by Anne Plaza
Prompt: Your sibling comes home with the mark of the duwende on their neck after disappearing for a day
According to an old legend, a young girl of fifteen went to the market to buy fish, meat and vegetables for the family meal. But the fishermen did not have an abundant catch that day, so she was only left with meat and vegetables to buy from the stores. By the time she was done, it was almost dark.
The girl took a shorter route on her way back. When she turned the corner and walked along a deserted dirt road, she came face to face with a misshapen, knee-tall figure with disheveled hair and long, gnarled arms. The creature held out its hand that contained a handful of gold.
“Take some of the gold in exchange for the meat you have, child.”
The girl shivered at the sound of its deep and hoarse voice. She remembered the elders frightening children with tales of the duwende, or dwarf, that casts enchantments and curses on people who displease them. She heard her grandmother’s voice saying, “Never give what a duwende asks, unless you want to be lost in their realm forever.”
The duwende repeated its request, but she replied, “I don’t have meat, sir. But I do have fresh vegetables. You can have it and keep your gold as well.”
“Do not lie to me, child,” the creature pointed at the basket in her hands. “I know you have it in there.”
She tried to run, but she could not move her feet. She slowly put down the basket, scooped up dirt, and flung it into the duwende’s eyes.
When the dust settled, the creature was nowhere to be found. “You will pay for your insolence!” she heard the voice echo. In utter terror, the girl collapsed in a dead faint.
A kindly farmer came upon the road and found the girl. He noticed a strange mark by the base of her neck, but shrugged it off as an insect bite. Two days upon her return to her family, the girl fell ill with fever and never recovered.
“Have you seen your brother?” Mutya’s mother yelled from the kitchen. The aroma of stir-fried garlic and onions wafted around the house. Mrs. Crisostomo was a great cook and would always find time in her busy schedule to whip up something in the kitchen for her children.
“No, Ma. He’s probably working on that science project with his classmates,” she hollered back. That, or her brother was with his usual tropa, holed up in a different Internet cafe while burning his week’s allowance on computer games. Ever since their mother had caught him red-handed skipping classes to play online games, James had made it a habit to change Internet cafes to avoid getting caught in the act.
The fact that James was always able to find a computer shop with decent connection in this godforsaken place amazed her to no end. When Mutya’s father got sick and eventually passed away, the hospitalization and funeral expenses drained the family’s life savings. The Crisostomos had to move to the province to cut back on costs. That meant being uprooted from “civilization” as they knew it. Mutya had to skip spending her allowance on food during recess just to make sure she had enough money for her mobile phone’s load. She’d die frothing at the mouth if she wouldn’t be able to check her Facebook feed for a day.
Mutya heard the flip-flop sounds of her mother’s slippers and immediately went back to the pretense of poring over her Physics homework.
“Send him a text and ask what time he’ll be coming home. We’re having chop suey for dinner.”
Mutya rolled her eyes. James would definitely stall if he found out they were having veggies for dinner. She didn’t want to waste mobile credits on a stupid text, but she felt her mother’s stern gaze boring into her.
She typed a hasty text, hit send, and batted her eyelashes at her mother. “Done.”
When Mrs. Crisostomo finally padded back to the kitchen, Mutya relaxed and pulled the latest issue of Teen Spirit magazine from her backpack. James usually lost track of time when he was knee-deep in computer games. Seriously, her mother should take the chill pill and let kids be kids. Still, Mutya hoped her little brother would come home in the next hour. She wouldn’t want to be around when their mom threw another fit.
Okay, this wasn’t looking so good. At all.
It was already eight in the evening and James was nowhere in sight. Kids were usually home before darkness completely settled, and the hour was already late by her mother’s standards. Mutya had texted James several times and even rang his phone, but it seemed there was no signal wherever his brother was, his phone might have depleted its juice, or he got robbed.
Where the heck is he?
Mrs. Crisostomo was already livid. She called up some of James’s classmates, but no one seemed to know where he and his posse went after school. “I swear to god, I’m going to ground that boy until he’s old and gray!” Mrs. Crisostomo paced around the house while dialing the next number on her list.
