Story of a Mangbabarang (The Witch's Curse)
A Mangbabarang is a witch who practice the "black arts." People go to her when they wish to do harm or seek revenge on their enemies. They pay a fee for her services.
The Bertud is an amulet from which the mangbabarang derives her powers. It becomes more lethal as the death toll inflicted by the witch increases.
A broken heart...she was only sixteen.
"They found a body!"
Last night's typhoon was one of the worst to hit the country. Daylight showed the town in a state of devastation.Rice fields on the outskirt were flooded and crops ready for harvest wiped out.
The body was being fish out of the river. Strong current would have carried it down stream further but for a tree that fell to the forces of nature. Jutting into the muddy river it's submerge branches snagged her lower extremities. Curious on-lookers could see the upper torso bobbing on the water surface. She was the only fatality of the storm. Murmurings turn into ripples of astonishment when word spread among the crowd who the victim was.
Years have dull the memory but the guilt was still there.
"Sir? Monsignor called to inquire about the donation for the charity ward of the hospital."
"Please return his call and assure the good father he will have it by this afternoon."
Lately the nights have been tormenting him. He was a man who many feared, but now broke down in sweat and cringed from the recurring nightmare.
"You took what didn't belong to you" His inner demons demanded expiation.
Like silhouettes in the background they shadowed him.
Now an old man, his wealth gave him power.Politicians were in his pocket, bribed judges would render favorable decisions against business competitors and labor disputes. His mistresses in plushy condominiums waited for his pleasure. Even a "Tirador" (assassin) lurk behind the scene to take care of intractable adversaries. Ruthless in building his business empire, he had ruin the lives of many. "Nothing personal, it's only business." he would rationalize, devoid of any emotional feelings.
Yet in solitude he would reflect upon his life.
What forces drove him to succeed, Ambition? Or was he compelled to find exoneration for a sin committed many years ago. A non practicing Catholic, he visited the church each year on her death anniversary to light a candle in memory of her.
Perhaps I should light one for my soul, a cynical thought cross his mind...if I still have one.
It was a third class municipality ignored by the national government. The mayor lead the town folks in welcoming him. He was their town mate, the poor boy who made good in the big city. A successful businessman, his picture often appeared in newspapers in the company of other prominent people.
The ceremony was stage on the front lawn of the town hall. A flustered mayor gave a speech heaping praise on his accomplishments and thanking him profusely for the new bridge he was financing and donating. It was his first visit to his birthplace in fifty three years.
He stood on one side of the river bank. A solitary figure looking at the past.
His silver colored Benz and driver a good distance away allowed a measure of seclusion for his thoughts. Ahead of him were the embedded concrete piles rising from the murky waters. Horizontal beams would soon traverse on top of them linking one end of the river bank to its opposite side. Parallel to it was the old bridge it would replace.The twenty foot wooden span with steel girders stood against the backdrop of the last light of the day.
Built by army engineers of the U.S. forces liberating the Philippines from Japanese occupation in WW ll. The bridge was a silent witness to the march and ravage of time. In his youth, it had seen bare foot children scampering across to pasture their flocks, Farmers with their water buffalo heading to the rice paddies. On Sundays there would be the noisy chatter of families on their way to church and the local bazaar. An occasional vehicle would barrel through, leaving behind a trail of dust from the dirt road the bridge connected. The old structure was still sturdy but too narrow to accommodate the growing traffic that progress brings.
When it is finally demolish... He thought to himself. It would be the last vestige of her.
Supported by a cane with strange markings on it's silver handle, the old man made hesitant steps across the wooden bridge and the memories flooded in.
A back breaking task. But the heat of the noon sun would add further to the discomfort of the rice planters. As the line of bent figures inch their way covering the paddy with rice seedlings, The young man of seventeen summers acknowledge the man on his left side. Dark brown skin with a weather beaten face, he was humming a tune that Mario had heard for as long as he could remember. "Itay" (father) don't you know any song beside that" he ribbed the older man.
They were tenant farmers. His grandparents tilled the soil for the ancestors of the present owners. From the harvest they receive a fraction for their labor. The owners also allowed them to build their Nipa huts on plots of land which they cultivated for vegetable and fruit trees. A few native pigs and chickens were raise to add variety to the family's nourishment and income.
But Mario's mind was elsewhere.
