(Read Part I here)
“Have you asked your Lolo?” Ma’am Gayson said, lighting the candle with a matchstick.
“No,” I answered.
Ma’am Gayson knelt down and buried the lower end of the candle on the soil, beside a cluster of flowers. She had told me the Nemenzo brothers were buried underneath. The wooden crosses bearing the names of the brothers had long decayed.
“Mamang wouldn’t let me talk to Lolo again,” I explained.
“You told your Mamang what I told you?”
“And what did she say?”
“She said I shouldn’t believe you. She will surely scold me if she finds out I came here in the cemetery to see you.”
“So why did you still come here with me?”
“I want to help the Nemenzo brothers,” I told Ma’am Gayson with all sincerity. Because she was kneeling down, our eyes met at the same level.
“Did you come here alone?”
“Y-yes,” I said. My hesitation must have made Ma’am Gayson feel that I wasn’t telling the truth. She glanced around the graveyard. I restrained myself from looking around, too, because I might unwittingly reveal where Doteng and Junie were hiding. I had asked them earlier to come and keep watch so that they could warn me if other people were coming. For reasons I wasn’t really sure of, I had also decided not to tell Ma’am Gayson about my guards. To turn her attention back to me, I told her, “Ma’am, you said one of the Nemenzo brothers showed himself to me because he wanted me to help them seek justice.”
“That’s right,” Ma’am Gayson said. “The santermos will only stop haunting the school when the men who killed them have paid for what they did.”
“But I don’t know how we can find the rebels.”
“Rebels?” Ma’am Gayson frowned.
“Mamang said it was rebels who killed the brothers,” I explained. “The brothers had been rebels themselves in Agusan. They left their organization, and they came here in the village to hide, but their fellow rebels found out where they were.”
“What a story,” Ma’am Gayson said, shaking her head. “The brothers were not rebels. They had not even seen guns up close until they were killed.”
“But that’s what Mamang told me,” I told Ma’am Gayson with conviction.
She stood up. “Your Mamang is hiding something, Ferdinand. She’s protecting someone.”
“I don’t understand.”
“The Nemenzo brothers were killed because someone wanted their property. The proposed national road that time was supposed to be built right across their farm. Therefore owning it would mean lots of money. Someone offered to buy the farm, but Mr. Nemenzo refused. Because of that, his sons were killed.”
“They were killed just because of land?”
“You will understand when you’re older. The land was valuable, but it was more than that. It was also a matter of honor. Of pride. You see, the man Mr. Nemenzo refused was used to having things his way. He couldn’t let men of lower standing like Mr. Nemenzo have the same pride that he had and ruin his plans.
“The powerful man rode his horse one day and raided the farm of the Nemenzos. He ordered his men to bring out the three boys in the open and restrain the rest of the family members. Still riding his favorite horse, a black horse named Stallion, he let the three boys run for freedom and then shot them, in front of their father.”
“Stallion?” I uttered in disbelief. “That’s Lolo’s horse that died long ago but he still keeps on looking for until now.”
“That’s right, Ferdinand. Your Lolo killed the Nemenzo brothers.”
My jaw dropped. Lolo had been doting to me. He was neither a hugger nor a kisser and his words were often harsh, but his voice always had a hint of sweetness in it that made me feel I was safe with him. He could not be the same man who hunted the Nemenzo brothers like game.
“That’s the truth, Ferdinand,” Ma’am Gayson said. “Your family doesn’t want you to talk about the santermos because it’s them who created the santermos. They tell you what you saw was not true because they believe the killing never happened. They have been convinced with their own lies.”
I stared up at Ma’am Gayson, letting my eyes tell her how I hated her. I had trusted her. I had disobeyed my mother because Ma’am Gayson had promised me, though not explicitly, that I could be like Batman for real, that I could fight the bad guys so that they would stop hurting defenseless people. Now I realized she was only looking for a playmate in her make-believe world, which was more silly and unreal than TV shows. “I should have listened to Mamang,” I said. “She told me not to believe you. She’s right, you are sick. You keep on coming back here in the cemetery because you are in love with the youngest Nemenzo. You were thirty-four, and he was just fifteen.”
