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The Night Watch was scheduled for 10 that evening, but Jay started his patrol at sundown. With a newly sharpened gulok resting on his shoulder, he ambled down the scabrous road that wound throughout the settlement, ducking clotheslines, skirting refuse and threading the narrow strips and alleyways between each cluster of shanties. Heavy winds made corrugated rooftops rattle. Frail plywood walls banged and trembled, and every once in a while, the sound of someone crying bled into the night, adding a somber note to the symphony of violence.
It reminded him of his wife Malaya’s funeral from two weeks past, shortly after the aswang first appeared. All those solemn people huddled around her closed coffin, chanting prayers lost to the howl of buffeting winds. The thought of it put a knot in his stomach, and he stared into the sky.
“Mahal na Panginoon,” he said to the moon, to the stars, to the dust clouds swirling overhead. “Give me justice.”
He let hours pass before resting along the eastern border where a wall of buried garbage marked the start of the local landfill. With his back pressed against the wall, he scanned the distance, focusing on the deep shadows that gathered around his neighbors’ homes. No sooner had he started than he spotted a figure walking down a parallel stretch of road. He squeezed the gulok for reassurance and sprinted to catch up.
“Curfew is at 10 you know,” said Jay, falling in step beside the stranger. “Where are you going?”
“Home,” said a man’s deep and graveled voice.
Jay searched every inch of him, looking for a sign of abnormality. The man wore a hood pulled down over his eyes, his hands thrust into the pockets of his dusty jeans. Added to the scars around his tightly drawn lips, he looked suspicious enough. But Jay had to be sure.
“Remove your hood so I can see your face.”
“Mind your own business.”
“It is my business,” said Jay, grabbing his arm.
The man jerked free and spat a black glob that landed on Jay’s shoe. In one swift motion he pulled his hood back.
“Putang ina mo, is this what you wanted to see?”
The aswang’s jaundiced skin cradled the contours of its skull, pulling its features into a scowl. Dark rings surrounded its eyes. Its pupils narrowed and the tip of its second tongue—a slender pink proboscis—slid from its mouth and brushed against its chin.
Jay jolted back. He raised the gulok to defend himself, expecting the thing to lunge, or slash at him with nails thick and hard as ivory like others had done before. Instead, it turned away.
“I have no time to waste on you,” it said.
Before it could take a step, Jay kicked its knee-pit, knocking it to the ground. Rage surged inside him as images of Malaya’s last moments barreled through his mind: the abject terror in her eyes; the way her mouth almost formed his name before pain twisted it into a scream; and her father looming over her, slurping from the proboscis lodged into her belly.
He swung his gulok, catching the aswang between the sloping segments of its neck. With each subsequent hack he shouted, “You want your family? Here’s your family!” and, for a time, the sound of metal cleaving flesh and bone pierced the night.
Once it lay dismembered, he dragged the pieces to the pit beyond the southern edge of town. Roiling darkness filled it up; the stench of rot hovered like a noxious cloud above it.
“Please,” said the aswang’s head, its voice now feeble, shrunken to a sigh. “My family needs me.”
Jay pinched his nose shut. Without a word, he kicked the parts in where they fell among the low and garbled cries of all the other aswang that had come before.
He returned home before daybreak and found his mother seated by the table. Candlelight washed over her, throwing shadows across the grooves and wrinkles of her sleeping face. He didn’t bother to wake her; he simply dropped to the floor and wept into the cotton of her skirt.
“What’s wrong?” she said, when she woke, pushing at his shoulders to get a better look at him. “Are you hurt?”
“I met an aswang,” he said, his body racked by heaving sobs.
“You were protecting us. No one can blame you for what you had to do.”
“That’s not it.”
“Then what? What could possibly be so bad?”
He lifted his head, meeting his mother’s eyes for the first time. “It’s just… why them? Why does their love bring them back to their families, but she doesn’t return to me?”
“Ah, Jay, you’re not thinking straight. What would you do if Malaya did return? Hug her? Kiss her? Bring her into this house and pretend she won’t do to you what her father did to her?”
“We never even had a chance to say goodbye.”
