Ghost Moon Night, 1881
The boy waited on the steps of a hut, slapping lazily at mosquitoes. His water buffalo, tethered by its nose ring to a coconut tree trunk, made a rhythmic swishing noise with its tail. The warm evening breeze smelled of the sea and of salted fish hung to dry.
Inside the hut, the voices of grown-ups were animated, punctuated by a booming laugh. Sometimes they broke out in song, accompanied by the boy’s father on the guitar.
There was no moon. Ghost Moon Night, they called it. Beyond the lamplight spilling on the ground from the hut’s open windows and door, the ocean was the blackest of blacks. The boy couldn’t see the water, but he could hear it.
It lapped at the fishing boats that were pulled in for the night. It hissed as it fanned out on the sand. It gurgled as it got sucked back into the depths of the sea.
As the night wore on, the boy fell asleep, leaning against the door’s bamboo frame. A scraping noise woke him. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and squinted.
Could it be some sort of animal? He looked long and hard into the darkness, but could see nothing. Getting off the steps, he moved closer to the water.
Fear seized his throat.
Four men crouched beside a boat, putting it out to sea. They appeared to be carrying bundles. The boy thought he heard a chicken squawking. A piglet squealing.
Maybe he should just pretend he couldn’t see this. But his father would want to know.
The boy crept up the hut steps, entered the tiny salas and faced a roomful of adults. Their brows came together at the intrusion. His father’s hand paused mid-strum on his guitar.
“Piratas,”the boy said. Pirates.
One of the villagers said the moonless night was so dark, the pirates saw nothing in the open water – not the four boats or the guns turned upon them – until it was too late. A pirate even tried to swim away, but someone caught him in a fishnet like a tilapia.
The boy squeezed his way through the crowd lining the main road and joined his father. Villagers tied the pirates’ wrists with thick rope and prodded them with bamboo poles. In the torch light, their skin looked oily and had colorful marks on them.
“They’re tribal tattoos,” the boy’s father said. “They don’t worship our god, I can tell you that.”
“Who do they worship?” someone asked.
The boy shuddered.
The guardia civil took the pirates to the jail while the village chief and his councilmen, who included the boy’s father, decided their fate in a little thatched-roof hut on stilts over the water.
Just under the back window, the boy eavesdropped.
“This is the fourth time they’ve sent raiders,” one man said. “I think we need to do something more permanent than just lashing them and sending them back out to sea.”
“They’re stealing only animals now,” agreed another. “What if, next time, they steal our women? Or our children?”
The boy imagined an island of devil-worshippers huddled around a bonfire, holding him and his mother captive. He pressed closer to the side of the hut, thinking the night seemed even darker.
“There will be no next time,” the chief said.
There was silence, then the boy’s father said, “What? Shall we execute them?”
“We won’t exactly execute them,” came the chief’s reply. “We’ll just leave them to drown.”
The boy’s heart pounded. What had he done? He wanted the pirates to be punished – like Manuel Cruz, who they lashed to a boulder for three days for beating up another man – not killed.
“I’ve been to their island,” someone said. “A typhoon destroyed their harvest. They’re starving.”
“So would we if we don’t curb their attacks,” the chief said.
The boy watched as villagers dragged the four men to the beach. One of the men begged, “Maawa na po kayo sa amin!” Have mercy on us!
A kerosene lamp on a bamboo pole cast a yellow glow over a cavernous hole. Someone chained the pirates’ hands behind them and attached those chains to a huge rock. Then the villagers buried the men in the sand to their necks.
Through all this, the leader didn’t say anything. The boy expected him to be angry, but he just looked around. His glance lit upon the boy. “I have a son your age,” he said.
The boy shrank back. Was the pirate really talking to him? Thankfully, his father stood between them and said, “Be quiet.”
I have a son your age.The words rattled in the boy’s brain.
He felt his father’s hand on his shoulder. “Come,” the father said, “it’s high time we went home.”
As they walked away, the boy asked his father, “Are we really going to let them drown?”
The boy shivered.
They paid one last visit at the village chief’s house and another hour passed. Two. Restless, the boy slipped out and went to the beach. He hid himself behind a coconut tree trunk.
A lone guardia civil, smoking a little stub of a cigarillo, sat on a bench facing the sea. Water swirled around his boots. He tossed the stub into the rising water, and looked over his shoulder, patting his shirt pocket.
“No more cigarettes?” one of the pirates said.
“I have one, but you’ll have to dig for it,” said another.
“Hush,” the leader told the others. To the guard, he said, “If you let us go, I’ll tell you where there’s treasure.”
“I don’t want your treasure,” the guard said. He patted his pocket once again, glanced at the prisoners, and walked away.
“Where do you think he’s going?” a pirate said.
“To get more cigarettes, most likely. Quick, pull on the chains.”
The boy decided he’d eavesdropped enough. His father would be looking for him. He moved away from the tree and tripped over a coconut, falling face-first. He lay on his stomach, trembling.
