single.php

Between the Corpse and the Tree


Trigger Warning: physical violence


1.

 

The concrete walls around me are painted stale white. I’m sitting on a chair made of cheap wood banded with light metal, which is coated with glossy, black enamel paint. The chair is chipped, revealing the metal’s dull, white-gray color underneath. I lean heavily on the backrest and two of the chair’s feet rear up creakily. My right knee is folded between the wooden table in front of me and my chest. I turn right and look out a jalousie window. The panes are peppered with fine dust. My view is partly obscured by a mango tree’s branches, thick with foliage. From the window I watch myself standing, slouched, behind a rusting beige gate which goes up to my collarbone. I watch myself peering over it to look out onto the street. I give slow, sweeping glances, left to right, and watch myself stare at two vehicles parked in front of the gate. To the right of them, I see one of my neighbors, a man of about 70, walking up slowly from the right before coming to pause on the sidewalk right across from the gate. He stares up at the mango tree, his face pale with exhaustion. After several seconds, he drops his head and shambles towards his house at an excruciatingly slow pace. After the pale neighbor is gone, the street is unnervingly still like a theatre backdrop after the actors have left. Silence seeps into everything like a heavy gray miasma that muffles everything it touches. I imagine this gray haze, and it makes the linings of my lungs itch and the back of my throat taste of bile. 

Dusk is sinking into the city like an immense, bruise-colored blanket. I rub my eyes with both hands. I look out again and feel a slight dismay at my blurred vision; my eyes adjust slowly in the fading light. I watch myself open the small door to the left of the gate and shut it behind me, the latch giving a small, clean click. With fists clenched, I stand on the sidewalk for a few moments and then head east. A short walk in this direction will take me to stores selling food and basic goods: a bakery, a moderately expensive hardware store, a barbershop. Walking further will take me to several grocery stores and a wet market. I think of the barbershop and remember that it has been years since I have been there for a haircut. These days I cut my own hair because this avoids an awkward conversation with the barber about what I want. It always seemed like I had a vague idea of what haircut I’d want, but I’d forget once I reached the barbershop. And so I’d say to the barber to get it over with quickly as possible, It’s up to you. Just cut it short and make it quick. And he would shear everything off as quickly as he could so he could get to his next customer. I’d always feel a mild regret looking in the mirror as I brushed clumps of hair from my shoulders and hurriedly paid with crumpled bills, all the while thinking I should have been more decisive about what my head should look like. When I got home, I’d take a look in a mirror and would see beads of blood formed around my shaved temples from the hurried but forceful strokes of the barber’s razor. While thinking about the barber, I lose sight of me. The last glimpses I catch of myself are through a sickly looking tree to the right of our gate. The tree has branches like gnarled, rheumatic fingers sprouting small purple leaves. I have known this tree since I was a child and have always thought it looked like a pale, withered old man standing stiff and crooked in the corner. The image of that old man stands silently beside me as I write this. His eyes are tightly shut and his hands are crushed into quaking fists of frustration or rage. Now out of sight, I imagine myself passing the moderately expensive hardware store. I adjust my face and continue walking towards the grocery store and the wet market. I take a deep breath. Areas beyond the hardware store, filled with clusters of faceless men in camouflage, have begun to make me nervous. The other day, I saw one of them shout threats of violence at a line of cowed people. I promptly lined up alongside them, nervously watching the men finger their guns. I hope the shouting never turns into shooting. (As I write this now, I know that eventually it will.) As I watched these faceless men shouting, the word dehumanizing came to mind.