“Perhaps God is saving you from foolishness,” she said, wiping the tears from his cheeks. “You can’t handle that burden yet. Two weeks is too soon.”
They woke at sunrise and finished the untouched pagpag from last night’s meal. The meat had soured in the night and the rice had hardened into clumps, but they ate their share without complaint. It was better than the alternative, when their empty bellies felt hard as stone and the need for food squirmed and clawed like a ravenous beast inside them. Thankfully, those days were few and far between now that Jay had replaced his mother as the family’s sole provider.
After breakfast, Jay stood and stretched his limbs. “I should go.”
“Mag-ingat ka,” his mother said, her expression almost plaintive. “You do what you have to do to come home safely.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll be back before you know it.”
On his way downtown, he passed a roadblock where soldiers in BDUs pointed guns and asked him questions: “Where did you come from?” and “Where are you going?” and “Where does your family live?” They shined light into his eyes and checked his fingernails. At the tail end, a man in latex gloves pried his mouth open and, seeing nothing unusual, sent him on his way.
He arrived in Manila’s commercial district by late morning. Not long ago, cars would have choked the roads between each stop sign, and sidewalks would have overflowed with pedestrians. But the fear of aswang had left their mark on the people of the Philippines. While richer families had fled the country, the majority—Jay’s neighbors and those like them—were too poor to travel, and hid within their homes, waiting out the crisis behind barricaded doors. Now he could count those spread across a city block on his hands.
In the rear of his favorite shopping center, the buildings and a high brick wall sandwiched a paved alley. A row of bins lined the wall, a few with lids flipped open and their stink spilling out. Before long, he was elbow deep in garbage.
“Get out of my trash, you mongrel!”
He heard a bark of laughter and turned to find Peter—another frequent scavenger among these parts—strolling toward him. Peter scratched the beard beneath his wide grin. What few teeth he had peered above his lips, like black icebergs floating in a pink sea.
“Kumusta ka, Jay,” he said.
“Kumusta po kayo. You almost gave me a heart attack.”
“I’m keeping you on your toes, that’s all. How’s business?”
“There still aren’t enough people dining out.”
“Tighten that belt, my friend. With Laog overrun and Quezon like a ghost town, I fear the worst is yet to come.”
“I hope you’re wrong. If this keeps up, we’ll starve.”
“Look on the bright side! At least there are less of us dogs fighting over table scraps,” Peter said, rubbing his hands together like a kid surveying his birthday spoils.
They worked in silence for a while, but memories of Malaya bandied for Jay’s attention and he was unable to concentrate on anything else. He remembered the first time he took Malaya on a pagpag hunt. A life of scavenging metals and plastics with her father at the adjacent landfill had left her unprepared. The moment she came across a rotted piece of meat—rife with maggots—she hauled herself aside and retched.
Jay kneeled beside her and took her hand. “Have you ever wondered why we call it papag?” he asked.
She shrugged, wiping the remnant sick from her lips.
“My mom told me it’s because we scoop it up and shake the dust off. It’s not what we wanted, but it’s all we have. We come from dust, we live in dust and when we die we go to dust.”
The memory faded. Jay balled his hands into fists. A ferocious ache coiled like a snake around his heart and standing straight, tilting his face up into the sky, was all he could do to catch his breath.
“Peter, are you still living in that cemetery up north?”
“Of course. It’s only the most luxurious space on God’s green earth! Why?”
“I’ve been tracking news of the aswang for weeks now, trying to get a better sense about them. Maybe you noticed something while living there that I missed.”
“Perhaps,” he said, scratching his beard again. “How about this: they’re not dead, at least not in the way you might expect. A week ago, before I made camp, I struck up a conversation with a man who had lived in Manila North Cemetery all his life. I asked him how he could feel safe knowing the aswang were all around and he just laughed. ‘There are no aswang here,’ he told me. ‘The crypts are sealed, the ground is undisturbed, and bones are stacked in the common graves up to the highest brick. Assuming God hasn’t plucked those bastards straight from Hell, they come from somewhere, but not here.’”
Peter turned, staring owl-eyed at Jay. “That is a question! I can’t say. In the end, only the aswang know for sure.”
