Beside them, the body

Fiction by | November 10, 2019

Is all that matters, is the most precious thing in the basement of Memorial Medical Center. Outside the mortuary, by the landing of the stairs, a laboratory technician taps her foot against the white tiles, lays a hand on her cheek. She thinks this gesture implies innocence or ignorance. This will improve her image for the officers in uniform trying to reach the body. But they are not looking at her, because for them, the body is all that matters.

The body is the person stripped of subjectivity. It is futile to describe the body to evoke the reader’s horror at the mangled state it’s in. It is enough to say that, in addition to subjectivity, the body is stripped of many things. The transition from person to body has been violent. As a person, she was Justine Fuego, 19, a chemistry student from the state university. During the Diliman Commune, she helped her fellow batchmates make Molotov cocktails to throw at military helicopters hovering overhead that attempted to disperse their collective. That was six months ago. Five months ago, she joined Kabataang Makabayan. Four months ago, she lived with farmers in Davao del Norte. Two months ago, she was organizing workers in Tondo. Now, she is the body in the mortuary.

There is a group of students and a teacher keeping watch over the body. The teacher is a math instructor at Justine’s university. She teaches Introduction to Calculus. She was supposed to introduce derivatives to her class earlier that morning. But after finishing breakfast, she received a call that Justine’s remains had been found, prompting her to meet up with some other Kabataang Makabayan members to retrieve the body. When they reached it, the operation turned from retrieval to protection as the officers in uniform arrived.

They stare at each other, the lead officer and the math instructor. The lead officer says she is a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Constabulary. She gives the math instructor their names, and promises that the body would be treated with respect. The officer’s movements are slow and appear weighed down. The math instructor thinks her voice sounds tired, her face lined with stress, and that these signs of aging and exhaustion are borne out of a voice in the officer’s conscience. She thinks the officer knows what she is doing is wrong. But the officer – like the math instructor, the students, and the body – is trapped in an elaborate web-work of orders, affidavits, and wearying patterns of abuse. This web-work, for all its complexities, in the end serves the enrichment of the president and his unholy entourage of dogs and cronies.

But the officer does not understand this web-work. Or perhaps she does, but because of demands on her personal or social life – work is hard to come by, and she has a family that would starve without her income – she plays her regime-mandated part. The math instructor wishes she could have a civil, comprehensive discussion with the officer.

The officer tries to bargain with them some more, but is refused. She and her companions leave. The laboratory technician returns. The math instructor and her students are relieved, and they stay with the body until Justine’s family arrives and reclaims it. The mortuary doors open. Inside, another group of officers saunters in, all men, all burly men in uniform, entering without even greeting or explanation.

The technician leaves once again. The lead man, he says that he’s a sergeant. A student asks, sergeant who? He does not offer an answer. Instead, he demands the body. The math instructor echoes the question. Sergeant who? He echoes his demand. He is with two other men of medium build. They do not seem to carry any weapons. They also present no warrants, no documents, no identification other than their green uniforms.

The math instructor protests. We can’t let you take her. On whose authority do you function?

The sergeant answers. On the government’s authority.

She responds. On whose legitimate authority?

Sergeant’s nostrils flare and his men move forward. The math instructor and her students become alert. They form a cordon around the body, linking their arms. A student gets two metal containers in the mortuary, and bangs them against each other, making as much noise as possible. A girl takes out a whistle from her pocket and makes it squeal without ceasing. Those without tools, they scream and shriek, including the math instructor. The officers are disturbed, but they do not leave. Outside, the laboratory technician wishes these were simpler times.

Behind them, the body is all that matters, so they protect her with noise. The noise ensures that her theft does not go unnoticed. And even if there isn’t noise, there is the math instructor and her students. And the laboratory technician outside, who may be radicalized because of this event, and even the worn-out officer from the Women’s Auxiliary Constabulary, who might find a less violent line of work. The noise might frighten the men. They might retreat to their headquarters, where they will make more bodies out of persons. Justine’s family might arrive and give her a proper burial. But as of now, what protects Justine’s body is the human barricade, the math instructor linking arms with her students. They know the ramifications of their actions.

Lakan Daza Umali teaches at the University of the Philippines Mindanao.

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