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High Blood

Close encounters with the dead kind

05:05 AM October 31, 2017

It’s undas again, or the time for remembering our dead. It’s also the time for some nervous creatures, including myself, to get distressed by this unfunny feeling, this deep fear of the dead. How did I contract this affliction?

When Ka Ciro, our barrio tuba and suka vendor, croaked, I went along with my mother to view the remains. I was a boy of six then. When I approached the papag where Ka Ciro was lying in state, I imagined that I saw the old man simultaneously open his eyes and drop his jaw, like he was saying “Bulaga!” Except that I didn’t imagine it. The dead man did open his eyes and drop his jaw. And I was not the only one who witnessed this incredible occurrence.

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There was a mad scramble for the door and even windows of Ka Ciro’s hut. “Nabuhay ang patay, nabuhay ang patay!” the women shrieked. The dead had come alive! My mother grabbed my arm and we literally flew through the door and down the bamboo stairs.

Later at the dinner table my father assured everyone, myself especially, that there was nothing to be excited about in the Ka Ciro affair. What had happened, he explained, was a simple physical anomaly. But my father’s explanation didn’t convince me one bit. I resolved that never again would I get within eyeing distance of a corpse.

But there are just things and circumstances you can’t avoid. Back in the 1950s, my boyhood chums Pablo and Eufracio and I were recruited by the Recollect priests to serve as sacristans in the all-steel San Sebastian Church. Part of our chores, aside from serving in Masses, was to close up the church in the evening and then sweep it clean.

San Sebastian then was not the usual venue for mourning rituals, but at one time a benefactor of the church croaked and the family requested to be allowed to hold a one-night wake there. The Recollects consented, but only up to 11 p.m. “Everybody leaves at 11 because the church is always closed at night,” they said.

So 11 o’clock came, everybody left, and Pablo, Eufracio and I closed the church. Came now the hard decision: Who would turn off the lights? The main switch was located beneath the main altar. To get there, you have to literally brush your side against the coffin eerily parked in front of the altar.

Pablo suggested that we all do it. Naturally I objected, because I didn’t want to get near a dead person even in the company of these two guys. I proposed that we settle the issue through “jack en poy,” two out of three. So we went at it — and guess who lost.

Still I refused to go — unless and until Pablo and Eufracio promised to stay within sight as I made my way to the altar and back. But they didn’t keep their promise, the cowards. As soon as I had switched off the lights, throwing everything in total darkness, they scampered away.

I had never had a more dreadful experience before, or since. As I ran in panic toward the church door I tripped and fell, of all places, at the foot of the bier. I banged against it and, to my horror, the thing started to roll down the aisle. Should I try to stop it? The heck I would. I picked myself up and raced out of the church like a runaway steed. Outside, it was all I could do to keep from punching the two cowards, who were splitting their sides in laughter.

I am now in my eighties and I honestly feel ridiculous getting disquieted at my age by my childhood bugaboo.

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“You are really foolish fearing the dead,” my friend Alex scolds me. “Fear not the dead who can do you harm no more. Fear the living who can turn you into a statistic… Like the baddies of Team Double Barrel Reloaded.”

* * *

Mart del Rosario ([email protected]), 84, is a retired advertising-PR consultant.

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