Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Leg Men

Apparently this short story is now assigned reading at Ateneo de Davao. I am posting it here for the benefit of students looking for the story. Of course, if you want the other stories from the book, I still have copies for sale. Send me a shoutout on Twitter at @domcimafranca.

“There are three ways to deal with a manananggal,” said Cousin Omeng as he initiated me into the lore. “There's the hard way, which is to go at it head-on with bolos and bamboo spears.” To emphasize this point, he brought his bolo down on the head of a green bamboo stalk. With that one clean stroke he turned the stalk into a spear. He charred the tip over burning coals to harden it. When it was sufficiently black, he showed his handiwork to me.

“Of course, that's not a very smart thing to do,” Cousin Omeng continued. “Remember: a manananggal is a creature of flight. She can stay well out of the range that you can throw a spear. And if she does decide to fight — ” Cousin Omeng shuddered — “there's her powerful bat wings to reckon with.”

“I suppose it would work if there were a few dozen of us,” I pointed out.

“But there's not a dozen of us, is there?” Cousin Omeng countered, “it's just you and me. Now don't interrupt, or we'll never get to the important parts.”

What prompted this hasty lesson was a series of manananggal sightings around our town of San Antonio. The first one happened just the week before. Tiago and Teban, the village drunks, were staggering home from a late-night drinking spree. Tiago (so his story went) looked up and saw massive bat wings against the waxing moon. Teban laughed at his friend's overactive imagination but when he looked up, he also saw those wings coming down in a swoop.

Of course no one quite believed the town drunks. For the next two days, San Antonio had a few more jokes to add about Tiago and Teban. But then the evening of that second day, Pedring, whom everyone knew was having an affair with Rosa, ran screaming from their trysting place among the banana leaves. He said he saw the manananggal fly by where he was waiting. (“Her eyes were as big as saucers!” Pedring had said, “and her tongue waggled down to her neck!”)

Other accounts started pouring in. There was the story of Kulas, on an errand for his wife who had a midnight craving for santol. He caught the manananggal's silhouette against the clouds. (“Her claws were razor-sharp!” Kulas had said, “and she had fangs this long!”) Then there was the story of Berto, whose wife had banished him from his house because he lost their savings at the cockpit, who said he saw the same. (“I could see her entrails hanging from her waist!” Berto had said.)

All these reports sent our little town into a tizzy. The market and the plaza buzzed with rumors and tales. Young men and women sought the village elders for half-remembered lore; the elders nodded sagely when their prescriptions agreed, and argued fiercely when they didn't. Mothers admonished their children, wives admonished their husbands: don't stay out too late or the manananggal will get you.

It was still several weeks till the harvest and the fiesta, but already San Antonio had come alive with the thrill of a manananggal in our midst. Since the sightings, every day had become market day. Overnight, our reliable vendors had discovered a lucrative market in protective charms and foul-smelling oils; and the townsfolk couldn't buy them fast enough.

None, it seemed, was happier than Ong Teck, the Chinaman. At the first sign of trouble, the wily rascal had cornered the market in garlic cloves and onions. When the demand went up, so did the prices. The people grumbled, but they all bought from Ong Teck anyway.

All this would have been harmless fun until Rodrigo, the mayor's son and the manliest man in San Antonio, came up with the brilliant idea of forming a posse to protect the town and go after the manananggal. (“We cannot allow this beast to terrorize us!” he said in a rousing address. “Think of the children!”) Before long, he had gathered a band of his lusty cohorts. (“We will deliver San Antonio from this creature!” he promised.) Ong Teck, who had also cornered the market in bamboo stalks and torches, was ecstatic.

With such a brave group of men putting their lives on the line, the mayor and the village elders only saw it fit to put together a princely bounty on the manananggal. Five thousand pesos! More than an ordinary farmer could make in ten years. That figure sent San Antonio into an even bigger tizzy.

This is where my Cousin Omeng — and by association, I — came in. Since the announcement, everyone was sure that the bounty would go to Rodrigo and his band. As such, they all flocked to the swain. “Rodrigo will save us,” they said; and on the side, they whispered and winked: “Rodrigo, don't forget us, ha?”

