ALING LILAY OF LUZON AVENUE
Translated from Filipino
She was that solitary old woman, the first person you would see on the sidewalk along the turn that opened out to Luzon Avenue. She would be seated before her bilao that displayed the candies, cigarettes, and junk food items she was selling. Before Muslim vendors took over various parts of Luzon Avenue, she was already there selling her wares. Any Luzon Avenue stops—those made by a Quiapo- or Baclaran-bound bus that took the Commonwealth Avenue route—would find her as the center of attention, what with her elbow-length milky white hair. Her name was Aling Lilay, our neighbor in Purok Kuwatro, Barangay Culiat in Luzon Avenue.
We were neighbors for almost twenty years, but I could count with my fingers the number of hours I spent talking to Aling Lilay. No one in Purok Kuwatro dared to make small talk with her, and she was feared by the neighbors. None of them had the nerve to confront her—except for one, my grandmother, who made the mistake of crossing her. There were some people, too, who tried to befriend Aling Lilay, people like Aling Mariam and Manong Abdul, the Muslim couple who rented Japayuki’s small room in front of Aling Lilay’s house. It was an otherwise fatal mistake: Aling Mariam lost her entire family. So, if you were a Luzon Avenue resident, you would have the sense not to risk crossing the street to get to the other side as soon as you see Aling Lilay ahead of you. You would do this to avoid being greeted by her and having to make eye contact. And, at Aling Lilay’s Luzon Avenue streetside corner shop, no one from Purok Kuwatro would buy the candies or cigarettes she was hawking—except for Abner, that UP student activist who rented the room at the side of our house. Abner was a heavy smoker, and it was widely believed that his routine before riding a Philcoa jeepney involved buying Stork Menthol Candy and cigarettes from Aling Lilay. Abner was also known to trade jokes with her.
“Macoy is the smartest president of the Philippines,” Aling Lilay would be overheard telling Abner again and again about the then-president Ferdinand Marcos. “You will never oust him.”
Street vendors said that the last time they saw Abner talking to Aling Lilay while he was buying cigarettes from her, his head was still attached to his neck. They said they had heard how Abner’s playful banter got Aling Lilay all riled up. “If you people want to help the country, go to Mindanao and get your heads cut off!”
One Monday, according to my mother who I referred to as Nanay, everyone in the neighborhood was shocked when they saw Abner, who had his backpack on as he headed for UP, to the nearby campus of the University of the Philippines. He appeared to have been decapitated. Women screamed in a mixture of grief and fright, while men tried to grab Abner’s attention—the headless body that was walking—but it seemed as if Abner could not see or hear the panicking people around him. Abner’s headless body walked until it reached Aling Lilay’s spot, bought candy and cigarettes like before. That morning was filled by the buzz of people nervously saying “Jesus Christ” as they made the sign of the cross. At some point in the afternoon, Abner returned home from the university. His head was where it should be, and a lit cigarette was seen puffing a cloud of smoke between his lips.
“Abner, you must burn all the clothes that you are wearing right now and then put salt on them,” my grandmother told him.
When Abner asked why, my grandmother recounted the furor he had caused earlier when he was seen walking without his head on. Abner just laughed it off, said to my grandmother in a jest, “When Macoy became president, Lola, all of us had already lost our heads.”
He was said to still be in good spirits when he entered his room. “You, Abner, we keep warning you to avoid Lilay at the corner!”
Abner paid them no heed. No clothes were burned. No clothes were sprinkled with salt. He continued to buy Aling Lilay’s candies and cigarette sticks.
Abner’s body was found a few weeks later somewhere in the expanse of a grass-overgrown field by the side of the street connecting Luzon Avenue to Philcoa. Nobody around here, though, was sure if the body was truly Abner’s; the PC found him headless. They identified Abner through his ID and bag, which were found with the body. The police as well as Abner’s parents, even his professors and fellow students from UP, later figured out the location of the room he was renting right next to our house in Purok Kuwatro, and this was how we learned about what had been done to Abner. His parents later dropped by to collect his belongings from his room.
When I was in elementary school, Nanay warned me sternly against approaching the hag whom she said had attacked her multiple times while she was pregnant with me. Tatay was away that time, working in Saudi Arabia. Even as a war went on in Iraq, Tatay braved Saudi Arabia so he could save up enough money to marry Nanay. That was also an especially sensitive time. They had to keep their relationship a secret because Nanay was only fifteen years old. As for Aling Lilay, she did not care whether or not it was a neighbor she was targeting. She preyed on pregnant women whenever her midnight hunger became unbearable.
