The Pangs of Building: Chapter 5 by J.E. Santos 06/07/2018
Chapter 5: The House of the Toughest Thirty-five Year Old
The three previous guests in Atsuete who died horribly under the watch of the peaceful faction were graduate school students at a known university in Bataan. They came to Atsuete to have a meaningful and life changing experience before their graduation which they could have had attended if they didn’t die. It was set in less than a month. Among the three, the woman in her late twenties—Jill—was found dead on a creek two kilometers away from the commune. This happened five days after their arrival in Atsuete. She had multiple stab wounds on the neck, and her remaining classmates strongly held that she was also violated judging from the stains on her undergarments. When the guests—Leo, Chris, and Jill—arrived in Atsuete, they met the seven men—Tulog, Kardong Kana, Ike, Dong, Henry, Guapo, and Ka Harry (Dirty Harry to most villagers)—who introduced themselves as part of a peaceful faction. And in front of the peaceful faction, Guada did not know how to tell the guests to leave Atsuete while they could for that time, the number of missing villagers and dead ones had increased dramatically. Five men missing, three women dead; two old men dead. Guada recalled that the last time she warned past guests to turn back and succeeded, the two weak septuagenarians of the commune were found lynched at Manggahan—a spot three kilometers away from Atsuete. Thus, this unfortunate incident strongly supported Guada’s great suspicion that the peaceful faction may be behind the killings, and that the story about the bandits could be a complete hokum. She did warn the guests about the peril surrounding Atsuete after the peaceful faction had left. She told the current predicament the commune was facing, but the guests said that they could take care of themselves and that they would stick together, keep their guards up, and stay close to the commune all the time. But they failed to do so.
“You’re supposed to look after her.” Leo weakly said to Chris upon seeing the lifeless body of their classmate carried by several villagers.
So that evening, after retrieving the body of their classmate, Leo and Chris wailed. After reducing their wails into sobs, they agreed on the decision to go back home first thing in the morning. At the crack of dawn, they were ready to leave Atsuete. They thanked Guada and several people for their help, and for covering Jill’s body accordingly. And they went off hastily carrying Jill’s corpse. Having seen them leave, Guada felt a sense of relief, but after five days, beside the covered corpse of Jill, the bodies of the two guests were found near Manggahan—their faces and shoulders hacked by bolos. This time, it was three of the peaceful faction (Kardong Kana, Henry, and Dong) who brought dead bodies to Atsuete.
“The bandits are getting more and more ruthless as days go by.” Dong said. His face riddled with what seemed to be great concern. “We are sorry that we cannot prevent this from happening. I know we promised that there would be no deaths under our watch, but some things are beyond our control. They may have eyes everywhere, but we don’t. Who knows? There may be bandits among us…” long murmurs generated by the commune followed.
“Dong…” Guada said. Though she spoke weakly, she could not hide the fury in her tone. “I have lived in this community for over fifteen years. And the last thing that I would do is to suspect the people here that they are part of some group of bandits that we could neither confirm to be existent nor nonexistent.”
“What are you trying to imply, Guada?”
“I’m saying we are not newcomers here. We have no reason to doubt the people of Atsuete.”
“What are you trying to say then?”
“What do you think?”
At that moment, Dong froze for several seconds. His eyes were fixed on Guada, and it was hard to read his facial expression. He was like a blank slate. He then opened up a new matter.
“I strongly suggest that we bury these guests here. And saying anything about this to the authority is outside the question. It will cause us more distress if this incident is known by authorities. The sanctity of this place would be in shambles.”
“Sanctity?!” Guada snapped. “What the hell are you saying? It’s out of the question not to inform the authority about this. Dong, if you don’t notice, this commune has lost its sanctity from the day people start getting killed by some nameless group. Our people generally consist of the old, and the few young men, here, cannot defend women and children. Our best option for this situation is to alarm the authorities about these killings.”
“That’s not a good idea, Guada.”
“And why not?”
“Alarming the authorities about this matter will attract bandits’ attention. When this incident makes it to the news which is highly probable, the bandits will know where Atsuete is. This will pose as a problem for all of us.” Dong said. His face displayed concern. From this, Guada chuckled.
