Thanatophobia (the artist)

The doctors swarmed around the registry, rabidly flipping over charts, murmuring as if a baffling discovery has come to their attention. Behind the glass window on a closer look, the whites of their coats varied in shade. The older doctors wore their tarred uniforms, while the incoming residents were clad in immaculate white.  From the center, the seniors were the nucleus of the group, while the younger ones broken off into smaller clusters sharing leftovers of the discussion. One would think it was odd seeing a group of brilliant minds baffled by the simplicity of the news.  It was a sudden, terrible loss of an innocent life. A body lay on its side on a cold steel table. Limbs lay on the same parallel direction, while the blackness of the eyes was full and open, and the lips were closed tight like a perfectly drawn straight line. An expression of peace was painted on the windows of its soul but there was no life remained at all. The woman’s face was burrowed into the chest of her husband; desperately in search for something that would console her. As he held her tight with one arm resigned, the husband watched the emptiness of the vessel which was the remainder of what was once considered to be their unending source of joy.  The other patients wailed and mourned around them.

Through the swinging doors entered the medical assistants tasked to take the body to the observation deck.  One of the new doctors walked up and explained to the couple all of the medical efforts that had been exerted, plus the basis of each conclusive result.  This went on item by item as if it was from a recipe book read out loud. It was a small town they found themselves in, in a much smaller clinic. It was humid and cramped. Between these, with uneasiness, the resident doctor would turn to the registry where his peers were, drawing confidence and approval.  But there was an utter omission of the official prognosis and the cause of death for it was apparent. Then he continued as he segues to declare that while their responsibilities as medical practitioners for the case of the deceased have officially ended, the devotion of their friends in the other room as artists has not. The time of death has been determined, and the team – should they prefer to meet- was preparing for the next phase.

Still in trance, the couple had grasped nothing of what the resident has attempted to explain.  He repeated himself until confirming that the couple was able to digest at least the necessary information.   After some time they were led into a room where they met with the officiating attendant and his supervisor for the post mortem matters that needed to be discussed.  Papers were signed, in the couple’s own time of course, and servicing fees were also covered.

“It’s going to be a difficult task reconstructing the features to its original state, some photos will help. But nothing time and persistence wouldn’t fix.

We usually deal with subjects who were either shot clean or those we have found on the road so we could say we’re pretty good at what we do.“

The taxidermist shared arrogantly.

“Sorry we wasted your time,” responded by the woman.  “Can we please use your phone?”

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Red Moon Parting

As scheduled, they met at the family residence after dusk and sat together at the dining table under the low ceiling light hanging over them.  The tiny crystal pendants around its main light, of which the glass shade refracted prisms on each dangling embellishment themed the room with mixed hues.   Luis sat at the head of the table, while the younger brother sat by the corner, the two of them slightly facing each other while the lawyers seated side by side across.  There were piles of documents atop the leather case between them, and cigarette stubs nearly overflowed in a porcelain ashtray by the cups of consumed coffee.

“Have you thought about your options, Luis?” the lead counselor began.  Jojo turned to his elder for an answer.  “I guess we have.”  Luis’ voice has fallen tired when he responded.

“Or could we have more time to go over it?  I mean we don’t have to decide right away, do we attorney?”  Jojo injected worriedly.

“Inasmuch as we want to get the arrangements done for at this point, we want you to know that we completely understand how hard these things could get.  Please take all the time you need, but let us know as soon as you have arrived at a decision.  It would be best if we get something by the end of the week, but we’ll hold it off as much as we can.”

And the rest of the exchanges were all ceremonials to make sure that everything down to the last detail was in order.  After half an hour, they all stood up and shook hands except for Luis who remained silent in his seat.  The younger brother showed the lawyers to the door and excused the indifference of the brother and blamed it all to exhaustion and explained further that he was not quite himself lately.  He went back to the dining area after getting a pitcher of cold water from the fridge, and Luis, mechanically reached for the glasses from the rack in front of him and handed one to the brother.

