A Familiar Haunting on Christmas

by Gilbert Yap Tan (Essay)

(This piece was published in Inquirer.net in 2009 and in the Manila Times in 2016.)

I’m often described as a cerebral person, in short, a nerd. Wearing eyeglasses doesn’t improve the impression I give to others. I’m always carrying a book everywhere I go. Being a wide reader has its advantages: critical thinking, open-mindedness, a broadened view of the world. On the negative side, there’s my being cynical of things emotional and illogical.

So when eerie things started happening in 1990 after Mama died, I chalked them up to coincidences, at first. I was giving a lecture on feature writing to a big group of high school writers when I gave a descriptive example of how I felt on the day Mama died. While I was recalling the last wishes she told me before she was wheeled toward the operating room for her triple heart bypass surgery, the microphone I was using suddenly turned off by itself. Then the karaoke system emitted sounds from radio stations as if someone was turning the tuning dial. A clerk was called to check on the wires and the mike, but found nothing wrong with them. And that was when I remembered that it was the fortieth day after Mama died! I prayed silently for a few seconds before I resumed my lecture. The sound system and the mike worked perfectly after that. And that was the first incident.

A week later, I facilitated a training session for school paper advisers in an air-conditioned lecture hall. I described to the group how Mama, workaholic that she was, would disrupt our sleep whenever she stayed up all night to clean the kitchen, do some hammering (putting up framed family pictures on the wall at 1 AM!), or do the laundry (sloshing and drum roll sounds from the washer and dryer). All of sudden, my lecture was disturbed by what sounded like tree branches being blown by a strong wind and scraping against the windows hidden by heavy drapes. When I drew aside the drapes, it was evident to all of us that it was a sunny day and no tree was outside the windows! Among those in the audience who knew about the recent death of Mama were a bit frightened and many crossed themselves at the thought that Mama was making paramdam to me. I dismissed the thought by joking to the group that maybe Mama was protesting my use of the word workaholic. After all, it was way past the macabre All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days.

On the last weekend of November, I faced the dreaded task of cleaning my room in preparation for Christmas. As was my custom, I took the requisite colds and sinusitis meds before arming myself with a broom, duster, dustpan and disposable mask. Usually, a few minutes of dusting and sweeping would be enough to trigger a sneezing marathon and teary eyes from me. But to my surprise, the dust that swirled around me like a mist smelled like sampaguita flowers. The scent was so strong I could smell it through the mask I was wearing! For the first and last time in my life, I loved dusting and sweeping. I remembered giving Mama a bottle of Avon sampaguita perfume as a Christmas gift the year before she died. She loved it so much she would spray it on herself anytime she felt like it. I thought to myself then that these events were just coincidental. But these did not prepare me for what happened next.

For the next three weeks leading up to Christmas Eve, I finally came to believe I was haunted by Mama. After a long day in class, I (alone or with co-teachers) would relax over merienda in a local mall before going home. On the first occasion, as soon as I sat with my snack, I heard strains from my favorite classical piece, Meditation from Thais composed by Jules Massenet, over the mall’s public address system. I thought nothing of that at first.

However, over the next three occasions at the same mall, I would hear snippets of the familiar music over and over. On the fifth occasion, my curiosity got the better of me, so I asked a fellow teacher who was snacking with me if she could also hear it. I even hummed it for her. She shook her head and resumed eating her pansit palabok. That set me to thinking that this was more than coincidental. I planned to investigate the phenomenon the next time it happened.

December 24, as I was doing some last-minute shopping at the mall, I heard it again. I immediately put down the grocery basket and went to the music bar in the mezzanine: it had to come from there as I was in the grocery section directly below it. Once there, I asked the saleslady operating the CD player component if she just played Meditation from Thais. She ejected the CD she just played and showed it to me. It was a compilation of “discofied” Christmas songs. With exasperation written all over my face, I went down to the customer relations desk where the PA system was. Again, the same question. And again, I was shown the CD—Maligayang Pasko sa Inyong Lahat by local singers! At that moment, it dawned on me that I was the only one who could hear it! All reason seemed to have left my body as I went home, forgetting to check out at the cashier the things I shopped for earlier.

In my room, I sat on the bed and had a good cry. Those were tears of joy at the belief that Mama loved me, that on that particular Christmas Eve, from the afterlife Mama reached out for me and embraced me.

(Two years later, on a weekly TV show discussing hauntings, guest Lauro Visconde—whose wife and two daughters were murdered—related how he would often find his youngest daughter’s favorite stuffed toy on the floor of her room when he said goodnight to her before he slept. Another guest remarked that it was a familiar haunting because it was done by a departed loved one. A familiar haunting is not scary because it makes use of things familiar to the person being haunted.)

