The Summoner

Muriela stopped at a cliff as she watched the calm sea turn to purple. It was violet as the blanket on her late aunt’s flower-ringed body amidst the scents of candles, cheap coffee, and decaying rose wreaths, a sight and smell Muriela went through a week ago when asked to come home by her mother due her aunt’s demise.

It was late afternoon in Dalanon, a sea-locked village in northern Leyte. The place had no access to a highway except through a makahiya-framed footpath that flooded on slight rain. She noticed the copper-coin sun dip into the neighboring island’s hills, beyond which fanned a small town accessible by motorized boats where she and village folks bought their provisions. Soon the last of wives thrusting their baskets to collect their husband’s daily tally of fish would have gone home to pepare supper while shrieking at older kids to fetch water, change newly-born babies’ hand-sewn napkins, and feed the pigs.

Muriela was a part-time singer in Starlight, a posh night club in Cebu. She sang on weekends after school and during school breaks. Her family sent her to a Cebu university, though she found the course “tasteless as sawdust” as her fellow artistic classmate described it. An obsequiously obedient daughter who only wanted to please her mother and aunt, Muriela plodded on in “that course” set in stone for her by her family, though if she had her druthers, she just wanted to write crisp anecdotes setting some to music, and, of course, sing. At the university, it did not take long to make her talent known; while some sang and others performed, Muriela did both. Though she did not win in a sing-along contest, she received an offer to sing on weekends at a night club near a local hotel. 

It shamed her to talk about her sideline job to friends, especially her high-school chums like Tim, the village jester who wasted no time ascribing people nicknames or fabricating awkward situations for the fun of it. Tim was summoned by the Lupon, for sending bogus condolence cards to the village Pastor, after the latter barred his daughter from attending the Fiesta coronation. “Vestigial paganism,” he smirked. Tim denied the charge, but the Lupon head insisted who else could concoct such foolishness, effectively escalating their tiff to a hair-breadth away from an actual fistfight, stopped only by the Pastor’s quick withdrawal of the case. 

When interrogated during one of Tim’s usual fits of curiosity, Muriela admitted to singing at a night club, which in Tim’s prurient imagination, translated to being paid money for services other than singing. In fact, Tim neither heard nor wanted to hear Muriela’s protestation that Starlight is a reputable club catering to older couples, established as an alternative to mushrooming ballroom dance halls, and in response to husbands feeling left out on weekends by wives who prefer to dote on unmoustached and wackier flat-bellied Dance Instructors, called DIs. At the club, Muriela projected herself as “lady sunshine” in polka dotted bloomers, though she was conscious in her profession, she also needed to be unpredictable. At times she dished out quirky rock songs like “Whiter Shade of Pale,” strutting on stage in pale mascara matched by Gothic belts tightly wrapped around her body like the snake of Eden. 

When Muriela was a young girl, she, her mother Katang, and aunt Karita, fled to Dalanon to escape mob persecution from their home village, a mountain range away from Dalanon on the other side of the island. For Katang, it was a case worse than being dipped into the sulfuric fumes of hell, for in hell at least one knew why one was put there. In the case of her family no one knew why village folks kept away from them, which ultimately morphed into violence. It took them time to realise they were ostracized by friends from the village, “othered” even by their cousins and relatives. It was as if they had ceased to exist; they existed, but peripherally, with their names hardly mentioned except in fearful tones. 

The distancing began when Katang’s family, targeting in particular her sister Karita, became the fodder of a silent if vicious accusation of being practitioners of the “barang,” a folk belief where practitioners were able to summon carnivorous insects into the orifices of sleeping people, the bad ones usually. Nieto, Karita’s persistent and pig-headed suitor was found dead in a dry ditch at the foot of the forest near Katang’s family’s farm land. Her family became the chief suspect since it was well known in their barrio that Karita and her farmer father had little regard for Nieto, who, though he earned a living as a pump boat mechanic, had not learned the rudiments of hygiene and was said to bathe only once a month, if he did. It is said he suffered from fevers as a result of carbuncles, and a healer advised him to avoid contact with water. As Nieto could not take no for an answer, he was literally dragged and pushed out of Karita’s home and told never to come back. It took a week before Nieto’s body was found dead with boils, and insects swarming on them. The villagers theorized the live insects crawling out from Nito’s boils were from a “barang.” 

