The plot of land on which my parents’ house sits was, I think, purchased by his parents for their surviving children back when the area was still nothing but rice paddies and the entire gated subdivision was a notional area with a plotted out map that featured roads that didn’t exist yet. My father wanted the spot that was the end of the road, given that he tended to deal with lots of people and wanted a place that, when he went home, he could have peace and quiet. So we lived on one side of a dead-end cul-de-sac, and the wall that was the border of the village as well as the end of the road was further made inaccessible by virtue of a creek.
While we were away from the Philippines, that notional subdivision started being developed. The subsection we are in, called Phase 4, is one of the oldest ones there, but even that area still had lots of empty plots filled with grassy reeds and tended to develop into lakes which had fish in them. After our stint in Germany, Dad decided to have a house built on the plot of land that was his.
There was a squatter on our land, an older fellow who agreed to leave when he found out that the place was going to be developed. He pleaded with us though not to tear down the mango tree that he had planted there. It was a tall tree and was going to bear much fruit, and my mother was delighted to have a fruit tree, so it was no hardship for us to promise it wouldn’t be cut down. I don’t know what happened to the squatter; but the hut he’d built was gone the first time I’d gone to visit the place, and the house was in the process of being built.
It was through the construction workers that we found out various stories that filtered in from the folks who lived in the area. Things like, that the man who had squatted there was either a mangkukulam (curse-maker) or an albularyo (faith healer/charm-maker/shaman) and that the tree had been planted as part of some magic. Rumors abound that he had helped abort someone’s unwanted baby, and that the corpse had been buried on the land and the tree planted atop of it. The construction workers were afraid to keep working in the night because they would see the ghostly figure of a woman dressed in white standing by the road near the tree, or standing next to the tree, or sitting in the tree’s branches. The tree itself gave them the creeps.
I don’t have any memory of the tree being creepy or scary at all. I was delighted to see the tree; I looked forward to being able to climb up its branches and sit in it and read, the way I had done long ago when I was a kid, in my Lola Iling’s mango tree. Apparently my mother also felt no creepiness from the tree, but one of our yayas,* Ate Vilma said there was a spirit there. I sort of remember that they made an offering of food to ‘introduce’ us, and she may have ‘talked’ to the spirit of the tree to let us know we were going to live there.
My mother and some yayas would go there while the construction work was being done, to make sure it was being done. A bench was put under the tree where they could sit, and often they would sit there, with snacks like boiled salt eggs and tomatoes bought from the sari sari store, and cola. They would also bring food for the construction workers to eat.
It took a long time for the house to be built, and during that time the mango tree bore fruit. Some of the construction workers tried to climb the tree to get at some of the green mangoes, but no sooner had they climbed up the first branches, would they get so dizzy that they’d almost fall out of the tree. Ate Vilma scolded them when they reported that, saying they should have asked permission to get fruit first! From either my mother, or the tree, preferably both. The ones who obeyed this injunction were able to climb the tree without risking a fall, the ones who scoffed at her advice as superstitious nonsense ignored it at their peril. I don’t think they tried to climb the tree without asking permission more than once. Some of them also would have a sighting of the lady in white, which in some cases had a man quit in sheer terror.
But the house got built and eventually we moved in. One of the former construction workers stayed on, with his wife and daughter, in what had been the shack, squatting on the land across from our home. (He was sort of allowed to stay there for a while, and when he was asked to leave, my mother allowed him to build a little hut on an empty part of the property, in exchange for yard work and occasional heavy lifting, and his wife worked as a laundry woman while he did construction work at some of the other houses being built in the area.)
The tree saw fit to bear so many mangoes that they more closely resembled giant bunches of grapes. A stiff breeze would bring about a rain of sweet, ripe mangoes, to the delight of the chickens. The wind also made it too difficult for the large red ants that liked to make nests in mango trees to make a nest, so for some seasons we did not have them and I happily would climb the tree, a pocketbook and pocket knife in my shorts and sit, eating a firm, sweet mango in one hand and reading in the other. So comfortable was our beloved tree to sit in, that one afternoon a friend of mine came to visit, found we weren’t home and decided to climb the tree (asking permission first!) and enjoy the view, and fell asleep! My mother and I came home, and found her in restful slumber.
