Sometimes They Arrive Late
Illustration by Julia Wytrazek
It was rainy season in the Philippines. The locals hunkered down underneath porches and tarpaulin, the rain poured off their rooftops in waterfalls. Charcoal burned in street barbecues as chicken feet sizzled and chunks of pork belly turned on spits; rice steamed in huge stainless-steel pots. Despite the weather, the odd tourist still arrived, a holiday booked in the desperation of winter darkness. Leon and Chloe were two such people, booked into a chalet on Mumbakal Mountain Resort on Negros island. The place was dead. The large outdoor swimming pool had leaves floating on it. The heavy droplets of rain made craters on the surface. One lone sunlounger was abandoned by the pool. ‘You have it to yourself,’ the receptionist smiled as he handed over the keys.
Since arriving, Chloe searched for some sense of familiarity, but nothing came. Two generations removed from her Filipina roots and with no family to welcome her, she was just a tourist. All she had left were her grandmother’s anecdotes and her black hair and dark complexion. She looked at Leon who was unpacking his suitcase wearing shorts and flip-flops. He’s so pasty, she thought. His legs looked skinny and stick-like in his surf shorts.
They had met ten years earlier when his hair was thick and she was a little thinner and all she’d wanted was a good time. Now it was a baby. But the baby hadn’t come. She glanced at herself in the mirror. I look young. But my looks lie. My body says I am too old to have a baby. It was ‘too late,’ ‘highly unlikely,’ ‘a missed opportunity,’ the doctor said. As though she’d passed up a job offer or caught the wrong train. She thought maybe she’d settled for the wrong man. Maybe if she’d really wanted a baby she wouldn’t have waited so long. But this was the darkness of ‘what if.’ It’s no good. I am here now, she thought. We are here. There is a reason to go on.
She went outside onto the veranda, pulling a beer from the ice bucket and opening a fresh pack of cigarettes. She sat and watched the rain. The evening was arriving. In the distance flying foxes were settling; Chloe remarked how large and terrifying they looked hanging from the branches—their wings wrapped like black cloaks around their rust red bodies. A few stray dogs passed; they paused to sniff but they knew she had nothing edible to share. Soon they disappeared back into the wet green undergrowth. She tried to remember some of the folklore her grandmother had told her—‘tabi-tabi,’ let the spirits know you’re there, that you mean no harm; don’t point at a living thing, if you do, bite your finger or you will be cursed. She wished she’d paid more attention. She barely remembered anything. Her mother was never interested in her Filipina heritage enough to pass anything down and she had shared no Ilonggo. Her grandmother had only taught her about things to be scared of. Leon popped his head out. Grinning he said, ‘Right, unpacked. Food now?’
Picking their way in the rain through the path to the dining area they found the resort restaurant, which was empty. Their only company was a TV on the far side—a game show played. They sat patiently waiting for someone to notice them. Chloe stared into space, feeling distant. Leon leaned across the table, took her hand, broke her daydream. She smiled and took her hand back. The silence hung between them like a thick fog. Thankfully a young woman finally came out. ‘The menu is off—out of season,’ she said. ‘But you are welcome to have some of what my family is eating.’ Hungry, they had no choice but to accept.
After she’d disappeared back into the kitchen, Leon leaned forward. ‘She’s pregnant, did you see?’
‘No.’ Chloe had not noticed.
‘She can’t be more than about eighteen. How old do you think she is?’
‘I don’t know. People have kids young here. It’s normal. Why? Are you bothered?’ Chloe was irritated by his question.
‘No, I’m just saying. I’m just making an observation.’
In his desperation to find something, anything to say, he had said just about the worst thing possible. Chloe snapped, ‘And why do you always have to point out pregnant women to me? Are you trying to make me feel bad?’
Her tone was so sharp, he winced. He sucked in a breath, swallowed some words before he could make matters worse, ‘I don’t. I’m sorry. She’s coming over.’ The young woman set down three dishes of steaming food. ‘Ah, it looks so delicious!’ Leon said. ‘What is it?’
‘Barbecue pork and rice and that,’ the woman pointed to a steaming bowl of something that looked like stew, ‘is sinigang. Traditional. Enjoy!’ and she turned and walked back to the kitchen.
Chloe eyed the pregnant woman’s neat bump. How easy it is for some, she thought. I bet she never even tried. It just happened, like it’s supposed to. If I had been careless, it could have happened to me. Now I just think about the time I wasted preventing something that was never going to happen anyway. All for nothing, she thought. The future is rarely what we think is waiting for us.
