Ryan is a consummate storyteller. Whenever he told stories of the place he grew up in, it was as if I was there myself. He grew up in Mindanao, one of the three main islands of the Philippines, in a place where life was idyllic and time moved slowly. His barrio (a term for a local community) is like a Faraday cage—there was no internet, no mobile phone signals, no cable tv. People actually talked, and get to know each other the old fashioned way.
For fun, children still played the usual Filipino games millennials nowadays never bothered. Lovers go to the moonlit-bathed rice fields and profess love to each other during balmy nights with scarecrows as witnesses. Women indulge in gossip during siesta (mid-afternoon nap time). Smartphones are nonexistent. Life was good.
I met Ryan during my stint in a media company. He would tell me stories during my smoke break whenever I worked evenings. It was his way of entertaining me, whenever he saw me super stressed and murderous. There was one story I couldn’t forget as I’ve heard him retell it countless times. He told me he encountered an aswang.
An aswang is a mythological character of Philippine origin. Usually women (but there are also men), they look normal during daytime but turn into vicious human-eating (babies are a favorite) creatures at night. They would anoint themselves in some special oil and transform into a hideous creature with long claws, sharp teeth, and mangy hair. They could also turn into animals, usually a large dog or a pig. Some say becoming an aswang is hereditary. It is usually passed down to relatives, or whoever (usually a close friend) accepts the curse. It can also be passed down to unwilling victims. When an aswang is on her death bed, she would cough up a stone. A relative has to accept it, otherwise, the aswang won’t die. If accepted, the poor soul becomes the new aswang. Other accounts say that one can be infected and become an aswang. One of the reasons why my grandmother used to admonish us not to eat anything given by a stranger stemmed from tales of people becoming an aswang because they were infected.
One such tale was a young man went to a fiesta (festival in honor of a patron saint) and ate some food offered by a couple he met at that place. It turned out that the food served in that house was human meat. The couple were aswangs. A few days later, the man felt sick and vomited a whole bloodied chicken egg. Horrified, his parents consulted an albularyo (folk healer). They were told their son was on his way to becoming an aswang. Had he not vomited that egg in time, it would hatch and it would be too late for him. The young man was my grandfather.
Ryan told me the encounter with the aswang happened one night when he was on his way home from a local dance soiree in an adjacent barrio. He had to pass by this road, that even with the full moon, was made particularly dark by a patch of trees. He heard some soft footsteps among dried leaves. He didn’t mind it at first. He thought it was just some drunk on his way home too. The footsteps grew closer, but whenever he turned around, there was no one. He quickened his steps and hid behind some shrubs. A few minutes later, a huge pig emerged. He felt silly at his being scared by it. He decided to come off from his hiding place, laughed at his ridiculousness, and continued on his way home.
A few minutes later, he again felt like he was being followed. He could feel eyes on him, like he was being watched from the shadows. Fear started to trickle down at the base of his spine. Just when he was going to make a run for it, a soft voice stopped him. It was a young woman, looking luminous under the moonlight. She said she was lost. Oddly though, he couldn’t make out her face, but he swore he looked beautiful with her long hair.
He made small talk to put the woman at ease (and probably himself too) when she asked that they stop for a bit to rest. He was worried as it was getting really late, and his parents were probably worried. Before he could voice his concerns, the woman started convulsing, as if writhing in pain. Ryan became panicky! He has never seen anyone in such state! “Miss, miss, what is happening? Are you in pain?” he asked. He didn’t know what to do. He wrung his hands helplessly in the air as he watched the woman shaking. And then her shaking stopped, as sudden as it started. He stooped down, wanting to help her up. She looked up, and finally, he saw her face—bloodshot red eyes, and her curled mouth, baring sharp teeth.
“And then what happened???” I asked. I really hate it whenever he gets to this part of the story. Usually there is this pregnant pause, with me biting my nails without realizing it. He is so dramatic, so extra, it’s annoying, I muttered under my breath as I rolled my eyes. He’s never gonna tell me what happened next.
My friend Ryan always stops the story at that most crucial part. He does this every night, by my bed side, just when I’m about to sleep, since he died on that fateful night.