Fireflies

By Adonis Hornoz
Fiction

Mutya was looking through the window of their house that cold Sunday evening when her sight was attracted by a glowing light. It was a yellow lighted insect flying smoothly in the air. She knew that this was an ipot-ipot, a firefly, which her parents often described to her as a bad spirit that led people to a kama-kama. Fireflies often appeared in the house’s backyard after a light rain every rainy season of June to October. Once they had lured a target, their intermittent light would lead the target to the dense area where no one was around and where the kama-kama was waiting. But because she wanted to explore that dark evening, Mutya went out of the house and caught some of the fireflies and later put them in a small glass jar.

The fireflies seemed to synchronize their glow with one another. And while Mutya’s eyes were filled with wonders of the insects, her mother noticed the glass jar she was holding.

“What is that, Mutya?” Doray asked. “You are not supposed to catch them.”

“Sorry, Mang, but they are so attractive. Besides, I didn’t see any kama-kama.”

Kama-kama were human-like creatures living mostly in anthills, thickets, and tall trees and had grotesque faces with long nails and beards. Mutya didn’t believe the old folk story. For her, it had just been created to scare children like her during nighttime.

“Set them free before your father sees them.”

Disappointed, Mutya opened the glass jar, and one by one, the fireflies freely flew out of the house, still glimmering, until they faded out of her sight.

Doray always saw to it that she was taking good care of her children even though she was always busy planting and weeding her family’s vegetable garden in their farm situated far from their small house. She was a loving mother of six children with her husband Tinoy who was a construction worker. Two of her daughters, Linda and Joy, were fostered by her sister Delia who owned a sari-sari store in the next village. Doray and Tinoy had foreseen that these two daughters could have better futures with their aunt, so they let them be raised by Delia. In return for being sent to school, Linda and Joy were working for their aunt as helps and cashiers in the store. Kaloy, on the other hand, the eldest of the siblings, had not been able to pursue college and started working with his father in the construction site in town two years after he finished high school. After all, he did not know what course to get for college. The other siblings, Mutya and Sarah, were in elementary, while Tonton was not yet studying.

Every morning, Doray always prepared sweetened cassava and sometimes camote or banana for the sisters to bring to school.

“Oh, Mutya, Sarah, get your bags now and hurry for school,” said Doray as she put the sweetened cassava in the cellophane for the girls’ merienda. “Your father and Manong Kaloy are waiting for you outside.”

“Yes, Mang,” answered the girls in unison as they hurried outside the house. They had to walk six kilometers to reach the nearest elementary school. That was why they had to wake up early every morning.

Their house was near a stream and surrounded by coconut trees. In their backyard were lush vegetation of camote, cassava, okra, and a small tree of balunggay primarily for their consumption and sometimes for the neighbors who would ask for them.

* * *

The dogs were howling plaintively when Doray was preparing for the family’s dinner while the kids were playing. Kaloy, on the other hand, was wiping his bike with a piece of old cloth. His father, Tinoy, was watching him while smoking. Finally, Doray called them for dinner.

“Pang,” Doray said while holding Tonton in her lap. “How was your day? I heard Bong was laid off in your construction. Is there anything he did wrong?”

“Ah, he did nothing wrong, but the project had a budget cut, so some workers had to be laid off. Bong is so pissed off. We were not informed ahead of their plan.”

“Who would not feel bad about that? Even Delia feels bad with what happened to her husband. Anyway, it’s good that you were not included in those who were dismissed. You wouldn’t be a tambay again.”

“Ha-ha. Of course, your husband is lucky and wise.”

“Sarah,” Doray said, cutting her conversation with her husband, as she saw the girl playing with her food. “Stop playing with your food and eat now. And by the way, go home straight after your school and do not ever play in the woods. Sinda is again rampant now. You better be alarmed after Nong Popoy cured Taling’s son this morning. They said the kid must have trampled on a kama-kama after he played in the dense area of their yard. The kama-kama must have punished him.”

“What happened to the kid then?” Tinoy asked.

“His left foot was swollen. He must have stepped by the area where the spirits are peacefully living.”

The neighbors in Sitio Cuello had a strong belief in the existence of the unseen—spirits that were peacefully living in the dense areas specifically on tall trees and mounds. According to the belief of the old people, when disturbed by humans, the spirits sought revenge by making ill those who had disturbed their silence. However, there were so-called white spirits. They were considered less vicious than the black ones. Once a person happened to disturb and upset these spirits, another way to be healed aside from asking help from a babaylan was to offer them fruit or white chicken’s blood and a prayer.

Doray was even more cautious with situations like this. She would always recall and retell her childhood days to her children after she intentionally shovelled any mound in their backyard. She had once wanted to prove that stories about spirits were not true. She destroyed an anthill, and that incident caused her left arm to swell and bloat in red. Thankfully, Nong Popoy came to the rescue. Old Popoy was a babaylan, a folk healer or albularyo believed to have a power and ability to fight bad spirits by performing odd rituals. After a week, Doray’s left arm got well, and never did she try again to disturb the mound. That experience made her believe that they existed.

