"The Witch's Way" by Joseph Shallit

Dime Mystery Magazine, Vol. 35, Number 4 (November 1947), pp. 63-67. Reprinted in Robert Weinberg, Stefan R. Dziemianowicz, and Martin H. Greenberg, eds., 100 Crooked Little Crime Stories, Barnes & Noble, 1994.

When one is working on a witch case, Chief of Police Antonio Lopez reasoned, one should go in the witch's way --- by dark of night, using the strange call of the accursed night bird, waiting for fear to unleash men's tongues...

by Joseph Shallit

"Cross yourself," Valentino Loreto said to Antonio Lopez, the chief of police. "Cross yourself, for here comes the witch."

"Better that you should not speak such foolishness," Antonio said. "Only children and fools believe such stories."

"Then I am a fool, for it is too late to call me a child by forty years," Valentino said. "Nevertheless, better that you should cross yourself. It is good protection."

"Be still and do not frighten the old man," Antonio said.

Into the doorway, passing beneath the sign reading, Chief of Police, Municipality of Tompon, Leyte, walked Vicente Honorio, leaning on his cane. He wore a brown hempen shirt, blue, cotton American trousers, and a brown crust of dirt on his bare feet. He had a large, hooked nose unsuited for his flat face, and a smile that was lost in a jungle of wrinkles.

"I am ashamed that I must trouble you," he said to Antonio.

"It is no trouble, old man," Antonio said. "Sit in this chair."

"I would not come if my rice were not taken," Vicente said, sitting down softly so as not to disturb the chair unduly. "I do not care so much for the fish."

"Tell me what is your trouble," Antonio said.

"My rice," Vicente said. "Three sacks stood on a shelf close to my cooking pots. Late in the night I am sleeping. I hear a noise as of someone walking on the bamboo ladder. 'Who is it?' I say. 'Go to sleep, old man; it is a dream,' a man's voice tells me. Therefore I go to sleep again. When I wake in the morning, I have only two sacks of rice. And of the twelve fish which I myself brought from my fish trap yesterday, I have only two small ones. I do not care so much for the fish, for the sea runs plentiful these days. But two sacks of rice will not last until the next harvest."

"Why do you weep, old man?" Valentino Loreto burst out. "Can you not send out your accursed pig to get more rice for you?"

The smile went away from Vicente's face. "It is not an accursed pig," he said meekly. "It is a pig like any other pig."

"Does not your pig run through the roads at night, frightening good people with his golden teeth and causing them to lose their wits?" Valentino demanded.

"It is not true," Vicente said tremblingly. "I know that many people say this of my pig, but it is not true. My pig does not have golden teeth. It is a pig like any other pig, and I keep it in its pen at night."

"And is it not true," said Valentino, half rising from his chair, "that you transform yourself into a large black bird and fly through the night, crying woc-woc, bringing troubles to men's homes?"

"It is not true, not true!" Vicente said, almost weeping. "Ay, all the people say these things of me, but they are not true. My pig is like other pigs. I am a man like other men. But since the time, many years ago, that Tomas Escuadra's little son died of the dysentery as I was walking past his house, people have spoken these evil things of me."

"Do not mind them," Antonio said kindly. "And you, Sergeant Loreto, do not trouble this old man who seeks only to find the rice which has left him."

"Yes," said Vicente. "I do not care so much for the fish, for I believe it stinks already."

"I wish to help you, old man," Antonio said, "but it is very difficult. In every home in Leyte one can find sacks of rice like yours. Is there any one you have a sentiment upon as having taken your rice?"

"Yes," Vicente said promptly. "It is one of my three neighbors: Juanito Repulda, Julio Ontimaro, or Salvador Campos."

"You speak quickly, old man," Antonio said. "Why do you name these three only?"

