Recently, I turned forty. By society’s standards, I’ve failed in many ways. I am not married. I have no children. I very suspiciously live alone, with a large black dog. I write and speak my mind and work for a labor union that represents workers in low wage industries. I’ve been known to yell at strange men. And who knows what I do at night? What happens in my bed? I lay down with women. I read. I drink. I eat. I get fat. I run. I sweat. I work. I shrink. I have good manners. I’m prompt. I’m motivated and encouraged by the satisfaction and affection of others. In a way, I could be deemed a shape shifter. No one can really put a finger on me. My appearance is radically altered by clothing and hairstyles.
Years ago, on the herkind site, in a conversation with Roxane Gay I was asked if I thought the idea or physical reality of space was different for women than for men.
At the time, I said I felt women’s relationship to space was that of prey. Thinking of my fortieth birthday, I wonder what it is that makes me a hunted thing. What threatening skill or knowledge do I possess? It certainly isn’t money. At times I may have a relative amount of power, this is measured mostly in…freedom. This is the mighty shiny thing that makes them come for us women…freedom. If power and freedom is what makes me a hunted thing, I say bring it. This is a year to embrace opinions and recklessness, and if I’m threatening to some men then I must be doing something right. This is why I’m calling it my aswang year.
The summer of 1567, Spanish missionaries descended upon the island of Panay. Then began the hiss and screech of fighting and praying and the muffled screams of women in bushes. Men pushing their weight on them. Saving them they said. Over and over again. Until Hail Mary became the call of rape. “Hail Mary Full of Grace.” It was a cry for help and then a mantra and then a chant to transport you somewhere else.
And it was during this period that there were lots of upheavals. Smoke and too much hot sun. People that were all terribly dry-tongued; and hunger and death and all the usual diseases brought over by ship to the small island. The upheavals were mostly led by women and the colonizers warned the villagers not to follow these women. Especially those who attack at night with no modern weapons. The Spaniards were sophisticated with their bayonets and these women were simply savages with pointed sticks and likely pointed teeth to bite you with and they must be evil. They were aswang.
When the colonizers came to the island, they discovered women played the role of shaman priestesses, mediums, and healers. They participated in rituals and ceremonies and officiated in giving offerings of food and drink to the ancestors and nature spirits. As mediums, they could interpret people’s dreams and signs in nature and predict the future. In short—women had the power. In an effort to disempower them, the colonizers labeled these women aswang.
According to them, aswang is a shapeshifter. During the day she is a beautiful woman but at night she is a wolf, or in some regions she is a large dog, or a large pig. In some places she can fly and she sits on roofs. In other parts of the Philippines, she is named after the noise she makes, tik tik or wak wak. Some people believe she does not need anything in particular to continue to live, some people think she feeds on human flesh or fetuses. Most believe she ingests a small black bird when she becomes aswang and if she somehow spits up this bird she can return to normal.
72-year-old Guillerma Dasic was walking home to her resting hut in Tigbuan town on a Saturday night. She was on a desolate street when suddenly approached by a 16-year-old boy. The boy had just finished stealing from a local liquor store. The boy was skinny, with wet, dark hair and smelled faintly of alcohol.
Although he was drinking with his friends, he says he only had two bottles of beer. He was not drunk. He says he can drink ten bottles of beer and still not be drunk. He had only gone to school up until the fourth grade.
He wore a thin T-shirt and shorts and because he had just robbed the liquor store he had a whole pack of cigarettes on him. Instead of the sweet weathered face of a 72-year-old woman, the smooth freckled skin, the freshly curled hair, her bight tan eyes, the teenager said he saw a big dog. A big dog that was coming after him and would attack him. He grabbed his knife and stabbed her.
He said he had learned of tales from other villagers that supernatural beings, like an aswang, would attack someone in that area so he always carried a knife with him.
“I was negotiating my way through the riverbank when a big dog with its ears raised suddenly appeared. I told myself this was an aswang so I pulled out my knife.”
