The comfort room looked as though it was from another place or time. Its walls were gray, and weeds and trees were growing wildly around it, while the rest of the campus was spruced up. The classrooms were painted rainbow, and the grounds were cleaned by pupils morning and afternoon and every time the teachers didn’t feel like teaching.
Nobody went near the decaying comfort room, much less use it, for the village folks said evil spirits were dwelling in it. They said anyone who opened the door would be dragged straight to hell. As I was standing in front of the structure one afternoon, my heart thumped against my chest. My legs felt cold, and they might have left me and run away if they had minds of their own. I was determined, however, to get what I wanted—the red, luscious berries beside the restroom.
“C’mon, guys,” I told my classmates. “Come nearer!”
Junie and Doteng shook their heads.
“Come back here, Ferdinand,” Junie told me, his hands on his waist, lips pouting. “You told Ma’am Gayson you would just pee. Let’s go back now. Do your business behind the classroom.”
“I’m not going to pee,” I said. “I want to get the berries. I asked you to come with me because you can climb trees like a monkey.”
“I’m not climbing any tree for you, especially that one,” Junie said. “The Nemenzo brothers are inside the CR. Come back here now before they appear and take you.”
“I’m not afraid of the Nemenzo brothers,” I said, my voice shaking a little.
“You’re not afraid of santermos? Stop acting brave, Ferdinand. You can’t fight santermos.”
“You’re not Batman,” Junie said. “And even if you are, you can’t beat santermos because they’re already dead. They’re dead people who have turned into fire.”
“They don’t exist, Junie,” I said.
“Definitely they do,” Junie said. “My father saw them himself when he was our age.”
I laughed. It was fake, of course, but my voice was no longer shaking. I think I was truly getting braver the more Junie tried to dissuade me. “Junie, you’re the only person in the entire village who believes your father,” I said. “He’s a drunkard who claims to see all kinds of things. Wait, was he already a drunkard when he was in grade two?”
Doteng laughed too.
“Do whatever you want,” Junie said. “I hope the santermos eat the two of you.” He ran back toward the classroom.
“Don’t mind that gay boy,” I told Doteng. “He only came with us because he wanted to look at me while I pee. How about you, Teng? Don’t tell me you’re afraid of the Nemenzo brothers, too.”
“Of course not,” Doteng said, though his face was paler than usual.
“That’s good,” I said, trying to sound as though I was proud of Doteng. “Lolo said real boys are not afraid of anything. Now I’ll go up first. You should let me step on your shoulder so I can grab a branch.”
“What?” Doteng said. “My uniform will get dirty.”
“Just do it, will you? If you don’t want to, pay the five pesos you owe me, right now.”
Doteng scratched his head. Against his will, he followed me as I walked to the tree beside the comfort room. He helped me until I was able to step on the lowest branch. I climbed up higher and picked a clump of ripe berries.
I bit one berry. My mouth instantly watered when I tasted the perfect blend of sourness and sweetness. “Wow,” I said. “This is more delicious than any fruit I’ve ever tasted. Want some, Teng?”
Doteng was looking at something and seemed not to have heard me.
“Hey!” I called out.
Doteng looked up and told me in a hissing voice, “I heard something inside the CR.”
I stared at the abandoned structure. The branch I was sitting on was in the same level as the roof. The roof was rusty, and it had a hole the size of a head near the center. Other than that, I did not notice anything unusual. “I hear nothing,” I told Doteng. “You’re acting like Junie’s father.”
“I’m out of here,” Doteng said. Before I could stop him, he ran away.
I shrugged and put a couple of berries more inside my mouth. The wind suddenly blew, swaying the branches of the tree. I grabbed the stems around me to steady myself, and I felt a berry lodge in my throat.
I tried to swallow the fruit, but I seemed to have run out of saliva. The fruit wouldn’t budge. I forced myself to cough. Bits flew out of my mouth, but the whole berry remained stuck inside, blocking my air passage.
Unable to breathe, I panicked. I shouted for help, but all that came out of my mouth was a clucking sound. I saw a group of grade one pupils passing by. I waved at them and tried to call their attention. “Uck, uck, uck!” But they were horsing around, unable to hear me. They walked fast out of my sight.
