By Padmapani L. Perez
Being a manananggal in the 21st century is a cinch. No one believes in me anymore so I come and go as I please. No one so much as suspects my activities, not even when my appetite is at its most voracious.
Thanks to the thorough work of the Spanish friars in discrediting my work and unseating those infernal babaylan, I officially no longer exist. Ay those babaylan. How they teased me, bent me to their will. They treated me as though I were a pet, by turns inviting me to my prey and other times beating me away with vehement curses and painful spells. And if I so much as helped myself to a meal behind their backs, they summoned me and oh how they tortured me. They tied my tongue into knots so I couldn’t eat for days, not until some erring woman came to the babaylan and asked for help getting rid of a love child from an illicit affair.
Then they would give her herbs and bark to boil into tea, saying it would make her blood come again. Little did women know that the tea did nothing for them. Oh but the tea drove me mad. Such an exquisite fragrance. I could smell it from many mountains away and just a whiff of it would make me ravenous. So I would come hurtling through the night sky to the home of the tea-maker and I would wait for the family to blow out their lamps and lay their mats on the floor. My poor stomach would growl all the while and my mouth would water for the tender meal to which I had been invited — summoned by the fragrance of the tea.
When the errant woman lay down on her mat, I would creep beneath the hut, among the sleeping chickens and pigs, and trembling with anticipation I would let my tongue glide between the bamboo slats of the hut’s flooring. My tongue would find her smooth young legs, work its way between her firm thighs, and slip into her warmth, deeper and deeper into her womb until the tip of my tongue would touch the sweet, soft embryo within her. And then I would draw my breath in slowly and suck the succulent babe from its sac. The woman would wake the next day to find blood on her legs, thinking the tea had done its work. Perhaps she would feel satisfied and somewhat sad. I never empathized with the mothers of my prey.
Nowadays they only have doctors wielding scissors, needles, and thread. They have none of the intuitive cunning of the babaylan. They know only science, which they learned in school buildings. Nowadays they have men in robes descended from the friars. These priests believe in sin but they don’t believe in me, and oh the sins they commit! Their kept women often buy the herbs and bark for the tea from the peddlers on the corner of Assumption Road. Those old women don’t know about me anymore. They think the herbs they sell bring the blood. Their great-grandmothers had long since forgotten the connection between the tea, the babaylan, and I.
And so I am free to go about my business and eat as I please. When I eat without the tea calling me, which is often, the doctors tell the bereaved woman that it was a miscarriage or a spontaneous abortion. Convenient excuses are made on my behalf!
I have never in my life had such liberty. My girth has grown with my freedom. Yes, I am no longer the svelte young manananggal I once was, the object of desire of many an aswang. But that matters little to me now. After all, there are no more aswang and I am not lonely, for I have found music and movies in the cities.
Personally, the movies that appeal to me most are the black and white ones. The actors and actresses were truly glamorous. They wore fine clothes, perfectly coiffed or buffed hair, and they sang so beautifully. They don’t make movies like that anymore, nor do they make music like the kundiman anymore. I despise the new music, though I find today’s films entertaining enough, and I am grateful for the growth of cities where I can slip in and out of theaters as I please. In cities there is noise at all hours. People are too busy to give “superstition” a second thought. I prefer cities to small, remote villages where people are quick to suspect the presence of unseen others such as myself. In cities I am blanketed in complete anonymity.
So imagine my surprise, one night in a mountainous city as I was smacking my lips and settling down under a bed for a feast, when the small woman alone in the bed said in the dark, “I can hear you, pig. GET OUT!”
Belinda shot out of bed the next morning, steadied herself at the top of the stairs, and with her hand clasped tightly to her mouth she rushed to the bathroom where she proceeded to retch into the toilet bowl.
“Fucking hormones,” she groaned into the porcelain.
“Hormones, Pig, hormones,” said Belinda, looking up at the obese, orange tabby that had positioned itself atop the toilet’s tank and was watching Belinda’s new morning ritual with feline indifference.
“MEOWWWWWRRR,” countered Pig, louder this time.
“Yes, Your Highness. Breakfast shall be served at once, Your Highness.”
With that, Pig jumped off the tank with far more grace than could be expected of an overweight cat and trotted to her bowl, tail high in the air. Belinda followed unsteadily behind, rattled some kibble into Pig’s dish, and poured herself a glass of water.