Vicente leaned forward, and his wrinkles twisted as he pondered." I think about this in the morning," he said. "You know where my hut is, at the end of Juan Luna Street, at the edge of the rice fields. The thief could not go through the fields because they are too wet now. He must go through Juan Luna Street. If one walks from my hut, one passes the huts of my three neighbors, and then one comes to a muddy place. There is rain in the evening yesterday, and it makes the mud smooth. Early this morning I go there to look. There are no foot marks in it."

"You ware wise, old man," Antonio said softly. "If you were younger I would make of you a policeman and give you the place of Sergeant Valentino Loreto."

"Very good," said Valentino. "And I shall take the old man's wings and fly at night and cry woc-woc."

"Go, old man," Antonio said. "We shall try to find your rice."

Vicente rose. "You are very kind," he said. You will receive many blessings for my rice." He followed his cane out through the doorway.

Valentino stood up and gave a snort like a carabao. "That accursed witch! It is some new evil he is trying to make this way. If he wishes to find his rice, he can do it himself. Why does he not make himself into a bird tonight and cry woc-woc in the windows of his neighbors? They would give up their rice soon enough for fear of having their wits destroyed."

Antonio took a report form from his desk drawer and began to write.

"Oy!" said Valentino. "You are not going to make serious business of this witch's story?"

"A crime is a crime," Antonio said, "and will be so entered in the monthly report."

"You are too kind to a witch," Valentino said.

"I am not kind," Antonio said. "I think of myself only. Look at this report I must send to the provincial provost marshal this month: Crimes reported --- seven. Crimes solved --- none. The provost marshal will not like that."

"Oy, but you are making it only worse, for now you will have eight crimes reported."

"Yes, Valentino, but this crime will be solved.'

Valentino stared at him. 'How will you do that?" he asked respectfully.

"Do you not know that you have already suggested the way?"

That night, at half an hour before midnight, Antonio and Valentino left the police office and walked through the dark streets of Tompon. They went past the hemp warehouse, past the Chinese bakery, past the market shed where the clean-up boys were making music with pans and bottles, past the seamstress' place, past the Liberation Café where a few old men still sat, drinking tuba, past the chapel and into Juan Luna Street.

"Good that there is no moon," Antonio said.

"Yes, for even the moon would laugh to see us doing a witch's business," said Valentino.

The street, of packed dirt and gravel, became softer as they went on, softer and grassier, for few persons came this way. On both sides of the street the low rice fields lay beneath a blanket of water, resting from the harvest.

"Oy!" Valentino exclaimed. "The mud!"

They had come up on the muddy spot Vicente had told them about.

"This is for carabao to walk in, not men," Valentino said.

"Hold your breath and you will not drown," Antonio said, walking after him.

They cleared the muddy spot and continued to walk. And now on their left appeared the nipa-palm hut of Juanito Repulda, standing on bamboo stilts at the side of the road.

"Here we must be very quiet," Antonio whispered. "We must go as a bird goes."

"Then better that a bird were doing this and not I," Valentino said.

They walked to the window. It was covered by a thick bamboo and nipa screen, to keep out the injurious night air.

"Now bend," Antonio whispered, "so that I can put my knees on your shoulders and be lifted to the window."

Valentino looked at Antonio's thick shoulders and thick, round belly. "My wife will have a husband with a broken back tonight," he whispered.

Valentino stooped. Antonio put his hands against the side of the hut and put his knees on Valentino's shoulders. Valentino rose with a quiver and a grunt, and Antonio slid upward against the rustling nipa leaves. He put his mouth to the edge of the screen."

"Woc-woc," Antonio said softly.

"Oy, speak louder and be done with it," Valentino said. "I cannot suffer this burden all night."

"Woc-woc!" Antonio cried. He flapped his arms like a bird against the screen.

There was a sudden cry within, and then a voice began to mutter.

"Woc-woc!" Antonio cried. "Woc-woc!

The voice became louder. It was saying, "Jesús-Maria-Josip! Jesús-Maria-Josip!"

"Woc-woc!" Antonio cried, louder still.