But not my Cousin Omeng.

Cousin Omeng was a tanner, and it was a trade that suited him well. He was strong. He was clever. He had nimble hands. But to the people of San Antonio, all this counted for naught, because in all other respects, he was the opposite of Rodrigo. Where Rodrigo was tall, he was short; where Rodrigo had a full head of hair, he was going bald; where Rodrigo was handsome, he was homely. And to add to all that, between his shoulders was a little bump, not too big, but noticeable. This, of course, marked him the village fool (and I, his loyal cousin, was his heir apparent.) He could never be part of Rodrigo's band, even if he had wanted to.

As I said, Cousin Omeng was quite clever. When the town mayor announced the bounty, he set his eyes on the prize. Over the years, he had collected quite a bit of lore; and among these were the ways with which to deal with manananggal. Bound by friendship and blood, I was immediately drafted into his adventure.

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“I still don't see why we have to go after her,” I said as I eyed the business end of the bamboo spear. “After all, she hasn't hurt anyone.”

Cousin Omeng only grunted and shrugged. He made another spear from a second bamboo stalk. These had been hard to get, seeing as how it spears were in such high demand. It seemed ridiculous, really: two spears, one for Cousin Omeng and one for me, against the several dozen handed out among Rodrigo's band. But Cousin Omeng was determined, and presently I saw why.

The silence of our labors was broken by a titter of chatter and giggles. Even before we spied them on the road, we already knew who it was: Elisa and her court, on their way to join the festivities at the plaza.

Elisa was the fairest girl in San Antonio, and in fact, for several villages round. Every man had his eye on her, wished to woo her and win her; all these she encouraged with her fluttering eyelids, only to dash their hopes with her cruel mouth. And yet they persisted, even though they knew the coquette had eyes only for the handsome Rodrigo.

“A very good morning to you, ladies,” Cousin Omeng said in his loudest, cheeriest voice. He leapt from our roadside camp and bowed in courtly fashion at Elisa and her friends. Elisa did not take notice of my cousin; instead, the sides of her lips curved up in a thin smile, and she held her head up higher. Rosa (the same one trysting with Pedring) did cast a glance at Cousin Omeng; then, she said something to her friends that made them burst in laughter. And so they went on, lace parasols twirling in the sun, until they disappeared around the bend.

“I don't see why you keep hoping,” I said. “She'll never look at the likes of us.”

“Have you seen her ankles?” Cousin Omeng said dreamily. “The prettiest I've seen.” How he knew despite the long skirts all the women wore was beyond me. But that was my Cousin Omeng.

“There are three ways to deal with a manananggal,” repeated Cousin Omeng. “There's the hard way, with bolos and bamboo spears, as I said. And then there's the easy way: with this.”

Cousin Omeng threw me a leather pouch about twice the size of my fist. The pouch was of his own make and design, simple yet ingenious. There were no seams, it looked all of a piece. You could draw its mouth open and close with its system of strings.

The pouch was heavy and full, but its contents shifted easily. I opened it and looked inside.

“Salt?” I inquired.

“Yes, my cousin, salt!” Cousin Omeng said. Startled by his own exuberance, afraid that someone would hear, he dropped his voice considerably. He went on to explain the scheme to me.

By day a manananggal was an ordinary woman, one as you may find walking in the plaza or shopping in the market. They lived apart, though, because of their curse. Not all of them were manananggals by choice.

But in the dead of night, when the hunger came upon them, they would undergo a horrible transformation. Their skin would melt, their hands became claws, their teeth grew into fangs. Bat wings would sprout from their backs. Then, their bodies would split at the torso. The upper half would take flight in search of prey; but the lower half was vulnerable.

“What does the salt have to do with it?” I asked.

“We find the manananggal's lower half and we spread salt all over it. Salt is their mortal enemy. With the lower half destroyed, she can't come together anymore! And we can do it without even coming face-to-face with her.”

I was impressed by this strategy, until a flaw in the plan occurred to me. “Cousin Omeng,” I said, “won't it be a problem to look for the lower half?” San Antonio itself wasn't very big, but we were surrounded all around by hills and forests.