Leon was staring into the bowl, about to take a spoonful of sinigang. She was so angry, yet she pitied him at the same time. She felt sorry for him, stuck here with her so jagged and unsettled, struggling to make a fresh start. She felt so empty, she hardly knew herself. Sometimes she wasn’t sure if she still really loved him. Her anger bubbled up again and she hissed across the table, ‘So can you stop pointing these things out to me please. I have eyes. I can see. And sometimes I don’t want to see so if I haven’t seen, I don’t want you making me see.’
‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry. No more talk of babies. No more. We have to let go of this. Move on. Be thankful we are two. We are still two…’ His voice was distant. She wasn’t really listening. She didn’t reply, just sat in silence pushing rice around her plate. The TV chattered away in the background.
‘Does it feel familiar?’ Leon suddenly asked. Chloe hadn’t heard him. ‘Chloe?’
‘What?’ she snapped.
He pushed on, ‘This place.’
‘I’ve never been here before. What are you talking about?’
‘I mean, do you remember anything from your grandmother’s tales of this place?’
‘Oh, bits.’ She thought for a minute. ‘Something hurt her deeply. She never liked to talk about it. Just the superstitions. They hung about her like shrouds. Those are the things that have stayed with me. Ghosts.’
Chloe paused for a minute. ‘She had a baby when she was very young. The baby—a girl—disappeared. She always believed something awful took her because of the nature in which she conceived. It was unnatural, it wasn’t a man exactly—’ She broke off.
‘It wasn’t a man?’ Leon pulled a face.
‘I know, they said it couldn’t have been because the baby, well, the baby wasn’t quite, I don’t know, not quite—’ she hesitated before she settled on the word, ‘Right.’
‘I see.’ Leon looked at her with disbelief.
‘Yeah, I promised my grandmother I believed, but now I say this out loud it sounds ridiculous.’
They laughed. The tension between them broke. They finished their meal in lightness. As they were leaving the restaurant the young woman said, ‘You are welcome for food every day. There is not much else out of season here.’
‘When is your baby due?’ Chloe asked. She couldn’t help herself.
The woman pressed her finger to her lips. Then came close to Chloe’s ear.
‘I am five months. It is customary not to say aloud in case She is listening. Aswang will want my baby for herself.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry, how careless of me,’ Chloe replied, then added, ‘thank you for the meal.’
Leon and Chloe walked away down the low lit path back to their chalet.
When they got back they opened a bottle of San Miguel and sat out on the veranda. There were little lights dotted around the chalet and everything glistened in the rain and darkness.
‘What was she talking about?’ Leon asked, confused.
‘An Aswang, that’s what she was talking about. That’s what she’s afraid of—a wretched thin woman by day, hunter of unborn babies by night. She sucks them from the mother with a long tongue. Some say the Aswang can hear the sounds of death at a great distance and can change a human corpse into a pig carcass.’
Leon laughed. ‘That’s hideous.’
‘There is a monster for everything. You just have to believe.’
‘Back home I just fear magpies in odd numbers,’ Leon remarked.
‘And so you should. Everything has its own spirit—you must always be careful where you tread.’
‘You really believe that?’
‘Maybe. Sometimes it is easier to believe the unbelievable.’
That night Chloe lay in bed enjoying the pattering of the rain above. She watched it slide down the high window above their bed. Leon, whose pale skin and British constitution could not really cope with the heat, was fast asleep. She closed her eyes, listening closely to his breathing and the drip-drip of the rain above. A meditation of all that was beautiful and good. A serene calmness overcame her—something that had been absent this past year. She had largely felt a swelling sadness she feared would take her under. The isolation of it. Like screaming underwater, nobody could hear her. Nobody really knew how close she had come to never breaking the surface. How it had twisted up inside her, made her hateful, made her wish ill on the unborn of others. Nothing can be done about it now, she thought. I must send this out into the world, it is no good to me now. Let it go, let it go, let it go, was her mantra. And listen, listen to the forest, the mountain spirit, the warm rain—
Drip drip drip turned to tap tap tap, like a fingernail against the glass. She opened her eyes and fixed on a shape at the window above. She saw the pale thin face of a woman peering down at her. The woman’s fingers, dark snakes, flat against the glass were so terribly, unnaturally long. They slid through the opening of the window, moving about as though they were tasting the air. Chloe lay still, watching. She ran her hand across her belly, ‘I have nothing for you,’ she whispered. “There is nothing in here.” The long fingers retreated back through the window. The woman disappeared.