Though Katang’s family was brought to the office of the town police for investigation, nothing came out of it as Nieto’s case was unwitnessed. Karita, Katang, and their parents went back to tending vegetables, and resumed the rigmarole of making jars of papaya, capsicum and carrot pickles, laced in strong vinegar, which they sculpted into quirky flower, leaf, and spiral designs. Mothers would order by half dozens glass jars, especially during fiestas and special occasions. A month or two after Nieto’s body was found, Karita’s family noticed their usual customers deferred buying or else bought one instead of two or more small jars, until they stopped buying altogether. Even their cousins stopped buying and refused the pickles even if given free. Life became hard for Karita’s family, especially as their arthritis-prone father relied less on farming and more on their pickle business. The family coped from the lack of orders. It was the village’s sudden estrangement that was hard to take. They stopped going to church as people would move away from their seats. They could not walk on streets without someone changing lanes. Karita blamed it all on herself and asked her close cousin Loring what happened. 

“I really don’t know, cousin Karita,” Loring hesitated. 

“Please tell me as we are puzzled. Has this to do with Nieto’s death?” Karita insisted, holding Loring’s shoulders. 

“Yes. People are saying the voodoo powers of the ‘barang’ was responsible for Nito’s death,” Loring replied, adding “but beyond that I don’t know anymore.” Karita’s chest tightened as she shouted, “How could they forget that during the police investigation Nieto’s sister even read a note written in his handwriting, and tucked in his breast pocket: ‘wa nay bili’, meaning nothing has worth or meaning anymore.” 

Over time, Nito’s story receded from the village consciousness, and people went on with their business. Katang fell for one of their vegetable buyers from another village who turned out to be a married man, while Karita was abandoned by her suitors, and devoted herself to backyard piggery. Rumors circulated how Katang laced the man’s corn bits coffee with a potion called “lumay,” causing a man – any man – to declare an undying love, though none noticed how the other sister Karita could not even attract a village drunk. The vegetable buyer, it turned out, became Katang’s confidante after she discovered he could play on the harmonica assorted Cebuano love songs, beginning with “Patay’ng Buhi,” meaning “Dead but Alive,” a ballad which Katang had learned by heart. One thing led to another, and no one further noticed about Katang and her man as he only visited quarterly. Months later, gossip had it that Katang needed an emergency ferry to the neighboring island’s hospital for ruptured appendicitis. Only the discreet village midwife Nang Goring knew Katang was about to deliver a baby. Her pregnancy was what Nang Goring called “misteryosong pagmabdos,” or cryptic pregnancy, where the woman herself and her family are unaware of the pregnancy. They assumed the absence of her “binulan,” or menstruation, was caused by a hormonal imbalance due to a sudden weight gain. 

When news of Katang’s delivery reached the village, conflicting versions were heard, that Katang was raped by a seminarian, or crept into by a “dili-ingon-nato” or “not-like-us” spirits living on rivers where Katang washed clothes. They cited the girl’s blondish hair as seen through the sun, and complexion as fair as the stalk of a banana. All talks were forgotten as time passed, since Katang’s daughter, Muriela, showed exceptional talent in singing. People who heard her sing stopped what they were doing, and without realizing it, tears fell to their cheeks. 

Others were curious why Katang named her daughter Muriela. Like a broken record, she would say she read the name Muriela from from an old issue of her Bulaklak comics collection, meaning “sparkling sea,” for indeed her daughter was born at sea in transit to the hospital. If in the mood, she would add Muriela likely took her singing prowess from Lorelei, a character she again read from comic magazines. Lorelei was a river mermaid who sang behind rocks, driving sailors crazy with love. 