Cousin Omeng, though, had an answer to this objection. From his own pouch, he took out a branch from what must have been a very ugly plant. Its length was hooked with barbs, and its leaves and buds were a dark shade of purple. “A branch from the sidlakan plant,” he explained; “where it grows, the manananggal can't be far.”

Thus began our quest for the manananggal of San Antonio. Our search was methodical. We followed the reported sightings and scoured the areas around for any signs of the sidlakan bramble.

The story, according to Cousin Omeng, was this: the blood of the manananggal was poison of the foulest kind. Where it fell it would kill the plants around it. From that spot on the earth, the sidlakan would grow; where it grew in profusion was where the manananggal effected her transformation. The sidlakan was so named because it gave off an eerie purple glow in the dark, an astonishing property my cousin demonstrated to me with his specimen.

Our first forays into the forests turned up nothing. We searched until early evening and turned back before it became too dark. After all, we were going for the second, easy way (so my cousin claimed) of dealing with the manananggal.

When we returned to San Antonio, it was with downcast hearts. Not only did we arrive empty-handed, we also came back to an early fiesta. So sure were the townsfolk of Rodrigo's success that they roasted pigs and roasted a calf; and since it was unthinkable to eat these delicacies alone, they also prepared the sweet sticky rice, the fragrant spicy noodles, the strong coconut wine, and treats of every sort. To round out the affair, the rondalla band came to play. The whole town came alive. With their merry noise would have scared away even the most fearsome manananggal; and if the manananggal did indeed come, they would have been too drunk to notice.

It was fiesta alright, but a fiesta to which we were not invited.

Still Cousin Omeng and I soldiered on. Come morning the usual quiet of the land would return, and Cousin Omeng and I would find ourselves in a cheerier mood. We set off again on our hunt. The sun was high, but not hot; the breeze from the sea blew gently on our faces and rustled the trees in whispered song. The trees were in full leaf, their fruits ripe and heavy for the picking. The night's foul mood forgotten, Cousin Omeng would regale me with other legends he heard, for he was a treasure trove of lore. And when that thread of conversation ran stale, we began to make fun of Rodrigo, of his friends, of his father the blowhard mayor.

And when there were no more horrid names to throw at Rodrigo and his kinsmen, we turned to the beautiful belles of San Antonio. Elisa, of course, was at the head of Cousin Omeng's list; and for that I made a face. How could he like such a haughty beauty? I myself preferred Maria, because I had a weakness for pouty lips and big breasts.

We ran through the list of the girls in San Antonio. At the end of it, we hit some disappointment: however high or low we set our sights, we were doomed to be bachelors. There we were: Cousin Omeng the hunchback, and me, the village idiot.

Only once in our hunt for sidlakan did our conversation turn back to the manananggal, and I remember it was I who prompted him that time.

“Cousin, you said there were three ways to deal with a manananggal,” I said when we paused to rest by the Baniko River. “There was the hard way, and there's the easy way. But that's only two. What's the third?”

Cousin Omeng shuddered. “Oh, it's too horrible to mention,” he said.

“Hey, come on, tell me!”

He looked at me solemnly, and said: “A man has to sacrifice himself.”

“Sacrifice himself? How?”

He whispered the answer in my ear. I stared at him in disbelief; my hair stood on end.

“You're kidding!”

He shook his head in all seriousness.

Other than that, it did not feel like we were hunting the manananggal at all.

It was at dusk of the third day when we stumbled upon the manananggal's lair.

Our searches along the Baniko River and the paths through the Ypil Forest had been fruitless. We were about to head home when, from the corner of my eye, I spotted a faint purple glow through the trees in the distance. I gripped Cousin Omeng's arm and pointed. He nodded; he saw it too.

We wended our way through the ypil-ypil trees. The sun was setting, painting the horizon behind us in warm orange hues; but under the heavy cover of leaves, we were already in the shadow of the growing darkness. To the left, to the right, we saw the glow of the scattered sidlakan plants. They made a trail that led deep into the forest.

The sun had gone down by the time we reached a clearing in the woods. In its place was the rising full moon. The area was aglow, not only with the light from the moon, but from the sidlakan that grew thick on the ground.