[It comes to mind through your front door and leaves it ajar. It settles down on your couch with a relieved sigh and opens a newspaper. The way its face looks as it reads with the corner of its lips downturned, it seems to be smugly reveling in a recent achievement. It has entered your space with ease, as if it has done this countless times before (maybe because it has.) It gracefully lifts its legs and places them on your low table, one on top of the other. It continues to read the newspaper with eyes squinted, head tilted upward and lips still turned downward. Feeling nervous and confused, from a corner of the room, you’re thinking, Who is that? And why are its feet so dirty? I don’t want it trailing dirt in here . . . But it will leave dirt. As you stare closer, the dirt caked beneath its shoes seems to be a very deep maroon verging on black, rather than the simple brown of mud or soil. Just by looking at it, you can somehow tell the dark dirt will stain like blood on teeth. Now it’s reaching for your cup of coffee on the low table and sips it loudly and with pleasure. It savors the hot black liquid. Time passes. It feels like hours, or possibly days or weeks. You can’t tell anymore — time has become slippery, like attempting to grasp a slick but scaly fish thrashing in your hands. Finishing your coffee, it takes its feet off your table and folds its newspaper neatly before setting it squarely on the table. It opens its mouth wide, wider than you thought a mouth could (and should), and yawns deeply. But it doesn’t stand up to leave as you’re hoping it would. Around its feet, hidden by your low table, it picks up a suitcase made of leather, aged and tanned a deep brown from frequent use. The two metal clasps open with simultaneous, satisfying clicks. It takes out a number of objects and lays them around your low table. To make more space for these things, it moves your personal belongings: a small green notebook, a stack of family photographs, a marble turtle figurine, a square, jade-green paperweight sculpted in ceramic with a relief of stylized people holding each other together with linked arms, given to you by your uncle. They may seem of small value at first glance, but each one is important. It tosses them down to the floor. You feel offended, but somehow don’t make a move to stop it. The marble turtle’s head snaps off as it lands neck first. Ah . . . They’re not supposed to be handled that way, you think meekly. It slowly turns its head to you, as if it has just noticed that you’ve been there this whole time. Seemingly far from finished unpacking its things, it looks at you with an eyebrow raised in mild surprise, and then its eyes quickly and sharply narrow as they move over you. While it looks, you can’t help but squint and wince, glancing towards the window to your right to avoid its gaze. A sour drop of sweat painfully streaks down into your eye as you rigidly watch dust motes floating in the yellow streaks of sunlight coming through the window. Its head quickly flicks back to the open suitcase on its lap, apparently finding something more worthwhile to look at in there. With its focus on whatever is still in the suitcase, it says to you with disconcerting unabashedness, You don’t mind. I’m staying here for a while — for a long while, as long as I’d like. Don’t know until when . . . And also, having some others over. They’ll settle in as I have. I know you don’t mind. No, you don’t mind — you don’t, no. They’ll make their way here soon enough, soon enough, soon. As the last syllable drops from its mouth, it seems to forget that you are there. You don’t matter at all, it seems to be exclaiming with its presence; those words, that thought seems to be leaking inexorably from its being. You throw a nervous glance at the front door that’s still hanging ajar. Standing in your corner, you are sure of nothing apart from being unsure. You are frozen and hapless, yet something inside you knows you should be showing an effort to address whatever is happening. You take a deep breath and consider what to do. A sizable amount of time (you can’t tell anymore) passes while you think. Dust continues to float lazily by the window. 

As you stand there, a black, viscous substance, not unlike tar, blood or molasses, begins to flow and pool underneath your couch. Smug voices from that direction rudely cut into your reverie, sounding like they’re emerging from mouths lined with razors: Good luck getting that stain out. Look! It’s spreading — what’s that pattern it’s making? Is that a tree or a house fire? A bruise blooming on flesh? A dry rattling lung? I can see someone — what is he doing — pleading? Reasoning? Oh . . . he might as well wish he was . . . ]

The fog in my head clears slightly and I realize I’m still sitting in a room on the wood and metal chair. I place my right leg from in between my chest and the table. All four of the chair’s feet are flat on the floor. My right foot feels of pins and needles. Outside, dusk has given way to night. I strain my eyes to see what is happening. The street is dark, still and silent. The room is almost in complete darkness. A few minutes pass, then a single, sodium lamp from the street blinks open and throws rectangular, orange slashes on the white wall in front of me. The fog in my head thickens again, and I slowly lose sight of myself; both me sitting here in front of streaks of orange, and I who went outside. Resting my chin on the jalousie window, I anxiously wait for me to return. My focus dissolves and I begin to stare at nothing in particular. 

