He backed into the wall again, staring at the Lady Sinukuan, but as the sight of her holding the box open was even more terrifying than what he saw inside the box, he kept his eyes riveted on the ceiling above him. He screamed again, but it died away in his throat and came out as a choked, rasping rattle.
The ring indeed was there, exactly as he had remembered it—but it was on the ring finger of a dismembered hand. The hand had been severed at the wrist, and worms wriggled out of the little rotting flesh it still had. The stench that came from it assailed his nostrils, and he collapsed to the floor, gagging.
“What—what sort of evil joke is this, my Lady?” he said wildly, when he could finally speak again. “It’s not even funny, it’s—it’s—” He swallowed, still shivering. “Whose hand is this?”
“You know very well, of course,” she said coldly. “For he had been living in this house all this time, until you killed him. I noticed that there were two of everything in your hut—two chairs, two glasses, two plates . . . everything. And that staff over there? Surely you wouldn’t need one, but another person, someone older, weaker, would. You mentioned him too, a little while ago. ‘Then one day the nuno came to us,’ a slight slip of the tongue, but it was enough to give you away.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Catalina actually told me a lot more about you. She said something which I found peculiar. You said you lived here in this hut alone all these years, but she said otherwise. She remembers the very first time you came to the village.” She stood up, still holding the box. “You passed by their house then, and she saw you from her window. She said you seemed like a very quiet and unassuming man.” Her eyes shone with both fury and a deep, infinite sadness. “She remembered you then because she was so touched that you seemed so dedicated to your old, ailing father.”
“No,” he whispered. “She noticed us then? But—”
“She was the only one in the village who ever really noticed you. And now she has become your downfall.”
“Yes! The ring was with him all this time, for he was wearing it the day he died—the day you killed him.”
He collapsed into the wall, still staring up at her with wide, horrified eyes.
“This is why I came to see you,” she said. “Not to look into the theft of the ring but the murder of your father.” Jose noticed then the air around them had become chilly. He could feel the cold biting into his skin. “Tell me!” she ordered. “Admit that you killed him. You cannot lie; I will know it when you do, just as I knew it the whole time I was talking to you.”
He buried his face in his hands. “Yes,” he said hoarsely. “Yes, I did it.” When he looked up at the Lady Sinukuan, he almost could not see her, for his eyes were filled with tears. “But I did not mean to kill him. I meant only to kill the nuno.”
She did not speak and only turned her nose up.
“I know what you must think of me,” Jose said, weeping. “But please understand, my Lady! We came to this village after my mother died to start a new life. We had always been poor, and my father had become sickly because of his grief and pining for my mother, so it had been up to me to earn money for us to survive. Everyone spoke of how prosperous this province was because of you.
“When we came to the village, I had so much hope for the future.” He wrung his hands. “And then that damned nuno came. But even then I could have fought back, if it wasn’t for my father! I would never have given in to his demands. He had befriended my father, you see. I often found my father by his mound. I let my father be at first, because I understood how lonely he must have been. Ever since his sickness no one else, not even me, could understand what he wanted to say, and the nuno was the first friend he’d had in years. I did love my father, after all.”
“You did such a wonderful job of showing it, too.”
“I suffered for so long, my Lady!” Jose cried. “I could only take so much. The last straw was when he took my savings; it was all I had left for myself, and even he took that away from me. It was then that I started to look for ways to be rid of the nuno, forever.
“I started inquiring in the other villages, and I found a mangkukulam in one of the neighboring villages whom I thought could finally help me. After much bargaining I was able to buy a packet of poison from her, so powerful it could kill even a creature of power like the nuno. I sprinkled it on the nuno’s food and offered it to his mound.
“But what I had not counted on was my father eating that food, too. I don’t know how it happened. Perhaps the nuno invited him to dine with him to get his good graces back. I don’t know. I only found them both dead when I came home. I have never felt more terrible in my entire life, and I thought after I had buried them the whole thing would be gone forever. But the guilt is there, goading me, never giving me rest, always—
“But they deserved it.” He lifted his head and stared defiantly at her. “They both deserved it! Do you not understand, my Lady? It was the will of Bathala that they were both killed!”
“No, it was not His will,” she said coldly. “You had a choice. You humans always do. There were other ways to resolve this without resorting to murder.”