The next afternoon there was a brief pause in the rain. Leon and Chloe lunched at the same place, the only place. The same young woman served them. Chloe stared at the round of the woman’s belly—nothing had got her yet. She watched the way the woman absentmindedly paused to rub it, as if to smooth it out.
‘What do you do when you are home?’ the woman asked as she was clearing their plates.
‘We are doctors—researchers in science,’ Leon said cheerfully.
‘That is very good—you are married?’
‘Yes,’ they said in unison.
‘Where are your children?’ she asked.
‘Um—’ Leon looked at Chloe, afraid to speak.
‘We don’t have any,’ Chloe interjected.
‘Oh, one day.’ The young woman smiled. ‘I will pray for you. Sometimes they arrive late.’
Chloe looked at the woman’s bump. ‘Thank you.’
It felt rude to take away the hope and good wishes of a stranger.
The day suddenly felt heavy, oppressive. Leon looked exhausted; the heat was too much. The light had dimmed. The new beginning they sought was somehow lost again, disappeared into the depths of the forest. Chloe heard the voices of the spirits in the trees but they offered no comfort.
They sat in silence staring up at the flying foxes shuffling from one end of a tree branch to the other, constantly changing places. Swaddled in black shrouds, like changelings, their strange dog-like faces tucked in, turning to black angels when they flew. So many hanging from the trees like rotten fruit. She expected them to drop at any moment. Unlike the woods and forests back home, the forest here never hushed; they could hear the voices of things they’d never seen before.
‘It’s magic isn’t it?’ Chloe said. ‘This was what my grandmother told me about. The spirits walk here too. Everything has a soul—even the voiceless can be heard.’ She thought of the woman at the window. She wouldn’t tell Leon; this was her secret, something she could never tell anyone. It was the harbinger she needed. Something will happen, she thought cheerfully.
That night Chloe lay awake staring at the window above, waiting to see the fingers slide through the open window again. She waited but something else crept in instead, a sound she had heard many times before: a cry that she had never had to answer, though she so desperately wanted to. A mewling somewhere out there in the dark. She rose silently from the bed, grabbing the small emergency torch from her bedside table, opened the front door and slipped out onto the veranda. She listened: a rustling in the foliage, eyes caught in the light, reflected. A cat sidled out of the darkness. The forest was hushed as if everything was waiting to hear the cry burst out. When it did, it squealed—an infant’s glee? Hidden away in the forest where no one could find it. She imagined a mother and father hunting frantically. Chloe shone the torch into the darkness—another squeal—but this time it was followed by choked crying. Yes, a baby’s cry. Chloe stepped out in the direction of the noise. There were all manner of things out here—she must get to it before anything else did.
She walked until she could no longer see the lights of the resort. The cry became steady. It sounded clearer. She was getting close. The dim light of a window flickered between the trees like a candle flame in a dark room. A small makeshift house of corrugated iron. She could smell burning charcoal and something else—incense and pork fat. She called out, ‘Hello? Excuse me—’ The crying stopped. She walked to the window, peered in. No sign of anybody. She walked round to the door and stepped across the threshold. She could smell the perfume of herbs drying and the saltiness of pork. There were cuts of meat on the table from what looked like a suckling pig—bits of it. The head was placed at the centre. The ears had been cut, the snout lopped, it was pink, wrinkled, round and bloody. Chloe thought it resembled something of a new-born baby: mouth open in a fixed cry, eyes squished and tiny. Stranger still were its trotters, which resembled balled up little fists at either side of the mouth. And its hair, long, grey and spindly—like the crown of an aged old woman. The rain pattered gently on the iron roof of the shack. The voices of the forest whispered: Aswang…Asswaanng…Assswaaannngg…the name uttered in the slow sway of leaves in the damp tropical breeze.
Chloe was not afraid. At the corner of the room was a reed screen, and beside it was a metal day bed covered in cushions with a large mirror propped against the wall. It looked inviting, soft and comfortable. All Chloe wanted to do was lie down on it. She caught sight of herself in the mirror, the front of her nightdress was soaked in blood from her breasts down to her pelvis. She was not alarmed, though; something felt right, something familiar as though she had been here before. The blood-soaked fabric of her nightdress was heavy, warm against her skin. There is nothing here I don’t know, she told herself. She had forgotten the crying baby. It no longer seemed important. What was important was that she had made it there. She had followed the command. She had made it back. She lay down on the day-bed and closed her eyes, waiting.
