The Hunger Houses

By Raymond G. Falgui

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The food appeared every night, but the squatters knew enough not to eat it.

Their homes were nothing but flattened cardboard boxes leaning against the vine-covered walls of the great houses, but those shacks had housed generation after generation of squatters, and they had learned the ways of the neighbourhood much as their peasant forebears had learned the ways of the forest, field, and mountain. Their ancestors had learned to placate the aswang, the manananggal, the kapre; the descendants had learned to fear the may-ari, the owners of the houses.

Before the Second World War, the neighbourhood had been the playground of Manila’s elite. The great houses were like palaces and like palaces, they all seemed the same – each with its wide balconies, hanging gardens and circular driveways. Now they were also similar in their ruin – the driveways overgrown with weeds, the gardens dead, the balconies empty. The families who lived in the great houses had died off or moved away; there was no one left to live in the great houses. But even decayed and abandoned, they were still not for the squatters.

The squatters first came to the city in great numbers after the war, when the breakdown of the old social order had allowed them to exchange the poverty of the country for the poverty of the city. None remained of the generation which first settled in the neighbourhood, but they had passed on their hard-won lessons to their numerous descendants. And to those who doubted the lessons, who did not believe in the stories, there would always be a new arrival from the provinces or an ambitious squatter to provide an object lesson for the rest. A squatter would climb over the walls of one of the great houses, then open their gates to his kin. He would set his family up in one of the rooms of the great houses.

Nothing would happen for days, weeks, even a month, and the other squatters sweating or shivering in their shanties would look at the darkened house, noting the one room lighted by a kerosene lamp or warmed by a cooking fire.

“The foolish ones are still there,” they would tell their children and each other.

“It is only a matter of time.”

For the may-ari, the owners of the houses, were an impatient lot and would not tolerate such insolence for long.

One night, there would be screams and on that night, the squatters would shut themselves inside their claustrophobic shanties, refusing to look out.

The next night, the great houses would be darkened again, with not even a tiny candle to brighten a single room.

Thus, the squatters learned to build their tenements alongside the walls of the great houses. The tenements grew so numerous that they seemed to be organic, a mold or fungus spreading along the walls.

But the squatters learned to leave the great houses themselves alone.

***

But the may-ari, the owners, were not content to merely protect their property. In life, they had been waited upon hand and foot, and they expected the same treatment to continue in the unlife.

So, they left food outside the gates of the great houses.

No one saw who brought the food; it just appeared.

But the squatters knew if they ate the food, the may-ari, the owners, would own them as well.

“The owners of the houses are too selfish,” the mothers told their children.

“Look at the houses. The owners are long gone, but still they will not let us use them. The owners prefer the houses stay empty than to let us live in them.

“Look at the food, for it is given by the same, by those who give a little and take everything in return.

“If you eat even a little of the food, the owner will take you away and we will never see you again.”

So, every night, the squatters sent their children to beg in the streets – to tap on car windows for change or to chase foreigners stepping out of their hotels. They sent them to beg, for they knew of nothing else to do with their children, but also to save them from the food of the great houses.

But there came a time when a new President of the Republic was elected, a man whose greatest achievement was to be born the son of an old President. Too late, Filipinos learned that rulership is not passed on like the shape of one’s nose or the colour of one’s skin. For the son of the old President brought hard times down upon the country. Then the foreigners no longer came to visit and the car windows did not roll down, for the pockets of the drivers were empty.

And so, the beggar children of the squatters returned to their shanties tired and hungry, dreaming of the food of the great houses.

For one such child, dreaming was no longer enough.

One night, he did not return to his shanty, but stopped outside the gates of one of the great houses, and ate all the food he found there.

Then he laid himself down beside the gate and fell asleep looking at the stars, waiting for the may-ari to get him.

***

When he woke up, he thought he was still looking at the stars.

Then he realized the stars were actually candles, hundreds of them. He was in a room, lying on a bed. There were candles all over the room. He had never seen so many candles before. To have lighted that many candles in his shanty would have invited the walls to go up in flames.

A door opened.

He looked up, and saw Mang Domeng enter the room.

Mang Domeng had lived with his mother, but was not his father. Mang Domeng was the father of his two youngest brothers.

He expected to see Mang Domeng here. A week before, he had seen Mang Domeng take and eat a bit of cake from the same great house that he had chosen. Mang Domeng had eaten the cake, then had lain beside his mother to sleep. In the morning, Mang Domeng was gone.

“It is time to see the may-ari,” Mang Domeng said.

He stood up from the bed, the only soft bed he had ever known, with reluctance.

He followed Mang Domeng down the lighted corridors into the heart of the house. But as he walked, he leaned his head to one side, listening. There was a whispering in the corridors, a whispering that came from the very walls of the great house.

