This is the tale of Kapre, who lived in ancient trees tangled in shadow. Massive, stubbed fingers the color of faded coffee, scrabbling at tree trunk and bark for sustenance. Irises the color of twin moons, mouth the redness of withered santan. He shinnied up mountains in the heat of day, made nests of dried bones and rain at night. He could see himself in the twisted gnarl of branches, found comfort in the rigidness of bamboo. Nestled in the thickness of wood, Kapre could pretend friendship with plants and soil. Birds found homes within the snarls of his beard. Bees sought honey in the yellows of his eyes.
From his perch he could see Aswang fly past, skirts billowed out behind as her wings extend, grasping at wayward breezes. Her dress would lift up to ride the winds, high enough that Kapre could see the hollows of her breasts, the grey ripples of her waist that tapered into stumps where hips and legs ought to be. Aswang’s mouth opened and closed, bloodied tongue flickering out to sample the lightness of air, savoring the freshest scent of newborn child or pregnant woman.
From his perch he could see Tikbalang down below, pawing at ground. The sound of hooves striking rock, of hands that constantly grasped and clenched at nothing, of the sharpness of teeth. The horse-man stood upright, preyed on unwary travelers and the lack of pavements. Kapre, Aswang, and Tikbalang shared body space in the forests of San Lorenzo, because choice was not a commodity.
Ironic, that the pickings grew slimmer with the explosion of humanity. Villages burst in size and mind. Fewer children were considerate enough to wander out alone; generations of warnings and superstitions passed down, whipped into their bloodstream. Strong men foraged together with heavy axes and stout cudgels, and even monsters learned to fear the beat of heavy footsteps, the flickers of torchfire. Centuries of living made them soft.
Kapre endured. There was a sweetness to berries and mushrooms that human flesh did not have. Aswang laughed at him, and Tikbalang mocked his sustenance, but nourishment was nourishment whether it grew on ground or came with blood and entrails. Aswang and Tikbalang retreated into the observance of convention and tradition, catching unlucky humans during luckier months. Kapre remained on treetrops, crunching nuts and small lizards by the light of the moon.
It was light that beckoned to him; a lone house growing out of thicket, a candle burning within. Curious, emboldened by hunger, Kapre crept closer. He was no longer familiar with the contours and shapes of houses, but the memories crept up on him, like morning coming into focus. The stout timber of walls, the dry thatch of ceilings, the rounded smoothness of glass under trembling fingers.
The window was open, the room empty. He feared candlelight, fire’s adopted child, but need drove him on. Something small at the very corner of that heated space wriggled and trembled, heavy with the smell of cotton and milk. Kapre approached the squirming bundle, expecting food and temporary appeasement.
Unlike other humans the baby showed no fear. From under the thick bed covers of abaca and cloth she peered up at him, brown eyes shining in the dim yellow glow. She neither cried nor laughed, but instead regarded him solemnly from where she lay. Aware of her own helplessness, of the strangeness of his face, yet making no sound but that of quiet scrutiny.
She was an easy meal. No horrors of fire burns, or flashing hatchets. He unfurled fingernails, moved in to feast.
The baby smiled back up at him, and Kapre hesitated.
She reached up only once. A tiny hand was no defense against claws that weathered through millenia of constant rending and tearing. The unformed fingers clasped around one of his, a contrast of nut brown on black.
Kapre looked down at the fragile, unprotected child, saw in one glance everything she was, and everything she could become. Her beauty seemed to flower and peak and fade all at once, and Kapre saw a young girl, a beautiful lady, an old woman, all juxtaposed into that tiny, heart-shaped face. Knew her future, knew what would become of her past. Knew that she would die one day.
Inside his chest something seemed to stir; a touch of gangrene on unused lung perhaps, or the decomposition of spleen.
A rough, calloused thumb pressed against the baby’s small wrist.
Several minutes later, when the mother returned, Kapre was gone. Inside her tiny cradle the baby slept on, undisturbed.
Kapre watched her in the years that followed.
