Like a Whisper
By Lily C. Fen
Marivic relinquished her soul into the night air. Her spirit escaped her lips as she exhaled, a white cloud that hovered over her. Edvard followed suit. He let his breath out and surrendered to spirit-leaving. It was a thing required of everyone who set foot on the Philippine islands, even foreigners like him.
Metro Manila slumbered. Spirits left bodies behind and wandered the apartment. They bathed by moonbeam and soaked in starlight.
She had met Edvard at a New Year's Eve party on Boracay Island. She'd watched him marvel at the sand that felt like baby powder underneath their feet, laughed as he gazed in awe at the Sulu Sea so clear, they could examine the grains of sand beneath the turquoise surface. They'd hung off the bamboo outriggers of the slender paraw that the locals docked in the water. "This experience is a huge leap from my native Oslo," he grinned at her.
They had been dating a few months when the subject of fitness and yoga came up. Edvard was pushing Marivic to try the latter. "Yoga might be good for you," he said. "And maybe you could try not taking the car. It's a lot of fun, trying to take the jeepney, like I do." Marivic knew that foreigners found the colourful vehicles a thing of curiosity. "Filipino public transport is so cool!" Edvard had exclaimed.
"They're such fun. I got to hang on to the railings of the exit a couple of times when the jeep was full. Everyone was so close to each other on those two benches inside," he continued, his excitement mounting. "And now I can say, 'Bayad po,' when I was passing on my fare." He looked pleased with himself at the Tagalog he had learned.
It made her laugh how everything she took for granted was special to him.
"Heck, a couple of ladies checked me out on the train today on the way to work, you know?" he said, teasing her. "But before I knew it, the MRT doors slid open, and a sea of people whisked me away from them and towards Ortigas Avenue. Welcome to the Philippines," he said with a flourish of his hands.
"All right, already. Manila's public transport system might be awesome for you, but not for me," Marivic said. Her parents had made sure she was in the comforts of air-conditioned cars throughout her school years. She had only started taking jeepneys once she had made it to the University of the Philippines, abaniko in hand to ward off the heat. The former American general-purpose vehicles had shuttled her and her classmates across the vast campus.
She had preferred sitting at the end, which functioned both as entrance and exit. She could catch a bit of the breeze and get off at a moment's notice, without fumbling past others down the narrow centre aisle. The ageing jeepneys chortled cheerfully through Diliman, spouting black exhaust at students standing on sidewalks as they snacked on fried fishballs.
She especially loved Edvard the day he had discovered bananacue. They had been by the Metro Rail Transit stop near her place. Stalls of tokneneng and bananacue had dotted the area, ready to feed hungry commuters for ten pesos. "The saba bananas are skewered on a barbecue stick, see, then deep fried in sugar," she had explained to Edvard, who wanted to try everything on the street. "The tokneneng are quail eggs deep-fried in orange batter." She had glowed with pride at his willingness to experience all that was Filipino.
Marivic decided to try Edvard's advice and chose a studio called Go Yoga on Pasong Tamo Avenue. The establishment's clean white and teal shades greeted her as she entered the reception area from the dusty street. She was surprised to run into Alexandra Roxas, a wealthy schoolmate from Marivic's younger years who had a sprawling mansion on McKinley Road. Had she entered the world of the super wealthy by choosing yoga?
Her father was suspicious of the whole endeavour, being the Episcopalian that he was. What was it about yoga, he would say. When they tell you to empty your mind, something else might come in, so be careful. Marivic shrugged that off. She was too modern for such superstition. Especially since she had a foreign boyfriend like Edvard, who believed in nothing.
Uniformed assistants tiptoed in with sprays for the rubber mats before class began. It smelled like a peppermint room in there. Maybe this wasn't going to be so bad.
Elena, their yoga teacher, began, "Let's bring our minds to the present moment, and draw away our thoughts from wandering. And for those who are new, know that yoga is a special time when spirits exit bodies beyond our regular sleeping hours." Marivic felt her heart leap into her throat at the news.
