Yet, with all its life,
even at the peak of its bloom,
the garden was its own graveyard.
—Jerry Kosinski, Being There
I began the day by going to a hospital to see the newborn, the ill, and the dying. Then I roamed around the malls downtown to observe the frantic bustle of the workforce and its consumers. And before dusk fell, I visited a nursing home where under the pretext that what I was doing was for a school project I had been granted permission to talk with a few destitute.
Their stories were among the saddest I had heard, especially from the fifty-year old man, who was so gaunt his eyes stuck out of their sockets as if they were bones. He told me had no family to remember at all. All he remembered was that he was left alone in the streets doing his best to survive but without any idea what to live for and why, and that he was then picked up in the streets when he became an old cripple and was asked to live in the nursing home.
When he was still living in the streets, he had thought of killing himself by leaping despite his disability onto a rushing vehicle. He wished for a quick, certain death, but was never able to do it. It was not the fear of death that stopped him, he told me. It was the fear of coming out of it alive, even for a moment. So he decided to wait out his time, which he certainly felt would not be long now.
In return, I admitted to him I almost did the same thing as he had planned when I was eight years old, only it was thwarted, if I may say so, by fate.
He asked whether I was joking or not.
My father, god knows why, stopped me when I was on my way out of the door. He saw that I was holding a piece of paper in my hand and asked me to hand it over to him. I just stood and said nothing, so he snatched it off my hand. The look of horror in his eyes as he read the letter roused within me my own horror. He screamed what the hell was I thinking. I had the urge—ironically of self-preservation—to run and to do what I set out to do before it was too late. But he cried out. Tears of anger burned his old eyes as he went berserk. My wretched father hit me so hard with his heavy hand that I was knocked unconscious. Since then, my parents almost never let me out of their sight. I never spoke a word about it and went on with life as usual, as though nothing had happened, and that seemed to had worsened their horror. A year or two passed when my father died, perhaps of a heart attack. I remember feeling nothing at all toward his passing, only for my mother, who had kept on crying and asking me to promise her that I would be a good boy from now on and I would never leave her alone. For my poor mother’s sake, I decided to forget all about the plan.
I thanked all the destitute and the personnel of the home for letting me have their time. The old people sent me off with big smiles that shone light on their wrinkles. Two of the old ladies even stood up, although not without assistance, to give me a hug and told me “to come back next time with my girlfriend.” Such human warmth can only come from the deepest sorrows. From what I gathered, they couldn’t remember the last time someone—neither their own children, relatives, nor friends—had visited them. It seemed that nobody cared to know whether they were still alive. This was perhaps the reason why they looked the same when I looked at them. They all bore the desolate look of the abandoned.
At the gates of the home, the guard, who immediately struck me as strange, told me that what I did was heartwarming. I had no idea how he could say that, for I never saw him when I was inside the building or, for that matter, even when I entered the nursing home. “Till next time,” he said to me, grinning. His teeth were unbelievably clean and white, yet his face looked a lot paler than the old people’s. I was further taken aback when I noticed that his eyes never blinked at least once. So I stepped out quickly. I could hear the wrought iron gate creaking as it was closed and felt the guard’s gaze following me from behind. It was unnerving. I was glad I was out. I had an early dinner and afterward wrote in contemplation. Then I continued with what I had set out to do. I went off to the downtown streets to spend what was left of the afternoon.
In the silvery sheet of the sky, the sun hung low like a dimly lit lantern, and along the cable lines perched a flock of little black birds chirping in tunes. The dusk was beautiful. I lit a cigarette and walked into the sea of crowds. Amid the bustling crowd, I saw one who was not moving. It was a baldheaded man, barefooted, slightly stooped, and clothed in filthy rags, standing on the gutter. The people taking a turn, upon realizing they had to pass by him, covered their noses and walked off as fast as they could. I looked at him and thought he looked familiar. He was as gaunt as the old man from the home who used to live in the streets, and they seemed to wear the same face. I was curious, so I crossed the road and stood beside him. I could hear him muttering and could smell his foul breath in the warm air. He turned to me, held my gaze, and asked me to spare him a few coins for dinner. I nodded at his old, hideous face, which was as soiled as the streets. “Thank you, young man,” he told me without looking at me. “I’m going home now.” I wanted to ask him what he meant by that, but he began marching down the busy, jagged sidewalks, dragging along with him his badly swollen leg as he passed through the sea of crowds. I turned, walked on again, as I lit another cigarette. Then I felt a sleepiness brought on by the dusk slowly setting over the city like a blanket. The headlights, lampposts, traffic lights, signboards, and lanterns glowed brighter in the streets, and the first stars glimmered in the night sky.