Frustrated, he bolts right up on his feet and walked around and turned his back to Jojo.

“I can’t believe mother would do such a thing” and mellowed down after a pause,

“I guess it can’t be helped.”

After supper, in front of the wooden dresser, he peeled off a strip of white tape from the dispenser and wrote her name on it. He then plastered it across the surface of the mirror where his reflection was, on eye level, to ensure that he won’t forget to think about her every time he stood there.  Sometimes, the air in the bedroom would feel like a visit from the past.  The room still smelled of dried flowers from the house altar which their mother used to keep. It has been decided that they would always keep her room locked from the housekeepers or anyone for that matter without an explicit permission.

A few days had passed, it was the weekend, the brothers decided to get some air in the coast.  Luis drove while Jojo was looking up to the direction of the foliage ahead with the wind on his face. The sun was always gentle after the rain he mused, and reached behind him to the backseat to open the rest of the windows to let the cold breeze in.  The waves were full upon their arrival to the shore. For countless years they have carved in the skirts of the land mass deep into the ocean floor.  The crashes were hollow as it trembled heavily as both brothers felt minute in their presence.

“I remember how our parents have thrown their worries out here.  Do you recall?”  The stares of Luis fixed onto the horizon as if he have latched his gaze onto ends of the ocean.

“I just remember how different things were, kuya.  Those were just the happiest times.” Jojo replied as he stepped a few paces forward into the beach and felt the salt water drown his feet, and continued as if mimicking,

“I guess it can’t be helped.”

Just as they stood a mushroom smoke steadied its girth from the horizon up to the ends of the sky.  The wild forest fire has been on for three days showing no signs of stopping.

The moon that night glared wildly red in the sky while its reflection quivered on the surface of the garden pond beneath the motionless virgin of the grotto.  Its light sliced through the gaps of the wooden jalousie into the rooms of the house.  The shadows crept in the corners, through the halls, and under the shed, while silhouettes shifted, and parted with each passing vehicle on the nearby street.

Photo by Biankitty

Darkroom

We listened to the protracted speech on the radio. One of the professors from the faculty said that maybe things would be easier now that the government is really serious about cleaning after the mess. I didn’t say anything about the remark for my disagreement may be viewed as cynicism I feared.  In the first light we reached the circle where the police and the protesters met. At noon, the red flags were etched high against the blue sky and when the meeting ended, the colors were swallowed by the enclosed cup of darkness. Nothing stood out, but the cries and the chanting went on until it rained hard and everyone decided to go home– it was like a terrible joke.

There was a hint of resignation and a silent flavor of discontent across the room when we got back. The senior photographer has decided to proceed directly to the darkroom leaving everybody behind to ready the films to be developed and motioned at me that I should follow to calibrate the story. It wasn’t a question if I was eager to comply, so I excused myself out and went after him.

The pictures started to take shape in the water like images appearing from a tender, abandoned memory. They were vivid, and bold, and yet seemed peaceful. I envied the craftsmanship and his eye.  I asked him what it was he was hoping to get out from all of these, and he responded gently with a satisfied expression while clipping the papers to the lines “stories, just stories.”

In the courtyard through the crooked shadows of the trees I strode along to decompress before getting back to writing until the bell from the parish had rung. I was about half done with my second draft, just a few minor edits based on the featured photo we selected that night. I thought I should be able to finish before midnight, and maybe, there’d be enough time to swing by for some Chinese.

There was a girl in the main hall of the center building holding a lit candle walking with another woman, probably a year or two older. Their dresses were modest, they had grace, and their movements were subtle as if gliding on the waxed floors. They appeared to be heading to the direction of the church, yet it’s quite late but who am I to know.  She resembled someone taken from the photograph or it could just be dark that I might have imagined it– I guess I was just exhausted, I wasn’t sure.  There were a lot of things that I do not know I realized, and thought that life has a way of putting you in a very humbling place. This was my version of that, I figured I should capture it, record it, and digest as much as I could.  When they passed by me, courteous nods were exchanged. Their veils obscured the details of their faces but the sincerity brimmed through nonetheless. “There is still beauty in the dark, ‘di ba Ser?” A voice from the security guard loomed from behind. Apparently everyone from that place was infected by a rare philosophical disease. I turned to the source of this unsolicited commentary, and moved on to the main gate and lighted a cigarette.

