THE elves came to stay with us when I was nine. They were noisy creatures and we would hear them stomping on an old crib on the ceiling. We heard them from morning till night. They kept us awake at night.
One night, when it was particularly unbearable, Papa mustered enough courage and called out. "Excuse me!" he said. "Our family would like to sleep, please? Resume your banging tomorrow!" Of course, we had tried restraining him for we didn't know how the elves would react to such audacity.
We got the shock of our lives when silence suddenly filled the house--no more banging, no more stomping from the elves. Papa turned to us smugly. Sheepishly, we turned in for the night, thankful for the respite.
When dawn came, the smug look on Papa's face the night before turned into anger for shortly before six, the banging started again, and louder this time! We got up and tried speaking to the elves but got no response. The banging continued all day and into the night, and stopped at the same hour--eleven o'clock. And at exactly six a.m. the next day, it started again.
What could our poor family do?
Papa tried to call an albularyo to get rid of our unwelcome housemates but the woman was booked till the end of the week. Meanwhile, the elves had become our alarm clock. When they start their noise, we would get up and do our errands. Papa would start cooking, I would start setting the table, Mama would sweep. The whole house--my older sister and my cousin would water the plants, and my brother would start coloring his books. (We really didn't expect him to work, he was only four.)
After a week, we got hold of the albularyo. She spent the night in our house and by morning, she told us to never bother her again. The elves had already made themselves a part of our life, she said. Prax, the leader of the elves, had spoken to her and had told her that his family had no plans of moving out. They liked things as they were.
We eventually settled down to a comfortable coexistence with the elves. They woke us up at six, they let us sleep at eleven, and in return for the alarm service we would leave food on the table. By morning, the food would be gone and the table cleaned.
All in all, it was a very good relationship.
After three weeks--the first week of May--I met Prax, the leader and oldest in the clan, and I met him literally by accident. I was climbing the mango tree in our yard when one of its branches broke. I fell and broke my ankle. The pain was so great that I just sat there numb, staring at my ankle which had begun to turn blue. I could not move or cry out. I went to sleep to forget the pain. My last conscious thought was that the ground was too cold to sleep on.
I woke to a hand touching my foot. It belonged to someone--something nonhuman, for his hand radiated warmth that seemed to penetrate to my bones. His hand was small, wrinkled and felt like dried prunes.
Although I was curious, I kept my eyes closed. I imagined a hideously deformed face, with long and sharp teeth. Would he disappear when I open my eyes? Or would he devour me? I pretended to be asleep.
After several minutes, I could pretend no longer; I was too curious to remain still. When I opened my eyes, the horrible sight that I expected was not there. Instead, there was this old, wrinkled creature, even shorter than I was although I was the smallest in my class. He wore overalls unlike any clothing I knew of. Its texture was a mixture of green leaves and earth. It clung to his skin and writhed with a life of its own. Its color continually changed from deep to light green, to dark to light brown, and to green again. It was fascinating to look at. I felt a sense of awe and respect towards the elf.
He was good with his hands. My ankle already felt better. He was massaging it with an ointment that smelled nice. Before I could stop myself, I sniffed deeply, bringing the healing aroma of the ointment deep into my lungs. Detecting my movement, the elf turned to me and smiled kindly. Although I didn't see his mouth moving, I could hear him talking.
"Don't be afraid," he said. His voice was so soothing that I had to fight my urge to snuggle and sleep in his small arms.
I shook my head slightly. What was I supposed to say? Hello, elf? How are you? I could not. I didn't even know if I was supposed to call him that or just say Tabi or Apo.
As if knowing what I was thinking, the elf smiled again. "You call our kind dwendes or elves, no?" I nodded. "I actually don't mind if you call me an elf, but please call me Prax."
Seeing my astonished look, Prax laughed. His laugh sounded like the whistling of wind through the trees and a bit like the breaking of the waves on the seashore. I thought it nice and longed to hear more. And I wanted to know more about his kind. Did they have children? Wives? Did they play games like patintero? Habulan?