Just when Katang thought things had settled in the village, a freak storm came in late morning bringing mud and debris from the highlands. It was a normal cloudy day where people went on with chores, though the radio broached signal number 2 for the region. No one paid attention as stronger signals were raised before and the village was unscathed. As curtains of rain pummeled, the lazy brook rolled torrents and ripped its banks. While houses at the village center were spared, three boys coming from different families who gathered river spinach for lunch went missing. Their bloated bodies were found four days later presenting boil-like lesions ringed-in by maggots reminiscent of Nieto’s body. Shrieks pealed through the thick blanket of silence that entrenched into the village. Mothers counted their brood one by one as fathers in mud boots checked their house posts for cracks. 

Vigil prayers were organized and thanksgiving songs offered for sparing the village center. A big Mass was held at the square for the church wasn’t big enough for the crowd. Even those who did not usually attend church as they questioned the manner funds were spent attended. Everyone, even those from other denominations came to join the prayers. Katang and Karita were there, too, though their parents stayed home to babysit Muriela. The sisters remained mouse-wary at the back of the crowd and focused on the priest’s message on reconciliation amidst calamities. His message on the “need to set aside petty quarrels and issues,” and to “love one another, even our enemies, especially during disasters,” resonated with Katang and Karita, who were only too willing to forgive and forget everything. 

“But what about our children, father? Our sons who perished during the flood?” A high-pitched voice pealed from the back like a bolt of lightning, followed by a growing murmur. Another shout followed: “Aren’t we stupid enough to allow demonic forces in our midst?” after which a volley of “Yes, yes! We need to do something” responded. No sooner than the next response, Katang sidled and grabbed Karita’s hand, then whispered, “Let’s go.”

Early on the following morning before the first crow of roosters, a loud thud from a fist-sized rock broke against the wall of Katang’s house beside the stairs. The family awoke but chose to stay quiet indoors. As the glimmerings of the sun arose, they peeped through the sill, and seeing no one, came outside. Everything looked untouched, including a nearby plot of vegetables. On the wall facing the sun, the word “barangan!” or evil summoner, was scribbled in bright red. And all three of Karita’s pigs were lying dead. “Why, why are they doing this to us?” Karita shrieked and fell to the ground.

A week later, Katang and Karita wrapped Muriela’s head with a bandana as the three of them took the earliest morning boat trip to another island facing the other side of their island. It is to a town beyond the dormant Mt. Cancajanag, where people speak a different dialect, and where Katang’s cousin lives. Katang’s parents chose to stay behind. 

“In our age, nothing surprises us, dear daughters Katang and Karita. We are not scared. The people can peel us to the bone, and they can’t find a shred of guilt running through our family’s blood,” murmured Katang’s father as he gave Katang a bundle wrapped in old handkerchief consisting of seeds from their vegetable garden, and old bills and coins stored in a bamboo tube, which were savings from their pickle business. Their mother also gave Karita boiled eggs, hanging rice – locally called puso – wrapped in coconut leaves, their mother’s used tube-shaped shawl called patadyong and their father’s old camisa de chino, saying “in case you miss us and feel the need to hug or kiss us.” “We are just here,” her mother assured Katang and Karita, “and remember to sing our lullabies to Muriela lest she forget who or where she’s from.” As a final gesture of goodbye, Katang and Karita smelled the coconut-oiled hair of their mother, whispering “Mother, our dear mother.” 

Katang and Karita did not intend to settle in Dalanon. They were meant to go to the town at the neighboring island, except the confluence of their boat’s mechanical defect and the prospect of meeting a storm forced them to be dropped off at Dalanon, a sleepy but self-sufficient village facing a mountainous island beyond which is the town which was their original destination. The sisters and little Muriela were forced to ask for lodging from a local priest who allowed them to stay at the parish convent. They emptied clean their bowls of tinola garnished with lemongrass, tomatoes and a hint of tamarind served to them at dinner by the kindly man of God. 

“We don’t usually get visitors in this village,” the elderly priest said reassuringly. 

“We are looking for a new place to stay ,Padre, as livelihood prospects are dim in our home village,” Katang said matter-of-factly, without divulging details.” 

