Alvin was many years late on fulfilling his promise to Maria. She had not expected him to return, not since she lost count of how long it has been. She had hoped that he still would, though. Whenever a man would dare to walk the backyard of Capusan beach, Maria would hope it was Alvin. She would watch from atop the old, abandoned Vietnamese vessel she calls home until she was sure it was him. It was never him. Not until today.
Who Maria saw on the dark sand of Capusan’s backyard from the deck of the vessel was an old man. His hair was peppered with many silvery strands that shone against the light of the setting sun. His skin was littered with liver spots here and there. He dressed modestly, like a Cuyonon would. However, by the way he walked, it was obvious that he wasn’t. At least, not anymore.
A Cuyonon of today would never dare to brave the sand of Capusan’s backyard. It was haunted. The whole town knew that. Years ago, they found human bones and other unnatural things tucked underneath the sand they used to reap clams and other shells from. Ever since then, even merely thinking about Capusan’s backyard has been frowned upon. All of this was Maria’s doing. She had buried the bones of her leftovers into the soil of Capusan. It was also in its sand where she disposed the parts she didn’t like – the ears, for example, or the nose. These parts felt fatty to her. She didn’t like it.
She didn’t like who she’s become. She was a monster, and she knew it. There was no stopping her. And so, she buried bones into the soil of Capusan’s backyard. She had to find a way to keep the locals away. She didn’t want them to fall victim to her, to see her for who she was.
Alvin knew of who she was. He always knew. She was born into a family of aswangs. The whole island of Cuyo knew it. They steered clear of Maria and her family as much as possible because of it, just to be safe. They were harmless for the most part. As long as they were able to keep themselves in check, they really were. They just had to distract themselves from their thirst with activities. Maria’s mother distracted herself with the herbs she grew in their garden. It was amazing how their humble kubo, a place that looked so dead, became alive because of it. Maria would often bring Alvin home with her, and they would marvel at her mother’s collection of different kinds of green together.
While her mother spent her days tending to her garden, Maria spent hers distracting herself from her growing thirst by reaping shells of all shapes and sizes from the sand of Capusan’s backyard. In Cuyo, they called this activity pakinas. It was a pastime for many other Cuyonons. For others, it was even a source of income. Townspeople would normally flock to the backyard of Capusan beach during the low tide to feast on the bounty of shells hidden underneath the sand. Maria would join them every chance she could get.
She met Alvin on one of those nights she spent harvesting shells. They had bumped into each other, and she spilled her bucket full of shells onto the floor. He helped to put them all back, and offered to carry it for her all the way home. They were but children then, only a little over ten years old. She asked him as they walked away from the beach if he knew who she was. Of course, he did. The whole town knew who she was. “Are you not scared?” she asked.
“You don’t scare me.” he told her. It was like music to her ears. Almost as soothing as the sounds she would hear bands play whenever there was a fiesta. She loved it whenever he told her that, whether it was as they played along the thin stretch of sand that gave Capusan its name as children, or as they hid behind the old, abandoned Vietnamese vessel docked on its shore as teenagers, making love. He would tell her those four words, then kiss her cheek before interlacing his fingers with hers. It was almost like a routine. It has always managed to make her smile.
Maria hadn’t smiled in a while. Not since he left. She hasn’t felt breathless since the last time they both stood on the backyard of Capusan. She thought he wouldn’t come. She was already in tears, waiting as though it has been forever. And then, he appeared out of nowhere. His figure now in front of him, although different in form from what she remembered, was reminiscent of that night.
She knew it was him not by his built or any other physical feature. He had stared at the graveyard she created for a while before taking off his slippers and delving his feet into the sand. She watched him through every little motion he made. He took a couple of steps before settling on a spot, and there he twisted his feet to dig for shells in the way only Alvin can.
Maria wanted to stop him before he could get any deeper. She didn’t want him to run away. Not yet. He went on with his digging until he hit something with his toes and stopped. He moved away to see what it was. Hidden underneath the sand was a bone. It was a rather large one. He picked it up and studied it, turned it around. It had yellowed a little over time. He ran his fingers over it, brushing away the sand that clung to its surface. Maria was amazed at how he held the bone firmly without flinching, or even blinking an eye. He turned around to face the old, abandoned Vietnamese vessel. “You don’t scare me.” he said.