I glanced around desperately, and that’s when I saw the smoke. It was pale orange and rising from the hole on the roof of the comfort room. It appeared brighter as it grew.
I felt dizzy, the world around me starting to swirl. The thing on the roof now looked like a pillar of fire, and long limbs had grown from it, reaching out for me. I screamed. “Uck, uuuck!”
Blazing fingers wrapped around my neck, and I fell into nothingness.
* * *
I fell off the tree and lost consciousness for a while. When I woke up, my throat was already clear. I must have swallowed the berry or spit it out when I hit the ground. My ankles and right elbow hurt, but if I walked slowly enough, I could pretend to be all right.
When I went back to the classroom, Ma’am Gayson greeted me by pinching my sideburns. I winced and stood on tiptoe as she pulled up the tiny hair. “What have you been doing outside, Ferdinand?” she asked.
“Nothing, ma’am,” I said. I glanced at Doteng and JJ. They averted their gaze. “I just went to the CR, ma’am,” I said.
“Really?” Ma’am Gayson said. “The CR is near the grade six room, and I saw you coming from the opposite direction.” She was referring to the newer comfort room, the one that was open for everyone. For some reason, however, we younger kids never considered the new CR as ours. Pupils from grade one to grade three peed behind the bush or the classroom.
“It’s true, ma’am—”
“Don’t lie to me, little boy,” Ma’am Gayson cut me off. “Your friends here have told me what you were up to. You’re really looking for trouble, aren’t you? All right. Keep on going to the old CR so you can see santermos. Make the ghosts of your grandfather haunt your family.”
I wanted to tell Ma’am Gayson that Lolo was still alive, he could not be a ghost, but I had learned from experience that trying to reason with her would only bring more punishment. Besides, I was in too much pain to talk more.
Ma’am Gayson made me sit back on the desk I was sharing with Doteng. I made a fist at him, and Ma’am Gayson scolded me to behave or else.
The old witch started to write on the board and told us to copy. That was all we did until the last bell rang.
When I got home, I didn’t tell anyone that I had fallen off a tree. But I had a burning fever that night, and Papang and Mamang had to take me to Nong Estoy, the village healer, first thing in the morning.
At Nong Estoy’s hut, I was forced to confess what had happened the day before. Both Nong Estoy and my parents seemed shocked with my story.
“A ritual must be performed,” Nong Estoy said.
“There’s no need for that, Nong Estoy,” Mamang said. “I think my son will be all right. You have massaged his back, anyway.”
“We have to go, Nong Estoy,” Papang said.
My father carried me in his arms. Before we went out of the door, I saw Mamang gave Nong Estoy two fifty-peso bills, much bigger than the twenty pesos she usually gave him. She said, “Let’s keep this to ourselves, Nong Estoy.”
When my parents and I got home, Mamang forbid me to talk to anyone about what had happened near the abandoned comfort room. She also told me I should never go there again. Not that she needed to tell me so. I knew now that santermos really existed; I had to be dragged to get near the comfort room again.
A few days later, when I went back to school, Ma’am Gayson asked me to tell the class about the santermo that I had seen.
“I saw nothing, ma’am,” I said.
“There’s no point hiding it, Ferdinand,” Ma’am Gayson said. “The whole village already knows. Nong Estoy told his wife and his wife told the rice cake vendor and the rice cake vendor told me and her other loyal customers.”
I hesitated at first, but I told the story eventually. My classmates were all ears on me, and I liked the attention, so I embellished my story a little. I told the other kids that after I saw the first santermo two more appeared and the three of them spoke to me in a thunderous voice claiming they were the Nemenzo brothers and they tried to drag me with them inside the shit tank under the CR but I punched and kicked them until they jumped back into the toilet bowl.
“That’s enough, Ferdinand,” Ma’am Gayson said.
My classmates protested, but Ma’am Gayson made me sit back on my desk and made us copy long paragraphs again, as we usually did in her class.
Two days later, my stories about the santermos reached my parents. They decided they should transfer me to another school, to another place. I couldn’t believe what they wanted to do to me. Mamang and Papang were overreacting. I knew I lied—big time—but the punishment was simply too much.
