Short Story ID- 9/2015
Tikbalang was the exact opposite of his more famous cousin, the centaur. Where the centaur was mysterious, quiet, and foreboding, and looked graceful with his chiseled abs, and powerful horse’s body, Tikbalang was not.
He had a horse’s head, which nearly everyone found either grotesque or comical, and a man’s body. He was rather tender on the sides, the jiggly fat might have passed off as charming love-handles – if that was your sort of thing – but Tikbalang was awfully conscious of it.
Capre, on the other hand, was pretty normal as far as fellas went, with a head of thinning hair that he liked to comb over with gel. He always had a cigar with him – he couldn’t live without his tobacco. As a result, his teeth, where they weren’t yellow, were already brown and decaying in some places. But he certainly looked a lot more normal than Tikbalang did.
As for Aswang, well, she was the prettiest of the bunch, the stuff of legend. She had pale skin so lustrous the moon probably envied her her glow. Her hair was a perfect, shiny ebony, and her lips, on a good day, were ruby red au naturel.
She was in her usual traditional costume of piña, which she had been wearing since about 1838, if she could remember right.
As it was, they were in their usual digs – haunting the Philippine island of Siquijor, hanging out in one of the shadier mango trees, where the leaves reached to the sky, the clumps of green so thick they almost blocked out the blue.
They liked it there, all three of them.
It had been a few centuries of frenzied activity, with Aswang constantly getting caught with blood dripping from her mouth during days when Spanish friars had set the townsfolk running amok, fearing she was the devil’s wife. They always tried to put salt on the lower half of her body, but thankfully, she had always recovered.
Capre was too large and too high up the trees for the barrio folk to ever come and attack him, but he was known for the deep rumble of his laughter even when Miguel Lopez de Legaspi and the likes of him still sauntered about Manila. His chuckles shook the trees and always frightened the birds away. And where there were too many shadows and the foliage rose too high, the locals made sure to skirt around very carefully, for fear of crossing paths with such a trickster and never finding themselves home after dark.
Tikbalang was well remembered by the children, who saw him in their dreams and their weird states of half-sleeping, half-waking. During that time when dusk turned to twilight, there, in the half-light, Tikbalang would often traipse around windows, neighing, unearthing mountains of sand at doorsteps, befuddling innocent passersby as they rushed home from the tasks of the day.
No one wanted to find himself alone in the middle of some secluded lane once darkness settled in on Siquijor Island.
Even in Manila, people knew of them, whispered their names in the shadows, furtively warning each other of how some people never came back from a walk in the black of night once he heard the Capre chuckling or the Tikbalang neighing.
Worst of all was Aswang’s appetite for hot blood, that the men and women of Siquijor had at one time or another witnessed her guzzling out of their neighbor’s throats.
One sighting of them in Siquijor, and the place collapsed into mayhem. There were either screams of fright, or gasps of terror involved, as the poor townsfolk cautioned each other to take the salt out to ward off Aswang and her deadly bite (she had fangs and loved the taste of young blood gushing into her mouth from an open youngster’s veins in particular).
Other times, there were hushed instructions to turn their shirts inside-out, in order to shake off the illusions that Tikbalang and Capre were likely to cast on innocent barrio folk headed home through the forest.
Yes, I would say these three were rather fearsome a trio to behold or ever cross paths with.
The tree they were on today was Capre’s property, of course, any Filipino knew that.
Capres lived in trees.
They liked to look down on innocent passersby from atop the heavy branches, chugging away on cylinders of tobacco.
That day, all three of them were in one of Capre’s impressive leafy towers, and they were having a discussion while they all puffed away on some of Capre’s Tabacalera branded cigars.
At first it was just like any other afternoon. They leaned back on one of the branches, staring up at the leaf-adorned sky above them, blowing up halos and little clouds of smoke into the green canopy.
“This is starting to get boring,” Capre finally spoke.
“What is?” Aswang glanced up.
“No change,” gestured Tikbalang. “All we’ve been doing for the last hundred years is haunt the barrio folk here on Siquijor.”
“Oh,” yawned Aswang, realizing she felt the same.
“Well then, it’s about time we get going, and roll off to haunt another island. These Siquijorians are so used to us frightening them after twilight,” added Capre, the planner. He liked playing the wise old man, which he looked like anyway. He breathed a heavy sigh, brooding over the last four hundred years they had gallivanted around the Visayas.
