They do, however, believe in spirits, engkantos, and the bruha.
My great-great-grandmother from my father’s side once dated your ancestor. From the day they met until her last breath, she had shattered glass eyes—perpetually empty. My mother told me it was because my great-great-grandmother saw everything. But engkantostake the form of what their partners like. The spirit revealed himself too soon. I was frightened of engkantos then after seeing what had happened to my great-great-grandmother. You said you would never fool me.
“We’re going to the mall, Mother,” I said.
“You’re not going out that easily!” she said. “We have to meet him. Your first date should be here. At home.”
This was it, I thought; you were going to back out. As any lion would do to their cubs, my parents still held me by the neck even though I was supposedly an adult. But to my surprise and perhaps even to the surprise of my parents, you arrived in a blinding white car. Decades ago, I’d heard, your kind traveled in carriages made of pearls and lured people into the forest.
I stood behind the door while my father greeted you. His clenched fists were hidden inside his pockets. There were no wrinkles in my father’s shirt. Even his pants were perfectly ironed. His hair was covered in pomade. It was a technique, I thought, to make himself appear taller. He was as nervous as you were. It was the first time he’d met another man in his daughter’s life. But not his first time meeting an engkanto.
My heart pumped as I ran to the kitchen “Mom! Mom!” I shouted. “He’s here.” And for a minute, my mother stopped cooking and looked at me—only silence came out of her lips until she finally said, “I’ll be out there in a second.” You were the first one, human or spirit, brave enough to meet my parents.
You stood tall in a yellow polo with jeans. As soon as you entered our house, I got a whiff of your cologne, which made me want to bury my face in your chest. It was the scent of ylang-ylangflowers, the very same flowers in our garden. You could smell their alluring aroma only at night. But then, I thought, maybe it was never the flowers we smelled. Maybe it was you. The elders called you an engkanto because you were all enchanting. A spirit so beguiling, you had everyone kissing the ground you walked on. Despite your fame and fortune, you chose to live among us.
You extended your hand out to my mother, bowed, and said “mano po” while grabbing her hand and pressing it against your forehead.
“You know how to respect your elders; that’s good,” my mother said, smiling. She turned her gaze toward me. “Get the ensaymadaout of the fridge and put it on a plate. Make sure he eats it. I made it just for the hijo.”
You turned around, glancing at the photos displayed in our living room. You told me about your past, the school we both went to, and how we had never, not even once, talked to each other. You told me that from time to time we had crossed paths in the hallway and how you have been dying to stop me, to only say a solitary hello.
You tried holding my hand, but my father walked into the living room and asked you questions: What are your plans? Why do you like my daughter? Where do you live? Tell me one, no, five, great things about my daughter. Your answers were quick and genuine, andmy father was taken aback.
After dinner, I waved goodbye as your car’s engine roared to life. My mother ushered me inside the house to talk. “He seems nice,” she said with a smile. “You can go out together next time. Just not anywhere too far.” She put her hand in her pocket and out came an amulet, a wooden pendant with a swirl of blue strands in the middle, and she said, as she gave it to me, “Just in case.”
“I don’t need it, Mother.”
“You can never be too sure, dear,” she said, the pendant resting on her palm.
The night before we had our first real date, I dreamt of you. You were walking toward me with a bouquet of ylang-ylang flowers in your hand. The bright petals were blinking yellow with each step you took. They reminded me of sirens.
I blinked, and you were in front of me, just an arm’s length away. The surrounding darkness made the flowers brighter. The petals were shining on your face. This made me calm. The pitch-black background slowly faded, and then it was just you. You offered the ylang-ylang flowers, but as I was about to grab them, you stepped back. You took a deep breath and began to speak.
“Do you promise never to leave this place?”
“Of course,” I said, “this is my home.”
“And I’m a part of it now. You can never leave my side.”
I snatched the ylang-ylang flowers from your hand and said, “These are beautiful. Thank you.” My eyes blinked once more, and I was awake. It felt like fingertips brushed my hair out of my face.
In the morning, my heart stopped at the sight of a yellow petal carefully placed on top of my pillow. A single petal made me jump off of the bed.
You arrived once again, but this time with a different car. I wondered what it actually looked like. Spirits had the ability to make any kind of object mesmerizing; they could glitter even when they were filthy. Beside me, my father whispered, “He’s trying to impress us. It’s not going to work!”