This was how it happened, according to my grandmother’s recollections. It started on a night when, alone in the house, Nanay heard scratching sounds from the roof. Lola was not home yet that time. Working as a Metro Aide, my grandmother would often end up spending the night at the house of her friend in Blumentritt whenever curfew struck and she still had not finished cleaning the streets. At first, Nanay blamed the racket on stray cats. She ended up staying awake the whole night. The succeeding nights were no different, and Nanay was unable to get any rest. She said that the noise of sharp claws raking the metal roof made her teeth grate. At some point, she figured the source of the sound was not stray cats chasing each other but that of a giant bird, because she could hear the flapping wings and the screechy squawking like that of egrets. In the morning, Nanay would attest to an awful feeling of heaviness, of malaise where her muscles and joints ached, as well as dizziness. She assumed it was all due to lack of sleep from the infernal ruckus on the roof. This went on until the night Lola was at last able to get home early because she finished her work before the curfew. What was initially thought of as a giant bird came by again. It was as if it had made its nest on our roof. Lola was jolted awake, seeing Nanay staring up, expression blank and eyes glazed, at the ceiling.
“Mariana, wake up!” Lola said while shaking Nanay awake. “Putang ina, Lilay is eating you!” Even as Lola shook Nanay awake, the rooftop noise intensified. Lola came out of the house, holding an itak, a huge jungle knife. She took a moment to grab a medium-sized rock and hurled it towards Aling Lilay on the roof. It was Nanay who described to me what Lola saw on the roof: Aling Lilay’s elbow-length milky white hair glowed in the dark. Her exposed breasts were saggy on her severed torso. The lower half of her body from her navel to her legs was nowhere to be found. Airborne, Aling Lilay had wings that resembled that of a giant bat. Lola hit Aling Lilay, that aswang form of her consisting of a severed upper half, squarely on the forehead and managed to drive her away.
By sunrise, Lola took to the barangay captain’s office this issue of Aling Lilay’s monstrosity. To settle disputes among neighbors, there was really nowhere to go except the office of Barangay Culiat’s captain. The residents of Purok Kuwatro woke up to the news of last night’s aswang-related crisis being taken up by Lola to the barangay captain’s office. That same morning, people rushed in droves to the Barangay Hall of Culiat, which had jurisdiction over our area in that part of Luzon Avenue. And although all the people in the neighborhood were on Lola’s side, none of them made their support obvious. They were scared of being at the receiving end of Aling Lilay’s wrath.
“Kapitan, this aswang Lilay victimized us last night,” Lola said.
“Wait, Iska, are you sure of what you are accusing here?” Kapitan was not from Purok Kuwatro. He lived in the Don Antonio Subdivision.
“I’m sure, Kapitan. When I had to go out of the house around one in the morning to check what was causing the noise that kept us up all night, I saw Lilay up in our roof. There was no mistaking that white hair of hers that glowed in the dark.”
The ensuing long conversation at the Barangay Hall only elicited Aling Lilay’s curt yes’s and no’s at every question and accusation thrown her way. She almost never voiced out objections and just silently listened at the litany of complaints regarding her reign of terror as an aswang last night.
“There’s another aswang in your neighborhood, right, Iska? Sendang, that Cebuana from Naga. She was right there living in Balara, correct?” Kapitan’s reputation as a serial nitpicker of claims and a good arbiter was spot on. It was touted that this was how he handled complaints by residents in the Luzon Avenue neighborhood. And he was right about that other aswang, that Sendang of Balara. Only Luzon Avenue’s length of concrete pavement separated our barangay from Barangay Balara.
“And one more thing, Iska, if it was really Lilay who was the aswang on your roof and not Sendang—why on earth would she victimize you?”
“What do you mean, Kapitan?” An aswang is always an aswang.”
The barangay captain was silent for a moment and then grinned. He took in the sight of people crowding his office, each rubbernecker tantalized by the thought of a satisfying resolution being made between Lola and Aling Lilay. As if rearing before revealing something juicy and explosive, the barangay captain said, “Wait, Iska, Lilay would terrorize you as an aswang night after night only if you were pregnant.” He paused and smiled suggestively. “Are you pregnant?”
The people in Kapitan’s office snorted their restrained laughter. But the snickering did not last long because they quickly saw through the scandalous implication—and their gaze shifted to Mariana who was seated in a corner. That was the moment everyone realized, as well as my grandmother who was furious over having the truth aired out in the open this way and in front of her fellow Purok Kuwatro neighbors, that her unmarried teenage daughter was pregnant. That was the moment everyone knew that in nine months, I was going to show up in this world.
“As far as I know, Kapitan, it was Lilay who was the aswang last night. And you, Lilay, if you do it again, I will give you another blow to the head.”
Lilay could only meet my grandmother’s threat with a knowing smile. She was caressing the huge swollen area in the middle of her forehead.