At the far end of the clearing, there was a lonely nipa hut, dark inside but for the faint glow of candlelight.

Cousin Omeng motioned me to squat, and he did likewise. We hid behind the trunk of a giant acacia tree. We stole quick glances at the hut, then ducked for cover lest we be seen.

At first it was hard to breathe. My heart beat like thunder and my chest felt tight. My mouth was dry. I would have keeled over from fright had it not been, ironically, for the gently soothing fragrance of the sidlakan that bloomed all around us. It was sweet yet light, unlike anything I had ever smelled. Presently, I calmed down, as did my cousin.

I don't know how long we waited. The light inside the hut flickered yet remained. Cousin Omeng and I would take turns spying round the trunk to see if anyone had come out.

And then, Cousin Omeng whispered: “The light is out.”

I peeked at the hut. Indeed, the open window had gone black. Momentarily, we heard a sound. A figure emerged from the door. It was a woman.

I could not quite make out her face; all I could see was that her hair was long and that her frame was tall. From the way she moved and carried herself, I guessed that she was quite young. She climbed down the steps in dainty steps, as women in skirts often did. I stole a glance at Cousin Omeng, and I could see that he, too, was captivated by the sight.

Then the most amazing thing happened: the woman turned into a manananggal.

How shall I describe the transformation? It was neither sudden nor violent as I thought it would be. The woman looked to the sky, then bent her head down as if to pray. She held her arms across her chest, then leaned forward. Her blouse parted at the back, and from the opening emerged, ever so shyly, the hint of a wing. It was like a buttefly emerging from a cocoon.

I felt like an intruder at a solemn ceremony; had I not been so entranced, I would have looked away in shame.

Slowly, the wings spread out until they fully extended in their magnificence. They fluttered once, twice, testing the air. Then, reacquainted with their element, they flapped with zealous joy.

Then she was off, like a bird freed from her cage. She dashed up to the sky, propelled by those mighty wings. In mere moments, she was a bat-like silhouette against the light of the moon.

So sudden was her flight, I did not even see the moment of separation. I only realized it when, having lost sight of the manananggal in the clouds, my eyes settled on the waist that stood on legs in the middle of the clearing. The legs were long, because the manananggal was tall; around the waist was wrapped a malong of intricate design, held in place by a knot. Along the side ran a long slit that revealed the skin of the leg all the way to the thigh. From the neck of the malong skirt I could see part of the abdomen that ended at the navel. And above that: nothing.

I was amazed, but Cousin Omeng transfixed; I hissed to remind him of our mission.

“Now, Cousin Omeng?”

“Not yet. The manananggal might still be close. If we strike too soon, she could catch us. Let's wait till the moon is higher.”

And so we waited, and an interminably long wait it was. The leaves rustled in the wind, the crickets chirped, but the world, it seemed, had frozen. The only mark to the passage of time was the ever rising moon which took forever to climb to its place.

Finally, Cousin Omeng drew me close and outlined his plan. We would approach the legs from opposite directions. I would stay where I was, he would circle round. At his signal, we would move towards our target.

It was a good plan, one that required the minimum of stealth. After all, there were no ears to hear. As he said, Cousin Omeng circled to the other side, and I waited until I saw the sparks from his flint. Perhaps it would all have gone accordingly had I not stepped on a dry branch that gave an earsplitting crack; so loud was it that the crickets stopped their song.

The legs must have sensed it, perhaps through the vibrations in the ground. They jumped up with a start, then began to shuffle to the side, away from the line that Cousin Omeng and I made.

We had been discovered. It was now or never.

I rushed the legs, as did Cousin Omeng. Sensing our footfalls, the legs veered away, heading towards the woods. The slit of the malong flapped wildly in the wind, but otherwise the skirt held.

Cousin Omeng had covered quite a distance before we were found out, and so he was closer. He leapt and tackled the walking horror, and caught it around its thighs. He lifted the legs off the ground in a tight embrace. The legs flailed wildly.

I had freed the pouch from belt and its neck lay open in my hand. The white salt came pouring out into my palm.

