By EDILBERTO K. TIEMPO
When he found his seat he was pleasantly surprised that it was in the midsection of the plane with the “Exit” sign on the wall to his left; more leg space here than in any other section except on the first row, next to the pilot house. His was the B seat which gave him elbow room as well as convenience should he find it necessary to go to the comfort rooms at the rear end. He had always wondered at the plane’s seat arrangement: the aisle separated the passengers on the A and B seats from those on the C, D, and E. Wasn’t the passenger weight on the right side heavier than on the left?
Beside him on Seat A was a lanky foreigner whose coat, gray worsted, seemed too loose for him; he was the only one wearing a coat and tie. He couldn’t be an American tourist who was generally informal, so informal he and his fellow Americans walk in the streets of his town in shorts and rubber sandals.
“Is this your first trip to Dumaguete?”
“Yes. Are you from there?”
“I understand Dumaguete is a university town.”
“It is. Two universities and three colleges.” He felt like a PR of the Chamber of Commerce.
“It must be a big town then.”
“It’s not a big town. A population of only 60,000.”
His continental English had a pronounced British accent.
“I teach in the older school there, founded by American missionaries.”
“Then you must know Dr. Leodegario Montesclaros.” He pronounced the name slowly and overcarefully.
“He’s the dean of the Divinity School.”
“I met Dr. Montesclaros at a conference in Amsterdam last year. I have a copy of his book, A History of Christianity in Southeast Asia. He interests me—he has a graduate degree in theology at Boston University, but his doctoral degree is in history. From the University of Edinburg. He seems more of a historian than a theologian. One reason I’m seeing him.”
He pulled out a wallet, extracted a calling card from one of its pockets and gave it to Ariston.
Klaus Peter Lembke, D. Theol.
Beethovenstrasse 97, D-500
“May I know your name, please?”
“Ariston Paler. I work in the mathematics department. How long are you staying in Dumaguete?”
“It depends upon what I can find there.” He was quiet and then he said, “Have you heard of snake twins?”
“That’s right. Have you heard of a man or a woman who happens to be a snake twin?”
“What does that mean?”
“In Germany and northern European countries there have been instances of persons born with a snake for a twin. I am doing a study of snake twins.”
Ariston looked at the longish face of the man, the deep creases like askewed arcs from the wings of his narrow nose to the corners of his mouth. He had a receding hairline and his elongated ears hung flat on the sides of his face. Why was a theologian doing research on snake twins?
At that moment over the intercom came the captain’s voice: “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re flying through heavy clouds and we may hit an air pocket or two. Please fasten your seatbelts. Expect a little bumpy ride in the next few minutes.”
Through the windows on both sides of the plane Ariston saw heavy cloud banks and it seemed the plane was burrowing through dirty white muck. After a while came a series of bumps and then suddenly the plane dropped a few feet and a child of six or seven a few rows ahead cried out. He braced himself for another drop, but there was nothing more. After a few minutes the aircraft captain announced: “Ladies and gentlemen, you may now relax. We’re out of the air pocket.” If the plane was flying at 500 kilometers per hour, Ariston calculated, in four minutes it had covered thirty-two kilo-meters. In April and in the summer months he had never in his own experience seen a cloud bank covering, say, the distance between Dumaguete and Tanjay, which could be the length of the cloud bank the plane had pushed itself through. The sky over Manila was clear when the plane had taken off.
“That plane drop, is that a regular occurrence on this route?”
“No, Dr. Lembke. As the captain said, we just happened to hit an air pocket.”
“Over Manila the flight attendant announced the plane was flying at 29,000 feet. On a short route like this it need not fly higher—the reason for the bumps. My flight from Stuttgart to Tokyo—at 40,000 feet over the Arctic was a smooth one. No air pockets at that height.”
“A while ago you were talking about snake twins. Does that mean a baby and a snake come from the same womb?”
“In the Germanic tradition there has been such a belief since the Middle Ages. When I speak of the Germanic tradition I’m not just speaking of Germany. The countries of northern Europe Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway—they share the so-called Germanic tradition. Have you heard of the epic Beowulf?” Ariston nodded.
“The characters of that epic, you remember, are Danes, Finns, and Northmen from Norway. The monster that Beowulf slays is the dragon named Grendel, which lives in a loch—that’s Scottish for lake. Beowulf also kills the dragon’s mother. The Beowulf story was current in northern Europe in the seventh century, and the epic itself was written by monks in the ninth; one can see the Christian coloring.”
“I thought Beowulf was a part of English literature.”
“The Beowulf you know is a modern English translation. The original was in Anglo-Saxon.” He pulled out a memo notebook from his pocket and drew a rough sketch of northern Europe as well as of England off what might be the French coast. With his ballpen he pointed at Denmark. “This northern part of the Danish peninsula was the land of the Jutes. The middle section was the land of the Angles, and this southern part, now northern Germany, was where the Saxons came from. These three Germanic tribes invaded England, called Angle-Lond then, in the fifth and sixth centuries.”
He made a circle around Denmark and the Scandinavian peninsula. “All this area was covered by the Beowulf story. When the Germanic tribes settled in England they carried with them the oral tradition of the Beowulf story. The English language as we know it today is a Germanic language, from the three tribes in their original homeland in this area.” His ballpen point was of what he indicated as Norway. “The body of water where Grendel, the snake monster, lived could have been one of the Norwegian fjords. Have you heard of the Loch Ness monster, Mr. Paler?”
“There was great interest in it some years ago.”
“There seems to have been authentic sightings of a many-humped snake in the last half century.”
“Neither the Beowulf dragon nor the Loch Ness monster has any connection with your snake twins, has it?”
“None. I’m only saying that in the German tradition the snake story and that of snake twins have persisted. I understand snake twin stories circulate in this country.”
“Do you already have a record of any?”
“No, not yet. But Dr. Montesclaros told me last year in Amsterdam that there are such stories. That’s the reason I am here.”
“Are you a minister of a church, Dr. Lembke?”
“I used to be the minister of a small church in Bavaria after my seminary training. I left it when I returned to Tubingen University for graduate studies. I have been teaching at the theological college there since then.”
“Research on snake twins—it’s not exactly theological, is it?”
