Janine locks her hands onto her hips. Her mother looks up from the fridge, swollen belly peeking out from beneath her shirt. The guilt on her face has Janine’s blood boiling.
“It’s not good for the baby.”
She snatches the bottle of beer from her mother. This is the fourth time Janine has caught her mother sneaking alcohol. Dios knows how many times she has not caught her. Her mother sulks away, eyes downcast. Janine groans and runs a hand over her face. Her brother Jon enters the small kitchen just as their mother exits.
“She at it again?” He does not even try to keep his voice low.
“She won’t listen to me, Jon.”
Jon shrugs and takes the beer from her hand, popping it open and taking a swig. Their mother paces the house in an almost comatose state, stopping now and then by the picture of their late father on the living room shelf. Janine prepares for another day in the sun, donning her salakot and throwing on yesterday’s work clothes. The cotton material sticks to her skin almost immediately. It is going to be a hotter day than normal.
Janine looks out over her family’s small expanse of rice fields. She watches Jon lead their carabao out for the day’s work. The sun is just starting to rise. Resisting the urge to go back inside and check on her mother again, Janine sets out after her brother. She kicks up dirt along the dirt path to the field, walking in between a larger set of footprints and carabao hoofprints. The rice shoots are just starting to sprout, from what she can see.
Movement at the edge of the rice paddy makes Janine pause. She squints, barely making out an unidentifiable shape as it disappears and reappears between the stalks. It looks like a mangy dog, but something about it seems off. It walks with an awkward gait, head hanging low to the point that it must be looking under its own hind legs. The longer Janine studies the animal, the less it seems like an animal at all. She remembers the stories her father would always tell her about the sigbin, how it was an otherworldly beast that served an otherworldly monster, the aswang. An unfamiliar chill runs through Janine, her sweat cooling despite the humidity.
The figure slinks completely out of sight, but not before Janine catches sight of a whip-like tail snaking out behind it. Her muscle tension only spikes in response. Janine cannot help but entertain the idea: a sigbin, an aswang’s scout. Her father used to tell stories of the monstrous demons, how a sigbin would seek out human blood in the dead of night before returning to its master, a shapeshifting aswang capable of devouring a person whole or sucking their internal organs dry.
Janine shakes her head in her hands to rid herself of the thoughts. Urban legends. Superstitions. Everything but the thought of her pregnant mother and the aswang’s taste for fetus hearts.
The nipa hut is quiet. Janine rolls over in her bed to keep the window in sight. It is hard to see in the dark, especially through the mosquito net over her bed. She drags a clammy hand through her sweat-matted hair. She must be overreacting. No such thing as a sigbin. No such thing as an aswang.
A shadow quickly passes over the window. Janine freezes, eyes darting to the window. It could break easily, fronds tearing as the shapeshifter forces its way into the room. Jon sleeps soundly across the way, a barely visible silhouette beneath his own mosquito net. Janine sits up silently, straining her ears to pick up any foreign sounds. A frighteningly loud click-click-click has her swinging around to face the open doorway.
She waits with bated breath. The sound seems to be right behind her, but it gradually fades over the next minute. Janine hisses Jon’s name under her breath. He does not respond. The shuffle of feet catching on bamboo is too much for Janine to remain dormant any longer. Standing on shaky feet, she creeps out of the room. When she checks on her mother, it takes everything in her not to collapse on the spot.
Janine bites down on her tongue. Her scream catches in the recesses of her throat. Blood seeps onto her taste buds, pooling around the indent of her teeth. An aswang hunches over her mother’s bed. This aswang is wolf-like in appearance, thick hair coating its entire body, but not enough to cover its leathery skin. Its stature is almost human, but its razor teeth are so long that its jaw opens wide like the maw of a dog. A rancid odor licks at the walls, gradually coating Janine in a putrid stench. Her hands jerk up to cover her nose and mouth, but her palms are stained with the aswang’s scent. Bile tickles the back of her throat, but Janine manages to swallow her vomit-caked scream.
The bamboo creaks beneath the aswang’s enlarged feet, abnormally long legs balancing a monstrous torso. Janine finds herself clutching the door frame for support as the aswang slowly crawls onto the bed. It hovers over her mother’s unconscious form, rotating slightly to reveal its slimy proboscis digging into her belly button.
Her mother does not make a sound. All Janine can hear is the soft clicking noise and the aswang’s panting. Its hands come up to cradle her mother’s stomach, beast-like claws tracing over the distended globe. The gentleness with which it does so scares Janine the most. So much so that she wets herself on the spot, warm urine sliding down her trembling legs. Her tongue curls in on itself, curls in like the aswang’s proboscis as it pulls away from her mother. Sound refuses to leave her.
The aswang stands to its full height, muscles and tendons showing through its skin. Its head brushes the thatched roof, jaw almost unhinging as it opens its mouth even wider than before. Janine’s knees buckle at the gaping hole that is its mouth. The clicking stops as the aswang swings around to look in her direction. She is frozen in place, sitting in her own piss as she stares wide-eyed into the abyss of its eyes.
She blinks and it is gone. Out the window of her mother’s room, the click-click-click getting louder and louder as it runs away.
“An intrauterine fetal demise, in other words, a stillbirth.”
“How is that possible? She was seven months into the pregnancy!”
“Did your mother take drugs of any kind since the start of her pregnancy?”
“No, not drugs… Alcohol, though.”
“It is likely that complications may have arisen in response to the repeated consumption of alcohol. Did your mother have a history of alcohol abuse before her pregnancy?”
“What? No! That’s not—!”
Janine sits stock still as she half listens to the exchange between the doctor and Jon. The image of the aswang draining her unborn sister from her mother’s womb is seared into her skull so well that she can clearly recall the clicking sound it made as it fed. The sound stops echoing against her eardrums when Jon shakes her back to reality.
They make their way to their mother’s hospital room. Neither says a word. Jon keeps his eyes trained ahead, avoiding eye contact with any person walking the opposite direction. Janine is the exact opposite. She makes sure to look every person in the eye, garnering confused stares as she tries to study her reflection in their eyeballs. If her reflection is upside down, then she will know it is an aswang. She should be afraid of a chance encounter, but anger slivers through her bloodstream and licks at her courage. No one ever gets revenge on an aswang, yet Janine searches anyway for the aswang who sent its sigbin to scout out her family.
The aswang who ate her baby sister.
When Janine finally sees her mother in the hospital bed, her gaze immediately goes to the chocolate brown irises that have grown dull in her mother’s eyes. Her reflection is right side up, but she cannot help the same anger toward the aswang roil within her as she stares at her mother and her deflated stomach, the smell of alcohol strong in the room.