The white house on the farm glowed warm from within. Outside, the night skies were so cold and crisp, even the far stars seemed bitten by the chill and shivered where they hung. The goats and lambs and chickens and ducks seemed frozen where they slept in the barns, pressed against each other for warmth and waiting for the morning sun. Only the mice ran excited through the quiet barns while the coyotes, foxes and owls lurked and scavenged in the sweet corn fields and woody almond orchards.
A soft voice carried through the warmth of the small white house, rising and falling with the music of a story. Six children bunched like wildflowers amongst each other, listening, enchanted, fascinated. Their mother’s eyes sparkled as she spun to life the stories of her childhood from when she grew up, wild and unbroken, in the heart of a mountainous rainforest in the Philippines.
“If you keep following the ravine up the mountain, there is a beautiful lagoon,” she said. “I would stay there for hours, sitting on the rocks by the cool water and singing. And the faeries would be listening.”
“Have you ever seen the faeries?” the children would ask.
At this their mother would smile. “They were there, sitting in the trees and hiding in the shadows. My father would tell me that if I continue to sing beautifully, they would give me magic. I would keep practicing until my voice was sore, and the birds and insects would be singing with me. And further up the mountain is a cave where they said the faeries lived. Sometimes I was afraid of singing close to the cave. I did not want to be taken away by them.”
And then she would be describing the fantastic lives of the faeries. Deep in the caverns where it seemed the darkness had a life of its own that might ensnare even the bravest man, and further beyond until the dripping fangs and outstretched claws of the caves finally disappeared, there was a golden door as large as a thousand narra trees. The only way to enter was by singing to the door until all the gold glowed in approval of your voice.
Inside the faerie world, they dined on meals that never rotted and drinks that never dried, and there was always a hundred dances a day and celebrations a night. The skies forever glowed with the light of a million giant fireflies, and the air was eternally scented of jasmine or the ocean breeze, fresh rain or spiced honey pollen.
But even with all the grandeur and wealth, a human would always be doomed if they were ever to live in such a beautiful world.
“I have heard of the stories,” their mother would say. “In a village not too far away from my own lived the beautiful daughter of the village captain. She would often go to the forests and sing, just as I did, but she was as white as a jasmine bloom with rare eyes like a blue ravine. One day, she did not return home, and the next morning, the villagers found her body slumped by the mouth of a cave. Although she was alive, she was lost in a deep coma, and she would only wake up once every two weeks. Each time she did, she would be telling them stories of how she fell in love with a faerie prince. He would take her to the kingdom deep in the caves and shower her with many gifts. But then came a day when she never awakened from her sleep and her body eventually died of starvation. I have also heard of the same kind of sleep happening to children, perhaps victims of a faerie couple that wanted a child. That is why you can never live with the faeries. They only take your soul away with them.”
Sometimes their mother would tell them of the deadlier creatures that lurked in the forests: The asuwang with a tongue as long as a snake that ripped the hearts of children out from their chests as they slept at night, or the small but mischievous dwende that stole your valuables.
“One time I stayed out playing for too long, long after the cicadas had stopped whirring to warn everyone of nightfall. I was walking as fast as I could through the forest, crossing over ravines and cutting through shortcuts in the shrubs when I suddenly heard something following me from behind. It sounded like a small pig, and I could hear it grunting and its hooves rustling up the dead branches and leaves of the forest. I was terrified, remembering the stories they would tell me about the asuwang and its magical abilities…”
If you could recall the sight of some poor creature on the side of the road, struck by a car and twisted into something almost unrecognizable, the asuwang was just as grotesque. The creature was human by day, a cursed one that would transform into an animal by night, leaving its legs hidden someplace safe and sprouting large bat-like wings on its back so it could fly and hunt. When it saw a potential victim, particularly children with their meat still sweet and size perfectly filling, it would take on the appearance of a black animal, sometimes a small pig, dog or cat. The creature would then hunt the child down until their arrival back home. And when the night was at its ripest and the child was locked deep in slumber, it would land on the roof of the house, slid its tongue through even the smallest hole, and feast on the child’s heart and organs in an instant.
“When I arrived back home, I looked for every sock and piece of cloth I could find and stuffed all the holes in our house with them,” continued their mother. “I was so frightened that night and could barely sleep, so from that day on, I always did my best to come home long before dark.”
At that moment, the children were very glad they lived in a house with a solid roof and walls.
Their mother’s storytelling always ended like the way a rather good moment passed and was suddenly a memory. It just fell to a sigh like a leaf falls to the earth, and then the children were all tired and ready to continue those tales with their dreams. The wondered if they would ever live in the Philippines one day and find out if their mother’s stories were as real as she made them to be.
And they did. And I can tell you, the stories are still as real as they seemed.