• Substratum

    1

    The letter stated that they wouldn’t let us in. Despite the signatures of the project director and the department dean, the letter read: “it is with deep regret that such request has not been granted.” Ella and I had probably read the paragraph twenty times while stumbling down the inclined street where the house was located. But the two-story stone house was not our concern. It was the abandoned circular cemetery within its grounds that needed a thorough investigation.

    The house that covered the cemetery had a gate made of wrought iron about the same height as that of the mango tree in front of it. If we were to climb the fence, then we could probably jump to the cemetery and hope that the dog had not yet been unleashed. Beyond the gate, passers by could peek at the three-story structure that had no balcony or porch and painted gray from the ground floor to its small tower, which could be climbed to view the expanse of the bay in the horizon. All of its sliding louvers were shut and encased in diamond-shaped metal grills. Behind the house, the arched entrance of the cemetery made of bricks and adobe could be seen by jumping up a foot high. Ella rang the doorbell. After fifteen seconds of tapping her shoes on the concrete floor, she pressed the button again. We heard a dog bark after her third attempt, so we lurched backwards and returned to the sidewalk.

    I placed the questionnaire back to my messenger bag and brought out my bottled water. The late afternoon sun had already retreated and the skies were overcast but we were still bathed in thick humidity that it felt like wading through murky waters of the estero a few meters away. We crossed the street and sat on a wooden bench of a nearby store. I gulped down the water and used what’s left to wash my hands and face. Ella was looking at the house next door.

    “How about we try asking the owner of that house?” Ella exclaimed with sustained vigor from eight hours ago while pointing a house across us.

    “It’s not on the list,” I answered.

    “We’re just going to ask if they could help us,” she said.

    The project was supposed to be fun and easy. The university research director asked us to document structures that were more than sixty years old. Given our familiarity with the use of tracing paper and tape measures, we were given this job that pays double the minimum wage. But the good pay was just a bonus because discovering old structures was our source of joy. It was always a delight to spot an old ruin in the middle of a modern neighborhood. Like panning a murky river with our bare hands and finding out little gold nuggets.

    Ella folded the regret letter and slit it into her bag. She headed for the other house across the street from the
    store. The two-story structure had brick-laden walls on the ground floor and horizontal clapboards on its upper floor. It had a tiled roof, too, and its wooden windows swung wide. We could see the white knitted curtains being blown by the late afternoon wind. The gate was open and a man in a white shirt that was twice his size was sweeping the driveway. I followed Ella who was already crossing the street.

    Our spiel had been choreographed and changed constantly, even tailored depending on who we were talking to because we needed to adapt to them more than them adapting to us. From the stern “We’re here to conduct a survey of old houses” to the ingratiating “We’re students doing our school project. Can we ask a few questions about your beautiful house?” The latter certainly put a smile especially on the house helpers’ faces, who were more cooperative and candid than their masters. The man continued cleaning while Ella kept talking.

    I interrupted and asked what he was doing.

    “Are you blind?” he asked.

    “We’re very sorry to interrupt. But my partner is curious about the house with a cemetery behind it,” I answered while peering at the other house with the gates closed.

    The man stopped hunching from picking up the dried leaves and rested the broom and dustpan on a lamppost. He did a little stretching then he put his hands on his waist.

    “Why do you ask? What’s it for?”

    “For a book that we hope to publish,” I said. “Old houses like yours might be gone soon so—”

    “Oh? What makes you think this house will disappear? Or that house?”

    “We just thought since it’s the fate of old houses. A normal occurrence,” I said.

    “Sir,” Ella added. “What’s that house over there?”

    “That house is always closed! What do you want to know?” he said. “I’ve been living here for the past sixty years. Six, Zero!” he yelled. “When that house was still all white, not gray!”

    “A group lives there. They come from that building over there,” the man continued. “Men in white who throw flowers in the bay every full moon.”

    “Why flowers? And why the bay? It’s filled with silt,” I commented.

    “Maybe it’s because the flowers were scented?” Ella added.

    The man shrugged and went on to picking the rest of the dried leaves on the sidewalk. The street was parallel to a building with a façade that looked like vertical blocks packed like a crowd. He said that the men would line up for a small procession that entered the house at a certain hour every night. They would stare at the moon, sometimes for almost an hour, their necks getting strained from looking up. There was no exact time, the man said. It seemed the moon told them the right time to enter. Perhaps the perfect time was when they had already bathed in moonlight and they felt that they were luminous. There were times when the group occupied the entire sidewalk that gathered the curiosity of onlookers. But they never talked to anyone. There were no candles to show them the way; only flowers, often mimosa that looked like yellow, brittle popcorns. The mimosas got warmer as they were pressed against their chests.

    We allowed the man to continue talking. He said the structure had stood there for almost a century and survived the torching of the Japanese army. The group who wore white had a hiding place near the cemetery strewn with leaves and barks of a dying tree. It was a place where the group took refuge at the tail end of the war. The group’s hiding place was eventually found out. They were rounded up at the height of the Japanese desperation and everyone who were discovered hiding under the rubble were bayonetted. One of them was holding on for his dear life and started crawling on the grass to hide at the back of the house. When he was found and captured by the Japanese, he lifted his hand and begged for mercy from the soldiers. But the sword still made its way through his arms, cutting it entirely until it reached his chest and sliced through his ribs and down to his heart.

    Ella cupped her hands on her face and would not hear of it. To distract Ella, I told her to bring out the letter because, to be honest, I only read the first paragraph. Why would I even read the rest when I knew that it was a letter of refusal? But I read further and there was a mention of the need to coordinate with their director of that building to get possible approval. These would be processed after getting a signature of a certain head of the security.

    (To be continued. . .)

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