I didn’t expect the slap, so although it didn’t hurt much, I froze. “He loved me too,” Ma’am Gayson said. “I was there the day your Lolo and his men raided the farm of the Nemenzos. I visited their home every Saturday. I was hiding in the barn when the brothers were hunted down like wild pigs. So I’m telling the truth.”
Ma’am Gayson reached out for me. I didn’t know what exactly she would do, but I stepped away in alarm. “Doteng! Junie!” I cried.
My friends came out like zombies from behind a tomb.
Ma’am Gayson was surprised to see the other kids. I ran toward them. “The santermos will show themselves to you again!” Ma’am Gayson shouted. “They won’t stop until the person who killed them is dead.”
My friends and I ran away from our former teacher. When we believed we were far enough from her, we stopped running.
“We told you, she’s crazy,” Junie said.
“Good thing you came with me,” I said.
“My father said Ma’am Gayson did not really retire,” Junie said. “I mean she did not want to yet. The principal forced her to because she threw something at one of her pupils and hit him in the head. The kid had to be brought to the town and the doctor had to stitch back his head.”
“Your father is—” I cut myself off.
“He’s a drunkard, I know,” Junie said. “But he’s telling the truth.”
“That’s what I was going to say,” I lied, realizing that I should be grateful for Junie and Doteng.
“So what are you going to do now?” Doteng asked me.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I think I must tell Mamang everything Ma’am Gayson told me.”
* * *
“What happened to Ma’am Gayson, Pang?” I asked my father. He was putting me to sleep. Since the incident in the cemetery, I had been having insomnia. Though I didn’t have nightmares, I was scared to have nightmares. Papang had to lie beside me and assure me that I was safe so that I wouldn’t keep myself from falling asleep. I talked openly to Papang now the way I was with Lolo.
“I don’t know,” Papang said, brushing my hair with his hand. “The widow taking care of your Lolo said she saw Miss Gayson left her house at the small hours of the morning.”
“Where did she go?”
“I don’t know. Ferdinand, it doesn’t matter. She’s no longer here in our village, and she’s probably not coming back. She can’t hurt you anymore. Now close your eyes.”
I closed my eyes, and then opened one after a while. “Pang?”
“Hmmm?” he answered.
I opened both my eyes. “Junie said a group of men took Ma’am Gayson away. His father saw the men come to Ma’am Gayson’s house the night she disappeared.”
“Junie’s father is a drunkard,” Papang said.
“Yes, he is. He was drunk and he was passing by Ma’am Gayson’s house when he saw the men.”
“No one should believe that man. He sees all kinds of things.”
“Pang, that was the same night Uncle Teody and Uncle Bong and Uncle Junior had supper here at home.”
“What are you trying to say, Ferdinand?”
“After eating, Mamang and her brothers talked in whispers in the sala. Remember that? You sent me to bed early. My uncles were planning to do something.”
“That was nothing. What would they be planning?”
“How to kill Ma’am Gayson.”
Papang seemed startled with what I said. He sat up and lit a cigarette.
I sat up too, waiting for what Papang would say next.
Papang puffed on his cigarette and blew the smoke away from me. He then looked at me and said, “I don’t know where you get your ideas, son. Your Mamang and uncles were talking about your Lolo’s will. Your Lolo had divided among them the farmland near the bridge.”
I felt guilty for accusing my uncles of something evil. Instead of asking more about the disappearance of Ma’am Gayson, I asked Papang, “So we are rich now?”
“Far from it. The land isn’t valuable much. Some parts are too steep and the topsoil has long been used up. And it’s too far from the highway. The land would have made your Mamang’s family rich if Ferdinand Marcos wasn’t removed from office. You know, the national road should have been built right across your Lolo’s land. But when Marcos fell from power, the plan was changed and the road was built in another village.”