“What could I have done, my Lady?” he yelled. “No one could help me! There was nothing I could do, I had been provoked into this, it was their fault, their fault!” He let out a loud, desperate laugh, and he kept laughing even when it began to hurt. He did not know what was so funny—surely he should be crying instead?—but he could not stop. “My father did not care about me at all! He only cared about himself and his own pain, and he deserved this, and now—”
He jumped forward and got the hand from the box. “It’s mine now,” he said. “I shall sell that ring and I will ask Señorita Catalina to marry me and I will be happy, happy, oh so happy, happier than I could ever have been when they were still alive—”
“I don’t think so.” Lady Sinukuan took his arm. “You still deserve to be punished for your crime. I shall take you back with me to Arayat, and—”
“No!” Jose’s eyes darted outside. “Never! I have suffered enough, and I won’t—” He wrenched his arm away from her grasp and ran out the door. He looked back to see if she was following him, but she only stood at the door unmoving, unconcerned. After a moment’s pause, she raised her hand. A wind suddenly blew all around them, blowing dust and the salt he had sprinkled all over the house into his eyes and mouth, mixing with his tears. He saw her look to the sky, and he looked up too. He saw that the birds she was talking to earlier where flying above, circling the hut.
“Get him,” she said.
Instantly, all the birds descended upon him. He screamed and tried to bat them all away, but they kept at him, squawking, pecking at him. He kept running despite the pain. He barged into the forest, swatting the branches away. The canopy of trees above him eventually cleared and he stepped into a clearing—
He stumbled over the mound of earth on his path. He was back at his house! But how? How in Bathala’s name was he back here?
A shadow passed over him, and through the flock of birds that still attacked him he saw a figure standing over him. His heart leapt when he realized who it was: it was the traveler he met in the village. “Help me, help me!” he yelled. “I have the ring you wanted, I can sell it to you now, but please—”
The young man did not move from where he stood and only looked at him. He shook his head. “I think you should clean the ring first,” he said. He wrinkled his nose. “After all, it came from a corpse, didn’t it?”
“What?” Jose said. “But how could you know that—I—”
“Lupa was my friend,” the collector said with a grim smile.
Lady Sinukuan stood a short distance behind him. She raised a hand, and the birds finally stopped their attack.
He looked at the man again, more closely this time. It was only then that Jose noticed that the young man’s eyes were actually glowing; glowing a terrible, angry shade of red. The next second the young man had disappeared, and in his place was a big black horse, towering over Jose.
He sank back to the ground again with a moan, terror paralyzing his limbs. “Well, I wouldn’t call him a friend, exactly,” the tikbalang said. “Not with a debt that large unpaid for about a century now.”
Jose mustered every last ounce of courage he had. “I’m not sorry I killed the damned creature,” he spat. “So kill me if you want revenge. I don’t care!”
“Why would I want to kill you?” There was a faint trace of scorn in his—its?—voice. “Lupa had it coming. You think your father did too, but you’re wrong. He refused to give the ring to Lupa. That was why he was wearing the ring when he died.”
“I don’t even know your father, much less care about your opinion of him.” His eyes glowed an even brighter scarlet. “I do admit all this has been terribly amusing, though. I first came here four months ago, for Lupa’s payment. As you and I would expect, knowing Lupa’s finer personality traits, he asked for a reprieve. He did promise that he would pay me back since he was sure he would be able to retrieve the ring of Lawodnon from the new occupants of the hut near his mound.
“The second time I came, a day before you killed him, he asked for another reprieve. Apparently he thought he already had your father’s trust and made the mistake of telling him about the ring’s true worth. He thought that he could get the old man’s sympathy by telling him about the large sum he owes me, and by requesting the ring. But to his surprise and dismay, your father refused. The old man said that it was the only thing he could give you, and it would make your fortune.”
“But why didn’t my father just give me the ring?” Jose said. “Or at least try to tell me about the ring?”
“Oh, no. He must have tried to tell you. Think back.”
And even when he did not want to, Jose remembered his father pulling at his hand the day he died, murmuring unintelligible words, his tone urgent. The old man kept gesturing at a bucket of water he kept in the kitchen, but Jose ignored him at the time, preoccupied as he was with the poison he was sprinkling on the nuno’s rice offering. He went out of the house and no longer bothered to check on his father. You’re always such a burden to me. I hate having you here! And even when he found his father by the mound, his hand was submerged in a pool of rainwater, which seemed to shine brighter than it should have in the sunlight. But he was too distraught back then to really notice.
“I was convinced that he was merely lying to me,” the tikbalang said. “I thought he already had the ring and kept it for himself. So I came to your village and told you I was a collector of items from Lawodnon, so I could see if your father was able to keep it safely from him. When you told me it was lost, I thought Lupa had stolen it. But when I came back, their bodies were what I found.” He shook his head. “Your father died protecting the ring for you, if you must know.”
