aswang (Tagalog): evil shape-shifters that appear as humans in the day but prey on
human flesh at night
anak (Tagalog): Son/daughter. May be used as a term of endearment towards a child.
yaya (Philippine English): A woman employed by a family to take care of a child.
In a gated suburban estate of Metro Manila, there lived seven-year-old Anak, who loved listening to stories about the monsters of Philippine folklore. Anak was particularly fond of the stories from Yaya, his live-in caregiver who told him about the monsters of her province. As part of his bedtime routine, Anak would often climb down from his sprawling toy-furnished bed onto Yaya’s thin fold-out floor mattress and have her retell him stories of the aswang, an ugly witch that deceives its unsuspecting victims by changing its physical appearance.
One day after school, Anak noticed a seemingly exhausted Yaya cleaning Mama's library and decided to check on her. Moved by his consideration, Yaya let Anak keep her company and allowed him to play with the walis, stick broom, to make him feel like he was helping. But in the middle of Yaya's harsh floor-scrubbing and Anak's faux sweeping, the library door forcefully swung open. It was Mama, and she was furious. With a paralyzing glare directed at Yaya, Mama screamed "What is my son holding!? Filthy work should never be done by my family. I've told you this before!" Yaya apologetically accepted the false accusation, knowing that a rebuttal would not help her case. Yaya escorted Anak to his room, and resumed cleaning on her own.
Sick of her never-ending work days, Yaya decided she had enough of Mama. Later that night, Yaya entered Anak's room with a premeditated plan. She told him:
Perhaps Yaya's appearance made this believable. Over the past few days, Yaya had displayed worsening symptoms of illness. The recent departure of the other househelp placed the additional burden of cooking and cleaning on Yaya, who was supposedly only employed to take care of Anak. Mama apathetically insisted that Yaya should do all the house chores in addition to her current responsibilities.
Cleaning Mama's entire estate was too tall a task for frail Yaya, who appeared more ghastly day by day, but was not paid any more than before. With dry greying skin, glassy red eyes, sunken cheeks, and a discolored tongue, Yaya decided she had to leave soon. Yaya was going to look for another employer, but not before she told Anak a few more stories.
"But Yaya that can't be! What should we do?" responded Anak. Yaya had an answer.
"Anak, first we must pray. We should use your Mama's bible in her library. Do you think you could get it for me?"
"Maybe she'll see me." replied Anak, who feared his mother's scolding.
"Don't worry, Anak. You can get it after school tomorrow before Mama comes home."
After getting past his initial apprehension, Anak agreed to complete the task. He believed he could save Yaya.
After school the following day, Anak hurriedly searched Mama's bookshelves as Yaya cleaned the house. Anak looked through the shelves with the "old and untouched books" as advised by Yaya, and among other books with yellowing pages, he found a black hardcopy of the New American Bible. Anak showed Yaya the book when they met later that night.
Cooped up under Yaya's makeshift blanket, Yaya enthusiastically read Anak her favorite story, The Temptation of Christ. While detailing Jesus's trials in the dessert, Yaya was stopped by Anak's remark.
"The devil isn't even as scary as the other monsters you tell me about, Yaya!"
Yaya smirked. "Okay, we can read about monsters tomorrow night. There's also aswang stories in Mama's library. Maybe it talks about curing the aswang sickness. Do you think you can get it for me tomorrow before Mama comes home?"
Anak's eyes beamed. He had noticed Yaya's wrinkles deepening by the day and wanted to cure her illness. Yaya told Anak where to look for the book, and he nodded in excitement.
"Tomorrow na lang" Yaya said. It's getting late; let's worry about it tomorrow. Yaya turned the page from the unfinished temptation story to recite The Guardian Angel Prayer, and then the two went to bed.
The following day was much like the previous one. While Yaya washed the family's clothes, Anak scoured the library for the collection of stories upon arriving home from school. Yaya told him that in the far corner of Mama's library, there was a shelf of Tagalog titles where he could find the book. While digging through the bottom shelf, he found an eerie cover that read "A Collection of Bizarre Philippine Ghost Stories" and other words he didn't recognize. He took the book and looked forward to showing it to Yaya later that night.
Upon eagerly opening the book next to Yaya, Anak was caught off guard. Disappointed, he asked "Yaya, why is it all in Tagalog?"
With a coy smile, Yaya responded, "But I teach you how to read and speak in Tagalog, right?" Anak agreed apprehensively, as he still wasn't confident using his native language. Yaya had to explain that most stories originated from rural areas, and that readers usually knew the mother tongue.
