It always starts with a spell of fainting, followed, though not always, by a mini-seizure. Not a grand epileptic one—just enough to induce panic within the immediate circle, causing a commotion that ripples from that small space outward. A wave of concern out, then a wave of curiosity in, bringing along sharks excited by the expectation of blood. Just like that, in the short interval between fanning herself with her white lace blouse and croaking for a glass of water, Auntie Esmie’s body was seized by the spirit of the dead.
Before Auntie Esmie fainted Ifan was sitting three chairs away, legs crossed, sipping hot cocoa from a hand-painted china cup with his right hand, its saucer balanced on his knee. With his left hand he just hit the share button on his phone’s Instagram app –automatic sharing to Facebook toggled on- for another of his “#probinsiyahits,” another square aspect-ratioed photo to add to his meticulously curated gallery of food pics. A table where some comestibles were set was right before him. The hot cocoa was in a china pitcher belonging to the same hand-painted set as the cup he was holding. The pitcher stood on a platter surrounded by cups, like a queen with her retinue kneeling around her. Not a splatter stained the set; no accidental trails on the sides of the cups nor a blight on the river of porcelain, a testament to how serious an art-form Ifan considered the serving and preparation of hot chocolate. He imagined it was akin to a Japanese tea-master lost in Zen as he performed his ceremony.
Ifan was obsessed with sukalati. His imagination was always fired up whenever it was mentioned, and a pang of nostalgia would settle in his gut every time family talk turned to recollections of the past. It was a point of pride for Ifan that his family was known for serving superb hot chocolate. He relished stories of how people would come up with all sorts of pretexts to visit his mother’s house and wait for the suggestion of hot chocolate and bibingka to be brought up. Though Ifan was a mediocre cook at best, he was confident in his chocolate-making skills.
The process, posted as a caption on his Instagram photo: Made from stone-hard cocoa balls that resemble brown-black billiard balls, grated, then melted in a battered pewter pot with water added gradually, then a pinch of salt, then milk. Stirred throughout with a three generations-old molinillo crafted out of the hardy kamagong. Then allowed to boil furiously, for the milk and chocolate to froth until it threatens to overflow, then the heat turned really low, to simmer, then a grating of nutmeg, and when the concoction hits that sweet spot between rich but not cloying, thick yet not throat-clogging, a knife is heated with the steam of the cocoa, used to slice through a slab of butter. The knife is held again over the pot until the butter slides clean from the knife with a satisfying plop onto the loam-hued ambrosia. Allow yourself to be mesmerized by the sight of gold that would dissipate, casting tendrils of sunshine across the melted edible earth.
Beside the china platter of cocoa were circular rice cakes cut into squares, made by Auntie Teria and her coterie of old ladies who’d come by his mother’s ancestral house at the wee hours of the morning to commence their ceremonious preparations. Ifan thought of them as the old guard, repositories of generations-old recipes, particularly of the aforementioned rice cakes; the specificity of the details—the number of coconuts to be grated for a given number of cakes, the yield of flour upon pounding the rice, how many bundles of firewood to make their cavernous oven hot enough, how much cheddar cheese for the topping, etc.…- unchanging as their skins wrinkled by time could never hope for.
Ifan always thought that in this regard his town, his family was unique. That is, until he’d gone to basically all the towns of his country because of work. During the first months of traveling he’d taken everything in with wide-eyed wonder, until one day, with eyes glazed from weariness, it hit him. Everywhere was different, but everywhere the same. Everything his teachers in social studies taught him was a lie. There was no “vibrant culture that permeated the community;” all culture was dead or dying. The cities were the same. A hodge-podge of buildings that in no way would have been approved by a legitimate land use plan, but who cares? People thought malls meant progress, and traffic jams, too. Culture and heritage were just slogans and indigenous people made to wear costumes for pennies.
And the towns? Ifan was always seized with a vehemence that sprang from somewhere deep within him when people who knew he traveled a lot asked him about them. “It must be fun seeing all those places,” was a perfectly legitimate way to start small talk, but Ifan was always broken by such careless and ignorant remarks, and he’d mustered all self-restraint to keep from perorating on how shitty everything was or just altogether storming out the room.
