Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.
Everything comes full circle, and I am one of the gatekeepers who makes sure that that cycle won’t be broken. Here, in this cold room, I am the emissary of Death, and this is where the end of every journey begins. I understand why people get uncomfortable in morgues; it is a manifestation of their fear of the unknown, of death.
But to me, this room is just like any other place of work. One would see me eat lunch or play loud music here (it has great acoustics) even while I’m surrounded by several bodies in freezers. That is one beauty of death: the silence it brings. There could be a dozen people here with me now but I would still only hear the beat of my own heart.
But there aren’t a dozen bodies today; instead, there’s only I standing here, and you lying there on the mortuary table. I have to say, I’m surprised when I saw you today. I didn’t think I would see you so soon. Other morticians might have the luxury of being detached from their patients, but I own the only funeral parlor in town. Before you, there were others that I have worked on—some I know by name, some by face. There was your friend, Paeng, whom you went to cockfights with. His skin is particularly tough and he had a lot of visceral fat—I remember how hard it was to make that y-incision. Then there was one of your godchildren, Mark. I used to play with him when I was younger, though I never really liked his brash, hyper-masculine games. Still, I know that you liked him, and I wondered then how you felt when you found out he died? He was in a gnarly state when they brought him here—his face nearly split in half vertically upon collision with an electric pole. It took all my demisurgery skills to make him look like how he was again. You see, that is my gift: to fix what was broken, or at least make them appear like they are not.
I adjusted the head block, making sure that there was enough room to expose your jugular. Aside from the modesty cloth on your waist, there isn’t anything there to stop me from seeing your nakedness. Not that it mattered—modesty isn’t exactly the first thing I worry about in this line of work. Still, I can’t say that I am not weirded out in the slightest, especially with male cadavers. I have seen all body types and shapes, hairs growing everywhere they shouldn’t, post-mortem erections. With you, it shouldn’t be any different. I remove everything you came with: your wedding ring, an old but expensive Rolex, the golden crucifix you wear on your neck. When you were finally ready, I put on my gloves, lathered the antibacterial soap, and started scrubbing your body.
Did you ever bathe me as a child? I guess I’d never know, but if I had to make a bet, I would say you never did. The first parent I could remember was Nanay Rosing. She was an old woman already even when I was still young, toothless and graying hair and all that; but she loved me like her own, perhaps the same way she loved you when she took care of you when you were a child yourself. Nanay would be the one to hold me when I was scared, who wiped my fevered brow when I was sick, who would soothe me when I cried from being bullied by my playmates. I never needed you while she was around. I think she knew I couldn’t rely on you, anyway, so she held on to life at least until I could take care of myself. I had no choice but to grow up fast.
I washed away the remaining lather and started examining your body, how flexible it was, how much solution I would need to preserve you. Your joints were still supple, and I knew then I still had time. I had to admit how good you still looked for your age; I mean, you looked better than me, though people always noted how similar we looke. The sinew of your strong arms, the taut lines in your chest, your still flat stomach. All those years of military discipline really did do wonders. I took my scalpel and made a small incision on your neck; a few specks out of the river of blood dropped onto the stainless steel table. I took my osteotome and exposed your carotid artery. I removed the carotid sheath and inserted the intravenous needle, letting the cocktail of formaldehyde and methanol flow through your veins. The chemicals started to firm your muscles, and in turn, expelled your blood slowly in the process. The diluted red liquid flowed down the drain at the end of the mortuary table; this made me think of all the people you have killed—did you see their blood spill from the bullet wounds you caused, too?
You talked about them a lot when you were drunk. You said they were traitors to the country, that they deserved to die. You would brag about them to your friends in the military. Back then, I thought those drinks were celebratory. But when I eventually learned about the costs of war, of how many innocent people actually died, I couldn’t help but think that they were therapeutic instead, as if it was a way of coping with your guilt.
When the embalming tank was emptied, I checked your limbs again. I flexed your hands; strong, callused, just the way I remembered them smacking me behind the head or throwing me bodily across the room. I learned to avoid you during your bouts of drinking. Back then, I just thought you hated how I turned out to be someone so unlike you. How I preferred the company of books and television and not boys like Mark who are rowdy and rough and so very strong. Or how, in a moment of misjudgment, I told you how I wanted to work with the dead when I saw Mama’s last ever picture. You didn’t understand then: it wasn’t just because she looked beautiful in her casket, but how she looked so alive, like she was just sleeping. You thought I was weird, wanting to be a morticia. You thought that I was drawn to it because of the make-up, like cosmetology was just so natural to me because of my softness. I saw how your face looked when you put two-and-two together, how it contorted to a look of disgust and hate that even then I could already understand.
But I realized that you already hated me way before that. I did kill the woman you love, after all. I could only imagine how devastated you were, so young and so hopeful and so full of dreams, only for them to be shattered. You loved her so much that no matter how many women lay on your bed, you never had one stay for more than a night. Believe me, if I had the choice, I would have traded my life for hers. But she didn’t give either of us that chance now, did she? She knew her pregnancy was dangerous, but she decided that my life is worth more than hers.
