Saturday, April 28, 2012

Earthen Lights

The gods of heaven and earth in a violent game of tug-of-war.

That's what I think of when I see images of the northern lights. Which is partially true since the Aurora are formed by the ionization of atoms in the earth's higher atmosphere by the radiation from the sun (solar winds). Not exactly gods but the forces of the earth fighting the forces from the heavens.

Yet one cannot see the divine grandeur of these lights from the images alone. One should see it with the naked eye to see its sublime beauty.

Not that I've seen it already. But I'm about to.

It may sound cliche but if there is one thing you have to see before you die, this is it. At least it is for me. In my college years, I spent almost four years studying the phenomena of gas ionization, of plasma, of these lights. I spent countless nights in the lab, with hundreds of volts, amperes of current, some expensive gases and an artificial vacuum just to create a square inch of these lights. Humans need a lot of valuable resources to recreate it in the lab. But nature still does it better.

This is my plan:

This year, at around October to December I'll book a flight to Norway or Canada or wherever country it would be best to view the Lights. I'll bring a camera, a videocam (my HD cellphone will do) and a sketch pad. I'll stay there for a week or two.

I'll take only three pictures of the lights.

The first displaying only the aurora in the sky.

The second one with trees, houses or anything with the horizon.

The third one with me in the frame.

I'll draw a sketch of the lights. I know it's impossible to really capture the magnificent moving lights but I'll do my best.

I'll take only one video-- a 30-second clip of the moving lights.

And that's it. I'll pack up in the morning and return home.

This blog (tales of decay) is a blog of stories. I posted this entry into this blog because this is still just an imaginary story. In a few months time, if this post disappeared here, it only means this story has come true. And it will be posted somewhere else. With pictures and a video.

Friday, April 27, 2012


My name is Robert Berdugo.

Aka Obet.

A ghost writer. frustrated novelist, former obituary writer, now a travel/lifestyle columnist. 

If I tell you my job, you might say I'm very lucky. I write a column in one of the small press publishing in the country. You'll know it when you see it, a catchy tabloid title in shocking red font with a scantily clad woman on the front page. I write in the lifestyle section-- human profiles all around the country. That means I got to travel a lot. In the company's expense mind you. 


On the contrary. Have you heard of Mando Kalubig? How about Joaquin Mastino? Have you been to Palino? Or Catispal perhaps? Yes the last two are places still in the Philippines. And the two people? They are nobody.

That's the problem. My editors send me to the dark unknown corners of the country to interview some unknown personality. They tell me the place, it's my job to find a person of interest. Which is quite difficult to do, to be honest. How do my editors determine the place? Beats me. I've raised this to them once or twice. I requested places like Boracay or Matabungkay at least but they only tell me to do the job or some one else would. I stopped questioning after that.

Now here I am sitting (or squatting) on a kanga (a wooden carriage) drawn by a smelly carabao under a scorching summer sun. Here, bathing in my own sweat, with 10 or more others, also sweating and emitting a stench of something from hell. My only solace as we rode on the moonlike crater-laden road is my ice cold mineral water (at least 3 hours ago) which I bought a million miles from here. Better hold on to this as the swerving kanga might make it fall out of my gri... oops. There it goes.

My assignment for today is a town called Ayungin. Its a small rice farming town on the edge of Nueva Ecija, 6 hours away from Manila. Which doesn't really mean that it's far, it just means we have to travel 2 hours on a cramped bus, 3 hours on a bumpy kanga and an hour on foot. It's that remote.

One thing I learned from my stint as an obit writer is that you get the purest, most raw emotions in the face of death. That's why when I arrive at any town, I only go to two places first; the graveyard and the funeral homes, depending on the time of day. When it is still early in the morning, I go to the graveyard. When it's about to get dark, I go to the funeral homes. After all my days as an obit writer, I'm still a whiny little coward.

The sun is still high up in the sky so I proceeded to the graveyard. As usual, it's very, very quite here. And as usual, it smells different. Not really a stench of rotting flesh like what you'd expect (it actually just smells like freshly cut grass and dishoveled dirt). But there seems to be an aroma of death and sorrow suffused with it. I don't know how one could smell death and sorrow but that's what I get from it. 

I immediately asked for the town's sepulturero (or gravedigger). Mang Temyong as they call him here. If I have my way I'll just write about every sepulturero in each town but I've already done two or three of those and my editors became quite nosy. Write about other people or we'll have someone else to write them, they would say.

Mang Temyong looks like your typical small town old man. He is thin, with wrinkly skin, hair still black but with white strands protruding on the edges. He coughs every few seconds but its a cough which doesn't look like a sickness, more like an acquired habit through the years. He also has this habit of inhaling very very deep and then making his nose move as if he smelled something bad. Maybe it's the smell of death and sorrow. Maybe one gets to know the smell if one stays long enough in places like these.

