Perhaps it was right to suppose that evil lurks everywhere.
Likhâ’s own father believed this truism all of his young life. This, however, did not stop his bunsô for a daughter from going on a search when, without warning, José failed to come home on the eve of his youngest child’s ninth birthday.
The night had been as José and Adiana had asked the sky-god of good harvest, Anitun Tabu, to be: cloudless, serene. Earlier a storm had formed in the horizon, but one too far removed from Sta. Rosario, a town northeast of Malinao in Occidental Mindoro. As a custom, José bound his humble hut with abaca cords set on wooden pegs as huge as crucifixion nails. From an old heirloom box carved from kamagong, José gathered a clutch of the perfume flower ylang-ylang and burned them in a brass bowl he had inherited from his great grandmother.
Anitun Tabu was said to take pleasure in the scent of burnt flowers.
Earlier that morning, Adiana had asked her husband José to kill one of three goats they had been hard-pressed at raising for that month. The meal would be the centerpiece of a modest gathering of family and friends in honor of their daughter’s ninth birthday.
José was only too glad to oblige. After arriving from the marketplace where he sold coconuts, he grabbed one of the creatures, slit its throat and prepped the garnishing. He had always loved the atikáda, an old recipe of crisp roasted goat meat mixed with gatâ (coconut milk), and slices of green mango and langkâ (jackfruit). After he was done, José cooked the meal in a clay pot, all this time craving to dig his teeth into the soft mutton.
José only knew too well that raising goats helped little to make ends meet. Much of their savings from gathering coconuts went to feeding these insatiable creatures. He had been pestering his wife Adiana to drop the raising of goats for the more profitable trade of catching fish and selling these to the market.
Adiana could only smile and land a soft kiss on her husband’s cheeks. As it was, José couldn’t swim. Neither did he possess the means to own a boat.
A kilometer northwest of the village lay the sea. It was Likhâ’s favorite playground. Each day at four in the morning, José droppped off his daughter together with her elder brother Joselito among the wives of the fishermen, their longtime neighbors and friends. He would then spend another hour or two at the marketplace, located several blocks from the beach, to sell his coconuts. Meanwhile, Likhâ and Joselito joined the women eagerly waiting for their husbands to arrive in their boats with the catch of the day.
Between conversations and helping haul out the catch, the women taught Likhâ and Joselito how to swim.
The night in question came without warning. Five of their neighbors’ wives arrived with their son and daughter hours beforehand, leaving José at the marketplace. He had earlier sought the permission of his wife to stay longer than was usual. José had planned on bringing with him more coconuts than he could probably sell in an hour or two. He did this to improve his chances of bringing home more of the profits.
But as the day wore on, there was no sign of José anywhere. Adiana had begun to feel distraught and anxious for her husband. He had never been late for anything, more so his child’s birthday. He was a hardworking man, a gracious father and a husband too full of love for his wife that he was always the butt of jests among his male friends. This hardly bothered José who laughed them off with a swig of the local coconut wine.
That evening, as the moon rose quietly above the foliage, Adiana served the goat meal to her guests. Inside the hut, a small bowl lay reserved for her husband. They partook of the meal in silence. Neither the guests nor the family of José shared stories.
Too, no song was sung that night.
The guests left earlier than usual with the promise that the men would forego their catch for the day in search of José. “He would’ve done the same for us,” told an elderly fishermen who had stood as José’s godfather. “The marketplace was a mere two kilometers from the village,” he said. “Half would also search the coastline. Don’t worry Adiana. I’m sure that as we speak, he is on his way home.”
Too unhinged to hear anything, Adiana walked into the house, gathered the little that was left of the ylang-ylang, fell on her knees and offered a burnt sacrifice to Anitun Tabu.
Likhâ barely slept that night. She feared the worst. On their bed of leaves, the child kept on murmuring the name bag-ong yanggaw. José had heard of this fearsome name long before he knew Adiana. His great grandmother had spoken of it one hushed night: the tale of a creature so terrifying, no one risked venturing into the evening without a priest by their side. For only a priest of some experience and holiness could vanquish the bag-ong yanggaw, an aswang who feeds on the flesh of humans.
