Multo15 min read
My dad liked to say, “Ang nakaraan ay hindi kailanman nawawala, nalilimutan lamang,” or rather, “The past is never gone, only forgotten.” Whether a salawikain of the Philippines or something he made up, it seemed to fit. And I’d come across no better example than when I received an unexpected friend request online.
It came with a message: Adan, we need to talk. There’s something you need to know. And then, Remember the multo? The profile included a blurry photo of a forty–something Filipina woman by the name of Dakila Hayes. Hair black, straight, and shoulder length. Lips drawn up in a not–quite–there smile. The image struck me immediately. Though she had a few more wrinkles, and a hardening of her jawline, I could never forget that face.
“That’s strange,” I said, swiveling my chair around.
My wife Jana lay slumped on the couch, a blanket wrapped around her legs as she watched TV. “What?” she said, catching me out of the corner of her eye.
“A neighbor from… God, maybe thirty years back just contacted me out of the blue.”
“What’d they want?”
“She asked me if I remembered the ‘multo,’ ” I said, using my fingers to indicate quotes. “In Tagalog, that means ghost.”
Jana laughed, wrinkling her nose. “Well? Do you?”
My forehead creased as I pored through distant memories. Above all the rest, a single phrase, a name, rose to the surface of my mind. With it, a scattershot of images and emotions I hadn’t thought about or felt in years.
“Actually, I think I do. We called it the Black Thing.”
When I was six, my family moved from an apartment into the bottom floor of a two–story duplex in Oakland, California. My parents scrimped for ten years before they collected enough for the down payment on that place. As migrants from the Philippines, it became the first piece of U.S. property they owned. And they were proud of it, despite its bowing walls and sunken ceiling. Despite the wood flooring that pitched up and knotted in places, begging to put splinters big as toothpicks in our feet. Proud, despite fearing the boys of Norteños who took over the block by sundown, and kept my parents up some nights with the occasional burst of gunfire.
As for me, I was too young to be bothered by such tangible things. My own fear came the day the Jacobes moved into the upper floor of our duplex. Being the only Filipino families in the area, our parents became instant friends, the sort of bond that could only exist when natural–born Pinoy met so far from the homeland. At least once a week, we all came together to eat Filipino cuisine: lumpia, chicken adobo, daing, maybe even balut—because who the hell else wouldn’t judge when the egg shell broke, revealing a chicken fetus spilling from its own juices?
When the adults passed out the halo–halo, they convened in the living room and sent us children elsewhere. Since Dakila and Arnel Jacobe were far older than us, we never played. Usually, they just took me and my siblings, Tala and Amado, to the front stoop. There they related stories from the old country and the mga multo that haunted our homeland.
They told us about Balete Drive in a place called Quezon City, where the trees are inhabited by spirits, the mansions are haunted, and the apparition of a White Lady stalks the street at night. They told us about the city of San Juan, where the head of the Stabbed Priest searches for his body, the Headless Nun sneaks up on unsuspecting passersby, and the Devil Cigar Man drags victims to hell if they don’t offer him a light. They even told us about the special multo, the one that followed the Jacobes across the ocean, from city to city and house to house.
“Usually, mga multo remain in the places they died,” said Dakila. “But sometimes they grow attached to a person and stay with them until the end. This one is attached to our grandma. She says it’s different from the others, darker, an evil thing.”
“It said it was coming for her when she died,” said Arnel. “It said that her soul was his to take, and her flesh and bones his to feast upon, when her body was an empty shell.”
“Really?” I said, wide–eyed and breathless. Until then, I’d lived a sheltered life of cartoons and children’s books. The idea of tormenting spirits terrified me like nothing else. I didn’t want to believe it, but the conviction on their faces made it hard for me to doubt.
“Of course. Grandma never lies,” said Arnel with a laugh.
“Never, never,” said Dakila.
I’ve always accepted the fact that life entails growing old, changing in increments that could never be quantified. And so, confronted by this token of the past, the string of subtle changes I’d undergone in thirty years stood out like a glaring metamorphosis. Though I could feel a hint of the boy I’d once been, he had become a stranger to me.
My own children turned six and eight this year. I wondered about the things that kept them up at night. Whether they faced problems much like I did, or if this new generation had different burdens that a young me could never fathom. As I passed by their rooms, I had the sudden urge to peek in and see how they were doing.
I opened Peter’s door first. He was lying on his bed, with his shoes on, reading a comic.