“Pose as a problem for all of us.” Guada reiterated condescendingly. “I was wondering about that lately. You see, Dong, I find it odd that the bandits murder their victims not far from the commune’s proximity. These murders have been happening for quite a while now yet they still can’t find Atsuete. It is as if they are close to discovering the commune’s location, but for some unknown reason, they just can’t find it. Or maybe they know our location already and they are toying with us, killing each of us one by one until the remaining few become completely helpless. And what’s even odder is that, although there’s a suggestion that they are just near, you still haven’t encountered them. The last time you encountered these bandits was during the time they accidentally found your base. And I recall that during the early days of killings, you—together with Ka Harry—said that you’d tighten your patrol. The people, here, of course, had no choice, but to hold on to that. Or maybe they have other things in mind that they are not saying out of fear…”
“Out of fear… Other things in mind… Like what, Guada?”
“What do you think, Dong?”
“Just say it. But I advise you to tread lightly.”
“We’ll take this to the authorities. The families of the deceased guests must know what happened to their children. They must retrieve these bodies so they can grieve accordingly. Let them know what happened so they can ask the concerned officials to pursue the murderers. In turn, the commune would get actual help. Informing the authorities about this is the wisest and most humane way to deal with this for the commune; for the families of the deceased.”
“You will do no such thing, Guada!” Dong’s tone shifted dramatically, from concerned to threatening.
“Why? What will you do, oh peaceful faction?”
“You don’t want to know. None of you—” Dong looked at the faces of the people surrounding them. “None of you wants to know.”
“What if we want to?”
“Don’t test me, Guada. Don’t test any of us. We’ve been kind enough to protect this commune, let’s keep it that way. And for those who are thinking of heading to town, don’t be stupid. Don’t be a hero. We don’t want to bring another lifeless body here, do we? So just keep on doing your part for us and your commune and we will do our part. We’ll take care of this to the best of our ability.”
Guada, staring on the wooden floors of her house, paused and took a deep sigh. She then shifted her view on Karl Michael’s half-empty and cold coffee.
“Would you like me to get you a warm one?”
“No. This is fine. So what happened next? Did any of you attempt to inform the police or anyone, well, at least from the closest town?”
“No. Everyone’s terrified to leave Atsuete. They are not really afraid of the bandits the peaceful faction speaks of, rather they are afraid of a kind of uncertainty that could kill them. Whether it’s the bandits or the peaceful faction, it doesn’t matter who. What matters is to encounter neither so to avoid death.
“What about you?”
“I would have had done what was needed to be if I had the physical strength. The thing is, I wouldn’t last thirty-minutes traversing. So long story short, several of our young men buried the bodies of the guests near the river closest to Atsuete. After this, our people became more compliant than ever. And the deaths stopped.”
“I see.” Karl Michael said. He paused to look at the customized bookshelf in Guada’s living room. Moving his eyes every which way, he inspected the title of the books voraciously: Orwell’s 1984, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Camus’s The Plague, Murakami’s 1Q84, Huxley’s Brave New World. There were also nonfiction books on horticulture, social science, philosophy, economics, and biology. Karl Michael then noticed that Guada had a large collection of books in architecture and interior design. And so he asked, “Are you an architect, Guada?”
“You’re not the first person to ask that.”
“Yeah. And no. I’m not an architect. My husband was.”
“When did he pass away?”
“Five years before the peaceful faction found this place. Cardiac arrest. It was all too sudden. Like a crack of lightning.”
“Well, death sure loves surprising us.”
“Indeed. That’s what death is good at—perpetrating surprises.” and then Guada flashed a defeated smile. Karl Michael did not know how to begin responding to this so he paused for a little while letting the air of that moment pass before changing the topic.
“So, an architect. That explains the style of the house. By the way, how did he manage to bring these books here?”
“He’s from this village. He asked the help of friends and relatives. That was a tiring day for all of us, and just thinking of the details makes me pant. We were in our forties during that time.”
“I see. So your husband was an architect, and you were—”
“A teacher of literature and philosophy from a small polytechnic college.”
“You both have good careers then… So why leave the comfort of your careers?”
