Photo by Bianca Bucu
“Tabi tabi po” is what my yaya taught me to say whenever we see a small hill in our backyard near the water tank. By saying, “Tabi tabi po,” it’s roughly translated into saying “Just passing by, or excuse me” as a sign of respect. My yaya told me that the small hill in the backyard was the home of the Duwende. The Duwende in Filipino folklore is known to be a dwarf or goblin known to cast spells on anyone who offends them or steps on their home. When I lived in the Philippines, I always loved to play outside. My family and I lived in a cul de sac that allowed me to play with the neighboring kids outside. And oftentimes, as kids we misbehave, and we go to places we’re not supposed to. So my yaya, or in American terms my nanny, would use Filipino folklore to scare me.
As a child, these mythical beings would come to life. So whenever I wanted to play outside near the water tank, my yaya would tell me that there are Duwendes there to get me. Her tactics worked and I stayed away from the small hill in our backyard. Not until one day I decided to play with a stray cat near the water tank.
Every day this cat would visit our backyard, almost as if she lived there. She wasn’t even technically our pet, but I decided to name her “Belle,” as an ode to Belle from Beauty and the Beast. As mentioned before, Belle was a stray cat. She wasn’t the most hygienic pet to touch. But as a kid, all I wanted to do was hold her. Every day she’d visit I gave her some of my toys and food. She was never allowed inside but deep down she still felt like she was mine. One day, I decided to chase Belle all around our backyard. I kept running around in circles, my little body panting from chasing a hostile cat. As soon as I caught Belle, I didn’t even realize we made it to the small hill by the water tank. I had stepped over that small hill by accident. All of a sudden my body just kept itching. I kept scratching the surface of my skin until it turned bright red.
During that time, I thought I had been cursed by the Duwendes. That I failed to say the words, “Tabi tabi po” to the small hill. But looking back now, it could’ve been anything. It could’ve been the fleas from Belle’s body. It could’ve been the weather or the tall grass outside. Or who knows? Maybe… I was actually cursed? Maybe my yaya was right when she told me to stay away. Regardless, as an adult now it makes me wonder if there’s some truth in these mythical beings or if it’s just a traditional Filipino disciplinary tactic to get me to behave.