Dr. Lembke smiled. “The first verse of chapter three of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, mentions the snake that counsels the first woman it was perfectly all right to eat of the forbidden fruit. She tasted the fruit and it was good. At her insistence her husband partook of the fruit. Then as the writer of Genesis tells us, ‘The eyes of both were opened, and they knew they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons.’ The story of mankind’s rise and fall started then.” After a pause he said, “Milton in Paradise Lost has a slightly different version of the Genesis story. Milton’s Adam partakes of the fruit only because he wanted to share the burden of his wife’s guilt.”
“Is not the snake in the Old Testament story—including the stick that became a snake in Moses’ hand—aren’t they symbolic?”
“Of course they are. But don’t we live by symbols?”
“You say you’re in this country to do some research on snake twins. That study belongs more properly, don’t you think, to the biologist—or the anthropologist?”
“Theology is more inclusive. It covers the fields of biology and anthropology, among many others. Dr. Montesclaros, by the way, told me you had an American biologist in your school, a fellow by the name of Chapman, if I remember right, who had the biggest collection of ants in the world. A study on ants is legitimate for biologists, but many people would wonder, why ants? John D. Rockefeller was more interested in collecting stamps than coins—you have a long list of oddities. I’m probably what you call a freak. You must admit, Mr. Paler, that a study on human twins of snakes should be more interesting than just a study on snakes. And if one was looking for symbolic meaning, don’t you think snake twins just as symbolic as the Old Testament snake?”
At the Dumaguete airport Montesclaros was waiting for Dr. Lembke. As they moved toward a Volkswagen Ariston saw a gross incongruity: a plump Donald Duck waddling beside a stalking crane.
In the tricycle he took from the airport to his house Ariston thought of Father Tropa who appears nationally once a week with his pet python on PTV 4. The fifteen-minute reel shows the small barefoot self-appointed priest wearing his shabby black-brown habit in the manner of the ancient Roman senator or a Buddhist monk, one shoulder bared, and most interesting, the upper section of an enormous snake draped around his shoulders. Because the snake is ten feet long and heavy and its girth the size of Tropa’s thigh, two men help him hoist it, one holding up the midsection, the other near the tail. The act closes with Tropa caressing the python and kissing its mouth and then resting the head, like a gun muzzle, on his bent arm and all the while aiming the serpent’s head as though to shoot the TV viewer. The snake exhibition is Tropa’s way of propagating the Lamp Lighters which he founded in the United States a couple of decades ago. His obvious message: if man and snake could peaceably live in intimate contact, there is no reason the human race shouldn’t stop fighting each other. Tropa insists that the Lamp Lighters group is not a religious organization but an international brotherhood. Many of his followers have been descendants of immigrant Filipino sugar cane plantation workers in Hawaii who had crossed over to the American Pacific coast. Before the python-kissing fadeout five frames are shown, one after another, with Father Tropa himself reading his own statements about the brotherhood of man; this is followed by his announcement that for fifty pesos he would send to subscribers a copy of his book.
Though born in a barrio of Zamboanguita, twenty kilometers south of Dumaguete, he made the provincial capital his national headquarters, his office in a rented building just across the street from the Silliman campus. He also advertises the two zoos he owns, one on Cebu island and the other in Zamboanguita. The latter, the bigger zoo, includes a gorilla which a woman attendant dolls up in front of the camera, monkeys, deer, a tamaraw from Mindoro, the only place in the world where this carabao-like specimen is found; and ostrich, peacocks, guinea fowls, a sleeping owl; reptiles (Tropa seems to have a special interest in them): snakes, crocodiles, iguanas, and the black scavenger lizard. Included in the reel are shots of animals from foreign zoos; penguins, sea lions, and cavorting dolphins from a Hawaii marine resort; underwater life on a Philippine coral reef. These deliberate juxtapositions give the illusion of a magnitude Tropa’s zoo does not possess.
Tropa has a license to take his python along wherever he travels around the country, as far north as the Ilocos and the Cagayan valley, where he seems to have the biggest following among the peasant folk. He is in his sixties, from his looks; the python couldn’t be more than ten years old.
It was possible Dr. Lembke had seen this TV show on Father Tropa and his python, because PTV 4’s nighttime program covers, more than any other national station, events of national importance, a coverage that foreigners, Ariston thought, would be interested in. In any case, a snake-man relationship, partly indicated in the Tropa show with the priest kissing the python, was what Dr. Lembke could well have come to the country to observe for his research.
Ariston had forgotten his conversation with the German theologian. But a week later, as he was about to go up the second floor of the university library to return a book, he decided to stop at the nearby reference section, in the south central area of the first floor. Mrs. Linda Lirazan, section chief, had been his student in trigonometry fifteen years or so before. She interrupted her talk with another librarian across the railing which partially enclosed her office.
“What can I do for you, sir?”
“Do you know of any material, book or pamphlet that has something about snake twins?”
“Yes, about people born with a snake for a twin.”
“We have books on reptiles, and there are illustrated sections on snakes in all the encyclopedias. But I don’t think we have anything on—snake twins.”
He addressed the two women, “Have you heard any snake twin story?”
“I have heard some stories like that in Mindanao—I come from Davao,” the other librarian said. “But it seems they are only rumors.”
“In my town,” Mrs. Lirazan said, “there is a man who is known to have a snake for a twin.”
“Do you know this man?”
“Yes. Everyone in Sibulan knows Anatolio Torres. In a small town everybody knows everybody. But it’s been many years ago when a few people saw a snake in Anatolio’s house and nobody seems to be talking about it anymore.”
“How old is Anatolio?”
“Must be in his mid-fifties. If you’re really interested, sir, I’ll make inquiries. I know his wife quite well.”
Sibulan is only six kilometers north of Dumaguete. A coastal town facing the southern tip of Cebu island, Sibulan has the provincial highway for its main street. Five narrow streets starting from the shoreline cross the highway and end where the second street runs parallel to it. Inside the hectare-size public plaza the statues of Jose Rizal in heavy winter coat and barong-clad President Magsaysay face each other. The attractive Catholic church on the northern edge of the plaza faces the municipal hall across the highway, and across the street from the church is the public market. It was at this intersection where Mrs. Lirazan waited for a bus or a jeepney when she commuted to Dumaguete. The third street farther north leads to the cemetery, near the edge of the shoreline, and on the opposite end of this street stands the house of Anatolio Torres.