And I wondered on, thinking about what we talked about in the darkroom. Two blocks away from the building there was an annoying honking in a traffic jam. There were kids loitering at the public sidewalks, and helicopters hovering too. I retrieved my week’s pay from my shirt pocket, unfolded the cheque and scooted to where it is brighter.

I heard my stomach give out a hallowed snarl and there was a sour taste that lingered in my mouth.

The Inconsolable Distance of an Early Life

It was career week and most of the huge companies around town came over to talk about industry choices we had while scouting potential seniors running for honors with exceptional qualifier scores. Everybody wanted to be someone and seemed so sure to know what career option to choose. At first I didn’t understand what it was I was feeling at the time, but it made me feel bad about the indecisions and on the lack of preference over and under.

Over coffee that afternoon I was on my usual quiet state walking past the walls of intramuros. The smell of moisten grass complimented the descending sun in the west. The styro cup I was holding had bite marks on it, not realizing I was gnawing on its defenseless brim.

I confided my dilemma to her and she was not in a hurry to dispense any answers. She just sat there by the wide windows of the convenience store we found ourselves at, listening intently as if I was a puzzle to solve. I was waiting for some quirky punchlines to shrug off my bickering, but instead she just pursed her lips and pointed her index finger on my forehead and said that she was not worried about me, that I should see what she was seeing. I decided from then on that I love convenience stores, and wanted to kiss her in the mouth occasionally.

From then on we were buddies for life. There was nothing in the world that could separate us. I told her about this place where I used to go to that she should try out, and there, in the weeks that followed, we spent our nights and the little money we had on second-hand records and inexpensive chocolate bars while listening to unearthed B-sides with cigarettes. While it lasted it seemed endless. I liked the classics while she burrowed herself to punk rock. She always had good taste in music I respected her, while she thought I was over sentimental and coyed that I was too sad I should seek professional help. One time we crashed a party pretending we were distant cousins just to see how the other kids in the subdivisions did it. Then we drove around town in her brother’s stolen car talking about how terrible it was, but deep down we thought how nice it really was and confessed eventually that we envied them. We laughed about it and pretended more. But could only go on so far that we knew we’d run out of roads.

She always persisted to take the wheel, going round places getting nowhere in particular, persisted that we go to the sea and drink by the fire. The nights were colder then but we always knew we had something to warm us with.

Sometimes if we’re low on gas, we’d just walk down the creek if there was enough moonlight and sat on the low walls of the golf course. We were juveniles, and those blue summer nights were ours. Had we held them close enough it would burst and we’d explode along with it. We would hold no form, morph into invisible energy roaming in the air, carefree. We would be in different places at once, many drifting parts of us, multiplied experiencing simultaneous life episodes. We wouldn’t have to worry about being overwhelmed; we’d be shapeless.

I looked across the purple dusk in that sullen, dry tropical afternoon, listening intently to the singing of the wind. And even though I have tried so much to reconcile, mustering with all might in this exponential attempt to remember even the slightest of, I could not have achieved it. For I am the chapters read from a torn paperback, dog-eared, spine ripped and worn down. I will always remember her drinking from a paper cup, placing it under her lips, on queue after a drag from a cigarette in the streams of smoke. Her skin was the railways on her cheek for tears, deepened and mapped with heartaches. I told her to listen, to just listen, for there was nothing left to do but to just wait for the playing of a well-chosen soundtrack that could rescue.

The Steep Climb over the Ridges

She got out of the shower and stood by the doorway soaked. It was hard not to watch her body glisten in the light. She asked me about the fight, on why I over-reacted like that. Obviously she was upset about the whole thing and I did not want to make matters worse so I turned the other way. I told her that I didn’t mean to scare her and all, but it’s something that I did not have control over like how I was when I am around her sometimes. Like the polar caps in the heat of the sun, I guess we just simply melt away.

