Friday, February 4, 2011

Leaping into February!


When I was younger, Manila had a huge power crisis that called for the rationing of electricity. There wasn't enough to go around, so everyone had to endure hours of blackouts (which my fellow locals have inexplicably called "brownouts" since before I was born) on a daily basis. The worst ones, as you can imagine, were those which came at night.

I wish I could recall all the scary "shorts" I heard at school in those days. Half urban legend, half familiar-sounding folktale, they all had something to do with darkness and candles and mirrors. The one I found most memorable was the first version of "Tres Marias" I had the dark pleasure of hearing.

The next time the lights go out, a breathless classmate told me, I should go to the bathroom, stand in front of the mirror, hold up my candle for light, close my eyes, say, "Maria, Maria, Maria," and open my eyes . . . and then I'd see "Maria" in the mirror before me.

Who this "Maria" was, nobody ever explained. You're supposed to know it in the part of your mind that understands scary stories.

Anyway, I very nearly tried summoning "Maria"--just to see if she would appear--but never got around to doing it after I heard that if you knock on the mirror instead, you'd summon the devil. For even then I had no doubt that, unlike "Maria," he seizes every opportunity to come when he's called.

The rolling blackouts had stopped completely by the time I was in the sixth grade, with my homeroom on my old school building's third floor--a level which had near-mythical status in the eyes of everyone in the lower grades. The "Tres Marias" story had been adjusted accordingly: if you want to see "Maria," everyone knew, all you had to do was remain on the third floor after the dismissal bell, wait for everyone else to leave you behind, and then say her name three times. I don't know if anyone ever tried it, but I know that everyone who had ever had to go back for something at the end of the day always took a friend with her--and that they always came back at a run, hands tightly clasped. (Heck, I once did the same with a girl I didn't even like and for whom the sentiment was mutual: for those frantic five minutes, we were besties!)

I mention these memories not to be tiresome (Forgive me if I failed!), but to introduce our first Nick Joaquin short story of the month: May Day Eve.

Joaquin is well-known for taking these kinds of legends and folktales--the kind that are only fully alive in an oral tradition--and weaving them into his otherwise realistic fiction. And I think the reason I love him so much is that the same oral tradition he draws from is part of my reality.

So when I came to that part in the story where Agueda stands in front of the dark mirror to chant the incantation--having convinced herself that she doesn't really believe in it and is only doing it to prove her superstitious friends wrong--I knew it wouldn't end well.

But this is more than a story of what you see in mirrors you aren't supposed to be looking into, and I'd love to hear what everyone else thinks of it after you've read it.


BettyDuffy said...

Oh great. That folktale goes around here too--only it's "Bloody Mary," and she's supposed to scratch your face or something like that. I tried it once when I was in gradeschool--absolutely terrified.

Recently one of the older kids at school told my daughter about it and she wouldn't sleep for several days.

Enbrethiliel said...


The last I heard, the Catholic school favourite is the evil girl in the mirror whom people try to ward off by praying the Our Father or Hail Mary, and who just mockingly recites it along with them.


mrsdarwin said...

Oh, E, what a beautiful rich story! Joaquin has crafted his writing just right -- you can feel the heavy, humid atmosphere and the sense of impending doom. I love the leaps forward in time, too -- impeccable.

I've heard this legend, but I think it was more as Betty described it -- a way for girls to freak themselves out at slumber parties.

Melanie B said...

Yes I remember the girls playing "Bloody Mary". I was never sure what she was supposed to do; but just the thought of someone looking out of the mirror at me was horrific. For me it was associated with a particular school bathroom and I was terrified to go in there at all. Also, I was scared to look into a mirror at night for years and years. I still get the shivers sometimes catching my reflection when I get up at night. Those terrors linger.

The story reminds me a bit of Oscar Wilde.

Enbrethiliel said...