There was not much Mrs. Lirazan told Ariston about Anatolio and his snake twin the following Monday when he went to see her again in the library. She gave him a detailed description of Anatolio’s house: a large, box-like house, the type built by the affluent in the nineteenth century. It fronted the second street parallel to the provincial highway, with no space for the barest shrubbery. A couple of paces from the street and you stop on the first rung of the stairway, made of the hardest wood, as was the lumber used for the rest of the house, The stairway top came out in the middle of a large open verandah from the corner of which one could have a glimpse of the sea. Orchids of many varieties hung from the beams on the two open sides of the verandah, on the side fronting the street and on the other perpendicular to it: cattleya, phalaenopsis, dendrobium, vandah, and the tiny dove orchid. Below them, lined on the sills, potted plants and assorted ferns: maidenhair, staghorn, Boston, birds-nest, spiny wood; a medley of African violets.
“My excuse for going up the house last Saturday was the orchids. Many people in my town know I have a good collection myself. I had been there several times before. Only Nang Emilia, Anatolio’s wife, was home.”
Mrs. Lirazan related that she was particularly attracted to the giant broadsword hanging fern suspended from two intersecting beams supporting the eaves above the verandah corner. She had not seen such enormous fronds before, at least half a foot wide and six feet long tapering to a sword point, clustered in several layers and forming a circle from the pot-shaped crown. The crown, a full foot in diameter, was really the bottom section of the gigantic fern; from its porous osmundine body clung what appeared like a parasitic fern, with slender fronds growing in circular formation and hanging like green tentacles reaching a couple of feet below the level of the floor.
“She pulled me away and pointed at one orchid spray of chartreuse and brown flowers with very long sepals. ‘You recognize that?’
“’It’s brassia longissima.’
“’You gave that to me two years ago.’
“It was with reluctance she left the verandah. Her plants had been her children since her miscarriage. A most interesting story about her miscarriage. Let me backtrack a little. When Anatolio was a sophomore or junior at Silliman, he invited a few friends to his house, including two girls, one of them his girlfriend at the time. They were having merienda when the girl suddenly screamed, pointing at a snake coming from Anatolio’s room. Everybody ran out but before they had gone down the stairs they saw the snake, bigger than a man’s arm and about eight feet long, coiling around Anatolio’s legs. Since that time that room has been kept locked.”
“The man’s wife, the woman you saw last Saturday, was she the one who screamed?”
“Oh, no. After that incident no girl in Sibulan would consider Anatolio for a husband, not even with all his family’s property. Before I went to his house last Saturday I saw Margarita Alonzo, now a widow, the girl who had screamed, for confirmation about the snake incident. ‘You can also ask Pascual Lavina, our town treasurer, for double checking. He was in that little group with us,’ Margarita told me.”
“The man’s wife is not from Sibulan then?”
“He met Nang Emilia when he was studying law in Manila. He never finished law because in his third year he was forced to marry her. He had impregnated her.”
“So there was a child in the house after all?”
“No, sir. Nang Emilia had a miscarriage when she saw the snake on her arrival in Sibulan. In fact, it was she who insisted on locking up that room. She threatened to leave him if that room was not locked up. She never conceived again after that miscarriage. Either the presence of the snake in the adjacent room was an inhibiting factor, or she was afraid of the possibility of herself bearing a child with a snake twin. Anyway, last Saturday I was determined to ask her about the snake room.
“She left me in the living room to go to the kitchen to instruct the house help, a woman Emilia’s age, to prepare a drink for us. A minute later I walked to the kitchen and stopped at the snakeroom; I turned the knob counterclockwise. The room was locked. I wanted to press my ear to the door to detect any movement inside, but I was afraid Emilia might catch me at it. I proceeded to join her in the kitchen, wondering if, had the door opened, I would have dared peep inside to sniff for any animal odor. Earlier, before going up the stairs, I saw that the windows of the snakeroom were shut, as it had been for almost half a century.
“‘Nang Emilia, you don’t have to bother about refreshments.’
“‘There is a room beside the kitchen. Is that your storeroom?’
“The maid’s room. Come, let’s go back to the sala.’
“‘There should be children in this big house. Who’s going to inherit your large holdings?’
“She was quiet. As she looked at me her eyes seemed to have clouded. I plunged on. ‘I heard about your miscarriage, Nang Emilia. People talk about your having been frightened by a snake in the house.’
“‘I don’t want to talk about it.’
“‘There are crazy people in this town who think the snake is still alive. I’ve never heard of more insane talk. But that’s a small town for you.’
“‘Let’s not talk about it.’
“Yesterday she sent her maid to my house to return the orchid I’d given her.”
Ariston was quiet and then he asked, “What kind of a man is Anatolio?”
“Well, what you call normal. He mixes with people, drinks a little with people in his favorite carinderia in the market. He goes to the cockpit, bets a little—he’s not really a gambler. He goes there because he enjoys seeing the cockfights. The only unusual thing people say about him is that he has no money in the bank, yet he is one of the wealthiest in Sibulan.”
“What’s the source of his wealth?”
“Coconuts. He has more than seventy hectares of coconut land starting from the back of his house. Sibulan is mostly coconut-producing, and he has the biggest copra dryer in three towns. But no bank account. His life insurance, though, is known to be a fourth of a million.”
“Are you implying Anatolio keeps his money in his house?”
“That’s what people think. One reason for the locked room. The other reason—people think the snake is still alive. They think there’s no better security guard.”
“By the way, there is a general belief that a snake twin is a sign of good luck. That may be true with Anatolio. Before he was born his parents had just the property behind his house. A couple of hectares planted to corn and bananas and vegetables. After his birth his parents acquired one parcel of land after another, mostly those adjacent to their property.”
“I thought you said the house was built in the nineteenth century.”
“That’s right. It was built by Anatolio’s grandfather, a wealthy man who dissipated the family property in gambling.”
“You said the other day Anatolio is in his mid-fifties. If the snake is still alive, it must be a huge one now, considering that it does not have to scrounge for food. What’s the lifetime of snakes?”
