A NIGHT OF EXPLORING THE WOODS
“Come on, Joy,” Joan groaned. She’d put on her fancy leather jeans that she wore most times when going to an audition; she always said they made her feel more edgy and confident. Joy looked up at her from her book and shook her head. It wasn’t that she didn’t like to sing; she just didn’t like to sing in front of people. She was extremely shy at things like this, and preferred singing in her own solitude.
Joan gave her a discouraged frown.
“At least come out of the house today. Maybe you could come and support me,” she suggested, her frown becoming an enthusiastic smile. “I could use the encouragement.” Joy, again, shook her head. She was fine being in her room and reading her book. Maybe she’d find a good leaf in the backyard and practice the leaflute. She got that hobby from that one Pokemon movie about Darkrai.
“Come on,” Joan pushed. “Tell you what: you come with me to my audition, and I’ll buy you some Bakpia from the bakery in town. I know how much you like them.” Joy’s head perked up at the mention of this. She didn’t like them; she loved them. They were the best kind of sweet rolls in the world. Besides, at the very best, she could sit outside under a tree and read so as not to be disturbed by the music.
She reached to her nightstand, got a bookmark, and set it in her book before rolling off of the bed. Joan smiled at her, then patted her back.
“There you go,” she exclaimed. “Besides, Lillabeth and Marissa told me they’d auditioned the day before. You don’t have to worry about them.” Joy flinched at the mention of their names. They weren’t very nice girls, not at all.
“Why are you still friends with them?” she asked. Joan shrugged.
“I don’t know. Mostly because they’re the only people I know who shop at the same place I do. But I’m not that fond of them,” Joan babbled, flicking a strand of hair over her shoulder. “No two bitches antagonize my twin sister!” From downstairs, their father called up, telling Joan not to use foul language. She called back an apology.
“Then tell them to go away,” Joy instructed. That sounded rude, she didn’t want to sound rude. She didn’t like to sound rude; it made her feel like people would think badly of her. Joan blew air through her lips.
“I try, but they keep coming back. The best we can hope for today is that they don’t suddenly show up,” she said. Joy sighed. The fact that they had to make “surprise appearances” everywhere was annoying; it was even worse that they harassed her so much every time they saw her. Hair pulling and nose grabbing and cheek poking and name calling, all the time.
She supposed it could’ve been worse: they could actually beat her up. Now that was something she hoped would never happen. Of course, why would it? She never really did anything to provoke them; just let them do it.
Their house wasn’t far from the community center, where the auditions were taking place. It was actually the best place; there was a stage, a supply of instruments, and a large speaker for you to plug your iPod into. The walk over there was actually quite nice, aside from people giving Joy weird glances. Of course, that was natural. It wasn’t that common to see albino Filipinos. Or maybe it was and there just weren’t any in her town. She didn’t know.
When people stared, she mostly hid herself from them under her red umbrella. It wasn’t raining; she just needed it to protect herself from sunburn. She sunburned really easily (as albinos do), and would go through bottles of sunblock so often that their father simply got her the umbrella to save money. He had a job as a cashier at the grocery store and Joan volunteered at the bakery sometimes. She didn’t have a job because most of the places that were hiring had really big windows that let in a lot of sunshine. Mostly to make money, she’d babysit her neighbor’s toddler (even though they had a teenage son, but he was out most days). But that didn’t pay a whole lot of money.
Once they got to the community center, Joan rushed up to the doors and disappeared inside. Joy stayed and looked around. There wasn’t really anywhere to sit and enjoy her book. The only trees around were pretty small and didn’t give much shade (and it really sucked to have to hold her umbrella up when sitting and reading). She didn’t want to sit on the concrete; it reflected a lot of light and it was hot. She shrugged her shoulders and followed Joan inside.
The people who were judging the auditions looked at her funny as she walked in. She ignored them the best she could, closed her umbrella, and set it in the corner next to the door. There was a chair at the back of the room and she took a seat there to continue reading her book.