 

2.

 

I find myself walking. I can see the wet market up ahead. Metal and plastic barriers are laid across the road in front of the market so people can easily be stopped for inspections. Between the barriers is a small gap that allows a line of people to walk through in single file. Faceless men in mottled green and brown are gathered around the barrier in large clusters. I glance at their heads and it’s not hard to imagine their sneers. They notice me staring and make brisk, jerking gestures with their arms and hands that mean: DO WHAT WE SAY, DO IT QUICKLY, DO IT NOW, UNQUESTIONINGLY AND OBEDIENTLY — OR ELSE. Long black guns rest on their chests as they goad me forward. With these men present, I walk on rough concrete sidewalk as if I was walking on wet, polished glass. My steps are quick and measured. I tuck my head down between my shoulders. I bend my back into a crooked posture. I try to erase any trace of confidence from my stance and stride. As I slip past the barriers, I try to avoid all gazes, even ones from other people like me. These trips are simpler when you are not recognized by anyone. In more than one way, I am afraid of slipping. I move quickly past the faceless men. I even paste a sheepish smile on my face; a smile that signals absolute and willing obedience. I quash down the torrent of disdain that pushes up my throat. I can’t let them see any of that — not even a hint. They caught me once before. When they did, they put me in a cell crammed full of men like me. It was made for 15 people, but there were 32 of us in there. A humming fluorescent tube lit the cell from the ceiling. At the very back, a thin strip of the floor was lined with tiles the color of yellowing teeth. A hole like a deformed mouth smashed into the floor and a faucet jutting out of the wall next to it served as our toilet. Before two days had passed in the cell, I’d already been greeted with threats of beatings, stabbings — of murder. There was not enough space for all of us to lie down, so we slept in shifts. One night, I finally got to lie down after hours of standing in the filthy, cramped space. The concrete floor was topped with a spread of cardboard smudged black with grease. The man lying next to me was staring furiously into the blank space above him, violently masturbating. His right elbow, bony and sticky, repeatedly rammed into my left arm. His breaths were accompanied by vicious grunts and disgusting bursts of warm air. I tried to move away, but there was nowhere to go. We took up every inch of the cell. I moved my gaze from the cell’s thick iron bars and looked for something my sight could latch onto, as a respite from the suffocating present. All I managed to see was a beaten-up wooden board put there to block the rest of the station from our view. I could faintly hear a television from somewhere in the station, prattling away with a static-smeared voice. Now and again, a laugh track cuts through the prattle. Desperately, I tried to imagine what was on the TV, and I succeeded in guessing what was on it. This brought me no comfort. I stared at the patches of peeling, dark green paint on the board. Insects had eaten holes into it. A thick odor of human excrement wafted from the smashed mouth at the back of the cell. The smell forced its way into our mouths and our nostrils, into our hair, into the pores of our skin. I pulled my shirt up over my face in an attempt to block it, and found that my clothes and skin smelled exactly like the stench I was trying to avoid. In the half-darkness granted by my closed eyes and the shirt pulled over my head, I vividly felt the 32 of our writhing bodies steeped in our collective sweat, filth and anguish. The elbow was still ramming into my left arm. The laugh track cut in through the prattle. I was unbearably present. I had no idea how long I had to stay there or whether I was going to another prison or was to be set free somehow — everything was up in the air, everything was still to be decided. Without knowing when or how it will end, this feeling of suffering goes on in perpetuity.