“I don’t know, sir. But according to Guinness Book of World Records the longest-lived animal is the tortoise. One called the Royal Tongan was reputed to be more than two hundred years old. A certain Captain James Cook presented the tortoise to the South Seas king of Tonga in 1773 and it died in 1966.”
“How do you know this?”
She tittered. “You gave me only a C in trigonometry, but I have a long memory for some things, mostly inconsequentials. Maybe the reason I am a reference librarian.”
“Can you remember the longest-lived mammal besides man?”
“A bull killer whale named Old Tom. He was observed by his distinctive marking every winter in a bay in Australia between 1843 and 1930. The oldest land mammal was an Asiatic elephant who reached the age of 69.”
“Why don’t you know the statistics about snakes?”
“Because I hate snakes. I can get you last year’s edition of the Guinness book.”
“I have a class in a few minutes. Thanks, Linda. I do have a Guinness book at home. Thank you very much for all the trouble you’ve taken. I’m sorry your interview with Anatolio’s wife ended disastrously.”
“I’m sorry, too. I wish she didn’t send back the brassia longisima. I have four of them at home.
The facts about snakes that Ariston gathered from his 1972 edition of Guinness Book of World Records were fascinating. The “greatest irrefutable” age recorded for a snake was 34 years one month in the case of an Indian python (Python molurus) at Philadelphia Zoological Gardens, which was still alive in January 1971. The longest snake was an anaconda (Eunectes murinus) of South America, with a length of 37½ feet, reported for a specimen that had been shot in the upper Orinoco River in eastern Columbia. The longest snake ever kept in a zoo was “Colossus,” a female reticulated python (Python reticulatus) that died of tuberculosis on April 15, 1963, in the Highland Park Zoological Gardens, Pittsburg. She measured 22 feet on August 10, 1949, when she arrived from Singapore, and was measured at 28 feet 6 inches on November 15, 1956, when she was growing at the rate of about 10 inches per year. Her girth, before a feed, was 36 inches on March 2, 1955, and she weighed 320 pounds on June 12, 1957. She was probably at least 29 feet long at the time of her death in 1963. The longest venomous snake is the king cobra (Ophiophagus hanna), also called hymadryad; a specimen collected near Fort Dickson, in Malaysia, in April 1937, it grew to be 18 feet 9 inches in the London zoo. The fastest-moving land snake is probably the slender black mamba (Denciroaspis poiyitypsis); an angry black mamba was timed at 7 miles per hour over a measured distance of 47 yards near Mbuyuni on the Serengeti Plains, Kenya. Stories that black mambas can overtake galloping horses (maximum speed, 43.26 m.p.h.) are wild exaggerations, though a speed of 15 m.p.h. may be possible for short bursts over level ground. Authorities differ on which of the world’s 300 venomous snakes possess the most toxic venom. That of the Tiger snake (Notechis scutatus) of southern Australia is perhaps matched by the Javan krait (Bangarus javincus), and more likely by the beaked sea snake (Enhydrina schistosa) of the Indo-Pacific region. The beaked sea snake has a minimal lethal dose for man of only 1.5 mg. (1/22,000th of an ounce).
A more appropriate name for Siquijor is Diwata, the Cebuano word for superstition. The island is only 45 minutes by pumpboat across the channel from Dumaguete and has only six towns in it. Siquijor used to be a sub-province of Negros Oriental. A few foreigners had done anthropological research on its folklore, burial customs, occult practices, its manambals or medicine men.
The last researcher, to Ariston’s knowledge, was an Australian woman who did a study on folk medicine. She was stumpy for a Caucasian, barely one or two inches above five feet; after four months in Siquijor she was back in Dumaguete, a muscular Siquijodnon in tow. The man was a tricycle driver she had employed as her translator as they moved from one place to another. The joke went around that they administered a local potion to each other. When the woman took him back to Australia, her parents, who were sheep farmers, sent the fellow to school.
Siquijor is limestone country; much of its shoreline are craggy coral rocks, some of them broken kilometers of smooth gray lime-stone cliffs looking like ramparts. Below the waterline are numerous crevices, a good number really underwater caves; in some of them sea snakes flourish, and according to a Silliman herpetologist the population can be so thick they look like spaghetti. They are poisonous, but when their girth comes to the size of a child’s arm they are harvested during the season when they are passive; they are placed in drums containing sea water and shipped to Hongkong and New York where in Chinese restaurants their meat is gourmet dish. Probably more important, it is processed, not necessarily as a separate dish, as aphrodisiac; a concoction consisting of bits of the bile, brain, tongue, and eyes of the snake, served as condiment: behind all the preparation are four thousand years of Chinese history and myth. There is no waste of snake material because the skin makes expensive bags and shoes. The caves above the shoreline were used in the past as burial ground, especially by people who had no families; a person who knew his time had come crawled inside a cave of his choice and there awaited death. Some of the largest caves have rich deposits of guano, centuries-old accumulations of the excrement of the thousands of bats inhabiting them. The smaller crevices, especially those inland, are the habitat of snakes. The mananambals choose Good Friday to butcher pythons for the sanctified snake oil Siquijor is well known for.
With the abundance of snakes in that island, Ariston thought, the percentage of the existence of snake twins there should be higher than in Negros. Joaquin Kintanar, the herpetologist who had told him about the sea snakes congregated like spaghetti in Siquijor’s underwater caves, accepted the possibility, no matter how remote, of a snake lying alongside a baby in a crib, but ruled that baby and snake coming out of the same womb as biologically inconceivable.
Ariston asked Gabriel Duhaylungsod, a Siquijodnon, to stay after his class in differential calculus. In the graduate class of seven more-than-average students, Ariston rated him number three. Duhaylungsod’s mouth, just a thin line above an insufficient chin, seemed to belie a certain churliness in the man: he had a habit of saying so little, though you had the feeling he knew much more.
“Dr. Kintanar tells me the snake population in Siquijor is probably bigger than in any other island its size in the country.”
The abrupt statement did not register any reaction on the man’s flint-like face.
“Are there snake twins of humans in Siquijor?”
His brows knitted and then he nodded slightly.
“Do you personally know of any in Siquijor?”
He nodded again.
“Where does he live?”
“She is a woman. In San Isidro. Silvestra Tulabing.”