My mouth fell open. “Pang, Ma’am Gayson had told me the same thing. She said Lolo killed the Nemenzo brothers because he wanted their land.”
“Ferdinand, enough of this talk about Miss Gayson,” Papang said. “You shouldn’t have come to her in the first place.”
“But, Pang, what if my uncles really did it to her?”
“Stop, Ferdinand. Just stop. Your Mamang’s family is respected here in the village, even in the whole town. They can’t do such a thing. Never ever say such a thing again.” Papang sighed, and then in a calmer voice he said, “Listen. You’re too young to hear this kind of story, but I guess I must tell you this. The widow said Miss Gayson eloped with a younger man, who was her old student.”
“The youngest Nemenzo?”
“No. The Nemenzo brothers are long dead, OK? It’s another man, living next town now.”
“How about the men Junie’s father saw?”
Papang blew on his cigarette again. “Well, maybe the widow was mistaken and there were really men who came to Miss Gayson’s house. But definitely, they are not your uncles. Maybe they’re Miss Gayson’s relatives. They came to take her to the mental hospital. They came at the dead of the night because they are ashamed to have an insane relative.”
“But Ma’am Gayson did not really seem insane. I mean, insane women walk around in filthy clothes laughing and crying and looking for their lost children.”
“No, not all insane people do that,” Papang said, chuckling a little. “Sometimes they look and act just like anyone else. All right. Even if Miss Gayson wasn’t insane, she was definitely not telling the truth. She made up those stories about your Lolo because she was mad at your Mamang. Your Mamang filed a case against her for beating up one of her pupils. That’s why she was forced to retire early from teaching.”
I wasn’t able to speak for a while, my mind filled with confusion.
“Don’t worry yourself too much, Ferdinand. You’re too young for these.”
“I’m no longer young, Pang,” I said. “I’ll be eleven next month.”
“Oh yes. You grow fast. What do you want for your birthday?”
“I want to be able to talk to Lolo again.”
“I’ll have to ask your Mamang about that. But I’m sure she’ll grant your wish. Just promise to her you’ll never talk to your Lolo again about santermos.”
“Now go to sleep, son. You told me you’re Batman, right? Batman is not afraid of anything. You’re a good kid, so no one can hurt you. Good guys always win in the end.”
* * *
I was able to talk to Lolo again. He had lost so much weight, and I couldn’t understand most of what he said. He talked as though his mouth was stuffed with rice, his lips permanently twisted to one side.
When June came, I enrolled in grade five in the village elementary school. I was a star. My old classmates said I had become more handsome and less mischievous while I had been away. Junie found a book of trivia that says santermos are not supernatural beings.
“So they’re not true?” Doteng asked.
“Haven’t you read a word?” Junie said.
“It’s in English,” Doteng said. “And how can human blood have posporo?”
“It’s not posporo, stupid,” Junie said. “Phosphorus. Phosphorus glows, so when it is released from blood into the air, it looks like a jumping human being.”
“But Ferdinand really saw a santermo.”
Junie and Doteng stared at me, waiting for my reaction. Whatever I said would be the truth they would settle for.
“I’m not really sure what I saw,” I said. “I choked on a berry then, and I felt dizzy because I couldn’t breathe. I must have been imagining things. What I saw may or may not be a santermo. But if the book says there are no santermos . . .”
“I now believe in the book,” Doteng said. If he didn’t believe in the book, he would have to believe in santermos, a grim prospect.
Our teacher shushed us. She was young and looked a hundred times more appealing than Ma’am Gayson, but her teaching methods were not much different. She made us copy from the board for hours.
I whispered to Junie and Doteng after a while, “My fingers hurt. Let’s go out and get some berries.”
“Where?” Doteng asked.
“Where else?” I said.
Doteng realized what I meant. “You’re not serious!”
