Leping ni Ama

By DM Gasparillo Adil II

(This essay was a finalist for the 3rd Lagulad Prize.)

Seven bittersweet years has passed and I am still haunted by the memory of a dollhouse hanging from the ceiling of my father’s bedroom. I remember so much as though the memories have been kept permanently inside me. Shards and fractals of my past flash before me whenever I close my eyes. The only thing I can picture in the frame, however, is the panoramic view of this colorful wooden box, suspended like a coffer in mid-air. It amuses me how and why a thing so concrete could have such control over my subconscious. I want to run away from the memory of it, but I can’t.

I am speaking of a dollhouse. Not the usual one. I own no photograph of it, but if asked about its appearance, I’m pretty certain I could describe it well based on memory.

The dollhouse was rectangular, about the size of a grocery basket. Its roofing was made of two sections of blood-red fabric sloping in opposite directions and parted in the middle to form the ridge. The sides were generously swathed in red and yellow cloth, all the ends tacked tightly on the edges of the wooden frame to keep the cloth from hanging loose. And for embellishments, the dollhouse was surrounded by floral corded laces, and hanging on the sides were tricolored flaglets, tiny versions of something you’d normally see in a kalilang (wedding) and other Maguindanao cultural festivities.

The miniature house was no ordinary playhouse, my late mother claimed. It was the home of a friendly apparition, a spirit that had always been responsible for our family’s protection and had been living with us in our house in Tacurong City, Sultan Kudarat, for as long as she could remember. I was impartial to my mom’s stories, however. I found them absurd and baseless at times. I have to admit, believing in the supernatural was not my thing. I believed there was no dignity in doing so.

But how could I turn a deaf ear to a home nurtured by stories of the unseen? I’d often contemplate. I had to spare an ear and listen to a few tales despite my stubbornness to succumb to them.

The Maguindanao culture is steeped in folklore. Most of the stories woven by the elderly were passed by mouth, the reason why only a few scriptures about our tribe exist. One particular story that has struck me the most is the story of the leping, a spirit-twin bestowed on a few Maguindanao people. From what I’ve heard, a leping is a specter that takes the form of a water animal, oftentimes a snake or a crocodile. In rare cases, it appears in the form of a male or female human being. This knowledge is not new to me because my father’s leping, as described to me by my mom, is a tall and hulking man. He even has a name—Moharidan.

My mom mentioned that I myself was also gifted with a leping. I cannot remember the exact name she called her, but it sounded like Jessica or Janice, which was quite uncanny for me because it was too Western sounding. I felt hostile about the name.

Another thing about lepings, according to my mom, is that they are gender neutral. This allowed me to harbor a leping of the opposite sex. But despite her claims, I never felt my leping’s existence, to the point that I had to question myself whether my cold rejection had effaced the leping from supernatural existence. I honestly don’t know. In any case, I was too detached to care more.

But there were times when it made me ponder, moments that made me think, “Maybe it isn’t that awful to satisfy the idea? Is this my mom’s way of shooing away my femininity?”

I never officially came out to my parents, but a few traces of my homosexuality surfaced even back then. “Maybe Mom’s just unprepared for the kind of person that I’d grow up to be?”I would ask myself. As painful as it was, I had to dismiss the thought. One leping was enough for the family. My heart had no space for one.

My father and I had a huge age gap. When I was in my early teens, Dad was already in his late sixties. Oftentimes, I would be mistaken for his grandson, something that I found reprehensible. My older siblings were no longer connected with us. Most of them were already married and had families of their own. As the youngest, I was left to look after our dad.

My dad and I never really had a strong connection, mostly because of our generation differences. But despite our polarity, I stuck by his side and watched him age every day. Unlike me, Dad was a believer in the supernatural. I often recall those days when rituals were frequently performed in our house. Most of the ceremonies involved burning incense made from the sun-dried skin of marang or lanzones. It wasn’t the most perfumy scent you could imagine as a child. My nose has become so familiar with the stinging, pungent odor of these dried fruit peelings that if they are burned in front of me right now, I will be able to detect them.

In these rituals, food was abundant, as the elderly would normally prepare dulang (food in trays), which in our house usually consisted of black rice cake fashioned in the shape of a crocodile garnished with pieces of chicken. They said that the custom was meant to take captive of lepings and gain spiritual control over them. I shrugged at the idea, but I listened. After all, there’s no harm in lending an ear.

To complete the ritual sagrado (sacred ritual), my dad would then invite a group of panditas (Moro priests) to utter the invocations and raise the offerings to the spirits. We call the feast kanduli, a ceremonial celebration of prayers. This was a common event in our house, and I can no longer keep track of how many rituals I have attended.

Lepings, said the elderly, must be sheltered in a small house. When I heard of this, I finally understood the presence of that ornament in my dad’s bedroom. My aunt calls it walay a binaning—“the yellow house.” I have to admit, I only saw it as a made-for-play dollhouse, maybe an old toy that my dad owned when he was younger. But I was wrong all along. Even so, I kept my principles unbent.