Crimson Crescents

By Gilbert Yap Tan

(This story won first prize for April and the grand prize of the year in the 1988 Mr. & Ms. magazine love story contest. This also appeared in the writer’s blog.)

She was named Bai by her parents who thought she looked like a little Muslim princess with tiny gold earrings shaped like quarter moons on her pierced ears. She was born on the feast of Hariraya which marked the end of thirty days of fasting. Her parents and their Muslim neighbors set about in frenzied preparation for it. Three days after that, her aguela insisted on having Bai’s ears pierced so she could pass on the family heirloom to her eldest granddaughter. Bai was baptized with a Maria appended to her name at the insistence of the kura paroko who ministered the rite.

As a child, Bai often wondered about the contrasts of her background with that of Camar’s. She befriended Camar on a Palm Sunday while on her way to church. She was waving her palaspas with the leaves at the tip folded to look like a flock of birds in flight.

Passing by a group of Muslim youngsters who were about her age, she was curious why they were not dressed for Sunday mass. Then suddenly her palaspas was snatched from her hand by a couple of boys who shouted, “Sarimanok! Sarimanok!” They had mistaken her palm birds for the mythical bird of the Muslims. Bai pleaded with them to give it back but to no avail. Another boy came running after them while hastily rolling a tubao cloth between his hands. With a quick flick of the tubao, the boy hit the back of the palm snatcher who, in his surprise, dropped the palaspas. It was retrieved by the boy with the tubao. An exchange of names soon became an exchange of questions and answers.

“Why are you playing with these palm leaves?”

“This is not a toy. We use this to commemorate the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.”

“Who is Jesus? Is he a prophet like Muhammad?”

“Jesus is the Son of God. Is Muhammad also the Son of God?”

“Muhammad is our prophet. He founded our religion so we could praise Allah, the Holy Name of God. Allah has no son.”

Confusion streaked across Bai’s forehead. “Is your religion different from ours?”

Camar only smiled at her naiveté.

* * *

Camar and Bai went to a high school run by a state university established mainly for Muslim and tribal minorities. They swapped each other’s baon during recess. While Bai had sandwiches, Camar brought quaint but delectable delicacies. But while Bai let the sweet, brittle bijon-like tinagtag crackle between her teeth, Camar just held the sandwich.

“Why are you not eating?”

“We are on fasting starting today which is the beginning of Ramadan,” Camar said matter-of-factly and spat on the floor.

“Why are you doing that? That’s unsanitary! You’ll spread germs that way!” Bai uttered, revulsed at what she just saw.

“During the Ramadan puasa, we abstain from all physical activities. It’s our way of cleansing our souls.” Camar fidgeted in his seat as he explained his “unhygienic” act.

“So that’s what our classmates call your freedom of spit!” Bai blurted out in a loud burst of laughter.

“You can have your sandwich back! Ina was right—all you Christians are pigs. You’ll eat anything anytime even if it’s forbidden by your Bible!” He rose to leave.

“Wait!” Bai caught his hand. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have made fun of your customs.” There was a remorseful tone in her voice.

Camar scrutinized her face as if searching for any trace of insincerity in it. “It’s all right. I’m just cranky for not having eaten anything since this morning. Our first and only meal will be tonight.”

“If I promise not to tell anyone, will you eat this sandwich?”

“If you will let go of my hand, I can eat the sandwich properly.” A smile lit up in his eyes.

* * *

When they entered their freshman year at the state university, the academic atmosphere was burdened with sparks of dissent, discrimination, and dismay. The students were factionalized. The chairmanship of the supreme student council was the bone of contention between Christian and Muslim parties.

Christian students lorded it over the Muslim students and treated them like second-class citizens. Christian teachers and staff members bristled at the dropped hints that they should convert to Islam if they wanted security of tenure. The resentment on both sides was like transparent glass waiting to be shattered.

Bai was often mistaken for a Muslim. She was outrightly rejected by a sorority when she gave her name. She took up nursing because of the lucrative jobs that awaited nurses abroad.

Camar enrolled in AB Political Science for one day he wanted to handle cases involving Muslims. He joined the Black Shirts frat which had a rival—the Ilagas. Frats in the ’70s were named after the two warring groups. Black Shirts were Muslims in black attire who fought the Christians over land disputes. The Ilagas were Visayans resented by the Muslims because they grabbed their lands.

