By Dominic Dayta
(Second prize, 2017 Amelia-Lapena-Bonifacio Prize for Literature, Short Story Division, courtesy of the Department of English and Comparative Literature of the University of the Philippines, Diliman.)
One night, as Gregorio S. was waking up from troubled dreams, he discovered that in bed he had been tied by the ankles and wrists, and was surrounded by five masked men – two at each side and one at his feet – who stood looking over him as if all this time they had been waiting for him to rouse from his sleep. All the lights were off in the bedroom, except for the piercing gleam of a flashlight that one of the men – the one to his left – was pointing at his face.
He blinked once, twice, scanning the room, unable to comprehend the situation. It was no dream. He was in his room: the four walls, the glass jalousies, the framed photo of a woman sitting on the desk, and the thick volume beside it – all these were his. And yet, he had no memory of ever getting here. What had transpired during the day? Where had he come from? Did he walk or did he take the jeepney? He couldn’t even bring to mind if today was a work day. But he could feel his lower back hurting like it would after an intense bout of running, and there was a slight throbbing in the back of his head. Not to mention he was sore at the places he was tied. The men – because it was obvious they had done it – had used course rope on him. Like a dog, S. thought to himself, they’ve got me tied up like a dog.
The men wore denim jeans and black long-sleeved button-downs. They had a black sack over their heads, with holes cut out for the eyes, nose and mouth. The one standing at S’s feet looked to his companions, and when each responded with a subtle nod, he produced a folded sheet of paper from the back of his pants, opened it, and began to read out loud in a high-pitched falsetto that sounded more like a grown man’s imitation of a little girl’s voice. Half the sounds he made seemed to come out through his nose. He pronounced Gregorio S’s full name, age and occupation.
“Before you tonight are members of the president’s new special task force. We have here your warrant of arrest. In light of the nature of the crime committed, it has been requested by the court that speedy measures are taken in bringing you into custody. We are to transport you tonight to the courthouse where you will remain under probation throughout the course of your trial until the court has released a verdict. Do you understand these terms as they have been laid down before you?”
An arrest? But on what grounds? S was in full conviction that he had thus far lived his life as a law-abiding citizen, and although he had no recollection of anything that happened during the day he was sure nothing illegal had taken place. Besides, this was not the proper method for an arrest, regardless of the crime.
“What am I being accused of?”
“You are not being accused of anything,” the man holding the flashlight pointed out. Unlike the man with the warrant, this one’s voice sounded normal. Deep, heavyset, matching his rough features. “The court in its intelligence has already assured of your indubitable involvement in the crime.”
“Shouldn’t I be allowed to get a lawyer?”
“You have no need of a lawyer. Your presence is hardly a requirement at your trial. The trial is not to confirm your role in the crime, but rather to decide a fitting punishment for your having committed it.”
The other man beside him continued, also in a fitting voice: “However, for formality’s sake you will be present at the proceedings. And for the court’s confidence that you will commit no further crimes or make any attempt at escape, you will be kept under state custody until the trial reaches conclusion. Have you any more questions?”
Who were these men to arrest him anyway? They weren’t even wearing uniform, and they haven’t shown him a badge or whatever proof of their authority in the proceedings. They claimed to be part of some “new special task force” but S knew that was a load of bull. S was a journalist working for one of the newspapers with the widest circulation in the country. He wrote mostly about the government, and was well-connected with sources. Nothing happened up there that wasn’t immediately made known to him. Therefore, had the president indeed arranged this “new special task force,” for whatever purpose, it would have appeared on the paper, under his own byline.
They must have been any other pack of civilians, then. Housebreakers, no doubt. The whole arrest was probably a bit they played out on their victims in order to scare them off – not that the thought put him anywhere near at ease. At least he lived alone, and he had only himself to worry about. S figured that at the moment the best course of action was to let the men do their thing, to go along with their little play, and to do and say nothing that would provoke them in the slightest. So when the four men standing by his side began to carry him off the bed, out of his bedroom, like a dead man in his funeral, minus the casket, he didn’t resist.
The four men carried him headfirst through the darkness of his living room, with the fifth man, the one who held his “warrant,” tailing behind. He lived in a small flat on the fifth floor of an apartment building, so before long they were out under the harsh fluorescent lights of the hallway. The doors to all the other apartments were closed. Everyone else was having their peaceful night’s sleep. In his mind, S was doing a little calculation: the building had a total of forty floors excluding two reserved for parking, and each floor had eight doors: that meant the “new special task force” could have chosen from a total of three hundred and twenty doors in his building alone. It was just his luck that they had chosen to barge into his.