“Yes. We had careers which brought us comfort—great comfort, in fact. But I guess the awareness of the predictability of what we had led us to an unshaken resolve. It was oddly comforting to finally identify the source of our anguish. My husband and I both concluded that there was this big void in our lives—big and continuously growing—that we couldn’t just shake off. And in order to at least reduce its size or prevent it from getting bigger to the point where it starts to devour us, we decided to leave everything behind. The safety of our home, the perks of our professions; the certainty of tomorrow. In other words, we needed to break free from the monotony of predictability, and I’ll say now that we’ve had made the right call. Choosing the calm uncertainty of this place made us feel alive again. And although the commune is facing a dire situation right now, I have no regrets about anything. And whatever happens, I’ll stay right here.” Guada was then silent for almost a minute. “But you—you still have a chance to turn back. I’m afraid this place has reached the end of the rope, and there’s nothing for you to hold onto.”
“But I can’t turn back now…”
“You know it’s highly probable that you’ll get killed here. You can’t stay in the village. Once they see you, these bandits or these men—you know what I mean—will kill you for some inscrutable reason.”
“They can’t kill what they can’t see.”
“What do you mean?”
“Guada, you may be right—I’ve reached this place too late. Problem is, it’s also too late for me to turn back. If I leave now, I’d be eaten by my personal void—the one that has been slowly growing in me since my formative years. True—I’m starting to feel this uncontrollable fear. I may be death’s next subject. It may pull its surprise on me in the utmost grim and unexpected way, and that’ll be the end of it. But I’ll have to make do. A man’s got to know where and when to plant his feet and act.”
“Karl, that’s poetic and philosophical and all, but if you plan to be away from the watchful eyes of these killers, where would you stay?”
All by himself, it took Karl Michael Cruz three weeks and four days to build his makeshift house beside the river—that which was not far from where the dead guests and people of Atsuete were buried. Of course, when Karl Michael asked Guada about the location of the river, he didn’t ask where exactly the dead bodies were buried. As peace dictates it, their whereabouts should remain a secret for him.
The first week, before building the makeshift house, Karl Michael borrowed Guada’s old sleeping bag and several books in architecture. He also asked for some provisions good for a week. Guada gave what he needed. The evening of that very first week, Karl Michael slept beside the river, near the trees and thick dark-green grasses, under countless stars. The air was cold, the rustling of the river was seemingly attuned to the songs of the cicadas. And in spite of the famished mosquitoes swarming all over his neck and face, he considered that night a very good one. And so were the other nights even though he had to endure them.
Karl and Guada made arrangements that he could only visit her twice a week, in the evening—the nights being Wednesday and Friday. True, the peaceful faction may visit Atsuete any time of the day, but not during evenings. These men had never visited Atsuete during night time. But the two must be cautious. Karl was not to be seen by other villagers for this could signal trouble for the villagers themselves, most specifically if the peaceful faction found out about Karl Michael. So although it would be efficient and fast if several young men helped Karl Michael build his makeshift house, both he and Guada dismissed the idea as soon as they thought about it. It may take some time, but I can do it alone, Karl Michael said. Just give me the materials and tools that I need every Wednesday evening, he added. Friday evening, Karl would get provisions secretly as well as a few books. It was not hard to sneak at Guada’s backdoor given that the dogs of Atsuete neither barked nor attacked strangers. These dogs are apathetic, Karl Michael thought one Friday night. And around eight, the villagers were mostly asleep.
After five days of voraciously reading books in architecture with the help of Guada clarifying terms and concepts Karl Michael could not quite understand, Karl made a crude drawing of his floor plan. Of course, he was not an architect and what he had in mind was far better than his drawing. And the finished product was far more inferior than his inferior floor plan. Still, to Karl Michael, as he recalled the days he countlessly scraped himself, as his face twitched upon remembering the time he hit his thumb and index finger with a hammer, as he rubbed his long aching back, as he stroked his unkempt beard; as he hastily scratched the rashes on his left arm from mosquito bites, he looked at the product of his own makings—the makeshift house built from repurposed floor boards and wood—and he had his first authentic achievement for the very first time. Standing in front of an asymmetrical makeshift house was a thin, dirty, and smelly Karl Michael Cruz. He was never been happier in his life. This was the house of the toughest thirty-five year old.
The following weeks became easy for him. Every Wednesday evening, he would ask Guada to provide him the usual provisions. Along with the provisions, he asked for several cooking tools so Karl Michael could gather and prepare his meal once in a while. He knew though that he couldn’t risk being a regular gatherer given the chance of encountering the bandits or the peaceful faction.