“How old is she?”
“Sixty. No more than sixty-five.”
“There was no hospital in Siquijor sixty years ago, was there?”
He shook his head.
“So we can’t check any records, Gabriel. Did the snake come out with her when she was born?”
“The snake was on her bed when she was born.”
“Does that mean they came out of the womb together?”
“She said the snake was on her bed when she was born.”
“Sixty years ago in rural areas—this would include Siquijor—lots of people didn’t sleep on beds but on mats spread on the floor. Mats—of pandanus or hemp—were either folded up when not in use. It’s possible a snake might have laid eggs in the folded or rolled up when not in use. It’s possible that when Silvestra was born a stray snake egg was hatched on the bed—or in the blanket—used by the mother and the baby. Is that scenario possible?”
The slow nod of Duhaylungsod and the way he looked at Ariston indicated his recognition of the teacher’s intelligence.
“Does she have siblings?”
“The only begotten.”
“Either of her parents still living?”
“Almost mathematically impossible considering.”
“Lifespan in Siquijor, especially in the past, is not long. Her parents died when she was in her twenties.”
“Does she have a family of her own?”
“None. She’s still a virgin.”
“How do you know that?”
“No man would ever propose to her despite her property.”
“Anything wrong with her?”
“Her legs are wide parentheses. A German shepherd can walk between her legs.”
“You mentioned property.”
“She is the richest woman in Siquijor. She owns three of the seven jeepneys running on the island. She also owns the biggest nipa swamp.”
“Does she admit she is the twin of a snake?”
“She is open about it.”
“Have you seen the snake yourself?”
He shook his head. “Lazi, my town, is eight kilometers from San Isidro. Silvestra is a second cousin of my grandmother, who has seen the snake. When I was a boy I told Silvestra—I call her Lola—I wanted to see the snake. You cannot see it, she said, it was not good for me.”
“You say she speaks openly about her twin. I’d like to go to Siquijor with you one weekend. To talk to your Lola Silvestra.”
He nodded. “I usually go home Friday. The last trip is 4:00 p.m.”
As Duhaylungsod was about to leave the room his solemn face broke into what looked like a smile. “By the way, Lola Silvestra has a peculiar way of talking. I’m preparing you. She hisses.”
“What do you mean?”
He clamped his teeth together and expelled his breath three times by way of demonstration.
The jeepney they took to Lazi from Solong-on, where the pumpboat landed, was owned by Silvestra. She also owned the tricycle they took from Lazi to San Isidro. Duhaylungsod muttered, “I have to pay the fare, not one centavo less. All her relatives have to pay. No exemption. A tightwad.”
Like the road from Solong-on to Lazi, the one to San Isidro was paved with lime. The bumpy ride was tolerable, but the whiteness of the road was a strain to the eyes after a while. When a jeepney passed by, white dust filled the air; even the tricycle tires swirled the dust up inside the cab. By the time they reached Silvestra’s house Ariston’s brown kepi had accumulated dirty white dust and Duhaylungsod’s hair had turned blonde. They took turns working the waterpump beside the house as Duhaylungsod doused his head with the cold gush of water and Ariston washed his face and neck and arms.
Silvestra’s two-story wooden house was the only one with a galvanized iron roof. It stood near the edge of a swamp. Five nipa houses were huddled about a hundred meters away. Duhaylungsod went up the stairs, but when nobody answered his call, he came down to look around. They saw her in a shed partly hidden by a huge acacia tree; she was raddling nipa blades into shingles. With her was an albino stripping the blades off a pile of nipa fronds. The skin and hair of the man, even his eyelashes, were whiter than the road lime. His age was indeterminate; he could be forty or seventy. The most visible oddity of Siquijor is its albinos. Ariston knew of no otherplace in the country that produced albinos. Their completely Malay size and features are very incongruous in Nordic coloring, so that they look like creatures of outer space. He had seen an albino student at Silliman and now and then a couple walking in the streets of Dumaguete, but seeing this albino was startling, the off-hand way he was working beside a nipa swamp, a curved wooden scabbard dangling on a string around his flat waist.
“Lola, this is my teacher at Silliman, Mr. Paler.”
She wiped her hads on her plaid skirt, a wrap-around that reached down to the ankles, and extended her hand to the visitor.
She nodded to the albino and led Ariston and Gabriel to the house. In spite of her long loose skirt Duhaylungsod’s description of her parenthetical legs was no exaggeration. Obviously blighted by a congenital deformity—unless her snake twin in their sleep, from her babyhood, had habitually positioned itself coiled between her knees, her ankles pressed together by one coil of her twin’s body—she waddled horribly, her toes turned inward from the open tips of her rubber sandals. The albino was a few steps behind them.
In the sala she said, “Gabriel, entertain our g-ues-s-s-t while I prepare lunssst. Excuse me, sssir.” She proceeded to the kitchen, the albino following her, his bolo now sheathed in the scabbard. He never took off his weapon all the time he was puttering in the kitchen.
“Is he her bodyguard?”
“A factotum. She does not need a bodyguard.”
“Any other house help?”
“None. Don’t worry, sir. She is a dependable cook.”
“She should have a substantial income from her jeepneys and tricycles. Why does she have to do the nipa shingles herself?”
“To keep her busy. She has three to five people to do the shingles certain days, and she has the whole island for her market. She has her own delivery service—the top of her jeepneys. The nipa swamp she owns is a kilometer long bordering the shoreline and half a kilometer wide. The supply for the nipa shingles is inexhaustible.”
“I wonder who will inherit her holdings.”
“That is a big question. I’m afraid a time will come when her relatives will be murdering each other for their shares.”
“That albino, how long has he been with her?”
“No one can remember, sir, but he has been with her a long long time.”
“I suppose he’ll inherit something.”
“No question about that. He is one reason there is going to be some trouble.”
Lunch consisted of chunks of dried fish cooked in coconut milk; there was water cress for salad, and huge swamp crabs, whose pincher claws, eight of them, were the size of Ariston’s wrist and had been pre-cracked for easy picking at. As was the custom in the place Silvestra did not eat with them; she was there to serve the teacher of her cousin’s grandson.
Shortly after she and the albino had eaten she joined her guests in the living room.