Maria hid behind the walls of the vessel, breathless. “Maria!” he called, “I know you’re there.” Maria panicked. She tried to comb her hair with her fingers. She had not bathed in years. She was still wearing the same dress she wore when she first moved in to the vessel. She grazed her fingers over her skin. She had not aged. At least, not apparently. It was one of the benefits of the blood she fed on, the effects of her being a monster.
“Maria?” his voice was getting louder, closer. She did not know where to run. She was trapped inside the vessel. She slid down onto the floor and covered herself, shaking. “Maria?” Maria panicked even more. She began to cry. She cried even more as she heard herself. She didn’t sound human. She was no longer a human. “Maria?”
Maria yelled. She yelled for as long and as loud as she could, hoping he would go away. She yelled once more.
He was kneeling in front of her. He held her hands down, restraining her.
She struggled a little more, kicking and screaming and trying to push him away. He persisted. He stood firm, holding her down in front of him. She didn’t want to face him. She didn’t want to confirm if her suspicions were correct. It sounded like the same voice, just a little rustier. She didn’t want to see if it was the same eyes of Alvin that were in the old man.
Tears had flowed freely down her face. Her nose had become runny. She tried to sniff it away. It was beyond her control now. She could not do anything about it. “Shh.” she heard him say. “It’s okay,” he told her. He rubbed his thumb against her dirty but soft, tearstained cheeks. “You don’t scare me.” he continued.
Maria tried to stop her shaking. She was able to lessen it to a shiver. His words still felt like music to her. She didn’t want to open her eyes. He gently shifted her head towards his direction. He didn’t say a word, but she felt his warm breath crash on her face. He wiped away some more of her tears. He went on to kiss her cheek, and then he fell. He fell into an embrace, and she caught him. “I’m so sorry.” he told her over and over again.
Maria eventually calmed down. It was as though his embrace had melted her. They sat beside each other for a while afterward, neither saying a word. Maria could no longer speak. She hasn’t been able to speak in years, not since she lost herself to the monster she has become. She looked at him beside her. His eyes were still closed. She wanted to ask him so many things.
“No one told me.” he said. He let out a sigh. His eyebrows began to furrow. There were so many more lines on his face now than when Maria last saw him. Some of his parts of his skin were already sagging. A couple of liver spots accented his face. One was beside the same old dimple that Maria used to love. It was Alvin, and there was no doubt about it. He shook his head, “No one told me.” he repeated.
Maria leaned her head back on the rusted steel wall behind her. During those first few months after he had left, she waited patiently by the pier for letters or parcels, or maybe even him, to come down from the vessels that travelled to Cuyo for her. She had sent him dozens of letters, a couple of boxes with herbs and shells and cashew nuts to sustain him in his new life in Manila. All of them were sent back to her, even the letter she sent to tell him the news. She was pregnant, only a couple of weeks then. She penned him a letter as soon as she found out. She had asked him to come back. She needed him. She missed him terribly.
Alvin was not a native of Cuyo. His parents were from Iloilo. He was actually born in Iloilo. They had moved to Cuyo before his tenth birthday. They had established a simple hardware store in the town proper of Barangay Tenga-tenga which stands right outside their house up to this day. His parents were businessmen. They were pretty well off. They never liked Maria. Not when he brought her home after having played around the plaza until it rained. Not when he had second thoughts about pushing through with taking up a college degree in Manila, knowing well that it would mean leaving her behind.
Her pride told her not to ask for his parents’ help, but she could no longer ignore the hunger or the longing. She also could no longer ignore the swelling of her stomach. They refused to entertain her. They claimed to not have heard from Alvin as well. They told her to go away.
Maria’s mother then had fallen ill. It was a consequence of her refusal to eat human flesh, even at her father’s insistence. Unlike Maria and her father, she was quite fond of humans. She tended to her garden religiously so that she would have herbs to give to her human friends who fell sick. When she herself had fallen sick, Maria’s father trashed all of her mother’s herbs. They were of no use to them.
The night Maria went home from confronting Alvin’s parents was the night she found her father hanging by a rope in the middle of their kubo, with her mother’s shrunken corpse lying lifeless on her makeshift bed in the corner. She didn’t know what to do. She tried so desperately to wake them both. She untied the rope that held her father up. She begged him to wake up. She cried. She screamed. She tried calling out their names, over and over again until she could no longer speak. She ran out of their kubo when the sun rose and went straight for the town, asking for help.