Every Friday evening, he would spend his time with the old woman reading or talking about reading or talking about the books that they had read or had not finished to read. Karl Michael started borrowing books from Guada on a regular basis. And having nothing to do in the proximity of his small world, but to gather occasionally and prepare food occasionally, he had so much time for reading. And there it was—he felt strangely and madly in love with books that he deemed this particular act of reading as an erotic act. Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Bunin, Pasternak, Joaquin, Tiempo, Dumol, Bulosan; Hernandez, enhancing his reading speed to an otherworldly level, he finished three to four books in a week. He read eleven books in three weeks. Seven novels, two anthologies of short stories, and two oeuvres.
“What’s the rush?” Guada said one night. “One of these days, you’ll have nothing more to read.” she added, smiling cheerfully.
“Then I guess I’ll have to repeat them all until I memorize every line and paragraph.”
“It’s a delight that I get to talk to someone who loves to read.”
“I feel the same way.”
“You’ve been losing a lot of weight, Karl. Are you sure you’re fine?”
“Never been better…”
“And that beard—aren’t you going to shave it? I have the things that you need for that.”
“No, thanks. I have the decided to keep it. At first I didn’t want it, but then I realized that it basically signifies my autonomy… to think and to act.”
“Whatever floats your boat.” both of them chuckled. Karl Michael then finished his coffee.
“Thank you, Guada. I don’t know if this is really the life I want. I mean, look at me. I’m begging for food, clothing, and other necessities; I have lost my good skin; got rashes and scrapes—yeah, I gained some muscles and I got a flat hard tummy, but look at me! I’m a stray dog. Crazy thing is that, I don’t regret any of this. It’s insane.”
“I think you have found what you’re looking for. And it seems that it transcends all the things that we once considered valuable.”
“As Max Stirner puts it, all things are nothing to me.”
“It seems so, Karl. It seems so.”
They were silent for a little while that they could hear the cicadas in chorus.
“How are things holding up here, Guada? I mean, between you people and the peaceful faction.”
“The same familiar hell…”
“Guada, can you promise me one thing?”
“Don’t you think I’m too old for that, Karl?”
“No, I’m serious.” Karl chuckled. “If things get out of hand, say they start suspecting that there’s an outsider here, me, and people are likely to get hurt, please tell them where I am without hesitation.”
“I can’t promise you that. No life is as precious as the other.”
“That’s a tad too idealistic, don’t you think?”
“Maybe, but that’s my stand.”
“Well, my stand has become utilitarian, and I say, if things get messy, don’t hesitate to rat me out. For the people here. For you.”
And Guada smiled.
Three nights of the seventh week, Karl Michael felt a great longing for his girlfriend’s touch. This was confirmed by the hardness of his phallus. So on the fourth night of his longing, he drew the fondest memory he had about them making love and gratified himself accordingly.
The fifth night of the seventh week, he thought about his dad—if his old man was doing fine or perhaps suffering because of his sudden disappearance. In order to overcome the guilt and worry that he felt, he did sit ups and pushups more than the usual.
He was always happy during the day, taking his time to read, fish, cook, exercise, think write, draw, and sing, and he was always ready to endure the evening. He had learned to befriend solitude, a feat so rare for a social animal. He was happy talking to the old lady twice a week and talking to himself most of the time. Karl Michael had everything he needed. He had a place of his own, he had a world of his own.
In the evening of the eleventh week, he celebrated his thirty-fifth birthday with Guada.
“Only for this occasion.” Guada popped open a bottle of wine. And more bottles followed as they talked for hours and hours about everything they could wrap their minds around: Hobbes, Zeno’s paradox, flatland, Foucault’s ideas, Bulgakov, magic realism; Eco. Around two in the morning, Karl Michael decided to call it a night or a day as Guada drunkenly protested. Karl Michael was drunk, too, and because of this, he had forgotten to take his provisions with him.
Hugging a kamias tree which was just two hundred meters away from Guada’s house, Karl Michael almost puked his guts out. The pang of the acidic stench from his mouth intensified his nausea. He was about to fall asleep under the kamias tree, surrounded by unidentified greeneries when his flashlight flickered twice.
