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The girl in the river

 

It had been a hard death, that much was clear.

The Pasig River had spit the girl out at the end of a long storm. The body had been found drifting with all the other trash people hoped the river could take away from them. Somehow, the filth always comes to the surface.

The medical examiner for the Pasig City Police Department, found that the eight-inch wooden crucifix been shoved down the girl’s throat had blocked the Pasig’s water from getting in. There were other injuries too like the bruises all over the body. Marks around the neck seemed consistent with manual strangulation. An x-ray showed several fractured bones either from a struggle or from the stormy waters.

Then there was the empty glass bottle. Its faded label read “Holy Water.”

Based on the level of decomposition, the body had been in the water for thirty-six to forty-eight hours. The bruising and the genital mutilation suggested only one possibility: murder.

Still, the girl had no name and the police had no crime scene to work with. Officers were handed pictures of the girl’s face to help them canvass the nearby neighborhoods. Posters asking the public for information were printed and posted.

Most of the cops on duty had already written the case off in their minds. The river would have washed away what little evidence survived the rain. This case was bound to be just another brutal oddity that passes by in the life of a police officer.

Inspector Danny Gutierrez and PO3 David Celdran got the first break in the case. Someone gave them a name on their second day of canvassing. A teacher from the local elementary school was sure that the police had found thirteen-year-old Nina Bautista. Celdran and Gutierrez’s success won them an even worse task than door-to-door questioning: informing the family.

Celdran fidgeted with his police cap outside the front door of Nina Bautista’s house. He was only six months into his rank as Police Officer III. He’d never had to break the news of a death to anybody before, not in his own family and certainly not to some stranger.

Gutierrez had seen a small graveyard’s worth of bodies in his time with the police. He wondered if he had ever been as nervous as Celdran. He hoped not. Celdran looked about ready to throw up.

“Think of it this way,” Gutierrez said, “at least now they’ll know. Knowing is always better.”

Gutierrez was old enough to know that what he said was equal parts truth and lie.

At the back of Celdran’s mind, he understood this too. He clung to the truth of it like a child gripping a piece of driftwood in a raging river. Still, doubts itched beneath his scalp. Questions had started forming there without him knowing.

Leila Bautista didn’t say a thing when she opened the door. It had taken her a while to even realize someone was outside. The doorbell was busted and the steady patter of rain outside drowned out the knocking. She knew what would come next. The last two days had been lost to the pounding rains and her prayers that the police would not come. Perhaps God couldn’t hear through the storm.

“Who is it?” called her husband from upstairs. When she didn’t reply, Julius came down. He wasn’t shocked at all to find the police at his door.

“You found her?” he asked.

“Sir, perhaps we should talk about this inside,” said Inspector Gutierrez.

The slim woman in a faded house dress kept her silence as she led the policemen into the small living room of their two-story house. Only Julius remained standing. In the corner, a figure of St. Michael clutching a heavenly sword watched.

Leila listened to the policemen speak. She heard none of their words, only their tone. She heard them veering around the grim details they would have found on the girl’s body. The long and short of it was that her daughter Nina was dead.

Dread started to well up in her chest, clutching at her pounding heart and constricting her breath. Even as that cold, gripping fear spread across her body, she could feel the source of it all the same. She felt it strongest in her womb.

Officer Celdran didn’t know what he should have expected from this woman. He certainly didn’t expect the silence. Inspector Gutierrez, however, had seen dozens of distraught family members stunned to silence. Yet something about this Leila woman didn’t sit well with him. Worse than her quiet was her stillness. Through it all Gutierrez hadn’t seen the woman move a single muscle.

Julius Bautista, on the other hand, had no doubts or questions.

“I put the cross in her throat,” said Julius, “but she was dead before I threw her into the river.”

* * *

Julius Bautista did not scare easily. His father Mang Ando had been an albularyo back in the province. When a woman fell sick with blackened skin and weeping sores or when children began to lash at their parents and foam at the mouth like rabid dogs, they came to see Mang Ando. His was so much more than just a care for the body. It was protection for mind, body, and soul—a person’s whole being. His was an ancient practice, passed down from generations of men and women who communed with the spirits of the earth itself.

