Places are inhabited (taw-an, literally ‘inhabited by a tawo or person’) by the supernatural, by a complex order of souls and spirits, powers that the Cebuano tries to domesticate but are at the same time an ‘otherness’ that reminds him that there are greater powers than he that inhabit and influence his environment.
—— ‘Dakbayan: A Cultural History of Space in a Visayan City’, Resil B. Mojares
‘Do they sound like you?’ I asked.
I stared through the jalousie windows in my room, trying to hold the full expanse of rooftops in my gaze. I was pretending that I knew who lived in every house, even though there were easily hundreds of them across all of Valencia.
On this street, Number Six has voice like a frog, said my house. And Eight Magallanes is brazen like a lover, or like when you hit a trumpet key in the middle of a note… Oh, but it resents that. It says it wants to be regal.
‘Number Six?’ I looked for its dark ruby crown on our street. ‘That’s the Saludo residence. I’m not sure if I know anyone on Magallanes Street.’
My house was hoarse, I decided, like a drunk reaching the end of his revelry—though the first time I heard it, I thought its voice sounded low and nasal, like a far-off foghorn looking for sea vessels to ward away.
‘If you can talk to the other houses, why do you bother talking to people?’
You seem to know things that we don’t know about each other. Our purposes, our potential. You make things meaningful. The house paused thoughtfully. Besides, if you knew you could talk to something that wasn’t human, wouldn’t you rather do that instead?
Our house was the ancestral home my mom’s parents had built in the 60s. It was somewhere in the centre of Valencia, a subdivision that had ballooned in size over the last five decades. When my mom was growing up, she said that the whole village was just a three block compound housing white-collar families and a handful of entrepreneurs. Her dad Lolo Isidro had been on the City Planning Board in the years after independence and had bought up some land that had been decimated by the liberation, redeveloping it gradually. By the time I was born, the village was more than ten times its original size. It’s impossible for me to imagine that our subdivision could be anything but a maddeningly dense labyrinth, what with all its houses and parks, its tennis courts and swimming pools, its shopping centres and eateries, its football field, its golf course and country club, its grade schools and high schools, its groceries, its churches—everything you could ever need in order to live.
Mom passed away the year before I learned our house could talk. I was in Manila then, finishing my last year of college when my dad called up to tell me she was in her final hours. I flew home, but missed my chance to say goodbye. After the funeral, I decided that I wanted to stay in Manila for work, and when I eventually lost that job, I flew back to Cebu.
The first time I heard our house talk, I screamed and cried until the house told me it meant no harm. My dad later said it was a bad dream, but I didn’t believe him. It wasn’t long after when I started calling to the house myself, curious to learn about it.
It had been there for many years. Centuries, in fact. Well, not the house itself, but the spirit that was rooted to the land where it had been built. The physical structure I lived in was what the house called its body.
And I’ve had many bodies in all the years I’ve been alive.
‘How long ago was the first one?’ I asked. ‘Can you still remember?’
After the Shiny Men came. They made me house a Shiny One who lived and died here forever. I was no bigger than this room. My only walls separated the inside from the outside, and I had a large roof with big cogon hair to cover me from the rain.
‘If you knew you could talk to something that wasn’t human, wouldn’t you rather do that instead?’
‘Like a nipa hut?’
For a little while. There was a firestorm, I remember being…buried. That was how my first body was lost. When they built my second body, it was much like the first except that it was bigger and had walls inside.
I heard the sadness in its voice, giving the word it used a different kind of weight.
I was bigger and smaller all the time. I was somebody’s mansion once, and then I was a row of small houses with a long, long hat that stretched over each of the front doors. When I was a big house again, the old sand-skinned man who lived in me seemed familiar, except that he was so spiteful. He used to spit on my walls—I was not fond of him. When he died, I housed many other people. They came and went, came, went. I lost that body, then I became this.
‘How did you lose your bodies?’
Thunder, fire…sometimes a falling tree. Once there was a bomb.
‘Is it painful?’ I asked. ‘To lose your body?’
Never as much as I think it will be. When I lose a body, I feel a phantom of that body sink into the earth. It collects there with all the other phantoms, and they sink deeper underground, like marbles in a tight pocket. If I try to feel for them, I can almost pretend that they are parts of a giant body.
I felt like I’d been insensitive to ask those questions, but the house betrayed no sense of having been offended.
Perhaps, it added, I am a giant.
