Award-winning writer Daryll Delgado takes Resurgent’s readers to a Kafkaesque detour, from the eyes of today’s millennium journalists, into the dark underbelly of crime and punishment.
Remember your first encounter with a dead body, when you were barely twenty? Remember how that one body, that one nameless person, mattered to you so much? How writing about him, getting the facts, going to such lengths to gather the facts mattered so very, very much?
You’ve seen many more since then, of course. You helped wash your own mother’s lifeless body and applied make up on her still, beautiful face when you were twenty-nine. Five years later, you held your father’s emaciated body just seconds after he left it.
In 2013, you saw many of them lining the streets of your home city, right after Yolanda battered Tacloban: headless bodies, mangled bodies, limbless bodies, badly decomposing bodies, twisted bodies, bloated bodies. And now, bodies bundled in garbage bags, plastered with cardboard, dumped in grassy areas, in middle of streets, inside cars, in jeepneys, in tricycles, in pedicabs.
You remind yourself: Everything is text. You know this to be true. You are merely being constructed by these images, these texts.
Bodies: the text. Where are you located in relation to them? What among the competing positions have you chosen from which to create a response?
The text has a “worldliness”. It exists in the world, in a specific space and time, and is shaped by a particular cultural and political dynamic. When subjects encounter text, as we constantly do, all the time and everywhere, we likewise position ourselves, within a network of competing positions, in relation to the text, even as it also constructs us as subjects.
You find yourself returning to these concepts, from comparative literature and critical theory classes. Concepts by Derrida, Said, and Lacan via Zizek, Sontag, and Woolf. You think of them more frequently than usual: notions of text and reality, of language and different forms of violence, and the sympathy response, which specific forms of writing strategically seek, as a means to counter symbolic violence.
You have been thinking of the way sympathy or empathy is evoked, by realist fiction, for instance. How this response is constituted by language, but which must function through the body, in the sense that one sympathizes always and only from a specific position, and necessarily in relation to another body, through some form or possibility of being one, or of proximity with, that body.
The dead bodies are text. The trash bags are text. The cardboard and the words on them are text. Laid out in the street, or dumped in dark corners, or left wherever they are found, or in order to be found, to be seen. It doesn’t matter: They are text. We cannot not interact or encounter the text, and we are constructed and reconstructed by it. Our response is merely framed by our proximity, either to the supposed victims of these now lifeless bodies, or to these bodies themselves.
When you confine yourself to this critical framework, you are able to find some comfort, since you have long stopped trying to find sense, in the deep state of division that you and the people visible to you in your limited realm seem to have found yourselves in. You are not truly divided, viewed from this framework. You are all merely constructed and occupy a range of positions.
You should stay confined in these thoughts.
Instead you summon him again from memory: About five feet and eight inches tall, without the head. Slightly over six feet, potentially, with the head. Taller than the average Filipino man. About 30 years of age, or younger. Pale and smooth-skinned. Fingernails well-trimmed. Athletic body, muscular, and lean. Neat. Clean. Too clean. No tattoos, no identifying marks. Except for the stab wounds in the abdomen and the rib cage.
The police officer said that before they unwrapped the “package” or the “bundle” they already knew what was in it. A few others had been found elsewhere in Metro Manila. All similarly packed, tightly wrapped in garbage bag and masking tape. He showed you the photos of the “bundles”, and then of the one they found in the campus.
What do these similarities tell you? Have you seen these methods before? Where is the body now? Where is the head? What do you think is the purpose for cutting it off? What steps have been taken to identify the body? What is the proper procedure for identifying headless bodies?
You had already prepared your questions in advance, like the dutiful student that you were. You went over them again, while waiting in Camp Karingal. You were received nicely, asked to sit in front of the officer’s desk, while the officer-in-charge was being called.
You don’t need to, but you do remember also the stocky man in a white wife-beater’s shirt, grumbling, and grudgingly getting up from a bench half-hidden by a cabinet. You could have turned away, instead you watched him pull on a pair of pants, and then struggle into his shirt uniform, grab a comb from the top of the cabinet and crouch to check himself in the mirror while he combed his hair into place.
“Hello, Miss Beautiful!” Your skin crawled. He recognized you. It was not your first time in the police station, and it was not going to be your last.
If there was one thing that consumed your imagination, your time, your meager resources when you were on your senior year in journalism school in UP, it was the matter of that headless body found in campus.
It was huge news, picked up by the Collegian, and was in the major dailies. This was the height of “salvaging”, in the late ‘90s. You were enrolled then in an investigative reporting class, and had chosen to investigate the case of the particular headless body found in a grassy area near the main entrance to the university avenue — where penniless students like yourself made out with their dates, and drank local gin with their friends.