“I understand, hija” the priest seemed to divine their intentions. “You must have good reasons for leaving your home. May the Lord guide you to wherever you are meant to go. You can stay here in the convent, at least until after the storm has passed.” 

And so it was that Katang and Karita decided to remain in Dalanon. After the storm, they overstayed their welcome at the convent. To compensate they cleared and tended the old priest’s garden, scrubbed the church’s aisles and did marketing and cooking for the priest. Muriela, was allowed to assist the priest during Mass, a sight never before seen in the Dalanon, not that anyone minded. Little Muriela also sang and led the responses to the Psalms, flooring over all the local villagers with her mix of beauty and delightful assertiveness. Dalanon, though not as big as their home village, offered a kind of warmth to the sisters they never felt before or at any place else. 

Karita found work as a housemaid, then as cook and crafts assistant to a family whose business sold carved spoons and forks to different towns in the province. Her former trade in carving flowers out of papayas and carrots bloomed at the shop where Carding, her widowed employer, had given her a blank check discretion to carve any type of flower design on the wooden decors. Karita liked Carding in the sense of feeling safe when he’s around. On more than one occasion, Carding hinted he was open to a more intimate arrangement with Karita, and on Karita’s terms. Karita had, however, closed her heart to anyone after the incident following Nieto’s death where people avoided her and laughed at her behind her back for being more dangerous than the force of nature. She herself heard this in her home village when passing by a group of stand-bys taking turns at slugging down tuba at a corner store, for drunk men were poor at hiding secrets. Through years of taunting, Karita began to believe the odious streak ascribed to her, and regarded herself as not beautiful, though her eyes twinkled as she spoke. 

Katang found work in a bakery shop owned by Bado, a bearded man whose stout frame reminded her of tubs of lard delivered monthly to the shop. Bado’s skin pores smelled like string beans, or “batong,” the kind called “langto” in the vernacular, possibly from years of eating home-made kimchi and raw bean sprouts. Not that Katang minded. In time she got used to the smell, and might have even missed it one time when Bado went to the island to buy things. Katang rationalized Bado’s smell was a likely offshoot of his being a vegetarian, specializing in eating raw beans and pickled cabbages. Bado’s vegetarianism began when as a boy he watched a chicken prepared for broth. Instead, of lying low, the dying the chicken’s headless body leaped towards him. From then on, Bado was convinced animals had feelings, and it was presumptuous for people to think otherwise. 

Bado is a kind man for he seldom uttered a word, much less an unkind word. When drunk, his personality took a roundabout for then he became weepy and touchy-feely. Katang did not know this aspect of Bado’s personality until after a year of working in the bakery. Dalanon prepared for its first “Aurora,” or early dawn procession, and households asked that their American bread and Pan de Sal be delivered early. When Katang entered the bakery kitchen, she saw Bado crying. Thinking something was wrong, she rushed to Bado and embraced Bado with all the motherly affection she could muster. One thing led to another, and Bado could no longer help himself. 

Katang would have loved Bado had he asked and waited. Bado forced himself on Katang with the grip of a vise, leaving Katang limping on the floor like a rag doll. Katang would have killed herself, or, the thought entered into her to ask the services of a real summoner of insects, until he could breathe no longer. But then, she stopped herself, if she did that all their protestations of innocence in their home village would mbe put to naught. What would she tell her parents and Karita? More importantly, what would happen to Muriel whose future lay far ahead of her. Katang thought the best punishment she could inflict upon Bado was to marry him. She would get the bakery business for herself and give a loveless union to Bado. She would not sleep with him and insist on separate beds; her plan happened once they married. 

