The Walking Corpse-Eater
In the middle of the calm night, having been woken up by a tapping on the window glass, she finds herself alone in the darkened room, softly illuminated by the silvery moonlight coming through the window.
When she went to bed, her parents snuggled up on either side of her. Their great backs were walls of protection from creatures that lurked underneath the bed. Ease came to mind and sleep quickly took over as gentle as the beach waves that had washed over her half-buried body in the sand.
Now she’s alone.
The realization freezes her muscles. She stares up at the ceiling. Afraid to move, even to flick her eyes over to see what’s tapping on the window.
It comes in threes. Three rhythmic taps and three seconds of silence.
It’s here, she says to herself as she brings up the blanket over her chin. It’s the creature that comes for the forever sleepers!
Grandmother’s forever sleep has brought many relatives together who, for years, have long been separated by vast distances. Now the family has come together from all over the world to the little white house planted in the middle of a sea of paddies and coconut fields. She was put up in her mother’s childhood room upstairs on the second floor--now converted into a semi-sewing and storage room with a bed in the corner.
The aunties and uncles asked her if she remembered them, despite having been a toddler when she last saw them. So, her memories of them, of course, were blurred or non-existent. But those memories were fresh in their minds as if they had seen her the other week still in diapers. And then there were the older cousins. One of them, carrying a toddler she had never met, told her that she was now an “auntie” to the drooling, blubbering creature on their hip.
I can’t be an auntie. I’m seven, she thought. The elders still called her nene, which meant “little girl.”
After the smothering welcoming hugs and quick cheek kissing, the family crowded into the bedroom, where Grandmother swayed on the threshold between earth and heaven. While the family mourned, the ghosts of past generations, watching and guarding within the walls, lingered in sorrow.
The kids weren’t allowed inside the room yet. Their parents left them, as the children saw it, to suffocate under the thick layer of humid air in the living room. Rather than lie on the antique floral sofa or languish in boredom, they tried to catch the little gray house lizards scurrying on the walls. The lizards squirmed in the kids’ hands then were let go. But one girl thought it would be funny to step on a lizard’s tail and watch it struggle to escape. To her delight, it separated itself from its tail and dashed under the sofa, leaving its limp tail behind under her foot. She picked it up and waved it teasingly in front of her cousins’ faces. Nene screamed and knocked the girl’s hand away.
The fits of giggles and shrieks broke the somberness that cloaked the house earning the children a severe scolding. They were to shut up and be respectful! Grandmother was resting and needed quiet.
Bored and stifled by the heat, they lounged on the sofa, trying to think of something else to do. Then, one cousin, whom Nene and the younger cousins called manoy— “older brother,” started to sniff the air. He asked them if they noticed a strange smell. They sniffed the air; their noses followed the invisible trail of a sour milk-like odor. It led them just outside the opened door of Grandmother’s bedroom.
An auntie emerged from the bedroom and flung the living room windows open. The fresh air poured in, circled the room and made its way to down the hall to fill the rest of the house. But the sour milk odor remained.
A couple of magpie-robins flew in and darted around the room narrowly missing their heads. The city cousins screamed. Their nerves shaken as they weren’t used to wild winged animals flying around so freely in the house.
Their auntie scolded them. The children fell silent. Once again, languishing in boredom, they itched to fill the bright afternoon with excitement, but no one spoke a word for fear of flaring up their auntie’s anger again.
Manoy gestured for the cousins to gather around him. He wanted to tell them about the Bicol asuwang na lakaw. With ears perked up in interest, the children scooted closer. Manoy had lived in the village all his twelve years of life. He would know its secrets and myths. They wanted to know all the stories that went around the village, even Nene, who usually didn’t enjoy scary stories, was curious and leaned close.
Manoy's face darkened, but his eyes held a mischievous spark. “When people sleep forever, it comes to the house at night and eats the body when no one’s looking,” he whispered. “Sometimes, it’s already in the house just waiting for the person to go in their forever sleep. I’m sure it’s here now in Lola's bedroom.”
He sniffed the air again. “That’s the smell of the asuwang na lakaw. If you’re quiet, you can hear it.” He pressed a finger to his lips. “Do you hear that? Tak-tak-tak...tak-tak-tak...”
