Diary of A Masquerade
"I want to know, do you still have any record of that young man dead floating in Manila Bay?" I asked the moon-faced drowsy officer at the information desk of Luneta Police Department. He was wearing a gray uniform; hair stiffened by pomade. Briefly regarding me, he dismissed me with a hand wave. He'd seen me before, I'm sure of that.
"Who are you talking about? We find a lot of dead young men floating in the bay every fucking day," he replied surly as he flicked on the radio, a midnight talk host was discussing someone's love problem.
I surveyed the police station, a long line of people - homeless waifs, gum-chewing hustlers and prostitutes sat on a bench, waiting patiently for something. The officer was now concentrated on the radio.
"He was my friend, the family wants to know his whereabouts."
"What's the name?" he asked irritably, unable to follow the radio program.
"His name was Roberto Policarpio, Sir." I answered.
"No. Your name."
I brought out my school ID, issued by Dela Ateneo University, the exclusive school. Reading it, he stirred and began sorting stuff in his drawer. He thought I was some big shot's son.
"The person you're looking for was Roberto... Roberto what?" His voice mellowed down.
He pulled out a black book marked Register, and began running down his finger clumsily on the pages. "When was his body found?"
"Last week. The newspapers reported it Saturday, June 199-."
He flipped the pages towards the end. I surveyed the room, the portrait of Corazon Aquino hang above the Police Seal - Manila's Finest. A small electric fan squeaked, it needed oil. Behind him, a cell contained new arrests; emaciated men against metal bars, two or three sat on the slimy floor and blackened bunks; they wore blank faces.
"Sorry, I could not find that name but check out number 02417," he grunted. "The bloated corpse was claimed by the Universal Morgue."
I pulled a notebook and pen out of my knapsack and wrote the number. "Thanks," I said and turned to leave.
Closing the book, he eyed me for the first time. He saw my black denim and leather jacket, spike hair and ear ring to each of my ears. My hips swayed invitingly. This triggered his suspicion. "Hey kid, why are you out at this time of the night?"
Not again... why did people always ask me this stupid question? I may look like a kid but I am capable of anything!
"I'm on my way home."
His voice resumed its thunder . "Don't give me that crap. I know you. You better not roam the bay tonight, the cell is waiting."
I walked out.
The following morning, I proceeded to Pagasa City, a southern suburb of Manila. I dropped from a taxi in front of the City Public Market. On the left of the market was the church bell-fry that released a sound from its giant bell every hour. On the right was the Philippine Eagle Bus Terminal. Across the market was a small building of white concrete, one that used to be called Marcos building. Its name- Universal Morgue: Caring for the Departed. I went in.
I opened its mahogany door. A gush of smell enveloped me. I sniffed. What was the smell? Peroxide? Sulfur? Ammonia? Vinegar? - the smell brought back a memory hidden in the deep recesses of my brain - an event that occurred fifteen years ago, I was five years old.
"No matter what happens, don't move Antonio," my mother gasped while she tied and bundled me inside a sackcloth; she stuck a handkerchief in my mouth and pushed me under her bed. From there I saw it all - how the Army blew my father's brains, its gelatinous tissue was scattered all over the floor; eyes popped out of sockets, teeth bared, and blood flowed out of unrecognizable mouth like foam. I heard my mother's last plea, it sounded so vague and old but still fresh, "In the name of God, do anything you want, take anything, just don't kill me. I am carrying a child..." The uniformed man holding the rifle answered her with a single fire, her face exploded in tiny fragments, her skull was smashed against the wall by its impact. "Serves her right, another guerilla sympathizer off the face of the earth," the gunner mumbled.
"Mother, why am I hidden here? What did he do to you?" I asked under the bed. Silence answered me. I was led by a strong hand on the cold and barren corridor of a decrepit hospital managed by the Sisters of Charity; I peeked through a door left ajar, the corpses of my disemboweled parents were laid side by side on their metal beds, their blood dripping, mixing on the floor, creeping towards me. "Mother, Father don't go." Sister Pilar, the Spanish nun, put on her gloves and rolled my father's body, washed it with sulfuric soap, "Que horror, que horror," she muttered. The other nuns dressed my mother, lifted her, sealed her in a makeshift coffin. I ran away screaming, towards the church where I heard the canticles of Franciscan monks huddled before the Blessed Virgin Mother. Holding candles, candles, always candles. "My parents won't come back!" The Franciscans did not hear me in their endless prayers- Ave Maria, Our Father, Glory Be To God. Bless the souls of the departed.
