By Alaric Cabiling
I lived in Manila, Philippines, away from my province of Pampanga up north, home to both my mom and dad and our grandparents. My mom’s family lived in Angeles City, and my dad’s family lived in Macabebe. My grandfather, Juan, moved from Macabebe to Manila when he raised a family. My dad, Adel, was his youngest son from his second wife, Adella. They bought a property and erected a compound on it: a commercial complex with two houses at the back. My mom, Nimfa, lived in Angeles City until she met my dad in college. They met at University of Santo Tomas, a popular university in Manila. I was the youngest of four children in our family.
I’d visit the family home in Angeles City as a child during holidays and summers. One thing had been obvious to all of us for as long as I could remember: the house had many visitations. I don’t mean visits by friends of our uncles and aunts, because they would have guests often. I mean that the place was spiritually charged; many spirits were seen, heard, or felt in the house.
My grandfather was still living when I was born in 1980. I never met my grandmother. She died before I was born. My mom told me about weeping in the guest room by herself one time after Grandma Lola died of cancer, and how she had heard the door open and close shut. But when my mom looked, there was no one. She thought it had to have been my dad.
The large family room was where everyone liked to sit and chat during holidays. When we would cross it to get from the guest room to the formal dining area, we could see on the wall above the bar our grandparents’ pictures watching us. I remember having no problem crossing the space during the day, but my hairs typically stood up when crossing the family room at night by myself. I never liked being by myself in the guest rooms either. I would beg my sister, Coco, and brother, Lex, to accompany me.
Friends of our cousins also said that they would see strangers in black suits and people passing through the hallways from the rooms. A neighbor asked my uncle if a lady in white had stayed with them for over a fortnight. Said lady was reportedly seen standing at the terrace, looking out into the night as her white dress fluttered in the gentle breeze like a kite. My uncle shrugged it off and said that the window to the terrace must have been open, and the curtains must have been blown by the breeze that night. We all knew the answer to the neighbor’s question. There had been nobody fitting that description. The neighbors called our mysterious guest “white lady” after the similar apparition that residents of the Philippines describe in their encounters.
Such things were typical for a child my age. The stories were rampant, and I believed them to be true. It wasn’t until I grew into a teen and stayed over that I began experiencing the visitations for myself.
* * *
I stayed over for the summer of 1994, visiting my uncles, aunt, and cousins in the family house in Angeles City for a week. I didn’t think that a weeklong visit would bring forth any scarring reminders of the house’s history. In hindsight, they didn’t scar me. But they certainly scared me back then.
The first days proceeded smoothly. Nothing to write home about. No trouble. In fact, my uncle Jowie even showed me his poultry farm in the country. Uncle Jowie was short and balding, but wickedly funny. I gawked at large housings full of white, fluffy chickens, fattened for the feast. I climbed up there and watched them skitter away from my uncle and me as we walked through the henhouses. My uncle inspected the coop, seeing if there were any tasks being neglected by his tenants. When he was satisfied, we went downstairs and got ready for dinner. My cousin Ann and I retreated indoors and watched the workers prepare the chickens. Ann was the friendliest girl you could meet: down-to-earth and sweet. We often played during summers and Christmases with our other cousins. We played house or bahay-bahayan and pretended to cook meals and make drinks and desserts.
That evening was the first time I’d seen a chicken slaughtered. They held the chickens down and chopped the heads off. The heads were on the floor, the eyes and beaks still moving. Then the chickens’ bodies were held upside down from the feet, blood spattering everywhere as the wings flapped violently. There would be no chicken hauntings to speak of. The last I saw of the chicken was on our dinner plates, served to our delight that evening. I couldn’t resist a jab at my uncle and cousin. “Bon appétit,” I told my uncle Jowie and cousin Ann, holding the chicken head up like a souvenir.
That night, we drove back to the family house in the city. My cousin and I decided to retire to bed early. My uncle Rey was watching TV. He was a big sports fan and loved working out. He had a big training day the next morning, but he was still awake. My uncle Jowie stayed up to smoke. Aunt Malou supervised the help. I went to my room and turned out the light.
It was late, and I assumed that everyone would have already been asleep since it was early morning. However, a female silhouette entered my room and turned the electric fan off. Ah, okay. It must be Aunt Malou, I thought. There was a brief moment when the female silhouette turned to me and stared. It was dark. I couldn’t see her face or what expression was etched on the facial features. I felt a wave of fear penetrate me, like I couldn’t quite sense if my aunt Malou was the person in the room. Maybe it is one of the household help, I thought. Anyway, the person turned to face the door and then left me alone. I had trouble sleeping for the next two hours afterward, thinking that someone else would enter my room. But there was no one else, and eventually I fell asleep.
