A Ghost Story
The house was largely haunted by a woman in white who appeared frequently on the staircase, pale hand on the wooden balustrade, with a terrible look of hunger. What was horrifying about her expression was not the bloodless skin, vein-webbed and tinged with decay, nor the parted lips revealing a glistening tongue, but her eyes--hooded and staring, widening slowly with black interest, the cracked irises suspended in the enlarged whites. The face would tilt forward, the tongue becoming restless, the mouth slowly opening--enough to make your heart pop, according to one witness.
The sightings went back to as far as the founding of the house, although some victims insisted that the haunting had begun after the war, on account of a girl being raped and murdered there by drunken Japanese soldiers, her parts cut up and scattered in the many corners of the ancient house. A few testimonies claimed the ghost could talk, and even cry tears of blood, seeking justice.
But the lady of the house, whom everyone has called Lola Concha as far as I can remember, was said to scoff at this version. Along with my mother, grandmother, and all three of my aunts, she attended the three-year old Church of the Risen Messiah, which had devoured whole weekends that the older set had hitherto devoted to tending gardens, praying the rosary and taking merienda over gossip. Now the gossip was exchanged between biscuit and coffee breaks from Bible Study or at dusk after vespers.
Stocky Lola Concha, always immaculately attired in flowered pantsuits, her neck enveloped in perfume so old it smelled of whisky, had told my mother that she had come to the house as a new bride two years before the war and already the servants were going mad faster than they could hire new ones, precisely because of encounters with the woman in white. One girl had fainted dead away, rolled down the entire eighteen steps, and split her head open on the stone landing. This was when I was pregnant with Norman, Lola Concha recalled. The night she went into labor, her husband Nando was out, and everyone stood around gnawing their knuckles as she screamed in pain. They were all hesitant to risk carrying the Senora out of the bedroom and down the stairs, where one clairvoyant maid claimed the ghost was standing rigidly, hungry as ever, ears pricked for the baby's first cry. But ghost or none, she would not have this baby in this moldy old bedroom, Concha remembered thinking frantically. Almost swooning, she staggered to the door by herself, as the servants, not moving a muscle, whimpered like children. When the all clear came--the apparition had vanished into wherever it spent its time between sightings--the baby's head was a burning ember between her legs. The clairvoyant maid had to cup her hands under the Senora all the way to the hospital, in case the baby completed its emergence en route.
The old lady was about to tell of the actual delivery but just then Pastor Gerry, fat, dark shepherd of the congregation, came by and pleasantly asked them what the subject of their intense whispering was about. "We were both shamed to remember where we were," my mother recounted sheepishly.
I understood perfectly her secret interest. Lola Concha was a rapidly evaporating mystery, ever since she had emerged out of her self-imposed hermetic existence in the crumbling stone mansion by the Jaro plaza some five years ago. For almost twenty years before that, she had not ventured out, surviving an infant son and husband, the first having died during the war and the latter in the eighties of a hemorrhage in the brain from slipping in the bathroom. The last time she had been out of the house was on the day of the husband's funeral; everyone remarked at the widow, how she stared blankly at the coffin being lowered into the ground, shedding no tears at all. How they were ignored, as she walked past the mourners as if blind.
It was to be a long time before anyone would see her again, long after the husband's bones were thrown out of his niche in the municipal cemetery--she had shut herself out of the world so much that she had failed to renew the lease on the plot. The regular flurry of maids leaving and coming was the only sign of life. Relatives of her husband's, whose family had built the house, attempted to wrest the property from her periodically. Their visits always ended in frustration, for the old lady refused to see them and their lawyers. It was a common sight to see relative after relative huffing out into the driveway and stomping their feet in tantrums. The house and its grounds were prime real estate, but as its sinister reputation grew, as did the strangeness of its main occupants--both human and supernatural--eventually Lola Concha was left alone with her ghosts and memories, though not without continuous speculation.
Some of the rumors were preposterous: only her corpse remained, rotting on a bier in the master bedroom, dusted daily by the servants, as her last wish was to never be parted from the house. Her spirit had, according to some, edged out the old ghost and taken its former post by the staircase, causing a shift in the supernatural hierarchy.
