Ms. Jessica Bryan's The Wake and The Filipino Elvis Presley are chapters off a book that has finally gone into publication: Psychic Surgery and Faith Healing in the Lowlands of Pangasinan — a fascinating account of her recurrent excursions to the Philippines, wading into an unfamiliar culture as she explored its alternative healing practices, and in the end, becoming the "reluctant healer."

Ang honi tambal so Masulob-ong kasing-kasing.
Music is the medicine of a lonely heart.

From 1992 to 1994, Jessica Bryan visited the Philippines four times as the guest of Rev. Filomena "Mely" Naces, a faith healer who is now deceased. She was profoundly changed by her experiences with Mely at the Faith in God Spiritual Church in Vacante, Binalonon, and she is writing a book about her interesting adventures. The "working" title of the book is "THE SALTMAKERS OF PANGASINAN: A Memoir of Psychic Surgery and Faith Healing." Jessica hopes for publication in the U.S. and the Philippines in early 2006. Jessica has allowed us to reprint one chapter from her book. This incident took place when she first arrived at Vacante.


I have been in Barangay Vacante in Pangasinan for only a few days when early one evening we set out for a distant barrio to attend the wake of a member of the church who has died. The choir girls are wearing their Sunday clothes: clean-pressed flowered shirts, dark-colored skirts and sandals. They are somber as they pile into the jeepney, where they sit demurely with their music books in their hands, the usual laughter and chatter strangely missing. After about forty minutes over narrow roads, and finally to a road that is really not a road at all - but sun-baked ruts through a sugarcane field - we come to a stop and everyone climbs out. It is silent except for the whisper of insects. Single file down a narrow path, crossing an open sewage ditch pungent with the smells of farm life, past a sleepy white cow who rises to her feet in astonishment at our arrival, we come out into a clearing dimly lit by candlelight. I am frightened, although I'm not sure why. Perhaps it is because everything is dark and the country is alien, or perhaps it is because I know the dead man is waiting for us.

Crouched in the clearing, dozens of mourners stare intensely at something. At first I think they must be praying over the man. Panic grips me, my heart catches in my throat, and I am suddenly nauseated. I have never seen a dead body, except for one brief moment at my grandmother,s funeral when I was thirteen. I have been insulated from any intimate experience of death by my tidy life in America, and at this moment I do not want to consider my own mortality.

As we get closer to the circle of mourners, I am astonished to see that, in fact, they are gambling, and what they are staring at is merely the dice in the center of the circle. Apparently it is customary to gamble at wakes, with the winnings given to the widow to pay for the funeral.

We continue towards the back of the property, past the chickens sleeping in the trees and the dusty stalks of recently cut sugarcane, to where there is a small nipa hut with an entry ladder made out of tree limbs bound together with jute rope. Four adults and three children live in this one-room hut. I climb the ladder behind Mely and find myself inside with the deceased, his widow, and his oldest daughter. The casket takes up one-third of the room and it is closed, but there is a small glass window over his face for him to look out and us to look in. Although I know he has been dead for ten days (and certainly his eyes must be shut), I imagine he is staring at us. I am horrified. I want to become very small, flatten myself against the walls of the room, and become invisible. I begin to sweat profusely and it is not from the heat. Tearing my eyes away from the casket, I look at his widow and daughter and observe their obvious despair. They are wearing black clothing and have the customary torn white rags of mourning tied around their heads. Making animal sounds born of their terrible nameless grief, they look like they are about to collapse. Wringing their hands and swaying ever so slightly, they speak with Mely in low tones and I know I must leave immediately. This is too intimate, too private for a stranger to participate in. What can I possibly say to these women?

Scrambling down the ladder, I make my way back to the front of the clearing to join the musicians, who are beginning to sing and play guitar. Sitting next to me on a small wooden bench in the deep darkness is Joseph, Mely's brother, and I am overwhelmed with the impulse to lean over and smell his neck. He is so completely sexy - in a way America men never are. He is brown and earthy like the land he tills, his muscles hard as stone sculpted from his work in the fields.

An old man sits down on the bench on the other side of me and says: "I'll sing Pangasinan because this place Pangasinan," and he begins to sing a deliciously sweet song.

The children press in on us. I can feel their hot bodies and their hot breath pressing, pressing, pressing at my back. Most of them have never seen a white person and they devour me with their eyes. They make me intensely nervous, and I move closer to Joseph, as if he could shield me from their gaze. They beg to touch my naked arm to see if the white color will rub off and whether underneath I am dark, like them. I ask Joseph to make them move back, and they do. It is so hot that even with them several feet behind us I can still feel the heat of their breath on me and the hunger in their eyes.
Some of the adults begin to dance. One very old man asks me to dance with him, but I cannot. I am afraid that if I move, I will not be able to control my desire to run away. I do not know if he will be insulted, nor at this moment do I care. Then two old women get up and begin to dance with each other. Executing a stiff waltz, they stumble over their feet and each other, laughing hysterically. Joseph puts his arm around my waist and pulls me even closer to him. Of course everyone wants me to sing and I doa Grateful Dead song about trying to run away from the devil - because it is quick and happy, and they won,t know what I,m saying anyway. Joseph and his cousin Alano are quite proud to accompany the amazing stranger, who is not only large and has skin that is a different color, but she plays guitar, something usually reserved for men. Joseph leans over and whispers in my ear that everyone thinks we are married. It's a circus as well as a wake, and except for the dead man, I have become the major attraction.
Then Mely and the choir pass by us on their way back to the jeepney. They have finished the service and the blessing of the man who can now finally be buried. Mely looks at me with a question and a twinkle in her eyes as if she is wondering whether her guest has been behaving herself.
At breakfast the next morning she says: "I'm so proud, because you made the people happy with your singing. You helped them forget their sorrow."


© Jessica Bryan 2005

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