Mornings in the age of ‘tokhang’
Someone was shot dead earlier today, my father told me one Sunday morning as I sat down at our dining table. There wasn’t much on it for breakfast: pan de sal fresh from the bakery a few blocks from our house, a plate of scrambled eggs, a jar of mayonnaise, a bowl of fruits (ignored because everyone was interested only in the eggs), and then the newspaper beside my father’s half-empty coffee cup.
He wasn’t reading it, or at least he’d already read the parts that interested him the most. My sister was still asleep. My mother, who had just taken her cup to the sink, sat back down with us and read the paper. It was one of those ordinary Sunday mornings spent in the silence of familial comfort. Except that there was a dead body somewhere in our neighborhood, and I wanted to see it.
The corpse is gone, my mother said when I told her about my wanting to see it. Someone collected it, hours ago.
I was disappointed. Dead bodies seemed to have been surfacing everywhere those days, except in our subdivision, and that was the first time one appeared in our neighborhood. My block mates in college and some friends had told me stories about salvage victims, and about drug raids and drug addicts gunned down and left on sidewalks. Whenever I walked out of our subdivision to buy something from the wet market, or once to have my hair cut, stories of dead bodies were on the lips of those living in the eskinitas, of the gay man in the beauty salon who trimmed my hair, of the woman who debones our bangus, of the man who sold vegetables, and of the young women who attended our favorite panaderia. It was on their lips: the story of a friend, a neighbor, a relative, endangered, if not killed, by “Oplan Tokhang.”
“Na-tokhang daw.” That was the tail-end, the punch line, of these stories. I heard it, for instance, from one of the women in the panaderia. I was having an internal debate on what to buy, their Spanish bread or their chocolate crinkles, which that morning seemed to be a welcome change for our breakfast table. When I told the woman that I’d buy some of those crinkles, she was just telling her companion that their friend had been killed.
“Na-tokhang daw,” she said, as she bent down to reach with her tongs those sweet-looking cookies from the glass compartment housing the pastries. Her companion, who was serving another customer, muttered, “Oh,” which disappeared as quickly as it was spoken.
I walked away from the bakery as soon as the lady handed me the plastic bag with the crinkles and some pan de sal. I dipped my hand in the bag and retrieved a crinkle, took a bite from it, and closed my eyes in delight as the morning around me went on in its usual, undisturbed order.
No one recognizes the person shot dead, my mother said. She had finished reading the parts of the newspaper she was interested in. When she set the paper down I wasn’t thinking about reading it, having no interest in anything printed on it. But then something caught my eye.
On the front page of the newspaper, just above the headline, there was a photograph: a woman cradling a man on her lap. The man was dead. Below it was the caption: “LAMENTATION: A weeping Jennelyn Olaires hugs partner Michael Siaron, 30, a pedicab driver and alleged drug pusher, who was shot and killed by motorcycle-riding gunmen near Pasay Rotonda on Edsa. He was one of six killed in drug-related incidents in Pasay and Manila yesterday.”
Below the photograph was the headline: “Church: Thou shall not kill.”
Photographs like these appeared in newspaper front pages thereafter, and although I was not interested in reading papers I was fascinated by the frequency of seeing such pictures on our dining table. It was as if, apart from the silence and the pan de sal and the scrambled eggs, our breakfasts would intermittently be completed with a dosage of sorrow, of mourning, for the dead in this “war on drugs.”
Weeks later, another corpse was found in our subdivision. Once again no one among the neighborhood knew the slaughtered person. Once again the body was hauled off by people from a funeral parlor before I was able to step out our house to have a view of an actual person killed in the “war,” slaughtered because of abusing drugs (or having been suspected of doing so). When I got to the spot where my mother said the corpse had been left, I was able to see only a blotch of dried blood on the road.
The bodies were always hauled off. Some days later they would be on our dining table, morphed into a picture in a newspaper front page. And we would sit in front of our first meal of the day, our lips touching the warm edge of our coffee cup, the sound of forks on porcelain hovering in the air along with the odor of whatever my mother had cooked that morning before we headed to school or to work. We would chew our food, slowly, meditatively, almost as if in prayer. But not for the dead. No. For the living, for ourselves. And anyway, they were not our concern, and not for us to remember.
Or are they?
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George Deoso, 21, is a literature graduate of the University of Santo Tomas. He lives in Quezon City.
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