Unavoidably, talk turned malicious--what went around the most was the rumor that she had in fact murdered her husband, to gain control of his assets, including the house. For years since the war, things had not been well between the couple. The man had returned to Jaro from guerilla activity in Luzon a pitiful wreck, aged beyond his years, listless and uncommunicative. Concha hadn't seemed to bother taking care of her husband, transferring him to a bedroom in the opposite wing of the house, leaving him unkempt and thin, while she spent his money for herself. The maids shopped for food and necessities for one person, only one place setting was always laid for dinner, and when reminded of the strange, sad man who sat in the garden all day long, Concha would seem surprised. Treating her husband as if he no longer existed, said one incredulous maid. When the money was spent, and all that remained where her husband's personal assets to which she had no access, Concha, everyone reasoned, conveniently made herself a widow.
Many years later, to everyone's surprise, she turned up and proceeded to become ordinary, attired and smelling exactly like a septuagenarian should, making the layers of stories about her--including the legendary murder--wither away like the rotted skins of an onion. In the beginning, Pastor Gerry earnestly attempted to get her to confess to a lifetime of sins, in the hopes of getting the truth out of her and thoroughly cleansing her soul in the process. But she was just another smiling grandmother, and the Pastor gave up. She has suffered enough, he declared, discouraging talk of Lola Concha's past, regarding her as newly-born as a baby. The rest of the congregation soon followed suit and the gossip died down.
Now that she was always in the front row during Sunday service, chattering gaily with the other senior members and clasping affectionately to her bosom the numerous toddlers that raced restlessly around the church, no one was, I suppose, desperately scanning her image for what we had lost and could never mention again, all of which she had been the last keeper before the spirit of the Risen Lord had too caught her in his net. No one but me.
I was in high school when an American Born-Again pastor came to town; suddenly I found myself trundled off to Bible camps along with my other puzzled neighbors and friends. "The more correct term is Christian, Issy," my mother scolded as she packed all the graven idols--some of which were family heirlooms hundreds of years old--into boxes. I saw her wipe the face of her favorite porcelain Virgin before she committed it to a hell of packing foam and darkness.
Even my own grandmother, who had lasted to her mid-seventies without knowing she was to roast in flames unless she allowed herself to be saved--as Pastor Kurt Morgan put it--was not spared. She gave away her jeweled rosaries and became like a young woman again during service, tossing her arms above her head, swaying and dancing as if her hip operation was merely a dream. On the other hand, Lola Concha's conversion was courtesy of none other than my mother, who handled the sale of the house and its grounds to a developer of apartment buildings at Lola Concha's behest. The place was too big for an old woman, Lola Concha explained, and the costs of repairing the run-down structure were far beyond her means. Once the house was sold, Lola Concha moved to a much smaller place, nearer the Risen Messiah church. The short distance encouraged daily visits to the church, and the mornings and late afternoons saw her faithful pilgrimages up the street, an urgency to her step like a trotting hen. She launched herself into church activities and chores with a fervid enthusiasm, changing the decor every week, trimming the bulletin boards with cut-out Jesuses, tending the stunted plants in the small yard, even supervising the cook in the parsonage to ensure healthy dinners for Pastor Gerry. Most of her time, however, was spent sitting with the other church grandmas, collectively embroidering altar cloths and doilies. It was in this relaxed circle--out of the Pastor's earshot--that the intricate embroidery of tales inched out of her, tugging me over, out of Bible discussions or prayer sessions, ripe for distraction.
My interest in coaxing Lola Concha to revisit the old stories, lay in the house itself.
It was a turn-of-the-century monstrosity, that house, its double front doors framed by plaster Doric columns that supported a small balcony on the second floor, in the American colonial style. It had a flat roof, slim windows and intricate moldings at its edges, which made it look like an ice cream cake--a juvenile simile that started my lasting fascination with it at age seven. In its early years, it had been dazzling white, however towards its death, it assumed the appropriate colors--gray as an old woman's face in the mornings and at sunset, a melancholy yellow as an old, useless wedding gown's.
