A tiyanak! That’s what got that poor girl.
Even the silent mouthing of the name “tiyanak” gave Julia goosebumps. She was staying with her grandmother, Lola Mina, for summer vacation. Lola Mina’s cook, Inday, was convinced this malevolent creature had attacked the girl whose body had been found in the forest, the ground beneath soaked in blood.
Don’t tell your Lola Mina I told you, Inday wagged her forefinger at Julia.
But there were other whisperings in the barrio, that the girl had been pregnant, that she didn’t want to be pregnant and tried to do something about it.
Do what? But Inday shushed her, that part was not for an eight-year-old child’s ears.
What needs doing—and you better listen little one—is to find someone who would do right by you. Then there wouldn’t be any of this business of doing-something-about-it, Inday muttered as she chopped the cabbage head in two.
Amniocentesis—a word she could barely pronounce, much less spell. Chromosomal abnormalities would’ve rolled out easily but Julia couldn’t bring herself to say them out loud. The doctor looks grim in his delivery of the possible outcomes. Likely, she will not carry the baby to term.
“Like nature cleaning up after itself,” he says.
Or she could, but he’s unable to tell them the severity of the birth defect, or the life expectancy of the child.
“Did I do something wrong? Eat something I shouldn’t have?” she asks.
The doctor shakes his head. Philip, sitting beside her, motions for her to be quiet with a hand gesture. She waits to feel his hand land on hers or on her knee, to connect with any part of her body. But his gaze is focused on the doctor.
“And a third option, perhaps…?” Philip trails off.
The doctor sighs. “Here? Impossible.”
But off the record: from Manila, it’s a short flight to Singapore or Taiwan to have the procedure. He can make some calls for them. Over there, they are no-nonsense, efficient.
Her finger traces the trail of a droplet of rain on their apartment window. Philip gets up from his desk and sits beside her on the couch.
“Julia, the appointment’s been confirmed. I’ve booked our tickets.”
She doesn’t answer.
“I’m just glad we haven’t told a lot of people. I told you, it’s always smarter to wait. And for those who know, we can just tell them you lost the baby,” he rambles through her silence.
“Philip, what if…what if the results are wrong? Tests can be wrong.” Her voice breaks. She wants to tell him, it’s going to be a boy, our beautiful baby boy.
He takes both her hands. “Julia, honey, listen. We need to be realistic about what we can handle. We need to think of this as an act of mercy.” She wriggles her hands free.
He moves to kneel in front of her. “Please, Julia. I don’t want you to ever think I’m blaming you for this. I’m not. But think of us.”
He lays his head on her lap, pulls at her hand and presses it over his cheek. “This will pass. Trust me, everything will turn out fine. Then, we’ll try again.”
She winces, but he doesn’t see. He turns his head slightly and plants a kiss on the palm of her hand.
What does she remember? Bright white lights from being wheeled through corridors, cold metal against her skin, a series of unremarkable faces peering at her. World-class efficiency. They had offered to keep her awake throughout the procedure. Philip requested that she be sedated. She supposed that was better.
They asked if she could stay an extra day or two to schedule post-procedure counseling. Philip told them that wouldn’t be necessary.
They don’t talk about it. She doesn’t bring it up; Philip’s mood is visibly lighter. She goes right back to work. Close friends fuss over her, reassuring her that miscarriages are much more common than people think. She tells them she doesn’t want to talk about it. They seem relieved.
In the shower, she sees her breasts start to leak milk. She takes the unused breast pump from its packaging and tries it on one breast, then on the other, copying what she had seen some friends do. She’s able to collect a little milk, which she stores in the freezer. She doesn’t mention it to Philip. A week later, the milk stops coming. She curls up in the bathroom, stuffs a washcloth in her mouth, and cries.
But what’s a tiyanak, Inday?
Ay, your Lola will skin me alive if I tell you!
But Inday loved a good audience: A tiyanak is a baby who didn’t get the chance to be born. Ripped out from its mother’s womb. Thrown away without a whispered prayer nor a drop of holy water to bless it. So tiyanaks are barred from heaven, doomed to roam the earth for eternity. Filled with hate, they draw people into the forest by mimicking a baby crying. They can change the form, look like a real baby. When they have their prey close, they transform back into the unholy creatures that they are—hideous, with sharp blackened teeth, bloodshot eyes, claws for hands, and feet. I don’t know of anyone who has survived such an encounter. That’s why you won’t ever, ever get me to walk in the forest at night!
Footsteps. She starts to hear tiny footsteps scurrying across the floor, pitter-pattering, but only when Philip is not at home. She would feel the hairs on the back of her neck rise. Whenever she would turn or peer in the hallway, she would see nothing. Once a door creaked. She looked at Philip. He told her it was just the wind and continued reading on his tablet.
At the office, strange things start happening too. She would be sitting at her desk, and underneath, she would feel something small, moist brush past her leg. There’s never anything when she looks down.