“You were in my room last night, Pig. I could hear you licking yourself under my bed. Thank you for not doing it ON my bed but I told you, no more sleeping in my room. In fact, no more coming into my room! I’ve decided I’m going to have this baby and I’m sorry but you do pose a risk. Or at least your shit does. Haaaaaay, what on earth am I going to do about your shit without a man around to clean your litter box?”
I watched this woman that had just shocked the wits out of me from behind a thorny rosebush that grew in her small garden. She was so like the babaylan, talking as she did nonstop — like a madwoman — to that cat of hers. And she grew a profusion of edible and magical plants in her small garden. Rosal for healing and love, ginger for the blood, lemon grass for psychic ability, mint for tonic, basil for prosperity, guava for antiseptic, rosemary for cleansing, magnolia for fidelity, bamboo, camote, gabi. I didn’t think anyone in the city had any use for herbs in this day and age. Quite dated, if you ask me. This is the era of antibiotics!
She had me in a fit last night! I froze beneath her bed. Couldn’t move! Didn’t know what to do! Swore under my breath as I collected my wits. She addressed me. It has been centuries since a human has addressed me directly. And what’s worse, she called me a pig! How dare she make fun of my girth! Even the babaylan who so often mistreated me at least had the courtesy to call me by my name. I was incensed. I wanted to reveal myself to her in all my corpulent glory and kill her with the shock of my appearance. Then I would sate myself on that fetus of hers and finish off her line. However, I was frozen to the spot.
What if she were indeed a babaylan? I could not risk revealing myself to her and losing my sweet freedom, my unfettered pursuit of happiness, my right to feast as I pleased. I played safe. I waited for her to fall asleep. To my relief, she didn’t bother to look under her bed and seemed to be satisfied by my silence. That was stupid and careless of me to smack my lips without making certain my quarry was sleeping, but did she really think I had left instantly? Soon, but none too soon, she was snoring softly. I crept noiselessly to her open window and leaped like a ballerina into the night air. Yes, I quite like the ballet and in spite of my size, I can pirouette as smoothly as the best of those skinny girls.
I would return and watch this nasty woman. A babaylan in the 21st century? Impossible! But I must be sure. And if she did indeed turn out to be a babaylan, then I must learn how to avoid her completely, or find a way to kill her and her offspring.
So there I was on a fine morning when I should have been sleeping, crouched in the bushes like a hungry giant rat, spying on Belinda and her ridiculously fat cat named Pig. I almost burst out laughing at that. What a twisted sense of humor to call such a dignified creature as a cat, Pig. More importantly, she wasn’t talking to me, after all! I had been tricked out of my supper and all because I panicked. I could have left right then and let Belinda slip from my mind and gone on with my lovely cosmopolitan existence. But just as I was about to rise into a tree to sleep, a young girl with moist eyes and a snotty nose cradling a puppy in her arms rang the bell at the gate. Belinda let her in, took the puppy into her arms, and ushered them both inside. I could not see from my post what went on in the only room in the house that Belinda kept closed, but I could smell chamomile tea, which has a soothing effect on harried humans. Moments later, the girl emerged with her puppy wrapped in a blanket and, of all things, a bag of pills. Odd.
Throughout the day and almost everyday after that, people and their animals came to Belinda. She would make herb tea for the humans and they would disappear into the Only Room in the House with a Closed Door. This was most worrying. Back in the olden times, everyone knew that the babaylan kept pets. Not working animals, mind you, but well-fed and pampered pets that spent hours grooming themselves or being groomed by the babaylan. It was said that keeping an animal close kept the babaylan’s spirit attuned to nature, and that the animal was in reality a spirit-friend that helped the babaylan work her spells. Was Belinda a powerful babaylan to whom all these other people came for advice and teachings? The humans arrived looking anxious. Their pets did not always give off the strong, enigmatic air that the animals of the babaylan had about them. Some of them looked quite dumb, if you ask me. But always, when the humans left with their companions, there was a light in their eyes — or a bag of pills in their hands. Were they all babaylan with spirit-friends dispensing 21st century medicines that Belinda gave them? Ridiculous! No, no, no, how could this be? I could not bear the thought of being found by them and bound to slavery once more. I could have fled to another city, even another country if I so wished. The world had become my oyster and I was its pearl: the last, shining, abdominious Manananggal.
And yet, I stayed.
