E. J. disappeared 4 years ago. He was last seen walking through the rice fields, going home after work. It was forbidden to walk through the rice fields at night, but E. J. would always shrug off the stories of ghosts and witches lurking in the darkness and searching for unwary souls.
“Don’t talk nonsense,” he would tell his friends and parents. “I’ve been walking through the rice fields at night for the past three months and I haven’t seen a thing. I’ll be fine. Besides, cutting through the fields cuts my trip in half.
There was only one person in the small town of Gonzaga who agreed with E. J. and that was Sir Erning, a local restaurant and resort owner. Even E. J.’s parents believed in ghosts and when E. J. was a child, they often told him stories about the white lady that lived near the mouth of the river and that every night she would visit the rice fields and collect snails and snakes to supplement her dish of disobedient children.
E. J. helped Sir Erning out every day after school, busing tables, sweeping floors, and whatever else Sir Erning needed him to do. The money he earned would help support his father who was crippled due to a boating accident. Doctors said he would never walk again. And in a town like Gonzaga, where fishing was a main source of livelihood, it put E.J.’s mother, who worked as an elementary school teacher, in a difficult situation, her salary being only 4,000 pesos per month. E. J.’s younger brother and sister, John, 5 and Joan, 7, were too young to work.
Relatives in town helped out some, but they had families of their own and could only provide some food—rice and a few vegetables mostly. Life in Gonzaga was hard on everyone.
“I don’t know what it is about the Filipino imagination, E. J.,” Sir Erning said one day. “Why do they think that there are ghosts out in the rice fields? It’s ridiculous.”
“I don’t know, sir,” E. J. said, thinking of his parents. “It’s hard to explain something like that. But I guess we have to admit, it is an interesting thought. I mean, other people in other parts of the world believe in ghosts, not just in the Philippines.”
Sir Erning pulled some meat out of the refrigerator that had been soaking in onions and garlic and soy sauce. “I suppose you’re right. It is interesting. And I always like to hear a good ghost story. But that’s just it; they’re just stories, nothing more.
However, if your parents don’t want you to work here because of the late hours, I’ll understand. You’re a good worker. I don’t want to lose you, but I’ll understand. Or I could just drive you home, if you like.”
“No, sir. Thank you, though. I like walking, especially at night. It’s peaceful in the rice fields at that time. You should go out there some time and see what I mean. And I can’t quit my job. We need the money, especially now that dad can’t work. Ghost or no ghost, I need this job.”
Christian, a friend of his, was the last to see him. E. J. was just turning the corner on Rizal Street, near Victor’s Convenient Store, where the road turned from pavement to dirt and rock. He headed toward the rice fields. The street lights illuminated his bright red shirt, and, just before he disappeared into the darkness, Christian thought about yelling for him to turn back. But Christian knew better. He knew that E. J. would not turn back.
No one, except for Sir Erning, bothered to look for E. J.; for they knew that a ghost had taken him. To where, they didn’t know, but they knew he was taken behind the crumbling house of Sir Edmund—a farmer who had been dead 50 years—because of the spot where the rice stopped growing and wasted away into noting but brown, dead stems; a half acre of mud and mystery.
A week after E. J.’s disappearance, Sir Erning decided to return to the run down house in the middle of the rice fields. Maybe the police overlooked something, he thought. Maybe I can find something that will convince these people that E. J. was not abducted by a ghost.
But if not a ghost, what happened to E. J.?
Sir Erning jumped on his motorbike about 10 o’clock—the same time E. J. was last seen by Christian—and headed toward the old house, toward the mud and mystery.
Upon reaching the dirt road, uneven and full of rocks, Sir Edmund slowed down and flipped his headlight to full bright, shooting a golden path into the darkness, revealing every rock and hole. Frogs scattered toward the taller grass. The wind was blowing hard and the rice swayed back and forth, a field of green-yellow dancers.
He decided to walk, so he cut off the engine and pulled out a flashlight. Much better. No fumes and total quiet, except for the sounds of nature. He smelled the freshness of the ocean and heard the sound of crickets searching for their mates. He heard frogs flopping in the canal. He then realized what E. J. was talking about, how peaceful it was out here in the evening. He stood there a moment and took it all in. He pulled out a cigarette and all that could be seen was a small orange glow moving up and down, up and down, until finally, in a cloud of smoke and light, it flipped numerous times in the air before landing in the tall grass. Sir Erning watched it until it burned itself out, until he smelled the last strings of smoke.
He came upon the house as silent as a spider weaving its web. He pointed the flashlight around corners, at the opening where there would have been a door had Sir Edmund not died. He then directed the light at the front window. Nothing was there but shadows.
He walked inside. Streams of light exposed dust and pieces of wood. A rat ran across the floor away from the light and slipped through a small opening in the wall.
He looked up at the ceiling. Nothing. What was he expecting to find? E.J.? Did he really think he was there? He shined the light forward and headed toward the back, bits of wood snapping beneath him. He pulled out his bolo and cut away annoying spider webs.
Out back were rice fields that seemed to slide into eternity. The quarter moon shined above him like a fluorescent toe nail, and in the distance, a silhouette of coconut trees danced in the silence. And then he saw the empty space, the spot where everyone knew E. J. was taken.
Something was not right. He didn’t know what, but he felt that he needed to dig; so he jumped down from the house—there were no steps—and walked to the empty field of mud and mystery, got on his knees and began to dig, working the bolo deeper into the ground with every stroke. After an hour he hit something hard. It felt like wood. He put the bolo aside and began to dig with his hands, exposing what looked to be a small wooden door. There was an iron handle and so he grabbed it and pulled the door open. Darkness. He grabbed the flashlight. It didn’t work and just as he was about to close the door a strong white light came out from the bottom. Then something pulled him in and the door slammed behind him. The dirt moved in mysterious motion and covered the door.
Or so the story goes. No one has ever found the door. And seeing that there were no witnesses, I often wonder how anybody knows exactly what happened to E. J. and Sir Erning. Ghosts? You tell me.
People believe that Sir Erning disappeared in the same spot as E. J. because that was where his bolo was found and the empty space of mud and mystery was empty no more. A week after Sir Erning’s disappearance, the rice began to grow again and astonishingly, after two weeks, it was ready to harvest. But no one dared touch it. They thought it would bring harm to those who did.
I own that piece of mysterious land now, but I don’t do anything with it. I just let the rice grow and die and grow again. I often wonder whatever happened to E. J. and Sir Erning, but I don’t have the courage to go out there at night to find them. I only go out there during the day when I’m on my way to the ocean. As I pass by Sir Edmund’s house, I always feel that someone is watching me through the window.
© 2010 Matthew Hamilton. All rights reserved.