Friday, November 1, 2013


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.