I was in my late teens and if memory serves me correctly, I was in college at the time. It was a fine, breezy weekend afternoon, and the mango tree was raining her blessings upon us. Mom and I were whiling the afternoon away in the dining room, enjoying the breeze andhaving meandering conversations about books and my schoolwork. I decided to get a basin to get some of the freshly fallen mangoes, which would make for a perfect snack.
I crouched, facing away from the road, and started picking up mangoes, which were mostly still firm, but had golden skins that made my mouth water with the sweet perfume of the fruit. I must have only picked up six when a pair of white shoes appeared in front of me. Sneakers, jogging shoes, runners – that type. White and expensive looking.
Surprised, I looked up. In front of me was a young girl, perhaps twelve or fourteen years old. She wore pale blue capri-style denim pants, and a pale grey top with 3/4 length sleeves. Around her shoulders the shirt had a geometric pattern of pinks and greyish purple. Her hair was straight and very black, and fell in a slight curve to her shoulders, with bangs over her eyes, and she wore a thin headband of the palest pink. She had very pale, that milky-white complexion that said that she was a mestizo, perhaps with Chinese and Spanish ancestry. She was quite a pretty girl, and with her dark eyes and rosy pink lips, she was smiling down at me.
I looked over my shoulder at the street, in case someone had driven up and I hadn’t noticed. There were no new cars on the street, and there was, frankly, no way she could’ve walked up the gravel pathway from our gate without making noise, and it was about then I started thinking ‘This is not a human girl.’ I turned back toward the stranger, and noticed that she cast a shadow. I looked up at her again. “Hello,” I said. “Can I help you?”
The girl smiled a bit wider and tilted her head slightly to one side. Her hands, which had been at her side, swung behind her so she could clasp them behind her hips.
I blinked. “What’s your name? Are you visiting? Those clothes are too hot. Would you like a drink? My mom’s inside the house, we could have a snack.”
The girl only smiled even happier, her eyes crinkling with, well, joy. She radiated happiness, delight, and love.
I’d been deliberately blinking my eyes, to make sure she wasn’t an illusion. I also glanced down a couple of times to check that she had a shadow, just as I did. Despite this, she stayed there. Then suddenly, between one blink and the next, she vanished. One moment she was smiling down at me, and the next, she was no longer there. The tree rustled above me, as if laughing. I picked up enough mangoes to fill the basin, and went back inside.
My mother looked surprised. “Oh, I thought one of your friends had come to visit! Who were you talking to?”
I told her what had happened, and she said she got goosebumps. “I think that was the White Lady of the mango tree,” my Mom said.
I agreed with her. “She must have been very happy to see us enjoying her fruit.”
Mother asked me if I had felt anything even vaguely ominous or threatening, and I said no. I felt only love, joy, happiness, and the breeze. The girl gave no hint that she meant any kind of harm.
We chatted about the Lady of the tree for a bit, and I noted that it was quite strange that she was so young. Mom then told me that the person who had planted the tree said it was still a fairly young tree. She also told me about some of the stories and rumors about there having been an aborted baby buried under the tree. For reasons we really couldn’t explain, the aborted baby story did not feel ‘true’ – even though we had no reason to discount it.
My Mom related the story to Ate Vilma, who had gone back to the province to help with the harvest season. Ate Vilma told her that the girl was the spirit of the tree, and she had shown herself to us because the tree thought we weren’t ‘bad people.’
As a thank you to the spirit, we bought her an offering of mamon, which we buried at the roots of the tree, and Mom and I ate mamon under the tree.
Over time, we started getting what we called ‘impressions’ – images, or emotions, that we felt were the spirit’s way of communicating with us. They did not happen often, and usually expressed a positive emotion. (Very rarely did she express dislike; and only rarely to deny someone access to her branches.) Before a particularly strong storm season, I got ‘told’ to trim her branches, and seized by this urgent ‘need’ to trim them, I went out and bought the tools to do so. I felt great distress while having to do it, and I kept apologising to the tree, but I kept getting a ‘response’ of ‘it’s okay, it’s necessary.’ The subsequent typhoons uprooted some of the other trees in our area, and despite the concerns of our neighbours that our tree might fall, she didn’t.