I learned that houses weren’t the only things that lived and spoke. In fact, everything in the world did—animals, clocks, soft drink cans, salt, balloons, grass and every bolt of lightning. Every street, pillow and fire, every star spoke to us in our dreams. All day and night they were talking, but it was my connection to the house that attuned me to a voice I could understand. I was like a radio set to receive its particular frequency, only catching hints of other noises from time to time. Even if I couldn’t hear them, all the houses in Valencia had different ways of letting us know they were there. The most basic language they spoke, the house said, was being—the way a thing was.
How a door opens, the way it affects the feeling of a room is always in syntax, it explained. Things are always expressing. The house advised me to be wary of my feelings the next time I entered another house, to listen to the silence that came once the front door closed behind me. The next time I visited my friends, I paid attention. At Pat’s, I noticed an overwhelming desire to lie down on their carpets. At Randy’s, my hunger was insatiable. I wasn’t really sure what either of those responses meant. In any case, my house spoke on behalf of the others.
My neighbours want me to tell you that they really like the way your room used to look. All those posters and pictures! Forty-Seven Del Prado said it liked the one on a strip, the pictures of you and your family and friends. Do you remember the one?
‘Yes,’ I answered, though I hadn’t taken anything out of the packing box yet. ‘Should I put it back?’
If you like.
By May my room looked pretty much the way it used to when I was growing up. I stopped living out of my luggage and made some space for things in the closet, moving my late mother’s clothing elsewhere in the house. In the bodega downstairs, I found a mirror that I could set on the table in my room, along with a corkboard for old photos of me with my friends. I hung up faded Harry Potter posters, put the stereo back in its place on a chest under the window. The house helped me out whenever it could, carrying things up and down the stairs, showing me where I could put away what I didn’t need anymore.
I learned that houses weren’t the only things that lived and spoke. In fact, everything in the world did—animals, clocks, soft drink cans, salt, balloons, grass and every bolt of lightning.
Every day I felt like an explorer, a geographer uncovering the terrain of a new planet. The house was always revealing things about itself that surprised me. Sometimes, if I was going out to see Randy and Pat, I would walk towards the door and the door would open by itself. I didn’t know if this meant that the house could hear my thoughts, or if it was just sensitive to me, trying as it could to earn my favour.
One afternoon, Randy and I were driving around Valencia when I spotted a line of yellow tape hanging limp across the entrance of a house. We were moving so fast that I couldn’t read what was printed on the line—Caution? Police? Danger?
As I looked away from the door, I thought I saw a figure watching us from a window.
‘Woah, what happened there?’ I asked Randy.
He glanced at the side mirror to catch a glimpse of the house. He said, ‘Oh dude. You don’t wanna know. Trust me.’
‘Why? What was it? Something illegal? Human trafficking? Oh my God, was there a shootout or something?’
‘No, no, not that. It’s pretty sad,’ Randy sighed and continued without taking his eyes off the road. ‘Dugay na ‘na actually. You remember the Bulacan kids? There were a bunch of them, two who were around our age.’
The two kids he meant were named Billy and Celina. I used to play with them, back when going outside was still a thing that kids did. I didn’t know them very well past childhood, but they had left enough of an impression that I could still conjure their faces in my memory—Billy’s soft head, round like siopao; Celina’s catlike eyes watching inquisitively beneath a neat fringe of hair.
‘Yeah, well,’ Randy said, ‘their parents killed them all.’
‘Ha?’ What he said sounded wrong.
‘Yeah, man. The whole family, gi-patay. Murder-suicide.’
‘What…how could they…why would they do that?’
‘Financial problems, I think. I read in the news that the dad was like the owner of some kind of…HR training company or something? Basta I heard like one of Mr. Bulacan’s business partners bailed with all the money, and they were basically gonna shut it down with nothing recovered. Put their whole life savings into it. Couldn’t bounce back, some shit like that.’
I was almost too scared to ask my next question. Everything he was saying seemed carved out of senselessness, but something in me still wanted to know. ‘How did they die?’
‘Well…the parents wrapped their heads in plastic.’
Once he said that, their faces changed. I could only remember them when they were little, but their heads were now encircled by death shrouds, their cries escaping into the far reaches of future thoughts.
I turned to get a look at the house again, to see if someone was still standing at the window, but we were already far from that road.
At dusk, my house and I listened to cricket songs. We watched lamps burn the roads while the seas between islands peeled away from the shore. We would be quiet, listening to everything that spoke in unison around us. Every evening, I stared out the window and the world felt more alive than ever.
I asked the house about something I had started to observe—ephemeral splashes of motion that made the streets look like rivers. ‘Those people I see all over Valencia. They look like they come from different times. They’re ghosts, right?’
Sort of. They’re memories.
‘What do you mean?’