The creaking mahogany door closing behind pulled me back to the present. Nauseated, lumps of sweat began casting on my forehead. Since I was five years old, I promised never to see Death again. What was I doing here?
I dragged my feet on the narrow corridor, nothing stirred except the stuffy air that reeked of death. The ambiance was hot and depressing. In a quiet corner sat Mang Vicente, busily jotting and fussing over the stack of records before him; an old man with taut and shiny skin, he sweated under the merciless heat.
I surveyed the room. Like any other room in Manila, it was dark, lighted by a single candle, yes, another burning candle. There was power shut-down in the city; a few weeks ago, the people had moth-balled the Nuclear Power Plant which Westinghouse had offered to build, refusing it on account of its proximity to Mount Pinatubo. "It is better to be in the dark than be annihilated by radiation," they demanded. Aquino succumbed.
The office walls were painted cream baring a gallery of imitation Surrealist paintings by Salvador Dali - distorted contours of men and women, breasts relocated as faces, legs as tongues, arms as genitals; time clocks were melting like ice on hot tables; a miniature skull served as a paperweight on the table; the ceiling fan above the old man creaked.
The old man closed the books and walked towards me. "What can I do for you?"
"My name is Antonio Salamanca. I am looking for a dead friend." My feeble voice matched my flaccid knees that to buckle.
Noticing this, the old man shook my hands. "Forgive the heat, I am saving electricity; the cold is reserved only for the dead."
"I need to bury him. He will not stop haunting me until I do that..." I shuddered at the face that suddenly glinted behind the old man, "Oh God!" My dead mother was staring.
"My child, what's wrong?" the old man asked; his face became serious and his eyes curious.
I pointed at the image. "The face behind you... my mother."
The old man grinned, baring toothless gums. "Oh that?" pressing his palm against the mirror. "That is your own reflection."
I glanced at the mirror again and studied my face, the terrified eyes, eyebrows touching, lips tight, stiffened body, hands balled into fists, how closely I resembled my mother, printed in the savagery of a time past.
The old man led me to a chair. "You look afraid. Are you...wat-yu-ma-kal-it...klostropo- bik? I don't blame you, this office looks like a tomb." He opened the window, rolled up it shutter. Light rushed into the room, together with a cacophony of tooting horns, the noise of pedestrians on the street outside, the hawking peddlers in the nearby market, the music from a radio, the heat of the scorching Manila sun in this hot summer. I released a stifled breath. The old man blew off the candle. "You see now why I shut my windows, this heat burns like hell."
After I regained my composure, I pulled out my notebook and looked for the number given to me by the Luneta Police officer. "...Number 02417?"
"Oh that one." The old man opened his book again. "Business is so slow nowadays. The dead are not being claimed even if we send out fliers. What else can we do to prevent them from rotting and decaying? The Public Health officials want us to freeze them. Do you know how much that costs alongside daily brown-outs? A lot! Self-generators are costing us a fortune too." He paused. "Oh here, 02417 was delivered to the Anatomy Department of Manila University."
I was puzzled. "What do you mean?"
"Oh you don't know our policy. We temporarily claim the dead in this morgue and allow a waiting period of one week, after that, we sell the corpses. There are lots of universities vying for the cadavers - Anatomy courses."
"Damn. Couldn't you wait until at least...?" My voice broke. They won't sell Roberto's body.
"Don't be upset, I know how hard it is for us Filipinos to take this, we demand utmost respect for our dead. But we can't afford it anymore, times are getting hard. How long have you been friends?"
I couldn't answer.
As if taking advantage of my sorrow, he took me by the hand, "Come," he said, "I'll show you the place."
He led me to a narrow hallway, cold and barren, until we entered a room past the morgue. Inside this room, a big aquarium structure contained bodies: hanging upright, dark brown, head tilted or bowed, arms stiffened to sides, mouths gaped, they looked like fish hanging by the metal wires in the market outside. They were immersed in formalin and other chemicals that irritated my nostrils.
"These are the cadavers for sale - people who came to hospitals and died with unpaid bills, ran over by vehicles, who died of starvation. In those small boxes," he pointed at tiny carton boxes neatly arranged in a corner, "are the remains of mangled bodies brought in for cremation. All these corpses have the same misfortune -nobody claimed them. It costs too much to die now. Especially if you come from the provinces... in every town you pass by, there is a death tax to pay. You have to donate money to the priest before he would say mass, you have to buy a coffin, funeral clothes, a tomb. To tell you the truth, it is much better for some to stay in here."
He led me back.
