The sad tale of Juan Tok Hang

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I’ve heard this utterly sad tale as a child, from my jolly old mother who survived the Japanese occupation of the islands. It was about this solitary spirit—a pasatsat, it was called—who roamed the lush grasslands near the Tayug river in Pangasinan province and haunted a solitary pathway located there.

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A pasatsat is believed to be a ghost who was killed during the Second World War. They were either murdered directly by Japanese soldiers or fell as casualties in the conflict. If at all families were lucky enough to find their bodies, these were immediately wrapped in reed mats or icamen and buried a long way away from cemeteries.
Many shunned cemeteries all because coffins were anything but cheap during the war. Some even turned to robbing graves out of abject poverty.

My mother would play out this scene over and over until I fell asleep: her walking each night along a faintly lit and solitary path, lush with tall grass, which led to our home. It was a good fifteen-minute walk from end to end, too long for someone like my mother who spurned the dark. My father had fallen sick early on in their married life, and later died of a lung disease.

With little choice but to tread the path alone, as this was the quickest way to our home coming from the local high school, she’d grab her walking stick as if to turn it into a weapon, and with good reason: where rats gather, snakes congregate.

Our neighbors, however, feared the path for reasons that it was cursed.

The narrow trail was notorious for being the field of the dead, the dumping ground of rebels who were executed
by Japanese soldiers or Japanese soldiers who fell by rebel guns. Here lay hundreds, if not thousands, of young men and women dumped unceremoniously along and on top of clutches of rocks and bushes, or haphazardly dug graves, their flesh and bones left to rot under the elements or the watchful eyes of huge fat rodents.

Scratches of reed mat can be found strewn on perennially wet red soil. These were tell-tale signs of a spree of executions, if not skirmishes, in the area. These mats, which used to cover the bodies in replacement for coffins, lay mostly gnawed by rats or the occasional wild dog.

Along a grassy knoll roughly ten feet from the trail, a certain Juan faced his murderers one sunny month of January 1942. Accused of being a sympathizer to Hukbalahap rebels, he was dragged by soldiers to the site after a hearty beating, so rumors went, and shot at the back of the head while on his knees.

Juan was nowhere near being a sympathizer, the old folks used to say. He was a cook by day at a local cafeteria and a musician during funerals by night.

He was quite famous for someone so poles apart in appearance from the everyday Pangasinense. He looked half-Chinese, half-Spanish, with a crooked nose resulting from a bad fall, thick leech-like lips, and an extraordinarily flat forehead. He looked fierce. His eyebrows jutted from the forehead like a row of low hills. His skin, in parts thinner than that of onions, bore a phony whiteness to it, like one swathed with fungal infection.

Nonetheless, Juan was legendary in a small town kind of way, having played funeral tunes with his violin for many of the town’s dead and poor for free. He inherited his skill and instrument from his father who once led a marching band.

There was, however, a reek to his mouth which resembled the scent of the long-departed. It was probably a case of fetor oris or halitosis as we call it today. Bad breath. The worst kind. The kind that reminds you of the dead or dying, my mother said.

Which was why he covered his mouth with a reed mat, cut into a square and placed on his mouth with rubber bands slung on each ear. He hardly spoke or sang despite his skill in music. Where I lived, a disease of such kind provoked rumors of curses.

More than one story had been told about Juan. Some of our neighbors said Juan was single, unmarried, unhappy if not utterly an ill-fated man of scant means. He was said to have been a ruined soul, a wizard of some kind, one doomed to isolation. Some even went on to say that he was the offspring of the encanto and a human bride. He carried with him the seeds of his own destruction, having been cursed by a spurned lover.

Yet my mother who claimed she knew him told of a very different story: Juan had a beautiful daughter, and it was for her sake that he faced the brutality of the soldiers.

On that icy wet night of Juan’s 43rd birthday, a child’s weeping broke the evening silence. At the door of his house, he found a baby girl wrapped in a reed mat. He was preparing to head over to the wake of his neighbour when Juan accidentally tripped on the baby. His nose took a hard blow from the fall, leaving it tilted to the left.

The infant chuckled as Juan struggled to his feet. Juan had never heard anything so heart-warming. He named the girl Ngití, meaning “smile”.

Never once did the girl doubt her father’s love. Juan raised her as best he could with the little he had. In no time she was the loveliest girl in all of the town. Her hair, a clutch of midnight strands smoothly swooping down to her waist, reminded everyone of princesses who lived in far-off lands.

What Juan loved most about his daughter was the fact that she hardly winced even after a whiff of her father’s breath. At no time was she repelled, or have called him out because of it. She was as thoughtful a child as any one need wish. She was the only living being who had heard him speak.