So everything was a lie. He had to concede, though, that in one thing his teachers were right. Throughout the islands there was something that bound his countrymen together. It wasn’t anything romantic like a sense of Filipino-ness that transcended petty and transactional politics and tribal loyalties. It was poverty, an unbreakable chain that tied everything together and kept everyone –well, most everyone- wallowing in pitiable despair and neediness. Having combed through towns across the archipelago Ifan was hard-pressed to find anything to set one town apart—everywhere was huts and ramshackle houses that could easily be rebuilt after every calamity, and dirty, snotty children and adults as dirty as them whose eyes alternately showed defeat and distrust or even both at the same time. He rarely saw joy, nor hope. He had been so jaded that for months now he carried within himself a desire to quit.
Now where was I? Ah, yes, Ifan, before Auntie Esmie had been seized by the spirit of the dead, the dead being Ifan’s uncle.
Auntie Esmie, let it be said, wasn’t really Ifan’s aunt. Or to be more precise, she wasn’t closely related. Everyone in his parents’ hometown was related, after all. Auntie this, Uncle that, everyone could find a root, an ancestor they had in common, and everyone was encouraged to call everyone Auntie or Uncle, anyway, as a show of courtesy and respect.
She was the town’s resident medium, albeit unintentional and unwilling, or so it seemed. Psychologists, if they did not dismiss outright the phenomenon of possession by the dead, would point to a highly creative and gullible nature possessed by those who were susceptible to such bodily takeovers. Ifan’s ma, though quite fond of her in other aspects, minced no words when it came to describing her fits.
“She’s play-acting. She needs the attention. Especially now that her husband has left her for the vice-governor’s ex-mistress. She’d always loved being fussed over since we were in high school,” she said.
This was about half a year ago. They (Ifan’s family) had been to a wake and Auntie Esmie channeled the spirit of the deceased they visited.
Except Auntie Esmie didn’t strike Ifan as the frivolous type. She always carried herself with gravity; there was an air of somberness to her even though Ifan could never recall seeing her in black or gray. Auntie Esmie wore mostly white outfits—she had no qualms, it seemed, of letting the world know that her once lithe and heavenly figure –according to Ifan’s ma- now carried extra poundage from a carbo-loaded diet and the workings of time and gravity. Her once beautiful face was now beset by furrows, her jawline concealed by hanging jowls. Her voice, though, had retained its tinny, high-pitched quality. Ifan was always disconcerted when he found himself conversing with her. He imagined a tiny girl rammed inside an aging heavyset woman’s body and it scared him shitless.
Ifan had heard her when she asked for water. She must really be parched, he thought, as he noticed how pale she had turned, sweat breaking out of her skin. One beefy arm was pushed out in the air, ready to receive a glass of water from whomever obliged her request, while the other was fanning her blouse despite the electric fan that was blowing straight at her, so he saw that the seams of her blouse near her armpit were dark with sweat. He reached for the jug of water on the table and filled two glasses. He drank from one glass before going over to her; by the time he stood before her, the ghost had entered Auntie Esmie’s body.
“It’s so dark.” Auntie Esmie’s little girl voice was replaced by the deep, rasping voice of a chain-smoker.
The people who gathered around them made a collective gasp, then broke out in a Babel of furious whispers as they closed around them. Ifan, feeling claustrophobic, shouted for them to clear some space.
“Affu Diyot, it’s your uncle!,” said a woman in a nondescript brown dress whose name Ifan couldn’t place as she crossed herself three times.
“Oh, Pedring, why are you restless? What can we do?,” said someone behind him.
“It’s dark,” Auntie Esmie, or Uncle Pedring, said again.
Voice upon voiced crashed on Ifan’s ears. He felt the terror and panic threatening to take over the room. He needed to get out. This spectacle wasn’t to his liking. He badly needed to smoke. He nodded his head to signal his intent to pass through the crowd.
“Ifan. Do it. Quit.”
He froze and turned around, unsure whether he heard right. Was it in his head?
“Quit what?,” his cousin, Ferdie, asked.
As if on cue, Auntie Esmie snapped out of her stupor.
It is said that normally, someone possessed by a spirit has no recollection of the episode. The possessed wakes up in a state of confusion and exhausted from the brush with the ethereal. By all accounts, and going by her history, this is the script that Auntie Esmie should have followed for her seance. When she came to she did seem weakened, her voice faint as she asked for the glass of water she wasn’t able to drink. Her eyes, though, were lucid, and as Ifan, surprised that he was still holding the glass, handed it to her, she stared hard at him, as if she were willing her thoughts to be conveyed wordlessly to him.