I feel strong emotions as physical sensations, and my curiosity was like an incessant itch in the sole of my right foot, which no amount of scratching would relieve. I watched Belinda day after day, leaving only to snatch a quick meal from the nearest pregnant woman I could scent. I slept little, and always in the magnolia tree in Belinda’s small yet profuse garden.
“Pig, if you’re going to keep getting stuck up there, you may as well make yourself useful and pick the magnolias for me! Silly cat.”
I woke with a start. Belinda was looking right at me. Oh no, no, no. She was looking right through me. Above me on a branch that bobbed up and down with her every move, was Pig, mewing piteously.
“No, darling. I’m not coming up there for you anymore. I can’t risk a bad fall and the ladder is too heavy. The doctor doesn’t want me lifting heavy things anymore.”
Pig meowed — no, she wailed — louder and louder.
“Goddammit Pig, sweetie, you idiot, all you have to do is jump to a lower, bigger branch and you’ll be fine! Look, if I leave you to it I bet you’ll find a way down from there. Okay? If you’re still stuck at lunchtime I’ll go ask the neighbors for help. And you know I don’t like doing that! I’ll get all kinds of questions about ‘Who’s the father?’ and ‘How will you manage?’ and bla bla bla and shit! Fucking meddlers.”
Foul-mouthed Belinda. I must admit she amused me almost as much as her very existence worried me. One of the neighbors used to come in to help Belinda clean the house and a crate in a dark corner where Pig relieved herself. As far as I could see, Belinda paid money for these services. One day the neighbor all but stumbled out the front door with Belinda screaming from the inside, “WHAT BUSINESS IS IT OF YOURS WHETHER OR NOT I HAVE A HUSBAND? WHO THE FUCK DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? SELF-RIGHTEOUS BITCH! DON’T EVER COME BACK HERE!”
In fact, it was of great concern to me that Belinda didn’t have a man in her life. The babaylan took lovers but they never married. They were too proud to join their lives with anyone other than their pets, and would never, ever bend to the will of a man. If they conceived, they kept the pregnancy only if they knew for certain the child would be a girl. There were few exceptions to this rule, and then only if there were prophecies involved. I could tell Belinda was going to have a daughter. The days were turning to weeks and months and if I did not think of something soon the baby would grow too large for me to suck out of the womb. I would be discovered and doomed to a life of slavery. For if Belinda were to capture me, then her daughters and her daughters’ daughters would inherit me too.
“YEOWWWWRRRRRRR!” Pig startled me out of my thoughts.
Below us, Belinda shook a fist at Pig, finished plucking some camote tops and marched back inside, muttering to herself. Belinda was constantly muttering to herself. Spells to strengthen the baby, I suspect. The only times I could make out what she said was when she spoke to Pig. Her voice would rise slightly, both in volume and pitch, and she would speak to Pig as though she were speaking to a child.
Pig continued to wail in the bobbing branch. She knew, as all scheming cats know, that her human would eventually re-emerge and do something about her situation. She called out for a very long time. We waited. Belinda stayed inside. She would appear at the window from time to time to check but then she would just glower at Pig and shake her head, then go back to the kitchen, muttering to herself. Belinda was always in the kitchen, if not in the bathroom retching, or in bed resting, or in the Only Room with a Closed Door.
Pig was getting on my nerves. I hissed at her. She froze mid-meow and stared at me. Yes, I let her see me. That silenced her for a second. Then she hissed back and spat at me. She tried to arch her back but the branch she was on swung up and down so violently she had to crouch down low and dig her claws into the soft bark. She resumed her desperate meows, with her tail bristling like a bottlebrush as she glared at me. Goodness. Cats have such talent for melodrama. Fine. I would have to deal with this differently, obviously. I meowed to her, quietly, soothingly. I let her know I would help her. At first she refused to listen. Then slowly her cries grew softer, until she was silently bobbing up and down on the thin branch. Her tail smoothened and twitched expectantly from side to side.
Yes I can speak to animals. That’s another use the infernal babaylan had for me. Everybody was awed by their power to communicate with animals. That was all the doing of my kin and I. I didn’t want to have anything to do with Belinda’s cat. But if I was careful in the way I dealt with Pig, perhaps she could be of use to me. I had to practice extreme caution, of course. One never knows what one gets attempting to manipulate a cat.
When Pig marched back into the house, her proud tail waving high above her plump body, Belinda squealed with delight.