“Hold her steady!” I cried as I flung the first handful towards the kicking monstrosity. When the grains touched the opening, it would be the beginning of the end.

I was not prepared for what happened next.


Cousin Omeng twisted away so his body shielded the waist. My volley instead caught him on his back. Why did he do that? Was he possessed?

“Hold still,” I shouted as I prepared another round.

“Stop! We can't—!”

I had moved far too close. The legs flailed so wildly they twisted Cousin Omeng this way and that. With a massive kick, a foot caught me on the nose. I fell over backwards, as did Cousin Omeng.

And now the legs were free; they ran towards the forest.

“What are you doing?” I spat. But he was on his feet now, chasing after the fleeing legs. I followed after him.

For all the trouble they caused, I'll admit it was quite a feat. No eyes to guide them, no hands for balance, it was amazing how far a pair of legs could carry a waist. We would have lost them in the forest were it not for the rocky, uneven ground underneath the clearing. A foot must have stumbled on a rock or a hole, because the legs fell forward and rolled — once, twice, a third time — before finally coming to rest.

“O-oooh,” Cousin Omeng moaned pitifully.

“Is it dead?” I asked.

We drew in close. The legs did try to move, but all it could manage was a twitch.

Again my hand went for the salt pouch, but Cousin Omeng pushed it away.

“Are you out of your mind?” I demanded. “Quick! Before the manananggal comes back!”

“We can't,” Cousin Omeng said. The moonlight reflected in the tears welling up in his eyes. “Don't you see? This is...perfection.... it would be a crime!”

Cousin Omeng picked up the legs and cradled them in his arms. Whether they were hurt from the fall, or sensed that Cousin Omeng meant no harm, the legs no longer struggled. Cousin Omeng carried them with utmost care back to the hut. Dumbstruck, I could do nothing else but follow.

We entered the hut, and Cousin Omeng directed me to light some candles. Thus illumined, we saw what few men have seen: the lair of the dreaded manananggal which, as it turned out, was not so dreadful at all.

As we saw from its exterior, the walls were made of nipa; the floor, of bamoo slats. It was extraordinary in that it was — ordinary. In fact, it was remarkably clean, much cleaner than the hovel that Cousin Omeng and I kept. On the windows were lace curtains with ribbons, on the table was a woven runner, and over to the side rested a porcelain vase with flowers.

Cousin Omeng, though, was too preoccupied to take notice. He set the legs down on the floor and ran his nimble fingers gently down the calf.

“Not broken,” he sighed with relief, “just a twisted ankle.”

From his pouch he produced some bayabas leaves and chewed them to make a paste. He massaged the ankle with the paste at some length. Then he wrapped it tight with a clean strip of cloth. For a flourish, he made a tiny bow by the foot.

“Please, please, please, Cousin Omeng,” I said as I stamped my feet and pulled my hair, “I don't understand.” Or maybe I did, but I did not want to admit it.

Cousin Omeng sat the waist on a chair and stretched the sprained leg to rest on the table. “Don't you see?” he said. He stroked the shin ever so lightly; the leg quivered, but did not resist. “These legs...they're perfect! The proportions! Look! The breadth of the thigh. The way the calf curves so, like a gentle sloping dune. Look at the angle it makes down to the ankle. And the skin, so soft and creamy! And look at the feet, so dainty!” At that, the manananggal's red-painted toes wiggled slightly.

Any moment now the manananggal would come swooping in. We would both die, but that would be a welcome end to the embarrassment I felt.

No manananggal came, though, and finally, Cousin Omeng decided it was time to go. He took one last long look at the legs with much hesitation. In the end, he worked up the nerve: he brushed his hand against a knee and brought it up as high along the thigh as he dared. The leg quivered, and responded with a gentle kick to his shin. My cousin chortled with glee.

When we left the hut, the moon was on its way down. The clearing was as much as we had seen it, still aglow with the purple sidlakan aura. The trees swayed gently in the wind, the night birds hooted and honked. I scanned the skies for signs of the manananggal; there was none.

We made our way back to San Antonio. Cousin Omeng was in a very light mood. Hands in his pockets, he whistled as he walked.

Overhead, the leaves rustled. I thought I could hear a giggle.

