without another word, he pointed her towards the dishes piled in the sink, her prescribed after-dinner chore.
Pap attached a bow to the door and surrendered the keys to his daughter in the presence of his sons para alam nila, he said, looking down at Abe and Ino. The seven year old boys grinned twin promises of sabotage, monster tricks, and taunting. It was, after all, a big day for them, too: another room, another hiding place. He cuffed them gently and the blow sent them spinning across the hallway, down the stairs, and into the shady backyard. Within, Maria and her father listened to the trees growing, inch by inch, in a silent invasion of the sky.
The room was very dim, the way it should be, she thought. Maria’s father stripped off gray curtains, handed her a damp rag, and pointed to the grimy windows. Sounds seemed to knock before entering. In other rooms all over the house, anyone could listen to the grumbling tricycles tearing down the road or roaring up the steep hills of their subdivision. Not here where it was quiet as dawn and sunlight couldn’t dance on the floor.
When her father left to find kuya Pip, Maria walked all over the room, measuring it in strides, She accurately figured she needed only six seconds and three long leaps to make it to the door and down the hall, should anything frighten her awake in the middle of the night. Her brothers were first to remind her: the family bed was an entire corridor away, past two locked doors and the bathroom. To reassure herself that she was faster than anything frightening, she counted the steps towards her parents’ bedroom and their large bed, lumpy and forgiving.
One—Maria ran out the door.
Two—three—four. She passed the bathroom.
Five. A breath, she lunged.
Six! She made it to the edge of her brother’s identical cots squeezed together between bed and wall. Ten seconds. She could return in six seconds. Maria grinned at the thought. Maria? Mara! Her father called from the bottom of the stairs. Show Kuya Pip where you’d like your bed.
Kuya Pip, the gardener, also repaired their stove, restored the broken cabinet doors, took apart simple appliances, and tinkered with her father’s motorbike. Kuya Pip’s favorite sport, however, was staring up at the mango trees growing around their house. There had been seven – three at the back and two on either side – but only five survived her brothers. They jumped and swayed from its branches, built a tree-house in one and attached a tire-swing on the other; they disturbed the birds, picked unripe mangoes, and shook the trees bare.
Ayaw pa rin! Kuya Pip strained against the welded steel window grilles, the palms of both hands purple from pushing against them. Outside, Abe and Ino sat on the mango trees’ wide, accommodating limbs, their faces inches away from the glass. They looked into Maria’s low-ceilinged, faded lavender room with a dusty mirror hanging behind the door. Maria’s sturdy bed stood on one end, directly underneath the lowest part of the ceiling.
Red-faced and snarling with effort, Kuya Pip heaved. The windows remained shut. The grills threw narrow shadows on the floor where Kuya Pip’s tool box sat heavy and full. He breathed through his wide-open mouth, one deep lungful after another, sucking in air, eating the dust. He seemed to shrink into the wooden floor. Kuya Pip groaned and coughed until, finally, the first two window panes swung free. He hooted, slapped his thighs, straightened his back, and eased the rest of the windows open with a flat-headed screwdriver. Outside, the sun retreated behind the trees.
Kuya Pip unscrewed and retired the grilles from her windows. Where once welded iron, slender, smooth, and painted dark blue, had been hammered into tough wooden walls, Maria saw only yellowing plaster painted brown. Once we get these opened, Mara, don’t ever close these windows, her father had warned. He was the only person who used that name.
Cabinet doors checked and bed assembled, Kuya Pip sat on its naked steel beams and slowly drained a long, sweating glass of water that Maria brought. Outside, the sun hung from charcoal branches. A breeze cooled them both and brought the taste of overripe mangoes and rotting flesh.
