COME here, mga apo. You want me to tell you a story? Then you must come nearer, and sit at my feet. Don’t interrupt me, as my memory is as fleeting as the summer breeze, and you may find that an interrupted story is worse than no story at all.
I had been telling you war stories before, of things that happened to your father and to your father’s father, who was my brother. Now, what I am going to tell you is a little different, but something that you will hopefully remember when you find the need for this memory.
I WAS the third son of Francisco, a town hall clerk, and Carmencita, a housewife, in a small town called Canda, somewhere south in Bukidnon. It is far from here, very far. To go there, you have to travel by ship or airplane, and by bus for more than twelve hours.
We lived in a small house, made smaller by the fact that there were three sons, all not far apart in age. Fernando was the oldest, Alejandro, your grandfather, followed after a year, then, me, barely a year later as well. After that, Nanay just declared she would not get pregnant again, and indeed she didn’t.
We were boisterous as all boys are, and it was all that Nanay could do to keep us in place. We had no household help, and aside from our three cats, five kittens, two dogs, a flock of chickens and two pigs, we only had Apo, Nanay’s father.
Apo was eighty-four, but he was still spry and lively. He would wake up early every morning, rouse us out of bed, nag us to do our chores—scrubbing the floor, watering the plants, feeding the animals, among other things—and would then sit in the verandah the whole day, puffing on a rolled betel leaf, spitting out the red goo into a small can beside him.
Often, I would sit with Apo and he would tell me stuff about the war and the times that his family had to leave their home in the middle of the night, as the shelling and the bombing started in their town.
There were times, as well, when Apo talked about the “not-like-ours,” his term for the supernatural. He had seen a kapre, he said, he had also been friendly with a dwende, and had witnessed a manananggal flapping its wings.
I spent so much time with Apo that my brothers picked on me constantly, calling me a sissy. That was their favorite taunt, for they knew I hated to be called that.
Was it my fault then that sometimes I liked Apo’s company better than theirs? I was no wimp—I played their games and excelled at some. I was the best when it came to playing with marbles and nobody could catch me when we were playing tag, but I did not like hunting which was one of their favorite pastimes. I loved birds, and I hated to see them hurt. I cried once when I saw Fernando hit a maya in the chest, the poor bird falling from a branch—merely stunned or dead, I didn’t know. I ran away before they could see my tears.
But—I let them be. I worried that they would tease me even more if I chided them about hurting birds. I refused to go hunting with them—after all, I was still the undisputed champion and had the biggest marble collection in town.
One day, when Fernando was fourteen, Alejandro thirteen, and I, twelve, Tatay came home with bad news. The body of Budok, a farmer from another barangay, was found that morning. It was mangled beyond recognition, and only the guitar embossed with his name, lying just a few feet away, and his clothes, identified him. A young boy who was looking for his dog found the animal sniffing the body behind a bamboo clump not far from town.
According to Tatay, it was the second such murder in two months, but they had not worried before because the first victim was a stranger and the murder had taken place in Antil, a town a day’s walk away.
What was queer, Tatay said, was that someone pulled out Budok’s (and the stranger’s) internal organs. According to the doctor, neither a bolo nor a knife was used for the crime, which didn’t make sense at all for that would mean that the person used his hands, and how could a pair of hands do the damage it did?
Apo was at his usual place in the verandah, listening to Tatay, but hearing that the murderer used his hands, he stood up and came nearer to us.
“He used his hands, eh?” he said, sitting next to Tatay in the sala.
“That’s right, Tay,” my father answered, holding Nanay’s hands. “But the doctor is still examining the body and talking to the coroner from Antil. He’ll have a full report soon.”
“Is it Doc Morales?” When my father nodded, Apo surprised us all when he stood up and went outside. “I’m going to see him.”
When Apo came back late that night, he was unusually silent. He didn’t eat supper with us, and just stayed in his room. We heard him rummaging in his kaban once or twice, and then all was quiet.
“What’s he doing?” Alejandro asked.
Nobody answered. It was a solemn dinner, with Tatay and Nanay silent, thinking, perhaps of the murder, and Apo not there to chastise us for not doing our chores well.
“Maybe he’s smoking again, arranging his betel rolls in that wooden chest of his,” said Fernando who didn’t think much of Apo.
Before I could think of a rejoinder, Apo came out of his room. In his hand was a long bronze dagger, easily a foot in length, and a piece of cloth. He sat at his usual place in the table and polished the blade, oblivious to the five pairs of eyes staring at him in astonishment.
“Tay, what’s that?” Nanay asked, not daring to believe that her beloved, usually harmless father was now holding a lethal weapon.