A voice, ‘Chloe, Chloe? Wake up.’ Chloe opened her eyes to see Leon’s white knees, blue shorts and basketball shirt. ‘Come on—the sun’s out, we can go to the pool!’ He’d slung a towel over his shoulder and was grinning like a kid. ‘We might be lucky today. We might just catch some rays.’
‘Let me take a shower,’ she murmured. ‘I’ll see you there.’
She rose naked from the bed. Grabbed her pristine white nightdress from the chair and slipped it on, yawning. Standing in the shower she scrubbed the dirt from her fingernails, scrubbed her body clean in the cool water. The shower water turned a rust red. She turned it off and stepped out. As she was drying she noticed spots of blood on the tiles below her, blood on the white towel, blood trickling between her legs, blood down her thighs. She had not had a period for several months—they had become less and less frequent in the last year and she was beginning to think they had stopped completely; there was blood under her fingernails too, little droplets started to bubble, had she really scrubbed so hard? She felt nothing, no pain anywhere on her body. Her periods had always been excruciating. So much, that she would have to lie down in a darkened room scrunched into a ball while the thick dark globules oozed out of her. This was a different kind of blood: unclotted, vivid red, fluid, new. Such a beautiful inky red, she thought.
Leon lay by the pool enjoying the sunshine. Dappled light filtered through the forest leaves. Sheltering from the sun this time, not the rain. It was quiet, peaceful, the birds hushed, the surface of the water still, cool, blue. It was time to take a dip. He sat down by the edge of the pool dangling his legs. Taking a deep breath he slid into the cold water, submerged, let the surface close over him. He dived deeper and opening his eyes he glanced to the surface, he saw the wavering outline of Chloe. Still in her nightdress—strange that she hadn’t changed. He bubbled to the surface to greet her but she had slipped out of sight. From the pool he could only see the bright green leaves waving in the breeze. He called her name out, ‘Chloe!’ And behind him a large splash—a plunge into the water. It was Chloe in her white dress swimming towards him. She dived, tumbled under the water smiling, bubbles coming from her mouth. He surfaced, gasped a big breath before swimming down to join her.
But what was there was not Chloe, a woman, yes, wearing Chloe’s nightdress. Her body was thin, she resembled a gnarled entanglement of branches and her fingers were long black and snake-like. She opened a hollow gaping mouth, as though a corpse whose flesh has long gone, allowing the jaw to drop away in a scream. Leon tumbled away from it, scrambled to the surface and dragged himself up and clear of the water. Heaving in shock, he looked down. All was calm, just blue, just a light turquoise—nothing untoward. Nothing could be seen but clear water.
Chloe stepped towards him emerging through the trees. She was wearing her red bikini, a multi-coloured sarong wrapped around her waist. She was so excited, bursting to tell him her news, that she did not notice the startled look on his face.
‘Leon, guess what?’
‘My period’s come!’
Eight months had passed since they returned. They had come back from that place with far more than a feeling of rejuvenation and newfound togetherness. Chloe had conceived. It was a wonder to everyone that could only be attributed to the warmth, the fruit, the herbs, the atmosphere of the place. The reconnection with Chloe’s ancestral home and the spirits, her grandmother would have said. The spirits gave you this. It could not have come from prayer only. God must see your sacrifice, your pain. This was something that could not be asked for. The years passing had proved that.
But Chloe still thought of the young woman in the restaurant, whose promise to pray for them meant so much more. Chloe now had what that woman had. She was right, ‘Sometimes they arrive late.’ Now in her eighth month of pregnancy, the thought of what she found in the forest came creeping back. She was closer to it now, she knew the truth.
It came in the middle of a sweltering August. She was woken by the sound of a baby crying. It was early dawn, beginning to get light. The birds twittered awake. Without waking Leon she crept downstairs and out into the garden. The crying got louder and she felt a kick in her belly as she walked down to the woods at the end of the garden. Once under the trees the crying stopped.
Then a tearing sound, a tug in her abdomen and the sensation that something was slowly climbing down her legs. She knelt on all fours onto the mossy ground beneath. She had no desire to scream. There was nothing to scream for. Quietly, out it came—the baby she had longed for—walking on all fours as if the earth had always been beneath it. I am lucky, she thought, as she brought the small, pig-eyed, toothless old woman up to suckle at her breast. The suckling-hag nuzzled into her, and as Chloe tenderly stroked the few long strands of hair on the translucent scalp, she said, ‘My little latecomer, I will cherish you.’