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Penalty of our Frailties

And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way.”—John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Our city offers a beautiful scene, like a photo; framed by mountains and blocking our horizons, as if the land had raised a pair of arms and enveloped us in a loose, earthy embrace. It is constantly picturesque, with highways shaded by well-manicured trees and a river that cuts a winded path through the plain nestled inside a basin. With the mountains so high and enclosing as they are, storms rarely consider us in their paths, and we are often left with long periods of heat of the most excruciating kind, sucking the air completely of moisture. But when you live inside a bowl like us, you come to know that when rain does arrive, it comes, always, with the promise of a flood.

That was the case when, one day, after an unexpected deluge that lasted throughout the previous night, we once welcomed a new dawn with overflown canal water gushing into our low homes – carrying with it an array of cigarette butts, damp leaves, clumps of rat droppings we chose to believe were caked mud—and our river roaring, threatening to spill over the bridge above it, cluttered with branches from upstream and the occasional detritus of human occupation, and the unsettling but undeniable sliver of a pale heel poking its way through the sludge.

It was deemed too dangerous to retrieve the body immediately after it was discovered (it was undoubtedly dead, and the dead could do nothing but wait), so emergency services opted to wait until the angry rapids had settled and returned to its lazy, bubbling stream. It took three hours; plenty of time for Brigada FM to catch wind of the macabre display, post a photo of the foot with a brief description on their feed; for everyone else to swarm towards the site, hoping to catch a glimpse of the most exciting thing to happen in our city in a long while.

Crowds gathered behind hastily placed police lines. The recovery team suited up as we all patiently waited for the water to die down. Below us, the current slowly revealed an ankle, then a toned calf – the body seemingly positioned head-first inside the sludge. Like an onion being peeled of its countless layers, we anxiously waited as the water viciously lapped at the earthy debris wrapped around the body, smudging the guck away inch by inch, chunk by chunk, until finally, her entirety was exposed. The heel, much to our relief, was attached to the complete body of a woman.

Even with her eyes closed and depressed into their sockets, we found her alarmingly beautiful. By the time the currents were finished with her, she was lying on her back with her arms spread out by her sides, the push and pull of the water causing them to float and flap in mock, languorous flight. Attached to the body was a dainty little head heavy with long, ashen hair—pale to the point of whiteness—and in the sludge it almost seemed to glow under the scorching sun’s soft reach. We glanced at our own follicles, rich black turned oily and slick in the heat, and we touched our heads as if ashamed to be in the presence of something so unlike us, but so eerily desirable. What would it feel like to run our fingers through that hair, we thought, while wiping our greasy palms on our pant legs.

By noon, she laid atop a collected pile of semi-hardened mound of mud and sediment—a free-formed bed of the earth.

Because Brigada FM was the first media outlet to arrive on the scene, our eyes were glued to their page, and we surrendered our attention to their authority as they posted regular updates concerning the investigation surrounding the woman’s identity.

She was approximately eighteen to twenty-five years of age, undoubtedly a virgin, with a full set of white, pearly teeth. Her pale, corn-silk hair was around waist-length and the rest of her body was devoid of unique, identifying marks (moles, tattoos, birthmarks, bruises). The local government scoured the surrounding municipalities for relevant missing persons reports, murders, suicides. Several tests were run to uncover her identity. All the while, her body was kept in cold storage at the morgue of the city’s largest hospital, under the critical eye of the mortician, a rapidly aging and wrinkly old, female bachelor, named Ms. Diaz.

Now, respect for Ms. Diaz’s past occupation as the mortician aside, it is impossible to speak further of the incident/scandal brought by the dead woman’s strange arrival into our city without considering the actions of Ms. Diaz while she oversaw the mysterious case of our Jane Doe. It was, after all, the push on the door of obsession that creaked it open, allowing the rest of us to ferociously barge in, blind and hungry.

Ms. Diaz, despite being alone for most of her life, outgrew the acrid bitterness common to the lonely and instead found within herself a deep, near-fatalistic admiration for all things beautiful in the world to battle her solitude. She hooted the loudest cheer at social events, and possessed a wide, welcoming smile to all that moved others to reciprocate in fond familiarity. But it was one thing to be aware of life’s bursts of beauty while being in the presence of others, and another to be confined in a room with only the little voice inside her head and a handful of bodies atop gurneys to keep her company.