“That’s a nice piece of work. I don’t see many bronze daggers nowadays,” Tatay said, admiring the thickness and the sheen of the metal. “What are you going to do with it, Tay?”
Apo put down the blade and faced all of us, no longer the blabbering, betel-smoking old fogy, but a strong, wise man about to impart wisdom to his brethren.
“We are not dealing with something ordinary here,” he said.
“Where?” Fernando interrupted. Tatay shushed him and gestured for Apo to continue.
“I’ve been to Doc Morales. The coroner’s report from Antil arrived already, and his findings matched that of Doc Morales’s: it was done by a woman,” at this, he held up a hand as we all tried to ask him at the same time how the doctors knew. “And personally, I know who did it.” At this point, he paused dramatically, and when he spoke, it was barely a whisper. “It was done by the not-like-ours.”
Nobody spoke. Not even Fernando whose credulity, I was sure, was already stretched to its limit. I think it was because Apo sounded really ominous. It was a relief then to hear Tatay ask Apo how they arrived at the conclusion, and what type of creature did Apo think the culprit was.
To my surprise, Apo turned to me. “You remember the stories I told you, Ton?”
I nodded. “Uh-huh. But which?”
“About the manlalayug,” he said, and I nodded again, wondering what the connection was.
“You see,” Apo continued, “The other day, I was just telling Tonyo about a creature called the manlalayug, and that’s why I got suspicious when I heard you describe the body. It occurred to me that I have seen that type of murder before so I went to the doctor’s to see if we could find strands of a woman’s hair and pieces of broken nail to prove my hunch.”
“But given that you do find those items which you say you did, how could you conclude that it was the manlalayug for sure?” Tatay asked. He was trying to still Nanay’s hands which were nervously wringing the tablecloth off the dining table.
Apo leaned into Tatay’s face. “You know Budok?” Tatay nodded. “He’s young, isn’t he? And strong?” Tatay nodded again. “How, then, can a woman claw his face and pull out his internal organs with her own hands? How can you explain that?”
“But she may have used a blunt instrument like a spoon! Or she may not be alone, or, or…” Tatay trailed off in mid-sentence when he saw Apo’s face.
Apo was shaking his head, and he looked sad, and not a little afraid. “Nobody believes in them anymore,” he whispered. “And it will be our deaths…”
“Wait, Tay, tell us, please. What’s a manlalayug? We really don’t know.”
Apo looked at each of us in the eye, then turned his back. When he spoke, his voice was very low (as if he was afraid of being heard) and we all had to lean forward to catch his words.
“When I was just a little older than Fernando here,” he said, “a manlalayug came to our town. She managed to kill five men within five months before one finally succeeded in stopping her.
“A manlalayug is a creature that possesses special powers. Once she is hunting, killing her becomes a challenge, for she transforms into a very beautiful woman who will certainly use her considerable charm to weaken a man’s will.
“The manlalayug prowls at night, and hunts for men who are alone. Once a man is completely enraptured by her, she will wrestle him to the ground, for she has extraordinary strength, and she will eat his internal organs.
“And that is not only her power. She will also fool your mind. It was said that there were men who did not come under her spell but still died because when they met face to face, they just stabbed her, the woman they were facing, not knowing that it was just her image. The real her was behind them.”
“But how can you kill her then?” Alejandro interrupted.
“Stab backwards,” I said, before Apo could speak. “For even if you don’t see her real body, it is there, behind you.”
Apo looked at me, approvingly, I thought. “Yes, Tonyo is right. You should stab backwards. If it is the right metal, like this bronze blade, once is enough. Then you should run, and run for all you’re worth, for even a dying manlalayug can curse you with her last breath. And that will be the end of you.”
Nobody spoke, and the air was full of fear and wonder, I thought, for the extent of Apo’s knowledge that we had only seen at this moment.
“But who was the man that killed the manlalayug in your town? And you didn’t tell me about this before, Tay,” Nanay was frowning, but she has let go of the tablecloth, and was now absently flattening it.
Apo sighed and looked at the dagger, turning it this way and that. He didn’t speak for a while, and we all thought he wasn’t going to answer Nanay when he finally spoke.
“I didn’t tell you because there was no reason to. I never thought this would happen again,” he said. He looked at Nanay. “The man who killed her was my father, your grandfather, who I told you died of malaria when I was fifteen.”
It seemed that my great-grandfather managed indeed, to wound the manlalayug. Unfortunately, he didn’t leave until the woman seemed dead. “She cursed him,” Apo said, “telling him that he will die before the month was to end.”