“Mr. Paler, sir, I’ll go down to stretch my legs a bit while you tell Lola Silvestra why you’re here.”
Gabriel left and Ariston turned to the woman. “Manang, I hear you have a snake twin.”
She looked at him for a full minute. Her black unblinking eyes, unclouded and too young for her age, had no eyelashes.
“I understand many people know about it,” he added.
“What do you want to know?”
“I’d like, if it’s all right with you, to see your twin.”
Her eyes never left him. “That isss my room. That wasss my parentsss’ when they were ssstill living.” She pointed to the next room, adjacent to the kitchen and facing the dining room. “That isss hisss room.”
“If it’s all right with you, may I see him?”
She stood up and beckoned to him to follow. She opened the door. “Come in. Do not be afraid.”
It was completely dark inside. Terror seized him when she moved to the other side of the room. Any moment fangs would sink into … A window panel was pushed open and then another and light dissolved the darkness. There was no bed in the room. Not a single piece of furniture. He had expected to smell some animal odor; there was only stale air.
“Where is he?”
“He isss not here.”
“Where is he? Is he dead?”
“He isss alive.” She closed the window and led him back to the living room.
“It isss a long ssstory but I make it ssshort. In the beginning when he wasss ten years old he wasss the sssize of your ssshin and ten feet long. People visssiting my houssse got very ssscared when he came to me in thisss room. Sssome even sssaid a few died from the ssscare. Ssso when he wasss big asssh your thigh and maybe twenty feet long I let him out at night and he would disssappear in the nipa ssswampsss. That alssso redussst the expensesss for chickensss, hisss favorite food in the ssswamps he isss ssself-sssupporting. In the lassst few yearsss on the day after the full moon he comesss home to hisss room. I leave the door half open. He staysss for a few daysss and goesss back to the ssswampsss.”
“Aren’t you afraid people might kill him in the swamp? People with guns.”
“Nobody ever daresss enter the ssswamp area. They are afraid of him. Very afraid of him.” She smiled. “Nobody daresss sssteal nipa from my ssswamp.”
“Do you know whenever he comes?”
“He tapsss hisss tail on the wall between our roomsss. And ssso I go to him.”
“When was his last visit?”
“Two monthsss ago. I wasss beginning to worry. He isss very old and can die any time now.”
“You look very healthy and strong. How old are you?”
“I am sssixty-sssixss come November.”
“How big was he on his last visit?”
“In the midsssection asss big asss your thigh. He never got bigger in the lassst twenty-thirty yearsss.”
“What does he eat in the swamp?”
“Sssari-sssari. Lizards. Eelsss. Many kindsss. Crabsss like thossse we ate for lunchsss. Turtlesss. Many turtlesss in the ssswamp.”
“Can he digest the carapace—the shell?”
“He choosssesss the sssmaller onesss. But no worry about the digessstion. He can digessst anything.”
“That man who helps you—what’s his name?”
“Wasn’t he—isn’t he afraid of the snake?”
“In the beginning, yesss. He almost crussshed Sssilvino; he did not want a man in the houssse. Later they accssepted eachss other.”
When they got back to Lazi, Ariston had a confused feeling of half-belief and suspicion. The woman had seemed a little too glib. There probably was a snake in the beginning, a pet snake like Father Tropa’s but which could frighten a lot of people. There was something repulsive about a snake, its flattish doghead, its knowing tongue whipping about nervously outside its mouth like a separate snake itself, the wicked sinuosity of its body. Ariston was not squeamish, but he couldn’t poke a finger at a dead snake. Silvestra’s snake was almost twice the age of the longest-lived snake in the Guinness book. Wasn’t the woman propagating the twinship and the snake’s continuing existence to protect herself, her money and the nipa swamp from thievery?
As Ariston stepped off the pumpboat in Dumaguete he felt he had been had.
And he decided to terminate his curiosity about snake twins.
Half a year later his wife’s favorite sister, Josie, came for a visit. Her husband was a judge in the regional trial court in Zamboanga City. Ariston’s wife Clarita came from a large family of five sisters and four boys. Originally from Bambang, Nueva Vizcaya, the siblings were now scattered in several places in the country. Only Genia, the eldest, remained in Vizcaya; her family had settled in Solano, a river town four kilometers north of Bayombong, the provincial capital. Marian, who came after Genia, married the son of an American who owned a mine claim in Agusan, near the north-eastern end of Mindanao. Two boys came between Marian and Josie. Born hardly a year after Josie, Clarita treated her like a coeval, especially because they had shared a dormitory room while studying at the state university.
Josie had been bleeding for eight months, and had been treated at the Manila Medical Center for her malfunctioning uterus. Several months after her return to Zamboanga, in spite of the hormonal pills her Manila doctor had prescribed, the bleeding recurred. The Zamboanga internist she had consulted advised her to go back to the Manila Medical Center.
“Before going back to MMC I’d like to see Dominguez. Did you know, Sis, that he is from Solano? Ate Genia says she knows him very well.”
Dominguez was considered the most famous faith healer in the country. Sick people from Australia, the United States, Spain and a few other European countries came to see Dominguez, and foreign doctors also came to observe him and one or two other healers. President Marcos, who had lupus erythematosus besides kidney transplant (his doctors had installed dialysis machines in Malacañang Palace, sent a captain of the Palace security unit in a Mercedes Benz to pick up Dominguez for regular healing sessions). Josie had brought a couple of articles on the healers clipped from Philippine magazines for Ariston’s benefit because she and Clarita knew him for a fanatical unbeliever. In the few articles he had read about faith healing, Dominguez was regarded as the top and most effective practitioner.
“Don’t you believe in the healing of the sick by Jesus and his disciples?” Josie challenged him.
“I do. But Dominguez is not Jesus Christ.”
“Perhaps you know that Dominguez reads passages from the Bible before he starts his healing session.”
“That’s true, Resty,” Clarita said. “Dominguez came to Dumaguete a few months ago at the request of the Aguirre family. Artemio Aguirre, sis, is a Spaniard who married a daughter of one of the biggest sugar hacenderos in. Negros. Aguirre’s only daughter—he has three sons—had been operated on twice in the States for brain tumor. You didn’t know it, Resty, but I was at the Aguirres’ then. They know I originally came from Vizcaya and the Aguirres wanted me to be present. The first thing Dominguez asked for was a Bible. It took them twenty minutes to produce one, a huge tome. ‘A copy of the Bible, even a small one,’ said Dominguez, ‘should always be in the sick room.’ Later, Dominguez told the family, ‘I’m sorry I can’t assure you about your daughter. She has had too many operations. But then I am only an instrument. It is God who does the healing.”
