by Celestine Trinidad
Illustration by Shai San Jose.
It was almost midnight. Isa unlocked the door to the church using the keys she had borrowed from the parish office that morning. “Borrowed” was maybe not the term the parish secretary would use for what she did, because Isa had taken the keys from his desk without his knowing while he was distracted with the papers for her mother’s funeral mass. She would return it after tonight anyway, so it wasn’t stealing.
Isa made her way toward the pew right in front of the altar and knelt before the bench. She took the rosary from her pocket. It was beginning to fade with age and was more a deep shade of brown than its original crimson. It still smelled faintly of roses, but it was mixed now with the scent of Angel’s Breath. Her mother loved this cologne so much that she sprayed on too much of it every morning, that everything she touched and the parts of the house she frequented—her bedroom, the kitchen, the living room—always smelled like Angel’s Breath.
She clasped her hands together, entwining the rosary beads around her fingers. She closed her eyes and began whispering prayers in Tagalog under her breath. She said the words haltingly for it had been years since she had even prayed. Aba Ginoong Maria. Napupuno ka ng grasya. Ang Panginoong Diyos ay sumasaiyo. Bukod kang pinagpala sa babaeng lahat. At pinagpala naman ang ‘yong anak na si Hesus.
She was on the first Hail Mary of the first decade of the rosary when she heard someone else whisper the words of the second part of the prayer. Santa Maria, Ina ng Diyos. Ipanalangin mo kaming makasalanan. Ngayon at kung kami’y mamamatay.
Isa opened her eyes and looked around her. There was no one else inside the church. Only the statues of Jesus on the cross, Saint Joseph, San Lorenzo Ruiz, and Our Lady of Guadalupe, stared back at her, their stone eyes impassive.
She resumed praying the rosary. On the second Hail Mary, the voice joined her in the second part again. She thought the voice sounded female, though it was low and hoarse. When it spoke, it seemed as if it was right beside her, but it also seemed like it was coming from somewhere else, from somewhere deep beneath the ground. After she had finished the first decade of the rosary, Isa opened one eye to take a peek, but there was still no one there.
She kept on praying. By the second decade, there was now another voice that joined in. This one was still female but higher in register than the first voice. Isa kept her eyes closed and continued to pray. With each decade of the rosary, more voices joined in, male and female, young and old, a multitude of whispers. The air around her had grown frigid and her fingers began to tremble as she clutched the rosary beads.
Alang-alang kay Hesukristo Panginoon namin, na kapisan Mo at ng Espiritu Santo nabubuhay at naghahari magpasawalang hanggan.
She opened her eyes, and saw them.
They filled rows upon rows of the church pews, their heads bent as they continued to mutter their prayers. Women in traje de mestiza and wearing white lace veils over their heads, and men in barong and Americana suits with a coat and tie. A group of women wore the white gala dress issued for the Mother Butlers in the parish, just like what her mother used to wear to church each time she served. She scanned the congregation. She tried to smell the air for Angel’s Breath, but there was only the smell of Sampaguita flowers and candle smoke. After a few minutes of searching the crowd, she sighed, “Siya nawa. Amen.”
Amen, they all answered.
When she looked up, she was again all alone.
Her mother’s desk was how she imagined it would be: books, records, and papers stacked neatly on top of it, spotless and immaculate.
“Your mother was the best teacher I ever had,” Mrs. De Luna, one of her mother’s co-teachers, said as she helped Isa put some of her mother’s papers into the bags she had brought along. “You know how some teachers seem to think you’re just lazy or stupid when you commit mistakes in class? She wasn’t like that. She was very patient when it came to her students. She made us feel it was okay to make mistakes and not be perfect. What was important was that you learned from your failures, she said.”
Mrs. De Luna took a stack of books from the desk and handed them to Isa. “She inspired me so much that I wanted to teach, too, so here I am. I’ve been teaching for nearly fifteen years now, and I couldn’t be happier.”
“I’m glad she was able to inspire you all.” Isa hoped she had put enough warmth into the smile she gave the other woman, even when it was warmth she did not feel. “Thank you for your eulogy last night, too. It was moving.”
“Thank you, but it’s really what Ms. Banal deserved, and more. I wish I could have let her know how grateful I was to her when she was still alive.”