After walking the streets for a while, I finally stepped inside a jeepney, picking the spot right behind the driver. It was then that I felt strongly that someone was following me. But I was the only passenger around. I glimpsed at the rear-view mirror and found out the driver looked exactly like the guard from the home. It was the same dead face that looked to be made out of wax. Perhaps I was hallucinating again, I thought. This should pass, as it always had.
When I handed him my fare and told him my destination, the driver said, “No, it’s all right.” I saw from the rear-view mirror that he was grinning with his perfectly white teeth. He refused again when I insisted. I left it at that, but I sat down restlessly, my palms cold and sweating, as I waited for the jeepney to move. I glanced out the busy streets and caught sight of an old man lying down on the ground and an old lady throwing some coins into the tin can placed between his legs. Neither of them looked at the other except me, who was looking at them both. Then a group of streetchildren sprang out of nowhere and surrounded the old lady, who shooed them right away like little flies. But the dirty children remained persistent and even looked to enjoy pestering the old lady.
Then I was torn away from my reveries when a group of young people filled the jeepney. They sat down with tired, long-drawn faces. Not long, the engine began to murmur and roared its way back into the road. The scent of diesel hung heavily in the cool night air. Upon seeing the road ahead empty, the driver gunned it, as though to make out for lost time. I gazed out the window, and the crisp wind clawed sharply at my face. The jeepney was going so fast all I saw was a blur of shapes and colors.
Somewhere along the ride, I remembered the old people at the nursing home and the old homeless people in the streets. But I no longer remembered what they looked like. To me, their faces were as dim as the night, save for the driver’s face, which I could see smiling at me from the rear-view mirror. Not once did I see his eyes blink.
Then a rope of dull ache tightened around my head and neck like a noose. I realized I was exhausted. So I closed my eyes and slept the whole way.
I was now in a cemetery, sitting on top of someone’s grave, reflecting on my day’s work so far, in flickering candlelight. It was all silent here, all too silent. The tall blades of grass didn’t sway and were as still as the graves.
Above me, the heavens were cool, clear, almost empty of stars. The moon hung like a scythe about to be swung, its light glinting on what yet remained of the world.
I continued with my work, studying the begrimed epitaphs at my feet. In the end, I thought all of a sudden, what survives us but these: bones, names, dates, and dull quotations occupying a piece of land until the whole world itself becomes the largest piece of skull? Despite knowing nothing of their lives, I felt strangely close to the dead people—as I did with the old people—almost pitying their misfortune of aging and dying as though I, or everyone for that matter, wouldn’t meet the same end. Some died old, some died too young. The youngest one I saw among the graves had died a day after his birth. When I asked myself aloud where these people are now, the air around me grew somber, as though in response to my question. I was suddenly weighed down by my thoughts: Any living person could easily be one of these people underneath the ground he was treading on, just like what happened to my father, feeding the worms, fattening up the soil. And those old people I met this afternoon were perhaps closer to death than anyone else I know. The gaunt old cripple, whose name I had forgotten, could finally have his wish granted and be the first one to go, or that filthy man who had asked me for a few coins for dinner. Beneath my feet, the earth patiently waits for the living. One day lived was one day less. So I poured all my thoughts, however disorderly, onto the moonlit pages until my back became sore and I felt pins and needles prick into my hand. I wrote slowly so as to feel how heavy the words were as I dragged them out of my hand:
“When one is born,” I recalled a line from my callous philosophy professor, “one is already old enough to die.” That ghastly aphorism closely mirrors the perfect laconism of the words engraved in epitaphs: its first phrase mentions the miracle, or the accident, of life, while the second phrase forebodes the eventuality of death. Such a line reflects the uncertain shortness of life. The unpredictability with which death arrives at someone’s feet serves as a cold reminder of how frail our lives truly are. But rarely do we contemplate on this matter as its conclusion will likely drive us thoroughly neurotic, unable to live or even sleep. It’s only because of repression—a survival mechanism of the mind to keep itself sane—that we can bear the terrors of our mortality. Repression creates a fog that hides the truth’s darkest hemispheres and buries unbearable thoughts, such as death and dying, deep into the bowels of our unconscious. Point in fact, without repression, our sanity is unlikely. But with the reality of death seemingly unreal or denied, at least psychologically, we tend to either sink into the vices of idleness and procrastination or lead a toilsome life that is not even ours, only to regret all this in our dying moments, wishing for a few more years to live fruitfully and truthfully, and even selfishly. We squander our time as if we are immortals or still have a long life ahead of us. But what guarantee is there of a longer life or of an afterlife? What guarantee is there that we will return home alive the moment we leave our beds?