Lightheaded, I asked her if she can go to the front desk to get some fresh bandages and anesthetics. Miles Davis’ Blue in Green was on the static radio. I looked outside and noticed that the moon was a bit distant than the usual. It was turning out to be a really slow night.

When I was about to reach a complete state of deep slumber, I felt a sudden jolt which pulled me right off from respite. And in her softer version of a whisper she said that we had no time and we ought to be going soon before the sun rises. “Movement is life, and there is no telling what the road holds for us today.”

She was always the wiser one.

I looked around trying to get some grip of what’s going on. My head still felt woozy from the sedatives and vodka I took. On the newsstands some guy from the government was causing trouble in the south. I then skimmed the column and memorized the name on the byline and thought that the writer was one tough guy to be able to say things like that. And I wished wordlessly, that someday I could be as brave.

We sat down along the roadside by the line of shrubs under the canopy of the trees. The heat was gentle and the dews were still present on the soft landings of the open leaves. We waited for the first bus trip while drinking cool stale water from our canteens and watching the day unfold. The wound from my head was starting to dry off, a bit painful still, but it was better. Across the benches there was a sidewalk vendor selling herb oils and healing mantles, who signaled to me for a remedy, but I rather self-heal.

We bought a local wine to get us through the cold by the time we reach the highlands. This helpful advice was taken from an old commuter, whose business was to bring farm and household supplies to the villagers up north. He was a light hearted fellow with a pair of shiny, rosy cheekbones. We thanked him for the tip and offered if we could buy him a bottle as well but he respectfully declined and said that he does not drink while working. Instead, he offered his home to us in a couple of days during the cropping of the harvest. And then he added that we could also help out should we want to earn a few pesos or just for the experience. We said we would definitely consider that and thanked him once again for his generosity.

The day was ultimately different compared from the last few days. As if there was something grounded governing those mountains. I never felt so still in my life. And in those moments I genuinely heard the voice of silence speaking to me, as the waves of the wind carried its message across, it was like an endless cradle of fleeting conversation with nature itself, it was inexplicably serene.

Then I surveyed the scenery around us, from the line of trees with their broken shadows cast on the road to the uneven terrains of the hillside, heaving deep breaths as I began to wonder if the thought of staying has ever occurred to her. And in the midst of this wandering contemplation I suddenly arrived at the conclusion which I have always known, that she was a runaway, and like the great mustangs in the west, she is always meant to run.

And so I hid these and leaned against her shoulder thankful still.

Internship Paper

I was at the receiving area waiting under a bamboo ornament, for the Colonel – who I was interning for at the time- was concluding unofficial business matters in the other room with a tarot card reader who was also his lover. I kept on looking at my wristwatch hoping it would wind up faster. Earlier that day, he said he had received a phone call from the lady and demanded it imperative that he must come by her place at once. But he couldn’t really say why and therefore I couldn’t, in turn, determine which role portrayal she was on that afternoon. The Colonel was not always this superstitious; matter of fact, he was quite critical and sensible. His decisions have always been based on his years of extensive military service and never believed in anything supernatural. Word was, a few years back, he saw an aparicion in the mountains and for days he had fallen ill and had serious episodes of convulsions which ensued from this chain of events, him being rather delirious and “undetermined”. According to the rumors, once, he snuck out of the camp, climbed over the steel fences and was found by roving soldiers talking to barks of trees and wandering about in the shadows. All of these, of course, in respect to his rank, were not stated on the official routine reports.

Flipping over a magazine and chain smoking, across where I seated were four comfortable looking armchairs each decorated by carefully embroidered apple green throw pillows, of which the designs represented the celebrated animal zodiac of the year. I preferred to stay near the front door where I amused myself with daydreaming and brewing empty, sobering thoughts. The place was always lit red whether it was day or night, and the embellishments on its interiors were limited to beaded curtains, fortune plants, oriental figurines, and wind chimes, which I suppose for the purposes of being economical more than being spiritual. The lady across me was fourth in line and she appeared to be accustomed to the culture of the queue. She was right about mid-forties, had a good posture, and still had good set of teeth. She was with her daughter who appeared to be oblivious on where she was, and was absorbed watching videos on her mom’s phone.