What if it wasn’t luck? What if this was an actual arrest? Of course that was silly; the fact remained that he had done nothing wrong, but conviction for his Housebreaker hypothesis had begun to dwindle the moment they took him out of the flat – all five of them – without touching one of his (few) belongings. They were probably just taking him elsewhere, so he would not be a hindrance for when they performed the actual robbery, but the fashion they had chosen to do so was sure to attract witnesses. Right now, they were standing by the elevator, waiting for the number on the digital screen overhead to count down from twenty-nine to five. A resident of the other apartments might come out at any moment; also, someone was manning the elevator. A group of masked men carrying away a bound civilian – on a list of suspicious sights it was sure to come on top.
The elevator doors opened, and S was surprised to find out that it had space enough for them, in that setup. He regarded the boy manning the controls with a terrified look, but the boy only shrugged it off. The boy asked them if they were going down to the ground floor. The man carrying S’s warrant nodded.
Throughout the short ride, and even when they were passing by the night guard on their way out the apartment building’s front entrance, S fought the urge to cry for help, deciding even then it was still for the best that he keep mum. At that point, though, it took him no effort at all, for by then, S had lost all words. They had passed by the elevator boy, two residents who were waiting to take the elevator on the ground floor, three more residents who were discussing something over coffee in the lobby, and even the night guard himself, and for some reason they had all shrugged off the scene like it was the most banal sight in the world. The night guard even tipped his cap to the man who had the warrant.
Just outside the building, a black van waited. They carried S to the door in back, and just as one of them was about to pull it open, the man with the warrant ordered them to stop, wait a minute, in the same little girl falsetto he had used back in the flat. The four other men lowered S enough so that the man with the warrant could look down on his face. He produced a pink handkerchief from his pocket and pressed this over S’s mouth and nose. In no time at all, S was knocked out of consciousness. The man with the warrant gave him a slap on each cheek and, satisfied when S failed to react, signaled to his men to throw the body inside. Afterwards, the men hopped in the van as well. They drove away, soundlessly, into the night.
Prisoner 1914 had no memories to speak of except that he
- had been convicted of a crime,
- was arrested one night by masked men in his apartment, and
- was brought here to be watched over by authorities until the court had reached a verdict regarding his punishment.
He couldn’t remember exactly what crime it was that he had committed, or if he had even committed one in the first place. He didn’t know his name and had only the number stamped on his white shirt to identify himself. He couldn’t recall where this apartment was, where he was arrested. His entire life before the arrest had been erased, wiped out completely from memory, leaving him only with this, his life now.
And what life was that? Nothing but his white shirt that bore his prisoner number, his white jogging pants, his white socks and white shoes. There was also this cell, which was to be his shelter throughout the duration of his trial, which did not even have enough space for him to lie down. When he slept he had to curl up in a fetal position, and he always woke up with cramps in his neck and joints, and a throbbing pain from hitting his head so many times against the walls. The walls and floor were white as cotton and hard and cold like steel. There were no windows. There were two holes on the door: a square one at eye-level through which someone would peer in every now and again to check that he was still there (as if there was any possibility of escape, in his condition); and a longer, rectangular one at the bottom, through which his guards would slide his meals twice a day. His drinks – always the same lukewarm water that tasted of metal – came in tetra packs that fitted perfectly through the lower hole. As for his toilet needs, if he made the right signal on the door, a guard would come and slide a chamber pot through.
He didn’t even know how he got here. He merely woke up, one day, curled up on the floor of this cell, and had never once gotten out. Neither did he know the time of day. The guards could be serving him his first meal at midnight and his second at noon, for all he knew, so how long he’d been here, he couldn’t tell. All he knew was that so far he’d eaten thirty-eight meals, and throughout that period no one has spoken to him about the progress of his trial. That was, if the trial was even moving.
Or if there even was a trial to begin with.
He was getting restless. What if it had all been a ruse to get him detained with less resistance? Or could it be that the trial had already happened outside his knowledge, his sentence passed, and that sentence being imprisonment for life? He looked around him, at the empty walls of his little cell, and felt all the time – time measured in meals – he would have to spend contained within them constrict around his neck like a leash. For a moment, the pressure in the cell seemed to drop, and although the air was cold enough to bite through his skin, rivulets of sweat dribbled from his forehead and the nape of his neck, until the entire upper half of his shirt was drenched. He dropped his face on the plastic plate (white) that only minutes ago had contained his thirty-eight meal (the usual: a helping of rice, to be had with two sardines) and began hyperventilating. Everything – the cell, the building, the heavy air – was closing in on him. He had to break free. He clenched his right hand into a fist and banged, three times, on the door.