I realized I must talk to Lolo. He was the only one who could talk sense to Papang and Mamang. Lolo would listen to me because Mamang had said I was his favorite grandson, and Mamang would listen to him because one of my uncles had said she was his favorite daughter. I set out for the Big House, a couple of streets away.
* * *
Though the Big House was just made of wood, it was the only structure in the village that consisted of two floors. Lolo lived in it alone. Grandma had long died, years before I was born. Ma’am Gayson, who was Lolo’s neighbor, had told me he was now forgetful. Sometimes Lolo would stand in the stairs and not know whether he was going up or down. Sometimes he would look out the window and call for Stallion, his horse that had been dead for more than twenty years.
A widow just as old as Mamang had been taking care of Lolo. Mamang said the widow was a maid, but I heard Mrs. Gayson tell another teacher in school that the widow was “more than just a maid.”
The Big House didn’t have a door—in fact, the sala and the kitchen didn’t have walls—so I walked straight to the second floor. Lolo’s room, though, had a door, and it was locked, so I had to knock on it. The widow opened it, and her eyes brightened upon seeing my face. “Ferdinand, who’s with you?” she asked.
“Just me, Tiyay,” I said. “Is Lolo here?”
“Oh yes, he’s here. He’s in bed. Come in. He’s a little under the weather.” The widow opened the door wider.
I balked a little at the smell of urine. I wondered if Lolo had been peeing on his pants or on the wall. He had difficulty walking because of many kinds of ailments, and the outhouse was a little far from the house.
“Ferdinand Marcos is here,” the widow told Lolo. She often called me Ferdinand Marcos even though my real name is Ferdinand Salviejo. Lolo had said he was the one who had named me Ferdinand, after the former president of the Philippines. Lolo, who ruled as barangay captain during martial law, said Marcos was a great man. Mrs. Gayson, however, had told me at the first day of class, “I don’t know what got into your parents, letting your grandfather name you after a big bastard.”
Lolo was sipping soup from a bowl. He put the bowl on the bedside table, beside an ice-cream bell that he had been using to summon the widow.
I kissed Lolo’s hand.
“How’s my little Ferdinand?” he asked. “You keep on getting more handsome, just like Lolo. I’m sure, when you grow up, you’ll make a lot of girls cry. Do you already have a girlfriend?”
“I think Mary Grace likes me,” I said. “But Princess is prettier.” I wouldn’t tell Mamang and Papang such things, but with Lolo, I was comfortable saying almost anything.
Lolo laughed and ruffled my hair. He coughed and had to stop laughing. “Is there anyone bothering you in school?”
“No, Lolo. I follow what you told me. I’m tough.” I told him about what I did to Doteng a few days earlier. Doteng wanted to borrow my crayons but I didn’t want to lend it to him so he took it without permission so I hit him in the cheek.
Lolo smiled. “That’s right, grandson. You shouldn’t let anyone cheat you. You may take what you want from them, but you shouldn’t let them take anything from you.”
“But, Lolo, Junie said I’m the bad guy.”
“Another classmate. He said I can’t be like Batman because I beat up a poor kid like Doteng. Batman fights the bad guys so that they will stop hurting people.”
“Listen, grandson. Don’t listen to other people. Just listen to Lolo. You won’t get anywhere if you keep on helping other people. It’s not your fault if they’re weak.”
I nodded. “Yes, Lolo.”
“What brought you here anyway? Did your Mamang send something for me?”
I didn’t answer. I threw a glance at the widow, who was standing at the foot of the bed. My problem was a delicate matter, so I wanted no one else but Lolo to hear it.
Lolo glanced at the widow, too.
The widow seemed to understand. She gave Lolo and me a lopsided smile, and said, “I need to empty the chamber pot.” She bent over, pulled the stinking pot under Lolo’s bed, and carried it out of the room with two hands as though it was a large bowl of chicken soup.
I told Lolo what Papang and Mamang was planning to do. “But, Lolo, I’m not making up stories,” I added. “I really saw the santermo.”
