Let’s look at the definition, of the Penanggal , or also known as the manananggal. It resembles a Western vampire, in being an evil, man-eating monster or witch. The myth of the manananggal is popular in the Visayan region of the Philippines, especially in the western provinces of Capiz, Iloilo, and Antique. There are varying accounts of the features of a manananggal. Like vampires, Visayan folklore creatures, and aswangs, manananggals are also said to abhor garlic and salt. They were also known to avoid daggers, light, vinegar, spices and the tail of a stingray, which can be fashioned as a whip. Folklore of similar creatures can be found in the neighbouring nations of Indonesia and Malaysia.
According to the folklore of that region, the Penanggalan is a detached female head capable of flying about on its own. As it flies, the stomach and entrails dangle below it, and these organs twinkle like fireflies as the Penanggalan moves through the night.Due to the common theme of Penanggal being the result of active use of black magic or supernatural means, a Penanggal cannot be readily classified as a classical undead being. The creature is, for all intents and purposes, a living human being during daytime (much like the Japanese Nukekubi) or at any time when it does not detach itself from its body. – wikipedia
And so we come to our story. When i was a little girl, My mother took me on a trip down to Negeri Sembilan on one of the school holidays. My Father, couldn’t get leave from work, so my mother and I went ahead on the train down to visit my Aunt, who was expecting her third child. My Aunt, was a Singaporean who married a Malaysian man. They set up a home on his property in Negeri Sembilan, in a Kampung. Their house was big and a tad more modernised than the usual rustic kampung houses along the lanes. (Partly the reason why i agreed, i was very particular about toilets . Kampung toilets, back then used to be detached from the house and a little further away than i would have liked. The rubber plantation next to the house, was vast . We had arrived during the day when it was scenic and cheerfully bright. I played with my cousins and ran around the farm, playing with chickens and chasing chicks.
All too soon, it became dark. For almost all villagers, Playtime stops just when it’s dusk. ALL sorts of creatures make their way out. Us, children were demanded back in the house to be clean up and ready for dinner. My Uncle came back from work, happy to see we’ve arrived safely. I was a little tired from the day and after dinner, i fell asleep, effortlessly. Being used to staying up late, i woke up after a few hours and saw the house cat, Cik Cing in the room.It was a dark grey female cat that loves children. I sat up and stroked and patted Cik Cing, comforted by her deep purrs.
I heard the adults, ,in the living room. at first, they were jesting and laughing. Then, after awhile, i couldn’t hear much. I strained to listen. Their voices were hushed and something told me, it was a serious topic. i edged closer to the chair in front of our room. “……it’s been going on for while now. Everyone has been told to stay inside the house at night. i can’t be home all the time at night now because i have a dateline at work. It should only be about 3-4 nights. i’m glad you came to help watch over your sister.” My Uncle sounded relieved after unloading off his chest. Peeking, i saw him gently rest the palm of his hand over her almost bursting stomach. My aunt was already in her 7th month.
Already in my mind, all sorts of ominous thoughts played like a reel in a movie. My Aunt’s pregnancy could attract the infamous Pontianak! Basing on what i heard, it sounds like the villagers were intent on keeping everyone safe from something after dark. Immediately i was excited by the thought i could get a chance, to see this . Of course, i didn’t want anything to happen to my aunt but i really wanted to see this Pontianak with my own eyes.
Looking back, i wish i had been very careful about what i would wish for. That night, i stayed up, feigning sleep when the adults came in to check. I stayed up for as long as i could, listening for anything out of the norm. Nothing.
Morning came and i set in at the back of my mind, knowing well, that my kampung cousins will just pollute my mind with all sorts of hearsay and i knew they were probably going to make up stories just to scare me so i hadn’t bothered to discuss with them. On a short walk out to the village store, we met a few neighbours along the way, The women, young and old, smiled and patted my aunt’s belly, asking how she was carrying on. Then, i saw a woman, she had olive skin and a charming smile. She looked like she was in a movie set. Adorned in a simple black kebaya and shimmery batik sarong that fitted her curves that would set tongues wagging. It was her lips, that stood out. Full, lush lips with a warrior red lipstick. I believed, i stopped walking for awhile.
In a Kampung, children’s curiosities were almost always ignored. Even if you questioned adults as nicely as possible, you won’t get what you’re looking for, so the most knowledgeable child, was usually the quietest. They’ve learnt that by keeping quiet, well behaved and practise an ability to blend in, they could listen in to the gossip and get to know exactly what they want to know.
