It?s the start of summer vacation in the quiet little coastal municipality of Sto. Domingo, and thirteen-year-old Paul Pelegrino, a boy born with six limbs?four arms and two legs?can?t wait to enjoy waking up late and spending afternoons at the beach. His last day of school, unfortunately, is marred by a brawl with the local bully, which then leads to Paul?s puking of an inky black substance.
Things take an even greater turn for the bizarre when a series of dreams he has involving a mysterious squid-like being of ancient folklore known as a Kamdiri, coincides with a string of murders in which the crime scenes are caked with the same black goo. Paul, under suspicion by the police and rattled by revelations about what he believes are his own out-of-this-world origins, is then compelled to conduct his own investigation into the macabre happenings, and maybe even make sense of his unusual comeuppance.
Blending humor, horror, and folklore, Hexopus: The Six-Limbed Lad marks the beginning of Paul?s coming of age, in a deeply conservative Catholic town still firmly tethered to its precolonial past, and amid a tumultuous time marked by fear, uncertainty, and empowered law enforcement.
Chapters 6 and 7
?Paul!? His Ma?s head stuck out from the curtain leading into his bedroom. ?Hurry up, we might be late!?
?Yes, Ma,? Paul replied with slight irritation. He was standing shirtless in front of the mirror, just about to dress up.
She withdrew her head to give the boy back his privacy.
As Paul gazed at his reflection through that gashed glass surface, he flexed his four arms in different directions and, like an almost-daily ritual, wondered, Why do I have four arms?
Had it not been for his extra pair of limbs, he would have looked pretty normal. His lean frame, dusty hair, sunburned skin, black eyes, and distinct cheekbones all made him look quite ordinary as far as he could tell. He drew his appendages back to his ribcage-sack of a torso, breathed a resigned sigh, and shook his head knowing that his additional two arms were his ?cross to bear,? as some of the older folks in town would say.
He then picked up the nice blue shirt that his mom left out neatly folded for him on his mattress. He unfurled it and held it by the upper sleeves. Like all of his upper-body garments, this shirt?the one he always wore to mass because it was the least tattered?had been altered to have four sleeves. Customized just for him. Whenever he acquired a new shirt, Paul would always insist that he?d be okay if his mother simply punched two extra holes at the sides. But his parents were adamant that all his sleeved shirts have an extra pair of sleeves, even if it cost them a little extra time and money for the modification. ?Now we don?t want you flaunting the muscles in your lower arms, do we?? his Pa would tease.
?Paul!? his mother called out louder, this time from outside the house.
?Coming, Ma!? He hurriedly put his shirt on. By the time he was out of the house, he was still pushing his head through the top hole.
* * *
Many Domingohanons often took for granted the fact that the town parish was one of the first churches in the province erected by the long-gone Spanish colonizers. Sto. Domingo Parish was built during the middle Spanish period upon orders from a certain Jesuit missionary named Padre Julio Castillan. Like many other churches of the time, Sto. Domingo was cruciform in shape, coral stone in exterior, and earthquake baroque in design.
Today, the place seemed to have lost some of its past splendor. Its facade, now reduced to a dull gray, was no longer as formidable or as impressive as it originally was meant to be. To the church?s left, the belfry still stood tall but no longer proud. With different species of plants and weeds studding its surface, the tower resembled more a crumpled old watchman than an ever-alert sentinel. The bell within was cracked and rusty, and the wooden stairs leading up to it had long since rotted away, rendering the highest floors accessible only to birds, bats, and maybe even the ghosts of the last acolytes to have rang it.
Although the parishioners donated religiously, the money collected was never really enough to maintain the entire structure. Instead, most of the donations went to the upkeep of the church?s interior, and it was evident that the previous priest did a splendid job of retaining the sacrosanct atmosphere of the church?s belly.
Paul gazed up at the ceiling. Hovering high above him was a recently painted fresco of cherubs resting on puffy clouds and seraphs wielding trumpets of gold. The bearded face of God, surrounded by streaks of yellow paint meant to be rays of light, was right in the middle of it all, looking down on the faithful below. Four evenly spaced bronze chandeliers dangled above the aisle off varnished beams, with the most elaborately crafted of these illuminating the crossing just before the dais. The young lad never got fed up with marveling at the artwork and architecture. There was something about the craftsmanship, or maybe even the oldness of it all, that made the edifice itself a good distraction from the usual sluggish pace of the Eucharistic celebration.
?Paul!? Rachel hissed at him. ?You listen to the priest?s sermon. He?s just about to start.?
As if on cue, Fr. Cyrus Lazaro, the newly assigned parish priest who had arrived earlier in the week, bellowed ?The Gospel of the Lord? before the congregation responded in unison ?Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ? and sat down on the faded brown pews. He was a stout, pot-bellied fellow presumably in his late fifties. Bushy eyebrows, bald scalp, sharp nose. On the surface, he looked very much like any other old priest, albeit one with more mestizo features. But his deep voice sounded immediately captivating and resonated throughout the church?s interior. The content of his sermon and its delivery were equally impressive, bestowing upon him an almost-messianic aura.