A nightmare kept Jay from anything like true rest, the same one he’d had every night since his wife died. In it, he relived the evening of Malaya’s father’s return.
Jay and his family hadn’t known better than to welcome him into their house. At the time, the aswang were still the stuff of myths and legends, mostly shape-shifting she-devils who lived as women by day, but changed into vicious beasts at night. And Malaya’s father had been dead three days. That was key. If it had been longer—a week, a month, a year—maybe they would have feared him and slammed the door in his face. But three was holy. Three was perfection, a sure sign that a divine miracle had taken place.
They spoke with him for hours about his funeral, listing all the friends and family who attended, recounting many of the beautiful things that each guest said. Afterwards, Malaya’s father took her for a walk.
“I prefer we go alone,” he said. “To make up for my absence.”
They left the house together. Less than a minute passed before Malaya screamed, and by the time Jay had thrown open the door and rushed outside, there was little he could do but watch her die.
He woke with the onset of a groan that refused to rise. Sweat poured from his forehead. He turned to his mother, lying beside him in the cramped quarters of their bedroom. With moonlight punching through their wire mesh window, she looked so small and fragile, her breaths straining against the weight of her own bones.
He thought about the question that had haunted him since his conversation with Peter. Where did the aswang come from? While no closer to an answer, he was determined to find out. No matter what it took, he had to see Malaya again.
“I’m sorry, Mom. I know you need me, but I need her too.”
He touched a part of her hair that draped farthest from the bundle of cloth she used for a pillow. Once he settled down again, he drifted back to sleep and to the nightmare of Malaya’s death that never seemed to end.
Jay had only managed to collect a small bag’s worth of pagpag the previous day, including chicken bones with a few good bites left, a half-eaten hamburger and a small roll of ube cake. They saved the ube cake for breakfast. While its outer layer crumbled at the touch, each wedge tasted sweet and they savored every bite.
“Mom, what would you do if I wasn’t around?” Jay asked, after he stuffed the last bite into his mouth.
“Ah, Jay! Don’t talk like that. It’s too morbid,” his mother said, waving her hand as if fanning a bad smell.
“I’m serious. What if I get hurt or, worse, killed?”
“I could go live with Perla and her husband. They wouldn’t like it, but we’ve been friends far too long for them to say no.”
“Maybe you could visit Ate Perla today? I’m going to be late tonight and I’d like to know you’re safe.”
“No. I’ll wait for you here, like always.”
“Am I so old that I can’t make my own decisions? You come back and maybe tomorrow we can visit Perla together.”
He heaved a sigh and enfolded his mother from behind her chair. She went stiff in his arms, but she didn’t pull away. They had never been a hugging kind of family, not when he was a boy, or even between his parents before his father abandoned them for good. Her subtle squirming in his arms felt awkward, but he didn’t regret it. He needed something stronger than words for what could very well be his last goodbye.
Though it wasn’t his turn for Watch duty, he took his gulok with him. By the door, he faltered beside the Polaroid of Malaya, propped up on a shelf. The photo had been taken three years ago by a friendly tourist and given to her as a gift. In it, she was eighteen, her face lit by a full and hopeful smile and framed by long, black hair the sheen of ink.
After kissing his fingers, he pressed it against the photo. “Minamahal kita.”
“Be careful out there, Jay.”
“I will,” he said and stepped into the morning’s warm embrace.
He had already decided there would be no pagpag hunt today. They still had an emergency supply of rice and, besides, he needed to prepare himself for the day that lay ahead. He went first to the river to bathe. The riverside was an isolated spot, hidden from a housing development behind a row of trees knitted together by their branches. In the distance, the buildings of downtown Manila seemed to dangle from the sky like a faded backdrop.
After stripping off, he dove into the rust-colored waters and settled in. Before each dip beneath the surface, he stared into the sky, calling out “Panginoon ko,” and tried to let the river wash away his fears and doubts. It didn’t work. He left with a greater sense of urgency, but nothing more, nothing less.
