by Francezca C. Kwe
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.
[yellow_box] “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. [/yellow_box]