Three hours later, there was still no sign of James. Even Mutya started to worry. Her brother had been late sometimes, but never this late. The fact that they couldn’t reach him through his phone was already unsettling. Mutya resorted to calling up his friends instead, at least the ones she knew.
“No, Ate. He’s not here at my house. We all went home after the game. We made sure to wrap it up early so James could go home early,” said Correy.
Of course. James was under strict curfew to be home before sunset. He and their mom had a row after the latter found James cutting classes to play internet games. Mutya had to call Correy in the privacy of her room. If her mother found out James was at it again, there would be hell to pay.
“Okay, thanks. Just let me know if you hear from him or whatever.”
“Maybe you can talk to Michael or something. They went home together,” Correy added, then hung up.
Why didn’t she think of it before? Michael Arevalo was James’s classmate and part of his group. The kid was unlike her brother’s other rambunctious friends (a bit more withdrawn, which was weird for James’s group), but Michael’s house was on the way to theirs, albeit in another barangay. It would make sense for them to walk home together.
Mutya dialed Michael’s number, but for some reason, the mobile signal was crappy and unreliable. This was getting weirder by the second.
Mrs. Crisostomo went from batshit crazy to a sordid, crying mess. She kept mentioning her dead husband, about their lives not becoming so difficult had Mutya’s father been around to keep things together.
Take care of your mother and brother, Mutya.
Her father made her promise right before he died, and being daddy’s girl and all, Mutya couldn’t deny his dying wish. It was probably a lot to ask from a teenager, but she did her best. She tried to, at the very least. James, being the youngest, usually got himself in trouble with his penchant for disobeying rules. It drove Mutya and her mother crazy, but when he wasn’t being such a little devil, James can be sweet and thoughtful. Mutya would rather be caught dead than tell that to James, though. Nevertheless, their occasional arguments were only but a ruse to mask their love for each other as siblings. They only had each other, after all.
Mutya hadn’t relished moving to the province and adjusting to the nuances of a provincial life. Having been born in the fast-paced city, dialing things down for what seemed to her a life moving at a snail’s pace was too much of a thing to adjust to in such a short span of time.
And because it was the province, it meant there weren’t that many street lights in their area. If they were still in Manila, it wouldn’t be as downright creepy as being in this far-flung town in Capiz. The place still gives her the heebie-jeebies.
Mrs. Crisostomo had fallen asleep by the sofa while the TV was still on. Her cheeks were still wet with tears. Mutya noticed how peaceful she looked and decided not to disturb her sleep. Her mother needed the rest after her emotional turmoil over James’s disappearance. Mutya brushed the hair out of her mother’s eyes. She was about to turn off the lampshade, but thought otherwise. Wherever James was, she hoped he’d find his way back home.
The first thing Mutya did early next morning was to check her brother’s room if he finally got back. No such luck. She headed downstairs, checked the living room and front yard, but still nothing.
Where are you, James? She sighed.
She sauntered to the kitchen and made herself useful while waiting for her mother to wake up. She didn’t usually get up at 5:30 in the morning since she typically falls asleep around midnight, but her anxiety barely made her get some shut eye and she needed something to distract herself from unpleasant thoughts. Yet despite her conscious effort, she couldn’t help but wonder where James was, hoping above hope he wasn’t lying lifeless in some ditch. Tears prickled her eyes. She shook her head and breathed slowly. Keep calm, girl. Slow and steady.
The morning air was particularly chilly even if she was inside the house, so she filled the kettle with water and lighted the stove. Maybe a good, piping hot serving of chamomile tea would help calm both mother and daughter and ease their worries.
Mutya started prepping the ingredients for sinangag when she heard Mrs. Crisostomo’s footsteps from the stairs. “Is James home yet?”
Mutya turned at the sound. She noted the tired look in her mother’s eyes and how her hands shook as she placed a hand by the wooden divider.
Mutya bit her lip and shook her head. “Ma, why don’t you take a seat first and then—”
“We have to find James, anak. We can’t just sit here and wait for him to come back. What if something bad has happened to him? What if he’s…” Mrs. Crisostomo bit back a sob.
Mutya turned off the gas stove and went to her mother’s side. “Ma, don’t think that way.” She tried to calm her down, but even her own voice shook.