One drizzling night on their way home from classes, Camar took off his tubao which he used as a belt for his denims so Bai could cover her head. A loud voice in the dimly lit alley jolted them.

“Where do you think you’re going, you Black Shirt?”

There were five men in the shadows. They were armed with bats, truncheons, and chains. One figure stepped out and looked at them closely. The man noticed the tubao on Bai’s head and dismissed them. “You may go! You are not the one we’re after.” Camar and Bai hurriedly walked away in fear of whatever else the darkness held in wait for them.

The next day, the news spread all over the campus that a rumble was raging between the Ilagas and the Black Shirts. One Ilaga fratman was found dead with a rosary stuffed down his throat. That night, Purok Medina was razed to the ground by men who angrily shouted, “You Muslims hate us for eating lechon. Now be the lechons yourselves!”

Several classes in one building of the university were cancelled because the homeless Muslims sought shelter there. Bai was among the volunteers who attended to the fire victims. Many of them wore only flimsy malongs since all their clothes and properties were lost in the fire.

Afterwards, when the embers from the fire had become ashes, the anger still seethed and surged. Prayers chanted in loud wails could be heard as they reverberated in the building. The fire took the lives of three children innocent of the two frats’ folly. The sufferings she saw made Bai realize that she had a crucial decision to make.

* * *

The strife was still going on, this time on a wider scale, when Bai passed the board exams. She found a low-paying job at the provincial hospital and was assigned to the unholy graveyard shift from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Camar had gone underground and joined a rebel movement espousing the secession of Mindanao from the Philippines. The writing on the wall called for a holy war—jihad. This only served to drive a deeper wedge leading Camar and Bai to drift apart.

While on duty, Bai was called to assist in the emergency room. A Muslim rebel was seriously wounded during an encounter with the military. “This man could have been my Camar,” she thought. As she cleaned the rebel’s wounds, tears stung her eyes. She tried to hold them back, but it was too late—the floodgates of her memory opened and clouded her vision.

“Bai, I am a Muslim. My religion judges. It urges resistance when and where there is injustice.”

“Why do you have to do this? Don’t you know what it is doing to us, to our lives?” Bai was inconsolable.

“We are only fighting for what is rightfully ours.”

“But this will also bring down a holocaust upon all of us!”

“Yes, I know that . . .” Camar let out a heavy sigh. “But I also know and feel that I love you so much, Bai. The jihad, if it comes, can’t change that.”

“Camar, at this moment, I swear upon the Holy Bible that you are and will always be the only man I love.”

“Bai, on the powerful words of the Koran, I promise you my heart.”

Their irreconcilable differences lost momentum and became trivial on that bittersweet night of parting.

* * *

From that moment on, every shot fired became a thorn inflicted on Bai’s heart. She seemed to see Camar’s face on every casualty in those skirmishes. She became closely attentive to news of encounters in the province. Her ears morbidly waited to hear only one name. She feared the inevitable—she feared for Camar’s life.

The routinary night watch over the patients began to tell on Bai’s disposition. She was restless as she made her rounds. While adjusting the intravenous drip for a patient, she saw a flash of red outside the windowpane. It was Camar waving his ubiquitous tubao. Bai’s heart leaped at the sight of him. It was almost a year since their separation. She pointed towards the morgue wing and hurried to welcome her rebel back. She tried to conceal her nervousness, but it showed in her uneven steps.

Their kisses were passionate. Bai broke away from his lingering embrace. “You must not be seen here. There are soldiers confined here.” There was alarm in her voice.

“I will not be deprived of my chance to see you and to have you in my arms.” Camar looked at her longingly.

“Camar, it is not safe here. I want you to stay on, but you have to go now. Please!” Bai sobbed through her tears.

He brought out his tubao and tenderly wiped her tears. “I will bring your tears with me. They will always remind me of your love.” He took her face in his hands and kissed her once more.

Bai watched the darkness envelop Camar. The future was as murky as ever. Her restlessness lifted only to let anxiety settle down in its place. She heard gunshots nearby. She held an empty medicine tray tightly with both hands. One patient moaned aloud in his troubled sleep. “Everything will be all right,” she told herself. She felt a shudder course through her body. “It will be all right . . .”

She learned that Camar was spotted the night before. Bai did not know what to do and think. She paced the length of the nurses’ quarters. She wanted to cry but she could not. Her handkerchief choked from her constant wringing of it. Later that day, a bunch of tinagtag was delivered to her by a grimy-looking boy. He would not tell her from whom it came. Hurriedly unwrapping the delicacy, Bai found a message meant for her eyes only.

