A short story
My boyfriend used to joke of a 4chan meme, "what has been seen cannot be unseen." He referred to disgusting images from the Random imageboard, which I found to be quite crude and inhumane. As most of common wisdom, this saying was, we found out days later, very much true-but not in a harmless 4chan way. I wish it was innocuous. I wish it didn't happen.
Five days ago he and I discussed of plans to retrieve tapes from my family's old house at Isabela, due to our project as student filmmakers at the University of the Philippines. He was apparently interested in making a film-noir of piecing together someone's earliest, "original" memories that he was convinced was imprinted on our brains, no matter how many memories are piled on top of it. Thinking it was a good premise for a film, I agreed.
As this was quite an exhausting trip-we live in an upscale apartment fronting Greenbelt at Makati City-we readied things that we need for the excursion, relegating nearly an entire day for the preparation. He was actually scared at the thought of stepping through the doors of our house, since I said it was abandoned for almost a decade now.
He said he's not afraid of ghosts, but of snakes. Turned out our house was overgrown with weeds, as we couldn't afford to hire a caretaker back then. Odd thing was the townspeople never even attempted to demolish it or at least occupy it, even when we practically had no claims to it any longer.
Early morning the next day we departed for our destination, opting for the simple means of bus transportation as his car was, in a word, unreliable. We traveled by the Metro Rail Transit to Cubao station where we disembarked, found a bus terminal for Ilagan City, Isabela, which was about a good part of the day's worth's ride. We settled in at the plush Victory Liner bus, nibbled on snacks, and I offered him some anecdotes of our family.
"I think it's haunted," I finished simply, as the hustle and bustle of the city sped by our window.
He chuckled. "With snakes, you mean?"
"With ghosts, you idiot," I snapped, and lapsed back into moody silence as I anxiously awaited the end of this trip. It was his idea, not mine, and as we neared the closer to our destination, it seemed more and more a bad concept. I didn't know why I agreed.
About ten hours later, thoroughly wasted and haggard, we managed to lug out our belongings and stepped on the soil of Isabela province, I after nine years, and he for the first time. As he took on the sights of the provincial urban landscape I tugged at him to follow me. We boarded a public jeepney straight to the nearby municipality of San Mariano.
It was late afternoon when we reached our destination, two tricycle rides and a gallon of grimy sweat later. My small town was a sort of an isolated barangay or community at the eastern edge of the municipality, accessible only by weaving through wooded hills, the road no more than mere dirt tracks at times.
"Wow," he breathed.
Our imposing mansion-like house stood at the top of a winding street that was littered with slums, a thoroughly depressed look about them. Townspeople shuffled around, aimless and lost, and no children played about. It was understandable. In the provinces, soon as sunlight turned golden, everybody would be back home and waiting for dinner.
But here, with the failing light of five in the afternoon, there were no children. There were no voices. There was even no wind, or the slightest breeze. People were just walking about, not looking at one another, or to us. To the east, across the still leaves of trees, the light reflected from the sea glittered like a promising refuge from the stagnant town.
I clutched at his sleeve. "It isn't like this last I remembered," I whispered to him, frightened at the seemingly depressed look about us.
"Huh, what?" he answered, as he still gazed rapturingly at our house.
He managed to shake himself as if from a trance, and looked at me inquiringly. "Are you okay? You... you look pale."
"Let's get out of here," I suggested. "Let's look tomorrow morning, if you want. Just not now."
"Why? It's perfect today. We might be charged with trespassing if we wait for the light of day-"
An elderly man shuffled towards us, his back bent, his hands gesturing to the ground as if hobbling along with an invisible staff. He was barely clothed, his soiled loincloth reeking of filth, his bones plastered against his yellowing skin stretched taut through the barest hint of muscle.
"Hon..." I squeaked.
"Aaahh... aaahh..." The guttural sound of the elderly man was damning and hellish to my ears. He sounded... he sounded as if his vocal chords were suffering some kind of punishment. His bloodshot eyes wandered, listless.
We took a step back as he passed by us, between us and the dilapidated gate. I nearly ran away when, at that moment, I saw his left move independently of the other eye and stare at the house, a mixture of hate and utmost fear, muttering his cursed groans as he went by.
"Did you see that?!" I nearly screamed.
