My maternal grandmother, my Lola, used to remind me to be careful anywhere I went, especially if the place was covered with thick bushes and trees that barely permitted the light of the sun from reaching the ground. “Always say, tabi-tabi lang,” Lola told me in Filipino. Tabi-tabi, in English, translates into “excuse me.” In context, the phrase tabi-tabi lang is used if one is asking permission to enter or to pass by mariit, a place of unseen creatures. My mother has a different version. She told me I should say, “To those who are not visible to my eyes, I am sorry if I bump into you.”
Lola often told me about her brother, Nor. When he was on a ship going to Mindanao, Lolo Nor, without taking off his clothes, dove into the water to take what he saw, sparkling and shining under the sea. When he was almost at the bottom, he confirmed that it was a golden necklace. As soon as his hands grasped the necklace, his ears suffered from a shrill, static sound, making him frantically swim above to catch some air and let go of the necklace. By the following morning, he noticed his ears hurt, so much so that it seemed his sense of hearing was slowly deteriorating until it was no more.
“That sea is mariit!” Lola said in her thundering voice, emphasizing her conviction. I gave her a lecture: a science class. The pressure, I said, and the force. That part of the water down there, the pressure would be too much for a person’s ear, and it would destroy his or her eardrums. For a moment, she nodded, agreeing with me. Then she told me, “Okay. But what if it’s the way of tag-lugar saying, ‘All right, human. Let’s draw the line. This is my place, not yours. You are already trespassing.’”
Mariit is a place of dangerous enchantment inhabited by tag-lugar, the magical creatures not visible to the human eye, unless they wish to be seen. They can be considered equivalent to the West’s Big Foot, dwarf, centaur, mermaids, and the like. Such legends of mariit originate from the Visayas, one of the three major islands of the Philippines. In Filipino culture, tag-lugar refer to the duende, small and mischievous creatures believed to be living in anthills, kataw, a mermaid, and siokoy, a merman, dwelling in bodies of water, and kapre, a tall, big, black and hairy creature often seen smoking in trees, among others. Thus, mariit is the ground where reality and fantasy merge into one.
Here in Iloilo, a highly urbanized city in the Visayas, the concept of mariit influences the lives of the people. In some streets, there is a sign: Slow down, MARIIT. Iloilo City National High School has gained a reputation as an abode of kapre and white and black ladies that have been possessing the students. At Ryan’s Talabahan, a seafood restaurant built right above Iloilo River, it was rumored that a siokoy had been snatching children until the said food house shut down. Casa Mariquit, one of the many heritage houses, is still haunted by the former families who owned it; their ghosts continue to linger in the place.
My alma matter – University of the Philippines Miag-ao –also has its own story of being mariit. Before it became a university, it was a mere jungle, home of towering trees and wild creatures such as bats, snakes, and boars that have retreated into the woods. Other than that, the townsfolk said the area was a village of tag-lugar. Before the construction began, they suggested a babaylan, a spiritual doctor, to the administration in order to contact the tag-lugar, but they were ignored.
During the clearing of the area, the construction workers were not able to uproot some huge trees, especially the lunok and ipil-ipil, which were believed to be where magical creatures lived, despite using heavy equipment like forklifts and ten-wheeler trucks. They were afraid to cut down the trees in fear that the tag-lugar would harm them. Such instances made the administration call a babaylan to negotiate with the unseen creatures.
The staff, in charge of the auditing of expenses, saw the request for payment for a babaylan. “Why do we have to pay for a babaylan?” the committee in Manila asked, thinking it was a stupid idea.
The staff demanded the committee’s presence to witness why there was a need for a babaylan. The administration sent surveyors to Miag-ao to monitor. Without the ritual, the trees could not be uprooted. The next day, they witnessed the babaylan perform a ritual, and with just a push of a man’s hand, the trees fell down. Without hesitation, they approved the request.
My paternal grandfather was a well-known babaylan in the city. Once, my Lolo told me that a family friend, Mr. Sio, a Filipino-Chinese, wanted to have a building for his business in the city. The construction was almost done; however, a lunok tree that his workers refused to touch had remained standing. Mr. Sio summoned my grandfather after hearing about him. After doing some rituals, Lolo asked Mr. Sio to prepare lapad, a bottle of Tanduay Rum, as a payment or offering to the tag-lugar. Snickering at how cheap the payment was, Mr. Sio handed Black Label to my Lolo. The morning after the ritual was performed, the lone tree that had remained standing was seen on the ground; it had fallen down without anyone touching it. That night, according to the neighboring people, they heard ugly cries: voices asking where to go now that their home was gone.
I never had this kind of experience until I went to a writing fellowship. The other fellows and I stayed in a village surrounded by trees of mangoes, acacia, and coconuts, among others. From our room, I could hear the wind whispering and the leaves of the trees brushing each other, as if they were gossiping about our presence.
It started when I caught up with Ina. While we were talking on the porch, I heard someone moving the furniture in the house. I asked her who was inside. She told me no one. I was certain I could hear someone moving—or throwing—things. I felt someone’s stare following us. Again, I asked Ina if she was sure. She said she was; her roommates were in the other house. I shook the thought off my mind.
Before the dusk crept in, Ina and her roommates decided to go downtown to buy groceries. When they came back, they told us they visited a famous fortune teller in the city. Ina walked up to me and talked about what the fortuneteller had told about her.