The book Isa was holding slipped out of her grasp and fell to the floor. “You need not have come so soon to take your mother’s things.” Mrs. De Luna went on as she helped Isa pick up the book. “We know you and your family are still busy, what with the wake and all. We’re not really in a hurry to clear your mother’s desk.”
Tears swam in the older woman’s eyes. “I couldn’t bring myself to put away her things, too. Some part of me still feels like she would go to work tomorrow, like nothing happened. I just– I just can’t believe she’s gone.”
Isa kept her gaze on her mother’s desk. Mrs. De Luna kept sobbing quietly for a few more minutes after that, before finally getting up from her chair.
“I’m sorry I can’t stay to help out,” she said. “But it’s almost six, and it’s my turn to cook dinner tonight. My husband would be home soon—”
“No worries, Mrs. De Luna,” Isa said. “I’ll be okay here on my own.”
“Just in case, this is the number of the guard at the front entrance.” She scribbled down a number on a piece of paper. “You can call for help if you need it, if ever.”
“So, it’s true that strange things happen here?”
Mrs. De Luna looked at her, eyebrows furrowed. “I meant for help getting your mother’s things down.” She chuckled suddenly, her expression clearing. “Oh. I guess you’ve heard the stories, huh.”
Isa nodded. “They say the school has ghosts.”
“Every school has them. My daughter told me the same stories, except they happened in her school, not here.” Mrs. De Luna shrugged. “But, well, just in case, you can also call the guard if you hear anything. He’s used to it.” A corner of her lips turned up in a small smile, and she winked. “And maybe stay away from the CR on this floor.”
Isa finished putting away her mother’s things an hour later, ending up with two huge bags of papers and books. She sat back down on her mother’s chair. She closed her eyes and allowed herself to drift into her thoughts. She had always tried to be a model daughter. She never got into trouble. She had excellent grades. She got into college at the state university, even got a scholarship for a master’s program and later on a job as a researcher at a prestigious university in the US.
And yet, with every achievement, her mother never gave her a word of praise, or even showed any hint of approval. She would only nod and look at Isa as if she expected more, but when there was nothing else, she would only look away, disappointment plain in her eyes.
Maybe because Isa’s birth had been an accident, she was the child her mother did not intend to have in the first place with her already-married father, who refused to leave his other family behind, his “real” family as he had called them. Or maybe she really was a terrible daughter, and she never knew how to be the one her mother wanted.
A knock on the door broke the stillness of the faculty office, jolting Isa back to the present. She glanced at the clock: 9:01 PM. There was another knock on the door, and another. Isa got up and went over to the door.
“Kuya, sorry,” she called out tentatively. “I’m Isabel Banal, Ms. Banal’s daughter. I took some time sorting through my mother’s things, and I didn’t realize it was so late.”
The person at the door did not answer. Her heart began to race. There was a shadow beneath the door, unmoving. She bent down to peer through the keyhole. Through the keyhole, all she could see was red, with occasional flecks of white.
She knew what that meant.
She straightened and threw open the door. No one was in sight. She walked briskly through the hallway, looking for any sign of the person who had knocked, but there was nothing. She stopped before the door of the ladies’ room, took a deep breath, went inside– all the cubicles were empty. She went inside one and, after a moment’s consideration, relieved herself.
The toilet flushed in the next stall.
She knew that no one else had gone inside after she did. She felt the tiny hairs at the back of her head rise and began to shiver. She slowly turned towards the direction of the stall where she heard the sound, looked up–
A woman was staring down at her.
Perched on top of the cubicle wall, she had long, unruly black hair that covered her entire face. Only her eyes were visible, utterly blood-red, with occasional flecks of white. Just as she had seen through the keyhole.
Isa bit her lip, hard enough to draw blood.
Then reached up to brush the woman’s hair away from her face.
Isa sighed, drawing back her hand. The woman’s hair covered her face again.
“Are you the only one here? Are there others?”
The woman hissed, drew back.
Isa blinked, the woman was gone.
She walked out of the ladies’ room and almost collided with the guard, who let out a cry as his flashlight clattered to the floor. “Ay, Ma’am! Diyos ko! Sorry! ‘Kala ko multo!”
“Yeah, there was one,” Isa murmured. “But she wasn’t the one I was looking for.”
