When I find you, you’re on the bed, motionless. I don’t flinch. I don’t even think to call for help. All I do is stand by the door, glaring down at your corpse. Why couldn’t you have found a nicer place to die? I decide that I’ll bury you in the garden. When grandma and I first moved into the house, she was wild-eyed with glee. She had somewhere to put the calamansi without the threat of street cats coming to dig the pots. She’d buy second-hand patio chairs and a small table, maybe fairy lights? But now, the only thing left in the garden is a bag of coal.
I sit on the bed, careful not to touch you. Your nose is too small and your forehead’s too big. Your face is dry, emaciated, but somehow still beautiful. Warm. As if you could’ve been one of those people I’d always pester to buy me soda and street food.
It’s only one am. Grandma’s probably still awake. I can hear her coughing, the occasional rumble of laughter from the TV. I need to wait. In the meantime, I study you further: your tanned skin, your sharp jaw. I picture taking your wrist and digging my fingernail into it, deep enough to draw blood.
When the laugh track finally stops, I get to work, and without so much as a grunt, I pick you up. Down the stairs, through the kitchen, outside the door—surely no neighbors are looking out their windows at this hour?
Shit. The shovel. I run inside, scanning the living room for anything I can use. I pull cabinets open and shut. Outside, there are cats thumping and mewling on the roof, coupled by the hum of loud music from a party that must only be a street away.
When I return, I am empty-handed, sighing. This will have to do.
I dig the earth with my hands. I’m not sure how my fingers pierce through grass and soil, but they do, and soon, I’m ankle-deep in. The night is warm for January, but I shiver. Tomorrow I’ll wake up covered in dirt, my white nightgown stained to the hem. It doesn’t matter. The hole is shallow, yet wide enough for a body. I drag you into it, quickly shoveling the dirt over your body with my feet. You remain still as ever. Thick hair shadows your eyelids. I’ve never seen what’s behind them, but I know they must be dark.
In the Cubao apartment. In the septic tank. In the stairway of my first school. In the empty pages of a notebook I pulled underneath grandma’s bed, hoping for something, anything. Every year, your presence grew, like a storm rendering the world as I knew it invisible.
You moved within every memory, present but unknowable, yet when I found you on the bed, I didn’t even flinch. When I found you, you were already gone.
I don’t try to live my life: I simply do. I cut my hair. I give up on studying French. I learn how to pirate movies, preferring to stay up all night binging them with my friends. School season comes, and grandma takes me shopping in a mall that’s been touted as Asia’s Finest! ever since it was put up three years ago. Everything is just a little more shiny and a lot more pricey.
And I sleep. On the couch, on the floor, at the beginning of first period. My classmates watch with both awe and shock. They hold their breaths, pretending not to peek at our graded papers over my shoulder. When they see the thick red A on the upper right corner, they sit back, disappointed.
I sleep so much that it startles me. I sleep with ease, without dreams. I sleep the sleep of the dead.
At home, seated cross-legged before my laptop, I try to find the words. I write, delete, then write again, ending up with half a page. But the only things I can conjure are thick hair, a hole in the dirt, a wrist.
An image flashes in my mind, so vivid that I almost fall. You, standing bent over a sink, humming a familiar pop song under your breath. I write. The neighbors’ cigarette smoke bleeds through the windows. They’re arguing again, something about the husband coming home too late at night.
I write. A door slams. The husband curses at his wife.
I write. You turn off the faucet and wipe your hands on your shirt. You’re hungry, and you’re wondering if you have enough money to eat at the carinderia.
I write, and with every word, you come to me, clear and invisible: you, walking in a flea market, eyeing the rack of baby clothes. You in the heat of night, mouth pressed to a payphone as you whisper Manila is wonderful, I’ll take you soon. You, holding two boys, and you, boarding a boat to Leyte in the light of morning.
I know the story, but it doesn’t make this grief any less new. You were unmarried. You were the eldest of five children, the ate, the girl who sold fruit on the sidewalk. You were the one who told the best jokes and fed the stray dogs and loved whenever Bob Marley was on the radio.
I write, jumping between stories, between the lives I can imagine you in. The neighbors are silent. I write until my hands shake, until I want to hit myself, until I crumple to the floor, sobbing. If only I’d known sooner.
The wind is too strong in this part of the city. I stand at the edge of the garden, wrapping the shawl tighter around me. It’s the perfect time for a burial. On the ground are candles and roses, the kind I know you’d like. This time I’ve come prepared; I lift my shovel and begin to dig.
The block is silent. No faint music or bickering cats, not even the periodic screech of cars down the street. I really am alone. Only the moon watches, but even she keeps her distance.
I dig roughly, desperately, but I already know. I dig anyway.
I was thinking about lighting these candles. They smell like peppermint and vanilla. Grandma got them from a street vendor on our trip to Singapore, when I still did not know about you. I don’t think she’d be mad. You’d like them.
I only stop when I’m waist-deep in the ground. Panting, I drop the shovel. I tried.
Here’s what I had in mind: I would wrap you in the shawl and set the flowers above your head. I’ll comb your hair with my fingers, careful to remove the tangles. And when I light the candles, I’ll say sorry.
Three sparrows fly onto the edge of the roof. They could be something out of a dream, I think. There’s only one streetlight on the block, but even that is flickering, close to dying out completely.
I stand at the edge of the garden, watching, waiting for the light to go out. I glance at my wrist, thinking of nail on skin.
Bella Majam is a writer from the Philippine High School for the Arts. She edits for HaluHalo Journal and Diamond Gazette, two youth-led magazines. Her work is featured or forthcoming in Sage Cigarettes Magazine, JAKE, Iris Youth Magazine, and others. You can follow her @beelaurr on Instagram.