See the lone wolf on his knees
The dandy born to please
Adrift in desolation he is
But one rose in his eyes there is
This rose, he knows
Is his elation,
Watch him revel in despair
For he knows not what to do
See the lone wolf on his knees
The dandy born to please
Adrift in desolation he is
But one rose in his eyes there is
This rose, he knows
Is his elation,
Watch him revel in despair
For he knows not what to do
Hail was showering like bullets upon Bagiuo City as I stepped out of the campus and into the streets. Little pellets of ice constantly smashed themselves against my umbrella, only to drip into the pavement as liquid water. It reminded me somehow like the Japanese kamikazes of the Second World War, except these ones had neither a sinister nor a noble cause to die for; they’d simply evaporate with the sunrise and ascend back to the heavens whence they came. I was skipping on the side of the road, occasionally meandering to the middle, for I was playing a game of dodge-the-jeepney, dodge-the-car, dodge-the-motorcycle, and so on. A part of me wanted to lose that game, but every time I came too close, the vehicles would honk at me with a fury I couldn’t ignore. I would simply step aside. This vexed me. I wanted to die and I wanted someone else to suffer for it.
My name, by the way, is Maria Sorokina. I am thin to the bone, probably because for the past two months, I have been surviving on Jollibee and bubble tea alone. My face was not one you would call pretty, with its gauntness and my flat nose. But I do have bright hazel eyes, monolid in shape. Men always liked to stare into my eyes. One such person told me it was the window to my soul. But I was too mature by then to believe in such fantasies as souls. I never spoke to him again.
Upon stepping into my dormitory, I was soaked from head to heel. As the hail ceased to fall, the vile winds swept the rain sidewards. My umbrella was rendered useless, and I was so annoyed that I wanted to let go of it and watch it whisked into the overcast skies like an unwanted parachute. That’s the problem. The world has turned against me nowadays. The sun never smiles upon me, nor does the moon shine over my nights. My counselor told me that it was only in my head, that if I changed my perspective I shall finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. What nonsense! What lies! I am being tormented, and it is not a matter of opinion.
That night, I had dinner with the landlady, Miss Anna Roque. Silence hung heavy over the cramped garret that served both as a sala and a dining room. It was just the two of us then. All the other girls had gone home to their families to celebrate the Christmas season. It was a disheartening feeling, yet I tried to forget that by staring voraciously at the spaghetti on my porcelain plate. I was about to stab at it with my fork when Miss Roque slapped my hand.
“Ow!” I quickly pulled my hand. “Aling Roque, I am hungry.”
“You are being ungrateful! The lord has given us this meal. We must thank him.”
The landlady made the sign of the cross, whilst I folded my arms in silence. I believed in a god, whether or not that makes sense to you. But I am also at war with him. Of course! No supreme being with any semblance of benevolence would condemn me into this void I am living now. I, an innocent soul, whose only crime was being estranged from my parents.
“When are you leaving?” asked Aling Roque, her hands still clasped together.
“I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. Why don’t you ask mama?”
“She came here to visit you when you were sick, don’t you remember? You turned her away.”
Aling Roque smiled and patted my head. “Young woman,” she said, “I want to help you with what you are going through.” Her smile had faded. “Would it hurt for you to tell an old woman what’s going on?”
My head felt as if it was locked inside a block of ice. “I don’t really feel like talking.”
“That’s a start.” The landlady grinned with enthusiasm. “So why don’t you feel like talking?”
“Because no one understands me. And I just want them to leave me the hell alone.”
The next day, Aling Roque shook me awake. Light spilled languidly into my bedroom and I felt as if my eyes were being pierced with a blunt knife. I stared at her in utter bewilderment, into those big brown eyes that seemed black from a distance. I wrapped myself with my blanket and shut my eyes but she shook me again, this time more vehemently.
“What?!” I demanded with fatigued anger.
“You have a visitor.”
Upon getting myself dressed, I rushed down the stairs and into the sala where I found my visitor waiting. As soon as I saw his face, I knew that I was not in a position to talk back. Professor Alejandro Santa Cruz was known for his pragmatism, and his apparent lack of empathy towards his students. This reputation was reinforced by his intimidating demeanor. He was rigid and tall, possibly being over six feet. His face demanded respect, with his straight nose, and cheekbones that resembled horns. I had often fantasized about pushing this man off a cliff.
“Good morning, Miss Sorokina,” he said, rather predictably.
I squinted at the man, not deigning to say a word.
“You must have an idea of why I’m here, no matter how vague,” the professor continued.