I make it a point to do my business outside as quickly as I can so I can slip past the faceless men unnoticed. I hug the paper bag, filled with goods from the market, close to me as I walk home. People there are waiting for me, and I am anxious to return. In a few days, I will make this trip again — it seems like I will continue making this trip forever. I get food and supplies for the household mostly without incident, though I can see how quickly things can go sour and turn violent. Disagreements between people like me and the faceless men sometimes appear at the smallest hiccups, erupting into senseless barbarism. I’ve seen their brutalities far too many times in familiar places; places I consider part of my home. I have seen corpses left lying in the morning sun with their black hair speckled with red. I’ve seen expanses of blood on concrete mourned by a heap of white candles in the daylight. A cold, pale hand brushes against my heart as I remember. I have tasted the violence that these men can mete out. 

In the cell, another inmate and I were looking out from our spot by the iron bars. This position offered us a sliver of the bustle happening in the station. Beyond the wooden board, we could see work desks, walls painted a dull sky-blue, an electric fan lazily turning from the ceiling. If we squeezed our faces together at the cell door’s edge, we could also see a few inches of a TV screen. It was raised on a metal mount about six feet high, painted the same dull blue as the walls. While we were pressing our faces together to catch a glimpse of what was showing on the TV, a uniformed man walked by the cell and gravely stared at us. He opened the door to the cell. “YOU TWO, STAND UP, COME HERE,” he told us briskly, harshly. The uniformed man made us stand in front of the cell as he beat us with wooden sticks. There was nothing unusual or spectacular about the beating. The inmates watched, not because it was something special, but because it was happening in front of them and there was nothing else to look at. They watched us with dull, languid faces. The ceiling fan idly circled above us as the uniformed man repeatedly hit me. Afterward, I crumpled into my spot in the cell. I could hear indistinct jeers around me. The pain began to seep into my flesh and bones, and I hid my head in between my knees to keep from making any sound or movement. It was only then that I began to comprehend the enormity of my situation, and uttered a silent scream in my head. 

Making my way home hurriedly on the cracked gray sidewalk, I shift the paper bag from one arm to the other to balance its weight. I slow my pace as I see the mango tree looming in the near distance, breathing a sigh of relief as I dig through my pocket for my house keys. I’ve crossed the threshold into safety, unnoticed and unscathed, but not unfollowed. The faceless men have marked me and have made their way into my sleep. I feel their hold over me. These days, I’ve been dreaming of a white wall painted with crude, life-sized caricatures of faceless men. As I turn to look at them, they also turn their dumb, mean gazes towards me and start moving their limbs in rapid, jagged motions. They hold their truncheons in the air for several seconds, and when I foolishly hope nothing will happen, they start beating me savagely. They spit insults as the truncheons come down. I shield my head with my arms. They look like cardboard cut-outs, but their blows arel painfully real. The skin on my arms starts to split and bleed.

The sickening sound of wood striking hard against bone still reverberating in my ears, I wake up drenched in black fear. The horror these dreams leave is real enough that I carry it into my waking and everywhere after. A sigh of relief escapes me as I slowly realize I’m in my own bed. I inhale terror as I realize the dream can become real at the drop of a hat. I dread the thought of having to go through the barriers seething with faceless men later this afternoon. Outside the window, birds chirp cheerfully. From the street I hear a metal gate noisily wrench open and slam shut. From the window, I see pale rays of yellow sunlight filtered by the green leaves of the mango tree. I place a pillow over my face to block out the light and look for oblivion in sleep.