The tapping on the window continues.
Nene buries herself under the blanket and peeks through a small opening.
She sighs. Why did he tell us those things? It’s his fault that I’m awake!
It’s impossible to go back to sleep now. She hugs her pillow tighter.
“Mama! Papa!” she calls out, wanting them to return, but instantly regrets it. The creatures underneath the bed have probably heard her and sensed the fear in her trembling voice.
She can smell the sour milk odor wafting in from the hallway into the room, thickening in her throat with every raspy breath she takes. From the corner of her eye, a blurry, shadowy thing scurries by. She clasps a hand over her mouth to keep the scream inside.
It is a shadow that can take on many shapes. A man or woman in the day and something else at night. It can disguise itself as a friend.
She recalls the arrival of a few more guests, accompanied by nurses, claiming to be Grandmother’s old school friends. They were ancient beings with liver-spotted brown leathery skin hanging loose and thin over their hunched skeletal bodies.
Manoy walked up to meet them, nobly showing his foreign-born cousins how to properly greet elders. He bowed, then one at a time, took a gnarled and shaky hand from each of the guests and pressed it to his forehead. Another auntie, who had emerged from Grandmother’s bedroom teary-eyed and upset, scolded the other children for not following Manoy’s lead in welcoming the newly-arrived elders. Like her cousins, Nene was hesitant but greeted the elders as she was told.
They smelled like flowers, but underneath the flowery scent was the stench of soured milk. The old man smiled, revealing a row of yellow sharpened teeth hidden behind thin pale lips.
The memory ripples down her spine like a hundred dirty, rough fingernails tapping on her soft youthful skin. Her eyes widen as a shapeless shadow stretches across the wall. She keeps still, breathing in and out slowly, and eyes the shadow. Her nerves prickle in frightful anticipation of its next move.
The bedroom door creaks open, its old copper hinges groaning, and the shadow slips into the hallway. Its feet padded, as gently as raindrops on wood, across the floor. A gust of wind from the window sends the door crashing into the wall. The knob breaks and with a heavy thud drops to the floor and rolls under the sewing machine table. Without warning the window slams closed with a violent force, and cracks branch out across its glass surface.
She remembers asking Manoy what would happen if the asuwang na lakaw were to successfully eat the forever sleeper.
“The sleeper’s spirit would be lost,” he answered. “The body is like a beacon whenever a spirit wants to visit the world of the living, and so without it, the spirit would lose its way home.”
Come on! Go out there! Nene tells herself. Make sure it leaves Grandmother alone. The creature can’t hurt me. It only eats forever sleepers. I’m sure I am alive and awake and not afraid of anything. I’m not afraid of the asuwang na lakaw!
She grips the blanket, fearful to let go of the only shield she has between her and the unknown creatures crawling in the night, but courage finds its way to her, and with some of her fears dispelled she slips off the blanket. She lowers her head to see under the bed to make sure that nothing is waiting to pull her under. A sigh of relief emits from her lips when she confirms that there is nothing.
She slides off the bed and picks up a long wooden backscratcher off the night table. Just in case it charges at her. It’s better than going out there without anything to strike it!
Down the moonlit hallway, she catches not one but two shadows darting around the corner. They run down the stairs, fast and light on the steps. She tightens her grip on the backscratcher and tiptoes down the creaky steps which clap like thunder. She leaps over the last two steps and lands quietly on the floor on both feet.
Outside in the backyard gathered underneath the straw grass roof of the bahay kubo, her mother and father have joined the aunties and uncles for gossip and drinks. The men light up cigarettes and throw their heads back as they take a shot of a clear liquid, while the women laugh and casually sip the clear liquid drink. In between their laughter and drinking are bouts of tears and sobs which they stifle with more drinks. They seem unaware of the night creatures that have crept into the house.
A sudden urge comes to her to run out to the backyard and tell them that the asuwang na lakaw is here to eat Grandmother! But then she decides against the idea.
They won’t believe me, she figures. Mother will be angry that she’s not in bed sleeping, and father will tell her that monsters only exist in imaginations then be frustrated with her for interrupting the party. She’s on her own to protect the forever sleeper.