Mang Domeng seemed to hear nothing.

He followed Mang Domeng into a large room, a room big enough to fit all the squatters of the neighborhood and more.

The room was filled with pale men and women, whispering to each other, dancing, laughing, drinking, but not eating.

One of the pale men noticed Mang Domeng’s arrival and left the others.

“I am the may-ari of this house,” the pale man said, looking him over. “You can work on the upper floors, I think, cleaning and dusting.

“Take him away,” the pale man told Mang Domeng, but he broke away from Mang Domeng’s grasp and cheekily walked up to the pale man, who took a step back.

Kakausapin ko ang may-ari ng bahay,” he said. I want to talk to the owner of the house.

The speaking of the vernacular drew mixed reactions from the pale crowd.

Que barbaridad,” said one pale young woman, hiding her mouth with her fan.

“It’s just the squatties,” said a pale fat man. “We can’t expect anything better of them, can we?”

The may-ari turned away, ignoring his request.

But he did not feel as he always did when, tapping at car windows, the drivers looked straight ahead, pretending he was not there. After a while, he started to think he was not there, either.

This time was different. Perhaps it was because he had eaten his fill. Since he knew of the fate of Mang Domeng, who had been taken after eating the smallest bit of food, he had been determined to make the most of his meal. He had finished all the food before the gate – not a scrap or crumb remained. For the first time in his life, his stomach had growled in satisfaction, not in hunger.

And, perhaps, because he was not distracted by the hunger, he could hear the whispers.

And the whispers told him what to say.

Kakausapin ko ang totoong may-ari ng bahay,” he said. I want to talk to the true owner of the house.

The party fell silent.

“You dare?” the may-ari asked, turning back to look at him. The pale men and women looked on with interest. The owner of the house would make the dirty-brown little boy pay for his insolence.

“You think to speak to the masters? Do you know Latin, or Sumerian, or Old Celtic? I studied Ancient Languages at the University of Barcelona, then at the University of Heidelberg.

“It was because of my knowledge of languages that I could read the old books Tito Morel brought with him after fleeing the Civil War in Spain. I read the old books and I saw what had to be done.

“The coward McArthur had abandoned us. The buck-toothed Japanese wanted us to bow to them.”

The pale men and women nodded their heads.

“But that was not the worst of it. The worst of it was the people we ruled over no longer obeyed. Your people no longer knew their place. Their place was to stay bound to the land, working the fields. If they came to the city, it would be at our behest: the men to work as drivers or gardeners, the women to serve as maids for our houses or as whores for the American soldiers.

“But your people came to the city and stayed and bred like rats.”

The pale men and women nodded their heads.

“That was when I called to the Old Ones. I spoke to them using the dead languages. For language has always been our power; we have always spoken the language of those with power, whether Spaniards or Americans or Old Ones. For those with power share their power with us.”

The pale men and women nodded their heads.

“And the Old Ones understood! They heard my pleas! For they were here before the stars. They knew what it was to be usurped, to lose your place in the world.

“We offered them our hate and the offering was accepted.”

The pale men and women nodded their heads.

“We have always fed them well on our hatred,” the pale man said. “What offering can you make?”

But he was not listening to the pale man; he was listening to the whispers, he was taking instruction from the true owners of the great house. He understood that the pale man was wrong, that the languages did not matter, that all that mattered was the need, that both may-ari and squatter possessed such a need and that the squatter’s need was stronger.

Gutom,” he said, answering the whispers, not the pale man. He told them of his need: Hunger.

“Take him away!” the pale man commanded, pointing at him with a long, smooth finger.

He ignored the shaking finger, still listening to the whispers. The Old Ones wanted blood; they wanted blood to seal the pact and he knew where to get it.

Opening his mouth, he bit off the pale man’s long finger.

The pale man screamed and soon, the pale men and women were screaming as well.

But he ignored them, savoring the taste as his teeth cracked finger bones. He had been full, but now he was getting hungry again.

“This is only one dirty-brown little beggar boy!” the pale man shouted, trying to rally the others. One hand gripped the ruined one, trying to staunch the flow of blood.

“Our hate is still greater than his hunger!” the pale man shouted.

But he turned to Mang Domeng, who no longer looked at the pale man to tell him what to do.

Buksan mo ang pintuan,” he said. Open the doors.

Nagugutom ang mga tao.

The people are hungry.

Papasukin mo sila.

Let them in.

THE END

Raymond G. Falgui teaches English Literature at the University of the Philippines. His short stories have appeared in the Philippines Free Press and Philippine Graphic magazines, as well as the Philippine Speculative Fiction and Digest of Philippine Genre Stories anthologies. He is also a self-proclaimed Luddite who last owned a cell phone some time in 2004.

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