Soon Ngití grew up to be the lovely young woman whose sole aspiration was to learn the violin.

However, weeks into teaching young Ngití, bad news arrived. Word from the radio spoke about Japanese invasion forces led by General Masaharu Homma landing at Lingayen Gulf. It was seventeen days before Christmas of 1941.

United States commander, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, had early on decided to pull out every American and Filipino soldier from Pangasinan to make their stand in Bataan. The governor of the province had already evacuated to Dagupan, leaving the out-of-the-way towns and municipalities with barely the means and manpower to defend themselves. Dagupan eventually served as the wartime capital of the province.

Within weeks of the landing, sometime January 1942, Juan’s little town came under the grip of Japanese forces. Guerilla units, thinking it would be futile to face the ire of Japanese soldiers head on, took to the mountains and planned their resistance there. Others journeyed to Manila to consult with underground rebel forces holed up in different parts of the city.

When word came that truckloads of Japanese soldiers will be arriving in minutes to claim his little town, Juan, without means to escape, took the only weapon he knew to divert the invasion force’s attention from his daughter: the violin.

He got wind of how the Japanese had seized young beautiful women in the city and forced them into brothels. Early on, he instructed Ngití to escape with her best friend Liwayway. They were to run and hide in the mountains where Juan’s only friend, Victoriano Fernandez Sr., led a motley crew of resistance forces east of Mount Balungao.

“I will not leave you alone, father,” Ngití said. “Please don’t tell me to run away.”

He squeezed his daughter’s face gently between his palms, his eyes filled now with tears, and said, calmly,

“Run. Don’t look back. I will do everything I can to distract them. Run to your uncle Victoriano. He’ll be waiting by the narrow pathway near the river, east of the falls. Keep your head low. The grass and trees are tall enough to hide you and your friend. Don’t argue. Just go!”

As the image of his daughter fainted among the rush of woodland, Juan grabbed a chair, took his violin, and sat in front of his door. Within minutes, Japanese soldiers arrived in full regalia, armed to the teeth, with officers as grim as they were majestic.

Juan closed his eyes, lifted his violin to his chin, and played a sad tune in memory of his fleeing daughter. Turning at the curb fronting Juan’s house, the Japanese officer on horseback lifted his right hand. Everyone halted. The officer, thinking the music was offered in honor of their arrival, listened intently.

Juan played until his fingers hurt. His neighbors, aghast at the show of courage, rushed into their homes. “He will surely be killed,” they thought.

Half past the hour, Ngití arrived with her friend, both bound hand and foot, and dragged by two masked Filipino collaborators. The girls’ mouths, gagged with cloth torn from their sleeves and rolled into a ball, prevented them from screaming. Little did anyone know that the town had already been completely surrounded by armed Japanese scouts and collaborating locals at dawn.

With eyes still closed, Juan continued playing until the thunder of the soldiers’ boots wilted into thin air. When he opened his eyes, the street was empty save for his neighbour, a mother of twin infant boys. “They found your daughter and took her away.”

The woman was my mother.

Juan dropped his violin and rushed to the narrow pathway by the Tayugriver. Clearly distraught, he searched for signs of his daughter’s presence. A stone’s throw from the calming stream lay Victoriano’s lifeless, bullet-ridden body in a pool of his blood, headless, his pistol still holstered by his waist. Four other rebels lay dead beside him.

No one knew what happened to Juan days after he searched for his daughter. He never returned to his old home. His violin, too, had disappeared. Some said he journeyed to Manila in search of his daughter there. Others said he was killed on that very day at the narrow trail, executed by Japanese soldiers.

One thing was certain: no contingent of Japanese soldiers ever survived a trip down that pathway. They said it was cursed by Juan before he fell by a soldier’s sword.

After the father’s disappearance, tales of a sad specter playing a violin and asking passersby about his daughter’s whereabouts spread far into the open countryside. No one dared pass, only those whose children chuckled at the horrendous sight of a headless apparition lived to tell the tale.

My mother, who hailed from Cebu, named the ghost Tok Hang, meaning, to approach and talk.

At nightfall, along that poorly lit trail of tall grass, one can still hear the sad tunes of a violin being played under a faintly grey moonlight. The smell of death, too, lingered like one exhaled by the dead.
It was a sign that another tragedy was forthcoming.

*Joel Pablo Salud is the author of a book of short fiction and two collections of narrative essays. He is currently the editor-in-chief of the Philippine Graphic magazine.

JOEL PABLO SALUD

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