[You wake up to find yourself standing in the same corner. You run your left hand through your hair as if to check you’re still there as you take in your surroundings. All the lights in the room are out and the last slivers of sunlight are weakly filtering through the window on your right. Your front door is still ajar, swinging weakly in a stale, warm breeze. You can’t discern anything outside it. In the deepening gloom, you barely recognize the objects and features that make up your living room. The air is dense and humid. You try to take a step towards a chair to your right, but your foot is rooted to the floor. You look down and see that it is coated in a black, viscous substance. Your feet are caked in it. You kneel down to touch it and feel that it has the consistency of damp enamel paint. Placing your hand on its gleaming surface, you feel a cloying warmth that reminds you of being a child sick with fever. You bring your hand to your face to see the black substance up close. Its warm stench enters your mouth, making you gag and retch. The entire room smells like a wet, rancid carcass frothing with rot in a sweltering heat. You wipe your hand on your shirt and manage to smear your clothes with dark streaks. Your hand feels just as tacky as before you wiped it. You squint your eyes as they adjust in the dim light. Seeing the room in finer detail, you are surprised that every inch is covered with the black, steaming sludge. Your things are scattered and broken on the floor. Even the angle of the room is askew. You unstick your feet from the floor and slowly trudge towards the chair. You reach it with no small effort and sit down on its warm seat. Crossing the short distance causes you to run out of breath. You are gasping and covered in a thick sheen of sweat. You wipe your face with your hand, forgetting the black grime. Your face now blends into the dark room, apart from your teeth and eyes. It stings from the contact with the black scum. Your knees creak as you slowly sit down on the chair. The seat is warm, sticky and pulsating in a steady, nauseating rhythm. It feels like sitting on someone’s living viscera. It brings you no comfort to stay like this, but you don’t know what else to do. From the storey above you, a broken line of cruel laughter that ends in a series of coughs breaks the silence. Your heart leaps to your throat and you quickly shift your focus to the dim staircase across the room. You wait for the hacking laughter (laughing and coughing, laughing and coughing) to stop, but it continues. It seems like the laughter was always up there and you were just too distracted to notice. Your head is muddled and your reactions are delayed. You feel afraid of something catching you off-guard in this unfamiliar darkness. Never taking your gaze off the staircase, you try and recall what you were doing before this. You’d been standing in the same room. It was light outside and everything seemed normal until the uninvited arrived. You were trying to make sense of your strange situation then, and now you find yourself in an even stranger one. You intuit that your guest must be laughing with his visitors on the floor above. Your fear solidifies. With some effort, you get up off the chair to slowly and silently make your way towards the kitchen. Your eyes never leave the staircase. You look for a knife in one of the drawers. In one, you find a box of matches. You stare at it and consider burning the entire house down. You push that drawer back and resume looking for a knife. You fail to find one, but you discover a pair of long scissors instead. You brandish them with mild disappointment in the dismal light, but think they will have to do considering your current circumstances. You wade back slowly to the warm, pulsating seat. You look down and see that your legs are now coated up to the knees in black filth. Both your hands are dipped up to the elbows. Your clothes cling to you, damp and heavy, drenched in sweat. You take your seat and resume your vigil; wretched, but alert. The weak light from the window has gone out. The setting reverts to vague impressions in the darkness; you can’t distinguish anything in it again. The staircase appears to be floating in the gloom and its upper steps are swallowed by a dark canopy. Above you, the wooden floorboards utter a long creak as if from an immense weight that shifts and drags itself forward. You strain your ears to hear if the laughter moves with the tremendous mass, but you can’t tell if it does. Between long pauses, you hear the weight dragging its way towards the staircase. Your eyes gather panic from the darkness hanging over the staircase. You can hear your blood hammering through you. The hacking, coughing laughter congealed with heat, the dark, the stickiness and the stench give you the impression that you are lodged in a cancerous throat. To avoid inhaling the odor, you take in short breaths through your mouth. Your feet tremble in the muck as you sit on the undulating chair and the veins in your temples throb in unison with it. You hold the scissors loosely in your sticky, trembling hand. The sensations engulf you and you lose sight of the staircase. A pale hand enters your chest and lightly places its palm on your heart, as if to steady it. You now see that the grand and violent confrontation you’ve been waiting for has been happening, is already happening, and will continue to happen endlessly, relentlessly. As this realization sets in, with your eyes still set on the dark staircase, the top stair moans with a long, heavy creak. You grit your teeth and grip the scissors in your blackened hand as firmly as humanly possible.]

 

3.