All I could give him was a brief nod. I knew what he was about to say next.
On the night that followed, I skipped dinner and went straight to bed. Darkness had never been more beautiful, with the moonlight cascading through opaque windowpanes like gleaming white water. I gazed at the silhouette of the dresser, wondering what madness had once caused me to believe there was a monster lurking behind. As my eyes began to weight on me, I heard a soft creaking noise. The door opened. It was Aling Roque, bringing me a bowl of mushroom soup.
“I’m not sick,” I told her, almost indignantly. “Not hungry either.”
“Don’t ruminate too much, dear. You might not be graduating with your batch, but you’ll still finish your studies.”
“What’s the point? By the time I graduate, I’ll probably be twenty-seven. What firm in their right mind would want to hire me?”
Aling Roque set the bowl on the side table and sat on the bed. “I think you need time to heal, away from the campus, away from all that toxicity,” she said. “Away from Bagiuo even.”
“You’re right,” I replied in a deadpan voice, wiping my tears with the back of my hand. “I must go back to Manila.”
When I stepped off the bus in a crowded, suffocating station along EDSA, I felt a great deal of regret and despair. I was no longer numb; I was in agony. Professor Santa Cruz’s declaration was clear: that I was no longer welcome in his class, and that all the other professors have dropped me. I can hardly blame them though. I had been absent for six months, all because I was too forlorn to get out of bed. All I ever did was eat and sleep. I hated myself for that, and I was certain that mama would feel exactly the same way.
I took several jeepneys on my way home. I was tempted to rush into the nearest train station, so I could jump right into quietus, as some approaching train, its driver oblivious to my plans, would run over me and maybe even butcher my body beyond recognition. But I couldn’t do it. The thought of permanently traumatizing the unwitting passengers, the innocent bystanders was too much for me to bear. I headed straight for home, the last place on Earth I ever wanted to be.
Our house was a modest one, with two stories and a sloping metal roof that was beginning to rust. We had two bedrooms on the second floor—one for mama and papa, and another one for myself. I rang our doorbell, anxiously biting my fingernails. Within seconds, mama emerged with a smile that spanned her face, a smile that only served to irritate me. I hated her almost as much as I hated myself. Then, as if to add insult to injury, she wrapped her arms around me and kissed my forehead. I was tempted to smash her head against the concrete wall that surrounded our home like a fortress.
“I was worried sick,” she said, finally letting go of me. “As soon as you stopped replying to my messages I knew something had gone wrong in Bagiuo.”
I sighed, refraining from meeting her eyes. “Leave me alone.”
“Good heavens, Maria. I can’t leave you alone. I won’t leave you alone. I am your mother.”
“Then I will be staying at my friend’s house and you’ll never bother me again.”
Mama looked appalled. “You’re not the cheerful, polite young woman who left us to study law in Bagiuo. You are but an impostor and I want my daughter back.”
“Well then, disown the impostor for all I care. I shall find a job and live on my own.”
“What happened to you?” asked mama, placing her hands on my shoulders. “Tell me, please. I only want to help you. I only want what is best for you. You know that.”
I buried my face in my palms. “Leave me alone, mama. You’re better off just letting me die.”
Three weeks passed and very little of any significance happened in my life. Most of my time was spent sleeping, and in the brief, fleeting moments when I was wide awake, I would mourn my failures, soaking my pillow with tears cascading like rivers spilling into the sea. I would go on for days without eating, unless there was either adobo or sinigang. Mama noticed this. She had been covertly conspiring with a psychiatrist, though I didn’t know of that at the time.
One Thursday evening, two days before Christmas itself, I finally had the energy, the will, the power to get out of bed. Not only that, but I dressed in my finest clothes and began to wander the streets nearby. Dense rainfall coupled with the vicious winds turned the streets into rivers, murky and grey. I did not bring an umbrella; I didn’t want to. Let the rain wash away my sins. Of course, you can call it a baptism if you like. I don’t really care anymore.
I passed by a shuttered bank on my way home. I began laughing like an absolute maniac, not in contempt but in consolation. The security guard had fallen asleep on his chair, snoring like a pig. His pistol was set on the center of the tabletop, almost like he was waiting for some delinquent young man to snatch it and hold him hostage. I narrowed my eyes at the gun. Then I heard it spoke, and I shuddered.
“Take me away,” it told me. “My assistance I shall give you. Your slave I shall be.”
That was it. I would’ve said that my prayers have been answered, had I actually been praying. So I tiptoed my way up the marble steps, approached the table, and claimed the gun for myself. It must’ve been an eternity since I ever felt this triumphant. I slipped the pistol into my panties and quietly walked away. If you happened to have seen me in the streets that night, you probably would’ve thought me giddy or even blissful. The finale of my suffering was nigh, and no one could stop me.