Paul never listened so attentively to a homily. Most of the priests the diocese would dump in remote areas like Sto. Domingo were middle-aged dotards or younger, zealous conservatives who never tired of repeating the same old platitudes over and over again. He had to give this guy four thumbs up for keeping him awake.
A glimmer on the priest?s chest suddenly caught Paul?s eye.
What was that?
His mind briefly wandered from the sermon as he took notice of the small black stone embedded on the small cross hanging from the priest?s plump neck. To Paul, the tiny gemstone glistened, albeit just a split second, as if it had wanted to be seen.
Fr. Cyrus?s baritone cut through the momentary distraction, and Paul quickly drew himself back to the ceremony, his curiosity suppressed for the time being.
By the time the mass was over, everyone exiting the church couldn?t stop talking about how erudite and arresting the new priest seemed to be. ?He?s quite different from what we?re used to,? uttered Ma?am Sandra, a curly-haired woman of Chinese descent. ?Dear Lord, I think he?s even better than Father Vasquez,? muttered a stout lady walking alongside her. ?Oh, but Father Vasquez was already very old, pity him,? intruded an usherette still sporting her pink vest. ?This Father Cyrus fellow seems like only a few years younger, but he?s got so much charisma and energy in him.?
And just as the parishioners of today?s mass dispersed throughout the municipality, so too did Fr. Cyrus Lazaro?s fame.
Later That Evening
So far, so good, Nanding assured himself as he quietly paced the street that ran along the ecclesiastical complex?s west side. Just like any other Domingohanon going for an evening stroll, albeit one trying to appear as inconspicuous as possible with his dark blue shirt and gray cargo shorts.
?Ahem,? his fifteen-year-old nephew, Ton-ton, dressed in similar low-key garb a few meters, cleared his throat. It was Nanding?s signal to surreptitiously draw closer to Ton-ton, who paused by the door leading into the sacristy. It was a simple entrance?a slab of wood coated in brown paint, bereft of the carvings and fancy handles on the church?s main doors.
Having served as an acolyte since he was ten, Ton-ton knew the church grounds a lot better than the average parishioner. He virtually had unlimited access to every doorway and every rectory in the church after sneaking out with the master-key ring for a few hours so he could have it duplicated by an acquaintance of his uncle?s.
It all started with Nanding, though. When a recently dismissed policeman surnamed Duarte started asking him for some money he owed, a desperate Nanding asked his closest nephew if he could do this one favor and survey the grounds for anything of value. At first, Ton-ton remained a good acolyte, not wanting to compromise his relationship with the parish that was also shouldering a good chunk of his school fees, but when he saw how terrified his Col Nanding was at one point (he alleged that Duarte had thrust a gun in his face), he agreed. ?But just this once.?
The first things they stole were a pair of faucets from the newly constructed comfort room between the church and the rectory. The combined weight of the aluminum fetched a hefty price among some traveling junk collectors, but it was still not enough to cover the debt.
Soon enough, they moved on to other things?from wallets and cheap plastic toys in the parish office?s lost-and-found drawer, to bills and coins amounting to substantial sums in donation boxes. They were lucky enough at one point to make off with the last pair of unlooted ivory hands, plucked from a centuries-old statue of St. Francis of Assisi.
These thefts eventually didn?t go unnoticed, and there were suggestions from parish employees to have all the locks replaced. But Fr. Vasquez deemed this too costly an undertaking in light of other priorities he had, and he shelved their proposal until his tenure ultimately reached its end.
?It?s open?? Nanding asked his nephew.
?Of course, Col.? As if to boast, Ton-ton turned the tarnished old doorknob and pulled slowly. Nanding estimated in his head just how much the brass of that knob would weigh, but he brushed aside the thought as the pitch-black of the church?s interior came into view.
?Good, good,? Nanding eagerly made his way in, with Ton-ton following behind and sealing the door.
Darkness swathed them, but this was quickly remedied by a cellphone flashlight Nanding pulled from his back pocket. The beam of light shifted left and right, up and down, just enough for him to get a sense of the space around them.
He spotted a processional cross and two unlit torches propped against the wall, a large red missal resting atop a mantled table, and a wooden cabinet near the door they came through.
Sorry ahead of time, Lord, Nanding silently prayed, realizing it was his first time in the sacristy, among holy objects. But this lapsed Catholic owes some money. Please understand.
?Right this way, Col,? Ton-ton, armed with a cell light of his own, called from behind him?his sharp, youthful features accentuated by the glow. They walked a few meters ahead to the church?s back end, ducked under the old staircase that Ton-ton said led to a room that was once the adoration chapel, and soon found themselves hunching beneath old granite.
Ton-ton hunkered down and redirected his light to the floor of this claustrophobia-inducing, poorly hewn section of the church?s apse to illuminate a large rectangular slab resting atop a cut in the ground.