Unlike other kids, who’d normally cry in fear when told of ghost stories, I didn’t allow superstitions to get the best of me. My mindset was simple: to see is to believe. I held on to this notion to help sort out my thoughts. This liberated me from the overwhelming supernatural universe.

When my curiosity crept up to me one day, I gathered all the courage I could and climbed the cabinet beside the dollhouse. I leaned to get close to the dollhouse, hanging with one arm, my hand gripping the top of the cabinet like a chimpanzee napping on an iron tree, and my feet perched on the side of the cabinet. How pathetic of me to give in to the pressure.

I looked at the dollhouse, even touching it with my hand. I didn’t see anything remarkable there. It seemed to me to be nothing but a plain wooden box wrapped in decoration. What made it special to the other members of my family was a puzzle for me. So I tried to fill my curiosity further.

In the middle was a cloth that separated the house in two. One side was built as a replica of a dining area. Salad plates with traces of days-old food were the primary reason for my assumption. Beside the small porcelain plates was a tall shot glass like the ones used by my titos when drinking liquor. It served as the drinking glass of whoever or whatever was living inside the tiny house. In my memory, the glass was half-empty at the time.

“Where did all the water go?” I asked myself.

A side of me dwelled on the logic—it’s simple: the water dissipated or volatilized into the air because of the high room temperature. However, the other side of my brain couldn’t resist falling into the grotesque. My mind was filled with pictures of my dad’s leping chugging water from the single-ounce glass. Good Lord, I wasn’t prepared for that. Still, I remained firm no matter the dread. When I was done calming my senses, I continued raiding the spirit’s peaceful abode.

The other room, I supposed, was modeled like that of a bedroom. On top of a silken cushion were puffy pillows tucked neatly on the side. “Fancy,” I said. The extravagance of the exterior matched the vibe of the inside. It was an achievement unlocked. For a house made for an unseen force, it was well kept and appropriately designed.

* * *

Years passed, and still I had no close encounter with my dad’s leping, or any leping for that matter. But I sure heard a few stories from many people, mostly from relatives, and some from the clients of my dad, who was a lawyer.

We had a lot of people going in and out of the house. Some claimed to have met Moharidan and had personal encounters with him, while some, like me, just decided to turn a deaf ear on such ridiculous matters.

One story revolved around our dining customs. We ate at a long antique wooden table. And per my dad’s order, we must reserve a seat solely for his leping. The chair that we prepared was draped in purple inaul (Maguindanao handwoven textile). It also had a comfy golden pillow to sit on that served as a warning sign, suggesting that someone was eating on that particular chair and he must not be disturbed.

If you had never been to our home, or let’s say you were a newcomer, you’d probably raise your brow at us. “Who eats with spirits?” you might say. Madmen, I guess. I can’t imagine sharing this story with most of my high school classmates without them freaking out or thinking we are a family of lunatics. 

One of my high school classmates, Haron, whose dad was a close friend of my father’s, once joined a trip with my father to a cave in Cotabato City. Haron remembered the experience well and told me that my dad’s leping was a natural dweller of the cave. They offered Moharidan an abundant meal consisting of unseasoned fried fish and roasted meat, said to be the favorite of lepings.

It’s not just our family that has been involved in this supernatural experience. Our small community also has encounters with my dad’s leping. There has been a lot of cold sightings reported in our neighborhood. This entity has been seen circling our house as if he’s guarding something within. Maybe my mom was right? Is the apparition protecting something from within—our family?

Most people in San Pablo, our barangay, know each other, so whenever an event that’s worthy of attention takes place, it sparks up a round of gossip among the men and women. From the stories of those who have seen Moharidan, he is a spitting image of my dad, only taller and more brusko. This is the reason why a lot of people would engage in conversations with the leping not knowing it wasn’t my dad they were talking to. I can’t imagine the horror that these people felt when they discovered the truth.

In most of their narratives, they described Moharidan as timid and quiet, qualities that would certainly raise speculations if you knew my dad. They were the opposite of his true personality. We knew him as a blathering old man, someone who had enough bandwidth to narrate his entire biography. I witnessed him do it many times, and I cannot be wrong when I say that my dad had a memory similar to that of a high-end computer. He could blab about his experiences for hours on end.

My father’s clients had their own tales as well. My dad was a hospitable man, they told me.  He’d normally accommodate people in our house, conversing with them over tea or coffee and entertaining them with faded pictures of our ancestral tree. Some even slept at our place during long work travels. Ours was an open house. My dad’s friends were free to treat our home as their own. However, it wasn’t a pleasant experience for some. Several guests reported encounters of my dad meandering in the middle of the night. In the morning, when they would ask my dad about it, my dad would just deny the allegations and put the blame on his leping. He’d often joke about it, throw a little laugh and satisfy his ego. “Maybe he was only looking for something cold to drink, maybe a glass of orange juice or a bottle of soda to quench his thirst, and then got a little playful and performed a little spectacle for our cozy visitors. You know, for attention.”

In my father’s defense, he made it clear to our guests that Moharidan was exceedingly territorial. “He’s always like this,” my dad would say. “He’s only protecting us from danger.”