“All right, Ms. Gozar. And what will you be singing for us today?” one of the women asked. Joan was plugging in her iPod to the speaker, then made her way to the microphone they’d set up.
“Bahay Kubo,” she said, then returned to her iPod and turned on the music. Joan always had a great voice and a lot of confidence. Joy didn’t have that. She liked to sing, but her stage fright made it so she couldn’t sing in front of people. Sometimes she wished she could. She wanted to see how people would react to her singing.
When Joan was halfway through the song, another girl came in. She knew her from seeing Joan hang out with her sometimes. Her name was Ciara. Ciara Schroder. She was short and blonde, and had a beautiful opera-like voice. She wasn’t Filipino; she was German. Their family had moved to this town when Joan and Joy were about seven. She’d heard her sing at a talent show that Joan’s school had put on.
She saw Joy, smiled, then walked up and took a seat on the floor next to her.
“Hi, Joy,” she greeted cheerfully. Joy didn’t answer back, just simply waved. Ciara looked at Joan as she finished her song and started talking with the people, then back at Joy. “Are you auditioning too?” Joy shook her head. “Aw, that’s too bad.” Joan waved at Joy, and she looked up at her from her book.
“That’s her. That’s my twin,” she announced, and the people turned to look at her. What did Joan tell them? Joy looked at them with a worried look as Joan motioned for her to come over. Reluctantly, she got up and approached her sister. “You should hear her. Her voice is amazing.” I knew it, Joy thought. She tricked me. Joy started to walk away, but Joan grabbed her arm and forced her to stay.
“Mm-mm,” Joy groaned, shaking her head.
“Joy, come on,” Joan begged, then turned to the people and smiled. “She’s a little stage shy.” She giggled after this comment.
“Well, just set her offstage so she can’t see us,” one of the people (a round old lady) pointed. Joan smiled at this suggestion.
“That’s a good idea,” she chirped. She pulled Joy up onto the stage and sat her down in a chair in the wings. She couldn’t see the people now, which was a little better. Of course, that didn’t mean they weren’t listening, but at least she couldn’t see their faces judging her and their eyes watching her. But still: they were there.
“Joan, I told you I didn’t want to do this,” she whispered.
“Come on, I’ve heard you sing. You’re good. Besides, you need to kick your stage fright. Now, what song do you want to sing?” Joan asked. Joy shook her head.
“I don’t want to sing at all, Joan,” she mumbled. “That’s the thing.”
“Come on, please? I’ll do your night school homework for you,” Joan offered. Joy shook her head. “I’ll, uh…get you new books.” Joy, again, shook her head. “I’ll…um…I’ll get you that mythology book you wanted.” Joy shook her head in exasperation. Joan was always persistent with her, even when she knew that Joy didn’t want to do whatever it was she was pushing her to do. It was endearing, yet very, very annoying.
“If it’ll make you shut up, then fine,” she relented. “But I don’t want to sing in the festival.” Joan looked back toward where the people sat, then back at Joy with a smile.
“Yeah, sure. No prob,” she said, still smiling. “So, what song do you wanna sing?” Joy pulled her own iPod out of her pocket and searched through her music.
“I’m serious. They said that all auditions are final. If you make it, you have to perform. If you don’t, then okay.” Joy was afraid that something like this could happen. If she was sick (which she hardly was), she’d still be made to sing. There had to be four performers, not just three. A lot of the people in town were superstitious, and since the Kalikasan Festival celebrated nature (and the nature spirits, in particular), they believed that having four performers was appropriate, as the number four was the number of earth and mankind.
They also only picked out the finest singers and musicians. They chose the ones with the most soothing voices and the best musical talent, as they felt it’d be tranquil for the nature spirits. They were also made to only sing and play the most soothing folk songs, respectfully. She enjoyed going to this festival when she was growing up.
It lasted about three days, which was the appropriate length of time for a festival. There would be booths set up for snacks (from pastries to appetizer foods), games, and face painting (something Joan would often volunteer for as she got older).
