I played piko (hopscotch) by this tree as a kid. I liked the shade that kept me from the hot, blazing sun. The balete was my mother’s favorite tree. It stood by the entrance of the barn which my Mom had converted into her storage with boxes of old stuff she refused to part with.
My sister and I were not allowed to play beyond the balete tree. I obeyed and stayed within its boundaries.
The balete is a rubber tree. Philippine folk tales mention that balete trees are dwelling places for supernatural beings like the kapre (tree demon) or tikbalang (humanoid animal). The elders believe the balete plant should not be brought into one’s house for they will be inviting ghosts. But when I was little I remember a balete still in a large pot. It was brought inside the house as an ornamental plant.
When Mom died in 1981, it was my task to clean out her old stuff from the barn. I kept putting it off. I was still grieving the loss of my mother.
Shortly after she passed away, my college classmates from Manila visited me in Tarlac at my parents’ home to cheer me up. As my four close friends piled out of the vehicle, I cautioned them and their driver:
“Don’t go beyond the balete tree in the back. We have not yet gotten rid of mom’s stuff in the barn.” I didn’t want anyone to go through mom’s old things. The barn was unlocked and easy prey for curious minds.
While my friends and I enjoyed merienda, a loud raucous noise ensued from behind the kitchen. The driver and our household helper were speaking rapidly, loudly in nervous, agitated tones. Both spoke at the same time. There was panic in their voices.
“Doon po sa puno ng balete. Lumapit yung matandang babae. Naka-itim po. Mahaba ang saya,” the driver nervously narrated in a terrified voice. (It was by the balete tree. An old woman approached me. She was in a long, black dress).
The driver, pale with his forehead sweaty, was trembling with fear. His arms were nervously crossed in front of him, his fists clenched. He paced back and forth. I asked him to slow down and speak clearly.
“Bawal dito. Umalis ka diyan, sabi po ng matanda sa akin,” he nervously continued. (It’s forbidden here. ‘Get out’ the old woman said to me).
The driver recounted that as he approached the balete tree, an old, thin woman dressed in black appeared before him. She came out of nowhere. He looked around, scared, and saw it was just he and the old woman. Her hair was all gray, her long face dark, angry and wrinkled.
My own pulse raced. I felt a shiver run down my spine. There was no old woman in our house or property. But clearly, the frightened driver knew what he saw.
“Didn’t I tell you all to avoid going beyond the balete tree?” I reminded my guests and their driver. My sister and I froze as we remembered Mom’s rule: No one should go beyond that tree to go to the barn. Mom kept her old stuff hidden in there. She didn’t want anyone scrounging through them. Even in death, she forbade it.
From the kitchen, I stared at the balete tree, its tall, graceful branches spreading out to provide a warm shelter of shade. But what was beyond those branches, inside the deep veins of each dark green, shiny round-edged leaf? To this day, no one knows who that old woman in a long, black saya (Filipino dress) was by the balete tree. I had my suspicion. There were spirits assigned to that tree, to hover and protect those who were left behind.
Elizabeth Ann Quirino, based in New Jersey, is a journalist, food writer and member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP). She blogs about Filipino home cooking and culinary travels to the Philippines on her site AsianInAmericamag.com.
More articles by Elizabeth Ann Quirino:
Bold New Pinoy Restaurants in New York
April 24, 2013
Restaurants that put a new spin on Pinoy street food.
A Hundred Mangoes In A Bottle
May 8, 2013
There’s nothing like Philippine mangoes to awaken memories of a happy home life.
July 10, 2013
Her video blogs will make your eatery a success.
Day Trips To Culinary Heaven
August 1, 2013
For a truly enjoyable balikbayan vacation, go native.
Like Eating At Mom’s
August 20, 2013
At two Pinoy restaurants in midtown Manhattan, you can eat at home without going home.
The Secret Of Restaurant 101
October 2, 2013
For fine French cuisine you can’t go wrong with the creations of student chefs at Restaurant 101.
Bank Exec Nina Aguas: Woman Of Influence
December 6, 2013
How one woman “kept her eyes on the prize” and found professional success.
Our Christmas Table
December 20, 2013
What Filipinos love to eat during the holiday season.
Dauntless In Dubai
March 3, 2014
Filipina engineer Mary Jane Alvero-Al Mahdi towers in Dubai.
Prep Globally, Cook Locally
April 17, 2014
Why Erwin Joven is a five-star chef.
Purple Yam Spreads The Love
July 26, 2014
Purple Yam cuisine’s main ingredient is caring. It’s also now available in Manila.