“I knew you could do it, Pig. I knew it! You see, you’re a smart, capable cat. Yes you are, baby, yes you are!” She poured a generous amount of food into Pig’s dish and then disappeared in to the Only Room with a Closed Door.
Now. If only Pig would do what I asked of her. Just one stray defecation in Belinda’s bedroom. That might do the trick for me.
Pig made me wait for days. I brought her gifts of mice. She was too slow to catch them herself. I offered her brightly colored birds stolen from gilded cages in the houses of the rich. She played with them until she grew tired, which never took too long. Then she would carry her playthings inside and lay them at Belinda’s feet. This always outraged Belinda, who would cuss mercilessly at Pig. Then she would scoop up the little dead bodies and bury them in the garden. Once I thought I even saw her shed tears. Odd. Babaylan are usually pleased when their animals are skilled hunters.
Finally, Pig gave me what I wanted. She did it marvelously. Left an odorous line of feces right in the middle of Belinda’s bed. I suspect she took offense at Belinda chasing her out with a broom after Pig showed her a particularly fine, green-feathered bird I had brought her. And that’s what did it — not my daily bribes. If Belinda were to clean that up herself, all I would have to do is wait for the baby to fall from her.
Of course, Belinda railed at Pig.
“Oh Pig, how could you do this to me? You’re so thoughtless. I told you. I told you so many times. I can’t risk picking up toxoplasmosis from your stinking shit! And on my bed too. Putang ina. Do you want me to lose this baby? Jesus if I didn’t love you, I’d kill you. You’re such a selfish brat!” Belinda burst into tears.
And of course, Pig made me pay. She ventured out to the highest limbs of the neighbors’ trees. Each time she got stuck, she expected me to get her down. If I tried ignoring her, she drove me to the edge of my sanity with her incessant whining.
My scheme didn’t work. Belinda had one over the babaylan of old. Rubber gloves and a mask over her mouth and nose. Sheets sent away to be washed — “in hot water,” she specified. Room sprayed with a disinfectant that burned the very depths of my fine, sensitive nostrils from meters away. That would put off any plans to sneak back into her room and dispose of the babe myself. And Belinda kept the door to her room closed, making it the Other Room with a Closed Door in her house.
Oh she was a wily one, this Belinda, and I grew more and more anxious as each day slipped by. What is more I was tired of being at the beck and call of Pig, who was indeed a selfish brat. I only stopped myself from snapping her fat neck because I didn’t want to raise any suspicion. At least if I wasn’t getting enough sleep, there was never a lack of food in this city.
One morning, Pig was bobbing up and down from a precarious branch in a neighbor’s tree across the street. I was settling down to catch some sleep on my favorite branch in Belinda’s magnolia tree when Pig’s lazy yet insistent meowing carried across the yard. Well. Better to get this over with then. Too sleepy to fly to Pig’s aid, I grudgingly shuffled across the street and made my way up the tree. There I found that from this tree, I could peer into the high window of the First Room with a Closed Door.
There was a steel table, a sink, a row of large steel cages, a tray full of glinting knives and needles, shelves of dark bottles, bright lights. And there was Belinda, her bulging belly covered by a white coat, her hands in bloody gloves, her face covered by a mask, bent over a black dog so large it filled the table. She was slicing the dog open! The dog appeared to be asleep, under some bewitchment. I watched in amazement as Belinda dipped into the dog sometimes with her gloved hands, sometimes with a steel instrument. She did so deliberately, and with great care. I had to get closer, I had to see more! Presently she pulled a ball of flesh from inside the dog and dropped it into an empty tray beside the table. She picked up a needle and thread and began to sew the dog’s belly shut.
Suddenly, searing pain! My cheek is getting scraped on the concrete road. Did I just fall from the tree? Voices, people crowding around me, screaming, gasping, and backing away. Horrors. They can see me. They can see me! I can’t get up. I can’t disappear. I try to turn to the side and it hurts, oh it hurts. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a dented jeepney looming over me, tassels blowing in the wind, horses staring blindly straight ahead.
And here comes Belinda.
“Out of my way! Excuse! Let me through please! Let me through.”
“Be careful,” a man warns her. “It might bite! We don’t know what that thing is!”
“It’s an injured animal, that’s what it is! You hit it!”
Belinda is actually angry. She’s standing over me with her hands on her expanding hips and glaring up at the jeepney driver. She has a blanket bundled under her arm.