“Batteries.” he muttered to himself. “The provisions.” Although swerving to and fro, he found the strength to go back at Guada’s. But as he approached the backdoor, through the rectangular slits of the wooden door, he saw Guada on the floor, almost crawling. She was holding her chest, she was gasping for air. Seven men stood near her chuckling. The wine bottles were scattered. Some crushed. Guada’s long white hair covered her face. Still, Karl Michael could tell she was in agony.
“Where is the outsider, Guada?” said a man with silver plated teeth. It was Dong. “Don’t you think we won’t notice the gaps on your bookshelf? No one bothers reading here, but you. Again, to whom did you lend the books? Don’t make this hard on yourself. You’re old. You don’t have much time left.”
“Let’s just find this outsider ourselves. Get rid of the old hag already.” said a dark skinned man who appeared to be Henry as Guada had described to Karl in one of their evening conversations.
“Find the outsider ourselves—that’s too much trouble.” said a good looking man who appeared to be Guapo. “We can just wait here. If that outsider returns here every evening to share our food which this old bitch shamelessly gives away,” he looked at the provisions Karl had left. “then we don’t need to find him. We’ll just wait.”
The man with a gun, Dirty Harry, had a blank expression. This gave Karl Michael the chills. Out of great fear, Karl Michael became sober. He wanted to leave while he could; while the peaceful faction was still busy with Guada, but the sensation and control of his foot had left him completely. He wanted to save Guada, of course, but fear got the best of him. This fear gradually transpired into resignation: he knew he could not do anything for Guada.
“You do know I’ll be heading to Guagua this morning, right?” Dirty Harry then spoke. “Three days. After my return, we’ll deal with the freeloader after three days. That freeloader won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. Sure, he comes here every evening. Well then, go here every evening. You don’t need to waste your entire time here waiting for that fucker to show up. You also have places to be. Of course, it would be best if we know his location. Perhaps you can convince Guada a little more.”
From this, Ike and Tulog grinned; Kardong Kana, nearing Guada, unsheathed his bolo. Dong, with a hand signal stopped him.
“Too messy.” he said. He then signaled Henry to open his backpack. “The rope.” he was referring to a strong thin rope thicker than a cigarette. Henry tossed the coiled rope to Dong, and as he uncoiled it, Guada struggled to crawl towards the backdoor. The thin rope then caught her neck. She gasped. Her wrinkled hands tried to prevent the rope from tightening, but all was in vain.
“Guada, you being a teacher yourself must know Plato’s allegory of the cave.” Dong said as he pulled Guada’s nape closer to his chin. “If I recall correctly, three men were chained all their lives in a cave. And all their lives, they believed that the real things are flat, black moving objects under the light, shadows basically. Now, one day, one of the cave’s captives found a way to remove his chain and he got out of the cave as well. As a result, he saw the outside world. It was beautiful. Everything had different hues and shades and shapes, and the reality that he had known all his life suffered in comparison to what he was seeing now. Enlightened, he went back to the cave to tell his friends. They thought of him as pompous and crazy… I even recall that they even plotted to murder this enlightened fellow because of what he was saying. The enlightened fellow actually had it bad. Sure, he discovered what’s real, but at what cost?
Now why in the world am I bringing this up now? Well, think about it. You had a good thing going here, Guada. You could’ve stayed inside the cave or at least you could have pretended that you never went out in the first place, but no! You wanted to be enlightened so here we are.”
Guada was turning purple. And now, while witnessing such a horrid scene, Karl Michael gritted his teeth. His hands were shaking. It must be his mixed feelings: that of great fear and great anger.
“Now, Guada, you won’t get out of this. This will be your final moment. But the women and children of Atsuete, not to mention the old folks much like you, don’t need to share the same fate. So save them. I’m loosening the rope a bit. Speak!”
“S-southhhh… h—east… the hhh—river…” Guada’s final words before Dong tightened the rope until there was no breath left in her. Dong let her fall to the floor, purple, motionless, and permanently out of breath.
“South east, the river.” Dirty Harry finally smiled. “Three days then. Make sure you secure all possible routes of exit. That piece of shit won’t know we’re coming. And if ever he returns here in the evening, chop off his leg and leave him alive until my return.”
Hearing all of this through the slits of the wooden door, trembling, Karl Michael Cruz—a man who thought he was the toughest thirty-five year old man—crawled slowly and quietly, away from harm’s way.
To be continued…
*Photo Art Credit to Quantum Noise Album Cover: Antineutrino