Mrs. Crisostomo buckled at the weight of her grief. “My baby boy… my baby boy…”
The last time she saw her mother break down was when her father passed away at the hospital. She howled like a wounded animal back then, and seeing her shoulders wracking as she cried brought back the painful memories that changed their family forever.
Mutya thought about her petty fights with her brother, the times when she answered back on her mother for being so strict, and the first Christmas they had without her father. She couldn’t count the times she wished her brother got his comeuppance for being such a pain, but at that moment Mutya wished with everything she had that James was right there making snide remarks instead of feeling an all-consuming pain in her chest with his absence.
She didn’t realize she’d been crying with her mother until they both heard the front gate squeak then the screen door out front slam lightly. Before Mutya could even make sense of what was happening, Mrs. Crisostomo bounded for the living room.
“Oh, thank god! Where the hell have you been?” Her voice was shrill, although the relief was there.
Mutya felt like she could breathe again. She saw her mother take James by the shoulder and into a crushing hug and exclaimed, “You had us worried sick!” And then their mother was crying all over again.
James had a spaced-out look on his face before seeming to realize where he was. He absently returned the embrace. He seemed unsure about all the fuss.
When mother and son broke apart, Mrs. Crisostomo wiped her cheeks with the heel of her palm. “Where have you been?”
“I… don’t know.”
Mutya blinked as if seeing her brother for the first time. “What happened to you?” she asked, noting his disheveled look. James’s school uniform was creased and dirty as if he’d rolled in the dirt. “You look like crap.”
He stuck out his tongue at her. “Yeah, well you look like a troll without your makeup.”
She approached her brother, looking down on him like she was about to smack him. But Mutya broke out into a relieved smile and ruffled James’s hair. “I’m glad you’re back, Jammie,” she said, calling him by his pet name.
“Thanks,” he grinned.
It was just a single word, but to Mutya, it felt like finally taking in a good amount of oxygen after holding her breath for so long.
Mrs. Crisostomo took her son by the arm and led him to the kitchen. “Enough talk. Let’s have breakfast first and then we ask questions.” She gave James a stern look. “You, young man, are grounded for good, do you hear me?”
Mutya wasn’t exactly sure what it was, but there was something particularly weird about James.
“Ma, can I go upstairs and rest? I’m so fricking sleepy.” James rubbed both of his eyes with the heel of his palm. He yawned and looked inquiringly at their mother.
Oh no, he’s going to get it, Mutya thought. She watched her mother’s face contort into disbelief about James’s language and impertinence. Mrs. Crisostomo loved dishing out sermons, and to be denied the opportunity was tantamount to a peevish disposition the entire day. But when Mrs. Crisostomo sighed in defeat and waved off her chance to admonish her son, Mutya rolled her eyes. This family is weird.
Still, she couldn’t shake off the feeling that something was different. Between the two of them, James was the noisy one, the child who couldn’t stay put in one place. Since he got home, he’d been withdrawn, quiet, and, strangely enough, had easily acquiesced to being on house arrest for the entire school year. Then two days after his mysterious disappearance, he came down with a fever.
“Come on, James. You’re not going to get better right away if you don’t eat something.” Mutya nudged James’s lips with the spoon, urging him to take another serving of arroz caldo.
James groaned and shook his head and sank back under the covers. She sighed and placed the bowl of chicken porridge by his bedside table and laid a hand on his forehead. He was burning up like a furnace.
At that moment, Mrs. Crisostomo entered the room, armed with a small basin of water and a wash cloth. “How is he?” she asked.
Mutya took the basin from her mother and stood up to give her room to sit at James’s bedside. “This isn’t looking good, Ma.”
Mrs. Crisostomo took the wash cloth and dipped it in the basin. She carefully wiped her son’s face and placed the cloth on his forehead. “You gave him the medicine, right?” When Mutya nodded, she added, “Let’s check on him later on, maybe the fever will go down by then.”
But then, it didn’t. Sometime in the middle of the night, Mutya’s sleep was cut short when her mother shook her awake, panic and dread in her voice. “Get up, Mutya. Let’s take James to the hospital. His fever’s gotten worse.”
“What did the doctor say, Ma?” Mutya asked as she dropped her backpack on the sofa in his room. She had made a beeline for the hospital right after class so she could help her mother watch over James.