“Utang na loob, I didn’t see it,” declares the driver. “It came out of nowhere! It’s almost like it appeared on the road after I hit it. Ask them! Nobody saw this thing! Did any of you see it coming?”
The crowd shakes their moronic heads in unison.
Belinda’s hands are feeling me all over. Her hands that cut the insides of animals. What happened here? Oh stupid Manananggal. I must have tried crossing the street to get a better view of what Belinda was doing to the black dog.
“Nothing broken. Female. But what?” she mutters. And then: “You! Help me!”
She unfurls the blanket and lays it on the ground beside me. She puts her hands under my armpits and makes to lift me. Horrors! I want to move. I can’t move.
“Hoy! Son of a bitch. Help me here!” She’s yelling at the driver again.
“Are you crazy? It’s a monster! I’m not touching it!”
“Listen to me. I’m a vet and I know what I’m doing. Now pick it up.”
The driver grabs my legs and they hoist me unto the blanket. He drops me as soon as he has me over the blanket and this sends flames of burning red pain licking all the way up my legs and inside me. The bastard! I will hunt his woman down and eat every child they ever conceive! Belinda kneels and puts her thigh under my head as she slowly lowers my upper body. Oh how I hurt! She orders the driver to pick up one end of the blanket as she lifts the other. She marches us through the crowd, yelling:
“Tabi! Tabi po! Tabi sabi e!”
And in this way, I am carried into the life of Belinda.
Belinda kept me in a steel cage in the First Room with a Closed Door for days. I slept and slept and slept. When I would awake she would try to feed me. Kibble. Each time a different shape, a different color. They all smelled the same to me. They stank. Then chicken, pork, beef, and fish. Sometimes cooked, sometimes raw. I refused everything. She would speak to me. Softly, gently, like she were coaxing a frightened child to come out of hiding. I threatened her with growls and spitting and hissing. I tried to bite her. I grabbed the bars of the steel cage and shook them until the whole room was rattling. Then Belinda would pick up a needle and prick me and no matter how hard I tried to stay awake, I would feel myself falling asleep again.
“I’m sorry,” I would hear Belinda saying softly. “But we have to learn to get along, okay?”
Sometimes I would wake to find her stroking me through the bars of the cage. I would raise my hackles and she would quickly withdraw her hand, but all the time she would talk to me ceaselessly.
“I won’t hurt you. I won’t let anyone hurt you. You’re safe here. I wish I could figure out what you eat. You haven’t eaten in days. You haven’t even touched your water. Any animal would die without water after just a few days. You’re so strong. You were just badly bruised by that idiotic driver. What are you? Don’t be afraid, darling.”
Stupid, condescending girl. This was no babaylan. She had no idea she had a great manananggal before her. She was only a doctor for animals! To think I let myself become so obsessed with her mundane existence. This woman’s secrets were of no interest to me. Now she wanted my secrets.
Belinda took to leaving the door to her surgery open so that she could quickly peer in at me from the kitchen and living room, and so she could hear my movements at all times. Pig often sauntered in and would sit before my cage, grooming herself and gloating over my captivity. Why having me imprisoned pleased her, I had no idea.
When Belinda was not busy cooking or cleaning, or lying on the sofa with her feet up, if she had no animals to work on, she would sit at the steel table with a notebook and pen, staring at me and mumbling.
“Opposable thumbs. No tail. No teats. A very fine down. Not fur. More like lanugo on newborn babies. But scaly paws. And cat’s eyes. Canine teeth. Ears pressed close to the head like a bat’s. Small flaps of webbed skin under the armpits. What the hell?”
One day, I heard Belinda coming in through the front door. I pretended to sleep. For the first time since I was imprisoned I smelled something in her basket that smelled edible. I became aware of the hunger chewing at the inner walls of my body and weakening me. Belinda laid out fruits, vegetables, and a bag of small, skinned bodies on the kitchen table. I trembled. I wanted to eat! No. If I ate then I would be trapped in Belinda’s house forever. There would be no more hope of escaping, ever.
But I was only fooling myself. As things stood, even if Belinda were to open the door of my cage, I could not possibly attack her, nor leave her house. Belinda had saved me in a moment of peril. I owed her my life. This was more powerful than any binding curse a babaylan might have placed over me. Was it time for me to accept that I was to do Belinda’s bidding until she chose to release me from my debt of gratitude? But my pride. My pride! Was this to be the fate of the last Manananggal?