People were disappointed with how Kapitan decided to settle the fight between Aling Lilay and my grandmother. They were told to just go home and were lectured about how infighting was supposedly out of character for Purok Kuwatro neighbors. The neighborhood rumor mill—the aggregation of all the gossipy tidbits that swirled around the municipal artesian well and the area where street vendors peddled assorted items and in front of the Iglesia ni Cristo church where people gathered after hearing the mass—was enough to describe how Kapitan simply told off Aling Lilay to not victimize her own neighbors because, in Kapitan’s words in Cebuano: ‘kamu ra naman diha’—“it’s just you people living among yourselves”—and so, any further complaints would inevitably end up in his office and those complaints would be added, as always, to his mountain of responsibilities. “Be an aswang but do it in Balara!” Kapitan was said to have instructed Lilay. Which made sense: because Balara was not in his jurisdiction. Everyone was disappointed because they expected a more serious punishment for the aswang. But then again, according to the neighborhood rumor mill—the aggregation of all the gossipy tidbits that swirled among some of the neighbors who had an opinion on pretty much everything as well as all the happenings in the barangay, among the gossip mavens around the municipal artesian well and the area where street vendors peddled assorted items, and among the loiterers in front of the stores of Canlas Iglesia and Ate Cely—the barangay captain sided with Aling Lilay because they were from the same hometown. Both were Bisaya and from Mindanao. Lola, on the other hand, was Waray from the island of Leyte. And so, in the next barangay election, all the Waray in Purok Kuwatro did not vote for Kapitan. Either way, Kapitan still won the election because aside from his membership in Macoy’s Kilusang Bagong Lipunan, he had on his side Aling Lilay’s dark magic for persuading voters. On barangay election day, the hag was seen in front of the Culiat Elementary School gate. Aling Lilay was said to have laid out her bilao and sold cold drinks, banana cue, pilipit, and biko for the voting crowd at Culiat Elementary School. Purok Kuwatro gossipers spoke of how Aling Lilay talked people into voting for her fellow Bisaya from Mindanao who was running for barangay captain. Lola and Nanay told me that was how people discovered that Aling Lilay was not only an aswang whose upper torso could be severed from the rest of her body in nighttimes when the moon was visible, she was also a powerful sorceress.
Indeed, Aling Lilay was a sorceress. Three months later, Nanay and the Purok Kuwatro neighbors woke up to Lola’s loud, terrified shrieking before the mirror inside our bedroom. As Nanay approached Lola, she saw Lola holding thick hair patches and a comb. Lola’s hair was coming off from her scalp even with the daintiest of comb strokes. By the time I was born in the year after that, Lola was totally bald. I grew up to the sight of her always wearing a hat. Each time she removed her hat in my presence, I always saw her bare scalp. I could never forget feeling the mirror-like smoothness of Lola’s scalp. And from that time on, according to my mother, Lola completely avoided and had never once talked again to Aling Lilay. Their neighbors in Luzon Avenue and the residents of inner Purok Kuwatro all did the same thing.
I was six years old when Lola died. I remembered the month, February, and Nanay, Tatay, even our relatives and neighbors in inner Purok Kuwatro, were all acting ill at ease and fidgety. There was chaos in the streets, and people’s minds were consumed by worries. I remembered how it was during Lola’s wake when there were too many visitors, all dressed in yellow, coming in and out of our house. Even though they were seated before Lola’s casket, their eyes and mouths betrayed their restlessness with each chatter of ‘Revolution,’ of ‘EDSA,’ of ‘Crame.’ Some visitors arrived in the ungodly early morning hours before daybreak, and I noticed their deep exhaustion, their tired eyes. It was as if they had come from a long walk down the street or into the heart of a jungle that had no means of escape back to civilization. These people would sit in front of Lola’s casket, talk in low voices, drink cups of coffee, and nibble watermelon seeds and Marie biscuits. They would talk of how joyous it was in EDSA and that Macoy was close to being ousted. They would talk of their future plans to attack Malacañang Palace. There in the Palace, they would say, that is where this revolution is supposed to end. Nanay and Tatay took turns dealing with funeral arrangements and mingling with guests who came by to pay their last respects. Both were also dressed in yellow, and sometimes they went to EDSA to join the protests.
While everyone milled uneasily throughout Lola’s wake and while Filipinos protested along EDSA, a massive rally that our Luzon Avenue neighbors also attended, to drive away the president from Malacañang—Aling Lilay saw this opportunity to avenge herself. This was my first glimpse into the squalid depths of Aling Lilay’s evil. How I remembered it. It was on the last day of the wake. While everyone was focused on the unfolding events in EDSA, Aling Lilay dropped by. That was when the Cardinal spoke through a radio broadcast, when he persuaded people to go to EDSA. Nobody noticed Aling Lilay taking her seat in front of the casket, picked up a cup of coffee, took pieces of Marie biscuits which she dunked into her coffee cup. The visitors at the wake, including Nanay and Tatay, were listening intently to the transistor radio inside the house.
“The report says they were already close to Malacañang.”
“All of them? What if Macoy refused to step down? This is crazy.”
“It would be a blood bath. Macoy won’t step down.”
“Let’s go. Let’s just wait for them at Malacañang. We can wait for them there. You’ll never know. We might see Macoy in person. We have never seen the president of the Philippines in the flesh before.”
Because I could not understand then what the grown-ups were talking about in front of the transistor radio and whatever it was that was happening in the streets of Manila and Malacañang, I left them and headed back to Lola’s casket outside the house. As I stepped out of the front door, right where the two high-wattage bulbs illuminated the casket, I saw Aling Lilay. Since I was already scared of her, and piled on top of that fear was the memory of Nanay describing to me how Aling Lilay tried to eat me as an unborn child, I was frozen in place and could only watch her from afar.
Right then and there, I witnessed Aling Lilay’s dark powers, a terrifying sight to behold.
