By Bill Sands
© 2021 by the author
“Confound these flies!”
Father Bevans slapped his thigh angrily and motioned towards the knapsack on my shoulder. “Martin, the pouch, and be quick about it.”
“It’s in the outermost pocket, Father,” I said as I tossed the bag over, grateful for the opportunity to catch my breath and wipe the sweat from my brow. Three hours of hiking had yet to make the mountain before us appear any closer and the Philippine sun, even in the late hours of the afternoon, burned hot. The tall grass of the plains, which seemed to stretch endlessly before us, tossed and turned lazily in the slight breeze. I longed for the cold subterranean air of our tavern’s basement back on the mainland.
Father Bevans pulled a small tube of pinkish liquid from my bag and rolled up his tunic, exposing an even pinker patch of flesh. “Little devils seem to have found a way into my robe,” he muttered as he slathered the balm onto his palms and rubbed his leg vigorously. “Are you quite certain this soothes the burn of their bite?”
“I believe so, Father. At least, Simmons seemed quite certain about its potency, and he’s more worldly a fellow than either of us.”
Father Bevans grunted and I could not tell if it was in thanks or disapproval. We had arrived in Manila three weeks prior and his surly demeanor, to which I had earlier attributed to seasickness, had quickly proved to be his permanent state of being. A few months on a hot boat would be enough to leave anyone in a foul temper, but it had been almost a month of work and his mood had yet to improve. The night before my departure, Cardinal Kilbourn had pulled me aside after Mass and warned me about the “Mad Badger,” as Bevans was known around the diocese. He had made vague allusions to “a spot of trouble in Africa” but refused to elaborate, instead urging me to remember that beneath the cantankerous exterior beat the heart of a true man of God.
“How far to the village?” barked Father Bevans, snapping me out of my moment of reverie.
I held the map close to his face, mindful of his poor eyesight, and drew a line with my finger. “We’re somewhere near here, Father, and Calaguas should be just about there.”
“’Should’ be? You mean you don’t even know where the damn place is?”
“Cagayan de Sulu may be a small island, but it remains largely unexplored, especially the plains of the southern-most regions where the village is located. At least, that’s what Simmons told me last night.”
“Simmons,” spat Father Bevans, “That charlatan? Trotting the globe, pissing away his inheritance, and for what? Adventure? Glory? As if either could be found here.”
I scowled, feeling a duty to defend the man who had been such an amiable drinking partner just two nights prior. “While I agree that Mr. Simmons could almost certainly find more practical, not to mention spiritual, uses for his father’s fortune, his wealth of knowledge concerning Manila and her surrounding islands has been invaluable to the Church. Were it not for our discussion over dinner, we would never have learned about Calaguas.”
Father Bevans snorted and began walking again. “And what a tragedy that would have been! It would be a pity to be falling asleep in a warm bed to the sound of a crackling fire right now, instead tramping through these fields and being eaten alive by insects.”
I considered hiking on without continuing the argument, but the thought of another two hours of silence in the growing dark compelled me to speak. “Would you like to know what Simmons told me about the inhabitants of Calaguas?”
Father Bevans offered no reply, so I continued. “It began when I proposed a wager about the likelihood of us converting the Calaguans. Simmons smiled and told me that for my own sake, he hoped our faith would be enough to protect us. This of course intrigued me, and I asked him to elaborate. He explained that the village’s isolation is no accident. It is an intentional choice made by the other inhabitants of Cagayan de Sulu, as it would seem that the Calaguans are not altogether human and instead belong to a race known as the Berbalangs.”
“Berbalangs?” said Father Bevans with a scoff. He trudged on and though I couldn’t see his face, it wasn’t hard to imagine the look of concentration as he tried to think of a suitable insult to convey his distaste.
When it became apparent he would not be able to find such a remark, I continued. “Berbalangs are a kind of ghoul, and the Cagayans desperately fear them. Simmons insists that tales of their ferocity are central to the island’s mythology. They have the same size, shape, and proportions as any man, save for their eyes, which have thin slits instead of conventional pupils. Like those of a cat.”
“Hardly seems terrible. What makes these ‘Berbalangs’ so dreadful?”