There's this imbalsamador (embalmer) who has a habit of pinching his nose every few seconds. Then he clears his throat as if he has something in his throat that he want to vomit. There's also this one who has a habit of blinking hard and a little longer than usual. Like he sees something and he want to unsee it. I guess that's what happen when you work in the face of death, you acquire unusual habits that make you seem like you are sensing something out of this world. Or maybe there is indeed something. Maybe Mang Temyong smells death, or that imbalsamador tastes death, and other guy sees death.

Anyway, I didn't come all the way here to think about all those things so I just went ahead to interview Mang Temyong. I already have a set of questions ready for this phase of my research.

When is the last death?
About how many attended?
How are the attendees related to the dead person?
Who is the noisiest crier?
Any noticeable characters during the funeral?

These are the questions I use everytime to find the person to interview. But these are just starters. I always find that the sepulturero or imbalsamador tells more things, juicier subjects, on their own. But from these five questions, I get all that I need. From here I get my story.


The moment Mang Temyong the grave digger answered my first question, I know that there something spooky going on this small town. I suddenly realized why Mang Temyong does those mannerisms like coughing involuntarily, frequent inhaling deeply and hands that jerk nervously. I've seen those in people trying to quit smoking after years of addiction. Those aren't mannerisms. Those are symptoms of withdrawal. 

When I asked Mang Temyong when is the last death, he didn't answer with a straight response. It's probably last week, the memory is still very vivid, no probably 2 weeks ago or a month perhaps. Or two. But it's very recent. Maybe 3 months ago. No, I think it was last year. 2 years latest. I asked him if he could show me the last lapida that he assembled. When I saw it, I felt goosebumps in my entire body. I asked him if he is sure this is the last. He seems confident. 

Juan Kalos 
Born: December 1, 1972 
Died: December 1, 1992. 

There are so many things wrong about this. First, the death was 20 years ago. So no one's ever died since then? According to Unicef, the Philippines has a death rate of 6% per year. I don't want to do the math but that figure there simply means there should be someone dead every year (not that I want to, I'm just saying the statistics). But here, nobody's died for 20 years! That's enough to be spooked of. Maybe the people just migrated after that, I don't know. But maybe that's just rationalizing something pretty unnatural.

Second wrong thing is that the person, Juan Kalos' death is 20 years after his birth, to the month and day. Now, how often does that happen? Not often. That's pretty creepy. Maybe it's just some extremely weird coincidence. Maybe I'm just rationalizing again.

The last wrong thing, and probably the scariest is this fact: today is November 30, 2012. Exactly 20 years after the last death, minus one day. I know nothing about the happenings in this town but let me set the facts straight (it makes me shudder just thinking about this): Juan Kalos died 20 years after his death. After his death no one has ever died for another 20 years. Tomorrow is the exact twentieth year. Which means something terrible is going to happen tomorrow, right here. Which means only one thing: I have my story.


It's just 3' o clock in the afternoon. I still have a lot of time before night falls in. So I went to the town hall to ask somethings. There's a woman in her late 40's sitting in one of the desks fanning furiously with a small cardboard which looks like some kind of an election paraphernalia for some politician. She's very pretty with her pearly white teeth and her sweet smiling lips -- the politician on the cardboard fan that is. The woman official saw me coming and she gave me her version of the politician's smile, albeit not as sweet.

After some introductions and some small talk here and there (I learned that she is named after Marimar the actress), I went straight to the juicy part. I asked if she was aware that there's no death for the last 20 years. She is aware. I asked her if it does not creep her out. Not really, she said. Have you been talking to Mang Temyong, she asked. Then she turned her back to open a cabinet of files and folders. She rummaged through the piles of papers looking for something. When she seem to finally find it, she exclaimed a loud A ha and faced me again.

She handed me a letter. On its heading, it read Baranggay Decree No. 455. As I started to read it, Aleng Mari, began to tell me the contents much to my relief since I don't want to read this long legal document. She tells me that 20 years ago, Juan Kalos died because of water poisoning. She tells me that the the toxic substances from the cemetery went its way to the water reservoir under the town. So the baranggay ordered to close the cemetery once and for all. They now bury their dead on the next town. 

What a bummer... And I thought there is something supernatural about it.

I asked about the death of Kalos, why it happened 20 years after his birth. Plain coincidence, she muttered. My mother died exactly while giving birth to me. My father died exactly 60 years after his birth. My uncle was born during an eclipse. My children were born exactly 2 years apart. How many more examples do you want?

My creepy conspiracy theory goes down the drain.


That night I went to the funeral homes. My creepy story did not pan out so I need to find something else. I just wasted half a day chasing a story which I thought would be something. Now I'm back to square one. Sad thing for me is that there is no funeral homes in this town. With the closing of the cemetery, the funeral homes also moved to the next town. But with existing competition there, they ultimately went bankrupt and out of business. I asked around if the former embalsamador still lived here, but to no avail. Some say he's dead. Some say he's moved to other places. Some say he went crazy and lived inside the forest as a hermit. Some say he is now an aswang. Small town stories.