In a blink of an eye. That was how quickly Aling Lilay accomplished her plans for Lola’s corpse. For what seemed like a long time, Aling Lilay stood like a dead tree next to the casket. And in her hand, she dragged a huge sack filled with something that looked heavy. We remained where we stood. I stared at Aling Lilay. She, on the other hand, continued her silent scrutiny of Lola’s casket. Aling Lilay must have ‘felt’ my presence, that I was watching her. She looked back, looked straight at me. And behind her milky white hair was her face: her eyes blazed like the eyes of cats, cats that had eaten your food so you decided to hurt them with a broom and now they were out for revenge, the vengeance you could see in their eyes. Aling Lilay looked at me for a long time. She smiled and turned towards Lola’s casket again.
Until now, it was still clear in my mind how Aling Lilay stole Lola’s corpse and how she replaced my grandmother’s body with a banana stalk. In the blink of an eye. Aling Lilay moved that fast. Blink once, and I saw the open casket. Another blink, and Aling Lilay already finished slipping the banana stalk inside the casket and Lola’s body inside the sack that once contained the banana stalk. Another blink, and I opened my eyes to see my own face right in front of me. Everything was upside down, even the objects behind me. The air was thick, syrupy. I could not hear anything. It was as if my ears had been plugged up. The hair at the back of my neck stood up and there was a hammering, a strange heaviness in my chest. I paid attention to my face that appeared in front of me. It really was my face, it was me. Where was Aling Lilay? Where was I? I blinked again, and that was when I felt Aling Lilay’s hot breath on my face and surrounding me—my inverted face materializing before me, the loss of my hearing, the creeping terror—all these were the reflection of the world as seen through Aling Lilay’s eyes. When I opened my eyes again, Aling Lilay’s face was right in front of me. In her hand, she clutched one end of the sack that contained my grandmother’s dead body. Our eyes met, and I saw once again how my world appeared through her line of sight.
“Don’t be afraid of your own fears, Boyet,” she said as I felt her face right next to mine. “Macoy will never ever go away.” She smiled at her own joke.
I screamed, and when I closed my eyes again, I could not remember anything that had happened from that moment to the time I regained consciousness. I woke up to the smell of incense. Next to my mother was Aling Monita who was using tawas to bring me back. For seven days, I was unconscious. Lola had already been buried. Driven out of Malacañang, Macoy and his family fled to another country. The people had reclaimed the Palace. Lots of things had happened and came to pass in the entire week that I was passed out and burning hot with fever. I had no chance to tell them that what they buried in Bagbag was no longer Lola’s body but a banana stalk.
Purok Kuwatro, at last, caught a glimpse of Aling Lilay’s past. Neighbors huddled around the artesian well had to deal one day with the case of an old man asking for the whereabouts of Aling Lilay. It was as if the neighbors had been zapped from their long languid fantasizing that they missed the obvious: yes, how come nobody ever asked whether or not Aling Lilay had relatives. The old man looked about the same age as Aling Lilay. I could still remember how he arrived at our Purok and asked my mother where to find the old aswang. He wore a white T-shirt, and he lugged in his right hand an oversized black bag that probably contained his clothes. In his other hand, he carried a box that held a fighting cock.
Mang Berto. This was the man’s name. Everyone assumed he was Aling Lilay’s husband. Some suggested they could be siblings, but that was yet to be verified. The people of Purok tried to learn exactly how Mang Berto and Aling Lilay were related, but like the hag, the old man made himself hard to find. During his first few days in Luzon Avenue, he was usually up and about outside the house and was seen mingling with the residents. Many people, of course, tried to chat him up and get him to open up about the neighborhood aswang’s past. Mang Berto’s arrival in Luzon Avenue was the trigger for the neighbors to want to learn more about Aling Lilay aside from her being an aswang and a sorceress.
The old man represented a mystifying puzzle piece for the folks of Purok Kuwatro. It was said that when Aling Lilay first saw the old man, on that same noontime when Mang Berto arrived in Luzon Avenue, the aswang was sweeping her front yard. Aling Lilay was said to not have shown any excitement. She just smiled at him and gestured for him to come inside her house. They did not talk at all. Aling Lilay then quickly returned to sweeping her front yard.
Like the farmers in the provinces, the old man was dark skinned and had a thin, painfully emaciated build. In those days, the image of farmers was at once recognizable to many people. News video clips of them being gunned down in the streets of Mendiola by the men of Cory, the new president in Malacañang, were repeatedly shown on TV. The farmers looked just like Mang Berto, with veins standing out against the skin of the hands and feet. I had numerous interactions with Mang Berto since he bought supplies from Nanay’s store multiple times. It was also through Mang Berto that I was able to piece together Aling Lilay’s past life, although he took pains to make such information scarce. “Don’t approach and talk to that old man, okay?” Nanay said to me. “Just imagine the kind of person who could stomach living with an aswang under the same roof.” She was right, of course. But Mang Berto was something else; he had a tenderness about him, which I noticed when he spent time in front of our store to talk to the neighbors and join them in tagay, where the same glass is passed around for use in drinking shots of alcoholic beverages. I sometimes overheard their conversation. That was how I learned they were not kin. What they had in common was Upi, their original hometown which used to be a municipality of Cotabato in southern Philippines. Mang Berto was a farmer. He was a Teduray, an indigenous group of people that mostly lived in the highlands of Upi. A Purok Kuwatro drunkard asked if Aling Lilay was also a Teduray, and Mang Berto’s only reply was to reveal that Aling Lilay was a Bisaya leader of an ‘organization’ in their town. She was a ‘kumander,’ Mang Berto stressed. Predictably, that bit about Aling Lilay, in her youth, being a commander of a certain organization in Mindanao spread like wildfire in Luzon Avenue.