As my generation grew up, the house willingly provided us with the stories we needed; we eagerly sucked the horror tales that filtered unceasingly from it. Aside from the ghostly woman, it was also rumored to be haunted by a severed hand that slithered on the balustrade, trapping unsuspecting human fingers; a bearded man with red eyes who terrorized the unmarried maids in their beds; a bedeviled mirror that showed you everything but your own reflection; and somewhere in its rooms the katana used to chop up the unfortunate rape victim, that oozed blood periodically.
My childhood was marked by a desire to see its interiors. All the boys in class had one time or another boasted of having set foot in the haunted house, some even spinning yarns of overnight stays, which earned our attention despite the unlikelihood. In those days my mother had been a devotee of our Lady of the Candles, and during her novenas at the massive Jaro cathedral, I would slip out and dash across the square to prowl in front of the haunted house's gates, imagining Lola Concha shut up in her room loudly chanting the rosary to keep the apparitions at bay. When I was twelve, whispers that Lola Concha had been finally driven mad by her evil house spread, and excitedly I trooped to the house with my friends to watch the workers install the dozens of dwarf statues and a miniature castle that Lola Concha had ordered to be spread around the garden.
Apparently, a hilot had dropped by unsolicited one day and told her that the assistance of elementals and little earth folks was needed to counterstrike the ghosts of the dead, particularly the two that tormented Lola Concha the most--the mysterious white lady, and recently, a ghost suspected to be that of her husband, pacing the hall outside her bedroom at night. Tongues wagged again. The haste and readiness with which Lola Concha carried out the hilot's suggestion, seemed a desperate attempt to assuage her guilt for the crime she would not admit.
The colorful statues stood for years until they had faded away to utter dullness without much of a fuss. The sightings continued until finally Lola Concha was left with the two hardiest maids on the planet, one half-blind and the other totally deaf. But they would die off, leaving her alone, old and decrepit, they said, as the house. That is, until she turned to the Lord.
"Oh my," she told my mother much later. "To tell you the truth, I never even once saw any ghosts," she said one Saturday as she and my mother were mixing grape juice to use as mock wine for the next day's service. My mother could hardly wait until dinner that day to relate the confession that came straight out of Lola Concha's mouth.
Lola Concha couldn't see ghosts because, her husband's relatives believed, all her energies were so centered on herself that even if the Virgin waved her hands before Concha, she would see and feel nothing. But in that house it was impossible not to be afraid, of drafts in airless rooms that chilled one to the soul, figures floating in the corner of one's eyes, and strange noises that sounded like someone sobbing, or worse, laughing low and darkly. They gave even her husband Nando an awful scare. Married but a few months then, her husband had been in an intensely amorous mood one night. He had turned over to caress her under the sheets, and found instead an ice-cold hand. He opened his eyes to see a strange woman beside him, appraising him with a sinister smile.
Nando's scream brought Lola Concha running from the kitchen where she was drinking a glass of water. She came into the room and found him gasping in a corner, the bed covers in disarray, and moonlight flooding into the open windows.
I have never seen people more flabbergasted than at that dinner table. Lola Concha was to tell my mother more tales in church. More and more, she acquired the airs of a common chatty grandmother. To me she was truly wasting away, her allure returning only when she opened her mouth to tell of the past. She talked freely of the house, of its resident spirits, of mystery and old ways, but her stories were always confined to the period before the War, and no one dared to take it any further than that.
The house at this point was steadily sinking into the ground at its right side, the electric wiring was dangerously chewed up, the plumbing a fright to repair, the rooms scarcely dusted and a continent of mold and damp across the ceiling was threatening to bring the roof down. My days in town were equally numbered--my college life in Manila, which would efficiently shrink the past to an almost invisible smallness, was soon to start.
The day before my move, I made the goodbye rounds of friends and relatives, downing endless bowls of pancit molo as I moved from house to house in a daze, clearing only when I stood before the old house for what I assumed to be the last time. The weeds were beginning to overwhelm the grounds; the house's lopsidedness seemed even more pronounced, looking like the drooping end of a stroke-victim's mouth. The gates were padlocked and fettered with a heavy chain, and a sign printed with name of the company who had bought it was hanging from the bars. Climbing as high as I dared up the side of the gate away from the road, I saw the dim outlines of furniture inside. I trained my gaze on the shadows, daring them to move, daring an icy wind to come to announce that the house's powers had not been diminished as much as its dignity. In a corner I thought I saw a dark shape hulking. Imagining the woman in white with her awful hungry mouth materializing at the window, I felt the hair on my arms and neck tingle, and clambered quickly down, my heart pounding yet strangely joyous.