That night, the kids set up the table for dinner and were told, Uncle wouldn’t be joining us. He had to work late and it just wasn’t worth the drive home. Tonight, however, was different from any other nights. It definitely wasn’t my imagination. The chickens were disturbingly noisy even after dusk.It was as if , they were restless. Cik Cing, couldn’t be found anywhere but we could hear her meows from under one of the barns. Aunt, was restless too. She kept herself busy but her mind, was further away from home.The evening prayers for the night was finished.It was about 8 o’clock when the animals finally quieten down. Cik Cing carried in her kittens, one by one, into the house and nestled them into a comfy clothed box in the corner. Aunt, went around the whole house, shutting all the windows. Mother and Aunt opened the Quran did some reading while the last of us kids, welcome the sleepiness. I couldn’t sleep. It was starting to get warm and it seemed like hours..i tossed and turned but i couldn’t sleep. My mind just returned to this afternoon’s picturesque lady. She was standing next to an empty makeshift stall an umbrella over her head. Her eyes, seem to smile as her sight fell upon my aunt.
I got up, walked over to the window and unlatched it. i just wanted a slight breeze, circulating the room. That was when i saw the blinking little white lights in the distance. Our room, was facing the rubber plantation and it was pitch dark, outside. i was sure, of what i saw. The hairs at the back of my neck and arms, stood, warning me that what was about to happen, was definitely not something good. The lights whooshed up towards our roof and i heard something being dragged across the roof. Mother and Aunt stopped. I snuck out and watched them. Aunt held on tightly to the Quran and Mother, reciting the holy verses while checking all the locks. The dragging sound stopped and all of us, stood, dead silent when we heard, a faint voice calling out my Aunt’s name. “… Gayah…. gayah….” It was a whimsical voice, like one, you’d imagine a pretty lady’s might have been. Soft, demure and inviting. My aunt covered her eyes. i clasped my hand over my mouth, my heart, racing . Then i heard a few soft taps.inching nearer and nearer, to the window i left open. I got up and raced to the window, latched the lock on but not before a foul, putrid stench filled the room.It smelled rusty, like blood. Like chicken when you just slaughtered it,only worse.Mother appeared from the doorway and pulled me away from the window, she got on her knee, looked me in the eyes and told me not to open any windows or doors. My Aunt, retreated into her room and locked herself in it. The front door suddenly rattled like someone desperately wanted to get in. The voice, hauntingly called out to my aunt again. Mother locked the door of our room and we scramble into bed, Mother muttering her prayers non stop.
My little cousin’s scream, yanked us both,right out of bed. Mother raced to Aunt’s room. The kids were crying and were unable to unlock the door. Mother told them to calm down and start to recite a particular verse which they all knew. Once they manage to recite it twice, my eldest cousin,opened the door. The front door ratted again . This time, the voices of a few men were heard, giving the greeting and calling out my Aunt’s name.Mother and i opened it and the Imam ( leader of a mosque and the Muslim community ) with another young man and an elderly lady walked in. My cousins and i were instructed to sleep and the adults would take care of things. I tried to ask my cousins what happened but the young man who sat guard at the entrance of our room told me to go to sleep. The imam came and handed us all a cup of water to drink and just like that, the next thing i knew, it was morning.
There didn’t seem to be much happening anymore and we left for home, shortly after.Aunt was well and had given birth to a baby boy a month later. My cousins only ever told me the youngest one screamed because they saw Aunt ‘asleep’ and there was something dark moving around near the foot of the bed.I tried asking Mother what happened but i knew she wasn’t going to tell me. It was only years later, was my thirst for the truth, quenched.
Aunt and family travelled down to Singapore for visits. Our family planned to head back up with them for a short holiday. As we reached the gates to the house, my mind, reeled back to that incident, now, a little vague. I met one of my cousin’s cousin, Ilah during our stay and we hit it off quite well. She had similar interests and was 2 years older than me. ( i never could get along with my own cousins and so did she).
We took off on bicycles to the village’s Nasi Lemak store and had a drink . She asked me what happened when i was around and i briefly told her what i remembered. She nodded and smiled. She told me, i would love what she was about to tell me.
Ilah’s aunt, was the elderly lady that came to my Aunt’s house that fateful night. What had been disturbing the village, wasn’t a Pontianak ( though there were a few in the vicinity) The true terror of the time that i was there, was a Penanggal. A year before i came for that visit, a young lady, Melati, moved into the village. She was always alone, naturally raising suspicions on what a beautiful young lady was doing here in the Kampung. Rumor has it, her husband came and dropped her off there to start setting down a new chapter in their lives. He was unable to stay with her as he had to finish some unsettled business in Kuantan and was unable to bring her along. He reckon he would be back in 3 months or so. He nver came back until the day, the villagers saw the last of Melati.