You have no idea how great it is to hear that my "Maria" has an American counterpart! ;-)

On another note, I wrote about seeing the horror potential of mirrors because I couldn't think of another way to introduce this story. (At least, no other way less personal than by explaining how Agueda and Badoy remind me of my grandmother and grandfather.) But I was wondering if all the married ladies here could weigh in on this portrait of a doomed union.

May Day Eve is obviously not the story of every marriage anymore than the fairytale Bluebeard is, but I suspect there is a cautionary tale here that it takes an experienced reader to recognise. Any thoughts on what the mirror might mean in this light?

mrsdarwin said...

I thought that the way relationship started under the auspices of disobedience, superstition, and drunkenness might go a long way in explaining why such bitterness and loathing had blistered up and crusted over. And it's true that a relationship formed around sin can be almost irreparably scarred -- point in case, our old friend Kristin Lavransdatter.

Speaking of the beginnings of relationships, E, I haven't forgotten that I promised you I'd write up how Darwin and I met, and I'm going to put that up on our blog for Valentine's Day.

Melanie B said...

I think Mrs D is right on:

"the way relationship started under the auspices of disobedience, superstition, and drunkenness might go a long way in explaining why such bitterness and loathing had blistered up and crusted over."

And I definitely see the Kristen parallels.

Also, I think it reminded me of Wilde because the use of the mirror is a bit like the portrait in The Picture of Dorian Grey in that it reveals an inner reality.

Otepoti said...

We're dour and sturdy in these parts, E. If there were similar folk beliefs around Dunedin when I was young, I never heard them.

The nearest to love necromancy I heard of, was that if you held the stem of your apple tight, and twisted the apple around and around, while reciting the alphabet, the stem would twist off when your future husband's initial was reached.

By that measure, all the Xaviers, Yves and Zachs would be sh*t out of luck.

I thoroughly enjoyed the story, though, not least because I have recent experience of how downright devilish superstition can be: it was my recent sad duty to attend my aunt's deathbed, and I spent the evening holding her hand, praying for her and reading the Bible. Even so, when she passed, shortly after midnight, I felt a frisson of sheer horror when I looked at her body's poor yellow face, with open eyes and mouth.

Why would that be, since I've seen death before, except that the devil wants to make us afraid and superstitious at every point in our lives' journeys?

That's how he distracts us from the real cause of our miseries, and diverts us away from their only cure.

I assume that "Guardia serenio, etc." translates as "Twelve of the clock and all's well"? It reminds me of the nightwatchman's cry in Wagner's "Die Meistersinger" where the watchman's cry,warding off "Gespenster und Spuk" (ghosts and ghouls) and ending,"So lobet Gott", "God be praised", bookends a turbulent riot scene.

So, here: there's darkness and confusion, but there is a light showing the way through.

OK,enough sermonizing. Please excuse the wordiness.

I'm looking forward to your next choice, Enbrethiliel!

Enbrethiliel said...


Mrs. Darwin: That's an interesting connection! Thanks. =)

Melanie: The mirror's revelation of a hidden reality is another great point. But neither Agueda nor Badoy saw their own dark sides, did they, just that of the other? That's especially interesting because we usually look into a mirror to see ourselves, not someone else.

Otepoti: Come to think of it, New Zealand is the only place I've ever lived where I never got spooked. =P

A cousin in California taught me a similar trick using a soda can: bend the tab back and forth while chanting the alphabet, and the letter it breaks off on is your future spouse's initial! Of course, she followed up with a demonstration which ended with, ". . . O, P, Q, R, S, S, S, S, S, S--Oh, wow! S!!!" ;-)

I like your reading of the last line. =) I also think it's interesting that the story begins when it's "almost midnight" in 1847 and ends at midnight in 1890. It's as if the entire courtship and marriage were one bad dream which Agueda and Badoy should have been able to snap themselves out of at any time. Your husband doesn't have to be the devil and your wife doesn't have to be a witch. And so on.

BettyDuffy said...

