Most summers of my childhood were spent in my father’s hometown, a sleepy coastal village on an island in Western Visayas, at a time when it was just awakening to the wonders of electric power. That’s how I know enough of beings and creatures from the dark side – and what malice or mischief they are capable of when motive and opportunity are available to them.
But because awareness is the first defense, I also know enough of the ways to anticipate, prevent and thwart any possible strike. And failing that, how to recognize their handiwork and where and how to seek the appropriate antidote, treatment and cure.
Four years and two children into our marriage, on his first visit to my father’s hometown for my brother’s wedding, my husband suffered a terrible stomach ache that had him doubled over and groaning in pain. When antacids and antispasmodics didn’t help, the local medicine woman was sent for. Tiya Flora arrived carrying a buntot pagi (stingray tail), believed to be a potent weapon against evil spirits, and held the patient’s wrist, feeling for a pulse.
The old lady with flowing white tresses and piercing eyes diagnosed that the dayo (visitor), my husband, had been remiss in extending the proper courtesies to the “other occupants” in my grandparents’ property, and had thus been twitted for it. He was also a victim of buyag, the Visayan counterpart of usog which, as I understand, is a mild and sometimes unwitting form of kulam or hex.
With a stub of lúya (ginger) that she had made my husband grasp in his palm as she uttered some prayers and marked crosses on his forehead, wrists, abdomen, knees and ankles. Then she blew into the crown of his head. The gust of air seemed to blast away the pain and within minutes the hubby was good as new. As people often say after such mysterious healings, “parang nagdahilan lang.”
Since then, my husband has known better than to question why I slip stubs of ginger into his and the children’s pockets when we go on trips to the countryside. Or snicker when I call out “Tabi-tabi po, makikiraan (excuse me, passing through)” to a deserted expanse of trees and grass. Or even ask what that bottle of leaves, twigs and oil in the medicine cabinet is for and why it’s the first line of treatment for a colicky baby.
“Aren’t you going to bring luya?” he asked, half-teasing this time, as we prepared for a trip to Siquijor last month.
“No, what we’ll be needing is a St. Benedict medal-and make sure you keep it always on your person,” I shot back cryptically, as I handed him one and slipped another in my jeans pocket.
Siquijor was a side-trip in a scheduled Dumaguete holiday, added on after we learned it was only a 45-minute motorboat ride away. There were many reasons I wanted to go, one being the beaches that are better than Boracay, boasted one source. But the more compelling reason I wanted to go was to get a first-hand experience of this island that has often been described as magical, mystical, and mysterious. To most people who know even just a smattering of Filipino folklore, that translates to an island of sorcerers and witches, casters of spells, hexes and curses. To me, it meant a chance to encounter this intriguing other world, or at least explore the extent of its reality.
In truth, I also wanted to find a healer because it’s been said that where the sorcerers are, there too are the healers. A sibling has been sick for almost two decades now, and though science has long identified precisely what afflicts him, there’s always that lingering notion-fed by those who claim to know of these things-that this was a case of kulam.
So the objective was to find a “mananambal” – the local term for one who could undo the evil mischief of a mangkukulam. The best of both are said to have found a haven in Siquijor, an island of crystalline sand, limestone hills and eerie caves burrowing deep into mountains held by ancient trees.
During the 30 hours we spent on Siquijor in September, we found our way to two mananambal, and unwittingly, to a mangkukulam.
A town official of one of the six municipalities of Siquijor brought us to the 73-year-old Mang Eking, whose healing method is known as bolo-bolo. He takes a half-filled glass of water into which he drops a black stone, then blows air into it through a straw as the glass is passed over the patient’s body like a radar or scanner. As the water bubbles, things form within the glass, seemingly drawn from the patient’s body by the black stone that serves as a magnet, he says.
Mang Eking’s method is simply to draw out of the body what some mangkukulam (human sorcerer), laman lupa (elemental) or whatever preternatural creatures may have put there. He does not delve into the who, what or why a hex or spell has been cast – sometimes the patient already knows that, he remarks.
As the glass was passed over the right side of my tummy, what looked like a glob of flesh materialized in the water. I was too grossed out to peer too closely at it, and much later I regretted not having asked for it to take back for forensic testing. My husband did get to take back with him the fairly large stone that was allegedly extracted from his knee – put there, Mang Eking theorized, not by a person but by an elemental. Stunned by what we had witnessed, we couldn’t quite decide whether or not we believed what our eyes saw.
Because Mang Eking couldn’t perform distance-healing (the mananambal has specialized powers), we asked around for someone who could. Thus did we find Kuya Centé, who lived in the mountains where the sorcerers and the healers are found. We got on a habal-habal (motorcycle), and Rudy, the driver, helped us track him down and served as our interpreter.