Alicia would be waiting.
They would meet in their secret rendezvous when the chance allowed and make love.
No longer a child yet barely a woman, she had a natural beauty with satiny skin and jet black hair flowing down her back. Many desired her but Mario was the only man who had the audacity to woo and win her favors. Fear was what held others back.
Alicia's grandmother was a mangbabarang (witch).
They say she had the ability to conjure the Ancient Ones from the dark abyss.Those from the older generation whispered of how "Papo" (grandmother) sacrificed her spouse to increase the potency of her power; his body slowly eaten by unseen entities crawling inside him.The man laid helplessly waiting for death as the digits on his hand and feet painfully rotted away.
Mysterious illness and unexplained deaths were often attributed to her. People kept a deference attitude towards "Papo" and generally avoid provoking her ire.
Born out of wedlock, Alicia was an unwanted child. Her father was a scion from one of the wealthy clans.The witch adopted and raise her not out of charity or pity. Local folklore believe the young girl was being groom to become a body cavity for the old woman's bertud.
As a witch age and become physically weaker, the Evil Spirits would take control of her. Wracking her body with unspeakable pain and misery. Death becomes the only viable escape but only after the witch transfers her bertud to another person.
In the fading light the bridge appeared..
Strong winds signal the approaching storm. Mario wrap his arms tighter around Alicia as they race against the coming onslaught.They had decided to elope. He had hidden their traveling bags in their secret place. But unlike earlier tryst his heartbeat was not that of a lover's anticipation but the agitation of a fleeing fugitive's.Tautness in Alicia's clasp on his hand showed the emotional tension gripping the girl. Silence accompanied the urgency of their progress.
In the fading light the bridge appeared.
Heavy drops of rain started to tattoo it's wooden planks as they reach halfway across. "Mga walanghiya!, mga walang utang na loob!!" (Shameless! Ingrates!). A figure in dark overcoat at the other end block their way.They knew even before they saw her face. "PUTA (hussy), just like your mother" The vehemence in Papo's expression frightened Alicia. Mario could feel her tremble as the old witch drew closer.
Her cane stab the air accusingly at the rooted pair. Expecting the full wrath of the old woman, Mario instinctively raise his arm.The first blow caught him by surprise, the blunt end of the cane open a cut on Alicia's forehead. Dazed, her knees buckled as she fell to the ground. Another blow struck her back as she turn away cowering; her hands trying to shield her head. Momentarily taken aback, Mario grab hold of the cane to prevent further injury to his love one. Wild-eyed, the infuriated witch turn against him. Viciously scratching his face and drawing blood.
The sight of Alicia laying on the ground overcame Mario's initial fright. Filled with anger, a brief scuffle issue.
The bridge have now turn slippery from all the mud and muck loosen by the pouring rain. One hard push unbalance the old woman. Falling backwards, her head hit the edge of the guard rail snapping her neck. Mario glance over the prostrate Alicia as he realize what he had done.He had committed murder and the law would soon be after them. This was not the way he wanted to start their relationship together.
Alicia was still unaware of what had happen. Deciding quickly, Mario lifted the lifeless body of the witch onto the railing.
Papo open her eyes. Her gnarled fingers grab hold of Mario's neck, pulling him within inches of her face. A pair of inhuman eyes stared at him. The woman's mouth turn into a contemptuous leer. Spitting out a vile phlegm on Mario's cheek, she mumbled a curse before her last breath.
Badly shaken, Mario barely manage to shove the witch off the bridge.The rain obliterated the splash as the angry river swallowed the body. Picking up the cane Mario was about to toss it but inexplicably change his mind. Carefully he help Alicia to her feet as the full force of the typhoon hit the area.
Partially regaining her faculties Alicia accepted Mario's explanation that her grandmother fled after he threaten her with the cane and bodily harm. But somewhere in her mind she knew the truth.
"Please get rid of it, It will bring us nothing but trouble" Alicia implored.
"Later, let's get out of the storm first."
Mario and Alicia reach the big city without any further incident. Both found menial work. Mario was hired in a construction firm as a contractual laborer mixing cement and hauling it to the skilled masons. Alicia found work in an eatery that catered to the working class. Aside from dish washing she was required to assist with other chores when the restaurant was shorthanded.