Beneath the scorn, I could read a subtle hint of interest in my fellow priest’s voice. I explained, “The Cagayans believe they feed on the flesh of the deceased. The human deceased. You may have noticed how few cemeteries there are on this island, this is because the Cagayans hide their burial sites so as to avoid the attention of these terrors. But that wasn’t the worst of it. Though the concealing of corpses can deter Berbalangs, these creatures are persistent, and are more than capable of generating their own supply of freshly deceased bodies.
“Berbalangs are unique predators. When the urge for human flesh strikes them, they retreat to the tall grasses of the plains and hide their physical bodies. They then project an astral form, a separation of spirit and body, in their search for prey. The exact process is unknown, or at least Simmons was unable to find anyone willing to divulge such information, but the end result is quite the spectacle. With their spirits untethered, Berbalangs are free to roam, and even fly, about the island in search of victims. The demons make a moaning noise when hunting, which is loud from a distance but dies away to a feeble rattle when in close proximity. Simmons related several stories in which Cagayans claimed to have heard the sound of their wings and seen the flashing lights of their eyes, which he described as looking like angry red fire-flies in the night sky. Berbalangs will hunt until they find a victim, at which point the begin feeding on the entrails and- “
“Enough!” shouted Father Bevans. “I’ve no time for this savage superstition. First it was the Zulus in the Sahara with their damn Tokoloshe and now this? Island ghosts? Check the bloody map and tell me how close we are to the village.”
There was no mistaking it the second time; it was evident that my tale had aroused Father Bevans’ interest, and potentially even his fear. “My apologies, Father. It’s just an idle tale, meant to keep children in line. I didn’t mean to- “
The urgency in Father Bevans’ voice silenced me. It went beyond irritation, it was true, genuine fear. For the first time since our departure, the notion of just how far from home we truly were began to sink in. Cagayan de Sulu was an outcrop on an outcrop. We were two measly missionaries alone on a plain of waist-high grass in a forgotten corner at the farthest reach of Her Majesty’s empire, the seat of which was several thousand miles and one very long boat ride away. “Father Bevans, I think I hear something.”
“Shut your mouth, Father Graves! Listen, it’s to the east of us.”
The use of my formal title perturbed me further. I held my breath and craned my neck in the direction indicated, and that was when I heard the moans. It was impossible to count the individual voices, all I could say was that there were many. A thick line of trees marked the start of the jungle and it was from this patch of green that the sounds seemed to emanate. The moans were sharp and inconsistent; they started high and keen and then tapered off to a dull whine, only to rise again in volume and intensity.
After a period of time that could have been seconds, minutes, or hours, I heard Father Bevans mutter, “Softer, they’re getting softer…”
I listened with greater intensity and felt my heart begin to beat faster. Father Bevans was correct; the moans were undoubtedly growing fainter by the second. “It’s been a long day, sir, you must be exhausted. Why don’t you lie down for a moment?” I began pulling out a canteen when Father Bevans grabbed my arm.
“Silence! And get down, now!”
He plunged us down into the tall grass. From his knees, he grabbed the nearest stalks and held them still. “They mustn’t find any trace of us. Martin, did Simmons say anything about how the Cagayans ward off these fiends?”
“A cocoa-nut pearl is the most effective remedy, but they’re exceedingly difficult to find. In a pinch, a knife smeared with lime juice can be used to fight them off, but I haven’t got any limes. Do you, Father?”
Father Bevans bit his fist to stifle a sob. “We have no choice then. Keep your head down, and run only when I tell you to.”
I began to reply but my throat froze at the sound of wings growing closer. I looked at Father Bevans and he nodded when our eyes met. Too scared to breathe, I willed myself not to move. The buzz of thick wings was all around us. I tried to tell myself it was just the same flies before, but this was a heavier sound. The noise was coming from all around us, as if we were being circled. Something flew directly over our heads and I saw Father Bevans shudder involuntarily.
The buzzing began diminishing and I tapped Father Bevans’ leg as gently as possible. Equally faintly, he shook his head. “No running, not yet. They may not have seen us,” he whispered. And then I heard it.
It was a sick voice, overflowing with disease, pain, and death. My name was not spoken so much as it was exhaled from a dying body.
“Come heeeeere, Marty.”
