Substratum (Part 2)


“This is too much work. They don’t even own that cemetery,” I said.

The man shook his head. He said that it was a lost cause. The house never opened except at night when the group entered the gate when the moon told them so. It was opened by a boy who was always wearing a straw hat. When we asked why it was particularly a native hat, he said that it could be baseball cap or a feather hat and it didn’t matter. The boy who followed orders never spoke to anyone. In the evening when the lampposts lit up and the street had a lone vendor selling duck eggs, the group passed through the gate that was closed immediately afterward.

At night, the lights inside the house were turned on and the silhouette of human figures could be seen from the gate. There would be two persons standing in front of each other, as if they were conversing. And then at other times a lone human figure could be seen looking at the street below. They seemed to be wearing a hood over their clothes but sometimes there were female figures too with draped cloths over their heads. It always seemed like that they were having a party.

“A gathering?” I asked. “For what?”

“At this point, we can only assume that it’s occupied.”

“But what happens there during the day?”

There were overgrown weeds jutting out of the potted plants on top of the gate and the paint on the walls was peeling off, its dried crumbs scattered on the pavement. The wooden brackets were rotting away along with the broken clay tiles on the floor. The decaying leaves were left to decompose, sticking on and camouflaging the pathway of salvaged plank woods. But there were no broken glass windows — all were smoked for privacy.

Ella took out the questionnaire and began writing notes about the cemetery that she could only see if she was jumping like there was a trampoline under her. Her compulsion to list everything the man said, assuming that everything that he told us were true, spared me from doing the grunt work. I asked the man about the cemetery, but all he could remember was that it was gutted in the fire but since it was made from bricks and stone, it survived. But now it was slowly breaking from the weeds with roots coming out of the stones.
Ella asked if there was any part of the house exterior that we missed because if the house survived for almost a century, there could be other parts of it that were worth documenting.

“There,” he said pointing to a manhole covered with dried leaves. “That’s where the soldiers found the men in white. They killed them all,” he said.

Ella and I looked at each other. A waterway— an abandoned one at that; unused most probably because of a new sewer system that had already been introduced in this part of the city. I walked closer to the circular metal cover and touched it. It had no lock. I leaned further and took a good look at it. The old drainage was located right outside the house near the sidewalk in a neighborhood whose street was parallel to an avenue – a tree-lined street with gated houses that shut out the sound of cars zooming and children aimlessly running and shouting. It could be the swaying of the trees or the falling of the leaves on the broken sidewalks that gave an air of bleakness. It was that part of the district that tamed the rabid and silenced the gossip mongers.

I lifted the metal with my bare hands while Ella looked on. When it opened, there was a ladder made from steel usually used for the foundation of houses. The man didn’t say anything while I sat by the pit. I waited for him to speak. It could be impatience or curiosity for what was inside that made me go down the hole with my messenger bag still slung around my body. Ella and the man were stunned and immediately rushed towards the tunnel.

“Wait, wait, wait, what are you doing?” the man exclaimed.

“My job. I need to see that cemetery,” I answered.

Before heading down, I took out my cigarette lighter from my pocket and handed it to Ella.
“So you could help me guide the way,” I said.

“Dave, I think we shouldn’t.”

“Hand me the lighter if you want to stay there.”

“Can we just tell Gregg that we were shunned by the owners?”

“Well, what’s this? Come on!”

Ella closed the metal lid, leaving the man behind who remained quiet when we discovered the passageway. “Tell the man to come with us,” I said. She opened the cover and signaled to the man to follow us. The man looked around and, when no one was passing by, turned back and descended the metal stairs. When the lid was closed, I flicked the lighter for us to see what was inside. A few meters down the stairs, we stepped on packed dirt that smelled of earth moistened after a hard rain. We also felt that we were stepping on skeletons after each hard crunch on the floor. The tunnel’s arch was made from adobe with a few red bricks on its surface. I didn’t have to bend except for my head that had to bow a little. Ella and the man walked without having to hunch any part of their body.

“If it rains, are we going to drown?” Ella asked. I laughed. The man told us to keep our voices down because the echoes resonated through the tunnel.

I had to turn off the light once in a while because my finger would burn if I kept the flame. The man pointed to three passageways that forked to the house in the middle, the group’s building to the left, and the cemetery to the right. I estimated that we were more than ten feet below the ground because I could no longer hear the passing of the cars except for the rumbling of the trucks that caused a low-intensity tremble each time they put their weight on the tunnel. The air was humid and it dampened Ella’s eagerness to continue. But she realized that she didn’t have any light and going back alone required not having to think about the rib cage and skulls along the way.

“You’ve been here before?” I whispered to the man.

“Once or twice. I didn’t see the point in going down,” he said.

“Why did you come with us?” Ella asked.

“I don’t want to be haunted by your bones here.”

We headed to the tunnel to the right towards the cemetery. Our lights struggled with lack of air, prompting us to walk briskly. We saw a wooden door at the end of the tunnel. The man tried to open it first but he struggled. The lock was so rusty we were tempted to ask if he already had anti-tetanus shots.

The attempt to open the door was futile despite all of us pulling the lock together so we went back and decided to take the route that led to the house. We removed cobwebs on our way and avoided small rats scurrying without any apparent direction. We came to a half wooden door with a broken latch and the man asked me to grip the metal knob and pull it hard. The door was five inches thick and Ella was already pulling at my waist to help me open the door. It opened a little and we pulled harder to at least half open it. The man used his two hands to exert more force until we were able to glimpse a red floor.

