The reign of silence
LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - April 4, 2020 - 12:00am

SSSSS. Ahhh, that sound, how can I forget that sound?

Dusk had fallen by then, and we were home. Papa always told us to be home as soon as the chickens had roosted on the star-apple trees in the yard. Ludy explained to us why, in her gentle Bicolano accent, her diphthongs rising and falling: “You should be home before dark. Otherwise, hala, you would get in the way of the creatures, who would be abroad by then.” Then she would enumerate all these creatures and their characteristics down to the last detail, as if they were her closest classmates in elementary school. 

“The kapre,” she would say, “is around when the moon is newly risen and the rain has just fallen. It is also around when the air smells of a goat. It looks like a human being, except that it stands more than ten feet tall. In fact, it is as tall as the acacia tree in our yard. Its eyes are as big as saucers, its lips as thick as the branch of a tree, and its ears are as big as plates. It is fond of smoking a cigar which never seems to grow short. It scares people by shifting its form into a big dog, or a cat, pig, or water buffalo. When I was young, my father shot a kapre, but you know what? It just quickly turned into a bamboo stalk. This giant does not like fire as well. It also avoids things made of gold and brass. My grandparents told me that if you ever catch a kapre and tie him to a tree, the next morning the giant would be gone – but there would be a pot of gold on the spot where the kapre stood.”

From then on, I avoided the tall acacia tree in our backyard, whose generous shade shielded our small nipa hut from the sun. My father used the nipa hut as a storage area. When night fell, I also did not look outside at the acacia, whose leaves had curled up for the night, afraid that I would see the red, lighted end of a cigar ablaze in the night and then see the thick lips of the kapre puffing into the cigar.

I would shudder at this thought. If my father was nearby, he would tell Ludy to stop her silly stories and feed me. 

She would, but after feeding me and making sure my father was not there, Ludy would ask me if I still wanted to listen to just one more story before I studied my lessons.

Her last story would usually be about the mangkukulam. “My grandmother told me that the things reflected in a mangkukulam’s eyes are always upside down. This may be why it does not look directly into another person’s eyes. It usually assumes the form of an ugly woman who lives in a small nipa hut on the edge of the village. But beware: the mangkukulam is a powerful creature. It can hurt you so. It tortures its victims by entering their bodies, or placing a curse on them. It can also prick a doll with pins, so that its victims will have headaches or stabbing pains all over the body, or even grow a tumor that no doctor could heal. Now, how do you fight a creature like this? Be prepared to have salt, vinegar, spices, and artificial light. See? The spices I used to cook marinate with our adobo is also potent against this creature! The mangkukulam will also never climb the stairs of a house which has a pestle lying across it. So now you know why I always put a pestle at the steps in the back of our house, so that no mangkukulam will climb here and get you!” She would end this tale with her eyes turning big as the moon.

Off I would run to my room after this last tale and study my lessons for the next day.  Or if there was no class the next day or it was a weekend, I would be allowed to watch TV.

My grandmother would be in her rocking chair and I would sit cross-legged in front her, watching our modern-day gods. The magical Shazzan with his head shaven, except for a ponytail sticking out from the top of his head. The caveman Mightor with the mighty club, which vibrates and emits waves of energy and light. The Japanese robot Gigantor, his body the size and shape of a big refrigerator, heaving himself from earth to air in an instant.

But once a week, the lights would suddenly go off as soon as darkness fell. And then the sound would come. When this happens, I would go to my grandmother and sit beside her, or hold her hand.

It was something we first felt rather than heard. A heavy gurgling in the air, like water swirling in the throat of a giant. Then it would come nearer and louder, what sounded like trucks lumbering blindly in the darkness. I never knew what they were from either Papa or Mama. From the gossip that Ludy exchanged religiously with Nova, the housemaid next door, I heard they were the six-by-six military trucks again.

The day after the blackout, the chapel would be filled again. There would be stands of frangipani flowers and throngs of people. Sitting in front would be young women, girls really, in black. Their young children wore strips of black ribbons on their chest. And lined in front of the altar would be the coffins.

“Who died?” I would ask Ludy in the middle of the mass that we attended. Ludy sat beside me, while Mama conducted the choir. With every movement of her wooden stick (I secretly called it her magic wand), the voices of the teenagers would rise and fall, become louder and softer, glide or float. Papa would be with his friends, fellow military officers, standing near the heavy baroque door of the church, talking about their roosters and the cockpits, who was stealing from whom this time, clocking Padre Pelagio’s sermon with their watches.

But Ludy would answer my questions with a gesture. Forefinger on her lips. Sssssh, telling me both to shut up and to remind me never to ask the same question again, ever. Years later, whenever I saw a motel chain called The Queen Victoria, I would remember Ludy. Above the blazing neon sign is the figure of a young woman with big, wondering eyes, forefinger over her luscious lips. (Sssssh).

(Danton Remoto is a Professor of Creative Writing and the Head of School, English, at the University of Nottingham Malaysia. His email is danton.remoto@nottingham.edu.my)

Comments can be sent to danton.lodestar@gmail.com

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