Please, don’t let them hear me. Please, don’t….
But the leader said, “I’m so glad you’ve come.”
The boy raised himself to a kneeling position.
The leader said, “Are you that boy I talked to earlier?”
Getting up, the boy walked to the tree and barely peeked around it.
“I hoped you’d come,” the leader said, smiling. “You look just like my son. How old are you?”
“Eight,” the boy said.
“Ah, yes. Like the son I left behind with his mother.” He paused. “His mother is sick. She probably won’t survive the night if I don’t return soon. And then my boy will be left all alone.”
The pirate’s voice was soft, pleasant. Not the voice of someone who would take women and children away from their families.
“Help me save my son,” the leader whispered. “Please.”
The boy found a foot-long plank of wood and dragged it to the beach. Surf rolled to the boy’s ankles. To the pirates’ necks.
He started digging, shoving the plank into the sand and scooping what he could. Two scoops. Three. And then the waves returned, washing off traces of his work. The boy tried digging again, but this time, the waves didn’t only erase the hole, it knocked the plank out of his hands. He scrambled and caught it before it could float out to sea.
By now, water reached the pirates’ ears. Slopped over their mouths. “Dig faster,” one pirate said, but the leader told him to be quiet. “The guard might hear,” the leader said.
The boy dug faster, making a bigger hole, before a wave came crashing. It ripped the plank from the boy’s hands and sent him stumbling face first into the water. He sputtered to the surface. The water reached to about his waist.
At first, he couldn’t see the pirates. Then the sea sucked the water back, revealing their heads. Gagging, coughing. Moving their heads about wildly. Twisting their shoulders.
Without the plank, the boy could only use his hands to dig. He scooped out as much as he could until a wave came, cutting off a pirate in mid-scream. The boy tumbled and slammed against a tree trunk, bumping into coconuts that swirled around his body.
He gasped as he broke the water’s surface and wiped the water from his eyes. For several seconds, he couldn’t see the pirates. Maybe they were already drowning. The boy heard them thrashing, like fish in a net, until the wave drained back into the sea.
Two of the pirates’ heads lolled back. One pirate quivered like a beached fish. A violent coughing and desperate gasps racked the leader’s body. His glance flickered over the boy.
“I’m sorry,” the boy said.
“You tried. And for that, I thank you.”
Suddenly, the pirate flung his head back, his eyes glimmering with hatred. Frightened, the boy sat back on his haunches. The man spoke words in another tongue. Low and rhythmic, like the beating of a drum. Then he said, in Tagalog, the boy’s dialect, “I curse this village. Once a month, on Ghost Moon Night, evil spirits will rise again.”
The boy looked at the sky, but nothing happened.
“Come here,” the pirate told the boy, his voice soft once more. “Now, before it’s too late!”
The boy knelt close. His heart hammered as he listened to things that made his eyes grow wide. He nodded and listened some more until a giant wave, taller than twice the boy’s height, devoured the beach like a starving beast.
The guard found the boy, curled up and crying, on the little strand of sand that sloped up to the nearest huts. One of the baranggay councilmen ran to join them. “This is my son,” the councilman said. “What happened?”
“I just got back myself,” the guard said, “to check on the prisoners.” He looked at the knee-high water that had been a beach earlier. And now, a pirate graveyard.
The boy’s eyes looked bleak. “One had a son.”
The father reached for the boy’s arm, but the boy stopped crying and stared at the sky.
“So it’s true,” the boy whispered. “What the pirate said was true.” Scrambling to his feet, he shouted, “Run!” and headed for the huts.
The guard followed the boy’s gaze. At first, he saw nothing but a dark night sky dusted with pinpricks of stars. Some stars twinkled. Several flapped their wings.
There were dozens of them. Winged creatures with decaying skin, long black tongues, claws and unblinking eyes. The pirates led the contingent.
What were these creatures?
The father ran, and the guard tried, too, but tripped over a washed-up log. He scrambled to his feet only to be surrounded by the pirates. Their wings flapped slowly.
How could this be, por Dios Santo? They had drowned! And those wings!
Fingernails rasped against the guard’s pants pocket as one of the pirates took out his cigarette sticks. “Here,” the pirate said, stuffing one cigarette after another into the guard’s mouth, until some fell out of his trembling lips. Then the pirate touched the guard’s face.
Sharp claws nicked the guard’s skin, scraped his stubble. He felt a cold, stinging sensation, colder than anything he’d ever experienced. Like ice from when the gobernador hosted that fiesta in the capital. Even colder than that. The guard tried to back away, but the pirates pressed against him on all sides. A hand gripped his jaw like a vise.
The cold seeped from the pirate’s hand to the guard’s face, down to his tongue which felt thick and useless, and down his neck to his chest, where his heart contracted painfully. He heard laughter, as though it were coming from a long tunnel.
The cigarettes fell out of his lips as he slumped onto the sand.
Intrigued? Join the Ghost Moon Night Book Launch Party!