"Breathe in, breathe out," Elena whispered to the class. "Belly rises and belly falls," she continued in her colegiala accent. Their souls entered the room, floating over their mats. Marivic sensed a haze hover over the room as each person's life-force left them. She had heard that some people were able to see their spirits, in full colour and detail. Not that she could do that. Marivic wondered if she could ever lose her soul in public, like this. Spirit-leaving in bed at night was something so private. She shook off the shivers that rippled over her skin, focusing on the next task.
After several harrowing warrior poses and a series of what felt like never-ending downward dogs and sun salutation sequences, it was time for the staff pose, or dandasana. She stretched her body taut, every muscle tense and active, despite the pose looking so simple. They relaxed into the child's pose afterwards. Marivic allowed her muscles to fall into the mat beneath her as she relaxed.
Elena took them through a series to soften their spines before shavasana, the Corpse Pose. They drew their knees to their chests, apanasana, the downward-moving life force. Then feet went out and knees stayed bent. She grabbed her big toes with her fingers and stretched the inner muscles of her thighs into the happy baby pose. "Ananda balasana," Elena said, her voice like soothing eucalyptus that washed over the class. Marivic dropped deeper into the position, the line between her mind and body becoming clearer.
By Marivic's third month at Go Yoga, she tackled a headstand that she had been too afraid to try several lessons ago. Before she knew it, it was time for shavasana. The dead man's pose. Outside, she could hear the rattle of jeepneys, obstinate, not yielding to the fact that yoga required silence. She hated that there was no air-conditioning in the room. A film of perspiration settled over her, the air still. No wonder the manangs had to spray the scent of eucalyptus after every class.
Her spirit left her as she breathed into the corpse pose. Just a smidgen of her spirit left her body during those short breaths and pauses, smaller in form during meditation than when in slumber.
"Shavasana," Elena said the word like a sigh into the air.
Marivic's spirit drifted over her as Elena shut off the lights. She could feel the teacher standing next to her, like a shadow pressing against her. Her soul struggled to return whenever the corpse pose went on for too long, as if she had to work her way up from a deep well.
Fatigue began to shadow her after every class, and then some. It worsened over time, but she attributed it to the hot room and the physical exertion. Her thoughts wandered back to the possibility of misplacing one's spirit at the end of every corpse pose, from which she often fought to emerge.
What she didn't know was that Elena was a spirit eater. That was the trouble for a country that practised the custom of spirit-leaving on such a massive scale. Some secretly devoured other spirits. Teacher Elena had been tasting slivers of their souls long before Marivic had first come into class. It was difficult for anyone to notice. Elena drank from their spirits, as if sipping from a straw, like a whisper. Like a sip of kapeng barako. Like the tingi-tingi single cigarette sticks sold on the corner of Epifanio Avenue and McKinley Road during rush hour. No one noticed.
As Edvard's assignment in the Philippines approached its end, he noticed certain things in Marivic that his travel guidebook to the Philippines had mentioned. Her tiredness was one, as well as the cloudiness in her eyes.
One afternoon, as they watched the sunset on Manila Bay, he cupped her cheeks in his hands. What he saw made his heart constrict. Goose pimples raced over his arms, much like when he imagined those seaside cockroaches on the rocks below scuttling over his arms. Flecks of grey dotted Marivic's brown eyes, lacklustre patches that were not there before. His Discover Philippines book had mentioned spirit-leaving and the symptoms that befell those who were victims of soul devouring. They included ashen eyes. He referred often to his travel tome during his stay in Marivic's country, with its thick curtain of Asian customs he had difficulties seeing past at times.
He brought the travel manual to Marivic that evening, showing her the passages that outlined her symptoms. "There's something wrong with you, babe. This fatigue you've always got – it isn't the heat causing it." His lack of belief was, for the moment, thrown out the window.
"Are you sure you haven't encountered a spirit devourer somewhere?" Edvard asked as he paced the room. "And besides the grey in your eyes, have you had bouts of deafness? Because the book says that losing one's hearing is another symptom of getting your soul consumed by someone." She rolled her eyes at him.
"Your book sounds like hocus-pocus nonsense," she said, giving him her naughty smile and pouncing on him. As they tumbled across Edvard's bed, Marivic brushed off Edvard's concern. "There's no such thing as a spirit-devourer, babe. You're a man who believes in nothing, why would you listen to old wives' tales?" She sighed.
