The light of the gas lamp flickered, dancing with the light breeze, whispering in the boy’s ear who watched the stars by the open window.
Beneath the dancing starlight, his mind became a theater full of colorful characters frolicking in a play of delightful magic. There was a clown who blew balloons and turned them into real animals. There was a magician who threw fireballs with his wand. A Tikbalang danced around with a large kampilan, the magical sword aflame. And at the center of it all was the boy, wearing a Barong Tagalog, hair all groomed and shiny, holding a stick in his hand. He conducted an orchestra that played a haunting symphony.
Electricity hadn’t reached the old barrio. The presence of modern-day living was but a dream away. The little boy liked it that way. There were no distractions from his imaginings. There was no television or noisy neighbor dogs. The sound of the city was far away and he liked it that way. It was only him, the old house, his mother, and his grandfather Gener who told him magical stories.
Guillermo was seven. During the summers, he and his mother would go and visit his grandfather in the old barrio. His mother was a college professor and summer meant no work for her. She never did like teaching during vacation. Like her son, she too wanted to get away from the city as well.
Guillermo never met his father. He died when Guillermo was but an infant. So it was he and his mother who had to carry the load as a single parent. Life was not easy for both of them. There were times that the boy would catch his mother crying secretly, not letting him see how life was hard on her, and at an early age, he understood that he had to be as strong as his mother was.
But then there was his grandfather who they could depend on when his mother was short on money. The old man became somewhat of a father to Guillermo. During the holidays, his grandfather would spend time in the city and return to the barrio when school started. His grandfather was also a teller of tales and story time was often what the boy looked forward to.
“What do you see now, Imo?”
Quite startled, the little boy looked over his shoulder to see his grandfather standing while holding a cup of hot salabat. The old man sat beside Guillermo, took a sip of his ginger tea, and stared up at the stars.
“Aren’t they beautiful?”
“Yes po, Lolo. My teacher told me that stars are planets and other suns far away in space. Is this true, Lolo?”
“That is science, Imo. What do you think?”
“I think they are tiny faeries stuck up in the sky.”
His grandfather laughed.
“Another story, Lolo?” pleaded the young Guillermo wearing his daintiest smile.
His grandfather nodded with a smile of his own. And the night drew on with the voice of an old man telling a new story while a boy’s imagination reached greater heights.
Guillermo roused to the sound of footsteps outside the house. The darkness greeted him. Silently he rose from the bed, careful enough not to wake his mother, who slept beside him. He walked as quietly as he could, heading towards the closed capiz window and placed an ear to confirm what he had just heard.
Tap. Tap. The noise came softly, seemingly in circles, like the footsteps of a child at play. He wondered what it was that made those sounds. He smelled the odor of tobacco. He knew it wasn’t his grandfather because the old man never smoked. He shivered at the thought that it might be some night creature of his grandfather’s stories. He became afraid, yet, his curiosity was piqued.
Tap. Tap. There it went again. The noise haunting the boy’s imagination.
Guillermo silently sneaked out of the bedroom. He would often freeze when the floorboards creaked. His eyes went to his mother who slept undisturbed. He continued down the stairs into the darkness of the living room, where an old door waited. It softly moaned as he opened it. He looked back to see if he had disturbed his grandfather or mother. There was only silence in the house. Out the door he went with great anticipation. A light breeze caressed his skin.
The trees from the forest beyond swayed, rustling along with the sound of cicadas and crickets. It was the symphony of the night. Guillermo looked up as a chill ran up his spine. This was the stuff of dreams – the stuff of magic!
Tap. Tap. There it goes again!
Slowly Guillermo made his way to where he heard the sound. The tobacco smell lingered. He turned to a corner and found the silhouette of a figure, somewhere around ten feet in height, skipping and dancing beside the Talisay tree. The figure paused and took a puff of the long tobacco it held. Guillermo stared with unbelieving eyes. Fear shook his hands, but curiosity urged him to go forward. He wanted to run, but he also wanted to ask what sort of creature it was. The giant stopped and looked over its shoulder. It turned and faced the unmoving child.
“Hello,” the giant said.
Guillermo stared with bulging eyes. He realized he lost his voice.
“I am Masangkay. How do you do?”
Guillermo remained quiet. He wanted to pee, but thought otherwise.
“I see this is the first time you have seen a Kapre.”
The boy nodded.
“That is good news,” said Masangkay after puffing another cloud of smoke. “Did you know that you are one of the lucky ones? Do you want to know why?”