I did love the way the story flipped back and forth through time and viewpoint, using the mirror as a sort of time machine. Every time someone looks in it, the narrator has either aged or switched to the other person.

It seems like there's been a lot of exorcism talk lately, interviews with exorcists, and some have noted that the devil delivers the pyrotechnics when you fiddle with the occult. Likewise, oaths and superstitions open doors to demons. It seems that Joaquin wants to make the point that the devil is real--even though technically, neither character saw a devil or a witch, they opened themselves to evil through sin and superstition, and they bore the outcome of letting evil take hold in their lives.

Emily J. said...

Love this!

On superstitions: the can poptop and the apple stem - and the knots in the straw paper and the cherry stem - were all games I knew, but I missed the slumber party where someone went to look in the dark mirror...

But despite not having the personal experience of seeing a witch in the mirror, I certainly identified with Dona Agueda seeing an old lady in the mirror. Who is that?

I wonder if there wasn't a little love in the marriage - at least a little redemption at the end of the story: Don Badoy seems to repent at the end. And maybe Dona Agueda does too? Are her tears the same bitterness and vengefulness that aged her or a sorrow for that lost time, for the lost opportunity to love the devilishly handsome Badoy?

Seems there would be little hope for a marriage conceived in the dark, rooted in misperception and misdirected passion.

Alexia561 said...

Enjoyed your post! I've heard variations on this story, but never the Tres Marias version. All I know is that I was superstitious enough to never try it, just in case someone really showed up! :o

Enbrethiliel said...


Betty -- I'm fascinated by the twist to the old superstition. I know of older traditions for divining one's future spouse and we've already mentioned many dark mirror superstitions--but they usually come separately, don't they? This one ties the "white magic" and the "black magic" together so that you can't have one without the other.

Emily -- She saw an old lady? I think it was just a play of the shadows/candlelight over her face as she was approaching the mirror. Or is this not the part you mean?

I agree that there must have been some love in their marriage. There are enough romantic elements in the story to hint that the two might have hit it off, had they met another time.

There's a common saying that the things about your spouse which drive you craziest after several years of marriage are likely the same things that attracted you to him in the first place. Or at least the flipside of those things. As you've written, Badoy is "devilishly" handsome--and probably "devilishly" charming as well. And Agueda must have been very "bewitching."

Alexia -- Thanks for visiting! =) I know exactly what you mean about playing it safe in case someone did show up.

Emily J. said...

Oops, I guess my comment was too vague, although maybe Enbrethiliel you're young enough not to have had the experience of looking in the mirror and seeing a reflection of someone who looks much older than you feel. I swear I went to bed one night and woke up the next morning with wrinkles and grey hair.

I've been trying to think of something to say about the second story. It's fascinating and dark, another depiction of an unhappy marriage, although it seems like the unhappiness is welcomed in by Dona Lupeng. Like you said, E, perhaps what attracted her to her husband - his masterly-ness - ends up causing her rebellion.

mrsdarwin said...

I have several times in recent months glanced in a passing mirror and seen someone old looking back at me. I don't think that 32 is objectively that old (someone back me up on that, please), so perhaps this is just a passing phase of weariness, but it alarms me that I could be seeing my future in the mirror. One day the little laugh lines stopped smoothing out and the frowny crease between my eyes got a bit deeper and the gray infiltrated enough to change the color value of my hair. Do children do this? But aging can't be avoided forever, whether or not the very young have a hand in it.

Enbrethiliel said...


Emily -- Ha! What you describe is actually already happening to me. My best friend could still pass for a college student (and in Hollywood, be cast as a high school girl), but I have lines under my eyes when I smile, courtesy of my two years of teaching.

By the way, I'm trying to think of something to say about the second story as well! =P

Mrs. Darwin -- I'd blame my own "children" from high school, but I think the lines on my face are more the work of my fellow faculty members!

The turn this discussion has taken reminds me of the Sylvia Plath poem Mirror, so I've posted it.