The next day, as the dawn was breaking, I awoke to the sound of muffled screams and blaring sobs. I got out of bed and rushed towards the door, peaking through the keyhole.
“How dare you?” cried mama, clenching her fists. “You have a wife!“
Papa furiously rubbed his forehead. “I love the bustling city of Manila and I love the clear shores of Bali,” he said. “Why can’t I love you and Miguel?”
“Do you understand how humiliating this is?”
“I never stopped loving you, Ella. I mean it.”
Mama whimpered. “Then prove it,” she said, indignantly. “Get rid of Miguel. Never meet him again. Cut off all contact with him.”
“I cannot simply do that, can’t you see? And besides, Miguel is a good man. Tender, even. If only you would set aside your prejudices, I know the two of you would get along just fine.”
“I don’t care,” replied mama, her fists trembling and her stare cold as ice. “I don’t care that you’re gay. I am livid that you’ve been lying to me for the past ten years of our marriage. That I cannot accept.”
“Please, Ella, just give this arrangement a chance.”
“Not while I’m still breathing. Take your shit and never come back.”
I turned the knob and gave the door a slight push. I sought a more ample view of what was happening. Papa sat on the rocking chair, his arms folded and his lips pursed. Meanwhile, mama sat on the stairs, weeping into her palms like I had never seen before. Then she stood and towered over papa.
“And in case you still care,” she said, “your daughter is suffering.”
Papa lifted his head and let out a deep sigh. “I never wanted a child to begin with.”
That night, I locked the door of my room and pulled the shutters over the windows. I had just eaten dinner with mama and neither of us could utter even a single word. I ought to have been devastated, but I merely laughed at the revelation, almost ravingly. My family was falling apart, and I was caught in the middle of it tall. Or was I? Being twenty-two years of age, I was free to leave mama to suffer on her own. Mayhaps someday she’d want to kill herself too.
The gun was in the drawer. Somehow I felt like it has always been there—calling to me, nibbling, laughing, beseeching me to sow lead into this beautifully chaotic brain of mine—even when it wasn’t. The knife was in my hands. I had used her to draw pretty red lines, weeping into my elbows where my wrists gave way to my palms. Such pale, colorless skin I have nowadays, not like that brown, melanin-tinged complexion I had before returning to Manila, manifesting like some sly disease that only came when death was nigh. The red of my blood stood out like ink against my insipid skin. Was there even pain? Well, I must admit that I’m not quite certain. I should be dead now. I should be dead now. I should be dead now. That was the only thought in my head. Soon enough, perhaps.
Pulling that god forsaken drawer was simple, but to wrap my fatigued, trembling fingers around the grip of that pistol was something else entirely. So then I thought, I’ve been wallowing in this misery long enough. It’s time to put and end to this farce. A damn simple plan.
“Die!” I mumbled to myself. “Die, die, die, and die.”
I held my arms up against the light of the window, studying the cuts I had created. They weren’t deep enough, I realized to my dismay. If I truly wanted to die, the gun was always mightier than the kitchen knife. It took all the courage I had in me to even graze the pistol with my fingertips. I began to wonder, did fate lure me towards that bank? What it fate’s doing that the guard had fallen asleep on the job? Perhaps god was indeed doing me a favor. But if we are fated, then we aren’t free. Thoughts raced in my head like several bullet trains, speeding all at once into collision. There was nothing I could do to calm my delirious mind. Am I choosing to die or am I fated to die? Long ago I firmly knew the answer.
Before I knew it, I was clutching the gun with both of my hands. I hesitated, as I always did. I did not want it said that Maria Sorokina had died without accomplishing anything worth remembering. Before my sorrows had abducted me from academia, I was studying to be a lawyer. My ambition was to become a politician, one who champions the masses over my own selfish interests. The plan was to obtain a master’s degree from either the University of the Philippines or Ateneo de Manila. But that dream was no more. I had flunked every class that I had as an undergrad. A shame, it was. A real fucking shame. This was why I was never worthy of being alive.
As I was about to cock the gun, to pull the trigger, a sudden jolt of pain paralyzed me. It felt as if an entire colony of ants, the red ones that bite with fire, were feasting in my cuts, crawling and biting and gnawing, peeling off flaps of my pale jaundiced skin. I endured it, pointing the pistol to my head.