“Hush, little girl,” Adiana whispered to her daughter as her brother lay fast asleep. Combing the young girl’s hair with her fingers, the mother said, “That’s what happens when you listen to your father’s stories. I have warned you before: the bag-ong yanggaw doesn’t exist. Your father’s great grandmother had a rich imagination. Besides, your father is experienced enough and strong enough to take care of himself.”
Deep inside, Adiana knew well enough not to easily dispense with the story. She, too, had been told and warned about the bag-ong yanggaw by her neighbors. As rumors had it, the bag-ong yanggaw had been spotted of late near the marketplace on several occasions, lying in wait for a victim. After two earlier disappearances—a boy and his fisherman-father—Fr. Rogelio of the Parish of Sta. Rosario had been invited to perform an exorcism. The parishioners slaughtered three sows, their blood splattered on the streets all across the town. Only then did the disappearances stop, but only for a time.
Morning arrived in the village without word from the fishermen. As was her custom, Adiana rose from her bed to prepare the day’s meals. She glanced at the table where the bowl of goat meat reserved for her husband sat untouched.
Roused by their mother’s sobbing, the siblings woke up and tried to comfort her. It was to no avail. Shortly after, Adiana broke down and wept aloud to the panic of everyone within hearing distance. The neighbors, mostly women, rushed into the hut and broke the hold of the children on their mother. “Go and fetch some water, Joselito,” a woman said. “While you’re at it, go hunt two rabbits for our meals. As for you, Likhâ, I want you to gather some ylang-ylang for your mother. We need to call on Anitun Tabu’s help.”
Deep into the forest the siblings went and did as they were told. From a makeshift well near a grove of bananas and ylang-ylang trees, Joselito fetched a bucket of cold water and quietly proceeded back to the trail. Likhâ placed her tiny hands on his brother’s chest and stopped him from walking to the clearing. “Help me find our father, José,” she said, her eyes well-nigh breaking into tears. It’s my birthday and I want him back.”
Joselito cupped his sister’s face with his palms. “Listen to yourself,” he said in his native Visayan, his voice in a quiver. “I want him back, too, but what can we do? The fishermen had spent the whole night in search of him. They haven’t returned. I fear the worst.”
“Don’t say that,” Likhâ burst into tears, dropping her clutch of ylang-ylang on the moist ground. “If you’re not going to help me, I will look for him alone. Here, bring these to mother. Tell her to ask Anitun Tabu to guide me.”
“Are you crazy?” Joselito boomed. “Mother would be furious! I’m going to tell on you.”
“Do what you have to do. I will not sit here and do nothing.” Likhâ then ran as fast as she could into the direction of the sea, leaving a faint trail of sobs behind her.
Along the coastline, Likhâ saw a group of fishermen docking their fishing boats. It was minutes before noon. The elderly fisherman who stood as José’s godfather saw the young girl’s approach. Even if he wanted to, the old man couldn’t hide the sorrow in his eyes.
“What are you doing here? Does your mother know?”
“Did you find him?” Likhâ said, sobbing.
Bowed and defeated, the old man held the young girl’s hands and groaned, “We tried everything, but…”
The young girl weaseled her way out of the old man’s grip and headed straight to the direction of the parish church. All the fishermen could do was watch the young girl disappear into the distance.
Inside the church, two pews away from the confessional, Fr. Rogelio knelt in prayer. Four other familiar faces, all fishermen, smoked their tobaccos by the main door. One of the men who noticed Likhâ’s approach warned the priest. Fr. Rogelio stood and met the young girl.
“I know why you are here,” Fr. Rogelio said. “God had told me you’d come.”
“Would you help me find my father José?” the girl sobbed as she clung lightly on his priestly robes. “I was told you fought and won over the bag-ong yanggaw once before. You could do it again with the help of Anitun Tabu.”