"Look, my yaya used to tell me bedtime stories of souls that never came back after a night of spirit-leaving gone wrong. But they're just stories that yayas – nannies – tell kids to scare them to sleep," she said, dismissing the topic.
A few weeks later, Alexandra fainted just as she stepped out of the teal and white reception area of Go Yoga. Isabella, another classmate, blacked out and collided with another car while driving down South Luzon Expressway after yoga.
But no Manileño was reading Edvard's travel guidebook for foreigners. The story of the spirit devourer was ignored and brushed aside. "Only probinsyanos believe in such things," Marivic had told Edvard.
Edvard didn't know what to do about her pallor and the grey in her eyes, but he was ready with a solution for how he felt about her.
"You know that my assignment here is ending, and I thought – maybe we could continue what we've started. This time, in my part of the world. What do you think? I could show you the fjords. Will you come with me?" He said it all in a rush at the end, not sure how Marivic would respond but hoping she would say yes.
She looked him in the eyes, her fingers sketching similar haloes over his arm in answer to his gesture and question. Despite the unknown that lay ahead of her, Marivic knew she belonged with Edvard, as sure as she was about the moon rising every night for spirit-leaving. "Yes," she said.
"You will love Norway's fjords. Wait till you see them!" Edvard said, his heart swelling in him, like the rush of the tide on Batanes's jagged coastline when night fell.
With her departure to Norway around the corner, Marivic bade farewell to her classmates at yoga. As her final class ended, she emerged from the depths of shavasana as if waking from the dead. Everyone in class sat up as they closed their practice with a soothing "Ohhhmmm." The sound rumbled in her chest as she brought both palms together in front of her heart. "We are echoing the sound of the universe," Elena said as the room vibrated with their voices.
Pasong Tamo Avenue was deserted when Marivic stepped out. She felt as if the power of gravity had multiplied since coming to yoga that afternoon. A cool darkness was descending on Metro Manila. A brief walk back to Paraiso Village awaited her.
The streets were hushed, which wasn't like the city. She walked towards Epifanio Avenue, where the underpass allowed her a connection towards home. She could get a bag of salted peanuts from the stand that was always there.
The silence persisted, which was odd. The city always had a song – the sound of jeepneys, the heartbeat of the metropolis. She walked and spotted a stall for tokneneng and another for Edvard's favourite bananacue. She decided against the peanuts, feeling the weight of her tote bag, wanting to get home. A jeepney drove past, and she noted with alarm that she could not hear a thing coming from its black exhaust pipe. Edvard had said that his Discover Philippines told of victims of spirit devourers losing their hearing. But that was impossible. Marivic's heart fluttered at the memory. She was imagining things, she told herself.
She entered her gated community, the land of safety. Just one step beyond a guarded gate and the streets were cleaner and the houses bigger.
Marivic chose a window seat that would take her from Manila to Hong Kong before her connecting flight to Europe. It was a short ride and would allow her a view of her country during their ascent. She had never left the Philippines for more than weeks at a time, until now. What would it be like to live with Edvard in Oslo for the next three months?
As other passengers arrived on board, Marivic took a look at herself in the plane's bathroom mirror. It was only then that she noticed the grey in her eyes that Edvard had pointed out. A wave of blackness swept over her and she had to reach out her hand for the cold bathroom sink to regain her balance.
She was shocked to feel traces of her soul seeping out of her, much like their spirits did during shavasana. But that wasn't supposed to happen when she was neither asleep nor meditating. Not when she was wide awake. She stared at herself in the mirror and saw it. For the first time. Wisps of her spirit seeping out of her mouth and nostrils. This wasn't supposed to be happening to her. Not now. Not when she was leaving.
She rushed to her seat, clicking the seatbelt closed around her waist, as if the act could ward off all things untoward from unravelling further.
But it was too late. Too much of her soul had gone to someone else.
The plane began to taxi. Then ascend. The sheer force of it pushed her flat against her seat. Filaments of her soul pressed back into her. But as Manila's city lights fell out of view, her breath caught in gasps. Her soul was leaking out of her as the plane took off. And there was nothing she could do about it.QLRS Vol. 21 No. 4 Oct 2022