In the commercial district, he bought a cloth bag with a wide interior and handles sewn along the sides. Then he strolled along the near-abandoned streets of Manila, biding his time until the sun went down. He needed the cover of darkness for what he had planned next.
When Jay returned to town, two members of the Night Watch had already started their patrol. Though they meandered along the road, boisterous conversations and their penchant for singing marked their place around him. He had only to drift between shadows and pass through alleyways, and he arrived at the pit beyond the southern border unnoticed.
Setting the gulok aside, he dropped to the ground and dangled his legs over the pit’s edge. Despite the late hour, stars remained invisible and even the watchful moon seemed to shed too little light. It made it impossible to see beyond the black amorphous stain covering the pit’s bottom. The whispers from dismembered aswang drifted out—like funeral songs or unholy prayers—and he saw it not as a fifteen-foot-wide hollow, but as a portal to damnation.
He didn’t want to think about what actually awaited him below, so he took a fortifying breath and gave himself to gravity. The fall was short. He gasped as the darkness consumed him, but soon his feet sank into the muddy ground. For a moment, he imagined hands reaching out to pull him under and severed heads chomping at his legs. He held still, waiting for these figments to pass before trudging through the mire.
Among the chorus of spectral voices, he listened for a single one: the graveled bass of the aswang he’d dismembered days before. While hunched low to the ground, he called out, “Do you remember me?” in hopes it would respond. He paced the pit several times, back and forth, before something finally answered.
“Yes, yes, I remember you. Are you here to see my face again?”
“I need your help.”
“And why would I help you?”
“You said before you wanted to see your family. I can bring you to them, if you show me where you came from.”
“My family first or we have no deal.”
While Jay didn’t trust it to keep its promise, he didn’t have much choice. Without the aswang, his whole plan failed.
“Agreed,” he said at last.
After hoisting the head up and shoving it into the bag, he wiped wet, viscous grime against his pant legs, praying it was only mud. He slung the bag over his shoulder. Then he made divots in the pit wall for hand and foot holds and clambered out to freedom.
The entire time, his wife’s name echoed in his mind. Since her death, he’d avoided speaking it aloud, but now the anticipation of seeing her again begged him to break his silence.
“Malaya,” he said, and a shiver dashed up his spine.
With the aswang’s help, they quickly found its family’s home on the northeast side of town. Jay stood in the darkness of an alley opposite the house, letting the head peer from the bag through a gap in their tarp curtains. Candles lit the interior, enough to see a mother pass to and from the bedroom, and a daughter and son playing hand games at the table.
“Has it been so long?” the aswang said, its waxen face unmoving, save for the tremble of its lips. “When I died, my children were only babies. Take me closer.”
Jay stepped into the road, still within the cover of shadows.
“Closer,” it said, its voice choked and desperate.
He took another step, right to the edge of moonlight.
“Closer, closer. Go to the window.”
Jay could hardly understand its words; the wet gagging of its throat destroyed enunciation. But he knew the motive well enough, could feel the raw, bestial hunger riding the torrent of its moans.
“That’s close enough,” he said, barely containing his disgust enough to keep his words a whisper. “Leave them with memories and stories. It’s better that way.”
The aswang said nothing so Jay closed the bag around it. Once he determined the Watch’s position by the sound of their voices, he fled in the opposite direction.
The aswang set Jay on an eastern route along city roads and sidewalks. The light of roadblocks shone bright as beacons in the night and he circled far around them, passing through residential neighborhoods or empty fields to escape their notice. Once in a while, cars would pass, but no one stopped him, not even volunteers of the Watch. For hours, they moved through many cities, and crossed two rivers, until the aswang made them rest along the border of Antipolo.
“Are we close?” said Jay, gazing into the bag.
“No, but you must put me down here,” it said.
“That wasn’t our deal.”
“I can be of no more use to you. The farther I am from my family, the more compelled I am to see them. It won’t be long before I do nothing but beg and cry for you to take me back.”
“The doorways between our two worlds are spread across the islands, each one opening and closing according to their time. This one is the closest now. It will remain in place long enough for you to find it and do what you need to do.”
Jay placed the bag on the ground. “I want to see my wife. If I call to her, will she come out?”