The priest wryly smiled. He gestured for one of the fishermen to approach him. “Juan, go to the village,” he whispered into the man’s ears. “Tell the mother that her daughter is safe with me at the church. They can fetch her here. Now go.”
“Father Rogelio, where’s the girl?” Unbeknown to the two, Likhâ had in no time sped off to the marketplace.
Across the souk reeking of fish and meat, the nine-year-old Likhâ broke into an abandoned edifice once used by nuns and acolytes as a retreat house. Decades of neglect forced the dust to thicken and cobwebs to form, leaving the prayer room swathed in partial darkness. Hungry and without means to get food, Likhâ lit one of the used candles and burned the remaining ylang-ylang on a grubby silver plate. The scent of perfume filled the air. She thereafter slept off her hunger until nightfall descended on the sleepy little parish.
Hours later, the young girl awoke from a scratching in the walls. Rats, she thought, or perhaps snakes. Her candle had gone out an hour earlier, but thanks to clear skies, the moon and stars served as her light. She slowly crept out of the prayer room right into the mess hall, and then proceeded to the stairwell leading to the front door. She recalled leaving the gate slightly ajar.
The first whiff of the night air fell cold on her cheeks. While her hunger had left her, Likhâ felt a thirst creep up her throat. The street fronting the marketplace stood empty of the hustle and bustle of buyers. All that had remained was a stray black dog feeding on discarded pig bone.
As the dog threw her a sidelong glance, the hair on the little girl’s back stood upright. For the first time in her life, fear gripped her little heart. As the old beaten down clock inside the retreat house struck one in the morning, a cloud from out of nowhere hid the moon from view. The temperature fell even more, and the dog, which the girl failed to pick out in the darkness, suddenly stood on two legs. It had grown quite large for an average dog, somewhere close to the height and size of a full-grown man.
Likhâ couldn’t move. Distracted from its meal, and hunched while its hands wiped off the blood on its mouth, the creature spoke, “What are you doing here alone and this time of night, little Likhâ? Are you here to look for your father José?”
Likhâ wanted to speak but held on to her silence. She knew the bag-ong yanggaw from the tales of her father, how it can shape-shift into a man or a dog, or other creatures of the night. Fearing for her life, she poised to run but couldn’t lift her feet. She grabbed hold of the remaining clutch of ylang-ylang in her pocket and said, with fear and sobbing, “I want my father back.”
The creature laughed.
“What would you give in return?” the creature growled. “What would you offer to stop me from eating you instead?”
Likhâ fell on her knees and wept out loud. So loud that it jarred the ears of the bag-ong yanggaw. “I have nothing to give you. Take me if you wish. Just give us back our father.”
The creature approached the child, slowly, alarmed at her courage. “I know who you are, Likhâ. I have been watching you from afar. You’re different than your brother, Joselito. I have seen you break the rules of our mother, the instructions of your own father many times. How you fooled the wives of the fishermen to teach you how to swim despite your mother’s expressed wishes. How you often run off into the deepest part of the forest regardless of your father’s warnings. How you call on that stupid mythical god Atinun Tabu to keep you safe. How you ran off in search of your father without telling your mother or anyone in the village. How you stole the ylang-ylang meant as an offering for your father’s return. How you turned your back from the priest whose only bidding was to return you home safely in your mother’s arms. You are a bad child and I feed on the flesh and soul of the likes of you.”
Likhâ closed her eyes. In her heart, she spoke the words of the god Atinun Tabu as her father had whispered to her in her sleep: “Memento quod ex factis sanctorum. Remember the deeds of the saints.”
As the creature prepared to pounce, the young girl seized the last remaining ylang-ylang from her pocket and spread it to form a thin line between her and the aswang.
The creature stopped. It felt a wall rise between it and the young girl. It laughed, though quizzically this time. “Do you think you can stop me with that?” the creature roared.