But Prax was not in the mood to chat. He told me that I should have been more careful. I could have been seriously hurt.
I nodded absently, thinking that I liked his clothes, his laugh, and his voice. He reminded me of my grandfather who had died a long time ago.
I closed my eyes, letting Prax's healing massage lull me to sleep. Thirty minutes later when I woke up, the elf was gone. Only the lingering fragrance of his balm remained.
When Mama and Papa arrived, I told them what had happened. It was really frustrating seeing their reactions. They became pale, then collapsed on the sofa. I had to douse them with water before they revived. Why couldn't they be like other people and be glad that I had been befriended by a supernatural being? I had told them about my first encounter with a real elf, and they fainted on the spot! I sulked for the rest of the evening.
Mama told me to never, never talk to elves again. Or did I forget the countless tales of elves taking people to their kingdom after killing them? I just shrugged. After all, the elf had saved my life!
I thought no more of it and, indeed, began to enjoy the banging and stomping on our ceiling. I almost wished to be hurt again just so I could see Prax. But nothing happened and I passed the rest of my summer days dreaming about playing with elves.
I met my second elf in school. I was in Grade 3, a transferee to a new public school that had a haunted classroom. My classmates related tales about dwendes, white ladies, and kapres in our school. I believed their stories readily.
I tried to tell them about Prax but since they were skeptical, I decided to let them be. As it was, I was excluded from their games.
In the classroom, I chose the seat I felt was the most haunted, the one farthest away from the teacher's table. Nobody wanted to sit near me. Behind me was a picture of the president. Without the company of my classmates, I expected elves to make their presence felt. So I waited.
By the third month in class, it happened. We had a very difficult math exam. Our teacher left us and went to gossip outside and all around me my classmates were openly copying each other's work. I looked at their papers from my seat, hoping that their scribbles would mean something to me but the answers to the blasted long divisions eluded me. I looked at the ceiling, trying to see if my brain would work better if my head was tilted a certain angle. It did not. I looked to my right, nothing there. And finally, I looked down and saw this tiny little elf, smaller than Prax by as much as six inches, sitting on the bag in front of me tap-tapping his foot impatiently.
"What took you so long to notice? I've been here for hours!" he said.
What gall! Did he really think that his race would excuse his bad manners? I ignored him and frowned at my test paper. What was 3996 divided by 6?
Immediately, he apologized and told me that his name was Bat. He had seen me play outside and thought that I was beautiful, sensitive, and romantic. Did I want him to help me in my test?
Me beautiful? I enthusiastically agreed to let him answer the test. I showed him my paper, and he snorted. "For us elves, this is elementary!" he said. I wanted to tell him that to us humans, these problems are also elementary, third-grade in fact, but I changed my mind.
Bat and I became friends. He helped me with my homework and gave me little things such as colored pencils and stationery that were the craze in school. He cautioned me strongly against telling my parents of my friendship with him. After all, he said, some people might not understand our relationship. They might forbid us from seeing each other.
I thought nothing of it and kept silent about my friendship with Bat. I enjoyed his company, for he was very thoughtful. He was a good friend and I thought we would be friends forever.
The time came, though, when he declared that he loved me. He wanted me to go with him to his kingdom and be his princess. I refused, of course. For God's sake, I was only nine! I didn't know how to cook or do the laundry or do the other things that wives are expected to do. And he was an elf! Short as I was, he only came up to my knees. What a ridiculous picture we would surely make. He pleaded with me for days but out of spite I told him that I had already confided to my parents, and that they were very angry. It was not true, but Bat didn't know that. He got angry and launched into diatribes about promises being made and broken. Then he vanished.
That night I dreamed that Prax talked to me. He told me that I should have never offended Bat outright. "That elf is a stranger in our town," he said. "We don't know his family. He might be violent."
But I had already done what I had done and there was no use wishing otherwise. I told Prax I'd never worry. After all, he'd always be there for me and my family, right?