The young lovers were content to exclude the outside world when they were in theirs.They would arrive separately in the evening to a rented one room dwelling. The street fronting their tenement was a night market servicing the need of residents in this poor section of the city.
Mario was preparing a simple meal of steam rice and the fish he bought from a vendor.
"You look tired, mahal (love)".
Alicia attempted a smile "I"m fine" as she reach out to him.
Aching for his scent and touch, Alicia could feel his heart beat as they embrace. With her eyes close her lips sought his.
Mario press against her softness, his lips tasting the sweetness of her mouth.
Pushing herself lightly away she ask impishly "What's for supper,Chef?"
"Oh my god! It's burning" as he parted from her unwillingly.
Alicia wrinkled her nose at him. " Keep me hungry and I might ran away with the restaurant cook" she tease.
"Really?" he replied in mock surprise. "Don't you want dessert....?"
Mario flex his chest muscles as he made a grab for her ample waist. Alicia dodge him playfully. Her gleeful shriek and his laughter filled the room.
These were some of the happiest days in Mario's life.
Unaware that she was in the first trimester of her pregnancy, Alicia attributed the stomach cramps to the long hours she stood washing dishes and the irregular meal breaks demanded of her when the eatery was full and business hectic.So as not to worry Mario, she told no one. On her next day off, she promise herself to visit the local government clinic for a medical check up.
Stoically she bore her discomfort for several days. But today the cramps were more severe and acute pain stab at her pelvic area. The restaurant was crowded and they where understaffed. Beside the dish washing, Alicia help in clearing out the tables.
The jarring sound of breaking dishes inside the kitchen disrupted the customers' meal.
She had never complain and was content to wear the hand me downs she brought with her. Window shopping one day when their day off coincided, Alicia had looked longingly at a dress on display. It was on sale as the Christmas season was approaching and the store was disposing their older stocks. The price was slash to 50 %. Mario bought it on his way home from work.
Mario quicken his steps as he anticipated the joy in Alicia's face.
Still in his reverie he found three people waiting for him outside the tenement building. He recognize one of them as a co-worker of Alicia. From them Mario learn he lost his first born. The miscarriage also cost Alicia her life.
Mario laid her to rest in the new dress that was meant to bring happiness. It's cheerful print cried out against the constriction of the box coffin. he watch the dirt gradually filled up the grave. Unwilling to accept Alicia's death, a distress longing to hold unto her made breathing difficult as the tears flowed down his face.
The ember glowed each time he took a drag on the cigarette. A cloud of smoke lazily filter through the unlit room. Darkness gave him comfort and the booze fed his denial that Alicia was gone.
" I have an off-day tomorrow, we can see a movie and go to the park after" He had taken to talking to himself.
Sometimes Alicia would reply, excited for the opportunity to show off her new dress. But more often she would look at him forlornly and his tears would blur his vision. Drifting between bouts of despair and delusion Mario thought of ending it all.
Contemptuous laughter entered his inebriated psyche.The old woman had her arms around the terrified girl. Alicia's eyes pleaded to Mario for succor. He tried to bridge the distance but saw her fading farther away. "Alicia!" he cried out as he found himself being pulled back. Indistinct sounds accompanied movement in the darken room. Shadowy figures soon made their presence felt .
A three story tenement, the corridor on the last floor leading to Mario's room was poorly lit. Most tenants were people from the province looking for cheap and temporary shelter.They move out as soon as they found employment and better living space. Mario remain the only occupant on this floor.
The foreman had taken a liking to the self-effacing and courteous young man. An industrious worker, Mario never complain even when it wasn't part of his job. In the months Mario worked in the construction site, a mutual bond gradually form between them. It had been more than a week since Mario reported for work. Aware of the tragedy and deeply concern he paid Mario a visit.
Receiving no answer after knocking several time, the foreman push open the unlocked door. An offensive and unpleasant odor invaded his sense. There was also a feeling of intangible gloom and sadness. His fingers grope for the light switch and the single bulb showed the carnage.
Thomas cautiously avoided the glass splinters as he step inside. Broken bottles littered the floor mostly where they fell after being hurled against the walls. Made of flimsy ply-board they bore bash marks in several places. A smashed mirror hung precariously on one wall, collateral damage from the rampage of a blunt instrument. The table was on it's side. One chair was totally wreak and the surviving one hobbled on three legs in one corner. Other objects were strewn above.The only furniture unscathed was the bed. A cane lay nearby. Broken in two the silver handle revealed a hidden compartment. It contain the bertud.