He watched her take first steps, laughing, in between snatches of fir and wood. From high atop the trees he watched her swim, her stunted, clumsy movements folding and unfolding until they were sure and graceful. He watched her adopt the fluid manners of her elders, gathering wood and straw, tending animals.
A misstep alerted her to his presence. A sudden shifting on his part, a movement of branches where no breeze had touched. Immediately the girl was on her feet, her eyes wide and fearful.
Kapre could remain hidden, but knew she would no longer relish the safety of forests; knew he could not bear that look on her face. He emerged slowly from the camouflage of foliage; several heads taller, his black body leaned and gangly from abstinence, his jawline a crude map of past atrocities. “Do not be a-fraid.” He said, his mouth unfit and guttural for complicated words.
The girl continued to stand, paralyzed to the spot.
“Do not be a-fraid.” Kapre repeated. He slid down to the ground, crossing his legs, to show he intended her no harm. He spoke again. “Do not be a-fraid.”
Still wary, the girl approached, a small stick raised in one hand. Kapre said nothing more, and bowed his head.
“I know you.” The girl finally said. Slowly, wonderingly. “I have seen you before.”
“Yes,” Kapre said. Monsters knew nothing of lies; these were human entrapments.
The girl lowered her stick. “I’m not afraid,” she said, puzzled yet understanding, emotions in conflict. “I don’t know why, but I’m not afraid.”
“I would not harm you.” Kapre said, and he was struck by the enormity of what he said, and of what he knew was true. He would not harm her.
Her name was Nina, she said, and there was nowhere else for her to go. Her parents had been born in San Lorenzo, but had moved to Manila when they were older, in a small huddled room of ten cots and a kitchen stove. Her father had applied to Steel Forges, Ltd. in Saudi Arabia, but his contact soon disappeared with his money and his passport a month before his departure. Her mother worked as a maid for a wealthy Chinese family, cooking and cleaning for the comfort of others. “Their neighbor’s house caught fire one day.” Nina said. “The fire moved from roof to roof, burning and burning and burning, till it burned their roof down, too.” Kapre shuddered in understanding, knew the frightened fear of fires. Deprived of the last of their possessions, her parents had moved back to San Lorenzo, her mother giving birth to Nina soon after.
They became friends. He was a companion when she lingered by the woods, finding fruit, harvesting small plots of vegetables and potatoes. He showed her his secret stashes of warm nuts and berries, outcroppings of mushroom farms that spun, dripping and wet, from the undersides of heavy moss and fissures. Sometimes Nina would bring these treasures back home, but more times than not she and Kapre would sit hunched over the small piles, greedy hands snatching back and forth and lingering, like guests seeking their fill of banquets.
Kapre protected her from staying too long, or straying too far. When night crept in, there were worse things in the woods of San Lorenzo than he.
Sometimes they would play games. “Let’s play house.” She would say, and it was a sight to see – Kapre at small wooden tables, clawed hands wrapped around stringed paper dolls and imaginary tea. Held them like he would a baby, all those years ago.
“Let’s climb a tree.” She would say next, and Kapre would scamper from tree bark to tree bark as Nina clung to his back, laughing. “Let’s pretend you’re a carabao!” “Let’s go for a swim!” “Let’s build a castle!” He would do anything she told him.
Nina’s parents knew nothing of him or of their games. Kapre faded into scenery at every indication of their approach, watched as Nina ran to her mother and father, wondered about the intricacies of familial love. For Nina’s parents were no different than the dolls Nina played with. Often shredded, torn with little care and for fewer reasons; bits and pieces of mortality that came floating slowly, sadly, back down to earth.
But Nina was his paper doll, and suffered no tearing and wearing. Was cared for. Adored.
Nina’s little fingers, dainty and clasped tightly over his own, rough-strewn as gravel, scraped as stone, gentle as a feather might alight on pavement.
“I shall eat her one day.” said Tikbalang, and once he nearly had. Worn by the meager feedings, by the toil of years, the Tikbalang entered Kapre’s territory one night. Red eyes greedy against the small house that crested the edges of the wood, the sputtering candle inside flimsy and fragile.