“So Aling Lilay was NPA?”
“I have no idea. But that woman most certainly looks the part. A warrior.”
“Maybe a kumander of an aswang brigade in Mindanao!”
Since then, Aling Lilay’s past as a commander of an aswang group in Mindanao became the butt of jokes. Nobody knew the whole story behind it until the Muslim couple, Aling Mariam and Mang Abdul, arrived in Purok Kuwatro.
The Muslim couple lived in the room directly opposite our house. Japayuki rented out the room to them. When they came to Luzon Avenue, Aling Mariam and Mang Abdul had no kids and they were already in their sixties or seventies. Japayuki, in turn, almost became a pariah in Purok Kuwatro when she agreed to lease the room to Muslims. It did not help that Japayuki used to be a prostitute in Japan and was currently a mistress of a Litex cop who made nightly visits to her place. We hated Muslims, especially our neighbors who were members of the religious group Iglesia ni Cristo. We hated Muslims because they were unruly savages who stole the land from the Iglesia ni Cristo group, the land along the side of the New Era Elementary School—this was the implacable logic, the narrative of hate that had been fed to us as children attending either Culiat Elementary School or New Era Elementary School, both of which were built next to each other. Almost all the kids in Luzon Avenue attended these schools. The kids of Iglesia ni Cristo devotees went to New Era Elementary School, while the rest of us, including myself, went to Culiat Elementary School.
“Putang ina all of you, all tsismosas blabbing about other people’s lives! My livelihood is none of your business. You are not the ones putting food on my table!” Japayuki shouted at the crowd in front of our house, when word about Purok Kuwatro people’s displeasure with her decision to rent out a room to Muslims finally reached her. Japayuki making a scene was enough to stop the rumormongering. Nobody wanted Purok Kuwatro’s notoriously foulmouthed whore barking at her heels.
Unrest was what described that period. There were Muslims who occupied as informal settlers, known colloquially as squatters, the vacant lot beside the New Era Elementary School, which was a property of the Iglesia ni Cristo. When the police came to displace the Muslims from their newfound home, they armed themselves and fought wildly. Our teachers in Culiat rationalized the chain of events this way: Iglesia ni Cristo members failed to drive away the Muslim settlers from the land they now occupied, and we should continue to hate Muslims because they claimed even Mindanao as their own and had the nerve to fight the government when we should all get along as Filipinos. I did witness the violent clash at New Era. As soon as the shooting between Muslims and the police began, all of us at the nearby Culiat Elementary School would get down flat on the floor—something we welcomed because it meant classes would be suspended for the rest of the day. How come those Muslims would rather stay here to take lands instead of returning to Mindanao, neighbors usually said this in anger as they fetched us home from school in those days when classes were suspended due to the shooting.
“Back home, that behavior of Muslims won’t fly,” Mang Berto said when he once agreed to join the tagay session in front of our store.
“So which part of Mindanao are you from?”
“In Upi. Those Muslims are scared of us. They are especially scared of Aling Lilay.”
“How come they fear you? In New Era, they were all out doing shootouts against the police.”
Because Muslims fear the aswang? I thought. I mean, I did not know anyone in Luzon Avenue who did not fear Aling Lilay, for example.
I was not spared any of the details since I manned our little store all throughout the day. Drunkards were all there in front of the store, drinking and talking all day. Mang Berto bragged about his and Aling Lilay’s life in Mindanao. He also talked about the dark magic powers he had come to possess each time he killed Muslims.
“Did you kill a lot of Muslims, Mang Berto?” one of the drunks asked.
“A whole lot of them.”
Around the table of gin and Tanduay, the drunkards laughed. Who would have believed that this reedy-thin man, who was bent by age, could singlehandedly take on Muslims. Mang Berto, realizing he was made the butt of jokes for what everyone thought were far-out claims, stood up and collected something from the house he shared with Aling Lilay. When he returned to the table where the tagay round was still ongoing, he was holding a small bag, a packet fashioned out from muslin cloth. Inside the bag was a tiny jar. Mang Berto placed the bag in the middle of the table. The jar, he left inside the bag.
“Those were all the Muslims I killed,” he boasted. He invited them to take a peek at the contents of the bag. They lost their composure when they realized what was inside the jar. A few of them vomited when Mang Berto explained how their group in Upi ate up the very thing that was in the jar. The then-young Aling Lilay was actually their leader. “That’s my talisman,” Mang Berto added. “Muslim bullets won’t hurt me.” And that was the last time Mang Berto joined a drinking session with the Purok locals. He was shunned since then, viewed with revulsion as an aswang and a sorcerer with dark powers obtained from killing Muslims in Mindanao.
