PRW Runner-Up Tour: Family Obligation by Alessa Hinlo
Most people died of three causes: old age, disease, or murder. The first was preferable, of course. The second less so, but it was acceptable under the right set of circumstances.
No one wanted to fall victim to the last. Least of all the poor boys Marissa occasionally dragged bloodied and broken to the crumbling tower beyond the banyan tree. They had their entire lives ahead of them and the prospect of it ending so abruptly sat poorly. They never failed to make their feelings clear.
It took less than a year before Marissa added unconscious to bloodied and broken to make the task easier. She pitied them but she had her own set problems to worry about.
For the women in Marissa’s family, there existed a fourth death. It was their burden to bear, passed down through the generations from mother to daughter.
It turned out murder, no matter how violent or gruesome, wasn’t the worst way to die. At least when you were murdered, you stayed dead. The boys Marissa handpicked should be thankful for that, at least.
By the time Marissa arrived home, the afternoon downpours had ended, leaving the air heavy and damp. Her white blouse stuck to her back from the humidity.
Skirting around a puddle, she entered the house through the kitchen. Jaclyn was sitting at the table. “You’re late.”
“I had a group project.” Marissa wiped the mud from her shoes before bending over to unbuckle them.
“You should have called. Tita Flora was looking for you.”
Not surprising. It’d been four months since Marissa last visited the family tower. The group project had taken up a lot of time. Their permanent guest was likely starving by now. “My phone has no load.” She’d meant to add more money yesterday so she could add least text but hadn’t gotten around to it.
Her older sister sighed. “Make sure you add some to your phone tomorrow. Tita worries when she can’t reach you.”
“I know.” Marissa picked up her shoes and then slipped into the pair of white flip flops waiting for her by the door. “Is she still awake?” Small chance since Tita Flora usually went to bed early but it wasn’t impossible.
Jaclyn shook her head.
“I’ll talk to her over breakfast.” It was guaranteed. She’d have to brace herself for another one of Tita’s hour-long lectures about the Family Obligation. Marissa had heard it so often she was sure she could recite it by heart.
Maybe she could wake up late.
Marissa glanced at the sheets of paper spread across the table in front of her sister. “What are you doing?” She peered more closely. “Are you writing letters?” Jaclyn was the last person she expected to handwrite a letter. Text or email was so much faster.
Red splotches stained her sister’s cheeks. “I’m writing a letter to Carlo.”
Marissa rolled her eyes. “Careful,” she warned. “You’re becoming a stalker.” She couldn’t understand why Jaclyn was hung up over that cheating jerk. Her sister never fixated on one boy. She flitted from one to the next, leaving a trail of broken hearts in her wake.
Jaclyn clutched her pen. “I am not a stalker.” She carefully enunciated each syllable.
“If you say so.” Marissa chose not to comment on the numerous crumpled balls of paper tossed all over the table and the floor. Some had even rolled under the chair. She considered it a wasted effort on Jaclyn’s part. She wasn’t sure Carlo could even read.
It had to happen eventually, though. The universe had a way of keeping things in balance, as Tita Flora liked to say. Marissa had always assumed that was just a weak justification for carrying on the Family Obligation, but apparently it applied to other things.
Break enough hearts and someday your heart will be broken too.
Marissa turned away from her sister’s bent head. It bothered her to see Jaclyn concentrating so intently. She had to realize all that effort to find the perfect word, the perfect phrasing, would be wasted on Carlo, who much rather preferred to spend his afternoons at internet cafés or playing street basketball.
“Tita left the food for you in the refrigerator.” Jaclyn spoke the words so casually, you could almost misunderstand their meaning.
Marissa glanced back. Her sister had begun writing another letter, her blue pen gliding over the surface, looping through whirls and flourishes. She couldn’t even spare her little sister a glance.
What was it like, Marissa wondered, to have never been given the Family Obligation? To not have your nightmares painted with blood, serpentine tongues, and long, long black hair.
She went to her bedroom to drop off her things and change out of her uniform. If their guest was as hungry as Marissa expected her to be, it’d be a good idea to face her in something other than a white button-up blouse and knee-length navy skirt. After pulling on a pair of shorts and tank top with the word “BENCH” written across the front, she returned the kitchen.