“A duende has fallen in love with me daw,” Ina said. I thought her eyes widened because she was surprised, but the shaking of her voice told me she was scared. I thought of the movement I heard when we were talking earlier.
One night, my roommates, David and RJ, and I decided to drink. We noticed a swarm of monstrous insects we were not familiar with. David, pointing at one of the insects, asked me, “What is this? A grasshopper?”
I answered him, “I don’t know. It’s too huge for a grasshopper. I think it’s a dinosaur!” He laughed. We all laughed hard, our stomachs ached. Earlier that morning when we were having our breakfast, I saw insects crawling on the edge of the table. I cringed, thinking they were spiders; I took a closer look and realized they were ants. Giant ants! “Everything here is a dinosaur,” I said.
After a few days, I felt I was losing my voice and my body was becoming weak and tired. I had chills that were shaking me. My skin turned pale. My vision became blurry even if I wore my correction glasses.
“Are you sick?!” David asked when he heard me coughing endlessly. He put the back of his hand on my neck to feel my body temperature. “You have a fever,” he said.
“Well, I’m hot. Haha!” I joked.
“Sicko,” he said.
“But seriously, damn this,” I told him, feeling my body burning inside.
I had a hard time falling asleep. During the nighttime, all I ever did was spin around endlessly like a clock in my bed. I had a bad feeling every time I went to the washroom; it felt weird; the atmosphere seemed to be draining my energy. Whenever I looked at the mirror, I no longer recognized myself. Dark circles had formed under my eyes. While I was brushing my teeth in front of the mirror, part of me thought I could see someone – a black figure perhaps – slowly emerging from my back, as if peeking and then giving me a poker smile.
I called my mother to inform her I was sick. When I mentioned to her that I felt something wrong when I stayed in the village and in the dormitory, she told me she would take me to Tay Sito, a famous babaylan in Iloilo City, of whom she is a follower. Only Tuesdays and Fridays, I was told. Those are the days the babaylan’s “friends,” the good tag-lugar, were active. It was also better if we went there while the sun was still up.
What appeared before our eyes when we arrived at Tay Sito’s place was a long queue of people waiting for their turn. My mother took a waiting number. The paper had “seventy-eight” written on it. I was the seventy-eighth “patient” on that day; Tay Sito was checking the twenty-fourth customer.
It had been fifteen years already since the last time I had stepped into this house. I thought of the first time we had visited: My mother was suffering from bughat, a postpartum depression. The doctors were not able to help her condition. They had been prescribing her dozens of medicines that did not only weaken her, but also buried her in debt. I remembered clearly that first day – my mother was fat, always uneasy and nervous for no reason at all. Tay Sito asked for my mother’s hand, shifted his head to his right side, as if listening to someone who was talking to him. He started saying things about my mother: Your husband is a drunkard. You have five sons; this one, standing stupid in front of me, is the brightest and the laziest of them all. And you don’t need a doctor. My eyes dilated; everything he said was true. I believed in him, as if he were God. He told my mother to buy ilimnon, a drink he personally made. After Mama felt freedom from her suffering, she told everyone about the man she had discovered.
My relatives, coming from different places, had come to visit him. First, it was Tito Joe. He worked in a hotel in Iloilo City. While he was cleaning a room, he heard someone was hammering a nail in a wall. He was sure he was alone, but the mere sound proved him wrong. He cursed at it, showing he was not afraid. The sound stopped completely. By the following morning, he felt his mouth became numb. He could not move it. When he looked at the mirror, he saw his mouth was twisted. It was Tay Sito who had moved his mouth back to its proper position.
The list went on: Lola Laida, who had been suffering from nervous breakdown; Tita Mirasol, who was so thin because of tuberculosis; and Tita Ann, who had lost her hair and vigor to leukemia. All of them were spared from their health conditions.
When it was my turn, Tay Sito held my hand and shifted his head to the right. He said a tag-lugar was mad at me for laughing at his alaga, or pet. I remembered the grasshopper that I called dinosaur. He also added that the tag-lugar was irritated because I was noisy.
“The tag-lugar felt disrespected,” Tay Sito said. “If you go to places like that, you should keep your voice down to make sure that you are not disrupting anyone.”
He said I could go home and be safe. He gave me a balanyos, an ointment, that I should rub on my body to ward off bad spirits and elements.
My body quickly improved. Two days later I received an e-mail informing me that I was accepted as a field research assistant for a national study on health in the country. I was also provided with the schedule and the places we would be visiting. I told my mother about it.
“Next week, Ma! I will be in Guimaras!”
Guimaras is a small island, just a 15-minute banca ride from Iloilo. I have been there several times, sleeping over at a friend’s place. During an evening of drinking, we tried to scare ourselves with horror stories. I thought of the mariit places we talked about on the island: Nalundan Bridge, in Igang, where a commuter dies every year because of a lunok tree; Roca Encatada, a beach in Valencia, rumored to have a siokoy, a sea creature that pulls swimmers down to the bottom of the water until they drown; Trappist Monastery, where townsfolk have seen demons roaming around; and Balaan Bukid,or Sacred Mountain, where people claim to have seen golden ships, believed to be a seaport of the tag-lugar.
“I hope you learned your lesson,” my mother said. “Paghalong ha,” she reminded me like my Lola did. Be careful.