Our humble home had been a mystery to many. But my father chose to settle for the bright side. The leping was a gift to us—a vanguard. As long as we had the spirit, no trace of danger should ever set foot inside our house.

At some point, I had to give him the benefit of the doubt. Though our family had chosen to coexist with a supernatural entity, no occurrences of violent or detrimental events within our neighborhood had been recorded. That alone was enough to justify that Moharidan was a good spirit and not a vile, malevolent phantasm like in horror movies.

* * *

When my mom passed away, my father married again for the fourth time. In our religion, men are allowed to marry multiple women as long as they could sustain their needs. This is known as duwaya, practiced by the Muslim populace under the Sharia or Islamic Law.

My stepmom loved taking pictures of my father. One time, she accidentally took a photo of what we thought was him standing right outside their bedroom door. How could I ever forget that photo? It’s displayed right in the middle of our living room, adjacent to our twenty-five-inch Sharp TV set. The man in that portrait has the weirdest smile that I’ve ever seen in my entire life. It’s so agonizing to look at that I often avert my eyes whenever I come in contact with the portrait. The man in frame emits a bright aura as if a high-intensity flash was used by my stepmother. Our cheap Kodak camera couldn’t achieve that.

At first glance, you’d say that it’s my dad because the “person” in the picture has the same facial features as he had—a bald head, a large, well-chiseled nose, a set of pleading eyes, and a wrinkly smile revealing his not-so-young age. It was my aunt Ola who told us that what was captured in the frame was actually Moharidan. 

Aunt Ola has a firm knowledge of the supernatural and has performed quite a few traditional rituals in our home, mostly healing rituals for my dad. I remember a particular ritual she did on me. It had something to do with correcting what my family believed as my misplaced sexuality. My dad was bothered about me leaning more to my feminine side. Like my mom, he was scared that I’d grow up gay. His speculations were true. But I was against the ritual and had a few grumbles. How could a glass of water make me straight? Thinking of it more only disappointed me.

Whenever I look back at that moment, my objection toward these kinds of rituals strengthens. But I can’t blame my dad. The early 2000s was still a difficult time for gay people. I had no choice but to follow. It was between my pride and that bewitched glass of water. My fear gave the final answer.

When my aunt started reciting incantations, I felt a few chills. She was holding a glass of water while her stare pierced through it. By her mumbling, I was certain that she was talking to someone, something. She then forced me to drink the water until the last drop in exactly three full swallows. Which I only did because of my father.  Did it “cure” the “malady” that I was born with? I don’t think so. I’ve never believed it would, in the first place. All these rituals and counter-rituals were common in our house, but nobody could fully uncover the secrets lurking there.

* * *

When my dad died seven years ago, the miniature house was left in the good hands of my stepmother as she was the only living wife of my father. I thought my father’s death marked the end of all of the encounters, until one day, my stepmom called for another ritual to commemorate my dad’s passing.

Kulintangs were lined up in our living room that day. It was a sacrificial ritual for my dad’s leping. I knew it because we offered food, music, and prayers. As the musicians played the instruments, my stepmom exploded in a loud sob. She started dancing—and crying—and dancing. These two in no particular order. It was the moment I feared the most. I was glued in my chair, jaws wide open, perplexed because of disbelief. I had only seen such a scene in movies, but god, it seemed as though my stepmother was possessed! And I could not discern what was about to happen next.

She was already in her fifties when all of these took place, and seeing her run around our sala like a twenty-year-old ballerina, holding a malong (tubelike wraparound cloth) and a tondong (veil) in her arms, dancing lively while in deep pain, was a terrifying spectacle for me and the housemaids who also witnessed it.

“If lepings aren’t real, why is there so much emotion in this room today?” I asked myself. The emotions that enveloped the room seemed so real that I cannot say that it was only my stepmom’s act. I can still remember the sound of her cry until now. It was a cry for desperation, a series of deep, sharp sobs—the kind that gets your lungs pumping so fast and gasping for air.

Behind the joyous music echoing in the background, there were screams of pain and agony coming from her as though Moharidan was also mourning my father’s death. That was the first and last time that I allowed myself to believe in the supernatural. “Enough!” I pleaded in my mind.

Although I’ve been partly traumatized, I am thankful that I got to experience these events in my childhood. As I am now away from my stepfamily, I am certain that they’re still doing the usual—eating with the leping, leaving food and water for it to eat and drink, and diligently maintaining its peaceful abode hanging from the ceiling of the master’s bedroom.

Now that I’m staying in Davao, a bustling city more than a hundred kilometers away from the province of Sultan Kudarat, I still look back on memories of my hometown and contemplate on the stories that lived with it.

A part of me still does not believe in spirits, but whenever I try to run away, glimpses of my father’s leping drinking water in the shot glass inside the yellow dollhouse recur in my memory. I am trapped in this never-ending cycle, bugged by questions that are so complex the resolve for which I haven’t found yet.

Why do we eat with spirits? Is family not enough as company? Maybe back then my leping was also with my dad and his leping, eating together at our dinner table, in a simulacrum of what a happy home could have been if the world was more accepting. That might have been it.