People thought she was crazy, crying and screaming uncontrollably. No one could understand what she was saying. She could not understand why no one could understand her. In her head, she still said the same words. What came out of her mouth was different, though. People started to shoo her away. Children began to throw rocks at her. The vendors at the market hit her with broomsticks. She didn’t know where else to go. She found herself retreating to the shores of Capusan, to that old, abandoned Vietnamese vessel she would hide in whenever her father beat her. She cried once she entered, remembering Alvin and the times they spent together within the confines of their sanctuary. She cried herself to sleep later on that night, until a sharp pain woke her up in the morning.
Sitting beside Alvin now, she could still remember how badly she wanted to give up that day. That pain that seeped through her was unbearable. There was no one around her. Even if there was, she knew no one would dare go near her. She tried to suppress the pain, but it lasted for hours and only got worse with every minute that passed by. She was in labor, and she didn’t know what to do. She tried to stand up, but she found herself unable to. Eventually, the pain got the best of her, and she remembers blacking out. She woke up again to the sound of crying and the image of pools of blood directly in front of her, with a newborn child wading in its red.
Tears began to fill Maria’s eyes as she remembered every excruciating detail; how tiny the little infant was, how it wouldn’t stop crying. She could never forget the grumbling sound her stomach began to make, and how the sumptuous scent of blood tickled her nose. She didn’t want to pick the baby up at first. She was scared she might hurt it. She let it cry in front of her as she bit at her nails, distracting herself from the hunger she’s been trying to ignore for the past few days, weeks.
It didn’t take long before she ran out of nails to bite. By then, the infant had tired of crying and settled down into a sleep. She looked so peaceful then, all drenched in blood with her little chest slowly heaving up, then down, then up, and down again. Maria found herself wanting to touch the baby. Her body still ached, but she weathered the pain as she crawled a little towards where the infant was. She hovered over it, letting its tiny breath huff a little against her face. Maria licked her thumb and wiped away the blood that had stained the cheeks of the baby. She was careful not to wake her. It smelled so delicious to her, even more appetizing than the meat her father would bring home for her behind her mother’s back. Maria tasted the blood that had stuck to her fingers. It was sweet. It was so sweet. She found herself licking everything off until there was nothing left but the child that was in front of her. Her stomach was still grumbling.
She looked at Alvin and knew he wouldn’t understand. “Stop.” he told her, “Take me instead.” he said, “I’m here now.”
Maria just cried. She did not want to eat their child, nor the others who had come across her at Capusan’s backyard afterward. She just had to. She could not help it. Something came over her every time she saw human flesh, smelled human blood. It was as though once her brain recognized the sensations these brought about, there was nothing left in her control.
When she finished off her baby, the only things that were left were its little bones. They were still soft, fragile. Its taste still remains on the tip of Maria’s tongue. The sound of the baby’s crying still plays continuously in her head. Maria spent the rest of that day with her head buried in between her knees. She had eaten her child, and yet she was still hungry. She could hear the sound of children’s laughter from afar. It meshed well with the sound of her grumbling stomach. Before she knew it, she had a pile of bones stacked in front of her. She was still hungry. She would always be hungry. She had to distract herself from that hunger.
Maria got herself into the activity of pakinas not because of the meat that was hidden in the shells she reaped. She would simply give that to Alvin, and he, in return, would boil them into his favorite bagasay soup. Afterward, she would ask for the shells back, and she would decorate her mother’s garden with them. It helped distract her from her thirst.
Her mother’s garden had died mere weeks into her mother’s illness. She too, herself, was gone. Maria no longer had a reason to engage in pakinas. Maria sat in the shivering cold of the old, abandoned Vietnamese vessel many years ago, staring at the pile of bones she had collected. Her stomach was still grumbling. She had to distract herself from her hunger. She picked up a number of the bones she had collected and proceeded to Capusan’s backyard.
In the same way Alvin dug his feet into the sand earlier that day, Maria dug hers to bury the bones of her leftovers. Alvin was not coming back. No one should dare set foot on the dark sand of Capusan’s backyard unless they wanted to be part of its growing collection. No one should see what Maria was capable of. She was a monster.