"Kaya yan," said Yaya. You can do it, "one word at a time." They turned the pages to the first short story, and Yaya guided Anak in reading the text, hiding her difficulty translating Tagalog words into English. Not long after, Anak was immersed in his first real Philippine horror story, and so exceedingly so that Yaya had to stop him to go to bed.
"But Yaya, we only got to page 4!" he rebutted. Yaya convinced him to go to sleep but explained that she could help him read every night until they finished the story. While she hadn't planned to do so, Yaya braved through a never-ending list of chores and suffered from worsening symptoms for a week until they concluded the first short story.
While tucking him into bed the night they finished the story, Yaya realized she was not quite ready to leave Anak. The thought pained her, but her sickness and weight loss turned her appearance even more aswang-like. For her own sake, she had to ask him to search for the final book.
"Proud na proud ako sa'yo, Anak." I'm so proud of you. "But we didn't learn anything about curing the aswang in our books, and my sickness is getting worse. Our last hope is a magical pearl necklace that can make me normal again. I think we can find one in Mama's newest shopping catalog. Do you think you can get this book for me tomorrow?"
"Of course!" said Anak. Mama always surprised Anak with toys and video games from The Catalogs. Yaya then suddenly gave him a hug.
"Anak, always be good ha! Good night."
Confused as to why Yaya was tearing up, Anak reassured her: "Don't worry, I'm going to make sure you don't turn into an aswang", and then he closed his eyes.
The following day, Anak immediately searched for Mama's Catalog. The shopping catalogs arrived biweekly, and fortuitously, a new one had come in that day. Unlike the other books that Anak ravaged shelves for, The Catalog was conveniently placed on Mama's library desk, where Anak immediately found it. In his carefree excitement, Anak removed The Catalog from its plastic wrap and took the book to his room.
Later that day, Mama got home from work. Not long after, Mama entered Anak's door and said "Where's my Catalog? I saw its plastic wrap in my room, but The Catalog wasn't there."
"I need it to buy Yaya's necklace, Mama. I don't want her to turn into an aswang." Mama's mouth dropped; she snatched The Catalog from Anak and began to scold him. As soon as she heard this, Yaya rushed into Anak's room to stop Mama. This was Yaya's chance to execute her plan: to take the fall and leave Mama's estate.
"Stop! Stop!" called Yaya, who then knelt in front of Mama. "Ako na lang po". Punish me instead.
Mama grabbed Yaya by her shoulders and screamed "I can't believe you! You're corrupting my son! Come with me!", as she proceeded to drag Yaya out of Anak's room. Right as she exited the door, Mama briefly turned her attention to Anak, who was now crying. "Don't leave your room!" said Mama, as she slammed the door shut.
Yaya was taken to the kitchen, where Mama brought out a sack of rice. Mama kicked the sack to the ground such that a bed of grains formed on the marble floor. "Kneel," she commanded. Yaya reluctantly obliged. As moments passed and the grains sank into the thin layer of flesh on Yaya's bony knees, the pain became intolerable. Yaya's hands reached for the floor to relieve the pain. "No, hands to your side!" Mama reprimanded, "this is what you get for teaching my son to be like your people!"
All the while, Anak nervously waited in his room. He worried for Yaya, and once he heard Mama's howling, he was overcome by a rush of emotions. Why is Mama doing this? What has Yaya done that is so bad? Is Yaya going to be ok? In his fit of confusion and anxiety, all he could do was let out a cathartic cry, and the house went silent.
Mama went back to her room, and while she had the chance, Yaya sneaked into Anak's room. Yaya was fired. "I'm sorry Anak. I must go now." Yaya gave Anak one last hug, kissed him on the forehead and said "Don't forget me ha. If you do, your old yaya might become an aswang!"
Still shaken up from the events of the past hour, Anak could only nod. They shared their last goodbyes, and Anak promised to continue reading the two books he had obtained for her.
As Anak looked at Yaya one last time, he noticed the blood on her swollen knees, but couldn't bring himself to ask about her wounds. Anak wondered, who were the real aswangs? And where were they hiding?
With tears rolling down his face, Anak watched his old yaya exit their estate to find the next family to work for; from her room, Mama called an agency to hire a new yaya for her son.
I would like to recognize Alex Tizon's My Family's Slave as an inspiration for this story. I thank Tizon for sharing his story and helping me realize that yayas around the world are worth writing about and much, much more.