When I woke up, I went downstairs to the long dining table. My cousin was up, so I greeted her. I saw my aunt Malou was up as well, so I sought to ask. “Tita, did you turn my electric fan off last night?”
She looked puzzled. “No,” she said. “I didn’t.” We had breakfast. I asked Marie, one of the helpers, if she did, and she said no, too. She looked just as concerned that I might have imagined things, until she said, “Wait. Nakakita ka ng multo?” Did you see a ghost? I was dumb struck.
I wasn’t too worried since it was just one night and one incident. The next one did the trick, though. After my next experience, I never slept over again.
* * *
My uncle Rey was out the next night. He was spending time with friends nearby. My two cousins, Jae and Justin, weren’t home either. It was just Ann, Uncle Jowie, Aunt Malou, and me in a big, scary, old house.
Uncle Jowie was at the long dining table, cracking jokes. My cousin Ann and I were laughing along. He told us about their dog, Matilda, who looked just like a kangaroo. “She may look like a dog to you right now, but when everyone’s asleep at night, she gets up on her hind legs and starts jumping around.” He was sipping beer while Ann and I snacked on watermelon seeds and listened to him. The helpers were outside, working.
Aunt Malou was upstairs. She called Ann so she could take her bath. Ann went, and I stayed behind with Uncle Jowie in the dining area. There was nothing noteworthy except for Uncle Jowie’s jokes, until he left to go upstairs for a while to see to something. I decided to stay downstairs and wait for them. The lights were on. There was an old FM radio playing music.
And then it hit me. My hairs stood up. I had the goose bumps. I sensed that the dining area, kitchen area, and sala were crowded with people. There was no one, yet I felt them. No warning. No stories. Just the overwhelming sense of dread from knowing that the room was full of people staring at you, surrounding you, wondering who you were and what you were doing there. I couldn’t move. I was frozen still. When the mad dash of panic dissipated, it was because my uncle Jowie was coming down the stairs and entering the dining area once again.
So, I remember my grandmother’s picture. Lola. I remember her smiling when she was younger in that picture, and I would have liked to think that she would have protected me from any imminent danger that night when I had felt that mad rush of fear. She might have been enraged at the sight of a spirit caravan moving from one place to another while in transit at our family home, and at how the house was at a crossroads where such dimensions like theirs could be more easily perceptible. She might have manifested at just the right time to point her little señiorita, her pistol, like she did when she’d been living, and told off the many spirits in transit at her home to leave me alone—the edges between the physical and spiritual planes blurring so both sides could be more conspicuous—me to them and vice versa. Or, it could have been Uncle Jowie breaking me out of that spell.
My cousin Ryan told me that he had experienced a similar scenario when the lights went out during a power outage, and he was staying over during college. He said that the whole place went dark; it was crawling with people right beside him, in front of him, behind him, and everywhere he looked. He ran outside and waited at the gate until someone arrived.
Coco said the same thing happened to her one night when she arrived home after college, and the lights went out too. She waited for Cousin Ryan at the gate so they could brave the dark, empty house together. She added that pale figures were sometimes seen roaming the backyard close to the pool in late afternoons, when the light was growing bleak. They looked lost, other people had observed. They seemed to gaze at the pool and gaze at the trees. Sometimes, when they walked barefoot on the concrete and stared at things, my sister told me that she would close her eyes and turn away because she knew that they were ghosts. The next time she would look, the people would be gone.
Now that Uncle Jowie is also gone (he passed away recently) and that sightings are becoming more frequent, it’s clear the family home in Angeles City has also seen better days. Uncle Rey cares for his vegetables and flowering plants while Aunt Malou, Jae, and Ann reside there with the grandkids. The place gets older, more decrepit, and new stories are told. The white lady has been spotted on the terrace more than a few times, staring out into cool nights lit with the phosphorescence of dead trees in the yard and the pale haze of the moon above the clouds. She stands there, defiant to time’s irreversible changes, waiting for some eventuality, waiting for destiny’s wings to let the first true witnesses see, see for their own eyes who she really is, who that legend accounts for. And for that fear and dread she inspires in all of us, she might just be an angel with white wings. Who knows? She could have been my Lola all that time, protecting us.
Alaric Cabiling is an author and producer living in Manila, Philippines. He resided in Richmond, Virginia, United States, for seventeen years, and much of his work takes place there. Ukiyoto Publishing House recently published his collection of stories, Il Migliore Del Mondo & Other Stories, on June 2, 2021. He is disabled and identifies as gay.