Guillerma screamed for helped. A young couple passing by heard her cries and came to her aide. She was rushed by jeepney to a hospital. She was able to identify the boy but was declared dead upon reaching the hospital. This happened in 2002. November 2002. These types of murders still happen today. Most of these killings are accounted for on a website known as the aswang project. But it’s likely there have been many other deaths before and since not captured here. This is just a partial list. There is not always medical care for these murders. There are not always graves for these victims. This is what I know.
Generoso Casupong, 65, and his wife Isabelita, 64, were both decapitated inside their home in Barangay Bulata. The suspects were three men armed with a large curved knife used to harvest coconut. One of them was certain that Isabelita was aswang.
He suspected this because his daughter had spent some time in and around their hut. Suddenly, his daughter became sick with an unidentified illness. He knew there was only one thing to do to keep Isabelita from infecting others.
He snuck into her hut when she was sleeping, cut off Isabelita’s head, then dipped it in lime juice to prevent it from reattaching to her body. To further confuse her head from attaching to her body, he threw it in the hearth.
Another suspect took the same knife used to kill Isabelita and cut off Generoso’s head.
“He was shouting for help and I was in a hurry to kill him because I know aswang are strong and I was afraid he might overpower me,” he said. This was in July 2003.
Two years later Norma Matabang, 58, was rumored to be aswang. She lived alone. She had long shiny black hair. She was beautiful and approachable during the day but no one knew exactly what she did at night. Then on the night of November 1, All Saints’ Day, Norma was home slicing some vegetables for supper when an attacker came up behind her and hacked her in the neck. She was killed instantly.
In June of 2009, a man stormed into the house of 44-year-old Carlita Peralta. She was tough—robustly built—and had some limited contact with the father-in-law of her intruder. Living alone was sometimes lonely. She lived on the farm where she worked, but spent most nights by herself. Her intruder said his father-in–law had contracted some obscure disease, convulsing in pain.
“Kulam! You put a kulam!” he accused. He seemed nervous and slightly unsure of this hex he was accusing her of.
Carlita raised her hands up. She was about to speak say something in her defense.
But her attacker stabbed her with a knife.
“You you put a kulam on my father in law.”
He continued to stab her, and then he shot her four times. Each bullet a shock. This is it. I’m dying, she thought. Alone, she thought.
Meanwhile, next door a young boy of 19 slit Judith Buenaflor’s throat. He said that she was removing him as caretaker of the farm and replacing him with her own husband. This was a decision she had to make but was ashamed to make. There was not enough money to pay the caretaker and feed her family.
The next day in a different province, Lily Santillan’s grandson discovered her naked body on the kitchen floor of her nipa hut. Her body bore multiple hack and stab wounds and showed signs of molestation. Dried semen, torn labia, bloodied anus. Lily was 70-years-old, she had one blind eye and was living alone. It was her makeshift nipa hut, her isolation, her cloudy eye and her quiet ways that made people suspect she was aswang. Her murderer stated that he had mistaken her for a witch, but denied having molested her.
Midway through 2010, the stabbed bodies of Florentina Secretario, 63, and her husband, Inocencio Secretario, 72, were discovered in their home.
They were grandparents. Florentina wore a thin mumu and Inocencio wore a two piece pajama outfit. They were stabbed in their chests with a fan knife. The suspect stated that his mother, who had limited contact with Florentina, had abruptly begun suffering from a mysterious illness. He was certain this illness was brought on by an aswang that lived nearby. He snuck into her house and stabbed them both while they slept.
In November of 2011, Alfredo Magsipoc was talking in his sleep. His family heard grunting and then pounding noises. His nieces and nephews walked quietly to the room he slept in. Alfredo, asleep naked on a bamboo mat, was rolling back and forth stabbing himself in the abdomen, dark blood on his hands and chest. He was rushed to the hospital with four stab wounds in his abdomen. Alfredo told hospital staff that he was stabbing an aswang, who tried to attack him in his dream.
Two years later, in San Enrique Ilooilo City, a 17-year-old mute girl went outside her house to use the restroom. It was 9 p.m. Her father, reading the Inquirer in the living room, never saw her leave. In the paper, there were many reports of a nearby aswang. He heard some rustling outside, then saw a small silhouette appear at the door. He grabbed a knife and hacked away at her body several times before realizing she was his daughter. Her garbled cries startled him. They were a familiar sound, the sound of a mute. He states he was neither drunk when the incident happened, nor does he suffer from mental illness.