“Always be careful, anak,” said Mang Ando. “There are things that will hate you simply because you are my son.”

“What things, papa?”

“The demons, anak. The aswang. The cruel albularyos who use their power to hurt. They hate you because I keep them away from our people and our children.”

Julius had seen these dark forces had with his own eyes. When he was six, a young girl was brought into his house by her mother. Her stomach had been hurting for three days. First Mang Ando placed a bag of ginger around her neck to drive away the dark magic. Then with his bare hands, he parted the girl’s skin at her stomach. Blood poured out but so great was Mang Ando’s power that she did not cry out in pain. Julius watched his father pull out thick four inch nails from that wound.

Many nights since found Julius waking from nightmares, clawing at his stomach, thinking some witch doctor had planted foulness within him. The first night Leila saw this, they had only been married for a month. That night he told her what he’d seen all those years ago. Leila had wept as she held her husband close. That same night, they conceived Nina.

* * *

Julius and his wife sat with both their hands cuffed behind their backs. She had never been as strong as him, women rarely were. He saw a film of tears cover her eyes. He knew that as soon as a single tear fell, the woman would tumble into hysterics.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “We have done nothing wrong.”

Leila did not respond but knew better than to argue. Her mother had taught her long ago that the women who fought back get hurt. Better instead to keep the peace.

Despite this, Julius didn’t trust his wife. He didn’t like the way she looked at him. Disgust always simmered beneath her glances. He often wondered if she had been swayed by the evil forces that had hounded him since childhood.

When they arrived at the police station, they were taken to separate rooms.

For a moment, sitting in that small interrogation room that reeked of stale coffee and human sweat, Julius felt fear clutch at his gut. He could almost sense the nails roiling about in his stomach. He took a deep breath with his eyes shut, banishing the pain away.

Inspector Gutierrez walked in on the strange man that way. It became clear to the inspector then that nothing good would come of this interview. Sure, he might find out what happened to that poor girl in the river. But now, more than ever, he felt the weight of the lie he had told Celdran.

Perhaps today, it would be better not to know at all.

Despite himself, he asked, “What happened to your daughter, Mr. Bautista?”

* * *

Even before she could talk, Nina was the kind of child that each parent blamed the other for. Too much of her mother’s emotions, too much of her father’s hotheadedness, she had simply taken too much from both parents. No matter how closely they watched her, she always wandered into trouble.

Once when Nina was just a baby, the little girl had rolled herself off the small mattress that the three of them shared. She landed with a thick thud against the hardwood floor. That sick sound of pudgy flesh and fragile bone hitting the floor woke Leila. Nina had been crawling towards the door and only when Leila picked her up did the child start weeping. That was the first time Leila feared that her child might hate her.

Julius only had a vague memory of that night. His mind had stowed it away as vague impressions, translucent and pervasive as smoke. But the feeling he had that night had settled into his heart. Not quite fear or panic. Only doubt. He didn’t realize it then but after that night, he started watching his daughter a little closer. He kept the lights on a little longer and never quite trusted the child in a darkened room.

As soon as the girl knew how to speak, Julius started teaching her how to pray.

Leila tried to get involved, reciting the Catholic novenas stamped into her mind from childhood. But the prayers Julius taught were not always the same as hers. The prayers Julius taught had the Catholic words but something older hid beneath. Somewhere in his veins, he sensed a power that stretched back to long before the Spanish and their Christ came.

Once when Nina was ten, she was rushed home from school. She came home, tearing her clothes off, and scratching at her skin. Splotchy red marks covered her body. Leila bathed the girl twice and still the itching persisted. Only Julius anointed her skin with the last bottle of his father’s sacred oils did the girl calm down enough to get some sleep.

“We should send her to a doctor, just to be sure,” Leila had said.

“No need. I’ve cast the demons out.”

Leila couldn’t tell what was worse: if her husband was right or if he was wrong. When Officer Celdran asked her about this, she just shook her head and said, “Julius knows best.”