The unkempt figure was sitting on the floor with his back hunch against a wall. Half naked, his knees were pulled up to his chest and arms clasp around them. His face and shoulders bore dark bruises.There was an ugly gash on one arm. Reddish purple knuckles made it appear he came from a fight or hit an immobile object. The soles of his feet had cuts from the shards. Looking up from his cocoon, there was something else besides the tragic toll written on Mario's face. Thomas saw deep anger in the young man's eyes.
Thomas and his wife took Mario in. Childless, they treated him like their own son. His physical wounds would heal. But his emotions were scarred forever by the loss of Alicia.
The foreman taught Mario the skills of his trade. Aside from his regular job in the construction firm, Thomas with a motley crew occasionally accepted small jobs. Mostly residential renovation and repairs. Mario plunged himself in earnest learning all he could of the construction business. When his stepfather passed away they were able to turn a part time occupation into a respectable medium size company.
A construction boom in the country and his timely decision to expand into the importation of building materials brought in huge profits. With cheaper steel from Russia and China, he was able to undercut competition. Concentrating on public work projects, officials were wined and dined, provided lavish gifts, bribes and women.
A cabal rigged public bidding and shared in the largesse. Newcomers were bought off and their companies merged. A "salvage" (extrajudicial killing) body floating in polluted streams or tossed into dump sites persuaded the intransigent. He became the unacknowledged head of a monopoly that controlled all government construction projects. "Bastard" was the kindest expletive his foes had for him.
Throughout the years people marveled at his business acumen. Others his luck. No one attributed his success to supernatural forces. But Mario paid a heavy price. He never found love again. People he became close to often betrayed his trust. Some met tragic ends. When the couple who gave him hope burn to death in their sleep, it was rumored to have been cause by his enemies.
But Mario knew they were the Evil Ones collecting their dues.
He build a wall around him against any emotional entanglement and affection. The sensual pleasures he paid women for soon became tiresome and meaningless. How he yearn for Alicia and the pureness of her love.
" Further tests won't be necessary, you are physically fit for a man of your age" John replied to his query. A throbbing pain behind the back of his head proved negative in the CAT scan.
His personal doctor for almost thirty years, John's was among the few whose relationship came close to what could amount to a friendship.
The doctor spoke candidly," I could recommend a psychiatrist who is discreet."
"Or maybe a vacation on that lovely island paradise we talk about but you keep putting off." The doctor chuckled.
"Sorry John, no time."
Time was the one thing he had. Endless days of torture and sufferings.The years feasted on his decaying body. How he longed for the sweet embrace of death. But the grim ripper stayed away.
The doctor was a specialist and efficiently clinical. He had none of the homespun country boy charm of his former doctor. John had passed away a long time ago.
The attractive young woman was being apprise of her duties by the doctor. She was the new nurse for the night shift. Her patient had his eccentricity but money has it's privilege. She was required to read to him like one does a bedtime story for a child. It had to be read in a modulated tone of voice with a certain inflection.
She reminded him of someone in his past. He reach out and gently laid his hand on her lap, "Alicia..." Half asleep her voice brought him back to the golden rice fields of his hometown. His weightless body drifted into the dreamlike experience. In their secret haven, the lust in his loin sought her supple body as his mouth beseech hers
Then he felt the frigid rain drench him on the old bridge as they fled for their life.The witch followed them into the tenement room. "Mario!" Alicia cried out as he lost his hold on her hand. The witch pulled her farther and farther away as he watch helplessly. Alone, he became the unwilling participant among defiled obscenities who turn him into a host for evil.
The nurse had left his bedside to prepare his medication. Half awake, Mario ask " Is the story finish?"
Momentarily interrupting her task she turn around to answer him " Oh, do you want it to end sir?." The nurse he mistook for Alicia morph into the witch.
Was it the curse of the witch or was he burdened by his conscience. Mario never stopped loving her and carried the guilt of Alicia's death for the rest of his life.
He watch as they buried his mortal remains. The prominently rich and powerful attended. Standing apart from the crowd of mourners was Alicia. She was waiting for him.
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