I am the silent house.
Pass me by on the corner: the intersection where the streets of history converge—Spanish saints and Anglo generals, martyred priests and failed rebellions—and you think: I am dying of neglect.
Look at the gate, the rusted overwrought fleur-de-lis, the spikes and thorns that bloom. Break the lock. Pass through if you can. Walk on the unkept lawn with tangled buffalo grass, makahiya and other-weeds thriving in the quiet corners. Walk up to the doorway sheltered by bougainvillea, its white flowers shining in the grey gloom, their tangled briars crawling over the windows, hiding the imprint of a lost hand.
I remember her. She screamed and screamed. But I—my walls are made for silence. They have been modified, the window glass enchanted to contain sound. There is a forest of hands scattered across my glass, faded by dust and time. There is an imprint of a face.
I see you, you know.
So what if you were to walk through my doors? Pass through the old, creaking hall, the threadbare carpet, the boards with stains of human effluvia? Coaxed by my silence—so different from the cacophony and mayhem of the world outside—would you lull yourself in, convince yourself I was like any other house? Would you ignore the creaking of my floorboards and come in, deeper, deeper, until you made your way into my beating heart?
Do you see it?
Do you see my chrysalis, covered in dust and particles, by spider webs whose weavers were innocent of its malevolence? Can you hear the thing inside, the monster child remaking itself, the cells breaking down and splitting into constellations of chemical reactions, the thing that was a monster now taking form? When it moves, it creaks, and I move with it, lulling it to sleep, my boards creaking in sympathy from foundations to the walls, to the floors above and the roof.
You never heard her. You never heard her weeping.
The girl without a face.
I remember: she tried to pass her hand over where her face should be and found nothing but a blank slate. I remember when her hands failed—they were losing definition and I felt relief. It would not do for her to keep breaking the skin where her mouth and eyes should be.
What would be the point? It would not bring her face back.
I creaked and sang her to sleep and outside, the world only heard silence.
You must understand this was my choice: the chrysalis blooming in my heart. But you scrabbling soundlessly at my walls, my Esme huddling in her bed—this was not my fault. I did not choose to be haunted.
We never have a say in how we are going to be used. A woman might be murdered and bloom a white lady from the trauma of her death. A child might die—and in a country where children are cheap, their births treasured but not their lives, this is very likely—and a hungry little tiyanak will take up permanent residence. The ghost settles in our foundations, and whether we are made of steel and brick or sheets of corrugated metal, they become our beating, broken heart.
We might be bought by a smiling, amiable buyer, who later notes our existence in a secret file and hides us under an assumed name. The facilities they need are already present: water, electricity. Or in my case, merely a roof and four walls.
All someone needed to do is to modify my walls so that sound is contained, just as they now contain you.
Inside my rooms, you are losing yourself slowly, losing definition in your face and hands. You are feeling nauseous, as if your soul is being gnawed at from its edges. You are terrified you might also be losing your memory, that the baby monster inside me is devouring that too. You are not wrong.
You are thinking of the day you decided to walk inside my rooms. You are thinking of clawing your way back, as if that was possible. As if you could conquer space and time and consequence, make your way out of my heart, out of my haunted rooms.
“Did you hear about the house on San Lorenzo street?” your friend Marianna whispered.
You were all huddled around her at your lunchtime table, you and your barkada of five girls. Marianna was wonderful for ghost stories and urban legends. The department store where an attendant pressed a button and a customer would be delivered to a half human monster below. The white lady who haunts the local church and will appear bloodied and hungry in the mirror if you say her name three times. Marianna is the kind of girl who says: I have a sixth sense and ghosts speak to me and everyone believes her. Ours is a haunted country and a haunted past.
“Go on,” you said. “Tell us.”
They call it the Butterfly House, one of a hundred survivors of the old regime, scattered across the monster-tropolis. It is small, modest and ordinary, if abandoned. But no family will buy it: they say butterfly-shaped monsters still emerge from the roof. They say if you look at the windows in the moonlight, you could see the forest of hands, a forest of ghosts trapped inside the house.
You didn’t say a word though the others grew silent. They all knew you, your family’s history. But because they liked you, because you were the unacknowledged queen of your little kingdom, they tried not to bring it up. It’s forgotten. It’s forgotten and forgiven, like a hundred thousand traumas scattered across the bleeding, broken earth.
But Marianna was drawing attention to it. Why? Marianna leaned forward. Her eyes shone angel-innocent.
You calmly took a sip of your diet coke.
You said: “I don’t believe you.”