We came out behind a stair landing of the ground floor, where unused metal and wooden chairs were stacked up like a tower, all crumbling, rusting away, and about to tumble down. The house seemed uninhabited and the late afternoon had an air of stillness confined within its walls. We shook off the dust and earth from our clothes and made sure that our shoes didn’t squeak hard on the floor. We went upstairs and reached the living room that was filled with all sorts of things — there were mariposa chairs partnered with a round marble-top table that was accented with a Japanese satsuma vase designed with a volcano spewing lava. There were bookshelves on every corner stocked with leather-bound volumes with Spanish titles. A grandfather’s clock stood between two shelves; its pendulum had stopped functioning. Hanging on the stamped tin ceiling was a chandelier with about thirty lights. Ella was about to touch the keyboard of a piano, but the man grabbed her hand and gave her the look of a disappointed maestro whose student had failed to answer his question.
“No one’s here,” Ella said.

“Would you like for someone to be here? To see us?” I asked.

Ella began taking down notes on all the details that she saw – even the ceramic vase with a dragon inlay on the landing that we believed was from some Chinese dynasty wasn’t spared from her intense documentation.

We reached the anteroom that had a full-length mirror leaning on the wood paneled walls. We all looked at our reflection as we stepped into one of the rooms of the house, perhaps one that was left unused. There were furniture covered with a white cloth and a painting of a woman resting on a chair. The sliding windows were shut but the sunlight passed through slits on the ventanillas and settled on a three-layered empty wooden shelf.

We entered another room that had a clothesline with white handkerchiefs. Embroidered on the handkerchiefs were stick human figures seated on what seemed like wooden chairs. There was also a man standing in front of another man. Another stick figure on the other handkerchief was an image of a headless man. Ella poked me and signaled that it was time to leave.

“We need to go down to the cemetery,” Ella said.

“Not yet. Where are the other rooms?”

“What for? I need to fill out the questionnaire about the cemetery. Not with house interiors.”
“Kids,” the man tried to interrupt.

“Yes, sir?” I looked at him with slight annoyance because I couldn’t be completely irritated at him. After all, he was the one who brought us here. I examined one of the embroidered handkerchiefs. There was a man and a woman standing right next to each other. The man was at arm’s length from the woman who was touching her belly. The other handkerchief had a couple, another man and a woman holding hands. One of the clotheslines didn’t have any handkerchiefs and was right next to what seemed to be an access door to another room. I reached for the knob and turned it hard and fast, like when I opened the door of my room after a day of walking the streets.

When it was open, we saw a woman standing and looking at us, her eyes immense like witnessing a massacre of babies being thrown in the air and caught by a bayonet. Ella suppressed the sound that came out of her mouth — a piddling shriek cut short when she covered her face with her hands. The man signaled that we leave so we walked backwards while our feet were wobbling and our hands shivering even if the room was temperate. On our way out, the handkerchiefs that got in the way made it difficult for us to leave the room. As we headed to the door, another woman entered with the same eyes, like she has seen that the bones in the tunnel had risen, and started walking towards her direction. Ella nudged me to just pass through the access door while the woman behind her was silent but we still felt that she was shoving us to enter the room.

The walls of the dining room adorned with sideboards had porcelain, silver, and glassware. Ceramic plates decorated the walls and there was a manually-operated ceiling fan tended by a young boy in camisa de chino and loose drawstring pants. There were a group of women inside the room, all seated in a long narra table that was made from a single block of wood. They promptly stood up while chewing something in their mouth. The same eyes of bewilderment greeted us, like we infiltrated an exclusive affair of earthly indulgence. On the table were biscuits on a silver tray and of different kinds — lady fingers with powdered sugar, chocolate chips with raisins, ginger biscuits, milk chocolate, and oat shortcakes. The woman behind us asked them to sit down but some of them remained standing while looking at us with their eyes in unease and distress. Under their clothes, their bellies were outlined and more pronounced, curving outward in the lower middle portion. One of the women was caressing her belly and when the biscuit crumbs fell on her protruding belly, she pinched it one by one and ate them. She gave us an uncertain smile, while tiny bits of biscuits were still around the corners of her mouth. But she finished it off and made sure that every morsel of biscuit was consumed.

I remembered halfway through the tunnel, the man recalled that the cemetery was enclosed by a circular wall and inside there was an altar but it had no image in it. “I only saw dried flowers,” he said. “But there was a hole and you can see the moon from there,” he said.

A man in a black robe entered the room. He gripped his cane hard and stumped it on the floor. The women straightened their backs and nodded in acknowledgement. When he turned his head to where the three of us were standing, he looked at us, wide-eyed, steady without blinking. We tried to avoid his stare. Was he really looking at us? Could he actually see us? He wasn’t cross-eyed, but they’re too small that a mere smirk would make them disappear. His hair was receding from the top so he combed over his hair on the sides. He was fair, like a mestizo maestro with a long stick ready to whip bare hands of students already sweating their palms. We were at a point that we’re mindful of our movements. We also nodded then bowed our heads. The women glanced at us every now and then and went back to finishing their plate of biscuits.

Ella dropped her pen and papers on the floor. I tried to help her pick them up but she kept shooing me away.
She broke the silence in the room by profusely saying “I’m sorry” to everyone for her clumsiness. She kneeled to pick up her pen and crawled under the table to gather the rest of her papers. She apologized again, and thanked them for letting her collect her things. When she stood up, one of the women, perhaps the youngest among them, one with almond-shaped eyes and thin lips, tried to crouch while carrying the weight in her belly, to check if there were still papers underneath the table. Ella was silent and hugged the rest of the documents close to her chest. Then she stood up and walked closer to us, then a little more closer. To our right was a side table where she paused. She looked at it and then looked at us again. She half smiled. And slowly she pushed a plate of biscuits towards us.


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