“Well, where are we gonna go?” Aswang asked.
The three of them sat there in the dappled sunlight as they pondered their next move.
“We could go to Manila!” Aswang gasped with excitement.
“Manila?” the two other monsters chimed in.
They contemplated the implications of visiting such a busy city, a smoggy capital full of jeepneys, skyscrapers, and airconditioning.
“I hear the former army base there has become quite the modern-day playground for Manila’s young things,” added Aswang, smiling and hopeful.
Puffs of pensive tobacco smoke came up in billowy halos as Tikbalang and Capre mulled over Aswang’s suggestion.
“Well,” Capre said, as he took another drag off his Tabacalera, “Why don’t we give this idea a try. It’s been sixty years since our last visit, and it might be worth checking out.”
“We could certainly use a change of scenery,” admitted Tikbalang.
By the time dusk had snuck into the grove, there was a “poof” that shook the greenery, scattering stray leaves and dust particles a few meters around Capre’s favorite abode, and they were gone.
The infamous Visayan tricksters were off to the capital.
If only the people of Siquijor knew they had left the island, they would have breathed easier
that night, and not worried so much about getting lost in the woods.
As dusk melted into a sweltering Manila night, lights came on in the bustling streets of the metro.
Tikbalang, Capre, and Aswang materialized onto the sidewalk of what had to be a capitalist’s paradise of entertainment luxury.
They could hear waiters preparing for the evening: the unfurling of heavy linen tablecloths filled the air, as did the tinkle of silverware and glasses being laid out.
Jeepneys rushed past, a tornado of black soot trailing after them, swirling around Tikblang, Capre, and Aswang. They stood back to back, wary of the city’s rattling and buzzing. None of these humans seemed to care that they were there.
These Manileños were crazy.
Crazy for Hollywood, tall buildings, and speaking English in some American twang (whatever that was, the three enchanted ones didn’t really care to know). They stood by the lamppost, wondering what to do next.
Another dilapidated jeepney rattled past, leaving them in a cloud of filth.
The others turned to Aswang, desperate for a game plan.
A trio of scantily clad, heavily made-up twentysomethings giggled past them. One of them had what seemed to be bunny ears on, with a fluffy round ball attached to her behind. Aswang looked on as the girls walked past them, salivating after their exposed throats and shoulders.
“We could follow them!” she hastily said.
So the three mythical creatures tottered along after the girls, trying not to be too obvious. They needed to blend in.
They decided to mimic what the girls were doing—squealing, in between giggles, about something on one of their little gadgets. It didn’t look like the flashlights the barrio folk used in Siquijor to find their way through the dark. In fact nobody would have needed a flashlight in Manila; there were so many orange lampposts and beacons from the passing vehicles.
Tikbalang, Capre, and Aswang pretended something was very funny, occasionally bursting into fits of laughter as they trotted on, just like the pretty girls they were observing.
One sidewalk led to another, then to a vast parking lot, and finally, to a low, squat building where more young things in tiny pieces of clothing were chittering amongst each other. They were also in a variety of cat and bunny suits, as if there had been a memo about it for the evening. One of their girls let out another high-pitched squeal, and Aswang grabbed onto Tikbalang for dear life – had they been found out?
It was the kind of scream barrio youths in the Visayas usually made when sighting her feasting on someone’s brother’s neck, and all hell would break loose; torches would ignite in dark nipa hut windows, and masculine voices would come out of the human homes, wary of her hunting.
The girl who had let out the screech dragged her two friends to a group of four very tall boys in baseball caps and maong jeans hanging practically over their buttocks, which seemed to be the cause of the alarm. No one else in the crowd reacted, and Aswang let her death grip of Tikbalang go.
Tikbalang was starting to feel the music, and he couldn’t help but let out a loud and excited “Neigh! Neiii-iigghhh!” in reaction to the distant beat wafting out of the glossy glass doors of the structure. Everyone else seemed to be slowly streaming in. Flashbulbs went off and little gadgets were taken out, trios of girls chortled in delight, and tall boys acted cool and moved to the beat that came buzzing through the doors.