You texted me the night before and told me to bring extra clothes, so I hid them in a small pouch inside my bag. My heart was racing, waiting for Mother to ask me about the bag and the swimsuit. But she didn’t.
I liked it, though. The fact that I was acting as a rebel. Hidden messages, secret roadtrips, and all those lies. I felt free, as if I could do anything I wanted. Breathe, breathe, breathe, I reminded myself. And you, you made it happen.
Before I dipped my toes in hot water, I felt my body shake. It was my first time. The first time my parents knew of a boy, the first time I went on a trip with one, and the first time I felt free. But freedom always came at an expense. I felt the weight of my mother’s trust digging through my heart.
“I don’t think I want to go to Dunsulan Falls,” I told you. My chest was heavy with confusion. Yes, of course I wanted to go, and no, I didn’t tell my mother exactly where we were going. “I just don’t think it’s safe.” A secluded place, hours away from everyone else in the province. Dunsulan Falls was a haven for those that embraced solitude and the natural world, but one slip down the waterfall and it could be hell. Just as all spirits do, waterfalls tend to allure guests with their breathtaking features. There was a perfect balance of fear and excitement raging inside my body.
“You’ll be fine. You’re with me,” you said. “I know how the forest works.”
I stared, ogling at your face, and saw a grin. You talked while you kept your eyes on the road. You seemed so normal. I had to constantly remind myself that you were not human. You were better.
Dunsulan Falls was located forty minutes away from our house through what seemed like a never-ending road in a lush forest landscape. For the first few minutes, sidecar motorcycles and jeepneys passed us, but soon there was nothing, just pavement in the backwoods. “Have you ever been here?” I asked, curious of the fact that you neither stopped for directions nor looked them up on your phone. You said, “No, this is my first time.”
I had to constantly remind myself that you were not human.
I opened my windows right before we reached the parking lot and heard cascading waterfalls in company with the alluring symphonic warble of countless mayabirds. This auditory experience was overwhelming; it enthralled me completely. I snapped back to reality when you opened the door, reached for my hand, and said, “Watch out, the floor’s slippery.” A gentleman, I thought.
We crossed over a wooden bridge to get to the park’s office, and the guides requested us to give them both our names. I felt the need to leave as soon as I saw Dunsulan Falls. A waterfall of running water fed into a pool of fresh water, and under it, I supposed, were slimy mud-covered rocks. I thought of creatures swimming under our feet, waiting for a chance to taste blood once again. I couldn’t see anything underwater. The tallest trees covered the pool like a roof. Shadows of branches and leaves appeared on the murky water. The sun was nowhere to be found.
A man had drowned here once, or so I’d heard. He slipped, and the pool, as if it were alive then, pulled him underwater, and he never saw the Philippine sun again. Locals said it was a deity of the Samat mountains. It was another engkanto—he must have liked the man and kept him. The guide took us to the waterfalls, down a few steps from the office. I wasn’t surprised when you put your bag down on the bare soil, leaning over an old narratree. I was told never to step on the roots of a narra, never to litter or pee around one. The spirits could immediately infest your body. The rules didn’t apply to you, and this eased my restless, worried soul for a bit.
I thought of all the things that could go terribly wrong on our first real date. I could drown, and they would have to call my mother. You could drown, which seemed less likely to involve my parents ever knowing about this trip. My father could have followed us, and, just a few seconds from now, he could show up screaming.
But none of this happened, and it was only when we were finally leaving, after all the firsts that had happened—the first escape from my parents, the first time I had alcohol, the first time I trusted a spirit with my life—that I wished you had drowned instead.
Dunsulan Falls was just one of the six waterfalls in the province. On a sunny day, the water is clear, reflecting lush green leaves. That day, the water was the decaying brown of soil. It’s safe. It just rained all day yesterday, you said, trust me. You tossed the shirt from your bag, gulped down a can of beer you brought, and walked over the edge of the pool.
Moss-covered rocks surrounded by water. I looked at you, your body slowly sinking under. You told me to follow. Step on the rocks underwater. But I couldn’t see anything below. I sighed as my feet touched the ground. I grabbed on to your shoulders, and I slipped. My arms were now around your neck, my chest against your back. Rushing waters pulled us to the mouth, the deepest part of the pool, under the strong current of water falling from the mountain. I started to panic. I gasped for air. You told me, once again, to calm down and trust you. You knew the waterfall more than I did.