Kuya Centé, a diligent farmer when he is not working in healing sessions, needed a photograph of the patient which I downloaded onto a Netbook. He held a small bottle filled with leaves, twigs and oil close to the image on the monitor, and I watched as the oil in the bottle seemingly came to a steady boil. He confirmed that a mangkukulam was involved and said he would take care of it through a novena of prayers. We left it at that.
We had no intention of looking for a mangkukulam or sorcerer. So imagine how freaked out we were – the habal-habal driver especially – when we lost our way on the mountain trail and emerged in the barangay settlement we had precisely been avoiding.
Realizing this and apparently scared out of his wits, Rudy wanted to turn back. I thought it best to go with whatever he decided since we were the dayo and I didn’t want to take any chances. He was revving up his motorcycle to speed away, when one of the locals approached and asked what we were doing there.
“I saw you two at the pier,” he said in the dialect, and my heart dropped –
someone had taken note of our presence. He turned to the driver, speaking rapidly in Cebuano, and I heard the word “daot” which I know means “kulam.” Rudy explained that we were not there in search of one who would perform daot but instead were looking for a healer to undo a possible “daot.” Then Rudy turned to us and under his breath said the man was offering to lead us to a mangkukulam, who could reverse the spell so that whoever caused the kulam would suffer the same fate as the victim.
Earlier on, I had explained to Rudy that even if it were true that a hex was in force, we were not interested in revenge. We didn’t even care to find out who was behind it. But my curiosity was piqued and I was intrigued by the thought of meeting a sorcerer in person. Again, I left it to the habal-habal driver to decide.
“Kung di kayo takot, Ma’am, eh di sige, pero ngayon pa lang ako nakapunta dito [Well alright, if you’re not afraid… But this is my first time going there],” he muttered.
At the entrance to a nondescript concrete house, we were met by a middle-aged woman tending a glass display shelf of baked breads. She seemed sure she knew what we wanted and motioned us into the dark house as she called out to an old man in a corner of the house cutting up leaves and twigs. There was nothing really creepy about the house, except that it was cold and dark compared to the homes of the healers we had been to.
Although I know some Bisaya, I could not catch up with the fast exchange of words between the sorcerer and Rudy. My breath caught as I watched the old man run a finger across his throat and was anxious for our driver to make him understand that we were not there to take out a contract on anyone. This much I gathered: He had ways of finding out who was behind the daot and could exact revenge for it. But as his work is done at midnight, we would have to come back the next day.
I was starting to get nervous as it became increasingly clear that this was no healer – how could he be, when he was starting off with an intent to inflict harm? I tried to explain – in a combination of English, Tagalog and Ilongo – that revenge was not our objective. We were just in search of release from a possible hex.
“Ah, what you need then is depensa [defense],” his wife countered in Tagalog. She spoke of preparing an anting-anting (amulet) to be worn around the waist to ward off evil spirits, but I shook my head. Alright, she said, then maybe you could use this baños [a liniment to be applied] and tuob [incense-like smoke to be lit in the room of a patient]. Then she poured an oil mixture from a huge bottle into a small jar, brought from the kitchen a tin can filled with a black slimy paste, and said I could have these for P2,000!
When I realized they were dead serious I began to get really scared. I wanted a way out of there without offending them. Remembering my grandmother’s advice not to show fear when confronting someone who could inflict a kulam or usog, I mustered my courage, stared unflinching at the woman and said to her in Tagalog, “I do not have P2,000 to pay for depensa, and even if I did, I do not need to buy one. I have no enemies and I am not afraid of evildoers because I am protected by prayers.” All the while though, my hand was in my pocket, clutching my rosary and St. Benedict medal.
As her face fell, considering perhaps the two grand she thought she already had in the bag, I asked the old man his name. After his daughter-in-law, who was also acting as our interpreter, had written it out in my notebook, I turned to him and said as curtly as I could: “I am leaving now to return to my home. I am quite sure no one will do me harm. I know your name and I know where you live.”
Our habal-habal driver was clearly unnerved by this encounter. He said he thought I would pay the P2,000 for the sorcerer’s potion. But as he realized I would not, he admitted slipping quickly out of the house, ready for a hasty getaway.
Later we learned that this man was one of the fiercest sorcerers in that mountain settlement. His fee goes as high as P20,000 but the results, some have heard it said, are guaranteed.
I mentioned the name to Kuya Centé and he immediately replied, “Mangkukulam ’yon [He’s a sorcerer]! How can he be a mananambal when his prayers are offered to the one in the dark?”