I was on my feet sprinting before my mind realized it. My only thought was putting as much distance between myself and that voice as possible. I pelted along the plain with long strides. I thought nothing of the heat, the treacherous terrain, or my own fatigue. I heard the moaning again, but whether it was real or simply my own memory, I could not say. It was getting louder and after a hot flash of panic, I remembered my own legend and laughed aloud. These Berbalangs were contrarians, and the ever-louder moans were proof that my escape was successful.
The ground before me rose up into one of the few hills on the island, which I ascended in mere seconds. At the peak, I could see into the valley below and a tiny one-room stone structure caught my eye. I remembered passing a goat herder on our trek to Calaguas who had mentioned he had a modest farm. Seeing no other shelter, I sprinted down the hill and approached the structure. I stumbled and for a moment, I was convinced something had emerged from the earth to grab my ankle. Looking at my feet, I saw I had stepped in a patch of fresh dirt, recently dug from the ground. The land before the building had several such patches and, wary of a twisted ankle, I completed the final leg of the journey using agonizingly slow and careful steps.
Having traversed the shaky ground, I scrambled into the building and threw the door shut behind me. I slumped on the floor, my back to the door, and fought to catch my breath and hold back tears. After the chaos of the plains, the calm of the house was unsettling. There was no one inside with me, nor any signs of recent life. A thick coating of dust covered the table in the center of the room. Two humble wooden chairs, looking equally untouched, lay on the ground. It was silent save for my own frantic breathing.
I took several deep breaths and opened the door a sliver to poke my head outside and listen. Nothing. No moaning, no whispers, only an occasional chirp from one of the island’s many indigenous birds. The sun had fully set and darkness engulfed the field outside. I couldn’t see more than a few yards ahead, but after a few moments I heard the pounding of footsteps. From the blackness came Father Bevans, dashing madly. His eyes were wild and his robe flowed in the wind as he ran towards me.
I threw the door open wide and waved my arms frantically. I considered it far too dangerous to call his name so I instead said a silent prayer that he find me through the dark. Father Bevans changed course slightly and made straight for me. The moment he crossed the threshold, I shut the door behind him, saying another prayer of thanks.
Father Bevans gasped for air. I picked up one of the chairs and offered it to him, not sure what state my companion’s mind was in. He sat in silence for a moment. His eyes had yet to stop rolling in their sockets.
“Father Bevans? Can you hear me?”
His eyes closed and he stopped breathing for a moment. I considered patting his shoulder to make sure he was still alive when he jumped to his feet. He steadied himself and looked around warily. “Yes, Martin, I hear you,” he said in a quiet voice.
“Are you alright?” I asked, keeping my voice just as low.
“I…I am. Thank you. Thank you.” For the first time on our expedition, he smiled at me. “You saved me.”
Not sure how to handle this sudden kindness, I looked away. “Well, you know… I didn’t do much. Truth be told, I simply panicked and ran. I’m just glad we’re both safe.”
A hint of the old crankiness seeped out. “Not the running, boy, that nearly cost us everything! I meant the fire. How did you know I’d see the light and come to you?”
“Yes, yes, the fire. Those red sparks were the only way I could have found you. Now move fast and douse the flames before we’re spotted. I’m surprised a shack this shoddy even has a fireplace.”
“Red sparks? Father Bevans, I don’t understand, this place doesn’t have a bed, let alone a fireplace. What do you mean?”
I looked outside once again, this time casting my eyes upward, and saw. Floating on the breeze, so dim they were hard to see even in that intense darkness, were several specks of red light. They reminded me of fire-flies and…why did that sound familiar?
“Father Bevans, did you notice the dirt in the yard out front?”
“The dirt? No, whatever about it?”
“There were several areas with loose earth. Places where it looked freshly-dug.”
Father Bevans inched the door open and looked for himself. “Odd, you’re right. It looks almost like a graveyard.”
At the sound of the word, everything clicked into place. The Cagayans hid their burial sites. The Berbalangs were attracted to bodies. The buzzing of wings, the red sparks, the…
“Father Bevans, shut the door now!”
He closed it and the silence reasserted itself. A flash of red flew past the window. And then, far off in the distance where the tall trees swayed in the evening wind, we heard the sound of loud keen moans, steadily growing softer.