I stood up when I finished writing and stretched my arms up to the sky. I looked up and saw the clouds above me had massed together, like a crowd gathering around a man shot dead on the street. Then I started to walk around the cemetery under the blurred disk of the moon. I noticed it had gotten darker, and a strange cold air crept all over my body, which gave me the frightening impression that someone who had been long following me had now found me. I walked faster to keep myself warm, but I didn’t know where to go. I shivered, sensing a foreboding in each step I took.
Then I stood stunned as I caught a glimpse of a familiar name etched on one of the epitaphs. It was my mother’s, with both the dates of her birth and death. I didn’t know what to make out of it. Then I heard footsteps coming from behind me, and before I turned around, I had a fair idea to whom they belonged. There he was again, and he walked unblinking. He was now a sallow gravedigger, carrying a shovel on his shoulder. He placed his cold hand on my shoulder and led me closer toward my mother’s epitaph. Neither him nor I spoke a word. We just stood, looking at each other now and then, as if in a game of chess, wondering whose turn it was to move already.
“Exactly a few hours from now,” the gravedigger spoke at last, and sighed, setting aside his shovel, “I figure. Do forgive my intrusions. I also work here.” His tone struck me as humorous and oddly pleasant. He waited for me to talk, his long face, pale and sunken, spread in front of me.
“What’s happening?” I said, eventually.
“Oh, what is happening?” He attempted to suppress a chuckle.
“Why is my mother’s grave here? She’s not dead. She’s not even dying.”
“Yes.” He grinned, then spoke coldly, “but tomorrow she will be.”
“Why will she die tomorrow? How?”
“The specifics of someone’s death is a private matter, young man. No one is allowed to know, even the person himself.”
“Why have you been following me? And who are you?”
“You very well know who I am.” Then the gravedigger burst out into a hearty laugh, but his eyes were as still as a dead fish’s. “I had my eye on you since this morning, and I am quite impressed me with your, shall I say, ‘eccentric’ schoolwork. So it is my great honor to show you this.” He gestured for me to take a look around the cemetery.
It was only then that I realized the cemetery had changed. There were perhaps a hundred graves more, and they seemed to have just sprouted out from the ground like plants. “Feel free to look around,” the gravedigger said to me. “Be my guest.” He went off ahead, dragging along his shovel against the ground as though to leave a mark for me to follow.
I followed his steps and read the epitaphs I saw along the way. I recognized a few names, but felt nothing because I still couldn’t make out what was happening, whether it was all real or I was going mad again. He seemed to have noticed that, for he said to me:
“This is where a person’s life and death are prearranged. When one is born, his grave will already appear here at the same time. Do you see that?” We stepped into a halt. And there it was, toward the direction he was pointing, I could hear a stone carved by an invisible hand. First came the dates of birth and death, then later came the name.
“So everything has already been decided right from the start except for the name?” I asked him, surprised to feel my wit and composure returning, as though everything was still going according to my plan.
“It’s simply fate,” the gravedigger answered firmly. “There is no chance. Names seem to be chosen, but did someone ever choose his own his name, no? Fate is like a name. It’s something given, not chosen.”
“Nothing happens by chance or by choice, then, no?” I heard my tone growing sharper. “I believe that as well. I figured that there were many things I couldn’t control, even my own thoughts. Most of the time, I honestly feel they weren’t mine. So is there someone, or something, other than myself controlling me? Is it simply fate after all?”
“Who knows?” He appeared to be taken aback with my blast of inquiries, but nonetheless he managed to let out a chuckle. “I just do what I was asked to do, like any decent man working for his daily bread.”
I ignored his attempt at humor and continued to air out my thoughts, “Being born was not even one’s own choice, so why should be death be of one’s own choosing? One just happened to be alive, and one ought to die the way he was born, like it just happened. But one is not born out of mere chance, am I right? That would be absurd.” I looked at him and made it certain that my eyes stood as sharp as knife ends against his dead eyes. “All has to be fated in order for one to be born. There has to be an order. Otherwise, one’s birth won’t make sense…Well, these things are beyond me. My head hurts. Don’t look at me like that, I am not as all-knowing as you are. I’ve always thought that the mistake is to have been born in the first place. I believe I am right in this account. Don’t you agree, no?”
“Quite an idea there, as what can be expected of you. But are you sure you’re right about that, no? You sound very doubtful to me. Would you rather choose never to have been born?”