As she cleaned the grime off the strange woman’s skin, Ms. Diaz wept. There was
no joy in being unknown, possibly forgotten, and terribly alone. She combed the
silken hair while she softly hummed to herself, wondering what style the woman
would have preferred, and eventually settled on the fact that she would never know.
Sorrow caused her hands to tremble as she worked.

It soon became apparent to Ms. Diaz that she could not work with the dead woman alone.

It is difficult for us still to definitively point out the exact moment of Ms. Diaz’s breakdown, the instant when the fissure bloomed into a fault. All we know is that three days into the dead woman’s stay in the morgue, all types of people were suddenly visiting her in the thick, concealing darkness of the night.

If the internal workings of the mortician’s mind confounded us then, it was even more unclear to us how we even began to know of the evening excursions in the first place. Perhaps one of us, on the commute home from a long, laborious day—of the same song and dance that could only occur in a place so bowled in as ours—happened upon the nightly, lingering queue of shuffling feet leading to the hospital’s back alleys. It may be possible that Ms. Diaz confided her desperate desire for company to those she trusted, and her secret was carried in whispers to eager ears. All we know now is that within that week, almost everyone we knew in the city knew about it. Almost everyone walked silently under the glow of fluorescent lights leading towards the morgue’s open door. Even the mayor himself was rumored to have participated, though he denies it to this day.

And once we crowded up the small room, surrounded the body modestly hidden under a
translucent sheet that only served to emphasize her skin’s diaphanous sheen, with her waist-length pale tresses gathered and whorled around her head like clouds heavy with rain, there was nothing for us to do but to gaze in awe.

How impossibly different, we whispered. How unapologetically unique, how astoundingly foreign and delightful. If only, we thought as we once again looked at each other, if only it were so easy. To change, to be stripped of what was, and to simply have the freedom to be new. To be so unabashedly transformed.

Change we cried out, and change we slowly attained. It was as if the arrival of something so alien emboldened us to finally rid ourselves of our accustomed shells in exchange for something addictively novel. The dead woman’s appearance brought into the foreground a thirst we did not know existed.

Like all the world’s greatest shifts, it began superficially, starting from our heads.

Everyone started to grow their hair long, men and women alike. Those who had kept trimmed and manicured manes attached extensions to their roots, with the very ends brushing against their newly-slimmed waists. As we walked within the city, the sun happily bounced and danced from our now ashen tresses – glittering corn-silk under the light,

It was terribly good for the city’s economy, too, since businesses previously considered extravagant and unnecessary began to flourish. Salons started offering packages where groups of three or more could get steep discounts for bleaching their hair. A change pursued alone is frightening and conspicuous, but a change that swept through an entire community, well, what could that be other than the beginnings of progress?

We bleached everything, from our eyebrows down to the skin between our thighs, hoping to mimic the ethereal glow bestowed upon the dead. And the things we did to our poor nipples. Our Jane Doe’s breasts were the highlight of our conversations. Bright, baby pink was the benchmark we set for ourselves, and our areolas—prickly, pimpled, and putrid as leprosy-ravaged skin—endured endless slathering of anything under the sun that could remotely improve its appearance. Snail mucin, crushed betel nut exfoliations (to be rubbed on twice daily), petroleum jelly, oxalic acid washes, Listerine (lemon and salt variant), kalamansi slices (taped securely to the area overnight), and when all else failed, pinching the protruding skin until it blushed and bled.

Brigada FM strayed from their usual reports of typical motorcycle crashes in established accident-prone areas, worrying crop conditions because of the recent floods, and alarming spikes in local teenage pregnancies and abortions. Instead, they turned into what can only be described now as a teenage girl’s favorite magazine, with a barrage of articles detailing the best methods to achieve lighter skin and feature stories about the best salon locations for the best blonde hairdos.

How little we cared for anything else other than our magnanimous transformation! We did not care at all about newly born children or our old dying, for individual joys or sufferings. At that moment, we were just ecstatic to be alive, together. Our smiles burned brighter as we passed one another in the mall, we passed out compliments and well-wishes like play money, and we reveled in the fact that we all felt connected and looked alike. Like tightly woven cloth, the transitions between our shades were imperceptible, as if we were not singular strands strenuously interlaced but pools of watercolors bleeding into each other so effortlessly. We were simply one and the same.

