I quickly grabbed my backpack and rushed down the aisle of the provincial bus, past the empty seats whose passengers got off at a mall in the last city. The driver was shielding half his face from the blinding sun in front of the tall windshield and the conductor greeted me as I got off the elevated steps and onto the ashen gravel road of the highway.
The bus took off and left a trail of dirt and smoke in its wake. I felt the heat burning the back of my neck as I walked toward the line of tricycles on the side of the intersecting road.
“The hut near the church, please.”
The tricycle crossed the highway, forcing a bus to stop and let us pass by. On the side of the road, there was a creek with a big bank and a small stream glistening under the ray of the sun. Then the view from the sidecar suddenly changed into rows of cement houses.
Our province has always been known for farming and fishing. It was littered with flatlands, grasslands, and fish ponds. Guagua never had a lot of trees. It had been like this since I was a child. There were just houses and dust. The only thing different was how much more unbearable the heat had gotten. Less than a minute off an aircon bus and my handkerchief was already drenched with my sweat.
Aunt Conching’s bamboo hut was close to the main road. It’s at the first corner down the street, right next to the small church. The hut was older than her. Despite her children’s offers of renovating it into a cement house using the money they’ve earned overseas, my aunt had always refused to change it. It was an ancestral home and she wanted it to stay the same as it was in her childhood.
It wasn’t like any normal hut people in the city would expect. This long rectangular bamboo hut was built with more than one room inside. Its biggest room was the living room which took up half of the hut. The other half was separated into two rooms, the kitchen and the bedroom.
The tricycle had to drop me off a few feet away from the hut because there was a large crowd surrounding it and blocking the road. Half of the village was there, standing in the heat, and watching me step out of the tricycle.
“Nancy’s here!” Elmera, my aunt’s neighbor, shouted from the back of the crowd and quickly approached me. “Oh, Nancy, we’re so glad you’re here. Your aunt--!” she grabbed my arm and massaged it to ease her own anxiety.
The people in the village all knew each other and that also meant they knew everything that was happening in their lives. Nothing had changed since I left. So I tried not to be alarmed and asked, “What happened to auntie?”
“Oh-oh!” she exclaimed and turned her head toward the hut. She led me past the crowd and no one else greeted me but their eyes followed us. Everybody looked worried and kept glancing between me and the hut’s windows.
“We called every one, Nancy. Priests. Nuns. Even the famous exorcists!”
I stopped in my tracks, “E-exorcists?”
Elmera shook her head and tried to pull me along, “They couldn’t do anything. That’s why we’re so glad you’re finally here. You’re a psychologist now, aren’t you?”
I pursed my lips. I studied psychology in college but I failed the bar exam so many times I used my degree to work in human resources instead. It was such a shame for my mother. Whenever she visited, she let the village believe in me more than she ever did.
“Your aunt...” Elmera took a long pause to stare at me, making sure I’m looking at her. Her lips were pursed and eyebrows furrowed. I could see one of the hut’s windows behind her. It was the largest one in the living room. There was a silhouette of a woman standing in the middle of the room. She wasn’t moving. “She’s trying to call the devil.”
I tried to stop it, but I couldn’t help but laugh. It was a small snicker that passed my lips and earned me enough death stares from the neighbors.
“We’re not joking, Nancy.” She sounded offended.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I came back because I was told my aunt’s husband had died. I took a bus from the city as soon as my cousin called me because I know my aunt loved my uncle more than anything in the world, but this-- this would be too much.
“Nancy,” Ruben must have seen his distressed wife glare at me in the middle of the crowd and walked up to us. “A lot of the people in the village are scared,” he turned to the window where the woman’s silhouette continued to stand still, “Every night we can hear her-- She sounds like she’s actually talking to something.”
It finally dawned on me that the still woman was my aunt.
I nodded to the neighbors in passing as I rushed to the side of the house where the entrance was. The doorway was in front of the side of the church and there were some children inside watching me. The hut was elevated from the floor by a few feet and there was a bamboo ladder attached to the entrance.
The entrance lead directly to the living room. As I climbed up, raising my head higher from the ground, the first thing I saw was a pentagon drawn on the bamboo floor using blood, and my aunt was standing in the middle of it. Every point of the pentagram had a lit candle with wax dripping onto the floor. Beside them were bowls of powders, wilted flowers, and dried herbs. You could smell the stench of fresh blood overpowering them all.