Maria has had enough. She pushed Alvin away, crying incessantly as she did so. He would not move. He would not let her move him. “No.” he said, “Enough. Please.” She began hitting him, with as much force as she could muster. “Maria.” he tried to take hold of her hands once again, but he was now an old man and was no match for the monster that she was. “Maria!” he begged her. She hit him with one big blow.
Alvin was thrown back. He hit his head hard on the steel wall of the vessel. A wound had opened on his forehead. The scratches from Maria’s long, uncut fingernails had cut him. Little beads of blood began to pop out from underneath his skin. Maria shook her head. She screamed. She closed her eyes and kept shaking. “Go away!” she wanted to tell him. The sensation of everything was creeping up her brain. She could feel herself thirsting for the blood that she knew was flowing down his forehead as she tried to control herself. “Go away!” She knew he didn’t get it. She didn’t even know what it was she was saying anymore. Maria began to scramble on the floor. She wanted to get up. She wanted to run away. His blood looked so glorious. It shone so brightly in its deep red. It was perfect paired next to his skin. She could already smell its faint scent. It was even more appetizing mixed with the natural fragrance of the ocean.
She was able to get up on all fours before pushing herself up to stand on her own two feet. She didn’t want to open her eyes. She felt for the opening of the exit instead, hitting herself against the walls of the vessel with each feeble attempt. “Maria.” she could hear his voice calling her. She could still smell his blood. She felt him hold her. She tried so desperately to shake her off. “Kill me, please.” she could still understand every word he said despite trying to drown out his voice with her screams, “Kill me now. I deserve this. I came back for this.” She shook her head. “I left you. I should’ve came back, and you know that.” he said, “I didn’t.”
Maria kept screaming. She didn’t want to hear what she already knew. “Listen to me!” Alvin yelled. Maria went on screaming. “I replaced you. I found someone else.” Maria began to cry, “I was never supposed to go back anymore. I’m sorry. Kill me now.” Maria opened her eyes. “Please.”
Who she saw in front of her was no longer the old Alvin, but the one of her youth. He had cupped her face in his hands. His eyes were staring straight into hers, and he was begging her, “Please.” he said, “Don’t cry. This is only for a couple of years. I’ll be back to visit every chance I get, October, December…” Maria’s tears started to fade away, “I’ll come home the moment I graduate, and I will marry you, and we’ll build a house and have lots of children together. I promise.” he told her. By then, Maria’s frown had turned into a smile.
Maria hit Alvin once more. He fell onto the sand. She shook her head again. She was not going to kill him. She was not going to eat him. She was not even going to look at him. She could still feel the scent of his blood tickling her noise. Try as she may, she could not erase the image of his bloodied face calling at her to be feasted upon. She kept her head up high. “Go away!” she said in her native Cuyonon. Whether he understood her or not was no longer her problem. “Go away.” she said again, a little shakier than the first time. She knew what she was going to do now. She turned away from him.
She ignored his voice. She took one last look at the backyard of Capusan and the vessel she called home for many, many years. It was beautiful under the changing light of the sunset. It was almost blood red but a few moments ago, but now it was turning blue. Nighttime was coming and Maria no longer wanted to be there to see the sun rise on the same old graveyard yet again. She began to make her way towards Capusan beach itself, over to the thin stretch of sand that gave the beach its name. All the while, she kept her head up high, letting her feet sink into the fine sand with every step she took, and pulling them up again to move forward.
She followed the straight line that led to the depths of the Sulu Sea. She dipped her feet into the water, testing it first, seeing how cold it was, before proceeding. It had grown dark now. The moon already held itself up high above the island of Bararing floating not that far away. Some stars have begun to show themselves and twinkle in the night. “Maria, what are you doing?” she could hear his voice asking. He called after her name, again, and again. With every word he said, she moved farther away. She continued on walking until the water was at her hips, then by her breasts, then above her neck. She continued to walk until she couldn’t anymore. She tried to keep herself afloat. For a while, she could, but then she couldn’t anymore. As she struggled to keep her head up, bobbing herself up and down the cold water of the sea, she remembered her father who had gone before her. She remembered the many meals he brought home for her for dessert. She thanked him, wherever he was now, for never having taught her how to swim.