By Chuck Lumagui
The wind howls through the night, with a gust of malice filling the forest as I pass through it. Only the moonlight illuminates the path I trudge, carrying a pail of water on each arm—I’ve asked to fetch some bathing water for tomorrow. The moon hazes slowly with the waning clouds, ready to hide its face from the world out of fear of what’s about to happen.
My mother often gives me weird errands, but not something as bizarre as fetching water in the middle of the night. She is a peculiar woman, my mother. She often talks about frightening beasts that prowl beyond the trees but tonight she asks me to venture out into the woods alone at night.
She has always warned me to be careful if I encounter such beasts.
I pity her. Her face is always shriveled and thin, with hair covering her swollen eyes most of the time. Yet despite her thin appearance, she is a strong woman—doing everything she can to provide me food. If not pity, I feel fear. She is strict and bashful when she talks about the beasts beyond the woods. She has such gentle hands that always fidget, as if ready to pounce at anything that may attack her.
“You look like your amang,” my mother tells me as she brushes my cheeks with longing in her hands. I have never met my amang. My mother refuses to talk about him, except when she notices my brown eyes glinting in the moonlight. I also have paler skin than hers, so I assume my father has lighter skin, or that he is not from this land. Sometimes, she seems afraid of me, like I’m infected with the plague. I sometimes think she curses me, if not for the occasional affection she showers me, especially after I deliver on her wild requests.
I have been asked to gut chickens, climb a coconut tree without any help, and even fish for dalag from the stream in the middle of the woods—yet she has never before tonight sent me off into dead of the night just to fetch some water from that stream in the middle of the woods.
The wind blows and sends a chill down my spine as I make my way back home. The stream runs through the woods, a few kilometers from where we live. I can barely make out the trail in the pale moonlight, but oddly I don’t feel lost. I know this path like the back of my hand and I seem to know it more in the cover of darkness. I almost feel serene. Almost.
At first I mistake it for the birds, but I realize it sounds deeper, a distant and guttural sound. A scream. It sounds angry and primal, like a predator challenging its prey. My blood freezes out of fear, but I manage to keep calm, trying to think of it as nothing, maybe just my mother looking for me. I am almost convinced until I hear another voice screaming.
I can’t seem to move a muscle. The voices sound distant but I have no idea where they are coming from. I scan the woods for signs of movement, turning around to see if anyone is behind me. I jump as a few silhouettes appear just past the stream, large and looming over a child like me. I don’t dare move as their voices approach.
Beads of sweat trickle down my temple and my heart pounds its way out of my chest. I move slowly, inching toward a tree nearby. Maybe I should hide. I don’t even know what “they” are, so I’m not sure I can outrun them. I inch myself slowly toward a large balete tree, just a little off the trail. I hide behind a bush beside the tree and wait for what feels like eternity.
I choke back a scream when I hear heavy footsteps. I hear murmuring and all my instincts are already telling me to run away. I remain hidden and let them pass, waiting a couple of minutes more before deciding to come out of my hiding.
I remove the pails from behind the balete tree and walk back as if nothing has happened.
I breathe a sigh of relief, thinking that what has happened was just my wild imagination. I walk on home but with more speed. After a couple of minutes, I can already make out our house beyond the trees.
I stop on my tracks when I hear footsteps approaching and then start to move as stealthily as I can. I inch closer to another tree to hide, my arms already strained by the weight of the water buckets. I step on a branch and it makes a cracking sound that echoes through the woods. The screaming resumes and, in the darkness, although the rest of them is too deep in the shadows, I can make out their eyes raging like fire in the darkness, full of horror and hate.
I drop my pails of water and decide to run, despite the thorns and roots wounding my bare feet. All I know is that I have to run away from them. I can feel them chasing me the way a predator hunts down its prey. Their screams, deafening, get closer and closer, until one of them latches a hand on me.
With his strong arms, he throws me to the ground. I cry in pain. I try to fight back but he’s strong. He pins me down with his whole body and I stop squirming. I’m now more desperate to escape than I am scared of dying. This beast looks just like me and he smells familiar.
He screams at my face, “Aswang! Aswang!”
I snarl at him and I see fear cross his face. I dig my fangs into his face and rips his jaw off his head. My mouth tastes sickly sweet. These beasts aren’t scary at all—they even smell like what my mom prepares for dinner. I can see them better now, with their pitchforks and thin bones and horrified faces. I roar at them, the blood of the man whose face I bit dripping all over my body.
They run away before I finish off the man in my arms.
As soon as the last of them is gone, I run all the way home, right into the arms of my mother, to whom, breathless, I narrate the story. Smiling, she tells me she is glad I get to see them. She says they are my father’s kind. I’m confused. I never had such hateful eyes. She tells me I’m too young to understand, but soon I will, when I am old enough to hunt by myself.
I sleep soundly tonight, proud of what I have accomplished, while she prepares to hunt for our food for tomorrow.
The wind howls through the night, and it marks the first time I have encountered humans.