Once upon a time, there was a young boy called Joseph who lived in a village on the edge of the jungle. He wanted to prove to everyone that he wasn’t like the other kids. He wanted to prove that he was the man. Against his parent’s pleas and the fears of his friends, he marched deep into the jungle at midnight. He invaded her territory. Like a siren, a screech — the type that could shatter glass — echoed through the column of trees. The hairs on his little legs stood. But he kept exploring. He told himself again that he was the man. Then he stepped on something slimy. He opened it. Illuminated by the moon, a tiny face with empty sockets stared back. Joseph shivered as the screech returned. He looked at the full moon. The silhouette froze Joseph. She had two giant bat-like wings, scraggly hair, and a long tongue that slithered like a snake. She had no legs and like a million tiny tentacles, her guts dangled from her ripped torso. Wrapped around the tree, the street urchins — the children who didn’t listen — piled high. He should’ve listened.
Most Filipino children were told a story like that. They call her the manananggal. The manananggal was the woman across the street, the one so sweet and cute. The woman who, at the stroke of midnight, separates herself from her legs, grows wings and flies, hunting down pregnant women and other delicious things. Everyone has a story of a manananggal. Uncles boasted of being chased by them after skinny dipping in the lake, pregnant mothers were warned to shut their windows, and boys would throw salt at girls in the playground.
Well, that’s what they say anyway.
Once upon a time, there was a barangay — or small village — deep in the mountains of Cagayan named Conda. There were no high rises, no harbours, no concrete roads. Instead, shanties and shacks of scrap metal and planks lined the village. In the wet seasons, typhoons would flatten the barangay and the only structure left after the typhoon had passed was the white brick cottage on the hill, the envy of the village. It belonged to the town doctor, Maria del Rosario, the richest person in Conda who lived alone with her medicine and chemicals the witch doctors scoffed at. Everyone knew each other since birth. They woke up, worked on the farms then spent the evenings in the town square belting ballads beside the karaoke machine and the TV, the village’s only window to the outside world. In the dry season of ‘92, after the decades-long storm of dictatorship and rigged ballots, the people got their first taste of democracy. The villagers were hypnotised by the smiles of presidential hopefuls and found themselves, at the flick of a candidate’s finger, on the streets to fight in their name. It was the only way they knew how to debate. The barangay Kapitan, who governed over 100 men and women, almost lost both eyes breaking up brawls. One of these days, someone in Conda was going to get killed. One of these days, the barangay was going to melt under the heat of the election.
Jay Contrales and his wife, Elma, lived in one of those shanties when, one midnight, Jay woke up to an empty bed. He heard something faint from the bathroom, the sharp sucking of air through teeth. He lit a candle. ‘Oh god,’ murmured the woman behind the door. Jay’s hairs stood as the wind breezed through the cracks and he tasted metal in the air as he approached the door. He opened it. The candlelight fell upon Elma. Hunched over, her white dress was stained at the edges as she did her best to hold herself off the ground as a pool of blood congealed beneath her. In the centre of that pool sat a slimy sac. A face was trapped inside. The villagers rushed to the sound of Jay’s cry. The Kapitan vomited at the smell. Maria rushed to Elma’s aid. It was too late.
‘Our child,’ Jay sobbed, ‘why us?’ As Maria examined Elma, she asked questions about her diet and activity, searching for an answer as to why the miscarriage occurred. Elma stared blankly at the doctor.
‘I… can’t remember,’ said Elma, ‘but weirdly, I feel an angel answered my prayers.’
‘Prayers…’ Maria muttered, ‘I think I understand.’ She shrugged and then continued her examination.
Jay noticed the bathroom window ajar before he and the villagers heard a screech in the forest. Jay remembered the story he heard when he was a child. The story of Joseph. His stomach churned. He glanced at the shrivelled face in the sac and grabbed Maria’s elbow. ‘This was the work of an aswang. I think a manananggal attacked my wife.’ That’s when Maria saw, on the side of the fetus’ head, blood oozing from a thin puncture. The Kapitan and Jay inspected the wound when Elma shot up in her bloody dress and shouted, ‘I remember now! A manananggal… it killed my baby!’