I woke with a start the following morning. I felt for my bed, my blanket, and my pillows. Oh, yes, I was home alright. Had I simply dreamed the events of the past night?

Cousin Omeng was up and about. He was already bathed and dressed. He moved with a spring his steps. “Good morning, cousin!” he greeted me heartily. He thumped me on my shoulder.

“Where are you doing?” I asked.

“Can't chat, cousin, I have a busy day ahead of me.” And with that he was out the door.

He came back a little after lunch, flowers in one hand, a basket in the other. In the basket were sweets and treats, trinkets, and colorful cloths. In it, too, were new and expensive-looking shirts. All afternoon long, he was a whirlwind around the house, cleaning this corner and that, wrapping up presents, and whistling with abandon. By late afternoon, he had bathed once more and drowned himself in perfume. To complete his transformation, he put on a new shirt and pants. Then he was out the door.

“Don't wait up, I might be late,” he called from the yard. I buried my head in my hands, not knowing what to do.

As it turned out, other events were in motion. If things were looking up for Cousin Omeng, it was quite the other way for the rest of the town. As I wandered into the square, I could sense the foul mood of people around me. People were scowling and frowning; not a few threw dagger looks in my direction.

Apparently, just the night before, the village elders had finally seen through Rodrigo's carousings. The fiesta mood had gone far too long; the pigs and the cows had been slaughtered, but the manananggal had not yet been killed. Already, the bill for the festivities had far exceeded the reward. That brought all the creditors down on Rodrigo's head. The ultimatum was clear: put up, or pay up.

Sensing this sordid turn, I decided to make myself scarce. I casually made my way out of the square, but as I rounded the corner, I found my path blocked by Rodrigo and his friends.

“Ah, Omeng's cousin,” Rodrigo said through his perfect smile. He held me tight around the shoulders. Two more of his friends surrounded me. “Any luck with the manananggal hunt?”

“No, no luck at all,” I said. It did not feel like a lie. “Gave up, actually.”

“Really now? Where were you last night? We didn't see you come home.”

“We got lost.”

“Maybe you should show us where you got lost, so you know...we don't get lost ourselves.”

They gathered their ropes and knives and spears and torches. It was a right and proper posse that had formed, now of all times. We hustled out of town, with me at the head of the mob.

I wanted to lead them far away from last night's clearing. However, Berto had seen us return from Baniko River, from which there was only one path. My ruse was discovered quickly. Rodrigo held a knife close to my throat, a warning that he would brook no trickery.

Night had fallen on the Ypil Forest, but no peace came with it. Instead, the woods were alive with the noise of angry men bearing torches. The torches, thankfully, overwhemed the light of the sidlakan plants, so there was no chance of accidental discovery. As for me, I feigned ignorance of the way to the clearing. We travelled up and down the main forest path several times.

Finally, Rodrigo lost patience with me.

“Listen, you little fool,” he growled, “you take us to Omeng right now, or we'll burn the forest down.” He jabbed the tip of his knife against my rib.

Suddenly, someone shouted: “I see something!” More shouts.

I twisted free from Rodrigo's grip, and knocked down the men around me. They were all distracted by the commotion and paid me no heed. I escaped into the forest and hid behind a tree. The shouts from the posse grew louder.

“There it is! I see it!”

“Kill it! Kill it!”

“Ha! Tiago has hit it!”

“No! It was my spear!”

“Watch out! It's still alive!”

“Wait! What is that?”

“You fool! It's just a bat!”

“Where's the village idiot?”

“I thought you had him!”

“Spread out! Find him! He can't have gone very far!”

I was never more frightened in my life, not even of the manananggal. And we were so close to the clearing. Even if I managed my escape, they were likely to come across the hut. Would they find the manananggal? I didn't care. But if they found Cousin Omeng there, they would tear him to pieces.

I had no choice. I had to outrun them. I had to find Cousin Omeng. I had to warn him about Rodrigo and his men.

The trunks of the trees whizzed by. Again I followed the glow of the sidlakan. I only hoped I wouldn't stumble.