“Lies! Lies! My father never cared for me! He deserved to die—” His voice faltered until he could no longer speak, his words drowned in tears. He pushed past the tikbalang and ran into his hut. He frantically searched through his things until he found the single packet of white dust among them.
“No!” Lady Sinukuan said as she slipped through the door, but she was too late, too late. He laughed—one last time—then swallowed its contents in one gulp.
He collapsed to the floor and waited for death to come.
He waited, but still, nothing. He got up on his elbows and looked up at the equally stunned Lady Sinukuan. The tikbalang entered the hut, now back in his human form, his unevenly cropped black hair hanging down his head like a horse’s mane. He was laughing.
“That mangkukulam,” he chortled. “She really had you going! Most powerful poison in the islands, she said?” He collapsed onto the floor in gales of laughter. “It’s only salt!”
Jose echoed, “Salt?”
“Salt is the single most powerful thing that can kill a nuno,” the tikbalang said. “Or any creature of the night, for that matter. This is why you can use it to keep us away from your homes. Didn’t you ever wonder about that?”
“But then,” Jose said slowly, feeling foolish, “my father shouldn’t have—”
“No. Most probably Lupa killed him in his last moments, in revenge. I thought I caught a whiff of his magic on the old man. Maria, darling, have your servants look into the matter, all right?”
“Don’t order me around,” Lady Sinukuan said, and the air around them again grew cold.
The tikbalang did not seem to notice. “It was a slow death, I think,” he said. “Your father probably just had enough time to make sure he would die near a puddle of water so you would see the ring. What he had not counted on was you would be too overcome with guilt to notice, and so you never got to notice the final hint he gave you.”
“My father,” Jose said. He was sobbing. “I thought he did not care for me—”
“The important thing is,” the tikbalang said cheerfully, “you didn’t kill him. Right, Maria?”
“You are a fortunate man,” Lady Sinukuan said to Jose. He looked up at her and found her looking at him with pity.
She put a hand over his eyes then, and Jose felt heaviness come over them, and over his entire body. He gave in to the sensation and knew nothing more thereafter; only the sweet rest of sleep.
Maria Sinukuan lingered at the mound, whispering a prayer for the souls of Jose’s father and the nuno, and for Jose.
She had not expected that the day would turn out at all like this, for it had started innocuously enough. That morning she was only visiting the main town of Arayat when she was approached by a crowd of young men garbed in loud colors, which meant that they did not come from any of the villages nearby. They were all carrying boxes made of gold and silver, adorned with precious jewels of different shapes and sizes.
“Lady Sinukuan,” one of them called out. “We came here from across many seas to look on your beauty and win your hand. We brought you gifts, to help you choose a consort from among us.”
“Mine is the best gift, my Lady,” another said. “Please marry me.”
“Do not listen to him, my Lady!” a third man said. “My gift is far superior!” The crowd erupted into chaos.
“I’m sorry, my good men,” she said. She sighed. “I’m afraid you have not been informed by the people here very well. My hand cannot be won by gifts. If you can defeat me in a duel of your own choosing, I might agree to be betrothed.” She smiled grimly. “And I am not so easily beaten, mind you. So I suggest you go home and give it up, for I am busy at the moment.”
“Besides, you’d never win such a contest anyway,” a new voice piped up from above their heads. The crowd of young men looked up. So did Maria, though she already knew who it was. Unfortunately.
“After all, nothing can beat the gift I have brought her,” Juan said, with a twinkle in his eye that Maria did not like. (Was there anything about him that she did like, anyway?) He had to be the most annoyingly persistent of them, for no matter how badly she treated him, he always seemed to believe that they would someday be wed. She sometimes wondered if he really was in earnest, or if there was something else he wanted. Either way, she detested him.
“I present to you, love, a ring from the god of the sea, Lawodnon.” He jumped down from the trees, his feet barely making any sound on the ground but kicking up a lot of dust that sent them all coughing. He smiled blithely at the sighs of disappointment and defeat among the young men around them as he presented the battered-looking wooden box he held in his hand to Maria with a flourish.
“What do you want, Juan?” she hissed. “You know I will never marry you, even with such a gift.”
“Oh, I’m not asking for that now. I only ask you to move the salt.”
Maria blinked at him in surprise. What in Bathala’s holy name was that supposed to mean?
“Please open it,” he continued. “I have some matters to look into first, but see you later in Lanang.”