While the aswang attack subdued the village for a week, the election soon returned to the villagers’ minds and the Kapitan struggled to maintain order. But soon, the villagers heard a shriek from the Kapitan’s house. When they arrived, the marital bed was soaked in the blood of the unborn. The Kapitan trembled as his wife sat motionless on the bed, a gaping wound in her side. The window was wide open. Families clutched each other tightly. A pregnant woman made the sign of the cross. Maria examined the wound. She’s seen something like this before; too many times actually. She was about to speak when the Kapitan wept, ‘Why God? Why me?’ Maria chose not to say anything. She offered her condolences and returned home with the rest of the villagers while Jay and a few men stayed with the Kapitan. Amidst his sobs, the Kapitan thrust a finger into the sky, eyes wide and shouted, ‘A–aswang!’ The villagers looked out the window. Nothing was there. The Kapitan said they just missed it. He then traced a line from the moon to the white brick house.
The spectre of the aswang paralysed Conda. No one talked about the election anymore. Seeing this, the Kapitan ordered a nightly curfew and educated the villagers on what the manananggal looked like, how it behaved and how to defend against it. Men sharpened sticks into stakes and the women prepared pouches of salt and spices. The Kapitan appointed himself, Jay, and three other men to a task force to investigate aswang sightings. Jay was particularly hellbent on capturing the manananggal. The Kapitan noticed this and told Jay a secret.
‘There’s one thing I couldn’t mention to the village,’ he told Jay, ‘the manananggal is just an ordinary-looking woman in the day.’ And so, the Kapitan and Jay surveilled every woman for anything remotely suspicious. They said they were doing this for their wives. They said they were doing this for the children.
Manananggal sightings were reported almost nightly. The task force would hear a cry across the barangay. ‘I saw something with batwings fly there!’ or, ‘I heard scratches against my door!’ Their testimonies were full of hysterics and hyperventilating. Frustrated, the Kapitan translated their chaotic cries. ‘So you said it flew from here. Is that correct?’ he’d ask. The witnesses perked up and pointed confidently to the place suggested by him. All the witnesses pointed to the same place. Jay remembered that on the night the Kapitan’s wife was killed, the Kapitan pointed to the same place too. Jay smirked. He told the task force his theory. The Kapitan, with a glint in his eyes, grinned.
Five men knocked on the door of the white brick house. Maria answered. They entered before she said anything. The Kapitan asked what she did the other day; she said she was working. Jay asked if she saw anything with batwings; she said bats usually visit her place for her fruit trees. Another asked if she saw anything resembling an aswang; Maria chuckled.
‘Aswang aren’t real!’ No one laughed back. The Kapitan asked her to put out her hands. ‘A test,’ he said. She obliged. The Kapitan poured the vial of salt and spices into her hands. Maria sprung up, swore and flailed her hands back and forth to get it off. Everyone flinched.
‘Sorry,’ said Maria as she showed them a laceration across her right palm, ‘I was clumsy with some glass yesterday and the salt stung.’ She forced a smile. The Kapitan frowned. He bashed his stick against her skull and Maria collapsed. Jay stuffed her inside a bag and the others bound her arms and legs with rope. They dragged her to a tree in the centre of the village and hung her upside down. At dusk, the Kapitan rang the bell for a town meeting. Darkness swallowed the village.
Maria woke up to the torchlit faces of a hundred villagers. The crowd murmured as she wriggled in place. The Kapitan boomed: ‘Don’t be fooled. During the day, a manananggal looks just like us. Here she is. For the charges of the murder of Jay and Elma’s child and the murder of my wife and our child, the people find you guilty.’ Maria squirmed and screamed. She protested it wasn’t her. She protested that aswang aren’t real. She protested that she could explain the wounds on the Kapitan’s wife and the hole in the fetus’ head. The Kapitan gagged her. Then, tears in his eyes, he turned to the crowd.