“Come by the tree and sit. You will get tired of standing like that all night. Do not worry, I am not like what most of you think I am – I do not eat children.” The Kapre hand pointed to a spot beneath the Talisay where one of its roots protruded. “Oh, and you can pee over there. I don’t mind.”
Guillermo found his legs again. He ran to the spot where the Kapre pointed and let it all out. He shook after he tinkled. He sat on the large root and felt his fear go away. Masangkay sat on the ground in front of the boy. To Guillermo’s surprise, Masangkay was light in his movement as he barely made a sound.
His eyes grew accustomed to the dark as he clearly saw Masangkay’s features. It was true what he heard about the Kapre being hairy. Masangkay was covered with hair, much like a gorilla, and dark skin where he could only see the eyes and teeth of the Kapre’s face.
“You are lucky, young Guillermo, to have seen something like me. We Kapre lived here when the world was young, and magic flowed freely. Not many of your kind could see such creatures like me. We are often just figments of your imagination. That is why you are lucky.”
“How did you know my name?” Guillermo finally found his voice.
“This is my tree, young Guillermo. I know about everything that happens around it. This is my home, my fourth one. I have lived here since this tree was but a sapling. I was here when your grandfather was your age. I knew his father and his grandfather before him. Your father knew about me, too. I was saddened when he died.”
“What do you want with me?”
“You are mistaken, young one. It is you who want something from me.”
“I do not understand.” Guillermo scratched his head and glanced momentarily at the stars.
“Soon you will,” Masangkay said with a smile.
“Smoking is bad for you, you know.”
The Kapre laughed. It echoed in the night, becoming a part of the night symphony. Guillermo laughed as well, and he wondered why no one was bothered by the noise they made. Why didn’t they wake up his mother or his grandfather? Why was he not afraid anymore?
The wind whistled, and the little boy listened to the Kapre spin a tale of an age filled with wonder and awe.
“Never forget, young one,” Masangkay said in a momentary pause, “For I see our age fall into despair, and forever shall we be forgotten. Remember this day well and be at peace with yourself.”
Guillermo pondered on what Masangkay had told him. He was too young to understand things, yet, he tried to grasp the meaning of it all. He stared at the Kapre as the giant looked up at the stars and continued with the stories.
There comes a time when a boy becomes a man and forgets that he was ever a boy. They go about their lives, go to college, have a good job, get married, and quite often they find their childhood silly realizing that the grown-up world didn’t have room for childish things.
Guillermo fell in love with the world. There were so many things that went on. Technology improved. The world moved forward and the simplicity of life became more complicated.
He stood at the center of the world, a complex man with complex needs, with his past forever buried with the death of his mother fifteen years ago. He became busy with his work. This became his life during the day. After work was the drinking sessions and the meet-ups, and sometimes when he got lucky, he would wake up in someone else’s bed. Most of the time, he had hangovers in the morning.
The boy was dead. He died when his mother died. But sometimes, the boy reaches out from the grave, wanting to live again.
Sometimes he dreams of a giant smoking a large tobacco, who lives in a big tree. But these were just dreams. In the morning, the dreams would fade away.
The moon came into view around eight in the evening. Guillermo had a bottle of beer in one hand and his phone in the other. He was looking at random photos on Instagram, pausing at the images of women in their bright bikinis, smiling at the ones he liked the most.
“What are you smiling about?” asked a woman. She had a bottle of beer in hand. She looked drunk.
“Nothing,” answered Guillermo, clearing his throat. “Why?”
“One of your girls again?”
“You know you’re my only girl, Lisa.”
He hugged her and kissed her on the lips. She knew he was lying. She didn’t mind.
It was the company’s Christmas party. Rocco and Leviste Law Office knew how to make a party. There were a few invited guests aside from their twenty-seven employees. This year, they held it on a mansion in the hills of Antipolo owned by a big client.
The party dragged on, with people getting drunk and some passing out from where they sat. Guillermo was drunk. Lisa left early, already drunk, but she still managed to book a ride home. He couldn’t drive her home, not in that state, so he found a sweet spot in the garden overlooking the city. Guillermo relaxed and slumped back onto the steps that led down to an undeveloped area where a Talisay tree stood in the darkness. It reminded him of something, yet he was too drunk to think.
The city lights played before his eyes – blue and red and yellow hues danced and frolicked. He found himself laughing. He heard someone else laughing. He took one last swig, emptying his bottle before looking over his shoulder to see who was laughing.
There was no one there. The people were upstairs either wanting to go home or really wasted. A shiver crept up his spine.
Guillermo rummaged through his pockets and pulled out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. He lit one, inhaling deeply, and puffed curly fumes into the air. They danced before his eyes. He coughed.