With Katang’s social connection, Bado’s shop branched to two neighboring towns. Her sister Karita, whose health deteriorated from farm work and overexposure to the sun, moved in with Katang and Bado, and had since taken an interest on patisseries. Karita’s residual energies were expressed lavishly in desert-making, and in ensuring Muriela would have a good upbringing and future. Beyond their best-selling sweetheart bread with snow-white icing on top and pan-de-coco, Karita also mass-produced two local favorites: the flat and crunchy salvaro flake, and the soft and coconutty salvaro loaves that looked like small pillows. The loaves were little Muriela’s favorite. To stop her from overeating, during school breaks, Karita asked Muriela to help her carve papaya, radish and carrot cubes into flowers and leaves to start a pickle business in Dalanon. While carving, Muriela sang and hummed tunes foreign to Karita’s ears, the aunt wondered if Muriela learned songs from the radio or composed them herself. 

Muriela grew into a lovely young woman more attached to her aunt Karita than to her mother who, after Bado’s mild stroke, took over the operations of the bakeshop. Karita would take Muriela to church as Katang worked non-stop supervising the shops. As Muriela grew to be a young adult, she continued to hold Karita’s upper arm while walking in public for she felt safe doing so. Karita would remind her she’s not a baby anymore for soon she will graduate from high school. Muriel’s would just shrug her slouching shoulders, pout her lips and place her wriggling head on Karita’s shoulders. 

Muriela remembered that particular night, about a month after her high-school graduation. Katang and Karita had an argument, their voices uncharacteristically loud that night. Muriela could not remember what her mother and aunt talked about, but she heard her name mentioned in relation to Cebu. That evening, the two sisters who did not usually eat together were there at the table dressed in their Sunday best. Bado was also there, with a bib and holding a special type of spoon used by semi-paralytic persons who could still feed themselves. The sisters, it seemed to Muriela, prepared a special dinner together of rellenong bangus or stuffed milk fish, and chicken broth. 

“Sit down, Muriela, we would like to talk to you,” said Katang in a tone that sounded funereal than motherly. She added, “You know your aunt and I love you very much.” To Muriela’s inquisitive mind, every time her mother or aunt wanted her to do something unpleasant, they would say, “You know we love you very much.” 

“What is it, Mama?” Muriela replied to Katang.

“Your aunt and I would like you to go to a University in Cebu to study law, beginning with a preparatory course to law,” said Katang grimly. 

Illustration by Jimbo Albano

“Remember why we transferred to Dalanon, Muriela?”, butted in Karita, while simultaneously taking a deep breath. “Your mother and I were accused of witchcraft. We were not able to protect ourselves. Partly perhaps because of our lack of education. With a law degree you – we – can fight back.” Karita wanted to say more, but was interrupted by Muriela. 

“I thought that was long settled, Auntie. I thought you were already on talking terms with friends from your old village, particularly the teachers who had asked for donations to their school’s drinking fountain project.” 

“It’s not a particular person who wronged us, Muriela.” Karita responded. It was the village itself who believed we caused Nieto’s death as well as the death of the three boys.” 

“We did not know we were being accused behind our backs until later,” Katang clarified, and added, “the village turned its back on us – we became virtual lepers. But that stopped, of course, when they heard we made it big here in Dalanon with our bake shops in many towns. Then, politicians, even teachers, started to ask donations from us,” Katang sighed and walked towards the window facing the sea. 

“We don’t hold grudges against specific people, Muriela,” Karita intervened. “I’m disappointed with the village as a whole who knew who we were since birth, and who did not speak for and in our defense. I guess the village folks were afraid. We recoil and do foolish things in response to those forces we do not understand,” mumbled Karita as tears welled in her eyes. 

Four years had elapsed, and just before Muriela’s college graduation, she received a telegram telling her to come home, as her aunt Karita had died. The family waited for Muriela before burial was arranged. Katang wanted Muriela to decide and arrange how Karita would go. Muriela said a simple burial would be in keeping with her beloved aunt’s wishes. An open house with Karita’s body bedecked with flowers, and a line scribbled in dark red on a purple blanket: “The wages of sin is not death, for in death is true freedom. It is life without understanding that’s in chains.”


Gil Marvel Tabucanon
Gil Marvel Tabucanon
Gil Marvel Tabucanon is currently teaching jurisprudence and legal theories at Macquarie University, Sydney.


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