Because our store was the only one in Purok Kuwatro, all the locals sourced their daily supplies from us. From retail-sized packs of sugar, shampoo, soap, mosquito coil to canned sardines and alcoholic drinks—Purok Kuwatro people bought all of these from us. Aling Mariam came by one day to buy a liter of kerosene for her stove. To say the least, I was uncomfortable in the company of Muslims because of the New Era skirmish that I experienced firsthand and because of the stereotypes inculcated in us by Culiat teachers and Luzon Avenue locals. Aling Mariam smiled as she handed me her payment. She also chatted me up while I measured out kerosene from a container into her bottle.
“How old are you, teng?”
“Seven, ma’am. My name is Boyet.”
“You are almost my son’s age—and he had a twin, a girl. Same as you: industrious, diligent, an early riser to help his father in the farm.”
I did not know Muslims could farm. I assumed they lived in forests where they had guns, or danced the singkil, or in seas where they sailed vintas, the likeness of which I saw in a picture in my HEKASI textbook.
“Oh, so where are your kids now?” I asked as I held out a liter of kerosene and some coins as change.
“God took them,” she said with a smile. “Giant mountain rats took them—rats the size of humans—took them from right inside the masjid in Manili.”
“Yes, from inside our church.”
“Are the giant rats aswang?”
She responded with a laugh. So Muslims could laugh; all this time I believed they were grumpy and were always scowling like the Muslim parents who waited by the gate of Culiat Elementary School. “Yes, they were aswang. They cut off and eat the ears of children they dislike—or they collected the ears in jars. You’re right, all of them are aswang.”
“The aswang are not scared of entering your church?” I could not help but ask this follow-up question to Aling Mariam.
“The aswang back home were fearless—it was only us, Muslims, who fear our God, Allah.”
Then it came to me. I remembered Mang Berto, his audacity, the small bag made of muslin cloth, the tiny jar where he stored what he called his talisman. Mang Berto would likely turn into a giant rat at the stroke of midnight, and just like Aling Lilay, he would be a source of fear for us here in Luzon Avenue. I wondered how Mang Berto ate the ears of children he killed.
That interaction with Aling Mariam taught me that Muslims were not the unkind people that I had been made to believe. But still, since they were Muslims, Purok Kuwatro residents and the rest of the people in Luzon Avenue alienated them. Nobody cared enough to even mention to them in passing that one of their neighbors was an aswang. In fact, people at the wet market used to whisper about how Mang Abdul was consistently being friendly with Aling Lilay and that he kept buying his Marlboro from the old aswang. I felt sorry for the Muslim couple. They had no way of knowing what Aling Lilay was, because the people in Purok Kuwatro treated them as outsiders.
In those days, I walked all the way to Culiat Elementary School and then back home again when the class ended. There were times when I bumped into the Muslim couple, who appeared to have shopped at Glo-ri their canned goods and house supplies. I remembered seeing Aling Mariam lugging groceries in plastic bags stamped with Glo-ri, a supermarket in Tandang Sora. The Muslim couple were headed home to Luzon Avenue when I saw them that day. Aling Mariam hollered, gestured for me to come closer. I was still scared of old Muslim men like Mang Abdul, because they seemed to be always angry at the world. Also: there was that attention-getting black line, the length of my little finger, across Mang Abdul’s forehead; it might be a scar. Aling Mariam introduced me to her husband. She even bought me boiled peanuts from a vendor in the corner. Inside, I was debating whether or not to tell them about Aling Lilay. For one, I was hesitant because I thought Mang Abdul was the type to go berserk right away. He might gun down Aling Lilay and Mang Berto, and that would be a mess. It would cause a stir in our Purok and the whole of Luzon Avenue. Then I would be blamed for it, because I told Mang Abdul. Nanay, for sure, would spank me, and I would be hauled up to face Kapitan in his barangay office. I decided in the end not to tell them about Aling Lilay. And as the three of us walked home, we passed by Aling Lilay’s spot in Luzon Avenue. Mang Abdul cheerfully greeted Aling Lilay, who was looking at me in the eye.
“So, you are Mariana’s son?” Aling Lilay said as she offered me a piece of Stork Menthol Candy, which I refused. I sought the safety of Aling Mariam’s backside. “How’s the tumor in your mother’s breast, Boyet?” The question sounded like Aling Lilay’s attempt to save face in front of the Muslim couple who saw my refusal to take the offered candy.
Speculations regarding the imperiled Mang Abdul, who repeatedly made casual contact with Aling Lilay, were well founded. Mang Abdul handed over loose change to pay for Marlboro sticks. The aswang smiled as she gave the old man the cigarettes. He should have known not to accept anything from an aswang or to give an aswang anything from his body or home—something that was common knowledge for Luzon Avenue folks. To do so was to give the aswang leverage. It gave the aswang control over you, which meant she could do things to you anytime. I really wanted to save Mang Abdul, so I could not help but shout, “No!” Aling Lilay turned to me, her eyes burning with rage. Her gaze reminded me of that time during my Lola’s wake. I trembled with fear at the memory, ran all the way home, left Aling Mariam and Mang Abdul in the gruesome company of the aswang. Aling Lilay’s vast bilao of goods resembled to me from a distance a gaping mouth that was poised to swallow the old Muslim couple.