“Perhaps, but you’d risk much by even trying.”
“That doesn’t matter. Nothing matters except seeing her again.”
“And if you die?”
“Then I die.”
The aswang laughed, a hoarse rumbling in the back of its throat. “Now I see. Despite the life flowing through your veins, you’re one of us already.”
Jay left, following the aswang’s final instructions. Several miles onward, he arrived at a grove of balete trees fanned out in a semi-circle. Their branches spread into a thick canopy of leaves far above him, blotting out the sky. The tendrils of aerial roots along their trunks twined with those of their neighbors, forming a barrier of living wood. In its center was a gap, wide enough to fit a man, but barely. A faint haze overlapped it, much like the illusion of blue streaks seen on distant roads in summer.
He took a stuttered breath, his heart thumping at a manic pace. “Malaya? It’s me,” he said.
No answer came so he shouted, “Malaya, please come out! I have to see you!”
When that failed, he ventured closer, pressing his lips up to the limit.
“I need you. Come back to me.”
The door flickered, revealing for a few scattered seconds a clear view of the hillside that lay behind it. Was it closing like the aswang had warned and, if so, how much time was left? One minute? Thirty? Enough to call to Malaya for five or six more hours? There was no way to tell, but Jay did know one thing beyond a shadow of a doubt. If his wife’s love wouldn’t bring her out, he’d just have to go in and find her.
He braced himself, strengthening his will with more good memories of Malaya. But the moment he made as if to enter, hands appeared, dangling from the center of the door as if anchored to the haze itself. He scrambled to a safer distance. The hands groped at the air, sliding forward to reveal delicate wrists and arms as smooth and thin as bone. A leg shot out next, and then the entire body emerged into the night.
“Jay, where am I?”
The world blurred beneath the warm, wet pooling of his tears. He tried to speak again, but his tongue felt three sizes too large and the soft moans squeezing from the back of his throat were all that he could manage.
“I saw Malaya,” his mother said. “She returned, just like you wanted. She forced herself inside our home and asked me where you were. When I refused to tell her, she said she wasn’t an aswang like her father, but that God Himself had freed her from the prison of her death.”
She shuffled closer. Even in the dim light of the balete grove, Jay could see her frailty was false, as if she’d forgotten all her pains and senescence and was just mimicking the motions. Her hands slid behind her back. The muscles of her arms flexed, straining toward a purpose he couldn’t see.
“She thought she could fool me, but I saw through her lies. I screamed, ‘You’re not my daughter-in-law’ and ran for the door. The moment I threw it open, she grabbed me by the hair and dragged me back inside. Somehow I escaped. I had to warn you. I had to tell you that home isn’t safe anymore.”
“Mom, please,” he said, his voice vacillating between a whisper and a shout. He held a hand out, fingers splayed. “Don’t come any closer.”
She took another step, dragging herself to within mere feet from where he stood.
“I was so scared. You were gone so long and I was all alone. But I was brave. See? I’m not as helpless as you think.”
“Think about what you’re doing. I’m your son, the only family you have left,” he said, trying to stall her, to force reason into her brain.
“You think I forgot?” Her lips stretched into a ravenous grin and her pupils narrowed into slits. “That’s the reason I came back.”
A putrid scent rode the wave of her groaning exhale, even as her second tongue slithered from her mouth like a serpent rising from its burrow. When she revealed her hands at last, nails hung like keratin daggers from her fingertips.
The proboscis lashed out, hooking Jay’s arm, ripping a divot in his skin when it finally retracted. He screamed, more out of surprise than pain, and heaved the gulok overhead. His mother charged just as he sent the blade crashing down. While her claws shredded his shirt, barely missing the soft flesh of his stomach, his gulok found its mark and sunk deep into her skull.
He couldn’t bear to see her—thrashing on the ground, howling like a wounded dog—when he brought the blade down again. But by the sixth and seventh time he couldn’t look away. He had to be sure to strip whatever life had filled his mother’s counterfeit body, so that her soul could truly rest.