What is that? Nanding wondered. His nephew had promised him a steal tonight that guaranteed huge returns, but the boy never told him what the mark was, keeping it a secret until they got here.
?That?s the entrance to the church?s basement,? Ton-ton unknowingly answered his uncle?s query.
Nanding shot back a confused look. ?The church diay has a basement??
?Apparently it has. Some workers came across it a few weeks ago while the minor renovation was going on. I think a section of old wall collapsed and revealed this chamber we?re in now. Michael, the sacristan on duty at the time, notified Father Vasquez immediately, who then informed Professor Greg Archival, that old teacher who?s into history and all. Archival said he?s already managed to pull out some interesting finds. Really old stuff. Much of it dating back to the Spanish period?old figurines, statues, brittle documents. And aren?t really old things worth a lot more than newly installed faucets??
Ton-ton?s voice echoed in the tight space, amplifying the excitement in his nicotine-tainted breath. Some of that excitement was beginning to rub off on Nanding.
?And nobody else knows about this?? he asked.
?Michael told a few other sacristans; that?s how I found out. There is some gossip around town, but the interest quickly fades. With Father Vasquez having just left. Archival?s the only smart person who knows about it. I?m not sure if anyone?s told Father Cyrus, but before he left, Vasquez asked us not to blab about it too much. At least not until Archival examines it more closely, but he?s always so busy, always leaving for Manila or something.
Nanding left out a soft, jolly chortle. ?Yes, I?m sure Father Vasquez wouldn?t want any looters making their way to the precious artifacts below. So how do we get down there if this slab is still in the way??
?I left a couple of crowbars in the sacristy cabinet earlier this afternoon. Let?s get them and pry this lid off. Simple enough.? Ton-ton eased himself up from his crouch, careful not to bump his head against the rough walls that ensconced them, and crept past his uncle.
?You know, dong, it would have been a lot better if we got the crowbars first before coming here,? Nanding remarked.
?Sorry, ha? I guess I was just too excited to show the basement to you.?
A slight curl of vexation formed on Nanding?s lips. Careless kid.
Once they were back in the sacristy, Ton-ton proceeded to the cabinet and pulled out a meter-long rod for his uncle and another one for himself.
?Thank you, dong,? Nanding uttered, brandishing the tool. ?Now let?s see what we can find down there.?
Ton-ton nodded as he shut the cabinet?and then he froze. ?Did you hear that, Col??
A few seconds of silence passed as uncle and nephew tried to pick up the slightest disturbance.
There was none.
?Never mind, Col. Bahala na. Let?s get back to??
The side door they had come in through earlier burst open. The cold night air rushed in, along with a long, slithery, seemingly slimy appendage that latched onto Ton-ton?s leg and yanked him outside.
Nanding?s limbs all of a sudden felt as rigid as the coral-stone around them. My God, was that a tentacle that pulled Ton-ton out?
?Col! Help! Help!? The poor boy?s screams, coupled with the guttural, gurgling cries of some horrid creature propelled Nanding out of the sacristy. The crowbar he wielded afforded him some comfort, at least as a clubbing weapon.
?Col! Hel?!? Ton-ton?s cries ceased with a sound reminiscent of meat getting hacked.
Then, as if to welcome Nanding?s emergence out into the yard, Ton?ton?s body plopped right in front of him. His nephew was drenched in some kind of black gunk?like he had just swam in crude oil. His face rolled into view, and Nanding saw the horror etched there. His hair was a tangled mess, his eyes stared hopelessly at the heavens, while his nostrils and mouth were clogged by the same black substance. In his rush to find some sign of life from Ton-ton, Nanding noticed a gaping hole in his nephew?s abdomen, with blood and gunk mingling to concoct a sickening purple. Poor Ton-ton?so young, so full of promise, and the one he dragged into his troubles?was now gone.
An anger, a lust for vengeance flared within Nanding. Someone?or something?was going to pay for this!
He charged into the night, his crowbar ready to strike. Blinded by his fury, however, he failed to notice there was no more writhing, no semblance of a tentacle?s motion, in the yard.
A droplet of black liquid trickled onto his forehead, just above his eyebrows. He wiped it off with a finger, but just as he opened his again, a massive hulking black shape lunged at him! Nanding felt an immense pain rupture his body, as if every bone in his torso and legs shattered upon impact.
Terror filled him at the sight of several tentacles flailing madly in the air and the pair of blood-red spheres staring right back at him. His ears tingled at the mucky sound the hellish beast made with its fluid secretion. Cold black goo seeped right through his shirt and soaked his skin. As much as he wanted to squirm free, or at least pound the creature with his fists, he couldn?t; he was paralyzed under all that weight.
The beast proceeded to finish him off. One final thought crossed Nanding?s mind, addressed to the nephew who had gone before him: Hahay, dong. Maybe we should have brought those crowbars with us ahead of time.