People tend to leave impressions of themselves in a place, it explained. A strongly felt moment, a long-held habit. They stay around for a very long time, much longer than the person does. If a place can remember a person well enough, it brings them back a little bit.
‘So what I see are the houses’ memories.’
‘And you have your own memories too, don’t you?’
Yes. If I remember someone or something well enough, I can see it inside of myself, doing what it did when it was still around.
‘People tend to leave impressions of themselves in a place. If a place can remember a person well enough, it brings them back a little bit.’
That reminded me of the most famous ghost story of Manila, the one of the White Lady on Balete Drive. Someone in college once told me that his brother had seen her. He’d been driving home from a party and had only just veered into Balete Drive when a woman in a nightgown ran into the middle of the road, waving her arms at him. The brother swerved the car to miss her. When he looked around, she was nowhere to be seen, and he sped off to the nearest turn, worrying she might appear in his car.
Incidents like that were consistent with a range of things I’d begun to experience, like one morning when I found a scattered carpet of shoes outside my room. I’d find different articles dispersed throughout the house—an oversized rain jacket in the bathroom, a curved steel helmet, a faded neon T-shirt drying flat on the pavement, an old-fashioned hat hanging on the stile of a dining room chair, a sword. I started to catch glimpses of bigger manifestations—men covered neck to ankle in tattoos, a bolo in each hand; a gaunt man with a wild beard stalking the halls; a woman who covered her face with an upturned basket. Sometimes I’d hear a voice that was calling out from far beneath me, as if it were in the ground below the house. I startled when the ghosts first emerged through walls or around an unexpected corner. But I seemed invisible to them and eventually I stopped being scared.
Are you still scared of me? the house then asked.
‘A little,’ I lied.
I haven’t done anything to harm you, it assured. I don’t plan to.
‘No, it’s not just that,’ I said. ‘There’s something I’ve been thinking about since we started talking. I’ve been wondering.’
What is it?
‘Did you and my mom—when she was still alive, I mean—could she hear you too?’
Why does that scare you?
‘My mom always said that she could, didn’t she? Doesn’t that sound kinda crazy? Wouldn’t that mean I’m crazy too?’
Hm… the house said, quiet for a second, thinking. I never felt anything was wrong when I talked to her, just the way it is when I talk to you. Do you think you’re crazy? If you do, then I guess she would’ve been too.
I used to come out of my room and see that Mom was already there in the hallway, letting her forehead rest against the soft, cool wood of the wall. I used to watch her as she moved her lips and cheeks, allowing her secrets to pass from her life to the house.
Was she telling it about me, I always wondered. Would I ever hear those secrets?
Mom wasn’t crazy. She had the same eccentricities as everybody else. Whenever she lost something, she’d leave rice cakes under trees to gain the favour of our local dwende. Later that night she’d start a novena to St. Anthony to help the spirits with the search. They did the same in other households, so I gathered. What made her behaviour so odd that they called her insane?
She had lost her family when she was young, all of them victims of martial law. Her grief turned into the theory that she had been born cursed, and at some point she started telling people she could hear the voices of her family in the house. She didn’t mind what they thought if it meant she could have her family again. She stuck to her story when I was growing up.
‘Stop saying you can hear them!’ I complained when we were driving home from school once. ‘They already think I’m the daughter of a witch.’
I used to come out of my room and see Mom in the hallway as she moved her lips and cheeks, allowing her secrets to pass from her life to the house.
‘But you know that isn’t true,’ she said. ‘Isn’t that what’s important? You know who you are, you just have to remind them who that person is. Besides, witches are cool, aren’t they? You can pretend you’re Sabrina the Teenage Witch or something.’
‘No, Mom, that’ll make it worse,’ I groaned, ready to end the argument. ‘Maybe this is my curse. Of all the lives I could’ve had, I was born with you for a mother.’
‘Well… I know that’s not true.’
Her voice had made an unsteady dip when she said the word ‘that’s’—a short waver that stretched the word long enough to plant itself in my memory and grow into guilt.
‘What about spirits?’ I thought to ask. ‘I mean, you’re a spirit…what about the people who have died? Do they stay behind, too?’
A few soundless seconds passed.
I’ve never seen them come back. All we have are the impressions. The spirits of people… I don’t know if anything really happens to them.
‘You don’t hear their voices?’ I asked. ‘They aren’t reincarnated or anything?’
The house repeated its answer.
I don’t know, Alma.
I felt an immense emptiness in my chest. Something had gone missing from me while I lived in Manila. Maybe I knew that it had left, but I was hopeful then that I could retrieve it. That’s what I came home for, wasn’t it?
God, I should’ve known better.