Likhâ paused, closed her eyes and thereafter spoke in hushed tones: “Atinun Tabu. Atinun Tabu. Atinun Tabu…”
Suddenly, a thin beam of light from the moon and the stars breached the cloud cover. Then, from beneath their feet, a rumbling as strong as the last earthquake shook the ground. From the shadows, figures of what seemed like people began to emerge. One, two, five, nine.
From the retreat house, a thirteenth shadow walked past the metal gate. It was José, the young girl’s father.
“Do not touch me yet, little one,” José spoke to the young girl, but with a fairly different voice. “I will come to you in due time.”
One of the shadows took the young girl aside as José approached the creature. The other shadows flanked José and waited for what was to transpire.
“Atinun Tabu…” the creature said with obvious fear in its voice.
“We meet again, my brother aswang,” José replied. “This night falls on the ninth millennia of our battle, the hour which will end in your defeat by my hand, as was prophesied.”
The creature’s eyes burned dark red. “I do not care for your stupid prophesies, Atinun Tabu. After this night is through, you know Bathala will favor me.”
“Do not bring the name of our father into this,” José said. “This is between you and me.”
“Yes,” the creature roared with the strength of the angry earth. “Between you and me. You knew I loved Adiana, and you stole her love from me! There is no forgiveness for this betrayal, Atinun Tabu. Likhâ and Joselito should have been mine, Adiana my wife. I will fight for what is mine to possess even if it takes us all eternity.”
“I stole nothing from you, aswang. In the end, Adiana chose me.”
“You tricked her into believing your lies!” the creature snarled. “We end this tonight!”
Under a cloak of the thinnest radiance, the bag-ong yanggaw began to grow—twice, thrice, eight times the size of its former self. Its fangs and claws also sprouted longer than a dog’s, easily multiplying its power and strength tenfold.
Along the stretch of road José prepared to face his nemesis with only his near-to-human hands and feet.
The clash was fierce. With the swing of its arms, the creature sent José right onto the metal gates. Swiftly, the creature grabbed José’s neck with its expanded claws and squeezed it with an iron grip. Alas, José was out of breath, struggling for the last ounce of air to fill his lungs.
“There’s no use extending this fight any further,” the creature, sensing his triumph, spoke underneath his breath. “You die tonight, my brother. With your defeat, I will haul your wife and children into my domain as my own.”
By this time Likhâ had slipped from the grip of one of the shadows. In her attempt to stop the creature from killing her father, the young girl screamed. Her voice reached such intensity that it somehow forced the creature to loosen its grip. In no time, she lit the ylang-ylang blooms with the last stick of the match, spreading fire and smoke in the air. The scent of the beloved perfume reached her father’s lungs.
The creature hardly saw it coming. Now with strength twice that of the creature, José took his fist and swung in the direction of the creature’s mouth. The force sent the aswang reeling half-dazed and in pain. José thereafter landed his right foot on the face of the creature, who by now was drenched in its own blood.
“You will get your filthy hands off my wife and children,” José said. And with those words, José instructed the shadows to grab hold of the bag-ong yanggaw. “Lock him up in the place of forgetting for a thousand years.”
Likha felt the palms of morning light rest on her face. The sun was up; it was the next day. Seated round their humble table was the mother Adiana, her brother Joselito, and her father José. They were all in good spirits as they watched the father gobble down the bowl of cold goat’s meat.
Likhâ flogged her blue teal dress and rambled to the table. After kissing the right hand of her mother, the young girl spoke, “Father, are you Atinun Tabu?” To Likha, all felt like a dream.
“And who would your mother be, Bakunawa, the goddess of the sea? Is that why she doesn’t want me to fish and sell them in the market? And what about your brother, Joselito? With his knowledge of the forest, he could be Amanikable, the god of hunters. And you, my little one, would be Diyan Masalanta, the goddess of love and protector of lovers. You always look after me and your mother. But then, if we’re gods, then why am I eating cold goat meat?”
“Happy birthday, Likhâ.” G