Our great-lolo died within a week, but not before telling his fifteen-year-old son everything that he knew about the monster he bested. He gave him the dagger to keep, as well, reminding him that he should follow his father’s footsteps should the same thing happen again. But he was already too old, too old. Apo was shaking his head, looking at the weapon in his hands wistfully.
“That’s why I took out this dagger, in case someone is willing to hunt the manlalayug. She won’t be coming out until the next full moon, so we have time to prepare.”
Tatay stood up, raking his hand through his hair. “How can we tell the mayor, or the police, about this? They’ll laugh at us.”
“But… we can’t let her kill again, if indeed, it is a manlalayug!”
Apo sighed. “Isko, we can’t let the authorities do everything.”
“So what do you suggest we do? I can’t very well do it, if that’s what you’re suggesting!” Tatay was glaring at Apo, and Apo was glaring back.
“And why not? You are still young and strong…”
“Tay!” Nanay was furious. She stood up and faced Apo. “How can you say that? We have three children! And what are the police there for?” Nanay was almost shouting, and Tatay had to calm her and lead her to their bedroom.
Apo looked at us. “Sometimes we have to be brave, my boys.” Then, he, too, went to his room.
The next morning, nothing was said of the incident. Apo did not talk about the manlalayug, and neither did my parents. But there was a tension in the air as the weeks passed, and the doomed night neared.
On Thursday, the night before the full moon, Alejandro brought up the subject while we were in bed.
“Do you think she’ll strike again?” he said.
Fernando harrumphed. “It’s just one of Apo’s tales. You wanna bet nothing will happen tomorrow?”
“How can you say that?” I protested. “Apo was telling the truth! You saw his face when he was telling us about his father. How can you just ignore it?”
“Way to go, Tonyo! We didn’t know you really believed that!” Alejandro said. He whispered something to Fernando and they laughed. Within moments, they were chanting, “Sissy! Sissy! Sissy!”
Wanting to strike back, I muttered, “You just don’t want to face her. You’re just afraid you’ll be her next victim.”
Fernando sat up and brought his face close to mine. “So, you’re not afraid, huh? Well, brave boy, why don’t you take Apo’s dagger and find the manlalayug yourself?”
Find the manlalayug? What a crazy idea! She’d have boys like me for breakfast, and still have room for more! I turned my back on Fernando and kept silent. But my brothers guessed the reason for my silence, and resumed their chanting once more, punctuating it with hisses.
Feeling their gibes bite, and realizing that the only way to stop their jeering was for me to agree to what they wanted me to do, I almost shouted, “Yes, yes, I’ll do it. I’ll kill her.”
The words had been empty, but when I said them, I realized that I really had to do it, not for my brothers nor for myself, but for my father. If I would not go, and the manlalayug claimed another victim tomorrow, Tatay would be forced to hunt her himself, despite what Nanay had to say because he would feel obliged.
I couldn’t—I wouldn’t—imagine what would happen if he failed.
Alejandro touched my arm, suddenly contrite. “We didn’t really mean that, Ton. We were just teasing.”
I turned to Alejandro, and told him, firmly, I hoped, “No, I’ll go. Otherwise, Tatay has to, and you know Nanay is already mad at Apo for saying he has to do it.”
My brothers realized then what I had already understood, and they, too, were silent. Fernando slung his arm around my shoulders and said, real softly, “Are you sure you can do it, Ton?”
I looked at him in the eyes and said, just as softly, “Yes.”
The next day, my brothers were unusually quiet, thinking perhaps of what I had to do that night. When Apo went to his usual place in the verandah, they helped me look for the bronze dagger in Apo’s bedroom. We found it on top of his clothes in the kaban, and we hid it in my closet.
Nobody was able to eat dinner, and though my parents were greatly puzzled for my brothers and I were usually voracious eaters no matter what the food was. They did not comment, lost in their own thoughts as well.
We said good night, and my brothers and I laid down on the mat, all tense and waiting for the time that I could safely leave the house. When we were sure that our parents and Apo were asleep, we rose. I took out the dagger from the closet and tucked it into the waistband of my pants.
“Better carry it,” Fernando whispered. “So you are ready anytime.”
Alejandro hugged me. I patted his back, saying I would be back before they knew it. I was down the stairs already when Fernando tried to pull me back inside the house. “Ton, don’t do it. Please! You’ll get yourself killed.”
I pulled out of his grasp and said, “I won’t. I’ll take care.”
Then I ran, ran into the wide streets, and onto the open fields that lay between us and the town proper.