Mrs. Crisostomo shook her head. “They don’t have a diagnosis yet, but they said they’d run another test just to be sure. Can you watch over him for a few minutes? I need to get some clothes back home.”
After her mother left, Mutya sat beside her brother’s bed. He looked pale and worn out while he slept, his brow furrowed. An IV line was attached to his right hand. She watched the droplets fall from the bag into the line where it snaked to her brother’s hand, sustaining him while he slept.
Although his temperature wasn’t as alarmingly high as last night’s, his fever still hadn’t subsided. It felt surreal to Mutya to see her brother like this—he was almost always in the pink of health even if his hygiene was abominable. She watched his chest rise and fall, wondering what got him into this mess.
That was until she saw a strange mark at the base of his neck.
“What in the world…” She leaned over and peered at the mark. It was a small, red welt that looked like a birthmark.
Except that James didn’t have a birthmark whatsoever.
Where did he get this thing? She poked at the mark. It felt warm. Probably because of the fever, she thought.
However, Mutya forgot to mention the mark to her mother later that day. The attending physician conducted a few more tests on her brother, but they still weren’t able to come up with a diagnosis. Frustrated, Mrs. Crisostomo decided to bring her son home and think about other options. She thought of transferring James to the provincial hospital for a second opinion.
That evening, after finishing her chores and helping James settle for the night, Mutya immediately fell asleep the moment her head touched the pillow.
“How’s your brother doing?” one of Mutya’s classmates approached her during recess. Mutya was absently stuffing her books and pens in her backpack, her thoughts at home, worrying about her mother.
She’d been ignoring the sympathetic looks of her classmates since she went back to school. News of her brother’s prolonged illness trickled in campus, thanks to James’s friends. Mutya tried her best to keep level-headed. She was the only person her mother depended on and she didn’t have the luxury of breaking down.
“He’s still feverish. Not even the doctors know what’s up with him. My mom’s getting worried.” Mutya just came back from James’s homeroom class where she got notes and assignments from her brother’s classmates. James wasn’t really much of a studious type, but she figured he still needed to catch up on his lessons once he got better.
“Um, Ate Mutya?”
She paused at what she was doing and turned to face the person who called her attention. It was Michael Arevalo.
In all the chaos and anxiety happening in her life, she completely forgot to talk to her brother’s friend.
Michael, along with Correy, and the rest of James’s posse would sometimes drop by the house, so she knew the boy was one of her brother’s closest friends. But compared to James’s other buddies, Michael seemed to be always in a serious mood. She could only count with her fingers the few times she saw the boy smile. James mentioned that Michael was a skilled gamer and they’d often rely on him for ingenious tactics in the online game they were fond of playing. Still, Michael was a little bit weird in Mutya’s book.
Mutya zipped her backpack shut and walked over to him. “Michael? What’s up?”
He scratched his head. “How’s James? Is he going back to school soon?”
“Not any time soon. He’s still down with fever. Is there something you wanted from me?”
Michael shrugged. It took him five seconds before he finally mustered the courage to speak up. “Ate, was there something strange with him when he got home that day?” he asked.
“No, not really. Oh, wait,” she racked her brains and recalled that day. “Yeah, it seemed like he wasn’t his usual self,” then she suddenly remembered, “And there was this strange mark on his neck. Why do you ask?”
“N-nothing.” He smiled curtly and turned to walk away, slinging his backpack onto his left shoulder.
Four days had passed since James had been struck with the fever, and it seemed like there was not going to be an end to it. What made matters worse was that he couldn’t keep down the food he ate. Mrs. Crisostomo was at her wits’ end. They had James re-admitted to the hospital. Still, the doctors couldn’t figure out why he was getting even worse by the day.
That afternoon, Michael paid them a visit together with his mother. They weren’t expecting any guests, but Mrs. Arevalo was a colleague at her mother’s workplace and thought to drop by when word about their situation got out. There was a worried look in Mrs. Arevalo’s face. Mrs. Crisostomo sobbed when she enveloped her in a comforting embrace. Michael watched James by the foot of the bed, his brow etched with anxiety. Meanwhile, Mrs. Arevalo was deep in discussion with their mother. Mutya stood beside Michael.