“Well, I don’t know, really,” I said. “I am well past beyond that. At very rare moments, I do love living. That’s the problem, I suppose. One gets to love living sometimes no matter how miserable it gets. Does a baby regret having been born? Perhaps no. But it’s a different case when the baby grows up, when the baby learns of the alternative, which is to simply die.”
“To tell you the truth, I have noticed you when you were still a child. Oh, I remember everything that happened, and what happened to you and what you did. You were quite a case. It was not your time back then, you see.”
“Yeah, sure you do.” I let out a heavy sigh. I was tired from all that talking. “So where is my epitaph? I would like to see it.”
“Yes, where is it?”
“Now where is it?” He walked with a certain nonchalance and laziness that annoyed me, his shovel scraping against the ground. I followed him again. Not one of us talked.
The cemetery was larger than I thought. Its forking paths gave me the impression of being in labyrinth within a labyrinth. The deeper we walked into the cemetery, the larger the cemetery became. I felt we had been walking for hours already and going nowhere.
Then all of a sudden, the gravedigger sighed, knelt down on the ground, and set his shovel aside. “Here is it,” he said as he waved the dust off the stone. He let out a cough and spat on the darkened ground. “I think this one’s yours.” Then I saw it, my own grave, and it annoyed me.
“Why’s that?” I asked him. “Why is there no date of death?”
“I told you before, young man. No one is allowed to know when they’re going to die.”
“But is it possible for me to know it? I want to know when I will die. You know I have come a long way for this.”
The gravedigger fell silent, gazing at my grave. Then asked me. “Are you certain you want to know?”
“Yes. I want to know exactly when I will die. No one has that privilege.”
“Yes, people die without knowing it, and that sometimes makes me feel useless. Young man, let me tell you. Long ago, I proposed to whoever was in charge of all this that to be fair, we ought to send a letter of warning a week before a person’s death. Of course, as you can expect, the whole idea was rejected. The point is this: nobody wants to die, let alone wants to know when.” The gravedigger laughed and stood up. “However, I shall show it to you. Just this time. Come and look closer. Don’t blink.”
I fixed my gaze on the grave, and heard the carving of the stone again. Slowly, the date of my death appeared. “Ah, I see it now.”
“Good for you. Because people naturally wouldn’t want to.”
“Yes, and may I ask one last thing?”
“That depends,” the gravedigger said, looking at me with such gloom that I felt he knew what I would ask of him.
“Show me how I will die,” I told him at last, but his face showed not the least sign of surprise. It was as if he were waiting for me to ask that long since. “I want to see it. I want see my death from as though it were another person’s.”
“Why would you want that?” the gravedigger asked, his head tilting to one side, perhaps feigning interest.
“Why? Well, don’t you want me to see it? After all, I figured that is the real reason you brought me here. To show me how I will die.”
Then our talk broke off, and we started to laugh at each other like we were the closest of friends. “Very well, very well!” the gravedigger said, clapping his hands and laughing to his sheer satisfaction. “But don’t write about this. No, no, not that it matters! Now close your eyes. It is my greatest of pleasures to show you your death.”
“Thank you, whoever you are,” I said to him. I shut my eyes and waited. My hands began to tremble, and I couldn’t stop them. I heard him laugh with such abandon and exuberance it seemed he was going mad. He laughed and laughed and muttered words I didn’t understand. When I thought of opening my eyes a little to glimpse at what was happening, he stopped laughing, as though finally dropping his act.
“Farewell, farewell,” the gravedigger said with a snicker. “It has been a most entertaining evening.”
No sooner had I heard him grunt than I felt a sharp blow to my head, yet my head ached from within. It ached so horribly that I was screaming. The face of the gravedigger, it dawned on me, was a familiar face I had seen since I was a child. Then I saw it all flash, the bright spectacle of my own death, and it couldn’t be any clearer. I was deeply astounded not because what I had seen came as a surprise but because all along, right from the beginning, I had known exactly what my own fate was.
My eyes opened on their own, and the gravedigger was no longer there. In fact, there was no one. The cemetery returned to what it was like before the gravedigger appeared, and was emptier. The epitaph that lay at my feet was now someone else’s, who was dead many years ago. The soft glow of the moon cast my now-hideous shadow at the pitiful piece of stone.
Thinking of my mother’s death tomorrow, a death as certain as mine, I stood and felt free, absolved at long last from the long labor of living, so completely free that my tears had come out to grieve over having been alive.
(Published in Philippines Graphic, Sept 2017)