“Smoking is bad for you, you know?”
“Who said that?”
Deep in the recesses of his mind, he knew that voice but couldn’t place where he had heard it before. Again, a shiver crawled down from his nape. It overwhelmed him. His drunkenness left his senses almost immediately. At first he thought he was going insane and already hearing things, but his recent medical exam gave him a clean bill of health, and he wasn’t in any state of stress. No. The voice sounded clear, crisp, like someone spoke beside him.
“Who said that?” He asked again.
No one answered back. Whatever it was, it was now gone. It triggered a memory of an age that he had forgotten, a time of youthful vigor repressed by the death of his mother and his transition to adulthood. Like the behemoths of old it sleeps, undisturbed until that precise time when something awakens it, and in that instance, it all came back to him! He was flooded with mixed emotions. He tried to hold it in, but his emotions were too great, and he cried, shaking.
He left the party after he thought he was sober. He was pulled over by a police car and spent the night in jail for driving drunk. While in his cell, he traced every detail of his memory when he was a boy, spending the summers in the province with his grandfather Gener. He remembered the old man dying a year before his mother died. This was one of the reasons why he locked himself up and tried to forget his past – why he wanted to turn away and let it all go. It hurt, and the pain was often times unbearable. He embraced the world where he found comfort, relying on the women and the work load to numb his feelings. Gone were the fantasies of yesterday. Gone was Imo, replaced by Guillermo, the best lawyer Manila has ever had.
That voice – he thought he could never forget that voice. But like the child he was, he outgrew even that memory of the Talisay tree in his grandfather’s yard. The hairy face of a gruff-looking man stared at him from a distance. It was a face blocked away, like toys from his childhood, locked away in a secret room with the key forever lost. But not all things can be locked away forever, and the memories of his experience with the Kapre came back vividly. Hearing Masangkay’s voice pulled him back, and though it pained him, he couldn’t lock those memories again. He spent the night in jail with his thoughts keeping him company.
The old barrio stirred with life. Progress lifted it to town status. There were lampposts in the streets, electricity cables that ran through from house to house, and the old wood and nipa gave way to concrete and steel. But throughout its modernity, it was still the old barrio, with its surrounding nature untouched and the simplicity of life lingering in every home.
His car slowly made its way through the side dirt road that led to the old house where he once spent the summers of his youth. He remembered the delightful atmosphere, the voice of his grandfather telling stories, and the memory of the stars in the clear summer nights that fueled his imagination. He scolded himself for forgetting the things that made him who he was. He thought of how the world changed him, how his grief pulled him out of his place of happiness, and how he let it all go because it was easy enough to do so.
He turned a corner, and there it was, his grandfather’s house, sitting idly after all these years – decaying yet immortal – like a god struggling to exist in an age of forgotten myths. The old house in the new town. A ghost of a bygone age.
He stepped out of the car, walked and stood in front of an old door weathered by time. He entered the old house. The door creaked painfully. There wasn’t much left except some clay pots and an old crucifix that he remembers hanging by the headboard of his grandfather’s bed. It lay broken on a corner of the sala. He took it, dusted it a bit, and walked back to his car. He placed it in the backseat. He returned to the house and saw nothing more. It was empty, except for the cobwebs and the memories that lingered like a ghost.
He left the house and went to the backyard where the Talisay tree stood.
It was still there, though the vegetation was overgrown and termites infested its base. Guillermo remembered the giant’s face, unkempt and almost hideous, yet the tone of this creature’s voice was pleasant, almost humble, and reassuring. He remembered the night of their first encounter and smiled. Guillermo glanced at the midday sun. He could wait. He had the whole day.
Kamusta, kaibigan,” the Kapre greeted, smiling beneath his wild and hairy face.
“I think I should be afraid,” replied Guillermo. There was confusion on his face. “But somehow I am not. Should I be?”
“Of me? Of course, you should! I eat children, you know.” He laughed. It was a pleasant one. But through the joy, Guillermo felt sadness. Just then, the light of the full moon shone through the withered branches of the old Talisay.
“I now remember you when I was a boy, but some of those memories are blurry. Yet, right now, I feel happy that I have gotten to meet you again…Masangkay. That is your name, right?”
“Yes,” Masangkay answered with a smile. “Look at you, all grown up, much like Gener when he was young.”
“Yes, I remember. You were quite familiar with my ancestors.”