Nina didn’t always think so though. When she turned eleven, she begged for a cellphone for Christmas. Leila figured that with the right saving, they could probably afford it. Julius detested the idea though. He saw no reason for Nina to speak to anyone outside the house. Nina wept for a good part of December when she didn’t get the phone. When she turned thirteen, things got worse. Boys started coming to the house to drop off flowers or leave notes for Nina. The girl would rush to the door to intercept them, talking for a few moments before sending off her suitor. Any questions about the boys was greeted with shrugs and secrecy.

“It’s because she’s started bleeding,” Julius would say. “They can smell the blood, you know?”

Leila knew that her husband didn’t mean the boys. She wondered then if they could smell her bleed every month too.

Five days before the police found Nina’s body, Leila walked in on her daughter masturbating. The bathroom door hadn’t been locked and Leila hadn’t noticed that the light inside had been on. Nina yelped as she scrambled to fix herself.

Leila hadn’t expected that she’d be the first to start screaming. The only thing she could really think was, What is your father going to say?

* * *

“The girl was possessed, Inspector,” said Julius as Inspector Gutierrez read his case file. “The aswang had bewitched her.”

Gutierrez bit back a sigh.

“I didn’t put them there but maybe it was my fault,” said Julius. “I was too cautious. They couldn’t get to me so they went for her instead.”

Julius cupped his hands around his mouth. “My girl,” he said, tears forming in his eyes.

Inspector Gutierrez terminated the interview, noting the time for the tape recording. They had enough to put away the man. Julius Bautista had a good shot at getting a reduced sentence from an insanity plea though. Gutierrez knew what crazy looked like and Julius Bautista fit the bill.

Officer Celdran later told him that the wife had a similar story to tell. “Demonic possession,” said Celdran, the words tasting bitter as he said it. A migraine had started forming at his temples.

Gutierrez knew that his parter would be seeing more of that little girl in his nightmares. Any other person would just hear about it on the news once, click their tongue and comment on what a shame it was. If the girl was lucky, the people by the river might revive her as one of their ghosts. A story to be told at night or when the power goes out during another typhoon.

* * *

Nina knew when she woke up that she was going to die that day. Her throat was raw from screaming her lungs out. Her knuckles ached from pounding on the bedroom door, begging her parents to let her go. The scent of her own blood mixed with the ginger her father had placed in a pouch around her neck.

She wanted to try escaping again. She thought she could have on that first night when they’d tied her up with bedsheets. It got worse for her when they used duct tape the second day.

That night, she begged her father to let her go.

For a moment, his face softened. She hated him but she could almost find it within herself to forgive him if he just let her go. If she could get out, she didn’t need to hate him. Didn’t even need to think of him. Maybe she would just run away and forget him and his strange prayers.

Then her period came.

He placed a hand over her mouth then. “I won’t fall for your tricks, demon. You may have had my daughter but you won’t have me.”

She bit his hand hard, tasting his blood. It horrified Nina how his screaming gave her hope.

That had been yesterday. Today, all her energy was gone. She hadn’t been fed since they locked her in. The hunger racked through her body, making every inch of her sore. Every time she tried to make a sound her swollen jaw burst with pain. She didn’t even have the energy to sob.

They gave her water only twice or thrice a day. And not tap water, holy water from that grimy bottle her father had kept for years. She had known for a long time that something was wrong with her family. She knew it from how her father lectured about demons lurking in the darkness or winged beasts waiting just outside the window.

She didn’t think she had demons inside of her.

The way her father talked about creatures of darkness, they always seemed strong, formidable, dangerous. Bound up inside her family’s bedroom as the rain pounded against the window, she didn’t feel dangerous at all.

“Take me,” she said.

The words forced their way past her busted lip. She could not speak any louder than a whisper. She sent out the invitation with her mind. It was a call to the aswang her father insisted waited for the moment to strike. He told her they could sense when someone was weak and would take them then. Well, she had never felt weaker in her life.

Have me then, she thought. Take my body.

She searched the corners of her bedroom. She gazed into the shadow, waiting for the monsters to creep out of the dark. She would smile at them when they came, welcome them gladly with her heart. If they asked, she would give herself to them. Surrender her body, her mind, anything to them. As long as they transformed her into everything her father ever feared, they could have whatever they wanted.

A flash of lightning outside banished away the shadows for a second.

Leila smiled when they returned. G

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