by Francezca C. Kwe
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.