The Aguirre girl died a few months later.
“Sis, I’d like you to go with me to see Dominguez during your semestral break. I’d like you to come along, Resty. This will be an occasion for a little family gathering. We will stay with Honoria.”
Honoria was Josie’s sister-in-law, whose husband was what the family called a “silent millionaire.” He had a huge house at the exclusive Alabang subdivision.
”I have asked Ate to join us in Manila.”
The only Ate in the family was Genia, the eldest sister, who was a townmate of Dominguez.
“Did you know, Sis,” Josie said, “that Dominguez has a snake twin?”
“What are you talking about?” Ariston was all interest now.
“Ate told me about it. She was with me for a few days when I was under treatment at the Manila Medical Center. ‘You should have seen Dominguez first,’ she told me. ‘Then you wouldn’t be spending so much here.’”
“What about the snake twin?” he asked.
“You remember the incident in the Bible when people were pressing around Jesus after he had healed the dying twelve-year-old daughter of Jairus, the Jewish religious leader. In the crowd a woman who had hemorrhaged for twelve years and couldn’t be helped by anyone touched the hem of the garment of Jesus and she immediately got well. Jesus asked who had touched him. Peter wondered why Jesus asked, considering there was a crowd milling around him, but Jesus said he felt his power had gone from him at the moment.”
“What has that to do with the snake twin you mentioned?”
“Ate says that after a few months of healing, Dominguez feels completely drained out. He goes home to Solano to reinvigorate himself. At such times he goes to a certain section of the Magat.” She turned to Ariston. “Why are you smiling?”
“I remember the butchog, Josie.”
“Your river fish. One day several years ago your clan had a picnic in Bayawa, where the river curves and forms a body of water like a lake. Your husband, Vizcaya’s chief provincial prosecutor then, didn’t join us because he knew Ate Genia’s husband was going to use dynamite to get the butchog. He didn’t want to be implicated in the criminal act.”
Ariston had been told the butchog, quite prolific and liked for its firm white meat, had been introduced by the Japanese during World War II.
“Don’t you want to listen to my story?” Josie asked coldly.
“Sorry, but go on.”
“Dominguez was with two men rowing him up to a section where the river touches a slope of the Sierra Madre. The men beached the outrigger and as Dominguez got off he asked them to wait for him. He disappeared into a deeply forested area. After almost an hour of waiting one of the men got impatient. He went after Dominguez, trying not to make the slightest noise. After about twenty minutes of stalking he was shocked to see Dominguez with a huge snake. Dominguez was sitting on a low boulder and his hands were clasped below the snake’s head which was almost as big as Dominguez’s.”
“That’s material for Guinness all right. He should send researchers to Solano.”
“He won’t do it, Resty. Like you Guinness won’t believe it. But Ate Genia and people in Solano believe it one hundred percent.”
“Now I know,” said Clarita, “the reason for the snake around the wand of Caduceus, the emblem of the medical profession. It’s sometimes called the rod of Aesculapius, in Roman mythology the god of medicine.” Clarita had a graduate degree in literature from an American university and was not known for intellectual modesty.
Ariston accompanied Clarita to Manila, but they stayed with Michael, a son of Marian who died when Michael was only twelve. Michael had stayed for a few years with Ariston and Clarita when he was studying at Silliman. Genia was with Josie at Honoraria’s. They all had dinner at the house of Michael’s brother Eric, who was a vice president for marketing at a cosmetics company.
The following day Michael was with the group at Dominguez’s clinic. They thought they were early at eight quarter, but eleven people were ahead of them, seated on benches which looked like pews. Indeed, beside the healer’s clinic was a concrete chapel that could accommodate sixty people. According to Genia the chapel was the donation of an American woman who had been diagnosed for terminal cancer by her doctors in the U.S. After Dominguez had treated her, the American doctors certified her completely cured. Genia said that three years ago there had been just a bamboo shed, which Dominguez had used for his living quarters and clinic.
“How much does he charge?”
“He doesn’t charge.” Genia pointed at the small wooden box on the table in the right corner of the clinic. Beside it, leaning against the wall, was a Bible. “People drop into the box whatever they want to give. Or they hand it to him.”
The clinic was enclosed on two sides by a wide dark-gray curtain. Back of the curtained space was a private room, and visible above the curtain top were four parallel slats below the ceiling giving ventilation to the private room.
When Josie’s turn was called, Genia said they could all go in, as had other relatives before them.
”Oh, Genia, I didn’t know you were here,” Dominguez greeted her.
“I’m with my sisters, Josie and Clarita and Clarity’s husband, Ariston Paler. The young man is our nephew, Michael.”
“Which of you needs help?”
“I need your help, Mr. Dominguez,” Josie said.
Ariston thought the man was in his late forties or early fifties. He was dark, and above five seven, neat-looking in a fresh white shirt tucked into pressed tan-colored ramie pants. He would look presentable in Marcos’ Malacañang Palace.
“What is your complaint?”
“I have been bleeding. I had treatment at Manila four months ago and I thought I was already well, but there had been a recurrence, though not so profuse. The internist I consulted in Zamboanga advised me to return to the Manila Medical Center. I decided to come to you instead.”
He told her to lie down on an elevated bed, the only furniture in the room except for two cabinets attached to the wall. He pulled a towel from one cabinet and draped it across Josie’s stomach a few inches below the navel. Clarita and Ariston were on one side of the bed opposite Dominguez; Genia and Michael stood a couple of feet beside him.
Dominguez got a wad of cotton from a bottle in the cabinet, soaked it in alcohol, and with it rubbed the area below the navel. He threw the wet wad into a pail under the bed. He raised his open palm about eight inches above Josie’s abdomen and in an instant plunged his hand into the abdomen, all the five fingers disappearing under the skin. The fingers of his left hand picked up a pellet of flesh, raw and striated, the size of a polebean, which he threw into the pail. While his right hand remained in the abdomen, in lightning succession, his left hand took out similar pellets, throwing them into the pail each time.