Jaclyn was still writing. Marissa didn’t bother to check if it was the same letter as before or if her sister had started a new one. At this point, it didn’t matter. Jaclyn would be up until well after midnight, carefully crafting a letter for a boy who’d fallen out of love with her or who had never been in love with her at all.
She went to open the refrigerator. There, dead-center on the first shelf, lay a package wrapped neatly in plain brown paper. She picked it up and wrinkled her nose as it made a squelching sound. Juggling it in one hand, she left through the door she’d entered and stopped only to pick up the bolo machete left leaning next to the door.
Marissa dipped it into the nearby barrel of water, filled to the brim thanks to that afternoon’s rain. She shook off the excess droplets and then ran the edge through the platter of salt she made a point to leave on the bench outside. Satisfied, she slung the machete over her shoulder and headed to the tower.
It never hurt to be prepared.
It was a familiar story.
Boy meets girl. They fall in love. And it was good.
Then boy meets another girl and proceeds to break the first girl’s heart.
Like all tragic romances, it ended in blood and tears. Copious amounts of blood and tears courtesy of a vengeful woman who cursed an entire family of women.
Some nights Marissa wondered if Lolo Pedro, her great-great-great-great-many-times-great grandfather, ever regretted what he did.
Marissa found the walk to the tower peaceful. She appreciated the time to herself. Between Tita Flora’s incessant demands and Jaclyn’s constant relationship drama, she barely had time to think without the outside world intruding.
The nightly symphony of insects and lizards dropped off into silence as she neared the tower. The surrounding fauna knew its lone occupant was unnatural and wanted nothing to do with her.
Marissa couldn’t blame them.
She reached the foot of the tower and peered up. A faint glow came from the single window. Ate Lucia expected her.
No point disappointing their guest. “I’m coming up!” she shouted.
Something dark and ropy flew out the window. Marissa lunged to the side, watching a thick braid hit the ground. She grimaced and kicked the hair aside.
She never understood why Ate Lucia did that. As if she’d be stupid enough to use Ate Lucia’s hair as a rope. Tucking the brown package into the bolo’s sling, Marissa felt along the wall until her fingers found the hidden hand- and footholds that had formed over the decades by the persistent hands of Montalban women.
Marissa climbed, checking her progress every few feet. She kept careful watch as she neared the window. Tita Flora had set this chore on her at a young age so she knew all of Ate Lucia’s tricks by heart.
Stopping a foot away from the window, she pulled the brown package free and hurled it through. “Enjoy!”
The sound it made when it hit Ate Lucia was surprisingly satisfying. Their guest had been standing next to the window. As Marissa had suspected, Ate Lucia had been waiting to pounce on her the second she touched the windowsill. Marissa counted the seconds, watching the braid Ate Lucia had jokingly thrown down slide upwards.
When its loose ends slipped in through the window, she swung through the opening with ease born of practice.
Marissa landed on light feet. A good thing since she almost came down right on top of Ate Lucia. The woman had simply pulled her braid up into a coiled pile next to her rather than moving further into the room. Marissa skittered back, giving the crouched woman more room.
The brown paper lay in tatters around the Ate Lucia’s bare feet. Blood splattered down her hands and arms as she devoured the liver Marissa had brought.
“Oh, Ate,” she said. “You’re getting your dress dirty.”
Ate Lucia jerked her head up and snarled. Blood smeared her mouth and chin, bits of offal hanging from her abnormally sharp teeth. “More,” she demanded.
Marissa frowned. “That’s almost five pounds there.” More than double what she usually fed Ate Lucia.
“More!” the woman said again. Her black eyes shone in the candlelight. “I’m hungry!” As she spoke the last word, her tongue snaked out and licked the blood from her cheeks and chin. Marissa pretended not to notice how long it was.
“That’s all I have.”
Ate Lucia ate the last of the raw liver and rose to her feet. She licked the blood from her hands, tongue coiling around her fingers to get every last drop. “I should eat you, little girl.”
Marissa raised the salt-edged bolo and pointed it at her neck. “Try it.”
The woman hissed but backed away.
“If you eat me, no one will feed you. You’ll die here.”
And the Family Obligation would end.
After Lolo Pedro broke it off with Ate Lucia, he married the other girl. There was only one problem. Ate Lucia was pregnant.