I found my way to the clearing. On the far side, I saw the hut, much as it was the night before. The windows were dark. Perhaps Cousin Omeng wasn't there after all. I paused to catch my breath. Then from behind me, I heard loud curses. They were too close!

Torches began to emerge from the trees around the clearing. Angry feet trampled the sidlakan field. Driven by instinct, I ran for the hut. “Omeng! They're here!” I cried. “I'm sorry, I tried to lead them away....”

A flickering light came to life inside the hut. A window swung open. A bleary head popped: it was Cousin Omeng!

“What is the meaning of this?!” Cousin Omeng thundered. It was so loud it echoed through the forest. The converging posse stopped in its tracks.

“It's Rodrigo and his men!”

A stream of curses erupted from Cousin Omeng's mouth. Even in the darkness I could see his face was red. He stamped through the hut and came out the door. A blanket just barely covered his naked chest. One hand held up his pants. I would have laughed if he wasn't so angry.

“What is the meaning of this?” Cousin Omeng repeated.

Rodrigo finally managed a sheepish answer. “Omeng, we're after the manananggal....”

“Manananggal?! What rubbish!” Cousin Omeng shouted. “Can't you leave a man in peace with his woman?”

A tousle-haired woman peered shyly out the window. She held a blanket round tightly round her chest. I recognized her immediately. It was the manananggal from last night! She ran inside but soon emerged behind Cousin Omeng. No bat wings, no split torso. She was whole.

I couldn't believe my eyes; neither could the men around me, but not, I think for the same reason.

“What are you looking at, you louts?” barked Cousin Omeng. “Get out of here! Don't make me come down!”

Thus chastised, the band dispersed and headed back into the forest. The men grumbled and shook their heads. I saw Rodrigo, who looked like a chick doused in water. I stuck my tongue out at him.

When everyone had gone, I ran up to the hut to Cousin Omeng and the woman.

“I'm so sorry, cousin,” I said, tears streaming down my eyes. “They were so close, I had to come to warn you.”

“Not your fault,” he said, patting my shoulder. “In fact, I'm glad it turned out the way it did.”

“But...what about...her?”

“Ah, yes, her. My woman. My one true love.” He pecked at the woman's cheek. The woman blushed and giggled. “Remember the third way of dealing with a manananggal?”

“You didn't!”

“Oh, yes I did. I married her.”

“But...but...married? How could you do that? There's no church! There's no priest!”

He winked at me, and grinned.

“Ah, my poor innocent cousin, there's more than one way to get married, you know. Now if you'll excuse us, we're going to get married again...and again...”

That would have been the end of my story, but there was still the matter of the reward. Five thousand pesos was five thousand pesos, after all. Cousin Omeng wanted to collect. He deserved to collect.

What was needed was proof, and that he managed to procure. You see, when Cousin Omeng, er, married Milagros — that was the manananggal's name — it had the effect of shedding her wings. It was a shame, really, because they were quite majestic. Twelve feet each wing spanned, and along the ridges stretched a fine black skin covered with silky down. But it was just as well, because there was no way anyone could claim it was a fake.

We brought the wings before the council. After careful examination of the evidence, they awarded us the bounty. No one asked about the beautiful woman who never left Cousin Omeng's side. Rodrigo and his men, after that evening's tongue lashing, were meek as lambs and raised no hue. Besides, they had their creditors to worry about.

Cousin Omeng graciously gave me half the reward; in turn, I offered it back as a wedding present to Milagros and him. After all, it was all his sacrifice, though in the end, no one can say that he suffered very much for it.

I left San Antonio not long after to seek my fortunes elsewhere. A few years later, my travels brought me back to the town. I went to visit Cousin Omeng and Milagros.

By then Cousin Omeng had grown rich, second only to old Ong Teck. Cousin Omeng had not squandered the reward money. He invested in what he knew best: a tannery. He partnered with Ong Teck, who turned out to be a decent fellow. Shrewd, yes, but fair and generous. Later on, the partners expanded their venture into a factory.

Cousin Omeng and Milagros, in fact, are quite famous, and I am certain you have heard of them. It is known far and wide, after all, that they make the finest and most exquisite ladies' shoes this side of the galleon trade.

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