‘It’s not her fault,’ the Kapitan said, ‘she knows not what she’s done. In every manananggal lies a black chick trapped inside. That chick is the true monster, the one that possesses our women into monstrosities. The one that preys upon our children.’
Jay remembered all the times Maria brought fruit to him and his wife and Maria’s perfect renditions of ‘My Way’ on the karaoke. He couldn’t believe that the same sweet Doc was the host of a devilish parasite. The Kapitan wiped his tears and continued.
‘But I know that she is the same Doc we all know and love. And by God’s grace, she can still be cured! All we need to do,’ the Kapitan picked up a bat, ‘is force it out.’
Nobody spoke as Maria’s gag struggled to contain her cries. The Kapitan offered Jay the bat. ‘For your child,’ he said. Jay grasped the bat and stared into Maria’s beet-red face as tears streamed down her forehead and dripped onto the floor. Jay scanned the crowd. He couldn’t find his wife but he saw children cower behind their parents. Jay smashed the bat against Maria’s stomach. The face in the sac of flesh flashed in his mind. He set aside her muffled screams. He swung harder. Then harder. Then harder. Jay collapsed onto the floor out of breath as Maria swayed under the tree. The Kapitan took the bat. A grunt. A thump. A crack. A muted wail. He passed the bat to another. Then another. In this ungodly game of pinata, every strike leaked blood through Maria’s gag. ‘Take a good look,’ said a woman as she gave her daughter the bat, ‘aswang can take many forms, even those you least expect.’ The girl looked into the eyes of the woman who helped bring her into the world. She raised the bat. Another crack. The cries stopped. The Kapitan removed the gag. A stream of food and acid and blood flowed onto the floor. ‘Where’s the chick?’ a man shouted and ripped the bat from the girl’s hands. With every blow, he got more desperate.
After an hour, the only sounds were the panting of the villagers and the creaking of the rope. Jay stared at Maria: the corners of her mouth were crusted red and her forehead dried in tears. A villager tapped Jay’s shoulder. ‘That’s the chick right?’ He pointed at a black particle in the pool of vomit, blood and tears. A pit formed in Jay’s stomach but before he could answer, the Kapitan nodded. ‘We’re safe now.’ The villagers snuffed their torches and returned home. Jay and the Kapitan dumped Maria in the woods.
Soon after, the election passed over and the village returned to its habitual state of torpor and karaoke. The new government built roads and phone lines to connect isolated barangays like Conda with the wider world. They worked alongside barangay kapitans, who were now promoted to mayors. Because Maria had no family, the Mayor of Conda moved into her house and over the years, he would never leave office. No one fought on the streets again.
In contrast, shortly after the election, Jay spotted a coat hanger, glinting outside his house beside the bathroom window. Elma flinched when Jay showed it to her. When Elma reminded Jay of the mayor, the couple never spoke of it again. Deep into old age, the couple moved to an apartment, smaller than their shanty, in the bustling streets of Manila. Despite the ever-present beeping of car horns, Elma seemed to sleep just fine. But Jay, no matter how far from the mountains they now were, could never seem to escape the strained, creaking cry of the rope.
Some say that once upon a time, there stalked a black chick in the woods. She heard the weeping of a soul, imprisoned in the husk of a battered body. With pity, she forced herself into the body’s mouth. Then, at the stroke of midnight, the body’s torso tore itself from its legs, its arms transformed into wings and the wail of a thousand tears pierced the forest, alerting the birds to flock away. Luckily for her, a street urchin arrived just in time to witness her metamorphosis.
Well, that’s what they say anyway.
Bradley Cagauan is an academic coach and writer studying creative writing and law at Macquarie University. He has a keen interest in the law, justice and politics which underpins his feature articles and stories. ‘The Folk Tale of the Manananggal’ is his first published short story, a cosy tale drawing upon Filipino mythology and mob justice.