Lolo started shaking while staring at me. “What’s the matter, Lolo?” I asked. “I wasn’t afraid of the santermo. I’m tough. I fought it off.”
He clutched his chest and reached out for the bell. His hand knocked the bowl, and it fell and rolled on the floor.
I touched and shook Lolo, asking him what he was trying to do, and I didn’t notice that I was preventing his hand from reaching the bell.
* * *
Mamang said Lolo had a mild stroke. That sealed my fate. I was sent to live with Tiyay Maring, Papang’s sister, in the city.
I hated living in my aunt’s. While I had been a señorito at home, I was not much different from a boy in Tiyay Maring’s. I did most of the chores while my cousins watched TV and played brick game. The only good thing that happened to me there was that the lazy brats had a collection of pirated Batman DVDs, both cartoons and movies, and I watched the series over and again during summer break, whenever my aunt’s family went some place and left me alone in the house.
I wasn’t allowed to go back home that summer because there had been an election. Mamang, the incumbent barangay chairman, was running again. Papang told me they would be busy at home so I was better off in Tiyay Maring’s, but Tiyay Maring told me I couldn’t go back to the village because I might start talking about santermos again and ruin Mamang’s campaign. I didn’t know how it could be so, but I kept quiet and let the adults decide my life. Mamang won anyway.
The next summer was more fun. I spent them in the village. I was still forbidden to visit Lolo, but I visited Doteng and Junie in their homes and played with them.
During the summer break before I entered grade five, Mamang told me the best news I had ever heard: I would be home for good and I would be studying in my old school again. Tiyay Maring and she had quarreled over something.
I went to visit the Big House. I was still forbidden to talk to Lolo, so I just wanted to have a glimpse of him. I pretended to be just walking along the street, but as I was passing by the Big House, someone called me. “Ferdinand, is that you?”
I turned and saw Ma’am Gayson in front of her house. “Ma’am!” I said. I wasn’t too excited to see her, but I’d forgotten most of the cruel things she had done to me.
“My, you got taller,” she said. “You’re so skinny, though.” She was wearing rubber boots and a large straw hat.
“Are you going somewhere, ma’am?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “I just got back from the cemetery.”
“The cemetery? Did you visit your husband?”
“I never had a husband, Ferdinand,” Ma’am Gayson said. “I’m a Miss.”
“Oh.” I wasn’t sure if I offended Miss Gayson, but she didn’t seem to mind my mistake much. I told her, “I’m studying here again, ma’am. You’ll see me in school in June.”
“That’s good news,” she said. “Too bad, though. I have retired.”
I thought of saying, “That’s good news.” But I held my tongue.
“Did you come to see your Lolo?” Ma’am Gayson asked. “The widow no longer takes care of her as much as she used to. Did you know that?”
“No,” I said, uncomfortable with the topic. “I think I have to go, ma’am.”
“No no no,” she said, smiling like a snake. I don’t know if snakes smile, but if they do, I think their mouths will look like that of Ma’am Gayson. “Come inside for a while. Tell me what happened the day your Lolo had a stroke.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, I really have to go home.”
“I have some rice cake in the kitchen.”
The snake woman sure knew how to tempt me, but I resisted. “Mamang will be looking for me.”
“I will tell you who the Nemenzo brothers are.”
My heart leaped. “You mean they really exist?”
The snake woman smiled again.
* * *
The house was all pink—pink floormat, pink sofa, pink walls, pink curtains. I didn’t like pink much, and I thought Ma’am Gayson was too old for such a girlish color, but her house was one of the nicest in the village. Her house was concrete, and framed on her wall were four pictures of horses. Most of the other homes were made of wood and bamboo, and posted on their walls were blue-and-red calendars and portraits of Jesus and Mary and women who forgot to wear their dusters because someone had told them to come quick hold this bottle of rhum for me.
“I miss talking to my students,” Ma’am Gayson said. She was sitting beside me on the sofa and was watching me nibble at the rice cake in my hand. “I live alone, you know,” she continued. “All I do nowadays is tend to my flowers and sometimes visit the cemetery. Now tell me why your Lolo had a stroke.”