Mukhang excited ka na. Kuya Pip spoke in phrases, nods, and whistles. He blew a long, low note to the wind and caught Maria around her waist. He pulled the girl into a light embrace. Opo. Maria sat on his knees, her body leaning out. The gardener, in a white undershirt with his head shaved clean and arms decorated by long white scars, ran a hand through her hair and arranged it around her face. Maria watched blank eyes collapse, first, into bewilderment. Next, they darkened with fear. Finally, Kuya Pip? Her voice broke. Kuya Pip stood, eyes downcast, and shuffled out. Teka, Dai, tinatawag yata ako ng papa mo. Don’t, kuya, she said, hurrying after him. Too late. Maria stopped at the top of the stairs, craned over the banister, heard the crash of something breaking, the scuffle of a fight, and the muted clash of bone on bone.
Nakawala nanaman! Her father’s shout echoed up the stairs and chased her down the hall. Past an altar heavy with Saints, she flew into her empty room and shut the door against the rising sulfurous stench.
Her mother came too early to tuck her in. Ang kukulit ng mga kapatid mo. Maria climbed into bed; her mother sat at the edge, unfolding a thin blanket. Hindi ka raw makakatulog. A clumsy cluster of galaxies on the wall glowed where Maria arranged them on the low ceiling. She allowed her mother to pile pillows all around her and kiss her goodnight but when her mother closed the door and the darkness was complete, Maria climbed out of bed towards the windows.
Maria lay awake until the door to the family room shut and everything grew still and silent. After ten more minutes, just in case someone hadn’t fallen asleep, Maria crept out of her room and down the hallway.
Their house was long and narrow and Maria had grown up the same way. She made no sound walking down the hallway in the blackness because she had done this before. Gangly and clumsy for her age, the young girl made her way past the bedroom where her family slept, towards her reflection at the end of the corridor. An antique glass cabinet once held fancy dishes and polished plates but her mother stacked it full of picture books, heavy encyclopedias, and colorful bilingual dictionaries. Its glass doors slid uneasily and screeched loudly in the dimness. As soon as she could slip a hand through, Maria retrieved a slim volume and tiptoed back to her room.
She closed her door and turned on the light, a luxury to relish. Maria soon came to associate solitude and, in turn, loneliness with bright, airy spaces, the hum of an electric fan, and a particular shade of lavender. Although it was a warm summer night and no breeze came through the waiting, wide-open windows, Maria sat on her bed, her back to the night.
The rustling began at half-past midnight. Leaves trembled on groaning branches; the noises came from deep in the wood, from some straining core. Straight-backed and sweating, Maria leaned against warm walls reading the storybook she fished from the cabinet when something wet brushed against the nape of her neck and she swatted at the flies that buzzed about her ears. Her hand came away sticky, stained the color of her brother’s open wounds. The mango trees outside shuffled for space as they swayed in the wind. They had been planted too near each other, one dwarfing the other, each struggling to grow faster. The ten-year-old turned, saw the trembling branch, and leaned out of the window. The mango trees were silent.
A cool, rancid breath. A sharp, intrusive poke. Something wet crept around her neck. A tongue? Without hesitation, Maria reached back and yanked. A weight shuddered and rocked the upper branches. The girl pulled until something gagged and coughed. A low moan, the air shifted, a shower of leaves, splintered moonlight. The stink and cold of new-hung meat and entrails. A man fell, completely silent, without crying for help or absolution.
Hands cupped over her mouth and eyes watering, Maria could not cry out, bolt from her perch, duck her head, or disengage herself from the sight of a bare-chested man sprawled on the twined limbs of their twin mango trees whose rustling ceased as though content to shelter him. Maria breathed air fanned by wings.
Damp hair nestled twigs. Eyes grew large with silver light. He looked almost peaceful. But a stink irrevocably emanated from him and the ragged flesh that hung loose about his belly, the stretched and burnt skin of his naked, featherless wide wings spread out limp. Straining to hold its shape, his wings looked unhurt.
Never mind the wings, here was a shirtless man. He was a creature from the almost-grown-girl’s imagination and, for a while, Maria could not force herself to examine his nakedness. Well trained, Maria covered her eyes with her fingers until she felt something cold and wet lift them away from her face. Hoy, hoy, tignan mo nga ako. He wagged his long, agile tongue at her.