So engrossed we were in our cheerful mood that we barely realized that our city’s annual festivities had finally begun. It was a time for our present celebrations to momentarily cease, and the humble call of our past jolted us into participating.

Tourists poured in from all over the place. Strangers from neighboring cities strutted along our decorated streets; purchasing and embellishing themselves in trinkets and tribal cloths crafted by those who lived in our land before many of us eventually moved here. These tourists photographed themselves, enthusiastically commenting on our preserved ties to the land. We furrowed our bleached brows in confusion as they passed.

Foreigners flocked in as well; their naturally blonde and brunette heads striking us as being too unnatural, their skin inhumanly pale. When they passed us, we stared because they were just so different, not because we were enamored by their difference – a scenery change on a pair of legs that quickly walked around our peripheral vision. They stopped by the tarpaulins explaining the city’s creation, where they lingered and which they exhaustively read. Bewildered, we scratched our itching heads.

When the sun finally set on the first day of the festival, we walked the streets leading back to our houses, exhausted and dazed. We turned at corners and paused, looking up at the street signs bearing names of the dead; of those who, long ago, saw this grassland surrounded by mountains and – drunk with hope – called it home.

Home, with its trees along the highway, made noticeably different by time and yet still so familiar. The bells tied to woven belts purchased by the tourists were ringing through the air; tiny little golden things jangling and singing with every step they took. For some peculiar reason it seemed louder to us than the times we’ve heard them before, but not in the deafening way of unpleasant things. It was as if, despite the size of each individual trill, it echoed and bounced as they collided with each other, and in their unified agitation they created music that felt heavy enough to occupy space. It was agonizingly beautiful.

We looked at each other then: our scalps red from chemical burns, our tits sore, our thighs rubbed raw, and our resulting laughter pealed and chimed.

How easy it was to forget our love until we saw its reflection in the eyes of another.

We never did find out who the woman was; in fact, we scarcely remembered her still being in the cold storage during that time, so engrossed we were in our attempts at being like her, and afterwards, so elated in our dancing in the streets that our legs still shook from exhaustion.

In the end, it was decided that after weeks of dead ends in the investigation, the best move forward was to bury the dead. The entire city dove into their pockets and offered their own share for the expenses. It was a community effort, and we were glad to finally lay her to rest, to have the entire affair wrapped up with a neat bow; to bid farewell to things of the past and greet future events anew.

For our lives are filled with histories that are but changes of the times calcified, a mere mummification of events; divested of its fleshy, human parts, bandaged in hopes of self-preservation, dried up from years of obsessive protection then locked away from the altering ways of time itself – the very root of its causation. It is reverent only in its agedness, but this moment will be buried, too, by time, and be at the mercy of fickle memory, surviving only through talk. Rumor. Gossip. This account belongs in the annals of our shared existence because we willed it to be.

Because in the days that we were pale and blonde and pink-nippled, we suddenly recalled the light that gave life and browned us, the familiar rushing of water from a river so beloved, the loose earthen embrace. As we donned the skin of another, we rediscovered what was already known. In the mists of change, we followed the siren song of caprice that eventually led us back to the lilting chants of home nestled within our hearts.

A precariously balanced cairn of constant new beginnings, reassured always and kept standing by the basest rock in our foundations: what was. We lassoed time and lived in its circle.

We all congregated as she was lowered to the ground on a scorching day; we still remember how the sun fished out beads of sweat from our skin with its rays. Her gravestone bore no identifying markers, just the date she was discovered. Not a single hint or mention of her effect on us engraved, no quote from holy books to indicate she was once here, briefly, and then gone, eternally. There was no need.

When she was completely covered in earth, none of us moved to leave right away. Instead, we collectively raised our bowed, respectful heads, fixed our eyes on the towering mountains of our horizons and brought our gaze beyond it, fervently waiting for the next sign of rain.

Nal Andrea Jalando-on
Nal Andrea Jalando-on is a 24-year-old writer from Koronadal City, South Cotabato. She was a fellow for fiction in Hiligayon for both the 23rd Iligan National Writers Workshop and the 15th San Agustin Writers Workshop. Her works have been published in SunStar Davao and the Cotabato Literary Journal.

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