Ariston placed his hand on his wife’s shoulder to find out if she was seeing what he was seeing. She looked at him, nodded almost imperceptivity to assure him that what he was witnessing was not a wild trick his mind was playing on him. Seven or eight pellets in all, each time the incredible fingers picking up a piece of something that came from inside Josie’s abdomen. At the end there was just a tiny drip of blood staining the smooth unbroken area of skin where the man’s right hand had gone in. Dominguez got a ball of alcohol-soaked cotton and rubbed it on the area, which showed not a sign of a wound or a scar. Dominguez followed this with swabbing the area with his fingers soaked in coconut oil. When Dominguez had thrown away the cotton ball, Ariston bent down to look at the place where the healer’s hand had penetrated; there was not even a trace of a scar.
If Ariston was under a hypnotic spell, then all four of them watching the operation—for indeed it was a real operation—experienced identical hypnosis. When Josie stood up from the bed, Ariston asked how she felt when Dominguez dug his hand into her abdomen. All she knew, she said, was the touch of the healer’s hand and at the end, not even the brief coolness of the alcohol or the scent of the coconut oil he had rubbed on.
Before they left the curtained room Dominguez gave Josie some large pieces of tree bark. “Boil it,” he said, “and drink the brew three times daily. You come back every day for eight days.”
Dominguez repeated the operation eight more times and on the ninth day he told her she could go home to her family.
According to reports not all Dominguez ‘s ministrations were fully successful. Josie’s healing was complete. Ariston, the fanatical unbeliever, became a Dominguez convert. Dominguez was doing with limited success and in a more cumbersome manner, what the first-century disciples did.
Though the dictator Marcos, a superstitious man, was reported to be more and more dependent on Dominguez than on his doctors, there was increasing talk that the healer’s power had diminished. Dominguez had become a man of means, thanks to the patronage of the dictator.
Three years after Josie’s treatment by Dominguez, Michael dropped in at Ariston’s house on his way back to Manila after a settlement of his share of the Agusan property left by his father. At the airport, while waiting for his plane for the trip back to Manila, Michael said, “I understand, Uncle Resty, that Professor Yamaguchi taught at Silliman for only a short time.”
“That’s right. His appointment as a visiting professor was only for a year. He’s back in his university in Ohio. What about him?”
“You of course knew that his wife Meniyo stayed in my house because of a letter that Aunt Clarita wrote to me.”
“Yes. Clarita and Meniyo were very close friends. It was good of you and Flor to accommodate Meniyo.”
“Perhaps you knew that Meniyo was in Manila to consult Dominguez. About having a baby. It seemed she had not been helped by gynecologists in the U.S. That’s what she told Flor and me.”
“Yes, Clarita told me that’s what Meniyo wanted to consult Dominguez about.”
“I accompanied Meniyo to Dominguez’s clinic. Did you notice there’s an opening about three feet wide above the wall separating the curtained clinic and the private room?”
“That opening is intended, isn’t it, to provide ventilation to the private room?”
Michael nodded. “Meniyo was received in the room where Aunt Josie was treated, but after the consultation Dominguez took her to the private room. Four or five other patients had preceded Meniyo in the curtained room. There were almost a dozen people with me on the benches awaiting their turn. I wondered why Meniyo was taken to the private room since it was known that it was only for seriously ill people. After about twenty minutes I sneaked into the curtained room. Because I didn’t see any chair in it I pushed the bed against the wall and stood on it and peeped above the wall opening. Meniyo was lying down naked on the bed and Dominguez was massaging her stomach and then his hands went slowly down on the mound just above the intersection of her legs. His hand made circular motions around the mound for three minutes or so and then his hands went slowly up the abdomen and then to her chest. He cupped the breasts with his hands and kneaded them for two or three minutes, and then one hand, the left hand, shot downward between the legs. Suddenly Dominguez was on top of Meniyo. His right hand covered her mouth, perhaps to keep her from crying out, and then he withdrew the hand. But the way her face looked—it was turned halfway to the wall where I was—it seemed she didn’t want to cry out. She looked up and saw me. I knew she saw me because at that instant she opened her mouth to cry out, only her cry couldn’t—didn’t come out.”
“’Please, Michael,’ she begged me when we had gone out of the clinic, ‘please don’t say anything about it. I was helpless. I couldn’t do anything about it. Please, Michael.’”
After Michael’s plane had taken off Ariston was still leaning on the fence staring at the empty tarmac. He thought of the healer’s incredible hand inside Josie’s abdomen the same hand that covered Meniyo’s mouth in Dominguez’s private room. And then he thought of the locked room in Anatolio’s house in Sibulan, and of the room in San Isidro which Silvestra left open the day after the full moon.
Edilberto Kaindong Tiempo was born in Maasin, Southern Leyte in 1913. He obtained his BA in English at Silliman Institute [now Silliman University] in 1937. He enrolled for graduate studies in 1939 at University of the Philippines but did not finish. In 1940, after marrying Edith Lopez, he returned to Dumaguete to teach at Silliman. He would later be accepted to the Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa, where he would obtain his MA in 1951. In 1957, he earned his Ph.D. from the University of Denver. Upon returning to the Philippines in 1962, the couple established what is now the Silliman University National Writers Workshop. At Silliman, he served various positions, including chair of the English Department, graduate school dean, vice-president for academic affairs, and writer-in-residence. His novel, Cry Slaughter, published in 1957, was a revised version of his Watch in the Night, which he culled from his wartime experience in Negros Oriental. Cry Slaughter had four printings by Avon in New York, a hardbound edition in London, and six European translations. His other books include the novels To Be Free , More Than Conquerors , Cracked Mirror , The Standard Bearer , and Farah , the short story collections A Stream at Dalton Pass and Other Stories , Finality: A Novelette and Five Short Stories , Rainbow for Rima , Snake Twin and Other Stories , and The Paraplegics and Five Short Stories . He also authored Literary Criticism in the Philippines and Other Essays . He won the Cultural Center of the Philippines Prize, the Palanca, the U.P. Golden Anniversary Literary Contest, and the National Book Award. He died in 1996.
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