“Doing okay?” I said.
“Good. Then take off your shoes, you know better.”
“Yeah,” he said. Without a glance in my direction, he kicked off both sneakers to the ground.
Stacy crouched beside her dollhouse, giving a voice to each doll she held, theirs differing from her own only in pitch. She didn’t look up when I opened her door either, but my question didn’t need answering. I could see she was okay, too.
While heading to my own room, I wondered why I had this sudden concern for their well–being. I thought about it the entire time I stripped and dressed in worn–out clothing more suitable for yard work. The only answer that came could be summarized in one word: fear. As a husband and a father, intangible horrors—like mga multo—were meaningless to me now. But my parents’ fear of the Norteños and the threat of violence acted out against their children? That had come to make sense.
Still, one of the salawikain my father taught me lingered in my mind like a warning: “Ang gawa sa pagkabata dala hanggang pagtanda.” (“What one learns in childhood he carries into adulthood.”) And I wondered how that truth would play itself out.
My house in Oklahoma City was more spacious and preserved than the Oakland duplex, but they had in common a few minor traits. Both were two–story relics built sometime in the 1930s, with wiring that couldn’t always keep up with a modern family’s electrical needs. Both had the tendency to speak their minds at night, through the groans of hidden pipes, through random thumps, or the creaks of settling wood. And both kept their fair share of idling, dark places.
Here, it was the garage. The sun had almost set, a slivered edge taking one last peek over the horizon, when I stepped through the garage’s backyard entrance. The smell of dust and thick, moist air settled around me. It weighed heavy on my lungs and made the room feel somehow smaller. Like a pocket at the back of a long cavern, or the inside of a sealed crypt.
I slid my hand along the dark grooves of the unfinished walls and flipped the light switch. The single bulb dangling from the ceiling swayed from a breeze through the open door. Yet the deepest shadows held their place. They shifted from muddled splotches to tenebrous shapes—a thousand staring faces all focused on me.
In that moment, I could hear the bell toll warning of the headless nun. Could hear the raucous laugh of the Devil Cigar Man, the sigh of the White Lady in my ear, and the distant cries of the Stabbed Priest. All whispers, all figments of my imagination. And yet I couldn’t stop the goosebumps rising on my arms, or the tickle at the nape of my neck that made the hairs stand on end.
Once the feelings ran their course, I grabbed my mower and left—quicker than I’d care to admit. It was funny; I’d gone in the garage a thousand times in five years, but never experienced the slightest bit of discomfort. But now, it felt like something more than memories had been stirred up by Dakila’s friend request. As if a part of me from long ago had awakened. A part that shuddered at the sight of darkness—that squirmed at its proximity—for the promise, the threat, of what nested in its veil.
The Jacobe grandma only spoke Tagalog. Whenever we visited the Jacobes, she would fix us with a hard stare and shout, “maiingay na mga bata” (“noisy children”), before hobbling back to the privacy of her room. Sometimes, through the floorboards, we’d hear her scream, and the muffled voices that comforted her soon after. The details about her harassing multo increased and, since she was such an inscrutable character, so did our fascination with the subject.
My siblings and I dubbed it the Black Thing. We spent a lot of time giving substance and meaning to its existence beyond the stories we heard. If someone escaped our purview for a few days, we’d say the Black Thing held them prisoner. Or if someone broke the lock of our fence, shattered a plant’s ceramic pot, or otherwise damaged our property, we called it the Black Thing’s rage.
Though it had evolved into a shared creation, I may have been the only one in my family who actually believed it. And because I was the youngest by at least three years, my siblings teased me without mercy. Especially when it came to the Black Thing’s so–called lair, the basement.
Since it’d been built on a hillside, the duplex lengthened at its rear to match the sloping ground. There, under the southeast corner, the basement lay exposed. Unlike the rest of the house, the room remained untouched through the decades, tinted gray from layered dust, and infested by bugs and vermin. Its windows reflected light in day and absorbed darkness at night, so that it had the habit of resisting peering eyes. Taken altogether, it acted as the perfect focus for our macabre imaginings. The place of idling dark in my childhood years.
Whenever we played by ourselves in our backyard, my brother and sister never failed to steal a glance in its direction. And when they did, the results were always the same.
“Did you see that?” said Tala, eyes wide, jaw hanging open in feigned terror. “Through the window. I think I saw eyes.”
“Yes, I saw it too,” Amado said. “Something’s watching us right now. Something hungry. Something evil.”