In April 2014, the hacked up body of Helaria Montepon was discovered by police in the village of Josefina. She was a 79-year-old widow who was going to visit her grandson who suffered from mental illness.
Her arm was severed and organs cut out of her. The suspects were her 49-year-old daughter-in-law and her two grandsons, 28 and 23 respectively. They suspected her to be an aswang and wanted to stop her from regenerating.
Most recently, in May 2015, 16-year-old Nannette Sandigan snuck out to a village dance party. She was sure that her parents would not allow her to go. She was becoming very pretty. Her skin lighter than her two siblings, her hair thick and wavy. She was growing a bust and interested in getting attention from nearby men.
She returned from the dance at 1 a.m. She tried to climb back into her room by way of the roof. Her father down below asleep, heard the creaking. He, like many residents of Tantangan, was told of recent aswang attacks. He shuffled up from his bed, grabbed his .45 cal. pistol. He walked tip-toe toward the creaking on the roof. Outside his house he saw her, the manaangal, an aswang that flies and sits on the roof waiting to suck the fetuses from women. She had thick wavy hair and full breasts and she was wearing a pretty, thin dress made of burgundy fabric. He shot at her. As she tumbled onto the ground, he recognized his daughter. The necklace he gave her for her sixteenth birthday lay on the ground beside her right cheek. Nanette died shortly after at a hospital in Koronadal City.
The final night I spent with my birth mother before I was put into foster care, my mother placed me in her closet. There was no lock. This was more a cruelty of the mind. Her abuse and punishment always required my compliance. This is further complicated because I am (and was at the time) taller than her. Probably stronger than her. But I’m hardwired to always do as I’m told.
At the center of my book is the story of Olivia, a young girl who was given up for adoption but whose birthmother fought and regained custody of her. Her birthmother and new husband kept her in a closet. The rest of the family lived their lives normally. The girl in the closet had nothing to eat, sometimes one of her siblings would sneak her a tub of butter, and she began eating the carpet. Her birth mother’s new husband would sometimes rape her, sodomize her. Her mother would take her out of the closet and hold her head under water. Or have her watch as everyone ate dinner, teasing her with French fries. She was the scapegoat of the family. Everything that had gone wrong for the parents, for the mother, she took it out on this girl in the closet. This is based on a true story.
So it’s important that my protagonist’s goal is to reunite Olivia with her foster mother, the only person who has shown her safety and love.
I think the question I am trying to answer in my novel is what happens to people when they are unloved? My antagonist is included in this speculation. This is true for my narrator. I feel like my whole pursuit of youth in foster care is really my pursuit of the answer to this question. There are two strands of mercy and they are this: gaining freedom by way of reuniting with her foster mother and the other, maybe more likely event, where our protagonist is murdered. In doing so, she becomes aswang. The ultimate symbol of power. She is our narrator, she is omniscient. All in all, it’s hard to parse out what in the book is violence and what is mercy. It seems we are at the intersections where they meet, where they blend into confusion. Today we are in a land where there are no right answers.
I’ll end on this quote from this recent essay by Rebecca Solnit, “It was the most devastating discovery of my life that I had no real right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness out of doors, that the world was full of strangers who seemed to hate me and wished to harm me for no reason other than my gender, that sex so readily became violence, and that hardly anyone else considered it a public issue rather than a private problem.”
It seems to be aswang is to be both a powerful and a hunted thing. Women, children, young and old all reaped of this necessary freedom. Why does it require so much bravery to pursue freedom? What is this need for man to take the most powerful parts of me and turn them into a wound? To be aswang is to say I see you, I know you are there, I hear you, and I give zero fucks.
MELISSA CHADBURN has written for Guernica, Buzzfeed, Poets & Writers, Salon, The Rumpus, American Public Media’s Marketplace, Al Jazeera America and dozens other places. Her essay, “The Throwaways,” received notable mention in Best American Essays and Best American Nonrequired Reading. Her first novel, A Tiny Upward Shove, is forthcoming with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.