College swept me up in a fire completely different from that of the women in my family. In my first year I joined a student protest over tuition fee increases, then my involvement spread to other causes--the miserable plight of tenant farmers, the devil incarnated in the current President, the immeasurable greed of capitalists, the murders of student activists. In time I became absorbed in managing the organ of the student party I belonged to, and got detained for hurling a bottle of mineral water at a procession of congressmen outside the Congress building. The bottle, half-full, bounced off the brow of the House Speaker.
In the city jail, I was kept in a small cell next to a gang of snatchers who were periodically let out, one by one, to give the cops massages. The cell contained only a rickety wooden bed, without linen, and a dirty toilet bowl. On the wall between the two cells was a hole the size of a fist, which exposed all my activities to pairs of ogling eyes. My requests for any material to stuff the hole with were pointedly ignored, and even the cops on duty would linger in front of my cell as I did my business on the toilet, smirking as the crooks on the other side howled with enjoyment.
No one from the party came to visit, and even close friends stayed far. I was being kept for observation, though no charges had been pressed. One of the senior cops told me I could go, with a "minimal" fee to cover my board and lodging. Completely broke, frightened and too impatient to await a lawyer friend's vague promise to help, I called my mother. She hurried over on the soonest flight, her fare having been raised by the church with the purpose of setting my paths right.
We weren't a few steps out of the jail when my mother started imploring me to give some thought to the life of my soul when it departed my body. I hadn't seen her for two years; she looked older but had an air of lightness around her. She attributed this to her steadily growing faith. "I feel more serene than I ever have in my life," she said, adding that her only agony was that I had turned out to be an utter prodigal after my promising beginnings, and I laughed at this flash of the old her.
After the jail incident I had no more interest in anything other than lying in bed unwashed for weeks, to my mother's exasperation. I had long since abandoned my classes at the university in favor of street teach-ins, and began to slip into a dark contemplation, turning questions over and over in my head until the words jumbled into nonsense. My mother stayed and hovered around with her placid monk's face, laying her hand on my head twice a day and praying aloud invoking the blood of Christ in a singsong.
One day I went out of my room to find her outside in the sun, hanging my clothes on my landlady's clothesline. "Madre de Dios," she blurted, the first mention of the forgotten god in years, look at you. "You look worse than a ghost."
Over the first real meal I had taken in days, she persuaded me to come back to Jaro with her, and give my strange activities a break. Come to church was what she was really saying, but I felt that I had seen too much to go back to the blind faith that I had associated with childhood, and told her so in a world-weary voice. "But at least show your face to those generous people who gave money so you wouldn't rot in jail," my mother countered, the old sly mother I knew, using the guilt card, knowing without even turning from the stove that I would return with her on the next flight out.
My coming home coincided with the last few days of the old house--that year was deemed by the owners as the ripe time to plant a high office building on its sacred grounds. Slacking at home and watching TV, I trampled down the buds of curiosity that broke to the surface, wanting to avoid seeing the house altogether. Nothing in the town was the same anymore, the grand old Spanish houses which had been so beautiful now looked pitifully worn down and out-of-place. The carefully landscaped garden in the plaza had been dug out to accommodate giant plastic playground sets that easily accumulated dirt, looking like cheap abandoned playthings in a short while. On Lopez-Jaena, a row of banks had replaced the sweetshops of my childhood. All my former playmates were inviting me to get wasted at watering holes near the airport that featured live bands playing reggae music and wearing cheap, silk-screened Che Guevara shirts.
Only Lola Concha hadn't changed, as I discovered one afternoon when I stopped by the church to see Pastor Gerry, at my mother's insistence. The church seemed empty; all mellow shadow and warm from the afternoon sun. I sighed and sat down in a pew, staring up at the purple-robed cross.