As boys his age often do, Lolo Pedro denied Ate Lucia’s claims. The child was not his, he said. He never slept with Ate Lucia, he said.
The Montalban family was rich, then and now, so everyone believed him and no one believed her. Poor girls trying to fool us with their beauty, they whispered in disdain.
Ate Lucia’s belly swelled as she carried the baby to term. It was a hard birth, the stories said. Both mother and child died.
That should have been the end of the tale.
Except Ate Lucia came back.
Marissa mixed the runny yolk of her fried egg into her garlic rice. “Ate Lucia’s hungry,” she told Tita Flora when her aunt finally finished her lecture about the Family Obligation.
Tita Flora speared a piece of longganisa with her fork. “That’s why you should have come home earlier. The longer you leave her, the hungrier she gets.”
“I had a project,” she replied absently. Family Obligation or not, she couldn’t ignore her schoolwork. Maybe she couldn’t move to Manila like Jaclyn planned to but that didn’t mean she couldn’t make a life for herself beyond taking care of the undying family guest. “No,” she continued. “She’s still hungry. After I fed her, I mean.”
Her aunt sipped her coffee. “You know what that means.”
Marissa pressed her lips together.
“Eat your breakfast. It’s getting cold.”
She only stared at her aunt.
“Don’t tell me you don’t have prospects.” Tita Flora peered at her over her mug. “You’re a Montalban woman. We prepare.”
Marissa did. She prided herself on it.
Not now, though.
Tita Flora studied her face. “I’ll take Jaclyn shopping later. She needs a few things from SM.”
Marissa stared at her plate, filled with her favorite breakfast. She’d woken up salivating to the smell. Now her appetite was gone.
“Marissa,” her aunt said sharply. “Did you hear me? Finish eating. You have to leave for school soon.”
She did finish eating breakfast. She even left for school on time.
It was the only thing she ate the entire day.
It wasn’t unheard of. Many stories spoke of it throughout the province.
They all told the same story. A beautiful woman gets pregnant and dies alone in childbirth. She comes back with a craving for blood, especially that of the unborn.
Maybe it was a way to get back what she lost. Maybe it was a way to destroy that which killed her. No one knew why, and it didn’t matter. The end result was always the same.
Keep a bolo and a lot of salt nearby.
Lolo Pedro, like many men, considered himself rational and not prone to superstition. He didn’t keep a bolo ready. That was a farmer’s tool, not meant for the hands of a cultured man with education. Salt was used to season food and should not be wasted by scattering it near windows and doors.
As a result, Ate Lucia found Lolo Pedro’s bride, Lola Corazon, the same woman who’d stolen him away.
Marissa met Felix Bautista through that much maligned group project. She’d known who he was, of course, but she tried not to get too friendly with the boys in her class. The first boy she’d ever brought to Ate Lucia had been a good friend. Never again.
But since the group project was finished, she no longer had any reason to talk to him. When you actively avoided boys, your ability to socialize with them withered.
She needed to figure out a way around that. She couldn’t live the rest of her life not speaking to the opposite gender unless she needed to bring one to Ate Lucia.
But fortune smiled on her. Just as she began to panic when school ended and she still hadn’t talked to him, Felix sought her out.
“Marissa,” he said with a smile. “Some of us are going to get some halo-halo. Want to come?”
She looked at his straight, very white teeth. “I’d love to.”
Lola Corazon lost the baby at six months. Lolo Pedro told everyone it was a miscarriage.
Everyone knew it was Ate Lucia. The baranguy was rife with rumors of a long-haired woman who wandered the streets at night. Before Lola Corazon lost the baby, people suspected.
Afterward, people knew.
They took care to lock their doors at night. Children were not allowed to sleep by windows. If their bed was next to one, a parent slept with them, taking the spot by the window while the child slept on the side closest to the door.
The same went for pregnant women, of course.
Lola Corazon lost a lot of blood that night. So much so that she should have died. Maybe she would have come back like Ate Lucia. The history of the Montalban women would have been very different then.
Instead she survived.
She survived and prayed to the Virgin Mary, like proper Filipino women do. Despite what had happened, Lola Corazon wanted children but for herself this time, not her husband. He’d dismissed her fears as nonsense and left her unprotected in her time of need. She stopped trusting men, including any future sons she might have.