"What? The old dude-"
At that point he was reaching for the gate, which was strangely unchained. The rusty grate sounded like screams, and I tried to choke down whatever apprehension gnawed at me. After all, he knew what he was doing. And it was just my imagination, right? How could someone do those with their eyes? And if someone could, maybe the old man's a circus performer?
"Hey, our equipment..." I called.
"No," he said, already trudging up the worn steps to our door, his fear of snakes forgotten as the weeds seemed to close in on him. "Let's shoot later. We need to have the tapes first."
Our trip through the house, dark and dilapidated as it was, was mostly uneventful, even though I fully expected paranormal activity at every turn. True, there were scratching sounds at the attic that sounded like someone's writing feverishly on a blackboard, but that was that. I also expected a wash of nostalgia, but I felt... empty, as if it hadn't been my house at all. It seemed different. It seemed... the house of another person.
We found the tapes in an old Milo carton, about the size of a coffee table, at the basement, labeled by my grandmother's ummistakable cursive writing. It was moldy, and smelled ancient. We managed to hoist it out of the house, finding that the entire barangay had fallen deathly silent outside. It was full evening, and the shuffling, aimless denizens of the community were nowhere to be seen.
The old man who passed by us however stood nearby, facing a nearby blank wall that I didn't remember having been there during my formative years. He was quiet, but his mouth opened and closed, as if testing if his jaw was still working. I didn't notice the wall before since it was behind us when we were looking at the house outside.
"They seem to be looking for something," I mutter.
I stayed mum, and looked at the wall again. It served no purpose, as it was built haphazardly perpendicular to the main village street, through the weeds. It was blank and clean as a slate.
"They're trapped." It was true, and it only occurred to me back then. The people padding about with no clear intention of going anywhere seemed as if they were... stuck, or stranded, somewhere, trying to find something.
My fiance suggested that we spend the night at a motel at the town proper before boarding a bus back to Manila. I hardly heard him and his ramblings of making a dent at the indie films scene as he raved on and on at the bus. My thoughts were going back to the town.
Trapped? I scribbled on a small notepad I keep on a jacket pocket. Trapped where? I wrote below it.
The motel was a decent place, Spanish Colonial in style, and we wearily went up to our room, number 309 at the third floor. I plopped down on the bed as soon as I went it, and my boyfriend laughed as he helped me undress and unpack the contents of the box. We took a bath together, giggling at the chill, made love afterwards, a part of me hoping to make him forget about the tapes. There was something... in there that was not supposed to be seen.
It was around two-thirty in the morning, when we were just beginning to doze, when I felt him slide out of bed, and I heard the click of the TV. He was going to watch the tapes. I groaned. The entire room, dark, was lit up by the blue light from the TV that said, "PRESS PLAY".
"I'm here, babe. Let me just watch this, I wanna see... I wanna see you when you were a kid."
I grunted and sat up. "Okay."
He pushed the VHS tape in, sat back, and pressed the PLAY button on the remote.
The TV flickered to life. The tape showed me-or what I assumed was me-using the video camera, pointing at anyone or anything that caught my attention. The camera showed the date as July 1993. I was four years old back then.
"What tape did you-"
"The beach one, I think," he said offhandedly, as he watched.
Yes, it was the beach. I remember my dad and my mom, shortly before they separated, taking me to some beach for the summer vacation. The sea was glittering; it was sunset. As it had been in the town before we came in-
"Cute," I heard him mutter. And I smiled wanly, half-naked in the sheets. My little voice was tinny. "MOMMY!" my little self shrieked, seeing a topless woman lying on her stomach. "MOMMY!"
I laughed in spite of myself. "The film's a little older than I expected," I commented, as the usual home video scenes flitted by.
"Really?" he said. "It doesn't seem that old."
"Well it's a bit grainy... I don't remember it being THAT grainy, if you know what I mean."
"Well, what do you expect? It was untouched for a decade, for Christ's sake." He laughed as he saw me, still holding the camera as my point of view, trip and sprawl face down on the hot sand. My bawlings and cries followed promptly.
"You're cute, Laine," he said, endearingly. "Thanks..."
I was about to ask him for what when the scene changed abruptly: December 1993. It was a month after my dad left my mom, due to him having a prior marriage before. I didn't understand it back then.