“Quit it, guys,” I said, a subtle tremble beginning in my chest and spreading to my limbs.
“We’re serious!” said Tala.
“I think we should tell Mom and Dad,” said Amado.
“No, you know how Dad is. He’d only try to investigate and end up getting himself hurt. Or worse, killed,” said Tala.
“Come on, guys, stop kidding around,” I said, imagining movement from behind the basement windows and feeling the flustered warmth gathering in my face.
“This is no joke,” said Amado.
“Do we even look like we’re kidding?” said Tala.
Not then, of course. I mistook their lively performance and solemn expressions as honest–to–God truth. And I paid the price for it with many lonely, sleepless nights.
Night fell quicker than I could finish my yard work. I spent the last five minutes mowing in the gloom of dusk. As darkness pooled over the thin stretch of my backyard, my imagination soared with eerie thoughts. The shadows of jostled branches reached out to grab me. A glimpse of movement from behind the fence panels hinted of a figure, dark as absence. It moved around the perimeter of my yard behind a bush. There, I felt its eyes, peering through the foliage as if waiting to catch me unaware.
I gathered my things in a hurry, dragged the mower back to the garage. Though I’d left the light on earlier, its insides now swarmed with black. With a quick shove, I let the mower roll into its proper place—because I didn’t dare enter—and rushed into my house.
Jana, seated at the computer desk, turned around when the door creaked open and shut behind me. She must have sensed something amiss because she immediately asked, “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” I said. “Just tired is all.”
“I was about to call you in. It’s the kids’ bedtime.”
She headed for the staircase, but halted on the second step. “I almost forgot. I think your old neighbor wrote you another PM.”
“Thanks. I’ll be up in a second.”
I dropped to the computer chair and logged into my account, feeling reluctant to even read Dakila’s message. Enough had already bubbled through the cracks of my subconscious for me to know it was better left sealed away. And I worried about what else would slip out before this day had finished.
Dakila’s message read: Kumusta ka? How is your family? I live twenty miles from our old duplex, where my parents still live. They sometimes ask about yours and wonder how they’re doing.
And then it got to the crux:
The reason I contacted you is because my grandma passed away.
Her funeral was last week.
It was sad to find out that someone I knew at such an integral stage of my life had died, but I couldn’t understand its relevance to me. I wrote back:
Kumusta kayo? I’m sorry to hear about your grandma. She seemed like a good woman who lived a long life. She will be missed.
I was about to close it down when a new message appeared on the screen.
Dakila: Do you remember the multo Arnel and I used to tell you about?
Dakila: And do you remember the story you told us about that multo, shortly before you moved away?
I did. Of course I did. No matter how hard I’d tried to bury it beneath a mountain of distractions, it didn’t take much for it to rise again and shake the dust loose. For a moment, I thought back to a particular day, from those early Oakland years. One I’d hoped and prayed never to think about again.
Some nights, Tala, Amado, and I played superheroes in our bedroom and we always played rough. We’d jump and bounce on our bunk bed and thrash around without a thought for our own safety. One time, I shot a hand out to block an invisible villain’s punch and my elbow smashed a sizable hole through the brittle sheetrock wall beside the bottom bunk.
The hole opened up into the house’s skeletal frame—an un–insulated passageway that poured in a stale breeze. When my parents heard the noise, they rushed into our bedroom. They didn’t yell once they saw the damage, but their irritation was apparent.
“I do not have the tools to fix it right now,” said my dad.
“But it’s cold,” said Amado.
“And it smells,” said Tala.
“You should have thought about that before you acted without care,” said my mom.
Bedtime came, and we three crawled into the bunk bed: Tala on the top half, and Amado and I on the bottom facing opposite directions. Because I made the hole, Amado made me sleep in front of it. Our parents turned off the light, said their good nights, and closed the door.
I couldn’t sleep that night. The constant rush of air from the hole made me shiver uncontrollably. Not because of the cold, but because of what it represented. “The Black Thing sleeps below us,” Dakila had once said, and now there was a passageway that spanned the distance from its resting place into our room.
Before long, Tala began to snore, and the deep full breaths Amado made indicated that he, too, had fallen asleep. I was alone with the darkness and, somehow, I could sense it knew.
Every quiet thing amplified into a raucous sound, second only to the staccato thump of my heart. I looked around, but the room was blotted from sight. Not simply unseeable, but as if everything around me had been replaced by empty space.