Mang Abdul died three days later. Nanay said there were rumors about how both of his lungs had melted. Melted or removed? That was the question for many people. Aling Lilay could just as easily have taken his lungs. That same day, Muslims came to our Purok and carried away his body. There was no funeral, no long wake. Aling Mariam spent the whole day after her husband died alone in her house, though there were a few Muslims that came by to see her. This was partly my fault. If only I was brave enough to warn them about Aling Lilay. If only I was brave enough to stop Mang Abdul from taking that cigarette stick from the aswang’s bilao.
Since then, Aling Mariam stayed in Luzon Avenue for at least a year. She rarely left the house, and sometimes it seemed as if she was not home for weeks at a time. Neighbors said that she stayed with her relatives in Taguig, although I knew fully well that she had no relatives there and had simply sequestered herself in silence inside the house.
My final encounter with Aling Mariam, I remember, was on a day when classes were suspended because Gringo and his military buddies were fighting the Manila government. They wanted to drive Cory away from Malacañang. There was a military coup then, and it was much safer to just stay at home. We kept our store open, even as the Luzon Avenue people, all glued to their television, waited with bated breath for the possibility of another Philippine president being dragged out of Malacañang. Aling Mariam had set out to leave for good, carrying her luggage. I exited the store and approached her. The poor old woman, nobody came to fetch her. I carried her bag until we reached the tricycle station. I gathered whatever courage that was left in me, fessed up and told her everything about Aling Lilay and the truth about her husband’s death. I also told her about how Mang Berto was, without doubt, a giant rat, and that Mang Berto had a jar where he kept his talisman.
Aling Mariam’s response surprised me. “I know, Boyet. Abdul and I knew for a long time.”
“A rat is a rat—and you cannot change it.”
“Are you going back to your homeland?”
“No. Abdul’s farm was long gone. The crops and farm land were overtaken by giant rats. This is really how our life is. All right, there’s the tricycle. I have to go now.”
She rode the tricycle, without saying goodbye. She did not even look back. If she did, she would have seen me crying.
Aling Lilay’s rampage as an aswang stopped by the time I was working in an Ortigas office and she was already too feeble to keep selling things at her usual spot in the corner of Luzon Avenue. Her spot had long been replaced by a line of tricycles that traveled routes all the way to Timbang, Garcia, and North Susana—places spanning the innermost peripheries of Luzon Avenue. Mang Berto had long left Aling Lilay’s place, too. The story was: Mang Berto went home to Cotabato. “There’s already peace and order back home because Ramos already beat out Misuari,” Mang Berto was said to have uttered as he left Luzon Avenue. Aling Lilay, alone once again, was reduced to sitting all day in front of her house and watching the kids playing before her. A few times, I saw Aling Lilay walk from Tandang Sora. She had with her an oversized plastic bag, picking discarded bottles and cans, the sort of items that scrap dealers buy. Teenagers mostly ignored her, snorting and smoking shabu, a local version of crystal meth, in the wee hours of the morning when Aling Lilay had to go out to gather garbage that she could resell.
Purok Kuwatro people woke up one morning to an astonishing sight of an SM canter truck parked in front of Aling Lilay’s house. The truck was making a delivery. I rushed outside the house and watched the men haul out a large box. They carried the box inside Aling Lilay’s house. The neighbors huddled close, open mouthed in awe at the sight of the massive color TV that Aling Lilay had bought for herself.
“I never had a TV in my whole life, and it took me a long time to save up for this,” Aling Lilay explained while the men struggled to carry the boxed-up appliance inside the house. “Now I will be able to watch Erap’s impeachment trial. I know he will be acquitted, and poor people like us will win,” she told the kids who were curiously peeking through her window and door. The parents of those kids probably never heard from their parents about Aling Lilay’s viciousness and reign of terror as Luzon Avenue’s aswang and sorceress.
Day in and day out, Aling Lilay watched television. She left her windows and door wide open, the volume dialed to full blast, and we could hear whatever it was that she was watching. As far as we could tell, there were only two shows she watched consistently: Erap Estrada’s impeachment trial and the nightly news that summarized the proceedings of the day-long impeachment trial.
I remember the one week before Aling Lilay’s death. She wore, for seven days, a T-shirt showing Erap Estrada’s face. The T-shirt was one of those election campaign giveaways from the former movie actor turned president, the one splashed with “Erap para sa Mahirap”—Erap-for-the-poor slogan at the back. Aling Lilay wore that T-shirt for seven days straight. It endeared her to the neighbors. She also opened her house to anyone interested in watching the impeachment trial through her giant color TV. And every single day, people were inside Aling Lilay’s house to watch TV, cheering for the Philippine president they perceived to have been unfairly beleaguered, the president they believed was on the side of the poor and the masses. The Senate was already hearing the case involving the president’s large-scale corruption.