The headless bodies had already made the headlines. But, you insisted to your professor, there were other angles to investigate. You wanted to determine if there was a pattern in the killings, not just in the method of disposal. You claimed to want to know if proper procedures to identify the bodies, to investigate the crime, were being followed — even if you had no idea what those procedures were. In truth, what you really, really wanted to know was this: The person’s identity. His name. Your main objective was to summon the person who had occupied this body. To flesh a character out of the corpse. To construct a full story.
You even went to the crime lab in Kamuning, and of course no one would entertain you. You had no credentials. Just a student from UP completing a school requirement. Plus, on the day you were finally able to get an appointment with the forensics, an accident had taken place at the lab. Someone had mistakenly drunk some chemical that was placed in a glass bottle. You entertained yourself by taking note of the goings on — for a possible sidebar about the state of the criminal justice system in the country. In the end you were not able to talk to anybody, but managed to get another lead: The body was no longer in the lab, it had been brought to a morgue in Caloocan.
You scribbled the address, immediately boarded a bus, and off you went. You had to get off from the bus at some corner near Monumento, in order to take a jeepney through Valenzuela, and into the interiors of Caloocan, and then a tricycle to the final destination. It took some time, but you eventually located the funeral parlor – a single-story affair, in the middle of a sari-sari store and a construction supply store. You felt so triumphant. The three men tending to the morgue seemed very nice, jovial. Too jovial.
You explained that you were from UP, a journalist following up on the story of the body that had been found in the campus a couple of days ago. You wanted to confirm if indeed it had been brought there. They said yes, but more than one body came from the crime lab. You asked to see the bodies, and they said no. You asked for documents to review. They showed you a logbook, some typewritten document. You checked the descriptions. Nothing matched the ones you got from Camp Karingal.
You asked if the body that was found in UP was in there, and they said maybe, probably. They just receive whatever the crime lab requests them to keep. “And please tell the crime lab, they cannot keep the bodies here forever.” They wanted you to include in your report their own issues — that they are running a business and the government owes them a lot of money. You took note of all that.
You asked again about the bodies from the crime lab. Was one of them losing a head? And they said yes. Finally, you were getting somewhere. You asked if someone had come to try to identify the body, and they burst out laughing. “Paano ma-a-identify, paano mamumukhaan, eh wala nga’ng ulo, walang mukha, di ba?”. They said some people have come to try to claim the body, to identify it. They bring with them pictures of the faces of their missing loved ones. The attendant said, how can we help them if all they show us are headshots?
It was getting dark. They attendants had started to lose interest in your questions. You realized that you were never actually going to see the headless body.
They offered you instant La Paz Batchoy, which you wanted so badly, all of a sudden. But you needed to get back to the dorm and write a story. You needed to make the most of what you have, despite the disappointment welling within you, making you want to cry.
You had very few cash left in your pocket then. You made your way back to the main road, boarded a bus, and suddenly felt drained. You were just about to doze off when the conductor asked for your bus fare. You gave him the exact fare to Cubao. He said it wasn’t enough. Finally, all of your frustrations, your hunger, your exhaustion in full force, you demanded that the conductor explain, show proof that the bus fare to Cubao had indeed been increased. He just stared dumbly at you, and said this was a bus for Lubao, Pampanga. Not Cubao, Quezon CIty.
You asked, humbly, to be let off the side of the highway, before the bus entered the express way. You were still fuming mad, but mostly at yourself. You had to walk with some dignity, with care, to keep from being sideswiped by over-speeding cars, which would have been interminably more embarrassing. You did not want your body to be unrecognizable. And then you started laughing, and couldn’t wait to get back to campus to tell your friends about it.
Remember when you used to be that person? Remember when bodies were bodies, and words were words?
Remember how eager you were for the world, only to find out that it did not need you? Remember how foolish you were, how arrogant, but how absolutely devoid of fear, and full of humor? You must also try to remember all that now, twenty years later, thousands of bodies later.
You never actually got to see the body, never actually got to name him, the first one. The funeral attendants had been adamant. But now you see him everywhere, hear about him all the time, read about him every single day and night. You want to pick up from where you left. Where do you start?
DARYLL DELGADO’s first book of short stories, After the Body Displaces Water (USTPH, 2012), won the 32nd National Book Award for Short Fiction, and was a finalist in the 2013 Madrigal-Gonzales First Book Award. She has also received a Philippines Free Press award for her fiction in 2010. She has been a lecturer at the University of the Philippines, the Ateneo de Manila University, and Miriam College. She currently works for the Southeast Asia office of an international labor and human rights NGO. Daryll has a BA in Journalism and MA in Comparative Literature from UP Diliman. She currently resides in Quezon City with her husband, William. She was born and raised in Tacloban City, and continues to call Tacloban home.