“Why are you here?”
“I told my mom about what happened and she wanted to see James in person.” He bit his lip. She thought he wouldn’t say anything else, until he spoke up, “I’ve seen this before, ate. It’s going to want something of value. I advise you not to give in.”
She was about to prod him for more details when the two women approached the bed. Mrs. Arevalo leaned over and gently tugged at James’s hospital gown. “He’s never had this before, right?” she asked, pointing to the mark at the base of his neck. The same one that Mutya described to Michael and dismissed as nothing important.
“No, but what does this mark have to do with my son, Isabel?”
“My daughter had a similar one a long time ago. She got sick, too, but it was never as bad as this. She had a similar mark. How long has your son been feverish?”
“This is the fourth day. Why do you ask?”
“Your son has been cursed by a duwende, Linda. And judging by the state of James’s situation, he has angered a powerful one. We need the help of an albularyo. It’s the only way to know what it wants and how we can bring James back.”
Save for the whirring of the hospital’s old air-conditioning system, everything was silent in those few seconds.
Mrs. Arevalo heaved a heavy sigh and turned to both mother and daughter. “I know this may be difficult for the two of you to understand given that you did not grow up in this province, but believe me, you have to act fast. James doesn’t have that long to live if you don’t find a way to appease the duwende’s demands. ”
“Mama, we shouldn’t have taken James out of the hospital. What if his fever shoots up again?” Mutya was sitting beside her brother on his bed and dipped a small towel in a basin of water. “Do you really believe what Tita Isabel was saying?”
“Mutya, didn’t we have this discussion already?” There was a certain edge to her voice, but Mutya pressed on.
“Yes, but I think we should entrust James with his doctors, not some sketchy explanation about some creature that’s not even true.”
“The matter is settled, Mutya.”
“Maybe I can contact my friends over there and ask them if they know anyone—”
“I said we’re done talking about this!”
Mutya knew when to not push the subject. Still, she couldn’t deny the guilt eating at her conscience. Mutya felt partly responsible about not mentioning the strange mark on her brother, but how could she have known it was something of importance?
Still, you should have said something, you idiot.
That same day, Mrs. Arevalo came to their house. But instead of coming with Michael, she brought along a tall and lean man whom she introduced as Mang Isidro, the local albularyo.
Mutya expected an elderly man for a folk healer, not someone who was just old enough to be her father. After shaking her mother’s hand, Mang Isidro went to James’s bedside. Mrs. Crisostomo had converted the living room into a temporary bedroom for James so it would be easier for them to tend to his needs.
Mang Isidro studied the mark on James’s neck and breathed a heavy sigh. “It is as Isabel feared: we’re dealing with a duwende here, and it’s not just an ordinary one. James had angered the duwende prince himself.”
“Michael told me the boys went out for a snack after they played a game at the computer shop. He said one of their friends dared James to climb an aratilis tree and pick out the fruits. He thinks James may have crossed paths with the duwende in the area,” said Mrs. Arevalo.
“But don’t duwendes live in earth mounds or something?” Mutya chimed in. Those miniature mountains dotted the countryside. When they first arrived in town, Mutya thought they were anthills. She always had this fear of creepy crawlies, which was why she avoided strolling anywhere near them.
Mang Isidro nodded. “Yes, that’s true, but those mounds are more for the common folk. Duwendes of higher rank often dwell in tree saplings. They like sweet fruit.”
Mrs. Crisostomo regarded the albularyo’s words with skepticism. “How do you know all this? How can we know if what you’re saying is true?”
The albularyo smiled, as if he’d been asked this question for the nth time. “I come from a family of healers, Mrs. Crisostomo. My father and my father’s father, along with the rest of my relatives, have been in the practice of being the bridge between humans and the unknown. I know this comes off as something unheard of to you, being city dwellers and all, but here in Capiz, this is not commonplace. We respect the unseen realm as much as we try to respect the space where we live. And besides,” he gestured to Mrs. Arevalo, “what better way to explain to you what I mean than letting you talk to the prince of duwendes himself?”
