It was my mother’s turn. She sat at the kitchen table, eating tangerines. Dad leaned over the kitchen counter with a banana. I sat at the kitchen counter, so I could listen to both of them.
“The thing to look out for is a house where someone died,” Mom said. “You know, in California, when you sell your house, you have to disclose whether or not someone died there, or if there was a tragedy in the house.”
“Really? I never heard anything like that,” I said.
My husband and I bought our house from our landlord, after renting it for eight years. Our landlord had been the second owner, and I would not be at all surprised if the first owner had passed away in the house.
“Well, did you ask about it?” Mom asked.
“Um. No.” I said.
“Well, there you go. But the people who bought our house in Pinole, they asked. They had a whole list of questions we had to answer for them! No one wants to move into a house with a multo. Maybe you have one in your house, and you don’t even know it.”
“If we don’t know we have a multo, then it doesn’t make any difference, right, Mom?” She made a tsk noise.
“Okay, okay. Did you have a multo at your house when you were a kid?”
My Great-Grandparents’ house, about 1929
“Well, the house that you remember was built in the fifties, especially for your lolo and lola, so it was brand new when we lived in it. Before that, when I was little, we lived in the big house, my lola’s house, which is next door to where your lolo and lola’s eventually built their house. My lola had moved out by then, to live with her daughter, but my uncle, Tio Pedro, still lived there, with us. The big house was old, and lots of people died there: my grandfather, and some of my great-uncles and great-aunts…”
“So, did you see ghosts?”
“Not when we lived in the main part of the house,” she said. “But eventually, they converted beneath the house to living space for us,” — Filipino houses are traditionally elevated, to promote air circulation — “and after that we used to see St. Elmo’s fire in the fields just beyond the property. People said they were the ghosts of the Japanese soldiers that had been buried under the house.”
“Wait, wait. Japanese soldiers buried under the house?” Why had I never heard this before?
“The workers found them when they excavated under the house, to put in the foundation. There were lots of bones, and some medals, and I think maybe a helmet. Skulls. I remember playing with the skulls and the medals when I was a little girl.”
“Do you still have them?” I asked.
“Oh, no,” she shook her head. “They all got thrown away a long time ago. The grown-ups thought that the bones were either Japanese soldiers or collaborators who had been killed by the guerillas. Both, maybe.”
“But who —”. Was someone in the family responsible for those bones?
“Oh I don’t know. Guerillas.”
I would have been more curious about it than Mom seemed to be. But I guess we all take for granted the details of the environment we grow up with.
“The family sometimes went out to the country during the hot season. Maybe the guerillas buried the bodies when everyone was away. Anyway, we started seeing the St. Elmo’s fire soon after they excavated. St. Elmo’s is from phosphorus, right? So maybe disturbing the buried bones caused it.”
“But back to the house. After they finished the downstairs, we moved there, and only Tio Pedro lived upstairs. We — the kids — were by ourselves a lot in the evening, because your lolo and lola liked to go out, to dinner parties and things. I would always get so scared at night, right about 6pm. That was when they rang the Angelus, and my lola told us that when the church bells ring the evening Angelus, then the ghosts come out, too. Maybe they needed to say their Hail Marys, I don’t know.”
“Usually, we’d be sitting together in the sala when the Angelus rang. Your Uncle Pepito would start pointing out ghosts to us.” Uncle Pepito is Mom’s oldest brother.
“He would say things like, ‘Shhh! What was that noise? Look, the curtain is moving — is there something there?’ I was only four or five then, and I would get so scared, and then I would cry, and cry. Sometimes Pepito would do this when your lola was home, and she would get so angry at him! But he kept doing it anyway.”
“So, you didn’t actually ever see any ghosts, then,” I said.
“I didn’t, no. But your Uncle Pepito, when he was a teenager, went to live with Tio Pedro. Pepito was having trouble with your lolo and lola, and trouble in school, too — especially math. So our uncle used to tutor him in math.”
“The house was practically empty, just the two of them. We’d moved into the other house by then. Pepito said that when he lived in the big house, he used to see shadows of people moving around where there was nobody. He would hear footsteps from empty rooms. Laughter from nowhere.”
“How do you know he wasn’t just making it up, again?”
She thought about it as she peeled another tangerine.
“Oh, he could have been. But you know … for a while he was having so much trouble with everybody that your lolo sent him out to the country, to Baao. We had a house there — your great-grandfather’s — and also some cousins that still lived in the area.”
“At first, Pepito wanted to go, but after a few months, he begged to come back home. He said there were multo in the house. Poltergeists.”
“Enkanto,” Dad said.
“He said things moved around, and he would hear footsteps that he couldn’t explain,” Mom said. “Once, he woke up in the middle of the night, and his bed was levitating! That was when he decided he wanted to come back home.”
She stopped and looked at Dad.
“You know, come to think of it,” she said. “That house was empty for a long time, too, because the rest of the family had moved to Manila. Just like your house, Paul.”
Dad nodded as Mom said this.
“Empty houses! That’s why I’m worried about over there.” He pointed in the direction of the house across the street. The owners had been forced to put it up for short sale. “It’s been empty since July!”
“Oh Daddy, walang kapre dito!” Mom said. “That’s only in the Philippines. There’s nothing like that here.”
“I don’t know,” Dad said. “All the same, I worry.”