In the end, it was the sound of approaching footsteps that calmed him. He had come to love that sound. Aside from the meals, it was the only sense of movement he ever received from outside, and that grounded him back to reality. It was a guard, of course. When he first sensed the footsteps, the leash around his neck loosened until it had all but disappeared. Pressure took hold, and the air and the walls lost their oppression. The footsteps stopped just outside his door. He lifted up his head, bits of rice and sardines clinging to his hairs and nose, and stared, confused, as a white chamber pot slid through the lower hole.
A sudden, electronic cry roused him from sleep. He jumped to his feet. That sound was new. He didn’t know what that sound meant. Three men wearing black long-sleeved shirts, denim jeans, and black masks approached his door: two stationed at either side, while the third stood between them, working the locks. Prisoner 1914 heard a loud metallic click, and the door slid wide open.
“Prisoner 1914,” shouted the third man in a voice that seemed to want to imitate that of a little girl (Prisoner 1914 felt a faint sense of déjà vu). “Arms raised, hands behind your head. Now!”
He did as commanded.
“Come out and join the line.”
His first sight of the world outside his cell in fifty-eight meals: a narrow, white corridor, along which slithered a queue of countless men wearing the same clothes as him. The cells were all on the left side; right now all the doors were open. Everything else – the floor, the ceiling, the wall on the right side – were solid white and featureless. The queue and the corridor seemed to extend to eternity on both directions. The thing he noticed that struck him the strongest, however, was that he could take note of all the faces to as far as he could see down the line, and they all carried the same blank, unblinking expression.
Someone kicked him on the leg.
“I said move!” one of the masked men said.
He must have been the last prisoner to fall in line, for when he finally took his place in the queue, feeling chilled to his bones, the masked man uttered a loud cry and ordered everyone to attention.
“Forward, one-two-three, now!”
The queue lurched forward.
It was a long walk, through what seemed like an endless length of corridor. Because of its unchanging features, one could hardly get a sense of progress in that walk. The walls, floor, and ceiling all white, and even the inside of the cells all looked alike. They were moving, sure: the prisoners could feel their feet hit the floor and push them forward at each step, but they never seemed to get any farther from where they started. Prisoner 1914 could feel, yet again, the leash of time gripping his neck, but by now he had learned to fight it. He closed his eyes and attuned his ear to the legion of footsteps.
“Bet you we’ll be walking forever,” someone said.
Prisoner 1914’s eyes shot open. The voice seemed to come from the man in front of him. The man – Prisoner 1913 based on the print on the back of his shirt – had his head turned as far as it could to his left, so he was looking at Prisoner 1914 through the corner of his left eye. He continued:
“Where do you think they’re taking us?” 1914 asked.
“Nowhere. Look around you: it’s an endless procession.”
When 1914 responded only by contorting his face in an expression of confusion, he shrugged, and began to explain: “Don’t you remember what they told you when they took you in? This trial is only to decide a punishment for us. We don’t even get to have lawyers, and we don’t need to attend our own hearing. But all this time we’ve been locked in those goddamned cells. I’m telling you, the trial for all of us has been done, in summary, and this here is our punishment.”
“I’m sure this hall ends at some point.”
“I doubt it,” said 1913, regarding 1914 incredulously with the half of his face. “We’ll be walking ‘til we die.”
“What did they take you in for, anyway?”
1913 gave another shrug. “Beats me. I don’t even think I did anything. You?”
“To tell you the truth, I don’t even remember much about myself. Like, my name and all that. All I’ve got left in my memory’s how I was arrested, and even that one’s gotten faint, and a lot of detail’s gone missing.”
All he could remember, said 1913, was that he was sleeping on the sidewalk outside a large church somewhere, the night he was taken in. He knew the street outside the church was where he usually slept, so that must mean he was a beggar or something. Anyway, when he woke up, he was already tied up. (“Tied up like some animal, mind you.”) Five masked men looking very much like the guards from earlier were hovering over him, and when they saw he was awake, one of them began to read his warrant in an artificial, high-pitched voice. That was as much as he could recall. Next thing he knew, he was locked up in that god-awful cell.
“I don’t even think I did anything,” Prisoner 1913 said once more. “I remember there was a warrant, but they never showed me what was on it.”