Mutya’s history teacher once mentioned something about traditional healing practices back when they discussed the Philippines’ pre-colonial past. The discussion had ventured into mysticism when one of her classmates asked something about espiritistas and folk magic. This was when she first encountered the term “tawas” or ritual diagnosis employed by faith healers. Never in her wildest dreams did she think she would she witness a live demonstration with her brother’s life at stake.
It was nine in the evening and a heavy breeze rocked the closed, wooden windows of the Crisostomo house. They had gathered at the sala that served as James’s makeshift bedroom.
Mang Isidro asked for a spoon and a basin of water and requested to turn off the lights in the house. He took out a candle from the sling bag he wore, lighted the wick then muttered a prayer. The single spark of light in the room flickered and danced, casting shadows on their faces. Mang Isidro tipped the candle and let the melted wax trickle to the spoon. Then he submerged the spoon in the water, and for some unexplainable reason, the wax spread out to the water as if it were still warm. A shape began to form on the surface.
Then they heard a low, growling sound.
“What do you want, human?” It was a deep voice, and an unfriendly one at that. “Are you here to bargain for the boy’s life?”
Mutya felt the hair on the back of her neck stand.
“My lord, we have come to seek your forgiveness,” Mang Isidro began.
The voice that replied was low and guttural. There was nothing but hate and malice in that tone. Mutya bit down the urge to cover her ears and curl into a ball. “I don’t need your apologies! The human trespassed on my territory and I will not have it. Time and again, you humans have shown blatant disregard for our spaces, and we have forgiven you, but no more!”
Mang Isidro’s shoulders hunched in defeat, but he took a look at Mrs. Crisostomo’s tear-streaked face. James moaned in his sleep and fidgeted in discomfort. Mang Isidro turned his gaze back into the basin of water.
“My lord, I implore you, spare the life of this boy. We will appease my lord’s anger with a sacrifice of your choosing—”
“A life for a life,” the voice interjected.
“We will have a goat butchered and offer it to your court.”
“No, not an animal. A life for a life.”
A gust of wind that came out of nowhere snuffed out the candle and plunged the room back into darkness. Mutya rose from where she was seated and turned on the light switch. Upon seeing their expressions, Mutya wished she didn’t turn on the lights. Her mother was ashen, her whole body shaking. Tita Isabel sat frozen in her seat, sweat forming on her brow. Mang Isidro’s brow furrowed, frustrated at his failure to release the boy from the duwende’s curse. Mutya didn’t realize she was also shaking, but not from the evening chill. It was her first time to encounter a malevolent entity, and the magnitude of its evil and wrath came crashing on her. Shock, fear, and disbelief threatened to make her vomit where she was.
“What did the duwende mean about ‘a life for a life’?” Mrs. Crisostomo asked, anxiety etched on her tired face. “How are we going to appease him? How can we save my son?” She was close to being hysterical, and there wasn’t anything Mrs. Arevalo could do other than to give her hand a reassuring squeeze.
Mama is really out of it, Mutya thought. She couldn’t blame her, though. There was something ominous about the duwende’s words, and for some reason, she had this inkling that it wasn’t going to be something pleasant.
Mang Isidro fished the melted wax from the basin and unfurled a handkerchief from his pocket, all while avoiding everyone’s gaze. He moved quickly, placing the wax on the cloth and carefully folded it before stashing it back into his pocket.
“You should tell them, Isidro,” said Mrs. Arevalo.
“Tell us what?” Mrs. Crisostomo grew paler by the minute. “Tell me!”
Mang Isidro still wouldn’t look her in the eye. “The duwende wants a human sacrifice, Linda.”
Mutya barely slept that night, the malicious voice of the duwende echoing in her head. Her mother was inconsolable, her sobs seemingly endless. Her crying episode only stopped when she’d inadvertently fallen asleep from exhaustion. Mrs. Arevalo and Mang Isidro helped Mutya get her mother upstairs to sleep in the bedroom, with the latter promising the young woman to find another way around the situation. Mutya thought there was no way they’d come to a solution. Where would they find someone crazy enough to trade their life for a little boy? She didn’t want to dwell on what could be the possible consequences lest she’d sink into madness as well.
One day when I’m gone, I need you to keep our family together, Mutya. Take care of your mother and brother. You’re stronger than what you know, that’s why I believe you can do this. Take care of them, Mutya.