And he was looking at her with an accommodating smile. Hindi mo ba ako tutulungan? His efforts to convince the girl he was essentially harmless spoilt only by a row of narrow, sharp teeth and an exhalation of breath, a sigh that choked her. Tao po? He spoke with guttural, monosyllabic words pushed out with a long disused voice, cracked and splintered as he ran out of breath. Natamaan ako ng ligaw na bala, he said, crawling closer on his hands. The admission barely resembled a call for help. One wing folded back; the other a tent of flesh. That was the stink. Shifting his weight on the branch, Tomil turned to show her a bright red wound the color of tomatoes or her mother’s least favorite lipstick. She stared at the place where left wing met shoulder, the jagged mouth of a wound. Wings fluttered and creaked. I’m injured, he repeated. Hindi kita sasaktan, kailangan ko lang magpahinga. Maria kept firmly shut her watering mouth and moved aside.
Although he fumbled and scratched himself, Tomil moved swiftly into her room; he slid from the window, dropped a foot, and landed on the bed with a dull flop and a groan. His wound began to bleed, the flesh stretched anew. Maria latched her windows, trapped Tomil’s stink and the sound of his breathing. Maria’s lavender room shrank with the withered man upon her bed. It remained a bare room that did not echo. Maria arranged Tomil as carefully as she could: she kept his head elevated, wings propped on several cushions. She left him to return with an armful of blankets, a towel, a long shirt, cotton balls, and medicine. Tomil lay on his belly while she massaged the joints of his wings and cleaned them where she could.
From among the books she read, Maria had seen pictures of wounded animals and, sometimes, wounded people. Her mother’s guide to first-aid, its dust jacket rat-eaten, would be taken down for special occasions—obstinate stomach aches, oddly shaped wounds, or consistent toothaches—and Maria flipped through, stopping sometimes to look at photographs of clean, well-bandaged wounds. The manananggal reminded her of birds, although his wings were scaly and fine, like leather. Her hands were small and clumsy, at first, but it was a credit to her that Tomil didn’t flinch when she dabbed gingerly at the tear. Pillows and sheets stained, she wiped it clean with a wad of toilet paper dipped in a dipper full of soapy water.
She knelt on the floor to stare at what remained of his hips, to feel the dangling intestines with her fingers. San ka galing, Maria asked, unused to Tomil’s staring. With his lips he indicated the east and the rough vicinity of a shantytown established near the highway.
Maria came across pictures of young men in her books: painted or drawn large and muscular, they loomed over the page, colorful and vibrant. Most of them were pale and blond, unrecognizable and unreal next to her brothers with their high voices, suspended from one or both mango trees, and brown as baked bread. Tomil seemed another creation and completely new and something Maria felt entitled to receive. She didn’t bother to police ecstatic thoughts: why else did he fall out of the sky?
Tomil finally released a clattering breath rancid with decay. He shifted his position on her bed and leaned back into her pillows. Attuned to the failing night, his skin prickled at the thought of dawn and the flight back to his other half. Maria seemed no longer affected by his odor as she drew near him to arrange the pillows or further examine his wound, all the while with a small smile, and a calmness that disturbed him. Afterall, an aswang fell out of the sky and into her bedroom.
Tomil had begun to snore when Maria returned from the bathroom, an entire roll of gauze in her hands. She bandaged the wound and only when she finished did Tomil open his eyes and smoothed the white swathe of gauze at his side. Hindi na sana kailangan, madali naman ako gumaling. Tomil admitted only that he was at least twice her age and, no this wasn’t the first time he had fallen out of the sky.