"Jesús-Maria-Josip!" persisted the voice inside. "Jesús-Maria-Josip!"

"Oiga, come down!" Valentino exclaimed. He stooped, and Antonio slid down along the hut to the ground. "It is a terrible sin," Valentino said, "to be speaking a witch's cry against these holy words. A great harm will come."

"Jesús-Maria-Josip!" said the voice inside the hut.

"Oy, let us go quickly," Valentino said. He leaped to the road and ran a few paces.

Antonio came slowly after him. "Do not run, imbecile," he said. "There are no devils here."

Valentino waited for his chief to come beside him, and said, "Oy, it is foolishness for a chief of police to play the witch."

"It is no harm," Antonio said. "Perhaps in this way I can frighten a man into confessing his crime."

"Surely there are other ways to catch a thief."

"If I am dealing with men who believe in witches, I use the witch's way."

"Better that the crime never be solved than to catch a thief in this unholy way."

"I sign the monthly report," Antonio said, "and I shall sign for the sin."

Now they came to the hut of Julio Ontimaro. "Once more give me your back," Antonio said.

"My wife will say to me, `Go, you are bent old man,' " Valentino said.

He stooped and raised Antonio to the tightly screened window.

"Woc-woc!" cried Antonio. "Woc-woc!" He pressed his ear against the screen. "Listen, Valentino," he whispered. "Do you hear the noise?"

There was a whirring, grinding sound inside.

"Woc-woc!" Antonio cried. Then he stopped. "I think we have found a thief," he whispered. "He is grinding his stolen rice in the dark. Lower me, Valentino."

Valentino let him down, and they moved quietly to the bamboo ladder leading to the doorway. Antonio went up the ladder. Valentino stooped beneath the hut where he could hear the sound coming through the bamboo lattice floor.

Antonio rattled the door. It was unfasted. He pushed it slightly open. The sound of grinding continued. He took a match box from his pocket and struck a match. He held it inside the door. "Oy!" he said.

"Yes, I know," said Valentino. "It is no rice grinder."

Antonio came slowly down the ladder. "I have never heard such snoring," he said.

"I can smell the tuba from here," Valentino said. "He has drunk so much, a regiment of devils could not wake him."

"If you knew it was not a rice grinder, why did you not tell me?" Antonio demanded.

"I do not interfere in a witch's work," Valentino said with haughtiness.

When they came to the hut of Salvador Campos, Antonio said, "Well then, this is the last time you must raise me. Perhaps you will cease weeping."

"It is no matter now," Valentino said. "I have become a carabao with a hump. I shall hire myself to farmers and drag the plow."

He stooped and hoisted Antonio to the window. "Woc-woc!" Antonio cried. "Woc-woc!" He grasped the corner of the overhanging roof, and pressed his mouth to the edge of the screen. "Woc-woc!"

"Who is it?" a sleep voice groaned within.

"Woc-woc!" Antonio cried, striking his shoulder against the screen.

There was a sudden sound of ripping leaves. The corner of the roof moved in Antonio's hand. "Oy!" he cried, his body shifting away from the building. He grabbed for another hold on the edge of the roof. There was a rending and a thrashing, and Antonio came tumbling down, and the corner of the roof crumbled down upon him.

"Thieves! Thieves" the voice cried inside the hut.

Valentino dragged his chief to his feet. "Run!" he shouted.

"Let us tell him---" Antonio began.

"Thieves! Go or I shall kill you!" the voice cried.

"Oy, let us run!" Antonio shouted. With one leap he was on the road and his feet went pounding away into the darkness. Antonio tried to think of what to say to the occupants of the house. Then he heard a click as of a rifle bolt.

He heaved his fat body to the road and ran after Valentino.

"Thieves!" the voice cried after him. Then his ears were shattered by a great explosion. He kept running, not knowing whether he still had all his limbs, not knowing whether the wetness that clothed him was sweat or blood. He kept running miraculously until he came to the mud hole. There, in the darkness, he almost stumbled over the body of Valentino.