She wanted daughters.
Felix walked Marissa home. His friends were nice. She hated that she thought of them in the context of potential sacrifices for Ate Lucia, but there was nothing to be done. She was a practical Montalban girl.
“This is where you live?” he breathed in awe when they arrived at her house.
Marissa ducked her head. The Montalban compound had been in the family for generations. It had decayed and renewed over the centuries, waxing and waning depending on the generation. Marissa thought the house was in a wane cycle but as she tried to see it through Felix’s eyes, she had to admit it still looked impressive.
She led him through the front door. “Are you thirsty?” she asked him. “I think we have calamansi juice.” It was long walk to the tower. It seemed only polite to give him one final drink.
“No, thank you.” Felix followed her into the kitchen.
They both saw the blood at the same time.
It covered the floor. And the kitchen table where Jaclyn had spent hours writing letters the night before. In fact, more surface was covered with blood than not.
Marissa sucked in a breath. “Tita!” she screamed. “Jac!” She dropped her bag on the floor and sped past Felix. She tore up the stairs, her uniform shoes thumping on the wooden steps.
Felix called after her but she couldn’t hear him over the pounding in her ears. She ran into her aunt’s room but it stood empty, the bed immaculate. She found the same thing in Jaclyn’s room. She even checked her own for good measure.
Marissa stumbled down the stairs. She scanned the rooms on the first floor. Nothing in any of them either.
Only the kitchen. Why?
She returned to find Felix had abandoned his bag next to hers. Where had he gone?
She jerked at the sound of her name. Her body moved by instinct, following the voice to its owner. As she rounded the table, she found Felix.
He knelt next to a mangled body. The remnants of a man.
Felix’s expression was tight. “He’s dead.”
Marissa froze as she made out the features of the corpse’s face. Then she darted forward and dropped next to Felix. “Carlo!”
“You know him?”
She nodded. “This is my older sister’s boyfriend.” Ex-boyfriend. Why was Carlo here? How had he ended up like this?
She knew though. A part of her knew. She just silenced it.
“Marissa,” Felix said.
“What?” she snapped.
He remained unperturbed and held out a bloody piece of paper.
She stared at it blankly.
“He was holding it.” Felix averted his eyes, as if embarrassed.
Marissa furrowed her brows and took it from him. “Did you read it?” She didn’t know why she asked. The blush in his cheeks told her the answer. She unfolded the letter, smoothing out the wrinkles. She immediately recognized Jaclyn’s smooth, flowing loops and whirls. She had finished writing Carlo that letter and even more surprisingly, it had worked.
Too bad for him.
But the smile that had begun to curve her lips froze in place as she began to read. Sentence after sentence, the smile diminished until her mouth formed an O of shock.
What had her sister done? It was all here. Jaclyn had told Carlo the entire story of the Montalban women. All of it.
How dare she. This wasn’t even her burden to bear. That “honor” had been given to Marissa. Jaclyn had never been considered for it at all. She had no right to decide the fate of their guest and especially not to recruit someone outside the family to take care of it.
Worst of all, Jaclyn hadn’t trusted Marissa to protect the child growing inside her. That was the worst betrayal of all.
She turned to Felix, who felt her gaze and lifted his head. “Did you read this?”
To his credit, he didn’t flinch. Holding her eyes, he nodded slowly.
Marissa bit back a torrent of fury and threw the letter to the floor. She had no time for him now.
She stormed past him–and Carlo’s dismembered corpse–out the kitchen door. The bolo was in its usual place but the platter had been upended, the salt scattered over the ground.
Smart, but not smart enough.
Carrying the bolo, Marissa walked back into the kitchen. Lolo Pedro hadn’t been wrong. Salt was used to season food, after all.
Lola Corazon could have had Ate Lucia killed. She should have.
But she was a dutiful woman who believed in fulfilling obligations. In her opinion, the Montalban family had wronged Lucia. The woman’s current state was their fault.
A different woman would have felt vengeful. She’d lost a son. She’d nearly died. But while Lola Corazon mourned, she planned. She let her grief fuel her preparations.
That plan became the Montalban Family Obligation.