I succumbed. My tongue slithered forth from the cage, and quick as a flash, I sucked up one of the pieces of meat on the table, small bones and all. Sensing movement, Belinda spun around in time to see me hastily drawing my tongue back in.
“FROGS?” she screamed. “You eat frogs? And, and you have a specialized projectile tongue! Do that again, darling. Show me!”
She stepped back from the table as though to reassure me, and crossing her arms on her swollen breasts, she waited. So I had eaten a frog. This was the first time in my entire life that I consumed something that was not a human fetus. The frog was tasteless, but it was not revolting. Passing through my tongue and down my throat it felt like I had taken a babe that was just on the cusp of being too mature for me to digest. But it was not bad. It would keep me alive. I let my tongue float through the air, slowly this time, and I took another frog. Belinda applauded.
“Amazing! You may have them all, darling. I’m so happy you’re eating! Hey Pig get down, baby! Let her have her meal.”
Pig was on the table swatting at my tongue. I flicked my tongue at Pig’s ear and she sprang off the table and hid behind Belinda, who was laughing heartily.
“You see? We can all get along. Maybe now you’ll hate me a little less, darling. Pig sweetie, it looks like you’ve got a new friend.”
I waved my tongue at Belinda. She smiled and did not move. Tentatively, I touched her leg and let my tongue glide upwards slowly. She was so still. So trusting. I could sense she was allowing this because she did not want to frighten me. She wanted to win me over, not knowing she already owned me, whether I liked it or not. No. I could not do this. The laws of my existence would not allow it. I drew my tongue back into myself and held myself in a tight ball in a corner of the cold, steel cage.
Belinda brought me frogs everyday. I refused to touch them when she put them in a dog’s dish and placed the dish on the floor. That was a humiliation I refused to accept. So Belinda took to leaving my food on the table and she would let me take it with my tongue from afar, as I did on that first day I ate frogs. She also left a bowl of clean water on the table for me. I let her touch me. She was always gentle. Eventually, she unlocked the cage and left the door open. I stepped out and never entered it again. She laid a small mattress and a blanket for me on the floor. When she wasn’t looking I slept beside Pig on the sofa.
We learned to live with each other’s patterns. I slept most of the day, rose and ate and sulked about the house at night. There was no entertainment for me here. No television, no music. There was a computer, but Belinda only turned it on to type in notes from her animal patients’ visits. It was a quiet house but for Belinda’s constant chattering, sometimes to Pig, or me, herself, or the daughter she carried in her womb. She spent her spare time reading books. That is one thing I never learned to do. Once a day she would read a child’s tale aloud. That was about the only entertainment I got but these stories bored me. There was no pain, or death, or loss in them, only silly people and unbearably adorable creatures with big eyes and soft fur.
There were certain things Belinda would not let me do. She would scold me the way she reprimanded Pig if I sat on the table or knocked something over or relieved myself anywhere I wished. I hissed at her but she would glare at me and bellow sternly, “NO.” Belinda decided she could make good use of my “opposable thumbs” and my “obvious intelligence.” She “trained” me to clean Pig’s litter, which was now mine as well. Oh the humiliation! But when I ceased to resist, she opened the front door and showed me where to bury the cat’s feces. Then she would allow me some time in the garden.
“Don’t go anywhere,” she would say, wagging her finger at me. “And don’t let anyone see you.”
Easy enough. Belinda and Pig could see me all the time now, but I could conceal myself from others at will. When Belinda had guests or patients she hid me in her bedroom, which was not really necessary, but just as well. I may have been bound to Belinda in service, but she did not have to know everything about my abilities. When she trusted me enough to leave me alone in the garden, I would slip away and help myself to the one true food I am meant to live upon. One night I returned to the house with a frog in my mouth. I laid it on my mattress for Pig and Belinda to see, and I swallowed it whole as they watched. Pig was jealous of my hunting abilities, but Belinda was pleased.
“Heeey, you can hunt for your own food now! That would explain your survival out in the wilds of the city. Would you prefer to fend for yourself than to have me feed you? After all, it’s your instinct. It’s in you. I may just be blunting your ability to survive by feeding you. I still don’t know what you are, but I respect you, darling. You’re a fine, beautiful animal.”
Belinda paused and looked lost in thought as she stared at me.
“If you want to hunt, I won’t stop you.”