"Wrong," he said. His gift was for giving good luck and for healing minor, nonfatal injuries. "What good is that for?" I asked. He couldn't answer, and left me to a dream of falling houses and shrieking elves.
The next day, I got sick and did not get well even after the best doctor in town treated me. My parents had grown desperate so the albularyo was called once more. She told my parents to roast a whole cow, which they did willingly. The albularyo and her family feasted on it. When I was still sick after a few days, she instructed my parents to cut my hair; she told them that elves liked longhaired women. The problem was Bat liked my new look, and in my dreams, he was always there, entreating me to go with him. I got sicker than ever.
The albularyo, getting an idea from a dream, then tried her last cure--an ointment taken from the bark of seven old trees applied to my hair. It cost more than the cow and nobody could enter my room without gagging. The smell was terrible. That did the trick. Apparently, Bat was disgusted but he would stop at nothing to get me, even if it meant getting my family out of the way. I told him again and again that I didn't love him and would never go with him, but the elf's mind was set. In the end I just ignored him, for who could reason with an elf, and a mad one at that?
He did not turn up in my dreams the next few nights. In a week, I was up and running again and I thought that all was right. My parents decided that I should transfer to another school, this time a sectarian school.
Then something happened. My mother had a miscarriage. People blamed the elves and talked about it for a long time. I remember the sad and fearful looks of my parents every day as they heard the banging on our ceiling. Were they friends or were they responsible for the accident? I had never told them about Bat, who Prax said was the one behind all these incidents.
Years passed, and since nothing untoward had happened since my mother's miscarriage, we began to let go of our fears. The alarm service continued, and our belief that my mother's miscarriage was the elves' doing was discarded. It was simply the fetus's fate to die before it was born.
"Bat left town, probably to look for some of his kin to help him," Prax said.
It was a chilling thought, and with Bat's words the last time we talked, I was terrified. I laid awake at night thinking of a way to protect my family. I had Prax, but what about them?
When I was twelve, the banging on our ceiling stopped. We were having lunch, feasting on the pork barbecue my mother had bought after her experiment with chicken curry failed. The sudden cessation of the noise we had been living with for years was jarring. The silence grated on our ears. For the first time, we could hear ourselves breathe.
No one moved. Even my brother, who was now seven, stopped chewing the pork he had just bitten off the stick. Papa stood up and called to the elves. Nobody answered. Gesturing for my cousin to follow him, they got the ladder and prepared to climb to the ceiling. They took with them an old wooden crucifix and a bottle of water from the first rain of May. My cousin brought along a two-by-two and a rope. I didn't know what they wanted to do but we looked on, our barbecue forgotten.
Papa went inside the ceiling and my cousin followed. Moments later, they came back running. My cousin descended the ladder first and I don't know whether it was because of fright or just because he was careless, but a rung broke and he fell to the ground, back first, hitting the two-by-two he had dropped in his haste. He lay there, unmoving except for his ragged breathing, his back bent at an angle we never thought possible.
Mama fainted, Papa stood still, my sister called an ambulance, my brother wailed, and I sat in the ground, laughing. It was not a laugh of gladness, just my nervous reaction to what happened. But they misunderstood and locked me in my room. I cried, shouted, cursed, but remained locked in. From inside my room I could hear them talking, the medical help coming in, and relatives pouring inside our house. I was ignored. I slept and dreamed that an elf was laughing. When I woke up, the whole house was filled by elven laughter. Then my cousin died.
After another year, my little brother followed. He was run over by a postal service van. I can still hear the anguished wail of the driver as he asked for forgiveness. He claimed that a tiny creature had run in front of his van and he had swerved to avoid it. My brother was unfortunately playing by the roadside and the van ran straight into him. Witnesses say they had heard laughter at the exact moment the wheels caught my brother.
The driver was imprisoned, but the deaths did not stop there. Barely six months later, my father drowned while fishing. A freak storm, the fishermen said, but for us who were left alive there was no mistaking that our family would die one by one.