Aunt Conching was quiet and she stood as still as a statue. Dressed in a free-flowing white dress as she stared at the ceiling. There was a huge wide leaf hanging from the focal point of the hut, and there was blood dripping down from its tip, right onto my aunt’s forehead.
The scene was captivating and terrifying. I stopped hearing the murmurs and gossip from outside as each drop resonated inside the hut. All I could hear and pay attention to were the droplets of blood marking the space between her eyebrows. I didn’t want to disturb it.
Each one trickled down the bridge of her nose, traveling between her nostrils, and then down past the creases of her closed lips. The trail of blood continued down her chin, along her neck, and between the crevice of her breasts under her dress. There was a growing red stain just above her stomach where it pooled. Her dress was stuck to her skin because of the blood and sweat.
I moved to take a closer look at the leaf on the ceiling and hit a bowl. My aunt immediately broke free from her trance. She stared at me with wide eyes, examining every part of my face, my body, and down to the foot that hit the bowl.
Quickly, she snapped back to my eyes and gave her head a small shake. She then loosened her stiff composure and gave her youngest niece a smile.
Blood stained her teeth.
Aunt Conching took a shower in the bathroom in their backyard. My cousins had it installed before they left the country. I stood in the kitchen doorway connected to the living room and took in the stage of her ritual. There was still blood trickling from the leaf and I still haven’t found its source.
The afternoon heat was dying and the metallic smell of the blood was getting stronger. The neighbors returned to their homes when my aunt finally moved from the living room. The streets of Guagua was almost empty except for the tricycles that regularly passed by.
The cold night wind of the province was entering the hut and spreading the scent of the blood. The sun was slowly going down and without the lit candles, the living room was getting darker. But no matter how dark it got, the light from the kitchen filtered in from behind me and highlighted the center of the pentagram and the dripping blood in its center.
A cold hand on my shoulder made me jump and my aunt laughed. I turned around and she was smiling at me, “I missed you, Nancy. You didn’t even visit me when you graduated.”
Her question caught me off-guard. Her whole demeanor has changed from the trance-like pose she held for who knows how long to the aunt I’ve always known. Soft. Cheerful. I blushed. “Sorry. Mom wanted me to study for the license exam as soon as I graduated.”
She was wearing a faded red dress and her hair was still wet. I held her hand to touch it to my forehead and pay my respects, but I stopped because I noticed faint markings on her wrist. My aunt gently took back her hand and pulled me in and wrapped her arms around my back. “I’m happy you’re here.”
I took a moment to collect my thoughts before I returned her embrace. “I missed you and uncle,” I said.
My aunt froze. Her whole body was tense against me. Then slowly her arms lifted and wrapped around my shoulders. She pressed her face against my shirt. “I miss him, too,” she whispered. Her tears quickly dampened my clothes and her fingers dug into my shoulders. Her whole body shook as she sobbed.
Suddenly, she stopped crying. “Somebody killed him, Nancy.”
Her voice had changed. Those words were spoken in monotone by a woman I don’t know. Abruptly, I pulled away and I could see my wide eyes reflected in her own.
But it was my aunt. Her eyes were red and her lashes were still wet. Her thin eyebrows were knitted together when she spoke. Her voice became soft again. “Nobody told you?”
I tried to take a breath. Maybe I had imagined it. I led my aunt to the table in the middle of the kitchen and sat her down to give myself time to clear my head. I must have been tired. She followed me eagerly and waited. “Your son called me and told me uncle had passed. Lester just asked me to help you with the wake and burial as soon as I can.”
My aunt frowned, “He didn’t tell you how Lito died?” I shook my head and her eyebrows drew closer together. She turned away and closed her eyes. “His skull was bashed in, Nancy.” She was wringing her wrist under the table. “There was a large rock beside his head with his blood on it.”
Aunt Conching doubled over before she broke down again. I was quickly by her side and hugging her. All I could do was rub her back while my thoughts were elsewhere. I was having a hard time processing it. Because if my uncle was murdered and no one in the village was talking about it, then it could be one of them.
My aunt abruptly turned back to me. “That’s why I’m trying to find your uncle’s soul.” she looked towards the dark and empty living room. “Murdered souls linger. If I can just get a hold of him, I can ask him--” There was a distant glare in her eyes. Her hard look only softened when her gaze shifted to her lap. She was gripping the dress around her thighs. “I just want to talk to him one last time.”