Aha! She spoke the words! She spoke the words! She unknowingly gave me permission to feed as I pleased. Belinda and her child remained safe from me. For one thing, the child was now too large in her womb for me to swallow. If I were to try, not only would the child give me a terrible case of indigestion, but also the act itself would upset the balance of things that allowed my continued existence. Now that Belinda trusted me, however, I could go out to feed and she would think I was only hunting frogs.
It seemed that Belinda did not mind my disappearing in the night, so long as I stayed off the furniture when she was looking, cleaned Pig’s litter, and didn’t knock things over in the house. I had to be back before Belinda’s bedtime too, or she would stand in the garden and yell for me until I reappeared. The neighbors must have thought she had finally gone completely out of her mind, calling for her non-existent “darling” in the night. This curfew posed a challenge to my feeding habits, for now I had to find women who were asleep in bed before ten o’clock. This time constraint and the diet of frogs brought back my figure from younger days, which Belinda said was healthier.
We carried on in this manner for some time. I watched the passing of moons with the growth of Belinda’s belly. Soon she would be delivering this child. I all but gave up the hope that I would be released. If there was one thing I found truly unbearable about being bound to Belinda, it was her incessant chatter. Occasionally she spoke of interesting things like the movies and music, or the surgeries she conducted on her patients. More often than not she would talk to Pig and I about the most boring things, like how she bought a new sponge so she could scrub her back in the shower, or what she was cooking, or how many time she felt the baby kick in the passing of an hour.
One day, I could no longer stand it. Humans are animals too, so I knew I could speak to her. I interrupted her monologue.
“Manananggal,” I announced.
“Did you say something, darling?”
“I swear you sound like you’re singing ‘manah manah’ from the Muppets.” She giggled.
I kept trying.
“Thank you for reminding me, darling. I should get my baby DVDs of the Muppets.”
“Manananggal,” I growled. “Don’t you want to know what I am?”
I was out of practice communicating with humans. Either that or Belinda was so convinced of my being an animal that she simply wasn’t hearing me speak. The compulsion to make her understand me was overpowering. It made my throat burn. Everyday I interrupted Belinda’s monologues to say a few words. I would stay absolutely still, look her straight in the eye, and say something. I often told her what I was. Sometimes I told her my age. I told her many things about myself that she never understood. Finally it dawned on her.
“You’re trying to communicate, aren’t you? My god, you are truly amazing darling! I must record this and add it to my notes. You know, darling, this could be the key to unlocking the mystery of your species! I’ve been putting my notes online, in various forums for vets and zoologists, but people laugh at my descriptions of you. Of course I can’t tell them I have you in my care, so I say I’ve observed you a couple of times ‘in the wild.’ They don’t need to know that I mean the wilds of this city. Say that again, darling. I’m all ears.”
She took out a little recorder and held it out between us.
“Manananggal,” I said. I repeated this over and over.
It surprised me when Belinda played the recorder. She could make my voice go faster or slower, louder or softer. She let me sing into it and she was absolutely delighted. I must say, I do like the sound of my own voice now that I’ve heard it outside of myself. I sang and sang and sang and Belinda recorded it all. I was making my own music.
Then Belinda sat at the computer and played my voice repeatedly. Fast. Slow. Loud. Soft. She typed obsessively on the keyboard. I left her to it and went out to dinner.
When I returned, Belinda was waiting for me at the door. She was pale and shaking. One arm was wrapped protectively around her belly, and in her other hand she held a needle, which she pointed at me with a trembling hand. Pig was rubbing herself against my legs and purring.
“Pig, you traitor, get back in the house!” Belinda yelled. “I know what you are now. I know what you eat. Fuck you! If you come near me, if you try anything with that hideous tongue of yours I will kill you with one shot of this! I don’t know where you came from, or why you’re here, but I want you out of my house and out of my life!”
And just like that, she was releasing me from bondage. No more cat litter! No more frogs! No more “behaving”! I was free! But I stood rooted to her doorstep. I tried to explain that I could not hurt her, that I was bound by her kindness to protect her and her baby from any harm, to serve her and do as she pleases. What was I saying? I could leave! Pathetic. I had my freedom but I was overcome by sadness. I wanted Belinda to care about me, the way she cared from the moment she picked me up off the street on that fateful day.
Belinda wasn’t listening. Tears were streaming down her cheeks. I felt something wet on my face. Horrors. I was crying, too.
“Putang. Ina.” she swore through gritted teeth. “Go. Away.”
“Fine,” I said. “I’m going. You can’t make me clean Pig’s feces and eat frogs forever.”