One day, she’s in one of the bathroom stalls in the office. Suddenly the lights flicker. When she glances underneath the door, she sees a shadow stop in front of her. She holds her breath. But the presence disappears just as suddenly when she hears someone else enter the bathroom.
She stirs when she feels his hand underneath her nightgown sliding up her thighs to reach between her legs. She pushes his hand away but he’s insistent.
“Come on, Julia, it’s been over a month.”
“Philip, let me sleep. I need more time.”
“I know you want it too. We can make another baby.”
She slaps him. “I don’t want another baby! I only want him.”
He becomes angry and climbs on top of her, weighing her down. She struggles against him but he’s too strong. He pulls and tugs at her clothes, puts a hand over her mouth, then turns her over. She squeezes her eyes shut and bites on the pillow as the pain comes with his every thrust. A tear escapes as she hears him grunting behind her. When she opens her eyes, she sees a small shadow moving in the dark. She blinks, it’s gone. Philip is gasping.
“I love you so much, Julia.”
He collapses beside her, holds her close, and kisses her on the neck. He pulls the sheets over them and falls asleep. She turns away from him and looks out to the dark, watching for any movement.
The next day, in the evening, she thinks she hears Philip’s voice.
“Julia! What are you doing here in the dark?”
She rouses herself and realizes she’s been sitting in the living room for some time.
The office sent her home early. Why? They had found her screaming in the bathroom. They asked her to take some time off. They said she came back too soon after the miscarriage.
“But what happened?” Philip asks.
“I don’t remember. I just wanted to sit here for a bit and rest…then lost track of time. So tired. I didn’t sleep well last night.”
He turns away to put his computer bag on a chair.
“Who were you talking to? I heard you talking when I arrived.”
“Nobody. I wasn’t talking, Philip.”
He tells her maybe a short vacation would be good. What about the beach for a few days? Margaritas and sunsets, what about that?
But she’s already decided where to go. “I want to visit my grandmother.”
The drive takes three hours through winding mountainous roads to reach Lola Mina’s place. He stays with her for a couple of days. She tells him she wants to spend another week more with her grandmother.
“I miss you already.” He plants a kiss on her forehead.
Lola Mina steps beside her and puts an arm around her waist as they watch Philip’s car disappear around the bend.
“Is he good to you?” Lola Mina asks.
She shrugs. “One could always do worse.”
But she manages a small smile to reassure her grandmother. A cold breeze sweeps past them. Lola Mina says she smells the rain coming.
Julia wakes up in the middle of the night with the sudden crack of thunder. Streaks of lightning momentarily illuminate the room. Through the rain, she hears it, a distinct but faint sound of a baby crying. She tries to switch the lights on, but nothing happens. Getting up from the bed, she gropes her way out of the bedroom. She makes her way down the stairs, one hand gripping the railing, the other in front of her. The crying is unmistakable and seems to come from outside. She goes out the back door. With the rains beating down on her, she’s instantly soaked through but hardly notices. The rains are blinding but she finds her way from memory to the forest behind the house. The sound must come from there. She looks around, straining to hear. The soft earth clings to her bare feet, but she tries to hurry and stumbles over protruding roots. The crying stops altogether when she reaches a clearing. She stops, sensing there’s something else with her. Slowly, she sits back against a tree.
“I’m here. I heard you,” she calls out, “I-I want to see you.”
But that thing—no, he— must smell her fear. He must be very close. She imagines his small body taut, his eyes watchful. She has to part her legs for him, yes, that’s what she needs to do. The rains stop. She shivers, uneasy in the sudden quiet around her. Then she hears movement and the sound of labored breathing coming at her. She draws her own breath in sharply as she feels something ripping into her legs. She screams into the darkness.
Julia wakes up in the hospital. Lola Mina and Philip float in and out of her consciousness. They are very tender, but they avoid looking her in the eye. Once, she thought she heard Lola Mina whispering to Philip, But, Diyos mio, why would she scratch her legs so viciously?
Whenever she’s alone, Julia peers under the covers and traces the entire length of the wounds on her legs that reach all the way to her inner thighs. That makes her smile.
Lola Mina was combing Julia’s hair before bed.
“Lola, do you think the tiyanak was the baby of that girl who died in the forest?”
“What nonsense has Inday been telling you?”
“But Lola, maybe it didn’t mean to kill her,” Julia insisted, “maybe it was only trying to claw its way back into her tummy. Maybe it was trying to get born?”
“Julia! That’s just all make-believe to try to scare children. I’ll have a talk with Inday tomorrow.”
Lola Mina held her close. “There is no such thing as a tiyanak, I promise you. Come, child, time to sleep.”
Charisse J. Tubianosa was born in Manila, Philippines. Some time ago, she started an MA in creative writing at the University of the Philippines but ended up getting degrees in economics instead. Some of her professors told her there’s probably no difference between the two. She has decided to write in both fields to see for herself. She currently resides in Barcelona, Spain.