Is this why Lester had asked me to come? Did he know what his mother was going through? I didn’t know what to do in this situation. Everything I learned in college I forgot the moment exams were over. I sighed and said, “Aunty, the neighbors think you’re summoning the devil.”
She closed her eyes. “I know,” she answered. Then her eyebrows scrunched together and her small mouth was snarling, “A lot of strangers came by. They kept cleaning and chanting-- Cleaning and chanting--” she stopped suddenly and stared at me as if only realizing her voice had changed again.
I placed my hands on hers and tried my best to play along, “Why didn’t you just go to a shaman and ask for a seance?”
She looked back at me with urgency. “I already tried that, Nancy. He couldn’t hold on to your uncle’s soul even for a second. That’s how I know he’s become a restless spirit-- That maybe only the devil can bring him to me. And I...” She pointed at the pentagram on the floor, “I killed all of his chickens for the ritual.”
“Aunty,” I pressed down the inside of her palms with my thumbs. “You shouldn’t have done that. That was your means of living.”
Her eyes widened briefly before she turned away to close them again. “Your uncle’s gone, Nancy.”
She closed her hands around mine and we stayed like that for a while.
I woke up in the middle of the night and found the space next to me empty. I sat up and saw soft lights coming from the bottom of the wooden door. As my head settled into the waking life, I heard murmurs from outside.
“--welcome me-- ... ready--”
The bedroom door was right next to the door frame that led to the living room. A strong cold wind breezed into the room as I slowly opened the door. I stopped at what little glimpses I could see. My aunt was swaying inside the pentagram with her arms raised in the air, wrapped around an invisible figure. She was in her white dress and it had more bloodstains than the one she wore in the afternoon. Her face was covered in blood and she moved with her eyes closed and a big smile on her face.
The candlelights were flickering along with the cold wind rushing through the open windows of the hut. They created shadows that looked like they were dancing with my aunt.
Suddenly I saw something outside the main window that looked out to the street. It looked like a silhouette of a man but it disappeared as soon as I saw it. My aunt saw it, too, because she stopped to stare out the window.
I couldn’t watch my aunt any longer. I slowly pulled the door close and laid back down. I stared at the ceiling and there were cobwebs filling up the corners. My aunt started murmuring again. I took the earphones from my bag and drowned out her voice so I could fall asleep.
The next day, I found my aunt sitting at the kitchen table. She had an empty cup held between her palms. Her fingers were curling around the handle and the other fidgeted with the rim as she looked outside the window.
"Good morning," I greeted.
She turned her head and I could see dried tears along her cheeks. "Morning."
I bent down next to her and touched her cheeks, trying to rub them away, "What’s wrong?"
She stared at me for a long time. I watched her earnestly until her eyes watered and small tears smoothed down her cheeks, "He’s gone. He’s really gone, Nancy."
I felt a sharp pang hit my chest when I heard her. My shoulders shook before I started crying. My aunt had given up trying to contact my uncle and I almost didn't want her to. I wrapped my arms around her shoulders and embraced her. I felt her dampen my shoulders again and her chest heaved against mine. She suddenly felt so frail in my arms.
That morning, I helped my aunt clean up the living room. She looked so upset and lost. She would stare at a distance every now and then. Whenever she remembered I was there she’d look at me with a gentle gaze and give me a soft smile.
Just before lunch, aunt Conching had realized she had nothing to cook. I was putting my shoes on beside the bamboo ladder when she apologized for not being able to come with me to the market. I knew she didn't want to leave the hut because of some lingering faith that her husband might see her one last time. So I let it be.
“Take care, Nancy. I love you.”
After hugging her and promising to be quick, she went back into the kitchen.
I smiled at her retreating figure before heading towards the road. I saw Ruben getting his tricycle ready for the day and I asked for a ride to the market. We were silent during the drive. I wouldn’t have been able to hear him from the loud motor of his bike anyway.
We got to the market and Ruben turned off his motor. “How’s your aunt?” he asked as I got off.
I smiled at him, suddenly feeling like I would have to reassure the whole village that my aunt was just lonely. “She’s much better.”
Ruben continued to give me a concerned look, "I still find it hard to believe he’s gone. A lot of us were with him before he died. We were drinking and laughing a lot. Then in the morning, the whole village heard he was--” He turned toward the ground for a while and I knew he wasn’t going to say anymore.