“Indeed.” Masangkay’s smile disappeared, and a somber one drew against the shadows of his dimly-lit face. “You have forgotten about me, kaibigan! You have forgotten our stories. You stopped visiting. No one looked after your Lolo when his health deteriorated. Even your mother stopped coming here. I asked myself, did I do something to make you go away? But then I figured out that maybe, like your Lolo, you lost interest in the mysterious and the fantastic. I thought that you lost interest in this peaceful life, the folklore that surrounded it – the stories of myths and creatures like me.”
“Lost interest?” Guillermo held back his tears.
“Yes. Gener could no longer see me when you and your mother stopped coming. I think he fell into despair. They fought, you know. I do not know what it was all about, but I heard your mother’s voice screaming. I felt afraid and sad as I felt the chaos in the household. That was when she did not bring you here because you were in college and had a whole summer with your studies. Since then, the summers were not the same.”
“I got busy,” Guillermo protested. “I tried to come here once, but life wasn’t simple anymore. I had to let go.”
“I am dying, kaibigan, and like the old world with its myths and legends, I will disappear. I have lived for so long that I have seen the changes in the world. I have seen friends die and have felt magic slowly wane. My kind drifts away into the forgotten. Maybe, like what your religion teaches, there might be another place for my kind after we all die. Soon we will become a legend, and like most legends, my story will be forgotten.”
Guillermo felt the weight of Masangkay’s sadness. He remembered the Kapre’s image and was shocked to see the difference. He saw a crooked old creature filled with facial lines like cracks in an old ceramic jar. Masangkay’s hair was longer, tangled, and twisted, and a foul odor emanated once Guillermo drew closer. The Kapre leaned against the Talisay for support. The tree had lost its luster, too.
“I am no longer Masangkay, kaibigan. I do not have a name anymore. All I am now is a memory, and I can bring just memories of you and the life I have had in this Talisay tree. They are happy memories that keep me company wherever I am going.”
Masangkay pointed to the east. Guillermo followed with his eyes. Beyond the silhouettes of mountains rolled dark clouds that slowly swallowed the stars. That is where he was going. Guillermo felt a chill as he looked with anticipating eyes.
“There is where I will go, to that dark patch of uncertainty, and I am sad about leaving this place that is my home. Once, I thought I was invincible. But now I am a frail shadow of my old self. I once had a name, yet no one will remember it but you, for as folklore goes, we are creatures of the lower myths, and no one remembers our names. I am the last of my kind here on this earth – the last Kapre.”
“But aren’t there others like you lingering in the shadows? What about the Aswang, or the Nuno sa Punso? What of the Engkantos and Diwatas?”
“Humans have pushed us into the fringes of existence, kaibigan. Your cities have dug the earth that we live in. Your societies have castrated us from the elements from where we dwell. No longer are we connected to nature, and so we vanish slowly, just like magic that once roamed freely in the world. We are fading, my friend, like the legends of old, like the myths and dreams that have faded away. Another world calls us. I heard her voice in the far distance. It calms me, soothing, and even though a great sadness grips my heart, I am joyful that there is a place for me in this other land. She calls for me, Guillermo. I must go to her.”
“But you can’t leave…”
“As I must.”
“Were you not listening? The world has changed. You are an example of that. The old ones have departed, and so must I. This modern world of humankind does not need us anymore. We are figments of your imagination, and it will remain that day until the last one of you dies. Humankind’s imagination has shifted towards worldly things. You have new gods for this new age. Magic is what sustains us. Imagination fuels magic. But magic has died, killed by humankind’s dwindling lack of imagination.”
“Could I have done anything to prevent this?”
“No. That which you see right now is inevitable. I have called you from far away to say goodbye, kaibigan. Long have we parted ways, but it only seems like yesterday when you sat by my tree and listened to my stories. You may not remember most of it, but those are memories that I will take with me unto the next world.”
“I remember. Your stories and my Lolo’s – I remember them, and I will try to recall that which I have forgotten!”
“Who do you think gave your Lolo the inspiration for his stories?” Masangkay chuckled. “If I should have known better, I would have thought that your Lolo and I were competing.”
Guillermo gazed up at the stars. The darkness on the horizon was fast approaching. Light flashed in the distance, followed by the crackling of thunder.
“I feel something is taken from me, something forever lost. How can I recover it? Can you give me an answer?”
The Kapre lowered his head to meet Guillermo’s eyes.
“Only you can answer that, kaibigan. I have faith in you. You will know what to do.”
Guillermo’s thoughts were disturbed by another loud crack. The darkness was getting closer. His eyes momentarily shifted to the incoming storm, but when he looked back, he found that Masangkay was already gone.