I reached the town in ten minutes. Tired by my run, I plopped down on a bench in the plaza contemplating my next action. Should I spend the whole night there? The bench was cold, and after my run, the air was chilly. I only had a thin T-shirt, and a pair of short pants (good for running, I thought then), and though I was accustomed to cold weather, the air that night was especially biting. I was shivering within minutes.
My heart was beating rapidly. I seemed to be the only one awake in the whole town, and I was sitting in the middle of the plaza with only the bronze dagger to comfort me.
I looked around and everything was in shades of gray. Some bats screeched and a few crickets chirped but, otherwise, I was alone, and I could hear noises, noises that my nocturnal companions did not make. I was hearing the noises of the night, and it seemed to come from everywhere, yet from nowhere.
I suddenly had a name for what I felt—fear. And it was fear that slowly filled my whole being.
Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore—the bats, the cold, the gray shapes that seemed to be moving toward me, and the utter stillness of everything around me. I stood up and began to run back home, berating myself for the foolishness of my pride, and cursing my brothers for forcing me to prove my masculinity.
On my way back, passing by the first rice field, I realized that nothing stirred. I slowed down to a walk and listened. Not a single stalk of rice moved, not a single cricket chirped. I remember thinking that it was too calm, too still.
I was halfway through the second rice field when I detected movement ahead of me. I hoped to God that it was only one of my brothers, or our neighbor Pilo the drunkard, or anybody except the one I thought it would be.
I was already sweating profusely, though my palms were cold. My grip on the dagger slipped more than a few times, and I had to grope for it on the ground since I did not want to take my eyes off from what might be in front of me.
I suddenly realized that everything was becoming very, very real. My brothers and their dare were a million years away. This was reality—me holding a cold piece of metal, in the middle of nowhere, shivering because of the cold and because of something moving in front of me that I couldn’t see. This was my reality, and I was deathly afraid.
I considered what to do—go back to the town and wake someone up to accompany me back home, or go ahead?
I was standing indecisively when the matter was taken from my hands. I saw her, just a few steps me, appearing quite suddenly—all woman, all flesh. Her movements were graceful, and her hair was very, very long, moving with a life of its own, trailing after her like a black luminescent gown. And she was looking at me, and she seemed to see deep into my soul.
I knew at that moment that it was her—the manlalayug I had been waiting for and wanting to hunt. But knowing that it was her did not stop my growing interest for her. I let her get closer, fascinated by the way she walked. She was gliding, and her feet did not touch the ground, of that I could’ve sworn.
When she was near enough to touch me, she reached out her hand and, blindly, I took it. It was soft, so soft, and I could smell her, the fragrance of the wind and the sea. Slowly, she pulled me against her soft body.
I was lost. I could feel it. I was going to return her embrace when my dagger nicked me, just a little, in the arm and I woke as if from a dream, and saw what was facing me.
Without thinking, I stabbed her in the chest, hard, bringing down the bronze weapon into her beautiful bosom with my two hands. To my surprise, my blade passed through her body into thin air, and I almost stumbled. What the…?
Then I remembered, and in my mind Apo was screaming, She’s behind you! She’s behind you! Stab backwards!
Gripping the metal with all the strength my 12-year-old body could muster, I drove the dagger backwards, not surprised this time, when I encountered firm flesh, which quickly yielded and buried my blade to the hilt.
The image in front of me vanished, and when I turned around, there she was, the manlalayug, writhing with pain, clutching her stomach, as she tried to quell the flowing of her blood. In seconds, her immaculate gown turned crimson.
I ran and never looked back.
I found my brothers awake and waiting for me by the door. They told me they were about to wake up my parents and tell them what happened. Then they saw my bloody arm and hands, and the blade still dripping with the manlalayug’s blood. Fernando ran to our parents’ bedroom and banged for all he was worth, and they came out, Apo came out, and they saw what I had done.
All of us went back to the place where I fought the manlalayug, each of us bringing a weapon but the manlalayug was no longer there. All that remained was a puddle of blood, dark and ominous in the moonlight.
The next morning, the whole town searched for a wounded woman, and even the local officials were persuaded to join the hunt once we told them what happened. But we didn’t find her. Nor was any woman reported to have died in the next few days.
But the killings stopped after that. And to my brothers, and even to the other children, I was no longer Tonyo the Wimp. Overnight, I had become Tonyo the Brave—and that was the name I became known for, for the rest of my life.
YES, yes, that was a nice story, my dears, a nice story. But there are no more stories like that. Tomorrow, I’ll tell you instead about how the river Polangi came to be. It, too, is a nice story.
Now, you go on up, it’s already late. Lolo Tonyo is tired, and you all have to go to school tomorrow. Good night, good night.
This story has previously appeared in print.