Marissa ran towards the tower. Somewhere behind her, Felix followed. She didn’t know why. There was no point. Ate Lucia wouldn’t want a boy now. Not when there was an unborn Montalban child growing in her sister’s belly.
Tears stung her eyes. Jaclyn’s late night vigils made sense now. Why hadn’t she seen the signs? Tita Flora had known too! Going to SM for some “shopping” indeed.
They should have told her. They should have trusted her. No wonder Ate Lucia had been so hungry.
On the surface, Lola Corazon’s plan looked like one of mercy. It wasn’t. It was survival.
Ate Lucia would haunt the Montalban women for the rest for her undying life. She would hunt them down, corner them when they were alone, tear the unborn children from their bellies, and then drink the infants’ blood while they watched. Lola Corazon refused to let any of her daughters and her daughters’ daughters share her experience.
Lola Corazon became pregnant with a second child, a daughter like she’d prayed for, two years after she lost the son. As expected, Ate Lucia came for her again.
But this time she’d been prepared with salt and a bolo.
The tower was empty, of course. But Marissa had to check. When she climbed down, Felix was waiting at the bottom.
“Go home,” she told him as she walked back towards the house. She didn’t look at the entrance to the tower. It had been once sealed off with wood and metal, but now it stood open. Carlo was an idiot. Not as bad a guy as she previously thought, but still an idiot.
Felix trailed after her. “You can’t face that… thing alone.”
Marissa whirled on him. “The women in my family have been facing Ate Lucia alone for generations!”
His face was sad. “Maybe that’s the problem.”
“How do you know we’re not crazy?” This wasn’t Lolo Pedro’s time. Rationality trumped superstition now. Undying women who fed on unborn babies belonged to stories meant to frighten girls into keeping their legs together until marriage.
“There’s a corpse in your kitchen.” For someone who’d found said corpse, Felix was remarkably calm. Marissa wondered about that.
“Maybe I come from a family of murderers!” She kind of did, and he should have figured that out since it was all lovingly detailed in Jaclyn’s letter.
Felix fell silent. Then he said, “My mother had a sister who died giving birth. They filled her coffin with salt when they buried her.”
Marissa stopped arguing.
They captured Ate Lucia. They captured her and hauled her to the tower located at the back of the family compound. They locked her on the top floor and blocked off stairs leading down. The only way into the tower was through the single window.
And so Ate Lucia lived there, as the Montalban family’s permanent guest, dependent on the generosity of her “hosts.” Most often they brought her liver and various kinds of animal blood to eat.
Sometimes, when the hunger grew too much, they gave her a pretty boy, all bloodied and bruised so he wouldn’t put up a fight.
This was the life Ate Lucia lived.
This was Lola Corazon’s mercy.
It was nothing of the sort.
Marissa found Ate Lucia in the forests not too far from the compound. The woman couldn’t leave. She wouldn’t leave. Not when the promise of a Montalban baby sang through the air.
Marissa had carried the Family Obligation since she was thirteen, just as her mother had before she’d died of cancer and just as her grandmother had before achy joints and swollen fingers made it impossible to climb the tower. It was what the Montalban women did.
But first and foremost, the Family Obligation was about protecting the women of the family. It was about making sure that their daughters would be born safe. That was the motivation driving it. Survival.
Jaclyn was her sister. Marissa couldn’t think about her daughters or her granddaughters or their daughters. That was reserved for some time in the distinct future. She could only think about the here and now.
So she made her choice.
Felix was the one who pinned Ate Lucia down while Marissa brought the bolo down.
Felix helped her clean up the kitchen. He even helped her remove the remains of Carlo’s cooling corpse.
“Strange day,” he said as he washed the blood from his hands.
Marissa gave a short laugh. “At least we had halo-halo before. Reward before the chore.”
They smiled awkwardly at each other, then looked away.
Marissa wanted to ask him about his aunt. How his family had known to bury her in salt. Why he had remained so calm even after finding a dead man in her kitchen. How he had not flinched from helping her kill an undying woman with long, black hair who liked to eat babies. The questions burned her throat.
She swallowed them down. Not now. Later, though.
Maybe she should try harder to talk to boys once in a while. They weren’t so bad.
He was still there when Tita Flora and Jaclyn came home.