Although it was more suitable to be dressed in traditional garb (mainly the elderly, few adults, and performers were seen wearing them), you were allowed to go in your regular clothes. There’d be music before the performers, played on speakers. When it was time for the performers to perform, the people would light candles and set them on the stage. Most times when the performers sang or played, fireflies would come out and dance around them, and the elderlies would say that Kapre had come to watch.
But the possibility of her actually singing in front of everyone was terrifying. She didn’t want to sing in front of the whole town. She wanted to enjoy the festival as a regular person. The thought of getting up on that stage and seeing all these people judging her sent a shiver down her spine.
On their way to the bakery, Joan got a call on her phone. It was from her best friend, Dina. Dina was one of the few people outside of family that Joy could bring herself to speak to comfortably. She was very calm and collected, and hung out at their house a lot; she was practically part of the family…for the most part.
According to Joan, she was notorious around the school for sneaking out at night. Why would you sneak out at night? Who knows what kind of creature you’d face. A Manananggal? An Aswang? Hopefully not.
Joan chatted with her for a moment, said “maybe, yeah okay” to a couple things, then said goodbye and hung up. She turned to Joy with a smile on her face.
“That was Dina,” she informed.
“I heard,” Joy pointed.
“She said she heard about a Balete tree growing in the forest,” Joan explained. Joy stopped dead in her tracks. A Balete tree? In this town? The only ones she knew of were in other places in the Philippines. And they weren’t very common trees to find; they took years to grow.
“A Balete tree?” she asked. Joan nodded. “In the forest? In this town?” Joan nodded again.
“She heard from a friend of a friend. She’s still a little skeptical, so she wants to go explore for it tonight. She asked if we wanted to go,” Joan explained. Joy shook her head.
“I don’t want to go exploring in the forest for a tree that may or may not be there,” she refused. “Dad would kill us.” Joan blew air through her lips. The main rule at their house was to not explore the forest; they could be taken by some weirdo.
“Yeah, he would,” she agreed.
“What time does she even want to do this?” Joy asked. Joan put her hands on her hips and stared at Joy with a grim expression in her eyes.
“It’s Dina. What do you think?” Joan asked. Joy shook her head.
“The evening?” Joy exclaimed in disbelief. Joan nodded. “Why? We don’t know what’s going to be in the forest at night. Tiyanak? Tikbalang? Aswang?” Joan shook her head.
“You with your superstitions. Those aren’t real,” she remarked. “Besides, the worst kind of animals we’d find out there would be raccoons or squirrels.” Joy shook her head.
“Joan, I’m begging you. Don’t go with her. Besides, what if you get lost?” she asked.
“It’s not that big of a forest. Dina said the Balete tree was somewhere around the center. We won’t be gone that long. I swear,” Joan promised, making the “cross-my-heart, hope-to-die” movement with her hand. “Besides, it’ll be a nice night of exploring the woods. Give it a chance.” Joy shook her head in irritation. Might as well agree, otherwise Joan wouldn’t shut up.
“You’re buying me extra Bakpia today,” she pointed. Joan smiled at her.
“Okay. And don’t worry. We’ll meet up with Dina at six, find the tree, and get back home at six-thirty,” Joan said. Joy nodded.
“I really hope so. But what are we gonna tell Dad?” she asked. Joan looked up for a second. They were now approaching the bakery.
“We’ll just say that Dina needs a ride to her grandparents’ house. Where is that again?” Joan asked.
“Near the farther-away elementary school,” Joy reminded. That probably would be convincing enough. Dina lived near the high school (and didn’t have a car), which was down the street from the community center, while the farther-away elementary school was a couple miles from the city limits. “But why would she need to see her grandparents?”
“We’ll say she forgot her homework assignment there,” Joan guessed.
“Why would she be doing homework at her grandparents’ house?” Joy asked. Joan paused.
“I mean…she forgot…her mother’s birthday cake there,” she faltered.
“Her mother’s birthday isn’t for another two months,” Joy said. Joan gave her a grim stare.
“I’ll think of something,” she swore as they entered the bakery.