“Ah! I felt something touch my hand! A snake!”
You laughed, “That was me. I just wanted to hold your hand.”
“Oh.” I let your hand touch mine for the first time. Our fingers intertwined in the murky waters.
“Do you know what they call that?” you asked, pointing at the top edge of the waterfall. “A lip.” Our fingers slowly let go. I could see your hand then. My lips trembled as you caressed them with your fingers.
“What happened to him?” I asked as I wrapped my arms around myself.
The water seemed cooler. The whistling wind forced the trees to sway without rhythm. It was too strong. Even the maya birds stopped singing.
“To who?” You looked around. “Ah, the tourist. You humans are always so nosy.” You took my hands and unwrapped them from my body. You leaned in. Our lips just a whisper away.
“Was it you? Or did you know who killed him?”
“He should’ve seen it coming. He threw his cigarettes in the lake.” You laughed, “But they wouldn’t ever hurt me.”
I could still see where you left your empty beer can. “Why?”
“Humans would be too scared to hurt me. They wouldn’t dare. I would tell my father immediately.” This was a part of you I recognized. You were somewhat human.
There was an unsettling silence after the words came out of your mouth. This was when I remembered what I should’ve told you from the beginning: “I’ll be leaving soon.”
The words must have been whisked away by the flowing water underneath us. You said nothing, at first. I had a feeling you did not want to talk about leaving.
I continued, “I’m going somewhere far away from here. To an entirely different place.”
“But you have everything right here,” you said, “and you have me.”
“Everyone’s leaving for college.”
“I know, everyone but me.”
Engkantos have never left their homeland. At least, that’s what I’ve heard. They’ve made the most of what nature has given them. Although unseen by the naked human eye, engkantos have houses made of the finest materials that are settled in the heart of the mountains. One would be lucky to see such majestic structures but also unfortunate, as those who do see them rarely make it back home.
As you drove back to my house, my phone kept ringing, and I, scared to death, saw that my mother was calling. I picked it up, and, before I could even start to speak, the anger in her voice was booming.
“Where are you?” she yelled.
“We’re caught in traffic.”
“Do you realize how late it is?” she said. “Where were you?”
“The mall, Mom. We went to the mall.”
“Where else did you go?”
“I said we went to the mall. Would you also like to know what we ate? What we talked about? Sorry, I forgot to record the whole thing!” I realized I was screaming.
Mother normally yelled back, but that night, she didn’t. Nothing came after what I said. Not even a sigh.
When I got home, I couldn’t sleep, and as it turned out, my mother couldn’t either. She knocked on my bedroom door and asked, “What really happened?”
Say it, I told myself. The echoing pain of her words would slowly vanish. I’d had my fun. It was time to accept the consequences of my lies. But now that I was facing her, now that I saw her motherly eyes and heard her voice in the softest tone, now that it was midnight and she knew, all I could muster was: “We went to the mall. We ate. That’s it.” Her eyes were now watering, disappointed. Silence came after. It was only the second time I had seen her speechless. She turned around and looked at me, one last time that night.
If I were ten years younger, my mother would have woken me up at exactly six in the next morning. This used to be our routine: She made scrambled eggs, smoked milkfish, and my favorite drink, hot cocoa. After my bath, my mother brushed my hair until it was dry. She used a round brush every morning, carefully rolling each strand. Some days, she braided my hair, put a bow on it, and powdered my face. Then she would look at me and say, “There. Now, you’re even prettier.”
I had always wondered how she did it, as she never asked for help. As a child, I thought, perhaps my mother is a bruha; I thought perhaps, one morning, I would see pots and pans floating across the room.
The last time my mother had touched my hair was ten years ago. At one point, I decided I was old enough to do it myself. But she would still ask me if she could fix my hair. And I remember saying, No, I don’t need you.
I asked you what your plans were, the day of my flight. I felt the need to say goodbye, but mostly I felt bad. Everyone else was leaving you behind. They were moving on with their lives, flying across the country, and getting accepted into prestigious universities. I did the same. My mother, of course, was ecstatic. Her beloved daughter was now going abroad. She had to go with me to get me settled in. How could she trust the world, let alone a university within the city, with her one and only daughter?
I called you the day before I was supposed to leave. “Engkantos can’t leave home,” you said. “We’re vulnerable out there.” I heard your abilities were limited outside. There were fewer narra trees to call home. Out there, they did not believe in spirits, much less engkantos.