Wrinkling her nose, she opened the box, and to her horror, found the hand inside. She shut it before anyone else could see it. She was about to ask Juan where he found it, but he was gone. She asked the others where he went, but they said he had gone as quickly as he had appeared.
Since the box was hers now, she knew it was now her obligation to solve the murder he had brought to her. She left her palace that day, trusting some of her duties to her servants, and went to the village of Lanang in the nearby town of Candaba, where she made inquiries about anyone who might have recently gone missing. Failing to find anyone, she started looking for anyone who might have lost the ring, and thus found Jose.
She did not expect things to turn out as they did, but she was, admittedly, relieved over this outcome, for she often shared her people’s pain no matter how ruthless she always seemed to be.
A voice cut rudely into her thoughts.
“Well, that was fun.”
“Where have you been?” Maria turned and glared at the young man walking toward her. He grinned from ear to ear and held up the hand that belonged to Jose’s father. His pockets were bulging to the point of bursting and jingled with every step he took.
“Lupa does owe me money still,” Juan said. “And it’s only fair that I take some of it.” He smiled. “Wait, does that mean you missed me?”
“You thrust this whole thing on me,” she hissed. “And all because you needed me to remove the wards placed around the house for you to get your gold. After all, you already solved the whole thing on your own.”
“Well, yes.But I really just wanted to spend more time with you.” He looked innocently at her. “That was all. Why do you think so badly of me?”
“Because you deserve it.”
“I like this.”
“What? Me insulting you?”
“Don’t get used to it. I was only forced to do this, and I will never let you again.”
“But you do have to admit that it was interesting, wasn’t it? And you helped that poor young man. What will happen to him now?”
“I shall have to sentence him to a year of confinement in the palace. He still committed the murder of Lupa, even if he didn’t kill his father.”
“How then did his father die?”
“You were right,” Maria said. She really hated saying that. “I did find a few traces of his magic on the body of Jose’s father.” She sighed. “Justice has been served, at least. I guess I do have to thank you.”
“What was that? I didn’t hear you very well.”
“I said, thank you,” Maria repeated through gritted teeth. “I am a fair person, and I think you deserve a reward for bringing this matter to my attention.” She gestured toward the sky, and two birds flew to her holding a bag made of silver cloth in their beaks.
“The finest silk in the land,” Maria said. “I figured you needed new clothes anyway.” She eyed his hole-infested camisa and trousers with distaste.
“Why, Maria, you shouldn’t have.” He brought the cloth out of the bag. It was dyed a deep, uneven crimson; some parts were the color of the earth, others were almost black. “Thank—” He stopped suddenly, sniffing the cloth. “Where did you get this?”
“I picked it up on my way here.” She waved her hands vaguely. “Somewhere. Pretty, isn’t it?”
“This is not really red silk. It’s silk all right, but not red. It was white once, but now it has been dyed a deep crimson—by blood.”
“Oh. Really?” Maria could barely keep from smirking.
“There was a murder. We have to get to the bottom of this soon.”
“We? I am sorry, but I have my own business to attend to. Since I gave the cloth to you, is it not your responsibility? Whether I help you or not is my business. Isn’t that right?”
Juan gaped at her for several seconds, but the next thing she knew, he was laughing, his hands clutching his stomach. “How can I defeat my own argument?” he said. “Very well, Maria. I shall solve this murder for you. But will you rest easy, knowing this murder is yet unresolved, and you will do nothing about it?”
“I leave it in your utterly capable hands.”
“But I would have liked to spend more time with you.”
“You would have. I wouldn’t.”
“All right then.” Juan sighed. “Sure you wouldn’t want a ride back to Arayat, at least?”
“I guess I must be on my way then.” He turned to leave but paused and looked back at her. “We work really well together, though, don’t you think?”
“If I believed that, I wouldn’t be thinking.”
Juan began to gallop away, transforming into his true form in mid-stride. She watched him go with relief, hoping that the murder he was setting out to solve would keep him occupied for a week at least, or maybe a month, if she was lucky.
The tikbalang looked back at her with a gleam in his eyes and winked. “See you tomorrow then,” he said, before he disappeared from view.
Celestine Trinidad is a newly licensed physician and a writer in her spare time. Her work has been published in print and online venues such as Philippine Genre Stories, Philippine Speculative Fiction IV, Philippines Free Press, and Usok. Much to her surprise, she won a Palanca Award for her short story for children “The Storyteller and the Giant” in 2008. “Under a Mound of Earth” is her third story featuring Maria and Juan, and she hopes to write more.
The above image of Mount Arayat in Pampanga is from here.