So you made a bet as young women will. The six of you. You will all call your parents and say: We are going to Eliza’s house. To Marianna’s. To Irene’s. It will take time for them to start to worry and when one mother finally calls another, it will be a labyrinthian undertaking to discover that a miscommunication between mothers and daughters was actually a deception. You will be punished, but the lure of a monstrous house and ghosts, the lure of your barkada’s sisterhood, is stronger than the call to obedience.
I saw you, you know.
I saw you break the lock. I felt your heart pounding quietly as you walked through my gate, past my lawn, up onto my steps and through the bougainvillea, into my halls.
I felt your hunger and the baby monsters inside me stirred.
They are all inside my rooms, nestled together in the gloom. Like children, they clasp each other. They dangle from the ceiling, they curl around the husks of older siblings’ victims, they cluster together under my eaves, on my ceilings.
I wept when they were first fed their victims. The men and women dragged through my floors.
That is what the smiling, amiable men made me. A house where their God could be fed. I wept when the doors behind Its victims shut, when I watched the slow devouring. But now—now I do not know the difference between them and me. They are hungry and I am angry. I have been hungry and angry for so long.
“It’s just an old house,” you said, moving through my floors.
“Of course they used an ordinary house. What would be the point?”
“I didn’t say ordinary. I said old. No one’s been here for years.” An unsaid point for the others: No ghosts. No monsters. Marianna is a liar. But still, you moved through the house, my floorboards creaking with every step you take.
But my creaking failed to frighten you. You failed to hear the warning signs. You grew up in an old house, a house that creaks the way I do, a house of secrets. And because it is familiar, you think you are safe.
But I am not your house and when you press your hand against my walls as if to say: your secrets are mine, I gnashed my insect-teeth. Silk salivates from my jaws.
“Come out,” your hand whispered, daring me softly. “Come. Out.”
Inside my rooms, a baby monster descended. Its limbs writhed eagerly. It screamed a silent scream of hunger and its siblings jerked in their collective sleep.
You put your foot on the stairs, and the others squealed softly behind you.
Upstairs, Esme woke.
She heard your squealing and heard her own silent screams. She wept and put her hands over her eyes.
I hushed her. I tried to be house she remembered, the house she loved even as her memories warped the world around her and she became the girl without a face. Voiceless. Soundless. I said:
Esme, look, do you remember? Do you remember that your bedroom had a canopy bed? Do you remember posters of the handsome young men on your walls, the sleek black records? Do you remember your antique mirror and the flowers in your hair?
Downstairs, I creak and I roar. Stay away from her.
Under your feet, a baby monster slams itself against the aging boards.
My floorboards creaked. They opened up below you. You fell into my heart, into my waiting mouth and all of the baby monsters inside me woke up.
My doors slammed themselves open. Threads of silk lash out to snatch ankle and bone. Your friends are snapped up, one by one into our waiting rooms. My doors slammed shut and for Esme, at least, there was silence.
Downstairs, you stirred back to consciousness, in the dark. You thought you hear your friends screaming but when you opened your eyes—nothing but the silence.
Upstairs, Esme’s ghost blinks, softly. When she opens them again in the silence, I am the house she remembers.
I creak and sing her back to sleep.
I remember when she was born. One storm-lashed October, the month of the rosary. Her father sighed but kissed his wife’s forehead: a girl, but healthy. He said: they could try again soon.
I didn’t care. I will remember her. All my life I will remember her, flailing her tiny limbs as she was cleaned, her limbs disappearing inside swaddling clothes as she was given to her mother to be fed. Esme Louise de los Santos Ong. I remember when she sat at a kitchen table, happily untangling mathematics while her mother peeled salted duck eggs.
And I remember when the family fled in the stark, early days of the Regime. She touched my door to whisper goodbye, to the house where she had been happy and I was left alone.
Then I was purchased by smiling, amiable men. Then they turned me into a house to feed their God.
I think—I think the first time it happened I went mad.
Hollowed, voiceless, I screamed at the men who kept residence for their brutal sacrament. I was not built for this. I was not built for this. But my screams were silent. They joked in my kitchens and drank beer while their charges fed.
So I have to ask you this: did you think you could escape the consequences of your history?
You know the bare bones of your parents’ histories and that is all. You remember your mother glittering in gossamer shawls and pearls, your father in a translucent white barong. You remember: they were feted by their peers. You remember that your mother received grants for her paintings of the Butterfly God and your house is full of Goddess-butterflies in pastels and oils, paintings that you can’t quite look at. They make you feel as if your soul is being gnawed at from its edges. When you passed by them, you held your breath and keep your eyes lowered to the ground. You remember that your father was involved in security of the State.
But when people said your name in class, your last name, there was a silence as profound as breathing. As if they could erase you with your silence. That is when you learned you possessed a history others knew but you did not.