There were only three of us left: my mother, my sister, and I. We tried to seek help, but the policemen laughed in our faces. We were branded as lunatics. And Prax was gone, defeated by Bat and his family apparently on the day the banging stopped. Even the albularyo could not help us. What use were her potions and ointments? What the elves needed was a good dose of magic, and the albularyo was primarily a healer and an exorcist. She had no training when it came to defending a whole family against vengeful elves.
And poor Mama! A mere week after my father died she followed. Extreme despair, the doctors said but we knew better.
My sister and I left home and went to live with our relatives in the city, hundreds of kilometers away. We told them about the elves but they laughed and told us we were being provincial. "It is the 90s," they said. "Belief in the little people died a long time ago." We knew they were wrong, but how could two orphaned teenagers convince the skeptics? Perhaps, we should have insisted on talking more but, as things were, our aunt had already scheduled counseling sessions for the two of us The fear of being sent to a mental institution stopped us from further trying to convince them. In the end, we just hoped that the distance from our old home would keep us safe from the elves.
But they followed and, one by one, our foster family died. Car accidents, food poisonings, assassinations through mistaken identity--there were logical explanations for their deaths but we knew we had been responsible. We could only look on helplessly, and despaired.
We traveled again, haphazardly enough to let us think that we could outwit the elves. But they finally caught my sister about a year ago. We were on the bus bound for another town when a tire blew out. The bus crashed into a ditch and although most of the passengers including myself were injured, the only fatality was my sister. I realized then that there was no escaping the fury of the little people.
After my sister's death, there was a period of silence from the elves. I decided to continue studying and enrolled at the local college. I had no problem with finances. I had inherited a large sum from a relative I had unwittingly sent to death.
After I got settled in the school dormitory, Prax appeared in my dreams again. He told me about a chant that he had dug up in the enormous library of a human psychic he had befriended. It was a weapon against any creature--effective against those with malicious intentions, whether towards humans or other creatures. Prax thought it would he better if I could defeat Bat myself. After all, hadn't Bat done me great harm already? I agreed and prepared myself for the battle that would decide my fate.
It was not long after my conversation with Prax that Bat tracked me down. It was a weekend and I had the room all to myself. I looked up from my notes and saw him--much older, his once clear complexion now marred with dark, crisscrossing veins. Hate screamed from him, and he stooped and walked with great difficulty. I pitied him.
He gave me an ultimatum: go with him or die on the spot. I pretended to look defeated and worn out. My act was effective and Bat looked pleased. He wanted us to go immediately but I dallied. At the pretext of packing my few valuable possessions, I told him to wait outside and count to a hundred.
When he was gone, I took out the ingredients I had prepared and the mini-stove I had borrowed. I boiled a small amount of sweet milk. I unwrapped Bat's image made in green and brown clay, with strands of his hair given to me by Prax, and started blowing and chanting words that meant nothing to me.
Blow. Allif, casyl, zaze, hit, mel, meltat.
Blow. Allif, casyl, zaze, hit, mel, meltat.
Blow. Allif, casyl, zaze, hit, mel, meltat.
Outside the room, Bat's count reached 70. I put aside the image and into the pan I poured hundreds of brand new pins and needles that had been blessed. The count reached 80. I repeated the chant and immersed the image in the boiling liquid. I waited.
Bat's count reached a hundred but I did not worry for it had become faint and weak, just as Prax had told me. Then Bat dissipated into a mist--shrieking, I might add--to where, only God would ever know.
Prax appeared again in my dreams that night and told me that they--Bat and his family--would never bother me again. He himself would move his family away from humans to avoid similar incidents in the future. It was too bad he didn't discover the old book with the vanquishing spell earlier for I could have saved my family. I could not bring them back, he said, but I could build a good life of my own. With the luck he bestowed on me, I would never be in need for material things the rest of my life.
I kissed the old elf, knowing that we would never see each other again. I watched him fade away, seeing the last of my family go.
When I woke up, I went to my desk and studied math, remembering where it all began.
This story has previously appeared in print.