"Oy, Valentino, you are wounded!" he cried.

"No," said Valentino with a sour voice. I am resting. And you, old fighting-cock, I see that you also are not hurt."

"Of that I do not know," Antonio said, gasping. "It is too dark to see."

The next day Antonio sat at his desk with all the records for his monthly report spread out before him. The number of policeman on duty. The number of arrests made. The number of crimes reported. The number of crimes solved. The number of illegal firearms confiscated...

"Oy," said Antonio, "Here we shall have something to say. Valentino, we have discovered a case of illegal possession of firearms, have we not?" Go to the home of Salvador Campos and confiscate the shotgun."

"Yes, sir," said Valentino. "But I think---" He took a sheaf of papers out of his desk and looked through them one by one. "Yes. Salvador Campos was given a permit to have a shotgun eight months ago."

"Oy!" said Antonio.

A little while later, Valentino exclaimed, "Oy, here comes the witch! But do not cross yourself, for you are his brother."

Vicente Honoria pushed his stooped body into the doorway and tapped the floor with his cane.

"Come, sit in this chair," Antonio said to the old man.

"I am ashamed that I must trouble you again," Vicente said.

"It is nothing," said Antonio.

Vicente sat down by Antonio's desk, and his smile ran away among his wrinkles. "What I must tell you is that I do not wish you to search for my rice because it has been returned to me."

"Oy!" said Antonio. "Valentino, hear what this old man has to tell us. You say that your rice---"

"Has been returned. I am ashamed that I troubled you yesterday."

"It is no trouble, old man. Some thief's heart troubled him and he returned your rice? Is that not so?"

"Oy," said Vicente, "it is a foolish thing. You will laugh at me if I tell it."

"No, no, old man," Antonio said. "Only tell it. Who was the thief?"

"Julio Ontimaro."

"Julio Ontimaro!" Antonio exclaimed.

"The one who slept," said Valentino.

"He heard my call even in his drunken sleep," Antonio said. "But speak, old man. How was it that he returned your rice?"

"It is in this way," Vicente said. "I go to his hut this morning and I say, 'Julio, return to me my sack of rice, or I shall tell the police you are a thief.' Julio becomes angry and he says, 'You are crazy, old man. Why do you say I have stolen your rice?' I take him outside and show him a trail of rice grains going to his door. I say to him, 'There is a hole in the sack of rice you take from my hut. This is the sign of your guilt.' Then Julio begins to weep and he says, 'Do not tell the police. I shall return your sack of rice and another also.' "no,' I say. 'Give me only what is mine.' And so he does, carrying the rice to my hut. Now I wish that you do not put hin in prison because he has returned my rice. I do not care about the fish."

Antonio put his hand on his thigh and sat up straight and stared at Vicente. "Old man," he said angrily, "why did you not tell me yesterday about the trail of rice grains?"

Vicente shook his head. "Oy, but it is not there yesterday. I place the rice along the road to Julio's hut in the darkness of this morning."

Valentino began to laugh.

Antonio struck his desk. "Be quiet, you foolish Filipino!" He turned again to Vicente. "You say you placed a trail of rice to Julio's hut? How, then, did you know that he was the thief? Tell me that, old man."

"At that time I do not know," Vicente said. "I place a trail of rice to the hut of Juanito Repulda and Salvador Campos also, and this morning I accuse each one, but Julio is the only one who returns my rice. That is how I know he is the thief."

When Vicente departed, Antonio picked up his pen and dipped it in the ink bottle.

"What are you going to write now?" Valentino said.

"A crime solved is a crime solved," said Antonio, "and will be so entered in the monthly report."

tuba, an alcoholic drink made from fermented palm sap, popular in the Philippines.
carabao, a domesticated water buffalo found in the Philippines.
woc-woc, the cry of the Black-Crowned Night-Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax), a common bird in the Philippines.