I was about to doze off, when a fast pacing movement caught my attention and saw the Colonel and the fortune teller crossing the street getting into a white taxi. And it flashed to me the instructions I had received from one of the high ranking officers to not lose sight of him. Hurrying, I looked over the counter (to make sure), peered through the slightly opened reading room, and figured that they had used the backdoor.

I saw the Colonel look back from his side of the backseat as if motioning with his expressions that the future has been foretold and everything was out of his hands. I witnessed the slopes of his discontent vanish in the light of the sun that glared on the glass window. In his eyes I saw the greenest meadow lands on a perfect summer day. I turned the other way, and with earphones on, I walked up those festive streets warm on the eve of Chinese New Year. I turned around and the vehicles behind me were reduced to blurry hazes and bylines. I couldn’t tell where they turned, but in the absence of, something from within welled up, as if a part of me was working again.

Then I remembered the moment I first met the Colonel. It was my internship interview when he started talking about cigars eagerly, about the types of wood, and how the Ilocanos traditionally made theirs. I knew nothing about these of course, but I caught myself nodding between these expanding points. And I thought to myself that I knew him, that he must have had a familiar soul.

Nowadays I still wonder about the Lady and the Colonel. On how she undresses and tucks herself beneath the warm sheets underneath the pale moon. And how the Colonel would watch her and think to himself how beautiful she is especially when she cries. Not that her grief amused him, but it was more about the honesty that shaped her. It was like an encapsulating shell that preserves every piece of humanity that was left there for us to feed on. That fate and luck must have decided to reconcile this time around, amidst chaos and the inevitable misalignments of our limited capacity.

Photo By: Bianca Osorio

Crash

Manuscript

It was cold and windy when he stepped out of the publishing house. While its appearance was uninviting, its cragginess still appealed to him nevertheless.  Although its elevators no longer worked after the last world war, the staircases were wide and generous, while windows were tall, quite suitable for thinking and writing.

He thought it was indescribable what he felt holding the manuscript finished in his hands. Links of sleepless food stalls wailed, and prolific choreographed routines of evening companions for hire flooded the atmosphere.  Artists of all sorts stood around at the corners performing, while middle aged men who’d rather refer to themselves as aficionados lounged in wicker chairs on narrow alleys.

It was four days before his birthday, exactly two weeks after the car accident.  And although the doctors told him he was lucky, the experience still attracted him.  It gave him something to look forward to, a journey to profoundly aspire for.

 

Accident

He was driving west in the rain when the car swerved off the freeway, until it tumbled off the cliff and dived.  It was a hard rain, he couldn’t see. Half conscious, he thought it was beautiful, how the dark, electric blue flashes in the patches of the clouds would entertain him while he waited for the sirens to come.

 

Haircut

When he got discharged, the first thing he thought about was getting a haircut. Nothing grand, just good old fashioned clean haircut. Grooming was after all his pilgrimage back to civilization. It was how humanity saw it, he wanted to compromise.

 

Train

As he strolled there was a hint of rain in the air.  A few swelling beads of raindrops crackled onto his leather coat just about when he reached the turnstile to catch the late night train.

In this pluvial darkness he pulled up his collar close, and the lapels which overlapped across his chest warmed him.  A few celebratory drags then he flicked the cigarette half-done to the puddle, staying with it as he watched it hiss before entering the station.

Just the same, even after all, he still thought it was a good time for a drive, but he could not.  Instead, he imagined steering the wheel in the darkness through the same night until he catches the first light of the next day.  As he stood on the platform, he thought about how the rain will wash away the world clean as it always did.  There were a few lines that he wanted to write her, regrets even.  But he couldn’t.  His hands are failing him.

Photo by: Bianca Osorio