"You just go ahead and pray there, love," said a soft voice by my ear. I turned around; Lola Concha sat in the pew behind me, hands folded on her lap, a heap of crochet beside her like a crumpled web. She was dressed in her usual matching blouse and pants, this time patterned with red hibiscus flowers. Her face held more lines than ever, deepened by her smile--she had, as always, a pleasant air about her. I was young, but felt old and tired.
We were silent for a while. The heady scent of vintage perfume lifted off Lola Concha, filling my nose. An eruption of giggles from the street--some children were passing by. I stole a sidelong glance at her; sitting next to me, her eyes were closed, and her breathing so quiet, as if she were asleep.
Her eyes flew open, and the light in her milky eyes told me that she had been thinking all along, inspired by what I feared to be the divine spirit. Why was it that my formerly smooth skin was now ravaged by acne, she wondered, peering closely at my face. And why hadn't I come to church sooner?
In her presence, the afternoon took on a soft sepia shade. In spite of myself, I asked about the house. How did she feel about losing it? The catch in the voice, the lump in the throat, all mine.
"That house has been a burden to me ever since I set foot in there, all those years ago." Lola Concha sighed. "I'm glad to let it go."
"Who built that house," I asked.
"Nando's father did," said Lola Concha. "Built it for his older brother, who never was to inherit it, because he died of influenza during Peacetime, in that very house. Nando's parents also died there, shortly before we got married. Nando himself too."
"Must be why all these spooks are there, because of all these dead people," I said, forcing a laugh, which earned a serious look from her.
"No, these are not the spirits of the dead, but demons trying to trick us," Lola Concha responded solemnly. "We think that they are earthbound souls, but the Bible teaches that there is no such thing, and it's all the devil's handiwork."
"But I won't deny that many strange things happened in that house," she added.
"I hear they're still happening," I said slowly. When she said nothing, I turned to her, looking her full in the face.
"Just who is that ghostly woman?'
Lola Concha nodded slowly. Having loosened a string, she seemed determined to unravel the entire garment.
"They said it's the ghost of one of the mistresses Nando's father kept. The old man liked women, and shortly after I came to live there a story went around about a maid who had committed suicide in one of the rooms because the family hadn't recognized her claims to carrying the old man's bastard in her womb."
"They said she was the reason why I had such a difficult time conceiving, with one miscarriage after another when I was in the pink of health, why I had a difficult labor with Norman, and why I lost him soon after. They said it was the woman's way of taking revenge." There was a faint shudder in her voice.
"But we were still happy, you know, even if we had lost all those tiny angels. Nando, there isn't another man in the world like him. He wanted to be a judge in the high courts and run a hacienda, too. Talk about ambition. I used to lose so much sleep because he'd be detailing his plans for our future nonstop until dawn. I didn't mind so much because I loved him. He took me to the city, away from the town in the foothills where I grew up and brought me to the city. There I was, a mountain girl, married to a promising attorney. I never thought it would happen, not even in my wildest dreams."
"And how good he was. He hadn't a vice, would rather stay home with me than drink and gamble. I am certain to this day that he never touched any woman other than me. He wanted a stable of sons, ten if possible. When I had troubles with my pregnancies, he would drop his work and never leave my side for up to a week."
"Even in that house, we were in paradise. He wanted to sell it and move into a house of his own design, because he knew that the strange goings-on frightened and bothered me. He was always telling me to bear it a little longer, because pretty soon we'd have a new place of our own."
"With Norman's coming, I thought the dark days were finally over. But I was wrong." Here Lola Concha paused.
"It's the ghost, isn't it," I bit out. "It wouldn't let you be."
She gave me a small smile. At the corners, her lips trembled. "No, hija, not even a demon can be as powerful as a war."
"Nando had been a cadet corps officer in his younger days and when the war came, we couldn't avoid the draft. How I cried the day he went off to duty in the USAFFE. Norman was so young and I was afraid to leave him, so I couldn't even see Nando off at the pier."