A thump sounded from where the dresser had been. Somewhere beyond the ceiling, groans erupted in a random pattern that defied the pathway of any normal pipeline. There was silence, and then another rush of air, this time like an exhalation or a sigh spilling out from the hole beside me.
It shifted into the steady sound of scratching against the wooden studs of the inner wall. I thought at first it would go away, like the other sounds before it. Instead, it slowly mounted, as if something below were clawing its way up.
I drew the covers over my head and, at the same time, kicked my brother hard. He didn’t move. I whispered, “Amado,” but he didn’t respond. I kicked him again, this time enough to jar his whole body. He only grunted, shifted to his side, and fell still.
The scratches continued.
I began to shake. Hot tears slid down my face and I silently pleaded for my parents to come back and turn the lights on. To sweep this nightmare away for good.
Another set of scratches.
This time it sounded close, within the hollow just below the gaping hole. The smell of dust, of sweat, of moldering fabric wafted in. A pressure began to build in my throat, a cry that rallied against my self–restraint and threatened to break free. I choked on it, held it down with all my might. If the Black Thing heard me now, it would know I was awake. But if I kept still, kept quiet, maybe I’d be safe. Invisible.
I heard a soft, almost taunting laugh. Then a voice, deep but whispered, said, “Nakikita kita.” (“I see you.”)
Trying to scream did no good. The cry that fought for freedom only moments before had left me. So I waited beneath my blankets, like a statue, like a boy embedded in ice. And hoped to God it was good enough.
Through the covers, I felt the pressure of hands lean against my chest, so heavy it hurt my ribs and made it hard to breathe. It loomed over me, staring down, with eyes that pierced the thin cloth that separated us by mere inches. The chill of its skin absorbing my warmth.
Again, it spoke in a deep and whispered voice. “When the old woman dies, you and I will meet again. Sa ibang araw.”
Its last words trailed off like a fading echo. And with it, the Black Thing disappeared.
After a time—I couldn’t say how long—my voice returned. I screamed, over and again, louder and louder, until the bedroom door burst open and lights flooded the room.
“What is it? What is wrong?” my dad said, hurrying to my bedside.
I threw off the covers, jumped from the bed, and mashed myself against his legs. Hugging him tightly, I looked over at the hole again—saw nothing but wood—and then turned to my brother and sister in bed. They were both sitting up, gazing at me, bleary–eyed and disoriented. I had been truly alone, and that realization left me dazed and silent for the rest of the night.
I sat there in front of my computer screen trying to compose myself. Those memories had lain dormant for so long, I didn’t know how to take them. As an adult, I knew they couldn’t possibly be true, and yet the feelings they invoked, the fears they uncovered, were all too real.
Adan: Wow. Can’t believe you remember that. I’m embarrassed. My imagination was pretty strong as a child.
Dakila: So, everything is okay? You’re safe?
Adan: Of course. Why shouldn’t I be?
Dakila: You of all people should know how difficult it is for me to share this. But I need you to understand. Grandma was never the same after the multo attached to her. She grew increasingly distant from the rest of us, disconnected from reality. Tormented by things only she ever heard and saw.
Adan: Why are you telling me this?
Dakila: Because of what it told you. Remember? Sa ibang araw.
After thanking Dakila for her concern, insisting I was fine and promising that we’d catch up later, I joined Jana and the kids upstairs. We read them a story each, and then tucked them in. Not long after, we went to sleep as well.
While lying in bed before the lights went out, I tried to tell Jana about what Dakila had told me, about the pieces of memory recovered and what it all meant. I couldn’t. I told myself there was no need to concern her—it was all superstitious hokum and childhood nonsense—but the greater part of me knew it was a lie. I felt afraid, and to admit it would be to embrace the truth that right now the multo could be searching for our house. That somewhere, the Black Thing drew nearer and our lives would never be the same again.
Jana shut off the lights and, within minutes, I heard her winsome snores. As for me, I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t shut my eyes for fear of what I might find when I opened them again. The darkness seemed to spread throughout our room, blotting out everything except the bed.
Soon, like so many nights before, the house spoke its mind. I heard groans just beyond the ceiling, from hidden pipes. Heavy thumps made their way across the garage beneath us. A thin scuffling in the living room. Then slowly mounting creaks ascended the staircase, one by one, and stopped only when they reached the landing just outside our bedroom door.
I held my breath, felt the sudden urge to cover myself with blankets. And I wondered; was it truly just settling wood this time? Or had “someday” finally come?