She walked down the corridor, leaving the guard staring after her. She returned to the faculty office, gathered her mother’s things, and walked out into the night.
The line at the hospital records was already long by the time she arrived the next day, and it took the entire morning for her mother’s death certificate to be finished. On the way, she ran into Dr. Sia, her mother’s cardiologist, who had taken care of her until the very end.
“She was a cheerful and brave woman,” Dr. Sia said, her stiletto heels clacking on the floor as they walked through the hospital’s main lobby. “Even when I knew she must have been in so much pain, she still managed to soldier through it all.” A wistful expression came upon her face. “She even beat the odds. Your Tita Elena had already signed the waiver that we would no longer try to resuscitate her if her condition worsened, but she pulled through for longer than we had thought was possible. She was that determined to live.”
Your mom is in the hospital. Tita Elena said, just a week ago. She thought she was just tired from the Teacher’s Day event at the school today, but the chest pain wouldn’t go away. So, her co-teachers took her to the hospital. They admitted her right away.
The worry in her aunt’s voice was palpable. Even Isa could feel it from where she was, half a world away. Please come home as soon as you can, Isa.
They need to take her to surgery. Tita Elena said when she called again the next day. They’re not sure if she can make it, Isa. When is your flight?
I already signed the waiver, Isa. Tita Elena had told her the day before her mother passed away. She could no longer keep back a sob. But she’s still fighting, even Dr. Sia was surprised that she had held on for this long. I think she’s holding on until you get here, Isa. When are you going to arrive?
Isa said she had trouble getting a flight; her supervisor also couldn’t let her go that easily, even if it was a family emergency because they were at a crucial time in their research and couldn’t find someone to substitute for her. But she recognized everything she said for what they truly were: excuses. She could have tried harder or hopped on the first flight home and left everything to be with her mother.
She parted ways with Dr. Sia at the front entrance of the hospital. While the doctor went through the doors, Isa turned around and went up to the third floor, to the waiting area for relatives of ICU patients. She sat down on the first empty chair she could find, in front of the TV that was playing old reruns of a noontime variety show.
Again, she waited for night to fall.
The crowd in the waiting room eventually thinned until only three other people were there later into the night. A nurse had switched off the TV a couple of hours ago. One of the relatives had spread a sheet of stiff cardboard onto the floor, and there he slept. She wondered if her aunts and uncles did that, too, while they waited here for any news of her mother’s condition. She wondered if she would have been willing to do the same thing if she had been here.
Isa got up. She wandered through the hospital hallways, the silence a chilling contrast to the hustle and bustle of the hospital in the daytime. Elevators were at the end of a long hallway, and she got on one of them.
A hand shot out of the darkness.
For a moment, Isa thought it would be crushed by the closing elevator doors.
But the person the hand belonged to managed to make it inside before the doors closed. The patient who entered was a woman dressed in a blue hospital gown. The ribbons at the back were loose, exposing grayish-purple flesh underneath. The patient’s head was bowed, and thick black hair covered her face. She kept muttering words under her breath, which Isa could not understand.
Isa looked down at the woman’s feet.
There was a cream-white tag tied around the woman’s toe.
Isa could not make out any other details except for a line that said Date of Death: February 21, 2019.
“Mama?” Isa said as she reached for the woman’s shoulder.
The woman looked up.
The elevator shuddered, stopped, engulfed them in darkness.
Isa’s hand dropped down to the side. “Oh. Sorry. I thought you were someone else.”
The lights came back on, and the elevator whirred.
Isa was alone once more.
When she arrived on the next floor, a middle-aged nun dressed in a black habit was waiting outside the elevator doors. Her left hand was clutching the crucifix hanging from her neck, her right hand holding what appeared to be a bottle of holy water. She looked as if she was about to sprinkle holy water inside the elevator, but when she saw Isa, she put the bottle away, back into the folds of her tunic.
“Ms. Banal, isn’t it?”
Isa recognized her as Sister Benedicta, one of the nuns who did rounds daily to give communion to the patients. They met when Isa came to collect her mother’s body, and the nun mentioned being there during her mother’s last rites.
“Are you all right?”
“Yes, Sister,” Isa said. “The elevator just stopped working for a while. It’s okay now.”