Out there, they did not believe in spirits, much less engkantos.
“What do you want me to do then? Do you want me to stay? Because I can’t.”
“Yes, you can.”
“No. I won’t.”
“You’re one of them. The outside world thinks we’re barbaric. They don’t believe in us, in me. That world will strip you of me!” You hung up.
I thought of a time when there were no phones, just handwritten letters, and whether the people your ancestors took were able to send their loved ones goodbye letters.
The morning of my flight, a plane skidded on the airport runway, which then caused hundreds of canceled flights. My mother drove straight to the airline’s office and asked for the next available flight. They then booked our flight for the next day. I held on to my mother’s amulet, wondering if this was your fault. My great-great-grandmother once told my mother to never accept physical gifts from spirits. Once you do, your soul is in their hands. They could then manipulate you. I thought about the ylang-ylang flowers you offered in a dream. A dream that I thought was not real. I didn’t remember whether I accepted the flowers or not. My heart started racing, and, once again, I was restless.
You texted and asked about my flight. You wanted to meet.
Standing on our patio at home, I looked down and saw your car. Your anger had faded away. I wasn’t sure what made you change your mind. We found a parking lot nearby. “So,” you turned to me, “what now?”
“I guess it’s goodbye?” I said.
“What if we just drive somewhere, somewhere far?” You smiled. “What time’s your flight again?”
“It’s in four hours. And no, my father will kill you.”
You leaned in and whispered, “I know what we can do in four hours.”
I read an article once that said Filipino is the sexiest language in all of Asia. If you have ever heard a Filipino say fuck you in their language, infused with anger, I believe that your heart would sink, and your eardrums would shatter with every syllable. The Filipino tongue, like a boloknife, pierces the words.
Maybe the article was about engkantos. They know which words will lure you in. They do not curse, and their words never hurt. They know what to say. You spoke sometimes in a combination of two languages: Filipino and English, or Taglish. I have only heard this from the rich, and it made sense. This was an advantage for your family. Your kind didn’t run out of luck.
What you said to me, inside that car three hours before my flight, was in Taglish: “Rarape-in kita,” which roughly translates to “I will rape you.” You did not say gagahasain,the direct translation of the word rape.
Perhaps it took too long to say the word. You were in a hurry.
You said it with force, with annoyance, as if I should just do what you said you wanted. There was silence after this. I did not know what to say or where to look. The amulet didn’t work, Mother. I wanted to scream.
You grabbed my neck, pulling my face closer to yours. The light in your eyes started to fade. Your skin began to wrinkle.
“Let me show you,” you whispered, as your lips changed colors. They were the color of soil stained with blood. My mother called right after you said this. The amulet did not scare you, but the sight of my mother’s call did.
The face you made reminded me of faces I’d seen before. There was dread in your eyes, as there had been in the eyes of those that had ever tried to hurt the única hija. All it took for others was my mother to open her mouth and curse. All it took for you was to see my mother’s name. “Bruha . . .” you whispered.
You let go of my neck, and I felt lighter. The weight from you disappeared. Right then, it was as if I were the enchanted one. The mere thought of my mother’s presence shocked your entire core.
You were frozen for a while, until I told you to take me home.
It didn’t sink in until I was inside the crowded airplane; though music blasted through my headphones, your voice still echoed in my ears. I held my mother’s hand as she slept on the plane, pleasantly dreaming and blissfully unaware.
My mother, who worried and waited for us to come back home. My mother, who called five seconds after you threatened to rape me. My mother, who unknowingly saved my life, still does not know what happened. Or perhaps she does. Perhaps she is a bruha, and it was the ensaymada that unveiled your true self.
In a few years, or possibly a decade, I will tell her. I will ask her. But not now, not yet. Let me keep these secrets, one last time, just as my mother kept hers.
I gripped her hand, as if the plane were crashing down and everyone else was in panic. The entire plane cradled hundreds of dozing passengers, and there I was, wide awake during the entire flight.
Lia Castro, MFA is a writer from the peninsula of Bataan, Philippines. Her novel in progress is about two Filipina sisters: a seafarer hoping to give a better life to her family and the other an activist fighting against a corrupt and abusive government. An excerpt of her novel was published in ATLAS journal, Australia. She is represented by Mary Krienke of Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc. Check out her website at liacastrowrites.com