"I need to tell you something that has bothered me your since your friend was brought here. Did you say his name was Roberto Policarpio? I remember him now, we had to pump out a lot of fluid from his dead corpse. No one wanted to touch him. His temperature was warm for days, he did not wrinkle even after being dehydrated. And I kept on dreaming... dreaming of him..."
"What do you mean?" I asked distrustfully.
"Ghosts manifest their presence immediately after leaving the body. Some stay for a short time, others roam forever. There are signs - a door opens, a vase falls, a revolving fan stops, a voice, body heat... it depends on the completion of life's missions. The longest to stick around are those that died of self inflicted wounds, suicide, starvation, soldiers in battles, even smokers."
"Because of unfinished businesses."
"How do you know all these?" I had the feeling he was pulling my leg.
"When you walk among the dead for as long as I did, you learn so much about them. They are not stones. They appear to me at nights. The darkness in this morgue is not dark at all. You need to acquire a special vision to see that. I learned it only after decades of work. There is a trace of dull and eery light enveloping the corpses. Sometimes I see figures of human beings sitting beside their own carcasses. I've got so used to them that I just wave goodbye in the dark, they wave back. They look happy. Peaceful. Grateful for the job I do for them. It is only your friend that is different. Unlike the others, he invaded my dreams. I went to a fortune teller in Quiapo about this but he explained it all in vague words. In my dream, your friend cries and cries but he won't tell me why. He is the loneliest ghost I've ever seen." He was eyeing me carefully as he talked.
"He came to me and led me to... " I stopped in mid-sentence. Why would I tell my secret to him?
"His ghost is probably warning you of things to happen. Or he wants you to take care of his unfinished business."
"Whatever it is, I don't know."
We entered the room of cadavers. Almost fifty of them in various forms of dismemberment - skins flapped open, cut abdomens, intestines hanging from the tables, hearts in garbage cans. "Ah these people don't know how to give respect for the dead." He mumbled.
"Who are they?"
"Doctors who come here to extend their researches and experiments; who practice on them before performing heavy surgeries. The dead are so kind. Hospitals and laboratories are very strict in the utilization of cadavers."
"And... after complete destruction, what happens to the cadavers?" I looked at the bodies with sharp and keen eyes, hoping I will find Robert among them. They were all unidentifiable. Eyes plucked leaving sockets stuffed with petroleum jelly, faces like aliens.
"We stuff them in those tiny carton boxes and burn them in the furnace. Use the ashes as fertilizer."
"Will that happen to Robert too?"
"Unfortunately, he is now a property of the university. It will cost triple to get him back."
He tried to placate me. "Here is what I can do. I'll contact Manila University to give me back his body, I know Sergio, the caretaker there. I will let you have your friend's ashes in an urn."
"Yes, that is where he was sent."
"It is funny, he studied Pre-Med in that university."
"They won't recognize him anymore, if that is your concern. They will further soak him in chemicals until he's ready for the Medical students, at least he will contribute to the knowledge of his schoolmates."
"I am curious...how much did you sell him?"
"My son, we don't reveal prices. Respect the dead."
"When I reclaim his ashes, will it cost me?"
"Of course, two thousand pesos."
I walked away without knowing where to go. I crossed Taft Avenue and proceeded to Manila Bay. I strolled along Roxas Boulevard, beside the bay. There was a gentle breeze, this comforted me.
I carried with me a knapsack containing the diaries of Roberto Policarpio. "Why did you kill yourself Roberto?"I whispered silently.
The splashes spawned by South China Sea waves hammered against the rocks, as an answer to my question. A gust of wind embraced me again. The mesmerizing reflection of the sunset upon the waves transformed the bay into a golden mantle-spread. On its shore stood its guards, old coconut trees turned knights, destined by the gods to preserve its pristine beauty. Behind the trees, sky scrapers appeared minute under the oriental sky, caressed by the birth of gloom as the sun descended upon the sea. I was ready to fall under its magical spell.
No, I would not be fooled by Manila Bay especially tonight when the thin twilight of the day assumed the color of blood. I unzipped my knapsack, pulled out the diaries and began to turn each page. On every white leaf that batted against the wind were words like razor blades cutting my flesh bit by bit, slice by slice. My vision was illuminated by the soft glimmer radiating from a bulb hanging from a solitary lamppost behind me. I heard faint distant sounds of footsteps and sensed a Presence observing me. I did not know what to do with these diaries.
"Help me understand Robert Policarpio before I succumb to madness. Enlighten me with all the things I saw."
I paused and closed my eyes to allow my imagination to wander, like an arrow darting in reverse, tunneling back to the source and beginning of it all. And then I heard the giggles of a child followed by a familiar voice.
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