When she examined his wings, Maria grew convinced she recognized them from her books. Here, she listened to herself, the wingtip, hollow bones, skin, and blood vessels. She ran her hands gently upon the membrane, and fondled the ridges and fingers. Na-sprain yata yung pakpak mo. She massaged the joints, spread lotion and medicine. Mint and honey mingled with the scent of decay and meat. Maria giggled. I read about these wings in my books, she said, indicating a slender children’s guide to common tropical birds. Another volume was about insects; ladybugs crawled over the cover. A book on Greek mythology, which did not help, lay on the edge of her bed, yellowing pages already stiff. I wish I had wings, too, Maria remarked. Tomil grinned. His gums the bristling bright red of a traffic light. Sweet girl, he murmured. Her smile was wide.
Maria’s breath and the sweet milk scent of her body seeped into the bed and its sheets like heat. The girl settled on the floor, her bare legs white against worn wood. Delicious, fresh, and warm. Lulled by her nearness, Tomil swooned and fell fast asleep.
Magigising yan, huwag ka maingay!
Quiet, nakikinig siya. Gising ka na ba?
It wasn’t his collision with the mango tree—Tomil grabbed hold or branches that reached out to him with equal panic, his hands slipped until they held on, splinters lodged deep into his palms—or the prolonged racket he made while resting against the boughs that woke Maria’s brothers. It was Tomil’s wretched stink that seeped out of Maria’s room when she left the door ajar that crept into the house. Abe and Ino dreamt of burnt things and flesh in bruised colors, sisig cooking in too much oil, the head of a stuffed pig with its cheeks carved out.
The boys looked him over, not surprised, but apprehensive and cautious, their faces blank and strange. In the dark they looked nothing alike: Ino stood uneasily, narrowing his shoulders while his brother cocked his head out at an angle, feet apart and arms akimbo. Abe, a boy of six or seven, knelt to stare into Tomil’s yellow eyes when the manananggal woke. A dog barked, he thought. He heard a rusty gate open. It was hot out but Maria’s room kept its shadows, preferred the dark and its dust. Ino sat at the edge of Maria’s bed, inspecting Tomil’s chest, what little of his bones protruded from below his navel. Abe’s twin peeked and poked, his nose inches away from the rotting meat stink. Tomil shifted away, his hand on the locked window latch.
Sabi ni ate nabaril ka raw? Abe beckoned to his brother and, together, they sat opposite Tomil who rubbed his eyes.
Oo, pero mabilis ako gumaling. He stretched to reveal the bandages. Magaling na ako ngayon.
Abe nodded and turned to his brother. Gusto ko rin. Tingin mo papahiram siya ni ate? Sana.
On the other side of the door: heavy, brisk footsteps of a man who knew his destination. Tomil shivered as a cold draft blew through the open door. Muscles clenched and half-spread wings like a cornered animal ready to spring. From behind her father, Maria rushed into the room to stand between him and the manananggal whose dexterous, sharp tongue tasted the air and sampled the father’s delicate amusement. Something’s wasn’t right. Tomil’s skin prickled. The windows were still barred. Maria’s father – a middle-aged man of medium height with thin, graying curly hair and tired eyes – stepped around her towards the bed. Sandali lang. Tomil, diba? Magaling na yung sugat mo. A fist around his wrist. Takot ka? Maria’s father grinned, blew a sweet breath into his lungs, and straightened. Tomil’s vision swam.
Kitam! I wasn’t lying, Maria insisted. Abe and Ino climbed off the bed and moved to stand on either side of their father, allegiance and judgment withheld. They left Maria alone.
Maria, her father said, I told you never to close these windows. Tomil looked from Maria to Abe to Ino to the father who stood with his arms akimbo.
Baka kasi makawala siya, Maria replied. A half-second glance flickered towards the manananggal.
Her father continued, we will have to find his legs otherwise this stink will never go away. The boys shrieked simultaneously; the little room shook with the sound.
Gusto rin namin! Abe tugged on his father’s shirt. Kami rin!
You have Kuya Pip for now.
Same premise as Maria & the Manananggal and Summer Night