But Prisoner 1913 was wrong. The hall did not, after all, extend to eternity. After what must have been the space of ten meals, the prisoners found themselves ushered into a great hall. Two masked guards were waiting by the entrance and directed the line to arrange itself so that it slithered in folds from one end of the hall to the other, maximizing the space. The hall seemed to be around five hundred paces across, and three hundred wide. Even then, there was not enough room to contain all the prisoners inside, for the line continued to pour out through the entrance. The great hall had a high, vaulted ceiling, and there hung a large Philippine flag. That was all it had in terms of feature, and the colors on the flag was all it had in the way of color. Everything else was painted white and featureless. Just a blown out version of the cells, with a more fashionable ceiling.
From somewhere in the room, someone was screaming: “Your trials will commence today. You will notice you have been arranged in proper numerical order. The court will process you likewise, one by one. As has been stated to you individually prior to your being transported here, the trial is not to confirm your hand in the crimes. The court in its perfect intelligence has ascertained of your indubitable guilt. Rather, a fitting punishment will be decided for each and every one of you, and it shall be meted out immediately.”
“Someone must have been telling lies about me, for without my having done anything wrong, I was arrested, in the middle of the night.”
1914 was standing in the middle of a darkly-lit room, addressing a panel of three – he assumed – judges, seated on a wooden table at the north wall. The room was yet another variation on the same theme he’d observed in the hall, in the corridor, and in the cells. The walls were all white, without adornments of any kind. The judges’ table was also white, and fashioned into a very minimalistic design: just a flat white surface with thin white legs. Their chairs, though he could hardly make out their outlines in the dark, he was pretty sure were also white. The only difference being that it was dark here: the only illumination was a dim orange glow from a small lamp hanging on the wall behind him, atop the door. The glow filled only half the room, from the door to where 1914 now stood. Darkness enveloped the judges’ side, such that he could only see the faint figure of the table, the judges’ hands, and the frames of their glasses slightly shimmering (all three of them appeared to be bespectacled). Everything else was a void.
Though he couldn’t see their faces, he could feel the dull current of apathy in the air. 1914 was certain the judges weren’t listening to a word he’d said thus far, but when he came in here, after a brief introduction to the nature of the proceedings (nothing but a repetition of what the masked guards had declared to all the prisoners back in the waiting hall, in pretty much the same words), they asked him to deliver an opening statement on his account, so he decided to go on with it anyway.
“To hell with the judges,” he told himself. “To hell with this trial.”
The anxiety of what had seemed like an endless walk (and 1913 – how did his trial turn out? – had assured him it was going to be an endless walk), and the long wait in the grand hall had distracted him from the pain growing in his belly. Walking through that door, into this room, finally reaching the end of his process, it only occurred to him that he had gone through what must have been seventy eight meals’ time without an actual meal, and the joints in his feet and legs were just about ready to give up on him from all that walking and standing around. He felt lightheaded. In fact, he felt pretty much dead now. If the judges were to sentence him to death, they would have had little left to do but have one of them stand up and tip him over – he was sure he’d be dead before he even hit the floor.
But at last he had reached the end – and it really was the end no matter how one looked at it. The trial was, again, only to decide on a fitting punishment. There is a kind of comfort one feels in knowing he has reached the end of something, in the certainty that nothing awaits past this point. Especially after the conditions Prisoner 1914 had been made to suffer. It was like coming home to sleep after a long, hard day of work (even now, he cannot make himself remember the kind of work he did in his other life, if he did anything at all). He was ready to face any and all kinds of punishment the judges were to sentence on him. He just wanted it over at last.
“Have you anything left to say, Prisoner 1914?” one of the judges said. He couldn’t tell if it was the one in the left, the one in the middle, or the one in the right.
He responded in the negative.
Another dismembered voice: “In that case, we can proceed with the trial.”
The dismembered voice from earlier: “The court is certain of your indubitable guilt, as has been told to you many times throughout the process, I’m sure. Nevertheless, the court would like to know your motives for doing such a heinous act.”
“ ‘A heinous act,’ ” he parroted. “I’m not even aware of committing any act. As I told you before, I hardly recall anything from–”
“Prisoner 1914, the court is not interested in any of your other personal grievances. We only wish to know the motive: why did you do it?”
“What is it? I don’t know what that is!”
Angry: “That is not the point! The point is you did it! Do not waste our time, Prisoner 1914. Explain to us your reasons for doing it!”
“But how can I explain to you my reason for doing something I don’t even recall doing?”
“At last you acknowledge having done something.”
Now Prisoner 1914 felt his own anger begin to bite. His earlier resolve to simply let the trial run its course had faded in a fraction of the time it took to acquire. Now his hands were balled into fists. Damn his hunger. Damn his exhaustion. A surge of adrenaline took hold of him, and he almost jumped at the judges. He was not going to let himself be dealt such an impunity.