“I don’t know,” I said, putting a spoonful of macaroni in my mouth.
“What did you tell him?”
I shook my head.
“Oh, Ferdinand, you still don’t trust me. You need not keep anything from me. The widow told me you told your Lolo about the santermo.”
“The widow wasn’t there when I told Lolo about it,” I said.
“So it is true!” Ma’am Gayson said. “I just want to confirm it from you. The widow didn’t hear your conversation with your Lolo. But you told your Mamang about it, right? Your Mamang told your neighbor and your neighbor told someone and that someone told the widow and the widow told me.”
“It seems you already know everything,” I said. “I have nothing more to tell you, then.”
“No, you don’t. But me, I have many things to tell you.”
“About the Nemenzo brothers?”
“I didn’t know they are real people.”
“They were. They were killed a long time ago.”
I dropped the spoon on the plate.
Ma’am Gayson parted the pink curtain and looked out the window. Perhaps she was making sure no one could hear her. She faced me again and said, “One of the Nemenzo boys was my student.”
“Why did they become santermos?” I asked.
“They were gunned down in 1982. I was one of the new teachers here in the village, but I was already in my thirties then. The Nemenzos lived in Sitio Tulay, you know, the hamlet near the bridge.”
“Near Lolo’s farm?”
“In your Lolo’s farm. The Nemenzos owned the farm then. The boys worked the land. The eldest of them was twenty, the second, nineteen. The youngest was fifteen, and he was my student then. He was in grade six.”
“Grade six? You just said he was fifteen.”
“Times were different then, Ferdinand. Schools were very far, so many children could not study continuously. Many of my pupils were already young bachelors.” Ma’am Gayson’s shoulders jerked as though she was tickled. I felt a little sick with her reaction. She continued, “Anyway, while the Nemenzo brothers were sowing seeds in the field one Saturday morning, a group of men came and killed them without mercy.”
I felt cold rise up my spine. I never thought the Nemenzo brothers were so young. I always imagined them to be grim-looking bearded men. “Who were those men who killed them?”
“I can’t tell you,” Ma’am Gayson said.
“You know them?”
Instead of answering me, she said, “When the village folks learned what happened, they took the bodies from the farm and brought them to the elementary school. The young boys were laid in the playground uncovered, and everyone—adults and children—saw the bloody, bullet-riddled bodies. Most of the people were unable to sleep for several days after that.”
I put the rice cake on top of the table. It was now as appetizing to me as the banana leaf that covered it at the bottom.
Ma’am Gayson continued her story. “When the undertaker came the day after the massacre, the bodies were brought to the comfort room. There was only one comfort room in the school then. The bodies were embalmed there. Blood splattered on the floor and the surrounding ground, and the blood of the brothers became santermos. The santermos showed up every night until they were buried.”
Ma’am Gayson had been speaking in an even voice. I could tell she was not trying to exaggerate the story or scare me. Still, the tiny hair on my nape had stood on end. “Where were the brothers buried?” I asked.
“In the cemetery here.”
“Do you know where their graves are?”
“Yes. I told you I often go to the cemetery, right? It’s their graves that I visit.”
“Oh, nobody visits the brothers anymore. After the massacre, their parents and sisters moved out of the village. I’m the only who remembers them. As I’ve told you, the youngest was my student. I loved him.”
I breathed deeply, trying to calm myself. “They’re pitiful,” I said. “But I think they’re happy because they’re in heaven now.”
“No, they’re not in heaven,” Ma’am Gayson said. “As I’ve said, they became santermos. Although they stopped showing up every night after they were buried, they are still there in the CR. They still show themselves sometimes, and only to certain people. Like you.”
“So what I saw in the CR was really a santermo.”
“Yes. The santermos will only be at rest once justice has been done.”
I frowned. “Justice?”
“The men who killed the brothers have never been captured. They are still free, roaming around.”
“Where are they now?”
“Here. In our village.”
My eyes widened. What Ma’am Gayson had just said terrified me more than her story about the santermos. “You know them?” I asked.
“You know them.”
“Who are they?”
“Why don’t you ask your Lolo?”
(Part II – To be continued)