Melati was always dressed in a unique fashion. Her clothes, she would say, are given to her by her grandmother. She was never seen in simple t shirt or with her hair unfixed. She loved to tie her hair, so that there’s a ponytail that cascades down the side of her neck. She always had a clear face and she NEVER wore make up but she had the most intense eyes and luscious lips. Ilah said, her aunt used to call Melati a temptress. Ilah’s Aunt had a unmistakable bad vibe about Melati since the minute she set foot in the village.
Melati never worked during her stay there . She would always be sewing by the window at her home while looking out every now and then. Where she got the income to sustain herself, nobody knows. Her husband hadn’t shown up, Postman says they hadn’t delivered anything from or to her. Nobody else came to visit. Occasionally, she would take walks by the forests with a basket, plucking off fruits and veg. She sometimes sits for a very long time, down by the river, humming tunes to herself, villagers would say. Nobody saw her at the market or at the grocers and nobody noticed no laundry was hung out after wash to be dried. Still, Melati was a warm character who’s generous with your ‘how do you dos , hi and hellos ‘. Not sociable but not ignorant enough to make enemies out of anyone.
During that year, pregnant women, complained of lethargy and insect bites. The midwives went about handling their business more solemnly than usual. Believing there’s more to this, than meets the eye.
Everything became a little more tense when Siti, a woman, who was having contractions, suddenly experienced a miscarriage when the midwife steps out to get a basin of warm water. Her baby was missing the lower half of his limbs.
Word got out, in hushed undertones, that there was bloodthirsty penanggal and villagers were taking turns walking around in pairs or more, keeping tabs on situation. The bites that the women claimed, were not that of any common village insect or pest. It looked like their toes have been pierced by fangs.
That night, As the Imam, Aidil and Ilah’s Aunt were making their rounds, they saw something flew from Melati’s house toward the rubber plantation. aidil, pointed out teh blinking lights and the Ilah’s aunt, recognized it as one of the characteristics of a Penanggal.The three of them knocked on Melati’s door. There was no answer. They decided to hasten to the location of the last place they say the flying object at. That’s when they came upon Aunt.
Ilah overheard, after her Aunt came back, that the Penanggal was trying to feed off Aunt and that it was attracted to the blood of women , close to labor. They had found Aunt, unconscious and they caught sight of the penanggal in it’s full glory, flying out of the open door as they tried to corner it. They had to revive Aunt first. She woke after the Imam recited some verses and Ilah’s aunt washed Aunt’s face with water. Aunt had no recollection of the incident. The last thing she remembered was an open window. Aidil brought up something unusual too. He mentioned in their haste to leave for where the penanggal was headed, he noticed Melati’s body behind a wall. He could only see up to her waist. The rest was blocked by the curtain. That’s strange. Why hadn’t she answered the greetings if she were at home?
They pieced everything together and strengthened the recitation of holy verses around the whole house before they left and once again, after Dzuhur when Mother brought all of us out for lunch.
A month later, when Aunt was about to give birth, Ilah’s aunt, took over the task of being Aunt’s midwife. She kept watch over Aunt and Uncle assisted her during the birth. The imam , aidil and a couple more villagers, sat in the courtyard, reciting prayers. The Penanggal put up quite a fight, determined for the sweet blood of the child and mother’s. My cousins were whisked off to Ilah’s house. The Penanggal was wreaking havoc on the roof top and constantly screamed in agony as the prayers got louder and louder. At this point, Aidil and two other, hurried over to Melati’s and tried to get her to answer the door. After ten minutes, a flustered Melati swung open the door, looking as if she was completely unready for visitors. Her hair, was unkempt, her appearance, disheveled and her eyes, bloodshot red. It was the worst, anyone has ever seen her. “APA KAU MAU? JANGGAN GANGGU AKU!” ( What do you want? Do not disturb me!) and with that, she slammed the doors shut and switched off the lights. Aidil gathered she must have flew back to dispose their suspicions. When they got back to Aunt’s, she had already given birth. Imam said, the Penanggal had stopped for awhile and just as he mentioned it, It flew right over their heads, screaming nto the night.
The next day, They visited Melati’s , in the guise of inviting her to the cukur rambur ceremony. ( newborn ceremony) It had appear that she had uprooted and left. Not one item of clothing or trace of her existence was there. The next door neighbour said, she saw Melati with her bags, leaving in a huff, in a proton driven by the same man that sent her there. The man, rumored to be her husband. After further inspection, the Imam, remain tight lipped whether their conclusion was confirmed or not but ever since that day, there were no Penanggal disturbances. Life in the little village, resumed normally after.
I remembered the lady i saw at the makeshift stall and wondered if that was Melati i saw.