“No.” Kapre said. Tikbalang was strong; animal, mineral, vegetable. Hooves stamping onto ground, twinges of insanity at what was denied to him, teeth that knew only hunger. The temptation of meat was strong. Spit brittled over yellowed teeth, blunt from a lack of use. Underneath horsehide powerful muscles bunched.
“No.” Kapre said. Tikbalang was strong, but Kapre was relentless, unmoving as mountains, enduring as the crash of tides. His gangly legs mimicked the obstinacy of woodland, sinking into soil with the temerity of twisted roots. Arms wrapped around and held together. Tikbalang’s curses did no damage to old skin.
“Swear you will not harm her.” Kapre said.
Tikbalang pummelled him like waves against rock, shook like an earthquake, thundered like an avalanche. Against each attack Kapre was unyielding; unbending stone. Solid fury and grim purpose.
“Why do you spare her?” Tikbalang asked, but nothing broke Kapre’s grip. Freedom denied. “She only lives so that we may feed!”
“No.” Kapre said. “Swear to me you will not harm her.”
“You have betrayed us!”
“Swear to me.”
“She is food!”
“She is mine.”
The years passed, and Nina began to change.
Her waist lengthened to compliment arms and legs, her hips expanded. Long black hair cascaded over rounded shoulders, puddling down the smalls of her back. Her face grew fuller, lips thick and soft, a pattern of blush gracing her cheeks. Kapre noticed the change, and so did others. Humans walked out with her frequently, and Kapre was forced to retreat further into the woods; sullen, beaten back by new strangers and the passage of time.
Nina’s trips to the forest gradually lessened, disappeared entirely. Memories of her childhood companion ebbed away, dissipating in summer light.
And still Kapre waited, bated, hopeful. Uncomprehending, in his immortality, of the years passed, and the distance that remained between.
There was a celebration, in the village.
His beautiful Nina emerged into sunlight, laughing – always the way he would remember. Her dress flashed white, dancing around her graceful calves. Her feet, small and hidden. There were flowers in her hair, petals in her path.
Her hand was clasped with another’s. A man by her side, smiling down at her, his laughter a lower counterpoint. A crowd surrounded them, showered them with rice and other natural benedictions.
For the first time in a very long time Kapre felt rage, felt unspeakable grief. At being forgotten. That Nina’s hands had betrayed him for the texture of someone else’s.
“She is no longer yours.” Aswang told him that night as they watched the village. “She belongs to another now. It is a human custom.”
Kapre said nothing.
“They will mate tonight.” Aswang was smiling; cruelty suited her well. “I know these humans. She shall spread her legs and encourage him, let him violate her in her softest places, and she will like it, shall beg him for more. The sweet innocence of her, gone. And she will love him, and forget you. She has forgotten you already.”
The celebration quieted, gave way to the glimmer of stars. Kapre watched as the candles flickered out inside distant houses. One by one, winking up at him until the last eye closed, and only darkness remained.
That night, Kapre allowed fury to take control. He could hear his voice, shouting from a place that shared no parts of him. Barks of wood scraped his stunted fingers as trees splits and bits of mountain fell. Blood pooled down his arms, wounds gouged under leathered flesh. He was weaker than he once was, but Kapre felt no pain. And from far away people in the villages heard rolling thunder, whispered of impending rockslides and rainstorms and demons, waited for tragedy.
And for the briefest of moments Kapre hated her. Hated Nina, for letting someone else touch her, for letting him experience the unrelenting joy of extinguished love realized far too late.
When the worst was over, Aswang found Kapre on his knees in the small clearing, remnants of his pain strewn around, a fleeting eruption of fallen trees and dissipated anguish.
“You can have your revenge.” Aswang said. “We can catch them unawares, when they walk the forests next. When the lights have burned down low, and when little of the moon remains, and when the crickets fall silent.” She drew nearer, her eyes burning colors of blood. Her wings lifted. “I can fly, and find my way into their houses, into the small spider holes in their rooftops. I shall take their babies, enjoy succulent flesh. You shall take her, while I shall take her husband. We shall feast together.”