I tried to make the conversation lighter. "Oh, she wasn’t trying to summon the devil. She just wanted to speak to uncle Lito one last time."
Mang Ruben quickly turned to me with eyes wide open. He stared at me for a while with his eyebrows raised. "Your aunt said that?"
His look of shock caught me off guard. Even worse, he didn’t wait for my answer. He turned on the motor of his tricycle and rode off back towards the direction we came from. I stood there for a while, suddenly wondering what was odd about that.
The sudden vibration and ringing coming from my pocket jolted me from my thoughts. I shook my head and took the phone out before walking into the market. It was Lester.
“Thank you so much for going there, cuz! Mom just called me. I was so surprised to hear her-- well, she sounded better than I expected.”
I smiled a little. “I didn’t really do anything. I think aunty was just lonely.”
I went around the market to buy ingredients for our lunch while I spoke to Lester. He thanked me again before he hung up. I left before the sun got too high and too hot. Another tricycle dropped me off in front of the church. I walked toward the side of the hut and I called out to my aunt while I took my shoes off. I was ready to climb up the ladder but there was still no reply.
Only silence came back to me. I brought the food up with me and placed them on the kitchen table. Aunt Conching wasn’t in the living room or the kitchen which only left the bedroom. She had been up all night. She must’ve been catching up on some sleep.
I started unpacking the ingredients and putting away the plastic bags but all the while I kept glancing at the bedroom door that was slightly ajar.
Why would she leave it open?
I walked around the kitchen table and toward the door. The closer I got, the more I noticed the pool of liquid on the floor. I felt my heart racing and my whole body wanted to step back. I was inches away from the door but the opening wasn’t enough for me to see everything inside. I wanted to run away.
I closed my fist and swallowed. I took another step forward and slowly opened the door. I couldn’t see anything at first but my eyes were slowly adjusting to the darkness until I could see the silhouette of my aunt’s body sprawled on the floor. The pool of blood that was seeping through the bamboo floors was coming from her slit wrists.
Hours later, I was in the village’s small police station being questioned. The officer sat across from me with his hands clasped on his desk. I had been sitting there for hours, being asked over and over again about my aunt and where I was when it happened? Did I know she was going to kill herself?
I felt my stomach pushing up. The officer quickly shouted for a bucket but I couldn’t hold it in. I vomited on my shoes and felt the acid along my throat because I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast.
The officer waited until I calmed down and took me to the waiting area. He gave me a glass of water and let me sit on the cold floor. They let me borrow a spare pair of sandals.
“Do you have other family members in the village?”
I tried to shake my head. “Just my aunt.”
The officer shook his head and went away for a while. My head spun with the noise outside. Distant chattering and dragging feet. Car horns and vendors shouting. I wanted to get up but my legs were already shaking while I sat there. I had my knees pressed against my chest when the officer came back.
“I called your aunt’s neighbor to tell them what happened. She offered to let you stay at their house tonight.”
I gave him a weak nod and tried to stand. He caught me before I even knew my knees were giving up on me.
“You don’t have to leave this instant. You can rest here at the station for a few more hours.”
I didn’t want to stay at the police station. I willed my legs to hold me long enough to show him I can leave. He sighed. He helped me get up and offered to give me a ride back.
On the way to the hut, the officer was silent to let me calm down but I had remembered something.
“How did-- how did my uncle die?”
The officer bit his lip. We stopped to let an old man cross. He turned to me, “Your uncle and his friends were drinking that night and Lito was the last one who went home. Reports said he had a lot of alcohol in his system so he must have staggered. Then he fell and hit his head on a rock.”
I opened my mouth to say something but then I suddenly closed it. My aunt believed he was murdered. Why would she think that if it was just an accident?
The officer drove me to Elmera’s house and I stood outside, watching the hut from across the street. The officer waited with me while the dogs barked at us from inside.
“Your aunt,” the officer began. His eyes were peering past the house’s gate. “She must’ve loved your uncle very much despite everything.”
He looked at me with scrunched up brows and his answer came out a whisper I almost didn’t hear it, “You don't know?”
Elmera suddenly opened the gates and hugged me as tight as she could.
“Oh, Nancy. Your aunt-- I’m so sorry..” I felt her tears dampen my shirt but I was still staring at the officer. He stood there awkwardly, nervous. He was avoiding my eyes. Then he just left.
I didn’t know I was crying until Elmera pulled away and started caressing my cheeks, wiping away the tears I didn’t know were for.