She didn’t know why she once again remembered that memory of her dying father from what seemed like years ago. She thought about the life she had lived after her father passed away—turning into a self-absorbed person with a happy-go-lucky attitude didn’t count as keeping the promise she made. True, James could be a pain in the butt and her mother could be overbearing most of the time, but they were the only family she had.
Just as the memory flashed in her mind, Mutya knew what she had to do.
“Ate Mutya? What are you doing here?”
Mutya stormed to the Arevalo residence that day, hell bent on getting the answers she needed. When she knocked on the door and Michael answered, she took him by the shoulders and yanked him outside the door. “I know there’s more to this cryptic mumbo jumbo that you know of. You mentioned your sister had a similar case. How did she get better? What did you do?”
A rooster crowed from a distance. Michael swallowed, looking around their house to make sure no one was listening to them. “Y-you don’t know what you’re asking. It’s dangerous.”
Mutya shook the boy’s lean form. “My brother’s going to die if I don’t do anything. Tell me, what did you do? Does Tita Isabel know about it?” When Michael didn’t answer, she let him go. “Fine. I’ll just ask her if you don’t want to talk.”
Michael was quick to catch her by the arm. “I… my mom doesn’t know. She cannot know. I had to be the one to save my sister.”
“Tell me. Please.” Tears welled in her eyes. She was short of going down on her knees to beg him, but Michael took one look at her and sighed.
“There is a tree. And a ritual. My sister’s case wasn’t as serious as James angering a duwende prince. The duwende that cursed my sister wanted a full-grown carabao, so I took one from Mang Damian’s farm. He had a lot and back then, there was a pestilence that killed some of his livestock.”
Mutya wasn’t able to hear the rest. She stopped listening after she heard Michael mention a tree and a ritual. She waved her hands and the boy stopped talking. “Tell me about this ritual.”
“It’s a way to summon the duwende Mang Isidro talked to.” Michael held up a hand when he saw that she was about to cut him off. “I know what he did. Mang Isidro’s family is the only albularyo in town with a lot of knowledge about this. I… asked him to teach me how to talk to them,” he said, referring to the creature.
Mutya straightened and wiped the tears from her eyes. “Okay, fine. Now tell me how to do this ritual. And before you tell me that it’s dangerous, I’m gonna stop you right here. I don’t care. Just tell me what to do and how to do it. If you won’t, I’ll rat you out to your mother.”
“There,” Michael pointed to the aratilis tree by the dirt road. Mutya asked James to accompany her to the place where it all happened. The area was deserted, save for a few bats flying overhead. It was already dusk, and the sound of crickets and other insects made her skittish.
“Ate Mutya… are you sure you want to do this?”
Instead of replying, Mutya took a deep breath and walked towards the tree, where she laid by the roots an assortment of fruits, a small bowl of pig’s blood, and a pair of candles. When darkness settled, she lit the candles and took out a pair of scissors from her pocket. She cut a lock of hair from her head and burned the strands by the candlelight.
“Hear me, duwende prince, I have come bearing gifts. I ask that you spare my brother’s life.”
She glanced behind her, checking to see if she did alright. Michael nodded in approval. He made a gesture, telling her to repeat the words in a louder voice.
Mutya did just that.
After a few seconds, a sudden breeze ruffled the tree’s branches, causing a few leaves to shed. The light from the candles were snuffed away, and a thin smoke of burnt wax wafted through her nostrils. The sound she heard next made her skin prickle.
“You are either brave or stupid to come here bringing things I do not need. I asked for a life. Where is it?”
Mutya was about to reply when a figure stepped from the shadows. It had matted hair that reached past its shoulders, legs as short as tree stumps, and limbs extending to the ground. She fought the urge to scream at the sight before her, but she bit the inside of her cheek. Whatever good sense she had kept telling her to run, but Mutya firmly held her ground.
“I came for my brother’s life. Lift the curse you placed on him.”
The creature laughed, or rather cackled. “You’re a fool to come here, human. Don’t you remember what I told your mediator?”
“A life for a life. That’s why I’m here,” Mutya finished.