* * *

The serenity of the rays of the sun was up, but Mutya was still fixed in bed. Tinoy was sipping his native coffee, while Kaloy was facing a small mirror combing his hair. Doray was now annoyed because she had told Mutya many times to wake up.

“Mutya!” called Doray for nth time, but she received no answer. She hurried to her room and realized Mutya was shivering.

Ay ginoo ko! You have a fever.”

“Mang, my head is terribly aching,” Mutya uttered in a low voice while she felt her mother’s palm on her sweaty, hot forehead. She was about to cry, but Doray’s tenderly comfort stopped her. Instead, she closed her eyes and covered herself with the blanket.

Doray prepared a wet towel and put it on Mutya’s forehead. This was also what her mother would do before when Doray was still young and sick. Doray then boiled guava and pomelo leaves for Mutya’s bath. She also cooked porridge, for Mutya had a hard time chewing her food.

After four days, Mutya was still not able to attend her classes. Doray and even the whole family were worried about her. It was also the fourth day since Doray was not able to sleep well. She had been trying to lower her daughter’s fever by keeping a wet towel on her forehead, but Mutya had not shown any sign of recovery. On the fifth day, Mutya complained of muscle pain and vomited several times. And at nighttime, she even had recurring seizures and would wake up sweating, telling her mother that she was disturbed by a noise. The young girl said she could hear different voices from outside the room. This alarmed Doray, and she decided to take her daughter to Nong Popoy.

* * *

“What did you do before you fell ill?” Nong Popoy asked Mutya.

“I saw her last Sunday night catching fireflies,” answered Doray without waiting Mutya to give hers.

“Ahh, you must have disturbed something, and this is a sinda. You know these fireflies. They are bad spirits that serve the kama-kama.”

Mutya was silent, observing what the old babaylan was doing.

Immediately, Nong Popoy got a dried ginger and gave it to Mutya. Sitting in sweat, she was ordered to hold the ginger tightly in her left hand. The old babaylan then held in his hand a dried coconut shell with a gold crystal-like resin, called kamangyan, and some dried leaves. He lit it with a match, and it started to produce smoke. Nong Popoy blew it a couple of times until he placed it on the floor. He then brought out the heated manunggal vine and smeared it on the girl’s stomach and tongue.

As the scent of the kamangyan filled the ambience of the house, Nong Popoy started to open his mouth and uttered several statements and prayers which Mutya and Doray can barely understand. Mutya, still closing her eyes and suffering from the bitter taste of the manunggal, is sweating. Doray, on the other hand, clutched her hands together like a devout believer of the old man, faithfully praying for her daughter.

Soon, Old Popoy ended his rite with his finger smearing an ash on Mutya’s forehead.

Sa ngalan sang Amay, sang Anak, kag sang Espirito Santo,” Nong Popoy recited as he formed a cross on Mutya’s forehead.

“Will she be OK now, Nong?”

“Let us wait, but it is best to always see her and check her fever. Continue to put a wet towel on her forehead to lower her fever. Give her also paracetamol.” Nong Popoy added, “Take her home now for her to rest.”

Doray handed him twenty pesos and went back home with Mutya.

* * *

Doray is preparing porridge for Mutya when she heard a loud shout coming from the room.

“Mang!” Sarah cried.

Doray dropped the ladle and immediately hurried to the girls’ room. Doray trembled. She was afraid of what had happened. Tinoy also rushed to see what the commotion was all about. From the small nipa door of the room, it was visible, the body of the little girl lying cold and frail.

“Mutya!” Doray cried. “What happened to you, gang?”

Tinoy right away held his daughter in his arms and carried her outside of the room. “Hurry! Let us take Mutya to the hospital. This is no longer normal.”

The family asked for help from a neighbor who had a tricycle. It was late in the evening, and darkness was swallowing the peacefulness of Sitio Cuello. Only the fair illumination of the night’s crescent helped the tricycle take Mutya to the hospital. Doray couldn’t stop crying.

When they arrived in the town’s public hospital, Mutya was rushed to the emergency room. Minutes later, the doctor declared Mutya dead on arrival.

Doray, now silently weeping, for she no longer had a voice to scream, was looking at the body of her sweet daughter. Mutya’s eyes were closed, and her skin was pale and cold.

“Your daughter might have had malaria . . .”

Doray, her eyes fixed at nothing in particular, did not hear what the doctor was saying before them. She did not even take time to reflect on what she had done and what had happened. She was blank and empty instead. Maybe she could not believe what had just happened to her daughter. Maybe she was thinking it was her fault. Her tears were gushing down her face, and Tinoy held her in his arms.

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