“Don’t be stupid, Ferdinand,” Junie said.
“So much for your phosphors,” I told Junie. “You don’t have to come if you believe santermos are true. But, Doteng, you owe me twenty pesos.” I lent Doteng the money the previous week.
Doteng scratched his head, and Junie rolled his eyes in submission. Though I had been gone for two school years and a half, I had remained Batman and they my Robins.
We excused ourselves from the class and headed to the old comfort room. We found the berry tree in full bloom.
“I’ll just stay here,” Junie said, standing several meters away from the tree. “I’ll serve as a lookout in case a teacher passes by.”
“Yeah right,” I said, making a face at Junie. Doteng and I walked toward the tree, and we began to smell a faint odor. “What’s that?” I asked, crinkling my nose.
“They must have started using the CR again,” Doteng said. “And someone ran out of water.” The wind blew and the smell became stronger. “Like a dead rat,” Doteng said. “That’s the worst shit I’ve ever smelled. Let’s beat it, Ferdinand.”
I myself felt like throwing up with the smell, but when I looked up and saw the berries, I was reminded what I was here for. “I’ll just get some, then we’re out of here fast,” I said.
Doteng pushed me up the tree until I was able to step on the lowest branch. I stared at the CR’s roof, and saw that the hole was still there and had gotten larger.
I reached for a clump of berries and popped one into my mouth. It was as delicious as I remembered it to be. The wind blew, and the putrid smell made me feel sick. I was now sure that it was coming from the CR, released through the hole in the roof. I spat the berry out. “Hey, Teng,” I said, looking down. “Want some?”
Doteng did not answer. He was staring at the comfort room. I threw a berry at him, and it hit him on the head. Still his eyes were glued at something. “Come down here fast,” he told me in a shaky voice.
I sensed that Doteng was truly afraid of something and not just kidding me. I climbed down as fast as I could.
Under the tree, I saw what Doteng had been looking at. The door of the decaying structure was slightly ajar.
“What’s going on?” Junie shouted at us.
Doteng and I didn’t answer Junie. “Let’s find out what’s causing that bad smell,” I said, stepping toward the door.
“It’s just somebody’s shit,” Doteng said.
“It’s something dead,” I said.
“What are you doing, Ferdinand?” Junie said. “I’m out of here.” Doteng and I stared at him as he ran away.
“Same old sissy,” I said.
“Let’s go,” Doteng said.
“I won’t be long,” I said. I pushed the door open. I balked at the smell, but I could barely see anything. When my eyes had adjusted to the dim light, I looked down on the floor and saw a thin trail of blood. I stepped inside the comfort room.
“Don’t!” I heard Doteng say behind me. I ignored him. I had no idea what I was going to find out, but I wasn’t afraid, to tell you the truth. If the santermos were real, I was confident they wouldn’t hurt me. The Nemenzo brothers were just boys like me. When they were still alive, they most likely horsed around a lot with one another, just like I did with Doteng and Junie. They were not going to hurt someone who didn’t want to hurt them. They wanted to tell me something.
The trail of blood led to the farthest stall. Flies were buzzing around it. They were so big at first I thought they were bees. The stench now was so bad that I was starting to have a headache from it. I forced myself to stop breathing.
The door of the stall creaked when I slowly pushed it. When the door was wide open, I found Ma’am Gayson staring back at me. She was sitting on the toilet bowl, slumped against the wall. She had a tiny hole in the center of her forehead, and her body was boiling with maggots.
I ran out of the comfort room and threw up on the weeds.
“What happened?” Doteng asked.
When I was calm enough to talk, I said, “Nothing. Just a dead rat.”
* * *
The widow was washing dishes in the sink. She jumped when I spoke behind her. “Ferdinand Marcos, you’re going to kill me,” she said, her wet hand clutching her chest.
“You seem afraid of something, Tiyay,” I said.
“You scared me. Do you want to talk to your Lolo? He’s upstairs.”