“Your father did his duty, that’s all,” your mother said. “People don’t appreciate that. But they should. They should.” There was a real threat at the time she said. If people were ungrateful for the security the Old Regime offered, if they did not appreciate the importance of sacrifices—well. That was not your family’s fault.
You want to ask: what exactly were his duties? Why are people so angry? Why do people react this way to your name, with turned away glances and cold shoulders? You wanted to counter them. You wanted to fight back. You wanted to say, with impeccable proof: what they had to do then was not my fault and my father worked for the government afterwards, and still does.
But your parents would not give it you, that impeccable proof. And so the silence haunted you. It followed your steps from your beautiful house with blood-fed roses. It followed you down the school hallways like a cat and when your classmates whisper of ghost stories, of haunted houses and the fort, you wonder if the dead could give you answers. It is a question that follows you even now that you’ve clawed your way out of the silence, as time has passed, and people are willing to forgive. It haunts you still. It has haunted you all the way to my gates, inside my halls, and inside my beating, broken heart.
I can imagine how you feel, scrabbling in the dark. Drawing back when a baby monster unattaches itself from its siblings and descends softly, softly towards you, bright and eager.
I understand but you must know what I know: it’s only a child that wants to live, the way Esme wanted to live.
I felt her—I felt her when they finally dragged her through my floors.
She had grown up. She had grown older. She was worn and thin and scared. I felt her crying silently as they threw her into one of the rooms, removing the sack from her head so that she could watch it happen. I felt her huddle against the door they had shut behind her.
Esme. Esme why are you here?
Why did you come back?
She did not recognise me and that is my only blessing: that when she died the house she loved and the house that tortured her were not the same.
She did not know—of course, what was going to happen. She watched as a caterpillar unattached itself from the ceiling, jaws glistening and did not understand when it spat silk at her face. It was days before she understood.
I sang for her. I creaked. I creaked her to sleep. But I could not keep it from her forever. Her vision blurred and she put her hands over her face to find it was smoothing over, turning into a blank slate.
She tried to break the skin. To bring back her mouth and her eyes. She felt the caterpillar graze at her soul from its edges, her memories slipping from her as easily and smoothly as her face with each bite it took.
And she could not—she could not cope with it. Who could?
I felt her smash her forehead against my walls. I felt her skull crack. I felt her blood splatter against my walls and the caterpillar gnashed its mandibles. It could not stop her. I could not stop her.
The Butterfly men came only when she finally slumped onto my floor, the porcelain of her skull in tatters.
The first one who came in was not particularly devout. He clucked his tongue, annoyed at the hungry caterpillar left in the corner of the room. The inconvenience of a bloodied body that they had to remove. He reached down to take her. He put his hands on her and I creaked. I creaked from side to side and the shattered remnants of the ghosts inside me stirred.
The hungry caterpillar turned and saw the Butterfly men. Through its eyes, I saw the men who soiled me, who murdered the child I loved. The force of my rage sent us descending from the shadows, screaming silently with rage and thwarted hunger.
You can imagine what happened then. What is happening to your friends in the rooms above, what is happening to you now.
But Esme, my new ghost, the child of my heart, I drew her in. In her ghost’s eyes, I became the house I had been. I drew her upstairs, to the room that had been hers. Unmade, abandoned for decades, it was still hers, the child’s bed and the toys left on the shelf, the books and the mirror, the posters of handsome young men.
Downstairs, a caterpillar slowly devoured a Butterfly man who lost his face and hands. Upstairs, my floorboards creaked, and I sang her softly, back to sleep.
But now look at you, quiet and still. A blank mannequin without even an approximation of a face. Soon you will be nothing but one of a dozen husks left in my rooms.
The chrysalis hatches.
Inside, inside my heart, look—the silk tears and the new thing spills out onto the floor, the girl with butterfly wings.
Her ghost continues to sleep upstairs. Her butterfly self, the self you fed, the self you made possible, moves cautiously through my darkened walls, both familiar and new. It goes up the steps, to the room where long ago, Esme was born. By instinct, she opens a window and lets in the night air: smoke pollution, carbon, the faintest breath of jasmine and kalacuchi blooms. She spreads out her butterfly wings.
Yes, I remade her. I remade her out of everyone who comes into my silence. If someone must leave me, if someone can leave me, let it be her—let me remake her to live and forget the silence of my history. She does not remember who she was, what she was, what happened to her and I think that that is best. Let the human effluvia and fear stay with me. The butterfly girl leaves my window and slips out into the dark, to a new life. I weep, but my heart goes out with her.
In her room, her ghost moves, dreaming not of torture, but of mathematics and duck eggs.
Downstairs, my monsters curl up around each other to sleep. They leave you falling slowly into ash.