Knocks on the door followed, soft and measured like that of a lady of elegance. I threw the gun back whence I took it and snatched my knife instead, like that would somehow calm mama when she saw me. I opened the door, like the fool that I was. Before I even knew what was happening, two women—both nurses—took hold of me, twisting my arms like a pair of wrestlers would. They weren’t as tall as I was, but what they lacked in height, they more than made up for in brawn and sheer force. Fuck it. I stood no chance. I should have pulled the trigger whilst I could.
Calm and lorn, yet I long
To fly into the eventide
Silent as a further, I shall
Graze through distant stars
Past all the darkness, emptiness
Of what had been left behind
Mine an undying soul, free
From the clutch of mortal toil
But alas, none shall ever sow
The meadows of heaven
Naught in me or you is safe
From the fate of the flesh
One day, our palms
Forevermore shall cease to feel
And like the leaves of autumn
Wither back into ash and dust
From dusk 'til dawn, I recall
All the bliss that once was
But the cruel waves wash away
All the hope I had in the sands
And like scrawls on the beach
I no longer can recognize
All I see is a void, an emptiness
Binding me evermore to dubiety
Devoid of light, within—
The wraith-world I must dwell
Everyone a shade of grey
Hints of shadows in the mist
There I am in the shroud
Far beyond your toxic reach
For the lone wolf has no pack
And the sheep follow the blind
Dying I lay on this field blackened and smoldering
Thinking this morn might ease my mourning
Comrades stand stout and strong all round me
Screaming, clawing their eyes amidst napalm fire
Weeping, howling for mothers across the mire
Praying, hoping that somewhere god is listening
When the dove arrives, the curtain will have fallen
A land lush and plentiful must lie beyond the flood
But my blood still seeps and the bullets fall like rain
Yet through this hurt I long for the kiss of my swain
Her eyes a star in the dark as I draw my last breath
For now suddenly there is nothing but an endless void
That night, he dreamt that he was drowning.
Joaquin Carolus couldn’t swim up or down, left or right. He sank and he sank further down, like an anchor severed from a vessel still afloat. Or was he falling? It’s only a dream, he assured himself, so Carolus tried to rouse himself awake. He squirmed and struggled. That was when he realized that he had neither arms nor legs with which to pinch or kick or punch himself back to life. He was but a lonely spark of light, floating aimlessly amidst a vast ocean of nothingness.
This boundless void, which Carolus had awoken to, was a dreary place. It was hard to get used to. There was nothing for him to do but think and brood and remember. What benevolent god, he wondered, would condemn him to a place like this. Socrates, wise as he was, had been mistaken. If this truly is eternal oblivion, then it was not the end of existence, nor was it the dreamless sleep as so many had hoped it would be. It was hell, but not the way the Jews, the Christians, or the Muslims had envisioned it. There was no fire, no brimstone; only a pervading sense of loneliness and regret.
Whether time was passing, or if it simply did not exist in this desolate reality, Carolus could not tell for certain. There was no clock audible or visible to him, nor was there a sun to rise at dawn and set in the evenfall. What now? Carolus asked himself. He began to count the seconds that passed in his mind. He stopped at twenty. It was futile.
Wistfulness settled as the hours went by in his mind. Carolus saw a mournful face flash before him like a hologram. Her face was remarkably fair for a Filipina and she had almond-shaped brown eyes that in his life had bound Carolus to her every will. He loved her dearly, that strong-willed and compassionate Ariana Hernandez. But nothing was meant to last. His thoughts began to race again, this time faster than a galloping stallion. The face of his former lover soon faded and morphed into that of a middle-aged woman. It was his mother, Liza Ortega-Carolus. She was plump, and had sun-scorched skin that Carolus had not inherited. Is she weeping for me? Carolus wondered as he floated about. Is anyone weeping for me at all?
The darkness of the void had a way of coquetting with the human mind, or at least what is left of it after death. Now and then a faint light would flash, resembling fire, a star, a galaxy, a street lamp, and in the rarest of moments, the northern lights. Carolus had only fleeting glimpses. Darkness swallowed them as quickly as they were kindled.
I must be dreaming, I must be dreaming, thought Carolus. If this is death, then why am I alone? Where are the souls of those who have perished before me? Are they too condemneed to an eternity of solitude and in utter darkness? Where are the gods who have promised salvation? I ought to be in heaven, Valhalla, the Elysian fields, or wherever else. Carolus felt adrenaline rushing through his phantom limbs and his phantom arms. No, he thought. I shall find the way out.