One time, I walked past Aling Lilay. I was headed for work while she was sweeping the part of the road in front of her yard.
“Boyet,” she called out as if we were on friendly terms and had nothing in our past to justify our estrangement. Our last encounter before this was during the terrifying moment that spelled death for Mang Abdul. “Do you also want Erap to be removed?”
“Yes. Because he is a thief.” I avoided eye contact with her. But now, I felt strangely unafraid. I felt stronger. It was a wonder what time’s passing and experience could do.
“That’s what you are, all you educated, rich people. You hate us poor uneducated people. Just like in the time of Marcos, just like in EDSA.”
I almost blurted, what about that time you stole Lola’s body and switched it up with a banana stalk. But she already turned her back on me. I think she knew I was about to lash out.
Cheers erupted from Aling Lilay and the neighbors watching the impeachment trial with her as soon as the senators, who voted not to open the envelope containing the damning evidence on the President, won. That was the last day of Aling Lilay’s life. By the time neighbors came in to watch the nightly news round-up, she was already splayed on the floor, eyes wide open and dead.
What happened during Aling Lilay’s wake and the days that followed it were all still vivid in my mind. There were always too many people, day or night. Her distant relatives from Upi and Cotabato came by. Mang Berto, however, did not show up. Luzon Avenue people were looking forward to seeing him again. Mang Berto did not show up because the second EDSA revolution was ongoing to oust the president of the Philippines that the Senate body was powerless to remove, the president who promised to eradicate poverty and give the masses a better life—a reenactment of his quintessential storied role in movies. While the second EDSA revolution was being fought in the streets, the people of Luzon Avenue held a vigil day and night for Aling Lilay’s wake. No one switched on the radio, no one watched TV. The media, for these people, was unreasonably cruel to the president, demonizing Erap in every manner of reportage. The media was owned by the rich and educated, the neighbors would say. They wanted a president who was one of them, who came from the ranks of the rich and educated. And from the ranks of intelligent people, the likes of UP students like Abner who scoffed at people’s observations of himself—a headless figure walking the stretch of Luzon Avenue. A whip-smart president fluent in English when speaking before the camera. And so by the time the EDSA protesters decided for the second time in history to enter Malacañang and forcibly remove the president of the Philippines, the residents of Luzon Avenue was somewhere else—lining up behind a funeral hearse carrying Aling Lilay’s remains, a funeral hearse headed for Bagbag, a path that led away from EDSA and Malacañang. The grieving residents of Luzon Avenue were marching behind the remains of the great aswang and sorceress.
But this was not the end of the hag’s story.
When the casket bearing her remains was rolled out from the carriage to the tomb, it was said to have been uncharacteristically light for the weight of a human body. So, before they inserted the casket in the complex of tombs piled on top of each other, the mourners just had to check on the cause of the strange loss of weight. They had no choice but to open the casket. And when they did, all they found was a banana stalk. The older folks, who had known Aling Lilay for a long time, mouthed off profanities in their anger at somehow being duped by an aswang who chose to leave this way without saying goodbye. Sly woman, they would say. I was not there when she was buried. All of these I just pieced together from the stories that were shared to me. I was also not in EDSA. I was working that day, in the office in Ortigas. For who would, in this modern age, believe that an aswang could die and would allow herself to be laid to rest.
“Aling Lilay of Luzon Avenue” by Rogelio Braga (trans. Kristine Ong Muslim) will appear in Lagunlón: Anthology of 21st Century Filipino Crime and Mystery Fiction (forthcoming from Running Wild Press).
Rogelio Braga is an exiled playwright, novelist, essayist, publisher, and human rights activist from the Philippines. They had published two novels, a collection of short stories, and a book of plays before leaving the Philippine archipelago in 2018. Braga was a fellow of the Asian Cultural Council in New York for theatre in South East Asia in 2016. Their story collection, Is There Rush Hour in a Third World Country? (translated by Kristine Ong Muslim), will be released in December by the South London radical press, the 87Press. Miss Philippines (New Earth Theatre), their first play written in English, was recently awarded by the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain under the New Play Commission Scheme. Braga currently lives and writes in London as a refugee under the Convention.
Kristine Ong Muslim is the author of nine books of fiction and poetry, including The Drone Outside (Eibonvale Press, 2017), Black Arcadia (University of the Philippines Press, 2017), Meditations of a Beast (Cornerstone Press, 2016), Butterfly Dream (Snuggly Books, 2016), Age of Blight (Unnamed Press, 2016), and Lifeboat (University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2015). She co-edited the British Fantasy Award-winning anthology People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction! (2016), Ulirát: Best Contemporary Stories in Translation from the Philippines (Gaudy Boy, 2021), and several forthcoming anthologies. She is also the translator of numerous books by Filipino authors Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles, Marlon Hacla, and Rogelio Braga. Widely anthologized, Muslim’s short stories were published in Conjunctions, Literary Hub, and World Literature Today, and translated into six languages. She grew up and continues to live in a rural town in southern Philippines.