Without the embalsamador there's no one to ask for my valuable topic. And it's too dark to still go to the graveyard for the sepulturero. So much for my five-point questions.


I set my phone alarm clock to 6 AM. I want to start early so I could go home early. My plan of attack is this, I still go to the sepulturero to ask him my five questions. Maybe he'll tell some interesting stories and some fascinating characters. But as an alternative, I'll do it from another vantage point. I think that the Marimar baranggay official is an interesting character and I think I can do a write-up about her. A last resort really, but that's all I can afford at the moment. I'll have to go home tomorrow so I need to have a story by then.

Having set my strategy, I just went to sleep on the hard bamboo bed. Thank my editors they gave me some budget to rent a room even if it's just this small, dilapidated, stacked up shack which is a sad excuse for a house. 

My muses apparently felt pity for me, because that night I slept a dreamless sleep. The night is so quiet, like a graveyard.


I was awaken by the signal of my phone alarm clock. I sat up from my bed but it's still very dark. I checked my phone on the table and it says 6 AM. But it's too dark to be 6 AM, i thought to myself. Maybe it's that way around here. When I put down my phone on the table again I noticed a small sheet of paper. I picked it up. Somethings written. I illuminated it using my cellphone.

Today. None. Nothing. You. You.

A bunch of scribbled nonsense, I thought. But who would have left it here? 

I stood up and tried to find my way to the door using my phone as my flashlight. I was able to go outside. It really is very dark. The night sky is very dark. Starless. As i walk towards the town center, I realize there's no light from any of the houses in the town either. I can't see anything from here. 

I turned back to return to my rented shack. But it's pitchblack from my position. I illuminated the ground with my phone but the light never went a meter farther. I walk blindly somewhere, I don't know what direction. I started to call people. Hello. Anybody there. I began to feel frightened. Am I alone? Where are the others?

I began walking faster. Still calling out. 

I'm running. To where? I don't know. I'm sweating. But I feel cold.

I'm shouting out now. Crying for help. 

In my haste, I tripped face down. The pain shut me up. I had to clear my head.

I realize, Hey I have a cellphone in hand! So I dialled one of my editor's number. No signal. Crap. It's no use.

I realized I was still holding the piece of paper. Maybe it holds a clue. Maybe this is the answer. 

I looked at the written words again. Maybe these words are the answer. These five words.

Five words...


When is the last death?
About how many attended?
How are the attendees related to the dead person?
Who is the noisiest crier?
Any noticeable characters during the funeral?

It's too quiet. Like a graveyard.

Saturday, April 21, 2012


She looks normal. She talks normal. And she acts normal.

But there is something about her that isn't quite right. It's as if she's not of this world to tell it simply. It might be the way she bat her eyes like it was a few microseconds too fast. Or probably the words come out her mouth as if there's always an extra syllable fragment at the end of her every sentence.

"I'm Lara.. I'll be your therapist for today..Please follow me to the room.."

She has a perfect petite figure. And she walks in a very alluring gait. But still something's not quite right. It could be that her curves seem to follow a certain mathematical equation. Or that her strides seem to trace an unknown pattern in the ground. I don't know. I just can't put my head around it.

I followed her to a small but tidy room with a lazy boy seat at the center, There is a small table on the corner with bottles which I reckon are perfumes, oils and lotions. There's a TV hanging on the wall just in front of the chair.

"Please sit here,," Lara said, with that voice pitch that seems just a few fraction of a frequency higher.

I sat down and relaxed my back. The tv is playing the nightly news. It appears that the Lyrid meteor shower will happen tonight. The news program is about to report the details when Lara turned it off.

I just closed my eyes.

I simply sat there for a few minutes. I hear sounds of bottles opening and closing and of liquids flowing. I hear her rubbing her hands. There's that sound again, Like her hands rubbing produces an intereference with the vibrational frequencies of my brain.

I hear her walk towards the back of my seat. As soon as her fingertips touched the skin of my forehead, I felt a strange shuddering sensation from my stomach. As she presses her fingers into my temples, the sensations became stronger. It feels like my whole self is being turned inside-out-- not my flesh but my soul.

I can't describe it into words.

It's beyond words.

I don't how much time has passed when she said it's finished. It seems like an eternity of something. But it also feels like I was just sitting her for a few seconds. I'm lost. She has took me into an existential dungeon puzzle of the mind which is impossible to decipher and escape from.

I walked to the reception to get my things and the receipt. The receptionist smiles politely. I stepped out of the door still in a state of daze. Lara did something to me which is not of this world. She did something. But I can't figure it out.

I got on a cab waiting on the sidewalk. The driver asked where to and I answered him 'home'. On the radio, there is still the news about that meteor shower. The shower, the newscaster said will appear to originate from the section in the sky near the constellation Lyra.

I looked at the reciept I got from the reception to check if Lara has a number which I could contact just in case. They seem to have made a typo error, They printed her name with a 'y'.