Light flashed, wrestling against the darkness into submission, into defeat. The light claimed a vast but barren landmass that Carolus had never before seen, and the darkness retreated to the heavens above. Carolus felt himself returning to life—bone by bone, limb by limb, finger by finger, and toe by toe. Am I dead? he asked himself. Am I dreaming? He buried his face in his palms and wept though not a single tear fell from his eyes. Whether it was for sorrow or for relief he could not tell.
There was now soil underfoot, and then grass. Pines, oaks, and birches all began sprouting like weeds throughout deep vales of nothing but ash and snow. Rain fell lightly, then came the mist that shrouded the lowlands like the breath of a sleeping behemoth.
Carolus felt his stomach groan, followed by a sting of utter bliss. He sauntered towards one of the newly grown trees, delighted at the sight of a dozen apples, all ripe for consumption. As he ate, Carolus couldn’t help but gaze up at the darkness. When once it held him prisoner, now he reveled in its defeat. The clouds parted, unveiling a pair of lachrymose eyes staring back at him. They were almond-shaped and brown, with a semblance of wistful longing in them. I know those eyes, thought Carolus.
The rain ceased and the mists retreated. One by one, the trees and the grass and the butterflies turned to ash. Carolus trembled as the ground, now barren, cracked and shattered beneath him. He knelt down, clasping his hands together. “In the name of the father,” he began.
And then there was silence.
There is only one thing in this world I am sure of, and that is, we are all going to die. Yes, it’s true. Everything that exists or has ever existed—you and me, everyone you know and love, the Earth itself, and even the sun that facilitates all known life—will inevitably perish at some point in the future. Nothing is ever permanent in this world but death. If you think that’s depressing or even frightening, you’re not alone. In most societies, death means loss, mourning, grief, and tragedy. Rarely is it ever celebrated.
But what is death? As an atheist, I am inclined to define it merely as the permanent cessation of all biological functions that sustain a living organism, as Wikipedia had done. Whether or not there is life after death is beyond any known human knowledge so I will prefer not to get into such a pointless debate. Not unless you’re a farer from the distant future, in which case, I’d be more than happy to listen to what you have to say.
Everyone has heard of or has seen the face of death at least once in their lives. For many people, they come home from work or from school one day only to find a nimiety of distant relatives in their living room, all frowning, looking lachrymose and dejected. Then finally they break the news, “Your grandma/grandpa just passed away.” That was how it happened to me when I was five or six years old, the first time I encountered death. But others have it worse. Mayhaps their car crashes violently against another vehicle (let’s say it’s a ten-wheeler truck, for example), leaving them in a coma, a fine and fragile thread keeping life and death apart from one another. Death is an ubiquitous part of life, as ironic as that might sound.
But what can be done about it? Quite frankly, nothing. You may try to delay the inevitable. But that’s it. Though there is a way we could make the most of what little time is given to us. Live each day like it’s your last. We will never truly know when death will come knocking on our door. So see as much of the world as you can (to the best of your capacity, of course). Fall in love, marry your soulmate, and never let her go.
There is what Jean-Paul Sartre terms authenticity. He once famously stated that existence proceeds essence. Well, authenticity is simply the adherence to that notion. We must all take responsibility for our life, choices, and actions; that we should not be affected by what others think of ourselves. Sartre also stressed that it is important for us to form independently our own belief system and not to blindly abide by what society has been hammering unto us all our lives. To live authentically, according to Jean-Paul Sartre, is the only way to live a meaningful and fulfilling life. Do not give in to bad faith.
This begs the question, does it even pay off? What happens to us when we die? Well, I might not be the most qualified person to answer that. I’ve never died before, much less come back from it. Yet as far as the scientific evidence goes, it’s quite likely to be eternal oblivion. It’s bleak, I know. No wonder people turn to religion. The idea of a paradise in the clouds where you reunite with your dead loved ones, and where everyone shall live blissfully ever after ’til the end of days is quite attractive, I must admit. Yet the truth is almost always never convenient. So let me tell you what really happens when you die.
Once your dead, your cells will slowly perish and be broken down by the bacteria within your body. Your cadaver will begin to smell like the rotting flesh that it is, emitting such gases as methane and hydrogen sulfide. Before long, insects and other animals will move in, throwing the wildest party that no one would call the cops on. Those flies and maggots you used to step on as a child? They’d feast on you, leaving only your skeleton, osseous and naked, a mere shell of the breathing, thinking entity you once were.
But don’t feel too bad about all this.
You will still live—in the memories of those who remember you, who adamantly cherishes every moment they’ve ever spent with you. I know that doesn’t make your imminent demise any more comforting, but if there is a heaven, you’d be glad for it.