Their father didn’t ask many questions when they gave their story, and they started their drive to where Dina had texted them to meet up. She had three flashlights with her, and was in her red hoodie. It was starting to get cold, and Joan and Joy had come in their coats too.
“Hey, what took you guys so long?” Dina asked. Joan shrugged.
“Oh, you know. The old man was a little questionable,” she explained. Dina handed them both a flashlight, then wrinkled her nose and made a repulsed sound, like she smelled a decomposing body or something.
“Ugh, what is that smell?” she asked. Joan started sniffing the air, and made the same sound. Then she reached into Joy’s pocket and pulled out a large clove of garlic.
“Seriously?” she asked in exasperation. Joy shrugged.
“In case of Aswang,” she said. Joan shook her head.
“There’s no such thing,” she denied, and threw the clove over her shoulder. “So Dina, how long is this gonna take? We promised our dad that we’d be home by six-thirty.” Dina looked toward the forest for a moment, then back at Joan.
“Mm, maybe like twenty minutes,” she guessed, shrugging her shoulders as she spoke. Joy didn’t like the sound of that; even Dina wasn’t entirely sure how long this would take. “Well, come on. Let’s get cracking.”
They started their trek into the forest. It was a first quarter moon that night, and it gave the trees twisting shadows. They made Joy think of black ghosts and Sigbins. Maybe a Sigbin was following them through the shadows at that very moment.
She didn’t want to think about that. She started thinking about the festival. The games and the foods and seeing the fireflies dance around to the performers’ songs. Seeing the fireflies was one of her favorite things about the festival.
Joan and Dina were chatting amongst themselves quietly, probably to not attract any attention from anyone who might be nearby. That was smart. It was getting pretty dark now, and a lot of people in town said it wasn’t safe to be in the woods at night. Despite this, some children still explored the area; they didn’t believe in these “superstitions” like Joy did.
She looked up at the night sky. She liked to stargaze some nights, when there were no clouds. She’d go out to the hammock they had in the backyard and just look up at the sky. It was very beautiful.
Joan and Dina stopped in their tracks, causing Joy to bump into them. They were shining their flashlights around, as if they’d heard something. Joy had been so preoccupied with looking at the sky and thinking about the festival that she didn’t hear anything.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. They were still swiping their flashlights around, looking for whatever it was they either heard or saw. And the expressions on their faces told Joy that it must’ve been something scary. Really scary.
“You didn’t hear it?” Joan asked, briefly looking back at her. Joy shook her head. “We heard some kind of laugh. It was so loud.”
“I didn’t hear it,” Joy murmured. She hid her fear behind a stony face. A loud laugh? That was a sign that a Kapre was near. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing; according to the mythology books she’d checked out at the library, Kapre were generally harmless. The most malicious thing they did was scare children that were wandering the woods at night.
But, then again, they were children wandering the woods at night. Ironic.
A branch fell down in front of them. It was odd because there was no wind, although this could’ve been a rotten branch. Not uncommon in this forest; a lot of the trees were quite old. It scared the three of them regardless. Joan and Dina were shining their flashlights up into the trees. Joy was slowly backing away toward where they’d left the car, then jumped at the sound of Dina shrieking. Joan screamed as well. Joy looked up to where they were looking.
There, amongst the leaves, were two glowing red eyes, staring down at them. This couldn’t have been an owl; they were too big, almost the size of basketballs. Joan and Dina were shrieking at the top of their lungs, while Joy’s shrieks had gotten caught in her throat.
Joan and Dina took off running back to where the car was. Joy stayed where she was a few seconds longer, just staring into these eyes, before running after them. Those glowing eyes had left green after-images in her eyes.
She was running after Joan and Dina, who were farther up ahead. She turned her head to see if it was following them; she didn’t really see anything out of the ordinary, but the after-images made it seem like green shadows were chasing them.
She turned back around, only to slam into what had to be a tree. She could tell by the texture. It felt like her nose and forehead had been scraped by the bark.
She saw stars after the collision, everywhere she looked. She didn’t hear Joan and Dina anymore, just crickets. She fell back onto the grass and collapsed into darkness.