by Jessica Bryan
Ang honi tambal so Masulob-ong kasing-kasing.
Music is the medicine of a lonely heart.
I have been in the Philippines for only a few days, when early one evening we set out for a distant barrio to attend the wake of someone who has died. The choir girls are wearing their Sunday clothes: clean-pressed flowered shirts, dark-colored skirts, and sandals. They are somber as they pile into the jeepney and sit with their music books in their hands, the usual laughter and chatter strangely missing.
After about forty minutes over narrow roads, and finally to a road that is not really a road at all, but sun-baked ruts through an empty field, we come to a stop and everyone climbs out of the jeepney. It is silent except for the whisper of insects. Single file down a narrow path, crossing an open sewage ditch pungent with the smells of farm life, past a sleepy white cow that rises to her feet in astonishment at our arrival, we come out into a clearing dimly lit by candlelight. I am frightened, although I’m not sure why. Perhaps it is because everything is dark and the country is alien. Perhaps it is because I know the dead man is waiting for us.
Crouched in the clearing, dozens of mourners stare intensely at the ground. At first, I think they must be praying over the man. Panic grips me. My heart catches in my throat and I am suddenly nauseated. I have never seen a dead body, except for one brief moment at my grandmother’s funeral when I was thirteen.
As we get closer, I am astonished to see they are gambling, and all they are staring at is a pair of dice. Apparently it is customary to gamble at wakes and give part of the winnings (the tong) to the widow to pay for the funeral.
We continue towards the back of the property, past the chickens sleeping in the trees and the dusty stalks of recently cut sugarcane, to where there is a small nipa hut with an entry ladder made of tree limbs bound together with jute rope. Three adults and two children live in this one-room hut. I climb the ladder behind Mely and find myself inside with the deceased, his widow and his oldest daughter.
The casket takes up one-third of the room, and it is closed, but there is a small, clear glass window over his face. Although I know he has been dead for ten days–and certainly his eyes must be shut–I imagine he is staring at us. I am horrified. I want to become very small, flatten myself against the walls of the room and become invisible. I begin to sweat profusely, and not from the heat.
Tearing my eyes away from him, I look at his widow and daughter and observe their obvious despair. They are wearing black clothing and have torn, white rags of mourning tied around their heads. Making animal sounds born of their terrible nameless grief, they seem as if they are about to collapse. Wringing their hands and swaying ever so slightly, they speak with Mely in low tones, and I know I must leave immediately. This is too intimate, too private for a stranger to witness. What can I possibly say to these women?
Scrambling down the ladder, I make my way back to the front of the clearing and join a group of musicians, who are beginning to sing and play guitar. Sitting next to Joseph on a small, wooden bench in the deep darkness, I am overwhelmed with the impulse to lean over and smell his neck. He is completely sexy, in a way American men never are. He is brown and earthy, his muscles hardened from working in the fields.
An old man sits down on the other side of me. “I’ll sing Pangasinan, because this place Pangasinan,” he says, and he begins to sing a deliciously sweet song.
The children press in on us. I can feel their hot bodies and their hot breath pressing, pressing, pressing at my back. Many of them have never seen a white person before, and they devour me with their eyes. They make me nervous, and I move closer to Joseph, as if he could shield me from their gaze. They beg to touch my naked arm to see if the white color will rub off and whether underneath I am brown, like them. I ask Joseph to make the children move back, and they do, but it is so hot that even with them standing several feet behind us, I can still feel the heat of their breath on me and the hunger in their eyes.
Some of the adults begin to dance, and one very old man asks me to dance with him, but I cannot. Any movement might cause me to lose control and run away. I do not know if he will be insulted, nor at this moment do I care. Two elderly women get up and begin to dance with each other. Executing a stiff waltz, they stumble over their feet and each other, laughing hysterically. Joseph puts his arm around my waist and pulls me closer.
Everyone wants me to sing, so I play a Grateful Dead song about trying to run away from the devil–because it is quick and happy and they will not know what I am saying anyway. Joseph leans over and whispers in my ear that everyone thinks we are married. It has become a circus as well as a wake, and except for the dead man, I have become the major attraction.
Mely and the choir pass us on their way back to the jeepney. They have finished the service and the blessing of the man, who can now finally be buried. Mely looks at me with a question and a twinkle in her eyes as if she is wondering whether her guest from America has been behaving herself.
The next morning at breakfast, she says, “I’m so proud because you made the people happy with your singing. You helped them forget their sorrow.”
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Jessica Bryan is a freelance book editor and the author of Psychic Surgery and Faith Healing: An Exploration of Multi-Dimensional Realities, Indigenous Healing, and Medical Miracles in the Philippine Lowlands (Red Wheel/Weiser/Conari 2008). She is also the author of Love is Ageless: Stories About Alzheimer’s Disease (Lompico Creek Press 2002). In addition to editing, writing, and traveling to the Philippines periodically, she is a Spiritual Medium and does clairvoyant readings and energy healing. Jessica lives in Southern Oregon and can be reached at 541-535-6044 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more of Jessica’s writing at her blog, Psychic Surgery.