The duwende was not able to hide the surprise in his face. Then, “Don’t toy with me, child,” he warned.
Mutya shook her head. “My life for my brother’s.”
The duwende sneered. “Fair enough.” He held out a gnarled hand. “It’s time to go.”
“W-wait. I will go with you on one condition.”
The creature snarled, peeved at the thought of not getting what it wanted right away. “You’ve already spoken the words. Your life is forfeit. You are mine now.”
Mutya swallowed, hiding her shaking hands by clutching on the seams of her shirt. “I only ask that you give me time to say goodbye to my family.”
The duwende prince considered her words. She was trembling from where she stood, hoping above hope that the duwende would acquiesce to her request. After what seemed like forever, it looked up to her, nodding in approval. “Very well. I will give you an hour, then no more.”
On the way home, Mutya tried to shake off the anxiety threatening to burst from her chest. A mixture of fear, revulsion, and helplessness swam in her head and gripped her heart like a vise. Mutya took deep breaths, trying so hard to keep her tears at bay.
They reached the Crisostomo residence a few minutes later. Michael saw his friend still asleep, moaning and fidgeting every now and then. James’s fever hadn’t gone down, and Mrs. Crisostomo was still distraught. Mrs. Arevalo had taken it upon herself to watch over James and was tending to his mother.
Mutya took a peek inside her mother’s room where she was being cared for by Mrs. Arevalo. After reassuring herself that her mother was doing okay, she went to her room and started packing a few of her belongings in a small tote bag.
“Michael, remember what we talked about,” she said, sensing the young man following her. She walked toward her study desk where she ripped off a page from her notebook and hastily wrote a note. She then folded the piece of paper and handed it to the young man. “I’m counting on you.”
Michael took the letter and looked up to her. “Ate Mutya, I’m not sure if I heard Mang Isidro right the last time I spoke to him. Duwendes are hard to kill, even more so the prince…”
She placed a firm hand on his shoulder. Michael noticed it was cold.
“I’m counting on you and Mang Isidro to find a way. I will try to do my part the best way I can, but I can’t do it all without your help.”
“When James feels better, tell him everything. He’ll help you, I know he will.” Mutya took out something from her desk drawer. She gestured for Michael to hold out his hand. “Will that be enough?” she asked.
A necklace with a round, silver pendant. Mang Isidro told him to ask for an item of great importance that would serve as their link when the duwende prince brought her to his realm. The necklace was an heirloom from her father’s side of the family.
Michael nodded. “Ate, be careful,” he said in a hushed tone as she sauntered to the door. She would be on her own on the way back.
Mutya smiled, her lips trembling. “Take care of them until I get back.”
Minutes after she left, Michael went downstairs to watch over his friend. James’s breathing was labored, but the only thing Michael could do was to change the wet washcloth on his forehead to cool him down. He had done the same thing when his sister fell ill. Michael could only hope for Mutya’s success. They could only follow with Mang Isidro’s instructions, but Michael had faith. They needed a willing sacrifice for the plan to take off, and he was sure as heck Mrs. Crisostomo would object to her daughter biting the bullet.
Mutya insisted. With her brother’s life on the line, she felt it was her responsibility. He couldn’t argue with that. The duwende prince would not suspect any underlying motive either, knowing James’s own kin went willingly. He watched the hands on the clock tick by, second after excruciating second. He was almost dozing off when he heard James gasp.
His friend sat up from the bed as if reanimated. He blinked several times before realizing where he was. “What are you doing here?” James asked then swallowed, scratching his neck.
Michael poured him a glass of water from the table beside his bed. “Get a hold of yourself.”
James drank the entire contents of the glass, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “What happened? Why are you here? Where’s Mama?”
Michael shook his head. “You got sick after you got back home a few days ago. A duwende cursed you. And your mother’s upstairs with my mom.” He fished the letter from his pocket and handed it to him. James reluctantly took the piece of paper and read it.
He crumpled the note and glanced at his friend, his other hand massaging his temple. “How long was I out?” James asked.
“Five days,” Michael replied.
“Tell me everything from the very beginning. Then we’re going to go to this Mang Isidro person mentioned here—” he waved his other hand clutching the crumpled note “—and then we’re going to save my sister.” ☁