Again, it was my little self. The scene started in the bedroom, then went to pee in the restroom. A brief shot of the sea beyond the window. "It's as if the camera's my eyes," I said, jokingly. "See, I go everywhere with my camera."
"Yeah, you were a filmmaker even before you were born," he replied, laughing.
The camera panned to look at my right shoulder, where I was buttoning my dress with both hands.
"Weird," I said, missing a heartbeat. "How can I hold the camera without my… without hands?"
The camera proceeded to saunter down the stairs, calling mommy now and again. It proceeded to the kitchen. The house was familiar, it was-
"The house," I said, almost frightened. My heart was hammering inside my ribcage.
"Oh, this is what our house in the village used to look like," I said, in the most casual tone I can muster. "So yeah, that's the basement where we walked in-" I pointed-"and those are the stairs we passed by earlier."
The camera found my mother, my back turned to me, doing something at the kitchen counter, humming an old tune.
"Mom?" the voice from the TV.
"Yes, honey. Go play outside. Dinner will be ready soon."
"Dinner? It's morning."
"Oh, is it?" My mom laughs. "Just go out and play."
"I wanna see what you're cooking-"
"No, honey, you can't-"
"Jerry, what was the date again?"
"No way, how can that happen if—"
The camera edged closer and looked at the boiling pot left on the stove.
An arm. A human arm torn from the elbow was simmering.
Screen blackout, faint sound of the music my mom is humming-
"What the hell was that?" I blurted out as the scene ended abruptly right there.
Static, and transient images that you'd see when you dial the channels of an analog television—like pictures are compressed to thin lines and stretched horizontally, flickering, flickering, interspersed with the white and black moving dots of static.
There was… a white… something. I can't quite get it.
Before we can answer another scene, dated March 1994. This time the camera is on the front lawn, now overgrown with weeds. A car stopped by the front gate, and the camera went out, inquiringly, to check it out, as I can remember vaguely that cars were seldom seen in our little village.
The camera came closer.
"Jerry, let's turn this darned thing off!" I shouted. "This isn't funny anymore!"
"I can't remember any of these!"
The TV showed the car's windows rolling down. On the driver seat sat a clown, humming the same old song as in the scene earlier. On the backseat was someone wriggling on a straitjacket.
The figure's face was wrapped with a bandage. And he was thrashing about, moaning a muffled cry for help.
"This is grade-A material, Laine! What are you so scared about?"
"These aren't mine-"
Again the static. This time the images stretched were becoming clearer as they flashed by, and my mind pieced them together. There was a wall. A wall. The wall outside our house.
More grainy. Sepia. No date.
A tree on a hill. The camera was moving closer. A faint humming music can be heard. I had a sinking feeling that the song was the same as that of my mom cooking a human arm, and the twisted clown on the driver's seat earlier.
There were three boys underneath the tree. It was sunset, and at the distance the glittering sea beckoned. As the camera came closer, I saw that they were stoning a puppy to death.
"No," I said, hiding my eyes.
The boys' voices were trilling, elated as they killed the poor puppy. When the whines of the dog were done, they took a rope, looped it around a low-lying branch, and hanged the dog there.
The boys ran, laughing, clapping for a job well-done. The puppy swayed in the wind.
The holder of the camera hummed. A song.
"Jerry, please, let's stop this."
The camera was acting strange. It seemed to zoom in and out instead of panning across, in a disjointed fashion that it seemed we were looking at a slideshow of old photographs.
"Please... I can't remember anything of this..."
The speed of the camera was moving faster. The music was becoming louder. I can remember it now, a rhyme my mom used to tell me when she makes me go to sleep.
Hush, now little one
Hush, and be quiet
When all the world is spent and done,
You need to stay down and be quiet.
For the dark is terror
Hush, little one.
Several shots of the wall followed, but from the same angle, as if we're treated to a series of shoots made on the same wall everyday since…
"Okay, okay!" Jerry stood up. The TV went out.
The TV was black, and still, as if we had plugged the power from the socket. The entire room was plunged in darkness.
"Jerry, I'm scared… " I was whispering, shaking all over. What the hell is happening… This isn't our tapes—"
The screen went back to life. And I hoped I had never seen it.
On the screen, on black and white, was Jerry and I, watching the TV—