“I did not! That is merely assuming that I did. But seeing as I have no memory of anything before my arrest – ”
“You remember your arrest, sir?” Calmer this time.
“Did they not lay down the details of your arrest then?”
“Some. They explained to me that I was being arrested and what to expect of the proceedings, but none of what you keep insisting is my ‘crime.’ And I’m sure there is none.”
“Did they not have your warrant with them?”
That gave him a pause.
“Did you not ask to look at it?”
He had no answer to that. The gears in his mind had jammed. Why hadn’t he asked to see the warrant? Or to at least have its contents read out to him? He wasn’t gagged then, he was sure. That was the only memory of his life before his detainment that remained with him. One of the men had held it out for him to see in the dark of his bedroom, but he never showed or read to him what it contained – and he didn’t think to ask!
“Or at least have parts of it read to you?”
He heard someone sigh – a very loud sigh, as if they purposely wanted him to know just how exasperated they were of him.
“Prisoner 1914, ignorance is not an excuse in the eyes of the law. We see now that this trial will come to nothing but a foolish dispute that will only go on and on in circles. Joaquin, take this man away.”
He didn’t know who “Joaquin” was. At first he thought he was probably one of the judges, but then he heard that voice again: like a gruff brute trying to imitate a little girl’s voice. The same voice he remembered from the night of his arrest, and the same voice that had ushered him out of his cell. “Yes, boss,” said Joaquin.
He heard footsteps coming from the judges’ side, but none of the shimmering spectacles seemed to be moving. Then he saw him: the heavy set man, dressed in black long-sleeved button-down and denim jeans, his face behind a mask made of sackcloth. Joaquin walked slowly towards him. Only now did he come to really observe his size: he had broad shoulders, and the muscles in his biceps threatened to burst out of his shirt sleeves. He had a large belly that bulged out on his shirt, but that only made him even more threatening. Joaquin was a large man. He could crush him with a bear hug. Think of it, he rather looked like a bear. Grizzly, 1914 thought. Joaquin was grizzly.
Before he could have time to react, Joaquin lunged at him. He grabbed him by the torso with his right arm, lifted him off the floor, and pulled on 1914’s hair with his left to further restrain him. 1914 still had his arms and legs free, and he thrashed them with the last burst of energy he had in him, at the same time raining curses at the judges – but really, of what use where they? This bear could pull his head off his neck just like that. Joaquin carried him out the door with little effort.
Where this scene opens is a large warehouse. Towering metal shelves are arranged in neat columns – about two hundred of them, all containing corpses. The bodies are dressed in white pants and white shirts stamped with numbers. Aside from the numbers, it is impossible to identify any of the corpses because they all look alike. Same clothes, same shocked facial expressions, same shaved heads.
On the east wing of the warehouse, the loading door opens, and the rear end of a truck peers in. The door on the truck’s container opens and out comes five men wearing black denims, black long-sleeved shirts, and black masks made from sackcloth. They look around the warehouse, examining the squadron of shelves packed with numbered corpses, perhaps appreciating the morbid grandeur of it.
One of them sighs, says, “Better start packing then. We’ve got five deliveries today.”
Another replies: “We’ll get the cardboards.”
The men move with practiced efficiency, none of them missing a beat or making any unnecessary move. It appears they have been doing this – “making deliveries” – for quite some time now. Two men approach the first body on the lowest level on the first shelf (Body number 1,901) while the other three retreat quickly to the back of the truck, reappearing no more than a minute later with rolls of masking tape and a stack of cardboards. They join the two sitting in wait by Body number 321 and begin their assigned task: first taping a cardboard to the corpse’s chest, then covering the rest of the body with masking tape like Egyptians covering a mummy.
The cardboards are supposed to announce the crime committed by each of the prisoners, and for which they had been condemned to death. For some reason, however, the cardboards all bear the same slogan:
HUWAG TULARAN, PUSHER AKO
Once the body has been decorated with its corresponding cardboard and mummified in masking tape, the two men carry it back to the truck while the other three move on to decorate the next prisoner. The day’s first delivery calls for twenty corpses. When they have filled the truck with the quota, the five men retreat back inside, into the same container van that held the corpses, and the truck sets off. The truck will be taking the bodies to specific delivery points across Metro Manila (other units were in charge with provincial deliveries), most of them in slum areas: on the sidewalks, in the middle of roads, inside houses, in sewage canals – where at last the prisoners officially reach the final leg of the new judicial process.