Tikbalang, Capre, and Aswang found themselves being ushered in.
A girl in a yellow corset said to them, “Oh, you guys. Such amazing costumes.” Her lips glistened in the low lighting of the entrance.
“Oh wait a minute, I know! You’re like, dressed like María Clara meets modern-day vampire, diba!” another girl gushed behind her. She was in a shiny teal green number.
As they made their way up the stairs, a third girl in the group stared at Aswang, and said “Mare, you’ve got amazing make up! Where did you get that glitter! Are you a make-up artist? I am, you know! See how similar we look?” The others gasped. “That’s true! Look, Tanya’s standing next to an old-fashioned version of her costume! Love it!”
Tanya was dressed in a maroon corset, her skin just as pale and glimmering with sheen like Aswang’s, her eyes a sharp caramel shining in the darkness of the club, her hair a lustrous set of waves washing over her bare and pale shoulders.
Aswang noticed two bite marks on her neck, touched them. They didn’t smell like blood, but she could certainly feel the hot blood pulsing in the vampire girl’s neck. If only she could just sink her teeth right in, that would be just the right way to start off the night –
Someone grabbed her elbow, and Aswang turned abruptly. It was Capre, getting her attention, “Hey, check out our friend over there. Isn’t he the life of the party,” Capre said coolly, his suave, smoky voice happy about the strobe lights, loud music, wisps of vapor hovering over the entire room, the people gyrating to mad beats. He gave her his trademark grin and yelled, “I’m headed over to the bar!” Aswang was so taken aback that she just stood there, looking after him.
Most folks in Siquijor could immediately tell that they ought to be staying clear of her just from her dress alone, but here it seemed that people seemed to find her clothing cool. She wasn’t exactly sure why.
Tikbalang was dancing up a storm, surrounded by a gaggle of young women in very short shorts. Nobody in the barrio on Siquijor Island ever dressed like that, unless it was some striptease queen on a calendar pin-up hanging on a sari-sari store’s wall.
He was doing his usual horse-like moves, which he did when he got excited haunting the island. These humans seemed riveted by his dance steps. They started imitating him, until the entire floor had erupted in a Tikbalang dance craze.
Aswang shook her head, going to look for Capre. She caught sight of him on his way through one of the other doors, with a young woman in tow.
She followed him into a different part of the club, this one even more dimly lit, with dozens of leather armchairs lying about. Faded orange lamps hung low over the heavily lacquered furniture. Capre was sitting in one of the worn leather couches, a curvaceous young woman practically on his lap. He swilled a glass of whisky in one hand and a fat cigar was in the other.
“Oh you must be one of those fancy rich old men who come here to The Manor,” she murmured, grazing his knee with a manicured hand going up practically to his crotch, her pink lipstick leaving stains on his collar.
Aswang stood across from them, arms akimbo.
She was about to say something when she felt a warm hand on the small of her back, the touch of someone’s breath on her cheek. A masculine voice said, “Sweetie, you look a little lost.”
Aswang turned. She found herself craning her neck to look into the eyes of a handsome man, his hair slicked back, his face pasty white, and dressed in an incredibly smart black suit–with a cape to boot.
If Aswang ever needed to breathe (which, incidentally, she did not), you might have said that the sight of him took her breath away. Only Aswang never really required air as much as she craved blood.
There was something about this young man that drew her to him. They walked off slowly into one of the shadows, and the gentleman chuckled as she spoke into his ear. They settled into a little nook in the corner.
“We were made for each other,” he said, giving her a generous smile.
Aswang relished his hot breath, so close to her.
“It’s fitting that I’m dressed as the famous Dracula, with you as the local Aswang,” he said, sliding his hand up the side of her, caressing her waist.
Aswang was in such ecstasy, she didn’t even stop to realize that he knew who she was. The man fell into a sensual trance at her touch. She drew back her lips to reveal two sharp fangs elongating gracefully, and sunk her teeth into his neck.
“Hmmm Mmmmm,” Aswang moaned.
It had been about a century since she had tasted someone from the city, and this man tasted of peaches and ripe mangoes – a good life, a rich man’s well-fed, chauffeur-driven existence. The juice bled from her mouth, his white collar tinged pink where the blood had mixed with her saliva. Aswang probably would have drained him dry if the three corseted girls hadn’t arrived, and caught sight of them.