 

Early one morning, somewhere along the street, a gate opened and the corpse stepped out. He shut the gate behind him louder than intended. He looked at his quivering, rheumatic hand and felt like he was losing control over his body. He came out sooner than usual because he knew he had a long walk ahead of him. There was no one here who could help him. He hoped that the people in the building could offer some form of relief. Yellow morning sunlight was streaming in beautifully through the leaves of the huge mango tree to his right. The corpse nodded up at it as he shambled past. He felt stiff, looked pale and the inside of his chest felt as though it was set in resin. He barely registered the sombre lines of people or the men in uniform looking them over. They, in turn, barely noticed the corpse’s arrival. He passed the mass of people made to keep in line. He walked on quiet, empty streets. One- or two-storey houses behind gates and concrete walls lined both sides of his path. The sidewalk he walked on was shattered and uneven. As far as his dry eyes saw, he was alone. The heat of the sun rose steadily behind him. He paused, looked back and returned the sun’s glare. On any day before this one, he would have been drenched in sweat. Now his skin was so dry, he might as well be made out of paper. He noticed the rattling in his chest and tried to ignore it. The corpse resumed his stiff and steady gait, now on sticky, black asphalt. The buildings that lined his path grew taller. He looked up and saw that the sky in between the buildings was an immaculate blue. He raised a hand to shield his eyes from the harsh glimmers that came from all around him. The sun, then at its apex, watched his back with a quiet indifference. In the shimmering distance, he could see the building he needed to reach. It was his last chance for solace. He crossed an empty four-lane road at the same unhurried pace he used walking through the city. He reached the building and knocked on the glass door. He could see that the building was full of others like him. They were ambling inside with frightened and bemused looks on their faces. Some of them were as pale and thin as him. They barely noticed him as he watched through the door. After several hours of patient standing and anxious wondering, a tangle of people came out to meet him. I need to be in there, the corpse rasped in a voice made of crushed chalk. You told me to come back if something happened, something is happening, and now I’m back. Still standing at the glass door, they look at the corpse with pity and tell him, No, we’re very sorry, no. Please, no, thank you. Okay? The tangle of people politely but abruptly shut the glass door behind them. The corpse understood that there was no place for him here. He turned and went back the way he came. He walked slower. The sun, much lower in the sky, watched him furtively from behind the line of high buildings, its waning gaze following the corpse’s solemn walk home. He walked with his head bowed and his hands entwined in front of him, trying to give himself some measure of comfort — or perhaps praying. His shadow, made long by the sun, accompanied him. Back in his neighborhood, he saw the lines of people and the uniformed men where he left them. They would be there for a while longer. Dusk was settling as he reached the street he had lived on. To his left he saw a head peeking out from over a gate. He stopped to look up at the large mango tree looming overhead. The corpse regarded it for several seconds. He imagined that the tree, now heavily shadowed in the fading light, was considering him with something akin to grief. Walking a few feet further, the corpse opened his gate soundlessly. Stepping across the threshold of his house, he didn’t bother with the lights. He walked straight up the stairs to his room. He felt tired to the marrow. The corpse sat down on his bed. In small, stiff increments, he lowered himself and lay his head over his thin left arm. The corpse began to stare at a darkened wall and felt the stab of bitter indignation. A sour moan rose deep from his plaster-lined throat and fell out from his parched and flaking mouth. A streetlamp blinked on and threw orange bands across his walls. Despite the light in front of him, the corpse still saw darkness plastered against his eyes. He stared at that darkness all throughout the night. In the morning, one of the corpse’s loved ones found him on his bed still lying on his left arm. In an involuntary gesture of shock, the loved one’s eyes widened and they threw a hand up to cover the wide “O” that their mouth formed. The loved one buried the corpse in a white coffin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the Author

Remaining anonymous for reasons of safety, an Unnamed Artist lives and works on the archipelago known as the Philippines where they regularly contribute to events and activities as an independent artist.