Sister Benedicta searched her face. “You saw her, didn’t you?”
Isa frowned. “Saw who?”
“I think you know who I’m talking about,” Sister Benedicta said, a strangely knowing expression on her face. “But she wasn’t the one you were looking for, right?”
Isa didn’t have the energy to ask anymore how the nun knew. “Yes. I see all of them. I always have.” She looked down at the floor. It was strange finally saying it out loud to someone else, though she had always been prepared to admit it if someone had asked. She knew many times her mother had caught her looking at things no one else could see, but her mother never said a word about it.
“No,” Isa said after a moment’s thought, and hung her head. “Not all of them.”
Sister Benedicta’s expression softened. “Have you ever considered that maybe your mother didn’t linger?”
Isa let out a huff of frustration. “But they all do. Or at least, those with unfinished business.”
“She seemed at peace when she passed away, right after Father Matt had given her the last rites.”
“But they said she wanted to see me.”
Isa clenched her fists so tightly that the skin around her knuckles had turned white as a sheet. “She held on for so long to see me, they said. I didn’t make it then. But I’m here now. So why won’t she—”
She felt like a hand had closed upon her throat, cutting off all her air. The nun went over to her side and led her to a row of chairs a few paces away.
“Sometimes spirits are able to move on as soon as they pass away, Ms. Banal,” Sister Benedicta said. “And that’s a good thing, because that means they are at peace now.”
But I wanted to say sorry. Sorry I did not make it. Sorry for disappointing you, up to the very end.
Or was that what she wanted?
What if she what she wanted was to hear an apology?
Maybe that was why her mother refused to show herself to her daughter.
She looked up at Sister Benedicta, whose warm eyes contained compassion, and understanding.
Isa finally began to cry.
“Sorry I’m not there, Ma.” Isa said in a video call to her mother just the year before, on Christmas Eve. She did not come home again that year, just as she didn’t the year before, and the year before that. “I’ll take a leave early next year, and I’ll come home. Maybe in February.”
Her mother only nodded, as always. “Did you receive the money I sent to your account the other day?”
“Yes, I did,” Isa replied. “But I told you I don’t need anything, Ma. The pay here is pretty good. I even have enough for savings.”
“Buy something,” her mother said with a shrug. “Maybe new clothes. I’ve seen your pictures. You keep wearing the same shirts over and over. Aren’t you embarrassed at all?”
“It’s called minimalism, Ma, it’s supposed to boost productivity,” Isa said, trying not to let her hurt show. This just happened every single call.
Her mother’s frown deepened into a scowl. “Just use the money however you want then.” Isa ended the call minutes later, making up some excuse.
Isa had never really paid attention then, but she remembered now the Noche Buena meal her mother had prepared. Hamon, sisig, lasagna, miki bihon, mango graham tiramisu. All her favorites. Her mother hated all these dishes and never understood why Isa liked them.
There would be no more Noche Buena meals with her mother, Isa realized as they lowered her mother’s casket into the open grave. She had been so determined to never spend Christmas Eve with her mother ever again. How was she to know that the things they had left unsaid needed to be spoken after all.
Isa threw the flowers inside the grave. She closed her eyes and whispered a few words, clasping her hands together in a final prayer. There were many others in the cemetery. The soft light of the morning sun bathed them in an ethereal glow, making them translucent. Some of them had their heads bowed, joining the priest in prayer. Some of them whispered words of sympathy in her ear as they floated past her.
When Isa opened her eyes, there was a white butterfly on top of one of the white orchids someone had thrown into her mother’s grave. The butterfly flew up and landed on her hand, lingering there for a few seconds. There was a whisper in the wind, so soft she almost did not hear it. But when she did, she smiled through her tears, filled with warmth that she did feel now, for the first time in a long while.
About the Author: Celestine Trinidad is a physician (particularly, a pathologist) who writes fiction of various genres in her spare time, including speculative fiction, romance, crime, young adult, and children’s short stories. She has been published in various print and online venues such as Philippine Speculative Fiction, Philippines Free Press, Philippines Graphic, and Insignia. She won the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Award for Literature in 2008 for her short story for children “The Storyteller and the Giant”. Her first official published work was in PGS Issue 2 with the story “Beneath the Acacia” back when she was just in her first year in med school.