Monday, October 8, 2007

The woman at the big house

I must have been about four or five years old when I started feeling unusual things and seeing strange people which other members of my family can’t see. I remember that I had no desire to go to sleep early like ordinary kids do because the moment I close my eyes, I begin to see strange people and fear was like a knot in my stomach. I always see these people when I was in a half-awake, half-asleep state and I was confused if it all true or just a part of a dream.
The nightly visitors continued to haunt me even when I was already 9 years old, and new ones kept appearing. It felt like entering a world of terror that I would often ask my father to accompany me to the bathroom to get away from these visions but the moment I lay down and closed my eyes, they would be there again. I began to dread the evenings.

We lived in a small house beside my grandpa’s house in the sleepy town of Aurora, Zamboanga del Sur. My grandpa’s house is on the second floor while the first floor is a huge vacant area where we kids used. He lived with my two aunts (one widowed and one a spinster) and a cousin. My grandma died when I was not yet born, and I had no idea what she looked like. I remember climbing up to the big house often and sitting on my grandpa’s lap. He would tickle me until I turn black and blue, and stop just at the moment when I couldn’t seem to breathe anymore. He would then flip the mat on his bed open and let me choose coins from under the mat. I would always choose the five centavo coin and he would let me go.

Occasionally, my widowed aunt would ask me to sleep in the big house with them and I always do so, snuggling between my aunt and my cousin.
I couldn’t remember what woke me up one particular morning. It must have been about five o’clock, but it was still dark and chilly. My aunt and cousin were fast asleep. Even before I opened my eyes I felt a strong presence in the room, a foreboding sense that someone was looking at me. I was right. I opened my eyes and stared straight into the clear eyes of a woman wearing a set of clothes which I later saw was the fashion of the early 1960s. She had on a long white veil but I clearly saw her eyes. She was carrying a baby in her arms and she was looking straight at me. I was sure I was fully awake that time and was not just seeing things. I shut my eyes tight and opened them again to see if the woman had evaporated, but she was still there.
Fear engulfed me and I remember curling myself into a tight ball and squeezing in tighter between my two companions. I never told anyone about what I saw but I refused to sleep in the big house again. But I never forgot that woman.

Fast forward a couple of decades later, my younger brother confessed that he saw a woman when he slept in that same room years ago. He described the woman and I gulped, shocking him when I continued the description for him.
That same day, I was browsing through the collection old photos belonging to my parents hidden inside an old wooden box (baol). Old and faded photos of my father and mother, my aunts and uncles when they were kids, our kiddie photos until I picked a particular jaded photo and I went pale and stock still. It was the woman I saw in that room. Noticing my reaction, my brother came near me and had a look. His eyes grew big and he dropped the photo in shock. We looked at each other and understanding dawned on us.

My father told us later that his mother, our grandma died in that same room where saw her, at around five in the morning.

The new year's guest

The whole city of Cebu was in a flurry of activities as everybody hurried to finish their last-minute errands before meeting the New Year five years ago. At around 10 o'clock in the evening, everyone in my aunt's house had gone out to light fireworks, except me.
Tired from a whole day's shopping for things I need to bring back to my Island in Mindanao, which is an hour's flight from Cebu City, I decided to sleep early.
My flight was scheduled at 6 a.m. the following day and Mactan International Airport was some distant away from my aunt's house. As the night went deeper, the explosions from fireworks got louder and louder by the minute.

I tried to cover my ears with a pillow to drown out the noise but it was useless because dense smoke from the fireworks filtered through the open windows, making me cough and gasp for air.
With the Cebuanos, there were no reservations in using all kinds of firecrackers because the city was known all over the country as a factory of firecrackers. It costs a dime a dozen that even a child's meager allowance can buy lots of firecrackers.
As the clock struck 12 midnight, the noises and the explosions all over the city reached a cresendo, making sleep impossible. As was the custom for most of the Filipinos, cans or tins were being dragged or banged all over the neighborhood. Others turned on their vehicles and all the machines in the house while others juggled coins in their pockets to invite good luck and prosperity throughout the year.
Finding all efforts to sleep futile, I got up and went out of the room to join my other cousins for the media noche (midnight meal) but passing through the dimly-lit living room, I discovered that I was not alone in the house.
There on the floor in the corner was somebody lying huddled and he or she was covered with a blanket, despite the stiffling heat inside the house. The leather sofa was pushed towards the middle of the room to accommodate whoever was sleeping.
I tiptoed closer to the figure and heard a light snoring. I gently prodded the sleeping figure but he or she did not budge.
I decided not to disturb whoever it was further and went down the stairs, groping my way in the dim light (my aunt is a believer in energy conservation she automatically turns off lights she thinks are excess) to join the others outside.
My Aunt's house in Cebu City was built in the early 1960's. When her husband bought it for her, it was only a two-room house but my aunt built extension wings and additional rooms and had it rented out to help defray expenses.
The first time I stepped into her house as a little girl, I had felt uneasy and seemed to sense a foreboding presence. I had a feeling that somebody is always looking at me although there was nobody around. In fact, during my occasional visits to Cebu city, there never was a time when I felt comfortable in my aunt's house.
I even cover mirrors with a cloth every night I go to sleep because it seemed as though somebody is there looking at me.
A huge table set with a sumptuous array of food was set on the lawn and the little kids were playing while the grown-ups went on with fire-cracker lighting.
"Good that you decided to come and join us, I couldn't imagine how you were able to beat the heat upstairs," my aunt said.
When the haze cleared off, we partook of the midnight meal, inviting the other renters of the apartments below to join us but halfway through my meal, I remembered the figure sleeping on the living room.
"Somebody's asleep upstairs in the living room. Who is that?" I asked as I munched on a piece of fried chicken.

I went on munching before I finally noticed a deathly silence around me. Looking up, I saw everybody had stopped eating and were staring at me. I repeated my question loudly and all eyes turned wide as saucers and looked at me in bewilderment. It was then that I noticed every member of the family was there with us.
"I thought that was YOU!" my cousin Junhan finally squeaked.

"Yeah, me too! You were sleeping in the sala," cousin Raul echoed.
"Covered under a white blanket!", cousin Jake added.

Even the house helper claimed she saw sleeping figure on the floor and also thought it was me.
"Ate, I even called you but you just mumbled and went back to sleep! You even moved the sofa, which puzzled me because you have a perfectly comfortable bed in your room," the helper said.

Everybody was speechless for a moment. Eventually, we all decided to check who the person was. My hair stood on end and chills were running up and down my spine as we all trooped back to the house to check.
My aunt turned on all the lights but when we got to the living room, there was no one there and everything was in its place. There was no indication that anything had been moved. The sofa was at its usual place and nothing had been touched. We all decided to stay in one room after that because no one dared to go to his own room for the rest of the night.

I learned later that the wife of the original owner of the house died in the very place where the living room was located. I haven't returned to my aunt's house yet after five years. I still shudder when I think about the ghost who decided to sleep in my aunt's living room that particular New Year's eve, and I swear bundled figure was snoring when I prodded him.