The old man gently rocked his chair. His eyes gazed at the stars that twinkled above. His mind was somewhere else, sailing on boat in an ocean of memories. He was satisfied. Sometime in his youth, he lost those memories, but some of the missing pieces were recovered when he rummaged through the old photographs he found in the old trunk of his grandfather’s. He was lost, but he found his way back. Yet, there were moments of sadness whenever he remembered the people that had gone before him – his mother, his grandfather, and his friend Masangkay. He smiled and held back the tears. He married Lisa, and she changed his life for the better. He fixed the old house and lived far away from the city.
The wind swept through the trees, and the leaves rustled. The evening was alive with an orchestra of crickets. The music of the night stirred his soul. Memories echoed in the old house. He remembered the stories that fascinated him. They were the folklore and the legends, the myths of gods and fallen heroes, and, of course, his grandfather’s gruff voice that was like magic. The stars urged him to wander in his memories some more. He remembered the wind caressing his face. He remembered his sweet mother, who always watched from a distance with a smile etched on her face. He would look back to where she sat, rocking the old chair, listening – dreaming. It was on nights like this that he felt alive.
He remembered, O did he remember, and he missed them all.
“Another story, Lolo,” said a little girl, disturbing the old man’s musings.
“What would like to hear, Amanda?” Guillermo asked of his granddaughter.
“A magical one, please.”
“Do you know what a Kapre is?”
The girl smiled back. “Of course, Lolo. They are giant monsters that live in trees, right?”
Guillermo smiled. “They are not monsters, Amanda. Rather, they are creatures of the unseen world misunderstood by most of us. Do you want to know a secret?”
The little girl nodded eagerly.
“I knew a Kapre before,” Guillermo said, tapping Amanda’s nose with his finger. “He became my friend.”
“Really?” exclaimed Amanda quite excitedly.
“Yes. It was long ago, and I remember it well. But sadly, he has gone from this world.”
“Did he die, Lolo?”
“Something like that. I realize now that I was somehow involved in it.”
“You killed the Kapre, Lolo?”
Guillermo laughed, but there was sadness in his laughter.
“First of all, my dear Amanda, killing is bad. Remember that. Secondly, I didn’t kill anyone. If there was one thing I helped destroy, it was the legend of this old Kapre, and I did because I forgot that I was his friend.”
He closed his eyes and remembered Masangkay’s voice. Kaibigan. Friend. He forgot about his friend just as he forgot about himself, and every time he faltered, he would hear Masangkay’s voice in the back of his mind, like a conscience to his soul. Fate has a funny way of bringing you back to the places and things you thought you lost. He smiled and wallowed in the memories. He would tell them to Amanda, who waited eagerly with hands clasped and eyes sparkling. He understood that the stories told to him should not end and that myths, legends, and folklore must survive for the future generation to know about and learn from. He made it a point to spread them with his published books and articles in many magazines. Besides, what is a culture without the foundations of the myths that it was built upon? Such things should never be forgotten.
“Lolo?” urged his eager granddaughter. “Please continue.”
“I’m sorry, hija. Where were we again?”
“You were going to tell me about your Kapre friend.”
“Ah, yes. But before I do that, I want you to promise me one thing…”
“Anything for you, Lolo Imo.”
“You must promise me to never forget the things that I will tell you, that magic is real, and once upon a time, there were those who lived invisible to us, yet they were a part of our world. No matter what people tell you, you have to believe. Maybe you can keep it between you and me for the moment, but you must always remember. Also, do not stop being a child, even when you grow old. It is the greatest thing that will ever happen to you.”
The little girl nods. Guillermo smiles, hoping his granddaughter will heed his words when the time comes. The lesson, after all, is a long journey that can only be comprehended in time. He looks out the window into the stars, and begins his tale.
Outside, the once-old barrio was now a town. The modern world caught up with it. Maybe soon it will become a city? The forest gives way to new houses and new buildings. Electricity runs through newly built posts, and every household now has internet. But amid all that modernity stood the old house. It was reconstructed to look like its old self by a man who never wanted to forget the lessons and the stories told in that old house.
At the back of the old house the Talisay tree still stood, aged and weary, yet fit to weather several more years. Once, it had a tenant, an old Kapre that used to live within its old husk. Now there was nothing left except memories that linger. Masangkay’s passing became the saddest part of Guillermo’s life, yet it taught him the value of believing, and thus he found himself again. Masangkay will live on in Guillermo’s memory, and the old man vowed to continue the tradition, passing forth the knowledge to future generations.
The stars danced in the night sky. Guillermo’s voice was carried by the wind with the stories he told his granddaughter, and somewhere beyond time, Masangkay hears the voice of an old friend, and smiles.