This is a story my grandmother tells me: In Metro Manila, there’s a road haunted by a ghost, a woman in white who died one lonely night near a balete tree. From a distance, she appears beautiful, but if you have the misfortune to see her in your vehicle’s mirror, her face is either obscured or battered, bloody. Her killer changes nationality and profession depending on the teller, from soldier to taxi driver, from Japanese to Filipino, but he’s always a man, and the woman is always out when and where she shouldn’t be. Upon her death, her rage transforms her into a beacon. A warning to those who intend to harm women.
Do not go out alone at night is the moral my grandmother drew out of the story of the White Lady of Balete Drive, for my benefit.
I have told this story again and again. It creeps like a weed in seemingly unrelated projects, from fiction to poetry to essays. It’s even appeared in personal statements for school applications, in cover letters for jobs. It’s the seed for my novel-in-progress, even as my book has grown, unruly, beyond the urban legend.
Tell me, why do I return to the poor, furious, lost White Lady? I’m not the only Pinoy writer, artist, who draws from her well. She’s a forlorn figure in Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo’s supernatural noir Trese comics, an anthropomorphized Balete Drive in godfather of Filipino fantastical fiction Dean Francis Alfar’s “A Field Guide to the Roads of Manila.” She’s woven with the story of a directionless white American model in Mia Alvar’s “Legends of the White Lady.”
Despite the wealth of re-imaginings, despite my failures, I write her in draft after draft. Each time, I hope this is the attempt that does her justice. But, always, she returns, hovering over every word I produce.
I’m haunted by the White Lady. She’s the first story, the first wholly Filipino story, I remember, and it’s a story marked by death, loss, mourning, and rage.
And isn’t it a microcosm of many of the Filipino stories I’ve swallowed over the years? The tragedy of a country colonized well into the twentieth century, the trauma of a diaspora spread all over the globe, far from home and not always met with kindness?
And isn’t it the template for the story I’ve been told about the Filipina woman: always beautiful, pure, and in peril? Wronged and animated by a thirst for vengeance?
Tell me, then, why shouldn’t I be haunted by her?
When I say that the White Lady haunts me, I want to say that her haunting isn’t a curse I’m trying to exorcise. When I say that the White Lady haunts me, I suppose I’m trying to say she inspires me, though she’s not a muse, neither goddess nor Greek.
When I say that I write the White Lady, I am trying to imagine a life and afterlife for her that isn’t engulfed in wrath and drowned in sorrow. When I say that I write the White Lady, I hope to imagine a life for the Pinay that isn’t confined on the page to martyrdom, the narrow, colorless imaginations of the patriarchy, the First World. That the White Lady isn’t just my grandmother’s cautionary tale.
What the White Lady is, is the shadow of every Pinay character I’ve ever imagined. A warning. A weapon. A lodestar. A ghost. A Filipino. A woman. A human. She’s portent and person, a metaphor, putty in my hands that nevertheless resists categorization.
When I say that the White Lady haunts me, I tell you that I welcome her into my home, beckon her to my blank page. Because when she haunts me, the shadows she casts leave scars, making sure that I, we, never forget who she is, who we are, and where we lurk, everywhere, refusing to disappear.
Anna Cabe’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Bitch, Terraform, The Toast, SmokeLong Quarterly, Joyland, and Fairy Tale Review, among others. She received her MFA in fiction from Indiana University and was formerly the nonfiction editor for Indiana Review. She is currently a 2018-2019 Fulbright Fellow in the Philippines. You can find Anna at annacabe.com.