“Later,” I said. “I have something to ask you first. Please tell me the truth.”
The widow looked at me warily.
“Did you really see the man Ma’am Gayson went away with?”
“Why are you asking that? Miss Gayson is gone. It doesn’t matter what she did or what happened to her.”
“I asked Mamang about it, and Mamang said I should ask you. She said you will tell me the truth.”
Fear flashed in the widow’s eyes. “Yes, it’s true,” she said. “I didn’t clearly see the man’s face because it was dark, but I reckon he was young. Just in his twenties maybe.”
“Thank you, Tiyay,” I said. I turned and started to climb the upstairs. I could feel that the widow was still staring at me. I faced her again. “Don’t worry, Tiyay,” I said. “I believe you. Ma’am Gayson herself had told me about the man. She said they’re in love, and he wanted to take her to a place far away from here.”
I did not wait for the widow’s reaction. I walked up to Lolo’s room. The dishes in the sink continued rattling, and a glass or plate crashed on the floor. It must have slipped from the widow’s trembling hands.
Lolo was asleep. He had become so skinny that he looked like a malnourished version of Penguin, the one I feared most among Batman’s enemies.
I went near the bedside table and carefully took the ice-cream bell. I held the tiny ball between my fingers so that it wouldn’t strike the side and make a sound. Lolo’s eyes opened.
I kissed Lolo’s hand.
He stared at the bell in my hand. “I have something to tell you, Lolo,” I explained. “The widow must not disturb us.”
He muttered something I couldn’t understand. With his lips twisted, it occurred to me that Lolo now looked more like Two-Face than Penguin.
“I’m happy to be studying back here,” I said. “I’m with Doteng and Junie again. Remember Junie? I haven’t really told you much about him before because you wouldn’t want me being friends with him. He’s soft. I think he’s going to open a beauty parlor when he grows up. But he’s smart and a good friend. I think he’s my best friend.”
“This afternoon, Lolo, I cut classes with Junie and Doteng. We took berries near the old CR in school. And guess what I saw.”
Lolo’s eyes widened. He shook his head and mumbled. I think he was telling me to shut up. But I didn’t shut up. I told the old man about the santermos. The Nemenzo brothers. The man riding a black horse who made the helpless boys run and gunned them down. The farmland and the road.
After what seemed like an hour to me, I rang the bell and called out for the widow, crying frantically. I told her I was just telling Lolo about the funny things that happened in school—and Lolo was chuckling—when he suddenly clutched his chest and dropped back on the bed.
Mamang and my uncles were glad to know that Lolo died happy. They said he had had a difficult life, a life full of responsibilities. He had been taking care of his children and grandchildren all his life. It was a good thing I took care of him at his last minute in this world.
I graduated from elementary last year, and I’m living again with Tiyay Maring and the lazy bastards that are my cousins. The two women have patched up their differences. We have a high school in our village, but I study here in the city because Papang scheduled me with a therapist here. I see her once or twice a month. It’s a waste of time really. All I do is tell her again and again the story about the santermos. I’m starting to wonder if she’s a therapist or an occult specialist. She told me to write this story to “exorcise the demons,” whatever she meant by that.
Anyway, I heard from some relatives that, back in the village, the old CR remains locked. Grade one to grade three pupils still pee at the back of their classrooms or in the bush. They still whisper about the Nemenzo brothers every time they pass by the rundown structure. But I was the last one to claim to have seen the santermos. Junie’s father, though, is now spreading around the village that he saw a white lady near the CR when he passed by the school one night. He is claiming she looked like Ma’am Gayson. The village folks think the story is ridiculous. Why would they believe a drunkard who sees all kinds of things?
barangay – the basic political unit in the Philippines; village
lolo – Visayan term for grandfather
mamang – mother
nong – term of respect for an older man
papang – father
posporo – matches
santermo – in Philippine folklore, a ball or pillar of fire believed to be the spirit of a murdered person
tiyay – aunt