In the common room area, Grandmother sleeps in a beautiful silver casket with images of flowers and palm leaves carved along its sides. Earlier that day, after Grandmother fell into the forever sleep and was placed in the casket, the large family bowed their heads and clasped their hands together in prayer before the casket. Then, after the prayers, Nene went straight to the casket and traced the intricate design with her fingers. The act pleased her playful fingers that had longed to touch the grooves and curved lines since she first walked into the room.
Standing on her tiptoes with a hand on the casket’s edge for balance, she gazes down through a glass at Grandmother’s sleeping face. The peach-colored blush makeup and lipstick imitate the warmth and liveliness that life brings, but the forever sleep has already crept into the skin and drained the natural colors of life hours ago.
Nene witnessed the forever sleep when her mother dragged her into the bedroom to give Grandmother a final kiss goodbye. The old woman, whom for years she saw only in pictures and recalled a brief memory of being hugged and kissed by her as a toddler, laid limp on a bamboo chaise lounge with pillows tucked behind her for comfort. Grandmother was drained of energy and color, unable to sit up or gesture for Nene to come closer. So, mother gently nudged her closer.
The air was infused with the sour-milk stench, though no one else was fazed by it. The aunties stood close fanning themselves with woven reed hand-fans then fanning their fading mother who moaned and groaned as she fought to stay awake. One auntie lifted Grandmother’s hand and, nudged Nene’s head down so that her forehead touched the hand.
Grandmother’s eyes fluttered open, and her lips were parted softly taking in shallow breaths. Then, suddenly, father’s large strong hands lifted Nene from under her arms and told her to give Lola a kiss on the cheek. For a long moment, as she was about to bring her lips to the liver-spotted sunken cheek, Nene caught something frightful in the elder’s brown eyes. A glimpse of the end.
Someday, like Grandmother, her own mother would lie on this bamboo chaise lounge, struggling to stay awake as the forever sleep would rush up and pull back like the cold waves at the beach, each time pulling away the warmth of life. Then, after mother, it would be Nene's turn to sleep forever when she would be old and withered on the chaise lounge drawing her last breath. The thought gripped around her heart like gnarled icy fingers.
The realization still clings to her. All living things go to sleep forever, but she has years...decades...before it happens.
Goosebumps appear on her arms as a shadow looms over her, shrouding a heavy cloak of dread. From the corner of her eye, she catches a glimpse of the shadow squatting on the other end, atop the casket. It returns her gaze with unblinking red eyes. Its putrid stench churns her stomach. Opening its mouth, it unfurls its long, wet tongue and licks the casket's glass.
She stands frozen in terrible fright. Something wet and warm trickles from between her legs and runs down the inside of her thigh. It pools into a small puddle at her feet.
The creature can’t hurt me! She remembers telling herself earlier. It only eats forever sleepers. I’m not afraid of the asuwang na lakaw!
She swings the backscratcher as if it's a sword and strikes the shadow, yet it sits unfazed by her. She strikes again and the shadow disappears into smoke, and from the smoke two small, fat and frumpy creatures hop off the casket onto the floor.
They’re just frogs...
Her heart calms down.
She takes a deep breath and releases it in a soft cry.
The frogs peer up at her with black-buttoned eyes before hopping out of the room. Outside, the party continues in the bahay kubo. Laughing and crying and drinking; they remain oblivious to how close she had gotten to the asuwang na lakaw and how she ventured down the stairs on a quest to protect the forever sleeper.
As she turns to run back up the stairs, a flickering light catches her attention. A breeze rushes in from an opened window billowing the lace curtain. Once it has settled down, a light from outside casts a dark yellow glow on a figure standing in the corner. Though it startles her, its presence brings warmth and calm and a sadness that aches her heart.
“Lola?” she utters.
Grandmother smiles and blows a kiss to Nene then melts into the walls joining those who’ve passed and stayed in the house. Forever and ever, she’ll be in the house watching and guarding those who live in it and those who come and go.
Cyndi Gacosta: "I've long been interested in Filipino folktales and mythology. I see it as a way for me to explore a part of my cultural identity and heritage, and I hope to incorporate them more into my future writing. Originally from southern California, I now live in North Jeolla province in South Korea with my long-time partner and I write stories in my free time."