Seconds and eternity fused into an indistinguishable whole, so much so that when Jay emerged from the doldrums of his mind, he wasn’t sure how much time had passed. He remembered little of the journey home, except that memories of Malaya no longer comforted him anymore, having been razed by figments of how she’d killed his mother. Only hours ago, he would have done anything to say one last goodbye; now he didn’t know if he could even bear the sight of her.
He arrived at the outskirts of the shantytown by daybreak. Quiet filled the empty streets and alleyways, a tainted calm that reminded him of graveyards, or an ancient battlefield where the bodies of the dead had been left to rot. Whenever a stray voice did slip out from the shanties around him, it felt like an aberration, spectral words spilling from another realm.
A sense of unreality bled into his surroundings when he reached his house. Colors faded, objects distorted with exaggerated proportions, and the ground thumped against his feet as if it had acquired its own heartbeat. He hesitated by the entrance and stared up into the sky.
“Mahal na Panginoon, give me the strength to do this,” he said and muscled through the door.
The stench of rot assaulted him. In the far corner, Malaya cradled the real body of his mother. Blood pooled around them, was smeared across Malaya’s face; her lips and teeth were stained with it, her hands wearing it like gloves.
Vomit burned his throat, flooding his mouth. While he’d believed his aswang-mother’s story, knowing the details only magnified the revulsion of seeing it for himself.
“Why would you do this?” he said, hunched over, spitting sour bile to the floor.
“I’m sorry!” Malaya shouted. “I’m sorry!”
She pushed his mother’s body aside, wedging herself farther into the corner, shielding her face with her arms.
“I’m your husband,” he said, pounding his chest with a fist. “I’m the one you loved the most. You should have only wanted me!”
He advanced on her, not caring for the consequences. Even if she tried to rip his still-beating heart from his chest, he wouldn’t struggle, or even cry out. It would be a mercy, an end to all the pain and confusion glutting up his insides. He stooped and grabbed her arms, forcing them to part, fully expecting her proboscis to thrust into his belly. To his surprise, he found only black tears sliding down her cheeks.
“I don’t understand. Why don’t you kill me? It’s what you want, isn’t it? My blood, filling you up to bursting.”
“I’m too… full. The hungers gone, at least for now.”
He scoffed, shoved her hard against the wall and backed away. “This isn’t how it was supposed to be.”
“I never meant to hurt anyone,” Malaya said, “much less you and Mom. For days I traveled home, thinking about this very moment. With every step, I swore I’d be a good wife and daughter-in-law, not a monster like all the rest. But there’s something else inside me now, a blinding lust beyond anything I could have ever imagined.”
“You should have tried harder!” he said, stabbing a finger in the air at every punctuated word.
“I wanted to, but I couldn’t, Jay. I couldn’t.” She tilted her head, exposing the soft curve of her neck, wiping the wet from her eyes with violent, careless swipes. “You have to end this. The hunger is already returning. Don’t let me spend eternity knowing that I murdered the only man I ever loved.”
He squeezed the gulok in both hands, testing his strength, his mettle. But he couldn’t find the rage that had fueled his long walk home, only a fierce loathing for the thing his wife had become.
“All I have left inside of me is hate. If you make me do this now, it’s all I’ll ever have for you.”
Malaya shivered, as if from a cold only she could feel. Her face squinched with pain and her throat distended.
“It’s coming. Do it.”
She clamped her lips shut, but her second tongue struggled in her mouth, disfiguring her face with lines and bulges. Jay raised the gulok over his shoulder, tears burning his cheeks.
“This isn’t how it was supposed to be!” he screamed and swung with all his might.
Malaya crumpled in place, her body wracked with spasms. Just to be sure he drove the life from her, he hacked fissures in her skull. When at last she didn’t move, and the proboscis hung like a withered, pink vine from her mouth, he dropped to his knees beside her.
“I lied before. Minamahal kita. Always”
He brushed her hair so that it covered up her wounds, wiping away the blood and grime until the true brown of her face shone through. Then he closed his eyes and cradled her hand in his own.
“Why?” he said, pressing her hand to his face, pretending it was alive and warm. Pretending it didn’t bite into his skin like a worthless lump of ice. “Why do we never get to say goodbye?”