After downing the water in one gulp, she placed the glass on the arm of the narra bench she was sitting on. She stood up, straightened her blouse, and picked the powdered handkerchief that had dropped on the floor during her fit. Voice faint and hoarse, with none of its characteristic canny quality, Auntie Esmie turned to him.
“Will you please walk me home?”
Ifan nodded, after which Auntie Esmie apologized to his mother and her sisters, who had come over and fawned on her during and after her fit.
Curiosity was eating at Ifan’s insides as they walked to Auntie Esmie’s house, which was a mere four houses away from theirs. Mind made up, he was about to open his mouth but she spoke before he could.
“I’m sure you want to know if everything that happened was real,” Aunt Esmie said.
Not knowing what to answer, he walked on in silence.
“What did you mean when you said ‘quit’?”
“I don’t know. I only speak for the dead, I cannot read their minds.”
A calesa filled with women in black veils on their way to Our Lady of Snows Parish passed by. The horse’s hooves kicked up a cloud of dust as they trampled on the unpaved part of a road that was in constant disrepair. The women were a quarter of an hour late for the three o’clock mass that was held before the procession of the Santo Entierro. The dust cloud engulfed Auntie Esmie and Ifan. With the angle of the mid-afternoon sun, slanted rays of yellow light pierced through the cloud, which Ifan found beautiful despite his flaring allergies. He was reminded of a dream he had when he was in college. In that dream, his paternal and maternal grandparents, all dead, were gathered in a cloudy room. They spoke with their minds and throughout the dream, he felt the enveloping love that he always thought only grandparents could give, which he had never felt because they had all died before he was born.
Auntie Esmie’s outline became more solid as they stepped clear of the dust. She stopped and turned around to face him. In the gruff voice that belonged to his uncle, Auntie Esmie said, “Quit. You do not have to hold on if you are confused.”
She closed her eyes, then her entire body snapped to, like in the movies, when a dying patient is defibrillated.
Ifan told me that Auntie Esmie had looked lost after uttering her last words.
“When her eyes opened again, she seemed surprised. She looked like she had no clue how she got there. She didn’t say thank you, maybe because she couldn’t remember a thing?,” Ifan said to me.
He had sent me a voice message right after he came back from walking Auntie Esmie home, relaying what had happened. Why it hadn’t occurred to him to just call me directly, I’ll never know. Maybe it was from his aversion to being interrupted while talking. Maybe he needed to be able to talk in a constant stream in an attempt to make sense of what had happened.
“So you believe what happened?” My reply, a text message.
“Hard not to, given the circumstances.”
“I could think of many ways to dispute it. But I’ll stick to one—YOU DON’T BELIEVE IN GOD.”
“But this isn’t God we’re talking about.”
“We’re talking about something paranormal. It’s the same as an issue of faith. And I repeat—YOU DON’T BELIEVE IN GOD.”
“But, Junior. How the hell could she have known what to tell me? I’ve never told anyone that I was thinking of quitting my job.”
“Dude, not because you’re sometimes dense does it mean the people around you are, too. You’re not a hard card to read, y’know. Conflict is written all over your face.”
Did Ifan imagine everything, then? He couldn’t have. The crowd that gathered around them was real. Auntie Esmie apologizing to his mother and her sisters was real. If not the setting, how the scene actually played out, then? The conversations? Could Ifan, overcome by the conflict within, have projected his thoughts onto the situation, then called the shots like a director, selecting and cutting scenes according to the images in his head, making it so that his version of events could not be refuted (nor corroborated)? Is it possible that my friend had snapped?
The next day, I was eating lunch while watching a re-run of F.R.I.E.N.D.S on tv when my phone beeped.
“Junior. When I woke up earlier today I had resolved, as a way of paying my last respects to my uncle, that I would quit. Surely when the dead come calling, we who are left behind should answer?, was what I thought. I was about to throw a handful of flower heads before they filled Uncle Pedring’s grave, and with it a thought-blurb about my earlier-made resolution to follow his advice, but I stopped. Could I have imagined it all? If so, surely I couldn’t quit right then and there, without knowing for certain that it wasn’t only my subconscious trying to subjugate my will? Besides, what am I doing, spouting all this nonsense as if I believed in these things? You were right, though you were too polite to say it directly. I don’t believe in God, so what the hell am I wasting brain cells for worrying over this nonsense?”
The blinking ellipsis signaled that he was still typing. I waited for the follow up, but nothing came after. I was thinking about what to reply when I got distracted by the ellipsis. I didn’t reply. I had lost my train of thought.