“Hey, it’s María Clara, just like from the José Rizal novel! Nice seeing you again!” Tanya said to her, smiling.
“I didn’t know you and George were going out together. That’s so sweet!”
She took a seat next to them.
Aswang let her fangs recede, and let go of Dracula George. “You guys look like an amazing couple,” said the woman in teal green, chiming in.
“Wow! Check out those effects! The planning!” Tanya gasped.
“You have the blood gushing out of him, then the red in your mouth! Awesome!”
“And – oh! I get it,” the girl in the yellow corset said, doing a little jig. “George is Dracula, and you’re like…what was that woman in our folk tales? Like the manananggal? You’re like … Aswang! The Filipino bloodsucker!” Yellow Corset clapped, “It’s brilliant, you guys!”
Aswang was beginning to really like being in Manila, despite all the interruptions and drum and bass. Back in Siquijor, during the 19th century, townsfolk would have run at the sight of blood, or of her feeding. This was more like it!
She felt herself relaxing.
Out of nowhere, there was a commotion at the door of the club.
It was Tikbalang.
“Oh, what an amazing get-up! It’s so well-made, wait let me touch it!” It was Yellow Corset again, who had Tikbalang’s muzzle in her hands, stroking him.
“Stacey, get off him. Sorry guys, she’s just dropped a tab. Looks like she’s already high,” Tanya apologized, gently tugging at her friend. They gave Tikbalang and Aswang some space.
Tikbalang looked agitated. “We have to go,” he said, nervous.
“What is it?” Aswang said, on the alert once again.
“I got carried away. I was dancing and kicked someone in the face. I think he might be dead.”
Tikbalang, if he chose to, could sometimes transform his human-looking feet into horse’s hooves – he was an equine being, after all. He carried the power of the horse’s kick.
“We’d better grab Capre,” Aswang said, dashing for him. Capre was drooling and making out with the young, nearly naked lady, looking like they ought to get a room.
“He fits right in here,” Tikbalang said, as the three of them rushed through another door they had caught sight of in the shadows. It looked like some sort of storage closet. All three of them crammed into the tiny space, and with a “poof,” they were gone.
The next day, Tikbalang, Capre, and Aswang were once again in one of the higher branches of the mango tree on Siquijor, slowly puffing away at cigars.
‘Let’s do that again next Friday. Nice way to break the monotony,” said Tikbalang, with a little neigh.
“We should,” agreed Aswang, “I really liked the reception I got, not to mention the taste of city people’s blood.”
“Yeah, we should. Nelly will be expecting me,” said Capre, all whimsical. “She’s just a student, you know. She needs someone to help her with her steep tuition fees.”
diba – “Isn’t it?”
jeepney – a common form of public transportation in the Philippines, comprised of twin benches; originally converted from WWII American Jeeps left over from the war
José Rizal – Filipino National Hero who wrote novels Noli Me Tángere (published 1887) and El Filibusterismo (published 1891)
manananggal – a man-eating, blood-sucking mythical creature of the Philippines, whose torso separates from its lower half at night, and is a beautiful woman by day
maong – local word for “denim”
mare – short for Filipino “kumare,” originating from Spanish “comadre,” referring to a godmother or child’s mother, colloquially used as a term to address a female friend
María Clara – The tragic heroine in José Rizal’s novel, Noli Me Tángere
nipa – a palm tree with creeping roots, found in mangrove swamps in the Pacific Islands
nipa hut – stilt house indigenous to broader rural cultures of the Philippines
piña – fiber made from the leaves of a pineapple plant, or fabric made of such, usually viewed as precious and delicate in the Philippine Islands
sari-sari – Tagalog for “variety”
sari-sari store – a convenience store with a variety of everyday needs, found across provinces and cities in the Philippines
tab – Colloquial for “tablet,” referring to the party drug, “Ecstasy”
Author’s Bio: Lily C. Fen holds an MA in English Language Studies from the University of the Philippines and is a travel writer and photographer for Philippine publications such as VIEW, Balikbayan, and Travel Now. Before moving to Europe, she was once announcer on Philippine FM radio station, Mellow 947. Lily lives between the cities of Prague and Zurich in Central Europe, where she works in advertising.