"For two years I had no word of Nando, nothing at all. It was so hard to get by--I had to sell most of the furniture, the antiques and my mother-in-law's jewelry just to be able to get a little powdered milk for the baby. If it weren't the Japs come to demand all the meager food we had managed to scrimp, it was guerillas who carted off the few chickens I had. You couldn't stop worrying and being afraid. The servants all left and I was alone in that big house, with an infant."
"You were alone?" I repeated. "Were you able to protect yourself against the ghosts?"
This time Lola Concha let out a chuckle. "Those war years were probably the most quiet I've had in that house. Not a peep, not a single movement all that time. Suddenly it was like there no longer was anyone or anything watching you all the time, lurking in the shadows. The house was totally, undeniably empty, like my world. My fear changed from being otherworldly to a real terror at the thought that my baby and I would not survive."
"One day, a truck full of Japanese soldiers drove up and pushed Norman and I out into the streets with nothing except the clothes on our backs, not even giving me time to collect a single baby bottle. Some friends took pity on me and for a while we shuffled from home to home. Things got so bad I had to collect wild yams from the fields, walking miles everyday with a baby in my arms, to try to sell them at the market. Our house had been used as an officers' quarters and every time I passed by how I used to wish the ghosts would return and drive those scoundrels clear mad--the only time I ever wanted their presence, and so badly at that."
Lola Concha cleared her throat and went on. "The hardship and the suffering seemed to go on forever. My baby, who had been sickly even before the war, was a heartbreaking sight--so thin and covered with sores from malnutrition."
Lola Concha's voice wavered. "I lost him halfway through the war. I wasn't able to save him; one morning I woke up and beside me he was cold as ice, his tiny perfect body curled up against mine. Oh, my Lord." She took a deep breath, and on reflex, I reached out to stroke her back.
A long moment passed, the shadows on the floor grew longer and more sounds tinkled in--dogs barking, vendors rattling their carts past on the way home.
"Lola," I started. It was now or never. "They say that..."
"That I killed my husband," Lola Concha finished in a faint voice. She looked up at the altar. "I think I did, hija."
I couldn't speak. I felt her hand on mine, it was dry and light as paper.
"Things were never the same after the war. I did see Nando again, after liberation. The Japanese had fled from the city and I ventured inside the house again, spent a whole week scrubbing it of their reek. Then Nando showed up, almost unrecognizable, the skin so tight on his head he looked like a skull. He had shrunk so much that I was able to dress him up in a pair of my pants. He was so infested with lice that his skin was pitted and almost black."
"When I saw him I started wailing about Norman, but he pushed past me without a word and lay immobile on the dining room floor. I couldn't even get him to talk about what he had gone through. Eventually, he said that he had gone up the mountains after the surrender, and joined a guerilla unit."
Lola Concha gripped my hand. "I hated him so much, child, she said, shaking her head and shutting her eyes tightly. "I couldn't understand how he could fight for his country and not for his family. I flung all the blame to him--I believed that had he returned our son would still be alive."
"I resented his long silences, sitting in a chair all day long and staring into space, when I couldn't even indulge in my own suffering because still, there was a house to be kept, chores to be done, as if hell hadn't come and scorched us all raw. All I thought about was that my son was dead," Lola Concha rasped. "He had died without a father."
"He couldn't go back to work so I struggled to live on the small pension they sent to soldiers after the war. What was unbearable to me was that he never mentioned our son, never asked about how he died and where I had buried him."
"It's true what they say, she whispered, that I neglected him. Eventually I couldn't look at him in the face without wanting to spit at him, and I moved to the other wing and left him in the maid's care. It was as if time stopped in that house. I wasn't even aware of how many years had gone by until the morning that we found him dead in his bathroom. And even then I didn't want to know."
But after the funeral, some men came to the house. Strangers from Luzon; they told me of what had really happened. They had been with Nando in the Death March. I had heard about the march but wasn't prepared for what they told me--the long, torturous trek, the churning in the gut, the desperation of hunger and thirst, the comrades dying in their arms. Many times, madam, they said, grown, grizzled men with tears streaming down their faces, many times you had wanted to grab a Jap sentry's rifle and shoot yourself in the mouth, to have all of it end."
