by Will Liangco
Those very important months, the summer of 1992, brought along some of the most seminal events that happened to me. Nobody died. Nobody was diagnosed with a weird form of cancer. Nobody was sexually molested. Or experienced the stigmata. But things started to get sordid on the last day of fifth grade.
I walked home from campus with a five-peso cup of ice scramble. In my backpack were a couple of action figures and four Batman comic books. I was already an oracle of Batman information at the time, and spewing senseless Bat-facts was my favorite show-off skill. It was while I was unpacking in my room that I remembered what my father and I had discussed the night before. The pieces just started to fall into place, a string of horrid words that must be completed — summer. Fifth grade. Dick. Nip, nip. Suture.
So there was much keening and caterwauling unbecoming of the future Dark Knight, but to my father’s credit he never gave me the kagat ng langgam crap. He did give a rote account, though, of what it was like back then, with the labaha and the munching on guava leaves and the jumping into the river stuff. Cute and quaint, but what I could never understand was the jumping into the river routine. Wouldn’t that give you some gas gangrene of sorts?
That same week the new housemaid, Tessie, arrived from some remote barrio in Bicol. She was in her early 40s, single, and quite tall and muscular. Her short hair was totally white. At first glance we knew she wasn’t someone we could mess around with. She only needed to glare to scare the crap out of us.
In her first week, Tessie cooked lunch for us, then we reverted to frying hotdogs. Her meals were not just different or exotic. They were… weird. Like boiled eggplant with vinegared fish. Or grilled fish drowned in ketchup. At first we were polite, but when she served us shrimp with yellow-green sauce that was obviously not curry, I had to say out loud that it tasted like crap.
“Lasang tae,” I said. Which, predictably, made her growl, “Talaga? Anong lasa?!”
Unlike other nanny horror stories, Tessie did not hit us or brainwash us to kill our parents, but she was quite disgusting — in all aspects of life. What I hated the most was when she would mix a few spoons of rice in her glass of water, then drink the blasted thing.
Tessie loved sharing superstitious stuff that supposedly happened to her in the province. While gorging ourselves on hotdogs, she told us how, when she was in her 20s, she had woken up in a surreal place with lots of pink trees, flying rocks, and frolicking fairies. These fairies had apparently brought her to a castle where she saw their handsome king who offered her a seat at the dining table. A dwarf wearing the traditional pointed hat traipsed towards her carrying a plate. It had one piece of bread on it, and the bread was black. The king coaxed her to take a bite, but Tessie sensed that if she ate it, she would — gasp! — die. So she didn’t. She ran away from the castle and miraculously found her way back to their house.
“Maybe it was just a dream,” my sister said, yawning.
“Or a hallucination,” my brother retorted.
“Maybe you were on drugs,” I said, nonchalantly.
“It was true. I brought home evidence with me,” Tessie insisted. That snatched our attention.
“What evidence?” I asked, suddenly interested.
“This,” she said, lifting from her pocket a round object wrapped in a dirty handkerchief. She unwrapped it and revealed a moldy, green-black pandesal. The three of us just laughed nervously. It was a cheap trick, but it worked. From that moment on we started listening to her stories. We would always sit around her — halitosis, long-range spittle and all.
Judging from her stories Tessie had lived one heck of a fantastic life. When she was 12 she was bitten by an aswang, and from that moment on, until she was cured by an albularyo, she would morph into a wild boar at midnight. When she was 30 she was cursed by a nuno sa punso and was shrunken. Yes, shrunken, to the size of a cockroach, for three difficult days. “Kasya nga ako sa mga siwang ng papag namin,” she proudly said.
The next day I developed chicken pox and grew delirious from fever. In my dream around 50 million people were running after me. Then there was the image of an extremely long row of encyclopedias with 10 million volumes, scaring the crap out of me. I yelled out, and at that moment I knew it was not the usual nightmare. It was as though half of my consciousness was in my horrible dream, and half was aware that I was already standing on my bed, yelling, watching my mother panicking. Eventually a psychiatrist would diagnose me with a common childhood medical condition called “night terrors.” In the meantime, after three consecutive nights of nightmarish screaming episodes, my parents decided to bring me to “Ninya,” a woman rumored to be possessed by the spirit of the Sto. Niño.
“Stop whining,” my mother said as we sat in the middle of a very stuffy room, surrounded by around 10 female assistants and a whole lot of Sto. Niño statues. Ninya was near a large, ornate altar, mumbling a lot of words.
“She’s starting to get possessed,” my mother whispered.
Apparently Ninya was quite a well-known healer. She was only in her 40s, and in her 10 years of practice she had cured the usual lepers, the crippled, and the blind. She could also do psychic surgery. There was this girl, Ella, who had been inflicted with kidney cancer and had been in pain for a long time. Ninya had insisted that it was not cancer, that some mambabarang was, of course, just jealous of her good looks. According to witnesses, Ninya just drove her hand into Ella’s abdomen and effortlessly pulled out a bunch of trash, composed of eggshells, hay, ice candy plastic, granite, crumpled paper, and a decomposing cat. Since then, they said, Ella had felt absolutely wonderful.
Presently, after uttering a lot of prayers, Ninya suddenly convulsed. Her eyes rolled up and her entire body shook. She fell on the floor, still in wild jerky spasms.
“Who are you?!” Ninya suddenly shrieked as she slammed her right palm on my forehead, bursting a few chicken pox vesicles, her teeny-weeny voice like that of a castrated child’s.
“Er…Willy,” I whispered obediently.
“Who are you?!” she asked again, furious.
“Willy,” I replied firmly.
“I cast you out! You who have been claiming this child’s body, I cast you out! Now speak, who are you?!” she screamed. Lightning, thunder, scary music.
“Willy…” I insisted. What the heck could I say?
“I will make you suffer! Release this child! Admit who you are and your penance shall be brief!” Ninya wailed. My forehead started to really hurt. In the background, the disciples were droning, “Admit who you are, admit, admit, admit!”
Admit? Admit?! I had no choice. I had to make it stop.
“Tessie,” I hissed. “I am… Tessssie.”
Everyone gasped. Ninya smiled, contented. I cried.
“He’s crying because he’s been freed,” one of the disciples said, with a wide, triumphant grin.
My family, along with Tessie, dined at Shakey’s afterwards. My parents had been advised not to let Tessie know that they “knew.” The next day Ninya and her disciples would raid Tessie’s room to look for evidence of demonic ritual, such as spilled white paint “shaped like an evil chicken.”