“He is alive, but he wants you by his side. Go to the market. Someone will offer you a mat with the niaga motif. Follow her.”

She filed for a leave on the pretense that her mother was sick. Minutes later, Bai was at the less-frequented handicraft section of the market. It was a time when practicality demanded of people to spend their money on essentials rather than on decor. She contemplated on an oversized basket made of dried water lily stalks and thought of how useful it would be as a clothes hamper. She did not sense the pair of eyes following her every move. Startled, she watched a circular mat unfold before her. She looked up and noticed four gleaming gold-capped teeth in a row surrounded by a smile of a female vendor. Then she recognized the intricate dragon-like designs on the mat. The niaga design!

Bai followed the vendor to the backroom. Her regulation white shoes were replaced by a pair of nondescript black kung fu shoes. A loose batik t-shirt was substituted for her blouse. The woman motioned to her to follow.

She undertook her perilous trek into the mountain recesses with a blindfold and under cover of darkness. When her female escort took off the blindfold, Bai saw the rebels praying in a prone position facing east towards Mecca. She was led gently into a makeshift hut where Camar lay wounded. Tears sprung from her eyes as she rushed to him.

Camar spoke in a hoarse whisper. “It’s qadar that I be wounded. If it is Allah’s will that I die for the movement, then I am resigned to accept my fate.”

“No, Camar! Don’t say that!” she interjected.

“I did not ask you to be here to argue with me, Bai.”

“Camar, you are telling me that your God is a God of vengeance. A God who wants bloodshed. But I know Allah is compassionate and all-knowing as my God is a God of love.”

“I am a Muslim and I stand by my beliefs.”

“But you and I are Filipinos. Let us not allow our cultural differences to separate us from our faith in one God.”

“Yes, it is our faith that unites us all . . .” He spoke slowly and deliberately. “And we are bound not only by love, but also by blood.”

“Rest now, Camar . . . all these will soon pass.”

“Bai, kalimu ko saka . . .”

“I love you too.” And with a heavy heart, she braced herself for the journey back. She stumbled through the rocky precipices of the mountainside. She was in despair and hopelessness clung to her like a heavy cloak.

Back at her quarters, she murmured the prayers of the Rosary for him as she went through a sleepless night. “God, if you can hear this plea, lowly as it is, please enlighten Camar’s mind and keep your love burning in his heart . . .” Dawn crept slowly to reach the fringes of the retreating darkness.

* * *

When he was well enough, Camar sought a private audience with their commander.

“Assalam alaikum, Commander.”

“Assalam, Camar.”

“I want to talk to you about my decision.”

“And that is . . .” The commander gestured to him encouragingly.

After a moment’s hesitation, Camar said, “I’m leaving our movement.”

“You are aware of our movement’s code, are you not?”

“Yes, I am.” Camar swallowed hard.

“You know and yet you still want out?”

“I believe this is my true fate and will accept it, no matter what the outcome is.”

The commander shook his head. He regretted to lose a good follower like Camar, but he must respect his decision. And now he had in his hands the responsibility to perform for their cause. He couldn’t risk the gains achieved by the movement.

A single shot was all it took.

* * *

It was twilight. Stars would be out that night in the cloudless expanse of the sky. People left in trickles. Soon Bai was left alone by the grave of her beloved Camar. The anguish of losing him left her speechless, but thoughts raced around her mind.

Why is it so easy to hate others and so difficult to love in return?

How long will this struggle go on?

How many more will die for what is at stake?

Why Camar? Oh God, why Camar?

His body was found that morning by the roadside and was brought to the hospital morgue. She saw Camar still clutching the bloody tubao to his chest. The tubao was now in her hand—stained by her tears and his blood.

Camar’s words resounded in her consciousness. “And we are bound not only by love, but also by blood.”

Somehow her tears of love and the blood from the heart promised to her by Camar had fused together in that significant piece of cloth. The tubao used by Camar to flick a playmate just so he could retrieve her palaspas, the same cloth that she used as a turban against the drizzle, and the same color that caught her attention when he came down from the mountains just to see and hold her. The memories that plagued her were painful, but the pain that scraped her heart also brought an understanding that somehow made his death more bearable.

Her dark brooding misery found comfort and solace in his ultimate sacrifice in the name of love. Bai promised herself that she would learn to let go in the same way that she had learned to love Camar.

“Go to Allah with my love, Camar, kalimu ko saka . . .” Bai whispered and in the dying light of the sun, her earrings blazed like crimson crescents.