If only you saw it that way, too. Instead, you saw me as your enemy, just one of your casualties of war. Despite everything, I could not hate you, though. Perhaps it’s the remaining filial piety inside of me. Perhaps it’s because, at least once in your life, you were like a soldier to me, too.
You saved me.
I knew of evil when I was ten years old. He was a brigadier general then, you a colonel. Who knows what heights you both could have reached? Part of moving up the ranks was the internal politics, I heard you once said in drunken confidence, but only after you have finished your regular weekly dinners and drinking sessions with your military superiors. If anything, your dream of becoming a general yourself was what kept you going all these years. Your closest patron, the brigadier general, was kind: he had the same severe haircut like everyone else in your group, the same austere countenance; but he always spoke softly to me, and many times he acted like the father you refused to be. Unlike you, he listened to my deepest fears. Unlike you, he laughed at my childlike view of the world. Unlike you, he held me close to him; his hands were caring at first, but then they were thorny vines all over my body, shackling my limbs and stifling my mouth so I can speak no longer. He abused me so many times and told me not to breathe a word to anyone.
But of course I did.
I thought you wouldn’t believe me. Why would you believe a ten-year-old child you hate?
But I guess it was the stoic manner I told you, without tears or any shred of emotion, that made you decide I was telling the truth. I was scared but didn’t know how to express it, a mute cry for help. You never did tell me how you did it, but I know that that general never came back. Neither did the others. Your weekends became filled with solitary drinking sessions and your miserable soliloquy. I was like a ghost in the room. Sometimes, though, you saw me, and in your weakest moments, you acknowledged how I ruined your life. How, in saving me, I took away the only will you have to live, because in bringing down my abuser, he took you down with him. You remained a colonel the rest of your life, so I was only right in just standing there, accepting your words like gospel, waiting for them to turn into prophecy. I deserved them.
I clothed you, making sure your insignia was clean and straight. My fingers run over the three stars on your sleeve. You were prouder of them than you were ever of me, I chuckled under my breath. But even now, I am still in awe of you in your full military regalia. You look so strong, and strangely, power emanated from you, even in death. I prepared my palette, making sure that the powders will match your skin tone. I mix a bit of rouge for your cheeks to color, some tans under your eyes to add dimension. I worked expertly, trying to capture all your imperfections until finally, I am satisfied with how normal you look. Finally, you look like you are just sleeping.
I smiled at the irony of it all—you didn’t expect me to be the one to work on you, did you? You didn’t write any sort of will, and you just made your way to me basically out of convenience. I wish you could see how good a job I did, not that you would appreciate it. Doing this for a living was one thing, but telling you I was gay was the final nail in the proverbial coffin.
To you, it all made sense: how I was “obsessed” with death and make-up and books and hating all your toxic macho things—you just lumped them all in one mishmash of “perversions,” didn’t you? You gave up on me, and I guess that was when I gave up on you, too. I wanted you to see that I needed you, that I was still too green to face the world on my own, but I haven’t heard a peep from you in the fifteen or so years since we parted. I was filled with sadness and fear, and hatred of myself—of how I didn’t recognize the brave and kind man they all told me you were, because I killed him. Until one day, I realized that it wasn’t me who was at fault. I was a child, and you were the parent. I saw myself through your eyes, and all I felt was pity, not for myself, but for you. All I saw was the reflection of all your weakness and failings, a monster you created.
You didn’t hate me. You just really hated yourself. And I took comfort in that thought.
You are ready to leave now, though. The monster is already dead, and I, your emissary of Death, will usher you to your next destination, wherever that will be. I enclosed a crisp hundred-peso bill in your hand, a tradition I always found stupid. For surely, if the ferryman of souls will ask for compensation, he will ask not for money, but for all the hate and regret you harbor. It makes the boat too heavy to be seaworthy, and besides, you have more than enough to give. The stories you will tell him can easily last a hundred lifetimes.
Perhaps, I should give you something too as a parting gift. I thought a thousand times over if I can give you my forgiveness, but you never did ask for it, did you? I can’t give you something you don’t need. So instead, I choose to give you silence. To the world of the living, you will remain an outstanding soldier, a good provider, a loyal husband. Like the way I preserved your body, I will preserve your name and reputation. They will never meet the monster you created. They will never hear the words you never told me. The judgment of humans will be kind, at least. I promise to take every hurt I have to my own grave. Because that is what I do, right? I can’t fix what is broken, but I can make them appear like they were never broken in the first place.
I removed my gloves and sighed in relief. It was finally over, all of it. I realize in sad irony how your death will give me life, for now I am finally free from you, but you are free of me, too.
Perhaps, now, I can be who I really am. Perhaps, now, I can finally let go of you, as you have of me many, many years back. I uttered my good-byes quietly, but they ricocheted off the walls of
the room, mocking me with the echo of my own platitudes.
“Rest in peace,” I hear myself say.
Jay-ar Paloma is an HR executive by day and a frustrated artist by night. He has extensive background in campus journalism as an editor-in-chief in elementary and high school as well as a contributor in his college days in UP Diliman. Currently an editor at Vox Populi PH, he likes to read and write fiction and opinion pieces relating to LGBTQ, social media, and culture. When not engrossed in a book, he is probably playing a tune on his guitar or keyboard.