"Nando had lied. He didn't serve in the guerilla. With the other prisoners he was sent to the concentration camp in Capas, and what he experienced there, I couldn't even imagine. We were familiar with hunger during the war, but in Capas, the prisoners were treated like dogs, starved and made to live like animals. One of the visitors had been with Nando on the burial detail, he said they buried corpses from dawn to dusk, even those who were still breathing but had little chance to live."
"Ma'am, one of them said, he spoke of you all the time. You have to understand, that having a loved one out there was a greater comfort to us in there than heaven itself. "
I felt a searing in my throat. A shrill sound was coming out of Lola Concha's lips; I put my arm around her as she keened. "My poor, lost Nando. A ghost before his time. I realized too late how much we had both suffered. Instead of helping him heal, and letting myself be healed, I pushed him away."
"So yes, I did kill him", Lola Concha whispered. "In that house, surrounded by so much darkness, to take away my own pain, I punished him."
"When hija," she cried, "we had survived, unlike so many unfortunate others. But instead of moving on, I buried my heart, and wished him dead, until one morning, he was."
Night had fallen without our noticing and we sat still in the darkness, aware that something fragile had broken open, its fragments irretrievable.
It was Lola Concha herself who came up with the finale. The house was to be exorcised and purged of its demonic elements once and for all, the site it stood on to be purified. She had put it off for so long but now it was time. It was an idea that appealed enormously to the whole congregation of the Risen Messiah; they had developed a habit of invoking the mighty name of Christ to banish everything from laziness to lesbianism, so why not take on this infamous house that might possibly even be the portals to hell?
Preparations were underway minutes after the proposal had been brought up in the weekly meeting. Pastor Gerry quickly selected the ghost-busting group--no minors and seniors except for Lola Concha--and a briefing was held to re-orient them on the wily ruses and snares that the minions of evil might lay in their path. Each member was told to reread the passage on the temptation in the wilderness, as well as the fifth installment of a comics series penned by a converted, former Satan worshipper, divulging the tendencies of minor devils. Everyone went home grim and determined except for some of the prayer warriors, who complained about having to stay at the church during the event for remote assistance. My mother made the phone call to the new owners of the house, and triumphantly received entry permission.
I went by unnoticed in the flurry of activity, though I had come prepared to give a thanksgiving speech, and to please my mother, a vague testimony of enlightenment. But just as I was about to make my way to the door, Lola Concha called out to me, inviting me to the exorcism, much to the Pastor's dismay.
I feigned indifference to the operation, although by morning I was groggy from sleeplessness, mistakenly picking up a dictionary instead of a Bible and earning a few reprimands on the way to the house.
The house stood just as I had left it four years ago, albeit with more vines creeping up its walls and a noticeable crack down its right cheek. We stood in the crisp morning air, some of the ladies shivering for effect. Presently, the current caretaker, a bent old man, emerged from the side and unlocked the rickety gates, scratching his head as our troop went past.
As the huge front doors were being opened, I pushed past everyone until I was standing at the head of the crowd, at Pastor Gerry's elbow and Lola Concha's right. The interiors seemed to resist the sudden flood of sunlight, and it took a split second before we could see the enormous grand staircase, branching off to two smaller ones at the sides, some feet away. The broad wooden planks creaked under our restless feet, every inch filmed with dust. It was quiet inside, except for our heavy collective breathing.
It was as magnificent as we had imagined for years. The crown moldings on the ceiling were still intact, the wood resonant and strong, exuding majesty though the high ceiling was patched with mold, the walls laced with cobwebs and the stale air ripe with the scent of rat droppings.
"There's where it appears." Someone lifted a hand to point to the wide staircase, which another one promptly yanked down with a whispered reminder of the folk taboo. Pastor Gerry turned around to address the group, repeating the agreed-upon route we were to take around the house.
To the left side were double doors which, when opened, revealed the parlor, a large wood-paneled room forlorn with a few scattered cane chairs and patches on the wall where the pictures had been taken down. Holding his Bible aloft, Pastor Gerry led the group in a hasty prayer, and after reading several biblical passages, raised his voice to issue the command for the demons to depart, in the name of Christ. The group held its breath for a moment, and when it became apparent that nothing would materialize in objection, broke into relieved chatter.