Every so often, we’d still be told that someone would see a ghostly woman in white at our end of the street; but we understood that by being ‘scary’, the Lady was protecting us. Our home was never broken into; in fact, by this point our home had a reputation of being haunted. Yet many of our visitors would remark about how peaceful and restful our home felt, as if they weren’t visiting a part of the city, but rather had the air of being out in the province.
My brother saw a woman in white one evening as he came home from work, many years later. He turned to our road and saw a beautiful young woman dressed in white – he described her wearing a nurse student’s uniform – exit from our gate and walk past him with a smile. When he came inside he found my mother, myself and our maid watching TV.
“Say, who was the vistor? I didn’t recognise her,” he said by way of greeting.
“The nurse’s student,” he said. “I thought she was visiting Mom, or you.”
We told him that we hadn’t had any visitors, and that it must’ve been the White Lady.
“She’s all grown up now,” Mom remarked. The maid related having heard someone walking up and down the street in high heels.
The mango tree spirit did not like it if people would use a pole to harvest her fruit without permission. Occasionally, we would get reports of neighborhood children or adults doing so, then suffering belly cramps or a bad case of the runs after eating the mangoes.
You’d think they’d have learned by now; but we still get the occasional rude thief, and then the story of someone having belly trouble filters back to us.
I rather miss the mango tree, and sometimes ask my mom to pass on that I miss her, or to make offerings on my behalf.
After I moved overseas, the mango did not bear fruit that year and the next. So I gather the feeling is quite mutual. The years I lost my youngest sons, the tree did not flower, or put out so few flowers and fruit that it seemed that she too, mourned our losses.
It may seem strange to the reader that I speak of the tree as if it were a friend, a person. To us, really, she is.
Perhaps one day when I am satisfied with a drawing of the girl I saw that sunny afternoon, I will append it to this story.
Notes on translation and culture
Construction workers – it is not uncommon for the construction workers to live on-site while a dwelling is built. They build a shack where they sleep, eat, and serve as a deterrent from construction materials and tools from being stolen. It is much cheaper for them to do this than it would be to go home every day as it would cut into their earnings. In the case of the construction workers who were hired to build our house, they were allowed the use of the toilet by a neighbor, and some of them would sleep in the car bay.
Mamon- A very light, spongy buttery cake, usually the size of a teacup saucer.
Mestizo – Person of mixed heritage, a term that dates back from the time of Spanish colonisation. At the time it referred specifically to those who were of mixed Spanish-Filipino descent, but has expanded to include Chinese-Filipinos, American-Filipinos, and so on – essentially, being of FIlipino and Foreign parent and descent. For example, my children are mestizos, specifically, Australian mestizos. In colloquial use however, Filipinos might refer to Eurasians who are not Filipino either as mestizo, simply referring to someone in description who is of mixed ethnic descent. It is also used as a description of someone’s appearance, the same way someone would describe a person being ‘Eurasian in looks.’
Sari-sari store – literally, ‘variety store’ – usually a small family run store that sells things like soft drinks/soda, various canned goods, snacks, condiments, kitchen staples, salted eggs and occasionally vegetables like tomatoes, potatoes, onions and garlic, some minor stationary like writing pads, pens and pencils, and cheap junk foods and candy. They’re the equivalent of neighborhood corner stores, but in some cases every street will have at least one. The larger ones will be closer to the corner stores that are more familiar sights in Western countries, but be smaller than proper groceries.
Yaya – nursemaid, nanny/maid – female household help, usually brought in to help the wife of the household mind the children and the household. The youngest ones are hired as teenagers, usually the relatives of someone else already working as hired help for the family or extended family. The best yayas might end up staying on in the household even after their ward has moved out of the house because they’re such a fixture of the family environment retiring or ejecting one is much akin to getting rid of a beloved auntie. Sometimes when their wards have children of their own, they’ll go right back to helping raise the next generation, cooing over what may be the grandchildren of their own hearts. The ones we had ended up going back to my maternal grandmother’s employ but came back to help us when we moved back from Germany.