He said nothing.
“Will you feast with me, old man?”
A lifetime must have passed, before he finally spoke.
“No.” Kapre said. “You will not harm her.”
More years passed.
Kapre waited until the throng of people have left for the night, until the vigils have ended. Despite the discomfort of people and nearby houses he crept down rooftops, disentangling from the shingles. His arms were leaner, dark face gaunter than earlier, happier times, but his yellow eyes remained alive, watchful. The last of those who mourned had left the room, finally repelled by the impending death that beckoned, but Kapre felt little disgust or horror for what was to come, only differing shades of regret.
She was older now; much older than he had seen her last. Wisps of white hair clung to her scalp, and the firmness of bone seeped out from underneath wounded skin. In a matter of decades she had grown so frail and small, but in her face Kapre saw none of what old age had cast down, could brush them away to see the beauty he had always known, since she was but a baby in a heated room of candlelight.
The old woman opened her eyes. She showed neither fear nor surprise at the sight of him “Hello.” She whispered.
Kapre said nothing, but crouched by her bedside.
“I remember you.” The old woman whispered. “You used to play with me when I was a young girl.”
Kapre nodded. He did not trust speech.
“My parents said you were a figment of my imagination.” The woman said. “But as I grew older and continued to see you in the woods, they grew worried. They brought me to the albularyo, the medicine woman, who said I mustn’t ever go back into the woods again, to free me of the evil spirit that clung to me. I knew you were no evil spirit, tried to tell them so, but children are rarely believed.” She smiled then, and the years seemed to fall away.
“I am sorry.” She said. “I am sorry, for leaving you alone for so long.”
Kapre’s spindly fingers reached out. Nina’s hand was brittle, a patchwork of veins and loose skin, but within her touch remained the memories of a girl he had loved.
“Lola’s gone.” The little girl told him, sniffling, hugging a small ratty doll in her tiny grip.
The house on the edge of the forest had long been abandoned, and there was talk of tearing it down. A few people arrived to discuss the matter, brown-skinned and dark-eyed, with the threat of light and fire. The girl had wandered away, touching against the corners of forest where Kapre lived.
“This used to be Lola’s doll.” she confided to him, careful to brush delicate strings of hair away from its upturned face. “She gave it to me last year. It was her favorite doll.” She sniffed again. “I miss Lola.”
“Remember her always,” Kapre told her. “And she will always be with you, will never be gone.”
“Nanay says that Lola’s in heaven now.” The little girl said. “And that I’ll see her in heaven one day. But I do not know how to get to heaven.”
“Be a good girl for your parents, always,” Kapre said. “And when the time comes, you shall see your Lola in heaven.”
“Will you see Lola in heaven, too?” The girl questioned.
Kapre cast his gaze up towards the twilight, closing his eyes briefly. Imagined how it would feel like to be in paradise with Nina, to be happy and free and loved. The yearning breathing into his skin, curling into the folds of his chest. He opened his eyes and looked down at the child. She had Nina’s eyes, Nina’s smile.
“No.” Kapre said. “I will not.”
He visited her grave often. It was a lonely patch of grass, a small headstone to mark her memory against other fading bones that slept underneath the soil. Some days, when the nights were dark enough, while the humans dreamt, Kapre curled his large spindly body against the hard ground, keeping his vigil long after others have forgotten, and wondered. His hands unfurled, crackling. A paper doll lovingly placed, underneath a granite cross.
Kapre closed his eyes.
He pondered and came upon a quite acceptance.
Because if a baby’s touch can still a monster’s hunger, and if claws can hold paper dolls without the fear of tearing, then it could be that Kapre would find what he was looking for, even for a few, short years. Not with anger or hunger, or the futility of revenge, but with a quiet, steady beat.
Erin Chupeco has worked a variety of jobs – tech writer, events planner, jewelry maker, painter, crocheteer campaign activist, failed ninja – but has always found her way back to writing fiction. Her stories have been published in several online magazines.
Artwork by Kokoy Polidario.