We moved on, in high spirits, to the right side doors of the library and dining room to repeat the process. There were scarcely any furniture left, though it was easy to imagine how grandly the rooms had once been outfitted, from the pale silhouettes of long gone bookcases, cupboards, and side tables on the walls.
Near the back of the staircase was the kitchen, and Lola Concha instructed the Pastor to wrench open a small door that hid the smaller stairs servants used to get to the second floor. Without protest the group squeezed into the tight passage and emerging from it, we found ourselves on the right wing of the house.
There were four rooms in this wing, the biggest of which Lola Concha pointed out as having been hers. She strode across while we scattered off to examine the skeleton of her four-poster bed, a delicately carved night table inlaid with mother of pearl which had apparently been overlooked in the inventory, and all the other remnants of her hermit years. Pastor Gerry stood by the door, and after some minutes cleared his throat impatiently. Immediately, we hurried back to formation, the horror of realizing a few moments' isolation palpable in the air.
The rites were performed in the three other rooms, leaving the master bedroom at the far end of the left wing last. The chatter, which had been rising steadily, along with the adrenaline rush of darting away from the huddled bodies to open a window, slowly died down as we approached the door where in Lola Concha's words "everyone I knew in this house had died."
The room was stifling, with the two windows boarded up. On the floor lay debris from the ceiling--a part of it had crashed down--adding further to the melancholy atmosphere. The only fixture in the room, a tall thin wardrobe, sat in a corner, and a few women jumped at seeing their reflection on its mirrored doors.
I looked at Lola Concha; her face was drawn with an infinite sadness. She took the Pastor's arm, and slowly pushed open the door to the bathroom, where her husband had died far from her sight.
The tiny black and white twenties-era tiles were green with age, the small bathtub gray with lime. On the wooden cabinet above the sink were still tiny bottles with faded labels, standing at attention as though waiting for someone.
Pastor Gerry intoned the invocation; Lola Concha's head was bowed, her lips moving with a prayer of her own. When she lifted her head a pained expression flashed on her face, transforming her wrinkled features with a strange energy.
After the ceremony was finished, we moved out of the room lightly, down the hall to the grand staircase, discussing the feasibility of a batchoy lunch downtown. The sun was now high in the sky; the light streamed through windows that had been opened, wiping away the shadows. Some heaved sighs of relief; my mother giggled when mention was made of her fear.
Down the staircase, with its smooth arms of wood, we could see the open front doors and the street beyond. We were at the last station. Pastor Gerry flipped his Bible open and began to read the first lines of Psalm 23.
It was then that the wind came. It rushed down the stairs, sped to the front doors, slamming them closed. The walls threw back our screams, upstairs the windows were rattling like sinister applause. The wind clutched at our clothes, our hair. One woman shrieked, "There it is!" setting the others off like dominoes.
"Look up, there's someone there!"
I closed my eyes, hearing Pastor Gerry's voice struggling beneath the panicked noise.
"In the name of Jesus, in his holy blood, BE GONE!"
When I opened my eyes, everything was still. A weak light suffused the room. The women were on their knees, holding their heads. My mother clung trembling to my leg. Pastor Gerry was slumped on the step, gripping his Bible. Only Lola Concha was slowly rising to her feet.
"Pastor," she said. "Is it gone?"
Her frail voice carried the beginnings of a sob.
We all stared, mouths agape, as she crumpled to the ground and wept mightily, without a sound. "Is it gone?" she cried.
The only answer was the clearest silence, unlike anything I have ever heard again.
This was years ago, and the house is long gone. When it was her time, Lola Concha died in her sleep, peacefully, they said--something I wanted so much to believe.
Things have moved on, all memory of the house and its occupants is fading in the town's mind, although sometimes I can still see its rooms and feel its weight, and wonder what it truly was that we all left behind.
"A Ghost Story" has only been published once, in A Different Voice: the PEN Anthology of Fiction by Young Filipino Writers. UST Publishing House, 2008.
Francezca C. Kwe is a freelance writer and published fictionist. She has received the Carlos Palanca and USTetika Awards for her work. She teaches at the University of the Philippines.