And with that, I faded from Belinda’s sight, and she would never see me again. Well, no, I exaggerate. Some of Pig’s talent for melodrama must have rubbed off on me. I traveled to other cities and returned to my eating habits. I visited cinemas and attended concerts. I fed as I pleased and grew voluptuous again — I must say, I do like myself this way now. I relished my regained freedom. But later on, I was overcome by curiosity once again. I wanted to see how that child of hers turned out. I wanted to know if Pig was still fat. I wanted to watch Belinda at work on her patients again. I returned to the mountainous city and saw Belinda one more time.
So it was that one morning I nestled into my old spot in the magnolia tree in Belinda’s garden. As soon as she sensed me, Pig jumped out a low window, sped up the trunk and with utmost poise, made herself comfortable in my lap, purring loudly. At least someone was happy to see me. Pig, who was as fat for a cat as I was for a manananggal was possessed of ballerina-like grace. We had that in common, she and I.
The flowers of the magnolia had been cut. I could see them in a vase by a window below. After giving birth Belinda must have taken to climbing the tree again, rescuing Pig and picking the giant, fragrant blossoms. I waited for Belinda and the child to appear at one of the windows, or to come out to the garden. Then I saw it, wedged into a small cut in my favorite branch: a folded piece of paper with writing on it. It was wrapped in plastic to keep it dry. I could sense it was meant for me. It smelled of Belinda’s strong emotions. Stupid Belinda. She knows I can’t read!
In a fit I ripped the note from the branch, marched up to the house and hammered on the front door. When Belinda opened the door she gasped and pulled the child to her. The child stood beside her mother and glared at me, much the way Pig did the first time she saw me, except that the child didn’t hiss or spit, nor did she have a tail or hackles to raise. A fierce one, this girl. Before Belinda could do anything, I thrust the piece of paper before me. Belinda hesitated, and then she took the paper from me, unfolded it, and began to read.
“I still find it hard to think of you as evil. We lived together well, didn’t we? I mean, we really did get along. You never hurt my baby or me. It’s just the things that you do that make you evil. But you yourself — I think you’re an amazing creature. Not supernatural like people once thought, but amazing nonetheless. Or maybe I’m just rationalizing something I can’t even begin to understand…”
“After you left a bitch was brought to me for help. She was having difficulty giving birth and she was in pain. I injected her with anesthesia and carefully pushed my hand into her to feel the puppies. One was already dead. The other three were deformed and far too large for the mother to deliver on her own. They would die if the mother delivered them successfully but that wasn’t going to happen. She was already in labor too long and she was growing weak. I could have given her a caesarian and taken the puppies out. Let them breathe some air, spend a little time at their mother’s breast and then die in a couple of days. Or I could have put them down as soon as I delivered them. But something inside me, something powerful and hateful, compelled me to do what I did.
“With my hand still inside the bitch’s womb, I broke the puppies’ necks, one by one. When I think about it, I can still feel their tiny, innocent necks snapping in my fingers. Then I pulled them out one dead puppy at a time. I let the owner think they were stillborn. She asked me to bury them in my garden. They’re under the magnolia tree, your tree. The dog was left in my care for a night so I could make sure she would be okay. When the anesthesia wore off I could feel the mother’s grief. She knew she had lost her puppies and she knew I had taken them away from her. She cried and sniffed around and whimpered softly. I had to listen to her all day until her owner came to take her home.
That was not the first time I did something like that. I tell myself I had to do it, that I was only doing what nature would have done. I was — AM — nature’s helper in this way. But I can never fully convince myself of the rightness of what I’m doing.”
I stared at Belinda. I did not know what she was trying to tell me. I was perplexed. What was the use of this outpouring? She ended:
“Sometimes I think I’m no better than you. Sometimes I miss you. I listen to your songs sometimes. You sing beautifully.
P.S. I just wish you wouldn’t steal babies from mothers that truly want to keep them. Is that possible?”
Belinda looked up from the note. She was crying. The child clung to her mother’s hand and looked as if she might cry too, seeing her mother in tears. I knew that Belinda knew that what she asked of me was impossible. It was too late for her to ask anything of me. I felt no obligations towards her. I had come and seen what I wanted to see.
I took the note from Belinda with my tongue and swallowed it. It has been many decades since. I never visited Belinda again, not even her grave nor her child and her grandchildren.
I still carry Belinda’s note inside me.